A, B, C...anada, June 29 - July 8
A is for Arriving, in Vancouver, along a curling trail through leafy suburban promenades and, at last, over a bridge and into a looming mass of silver-grey skyscrapers and indistinct forms. I’m downtown, opposite two sex shops, a cannabis dispensary, and a few dozen snarling beggars; not exactly a spot that epitomizes Vancouver’s squeaky-clean most-livable-city image. Still, there’s a certain welcoming ambience in the air. Two of the panhandlers, who in any case I have no gripes with, play banjos and have a kitten with them on a leash. I wander past poutine trucks and hulking drug stores.
B is the brisk detection of Burgers and Beers at a repurposed old brick cube by the waterfront, before exploring Gastown, where tourists (like me) teem, faux-flowers dangling attractively in hanging baskets from every lamp post, and the old steam-clock piping melodic jets of vapour every half hour.
C is Catching the bus, the next morning, to Stanley Park. I explore its myriad glorious views and lush green corridors, wandering its outdoor First Nations museums, where a Salish man greets me, shows me his artworks, and his selfies with Jack Black. The exhibit is a strange simulacra, but earnest and illuminating. I hear a man play Pachobel on the erdhu. I eat choc-mint ice cream.
D is Downtown again, a little further south than where I started, to the purportedly bohemian and thriving Southern parts of Main street (“SoMa”). In earnest, nothing I spot compels me too much, but one place in particular drew me down this way.
Its focus begins with E – exotica – though I’m as intrigued by its very existence as much as by the artifacts and cultural curios within. The place is called “Alexander Lamb’s Exotic World,” and it’s an antiques-shop-cum-wunderkammer-cum-oddball-DIY-museum, where Mexican demon masks with porcupine-quill beards sit alongside stuffed lizards, giant butterflies, tribal carvings, obscure paintings and countless other weird objects. Beaitiful, complex, haunting harmonium music seeps out of ancient speakers. Framed bugs are accompanied by their names and descriptions (save for one gigantic spiny brown feller, whose plaque reads “your guess is as good as mine.”) The tentative, blonde-bearded Alexander (Sandy for short) chats to me briefly, and his eyes light up when I seem genuinely interested in demon masks and Martin Denny. I purchase the latter’s “Quiet Village” on dusty wax, and head to a nearby bar to half-heartedly watch some of the World Cup.
F is for Flags. Red maple leaves billowing against clear blue skies. It’s Canada Day when I leave Vancouver. A stopover in the tiny town of Hope affords me a trip to the annual vintage car fair, but I don’t linger long. G is the Grandeur of the Rocky Mountains is I snake through the steep slopes, the dizzying valleys, the snowy peaks and the barren plains: first to Kamloops, where I spend a night, then onwards to Banff.
H is for Hackers, the incredible ‘90s cybercrime film I watch on the hotel TV. Gleefully dated and ridiculous, it’s also a cornucopia of fashion inspiration: plenty of PVC, goggles, leather, mesh, and Angelina Jolie with pixie cut and turquoise Quiksilver rashvest.
I is for imbibing local beers in Banff, and finishing the six-pack the next morning at Calgary airport, where a life-sized chocolate bull and infinite boot-and-hat ornaments remind you that the world-famous Calgary Stampede is imminent. J is for Jerky – both the salmon jerky by the boarding gate, its scents wafting through the air, and plane landing: the craft descends with uncommon urgency, and fourhundredthousand kilograms of plane richochet off the runway, bouncing, flinging us up out of us seats until our dutifully worn seatbelts snap us back into them (and repeat). We escape into Toronto airport, mostly unscathed.
K is for Kin – there’s my cousin, T, standing in the arrivals lounge with a carton of Labatt’s Blue beer. It’s been years since I saw his grin. As if beer wasn’t enough, he supplies a lift to the condo I’ll be briefly occupying, opposite Dundas square with its bright, scrolling LED screens. The next day brings reunions and laughs with T, T’s Canadian spouse, M, and their young children, C and B.
L is for loitering; in the bright, historic, art-and-caffeine-laden Kensington Market area, Chinatown, and prepossessing Queen Street West.
M is for MELBOURNE SKA ORCHESTRA, who are playing in Dundas Square that night (ha!) and Music Africa, who are presenting the quite remarkable “AFROFEST” at Woodbine Park near Lake Ontario this weekend. So the next day, I head exactly there, in the hot sun. I drink from a fresh machete-cut coconut, buy a burnt CD megamix; I hear a slew of fantastic African DJs like DJ BIGGIE (Ethiopia) and DJ YUNG JAH (Ghana) and experience the excellent UMURISHO (Burundi), and AMARA KANTE (Guinea). The park glows with dancing limbs, waxprint clothing, countless polychrome flags, grass and drums and lemonade.
N is for Niagra Falls: I’d never realized, but turns out it’s surprisingly close to Toronto. Turns out it’s also surrounded by ridiculous wax museums and themed restaurants laden with giant animals and sphinxes, but that’s cool. I put on a silly pink poncho and board a big-little boat which glides into the dense mist, convincingly simulating the experience of getting rained on. O is for Only eating veggie burgers for 48 hours.
P is for parlez vous francais??? I haven’t seriously attempted speaking French for a couple of years at least. But as I stop over in Montreal and begin ordering a coffee and a sandwich, it becomes apparent I might have to. Uhhh, vous connaissez, la chose –
Q is for Quebec City, a town I’ve barely ever even thought about. But here I am. French is everywhere. The air is both summery and crisp. The buildings here in the Old Town are predictably antiquated. Some tall and castle-like, some crooked and shrinking, all humble and smiling. It’s Le Festival d’éte de Quebec (Summer Festival) right now; many of the flower-lined streets are closed to traffic, filled instead with grinning, singing pedestrians.
R is for the rumble of brass I hear up the hill as I munch a crepe; outside, the Quebecois “Grüv’n Brass” ensemble toot, boom, warble and bash joyously on the pavement.
S is for the alluring Synthesizer I hear emanating from an unknown Somewhere: I try to follow it, get lost in a labyrinth of Streets, finally discover its source over a hill, accidentally attempt to enter via a guarded military tunnel, and after finally heading in, get kicked out for not having a festival wristband.
T is for TROMBONE SHORTY, a remarkable singer and brass player who’s performing for free with a, loud, impressive – if somewhat hammy/cheesy – backing band in the town square. His powerful croon and outlandish airwave manipulation send the crowd into fits. The band bops and shreds behind him.
U for Ululation as Shorty finishes the set with a ridiculous, unfathomably high note that undulates its way into the far reaches of space.
V is for violin, which I hear floating through the air the next day. Turns out it’s coming from SERYN, a band from Denton, Texas. Though their sound is pretty bland (a sort of technically palatable indie-compost-heap comprising bits of Mumford and Sons, Explosions in the Sky and everything in between), they are nevertheless sufficiently tight-as-heck, dynamic, and laced with occasional “neat bits” to keep me watching til the end. W is for the Winding streets I follow thereafter, buying records and perusing ancient mouldering bookshops, eventually finding myself at a venue called Le Cercle where a band called THE FRANKLIN ELECTRIC are playing. Like Seryn, they’re lacking any risk-taking attitude, though their songs seem to have at least a bit of shape and are less like something you’d spread on whole-wheat toast. Dense with mellow Rhodes, finger-picked guitar, thinly veiled “hooks,” half-assed ambient interludes, good singing and the cheap but undeniably effective gimmick of performing a track unplugged in the middle of the audience, it manages to be a pretty entertaining show.
X is for the Xanadu of eastern Canada, which is what Quebec City currently feels like. It’s a premature, naïve assessment, but it’s based on lived evidence to which I currently have no counter.
Y is for the live Yoga demonstration I pass on the way home, past an immense crowd now gathered in the town square to watch ALEX NEVSKY, and for Yes, I will buy this large quantity of double-strength Montreal ale from the corner store right before trying to write everything down.
Z is for Zig-zagging (the route I take back to the hotel), zest (the thing that people are exuding in this town, and the thing I feel reciprocally) and Zs, the things I’m off to go get a few of before the Zeppelin of tomorrow takes flight.