Victoria, BC

I was born in a small city at the bottom tip of a very large island off the coast of Vancouver. The island cradles the angle of the BC coastline and shelters Vancouver neatly from the North Pacific, its upper tip pointing North-West and stretching half-way to Alaska. The bottom tip points South-East towards Seattle, pressing down into the US border.

This is the tip that Victoria occupies. Head in most directions and you’ll hit water: rough, rocky beaches and points cluttered with driftwood and seaweed and dead or dying jellyfish. The water is dark and troubled, or flat and white-silver, or sometimes blue, depending on the weather. When it’s silver, everything just floats in it, like objects without a background, the Port Angeles Mountains across the water hovering above everything like they’re seated in the sky. When it’s blue it’s so bright your forehead hurts from squinting, and the day echoes with the honks of Canada geese and the screeches of seagulls. Little one-man sailboats drift between the little islands. When it’s dark, you go dark too.

Victoria is a said to be a town for the newly wed or the nearly dead, and there are indeed plenty of young families, and legions of elderly. Kids who grow up here tend to move off the island to make their careers, then come back when they’re ready to settle and breed. But there’s a university here and uni students make up much of the demographic, populating the cafes and the bars, and the festivals, gigs and events when they happen. Students tend go to gravitate towards U Vic when Vancouver seems too big and overwhelming, and Victoria, in comparison, seems just the right size.

The only way off is by ferry or seaplane. I take a ferry to get there, overwhelmed by big Vancouver, craving warm company. It departs from a town just South of Vancouver and arrives at another just North of Victoria. There are buses for the gaps. The lady I’m staying with insists I take a coach that plugs those gaps: leaves right from Vancouver, rides the ferry and drops you off in central Victoria. Though it’s simpler this way, it’s also more expensive, but I have learnt the hazards of disagreeing with her, so I fall to supplication and wait for escape.

The harbour the ferry leaves from is silver. Not white-silver – just pure, flat silver, with the boats, the buoys, the port, the ships and the docks forming little interruptions in the vastness of it. Seals chase red salmon, which leap whole from the water. On deck, it is appropriately quiet, any sound sliding in thick and barely noticed. The whole world is silver. I go below to eat and sit close to a window I can see it from.

It turns green through the pass. The gap between Vancouver Island and the mainland is crowded by a complicated mess of islands crowded with pinetrees, which the ferry weaves through, narrowly skirting the U.S. Border. Little houses occasionally pepper gaps in the trees, with little docks jutting out from the edges. I have a cigarette with my coffee in a designated smoking area and start to feel OK again.

It’s funny what I remember from taking this trip as a child. I remember the ferry but not the view. I remember how small and pathetic the kids’ area was. I remember the vending machines and the texture of the metal floor, the big steps at the doorways, the way the car deck treated sound. I remember the contrast between the bare metal and concrete down on the car deck – a crudeness it seemed passengers weren’t supposed to be a part of – and the soft seats and carpeting of the upper passenger decks. Later, on a Victorian beach, I will remember very clearly the smell of damp driftwood and salt, and it will wrench me all the way back there, to being a kid in Canada on the coast with my family – the beach cold and grey and complex with stones, instead of blue, clear and hot like I would later grow accustomed to.

I become fascinated by the docking process and very nearly miss my coach off the ferry, banging on the door just as the driver is starting up the engine. We motor off the ferry and down a highway, and eventually into the quiet little city of Victoria. The buildings are low and unfamiliar, I don’t know any of the street names. I find my way onto a city bus, then into Oak Bay, then to the street of the old friends of my mothers, who are expecting me. There is a small supermarket by the bus stop and a pedestrian crossing. Jeanne finds me at the mouth of the street and hugs me and helps me with my bags and everything’s just fine. We go inside and start cooking. Outside, what’s left of the day fades and after it does, and after food, we go for a walk around the neighbourhood and I look for clues that support the notion that I was born here; that this is where I’m from.

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