I’m back home now, after a vacation there recently. That feeling was still there, as powerful as ever.
Hiraeth, the Welsh call it. The nostalgia and yearning for the lost places of your past, a homesickness for a time you can no longer return to. Still, stubbornly, I remain attached to those places I have been, those I have known, and the times and places I have known them all in. The memories from so long ago crept back in, hiding around so many corners and along the streets, peeking out through windows and doors, looking for me as I looked for them.
I don’t let go of these things. I’ve always been an emotional hoarder. The truth is, I treasure all the moments I had and shared here, all of the good, and all of the sad and ugly moments too. The ordinary and the mundane, the magical and absurd, the illuminating and the heartbreaking. Each moment played it’s role in bringing me to my most honest self.
Let’s start at the beginning, or very close to it. The west end, downtown Vancouver. I lived in the Biltmore, the beautiful old apartment building that still stands at the corner of Barclay and Thurlow. I loved my apartment with the faded hardwood floors and large windows, and all the quaint details. The tiny stained glass window, the faded grey mosaic tile on the bathroom floor, the wooden ironing board that folded into the wall. The French door with a glass knob, the built-in cabinet in the kitchen that smelled like an old church when you opened it, stale wax and polished wood. Even the little fuse panel, with its tiny glass fuses lined up neatly like candy in a box. These charming little details that stayed with me, long after I had left the place.
The Biltmore was managed by a mother-daughter team, Mary and Cynthia, whose family owned the building. Both no-nonsense and staunch Greek women, Mary and Cynthia expected their tenants to respect the rules and space, and had limited patience for reckless shenanigans on the premises. I liked Mary and Cynthia. They were always kind to me, and would often stop me in the hallway for pleasant small talk. Once, Mary shyly asked me, “Do you love Jesus?” I had never really thought about it, so I thought about it in that moment. Jesus, to my understanding, was a carpenter and prophet, a hippie who spread the message of love and acceptance. I concluded that I had no grudge with Jesus. “Yes, sure”, I answered. Mary beamed.
Living in the buzz of downtown Vancouver was a trip. My ground floor bedroom window was about six feet from the sidewalk, and at night I would be lulled to sleep by the dull sounds of traffic and sirens outside my window, and the sharp bumpy clatter of metal wheels on cement as the homeless men pushed their shopping carts filled with their modest possessions up the sidewalk. In the summertime, bright ribbons of drunken laughter and the ebbing fragments of song from car radios floated in through the open window along with the heat. For one week in July, the soft pop of fireworks over English Bay.
I had a really great next door neighbour for awhile. Serge was a handsome Italian man I met after he left a bouquet of flowers outside my door as an apology for getting loud with the music the night before. We became fast friends, and started hanging out together at Joe Fortes down the block to sip cocktails. Coming in late after a night of drinking, Serge would get to work in the kitchen, whipping up a meal of pasta and scampi for us. We would sit and eat at my small kitchen table, watching the streets fall silent as the last of the west end stragglers headed home. Serge was a bon vivant and a ladies man, and I never was able to confirm with him what he did for a living. It didn’t matter though. I missed his presence and his friendship when he finally moved out, tired of Cynthia’s rules.
Less delightful as neighbours were the crackheads who lived above me, who would disturb the building with their late-night parties. They did not last long under Cynthia’s watch.They were promptly tossed with an emergency eviction notice, but not before breaking every ornament on the Christmas tree carefully set up in the lobby.
Across the street from the Biltmore was Nelson Park, a popular spot where west end residents could take their dogs to socialize, and groups of homeless youth could catch a nap. Weekly, I would take the shortcut through the park to head up to Davie Street to do my grocery shopping at the SuperValu. I enjoyed walking this route, past the lovely old character buildings and the local characters. Cutting back through the park, I often stopped to chat with the old man who sat in the grass in the shade by the gravel path. He had an old grey German shepherd with a grey muzzle beside him, that would accept the pats and affection offered by those who walked by with a stoic dignity. “What’s in the bags?” the old man would ask me. “Fruit and vegetables!” was my usual answer. “Those’ll keep you slim and beautiful, which y’already are!” he would cackle with a big grin, his eyes scrunching up into happy little crescents.
Davie Street was a vibrant community with a charming, eclectic, and seedy mix of coffee shops, dusty markets that sold flowers and vegetables and Chinese candy, sex shops with mannequins wearing feather boas displayed in the windows, old brick apartment buildings, high-rises, and small restaurants. The West Valley market was a local favourite, with it’s colourful bins of fruit and vegetables lined up along the sidewalk, displayed under a black awning. The restaurants were humble, but a good meal was always guaranteed. The Luxy Bistro, with it’s subtle vibe of an Italian restaurant in a 1980’s Adrian Lyne film, for pasta and wine. Taki’s Taverna for Greek food, where Taki himself would often sit with customers and generously pour out shot after shot of ouzo. Random for the best squash soup and late-night suppers, a cozy dim place where you could watch the dozens of bright orange goldfish dart lazily to and fro in their large tank. All this, plus dollar stores, health food stores, places for payday loans, and English Bay and its beaches when you followed the street all the way down to the end. It was a vibrant little urban oasis that offered something for everyone, and always had a certain kind of buzz and gritty magic, even on rainy days.
It rains a lot in Vancouver, so much in the wintertime. The thick clouds roll in for weeks at a time, dense greys of pewter and flannel, and the air tastes like wet cotton. The sounds of tires hissing on wet asphalt and the guttering of water flowing though downspouts and splashing into drains fills your head as you walk down the street. Sometimes the endless rain would bring down my spirits. Once a week, I would walk up to the tanning salon on Davie Street for a good dose of heliotherapy. A few minutes of the warm UV rays would give me an immediate mental boost after so many endless wet days, and I would step back out into the cold and damp with a slight golden glow, happy and relaxed. A tan line under my jeans in January in Vancouver, my whimsical little secret.
I also liked the rain too, for the comfort it could create. The big bronze radiator in my living room would emit a dull clang, filling the space with a gentle heat that would strip the day of its dampness. Sitting at my kitchen table, I would watch the rain come down in sheets against the window as I sketched, a cup of tea beside me, Holly McNarland in the stereo, and my cat trying to sit on the sketch pad. It’s this feeling, of that coziness and peace on a rainy day in Vancouver in my old apartment, that I like to go to even now as I paint. It takes me back to that time and place where I first began to create in earnest, when the creation process was so new. It’s pretty easy to call forth this feeling whenever I need it, so deeply embedded in my brain it has become. On an early winter morning on the east coast, Holly McNarland can still rouse me to the easel.
When I moved away from the Biltmore, I had to leave behind all the little details that had charmed me and kept me company over the years I lived there. I remember walking around the empty space one last time, saying goodbye to all the lovely bits and pieces I had grown attached to. Running my fingers along the lead seams of the tiny stained glass window, the glass doorknob, the warm radiator, looking out one last time at the views down Thurlow and Barclay from the living room windows. Over the years, my easel had left faint scratches in the hardwood floor in the living room. My easel was no longer there, but I stood in front of the scratches, in the small area I had stood in for years, teaching myself how to paint. I remember crying then. Crying because I was leaving a part of myself behind, and because I felt like my apartment was saying goodbye to me too. I still miss that apartment. I wonder who lives there now, and if they love it as much as I did.
Vancouver, I still love you, even though you’re different now. The west end has changed over the years, and so many of these little businesses are gone, the owners longer able to afford the skyrocketing rents. But more than a few still stay, and so do all of the memories I had there. There are a few more high-rises now, and some more upscale markets. Nelson Park now has a large community flower garden, which is lovely. The sidewalks are crowded with more people and the traffic is thicker and slower. The Biltmore is no longer painted soft pink; now it’s a soft grey-green. Everything changes, but the feeling stays the same.
Hiraeth, a valuable tool for a sentimental artist.