Here’s a brand new “What it’s like living here” essay from Liam Volke in Victoria, British Columbia. (He’s Gabrielle Volke’s brother—staunch readers will remember her lovely interview with dg, published in October, 2010, at NC.) Liam is freshly graduated from the University of Victoria’s Theatre program with a BFA in Acting. He lives and acts and writes poetry in Victoria. His poetry has been published in the CBC Poetry Anthology, 2007. He blogs at The Tower of Babble.
What It’s Like Living Here
from Liam Volke in Victoria, British Columbia
University of Victoria
In Victoria, among the aged flower children and retired English folk, a river of young blood surges through its heart and pools around a green ring.
In your first year as a student, life was wrapped within and around the Ring Road of the university campus. You saw maple leaves for the first time. You tasted independence: in Rez, with other under-aged drinkers. You lost your first love. Here is where you thought you’d reinvent yourself.
The classes for your Acting major are all in the Fine Arts section of the campus, a modest trio of white, brown and grey brick buildings facing a paved circular courtyard with a single evergreen in the centre. This section seems quarantined from the rest, placed outside the Ring (inside is the stronghold of Sciences and Humanities). “Theatre? We have a theatre?!” they say. We’re a big deal abroad, you tell yourself.
Most of the trees here keep their leaves, so at first you suspected you were in paradise. The rain was a welcome change from the snow that browns and greys with the dust and gravel of hometown Calgary. You told yourself you would always love the rain. You told yourself a lot of things.
This place is lumpy. Streets rise and fall through the rolling neighbourhoods. The houses are fearless, splashed with bright yellows, greens, reds, purples even; the monochromatic craze of suburbia never quite made it here. Prayer flags hang from porches, and front lawns are lined with roses, irises, tulips, rhododendrons, and daffodils.
Some of the streets are lined with cherry trees, which you always forget about until late March, when they all erupt in bouquets of pink and white. Arbutuses lean over the rocky beaches. Their brown bark peels like paper, revealing smooth, sandy-orange trunks. Gary Oaks twist and writhe straight out of a German fairy tale and onto the hillsides. They droop overhead, and even dip menacingly in front of you. But their climbable branches remind you of your tree-dwelling ancestors.
Amid this fecundity, there are cracked streets with no sidewalks at all. And you can find free junk along the curb: a desk, a box of books, a small trampoline, a dresser, a keyboard, a couch, a set of broken computers, closet doors, the shell of a kitchen sink counter—you could furnish your home without paying a dime. It’s not recommended, though.
The beauty and strangeness of this place is amplified by the double decker buses. The first time you rode on one, you looked down through the window, sneering at the little people far below on the sidewalk.
Traveling downtown is like probing the rings of a tree: each block closer to the waterfront takes you further into the past. The buildings don’t lord it over you with the cold majesty of the steel and glass giants of your own hometown. In fact, the buildings here are quite stumpy. But what they lack in height they make up for in age, and character. For downtown Victoria, “modern” means Art Deco from the 1920’s.
Here, just about everyone has a yoga mat. The only thing more common than yoga mats are local coffee shops. In Victoria, the citizens are quite fond of their joe and their sun salutations.
On the corner of View Street, a man sits cross-legged, holding a cardboard sign with “Spare Change For Weed” painted on it. At the corner of Fort Street, another man stands–no, bounces slightly, at the knees–holding out his ball cap, a forlorn, beggarly dance to amuse the misers that pass by. Outside the 7-Eleven, at the corner of Johnson and Douglas, there’s another man, squatting, leaning against the streetlight, making a G-shape with his body, as he gives a great gap-toothed yawn. His face is as wrinkled as the island’s bedrock, and the hair on his balding head is matted. You nod. He nods. You suspect that some people have lived on Victoria’s streets for years, hitchhikers and vagrants who’ve fled the gnawing freeze of prairie winters for Victoria’s temperate climate. Some of them are kids younger than you, with dreadlocks and studded jean jackets, who camp out in alcoves between stores. The only group more ephemeral than you are the tourists who claim the city during summertime.
In Victoria, the busker-to-passersby ratio here is absurdly high: sax players, cellists, guitarists. One artist makes a flawless facsimile of a Vermeer out of chalk. The bronze statue of a cowgirl on the waterfront winks at an unsuspecting girl who gawks a moment too long. The girl jumps, then checks to see if anybody else noticed. This human statue is covered from head to toe in bronze paint, with pigtails turned up like Pippi Longstocking. Only her winking green eyes betray her status as a sentient being.
Walking down Government Street, it’s easy to feel optimistic. There is something genteel and polished about this street that harkens back to the Age of Progress. Gorgeous granite buildings house The Irish Times and the Bard & Banker pubs, Munro’s Books, a cigar shop, The Soda Shoppe, countless boutiques, including a hat store, a military antique store, and a store dedicated entirely, all-year round, to Christmas. The street opens up to the harbour front where you can’t help but relate to those 19th century builders and entrepreneurs, guided by the unwavering belief in the triumphant march of Modernity and the undying glory of Empire, with their World Fairs, pearly street-lamps lit by newly harnessed electricity, hot-air balloons and Belles-Époques. There are parts of this city that never stopped believing in such things.
At the foot of Government Street lounges the Empress Hotel, its red-brick face bearded in ivy, a hub of colonial luxury and a counterpart to the earnest granite walls and oxidized, pistachio-green copper domes of the Parliament Building just across the street, the splendid heart of our now post-colonial government. Both buildings meet at the corner and face the traffic of the inner harbour, where cruise ships lumber in and announce themselves like a boorish guest. The smell of fried food wafts up from vendors on the piers, where private boats huddle beneath a city of masts, cables and multi-coloured flags. Across the water a huge Delta hotel rises like a fortress on the shores of Esquimalt, a modern answer to the Empress. Captain George Vancouver, as golden as a pharaoh, perches on top of the Parliament Building and watches over it all: the harbour on his left, the rows of squat office buildings and apartments on his right; the lush neighbourhoods beyond them; the green mountains beyond those, up island. And while Vancouver keeps vigil up where you imagine must be the best view in town, his former captain, the more well-known James Cook, stands along the walkway above the inner harbour. Cook is a humbler black bronze, with a white streak of dried bird shit running down his face. And instead of welcoming the boats into the harbour, Cook’s gaze is fixed on the Empress across the street, making sure it doesn’t go anywhere. So far, it hasn’t.
Past the Parliament Building, at the end of Dallas Road, you come to Ogden Point. After that, there is no more. You have reached the edge, where dead kelp dries in the sun, and waves slurp and gurgle against the stone face of the breakwater. Beyond the steely Juan de Fuca Strait, the Olympic Mountains float above silver clouds, as if the upper air was crystallized into rock. You imagine they can never be reached.
When you first see Victoria, it gives the distinct impression that the city planner was a four-year-old, doodling the roads. With a crayon. On a napkin. With his foot. Such is the tangle you found yourself in when first trying to navigate the roads; roads that bend and morph into other roads without warning. Even the university campus doesn’t believe in straight lines. People settled here first, and civilization trundled along after. But there is something organic about the city’s pattern. It’s the kind of place that makes itself up as it goes along, like any imperfectly human settlement should. Not unlike you, in fact.