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Tzeporah Berman: coming home to Vancouver

For the past year I've been dreaming of Vancouver. Specifically I have been aching for the beaches, wishing I could wake up and see the fresh snow on the mountains and imagining walking through the endowment lands. Yesterday as I stood in a friends apartment with a gorgeous view of the city and the sun setting over the mountains I felt a place in my heart open up that had been dormant for too long and for a minute I couldn’t catch my breath. I knew this would happen. I love this place. I have since I arrived for visit almost twenty years ago and realized that for the first time since I was a child I felt like I was really home.

What I didn’t expect after living a year in Amsterdam was how big the streets would look in Vancouver, how new everything would seem or how strange and kind of sad it would be to see so many cars whizzing by me on the street and so few bikes. A wise friend said to me yesterday that when you travel, no matter how happy you are you will always mourn a little for what you have left behind. Too true. It is so fun to be able to pick up a newspaper and be able to read it!

It is so nice not to have to struggle to order lunch only to get a pitying look and have the café owner switch to impeccable English. Truly embarrassing that in the twelve countries I have been in the last twelve months almost everyone I met could speak my language and the best that I could is order coffee or say thank you in theirs.

I’m home, I speak the language, I have a decent grasp over the politics, I know the players, when I am tired I can go down to the beach to re-charge and I don’t have to wade through hundreds of people. When my kids beg to kick a ball around we can go to a park and there is actually room to kick a ball around. No two ways about it we are blessed in Canada with wide-open space and nature the likes of which many Europeans have simply never seen. So I wonder in my first days back why I feel this nagging sense of loss?

As I look out my window this morning I think a big part of it has to do with the way our cities are designed. Many European cities were simply designed with people in mind and not cars. In Amsterdam despite the streets being so cute and narrow the majority of the space is dedicated to pedestrians, trams and cyclists. The occasional car looks out of place as it tries to awkwardly maneuver through the city.  Walking through the city every five minutes you come upon a square or ‘plein’ filled with cafes, children playing and musicians. To be clear I know little about urban design but after a year in Amsterdam I have a new appreciation for how a city that is not designed around the automobile creates community and fosters relationships.  Living without a car encourages you to shop close to home and frequently. On the way to work in the morning with the thousands of other people on their bikes I would frequently stop off at my local bakery. On the way home I would mingle with fleets of cyclists in suits balancing their briefcases on their handlebars while they picked up their kids (the number of family members that the Dutch can balance on one bike with special seats, wooden buckets for toddlers or perched on the back tire rack is simply amazing) and stopped at the local cheese/meat/veggie shop. There is simply much more human interaction when we are not in our little metal boxes shuttling from our big box stores to our garages.

The other big thing I have noticed since being home is the difference in the pace of life in European cities. Does the design encourage the many conversations you have on your bike with your neighbors or the many shopkeepers? How is it that Europeans seem to have so much time for long lunches and dinners in the thousands of cafes that are full most of the day and night? Why is it that Amsterdam is full of people strolling along the canals even on a weekday evening and last night when I wandered in Kitsilano I passed hundreds of houses glowing with the eerie blue light of television but only the occasional dog walker?

All food for thought as we settle our family back in Vancouver. Two days in and I realize we have yet to get on our bikes but have already insured our car after a year of living without one. I have filled our fridge but I am not sure where and when our local farmers market is and I have no idea who baked the bread on my counter. Today I will find out. Its good to bring home new insights, experiences and commitments but don’t get me wrong, I am not sorry to come home. There are things I loved about living in Europe but as I look out my window on this crisp sunny morning in Vancouver and imagine running on the beach with my boys and hiking up in Lighthouse Park later this afternoon I feel like I can truly breathe again for the first time in a year. Travelling has made me realize again how privileged we are in Vancouver and also what a tremendous responsibility we have to steward this little bit of paradise left on earth. I’m so up for it.

Editor's note: Tzeporah Berman's book, "This Crazy Time" comes out this week with Random House.  Tyee editor-in-chief David Beers will be interviewing Berman at a public event at Capilano University September 7 at 7:30  p.m.  For tickets, click here.

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