Aussie Rules Vacation
My whirlwind vacation this year took me to Pelee Island with my birdwatching girlfriend for a few days, then to Vancouver for a week with my son and his family. How’s that for culture clash? From an idyllic, rural, nature-saturated community of 200 souls in the middle of Lake Erie, to the sprawling hegemony of Greater Vancouver
My 13 year old godson had a hankering to snowboard Whistler so I brought him along. We caught a very early Air Canada flight out of Pearson one Saturday, and Matthew met us at Vancouver International. It wasn’t long before we were rolling along the Sea to Sky Highway toward the mountains. The route is under frenetic construction to convert it to four lanes in time for the 2010 Olympics—with some tricky sections still to negotiate. Signs warn Falling Rock—NO STOPPING.
Good deals on suites and chalets in Whistler this time of year, but what surprised me was the abundance of Australian kids (20-somethings mostly) doing jobs that used to be done by Canucks. These Aussie youths were everywhere in BC, but Whistler was saturated with them. Apparently short term work visas are easy to get for Aussies and the left coast is a prime destination for them, many of whom are avid ski bums and serious boarders.
You wouldn’t get me up that mountain, and you need a telescope to watch the skiers. It was actually -4 degrees on top while a fairly balmy plus 8 at the chalets level. The boys made a day of it on the slopes and came back sunburned with aching calves. BC is one province where you can snow ski at Whistler and water ski in the Okanagan the same day, if you have a mind to do so.
In Vancouver we stayed in a hotel in the backpacking and club district. Students and young travellers on the move from all over, always the ubiquitous Australians. And no shortage of street people begging on the corners while the denizens of million dollar condos stroll by nonchalantly.
Vancouver is a beautiful city and a mecca of sorts for entrepreneurs and the socially-challenged alike. All big cities have a curious mix of squalor and abundance, but Vancouver has it in spades. The city is undergoing a face-lift for the upcoming winter Olympics and construction started early on Granville Street outside our hotel window. A few miles east along Hastings, you can witness of shopping market of poverty and the rest of the strata of humanity.
The last time I hitchhiked here was 1980. My marriage broke apart and I fled west in a futile attempt to find myself on the road one last time. I arrived in Vancouver early one October morning after getting a long overnight ride from Keremeos in the interior (don’t let anyone tell you there aren`t deserts in Canada, complete with tumbleweeds and desperados), after picking apples for a few weeks in Kelowna.
I promptly and luckily got a job working on a sculpture going up at a new children`s hospital and got fired a couple of days later when it was discovered I didn`t have a union card and a sheet metal worker complained. For a few nights, at least, I went from sleeping on the floor of a crowded trailer in Kelowna with a dozen other fruitpickers, to living in a four star hotel in downtown Vancouver.
Two things happened when I got to Vancouver this time. Gord Campbell and the ruling BC Liberals had just won another majority, and the Vancouver Canucks hockey team got bounced out of the playoffs by the Chicago Black Hawks. The Liberal’s victory was really no surprise since the province has always been polarized between the left and right. “Liberal” is really a misnomer, since this party swings to the right side of the metronome, except for the end run that Campbell pulled on the Greens and NDP by introducing a carbon tax last year, a neat rouse which appears to pay lip-service to the environmentalists and didn’t detract from his pro-business appeal.
The ‘Nucks, on the other hand, blew their best opportunity to win the Stanley Cup in many years—and the last chance for Matts Sundin to get himself a ring. In my opinion, Vancouver gave this series away. It was really theirs to lose and that’s what they did. How else do you explain 7 goals on Luongo in the final game. Fortunately their loss allowed me to experience the city without the crass carnival of Stanley Cup fever that would have infused every waking moment with hype and jingoism.
On the whole, I found the “laid-back” descriptor still fit my perception of most Vancouverites. People are generally friendlier than their compatriots in Hogtown; there’s a Starbucks around every corner, sometimes on opposite corners, and it’s not unusual to get a sniff of BC bud permeating the evening air.
This is a place where a young man or woman can make a stand, destroy themselves, or make a fortune if they’re so inclined. In an Irish pub I got talking to a man of Sikh descent who had come to Vancouver via New Jersey and Oklahoma. He told me that he and his wife own a high-end lighting shop in the posh quadrant of Kitsilano and he’d decided to take his receiver out for a bit of a bender.
Across the street a young man from Montreal stopped me on my way into the Mega Pizza. “Two dollars,” he asks. “That’s all I need to get a room for $12.” He tells me he’s waiting to get a construction job that should be starting any day. This is not an unusual, half the panhandlers are waiting for construction jobs. But this man is grinding his teeth, and he has distant chemical look in his eyes. I pass on throwing any money into his cap and tell him I’ll think about it. When I return with my pizza he’s no longer in sight. He’s either gone to get the room, or to fetch a $10 piece of crack—probably the latter.
But I didn’t see any Aussies begging. The ones I met had a penchant for lager rather than hard drugs, and they had a plan and idea about where they were going and what they wanted to do along the way.. Mostly I admired their sense of verve and adventure, something I think is lacking in Canadians these days. Most new Canadians never see much of their province let along the rest of the country.
I have an ex-pat friend who makes his home in Australia now and we email from time to time. He’s always reading the Canadian papers online, and I remember being embarrassed when he mentioned the case of the Tim Horton’s server in London, Ont. who was fired for giving free a timbit to a toddler. “How typically Canadian,” he snorted to me in an email. “That story tells you so much about Canadians and their anxieties.”
My friend was right. The miserly policies of our proto-Canadian donut chain made us look like fools before the world. And remember when Dave Winfield of the Yankees was charged with animal cruelty for killing a sea gull with a throw to the infield?—on the bounce yet! We gotta loosen up folks!
My transplanted friend goes on: “If I ever move back to the farm, what I will miss most about Australia is the people, all my friends and acquaintances here who are just so much more open and generous and unconflicted…I read today that a woman in Laval, Quebec was fined $420 for failing to use, and then refusing to use when ordered to, the handrail on the escalator from the subway. In Australia there usually is no handrail, and if there were, someone would be sliding down it.”
Harry Rudolfs has worked as a dishwasher, apprentice mechanic, editor, trucker, foreign correspondent and taxi driver. He's written hundreds of articles for North American and European journals and newspapers, including features for the Ottawa Citizen, Toronto Life and CBC radio.
With over 30 years experience in the trucking industry he's hauled cars, steel, lumber, chemicals, auto parts and general freight as well as B-trains. He holds an honours BA in creative writing and humanities, summa cum laude. All posts by Harry Rudolfs