April 17, 2015 10:40 +0000  |  Multiculturalism Travel 2

Back in 2002, I was living in Ottawa working for a terrible company with some really terrible people. One of these people, upom returning from a trip to Madrid, went on at length about how scary and dangerous it was.

Oh Daniel, no one should ever go there. People ride around on scooters and slash open your bags just to steal from you. Everywhere you look, there are criminals!

Jodie was a horrible person, a racist, and an idiot, and yet I let her depcition of this city poison me against it for more than a decade. Thankfully though, I managed to ignore her just long enough to book a flight, and I'm glad I did.

Madrid is a curious place. Like most European cities, it's very old, the product of repeated wars over the centuries. The architecture is a mix between traditional Muslim and French styles, but taller, with a gradiose, almost Austrian influence. The city has managed to make itself both heavily pedestrianised and car-friendly... it just depends on where you go.

There are a number of wide open public spaces, used for markets and restaurant patios, chained together with a long series of pedestrian-friendly, walkable malls. Everywhere you look there are bakeries, tapas bars, and churro cafés, along with a (presumably new) littany of toursit-centric cuisine: doughnuts and hamburgers.

I had four days in Madrid, so I took my time getting to know the city. I took one of those fabulous Free Madrid city tours, where Ramón gave us all a brief history of the city including the trading lands between the Muslims and the Catholics, the Inquisition, and the Royal Family. I learnt about Carlos the Bewitched and the slutty inclinations of Queen Isabella I. If you've never been on one of these free tours, I can't recommend them enough. I've never been disappointed and I never regret tipping well.

I spent a good few days just wandering the parks. Madrid has two primary green spaces and at least a dozen other ones peppering the city. The Parque del Retiro is the more traditional European park: manicured and maintained as an open public space with fountains and statues everywhere, the park is filled with the sounds of children playing, and buskers looking to entertain. Young couples are everywhere, making out in the grass, and there are tourists like me, wandering the park, camera in hand, shooting at everything.

There's also a statue tribue to Satan there. Apparently it's the only one in existence.

On the East side of the city is Casa de Campo, a massive park in the style of Vancouver's Stanley Park only THREE TIMES THE SIZE. The former hunting grounds of the Royal Family (and battle ground during the Spanish Civil War), Casa de Campo has a lake, and a yacht club, and an acquarium, and a zoo, and a gondola, and... I have no idea, because in an entire day, I could only visit a fragment of it. My one regret from this visit was not spending more time there. One of the locals told me that they've worked very hard to keep the park diverse, with samplings of trees from all over the world.

My favourite memory from Madrid however has to be the flamenco performance & dinner that I attended on Tuesday night. At no other time during my visit were the multicultural origins of the city (and I suppose, Spain in general) more apparent than when I sat at the foot of that tiny stage. Flamenco, it would appear, is as our tour guide suggested of Spanish culture: "we take other ideas, and keep what we like". The music is deeply layered, and rythmically complex. The performance is effectively improvised between five musicians and at least one dancer, making it a sort of "Spanish jazz" in style. The cobbling together of artists is reflected in the clear connections to foreign roots, specifically Muslim. It was almost like attending an intimate call to prayer, but with a sense of shared joy and excitement.

And then there were the dancers.

Flamenco isn't so much a performance as it is a shared religious experience. The dancer steps onto the stage and allows the music to fill them, proceeding to do whatever feels natural. It's inspiring to watch and so difficult to describe, but they're not dancing so much as serving as a vessel. Elizabeth Gilbert explains this best in her TED talk, where she talks about how when onlookers shout "Olé!", this is a way of invoking "god", that somehow, in that moment, he is working through the performers. I didn't quite understand her when I first heard this, but now it makes complete sense.

I'm now on a high-speed train on my way to Seville, enjoying a leisurely 210kph. I'm not sure if I'll ever return to Madrid, but I'm glad I took the time to see it. As a Canadian, it's interesting to visit a place that has undergone a sort of multicultural experiment -- albeit unintentionally -- mingling Christian and Muslim, Spanish, French, and Austrian styles and traditions over the centuries. From where I'm sitting, it was a success.

February 24, 2010 23:56 +0000  |  Anarchy Multiculturalism Olympics Protests Vancouver 5

I'm trying to come to terms with the Olympics. I suppose that it's about time since the party's been going on for over a week now. The thing is, I've got two problems with the whole event:

  • I've never cared about Olympic sports
  • It's the ultimate smack in the face to the working poor in this city

Now don't get me wrong, I think that the Riot 2010 people are just silly, self-righteous, angry, rabble-rousers intent on breaking things in a fit of helplessness. I don't support them, but I also won't deny that many of their grievances need to be addressed.

The fact is that we've spent billions of dollars throwing a party for athletes, while in true Vancouver style, we've politely ignored the people trying to bring attention to the fact that those funds should have been spent elsewhere. Hell, we didn't even have the decency to kidnap the homeless population and intern them in Chiliwack for the duration of our capitalist shindig. No, we put up banners, threw a party and played music, right next door to the most desperate community in the country. We rubbed our disinterest in their faces and were then surprised and even outraged when a few of them got angry and started breaking things.

But this is nothing new really. The haves never care about the have-nots until someone threatens to cut off a few heads. You won't catch me marching with the Olympics Resistance Network though, because whether they want to accept it or not, this whole party became a force of nature the moment Vancouver won the bid.

It took me a few days to realise it, but despite our own transgressions mentioned above, there's still considerable good to come out of this and those who oppose(d) this event would do well to consider it. For the first time in over twenty years, Vancouver is actually multicultural again. There are Greeks, Swedes, Koreans, and even a few Ghanaians in this city for a few remaining days. Real German food can be sampled in their "house" and Russia has commandeered Science world to showcase itself to the planet.

We made the wrong choice. We should have supported our fellow citizens and used that fortune to build a city of which we could be proud. We didn't and we will reap what we've sewn for years to come, but there's no sense in shouting at the rain: take advantage of the fact that the world is here! Meet with foreigners, ask them how they build their cities and care for their people, and maybe, we'll find some opportunities to learn something new about how problems are tackled differently. Clearly, we could use some pointers.

May 30, 2009 19:30 +0000  |  Multiculturalism Vancouver Vancouver Public Space Network 4

I had a rather confusing experience last night that caused me to rethink a lot of the assumptions I'd made about this city.

Poesy and I had spent the evening in Chinatown's night market and were waiting at Terminal station to go our separate ways when an older gentleman appropached us and in very broken English asked us if we knew where he might find a hotel.

After some thinking on our part, we decided that the closest one we could think of was the Sandman near Stadium station and given the man's sketchy understanding of the local language as well of the area, I offered to take him there myself. It was sort of on my way anyway.

But this post isn't about Good deeds for strangers, it's about what it's like for tourists to try to experience this city and more to the point, what we can expect in 2010 when the world comes to our door.

This city is an embarrassment in the area of tourism. The transit system aside, just finding an intersection in this city is near impossible without accosting strangers, and in many cases, the strangers are hesitant to stop and help given their past unpleasant experiences with panhandlers.

There are so few wayfinding maps in Vancouver and a complete absence of them available in any other language but English. There are no tourism kiosks anywhere, especially after 5pm and all of this means that something as simple as finding a place to crash for the night becomes increadibly difficult -- even if English is your first language.

As someone who's done a reasonable amount of travelling in countries where he spoke even less of the local tongue than the aforementioned visitor, I can assure you that none of the places I visited, with the exception of Yeosu, Korea (a tiny town in a moncultural, insular country) did a poorer job of helping tourists than this one.

Now here's the kicker: the man who was curious about Vancouver and came here to experience this beautiful city but couldn't even find a place to sleep wasn't from Poland or even France. He was from this country, a little town east of Quebec City. In a nation that prides itself on having two official languages and in a city that claims to be multicultural this is very, very sad.

I'm open to suggestions here. Melanie has a plan to make wayfinding on Skytrain easier by creating (actually useful) route maps and pasting them up all over the place, but I'd like to hear some more ideas about how we could help guests like this man in the future. I'll bring these ideas to the next Mapping & Wayfinding VPSN working group.

July 03, 2008 21:00 +0000  |  Multiculturalism 18

I was walking through Chinatown today past the TD bank when I stopped dead in front of a poster they were hanging in the window. There, amongst all the familiar logos and stock photography, were little green and black scratches of Chinese writing -- and not a syllable of English (or French) to be seen.

But instead of getting mad and spouting the usual ignorant stuff about this being English-land, a different thought occurred to me: "I should really learn how to read this stuff... it's everywhere".

Now to be clear, I do feel that all signage in Canada should have at least one of our official languages on it. I do however, think that it's pretty arrogant to take up the position that as an English-speaking person, I don't need to learn a second language. Especially in a multicultural city like Vancouver.

So I'm thinking of taking a language course to help me understand people better. The only question left is which one it should be.

Functionally speaking, Mandarain is the logical choice. It's the #2 most widespread language on the planet after all and the Chinese presence in Vancouver is massive to put it mildly. However, (and no offence intended toward the Chinese community) I don't really like the language. It's tonal and not "smooth" at all really. I'd much rather learn Japanese or Korean despite the fact that they are less useful in my current position.

So I'm asking you for input. As a unilingual anglophone, what language would you choose to learn? What do you think would be best for me? Once you understand it, is Mandarain as unpleasant as I feel it is, or would Cantonese be a better choice?

March 14, 2007 01:20 +0000  |  Moments In Time Multiculturalism Toronto 3

The snow has finally melted. The air is actually warm again, and wearing a tshirt out without 3inches of down between you and the elements is no longer a risky idea. I'm working rather late at my desk, and as 8:30pm rolls by, I hear banging outside in the city streets below. A few more explosions and I hop over to the window:

There are fireworks in Mel Lastman Square

I do a quick check through my brain's limited list of special calendar dates and find nothing. Regardless, the boom-booms stop and I get back to work: only a few more lines before this ini class is finished.

I clear up my desk, make room for the cleaning lady to vacuum beneath me and saunter out the front door of my building at about 9pm to bask in the cool/warm weather the city has granted me... and then, I hear music.

The streets of North York are strangely busy at this time of night. Busier, I might say, than they were at lunch time earlier today. There's music down near the square and people are jay-walking all over the place. Traffic is at a standstill and for a moment, Yonge in North York looks like Bloor in the Annex. I follow the crowd and the music to a giant mob filling up the square and start looking around for a clue as to the occasion.

People are dancing, socialising, and making out, and nowhere is there a banner or a sign to help an ignorant guy out. The crowd is largely multi-racial, ranging in ages 3 to 93, and so I ask a complete stranger: "So what's the deal here?"

The guy explains that today is the Iranian New Year's eve. As Iran works on the Lunar calendar, this is the last Wednesday before the Spring Solstice -- the start of the year in Iran. He apologises for not having more detail; his memory is foggy having moved to Canada over 30years ago and he doesn't have all the information on hand. I smile and thank him for the info, linger for a little bit but head back so I can be home on time to meet Melanie on time. But as I walk up the steps away from the square, I turn and see something that makes me smile: there, surrounded by thousands of dancing Iranian expats, is a steel big menorah, erected when the square was built years ago.

This is why I love Toronto.