One evening in late May (ha; three entries in the last two days and I am no longer all that far behind) saw me making my way out to the Vancouver International Airport, for the first time since my wonderful Christmas trip to Alberta. In my head I was ticking off a check-list: the house was as clear as I had seen it in my three months of occupation – the floors swept, the bed made up properly, kitchen and bathroom both cleaned; yet again I went over the possible activities with which to fill the next week – hiking, biking, museum-visiting, shopping (shudder), exploring and, of course, eating. After six months in Canada, after six months of working and playing in Vancouver and – briefly, all too briefly – Alberta, I finally had a guest visiting, someone upon whom to lavish my now intimate knowledge of the city, whom I could dazzle with wondrous adventures, as demonstration for my gratitude. Victoria became a very good friend during those halcyonic Cambridge days and we had maintained fairly regular contact ever since I left to explore something beyond our shores and she, initially, remained in Cambridge to embark upon a doctorate (she is a very clever young lady). By now, Victoria had established an academic link to a superb research facility on the east coast of the US, not too far from Washington DC, and had recently completed her latest stint in the labs there. We had been in close correspondence for some time regarding the possibility of Vic journeying over to the west coast to visit Vancouver before heading back home to England and now, after delays, setbacks and rearrangments, I was on my way to meet her.
I always enjoy a visit to the airport; often I am excited because such a visit generally entails an adventure of some sort of which I am to be a part – as a casual example, my five most recent airport trips before that night in late May had carried me to and from Alberta, to Seattle from the UK and to and from Hamburg in Germany. Before Hamburg, my last airport adventure had been that glorious, patience-testing return to London from my big adventure in Latin America and the US. So it has been that airports have easily come to define excitement, possibility and freedom in my mind. They seem also to provoke strong emotions in others as well: whenever I visit an airport, I enjoy observing other people, much as Hugh Grant's character does at the outset of 'Love Actually' (I know; I include so few obvious allusions to culture and this is the example upon which I choose to alight?!). I like to watch their expressions and their actions, to see a couple – strangers in my eyes – sweep each other up into a tender, passionate embrace; I smile to look on as a family is reunited, actions ranging from gentle hugs to firm back-slapping, my expression mirrored upon the visages of so many. In such ways did I amuse myself whilst awaiting the arrival of my own special visitor.
Victoria was tired yet excited to be in Vancouver after a rather long journey, on the back of some diligent research activity at her US lab. After a quiet first night in which we spent only a little time catching up over a conversation at the communal table, we rose to a day filled with gentle sunshine. I was impressed and relieved to learn that Vic was feeling much refreshed after resting and was eager to see something of Vancouver immediately. We wandered out along sun-dappled street-sides, beneath gently swaying branches, besides whispering hedge-rows. Our feet led us down Broadway, our voices constant as we updated each other more extensively upon our recent lives and I endeavoured to explain a little of the streets along which we ventured and the sights that we passed. During our stroll, we came across a small cafe at which I have always wanted to call, but never found the opportunity: it is a whimsical, wooden building dominating the corner of a cross-street, hemmed in by shaded tree-trunks, attempting to burst forth with a scattering of seats and tables on the pavement outside the cosy interior. An echo of my childhood calls to me out of that scene, one that I have become convinced emanates from that wonderful television programme of my early youth, 'Sesame Street' (oh yes; I am rolling out the cultural big guns now). We ordered a couple of hot chocolates and settled down outside to give our wandering feet some respite.
Continuing on, after a time, we came to Granville Island, home to one of Vancouver's star attractions, that of its cavernous indoor market. We amused ourselves and each other, flitting from stall to stall, seeking out interesting snacks and tasty morsels. Victoria had travelled over to Vancouver with a lab-mate from the east coast, whose home is also here in the city: indeed, I had met Andrew and his lovely girlfriend, Kelsey, the previous evening at the airport. We now made arrangements to meet them both for an impromptu picnic lunch in Vanier Park, looking out towards the down-town core from a beach besides the market-place. Victoria and I arrived with grape-bread, fresh cherries and warm doughnuts to add to the abundant assortment collected together by our genial companions, finding them sitting upon a picnic rug beside a perplexing metallic sculpture that actually served to capture the moment that a drop of water hits a flat surface and splays out across it in all directions – I needed to read the description, but I could see the artist's intent upon having done so. We idled away the hours in conversation, surrounded by delicious food and a pleasant view that was, alas, darkening rather swiftly. After being brought a little more up to speed concerning Andrew's position at the lab in the US and the work that Kelsey does as a nurse at one of the local hospitals, whilst listening also to Vic elucidating upon some of the trials that had so disrupted our efforts to arrange our meeting here on the west coast, we packed up the remnants of our delightful picnic and departed from the greying beach scene.
I deposited Vic in the trusty, eager hands of Andrew and Kelsey for the afternoon, whilst I fulfilled a shift obligation at the restaurant, one that had been scheduled from before Vic and I had altered our dates one final time. This arrangement worked out rather well, as it gave Vic an opportunity to visit the Canadian lab at which Andrew was based, out at the University of British Columbia, without my being there: whilst I am interested in the work that they both do, I have no doubt that such a visit would fly far above my head and my presence perhaps even disrupt such a meeting, the scientific debate punctuated by simplified explanations in answer to my frequent expressions of perplexity and mild alarm. My shift passed swiftly in neat order: errands were run, chores completed and I was able to wrap up my work a little earlier than normal, so as to join my three friends at the bar for a languid drink. I learnt that Vic had enjoyed a super visit to the lab at UBC and met some interesting characters there, including Andrew's supervisor, engaging in stimulating debate and discussion, whilst I had languished – for the most part – beside the coffee-machine, my only meaningful conversation revolving around the potential activities with which to best fill Victoria's time in the city. There are moments, some more concentrated than others, naturally, when I feel the desirable pull back towards academia rather strongly within myself.
Armed with my customary poor memory for such practical things as activity order, I am struggling just slightly to recall the exact composition for each day, but I do remember the highlights with a little more clarity. On another day in which the sun burst forth through the potential gloom mustering upon the horizon, I took Victoria to Stanley Park, for an extended walk along the sea-wall and then into the verdant interior as well. The walk around the sea-wall that encloses the boundary of the park, protecting it fro the rigours of the Burrard Inlet's waves like a stone-encrusted shell is one of my favourite activities in this fair city. Rays of bright sunlight warming my face, a sea-breeze rustling through my hair and the calming sound of the sea itself lulling my mind to peaceful contentment; I have enjoyed numerous jaunts around the wall in this fashion. We began our walk by taking a direction, not along the sea-wall, but instead into the park's lush interior, aiming towards the celebrated rose garden, still yet to truly bloom at this point so early in the season. Henceforth, we continued towards Beaver Lake, where we were rewarded with an extended introduction to that most audacious of Vancouver residents, a raccoon. This one was particularly interested in hoovering up some seeds that lay scattered upon the path ahead of us and he remained distinctly aloof when presented with our enthusiasm and quiet clamour for photographs, obliging for a time before scuttling back into the undergrowth, his tell-tale bands the last to escape from view.
Satisfied with this initial introduction to the wildlife of the region, we journeyed on and between a mixture of my guesswork and some very helpfully positioned maps, we were able to emerge from the overgrown centre of our emerald treasure out onto the sea-wall having avoided what I consider to be the least pleasing section of the walk, with the views out over the refineries extending into the inlet from the shores of North Vancouver. We moved beneath the awesome structure of the Lion's Gate Bridge, which forms the main link between the down-town core and North and West Vancouver, listening to the roar, not of animals, but instead of the synthetic machines wheeling overhead. The view out across the water towards the shimmering buildings populating the north shore, crowned by a backdrop of majestic mountains, man-made structures combing the lower slopes, is absolutely inspirational. My good friend Ella, from Nottingham days and herself a huge fan of Vancouver, when she learnt that I would be heading over to the city myself towards the end of last year, wrote to me with some advice within which she mentioned that I would begin to understand that I truly belonged in the city when I remembered that the mountains forever signal north: I recall this excellent testimony whenever my eyes alight upon this wondrous image and a smile is never far from my lips.
We completed the remainder of the sea-wall loop at an easy pace, bringing ourselves back to the northern end of English Bay and thus into close proximity to the fabled ice-cream parlour that I had frequented with Ryan not so long previously. I should mention in fact that knowledge of this gelato-inspired gem came to me from my sister, Beth, yet another Vancouver-lover. As a gift to accompany me upon my travels, Beth presented me with a home-made guide-book of the city, the surrounding area of British Columbia and even on into neighbouring Alberta before I left home once more last Novmeber. Within its generous pages of wisdom, Beth had noted one particular vendor of ice-cream on Denman Street, near English Bay, and I had wasted little time in tracking down this marvellous haven and sampling its mouth-freezing offerings. Victoria now became the latest beneficiary of this fabulous tip-off and we took our decadent creations down to the beach for a well-earned rest from all of our meandering.
It was here, indulging in chocolate-based luxury and shooting the sea-breeze, that slightly awkward and yet incredibly entertaining (mis)fortune struck in the shape of a bright-eyed older gentleman sporting a mackintosh in a most arresting shade of yellow. Attempting to play Friar Lawrence to our apparently loved-up couple, this audacious rapscallion entered into a wholly uncourted conversation revolving around Victoria's and my quite obvious (to him at any rate) affection for one another. Vic fidgeting self-consciously beside me, our would-be instigator of all things romantic proceeded to assess my character (equally obvious to his shrewd eye): apparently – for those few of you (anyone?) who are interested and have not been granted the (un)fortunate ability with which to discern such laudable qualities yourselves – I have the look of something akin to a lovable rogue (though not too roguish). Although sporting a glint in my eye and self-assured (it was sardonic, I assure you) smile, I was basically a loving person who would – and indeed should – take good care of Victoria. Were we married? No. Well, we should be. By this point, I was finding the whole episode rather amusing, as much for its apparent effect upon myself and Vic as for the strenuous efforts being expended by our excitable host. Just think; such emotional entertainment, at a circus for instance, would normally cost some money to the mystic wretch across the crystal ball from you. Oh wait: all too late our impish lothario's real intentions became clear. He must have seen the subtle reflex reaction in my demeanour; bringing his little charade to a swift close, he ended with a feeble line about how hungry he was that day and could we possibly spare... Well, it was the first time in a very long time that I actually handed over a little money to the pirate. Why? I am not entirely sure, but he had certainly succeeded in making me laugh and would that Victoria and I had been two awkward young people who harboured secret desires towards one another then such an intrusion could well have proved incredibly serendipitous – perhaps one day the old rascal would deliver, maybe already had delivered, such aleatory luck to a tremulous couple.
Whilst at the magnificent market on Granville Island, Victoria had espied a sign above a nearby pier advertizing the sale of fresh fish straight off the trawlers themselves. Desirous of a truly tasty, personal encounter with some of the natural food for which British Columbia is famous and happy to cut out any middlemen with an adventurous transaction, we sauntered down to the highlighted wharf, coming away with a very healthy, very fresh, very cheap fillet of salmon. We set aside an evening in which we could concoct something extraordinary with our catch, adding to the mix some virtuous produce that we had scouted out at the market as well. Finally, we had called at the local liquor store to purchase a bottle of crisp white wine to accompany the dish we had in mind, a move that served the additional purpose, to me at least, of helping us to unwind in alcohol just in case the food fell below par (yes, I was to be responsible for cooking the salmon). As it was, our culinary adventure proved to be a consummate success (yes, I can cook – although Vic was responsible for almost everything besides the salmon itself; almost everything – I opened the wine...). We sat down to a delicious meal of oven-cooked (oven-cooked, not over-cooked) salmon in a simple olive oil dressing (there was no dill to be found anywhere in the house), complimented by pan-fried vegetables in soy-flavoured noodles. I managed to rustle up some black cherry ice-cream for dessert (thanks Ryan) and so we passed a lovely night in, wrapped up in heady aromatic flavours, fragrant white wine and care-free conversation.
The next night blew all of that out of the water. We had passed a lovely, sun-filled day in North Vancouver, visiting the Lynn Canyon Valley, home to a suspension bridge that straddles the canyon itself, soaring upon high to leave me giddy and lush, verdant forest so tranquil and sensual as to leave me dizzy. We had enjoyed an extended amble through the gorgeous greenery, followed by a scenic series of bus-rides back to Kitsilano that had taken us through North Vancouver to a second bus over the Lion's Gate Bridge, on into Stanley Park, to finally emerge in the down-town core. From there a final bus had carried us over the Granville Bridge and along Fourth Ave, to deposit us in the heart of my florid neighbourhood. In all of this time, we had been disturbed just once, by a telephone call. It was Chris, from 'db', checking that we were still scheduled for our meal at the restaurant that evening. Yes, we most certainly were! This was to be my first meal at what had become almost a second home to me over the past few months and I was looking forward to the occasion with a heady mixture of eager anticipation and contemplative caution. Whilst I knew very well that Victoria and I were in for a very tasty meal, to judge from the plates of food that I witnessed there during every shift, still I had never placed myself in such a potentially awkward situation before: here I was, about to situate myself in my usual locus of employment, to be served by the very same erstwhile colleagues alongside whom I normally worked. I felt a tinge of guilt creep into my enthusiasm.
I need not have worried: everything that night, from our arrival at the restaurant, to be greeted by a beaming Heather at the hostess stand, through a simply sumptuous meal, full of unexpected additions and pleasures, to finally rounding the evening off with introductions, demonstration of gratitude and photographs at the bar to capture something of the magic of that night for posterity. Something in Chris' tone that afternoon when we spoke on the telephone told me to be on my toes that night. Well, I was not on my toes; I was sat firmly on my chair whilst Chris dazzled us with exceptional, personal and yet entirely professional service. I received a wonderful lesson in guest experience that night from a consummate expert, who remained attentive without becoming intrusive and was even able to reign in what would often be hideous jokes to leave Victoria and – occasionally – myself beaming. There were a great many friends working that evening, which pleased me enormously: I wanted Vic to see my place of work inhabited by (some) of those people that I most respected, most admired and towards whom I felt the most affection. Even before we were presented with any food that we had actually ordered, Chris had brought over a mushroom tarte flambee, courtesy of the kitchen, and Ben had delivered to us a “little something” by way of a cocktail from the bar. Enjoying myself no end by this point, I confided in Chris that my knowledge of wine remains – tragically – limited at this junction and would he be so kind as to provide us some suitable pairings to accompany our food courses? The result was some fabulous glasses of wine specifically tailored to the different food that Vic and I had decided upon.
The food – ah, the food! I opted for one of the newer items on the menu, one that I knew to be a personal creation from our new chef and very popular in the short time that it had been at the restaurant; ramp tortellini. The pasta, quite literally, melted in my mouth and the ramps, something similar to leeks, with a touch of pungent garlic character thrown in, were revelational. Every mouthful teemed with sublime flavour, a small burst of delight showering my taste-buds. Vic's Queen Charlotte Island halibut was equally mesmerizing and had her wide-eyed with rapturous pleasure. The desserts – there must always be dessert – were stunning, our choices complimenting each other well; my raspberry mousse set off wonderfully by caramelized mint leaf and contrasted favourably by the chocolate debauchery occurring across the table. No trip to 'db' is complete, in my opinion, without a sampling of the chocolate bar dessert, served with an implicit health warning and topped with real gold shavings (oh yes). The rich, velvety mousse glided into every corner of my mouth, exploding with intense, energetic flavour to leave me swooning in a manner I imagine to be parallel to that more often experienced by girls confronted with manolo blahniks, Edward Cullen or – indeed – the very chocolate-inspired heaven in which I was now wallowing so contentedly.
Alas, everything must end and so it was that the evening drew all-too-soon to a close. One lesson that working in the industry has taught me, loud and clear; do not hang around once it is clear that you are fully sated – restaurant staff have homes to return to just as much as you and they have not spent the past three hours sat enjoying themselves. With this in mind, I gave Victoria a swift tour of the kitchen, introducing her to our culinary maestro and his team, before sharing a few words with some of the front-of-house staff, thanking everyone profusely along the way. Every word that could possibly convey my sense of gratefulness and humility at having been treated so royally by everyone having been exhausted, we took our leave. Making our way home, Victoria spoke happily and with some amazement at just how wonderful the entire experience had been, labelling the meal as one of the best of her life. I had to agree: I have eaten some fabulous dishes in some splendid locations, but the effort expended upon us that night, the lengths to which Chris had gone and the manner in which we had been treated left me truly humbled. Suddenly the perseverence in those initial days of difficulty, the patience with which to accompany my struggling to improve at a pace that satisfied my standards and even the forebearance necessary to appreciate Chris' jokes were all absolutely worthwhile. I walked home on air that night.
Vic's stay in Vancouver drawing towards its inevitable close, there was still chance for us to break free from the city for a time, to visit that playground to, well, just about everyone in these parts and all others who make the effort to visit this region for an extended period; Whistler.
Best wishes to all!