A couple of decades ago I read a book called The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler. The central character had to travel frequently for work, to some of the most interesting and exotic locations in the world, but – he hated travel. Not only did he resent travelling, he also resented going to places that inspired other people’s envy, and which he did not visit or explore or enjoy. So the envy was not just wasted; he himself was envious of those who were able to stay home.
Our school, along with other schools like ours in British Columbia, belongs to the Independent Schools Association, which works to provide links among our schools, a collective identity, and a public voice on shared issues. Our meetings alternate: one time on Vancouver Island, the next time on the mainland. Today, our meeting is in New Westminster, a suburb of Vancouver.
I have never been to New Westminster. In fact, before today, I simply would have said to people that I was going to Vancouver. New Westminster, however, is very much its own place. Our meeting room looked out on the Fraser River, which at this location seems to be about two hundred yards wide. The Fraser River is hundreds of kilometres long. This last hundred kilometres or so traces a winding, flat and placid course through farmland known as the Fraser Valley. The previous couple of hundred kilometres flow through spectacular canyons and rapids as the river comes down from more central parts of B.C., a landscape where cattle and scrub and bare hillsides form the personality of the terrain. In 1859, New Westminster was selected as the first capital of the new colony of British Columbia and officially named the “City of New Westminster’ by Queen Victoria, after her favourite part of London. From this naming by the Queen, the City gained its nickname, “The Royal City”, and became the first city in Western Canada. A year later it became the first City to have an elected municipal government.Today, here, sun is fighting through the January cloud, somewhat successfully. Here, in the bustling shadow of Vancouver, just a mile or two from the Pacific Ocean, tugboat after tugboat pulls a barge along the water that today, in this straining sun, has a look of hammered dull metal, like pewter. Other boats, some of them ocean-going, are being loaded with containers, wood, and cargo I can’t identify. Fifty yards or so from my window an old paddle wheeler is looking pretty forlorn as it waits for summer, and crowds, to return. New Westminster itself, the urban part of it, does leave its mark. I never expected to find such discoveries in this part of Vancouver, which speaks to my ignorance, I know. Thankfully, sometimes, you can’t help but be an accidental tourist.