My daughter wants exotica, and I give her Canada.
Like many 14-year-old girls, my Carlotta suffers mightily from Grass-is-Always-Greener Syndrome, and since we’ve begun our summer vacation, she has talked about nothing more than wanting to become an exchange student once in high school. In that spirit, she has developed two rather offbeat geo-cultural obsessions: the Netherlands and South Korea. She’s teaching herself Dutch and speaks wistfully of Seoul, a place she knows exclusively from YouTube. Yeah, I don’t get it either.
But I can’t take her to those places, at least not this year. So while Lottie dreams of exploring the bizarre back alleys of some unknown (at least to me) Dutch/Korean city-state, I’m rolling into Vancouver thinking she’ll be wowed. “Look how they spell the word ‘centre.’ Isn’t that freaky? ” I say, hoping to spark some interest in her clearly unimpressed heart. “And get a load of this funny money. Toonies? What’s up with that?”
Yes, we went to Canada to get a change from the U.S., which is kind of like say, “OK, kids, you’re sick of zucchini? Here’s some crook-neck squash.”
That’s not really fair to Canada, I admit. Only after you hang out there for a while do you begin to feel the real differences. Vancouver is a lovely city, consistently ranked as one of the most “livable” cities in the world. For those who value ravishing vistas as a leading quality-of-life indicator, Vancouver has got to be near the top of the A-list. Still, it’s no twin of Seattle. Its tolerance for identical residential high-rises give Vancouver a faint resemblence to Kuala Lumpur (Hey, I’ve seen the photos) or Singapore. The city’s noticeable ethnic diversity also calls into question America’s status as the land of immigrants. Maybe it’s only post-9/11 pessimism, but it certainly that seems that Canada is where the world is going for a new start.
On a warm August afternoon, I find myself in an unexpected place: the beach. Vancouver is the home of English Bay Beach. It’s not exactly Maui, sure. But for the 49th parallel, it was darn close to great. Up to my armpits in the Pacific Ocean, I can look back on Vancouver with the cyclists, joggers and skaters passing by on the generous paths that circle the city, and imagine this Canadian nexus of coolness taking its place among the most forward-looking cities in the world. Those of us who live on the West Coast have a kind of chauvinism that doesn’t go much beyond San Francisco, Portland and Seattle. But the 2010 Olympics coming to Vancouver, it’s a city ready for its close-up.
If the global-warming doomsayers are right, Canada might someday soon enter the temperate zone while the U.S. turns into a vast desert (of course, with rising sea levels, that might be cold solace for doomed Vancouver). If that comes to pass, put-upon Canadians won’t have to put up with the snide attitudes of their loud, vainglorious southern neighbor, and the new border problem may no longer be Arizona and Texas, but Montana and Washington state. If that comes to pass, we can no longer claim that Mother Nature doesn’t have a sense of vindictive irony.
As for my Carlotta, she’s loved her time in Canada and thrills to seeing French on the signage everywhere. But her chatter of faraway lands and exotic experiences has not ebbed. I was indeed shocked to hear her say, to paraphrase the Clash, that she’s so bored with the USA. I often share that sentiment, but I’ve tried to keep my feeling of suffocation of living in constantly narcissistic America from my children. Canada, I’m afraid, offers precious little relief for those eager to take a break from being American. Still I felt a certain small triumph when I overheard Carlotta on her cell phone say to a friend back in Santa Cruz, “Canada is way more different from America than I thought it would be.” I’m sure any passing Canadian would have felt the same exhilaration.