Two days in and I already figured out why Vancouverites are happy to live here in all this rain and dampness. It's not the clean mountain air. It's not the breathtaking vistas.
It's Beer Soup.
This week I’m in Vancouver with my job. I’m feeling grateful that our office and my hotel are at the centre of the downtown core and, though I’m really busy with work, I get to look at some spectacular views even from the vantage point of the office. My workload should ease up a little as the week progresses and I will get out and explore the city on foot and take some proper pictures. In the meantime, despite the work, I’m enjoying the feeling of being out of my element – those large mountains being a rather imposing reminder.
Last night around eight o’clock I’ve had enough of the current proposal and go down to the hotel bar to have a glass of wine and order some takeout for my room. I’m distracted by some not-quite cringe-worthy lip smacking, and I turn to look at the man sitting next to me, and admire his impressive looking cheese plate.
The fellow, who looks to be in his late fifties, asks the bartender in an Italian accent what the soup of the day is.
“Fennel. It’s not one of our usual ones, I don’t know what it tastes like so I can’t give you a recommendation one way or another.” Then she says, “I’ll go back and taste it and give you a report.”
I joke that she’s going above and beyond the call of duty, mostly because I’m not a real fan of fennel soup. The bartender comes back saying she didn’t really like it, and gives the man a little taster sized dish of the stuff. He doesn’t like it either.
He says to me, “I love soup” and I tell him what a fan of it I am too, and we agree that we could both eat it every day. He says his wife makes great soup, even though she doesn’t like it as much as he does. He says he misses her (and her soup). I ask him where he’s from and he’s from the Toronto area too.
He’s been here for more than a week and will be until the second week in December, and he’s not enjoying being out of his element as I am. He pulls out an i-Pad and starts to scroll some pages and I sip my pinot noir and idly watch some hotdogging snowmobilers on the sports channel above the bar.
The man utters an audible sigh of pleasure and I turn to see him beaming at the little screen, on which is a tiny new baby with a tuft of black hair. His demeanour seems to indicate a welcome of eavesdropping, so I ask, “Is that your grandchild?”
Of course it is and she’s only two weeks old. He said he’d emailed his daughter asking for the photos, and she responded with some beautiful, quite artistic shots. He scrolls through them, sharing each with me; I “ooh and ahh” and he beams longingly.
Again the man complains about having to be out here, away from this new little queen adjusting to life on earth back home. After a moment it seems clear he’s forgotten I exist, and my food has arrived, so I finish my wine, thank him for sharing and turn to go back to my room.
As I glance back at the man gazing at the i-Pad propped in front of him on the bar, with the wide windows revealing the magnificent Rocky Mountains behind him, I’m thinking those mountains could be paltry anthills a million miles away for all he cares. But I’m sure those mountains are about as big as his heart is feeling.
Walking to Union Station in mornings is infinitely more pleasant than stuffing myself into a streetcar up close and personal with a hundred or so smart dressed Harbourfront condo dwellers, even if it is a short ride and it deposits you right underground adjacent to the subway stairs. When walking, I come in through Union Station proper, which is as pleasant and romantic as walking through any major train station, with its great vaulted ceilings and clerestory windows and travellers scattered about sitting in seats looking at tickets and schedules.
I love to be where travellers are; I love to see people out of their element and imagine where their journeys are taking them. Similarly, I watch planes jetting off from the island airport across from my place and wish I was going on some adventure. Train stations are more romantic – there is something so inherently peaceful about a train journey. Oh sure, the average traveller on a jaunt from Toronto to Montreal isn’t going to gaze upon serene landscapes and sip fine coffee in a dining car; but the history that lives in a train station has a way of romanticizing the journey.
If I’ve not timed my walk, I may arrive at the same time as one of the GO (commuter) Trains and I’m instantly enveloped by thousands of people. To this naturally fast walker, it’s torture. Sometimes I wonder if there are natural fast walkers amongst herds of cattle who are similarly tortured.
Today, amidst the cattle throngs there is a woman about my age who, unlike the rest of us shrouded in thick dark layers against yet another -20C morning, seems to be dressed for another season. She’s wearing light athletic pants, white runners and light looking pink jacket. And a sun hat. A gardening hat with flaps of cotton that come down the sides to protect one from the sun. It’s a bright, sunny day and I expect she’s wanting (or needing) to protect herself from the rays no matter what the temperatures are. Against the backdrop of the rest of us cattle commuters, she looks as if she was plucked out of her garden in May and plopped onto a Toronto subway train in February.
She’s sitting with another woman; they’re both at the edges of their seats. The look on her face can best be described as enthusiastic; she comments on the advertising signs in the car, and finds something interesting at every station. Her friend gets off at one of the stops, she sits – either looking around with a pleased looking half grin, or hopping up to look more closely at the route map above the door. When I get off at Sheppard, she’s got her eyes closed as if having a quick little happy meditation.
The woman, plucked out of springtime, cheerful and bright amidst the cattle, is beautiful thing number ten.
Today on the subway I meet a family visiting on holiday. I hear them talking in German about subway stations and the teenage girl keeps mentioning College station, which we had passed through two stops ago. So I interrupt and tell them that if they want College they’ll have to turn around. The lady says no, they were just discussing that they want to remember the correct station for the return back, and are actually going north to Sheppard, the same stop I change over at. So I tell them they’re welcome to follow me and they get on with their conversation and I return to my reading.
As we near the destination and I’m packing my things, the lady says they need to change over too, and would I point them in the right direction, and as it happens again they’re going to my stop. She explains the area at street level where a friend is to pick them up and I know it and am happy to take them there. From then we have a chat – they tell me they’re from Vienna, and that they once lived here in Toronto in 1969, but went back home after two years because the lady’s father was ill there and they missed home and family. They had not been back here since and remark how much the city has changed.
I taught English as a Second Language right after I moved from one area of the province to another. The effect of moving cities on me was more substantial than I’d imagined it would be. I would tell the ESL learners that I admired them for their courage and adventurousness. Not only did they move cities, they moved countries and time zones and cultures and languages – I simply can’t imagine how overwhelming the transition would be. I still fancy living abroad for a year or so at some point, but that would always be a temporary thing – like a working holiday. The courage it must take to pick up one’s life and family and move it to a new and strange place must be enormous.
But for this lady, it wasn't about courage and adventurousness. Joy and fulfilment wasn’t to be found in the “new world” with all its opportunity and monetary potential. It was back home with her people and her places and her culture. And besides, I say to myself, it’s Vienna! I love my city, and I’ve never actually been to Vienna, but why wouldn’t you live in Vienna?
They tell me the places they have visited here – the top of the CN Tower (which was not built yet when they lived here), and the daughter demonstrates the tentativeness with which she stepped onto the glass floor in the lookout. Yesterday they went to Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake. Today they’re off north for a quiet day at a friend’s cottage on Lake Simcoe. Next week they move on to Vancouver and Whistler – the latter of which the father and daughter, both avid skiers, saw on TV during the Olympics and decided they want to visit.
When we arrive at their allotted pick up point, they can’t be more grateful. We all shake hands warmly and I wish them a happy remainder of their holiday and go off to work. They could have easily made it on their own – our subway system is small and simple compared to many spider web underground systems around the world. But having travelled alone, I know what it means to be assured by the kindness of locals. And travelling on the subway during the morning work commute is not always, er, pleasant. People are rushed, rude and vacant. I’m feeling as grateful for the friendly conversation as they were for the escort.
Sitting on the bus approaching my office, I wish we’d exchanged names. And I get thinking about this book I bought a couple of years ago. My small effort was nothing compared to the kindnesses experienced by the writers of the stories here. If you enjoy travelling, or if you want to read some uplifting personal stories, do get yourself a copy. (Click the image to go to the publisher's website.)
It’s so easy to get overwhelmed by the stories we get in the media these days: environmental destruction, war, prejudice, angry people, insignificant fluff; and when we move about our cities with our city facades on, it’s easy to forget that the vast majority of people in this world are good and kind. This is what connects us.
The little half-hour encounter today was one of those pleasant little reminders of the true source of happiness. It's not the assets we have, it’s each other. Maybe if we remembered this more often, we’d be better equipped to honour our world and cherish its gifts.