Is Vancouver a Sociable City?

Is Vancouver a Sociable City?

Not really, no.

To the casual observer, Vancouver appears to have it all.  Beautiful scenery around every corner, the promise of an active lifestyle, some of the best hiking in the world, lots of art and culture and many other attributes that often have it competing with Melbourne for top spot on the Economist’s annual report for the most livable city on the planet.  And there is very little that would cause anyone (outside of Melbourne city limits that is) to argue with that result.  However, with one in four Vancouver dwellers admitting that they find it difficult to make friends, and one in three claiming that they are lonely (The Vancouver Foundation Study), it would seem that Vancouver is not as ‘livable’ as you might think.

Vancouver has earned itself a reputation of being, cliquey, unfriendly and unwelcoming to newcomers.  ‘Unfriendly’ and ‘unwelcoming’ I don’t necessarily agree with.  On a superficial level, people are generally very friendly and I’ve never been made to feel unwelcome by any Vancouverite.  The issue, I feel, tends to be getting past the superficial.  People are outwardly friendly, but there is rarely any follow up and real friendships are difficult to form.

It’s not just me, I swear!

This phenomenon is not recent observation, nor is it unique to my experience.  In 2012, The Vancouver Sun published a five part piece on social isolation in the city.  That’s right, five part!  When the province’s most prolific broadsheet dedicates this much time and space to the issue, we can reasonably assume that there may be something afoot.

Wait ’til you hear what Toronto said…

I’ll be honest and say that this detail had been brought to my attention before I left for Canada back in October 2012.  And again when I arrived in Toronto, many times I was forewarned of the socially reclusive creatures I would encounter should I travel too far West.  Almost certain that no one had given this snow capped, beach footed, beautiful city a fair chance, I naively decided that this place is exactly where I would make my home for the next year or so, open armed, ready to befriend anyone who would have me.

Not this gal…

In fact, I was so determined to prove the doubters wrong that I decided that I would find an apartment with Vancouverite roommates and really try to integrate with the city’s locals.  Well, sixteen months down the line I live with three Brits and our friend group consists of people from Scotland, England, Ireland, Australia, USA and other parts of Canada.  My few friends that I do have who are from Vancouver tend to be people who have travelled and lived overseas themselves, and so are more likely to reach out.  However, this isn’t a problem unbeknown to the locals, people from Vancouver acknowledge this issue and often feel it’s effects as much as newcomers do.  It seems that no one, domestic or imported, can really put their finger on the cause.  A quick Google search will spit up numerous articles on the subject, suggesting various theories, with no solid conclusion.

My opinion…what was that about assholes?

I believe that the ‘Vancouver Effect’ has become something of a self-fulfilled prophecy.  People are automatically guarded and distant, because they believe that everyone else is guarded and distant.  In the dating game, guys don’t approach girls as they come across as stuck up, girls come across as stuck up as the guys seem uninterested and unfriendly…and so the cycle continues.  I have even found myself getting caught up in this chicken and egg scenario, not following up on new contacts due to the belief that it probably won’t amount to anything anyway.  Just one lame-ass theory, of which there are plenty more out there I’m sure.

Social skills…hello!!

Having been here for over a year now it’s inevitable that my friends and I have become woven into this odd social fabric.  It wasn’t until a recent trip to Victoria, over on Vancouver Island, that the stark contrast between Vancouver and the ‘outside world’ became very apparent.  After checking into our hotel, my friend and I decided to go out for a couple of drinks.  It was a Friday night and in Vancouver this would usually mean deciding on one of the chic, mellow bars, being shown to our table by our server, having what I’m sure would be a very stimulating conversation between ourselves, and then maybe trying our luck at a nightclub.  Well imagine our surprise when we entered Big Bad Johns…a loud, lively crowd, random pictures and artifacts on the wall, bras hanging from the ceiling, a barman who actually served drinks at the bar…and a ton of people who actually wanted to talk to us!  We had a fantastic night and left Victoria the next day reassured that we had managed to salvage at least some of our social skills from our pre Vancouver days.

Where are you going? Come back!

With all of this in mind, the last thing I want to do is scare anyone away from Vancouver who is thinking of making the move.  It has taken more effort and time than it has in the past, but I have made some really good friends.  I do love this city, but it’s the people I have met who have made the experience worthwhile, and that’s what I’ll miss when it’s time for me to leave here.

My Advice for Vancouver Newbies

  • Arrive in Vancouver armed with the knowledge that it can be a little socially backward at times.
  • Make an effort with other travelers who are in the same position as you.  Hostels are obviously ideal for this.  If you’re not staying at a hostel, make sure you check out the Beaver Bar at the Samesun hostel on Granville Street.  Once you’re feeling brave, you might want to give the Cambie a try…definitely one place in Vancouver where you might wish people were a little less friendly 😉
  • If you have any kind of hobby or skill, definitely use that to break into niche communities.  Look out for postings in coffee shops, Craigslist and Facebook
  • Meetup.com is a popular way to gather troops here, I made some good friends from one of the groups on there when I first arrived
  • When looking for somewhere to live, definitely go for living with at least one roommate.  Also, be willing to sacrifice the quality of the place if the roommates seem cool, they could be and most likely will be your gateway into a social group.
  • Enjoy this amazing city, and if you manage to crack the Vancouver social code, be sure to share!

I’d be really interested to see what other people think about this ‘phenomenon’.  If you’ve experienced it, think it’s all BS or just want to tell me how awesome/turd-like this post was, please vent away in the comments! 🙂

Going solo!

Having recently found myself pining for that adventurous feeling of arriving in a new city, knowing nothing and no one, I realised that it may actually be worth sharing my thoughts on this subject.  It’s the ultimate adventure, but at the same time solo travel can seem pretty scary.  It was something that I had always wanted to do, disappear into the horizon on my way to meet some great adventure (in a very poetic manner of course!).  But when my plane landed in Toronto with no one to meet me at the other side of immigration, shit got real!  What if I don’t meet anyone?  How will have fun at night?  I can’t go to a bar on my own, can I? What if I leave my passport somewhere and there is no one by my side to run through the obligatory what-has-Caroline-forgotten check list?  And the ultimate scary scenario, what if I have to dine alone??

Thankfully my experience was completely positive and I have now found myself planning some more solo trips.  I have a sketched out plan of traveling back to Glasgow in May for a visit, but passing through Banff, Edmonton and Calgary on the way.  I’m also keen to spend a couple of months in South and Central America at the end of 2013 when my visa expires, nip home for Christmas, and then come back into Canada in January 2014 to activate my new visa. All just plans in my head for now, who knows where life will take me in the next few months, but there are definitely some more adventures on the cards!

Of course my solo traveling experience so far has been limited to the relatively safe towns and cities of the USA and Canada, so I can’t offer much advice on the likes of trekking alone through the Amazon, the Nepalese mountains or surviving Mexico City (yet!), nevertheless I will share some nuggets of advice I found to be useful along the way:

  • Hostels:  Use hostels and make the most of them!  They are the perfect environment for meeting new people just like you – regardless of who ‘you’ are.  During my time hosteling I met a girl and her mum who were backpacking together, a 30-something year old local woman who wanted to see what hostel life was like, a guy on release from the army, a 72 year old political activist, a French guy who only started learning English two weeks before, a girl who was a performer for Disney, a 22 year old who was traveling on her own for six months and lots of other fun and interesting people in between.  You get the idea.  Hosteling isn’t just 18-30 year olds looking for a party (that scene is there though, worry not!) or pretentious Rastafarian wannabes looking to compare travel resumes.
  • Tours and Activities:  This ties in with the hostel thing…get out there…participate!  You are traveling alone to push yourself out of your comfort zone, no?  Well that’s not going to happen if you spend every night in your hostel watching Netflix (I’ve seen in done!).  Most hostels will run tours and activities around the local area, Hosteling International Hostels are pretty good for it.  Daytime tours are a good way of meeting people as you immediately have something to talk about.  On the Freedom Trail tour in Boston, I met a group of people who by later that night, I felt like I had known forever!  If you are in a hostel over the weekend, it is very likely that there will be a bar crawl..and there is no social lubricant quite like alcohol!  Just don’t get too carried away, remember that you are in a strange city with people you don’t know, keep your wits about you.
  • Dorm Living:  If you have some extra travel money, it may be tempting to book a private room at your hostels.  I would recommend against it.  I almost did it for my Seattle stay, as I thought that after sharing for so long (only child here!) and traveling across the US I would want some private space.  When I went to book, the price was more than expected so I just went for a smaller dorm.  I’m so glad I did, if I didn’t I wouldn’t have met, Claire, my travel buddy for the next few days!  General dorm etiquette is to introduce yourself when you arrive in a new dorm, or someone new arrives in yours.  You will no doubt get chatting about your travels, it’s a very easy way to meet people.
  • Find a more confident you:  If you are an introvert (and let’s face it, no matter how confident we are able to act, most of us are), then striking up a conversation with a stranger can seem intimidating.  You just need to bite the bullet, and once you have done it once, it becomes much easier.  If you see a group of people chatting over lunch/dinner at the hostel, ask if you can join them.  If you are cooking in the hostel kitchen, rather than squishing past everyone awkwardly, start a conversation about food, cooking, whatever.
  • Social meetup websites:  Since being in Vancouver, I have used the Meetup.com website a couple of times, and I have met some great people.  It is very popular here for reasons detailed in this post.  It’s basically groups of people with similar interests, or who just want to meet new people, who arrange it through the website.  Also, although I haven’t used it, I have heard good things about arranged meetups on the Couchsurfing website – usually this is where you would find yourself a couch to crash on for the  night but they also have a massive international community of travelers just looking to meet new people.
  • Eating alone:  The situation will probably crop up when it’s time for food, but you haven’t met anyone yet to grab something with.  There are a few options to get around this if you’re not so comfortable with ‘table for one, please!’.  Most hostels will have a food prep area where you can cook your own food and just hang out in the hostel.  However if you’re not hanging around for very long this may not be so cost effective, you don’t want to be buying a full bag of pasta just for one or two nights.  Also, when you’re in a new place, part of the adventure is sampling the local cuisine!  When I was on my own, I would usually just make do with casual dining i.e. coffee shops, cafes, street food etc.  This way you can sample some local food, get out of the hostel and just take a book or something to keep you entertained.  Or just people watch, which is always fun when you’re somewhere new.  One girl I met in Seattle was perfectly happy dining in the city’s finest restaurants on her own, which is great, and if you’re happy doing that then you’re onto a winner!  However you will probably find that most of the time you wont have the option, as you’ll be inundated with people to share a meal with!

All in all, traveling solo is a great experience and if it’s something you’ve always wanted to do…but..forget the ‘but’.  You wont regret it!