The police officer turned us back and told us to forget about Stanley Park and forget about sightseeing anywhere in Vancouver
The Vancouver newspapers are filled with daily plans for the oncoming Olympic Games, and I know exactly what travelling around that city will be like for ordinary people. I’ve been there.
In November 1997, the international organization APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) met in Vancouver, with several stated objectives, such as the improvement of trade between attending countries. The participants included heads of state, among them President Jiang Zemin of China and President Suharto of Indonesia, neither of whom would get a gold medal for honouring human rights. Noisy protestors outside of the buildings where APEC met made it clear that not everyone was thrilled with their presence in the city.
My friend, the internationally renowned classical pianist Craig Rutenberg, also arrived in Vancouver at the same time, to accompany the Canadian tenor Ben Heppner in a sold-out concert at the Chan Centre on the University of B.C. campus. It was his first visit to Vancouver, and I offered to show him around my favourite city in my adopted country.
I take my sightseeing responsibilities with visitors from the United States very seriously, especially a friend I like and respect as much as I do Craig. Early on the Sunday after his arrival I left my house on the Sechelt Peninsula, north of Vancouver, and drove fifty miles to board the ferry for the forty-minute trip across Howe Sound, then down the ferry ramp at Horseshoe Bay to drive another half hour into Vancouver, straight to the door of Craig’s hotel. On our sightseeing tour I planned to include the awesome stand of great Douglas fir trees in Stanley Park in the middle of the city, several highlights on the UBC campus, especially the famed Nitobe Japanese Garden, and the Museum of Anthropology, designed by the late great architect Arthur Erickson. I would then drive Craig around to see other examples of Erickson’s genius: the downtown plaza called Robson Square, the MacMillan Bloedel office skyscraper, the elegant Simon Fraser University, designed by Erickson and his partner, Geoffrey Massey, on top of a small mountain in nearby Burnaby. Although the media were flooding the country with items about APEC, I never gave it a thought in planning our day.
Craig was waiting for me at the front entrance of the hotel, an impressively large figure nattily dressed for the occasion in a blue blazer, with a bright red scarf in the open neck of his striped blue shirt. A far cry from the black frock coat, white formal vest and bow tie he would be wearing later as he stepped out onstage at the Chan Centre, bowed to the audience and seated himself at the piano with a flip of his tails. “I’m on holiday today, ready for our great tour,” he said, beaming. “I’ve really been looking forward to this.”
“Is there anything that you especially want to see?” I asked. Until now, our friendship had consisted of attending amusing dinners with mutual friends in New York, when Craig could spare an evening from his work as head of the music staff of the Metropolitan Opera in Manhattan, and as coach for noted singers all over the music world. Now there were just the two of us and I felt quite shy and a bit nervous; this was a very special day and I had no idea what he would like to see.
“You choose!” he said. “Everything interests me. From what I’ve observed already, this is a beautiful city.”
We set out for my first choice, Robson Square, the provincial government buildings and courthouse designed by Erickson in downtown Vancouver, in a park-like setting of low trees, green plantings and his signature waterfall that surrounds the provincial offices. But at the first cross street we were stopped by a police officer standing in front of a wooden barrier. He shook his head and waved us toward a road going in the opposite direction. I stuck my head out the window. “I have a guest from the United States with me,” I said, pointing to Craig. “I want to show him Robson Square.”
“The streets in this area are closed off,” the officer said. “There’s a meeting of international leaders, APEC, going on now, and only vehicles with special permits are allowed inside the barriers.”
“I don’t want to stop,” I protested. “I just want to drive around!”
He shook his head again as he waved us away. “Security measures,” he said. “There are a lot of important people in attendance.”
I decided that my best bet would be to turn around on the main thoroughfare, Georgia Street, and drive into Stanley Park, where we could stop and have lunch at the charming Teahouse at Ferguson Point, but there were barriers every which way. I seemed to be travelling in an ever-widening circle going nowhere, and I tried to hide my disappointment. This was to have been such a memorable day.
“We’ll go straight out to the university,” I said. “The Museum of Anthropology is my favourite Erickson building anyway, and it has a fascinating Northwest Coast First Nations collection. I didn’t know anything about Pacific Coast Native culture when I came, and you probably don’t either.”
Craig nodded. “I don’t and I am looking forward to seeing the museum.”
When we arrived at the museum, near the edge of the ubc campus, I parked in the lot and we strolled up to the front entrance. A big sign read CLOSED FOR THE DAY. I protested to the guard stationed at the entrance that it was Sunday, and it was noon, and the museum should be open. “Security measures,” he said. “Very important people are attending an APEC meeting here. I don’t think you will get much further on the campus.”
We managed to drive a little ways before we were stopped again. This time we could see ahead a fair distance, across an almost deserted campus, to a group of people demonstrating outside one of the buildings. They were shouting at the police, who were trying to herd them away. They kept surging forward, waving their signs that objected to the meetings, and in particular to the presence of the Chinese and Indonesian leaders, on the campus.
We sat for quite a while watching, and then I turned the car around and we drove away. By that time only one road was open, and it sent us on a roundabout route to the outskirts of Vancouver. From there I attempted to travel toward Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, without success. Trying to head back into Vancouver, and still hoping to at least reach Stanley Park, I was stopped again by a police officer. I opened the car window again and, with what I judged was a plaintive note in my voice, told him where I was aiming to go and why. He shook his head. “Forget about Stanley Park. Forget about sightseeing,” he advised. “It’s going to be the same everywhere.”
This was turning into an awful day. I was aghast, and I tried not to show my embarrassment. In what I hoped was a casual voice I said to Craig, who sat placidly with his hands across his stomach looking like a benevolent Buddha, “I don’t think I am going to be able to show you much of Vancouver today.”
“It certainly doesn’t look like it,” he said.
“I’m so sorry. I can’t think of a place to show you that we can get to,” I said.
I didn’t have any more ideas about where to go. And then a large sign that read COSTCO loomed up ahead. We were approaching the big discount membership warehouse store where I often shop for supplies when I am in town. I had a sudden crazy thought, born I suppose from desperation and my feeling of failure. “Craig! Have you ever been to Costco?” I asked.
He brightened up. “No, but I’ve heard about it and I’ve always wanted to see what it’s like,” he said. “I forgot to bring toothpaste and I could use a new toothbrush. Can I get them at Costco?”
“Absolutely,” I shouted, relieved that at last we had a destination.
The parking lot was packed, as usual. People were scurrying into the large square building with empty carts, and others were coming out loaded with goods. No security worries here!
I parked the car, and we grabbed a cart and headed for the entrance. I said, “This isn’t exactly what I had planned for today.”
Craig’s eyes sparkled behind his gold-rimmed glasses. “Well I guess not!” he said. “It’s fine. I might never get another chance to see a Costco! I’m delighted!”
It was lunchtime and after all that driving around we were hungry. Our first stop was at a table where a white-aproned grandmotherly woman was serving up samples of lasagna, with packages for sale behind her. Craig reached for a sample in a paper cup and a plastic fork beside it, passed them to me and took another for himself. “Delicious,” he said, wiping his fingers delicately on the paper napkin that accompanied it.
I steered our cart to the shaving cream and toothpaste area before we could forget what we had come for in our excitement over the goodies all around us. Craig placed his two purchases in our cart, and we turned back to the next white-covered table to be served another sample offering by another motherly server: a melted cheese and tuna mixture that went very well with the lasagna. We moved along with our cart, enthusiastically gobbling down Costco’s best samples. This being Sunday, the whole store was alive with little tables, where dabs of smoked salmon, prosciutto, slivers of hot chicken pie, and bits of exotic cheeses served on seasoned crackers and bagel chips were being presented to shoppers, along with roasted almonds, French truffles, a very tasty fruit drink of unrecognizable ingredients and, in a little pleated paper cup, the best pickled herring I have ever had.
“Mmm, mmm,” Craig said, reaching for a second helping of herring. “Delicious!”
Along the aisles, I picked up cans of coffee and salmon, packages of smoked salmon and prosciutto, jars of green olives and cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil, which I always need, and the bottles of delightful small sweet pickles I can never find elsewhere.
I looked at my watch. It was two o’clock. “Time for lunch!” I exclaimed. “Let’s go!”
Craig laughed. “We’ve just had lunch!” he said. He was looking very pleased.
The APEC meetings that week cast a long shadow over public events in Vancouver. A few days after we tried to visit ubc, the police used pepper spray to drive away students demonstrating against APEC meetings, since referred to as the “Sergeant Pepper” attacks. I read later that approximately seventeen hundred students in all were involved in the demonstrations. The confrontations between students and police led to a series of court appearances, the appointment of two commissions of inquiry, the condemning of police behaviour and a bad joke by former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, about liking pepper on his steak, that enraged many Canadians. The protests also led to a great deal of activity by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, centred on constitutional rights to freedom of speech and assembly, and, possibly, some improvements by the police in the delicate art of crowd control. Police behaviour during the 2010 Olympic games will once again be subjected to the critical eyes of a public ready to pounce on any curtailment of sacred rights to free speech and public assembly, and I don’t envy them their job.
My day with Craig did not end too badly. When we left Costco I managed to find us a pleasant hotel lounge with comfortable chairs and excellent service where we had a pleasant cup of tea, followed by glasses of chilled white wine. Craig is a great storyteller and his life is full of not only gruelling work, but amusing anecdotes. When I dropped him back at his hotel, I handed him a box of French truffles whose sampling he had admired. He held it up, laughing. “Spoils of the day!” he said.
I haven’t given up. The promised sightseeing tour must go on, if and when he can spare the time on one of his infrequent visits to Vancouver. But not in February 2010. No, no, no! The Olympics will have to get along without us.