I am beginning this essay in the main branch of the Vancouver Public Library, a fantastic building inspired by the Roman Colosseo, designed by local architectural wunderkid Bing Thom. It first opened its doors in the summer of 1995, just as I was heading to Seattle to attend Clarion West, and whenever a writer friend comes to town I drag them to the library to marvel and envy.
The building is exceptional, in its way. Vancouver isn't chock-a-block with fantastic architectural gems, like Chicago. We have two art deco structures--the Marine Building and the Burrard Bridge--and they're both wonders to behold. But it wasn't history or buildings or anything man-made that initially brought me here twenty years ago.
It started with the weather, to be honest.
I grew up in Northern Alberta, where the winter snow is deep and the summer air is moist and mosquito-infested. And from an early age, I hated the cold with a passion that bordered on the pathological: I told wild lies to my grade school teachers to get them to let me stay indoors during breaktimes. I forged notes from my parents about why I had to stay in. They couldn't have been credible, but sometimes the teachers took pity on me and let me stay indoors. Other times, I hid in the library and under desks, hoping to avoid the one-hour exile to the deep freeze, striving to stay where it was warm, where I could read Hardy Boys novels and write bad poetry.
Now that I've been gone for twenty plus years, I can see the beauty of the Prairies. I can look at a field of canola or barley and recognize it as the landscape of my childhood, and think fondly of trees covered in inch-thick blades of frost. I miss prairie thunderstorms. I even write novels set in the north, in the winter, and make it sound like my point of view characters quite enjoy it. I can remember how cool it was like to live so far north that the sun didn't quite go down in the height of summer, where the sky dimmed but never blackened.
But as a young adult, I wanted to be gone. I chose the West Coast as my future home before I had any idea what it was like. All I knew it was supposed to have less of two things I wasn't so keen on: subzero temperatures and conservative homophobes. Lunging across the country could have worked out badly. I might not have suited Vancouver, or it me.
I immediately fell in love.
To me, the whole Pacific Northwest has as much magic as anything in my books. It's a better and more balanced form of enchantment than what Astrid Lethewood releases in Indigo Springs and Blue Magic.
First, the turn of the seasons. It pours and blows from November to January, and that's what passes for winter. Winter weather doesn't mean thirty below and driving icicles: it means the sun is hidden behind a cottony gray quilt. But sometimes, just at dusk it sinks below the sheet of clouds, sending gold light in a horizontal sweep across the sky, into the still-falling rain, and we get full-arc rainbows to the east.
Spring? The crocuses and snow-drops start to appear as early as February, and there's a perceptible greening every week afterward, wave after wave of plant life waking up--daffodils, tulips, hyacinth--until the cherry blossoms come out and coat the city in pink confetti. The weather lurches drunkenly from brightness to pouring rain and back again, and in April we have hailstorms. People complain about the transition from winter to spring, the unpredictable torrents of rain, but I am blessed with a flexible schedule. While others pray for bright weekends, I write fiction by a window and watch the water fall. When blue sky breaks the clouds, I go out and chase herons with my camera.
In summer, it's rarely hot for more than a week, and all of the heat is eased by sea breezes. There's none of the steam, none of that sense of breathing cooked syrup. It's bright and breezy and the False Creek seawall fills up with cheerful people roller blading, biking, walking their dogs. Cormorants sun themselves dry on odd-looking sculptures and kingfishers hunt from the evergreens.
Then there's autumn, my favorite. The evening air becomes silky, the maple leaves turn red and fall, and when they get rain-drenched on the sidewalks they leave their ghosts tattooed on the concrete. The orb weavers cover every nook and cranny with spiraling webs, and the night's dew freezes into fleeting morning diamonds. On those first cold mornings, when it's clear, the rooftops steam as the sun spreads across them.
In all seasons, Vancouver's twenty thousand crows commute. At dawn, they wing westward, toward downtown and the harbor, spreading out to forage. At sunset, they fly home to roost between the highways. Looking up at the end of the day means seeing streams of black birds on the wing, cawing as they go.
So what about the people?
Well, I know now there are assholes in every population; there's nothing so wrong with Alberta. And Canada in the now isn't what Canada was in the Eighties--it's better everywhere, I think. But demographics don't lie: Vancouver's leftier, more liberal, and so much queerer than the middle of the country. The neighborhood I chose, East Vancouver, is even more so. There's a mixed, live and let live community here: it's not remarkable when I hold hands with my wife on the street, or kiss her goodbye at the bus stop. I sometimes forget that's not a gimme for all of us. Man, I'm lucky.
People do say this is a hard city in which to meet people. It's said so often and fervently that I suppose it must be true. I started volunteering at a local rape crisis center the minute my feet hit the ground: one of the women I met there is still one of my best friends. I've sung in two choirs - Out in Harmony and A Vancouver Women's Chorus. I know fans. I know artists. I know activists. A bunch of the people I went to college with moved here.
What's especially pleasing is that I also know so many of my neighbors. After twenty years, I can't walk down the street without bumping into someone I know: people I sing with, other writers, or the folks who are also regulars at my favorite coffee house, Cafe Calabria. There's a guy who's been selling me kibble for twenty years and four cats. A chiropractor who should be sainted. The Vancouver Events guy, Stephen Duncan. The Books on the Radio host, Sean Cranbury. The guy who made the cake for my big legal gay wedding in 2003. Oh, and also my mother, who followed us here in the Nineties. No small thing, that, and she loves it here, too.
I meet people who like the idea of moving to Vancouver but are afraid to locate anywhere but one of its perfectly manicured suburbs. Some do it, only to end up feeling alienated from their next-doors in White Rock or Maple Ridge. They go green with envy when they visit and an amble down the Drive ends up with me chatting with four passers-by within ten blocks. This makes me unbearably smug. I can walk downtown in forty minutes. Live in Tsawwassen and you have a cool but hard-to-spell address and a two-hour commute to work each day.
As a child, I got moved around a lot. So did my wife. We've been in the same apartment for eleven years now, and it's a lifetime record. And sometimes we talk: we've been here twenty-one years, not just the same city but within the same six-block patch of real estate. It's impossible to not get restless. To long for a shift, a change. New landscape, different accents. Could we do an acreage? Would we like the Okanagan?
We try to think of somewhere where we'd be just as happy, anyplace that might fit as well. Even half as well. It's got to be out there, but neither of us has glimpsed it yet.
That's what I call damned good luck.
A.M. Dellamonica is author of Indigo Springs and its just-released sequel, Blue Magic, both from Tor Books. Indigo Springs won the Sunburst Award for Canadian Literature of the Fantastic. You can read her blog on her website or over at planetalyx, and you can view many more pictures of the city she loves over on her flickr stream.