Cambridge to Vancouver

A little over a month ago I moved from Cambridge, England, to Vancouver, British Columbia. It’s the first time I’ve lived outside of the UK – in fact it’s the first time I’ve been outside of the UK for more than about a week.

Cambridge is a beautiful city where I’d lived for almost ten years, and I was emotional to leave it. Centuries-old buildings stud the city centre, some framed by greens as if on display, but many more overlooking the streets with no fanfare: that’s just how old some buildings are. Bicycles encrust every possible surface, sometimes stacked atop one another. Cows graze on lazy commons. The streets wind and meet one another at not-quite right-angles, and it is easy to get lost (the first time I visited Cambridge, I tried to walk to the city centre but missed it and trekked some distance until I realised my mistake). Along these twisting streets packed buses shudder awkwardly, with barely enough room to turn. In the summer light sparkles on the water beneath the bridges and beer-drinkers cast long, warm shadows on the grass by riverside pubs. The sky is vast, the surrounding fenland utterly flat; nothing seems to exist except the city and the sky.

It’s hard to describe the city in general terms without falling into cliché. There are other memories, less clichéd, but they are specific to me. The specific pubs and coffee shops I frequented (The CB2 Bistro with its book-lined walls, the Cambridge Blue with its dizzying selection of ales); the people I knew; milestones of my life that I passed. Cambridge was the place where I spent most of my 20s, and what I leave behind is as much a stage of my life as it is a city.

The first time I’d visited Vancouver I’d stayed in Yaletown, on the peninsula that constitutes the city’s densely-populated downtown area. It was there that I formed my first impression of the city: glass high-rises, bobbing water-taxis, futuristic skytrains, and Vancouverites who walk briskly with a cup of coffee in one hand and an umbrella in the other. Since moving here, I’ve rarely been back to the city centre, but I’ve begun to form an impression of the city as seen from one of its neighbourhoods.

The streets are long and perfectly straight, running exactly east-west and north-south, outdoing even the ancient Roman road-builders in their defiance of the rise and fall of the land. For a North American city, especially a recent one, this is nothing unusual, but my British sense of place is not used to it. It makes the city feel as if it goes on forever. There are shops and cafes, and then different shops and cafes, and if you walk far enough you might be somewhere where the buildings look different, but there won’t have been a visible point of transition. It is an attractive city, but one almost without landmarks.

Except, of course, for the fingers of water which reach inland, separating North Vancouver from the city proper and the downtown area from the neighbourhoods. Roads grudgingly depart from their grids to weave around these or span them in high multi-lane bridges; ferries go to and fro; the Skytrain burrows underneath. From one of the curving roads one can walk down stone steps to a narrow strip of beach, overlooked by miniature modern mansions whose residents pay vast prices for the view. Gritty sands taper into the water, covered by flocks of squabbling ravens through which occasional seagulls stride like stoic supervisors. Large grey rocks and sometimes tree trunks, almost up against the lowest steps, mark the high tide mark. On the right, half-hidden by the curve of the beach, the skyscrapers of the downtown area gleam in pastel colours in the light of the setting sun. On the left, container ships lie moored in the inlet, lit up well before dusk like floating shards of city, their size against the more distant buildings playing tricks on one’s sense of scale. Across the inlet, the streets of North Vancouver make their own stubborn grid on the rising land–and beyond them the mountains rise into the clouds.

Coming from Cambridge, with its huge sky and featureless horizon, I find my gaze drawn to the mountains whenever they are visible. They seem to occupy an intermediate world: beyond the furthest part of the place I feel I am in, the city, and yet not part of the infinitely distant backdrop that is the sky. They are three-dimensional objects, but not part of my world. They rise green and grey and white above everything, flashing briefly through gaps in buildings or standing proud and solid when seen across a park or the water. They process row on row, each gap between two peaks revealing another peak, half-faded by the haze of the distance. Their appearance changes day to day, in a way I had not anticipated: sometimes entirely hidden by a sky-covering bowl of white; sometimes repeatedly veiled and unveiled by a less uniform mist; sometimes with their heads or waists surrounded by low clouds which gain their own three-dimensionality by being superimposed on these vast protuberances of the Earth.

Against this vista, life has settled into a comfortable routine. I have gotten to know my immediate neighbourhood and rarely had reason to leave it. I am not used to living in a city of neighbourhoods. Within walking distance of my flat in Cambridge were a few pubs, a combined fish and chip shop/Chinese takeaway, and an overpriced corner grocery store: for anything else, I would take the bus or cycle into the town centre. Within walking distance of my new home in Vancouver are several coffee shops (both chain and independent); several independent bookstores (including one specialist sf+f bookstore!); many restaurants representing a huge selection of world cuisines (although, alas, not fish and chips); a large supermarket; a liquor store (because supermarkets here don’t sell alcohol); a board games shop; a comic shop; a truly remarkable number of medicinal cannabis dispensaries; and something that claims to be a pub but that I’m not convinced meets a proper English definition.

The neighbourhood is picturesque on the rare days when it is not raining. The houses come in an eclectic variety of shapes and colours, as if to rebel against the uniformity of the grid system. Already small, many of them are divided into duplexes or triplexes. The people are less likely to be seen hurrying with umbrella in one hand and takeaway coffee in the other, and more likely to be cycling along one of the cycle-only roads or walking a bedraggled dog. Everyone with whom I have interacted has been polite and friendly.

Many of the restaurants have outdoor seating, currently covered or abandoned to the damp, but a hint that the neighbourhood will feel quite different in the summer. Everything I have said here is an initial impression, and there is much more for me to see.

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