Saturday, March 30, 2013

Another Country

It was the mountains that got me. I'm always fascinated by slivers, the spaces between layers of tall buildings, and in Vancouver the slivers often frame part of a mountain range that slaps up against the city's horizon. They aren't ghostly, shimmering, and distant the way mountains are in Seattle. Those suckers are right there, as much a part of Vancouver as any bridge or spire. I'm not often impressed by natural wonders but the chutzpah of building a city as close as possible to a wall of mountains appeals to me.

Then there was the food. A small diner on Seymour Street had a sign that announced they had xiao long bao in the same way that another place might tell the world that they had doughnuts. A spot on Davie Street had desserts--from Transylvania. My walk down Denman Street began with the sight of a large restaurant called Ukrainian Village. Even more than San Francisco, Vancouver is one gigantic "external food cue" as Calvin Trilling says, and it does this with a casual dash. I had the feeling that it wasn't a city of "foodies," but a place where people really like to eat.

I had about thirty hours to spend in Vancouver, and unfortunately eight of those would be spent sleeping. My stomach is adventurous but its capacity is limited. For one of the very first times, I wished I weren't traveling alone. More people would mean more tastes; I've shamelessly used my children that way for decades. As it was, I did my best, beginning with a huge bowl of shio-tonkatsu ramen at Benkei Ramen (soon to leave Robson Street for W. Broadway), and following it up with a cup of Guiness sorbet from a shop on Denman Street, which I ate on a search for a bookstore called Sophia Books on West Hastings.

This is a shop with foreign-language books and magazines, with a concentration on art and design books, and I was eager to browse there--but I couldn't find it. "I think they moved," a barista told me, "There's a big book store right up the street on Pender. That might be the one."

It wasn't. McLeod's is a used bookstore the likes of which I have never seen before--stacks and piles on the floor, shelves crammed to their limits, books tossed into snowdrifts banking the walls. It was appalling and it was enticing and it was almost closing time. "We've been here for forty years," the man behind the counter told me, "The Sophia closed a year or so ago."

I ran my hand across a row of leather bound books that were jammed in with volumes that were decidedly less elegant. "I need a weekend for this place," I admitted with a fair degree of mournfulness and left, mentally examining my budget to discover when my foray into McLeod's could take place.

My hotel was the legendary Sylvia, which is about as close to English Bay as it can be without being on a raft. I sat in the bar, watched the water and people in the park, drank a Red Truck Pale Ale, and made a fatal error. Not to dwell upon such things, but both the oil that had cooked my truffle fries and the mayonnaise that accompanied it was far older than it should have been. On the next day I developed a true fondness for Starbucks and their restrooms, available for the price of an espresso. I drank a lot of espresso in my final hours in Vancouver.

But there are many Starbucks in that city and I walked for hours, discovering that the Punjabi Market has almost disappeared, driven to Surrey by high rents. "But we'll be here for donkey's years," said the young man at All India Sweets who served me a  masala dosa. The woman at Amrit Fashions told me the same thing and I'll go back to buy a box of the sweets that failed to tempt me this time, and to moan softly over the vibrant, glowing colors of Ms. Bunwait's stunning saris.

Vintage clothing shops on South Main, a restaurant called Bob Likes Thai Food, Slickity Jim's Chat and Chow, and Neptoon Records and CDs wait to be explored next time, along with so many neighborhoods that I haven't seen. Vancouver is a city with style and energy. Of course I want to move there, but I'll settle for many trips in the future. I have a goal in mind--to go into McLeod's with a miner's lamp and survival rations for a thorough exploration.

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