Reflections on Victoria

Thursday morning, I set off for Victoria, British Columbia, where my dear friends [Daniel->] and [Fanny->] live. When I found out that this year’s Sakai conference was to be in Vancouver, I figured it would be criminal not to take a few extra days, hop a ferry, and spend some time with those worthies — a plan aided by my dear wife who offered to care for the offspring in my absence. So, I braved the slings and arrows of American Airlines to get from Dallas to Vancouver. Both the flight from Austin to Dallas and that to Vancouver were running late, and in spite of the fact that we travelled across much of a continent, the only refreshment the airline provided was a single ginger ale. But all that was forgotten once I got into the Vancouver airport, only to step off of the plane and see that unique bastion of Canadian culture…

…Starbucks. Alas, my first impression wasn’t quite what I’d hoped. But the country quickly rallied and presented a series of delightful sights and smells: rhododendrons everywhere were in extravagant bloom, the air was rich with the smells of growing things, and I even spotted a couple of killer whales moving through the water while waiting for the ferry. The ship on which I crossed dwarfed the ferries I’m used to in Texas — it had six decks, three of which were for automobiles, two for people, one for mysterious ship stuff, and featured several places to eat and an arcade. Though the northern latitudes still provided light when we set off at 9:00pm from Vancouver to Victoria, there was enough mist to block what would have been beautiful views and allow me to have a nap without feeling particularly guilty about it.

On arriving in Victoria, I was promptly greeted by Daniel and our mutual friend [Jonathan->], who had conspired to come visit at the same time. After much enthusiastic wringing of hands and necks, we jumped into Daniel’s car and headed for his and Fanny’s apartment. Fanny treated me to some amazing white bean hummus (the ginger ale had long ago given out on me), and Jonathan and I retired to the tent that was pitched in the front yard for him and me. We slept well through the rain and chill that night, but decided that we would be better off on the couch and an air mattress for subsequent nights, due to the cold.

The next day I had my first experience with the Priests’ baking skills. They have been baking their own bread now for a while, and have become exceptionally good at it. While I’m not generally a big fan of white breads, they produced some baguettes, focaccias, and others that were just outstanding. After enjoying the fruits of their oven for several days, I’m determined to invest in a wire rack, a baguette pan, and the cookbook they use upon my return home. (As much as I like Jonathan, I was reluctant to snuggle up for warmth.)

After a delightful breakfast, we headed into the city to explore. We started by taking a brief tour of St. Anne’s Academy, where Daniel and Fanny had had their wedding, and proceeded on to the Royal BC Museum, which had some excellent exhibits on the First Nations (the natives who were here before the Europeans showed up), climate change, and a full-sized model of a wooly mammoth (covered in fur from a musk ox, as it turns out). The best part about the mammoth exhibit was that, every 10 minutes or so, it would emit a near-deafening clap of thunder, which inevitably caused whatever gaggle of schoolchildren was passing at the time to scream in terror. I was also pleased to hear my first Canadian “Eh?” at the museum, courtesy of one of the docents.

After leaving the museum and enjoying a delicious Thai lunch, we proceeded on to Beacon Hill Park, which features some great views across the water as well as the tallest totem pole in the world, a 176-foot painted cedar monster which is quite awe-inspiring. That evening, we made two pizzas for dinner — one with a variety of vegetables, and one with potato, which turned out to be surprisingly delicious. (Potato has become one of Daniel’s favorite toppings since he discovered it.) We then went up to the University of Victoria campus to stroll around a bit and to watch The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. The best thing about the University campus was that it’s nearly overrun with adorable bunnies which have very little fear of people.

The next day, we decided that we were going to go to the top of Mount Douglas and then canoe Victoria harbor. The view from the top of the mountain was spectacular. We could see miles and miles of Victoria stretched beneath us, and stayed as long as we could bear the chilly wind.

We then moved on to the harbor, a very active place, with lots of seaplane traffic, harbor ferries that shuttle busily about, and a huge variety of privately owned boats and catamarans. We loaded into a canoe provided by a rental company and embarked upon our grand water adventure. Jonathan and I took the rowing positions and started up the harbor, skirting several moored vessels and a giant barge. We passed under a bridge, and got an up-close view of one of the harbor ferries as it passed us…

…and immediately overturned our canoe with its wake. We were all very surprised to find ourselves abruptly in the chilly Pacific waters, and took several seconds of hysterical laughter and/or stunned, slightly panicked silence to adjust. After an abortive attempt to right the canoe in the deep water, we decided the best thing to do would be to head for shore, drag the canoe out, empty it of water, and then whack the guy who rented it to us upside the head with it.

We were, of course, squarely in the middle of the waterway, so chose a side at random and started for it. We were making negligible progress, due to our waterlogged, fully clothed condition. Fortunately, after only a minute or two of our futile flailings, a nautical Samaritan happened by and loaded us into his boat and dragged the canoe to a nearby dock. We emptied the water, frightened a few nearby society ladies, and decided to send Jonathan and me back to the rental place while Daniel called Fanny to come retrieve us.

Needless to say, the rental chap was a bit surprised to see us paddling back a mere 30 minutes after we had embarked with one less passenger in the boat. “What happened to your friend?” he asked worriedly. “Orca!” I shouted back. (I was still a bit cheesed that he’d told Daniel to sit on the top of a cross-beam, rather than in the bottom of the boat.) I eventually explained what had really happened, and was delighted to see Fanny pull up a few minutes later to bring us back to the apartment where we spent the rest of the day enjoying hot tea, hot showers, hot pasta, hot bread, and a movie.

The next day we broke our fast with more of Fanny’s delightful cooking and then headed up the island to French Beach. We had brought along a picnic, and Fanny enjoyed a book while the menfolk wandered up the sand to a huge rocky outcropping and went climbing among the cliffs, trees, and tidal pools. Jonathan stepped in some water, but fortunately received nothing like the drenching of the day before. We took some time to trade stone-skipping techniques, and Daniel’s skills increased noticeably (“from ‘none’ to ‘some'”, as he put it).

Evening brought another wonderful meal and a long conversation on energy-efficient building techniques, which Daniel has been researching assiduously of late, with an eye toward eventually building their own home once they return to Texas. His enthusiasm for the project is infectious, and has left me wondering if there’s any way that we could do something similar, perhaps combining it with some of the community-building ideas that obsess me for a few days every couple of months.

On our last day together, we packed up and spent the remainder of our time touring the Parliament building and ambling through downtown, visiting bookstores, restaurants, and gift shops, where Jonathan and I picked up a few things for various people waiting back home. The weather obliged us by being sunny and beautiful, and we had a great time enjoying the unhurried company of friends. Eventually the day waned, and we parted company, looking forward to the time when our Fanny’s visa application will be processed and our Canadian friends will be back in Texas.