In Which I Say Positive Things About Calgary

Sometimes, as I sit with a book in hand, whether in a chair at home or a seat on the train, immersed in some other world, I’ll look out the window and be startled. What am I doing here? It’s as if, in reverie, I’d somehow forgotten myself, my present, and when I’m pulled back from it I’m suddenly aware of all the change that has occurred.

It’s not just about the move this summer from Vancouver to Calgary. It’s an aggregation of changes, a decade’s worth, possibly even those of a lifetime that all come into focus at once, known, but familiar enough to be out of the line of sight, like the skin I’ve worn forever. whoa! where did those liver spots come from?

An ex-Calgarian in Vancouver recently wrote to me, on a social network: I can imagine it pissing you off in a mazillion ways–had expected to see regular expressions of displeasure on my news feed“.

I had expected that too. Those who know me well are aware of my willingness to express displeasure about displeasing things. Some people are troubled by that, and I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes I’ve expressed my displeasure with insufficient compassion. But an unfortunate number are also people who choose not to hear (or choose to derogate) my expressions of pleasure.

I neither love nor hate Calgary. But I haven’t really engaged with it much, either. Since I arrived at the end of June, I’ve read 26 books (and a digital heap of articles and essays), so you know I’m spending a lot of time in a chair tuned out of my immediate surroundings. There isn’t really anywhere in Calgary that I know I want to go, and my expeditions so far have revealed a great many strip malls, but no Haight-Ashburys.

We’ve been on a couple of hikes in Kananaskis, to a couple of movies, a play, a few readings, but I still really experience the city as an alien. I think I’d like to find some connection, but this isn’t the 70s and one doesn’t just go out and join an identity-based ghetto community any more. I suppose also that this is a different game when you’re 50, compared to when you’re 20, and it’s 2014. Though, as always, I’m highly resistant to behaving as I’m supposed to for my age.

Part of it, I admit, is the 21st century, globalised, corporatist, consumerist culture in which I am surrounded. It provides a lot of product but not much soul. That’s not unique to Calgary, of course, but in Vancouver I had adapted, found shrinking pockets of familiarity and comfort (or denial) that resembled what made Vancouver attractive to me in the first place. like a frog in a pot of water on the stove

Then there’s the sense of regression. When I was eighteen I ran screaming from the straight, married, suburban, prairie destiny that seemed the prescribed default, but here I am thirty years later, middle-aged, hetero-apparent, and existing in a suburban bungalow on the prairies. Calgary has enough superficial similarity to Winnipeg to make me wonder how far I made it. When I was young I had Greenwich Village in mind. How did I end up in Nebraska?

But, as they say: when in Rome, make lemonade.

Yes, there are some obvious drawbacks to Calgary, and I’ll probably complain about all of them at one time or another. But one doesn’t have to dig too deeply to come up with things to like, either. Here are my top ten, so far (not necessarily in order of importance):

1. Ratlessness

“Not necessarily in order of importance”. Except for this one. Ratlessness could occupy all ten positions on this list. I’ve previously documented my Vancouver rat trauma, so I won’t rehash it here, but I can’t tell you how nice it is to know that the number of rats within a hundred miles can be counted on one hand, and that there is a veritable Ministry of Rats mobilised as you read this assaulting them mercilessly.

2. Naheed Nenshi

naheed nenshiI haven’t actually met Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, but I’ve seen him at several events around town now, so I’ve been able to admire him from close proximity. He seems genuinely and widely liked in Calgary, and his popularity, as far as I can see, is entirely deserved. Calgary is lucky to have such a great mayor, and it surely says something positive about Calgarians that they elected him twice. The choices from which Vancouver will choose next week pale in comparison.


3. Sunlight

I’m looking forward to all the money I’m going to save on vitamin D supplements this winter. Goodbye SAD lamp!

4. C-Train

The first of Calgary’s two light-rail transit lines, known as the C-Train, went into service in 1981. I live near the University station on the northwest line. It was a great decision investing in this when Calgary did.

5. Drivers

When I drive here, rarely does anyone tailgate me and flash their lights because I’m only going 20k over the speed limit. In five months, I have seen no one honk, flip a bird, swear, or exhibit road rage behaviour at another driver. When you put your signal on to change lanes, people make room for you instead of speeding up to block you. Most drivers here seem to slow down to the “School Zone” speed limits. When I ride a bike (as I often do), people treat me with respect and pass me safely, I reciprocate, and we acknowledge each other amicably. They have photo radar and there’s no outcry about infringements about constitutionally-assured rights to be assholes. Once, at a dinner party, someone complained about terrible Calgary drivers, and I laughed. “You need to drive in Vancouver for a week,” I told them. “This place will seem like a roadway utopia.”

6. Weather variety

Food, friends, literature, lovers, music: I like the spice of life that variety provides. If you don’t like 2014-09-09athe weather in Calgary, wait a while. In a single week here, I’ve experienced everything from blazing heat to snow. Sure, it means you have to be flexible, but isn’t that a good mindset to have reinforced anyway? I can’t say I’m looking forward to winter here, but having experienced Winnipeg’s eight months of Arctic agony or Vancouver’s eight months of grey drizzle, the prospect of periodic Chinooks to break up the mundane is cheering.

7. Relative absence of west-coast passive-aggression

Okay, this one’s a bit more of an uncharitable slag of the old country than a celebration of the new one, but it’s kind of unavoidable. I tried for a long time to think otherwise, but I’ve travelled to at least 80 towns and cities in North America, and Vancouver is – contrary to its self-image – quite possibly the unfriendliest, or at least the most insincere. I’m not saying Calgary’s flawless, but the relative apparently sincere and unpretentious friendliness here is evident. The trick will be to do as the Romans (not the lemons), and to try not to bring with me what’s likely somewhat internalised and habitual.

8. Magpies

Yeah, there had to be birds on this list. There are others around too, but magpies in Calgary are like crows in Vancouver, but less annoying. So far.

9. Fire pits

One of my neighbours lit a fire in his backyard and I thought “Oh-oh, he better hope the cops don’t come after him.” Turns out it’s perfectly legal to have a fire pit in your backyard. No garbage- or yard waste-burning, but a little fire to entertain your friends or cook a piece of of meat is A-okay in Calgary, and it has the added benefit of smoking out the mosquitoes.

10. Freeways

And now for my surprise entry. Freeways in cities aren’t something I particularly admire or desire in any town: I’d rather see metropolitan areas – including this one – reduce the infrastructure of motordom, increase density and decrease sprawl, provide extensive transit, and grow communities of people and street life, not silos of parking lots. However, if you’re going to be a car-dependent culture by design, it seems  that intra-city freeways make it work better, if Calgary is sufficient evidence, despite the other problems they bring. Vancouverites like to be smug about our success in preventing the waterfront from being turned into a freeway, but we then failed to carry through with the rest of the thought, and instead you have people doing 80km/h on city arteries. That’s not such a problem here.

 And now, I shall go shovel the sidewalks again.


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