Yet another travelogue: Vancouver, BC, Day 3

25 March 2014

I’ve written about this before, but my paternal grandfather was a merchant ship captain — technically still is, since he remains a master mariner, though he’s in his 90s and has been retired for decades now. His father was also a master mariner, as was his father before him. And so on, for generations.

So, whenever I have the excuse to do so, I like to hit maritime museums, and Vancouver has one, out in the Kitsilano area. The museum sits across False Creek from downtown and faces English Bay; we saw its distinctive A-frame building from the English Bay Beach yesterday.

I was eager to visit it regardless, because it’s a maritime museum and because, in our limited experience, Canada seems to do its history museums right — we were impressed by all the ones we visited in Prince Edward Island years ago, and the Vancouver Maritime Museum today was no different. But I was especially excited because that A-frame building also houses the RCMP vessel St. Roch. I don’t mean a model of the ship (though the museum holds dozens of gorgeous model ships); I don’t mean a replica of the ship. I mean that the actual artic sea vessel, bow to stern, keel to crow’s nest, sits inside the building.

And I love boarding historic ships.

I love standing at the helm, hand on old-fashioned wheel, and I love exploring below decks, poking my head into the sleeping quarters and the mess. But I didn’t realize going in just exactly what made this ship so special. Turns out, this is the ship that finally made it across the fabled Northwest Passage. Actually, another ship had made the arduous and often fatal voyage before, so the St. Roch was the second to sail east to west through the artic, but it was the first to make the journey coming the other direction, west to east. So, standing aboard that humble but sturdy and well-preserved vessel, you are literally standing aboard history.

The rest of the museum is equally amazing (there is an exceptional exhibit on the immigration of Punjabi Sikhs to Canada, including a starkly honest appraisal of Canada’s racist past — and present — in language that American pride and politics would rarely allow, and it was both astounding and refreshing to behold; the museum’s sections on the Inuit peoples was equally honest and applause-worthy), and while we arrived concurrent with a field trip of what looked like kindergarteners, the museum staff and the school’s chaperons did an excellent job of maintaining order, and we thoroughly enjoyed the whole visit.

Afterward, we headed down to trendy 4th St. to window-shop and find some food. (The Kitsilano neighborhood came highly recommended, not only by our guidebook but also by our chiropractor, whose husband is Canadian.) The shops were fun but not tempting enough to part us from our cash, but then we found lunch at a little restaurant called Naam, and just like that, I fell in love.

Naam has been around since the 70s, when Kitsilano was Vancouver’s hippie-central and 4th St. was called Rainbow Road, and the vibe of the place remains true to that heritage, complete with old wooden tables and mismatched chairs, the brick accent walls and the dark wood trim, a little wood-burning stove for heat and a carved-wood banquette for teas and coffee, prayer flags and paintings of trees and photos of buddhas. The overhead lamps had shades of handmade paper. The sound system played the first CAKE album in its entirety. Even the people seemed part of the décor: from the street, I saw pairs of middle-aged white women eating sandwiches and pairs of young Asian women eating ramen; as we entered, I spotted an elderly Sikh man waiting for his bill and a young hipster in a punk tshirt under his long lotus-bead mala and black linen jacket talking politics with a friend; we were greeted by a kid who looked like a young Matthew Broderick, a self-declared nerd who asked about the buttons on my bag (the Autobot symbol, the Thundercats logo, a cartoon Superman, a Bayou magazine button, a Reading Frenzy button, and a button that reads “writer”); we were served water by a girl in a hand-knit TMNT sweater; one of the waitresses wore a black smiley-face tshirt and kept her long dreds under a backward ball cap; our waiter wore an argyle-print shirt under a plain, unbuttoned dress shirt. In short, this was the kind of local place where literally everyone feels welcome and at ease, a kind of neighborhood living room. It was the sort of relaxed, hip atmosphere we were expecting at the Melriches coffeehouse yesterday — Naam got that vibe right, and then some.

Also, it boasts a hell of a menu: Mexican, Asian-fusion, burgers and dogs, chili and soups, and it’s all vegetarian — no meat allowed — and it included loads of vegan and gluten-free options as well. Jennifer had the chili with a giant salad, hearty home-baked bread, and a local honey brown lager; I had a Sam’s Five-Star Burger (that’s actually the name of the burger patty, handmade at Naam, and it’s hands-down the best veggie burger I’ve ever had, anywhere, ever) with sesame fries (actually thick potato wedges with sesame seeds clinging to them, served with a miso gravy instead of ketchup), a giant salad, and a local IPA.

I’m carrying on like this about a lunch because it was simply that fantastic. The whole experience. It was easily the highlight of my day — I even bought a tshirt advertising the place! If you’re ever in Vancouver, this is where you want to have lunch and/or dinner. Hell, if you’re not in Vancouver, come visit this town just so you can have a meal at Naam. Seriously. It’s that good.

Eventually, though, we had to move on, so we kept strolling down 4th St. and window-shopping. Despite how full we were from lunch, we even stopped in at Sophie’s Cosmic Café for one of their famous milkshakes (strawberry, and it was delicious) while taking in the kitschy diner décor and enjoying the classic Johnny Cash playing over the sound system. Finally, though, we caught a bus back downtown to the Vancouver Art Museum, which opens up Tuesday evenings for “by donation” entries, which is cheaper than regular admission.

As excellent as Canada’s history museums have proven to be, the country apparently needs to work on its art museums. The Vancouver Art Museum is touted as one of the best and largest art museums in the country, and it’s a fine museum and a beautiful building, but if this is one of the largest, the rest must be pitifully small. Also, the whole first floor is currently devoted to Lawren Harris in part because he is recognized (in this museum, anyway) as one of the most important figures in defining and supporting Canadian art, but the glowing and insistent language the exhibit uses implies that Canada hasn’t actually had a strong history of support for the arts, or at least for visual arts.

(Actually, where the Vancouver Maritime Museum today and the Stanley Park totem poles yesterday did an excellent job promoting the value and importance of First Nations art and culture in Canada, the Vancouver Art Museum seems to have an almost exclusively white, European/North American bias in its collection and presentation, which I thought odd. It might be true that Harris promoted and preserved the Canadian art scene, but only because no one was — or is, in this museum — including Native arts in that scene. Apparently, they’re still “other.”)

While I’m not generally a fan of the kind of modernist abstract art that Harris eventually settled on in his later career, I found his early transitional work quite exciting, especially his bold use of texture and stylized line in his expressionist landscapes. And it made for an excellent companion to the third-floor exhibit of Edward Burtynsky photographs, a powerful, moving artistic statement about our place in the natural world and our role in the planet’s transformation (one might say destruction).

I only wish we hadn’t had to pass through the oddly out-of-place exhibit of Myfawny MacLeod’s ultra-modern art, which consists mostly of found objects and middle-fingers (sometimes literally) to establishment attitudes. If the exhibit had been a student show, displaying pieces in which a young artist is exploring her artistic world and figuring out how she wants to express herself, I would have found the art interesting, some of it even exciting. But given MacLeod’s existing career and alleged standing in the local Vancouver art community, the whole thing came off as weirdly unrealized, immature even. Even then, it might not have seemed so disappointing had it not served as an out-of-place buffer between the Harris and the Burtynsky, which made such great companion exhibits I wish they’d been presented back-to-back, without the intervention of MacLeod.

Anyway, by the time we’d finished with the museum, we were ready for some dinner, so we headed to La Bodega, a little tapas place downtown that Jennifer found. The décor here might seem corny at first — plastered walls with wrought-iron gates and amber lamps, inexpensive poster-prints of lesser Picassos, the Gypsy Kings playing over the stereo — but it’s actually so over the top “Spanish” that it’s kind of charming. I figure if a place is going to go faux-authentic, they might as well go all in, and La Bodego freaking commits. Also, the food is good (fairly excellent, considering how relatively inexpensive it is), and the half-pitcher of fresh-made sangria, full of orange slices and apple wedges, that Jennifer and I shared was the perfect refreshing end-of-day complement to our meal.

In fact, it was a perfect way to end our day overall, as Jennifer and I sipped sangria and discussed art and food and history and culture. It was the kind of evening that makes me love travelling with my wife — these long, reflective discussions we have, they feel like a kind of recurring fifteenth date, where we’re perfectly comfortable with each other but we’re still discovering things about each other, still surprising each other, still finding new things to say. I don’t know if travelling simply provides us with new topics to discuss or if it’s something subtler, like the journey changes the context of our usual conversations and we find new ways to say old things. But I always delight in these moments, even after seventeen years together. And despite my gushing about lunch earlier, if Jennifer asks, this is actually my favorite thing today, and most days.

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