Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Fragrant Faces of Vancouver

Rhododendron Meeting

Happy Anniversary to the city of Vancouver, who turns 125 year old today!!!

When I arrived at this city nearly 13 years ago, on a dreadfully rainy October day (a rain that continued tirelessly, day and night, through November), the only smells that caught my nose were the musty, fungi-infested wooden homes. It made for very gloomy apartment-hunting. Besides the homelessness and drug problems, that smell is probably the most depressing, uncozy and unpleasant thing about Vancouver (you'd think it's counter productive to build wooden homes in a city that is 90% water, but that's what they are made of). I was quite convinced that the building I live in now does not have that smell; Alas, coming back from 3 weeks of family visits in Israel and arriving at my current abode got my nose to notice the exact alienating scent as I entered the hallway to my apartment...

Blue Heart @ Sunset Beach
As you can probably gather, my first impression of V town was less than positive. And not only because of the unfortunate circumstances that forced me to part ways with my immediate family and friends I grew up with and become practically an immigrant (even if not legally, because I was born in this country, the experience is just about as cruel to move to a different country if you were not exposed to it during your childhood). And since most of the people in this city are newcomers to the country or emigrated from other parts of Canada, there was a strong sense of alienation in the city, something that remains underlining everything here to this day for me - from business transactions to social interactions. Vancouver is a city where at the community centre they offer a course about "how to build your own community". Because, if you don't - you won't have one. It's just not something that comes naturally in a social structure that is so strongly influenced by immigration (incoming and outgoing...).

Considering the fact that the city have grown out of the lumber industry and the gold rushes of the 1800's - it makes sense why, to this day, even with population of over 2 million (in Greater Vancouver), it still very much has a small-town mentality. The mild weather (comparing to the rest of Canada) attracts internal immigration, partly in search for seasonal work, partly in search for easier life in a province and a city known so well for their beauty. So there is always a sense that people here are only here for a little while... And might be moving away any moment. Which is why making friends here is so difficult: Vancouverites are always a bit suspicious of newcomers, wondering between themselves "how long will this person will last in the endless rain here?". So they wait and see if you stick around for 2, 3 or more likely 4 years, and only than you will finally have made some friends in the city (that based on my own personal experience, as well as all Vancouverites I met that didn't grow up here - and that's a long time to live in a city and not have friends!).

Autumnal Reflections

Vancouverites are also known as nature lovers, workout junkies, health conscious, notorious flakes (showing up 15 minutes late to social engagements is less common than canceling last minute, or simply not showing up), and often refer to themselves as hermits (a cute name for "anti-social"). Even going out for coffee may be too demanding! When I arrived in the city, I was completely unaware that the seemingly friendly "we should go for coffee together sometime" meant "let's not meet ever again". In general, we in Vancouver do not like to partake in any social interaction that requires too much effort - which is why pot luck gatherings are far more popular than dinner parties. And preferably, they'd rather not invite people into their own home at all. Which is probably why there are so many restaurants in the city at the moment. People, in general, don't entertain in their homes much, but go out a lot. At least the restaurants have improved over the years - when I came here 13 years ago, there was not a single Middle Easter eatery that had decent food. At least now there is Nuba (fine Lebanese cuisine - and a must try if you visit the city), and even a couple of decent falafel joints. But that's enough about the strife of moving into this city, because once you have warmed up to it, it will warm up to you as well (and like wine, this city actually does improve with time culturally). But once you've found your true friends here, they will be as loyal and reliable as anywhere else in the world. That is, if you were able to endure the 3-4 years of isolation.

And just as it took quite some time for Vancouver and I to warm up to each other (thanks, in part, to global warming, and the summers finally being warm enough to chase me into the chilly waters of the Pacific ocean), it took about 10 years for me to really enjoy the few subtle and rare scents that permeates the air shyly before being washed out completely by the next rain.

Falling in love with Vancouver at first sight is easy (especially if you are lucky to arrive on a sunny day). But for me, it was a very slow love affair, and took me many years to come to terms with it being my home. The beautiful, yet intimidating mountains, ocean inlets and rainforest surrounding the city make it a huge challenge to create a feeling of coziness. It's more about freedom here. And with freedom comes... great responsibility. It's a great place to explore one's boundaries, both mental and physical, and push your limits.

Fall in Coal Harbour

So what does Vancouver smell like? It is not nearly as evocative or fragrant as New Orleans, but if you listen carefully with your nose, you will notice that each season has its own scent:

The plum blossoms in very early spring (the cherry blossoms have very little scent, at least here...) are certainly the most inspiring both visually and aromatically. Daffodils in April have more of a visual presence than an olfactory one in my opinion, as other cultivated wonders such as tulips. Hyacinths though, popular in both flower shops and gardens, and lily of the valley seem to be planted in gardens more than they have been before, so there is some scent here, though not all that wild... In late spring, the rhododendrons bring a wide spectrum of colours and fragrances, ranging from green and clean, through fruity to full-blown heady lily. And even later in the spring, the poplar trees give off a sweet, balsamic scent.

Summer brings roses, including the wild roses native to the area. And, of course - if it only gets warm enough - the salty scent of the ocean. And another fragrant plant that I love is in bloom - lilacs!

Come autumn, and wetness begins to take over - and there is less scent of plants. Except for one very special smell: that of the cedar needles and chips and other autumn leaves decaying in the forest - a scent that is very much like Chypre or Garrigue. Enter Stanley Park on a warm autumn day and notice when you get a whiff of that!

Winter is even wetter, colder and less scented, except that snow (on the rare occasion when it arrives) has its own strange crisp smell, and the chimneys of the fireplaces (never been to a place that has real fireplace with burning wood, but it must be somewhere because I can smell it every winter). Walks by the ocean bring forth a crabby, slightly salty smell of the sea and ocean dwellers combined with jet fuel form the aqua planes in Coal Harbour.

In very late winter, the whole West End has mysteriously filled with an overpowering flowery scent, with no flowers in sight. It took me years (literally!) to solve the mystery, and realize that it's from the tiny (almost invisible!) white blossoms of privet. They are almost too much, especially in comparison to the lack of smell that generally is what's happening here - as if someone has sprayed the whole neighborhood with a bathroom freshener...
Later yet, a more subtle scent of snowdrops, that is mysteriously in the air but hardly noticeable when you put your nose up close to them. And last but not least - chestnuts in blossom, smelling very much like carob blossoms (FYI: both smell very much like semen).

Snow in Southlands
Wishing Vancouver a very happy birthday and many happy returns, and may it become a better city (as I have seen it grow in the past 13 years that I've lived here).

If you visited Vancouver, or live here, please share with us what scents remind you of Vancouver!

Parallel Horizons and Vanishing Points, originally uploaded by Ayala Moriel.



At April 06, 2011 11:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This city has changed so much even since I arrived... I think you must have seen the roughest of it, from a newcomers perspective. What stuck with me was the crowds of people (especially, men)drinking their starbucks in shorts and flip-flops on a weekday a.m.... I have not seen that anywhere I've lived before, and I was seriously worried that unemployment was souring in the city... Oh, and the multitude of restaurants - now with living spaces shrinking here at a pace they've never done before, restaurants have become like an extension of one's living space. Kitchens are too small to cook - or store supplies, so people eat out. Now, we have a food movement as a result!
About the smells - water, water, water - ocean water... No other smell gives me more goose-bumps and thrills, than that one. Also, fires in the fall. Burning fallen leaves. Love the smell.

At April 07, 2011 8:03 AM, Blogger Ayala Moriel said...

Yes, more than anything else Vancouver smells like water...!
And burning leaves - mmm, love that smell too!
What you missed in the years prior to your arrival here was the fashion - oh, the fashion! (what fashion?) - Among the Caucasians, there seemed to have been only two styles - conservative business attire (looked pretty much like uniform), or the more widely spread "casual look" - i.e. depressing jersey sweatpants or dated jeans at best... The Lululemon mania is just a more visually appealing (and higher priced) way to continue that very mindset. The Asian girls were the only ones that were dressed nicer and slightly interesting even - in comparison to the above they looked about ready to hit Harajuku park on a Sunday.

At April 13, 2011 3:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ohhh, your post makes me a little homesick. Vancouver isn't the coziest town, but it was my home for a long time. I'm learning to love my new desert life, but it's quite an adjustment.

The scents that bring me back the most include the one you described so well for fall, that deep, wet, green scent from the loam and conifers. The others are definitely the ume blossom in earliest spring, the drying pine needles for summer, the stone and salt of the rocky shore, and asphalt after rain, which is seasonless!

Cheers, Riley

At April 13, 2011 9:19 PM, Anonymous bshell said...

You hit all of my favorite Vancouver smells. Maybe I could add the ethnic smells of, say, a Chinese herb shop or an Indian tandoori place. But there are more. I also love the smell of linden trees in full bloom. How about the heron rookery near the tennis courts by Stanley Park. Great essay!

At April 16, 2011 4:19 AM, Anonymous Shobi said...

Vancouver is definitely one of the best..:)and I really like your blog and want to be a part of your blog.

At April 20, 2011 11:09 AM, Blogger Ayala Moriel said...

Thank you so much for sharing! You describe the scents so well :-) Asphalt after rain is definitely a season-less scent, because it rains here year-around!

At April 20, 2011 11:11 AM, Blogger Ayala Moriel said...

Thanks for commenting and adding your Vancouver scents!
Linden is so beautiful - there are quite a few trees on Robson street, actually. And also at the pitch & putt in Stanley park, not far away from the herons :-)

At April 20, 2011 11:11 AM, Blogger Ayala Moriel said...

Thank you for visiting and commenting on SmellyBlog! There is no better way than this to be part of it :-)

At June 24, 2014 10:12 PM, Blogger Ayala Moriel said...

Barry -
The linden blossoms are back in town! Definitely one of the most definitive Vancouver scents... Chinese herbal shops are becoming less and less easy to find as Chinatown has lost much of its vibrancy. Sad to see Little India disappeared almost completely as well... Used to be one of my fav destinations.


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