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The Canadian border crossing guards will fail to wish you a happy birthday even though it’s right there in bold print on your damn passport.

A demoralizing interview at the Peace Arch Border Crossing.

“Passport, please.  Why are you traveling to Canada, sir?”

“Just visiting.”

“Visiting whom?”

“Oh.  Just…you know, Vancouver.”

“You’re travelling by yourself, and you don’t know anyone in Vancouver?”

“…that’s right, yeah.”

“And what do you plan on doing while there?”

“Just, you know, hang around.  Nothing specific, really.  Gonna do some shopping, have some food.  You know.”

“You’re completely alone, and you have no idea what you’re doing.”

“You’re kind of making me feel bad.  Could I just come spend some money in your country for a little bit?  Pleeease?”

I couldn’t tell if the look that border crossing guard gave me had more pity or suspicion in it, but she finally did permit me to come spend some money in her country for a little bit, and I decided not to think about it anymore.

What I couldn’t even begin to try to explain to the humorless border crossing guard was why I’d just driven by myself for 6 hours to go spend aimless time in Vancouver alone.

If the West Coast were an album, then to me Vancouver would be the awesome hidden bonus track at the end.  (If we were to extend this metaphor [and we probably shouldn’t] then Tiajana/San Diego would be the breezy opener, L.A. would be the big hit dance single, San Francisco would be the high-concept artsy song, Sacramento would be filler, and Seattle would be the dreamy closing number.)

Thing is, once you get up past Everett, that last stretch of I-5 feels like the very edge of civilization in North America.  Just mountains to your right, ocean to your left, woods everywhere in between, and road signs advertising a few towns you can’t even see from the freeway.  Sedro-Woolley.  Bellingham.  Blaine.  It’s hard to shake the feeling that Canada’a actually a myth, and  you’re going to be gradually consumed by the horizon.  It just feels final.

The 5 just past Mount Vernon.

But then, with almost no warning, you see a sign displaying border wait times, and then hardly a minute later you’re in line to cross over.  And a few stony crossing-guard stares later, as if through a portal, you’re speeding through suburban Vancouver — which is basically suburban anywhere in America — except for the signs that tell you how many kilometers it is to the city centre.

It is always a shock how big that city center is, no matter how many times I’ve been.  I’m never expecting this coda of a metropolis perched right above the U.S. to be so teeming and cosmopolitan.  It’s an extraordinary surprise every single time.  Just looking out my hotel window down on Broadway at night, there’re more people and cars and lights than any street scene in Portland could ever hold.  (If some of these photos don’t make the city look all that teeming, it’s because they were taken on what turned out to be Victoria Day, when all of the Canadians use their day off work to go visit America, apparently.)

Adding to this special-bonus feeling is a disconnection from the rest of Canada and the Northwest.  It’s thousands of miles from the original Upper & Lower Canada (southern Quebec & southeastern Ontario), there are virtually no French Canadians, and in fact you’re far, far more likely to encounter someone speaking Chinese or Korean.

Vancouver often gets lumped in with Seattle and Portland in conversation, but it’s very young — even by West Coast standards — with most of the older homes just outside the central business district looking like they were built in the 50s, and the historical architecture that anchors Seattle and Portland to the context of the rest of the continent is largely absent here.  And for a Pacific Northwest city, wood siding is curiously rare.  Most of the homes are brick or stucco.

And while it may not be as Canadian as Toronto or Montreal, it’s still way too Canadian for an outsider not to notice.  There are plenty of neighborhoods where, on the surface, you could just be in Capitol Hill or the Pearl, but then you scratch at the surface, and…there’s Canada.

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This is the big hit country song they were playing on the radio.  Apparently it’s Canada’s answer to “Gimme that Girl,” and other such schlocky country odes to redneck ideals of femininity.   Sounds ordinary at first, and this Dean Brody fellow could almost be Brad Paisley if you squint.  But then he starts singing and…”snowstorms and Gordon Lightfoot.”  Canada.

So that’s the Vancouver mystique for an American like me.  It’s like this wonderful, bustling, urbane paradise at the edge of the world where nothing matters anymore.  There is nothing I like more than to lock myself in a room at the top of a tall hotel downtown, and look out he window and see a world in all directions that has no direct significance to me.  The best part of a vacation for me isn’t as much the experience of a different place itself as it is the experience of a new beginning, that I can be or do anyone or anything I want.

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I really love the windows on this building.

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I love the way the little man on the walk signs is angled so it looks like he’s going for a casual stroll.

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City hall.

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This is fairly representative of what most of the residential buildings in the close-in neighborhoods look like.  And that wrought-iron fence on the balconies is awesome.

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Fancy condos below my hotel window.  There are more condos here than any other place I’ve ever been.

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Scotiabank!  One of the tallest buildings in the city.  Vancouver has a dense but surprisingly low skyline due to height restrictions meant to maintain the mountain view.  Much less populous Calgary actually has three skyscrapers that are taller than the tallest building in Vancouver– which is, characteristic of the city’s youth, not an office tower, but condos.

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Yaletown, where all of the cute yuppie bars are.

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Better check that those scallops are up-to-date on their continuing education before you order them.

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I have a little minseries here on the Japadog estaablishment.  It just seems like such a horrible idea.

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Canada’s most popular cider.  Pretty fucking tasty, and way more alcoholic than you’re expecting.

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The most crudely drawn outline of North America I have ever seen.

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