Waiting For The Ferry

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When I lived in Gimli, Manitoba, I splashed through spring, swam through summer, danced through fall with the swirling leaves and skated through winter. The seasons were everything. They were anticipated, enjoyed, never mind the wet days of April, the sunburn of July, the first cold winds and frozen puddles of October, the blizzards and frigid temperatures of January and February.

When I agreed to come to the West Coast, little did I know those rhythms, those spring days when the temperature rose to zero and it felt so warm after the winter that we strode down the muddy streets with our jackets wide open, would disappear from my life. In place of spruce trees, poplar and paper birch, there’d be massive firs and Garry Oaks and arbutus.

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In place of wild raspberries and high bush cranberries and saskatoons, we’d pick blackberries on the roadsides. In place of pickerel fillets fried to a golden brown, pickerel cheeks served in sweet and sour sauce, baked whitefish, smoked goldeye, we seek out salmon, pink and red, halibut and cod. In foraging in the forest, we’d not risk frostbite or freezing to death but dying of hypothermia because of wet and wind. In place of Lake Winnipeg, there’d be the Pacific Ocean and, instead of the shimmering eastern shore of the lake, we’d have the lights of Port Angeles.

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Manitoba was all about highways, threading themselves to Winnipeg, to Brandon, to Ontario, north to Dauphin and The Pas, south to North Dakota. Here, life is all about ferries. We make our plans by ferry schedules. The ferry leaves Swartz Bay on the odd hour. The ferry leaves Fulford Harbour at ten minutes the even hour. Our trips to Vancouver are laid out like military strategies. Catch the seven o’clock at Swartz Bay, arrive at Tswassen at 8:45, arrive in downtown Vancouver at 10:00, constantly keep in mind the last two sailing times back to Victoria. A night sleeping in the car at the terminal is not a happy night. It’s that or a motel room somewhere reasonably close.

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The rhythm of our lives are the rhythm of the ferries. It is not wise to arrive at the ferry terminal, any ferry terminal, at the last moment. It often means a two hour wait for the next ferry. Of course, you’ll be first in line.

My favorite ferry terminals are at Fulford Harbour and Vesuvius. Both have small communities where you can do a little tourist shopping and get a good cup of coffee.

Recently, I had over an hour’s wait at Fulford. Welcome to the life of the West Coast Icelanders.

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The Caragana Hedge

When I was a boy, now more than half a century ago, there was a lot of snow. When I’ve said that, I’ve had people say but, Bill, you were a lot shorter then. However, I have markers from that time, the most obvious one being the caragana hedge that grew along the front of the yard. The hedge grew well over my head. In summer, it was clothed in green leaves and when the yellow blooms were out, it was abuzz with bumble bees gathering nectar. I know the nectar was sweet because we plucked the flowers and tasted the nectar. Occasionally, the hedge hid a sparrow’s nest with tiny eggs.

In fall, the leaves turned yellow and fell off the hedge. When the wind blew down from Hudson Bay, driving bitter rain, then snow, the orioles and robins fled south (sensible birds that they were) the caragana hedge grew dark, gathered shadows. Nearby, the mountain ash, planted close to the front door to bring good luck, drooped with clusters of red berries.

Slowly, slowly, as snow fell, as it stopped melting during the day, it began piling up, and the caragana hedge now collected the beginning of drifts. The wind swept the snow over open fields, along Third Avenue, filled the ditches, piled snow against cottages and trees.

Although I earned a quarter or even fifty cents for shoveling snow from people’s sidewalks, no one shoveled the public walk in front of the caragana hedge, the walk that led to school, to Centre Street with its grocery store and post office. People walked where the sidewalk had been, fences and hedges, their guide. They wore a trail on top of the drifts but still the drifts grew until they overreached of the caragana hedge and only a few dark ends revealed where the hedge of summer housed its bees and birds and butterflies. We drank no nectar as the wind whirled snow around us. The mountain ash still held clusters of berries topped with crowns of snow and the occasional small bird would bravely venture out and sit there, dining on frozen berries.

There are no days to match the days during a Manitoba winter when the wind drops, the sky is pale blue, the sun, although weakened, is bright and the snow reflecting the sun dazzles the eyes.

It is these days–the days of skating on the glare ice of Lake Winnipeg, sledding, snowshoeing, chasing a soccer ball over the field–that released us from the house into the blue and white world of friendly winter that we waited for at the window. Days spent playing road hockey, often with frozen horse turds, for horses still pulled sleighs to town  from farms to the west. Our goals were blocks of firewood, our sticks patched together from ones that had been broken during a hockey game and thrown over the boards. These were days when we went back inside, red cheeked and ravenous, pulling off moccasins and heavy jackets and pants, ready for soup and sandwiches, for peanut butter cookies, for steaming mugs of cocoa.

These days released us from days of bitter cold and wind, when ice formed on the windows and I hunched deep inside my parka as I trudged along the road to the train station to wait for the daily newspaper. In summer, I carried the papers in a canvas bag over my shoulder or in the basket of my bike but now, my head covered in a leather helmet with ear flaps tied tight under my chin, my face wrapped around with a red knitted scarf tied at the back of my head, my hands in gloves, inside mittens, my body layered with long wool underwear, with a pair of pants and then wool over pants, a shirt and sweater and over everything my parka. I towed a sledge behind me and on it, a box filled with newspapers. Often I struggled against hard, icy granules driven by a hard wind. Sometimes, I’d turn my back to the wind and walk backwards and, when I had to turn into the wind, I’d bend forward, my  head deep in my fringed hood.

The packed snow on the roads turned to ice and many times I slipped and slid and caught my balance but other times, I fell to one knee or onto my hands. Many homes never shovelled a path from the road to their gate and it meant wading through deep snow in the ditch, over the boulevard, awkwardly opening a gate because of my mittens, opening a storm door and putting the paper between the two doors, then shouting, “Paper.” , then clambering back out to my sleigh.

When I went out to deliver papers or walk the five blocks to the skating rink, I wrapped a wool scarf around my face to protect my lungs. I breathed into the scarf and it was soon thick with my frozen breath. When I got to my destination, I hung up the scarf  in the hope that the ice would melt and that the scarf would dry out before I had to put it back on for my return journey. That seldom happened and when I put it back on, it was still wet and the moment I went outside, the wet wool froze stiff

In recent years when I’ve  een in Manitoba in winter, I’ve driven through puddles in January, slogged through slush on city streets. Something like this was inconceivable during my childhood. The first time there was melting was in early spring when, during the day, the top of the snow would warm and would freeze at night so a fine glaze settled over the snow. The snow banks began to shrink and, for me, the progress of spring was the gradual reappearance of the caragana hedge until, finally, in late spring, all that was left of winter, were the stubborn, hard crusted small drifts that lingered in the hedge’s shade.

I have no idea what Victoria was like when I was a child. During my time here, 1974-present, there has been little winter. Occasionally, we  have blizzards, I got caught in one on Salt Spring Island shortly after the first time I went there to visit. I was trapped for four days. The power was out. It was cold, miserable, and by the end of the ordeal, I valued heat, light and hot water more than ever but it wasn’t Manitoba in winter with no heat, light or hot water.

It is not just that the weather is different but the landscape changes everything. Gimli is flat. Victoria is hilly, I now live on a ridge and the road down is steep. Even a small amount of snow or ice can create a dangerous, uncontrollable skid. Ice or snow appears and the city comes to a standstill. For two or three days after a snowtorm, the people revel in taking out toboggans and sleds that have sat unused in garages and basements for years.  They slide down the roads, in the parks, for wherever there are slopes, and they are endless,  the possibility of swooshing down, squealing, laughing, tipping over, having winter fun, creates images usually only seen on Christmas cards. Here, a snowfall is not about winter drudgery but a chance, once in a long while, to recreate Christmas scenes.

Here, people wrap their palm trees in sacking against the cold and drying wind. Here, we get drenching rains. Everything is wet during the winter. Instead of cold proof, clothes are water proof. Hypothermia is a problem. I cover my plants with mulch. As spring approaches and  the rains of winter ease, the temperature goes up and spring is  here with the sudden appearance of snowdrops. Patches of white flowers with their light green leaves, the snowdrops appear everywhere, in gardens, lawns, boulevards, in crevices, for flowers grow here rampant and then appear spring crocuses in clusters and the grape hyacinth in great swaths of colour. My first house came with a small tree that bloomed just after New Years every year, bright pink. No leaves. Just flowers flaming against the still dull yard. I worshipped it.

Palm trees here are a braggart’s tree. We are too far north for palms but in Victoria’s micro climates, protected from wind, they survive. People grow them as an act of defiance.  However, I prefer the Garry Oaks, the arbutus, the Douglas firs.  They do not defy the landscape.

Do I prefer the stately firs of Victoria to the dark spruce hunched against winter in Manitoba? Or the blue camas on the sunny slopes to the shy yellow lady slipper in its boggy shade? Why should I choose? Wherever I am, I hold the other in my memory.

The cargana hedge is gone now. They grow old, as we all do, and die. I thought caragana were immortal but they, too, come to an end. My memories survive, caragana hedge leafing out, its flowers blooming, shedding its leaves, turning dark with cold and disappearing beneath the snow only to appear again with the warming of the sun.

Perhaps, some people say, you exaggerate, winters were never so cold, the snow never so deep, the wind never so strong. There are photographs and records to prove them wrong, of course, those people not capable of understanding anything but their momentary experience. But for me, the best proof of all is my memory of that caragana hedge, higher than the gate, higher than my head, overtopped with drifted snow.

Real Estate Gossip

Address:# 5 1483 BEACH AV, West End, Vancouver West

March 09 V903565 $7,500,000 $0 0%
April 08 V903565 removed
April 18 V944049 $6,900,000 $-600,000 -8%
May 30 V944049 $5,999,000 $-1,501,000 -20%
June 20 V944049 $5,899,000 $-1,601,000 -21%
July 31 V944049 $5,799,950 $-1,700,050 -23%
August 14 V944049 $4,950,000 $-2,550,000 -34%
August 17 V944049 $4,695,000 $-2,805,000 -37%

This table is from the blog site, Vancouver Price Drop. It’s for shock effect. I mean even after the price is off 37%, I couldn’t afford it. Even if it goes down 80%, I couldn’t afford it. Neither, I expect, could you. What would anyone expect to happen with a house priced at 7,500,000?  I mean, how many buyers are out there with 7,500,000 burning a hole in their pocket?

But that’s what has people on the internet whispering, whispering that  the rah rah promo of real estate always going up is becoming less believable. That some real estate agents are now delivering pizza.

Of course, the whispering is about the two major Canadian housing markets in Toronto and Vancouver. I don’t follow the Toronto market but Vancouver has been nuts. Tear down shacks sell for more than a million dollars, more than a million dollars. That means someone is willing to pay a million dollars for a lot, plus closing costs, taxes, and the cost of tearing down the tear down. No price has been too  much because you know prices always go up, houses have gone up ten times what they were bought for in the seventies.

Even in sleepy Victoria, the land of the newly wed and nearly dead, the land of few decent paying jobs, lots of crap jobs selling trinkets or sandwiches to the tourists for minimum wage, house prices have had nothing to do with local employment. There’s the Legislature and, therefore, civil servants but, contrary to what most people believe, most civil servants do not make large salaries. There’s the university. There’s dockyards where ships get built and repaired. The navy. But Victoria isn’t an industrial town. Tourists never bring the locals big money unless the local owns a few tourist traps that employ minimum wage workers. There are the hospitals and the schools.

Real estate agents have been making out like gangbusters. They’ve been selling to the retirees from the provinces on the other side of the mountains. The kind who have sold the farm and want to spend the rest of their life golfing instead of shovelling snow.

My first house, 1971, cost me 47,000. I sold it for 85,000. The buyer sold it for 250,000. It is now assessed at 520,000. Same house. 1915, 2.5 bedrooms, kitchen, formal living room and dining room, lots of built in cupboards and paneling (the builder/owner was a Welsh shipbuilder), one bathroom, an old fashioned basement with a low ceiling. The people I bought from had owned it for three years. They paid 18,000. Can you say “Nuts”? 18,000 to 520,000. For what? A house built in 1915 on a small lot.

I then bought a house that had been on the market for a year. Heritage, double lot, 1929. It needed work.I sold it two years ago for 3.5 times what I paid.

The whisperers say it is coming to an end. People have been buying the most expensive they can manage because real estate only goes up, didn’t ya know. Except anyone who knows anything about the history of real estate (this does not include real estate agents), knows real estate tanks and when it does, it takes everyone and everything with it. Or so the rumour goes.

My grandfather used to regale me with stories of real estate in Winnipeg. He bought a two story brownstone around Osborne. Then his employer cut his wages, then cut his wages, then cut his wages and there were no other jobs. And my grandfather no longer could pay the mortgage and his house was repossessed. He never got over being bitter about it.

He used to tell me about the big houses off Corydon that the owners couldn’t afford to keep up and rented them out, not for cash, but for someone to live in them, heat them, pay the electricity, cover the taxes.

Like the lots around Winnipeg Beach that had gone up to 1,200 dollars. When men were making a dollar a day. And which went down to 50.00 a lot and stayed there for a very long time.

But that was a long time ago and things are different now.

Houses aren’t just homes, they’re ATMs, they’re assets. That’s those things you can turn into money. I’ve got this asset, honey. I think I’ll sell it and we can go on a vacation to Southern France. Except, sometimes, the whisperers say, assets stop being liquid, like nobody wants to buy them anymore. Happens all the time. Businesses go under because no one wants to buy their product. Can’t pay the bills. The creditors refuse any more credit. I worked for a short time for a company that evaluated credit for businesses. Every day I saw small businesses where the stock was illiquid. It hadn’t sold. It was out of fashion. Credit payments were over ninety days late. It’s called going bankrupt. But houses aren’t like that. Someone always wants them.

The whisperers say houses are becoming illiquid. Imagine. You bought a house in the last few years. Your plan was to sell it to finance your retirement. Your assumption was that real estate always goes up, that there is always an eager buyer, no, not a buyer but buyers, just waiting to bid on it, paying even more than you imagined your house was worth. But what if buyers disappear? What if nobody bids? What if there are no offers? What if you lower the price to create, as the real estate agents call it, a better price point but nobody makes an offer? You get the idea. IIliquid.

All the chatter is about Toronto and Vancouver. Of course, what do you expect? The people living in those cities think they’re the centre of the Universe. Everywhere else the prices are still going up, the buyers are outbidding each other in a desperate competition to own a house with granite countertops, Jacuzzis with more jets than anyone else, places like Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Regina. Places where there are lots of jobs. I was in Calgary two days ago. There were posters everywhere asking people to apply for jobs, begging people to apply for jobs. Oil is 95.00 a barrel. The crops in Saskatchewan and Manitoba are bumper crops, magnificent crops, fantastic crops, I can afford a bigger house, a new truck, bigger farm machinery, a winter in Mexico, kind of crops.

But there are whispers like those on the blog site “Whispers from the edge of the rain forest”. Gossip on the internet, nothing but gossip. Urban myths. And, of course, there’s Garth Turner, that rabble rouser, with his blog. The sky is falling, he says. House prices are going down 45%.

At night when I think about the whisperers, I sometimes think, I shoulda rented instead of downsizing by buying a smaller place. I shoulda downsized into a rental apartment. Urban myths, that’s all they are, I tell myself. Real estate always goes up. It’s just internet gossip. People will always want to retire to Victoria, to Kelona, Salmon Arm, Kamloops.

I just had the balcony and the deck rebuilt. Why not? The price is sure to go up. I’ll get my money back.  It’s just internet gossip.