Everyone we told said we were crazy. Giving up our fabulous condo in Yaletown, leaving the myriad of amenities offered by Canada’s greenest city, starting again on a tiny island whose population barely equaled that of one Vancouver neighbourhood.
“Why?” they asked. “You are urbanites. You love vibrant, bustling downtowns.”
And they were right, sort of. My husband and I had always lived in urban centres, some smaller than others, but always in the midst of the action. And we’d always loved the hustle bustle of cities.
I’d grown up in Toronto, received my journalism degree in the heart of the city before leaving for Calgary as a young reporter at the Calgary Herald. My career in journalism (teaching and writing) took me to other large cities: Edmonton (to write radio ad copy), Ottawa (to edit a church publication), back to Calgary (to teach journalism), Vancouver (as a journalism instructor), Wilmington, DE (as a communications executive) and a stint in Sarasota, FL where I wrote for a monthly magazine.
Although my husband was born in Ireland, he grew up attending a boarding school in rural Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). His attachment to cities began when he enrolled in Exeter University in England. As a curious young man he travelled throughout Europe visiting its major cities. He emigrated to Canada for graduate studies in Toronto where he stayed for more than 20 years as an economist and statistician in the Ontario government.
Our first smaller city was Wilmington, Delaware after I was transferred there from Toronto with my employer, an international pharmaceutical company. Population: 70,000 (600,00 in the entire state).
This place is pretty small, we thought. Everyone’s going to know us in no time. And, a lot of them did, primarily because I handed out grants from the company and my husband developed policy for a downtown redevelopment agency.
Chasing warmer climates, we chose a smaller city on the Gulf of Mexico in Florida. Before purchasing a home, we spent a week touring the city, researching its cultural and culinary offerings. Housing was affordable and the people seemed friendly to newcomers.
“This time we’ve settled on a really small city,” my husband said after checking out the local economy. Population: about 50,000.
Everything we liked about the city on our first visit held up during our five-year stay. Who couldn’t be drawn to the Ringling School of Art and Design, the professional ballet, theatre and symphony presentations? And the best live opera in a spectacularly restored opera house. A wide variety of restaurants satisfied our palates. A downtown bookstore/café fulfilled our literary needs. Important, too was the hairdresser who miraculously made my fine hair look full. A bonus was the wonderful friends we met and still keep in touch with.
The endless white sandy beaches were a bonus. But we didn’t get to them as often as we’d hoped. We ran a Farmers’ Market as part of our mandate at the downtown agency where we were employed. Refereeing battles among vendors, sorting out placements that kept everyone happy, creating policies regarding insurance and fees, introducing a smoking ban for vendors took their toll. Our 4 a.m. Saturday starts began to lose their charm. Healthcare costs, humidity, hurricanes and Republican state and federal politics dominated our nightly discussions about what to do next. We decided it was time to return to Canada.
My husband chose Vancouver and we began again. We renovated a condo. I began pottery classes, took up aquatics with a vengeance and volunteered with an arts program at the Vancouver Art Gallery. After months of hanging around not-for-profit agencies and attending Board of Trade ‘meet and greets’, my husband landed work with an economic development agency. We were back in a big city with its varied cultural offerings, its outdoor beauty and its scores of good restaurants.
It was difficult to break in. And there was that traffic. And those poorly timed stoplights. No one looked us in the eye. Everything was expensive. A medical diagnosis, a significant birthday and the end of the lease on our Yaletown condo brought on more evening talks. While we enjoyed what the big city offered, we both felt a need for some peace and quiet. Yet we weren’t ready to turn our backs on the arts, fine cuisine, interesting bookstores, lively discussions and stimulating talks about challenging issues.
“Where does that leave us?” we asked each other. We knew we wanted to be part of a community, live where we could walk to a town centre. We needed access to cultural activity, visual artists and writers. Our past-their-prime bodies acknowledged the importance of a nearby hospital as well as doctors, dentists, grocery stores, a library, hopefully a movie theatre and swimming pool. For me, a beauty salon also ranked high (Fine hair needs a skilled stylist.)
In the past, I’d visited Salt Spring a few times and immediately felt at ease. On one occasion I stayed with a friend in Maracaibo. We walked, toured Ganges and ate delicious fresh fish. My husband and I returned in the summer of 2010, exploring artists’ studios and other tourist attractions. Last February, I returned in for a spa experience. Each afternoon I drove to town to check out the listings in real estate office windows. My appetite was whetted. In late March of this year we came for a week. Every day was a downpour as we drove from Vesuvius to Southey Point back down to Fulford and surrounding areas. Our umbrella blew apart one day as we hopped into our real estate agent’s van. Fifteen houses later we found one we liked. Although our criteria for a new home included no stairs and no gardening, this one had both.
We returned to our room in the Salt Spring Inn. I was sold. If I could like it in the rain, I would certainly love it in the sun. But I also knew my husband was more cautious, less prone to impulsive decision making. I suppressed such rashness and decided not to push. Later, over dinner I broached the subject of living here.
“Let’s do it,” he said. My fork dropped. Outwardly I registered surprise; inwardly I was excited.
“You mean it?” I asked.
“No need to think more about it,” he replied. I stayed an extra day to begin work on an offer. A week later we owned a home.
It’s hackneyed and corny to say it was meant to be. But I believe it was. We have culture. Six bookstores feed our literary appetites. Six bakeries satisfy our sweet teeth. Amazingly talented artists working in all media surround us. I exercise three times a week at Rainbow pool. We enjoy delicious meals at local restaurants (two dozen at last count). The fresh produce and food is now at my fingertips. The local markets still entice me. Salt Springers are friendly and look me in the eye when we meet. I can walk to town. I’m involved in organizations that I love. There’s opportunity for discussion and debate. (There are, I’m told, more PhD’s per capita here than anywhere else in the country.) Fifteen places to worship fulfill spiritual longings.
And I have at least a dozen beauty salons from which to choose. My fine hair will be in good hands.
And now, fortunately, I have a reason to meet more islanders. I will be writing about new and old Salt Spring residents. Giving you the story behind a face or a place that you see regularly. Many of us have come from elsewhere, for many different reasons bringing fascinating experiences. What brought you to the island? I’m eager to hear.
Pat Preston, firstname.lastname@example.org.