Friday, February 12, 2010

An Expat's Guide to the Vancouver Olympics

by Sara

Hello, world. We've been expecting you. It's good to see you here, milling around Robson Street in your uniforms and badges, whooshing here and there in what must be a million Official Olympic GM-donated cars, making guesses as to where in town they've hidden the fire tower for the Olympic Torch (it's still a big secret, but the local news station thinks they may have found it last night), and generally making it impossible for locals to get a restaurant reservation or cross a bridge. Still, we've got you to thank for the new convention center and Seabus ferry, the Canada Line subway that finally(!!) directly connects the airport to downtown, and that shiny new four-lane freeway that's taken half an hour off what used to be a treacherous winding trip two-lane up to Whistler.

So, y'no, thanks.

I got here a little ahead of you -- six years ahead, in fact, as a native California transplant who was looking for something a bit more like freedom back in 2003. This city has been preparing for this week almost exactly as long as I've been here. And I arrived already knowing what Vancouver was in for, because this isn't my first Games. I'm an Olympics veteran who did her time as a full-time paid staff writer for the Los Angeles Summer Olympics back in 1984. So the energy gathering around town right now is very familiar, mostly in a sweet, good way.

But Vancouver is a peculiar place (even by LA standards, which is saying something). It does things its own strange and subtle ways -- ways that the media hordes will only begin to be noticing, and will have no chance in hell of figuring out, by the time these Games are over. There's going to be plenty of coverage of the sports events, but I'm wagering you won't see or hear much on how these Games look on the ground to those of us who are going about our daily lives around and amid the party -- not least because so much about Vancouver outright defies so many American assumptions about life, the universe, and everything. That's the piece I'll be reporting on, with daily (or nearly-daily) dispatches on assorted facets of life in Olympicsland.

To kick this off, let me start by telling you a bit about my city.

Somewhere in your mind's eye, you're already conjuring totem poles and eagles, cruise ships and orcas, grizzlies and Mounties, and the misty interplay between mountains and sea and endless dark woods that makes our landscape the stuff of the North American frontier mythos. British Columbia is twice the size of California, with a population that's about the size of Washington State's. Over half the population lives in the Lower Mainland, as we call Greater Vancouver. In the American imagination, BC is the last outpost, the edge of the continent, the end of the West, and the beginning of everything that lies Out There, beyond the boundaries of civilization.

You probably know already that Vancouver routinely ranks at the top of everybody's "most liveable cities on earth" lists (Vienna and Melbourne are our chief rivals). You may have heard that we're an incredibly green city -- heavy on transit, light on freeways, an electrical grid that's almost entirely hydro-powered, and a food supply that's uniquely dependent on local sources. You may even know that we're one of the most densely urban and cosmopolitan cities in North America, with huge populations of Chinese, South Asians, Koreans, South Africans, Iranians, and...well, you name it. (The French, who give everybody in eastern Canada such political fits, are simply lost in the mix here. You want to get along, you learn Cantonese, which is the mother tongue of fully one-quarter of the city.)

Vancouver is the place where laconic, easy-going West Coast style meets hyperpolite Anglo-Canadian discipline meets an almost thoughtlessly casual multiculturalism meets a completely un-self-conscious, not-the-least-bit-ironic obsession with the common good. It's lush English gardens, savory Asian food, cautious Scots bankers, impeccable Mountie law enforcement, and gentle but effective First Nations justice.

And it's a vast landscape of contradictions. Alongside its legendary green ethos, you find forests clear-cut by the mile and salmon farms that breed parasites that are destroying the wild salmon stocks. Alongside its social progressivism, you sometimes find incredible official foot-dragging when it comes to domestic crimes against women and children. Alongside its strong First Nations culture -- perhaps the most vibrant surviving native communities still extant in North America -- you find odd moments of inexplicable racism. Alongside its extreme pacifism, there's hockey.

Still, the thing I love best about my Canadian neighbors is that they try very seriously to do the right thing by each other -- more seriously than Americans have for a long, long time. I'd like to hope some of that comes through your TV screen over the next two and a half weeks, because it's something we could stand to relearn from our friendly neighbors to the north (along with how to run a sound banking system). I'll do my part here each day to help the message along.

And if there's something you see during the next couple weeks of saturation coverage that you find weird, wonderful, disturbing, or simply curious, drop me a comment or a note, and I'll see what I can do to shed some light on the subject.

Speaking of light: the Olympic torch is moving through my neighborhood this morning, just a few streets over. I'll be wandering over later to see it. A group of drummers from the Skwxwú7mesh (just say "Squamish"; nobody really knows how you pronounce that seven thing) tribe has set up over in the village square downhill from the house; I can hear their drums and songs filtering up through the tall trees as I write this. More about the torch tomorrow.

Fun Vancouver Fact: Stanley Park is one of the largest urban parks in North America, about 10% larger than New York's Central Park. It was dedicated in 1888 by (and named for) Lord Stanley, who also gifted Canadian hockey with the Stanley Cup.

Crossposted from Alternet. Originally published Wednesday evening.

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