Hot Air, Polite Aggression, and Neighbors to the North

Last month I went up to Vancouver, B.C. for a few days’ vacation from my (admittedly scenic) hometown of Seattle. I rode Amtrak, wanting to watch the scenery pass in slow, pleasant splendor and experience the joy of car-free life for a few days. The passage was indeed slow, given the locomotive’s repeated power failures, but the stops inevitably occurred in the middle of northern Washington’s most verdant stretches, with green fields and two lane country roads the only thing in sight. When the train approached I-5 or thoroughfares, I watched the scurrying automobiles pass with ill-concealed amusement and then settled deeper into my seat, taking another sip of my legal-on-the-train distilled beverage.

The visit was engaging on many levels, not least for pointing out how different a place can be when it’s just a couple hundred miles away. The small differences caught my attention as much as the big ones. I’ve lived abroad before and been less startled than I was by aspects of Vancouver. When one travels far from home, one expects something different, but you don’t expect foreign in your backyard.

Take the rather banal question of heating. Vancouver’s heating ethic is that of a frigid northern outpost, even in March. When you enter a building, there is no question that the building is heated. Seattle, by contrast, seems to heat or cool to the slightest degree possible, and you often have to be in a building for a while before you recognize the change. The heating, and a few downright chilly gusts while walking in downtown Vancouver, served to give the impression of a cold weather city, when in fact the weather that weekend was about the same as in Seattle.

People have written reams about the beauty of Stanley Park, and there’s no question it’s a gorgeous place. The striking thing about it to me was that it was not the kind of aggressively athletic place one would expect in Seattle. Seattle has nothing like Stanley Park, of course, despite past failed attempts in that direction (remember Seattle Commons?), but we do have some big ones. We have big parks, small parks, parks that aren’t really parks.

In every one of Seattle’s parks, it seems, you can encounter our typically passive aggression rearing its ugly head. The biker who refuses to ring a bell or holler out when passing, but instead zips by close enough to ruffle your jacket. The dog walker who refuses to use a leash for its easily-agitated-but-of-course-never-bites-anyone mutt. The would-be jocks throwing a ball back and forth across a walkway who will be careful enough not to hit you, but who clearly are upset that you’re passing through their zone of play.

Vancouver by contrast, features politeness, aggression, and polite aggression. The politeness of Canadians was no surprise to me, given how often one hears about it in the media, or in travelers’ tales. The aggression was something I’d not expected, and I encountered it primarily in connection with traffic patterns. Unlike the agonizing plays one witnesses at every Seattle intersection, wherein pedestrians, right-turning cars, and straight-going trucks awkwardly fumble to determine who should go where, Vancouverites have driving figured out. People go, stop, let others in, or cut people off. In various taxi and bus rides, while walking down the street, and while staring out the window in sundry gelateria and coffee shops, I witnessed a ballet of automotive skill: no gap left unexploited, no reasonable excuse for honking ignored… and yet no one seemed truly angry. Ultimately Vancouver seems like the kind of place where a polite, reasonable level of aggression is expected and encouraged.

What makes a city a city? The people, of course, on so many levels, and they were another thing that reminded me that I was no longer in the United States. It’s no secret that Asian immigration to Vancouver is a huge part of the city’s growth in recent decades, but what struck me was more fundamental than that. The faces of Vancouver are not the faces of Seattle.

Seattle is itself an amalgam of many cultures, more so than many other U.S. cities. We have Scandinavians of all stripes, Japanese families going back a hundred years, smaller but substantial populations from all manner of European countries, many more recent immigrants from Africa and Southeast Asia. I’m used to seeing a variety of different faces when I’m walking down the street, but there is a certain range I am accustomed to seeing. Vancouver’s face is different. Is it French? Chinese? Russian? It’s all that and more, influenced by the city’s high degree of attractiveness to immigrants worldwide. Next time you’re across the border, take a look at the faces on the street and see if you don’t agree. It’s not completely foreign, but it’s foreign enough to let you know that Canada is not the U.S., and that Vancouver is not Seattle.

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