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Loonie-Toonie

“Here’s your Loonie, and here’s your Toonie,” Keith said, by way of greeting at the Vancouver train station, plopping coins into our hands. (A loonie is worth one dollar Canadian—it has a carving of a common loon on it—and a toonie is worth two.) He was providing us with a small budget for our weekend in Vancouver, British Columbia. (Yes, the travel bug has hit again!)

Fortunately, Keith and Bonnie Morrison, whom we discovered living next door in Puerto Vallarta, had been brave enough to invite us to their foreign country. Not very far, but still a very pretty seven-hour train ride from Portland, with Puget Sound on one side and tulip fields on the other.

When you are from the East Coast as I am, mentioning Vancouver is much the same as mentioning Gdansk: nobody ever does. I didn’t even know there were two Vancouvers (there’s one in Washington State, too). Still, just north of the Canadian border in British Columbia lies a sprawling sophisticated, multicultural city. Vancouver’s road signs are in English, French, and sometimes in Squamish, as an homage to the First Nation people of the same name.

But there are nearly as many people speaking Chinese as English, at least around the University of British Columbia where the Morrisons live. For several years, the Canadian government has been wooing fast-growing populations, such as the Chinese, to seek education in BC in order to keep BC’s schools afloat. Keith is president of his condo board, and he often has to hire a Chinese translator to keep his meetings going.

Keith and Bonnie drove us up to Whistler, a snow-capped mountain that hosted part of the 2010 Winter Olympics. Whistler, which Keith remembers as “a mountain and a gas station” in his youth, now has its compliment of glamorous chalets, fancy hotels, and nifty boutiques selling mukluks and shawls.

On that particular day, Whistler was hosting a festival called Crankworx, featuring a slew of teenaged boys flying off ski jumps on small bicycles and giving their mothers tiny little heart attacks. We paused mountainside for a $16 hamburger, watching summer visitors hiking, biking, and taking ski lifts upward for a better view.

On the way home we passed by a mist-shrouded series of islands floating in Horseshoe Bay, a scene that was totally navy blue and gray, as if someone had turned off the color on the TV set. Bonnie told me they always looked like that. We saw the stunning Shannon Falls outside of Squamish, and a mountain called Squamish Chief, whose vertical face is a favorite place for brave, stupid climbers to clamber.

The next day, we rode bikes along English Bay, watching the locals jog and push strollers and enjoy the perfect sunny-cool weather of the day. Keith stopped us at the St. Roch National Historic Site of Canada, a glass box building that enshrined the schooner St. Roch. Saint Roch himself was a Vancouver native who piloted the schooner to a circumnavigation of North America through the Panama Canal.

And then—be still my heart—we reached Granville Island, a little shoppers’ paradise with unique boutiques, a food court, a produce market, an art school, breweries, and about six million tourists. Bonnie and I marched through like women who needed to get back to their car in one hour to avoid towing, which we were. That night, we had dinner at the Vancouver golf club, clandestinely spying on our fourth bride of the day.

What I noticed about Canada is that it is almost exactly like the U.S., but not. The architecture is slightly different. The accent is a bit different. The ubiquitous little French subtitles are glamorous as is the metric system and the real estate. A $600,000 estate in a good part of Portland will run you $3 million or more in a proletarian neighborhood in Vancouver—and it’ll be a three-bedroom bungalow in need of roof repair.

Back at the Vancouver train station, a Victorian-era edifice with a carved ceiling painted in pale blue, white, and gilt, we were vetted by stern border guards hunting for smuggled nectarines. Our passports were checked again at the border: the train stopped in the middle of nowhere, customs agents boarded like train robbers of yore, and marched down the aisles checking passports (and, one would assume, nectarines). Otherwise, it was eight hours of smooth sailing down the Pacific Coast.

By the time we got home I had more Loonies and Toonies in my pockets, but I didn’t give any back to Keith. I was hoping to need them again soon.

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