Still breathing but barely

Travelling is hard for a Winnipeg apologist. Spending time in a city that has it pretty together makes your own city’s shortcomings that much harder to swallow.

But then, seeing things through a tourist’s rosy-coloured shades certainly affects your perception. I spent a weekend in Vancouver at the end of September, and when I wasn’t busy inhaling as much fresh fish as I possibly could, marvelling at the natural beauty, traipsing down bustling sidewalks or seeing one of my all-time favourite bands at a picturesque amphitheatre as a rainbow spread across a sky that had freshly dumped rain on the twinkling city below, I thought of my own city. I couldn’t help but compare.

Pardon the verbosity, but it was all somewhat overwhelming.

I know comparing Vancouver to Winnipeg is like comparing apples to, well, smaller, flatter apples. But here was a city with mountains to one side and ocean to the other. A functioning, easily navigable transit system. A downtown that didn’t shut down after 5 pm, and densely populated neighbourhoods that offered plenty of necessary goods and services within walking distance.

Winnipeg will never be Vancouver, though. And I don’t think we should strive to be. Winnipeg has a certain plucky charm that bigger cities lack. We have a ways to go, for certain, and there are many ways in which we can turn to other cities for example. But I think we’re well on our way to being our own great thing.

Vancouver’s splendour is blatant, while Winnipeg has hidden treasures, pockets of beauty buried among industry. That’s part of Winnipeg’s charm – finding these secret spots and revelling in them.

This charm is evident in our people, too. We toe the line between big city and small town. Jeans and Jets jerseys are appropriate attire for nights out at our classiest restaurants. Driving your car fast down Portage Avenue on a Sunday night is both the coolest and lamest thing to do with your time.

I’ll always have a soft spot for the West Coast. But I also like that I can afford to live in a beautiful apartment in a beautiful neighbourhood for the same price that might get me a ramshackle hut in a different city. I like that I can wander my city streets for hours on end without getting shin splints from walking uphill.

Plus, Vancouver is home to a little thing called The Real Housewives. Such a thing would scarcely fly in Winnipeg.

I can’t say one city is better than the other. Winnipeg is my home. Vancouver is an exotic-vacation-destination. It was great to get away. But it was even better to come home – back where the streets I know will never take me anywhere but here.

And, as satisfying as it was to successfully navigate an unfamiliar bus/sky train/sea bus system without an experienced Vancouver native holding my hand, it was even more satisfying to watch those same experienced Vancouver natives struggling to exit out the back door. “Back door please!” No one is immune to those things.

I don’t mean to dismiss all our failings. Winnipeg is still breathing, but barely. I can’t pretend to comprehend the complex history that defines this chunk of land. I can only say that I like it here. I will continue to think, to be critical of my home. I will compare it with places I deem successful – like Vancouver – but remember that Vancouver has its issues too.

I mean, they can’t even open the back door of the bus.

Laina Hughes is a writer from Winnipeg. Pick up a copy of her book Wolseley Stories at McNally Robinson.

Published in Volume 68, Number 7 of The Uniter (October 16, 2013)

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