Adonis Diaries

Posts Tagged ‘Vancouver

A car bomb explodes in Beirut:

And Why I spent several minutes hiding on the floor of my apartment…

Shannon Gormley,

a journalist currently based in Beirut, posted this Sept. 23, 2013 “Why I spent several minutes hiding on the floor of my Beirut apartment….”

When the explosions shattered the June night, my first thought was that maybe I shouldn’t have come to Beirut.

My second thought was that my boyfriend needed to move away from the bedroom window.

Now. I screamed at him to get down, and he dropped to the ground like a brick.

Before I ever hid under a duvet cover in a Lebanese apartment building, I lived in Vancouver for several years during and after my MA, followed by a brief sojourn in Toronto. I studied democratic education and wanted to work in Afghanistan.

Instead, I worked in Vancouver and a good friend from my undergraduate days took a development job in Kabul. We both pretended that I’d made the better life choice.

I would brag about Vancouver’s ocean spray, he would complain about Kabul’s high concentration of airborne fecal matter particles.

Photo of a soldier standing near a pizza advertisement.

The view from my apartment in Beirut earlier this summer

“Is Vancouver still glorious?” he’d ask wryly. “Why doesn’t the rest of the world just move there?”

A joke, but also a good question.

Vancouver has everything: sea, rainforest, mountains, organic granola. Still, my friend would never have lived there for the same reason that I’d eventually move away: it’s too far from where the things that matter happen.

After Vancouver, my first move was to Toronto, a city that at least pretends to be the centre of the universe. There, I reported on how to make digital photos look like they’re from the 1970s and on whether gift cards are awesome, or really awesome.

Canada has problems of its own, but the world probably won’t need to understand the core of them in 25 years.

That will not be true of the problems in the Middle East. To whom is that a compliment or an insult? Who knows.

Either way, with that thought in mind—and two suitcases full of long dresses that would soon look pitifully prudish in Beirut’s parade of designer minis—I finally boarded a plane to Lebanon.

When I arrived, the flames of Syria’s civil war were licking at the border; refugees were setting the country’s tolerance levels ablaze, rockets were being fired into Beirut’s suburbs in protest of Hezbollah’s support for Assad. For my family and friends, that was reason for me to turn around; for me, it was reason to stay.

Robert Fisk, the indomitable journalist who brought Lebanon to the world during the nation’s civil war, said that being a journalist is like peering into a smoking volcano without choking on ash or being swept away by lava.

Being an aid worker like my friend means that you have to crawl right in the crater: he’d been brought to Afghanistan, he said, to put out fires. “I’m endeavoring not to get terribly burned myself,” he’d added.

I’m not the type to play with fire, however. I’ve been called many things, but reckless isn’t one of them; neither is badass or tough. I wear floral-print cardigans, not combat boots. I weep with abandon at Tim Hortons commercials.

I’m afraid of spiders, heights, hot sauce that’s labeled three chili peppers or more, failure, men with aggression issues and—yes, YTV—the dark. Star Trek is the closest thing to violent television that I’ve ever liked, and even then, I prefer the holodeck episodes and any time that Data plays with his cat.

More to the point, I’ve made peace with my inner coward. I don’t want to be a reckless badass; I want to be alive. And yet, I’m living here. Not in spite of the fact that “something could happen,” but because it may.

For if you are one of the many of us—I suspect there are many of us—while friends and family hope that nothing will happen, and while the better, not-psychotic part of you hopes that nothing will happen, a secret but insistent part of you—a part that also doesn’t want anything to happen—very badly hopes that you’re around to bear witness to it if it does happen.

That part of you is exactly why you are where you are, if where you are is a conflict zone and why you are who you are, if who you are is a journalist.

Not because you like danger.

Not because you like thrills.

Not because you have something to prove. But because you have something important to understand and—once it’s understood well enough that you have graduated from extremely ignorant to moderately ignorant—something to tell.

Two years after my friend had moved to Afghanistan, I was still in Vancouver. I told him that raising chickens in your backyard was becoming all the rage.

“People raise chickens in their backyards here too,” he said. “Because of crushing poverty.” (My brother-in law is such a bother that he is raising 100 fowl in my backyard against my will, though I never saw him eating an egg or slaughtering a fowl for his family or mine).

But my friend’s greatest scorn was wisely reserved for many westerners in conflict zones. After two years of living in a war—or, more accurately, as he frequently reminded me in response my frightened emails, much like those my friends now send me, a compound—he was entitled to deride 24-year-old development workers who take selfies in front of tanks, who, he said, were in the Middle East “for the experience.”

I remember that warning often. If you’re a writer, you go everywhere for the experience. The trick is to look for the experiences that matter, and to share them in a way that honours their significance.

Usually, the only thing experienced in Lebanon is life. The greatest dangers that most expats face are Beiruti drivers’ collective aversion to traffic lights and Beiruti bartenders’ alarmingly generous shots of gin.

But once in a while, you catch a whiff of smoke. Sometimes, it doesn’t signal fire, but burning embers that can alight in a moment. When I visited Tripoli in July, gunshots were fired across the street. An aid worker politely ignored my mad dash for the door. “Don’t worry, it’s a bunch of middle school kids. They’re just celebrating the end of exams.”

Other times, the fire seems more serious. My boyfriend and I were travelling through Europe while the world talked about invading Syria, and Lebanon was talking about what that meant. The conversation was over by the time we returned to Beirut. Here, we ran into a talented journalist friend, also from Canada, who told us that it had been scary for a while. That things almost happened before they didn’t.

“We left at the wrong time,” I said.

She nodded, but paused before replying. “Or the right time.” We all shrugged.

In the moment of fear, every human being wants to feel safe. But for some, before the moment strikes and after it passes, the feelings are more complicated. Because if you’re not afraid, then you’re probably not standing on top of an active volcano. You’re just on a mountain, and you may as well be in Vancouver.

Maybe that’s why my boyfriend and I peeled ourselves off the hardwood floor while the sky exploded above our heads like a bag of burnt popcorn; why we remembered that we hadn’t come to Beirut to hide under the bed; and why our massive relief was tempered by more than just embarrassment when we finally caught sight of the threat: fireworks.

 

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Next Big Tech Corridor? Between Seattle and Vancouver, Planners Hope

Photo

The Amazon campus sprawls throughout downtown Seattle. The political, academic and tech elite of Seattle and Vancouver are looking for ways to bring the cities closer together. Credit Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Seattle and Vancouver are like fraternal twins separated at birth. Both are bustling Pacific Northwest coastal cities with eco-conscious populations that have accepted the bargain of dispiriting weather for much of the year in exchange for nearby ski slopes and kayaking and glorious summers.

Yet 140 miles of traffic-choked roads and an international border divide the two cities, keeping them farther apart than their geographic and cultural identities would suggest.

Now the political, academic and tech elite of both cities are looking for ways to bring them closer together, with the aim of continuing the growth of two of the most vibrant economies in North America.

“Vancouver has a lot more in common with Seattle than we do with Calgary, Montreal, Toronto, anywhere else in our country,” Christy Clark, the premier of British Columbia, said in an interview. “We should make the most of those cultural commonalities.”

Photo

Pedestrians pass a Microsoft location in Seattle. American tech icons like Microsoft are expanding their presence in Vancouver, but the cost of living there is an obstacle. Credit Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

Whether their grand vision of a “Cascadia innovation corridor” — which borrows its name from the region’s Cascade mountain range — ever materializes, leaders on both sides of the border have motives for getting cozier immediately. American tech icons like Microsoft, with voracious needs for global engineering talent, are expanding their Vancouver offices, partly because of Canada’s smoother immigration process.

For its part, Vancouver wants to bring more American technology companies to the city in hopes of spinning out future entrepreneurs who will expand its comparatively small base of technology companies.

One serious obstacle to Vancouver’s tech ambitions is its head-spinning housing costs. The median price for a detached home in the metropolitan area in August was 1.4 million Canadian dollars (about $1.06 million), a 27.8 percent increase from a year earlier, according to the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver. In the San Francisco metropolitan area, the median single family home price was about $848,000, according to Zillow.

But while median pay for tech-related jobs is $112,000 a year in the San Francisco Bay Area, it is just under $49,000 in Vancouver, according to an analysis by PayScale, a compensation data firm. (Some of that discrepancy is due to a drop in the value of Canada’s currency relative to the United States dollar.)

We have San Francisco real estate prices with the incomes of somewhere between Reno and Nashville,” said Andy Yan, acting director of the city program at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.

Photo

The University of British Columbia. Plans to deepen ties between Seattle and Vancouver include more collaboration between the university and the University of Washington. Credit Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

On the thrumming streets of downtown Vancouver, signs of the Seattle region’s growing economic ties to the city are hard to miss. A rectangular glass and steel office building with a large Microsoft sign occupies nearly an entire city block, sitting atop a large Nordstrom store (another Seattle brand).

Microsoft says it invested $120 million in its new offices in Vancouver, which opened in June, and expects to spend $90 million more annually on wages and other operating costs. It plans to employ nearly 750 people in the city.

Microsoft is hiring Canadians for the facility, but the country’s more open immigration policies were an important factor in its investment, Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president, said in an interview. Microsoft and other tech companies have long complained that the United States education system does not produce enough computer science graduates, forcing them to rely on immigrants from India, China and elsewhere.

Foreign workers in the United States can wait about three times as long for a work visa as those in Canada do, the Boston Consulting Group estimates. And the prospect of Donald J. Trump winning the presidency has raised concerns among tech companies, because of the Republican candidate’s comments about further restricting immigration to the United States.

“Right now, there’s just a lot of uncertainty about open immigration,” Mr. Smith said.

Last month, officials and executives from both cities huddled in a Vancouver hotel to discuss how to enable people, ideas and capital to flow more freely between them, as heedless of the international border separating the cities as a pod of orcas swimming in the sea.

Photo

Christy Clark, left, British Columbia’s premier, and Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington signed a memorandum of understanding affirming their shared interest in creating regional economic opportunities for innovation in the technology sector. Credit Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

At the Cascadia conference, Ms. Clark and Jay Inslee, the governor of Washington, signed an agreement to deepen the ties between Vancouver and Seattle, including more research collaboration between the University of British Columbia and the University of Washington. Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, and Satya Nadella, its current chief executive, talked about globalization and education.

One proposal to deal with traffic between Vancouver and Seattle was for a high-speed rail line that would whisk travelers at more than 200 miles an hour between the cities in 57 minutes (it can take four hours or more by car). The details on financing the project — which could cost an estimated $30 billion or more — have not been worked out.

A group of Seattle techies proposed a cheaper alternative: a dedicated lane for autonomous vehicles on Interstate 5, the highway connecting Seattle to the Canadian border.

The plan — which relies on autonomous vehicles that still need a lot of work — would not shave much time off the commute between the cities, but could make the ride less tedious by letting travelers work or watch a movie, said Tom Alberg, a managing director at Madrona Venture Group, a Seattle venture capital firm, and an author of the proposal.

With roots in timber and shipping, Vancouver’s economy has diversified in recent decades with the growth of film and video game production. The city claims a tech “unicorn” — a start-up valued at over $1 billion — in Hootsuite, which makes social media tools.

But Vancouver remains a relative small fry in tech, with about $1.78 billion in venture capital flowing into local tech start-ups in the last decade, compared with about $8.9 billion in Seattle, the research firm Pitchbook estimates.

Photo

Microsoft offices in Vancouver. Canada’s more open immigration policies are a draw for American tech giants. Credit Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

Still, the city’s hoped-for tech boom may hit a wall if it cannot address its cost-of-living issues, which are by some standards more acute than those plaguing other thriving cities. Vancouver was ranked the third most unaffordable city in the world, after Hong Kong and Sydney, in a study published this year by Demographia, a consulting firm.

Mr. Yan has spent years analyzing his hometown’s soaring real estate values and concluded that a surge in foreign capital, primarily from mainland China, has decoupled Vancouver home prices from the local economy. British Columbia recently imposed a 15 percent tax on new home purchases in the Vancouver area by foreign buyers, a move now facing legal challenges.

The housing market is showing signs of cooling off, though it is not yet clear how much of that is because of the tax. The total number of homes sold in the area in August dropped 26 percent from a year earlier and price growth has slowed, according to the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver.

Dennis Pilarinos, chief executive of Buddybuild, a Vancouver maker of developer tools for mobile apps, says affordability has been less of a problem for young tech workers, who may be willing to rent smaller apartments and live with roommates.

But when start-ups get bigger, many struggle to recruit senior executives with families, said Mr. Pilarinos, who previously worked for Microsoft and Amazon in Vancouver.

“Companies tend to run into scaling issues,” he said. “You end up with fewer Microsofts or Amazons.”


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