The Best City in the World

It is a late winter Monday afternoon. We are driving toward the setting sun along the Trans-Canada Highway, which has wended its way some 4,800 miles from the Atlantic and now threatens to drop us with a splash into the Strait of Georgia. Before that can happen, we take a right, turning north onto the first of many switchbacks that climb Cypress Mountain. The snow has stopped falling, and the city and sea are laid out below in their gratuitous way.   Down there, lights are starting to twinkle in the dusk, from the glass towers downtown and the homes on Point Grey. * The water shines slick black in the shadows, pale orange in the light, and the delineation of land against sea is so precise that it is as though I am looking at a map: It shows the shape of English Bay, the islands in Howe Sound, and the dark silhouette of Vancouver Island, the sleeping leviathan in the distance. Kristin, at the wheel, has seen this view dozens of times this winter alone. Finally we speed into the Cypress Bowl parking lot, and within 30 minutes we are being whisked even higher, hatted and goggled, snowboards dangling in the air.

The first run is a rediscovery of lost muscles. I am braced for pain and dissatisfaction, and so it’s with some surprise that, halfway down my second run, I realize that I’m having fun. The night lights have come on, the slopes are dotted with boarders, and the sky is inky overhead, with a layer of orange and gray still visible on the horizon. Miles below me, past steep black hills of evergreens, I can see the sheen on Howe Sound. I fall-without-falling through gravity, carving wide turns through the powder that has obligingly blanketed the base.

To go home as an adult is always to imagine another life one could have lived. To go home to Vancouver is to question one’s judgment. Everywhere I go in the world, I am confronted by news of the city’s fabulousness. The Economist Intelligence Unit has, for several years running, rated Vancouver the “most livable” city in the world. Vancouver also hovers around the top of Mercer’s annual “quality of living” survey; in 2009, it tied for fourth. Monocle magazine, the project of global taste arbiter Tyler Brûlé, most recently ranked it 14th, behind Sydney, Australia, but ahead of Barcelona, Spain. USA Today called it “the supermodel of North American cities.”

It’s like being told again and again that your ex is a wonderful person. If it’s so great, why did I leave and never look back?

Of course, that great-on-paper guy can make you want to jump off a bridge, and tallies of parks and schools don’t really capture a city. But the question still lingers in my mind. When I left for college, I simply thought that the city was small and the world was big. These many years in exile, though, I’ve looked back and seen that we were mismatched, Vancouver and I. Sure, I could jump on the Saturday ski bus or feign an interest in hockey, but my strengths lay elsewhere. At least I hoped they did, as I moved around from place to place. I was a child who studied ballet and loved libraries; that I can today get myself down a mountainside is testament more to brute determination than natural affinity.

After snowboarding, we return to Kristin’s house in North Vancouver, a sloping suburb wedged between Burrard Inlet and the Coast Mountains. Short story writer Alice Munro lived here in the 1950s and loathed it. In an interview with the Paris Review, she makes her years of North Vancouver housewifery sound like her own personal gulag, the suffering that made her a writer. “There was a lot of competitive talk about vacuuming and washing the woolies, and I got quite frantic,” she said. It was forbidden for a woman to take anything seriously, she observed, among “the wives of the climbing men,” by which she meant those ascending corporate ladders.

Vancouver’s suburbs are not as stifling as they were in the 1950s. Now “climbing” in the context of North Vancouver can only mean climbing forest trails or rock faces, and both women’s and men’s competitive talk centers on these things. The possibility of becoming frantic in the face of parochialism, though, still resonates. It’s perhaps this sort of fear that led me to settle in New York. There, my bedroom is a closet, medicine and education are luxury goods, and on sultry summer nights the streets can smell like a Third World slum. In some way, it keeps me alive. Call it love, perhaps, because it’s just as hard to explain.

I’ve returned now to see my hometown exactly 12 months before the Winter Olympics, in anticipation of which a city of ongoing renewal is stepping up the pace. Evenings at Cypress Bowl will be less peaceful in February 2010, when it hosts the snowboarding and freestyle skiing events. Tonight, though, Vancouver is looking pretty good. Kristin, my high-school friend, shows me around the house she has just bought with her fiancé. It has five bedrooms and a deck overlooking the inlet and the city. They each have a car and take elaborate vacations—to Patagonia and Northern Italy in recent years. She laments that her four weeks of annual holiday are not enough. Through the window, down the hill and across the water, the city lights wink on and off while we eat our ordered-in Thai food with Okanagan wine. I am forced to concede that the best-city list-makers might be onto something.

Click here to view a slide show on Vancouver-Whistler.

Correction, Jan. 20, 2010: This entry originally and incorrectly referred to a lighthouse on Point Grey. (Return to the corrected sentence.)