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Vancouver resident Adam Abrams

Interview with Adam Abrams

Adam Abrams is a Vancouver resident who I first encountered online in
connection with my Heavenly Christchurch Website.  As a resident of the city
where PoV was filmed, I asked him for some background on the culture of his native land, both PoV-related and of a more general nature.
His wide-ranging and insightful comments are presented below.

Vancouver - General

As a Vancouver resident (but not in any way responsible for PoV), what was your first reaction to this Website?

I was startled to find that the photos are of my very own hometown -  very familiar territory!  You were right in my backyard!  I can't believe it.  How disappointing that we didn't get the chance to meet!  It would have been great to have a chance to chat with you in person.  Doubtful how soon that opportunity would come around again.  D'OH!

Great to read the wonderful praise you have for my hometown and for Canada in general.  Glad your trip here was such a rewarding experience!  I guess whenever you live somewhere you tend to take it for granted somewhat.  It's nice to be reminded of the impression that Vancouver can make.

You know, when I read local papers and such, I detect a bit of an inferiority complex - a need to compare ourselves with the more renowned cities of the world, and prove that we rank right up there. (The phrase "world-class city" was terribly overused for a long time, especially in the wake of Expo '86.)  It may be a sub-set of a general feeling among Canadians that we're sort of taken for granted as a country, or, worse, utterly ignored!  That attitude is certainly not helped much by the fact that we're right next to the most powerful and affluent country in the known universe - and one that barely knows we exist. 

But I have always felt that Vancouver is an ideal place to live, and rather happy that it doesn't have such a high profile as other cities (making it a bit of a well-kept secret!).  As you found when you were here, it's physically spectacular, people are friendly, and, I think, quite cosmopolitan. (There is some great creativity here in the areas of theatre, art, and music.)

And yes, it's pretty safe too.  I've lived in California and part of the reason I moved back here was because I got sick of being in a country that was always on the cutting edge in terms of finding new places to shoot people (freeways, high schools...).

What are the largest European ethnic groups represented in Vancouver?  How prominent are people of German ancestry (such as PoV's lead actress)?

I think there are rather a lot of Germans in Vancouver, actually!  Funny you should mention this, I was just driving a bit farther afield than I usually do, and I spotted a little park with a sign, something like "German Heritage Memorial Park" or similar.  There seemed to be little plaques, no doubt honouring people in the German-Canadian community.

Vancouver used to have a very British flavour to it, through to the 1970's, I guess - but immigration patterns have brought a real international flavour to the city (along with a great selection of sushi and Indian restaurants!).  I'd imagine that the British would still hold the top spot for Vancouverites of European origin though.  Actually, when I first moved up here I seemed to notice a lot of Scottish culture (and indeed the "Mc" and "Mac" section of the phone book is about 55 pages long!  And over 300 names per page...).  There is a large German population too, though, as well as Italian (Commercial Drive is a haven of authentic Italian cafes and restaurants).

What is the weather normally like in Vancouver?  Do many people grumble about the supposedly frequent light rain, particularly to the point where they fantasise about Hawaiian vacations?

I don't mind the local weather myself, and I suspect most people here don't, though I've heard some grumbles from some people.  I think it's just part of the territory.  As for Hawaiian vacations, yes, many locals probably go to places like that, but they go to all sorts of places for all sorts of reasons.  It's not so much like everyone's desperate to see some sunshine.  The summers here in Vancouver are actually (usually) pretty nice, though you can't really count on blazing summery days until July, through to September-ish.


Vancouver - PoV Filming Locations

What is your most recent experience in the main area used in PoV?

Recently, I actually wandered around the industrial area where some of the characters' apartments are located, to take some pictures of my own.  I was interested in the fading advertising signs still visible on the old buildings nearby.  I posted some of them to adamabrams.com.   I focused on a construction site just west of Canada Place and the old buildings around the railroad tracks and port area.

Do you notice frequent filming in that area?

Last week, the crew of "Dark Angel" was on the corner of Alexander Street and Gore Avenue shooting a major scene, with fake news crew vehicles scattered all over.  Quite a scene.

How bad is the crime rate there?

It's not the safest area, that's for sure.  The "Downtown Eastside" is the least safe area in a generally safe city.  There is definitely more robbery, vandalism, and such - largely the result of the drug scene which is centred on Hastings Street, not far away.  That street is the place for cheap fleabag hotels, dingy bars, drug dealing and the like.  During the day, anyway, it's still not a hugely dangerous place - I've had reason to walk there many times - but it's not the most fun place to be. (The only tourist you'd find there is one who got lost trying to walk to Gastown!)

Also in that general area are small industry and manufacturing, artist's lofts, and some residential housing too. And walk a few blocks and you're in Chinatown or Gastown and it's totally different. So it's a mixed bag.

The apartments you looked at are part of a process of "gentrification" that has been happening over the last few years, where higher-priced residential buildings have been edging into the formerly rugged semi-industrial and welfare-hotel areas.  It's helping make that area less threatening though some have said that it's displacing people who have nowhere else to go.  After all, when you kick people out of cheap lodging and turn the place into fancy condos, someone's going to suffer.  But overall I think it's a good thing, it's making the area more liveable and bringing in a mix of people.

Do you frequently get asked for spare change by the local beggars?

Well, I don't actually walk there much, I just drive right to work and go in - but I imagine you would get bothered a bit.  Ironically, you're more likely to get hit up for change on a glitzy shopping strip like Robson Street.  After all, if you're going to beg, you'll go where the money is!

Why do you think there are so many beggars in Vancouver - even in the wealthy downtown areas?

Well, it's funny you should mention that.  Back in the early 1990's, when I was living in Oakland, California, street people and beggars were a common sight.  It just seemed like part of American life, the fallout from Reaganomics, the lack of a decent social safety net, etc.  When I returned to Canada for visits, I was pleased to see that there was nary a beggar to be seen.  It was noticeable when I did spot one.  Now, ten years later, it's changed completely, as you saw.  I think there are just more people who have been marginalized by the ruthless capitalism of North America in the last decade. Governments tightening budgets, doing what they can for big corporations and leaving the most needy to fend for themselves.  I would definitely say that Canada is a big step ahead of the States when it comes to the social safety net - at least we have one!  I think it's easier to "fall through the cracks" in the U.S.  There is a socialistic tradition here that results in less suspicion of 'big government' than you find in the US, more of an expectation that there should be a basic level of support for people.  Our socialized medical system is one of the first things a Canadian will point to as a source of pride (beleaguered though it is.  At least you won't get turned away from a hospital for lack of a health plan, as does happen in the States.).

There are probably more beggars and street people in Vancouver largely due to its climate. Vancouver is the warmest part of the country - we're seeing spring blossoms when most of the country is still shovelling snow - and as a result, it attracts a lot of people who know that even if they can't find a place to sleep, they're less likely to freeze on the sidewalk.

Concerning apartment living, especially in those buildings featured in PoV:
- How do you receive postal mail?
With some buildings (like mine), the mail carrier actually goes floor-to-floor and drops mail through each person's slot.  Others have mailboxes at the lobby and you have to go downstairs to get your mail.  Either option would be possible in one of the 'PoV' type buildings, but I'd suspect they would have a central mailbox area.
- Can I assume if someone wants to visit you that they talk to you on an intercom near the front door and you press a button to let them in?
That's right.  There are time-honored ways of getting around this, of course - buzzing everyone and hoping someone just automatically buzzes you in, or actually following someone through the door.
- Have you ever been inside a PoV apartment building?
No, but I've been in similar buildings not far from there.  I went to a party at a friends' place and he lives in an 'artist's loft' type place about half a mile east of the Sunrise Market.

In PoV, each resident of Railtown Studios has their name listed next to white buttons which buzz their individual apartments.  How common is this?  In reality, this building just had what looked like a calculator keypad and no indication who lives in the various apartments.

Older buildings often have a system like the one shown in PoV, but a modern condo built more recently would have the keypad-type system for added security.  (Even under the old system many people justifiably opt not to have their name listed, only "Occupied" or some such substitute.)

I know several people with the keypad system - you can't just punch in their apartment number to buzz them, you need an additional "code" which is different from that number.

The brave new world of urban security....

In an apartment building, is the floor that you are on as you enter the front door usually called the "first floor" or the "ground floor"?

I would refer to it as either.  I believe in Britain what they refer to as "first floor" is what we call the second story, the "first floor" above the lobby, or something.  I think it's one of those "British vs. American/Canadian" things, like how a billion is a million million in the UK, but only 1,000 million (1,000,000,000) here. 

Concerning the dock/port area, especially near those POV apartments - it *is* illegal for a tourist to just wander in, isn't it?  I assume it's private property?  How did you get such great pictures of that area for your own site?

Well, the area around the apartments is public property of course - it is a residence after all - but the areas where I went for the photos, while industrial in nature, aren't off-limits in any way as far as I know.  There's no signs to indicate so, at any rate.  But I wasn't in the Port of Vancouver proper.  That is a slightly different area, nearby to where I was, and it is only accessible by a ramped road into it that, although it looks like a public road, does have a sign that indeed says that you should only be entering on port business.  Even still, I've driven in there a couple of times just to see what's there, and there seemed to be no harm done, there is a point beyond which you have to pass a checkpoint but up to there it was pretty freely accessible to look around.  Of course to get near to anything important you would have to deal with a security officer of some sort.

Does the alley that runs behind Railtown Studios,  Railway Street, and to at least Dunlevy Avenue actually end at Dunlevy Ave., or does it continue further?

I did a drive-by to check it out.  The lane ends on the other side of Dunlevy after continuing for a short distance.  It comes to a dead stop against a chain link fence.  Rather an odd way to end a lane, really.  I drove around the back side looking for it to reappear, but there was nothing but train tracks, right up against the backside of the buildings.  So that's it for the lane.

Most Canada Post mailboxes are red, but why are some grey in colour?

The grey ones are not actually mailboxes per se, but units which are only accessible by the postal worker.  I sometimes see them taking mail out of one with a key.  I believe they're used to store the mail which is later hand-delivered by the mailman on his route.  But, you know, I'm not entirely sure just how this all works.  All I know for sure is that they're for the mailman only, not for regular folks to mail letters in. 

What do you call the devices on street corners from which you buy your daily newspapers?

Funny, when you suddenly have to think so hard about something you normally never pay any mind to, you come to really doubt yourself.  I suddenly wasn't sure, after reading your question, just what I do call them.  But I've sorted it out, and I can safely say that I and most everyone else just refer to them as a "newspaper box".

We don't have newspaper boxes in Australia, so I really wasn't sure what to call them.  Do you think the terms I use for them, namely: "newspaper vending machines" and "newspaper dispensers", are accurate?

They are definitely accurate in that I understand what you're referring to, but the common usage is, as usual, less precise.  I must say, I was surprised to hear that you don't have them in Australia, I thought they were fairly universal!

Are you familiar with Sunrise Market?  If so, how?

That's the market operated by the company I now work for, Sunrise Soya Foods!  I've been there many times.  In fact, I still have some gift certificates for the market that I need to use.  I work at the head office / manufacturing plant which is just a couple of blocks down the street from there.

Your comments about the market on your site were overall quite accurate.  But specifically, the Sunrise Market is owned and operated by the Joe family.  Leslie Joe started the market in 1956, and his kids run it today.  Leslie made tofu in the back of the store by hand, but now they have a giant state-of-the-art manufacturing plant. The market, while not the main part of the business, is still a continuing branch of it (and a real anchor of the community!).  The Joe sisters, Jennie and Sally, operate the market while their brother Peter is president of the overall Sunrise company.  That's where I work - the offices and the plant are together in a gigantic building a few blocks east of the market.  I see Peter most every day and the rest of his siblings on a regular basis!

I must say it was quite a kick to see the Sunrise Market as one of the objects of your pilgrimage!  I've visited it many times, but I had no idea they had filmed a movie there.  They must have filmed there at night as I doubt they'd have wanted to close it during the day, it's quite a bustling place (as I guess you saw).

Be sure to have a look at the Sunrise website - http://www.sunrise-soya.com  (I built the site and keep it up to date!)

Do you patronize any of the restaurants featured in the movie?

I know of the Alibi Room but haven't been there.  I have been to Federico's Supper Club on Commercial Drive, though - a couple of times.  It's a great place, Italian food, very much reminiscent of a classic 1930's supper club, right down to the Art Deco-ish furnishings.  They have live music too - though I felt they leaned too much toward cheesy one-man-band synthesizer acts in lieu of a real band - I'd love to see a jazz combo play there!  Whatever the music, though, they always seem to fill the parquet-tiled dance floor.

How is the SkyTrain controlled (I used this subway/monorail system to get to Federico's Supper Club)?   I don't understand how they can guide it so well and even make sure no passengers are trapped in the doors! 

Well, I think that the doors are kind of like elevator doors, they would bounce back open if they encountered an obstacle such as a human before closing, and the train would not budge (though I haven't the guts to actually test this theory myself).

I did a Web search hoping to find a good article on how SkyTrain works, but came up short.  It is an automated system, but there is a central control centre staffed by a bunch of actual human beings, so someone is keeping an eye on things.


Canadian Culture

What do you and your friends/relatives think about when you read or hear the word "Australia"?

I think that, although we're certainly aware that Australia is a modern industrialized nation and all, the cliché's tend to spring to mind first.  Crocodile Dundee, kangaroos and koalas, and the Outback (well, that's not a cliché, I guess, but it's not like everybody in Australia is there, living by their wits and roasting wild boars for dinner!).  I tend to think more of all my favourite movies that come from the region like "Muriel's Wedding".  Then there's actors like Mel Gibson, that "Gladiator" guy - Russell Crowe, and Nicole Kidman.

Speaking of the Outback, what is the percentage of Australians that live in the big cities?  There was just recently a census that came out, and much talk about demographics, immigration and the like.  They said that only one in five Canadians lives outside a city or an urban area.  Interesting since Canada is a pretty wide-open space, or so I thought - but then again most of the population is clustered in a narrow band across the bottom - once you go very far North it gets rather inhospitable.  Still, I imagine Canada still has a reputation as the land of majestic natural vistas, lakes, mountains, etc.  Which it is, I guess, but that's just not where most people live.

I'd be interested to turn this question around and ask you what Australians think about when they  hear "Canada".  Even the Americans, who should know better since they're so close by, seem stuck on an image of us as a nation of Mounties and fur traders living in igloos.  The American ignorance of all things Canadian has been fodder for some great comedy: comedian Rick Mercer has a segment on a weekly satirical news program This Hour Has 22 Minutes called Talking to Americans, where he goes down South and asks Americans outrageous questions - outrageous if you know anything about what's going on in Canada.  They always reply with earnest and clueless seriousness.  Questions like, "what should Canada do to prevent the "national igloo" in Ottawa from melting because of global warming?" or "should Canada abandon the 20-hour day, like they have in Europe and instead adopt the 24-hour "American" day?"

Here's an audio interview with him about the show:

Have you or anyone you know seen the South Park Movie (from 1999)?  If so, are you in any way offended by the portrayal of your country in that film?  Why or why not? 

Ah, yes, I'm well aware of what you mean, although I haven't actually seen the film.  Although South Park isn't quite my favourite, I have had a good share of belly laughs out of the show.  And the Canadian plot is so obviously in good fun that I don't think anyone took offence, quite the opposite in fact.  (We're always pleasantly amazed when Americans notice us at all!)

There was a bit of a flap about the Anne Murray song ("that b___h Anne Murray") but it was so obviously satirical and not really malicious.  In fact, I was surprised when a workmate took it seriously and said he found it offensive.  But Anne herself quieted down the objections - including my friend's - when she made a public statement to the effect that she personally "got the joke" and found it quite amusing.  We Canadians are nothing if not self-deprecating.

Canada, like Australia, belongs to the British Commonwealth and has Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state (and on the backs of its coins).  What, if anything, does the Queen mean to Canadians today?

Well, it depends on whom you ask, but by and large I think Canadians do value their connection to the Queen, and feel that she is an important symbol to them of our history and a represents a little bit of what it means to be Canadian.  And of course, it's another way that we can differentiate ourselves from the Americans.  The Queen of course plays a purely symbolic role, as I assume she does for Australia, but I recall there was a big push down there recently to renounce ties to the monarchy.  Here, there hasn't been such a big anti-monarchist movement, though there are plenty of people who do feel that the whole thing is a pointless, wasteful charade and the sooner we see the back of the Royal Family, the better.  But most people take a benign or favourable view of the Queen, I think.

The British Queen Mother died recently.  What sort of coverage did this event get on Canadian television?  For example, did you get to see her entire funeral ceremony in full, live and uncut, as we did on two free-to-air television networks here in Australia?

I didn't actually see it, but I do believe there was full coverage of the funeral. 

What about your country's intriguing mix of English and French speaking peoples and their associated cultures?  Do you think both main groups get along fairly well?  Do you see your country staying together in the foreseeable future?

There has been trouble from Quebec for thirty years or more, but it seems that the separatist movement has simmered down lately.  Since the last referendum (in 1996, I believe) where Quebeckers voted on whether to leave Canada, it just hasn't seemed to be a big issue.  I think they're more concerned about their economy now than about sovereignty.

Outside of Quebec, French and English get along quite well.  But, as you noticed on your visit, French speakers are not a huge presence outside of Quebec (though there is certainly a large Francophone population in Vancouver).  Canadians like to think of their country as one that encourages people of different ethnicities and cultures to maintain their distinctiveness, not to totally abandon it and "blend in" to a "Canadian" way of life.  The alternative is thought to be the US, where a "melting pot" philosophy encourages people to become "American", to play down their own cultural differences.  I don't know how true that really is though.

No country is without its faults, but I think Canada fares better than most when it comes to tolerance and a lack of discrimination.  It's not perfect, but it seems a bit better here than south of the border.

Is it compulsory to learn the French language in Canadian schools - even in areas like Vancouver where almost everyone speaks English?  If it is compulsory, for how long and roughly at what grade levels?

One thing I know for certain is that exact class requirements are set by the individual school boards, so there is variation from region to region.  But I'm sure that everyone, even in mostly Anglo places like Vancouver, gets some exposure to French even if it's just one semester of the basics.

I still remember a very funny musical comedian I heard on the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) a few years ago, reminding everyone (with tongue firmly in cheek) that "Canada is a completely bilingual country, and everyone speaks both official languages fluently!" which drew some big chuckles.  Then he led the audience through a singalong of French songs - most non-French speakers don't exactly know French tunes by heart - but (to their relief and delight) he picked very familiar melodies like "la vie en rose" and substituted a singalong "la la la" for the actual words.  Everyone "la la la'd" along.  It was hilarious.

So while French is still an official language, as you saw, it's mostly in government contexts, at the airport, etc. that you come across the language.  And on packaging, of course.  Most of the French vocabulary I know I can credit to cereal boxes and juice bottles.

Canadians supposedly add the expression "eh" at the end of sentences.  In Vancouver, I did not detect this at all.  Do you think most Vancouver residents say "eh"?

I don't think most of them say it all that much.  I asked a workmate about this, and her opinion was that Vancouver is a little different because of its larger proportion of immigrants - people who didn't grow up steeped in the more "traditional" Canadian habits, like saying "eh".

I know I took some kidding from my friends when I lived in the States for the way I pronounced certain words in a "Canadian" way even though the accent, if any, was invisible to me.  The cliché is that Canadians say "oot and aboot" instead of "out and about".  There is a difference, I now realize, but it's more subtle than that.  I don't know if I could even explain it adequately.  Australians pronounce the same words in yet another way.  It's an interesting dilemma.

What do you think of these customs (practised in Canada and the USA, but not in Australia)? 
- having some taxes added to the price of goods at the cash register rather than having them all included in the price tag?
- tipping in restaurants?
...would you rather have all-inclusive prices and no tipping?  Why or why not?

I don't mind the tipping tradition as it give me an opportunity to express my appreciation for good service (or my displeasure at bad service) which would be denied if it was built into the price.  I wouldn't mind having the tax included, though.  I'm sure there's good arguments for either system, but I'm used to the current way, so it doesn't really bother me.

What does the Canadian "honour system" mean for someone living in an urban area such as Vancouver?

Well, the "honour system" in Canada works about the same as anywhere else I suppose - hit and miss.  The most prominent example of the honour system as public policy is certainly the SkyTrain fare system.  Although a pass is technically required, there are no gates, only sporadic spot checks bySkyTrain personnel.

I recall being impressed by this system when I first revisited the city in the late 80's.  Ah, yes, Canada is such an honest country that they can run their transit entirely on the honour system.  What I now realize after living here several years is that fare collection on SkyTrain is a huge point of criticism, and the consensus is that much revenue is lost to fare-jumpers.

SkyTrain is in fact the only branch of transit that uses the honour system - but then again it's the only one where it's really possible since there are no drivers at the point of entry like on the bus.  Didn't the driver need to see your pass when you boarded the bus?  They're supposed to.  They also do check to see that you've put enough coins in.  They have help in that from the new electronic fare boxes recently installed at great expense on the Vancouver bus system.  It was ridiculed by critics as costing far more than it would ever recover in missed fares.  Additionally, the expense seemed uncalled for at a time when Vancouver is slashing its bus service and discontinuing late-night runs on many routes, all the while pouring money into a lavish new SkyTrain line many say should never have been built.

Is Telus the only national telecommunications company in Canada?  If not, what is the extent of its influence as far as you are aware?

It's one of the major players but there is competition, from AT&T Canada, Bell, and other smaller players offering a variety of services from local phone service to long distance to Internet access.

The communications industry has seen a lot of shakeouts and buyouts over the last few years.  Without ever changing long distance carriers, I have seen the name on my bill change from Unitel, to AT&T Canada, to Primus, to Telus.  One invented name after another... ah, for the days of "B.C. Tel".

Thank-you very much, Adam, for your detailed answers!

© Anthony Larme 2002
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