The buzz is building in Vancouver and Whistler with less than a fortnight to go before the Olympic Winter Games 2010. Ever since we arrived, I have been wondering how the visitors from the UK will see my new home city. Will they be disappointed? Will they think the friendliness too phoney? Here’s the 10 things I think you ought to know before you board the plane…
1 It’s ugly. OK, not Downtown, which is full of achingly beautiful soaring skyscrapers and historical buildings, or the sweeping majesty of Canada Place, built to reflect the sails of the thousands of ships that sailed into port here. But outside the beating heart of Downtown, you’ll find roads lined with urban sprawl, strip malls, big boxy shops and warehouses. The key is to lift your eyes, now and then, and glimpse the mountains that line the horizon wherever you go.
2 People really are that nice. You may think this is some sort of effort laid on for the Olympics, but you have to remember these people are Canadians. If they see you looking lost or worried, they’ll ask you if you need help. Total strangers are happy to help you with the complexities of travel on the SkyTrain. Let them – this isn’t the Tube.
3 It’s really this clean all the time. I’m sure there are people who’ve been asked to tidy up especially for the Olympics, but it won’t need a concerted effort to make the place look smart, because generally speaking the city is a clean place. People put their trash in the garbage, to use the local terminology. And if you put your hand on a piece on gum on the SkyTrain, I’ll bet one of the visitors put it there.
4 No matter what you might have heard, pot is still illegal in British Columbia. You won’t find it being handed out for free on the streets. Smoke it in public, or try to buy or sell it and you WILL be arrested. OK, you MIGHT be arrested… if the officer doesn’t have anything better to do.
5 You can only buy alcohol in a Liquor Store. It can be annoying, if you’re doing your weekly food shopping and then have to go to an entirely different shop to buy a bottle of wine and some beer, but make the effort. BC wines are worth trying, and the Granville Island beers are terrific. Just don’t try drinking any of them in a public place. The cop that can’t be bothered to arrest you for smoking pot might suddenly get all conscientious and arrest you for public drinking instead. Then bust you for the pot you have in your pocket.
6 The Outdoors is more important than the Indoors. Sure, people like their houses to be nice, and they spend plenty of time and money in The Home Depot (the world’s largest Home Improvement Retailer) but they call it “Super, Natural British Columbia” for a reason. That might explain the ugliness in point 1, because everyone’s too busy skiing, cycling, walking the miles of trails and watching the wildlife to worry about town planning and the state of their front yard.
7 People like being Canadian – if you’re here for the Olympics, you may be impressed by the support for Team Canada, but the odds are those flags are up all year round. All those special clothes in red and white, with Canada on the front? We all had them already. Even our deckchairs have maple leaves on them. If it stands still long enough, someone will put a maple leaf on it. It’s not a “We’re better than you” kind of thing, everyone’s just so happy to be Canadian, they want the world to know.
8 When we say “multicultural society” we really mean it. Canadians come in all skin tones, sizes and accents, so don’t make assumptions based on the way someone talks. You’ll know they’re Canadian – there’ll be a maple leaf on something they’re wearing if you look hard enough. It’s best not to bring your assumptions at all – that beardie weirdie guy strolling along the pavement towards you wearing scruffy jeans, sneakers and a hoodie may not be homeless; he could be a businessman, a father, or a college graduate. Casual is the ONLY way to dress over here. So, dress how you like and no one will complain (this guarantee does not cover your spouse or children).
9 Food. This may be North America, but don’t believe that you are condemned to a choice between a famous burger chain or a famous fried chicken franchise. If you understood point 8 about the multicultural society, then you’ll understand there’s a whole world of food to choose from, usually on the same street. It’s all great, all fresh, usually reasonably priced, and the restaurant staff are just thrilled to meet you.
10 There’s no snow. OK, this may not be a huge surprise, since I hear the news has mentioned it a couple of times. But really, Vancouver is not an icy wasteland populated by lumberjacks and Mounties. We’ve got a temperate climate not unlike that of the UK, with a stunning range of cultural pioneers, pushing the boundaries of art, theatre, film and music for more than one hundred years. So you are more likely to get rained on than snowed in. Do what the Vancouverites do; wear a light fleece and a tee shirt, put up with the damp and never carry an umbrella.
And the one thing you should be expecting – it’s a spectacular, beautiful city. Try this link for a great piece of music and a taste of what’s to come. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_xMz2SnSWS4