Domestic Bliss 

In search of civility

A short trip to another city revitalizes; a short trip out of the country, even more so. Good luck and a professional conference took me last weekend to Vancouver, British Columbia, and despite endless hours cooped up in hotel ballrooms, the charm of the Canadian city tucked between the Pacific Ocean and the Rocky Mountains got me thinking about what makes a city livable, what makes a city unlivable and what makes some cities utterly magical.

Upon arrival at the airport, United passengers found free luggage carts conveniently lined up outside the gate for the long haul to customs. And though it was after 9 at night, customs agents thoughtfully manned six booths instead of just one or two, making our passage through quick and efficient.

My cab driver was from India, his azure turban scraping the ceiling above the driver's seat. He politely issued a string of questions and answered any I had before dropping me off at the hotel.

The next morning, I awoke to a spectacular view of the deep green peninsula of Stanley Park in the near distance, and the sparkling bay separating the city from the suburban enclave of North Vancouver. On the water, free pedestrian ferries criss-crossed the distance, and small planes landed and took off like white-winged moths.

Walking through the busy, congested streets of downtown Vancouver, I was surprised to inhale the clean scent of freshly turned soil, peat and mulch. Around every lamp post and bordering every building were flower beds, freshly planted with pansies, tulips and narcissus. Inside hotel lobbies, fresh arrangements of lilies and zinnias perfumed the air. In one building, large potted palms, ficus and pines were under-planted with tall white Easter lilies.

Around one curve on a street separating two major thoroughfares, the temperature changed as I approached a sunken garden, a dugout hillside leading to a basement entryway, terraced and densely planted with rhododendron, apple and plum trees, ferns and hosta, with walkways leading to benches hidden beneath drapes of leaves. Air conditioning it all and drowning out the traffic noise was a perpetual waterfall, cascading over the concrete wall of an adjoining parking structure.

The second morning in Vancouver it rained. In the hotel lobby, another conventioneer asked an employee to call her a taxi to get to the convention. The young woman, neatly dressed in a navy uniform, looked puzzled.

"You can walk," she said. "It's just six blocks away."

"But I don't have an umbrella," said the visitor.

The concierge smiled and walked over to a large stand of red umbrellas and pulled one out for her. She gave me one too and I used it all weekend.

Walking in the light rain past shops and banks, restaurants and public buildings, pedestrians sheltered beneath a rainbow tent of umbrellas crossed and waited in unison at stoplights. Drivers didn't race through yellow lights but stopped instantly, their front tires carefully and fully behind the solid white line that marked the pedestrian lane. Cars making right turns waited until the crowd was past before inching forward.

At night, my roommate and I walked to dinner down brightly lighted streets lined with restaurants, apartment houses, spas, boutiques, bookstores and specialty markets. Above tiny shops, on second floors, balconies of Thai, Indian, Malaysian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, Italian, Greek and Brazilian restaurants hung over the sidewalks, the subtle murmuring of crowds and clinking of dishes mingling with street sounds.

I was beginning to think Vancouver was perfect, except for the occasional panhandler, when I read in the newspaper that a gang of young boys in a nearby suburb had been attacking women out jogging, robbing them at knifepoint. The faint tinge of familiarity I felt gave me little satisfaction.

Days and nights passed quickly. Not once in four days did I hear: a) tires screeching as a car took off; b) a horn honking; c) a driver cursing a pedestrian; or d) a pedestrian cursing a driver. Only once in four days did I hear a siren -- a firetruck hurtling through the middle of downtown, weaving in and out of perfectly stilled traffic.

On the plane home, I sat next to a fellow conventioneer from Minneapolis and we compared notes. She said she normally could not sleep in hotels, but on this trip she noticed something strange -- the traffic on the street below sounded like ocean waves, quiet and steady.

I thought how simple, really, were the elements that defined the beauty and civility of the city -- water, carefully tended plants, polite company, mountains in the distance, courteous drivers, careful pedestrians, gardens, a rich ethnic mix, a walking culture, drivers that respected walkers. It could happen in any city, I thought, glancing out the window as our plane glided over the Montana Rockies toward Denver, even in Colorado Springs.



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