Archive for December, 2012|Monthly archive page

Northern (Christmas) Lights

The other day I bought a television.

Not that exciting, except that it’s the first time I’ve bought one. Traveling every six months to another town or country doesn’t really inspire you to buy anything larger than a pair of socks, but a colleague at work was heading back to England so he was selling his TV for a reasonable price.

That evening (after I’d spent an hour tripping over cables and randomly pressing buttons on the remote to get it to work) I sat and flicked through the channels. I come from a land of only four TV stations, so I’m always interested to see what’s on offer in other countries.

Most of it was standard fare… until I reached channel 14.

There, all that was showing was a log, burning in a fireplace.

Perplexed, I watched, wondering if this was some kind of strange interlude in a film, or perhaps part of a news clip.

Nope. Just a log burning in a fireplace.

About ten minutes in (I really didn’t have anything better to do), a hand came in and added another piece of wood.

Then it was just back to the wood, merrily blazing away.

Strange, I thought. Very, very strange.

Then I forgot about it. That is, until a few weeks ago.

I grew up in New Zealand, a small commonwealth country that has inherited many of England’s finest traditions: cricket, pub lunches, and blowing things up on Guy Fawkes night.

We also celebrate Christmas in much the same way as the British do, with Christmas trees, carols, and a jolly fat Santa in a red, fur-lined suit.

The only problem with this is that New Zealand is in the southern hemisphere, so Christmas falls smack-bang in the middle of summer. My family did all the traditional Christmas activities, but none of them really made sense to me.

My mother and I would lovingly decorate our tree with fairy lights, only to have to pull the curtains shut to see them above the harsh glare of the sun. At Carols by Candlelight we had to wait until the sun went down at 10pm before we could light our candles. Wearing a fluffy red Santa hat on a 30°C day? Really not all it’s cracked up to be.

Aside from these traditions, in New Zealand we saw Christmas as a time to celebrate summer, a chance to go to the beach with friends, to spend long, hot days lying in the hammock reading, or have a barbecue with neighbours.

Hearing carols about open-air sleigh rides, or decking halls with balls of holly created a strange disconnect for me. The only Holly I’d ever seen at Christmas was my cousin, and I had the feeling that decking the halls with her would be both messy, and frowned upon by my mother.

So I felt no sense of affinity with this odd, conflicted time of the year, and as I grew older, I slowly stopped maintaining Christmas traditions.

Over time I became a bit of a Christmas grinch. I resented not being able to go to the shops without getting carols stuck in my head for the rest of the day, I disliked hearing inexperienced buskers butchering their way through Christmas tune after Christmas tune and I was annoyed that society expected me to buy presents for people as proof I cared about them.

Until this year.

I started the Christmas holiday season with my usual lack of enthusiasm, instead steeling myself for six weeks of marketing, canned carols and forced jolliness.

And true to form, companies did try to sell me products, stores played the same songs over and over again, and people all around me were excited by the coming festive season.

I managed to maintain my grinch through most of it, but last week at work, something happened that made me reevaluate my understanding of the holiday season.

It started when a colleague strung Christmas lights around his desk. Still embracing my dislike of Christmas jolliness, I mentally rolled my eyes at the red and green fairy lights now laced around our alcove, and muttered “bah, humbug” under my breath.

Shortly afterwards another colleague came by with eggnog.

It was 1°C outside, and drizzling in the half-snowing/half-raining way that Vancouver does so well. I really wasn’t looking forward to my bicycle ride home in the dark. A glass of eggnog (with a liberal dash of rum) sounded like the perfect way to combat the cold, miserable ride ahead of me.

Chatting with my co-workers, sipping eggnog by the warm glow of the christmas decorations, and sheltered from the harsh weather outside, I felt a sense of comfort and community.

And Christmas made sense.

Here in Canada, it’s winter at Christmas time, and winter on the 49th parallel is a cold and dark place. The days are short; the sun rises at 9am and sets by 4pm, but even at noon, the sky is overcast and grey. Cars drive with their headlights on at midday. It’s been weeks since I’ve seen the sun.

It’s a gloomy time of year.

And so we bring light into it.

In countless countries around the world, we string lights at Christmas, in memory of the ancient tradition of burning the Yule log.

On the winter solstice, as the sun sank below the horizon to start the longest night of the year, the Yule Log was burned as a symbol of the sun’s promise to return. Ashes from the log were then scattered on fields and around trees to bring prosperity to the next years harvest, while a sliver of the log was kept both as a token of luck, and as kindling to light the next years Yule log.

There were many different traditions of the Yule log – almost every northern culture had its own – but they all had the same themes at their core: togetherness, forgiveness and prosperity. In a time when a good harvest was the difference between life and death, these things were what kept a community alive.

As time went on, and fireplaces stopped being common in housing, cultures adapted, creating new traditions to celebrate the burning of the Yule log.

France (of course) turned it into a dessert: “bûche de Noël”, or “log cake” as my family calls it.

The Catalan region came up with “fer cagar el tió”,where the Yule log is wrapped in a blanket for several days and “fed” fruits and vegetables. On Christmas Eve, the log is tapped several times to make it “cagar” (poop), and when the blanket is removed, there are presents for the children.

And in Canada and the US, there is the televised fireplace that I stumbled across.

It sounds like a crazy idea, but, after it’s first airing in the US is 1966 to fill a ninety minute broadcasting gap, the televised Yule Log proved so popular it has run almost every year since. 

And of course, everywhere Christmas is celebrated, there are the Christmas lights, brightening Christmas trees, illuminating streets, and bringing light into this dark time.

Having spent winter here in Vancouver, I now appreciate our Christmas traditions; heck, I even like some Christmas songs. Hearing Bing Crosby croon about a white Christmas when I’m heading out scuba diving is bizarre, but hearing it on a cold winter’s night, as soft snowflakes fall outside, and there’s something beautiful in the sentiment.

Christmas is a time to gather together to see through the harsh dark night of winter, and to welcome the turning of the seasons as the world slowly comes back to life.

And so this year I’ll enjoy the Christmas lights strung up throughout Vancouver, as they burn in a tradition that has been carried on for thousands of years, and that brings with it the promise of the sun’s return.

Merry Christmas.

Christmas Lights

Christmas lights at Robson Square

Robson street, Vancouver, lit up for Christmas

Robson street, Vancouver, lit up for Christmas

Fairy lights strung around a tree

Fairy lights strung around a tree


Homeless in Vancouver

A few weeks after I arrived in Canada, I had an interesting experience.

The day started out mundanely enough. I had a few errands to run, and amongst them was refilling a prescription. I was waiting to pick up my script when I noticed something happening in the back of the pharmacy.

A woman in a yellow jacket had tried to enter the restricted area where the drugs are kept.

The pharmacist in charge, a demure man in his late fifties, politely told her she wasn’t allowed back there.

The woman, her jacket hood pulled tight around her face, tried to push past him, saying that she needed to get her methadone.

In case you missed Trainspotting, methadone is a treatment for drug addiction. As best I can tell, it works by being even more addictive than heroin, so addicts are too busy trying to get their methadone kick to worry about scoring dope.

This wasn’t a drug store in the middle of Downtown East Side, Vancouver’s notorious Skid Row area, this was in the middle of the gentrified Mt Pleasant area, a suburb filled with skiing stores and Wholefoods supermarkets.

The woman shoved past the pharmacist. Several other employees noticed and tried to intervene. The woman threatened to kill them.

Security was called. By now the woman was distraught, yelling that they were keeping her methadone from her to torture her. She held up a clear bottle filled with a brightly coloured liquid and threatened to throw it over everyone if she didn’t get her methadone. She said it contained toxic chemicals.

The pharmacy assistant called 911. The woman opened the bottle and sprayed the liquid everywhere. Fortunately it turned out to just be orange Krush (toxic, but probably not lethal in that dosage).

Shortly afterwards the police arrived and took her into the back room to calm down (from which she proceeded to scream “help, help, they’re killing me”, so that wasn’t the biggest success) and started taking people’s statements.

And that was when something really interesting happened. The staff – the same staff who had been physically threatened and verbally assaulted by this woman – told the police they didn’t want to see the woman locked up or charged with a criminal offence, they simply wanted her to get help.

Vancouverites are just plain nice.

So how did a city full of such nice, caring people, in a country known for it’s socialised healthcare and welfare, end up with such a homeless problem?

For Vancouver has a homeless problem. A big homeless problem.

It is one of the first things people notice when they arrive in Vancouver; a beautiful, well designed city flanked by mountains and sea, with the destitute and impoverished on every street corner.

Leave a supermarket, café or pub, and someone will be waiting outside the door, wet and forlorn, with a small cardboard sign asking for help. In true polite Vancouver fashion, they’re not pushy or aggressive. Just… there. Helpless. Desperate.

There are (roughly speaking – it’s quite hard to conduct a census) close to four thousand people homeless in Vancouver. Most congregate in Downtown East Side (DTES), where fifteen square blocks of squalor, neglect and flop houses nestle amongst methadone clinics, food banks and shelters.

Many of the people here are those that life has forgotten. They are drug addicts and drug dealers. They are the hopeless, the abused, and the abusers. They are those who will do anything to get their daily fix, and those desperately trying to find a way out of this life. They are those that have fallen, and can’t get up again.

Walking through this area – a scant two blocks from the trendy, expensive Gastown – is like walking through Hamsterdam in The Wire. Dealers openly sell drugs, prostitutes stand on the corner as addicts shuffle past them, and queues stretch around the block outside food banks and soup kitchens.

An interesting fixture on the edge of the neighbourhood is the weekly flea market. Introduced by the council to solve the problem of unlicensed street vendors, it’s where the locals meet to sell an eclectic range of items made up of whatever they have scrounged, traded or stolen during the week.

Brand new bicycles, assortments of clothing, random boxes of cereal, or old VHS tapes are all jumbled together to sell.

It’s an interesting place to go if you’re looking for a cheap bike – or maybe trying to track down one that’s gone missing.

It’s hard to reconcile this area with the clean, orderly Vancouver I move through.

But the homeless aren’t confined to DTES; a few weeks ago, I passed a man sitting outside a supermarket. He was shirtless and hunched over from the cold. A cardboard sign propped against his legs read:

Birthday. 55 years old. Very poor, please help

It was 2C out. I was wearing a hat, jacket, scarf and three layers of thermals and I was still cold. I normally don’t give to beggars, but I dropped a coin in his outstretched styrofoam cup. He looked up and thanked me. He didn’t seem like a crazed crackhead.

I went into the store and tried to do my grocery shopping.

After a while living in a big city you get inured to beggars; it’s not that you don’t want to help, it’s that you can’t. The money you can give them is nothing more than a bandaid.

You get used to walking past and avoiding their eyes.

And most people have, at some point, helped a person only to be scammed or ripped off. Money given for help that instead goes to cigarettes, alcohol or crack. Aid that goes straight into someone’s arm.

But still… this guy had no shirt.

Finally, after realising I’d been standing in front of the carrots for twenty minutes, I gave up and headed back to the corner.

I crouched down in front of him. “Why don’t you have a shirt?” I asked, in my usual tactful manner.

He told me he was trying to get a few dollars together for a meal at McDonalds; then he was going to the church to sleep. He did had a jersey, but it was raining. It was his only warm piece of clothing, so he had taken it off to keep it dry.

“Nothing worse than trying to sleep in a wet jumper” he informed me.

I offered to buy him his meal. The sight of his hunched over, skinny body shaking from the cold was playing havoc with my usual “don’t give money to beggars” rule.

His name was Chris, and he was an alcoholic. He had been living on the streets for four years, and at some point during those four years he had managed to clean himself up. He was sober now.

He told me he’d never done crack. He was proud of that, reiterating it several times; he was poor, living on the streets and begging for money for food, but he’d never done crack.

I asked why he didn’t have anywhere to live. There is universal welfare here; I didn’t understand how so many people could be falling through the cracks.

It turned out that – for Chris at least – the difficulty was the gap between welfare and local rental costs.

With the disability allowance and an accommodation supplement, Chris got a total of $906.42 per month to live off. In Vancouver, if you’re not at all picky about where you’re living, you can find a share apartment for $1,000 per month. If you’re lucky. And that’s just rent.

“And I won’t live down there” Chris told me, meaning Downtown East Side. “Only place I can afford a room on this money, but I ain’t gonna live there with all the crackheads and junkies. I can’t sleep. All night, all you hear are the crackwhores screaming for their next fix, man. I ain’t gonna live down there.”

It’s a harsh catch-22. Employers are reluctant to hire someone with a DTES address, but with no income, people are unable to live anywhere else.

British Columbia has a policy to end homelessness by 2015. I don’t if it’ll work, or whether the problems run too deep to be fixed with simply more houses and transitional shelters.

But at least life was starting to look up for Chris. As we waited in line at McDonalds, he told me he had been accepted into BC Housings placement scheme, and was expecting to move into a home in a weeks time. He talked enthusiastically about the L-shaped island that separated the kitchen from the living area and the pull down bed that turned the living room into a bedroom.

He was a nice guy. His daily existence saw him making choices I hope I never have to face, but he still seemed optimistic and excited about the future.

I left him at the cash register ordering a big mac with large fries.

Every time I pass the corner where I saw him begging, I look for a skinny white guy, sitting shirtless in the cold, but I haven’t seen him since.

I hope that means he made it to his apartment. It’s snowing tonight, and I like to think that he’s somewhere warm with an L-shaped island by the kitchen, and a pull down bed.

A local of DTES sells a snowboard at the Hastings Street Flea Market

A random collection of goods on sale for a dollar or two apiece

A resident of Hastings street with his dog

Locals wait outside a charity

Cubits and kilos in Canada

Canada can sometimes feel like a country caught between three others.

Not quite French, not quite British, but yet still not American, Canadian society is an amalgamation of a cultural and political tug of war that started back in the seventeenth century and continues through to today.

The first colonists were French; of course, being French, they weren’t here for the land or to escape to a better life. No, they came for fashion. Beaver pelts, in particular. Fur trappers came by the hundreds to make their fortunes from the beaver-rich land around Hudson Bay.

English settlers soon followed, as did a century or so of England and France bickering over whose country it was first (with both of them quietly ignoring the native inhabitants over in the corner).

This was not uncommon between England and France.

Finally, a dust-up named “The Seven Years War” broke out in Europe between Britain and France, and when Britain emerged victorious, they won Canada.

England, in a rare show of not being complete imperialists, decided to let the French settlers keep their language, their customs, and even their church. This was a fairly generous deal considering it was the Roman Catholic Church, and England had a history of not really liking Catholics terribly much.

The descendants of that French colony became the province of Quebec. Their local version of French (Québécois) is the main language spoken there, their streets have charming names like “Rue Saint Antoine”, and every so often, Quebec decides that it’s more French than English, and tries to split away from Canada and form its own separate nation – an idea that France doesn’t wholly object to, and which has been the source of some rather strained Franco-English relations over the years*.

However, for all that Quebec looks towards France, the rest of the nation faces England.

Canada is still a Commonwealth Realm; they recognise Queen Elizabeth II as their head of state, they have a royal mint, and they get together every four years with other Commonwealth countries for their own private Olympics, to which the US and China aren’t invited.

And yet, for all that Canada is a British commonwealth, south of them lies the cultural behemoth that is the United States.

American brands and stores are common here, Canada is on the same international dialing code and mains voltage as the US, and the US and Canada are the only two countries to add sales tax at the point of purchase rather than just including it in the displayed price, like decent nations.

And so we have Canada. A blend of three different, often warring cultures coming together to create a unique mix of language and customs.

Canadian English is closer to American English than British, but Canadians have the politeness and reserve of their British counterparts. Here, they will eat a baguette, but drink american drip coffee with it. Their currency has quarters, but with the Queen’s picture on it.

And then there’s their system of weights and measurements.

Nothing better sums up Canada’s mixed cultural heritage than their somewhat bedraggled adoption of  the metric system.

Before this system was developed in the late seventeen hundreds, measuring things could be a fairly hit n’ miss process.

The first measurements were done using what was most readily available: body parts. A cubit was the length from your elbow to the tip of your finger, a span was from the tip of your outstretched thumb to your little finger, and a digit was the length of, well, a digit**.

The Romans inherited the foot from the Egyptians, which they then divided into twelve unciae or inches, and multiplied by two thousand to create the mille passus, or “thousand paces” – our current mile.

This was a simple, portable measuring system, which worked perfectly well if only one person ever needed to do the measuring. Unfortunately, it started to break down as soon as two people of different heights got involved, and so, around the tenth century, people started trying to standardise things.

Of course, by “people”, I mean “Kings”.

Edward the II standardised the ulna, which contained three feet, with each of those feet containing twelve inches. An inch was defined as three grains of barley end to end. Five and a half ulna made a perch, and forty perches long and four perches across gave you an acre.

So far, so good – as long as you were English.

If, however, you were German, you might use the Wegstunde, the distance you could travel in an hour, or the Klafter, which was equivalent to anything between 1.76 and three metres depending on where you were, or the Zoll, which was somewhere between 1/10th and 1/12th of a Fuss.

The Russians had their то́чка, the Finnish their linja, the Portuguese their Palmo de craveira, and the Polish their Wiorst. There was the Flemish Ell, the English Ell, and the French Ell, all of which were different from each other. There was a measurement based on how far you could hear your neighbour call, and even the hobbit, which was equal to four pecks or two and a half bushels.

Things were confusing, to say the least.

Then, one day, around 1795, the French put down their croissants, and came up with the metre: one ten millionth part of a quadrant of the earth’s circumference. This was then divided into tenths and multiplied by tens to create the decimal system of measurements we now know as the metric system.

England had been dead keen on the idea of a standardised decimal system of weights – right up until the time the French revolutionaries rolled it out. After that, they stopped returning their calls.

During Napoleon’s time, he introduced the metric system throughout his empire. Not all countries adopted it immediately, but the seeds were sown, and throughout the next sixty years, most of Europe moved to using the new system.

Except England.

Not too keen on all things Napoleon, they introduced their own standardised system of measurement in 1826, the Imperial System, with all the ounces, feet and pints you could shake a stick at.

In a way, it made sense – after all this was a country where there were twelve pennies in a shilling, two shillings in a florin, two shillings and six pennies in a half-crown, and twenty shillings in a pound. Of course there were 5fl ounces in a gill, and 20fl ounces in a pint. Why wouldn’t there be?

Fortunately, some hundred and forty years later in 1965, England let bygones be bygones, and introduced the metric system, allowing all of her commonwealth countries to follow suit. This meant I was lucky enough to grow up in a country where I never had to care how many yards are in a pint.

This left the US – the staunchly anti-imperial country – as the only industrialised nation to still use the Imperial System. Obviously.

Except, well… Canada. Sort of.

Canada, being a British commonwealth, had used the Imperial System until the seventies, when it was due to switch over with the rest of us. But, while Quebec leapt at the chance to become even Frencher, the rest of the country gave the metric system a more lukewarm welcome.

With their neighbours across the border remaining stubbornly on the Imperial System, the English Canadians were not convinced about switching over. Finally, after several decades of dragging their heels, they decided that the most logical, and least confusing way forward would be to use both the Imperial and the Metric system.


So in Canada, it will be -2° C out, and they’ll cook pizza at 435° F. They’ll drive 50kph, and have two feet of snow fall on the mountains. They scuba dive in 7mm thick wetsuits, and wear 20lbs of weight. It’s illegal here to sell milk in imperial units, so they sell .94l of milk, which is the equivalent of 2 pints.

It can be quite confusing to a new arrival,

But, in the Canadian manner of things, it makes perfect sense.

Sort of.

*When French President Charles de Gaulle visited Quebec in 1967, he sparked an international incident by shouting “Vive le Québec libre!” (“Long live free Quebec!”) the slogan frequently used by the separatist movement. The British were not amused, and Mssr de Gaulle left Canada somewhat hurriedly the next day.

**The next time you try to buy furniture using this method only to get something that doesn’t quite fit, remember this: Egyptians used this to build the pyramids.

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