Charles Demers: How to (truly) love Vancouver

Learning to love Vancouver is all about knowing how to embrace its ugliness

March 11, 2016

By Charles Demers / Photo: Shutterstock

Absolute statements are never, ever helpful—with the exception of the one I just employed, as well as the following: no one who has ever used the phrase “World Class City” truly loves Vancouver. They will tell you that they do; they will tell you that it’s gorgeous here, that there are beautiful mountains and three different places to get porchetta. But “World Class City” is only ever invoked with the same sort of panic that accompanies the words “he’s a good provider” when used to paper over marital lovelessness. “Vancouver is a World Class City . . .” is spoken aloud, but the “. . . if only,” though silent, is louder. People describe the city as World Class the same way fat kids were told that we had nice faces.

The assumption is that cities are loved and hated in simple ways, in the same mode as people love or hate The Big Bang Theory or dill pickles. Years back, Winnipeg indie rockers The Weakerthans made number 12 on an American website’s list of “18 kiss-off songs to cities” for their track “One Great City!,” better known by its one-line refrain, “I hate Winnipeg.” I told a friend, a Weakerthans superfan, about their inclusion on the list, and he was predictably livid, sputtering: “But that’s one of the greatest love letters ever written to a city!” He was right. Like an inversion of Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.”, the Weakerthans’ track is about the irony marbled through any deep feeling for a place.

It’s a long Canadian tradition, hating the places that we love and loving the places that we hate. But as it turns out, rather than loving and hating cities in the way we love and hate TV shows or pickled vegetables, we feel for them in the way we do for people—which is to say that our sentiments are complicated, and that sometimes the deepest feelings of frustration and occasionally even hatred are reserved for those we love most deeply. Some cities are aloof, beautiful, and inaccessible lovers, like Paris; others are pocked and charming in that “My Funny Valentine” way, like Berlin. It’s not always clear what kind of beloved Vancouver is. Physically exhilarating, obviously, but a little unsophisticated, alternately braggadocious and insecure; nursing an early, perhaps ongoing trauma that they aren’t ready to talk about, though the visible scars seem to be healing nicely (with some surgical help).

And easily taken for granted as a beloved, too, if we’re being honest. I grew up in Vancouver, with two generations on my mother’s side born here before me, and to me it never seemed like a real place. But as I got a little older, I started to love the city—at first defensively, overcompensating, but then with the kind thorough-going affection that allows for immense disappointment, flashes of anger, loving resignation to certain flaws
and limitations. It’s still the only place I’ve ever lived.

We can handle a little irony in our love letters to this city—something more like the Weakerthans wrought, though the World Class cheerleaders take Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl” as their model. As the city’s own, Trooper, told us, even while enjoining us to have a good time, “the sun can’t shine every day.”

Charles Demers is a local comedian, writer, and the author of Vancouver Special

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