Posts Tagged ‘Calgary’

Last Thursday afternoon, when I was not wandering downtown Calgary trying to soak in the atmosphere, most of my time was spent at the Glenbow Museum. I have heard of the Glenbow for years, but that was my first visit. I found the museum disappointing, mainly because it spread itself too thin with its exhibits.

I suppose that a diversity of exhibits is a wise move for attracting the public. However, you can immediately see the problem I am talking about simply by listing the exhibits and permanent displays that the museum was hosting when I was there. It includes “Modernist Art from the Glenbow Collection;” “Many Faces, Many Paths: Art of Asia;” “Treasures of the Mineral World;” “Warriors: A Global Journey Through Five Centuries;” “Kent Monkman: The Triumph of Mischief;” “The Nude in Canadian Art, 1920-1950;” “Where Symbols Meet: A Celebration of West African Achievement;” “Mavericks: An Incorrigible History of Alberta;” “The Blackfoot Gallery;” “The Four Directions Gallery” (an overview of four First Nations cultures), and a exhibit of five Blackfoot shirts taken to England in the 19th Century.

Possibly, I have missed a few. Even so, most of these are enormously large topics, and to reduce them to a single gallery cannot possibly do them justice, no matter how well-meaning or intense the effort. The Modernist and Warrior exhibits especially suffered from too large a scope. Usually, the exhibits that seemed most successful to me were those with limited scopes, such as the Nudes exhibit, although perhaps I might have felt that such exhibits suffered same superficiality if I had known more about their subjects.

However, my disappointment was greatest with the First Nations exhibits, which I had especially wanted to see.

The Four Directions Gallery, with its attempt to do cross-cultural comparisons of First Nations group, seemed especially prone to superficiality. Canadian First Nations share a similar experience in relation to the European settlement, but, otherwise, they are so divergent that comparing them makes far less sense than comparing, say, French and Polish culture.

In the case of the Northwest Coast, which I know best, the gallery gave no indication of the unrivaled richness of the cultures. To make matters worse, it emphasized Kwakwaka’wakw artifacts, almost entirely ignoring the three other major cultural groupings of the coast – an organizing principle that seems to have been applied for convenience rather than because it is a natural one.

Yet, even so, granted that the Kwakwaka’wakw and the Inuit both have drums and canoes, are the associations of these artifacts the same in both cultures? The Four Directions Gallery gives visitors no way of knowing, and, given the size of the room, the cultural comparison attempted can only seem lacking.

By far the strongest exhibit is The Blackfoot Gallery. However, it, too, suffers problems – although different ones from the rest of the museum. On one level, the Blackfoot Gallery was a well-meaning attempt to give a sympathetic portrayal of a First Nations culture by working with its descendants. Yet, even so, the exhibit persisted in dividing words in Nitsitapiisinni (Blackfoot) into syllables separated by hyphens, a 19th Century habit that has the effect of making the language seem simple and childish.

Another problem was that having modern Blackfoot organize the exhibit often gave the impression of propaganda, emphasizing those points that modern industrial culture could find admirable and glossing over less attractive subjects.

This impression was especially strong in the seating area where Nitsitapiisinni values were listed. Naturally, all the values were admirable ones, and I was left feeling that I had encountered the Noble Savage myth in modern, mutated form.

Perhaps such propaganda is necessary to counter the negative impressions that persisted in the 20th Century and continue in the media today, but I would much rather have a warts and all portrait of the culture than an exalted or a debased one. The First Nations of the Northwest Coast do not seem reluctant to admit that their ancestors, for all their achievements, were rigidly stratified and dealt in slaves, and I can only hope that the Nitsitapiisinni can achieve the same balance someday in talking about their own past. Meanwhile, the attitude weakened what was otherwise a genuinely informative exhibit.

Even with these deficiencies, the Glenbow Museum is mentally stimulating, and I will certainly return the next time I am in Calgary. Yet I went away wondering if the need to appeal to modern sensibilities inevitably means that museums have to be superficial and leave those wanting deeper information unsatisfied.

I don’t think so. Despite its faults, the Blackfoot Gallery has moments of real depth that could be a model for the rest of the Glenbow. But, too often, the impression I took away was that education was taking a distant second place to entertainment.

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Tracing one warm line through a land so wild and savage,
And make a Northwest Passage to the sea.

– Stan Rogers

I maintain that you can never know a city until you walk around it and use its sidewalks and public transit. Last year, I didn’t get to see much of Calgary outside of the conference hotel for COSSFest (the Calgary Open Source Solutions Festival), so I was determined to correct my oversight this year, at least a bit. I arrived the day before the conference, and no sooner checked in to the hotel and dropped my luggage than I headed off to catch the C-Train.

The first thing I learned was that Calgary takes a different view of rapid transit than the Vancouver region. In Vancouver, space is scarce, so elevated transit lines, which are both more expensive and environmentally less sound are favored. By contrast, Calgary opted for a mostly ground level system. It It seems to work at least as well as Vancouver’s. And while the highways were crowded enough at rush hour, so were the C-Train cars.

Moreover, Calgary is more systematic about rapid transit. Instead of Vancouver’s confusing system of zones, which can challenge even experienced riders (okay, I mean it can challenge me), Calgary has a flat rate of $2.75 for the entire system. Similarly, where the Vancouver region has designed many of its recent stages as modern art that leaves passengers on the platform in the middle of a wind-tunnel, Calgary provides an area where people can huddle inside until the train comes. The difference, I suppose, is that Vancouver rarely gets truly cold, while Calgary does so regularly. Having been caught in a snow storm on the C-Train, I can testify that shelter is a necessity, not a frill.

The trip downtown was quick and non-eventful, although I noted that my hotel was not far from the zoo. I also observed that Calgary seems to have a thorough system of urban trails, and that people use them. The rivers the C-Train crossed were still frozen along sheltered shore lines, and every now and then the currents would flash an icy green whose like I have never quite seen anywhere else.

Getting off at the Olympic Plaza station, I quickly found my way to the Glenbow Museum for a whirlwind tour (which I plan to write about in the near future). Then, with the station as my anchor, I started looping further away in one block intervals in all directions.

My impression is that Calgary is a brasher city than Vancouver, more entrepreneurial where Vancouver is more activist and artistic. The Olympic advertising excess that left half of Vancouver disgusted (including me) would hardly rate a notice in Calgary; the casual ads I saw on the C-Train and on the streets were blaring by Vancouver standards. Perhaps that is why their Winter Olympics had more support than ours, although the difference in the times is probably responsible as well.

Another difference is that, while Vancouver sometimes seems cursed to be a forest of skyscrapers covered in blue-green glass, Calgary is more adventurous (or insecure) architecturally. Every 20th and 21st Century school of architecture seems represented in Calgary’s downtown. The result could be called a high-rise version of strip malls, with all the different styles tending to cancel each other out, and only an impression of disorder remaining.

This impression is strengthened by the fact that Calgary preserves relative low rises far more often than Vancouver does. I suppose it can afford to preserve its history because space is not at premium, whereas, in Vancouver, the fact that development is squeezed into a couple of peninsulas means that preservation is only practical in limited areas.

But, whatever the reason, the establishing shots you see of Calgary as just another high-rise business center are real only at a distance. When you are actually walking the streets, the difference in building heights is very noticeable. On some streets, you almost get the impression when looking up that Calgary is a much smaller city than it really is, despite the crowds on the sidewalks

I reasoned – correctly – that Calgary would have a rush hour, so I kept an eye out for a place to eat. In Vancouver, in the distance I walked, I could have found a dozen ethnic restaurants, each of which would offer a superb meal in a mellow setting. As a former Calgarian said to me, “Vancouver is one big restaurant.”

In Calgary, though, the ethnic restaurants downtown were less upscale in Vancouver (at least the ones I saw). Most upscale restaurants seem to offer some variant of modern cuisine, and to be overpriced by Vancouver standards. Or such was my impression – I’ll have to verify it on later trips. On this trip, wanting more than deVille Luxury Coffee and Pastries could provide, I settled on the Deli at Art Center, which had a casual atmosphere and reasonable food not that much more expensive than its equivalent would have been in Vancouver.

True to my regional conditioning, I scurried back to the hotel at the first signs of a snow flurry, and unfortunately, I am unlikely to have more time to explore this trip. So I still cannot claim with any accuracy that I know Calgary. All I can really say is that I’ve traced a few paths through it. Most of greater Calgary remains unknown to me.

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I am just back from COSSFest, a free software event held in Calgary, Canada. You can read about the conference on my Linux Pro Magazine blog at:


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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.

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It is 10:30PM, and I’m sitting in my hotel room in Calgary. Half an hour ago, I left Bootlegger’s in the north-east corner of the city, where I drank more cider than was good for me and where I watched Aaron Seigo of KDE doing karaoke with “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues,” and mugging with local developer David Crosby to “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman.” I would have stayed longer to cap off an ejoyable day at COSSFest, except that I have one more talk and panel tomorrow, and I want to get a workout in the morning. So, here I am in my room, reflecting on the love-hate relationship I have with hotel rooms.

On the one hand, a hotel room represents a holiday. So long as I’m staying here, I have none of my normal responsibilities, all the more so because I am travelling alone. I have none of my normal work; although I suppose that the talks I’m giving are part of it, they are such a change that I don’t really associate them with my usual routine. I have no meals to cook, no garbage to take out, and I can be as tidy or as messy as I want to (which means that I usually start by putting everything away, and end gradually strewing my belongings in piles around the room). For a few days, I am living without responsibilities, and, while I don’t regret any of my personal obligations, being free of them still evokes a sudden sense of freedom.

On the other hand, I keep thinking of Harlan Ellison’s comment on hotel rooms: “Why did you come so far to be alone?” The truth is, whenever I am traveling solo, I sooner or later start to feel isolated. Don’t get me wrong – the people at the conference are all interesting people, free and open source software geeks of a sort I understand and deal with regularly. But I am away from my partner and my pets, and I am not meeting up with some of the people I might have in Calgary. So, at the same time I feel liberated, I also feel mildly melancholy.

It’s not, you understand, existentially melancholy, or self-absorbed. It’s more the wistful, thoughtful sort – the kind that drives me to write a blog entry about it in order to describe and understand it.

Besides, the older I get, the more I get interested in complicated emotional states, whether in me or in someone else. Or maybe I’ve just had enough to drink to be in a pseudo-profound mood that I’ll disavow in the morning.

Probably, though, it’s more than that. Ultimately, there is a vast indifference in hotel rooms. I am only camping in this room very briefly, and nothing and no one in the hotel cares if I linger or go. The paintings on the wall and the furniture are blandly unobtrusive, and there is a ridiculous extra bed in the room to remind me that the place was neither designed or decorated with me in mind.

This impersonality is at the core of both the feelings my hotel stay provokes, and makes the ambiguity that much more precarious. Probably, it is just as well that I am only here for another thirty-six hours, or else I would fall into one mood or the other, and neither, I think, is particularly healthy.

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