Tag Archives: Vancouver

Vancouver… Embracing its Architectural Heritage

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It’s surprising, perhaps even amusing, to think that one of Vancouver’s most popular tourist areas is named after someone who told stories… someone who talked, a lot. In fact so verbose was Jack Deighton, he was known as ‘Gassy Jack’. The story goes that with $6 in his pocket and a barrel of whiskey, the English steamboat captain rowed into town – now Gastown – and bribed the locals into helping him throw up a saloon. With the promise of a few drinks, a mere twenty-four hours later, the ambitiously named Globe Saloon opened its doors.

Today as I gaze upon Gassy Jack’s statue in Maple Tree Square in Gastown, a stetson-clad gentlemen chats with another, and I easily envision the days when the settlement was a rough and ready point for loggers, miners and shipping crews. It prospered as the site of Hastings Mill Sawmill, then with a beehive of warehouses, chandleries and outfitters. Once the Canadian Pacific Railway terminus was sited here in 1886, Gastown’s lively, burgeoning future was all but sealed.

In 1886, the town was incorporated as the City of Vancouver. Captain George Vancouver had explored the inner harbour back in 1792, the name Vancouver itself originating from the Dutch ‘Van Coevorden’ – denoting someone from the city of Coevorden. Tragically, all but two of the original 400 wooden buildings perished in the Great Vancouver Fire that same year. Rebuilt with brick and mortar, the area thrived until the Great Depression of the 1930’s, but as Vancouver spread out, Gastown became a largely forgotten neighbourhood and fell into decline.

Today it’s a vibrant area of bars and restaurants, bespoke boutiques, and a well-visited tourist destination due partly to its iconic but rather underwhelming steam clock. I watch tourists excitedly take their turn for a photo op with the steam-powered clock, built in 1977, but I’m far more drawn to the buildings that surround us.

Now designated a national historic site that includes some 141 buildings – most built before 1914 – I notice the styles ranging from Victorian Italianate to Romanesque Revival. I come upon an unusual shaped building, the once Hotel Europe.

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Built in 1909 on a triangular lot, the Hotel Europe was commissioned by hotelier Angelo Calori. Modelled after the Flatiron building in New York, the hotel was reminiscent of curious-shaped buildings at the time in Paris and Milan and must have looked both odd and ostentatious here in Gastown. Calori ensured the hotel housed one of the city’s finest bars where much of the business of the commercial district was soon conducted.

Still intact with its original tile floors, marble and leaded-glass windows, the hotel benefited from the proximity of the nearby steamship docks and a dedicated bus service for its guests. In 1916, however, the Hotel Vancouver opened its grand doors and the popularity of a newer, more opulent hotel quickly shifted the heart of the city away from Gastown to the southwest. With the eventual demise of steamship service, the employment crisis that emerged as the commercial district declined, Hotel Europe fell into disrepute, eventually housing a brothel.

Today the hotel is often used in Vancouver’s thriving film industry, despite its reputation for curious paranormal activity. It’s said that when the upper floors were being converted into affordable housing during the ’80’s, contractors were known to have walked off the job – unexplainable scratching noises and a ‘man’ dressed in a black coat with a flat cap were a little too much to contend with!

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Yet as intriguing as the architecture of Gastown is, the downtown core of Vancouver is where stately buildings have stamped their mark and defined the city; with structures such as the Hotel Vancouver and the Provincial Courthouse, now the must-visit Vancouver Art Gallery.

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Close by, I also come across the unique Marine Building on Burrard Street. Now flanked by steel and glass, it held the coveted title of the tallest building in the British Empire when completed in 1930. The tallest skyscraper in the city until 1939, The Marine was intended to evoke ‘a great crag rising from the sea, clinging with sea flora and fauna, tinted in sea-green, touched with gold’. I marvelled how on previous visits to the city, I had managed to pass by without noticing its outstanding Art Deco entrance. And once inside, the massive brass-doored elevators, inlaid wood and depictions of sea snails, crabs, turtles, carp and sea horses, speak to its then exorbitant building cost of $2.3 million.

The Marine replaced an old mansion, there from the days when this area was known as ‘Blueblood Alley’ where the wealthy settled before the West End and Shaughnessy Heights were developed. Unfortunately for the Marine’s developer, a former rum runner, the Great Depression resulted in the loss of the building and it sold to the beer-magnate Guiness family. All lost for a paltry sum of $900,000, and yes, there’s rumours of ghosts here too!

I find delightful Art Deco elements throughout the city. Although some shrubs and spring flowers are already in bloom, the still-barren trees encourage me to observe above eye level. And what a gift it is… street lamps in delightful flowery silhouettes that remind of Paris, apartments in simple designs yet with statuesque portals, meandering outdoor stairwells, artsy wrought-iron flourishes, and theatres with dramatic signage beckoning in classic neon illumination.

Of course Vancouver isn’t complete without wandering along the water front and the seawall, strolling through Stanley Park and catching a lift on the water ferries. My favourite jaunt? Hop on at Yaletown and cruise to Granville Island at sunset. As apartment lights twinkle their magic and bridges elegantly light the way, Vancouver confirms its reputation as one of the world’s most picturesque cities.

Still, I confess there are two areas of Vancouver that I favour above all. They’ve become like home… those familiar spots that you embrace with fondness and familiarity, yet with a certain excitement each time you visit. Thanks to one of our sons who lives here, Kitsalano and nearby Granville Island, now feel like my own neighbourhood.

Vancouver, and the area known as Kitsilano, has been home to indigenous people for as long as 10,000 years ago. The name Kitsilano is a derivative of an esteemed Squamish chief. The city is located in the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish people, their way of life changed forever when explorer Simon Fraser became the first-known European to set foot here in 1808.

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At the heart of ‘Kits’, as the locals fondly refer to it, is its wide-open beach –  for contemplation, gazing across to the mountains, for swimming, beach volleyball and kayaking. It anchors a sought-after neighbourhood – though one with steep property and rental prices to match – ideal because of its proximity to downtown, quiet tree-lined streets and its hip shopping on West 4th.

Yet in the 1960’s not only was the area still inexpensive, it was a creative hotbed of the hippie culture. It’s here that Greenpeace and the Green Party of Canada was founded, where some of the first vegetarian and vegan restaurants sprang up, where many of the first neighbourhood pub licenses were issued. Kitsilano is an example of an area that become gentrified by that then-trendy new group of professionals… the yuppies. They sought out and evolved a neighbourhood.

On Valentine’s Day, the corner store – yes just around the corner – has a flourish of customers. Owner Jim has a sunny rapport and his shop is a veritable treasure trove of all you might need on any given day. Today as he helps locals choose their bouquets, his friendly banter and smile is infectious. Jim tells me he’s been here ‘a long time’ and when he greets customers by name, along with their canine pets, I’m reminded of how vital a close-knit neighbourhood is, especially within a large city.

The charming streets of Kits have long been a community with its own identity and speaks to its different periods – of middle and working-class homes built before WWI in the California or Craftsman Bungalow style with broad verandahs and pitched gables. Of low-rise apartment buildings from the ’60’s and 70’s, palm-trees decorate out front, with fanciful names like The Flamingo and The Palm Breeze. And of once well-appointed suites like The Norman, The Croydon, now subdivided into as many apartments as city bylaws permit.

When electric street-car service wended its way to the area in 1903, West 4th became the ‘High Street’ of Kitsilano and is still the place to be, to shop, to dine and drink. The eclectic mixed assemblage of buildings is fascinating and whether it’s the former stalwart and classical Canadian Bank of Commerce or an adobe-style restaurant, there’s a happy mishmash of building styles and reinventions.

Admittedly, the attraction of Vancouver itself is obvious. The ocean and mountains meld into beautiful co-existence, the architectural delights of downtown and in places like Kitsilano, Gastown, and amongst the vibrant colour on Granville Island, all unfold subtly, then dramatically… all forming Vancouver into one of my favourite cities, anywhere.

 

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Travels and touchstones…fifteen roses in memoriam

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I write this on my flight from Frankfurt to Bangalore. The sun streams in as we fly over Budapest. We pass Munich, cross the Danube, Rome is off south. It’s time to return to Asia, time to be ‘home’. There’s much to reflect on these past few months, much joyful, but regrettably not all.

A Bollywood Masala serenades me as a pre-diner drink is served. The music is intoxicating and strangely in sync with my melancholy. It never fails to feel somewhat surreal, Gosh I’m on my way to India…and I live there. And this time especially, I just want to be there, in one place for more than a few weeks at a time.

I play one track over and over again. It is evocative and comforting. First I write, then simply sit and be. I reflect on this past week of a farewell to a loved, my brother-in-law, who passed away.

I glance at the book I’m reading and a quote from Rabindranath Tagore, India’s dearest writer, jumps off the page and resonates.

”If you cry because the sun has gone out of your life, your tears will prevent you from seeing the stars.”

I left India just over two months ago to attend a conference in The Hague, then onward to Canada, meeting up with my husband in Vancouver. On idyllic spring days there and in Victoria, and in the company of two of our sons and their girlfriends, we strolled beaches, soaked up the sun on wind-swept piers and walked drizzly streets under cherry blossomed canopies. We drank in the beauty and the calm, the sublime balances of city life surrounded by mountain vistas, forested coastlines and the endless Pacific Ocean.

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Staying just a stone’s throw away from ‘the kids’, we took pleasure from sharing everyday things; signing a new lease, early morning rock-climbing, late night games and long chats. As for many of us, time with our grown children is painfully finite. Each visit is treasured.

DSCF0160Back at our home base, we got down to practicalities. The lawn cried out for raking to usher spring growth, layers of dust counted the months since our last visit and the deck beckoned us to sit and luxuriate. During respites in a favourite chair, I looked longingly at my deserted flower pots, begging for summer blooms. But in vain; we won’t return until August.

There was time with good neighbours and friends; hiking, walking and conversation. Yet it wasn’t long before it was time to close up the house and I did what I do each time I leave, what I’ve done for the past eight years. I sign my own guest book. Here from such and such a place, date, did this and that…chronicling those everyday moments that comprise life.

Having delayed my return to India I made my way with our middle son, Matt, to my parents for Mother’s day. We spent a weekend of games, seeing family and friends, lazed around an outdoor fire on a Sunday afternoon. We strolled through the garden picking tulips and the first of the asparagus – the apple tree is in abundant bloom, a heavenly canopy over the graves of family dogs. A tranquil weekend – simple joys of being home.

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And as if preparing and steeling me for the week before us, my final few days in Calgary were also comforting.

“Are you back in the city?” Carol asked not long after I’d arrived. “I’ve been thinking about you, can I see you before you leave?”

“Carol I’m glad you called, though I have sad news. Rod has passed away, I meet Bruce in London in a few days.”

“I’m on my way,” she said, “be right over.”

Carol is the sister I didn’t have and we rather like that we’re often mistaken for siblings. She is my touchstone. Same high school, same hometown, same cultural references. When I finished college our mothers arranged for us to live together. With a job secured, I packed up my ’77 Camaro and headed to the big city. We’ve been soulmates ever since– connected through life’s milestones. We know each other’s history like a well-read book.

DSCF0217When Carol walked half an hour later into our small condo in Calgary, suitcases lined the hallway. She offered her condolences and with a hug reminded me, “You get to leave again.” Tales of my global life are music to her ears.

Carol is also a traveller but now spends most of her time in Calgary, with a yearly buying trip to Asia for her importing business. I flit in and out of her life…if I’m honest, everyone’s life.

I commented on the scene outside as dusk approached on that warm spring evening – the emerging twinkling skyline, the milky turquoise river, the flow of walkers, cyclists and skateboarders, the couples nestled on park benches.

“But Carol you get to be here, in one place, see spring turn to summer, then autumn. I skip whole seasons and then plunk myself into life for a month or so. Always unpacking and packing, always on the move.” We have this conversation often, yet would either of us truly give up the life we have for the other?

The evening turned late, as is usual each time we’re together. There’s never enough time for the stories, the meanders, the laughter and this time the tears. Carol recently lost her mother and her pain is still at the surface and my heart breaks for her. “You can never know what it is to lose your mom until it happens.”

We meet again late the next afternoon and stroll until the evening turns dim. Sunnyside/Kensington is quirky, a mix of older homes and new. A pleasant sedate neighbourhood going about its business of life.

DSCF0233“It’s almost the end of May. How strange most homes still have a snow shovel on the front porch,” I remarked after yet another shovel belied the gorgeous weather.

“You know the saying,” Carol looked at me with a wry smile.

“I have no idea.”

Never put snow shovels away until the end of May,” she rhymed. “It tempts the weather to snow”. I had never heard this before and noted that many of the shovels seem to compliment the house perfectly, adding a splash of colour, almost completing the image of home.

Unlike my children who were raised globally, Carol and I have a hometown with the anecdotes and recollections to go with it. This is now more poignant than ever for her as sadly she was recently faced with dismantling her mother’s life. Having to go through the meaningful and the ‘just stuff’, the heartbreak of not only saying farewell to your loved one, but also to your family home. As we strolled in the evening hues over Calgary, I felt a certain calm in offering some solace and for her love and understanding of what was on the horizon for me and my husband.

Having only returned to India a week previously, my husband headed back west and met me in London. Our long embrace at Heathrow Airport was the calm before the storm, the balm for the soul. The four hour drive to Wales seemed unusually long, but we were together. We had no choice but to start brainstorming, start planning…

Rod had made his way south as a young man, following his profession from Scotland to Welsh Wales (as he lovingly referred to it). He never left. With his untimely death came the painful realization that it was up to the two of us to plan and host his funeral, and clear his home.

Arriving at the house for the first time was wrenching, signs of Rod’s interrupted life were stark reminders of the fragility of time. The new bags of potting soil and gardening tools, a carefully chosen cherry tree and parsley already abundant were particularly poignant. Not knowing what to do, we did what we felt was right. We lit a candle, chose a good bottle of wine and pulled out one of Rod’s many c.d’s. We’re sure he would have been pleased and with tears welling, we offered up a toast to him and to the house – the last time it would be a home. The next day everything would change.

All those things he valued, collected or just ‘stuff’ had to be dispersed. It is somber and admittedly tedious, and I suspect it isn’t often when one only has six days from start to finish. Perhaps that somehow made it easier.

We only managed with the help of family and good friends. In the midst of it, there was the paper work, meeting the pastor, arranging the funeral, writing the order of service and the eulogy. We secured a bagpiper, we ordered flowers.

“We’d like white roses, some thistle to represent Scotland, something for Wales, but a natural, wild look.”

“I think I understand what you’d like, a scruffy look,” the florist reassured calmly.

“Yes, perfect.” I was relieved, then chose a ribbon that best matched the family tartan.

The two scruffy bouquets were simply perfect.

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And finally we were able to honour our Roderick Wilson. The bagpiper welcomed and moved many to tears – the haunting, rousing strains reached into souls, touching innermost emotions. My husband delivered an eulogy that was eloquent and powerful, honouring a man that despite blindness and ill health, had poured his heart into his church community and friends.

An after service ‘tea’ at the church with an array of baked goods spoke of community and the indelible connection of life. “Ah my nephew is out in Canada.” “I work with the church in India, come see us when you get to Calcutta.” “We’ll miss our Rod,” we heard over and over again. Rod’s trusty and beloved guide dog, Neena, was with us throughout. She will officially retire on June 1st and is with a loving family; a celebration is planned for her.

The beautiful day was infused with the comfort of my husband’s cousins from Scotland. “It wasn’t a question of coming or not, of course we’d be here,’ they said without hesitation. Jean and Christine grew up five doors down from my husband’s family home. The lush bluebell woods behind their homes was their playground. An idyllic place where the trees had names like Thunderbird and Big Ben.

“We were always together it was the perfect childhood, pet,” Jean told me in her warm Scottish accent that placed me back with my late mother-in-law.

“That’s what Isa used to call the boys,” I remembered fondly. Along with the comfort of family and their unreserved love, Jean and Christine brought a piece of Scotland to Wales.

The day of the funeral culminated with an intimate gathering of close friends and family. At one of his favourite restaurants, we toasted our dear Rod and when his ashes arrived we toasted again. We’re quite sure his off-beat sense of humour would have enjoyed the scene. We strolled in the early evening down to the water, hand in hand, arm in arm. Past the comfort of an aged stone wall, past spring flowers and the promise of new beginnings.

The tartan ribbon was unfastened and the scruffy bouquet was our solace, one most perfect of white roses for each of us. “Please say a few words as the ashes and your rose meet the water’, my husband asked.

And we did. “Thank you for your love and help raising me,” Thank you for your humour and friendship.” “I’ll miss you.” “You have three nephews who love you and the Wilson name lives on, dear brother-in-law.’  There was grief and sadness, there was laughter, new friendships and rekindled family bonds. It was a soulful, fitting farewell.

IMG_3746 (1)Fifteen roses, a loved one’s ashes, and a few Scottish thistles drifted peacefully out to sea. In remembrance of a life and good deeds done. And that seems all we can ask for; to live, to love, to have loved ones remember and speak well of us when our time comes. To be there for those who need comforting.

It isn’t often that you truly contemplate how you’d like to be honoured when the time comes, but I know I would chose a day like we had in Wales. Despite the loss, it was a time of family, friends and tenderness. One of poignancy and meaning, one of gladness for what was.

And perhaps for those of us who live globally, time seems ever more precious as our parents age, as we miss our worldwide friendships, as our children live their own lives. Visits home are never long enough, yet we look forward to returning to that other life, that other ‘home’. It’s a fine balance of sacrifices and abundance, of memories and goodbyes; never does it strike you more than after losing a loved one.

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As I finish writing, the captain announces that it will soon be time to land. I feel a tap on my shoulder. “How has the flight been Mom?”

It’s one of Rod’s nephews, our dear son Matt. He’s on his way with me, his new journey to spend some time with us and do some travelling. I’m looking forward to being ‘home’ again and I’m thankful it will be with one more family member…

Family, friendships, home, journeys, farewells and time spent with loved ones…really just life. Embrace it.