I had an interesting conversation with my neighbour, Ursula, the other day. She’s an older woman who has lived in this building for many years, and who tends to the gorgeous perennial gardens outside our doors. I frequently encounter her as I head out to take Jake for a walk, with her pruners and basket in hand and her head tucked into the flowers.
Her English is somewhat broken, but she’s friendly and eager to practice, and we’ve been drawn together by our mutual love of gardening and dogs. Her elderly dog passed away last fall, and she always greets Jake with such… longing.
I don’t know how we got on to the topic, but apparently Ursula nurses a strong desire to visit Canada. It’s a primal urge shared by many of the German people I’ve met, almost as though Canada, and its wilderness, is a modern-day Avalon across the sea.
As she waved her hand around in the air, encompassing the gardens, the grounds, the trees surrounding us, she said,
“You must really miss all the open spaces. Europe is so crowded with people.”
I thought back to my days in Toronto. To the inner city apartment, to High Park — crowded and definitely not big enough for the throngs of people seeking nature and green space on a warm summer day — to the Beach, wall-to-wall people on the seawall and sidewalks. I thought about how a one hour drive here lands you smack in the alps; a similar journey out of Toronto or Vancouver or Montreal would land you in suburbia. I looked around me, at the trees, the quiet, and thought about how I could actually bicycle to the country in an hour without ever touching a road.
“Well”, I replied, “most people live in cities in Canada. This is a lot nicer than Toronto.”
“Yes”, she said, “but you live in a very nice area of Munich.”
I conceded, but privately thought that perhaps Ursula was romanticising things a bit. As far as the human environment and lifestyle is concerned, I don’t think there’s much to compare. City life is a quieter, slower pace here, almost old-fashioned in a way. Peple buy their food at vegetable stalls and farmer’s markets, and tiny grocery stores that I haven’t seen in Canada since the 60’s. If you live in town, there’s no need for a car; bicycles and subways and trolleys and wonderful regional train systems take care of transportation. Department stores still dominate; there is a mall, somewhere “out” there in the boonies, but there is really no need to visit; everything you need to buy is close at hand, including stylish clothing that would make any fashionista drool. On Sundays, everything closes but the museums and art galleries. The population heads to the mountains, to nearby lakes, to parks and beer gardens. No one is left out.
My perspective shifted slightly the following weekend, when we visited the alps with a group of friends. We had just finished a cable car ride to the top of Germany’s highest mountain, the Zugspitz, and were enjoying a late afternoon beer beside a quiet lake. I looked around and was reminded of the landscape outside of Vancouver, and somehow we got on to the topic of wildlife. Laird told the story of how we once encountered a bear in our campsite, and I talked about the cougars that would come down from the mountains in Deep Cove and chase and eat the neighbourhood cats. Raccoons, coyotes… humdrum and ordinary co-habitants. Our friends listened intently, their eyes bugging out. Cougars? Bears? They could not imagine. Western Europe has long been a human and domesticated landscape. There are no wild tracts of forest left. Big predators were hunted out long ago.
And I suddenly saw, with their eyes, Canada. A lingering frontier of wildness, one of the few places left in the world where, even though humans crowd defensively in their towns and suburbia and cities, there are still wild animals and wild spaces left relatively untouched. I believe they think of Canada the way we think of Africa… or perhaps the Galapagos. I don’t think we Canadians really appreciate the depth of our treasure and our responsibility — we are stewards of an untouched wild landscape that is increasingly rare and threatened on a small planet. For those in Canada who believe that our old-growth forests are a renewable commodity, I suggest they get out and see the world. What we have in our care is among the last of its kind.
And we sure could use some lessons from the Munchners when it comes to urban lifestyle.