Six months ago, I moved to Port Alberni for a job. I moved from Vancouver, a metropolis of over two million people, to a small town of less than one percent of that population. Over these six months, I have gained a good understanding of this place by meeting the locals, both people who have moved to this town and people who have spent their entire lives in this town.
Whenever I leave my hometown for any length of time, I realize that people living in Vancouver are fortunate to lead such a sheltered and comfortable life. Yes, perhaps it is a gross generalization, but even those who are perceived to be struggling in Vancouver tend not to be struggling so hard.
This place moves slow, I told myself, driving along one of the “busy” roads stuck behind a full logging truck and a derelict Ford pickup sputtering on what I assumed would be its last trip on the road. Mildly annoyed and indicative of the more aggressive driver hidden inside of me, the delay had made me five minutes late for work, which didn’t matter too much to my co-workers.
A conversation with an elderly janitor in this small town revealed a hardworking man with a passion and talent for art. He showed me a small acrylic painting of a sparrow alight on a thin branch and told me of his passion for nature. His old pickup skidded on an icy road in January when a flash snowstorm blanketed the roads with snow and ice as he was travelling to one of the many buildings he cleaned. These roads were tens of kilometers outside of the city; they were work sites, mills, and other remote locations. He didn’t mind the tough work; at times, he would clean pitch, tar, and other nasty substances. His truck was wrecked beyond repair and he made barely above minimum wage. He sold the beautiful pieces for only a fraction above the cost it would take to make them. The sparrow painting was intended for a friend, and for him it seemed like their support was payment enough.
In my experience, Port Alberni hasn’t really lived up to its moniker “Port Abysmal”. When googled, the top result for the town is “the worst place to live in Canada”, and if that actually held true, Canada would be a paradise. I wouldn’t jump to its defense, but I am swayed by what some would call small town charm. Yes, there is crime and shady characters, but so do most towns.
I have met several people, young and old, who have spent their whole lives in the Alberni Valley. While generally kind people, they tend to be narrow-minded and set in their ways. Residents tend to enjoy pastimes that bring them close to nature; hunting, trapping and fishing are very popular, as the town is surrounded by plentiful forests and lakes. Residents tend to be laborers, working in the mills that drive the town’s economy. Strong handed and strong willed, they are a bit rough around the edges, but are also willing to help an inexperienced city boy with little practical knowledge.
A few of my co-workers have traveled to Port Alberni from other Canadian provinces, lured by the west coast appeal of mild weather and the promise of a job. Winters are short in this town, with only a few days of snow and an abundance of fog and rain during the winter months. After March, the temperature in our valley heats up and the sun bathes the worn-out logging roads and aged buildings with a friendly glow. “It’s so much better here than in Southern Ontario”, one of my co-workers mentions. “There’s great trails to take my bike and the winters aren’t so bad here.”
I vehemently disagreed with him. “We have great places all along the west coast, especially near Vancouver,” I answered. “Vancouver has a more rural feel in the suburbs, but you are always close to the thriving center of the city.” I ended telling him about the numerous benefits of the city, but in my mind, I knew that the city had many other frustrating aspects like the traffic, rudeness and overcrowded public spaces.
I found myself defending Vancouver as my home, seven months after I have moved away. Technically, have I moved? I still feel like a traveler in this town. I know the limited roads off the top of my head and I have eaten at most of the restaurants in town. I have talked to the locals, and I work for one of the established names in this town. But I was born and raised on the tranquil suburban streets of Vancouver, surrounded by the many different cultures and quiet tolerance of Vancouverites. No matter where I go, Vancouver will always be my home.