Early rising, auspicious meeting, kindness of strangers, new discoveries, hidden artists’ colony, Steveston, conversations in bookstores and cafes, reflections on the day
The table was a dull green metal and heavily scuffed. I guess it looked romantic at night time until sunrise with daylight, life’s grand inquisitor, would reveals it’s many embarrassments.
Richmond, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
On my first night, I sat at the table outside my private entrance, just a few feet to the right of the front door of the main house. My room is on the ground floor.
I fetched a wrinkled white linen table cloth and threw it over the table and sat down to bask in the scented night air. The previous two weeks in Seattle were marred with housing difficulties that cast a pall over my plans that made me doubt the worth and efficacy of my trip. I’m not ready to write in detail about what happened (don’t worry, I wasn’t in danger or harm, I think) but I may get around to it when I return to the UK.
I drank my tea and went back inside to read another few chapters of Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon, one of the most sublime travelogues ever written. Least Heat Moon travelled the backgrounds of the US back in the 70’s in a customised van named Ghost Dancing. The book is more than a travelogue. It opens a window to the forgotten communities that still live and sometimes, survive in the small towns whose economic arteries were sutured in the advent of the Freeways. The book is reflective, philosophical, observant yet sensitive without treating the people he met as mere stooges or caricatures. It sets the bar rather high for any travel writer.
The house I’m staying in is owned by father and son, Lou and John. Lou is an accomplished painter, recipient of many accolades, subject of several exhibitions. The house is a living gallery to his many works. His wife unfortunately passed away three years ago. She remains the subject of his many recent paintings and her image adorns the hallway wall. She looked a handsome, and like her husband, a cheerful soul. John is thirty eight and is married with a young family and owns his own graphic design business after having worked as a club DJ in Shanghai and as an IT professional in later times – another cheery soul.
Lou is in his 80’s and his face is a summer’s playground of smiles and is a very warm witty character. I think I’ll like staying here. It has to be said that despite my room being a little musty, carpets old beyond cleaning and the need for a fresh coat of paint, it is more than adequate for my needs and the people here are friendly and relaxed and that’s all that really matters to a traveller. I have a desk, wifi, an ensuite bathroom which is a boon and a microwave and a kettle for my endless cups of tea. My plan is to be out of the house for much of the day for 5-6 days a week with a day given to the mundane but necessary needs of laundry and replenishing my energies.
I write early in the morning and last thing at night. Writing bookends my days. Life occupies the bit in between. It’s vital for a writer to be out on the world. Experience stirs, excites and fires bolts of inspiration into the creative process. We can hide away of course and draw from the after glows of memory but memories, like sunsets, eventually fade beneath the horizon. It was now getting late and my first full day lay ahead like a large box with bows underneath the Christmas tree.
I retired early and slept like the dead.
This morning I did something I never do voluntarily. I awoke at 5am without a finger of grogginess to torment and tease my soul. Sun beams flooded my room and cool, crisp and clean morning air whispered through my open bedroom window refreshing my lungs. I felt better than I had in weeks. The brightness felt like a special invitation to join the day.
I showered and dressed and made a cup of Earl Grey Blue tea in my room before leaving my room for the kitchen.
I had a pretty meagre breakfast of bran flakes in a bowl more shallow than the one I’m used to. The flakes floated in a pond of lifeless, grey, thin liquid that had the temerity to pass by the name of ‘milk. I had accidentally purchased a carton off fat free milk the previous night. I sat down to eat my penitential breakfast as quickly as I could, hoping the speed of my spoon would be too quick for my taste buds but those buds are like children, they miss nothing.
The Shoppers’ Drug Mart at the junction of No 5 Rd and Cambie is the only grocery store within walking distance this neck of Richmond. After arriving the previous night, John dropped me off at the store. There, I bought:
One box of bran flakes,
Two cartons of milk
A loaf of plain unadorned sliced brown bread
Sliced Swiss cheese
A packet of smoked Bavarian ham
It’s not my intention to do any adventurous cooking here as I’m out and about most of the day, travelling and taking notes.
The kitchen was empty. There are four other guests in the house but I heard not a stir from anyone. I had been up very early but I figured they all must have left the house when I was in the shower.
I finished breakfast, cleaned and dried the crockery and cutlery and I left the house around 9am. I felt I little famished and went in search of a nearby diner. I quickly found that there is not much in the way of diners as we know them. Sure, there are many restaurants representing the cuisine of almost every culture in Asia there is but little in the way of heart-attack inducing breakfast emporiums. I walked up and down the local strip mall and found a bakery that had tables and chairs inside. It advertised Panini’s and eggs on the window. It looked a likely candidate.
I went in and spoke to the lady who owned it. She told me they didn’t make breakfasts as such but Panini’s filled with egg and Canadian ham. It sounded like a decent breakfast to me. I placed my order, thanked her and took a seat. I noticed her accent wasn’t totally North American. There was a slight British intonation but I couldn’t tell from where. I thought she may have come from the Midlands. Wolverhampton, Birmingham perhaps. I wasn’t sure.
“Don’t mind my asking but your accent…are you from England?”
She smiled and said ‘Close enough. I’m from north Wales originally. I moved here thirty years ago. My daughter just moved to London though’
Observation-Break: I’ve only been in Vancouver for a few days and so far, I’ve overheard many British accents. The Welsh lady at the bakery, the Lancashire bus driver who drove the 210 bus eastbound from Steveston, the southern English ticket inspector at the City Centre Skytrain station, the Scottish couple I ambling around Gastown, the Dublin guy who has lived here for 30 years who I met at Central Library. Those are only the ones I met and spoke with. There have been many more and I can tell from their demeanour and dress that most of them are not tourists but residents, Canadian citizens even. I do get a sense of Canada’s British heritage when I’m here which make me feel at home in many respects. Spellings are UK English, ‘centre’ is spelled ‘centre’, secondary schools are secondary schools and the Queen frowns from the $50 bank notes with a face of a woman who arrived at the off-licence a minute after closing. The legislature is a Parliament with a House of Commons led by a Prime Minister but the landscaping, the road-signage and architecture are very much American. I have to point out that I have also heard the French language on many occasions. It is a mistake to think that Quebec is the only home to the Francophone community as there are many pockets of French speakers all over Canada, including BC.
Teachers go on strike here on points of well founded principle and the British and French sense of societal cohesion is very much present such as the wonderful universal health care system, free at the point of service not unlike the British NHS. There is a flourishing library system that also seems to act as community centres providing free educational workshops on a wide range of useful topics such as social media and IT skills for the elderly and talks/seminars ranging from marketing for self publishers to substance addiction strategies.
Canada legalised gay marriage ten years ago. Guess what, the sky hasn’t caved in nor have hetero conservatives been forced into gay marriages against their will either.
Backwoodsmen take note.
In British Columbia, there is a policy of open engagement with and treatment off drug addicts as opposed to the lazy policy many other countries employ of just throwing them into prison where they just learn to graduate from user to dealer. This has issues of its own off course but Vancouver and Canada’s heart is in the right place and it makes for a happier, cohesive, liberal and safer society where progressive thinking flourishes. The French/British influence has acted as a positive foundation for the Canadian state and its many immigrant communities have made good lives here in harmony with one another.
I’m not saying it’s all a bed of roses however. There are issues of course. Gastown and Victory Square districts are where dozens of homeless heroin addicts loiter, loll and sleep in plain view, occupying a parallel universe to the hordes of holiday makers for whom Gastown is the first port of call (literally). Cruise ships dock only a couple of hundred yards down the road. The addicts look older beyond their years, faces aged, thinned and lined by years of chaotic living and abuse. Many of them look like caricatures of aging rock stars who bypass the middle aged spread like the rest of us mere mortals. Long hair, striking jaw lines and faded tee-shirts and ripped jeans. You would think it was an Aerosmith fan convention until you see the pathetic little piles of makeshift bedding that dot office and storefront doorways. The difference is that their look is distressed from actuality and not the one rich kids get off the peg in Old Navy or Gap.
Back the bakery, Chris brought me my breakfast and a cup of coffee. After I finished, some customers arrived in while I took some notes, recording my thoughts, noodling over plot lines for my next novel. After half an hour, I become a little restless and the urge to get moving on with my travel plans for the day took me over like an itch. I left my table and went to the counter to pay for my meal. Chris was speaking to a lady who sat at the table nearest the counter. Chris turned to me and introduced me to her friend.
‘Candace knows a lot about these parts and there are parts of Richmond that are just as wonderful as downtown’
‘Take a seat, join me’ said Candace. A good looking bespectacled blonde lady with strong features and an intelligent face with a knowing smile sat directly opposite me. I never cease to be taken aback by the openness and friendliness North Americans offer to compete strangers. It can be quite pleasantly disconcerting.
Candace went on to tell me about nearby settlements that were off the beaten tourist trail. Steveston, New Westminster, Langley and some more distant ones such as the mountain resort of Whistler and the Native American village of Squamish which is about an hour’s drive from here. She rhymed off a number of restaurants in Steveston. Steveston seemed to be close to her heart. Her list was more than I could hold in my rusting memory banks so I offered her my notebook and pen and she merrily filled two pages of names and addresses.
‘There’s certainly more than one day’s eating here’ I said
Her husband Jose joined us shortly afterwards. A Filipino by birth, he sat at the next table for his snack. He told me that he and Candace once owned restaurants at various times and were foodies thus explaining their encyclopaedic knowledge of eateries within a twenty five mile radius. Their last restaurant closed due to difficulties with the landlord. Now they work as agents for an insurance firm that specializes in providing cover for legal fees which seem to be universally expensive.
Legal insurance is a worthy enterprise and its one we seldom think off. It’s shocking to think how prohibitively expensive it is to access justice when justice is a pillar our free world is supposedly built upon.
As well as being an insurance agent, Jose holds down a second job as a carer in a seniors’ home. He seems made for the job. He has a very gentle demeanour and spoke very movingly about the people who live there, many of whom have dementia. I felt very much at ease in his presence, ditto for his wife too.
Observation break: funny how in most of the world’s lawmakers are lawyers. What a clever racket. You make lots of vague, labyrinthine laws and then extract high amounts of cash from the feckless and unfortunate to argue about them in court with other lawyers. It’s like a glass maker who goes around the neighbourhood smashing windows and then getting paid to replace them the next day.
It’s such a clever arrangement that the cleverness can dazzle many of us, blinding us to the somewhat questionable morality that’s at play.
“How long are you in town?”
I told him just over a month.
They inhaled rather loudly and sat back as if my length of stay was a strong unexpected wind.
“So why Vancouver?”
Observation Break: That was the fifth time I was asked that since my arrival only two days earlier. It’s a question that I’ve don’t remember being asked in any city I’ve visited, even in Madison, WI which I visited in 2008. Vancouver is quite distant from Europe and is quite a distance from other major Canadian cities. It’s a seven hour flight from Ireland to Toronto and then a further five hours to Vancouver. Let me put that in perspective. A five hour flight from London can take you within reach of Moscow, Istanbul and Casablanca. Canada is a vast country with a population only 4 times the population of Ireland and one third that of the UK who mostly live in the cities. I got the impression that Vancouver is not the usual destination for non-Americans which is a shame as its head and shoulders one off the most beautiful cities on earth, nestling in a harbour surrounded by islands, rivers and snow topped mountains, forests teeming with bears, deers, moose, raccoons and an encyclopaedia of birdlife.
An Eden if there ever was one.
I said I wanted to see the Pacific and since I had never been to Canada before, Vancouver was the obvious choice.
I didn’t mention earlier difficulties.
“So where are you going today? Jose asked
I told him that I planned on going downtown and take a ride on the Seabus across the Strait to visit North Vancouver. I also mentioned that I’d be here for over a month.
“Downtown’s not going anyway any time soon. You can go there anytime. I know, we can take you to Steveston today”
I asked if he was sure. I didn’t want to put them out of their way especially as it looked they were pinching a quick break from a busy work schedule.
“Don’t worry, we dont have to get back for an hour yet. Come with us, we’d love to take you there”
Who was I to refuse the offer of a random unscheduled adventure and off we went to Steveston
We drove east along Cambie through the suburban landscape of outsized stucco-fronted houses, neatly trimmed lawns and cookie-cut-out strip malls. The stultifying suburban uniformity was mercifully broken by buildings of incongruous architecture; an English Tudor style hotel with painted stone effect bricks criss-crossed with oak beams, the Nanasker Gurdawa Gurusikh Temple along Westminster Highway (Jose took the scenic route I later discovered for my benefit) and a derelict twin storey concrete building shaped like a capital T with an extra vertical bar running through the middle. It was once a hybrid business that combined a restaurant with reflexology. We continued in this vein for several more miles until eventually we surpassed the reach of the flour and candy stained fingers off the suburbs that slowly surrendered its grip on the landscape to a more pastoral landscape.
“We’re going to Finn Slough, have you heard of it?” Jose said
I said that I never heard of ‘finnslow’ (that was how it’s pronounced)
“Few out-off-towners have. It’s a small artist’s community next to the river” said Candace. “We think you’ll like it”
“Strictly speaking they’re squatters but they’re allowed to live there for free as long as they look after the place” Jose cut in.
I nodded in silence, looking out the window. Several men wearing turbans were working in a field. Many Sikhs moved to Canada in the past few decades and many bought farms around here. It was an exotic vision, a stolen glimpse of an authentic Indian pastoral scene right here almost on my doorstep.
Finn Slough: In the 19th century, a hardy community of Finns founded a fishing community on the banks of the Fraser River. The community thrived and the fishing way of life lasted several generations until eventually, the community withered on the vine of progress and its descendants chose other professions such as IT, law, medicine and perhaps downtown hairdressing for all we know. The clutch of wooden houses they lived in that stood on wooden stilts were abandoned and left to the reclamation of nature. As we know, houses, not unlike nature, abhor a vacuum and a community of artists, painters, sculptors moved in and to this day, the artistic community remains. Artists come and artists go but the ethos has remained the same ever since.
Jose pulled up and the three of us got out. The houses were only yards away but we had to cross a wooden foot bridge to get to them.
“We have to walk in the middle and in single file” said Candace. “It’s a bit shaky”
“Yeah, and its best to leave about 5 feet between us”
I asked how shaky the bridge was.
Jose and Candace smiled. “It’s a bit off putting if it’s your first time but the people who live here use it every day and no-one’s fallen in”
The word ‘Yet’ hung silently above my head in giant letters like some kind of Banquo at the feast of the conversation. I chose not to speak it aloud. Cynicism even in its mildest forms can give the stranger an air of being difficult. It’s wise to hold one’s counsel sometimes. One can be liked without having to crack jokes. A lesson I’ve learned from experience.
We formed a single file as Jose advised. Jose took the lead, I in the middle and Candace behind me. As I walked over the bridge, I felt the planks move and shift beneath my feet. I looked down and saw arresting gaps between the planks. The planks moved and shuffled and slid, albeit a matter of a centimetre or two at each step but when you are used to solid ground, it was a very disconcerting experience not unlike treading on black ice during a brisk walk on a warm summer’s morning.
This was a wooden bridge in the purist sense of the expression. There were no metal bracings, no industrial stapling or corsetry of any kind. Just bare planks of wood laid side by side, held up by perpendicular planks at the edges which in turn were held up in the air by wooden struts whose feet were hammered home into the muddy beds below the waters. The wood was not weather protected or sealed in any way. Many planks were black with rot. They reminded me of spent matches that a giant had thrown away.
The crossing took only less than a minute but if felt longer for being conscious of every step.
I found myself on a narrow path surrounded by tall rushes and reeds. Wooden houses were dotted all over. Some were in a state of dilapidation yet were fully inhabited. Many stood on wooden stilts.
The 2014 remake of Godzilla was filmed on location in these parts and with it brought hordes of flying visitors who also made the discovery of Finn Slough as I did. The artists were not that amused by legions of visitors gawping at them and their homes as if their purpose in life was to be an interesting sideshow at a zoo. The visitors I am sure meant well, who can blame a person for curiosity but the traveller must be aware that the people, communities and buildings he/she encounters do not solely exist for the benefit of an interesting photograph or journal. It is right that they are depicted and recorded but in a way that magnifies their essence within the prism of truth and not exploitation in any shape of form.
When the circus left town, the artists for the first time in their community’s history, put up fences and gate along the paths that passed by the fronts of their hours, blocking the path of visitors. This was to preserve their privacy. I couldn’t say I blame them but it did seem like an Achilles ’ heel of a reaction as they did sell a lot of their work to the very people who once passed by their homes and who now, crane their necks and peer longingly over the wooden spirits of no pasaran.
We didn’t see anyone around. All was still save for the burbling of the river and the sounds of rushes brushing against one another.
“You should take a bike here and bring some food too”
I asked if there was a cafe or a grocery store nearby
“Afraid not, the nearest is in Steveston and that’s about a ten minute drive from here”
We went back the way came. There was no other way, back again across the wooden bridge of potential doom and back to the car. I promised myself that I would return.
Then we went to Steveston, an outpost of paradise.
to be continued…