So what impressions does a life-long Vancouverite have of Calgary after a two day visit? Necessarily, a fragmented one. Two days is far too short a time to know any region well, and I spent much of my time in a conference hotel. I did venture out a few times, but karaoke bars and mid-level restaurants are much the same anywhere in the industrialized world. Still, I can no more stop myself gathering impressions than I can from breathing.
The first thing that struck me as I left the airport were the horizons. Unless you are in some place in the Fraser River delta like Richmond, the Vancouver area is bounded by mountains. Calgary, though, is not like that. The horizons seem impossibly long, the numerous hills never seeming tall enough to tailor them to a decent length. Off to the west, you can the jagged profile of the Rockies from many perspectives, but, otherwise, the horizons stretch in all directions, producing a stirring of agoraphobia in me.
The next impression was the air. It’s drier than on the coast, so that my mouth always felt dry, and perhaps a little dusty as well. It felt thinner than the air I’m used to as well – and, after all, I was several thousand feet higher than at home, a fact that made running harder for me than it would be at home. Over the couple of days of my stay, the wind always seemed to blowing, gusting much more regularly than I was used to. Once or twice, when the sun came out, I could feel an unaccustomed amount of ultra-violet on my skin, and the light seemed pale.
Since I’ve grown up in a rain forest (or, at least, where one used to be), the land looked dry and barren. Where I am used to infinite shades of green, Calgary had only one or two dark greens in the form of some evergreens. Everywhere else, the grass and weeds were a wan and tired brown, even though spring could hardly have been said to arrive, and the result was that the whole landscape seem washed out and barren to me. If I focused, I could see that the varieties of brown were just as numerous as the greens I knew, but they seemed faintly depressing to me. The birds were species that I largely couldn’t identify, includng a black and white species with a long tail that seemed to prefer huddling at the bottom of bushs and shrubs.
I did, however, see some seagulls, much to my surprise. They seemed as alien to the land as I was feeling.
I was in the northeast section of Calgary, which I am told is the rougher section of town, and has a larger proportion of immigrants than the rest of the city. And it’s true that when I went to a pho palace, most of the other diners were Vietnamese. Even so, the crowds seem strangely European to my Vancouver eye, making them seem not quite right in a way that puzzled me until I figured it out. I did see a few people of Chinese descent, but almost none of Indian. The majority were European, which is something I haven’t lived with since I was a child. I heard more French that I’m used to hearing (and saw more poutine being sold in restaurants and bars), and Russian and Polish once or twice, but the dominant voices were English Canadian, with an accent subtly different from Vancouver’s, whose characteristics I can’t quite articulate.
(I’m not suggesting that there is anything wrong with Calgary’s population mix – just that it was different from what I’m used to.)
I can’t speak about the rest of Calgary, but the northeast is one of those places that have sprung up on the edges of far too many cities in the last few decades: strip development which has been built in haste, only to decay in leisure, without a hint of urban planning or zoning. I saw chiropractor’s offices next to auto dealers, and light industry next to shopping malls. Here and there, a few large buildings were empty, no doubt victims of the recession. It’s not a place where people walk, although the C-Train rapid transit system ran through the middle of the small area that I spent my time in. It reminded me of parts of Richmond, or possibly Maple Ridge at home.
However, one thing made the strip development even uglier than that around Vancouver. Around Vancouver, space is at a premium, because the city is jammed up against the coast mountains, and starting to fill up. Under these conditions, even strip development around Vancouver is starting to go up. By contrast, in Calgary’s northeast, space is not an issue, and the sprawl is mostly low-rise and less orderly. It seems a wasteful and careless use of space, to someone used to Vancouver.
What else? Some random impressions: Most of the chain stores and brand names were the same as in Vancouver, although I saw one or two unfamiliar ones. Highways are called “trails,” in tribute to the old settler roads, and the airport has several sculptures with cowboy themes. Boots and cowboy hats suggest that the stereotypes of Calgary still have some basis in fact, but tend to be worn regularly only by men over sixty. People’s complexions seemed drier than they would be in Vancouver. The water, while it had a slight mineral tang, was generally drinkable from the tap, although I took care not to drink to much of it, just in case my intestinal fauna might revolt against it. There were more smokers, with the smell of their habit lingering around them, although the no-smoking laws seem as strict as in Vancouver.
I wish I could have fleshed out these impressions with visits to the rest of Calgary. Since I’ve already been invited back to COSSFest next year, maybe I’ll take an extra day or so and learn more. For now, I can say that Calgary is neither a city I warm to, like San Francisco or San Diego, nor a city that repels, like Indianapolis. As for whether I could learn to appreciate the prairie after living so many years in the rain forest, who knows? Maybe my impressions will tip one way or the other whenever I get a chance to see more.