VANCOUVER, B.C. (Tribune News Service) — I’m pretty sure I did Vancouver wrong.
Granted, I tried to chug down a complex, changing metropolis in just three days, which is a ridiculously — and, let’s be honest, insultingly — short period of time. In a misguided attempt at comprehensiveness, I turned my trip — my first since Canada reopened its border to Americans on Aug. 9 after a long, COVID-induced closure — into an overstuffed sandwich, letting choice bits slide off the plate and onto the floor. The best things I saw were unplanned accidents. If I’d gone a little slower and tried to do less, I probably would’ve found more.
So, in the spirit of regret and contrition, I’m giving my past self some advice — and I’m going to give it out loud, so you may profit from my mistakes and misfortunes.
1. Get yourself a transit card, called a Compass Card, right away
You can get them at major transit hubs (SkyTrain stations, etc.) or at a London Drugs store or at 7-Eleven. Start taking the buses and trains right away. You’ll save money, see more of the city and, in the long run, save yourself some time. (But, of course, reserve the right to a Lyft or Uber now and then.)
2. Go to Robson Square and stay there, quietly and unobtrusively, for a while
The vigil at Robson Square, which has since made headlines around the world, began on May 28, when Vancouver artist Tamara Bell (Haida) placed 215 pairs of children’s shoes on the steps of Vancouver Art Gallery to memorialize 215 Indigenous children whose unmarked mass grave had been discovered at a Catholic-run residential school in Kamloops, B.C.
That discovery, and those shoes, have unlatched a deep, ongoing national conversation about the horrors of residential schools and the history of colonialism in Canada. (Where in the U.S. you might see “Black Lives Matter” on T-shirts or sidewalks, in Vancouver you’ll see “Every Child Matters” — no relation to the “All Lives Matter” subversion of BLM.) Those stone steps on Robson Square, which used to be the steps of a courthouse, have become an ongoing vigil where people show up, talk, drum, cry or stand silently. It’s not a “fun” tourist diversion for gawking and photos — but, at the moment, is arguably one of the most important things to see in Vancouver.
3. Spend more time on Commercial Drive
At first, this neighborhood will confuse you with its pleasantly startling mix of cuisines, ethnicities and income brackets — that’s a good thing. In just a few blocks, you’ll pass places advertising injera, sushi, tandoori, mezcal, Italian coffee, samosas, Cuban sandwiches and Vietnamese food both upscale and down-home. Upscale pet accessory stores live next to well-worn used bookshops; some people on the street look like they have a lot of money, others look like they don’t have much.
4. Don’t skip the Museum of Anthropology (MOA) at University of British Columbia
Yes, it looks dauntingly far away on the map, but you won’t regret it. The MOA is like the Burke Museum times a thousand (including window-walls where you can watch conservators at work) and its collection of First Nations artwork is like nothing you’ve ever seen: the mammoth, storytelling house posts; the startling expressions on the carved-wood faces; the intricately made, rowboat-size “house dishes,” used to serve food and gifts at potlatches, some of them linked like train cars. And works by contemporary First Nations artists stand alongside the objects from other centuries, striking the idea that the collection is “artifacts” from “vanished” cultures.
5. Spend more time in Chinatown
That’s another neighborhood where a lot is happening. Stop by Massy Books (229 E. Georgia St.), which is lovely, dense, intelligently curated and Indigenous-owned. Hang around long enough for someone to open the secret door to its rare books collection, then go upstairs to see their current gallery exhibition. Also take a peek at Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. If you’re lucky, Joyce Tan will be there giving lessons on the guzheng (a 21-string zither) and you’ll learn how to pluck “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” on an unfamiliar instrument tuned to a pentatonic scale.
6. Walk the streets between West End and Yaletown in the evenings
That zone can feel a little generic, another downtown PaneraLand, during the day — though there are a few damn good places to eat, like the Japanese izakaya Guu with Garlic (1698 Robson St.) — but it has a different alchemy at night. At worst, you’ll see the hubbub of life in an unfamiliar city. At best, you’ll find something you couldn’t have planned, like that b-boy/b-girl cypher you stumbled across outside the doors to the Provincial Courthouse of British Columbia, in an underground plaza just beneath Robson Square.
7. Give yourself more than three days
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