not so secret squirrels

thoughts from my new home

Thursday, July 30, 2009

A new home

Disclaimer: Too tired to make this sound pretty.

It's been a week since we moved to Kinbasket Lake last Saturday, to our new jobs and home. We got on the road straight after I finished work on friday (Simon did the entire move and apartment clean alone, what a dude!) and were out of the city in about 2 hours flat (heaps of traffic) and then finally hit some beauty as we moved into the BC interior in our sweet family van. It felt so good to be putting the city behind us and we were so stoked as we started to see mountains pop up and mirror-still lakes outside the windows. It was awesome. We stopped a night at a sleazy motel room in Kamloops, drank wine, ate pizza, felt ill, decided never to eat pizza again. Then got up and drove the rest of the way here.

The journey over Roger's Pass was incredible. The mountains just kept getting bigger and more spectacular as we got closer to them, then we were up among them and everything looked like a postcard. The water is a bright cloudy aqua blue and the trees are true forest green, like an old MG. The rocks around the edges of the water have quartz in them so they are shot with icy sparkles. Kinbasket is down a dirt road near the top of Roger's Pass and it zigzags down to the campground, where we were first greeted with the house that I am writing this from - an old wooden two storey farmhouse perched on the edge of the banks of (and will probably be inside of in the future) the Beaver river, with antlers over the doorways and swallows nests in the rafters. The only noise here, aside from campers and the odd power tool from the maintenance crew (Simon and Eric), is the sound of trains passing - but even that is quite pleasant. They sound their horns in the night and sometimes I wake up, but compared to Vancouver's sirens and screams, it is nothing. I even kind of like it.

Let's start with today because it is the most fresh in my memory ('s 10.48pm and I have been working since around the same hour this morning so my brain is fried). Today was a little crazy, although it started off calmly. Our boss Rick went into town this morning so I was in charge of the reception area, which was fine with me. It's nice chatting with people and knowing who is camping. That way when I am walking around later people say hi and we can chat. At about 3pm rick called to say his truck had broken down, so I was basically in the front desk area all day. So far, so calm. Today there were so many hummingbirds around. I think they have taken over the top spot (previously taken by elephants) in my favourite animal stake. They are so fucking cool. They hover like tiny helicopters, swooping and darting over and around obstacles as fast as a fly. They get exceptionally feisty around the hummingbird feeder and often have little altercations with each other over who gets to feed from it. It's a constant battle of the wings, little wing blades bashing together making a louder whir, then darting away and back at it again. They are about the size of a moth. I have never seen anything like them. Eric is a good bird spotter and radios me when he sees something interesting - a hawk or osprey gliding over the lake. Oh god I havent even mentioned the lake yet. It changes by the hour, the mix of green in the aqua blue, the level of cloudiness, the movement of the ripples across its surface. Everything. It never seems to stay the same.

So getting back to today, after Rick finally got back with the truck all fixed, we looked out the windows and saw a storm coming across the lake. Like a grey wall of mist. Then, suddenly, it landed. This house is old and it doesnt take kindly to wind, as I found. Simon and Eric were outside making picnic tables (which is also cool to watch, so professional looking!) and they were suddenly scrambling to retrieve pieces of wood and the cans and bottles from the recycling area. Tornados of dust were flying around the campsite, hitting us in the face. I struggled to get the doors closed as the house was suddenly full of conflicting gusts. Something smashed upstairs, then something else (windows in Rick's room). Doors banged, pictures fell off hooks. I ran around pulling windows and doors shut as fast as I could. Rick was pulling the hanging plants off their hooks and picking up the plastic deck chairs. Then, just as suddenly, it was over. It rained for a while (not long enough - there is a fire ban here cos it is so dry) and we picked up the debris and went back inside, equals parts exhausted and excited. It was kinda cool. Then thunder echoed around the lake for half an hour or so and we were back to normal. Other stuff happened this afternoon to make it feel more manic, but at the moment it is all blurred into the storm...there was puke in the bathrooms which I had to squirt away with a high pressure hose, I remember that. Anyway, the point is that every day is totally different.

Some more interesting facts:

  • Cool thing: We swim in the lake most lunchbreaks. Ahhhh, incredibly refreshing.
  • It is weird living so far from a shop. We bought what we thought was a week's worth of groceries but they have lasted five days and we are out.
  • We have been working pretty long hours. I now know the difference between a 30 hour week and a 50 hour week. I am so tired right now, physically tired.
  • It's awesome though. I am glad we did it.
  • Bedtime.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Reading and writing

I have been reading a lot. And I have been thinking about each book I read and about how it is structured. I feel as though I have entered a whole new world with my writing, one that is influenced and encouraged by each of the stories I read. Recently I finished Michael Ondaatje's Divisadero, a present from my sister. It has such a strong atmosphere, one of smokey country villages and low cloud hanging over farmland. Of horses and steam and fire. Of eating in diners, playing cards for money in desert trailers and waiting for news that never comes. And it is structured in such a way that each of the characters' stories - whole, but told separately - seems just as important and exciting as the last. You never miss a character when you are done with them, despite how in love you were with the last voice.

Alice Sebold's The Almost Moon takes a different angle to story telling. Like The Lovely Bones and I hear also like her book Lucky, the main subject and action of the story comes first. With that out of the way, she delves backwards to tell how the characters came to be in this situation, as well as forwards to show the repercussions. This is very effective, but I wonder if it removes the suspense somewhat.

Below is an excerpt from a scene I decided was needed in my book after I read a Vancouver author called Elizabeth Woods' book Beyond the Pale. In her very formulaic but readable novel, a hugely suspenseful and violent scene happens right near the end, allowing the character to complete her development and reach a conclusion. This is Creative Writing 101, the story arc incarnate, but it works. So I decided to give it a go. This is out of context, so it might not make any sense, but I hope it has some sense of urgency in it.

Excerpt from Freida's final chapter:

In the garden I threw the bags over the fence to Jonno, who was waiting to catch them. The driveway still seemed too dangerous, despite nobody being at the house.

“Tai’s still sleeping,” he whispered as he helped me down from the tree.

“Good,” I said. We crept back up towards the car and packed the things away. Jonno took the driver’s seat so I walked around to the passenger door and got in. We looked at each other, the whites of our eyes glowing in the darkness.

“Ready?” he asked. I nodded. He hesitated before turning the ignition, and just as the engine came to life, we heard a sound that threw us both into panic. Sirens, far away now but getting closer and louder with every second. Jonno threw the car into reverse and launched it onto the road. The sirens sounded like they were coming from Coromandel; he took the chance and headed in the opposite direction, headlights off and speed well beyond the legal limit. I clung to the handle on the inside of the door. Tai was screaming in fright but neither of us could begin to placate him. We swung around corner after corner, until eventually we headed down the hill towards the Thames Coast road. Tai didn’t stop crying, his wails echoing the sirens, which had faded and eventually, all but disappeared. We had gotten away, but that didn’t stop Jonno, who was still driving far too fast for the blind corners, kicking up dust as we screeched around the waterfront. I put out a hand and touched him gently on the wrist. He shot a look my way and nodded, turning the headlights on at last. But he didn’t slow down.

“Driven these roads so many times,” he said. But it didn’t make me feel better at all.

Eventually we found ourselves at Tapu, about halfway around the coast road to Thames. Jonno took a left and started up the road to Coroglen. The road was rough and unpaved but still he didn’t slow until we had reached the other side, a good hour later, by which time Tai was silent. I looked back at him as we rolled past the Coroglen Tavern. He was still awake and his eyes looked huge and sad in the moonlight. I felt tears rolling down my face and Jonno reached a hand over and touched my knee, squeezing it gently. Finally, he pulled over into a picnic area next to a narrow river and turned the car off. I exhaled. We sat in silence for a few moments, listening to the watery sounds of the river.

“What now?” I said.

“We should lay low I guess.” He got out of the car and walked away into the darkness. I leaned back against my seat, eyes closed, and waited for the tears to stop coming. When I had finally composed myself I took off my seatbelt and turned around to look at Tai again. He was staring out the window, a wild look on his face. His little hands were clutching the sides of his car seat. I reached over and stroked the fingers of his right hand. He regarded me thoughtfully, then looked down at my fingers. We waited like that in silence until Jonno came back. He opened the car door and got in.

“Where are we?” I asked.

“There’s a little bay further up that way, you can get to it along the side of the river. I saw a bach there and it looks like it’s empty.”

“What if it’s not?”

“It is; I looked in the windows. There are no cars anywhere nearby and the place is deserted. The bathroom window has louvers; I can easily get them out, then Ill open the door.”

I didn’t like the idea but I didn’t know what else to do. We had already broken so many laws it seemed fruitless to stop now. And we needed somewhere to put Tai down for the night, somewhere inconspicuous and safe. Sleeping in the car didn’t seem like a good option. Jonno turned the car back on and drove across the grass, parking it close to the hedge that grew alongside the footpath. Anyone walking down the road would not be able to see it and it was blocked from view by anyone driving by too, but if they pulled into the picnic spot it would be obvious. Jonno assured me that this wasn’t a main road, so picnickers were unlikely, at least until the weekend.

We took Tai and the bags and walked along the banks of the river. I could hear small waves breaking in the distance. When we reached the beach, the tide was out and my nostrills filled with the smells of seaweed and dead shellfish. But as promised, the little bach was empty. It was small and perched on the scrubby grass above the sand. Behind it was a clutch of trees, so we wouldn’t easily be seen from the road. It was a good hiding place, but as Jonno pointed out, the owners could arrive at any time. We had to be prepared to make a quick getaway, again.

After Jonno had broken us in, I put Tai to bed in the bedroom, tucking him in with his blanket and cat and singing him a hurried lullaby that I could see even he knew was futile. Jonno was sitting in a ragged armchair when I got back. The bach was made up of three rooms: the bedroom, the open-plan living space and kitchen, and a tiny bathroom that seemed to have been tacked on as an afterthought, probably when the owners got sick of hiking to the outhouse at the back of the property, which was still there but had half fallen down. I sat in the other chair, a threadbare Lazyboy covered in a rough, green fabric that itched my skin through my trousers. My entire body felt drained; my legs ached. I groaned, pulling the fingers of both hands through my hair and rubbing my skull. It had been a long day. Jonno didn’t react; his unblinking gaze concentrated towards the windows, where we could see the sun beginning to rise over the water. It was actually quite beautiful, but I didn’t have the energy to appreciate it. As if reading my thoughts, Jonno got up and pulled the curtains over the windows, muttering to himself. Without saying anything to him, I slumped to the bedroom, and was falling into unconsciousness within seconds, one arm tucked around Tai's small, warm waist.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Wolves and bears and...feelings...awww

So, we have been here just over two months now and sometimes I feel as though I could stay, sometimes I feel as though I would love to go. We visited the mountain town of Revelstoke and that got us excited for the small town feeling. The quiet, the mountains, the opportunities that come with a limited population. And then we came back and we had our first day volunteering up Grouse Mountain for the wildlife refuge - and we were all about Vancouver again.
The wildlife refuge work is amazing. On the training day we got to hand feed Grizzly bears through a fence. I felt a Grizzly's tongue on my hand. I saw his huge claws up close. It was frightening and surreal and incredible. I could have stroked him. They have two Grizzlies at Grouse, Grinder and Coola. They are both males and were both destined to be put down if a habitat wasn't found for them. Grouse Mountain Wildlife Refuge has set up a sweet pad for the bears. They have 5 acres of open mountainous land, with a swimming pond in summer, plus a hibernation den/ inside area for shelter and warmth and long winter sleeps. When we fed them the first time they had just woken from hibernation and they were being fed lettuce to wake up their digestive systems. Then, last weekend, they were on to carrots and lettuce in slightly larger quantities. This time one of them - Grinder - was quite bulshy. He was growling a lot and scraping at the ground, trying to get out and get at the food we were holding. Being inside a Grizzly's hibernation den while they are on the other side of a metal fence, growling and trying to dig their under, is pretty scary. The ranger - Nadine - kicked the fence to try to scare him away, something which she says she hates doing. 
We also get to feed the wolves. They have four wolves named (unimaginatively, I think, but I guess it keeps things simple) Alpha, Beta and Omega. Alpha - surprise, surprise - is the dominant one, the pack leader, followed by Beta and then Omega. Because of this pack heirarchy, when we feed them we have to do it in order. Alpha eats first, then the other two in turn. I'm not sure what exactly would happen if we threw the food to the wrong wolf, but I am not about to find out. Last weekend we fed them chunks of cow with the hide still on. Mmmm-mmm.

Aside from the animals, Vancouver is a buzz with Canucks fever. The hockey team has won 4 games in a row against the St Louis Blues. I am told it was a best of 7 thing, so now they are definitely moving on to the finals (I think! I am a little hazy on how the hockey works). Anyway, there was much jubilation in the streets last night. Car horns tooting, people shouting and cheering. It went on for over an hour. Simon and I looked out our window and tried to figure out what the big deal was - they had won games before but this sounded massive. In the morning I read the paper and found out that they had never in playoff history had a four in a row win. Maybe they will make it to the Stanley Cup. I was never a rugby follower at home but hockey seems pretty fun. Plus, when in makes sense to follow what the locals are up to.

In other news, I have reduced my hours at work so that I finish at 3, not 4. This gives me an hour to work on my writing. I have started looking through my novel and am so far unimpressed. I think working on a magazine killed my style. I am going to do some practice warm ups and some rewrites this week to try to get it back. My sentences seem so stilted and cold. Every now and then I write a little gem of a description so Im sure it's still in there somewhere...

We are planning a trip to Montreal in May for the long weekend. Can't wait for that. Yowww!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Vancouver: ten things

Vancouver: Ten things I love about you

I do love my new home. I could definitely write more than ten reasons why, but here is the short list.

  1. The 8-4 working day. Ingenious. It doesn’t feel so much like an 8-hour day when you finish while it’s still light and have a few shopping hours left to run errands. I feel like this is part of what casts a happy feeling over the city – the people have a life outside of their offices, which doesn’t just involve going home to the box.
  1. Which brings me to another point – the shops are open at night. This might not seem like a big deal if you are from anywhere but New Zealand, where there is late night shopping one night per week in some malls. Just about everywhere in Auckland closes at 5; this isn’t much help when you finish work at the same time.
  1. The view from my apartment window. And from pretty much everywhere. I can’t get enough of the combination of crisp grey and white mountains and deep, glacial blue sea, especially when coupled with the deep forest green of the trees at Stanley Park.
  1. Wild Spring flowers. This has only just begun to happen. Little irises and tulips poking their heads out of the ground wildly and haphazardly, wherever there is some dirt to grow from. I also appreciate the lack of rubbish on the streets, at least in the area where I live – and the way people are so big on recycling here.
  1. The movie store actually pays me to bring back my DVDs on time. And if I don’t, well that’s okay too. They’ll just call after a while and offer me the opportunity to buy the movies instead. No more late fees or hurrying to return a one-night new release rental before 6pm the following day! Yay!
  1. The public transport in Vancouver is around 60% easier to use and more efficient than that in Auckland. I like the way you can transfer to another bus/train/ferry with the same ticket if you use it 90 minutes or less after you first traveled. It makes sense to make transit cheap and easy.
  1. In my hometown, when you finish your drink you usually have to go back up to the bar to get another one, unless you are in a swanky establishment. In Vancouver, the waitress or bartender offers you another before you have even drained the first. That’s service (and one up to tipping).
  1. When you walk around downtown Vancouver you get this sense of warm relaxation from the people walking past you…Apart from the odd ranting panhandler. I also love the range of ethnicities and how integrated they all are into the population. The range of food – a product of the multicultural society – is also a huge plus!
  1. I love snow, so when everyone else is moaning about the mid March snowfall I am that one smiling as they walk down the street, passing my gloved hand over the dusted shrubs on the way and sticking my arm out to catch the small, quick-melting flakes.
  1. Being able to snowboard in powder 45 minutes from my downtown apartment, which is in the middle of the city and yet also 5 minutes from a huge park. How cool is that? Can I also just add that I love Mounties?

Vancouver: Ten things I hate about you

So, hate is definitely too strong a word, but there are movie references to consider here. These are ten things I don’t understand about my new home.

  1. Cheques. Most of the world left cheques behind a long time ago, but for some reason North America clings to them. I had never heard the concept of giving your landlord post-dated cheques for the next few months rent – until I came here. I don’t mind doing it, but it’s just that an automatic payment direct from my bank account to his would be easier and less time-consuming for all concerned. 
  1. I have a temp job as a mail trolley clerk – a position I had never even heard of before coming here. Surely most of this correspondence could be carried out over email.
  1. Toilet stalls. Why don’t the doors reach the floor, or at least somewhere near it? I find it disconcerting when I can see someone else’s pants rolled around their ankles in the stall next to me.
  1. The other day I was walking past a taxi that had just pulled up, when the passenger opened the door, stepped out and spat at the ground near my feet. I would understand the spitting if this was the Wild West, but I have been to Wyoming and I didn’t see as much saliva there. Is there a bad taste in your mouth Vancouver?
  1. This is one for North America in general: why add tax afterwards instead of including it in the labeled price? 
  1. The shootings are pretty scary, especially for a girl who comes from a country where police don’t even carry guns. I understand this is all quite unusual for Vancouver, or at least I get that feeling by how widely it is covered in the newspapers, but that doesn’t stop it from being worrying.
  1. Maybe it’s because it isn’t prevalent in New Zealand, but I have noticed that absolutely everyone says ‘you’re welcome’ after you say thank you to them. Which isn't a bad thing, just different!
  1. The people at the phone company are idiots, but I think that is worldwide.
  1. The way almost every store is part of a chain is a bit unimaginative. I seek out the independents, but sometimes it’s difficult. I have even occasionally used what I thought was an independent outlet, only to find another one further down the street.
  1. Over 200 Starbucks. Almost every street corner is encumbered with those monstrous green and white signs, with laptop users in every window. Up the road from me there are two Starbucks directly across the intersection from one another…It’s like that episode of The Simpsons…

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Stanley Park

About two weeks ago me and my husband Simon moved to Vancouver from our hometown of Auckland, New Zealand. We live close to Stanley Park, which is a bonus. There are all sorts of animals that live there, which make me happy. I was thinking today that I probably won't even notice them after a while...but for now the squirrels and raccoons and herons and Canadian geese are a thrill. Today we bought some walnuts and fed some squirrels. It was raining - as it often is in Vancouver - so there weren't many around, but the ones that came out to brave the rain were pretty stoked with our walnuts. We later learned it was illegal to feed them - oops! We saw one that was holding his tail over his head like an umbrella. He was a more seasoned Vancouverite than us, who forgot to bring any wet weather gear on our walk. 

That little squirrel guy was on my mind when I was naming this blog.

We live on the seventeenth floor of an apartment building in downtown Vancouver. The view from our bedroom/lounge/study (it's a studio apartment) contains both harbour and mountains.

I can't get enough of this. I love mountains, but on the most part if you live in a mountain town you sacrifice seaside living. Not here. And the sealife seems incredible so far. On a ferry back
 from Granville Island - a market of shops and restaurants with a good brewery - there was the largest starfish I have ever seen. Put your arms out in front of you and link them in a circle. That's how big he was. Unless you happen to have very long arms. I'm also almost certain I saw a whale when we were driving the Sea to Sky Highway to Whistler last week.

People in this town come from everywhere. There are as many Asian people as there were back  in Auckland, so I guess this is a good place to study English. Japanese is a particularly strong culture, and there are many Japanese restaurants along Robson Street, which is one block from our house. There are also plenty of French-speaking people and a lot of Kiwis and Australians around, which is almost disappointing. But at least it shows that this is a place where anyone can settle. We were kinda hoping to be a bit of a novelty.

We spent a few days in Whistler, which is run by Australians. It was funny - almost every shopkeeper or waitress had an Aussie accent. There wasn't a lot of snow while we were there but it was mostly awesome weather and the views were amazing. Apparently now it's had three more feet of snow...but we have to be here to find work. Whistler almost broke the bank.

In the coming weeks I hope to be able to document my employment in Vancouver. That will complete the picture. We have the apartment and we've accumulated all the things we need for that - a bed, a table and chairs, cutlery, pots etc - so not we just need to make it sustainable. In the meantime, I will just keep writing...