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Leefstyl | Lifestyle > Expats > Onderhoude | Interviews > Jong expats | Young Expats

Young Expats: Marli Vlok on Vancouver, Canada

Imke van Heerden - 2009-11-16

Marli, where are you living at present and what are you doing there? Is the grass truly greener on the other side?

I’m living in Vancouver, Canada. I’ve just started my PhD in the Botany Department at the University of British Columbia. From a purely biological point of view the grass is greener here due to significant rainfall in winter (eg while I’m writing this it is pouring outside), so much so that I wouldn’t mind being in the middle of the Karoo where it is dry and sunny right now.

There are so many pastures to compare! I find the university life more stimulating and challenging than back home. Is it any greener? When I’m studying for exams, then no, but from a research point of view and looking at the long-term outcomes, then I would have to say yes. I should add that this is partly due to the fact that humanity is fain and it is often about who you know and where you attended university, especially in the Western world. So I don’t know if the grass is greener; it depends on what shade you prefer I guess.

What sets this city apart from all the others you’ve visited/lived in?

So far I have enjoyed Vancouver tremendously. It has all the characteristics of a big city – grey skyscrapers, busy streets – but at the same time it is serene, it is green or orange (depending on the season and the vegetation), with large water masses surrounding significant parts of the city. Also, the Vancouver dog population is big, and I like cities with big parks where you can walk your dog. The parks are spectacular here and they are maintained really well. It sometimes feels like there are these mini-forests in the middle of the city. Very nice.

Why did you leave South Africa? Will you return someday?

Knowing fully that I am running the risk of sounding like a pompous brat, I am going to go ahead and say it anyway. I wanted more. I wanted to study towards a PhD, preferably in virology. All the experts in marine virology live and work outside South Africa, so I had two options: I could either go abroad and try and get into an established laboratory run by a leader in the field, or I could try and fight my way through a PhD in South Africa without any real supervision. Needless to say, I chose to go abroad. Part of my decision to study in Canada was due to the fact that I have no claim to any ancestral visa, so if the time did come that I had to leave South Africa, it would be much harder to find a new home. Having a Canadian degree means that it will be a bit easier for me to apply for citizenship should I choose to do so.

Will I return? To visit, definitely. Return for life? Not sure yet. There are various factors that would influence my decision, like politics, economics, personal finances and where I can find a job. I have at least four years left in Canada, so I guess I shall assess the situation closer to 2013.

What about South Africa puts a smile on your face, and what makes you cry?

Sunny South Africa with its many different accents. I miss that. Here people either sound American (and the Canadians would beat me into submission if they ever saw this) or French (yes, Quebec still won’t allow children to take English as a first language). I also miss the way in which South Africans take risks. I’ll admit that such risks are not always calculated and often end in tears, but at least it adds some excitement to the mix. Canada isn’t known for taking risks and things can be rather boring at times. I guess that boring = secure?

What makes me really sad about South Africa is that although we have come such a long way with respect to human rights, we have largely failed to acknowledge any animal rights. Animal rights are a big thing here and most kennels and pounds have anti-euthanasia policies. People get thrown in jail here for animal abuse, although with our South African prisons already maxed out I don’t know where we would put the animal abusers. I am very much pro their animal rights laws and I think it is time that we started doing something back home. (“I am in favour of animal rights as well as human rights. That is the way of a whole human being,” said Abraham Lincoln.)

What do you miss most about South Africa?

The huge biodiversity in South Africa – there are few places in the world that can compete with us on that. The most wildlife I get to see here are crows, seagulls, squirrels and raccoons. Not completely satisfactory. I also miss Stoney Ginger Beer – nothing here compares with that. *sigh*

How do people (especially the locals) react when they hear you’re from South Africa?

“Ah! I couldn’t quite place the accent.”  “Ooh (followed by some polite conversation, usually about work) … have you seen District 9?” “Oh, I/we would love to go and visit South Africa … Are you going back for the Soccer/Football World Cup?” And my personal favourite: “Oh, that is nice … my doctor is South African; he has an accent just like yours.” I find that one the hardest to comment on. Most people have very mixed feelings about South Africa. They think it would be a great holiday destination, and biologists think it would be brilliant to do field work in, but mention politics and all of a sudden they don’t think it is that great. Also, most of them assume that if you are studying here you will stay here. Presumptuous, yes, but such thoughts must be fuelled by some background that I am unaware of.

Do you have a favourite hangout or hangouts in the city?

I don’t really have a lot of time outside of the laboratory. Stanley Park is really nice – I like going there. It is situated on a peninsula and represents the forest from which the city of Vancouver was born. It is a beautiful 10 km walk around the park, with big trees on one side and the ocean on the other. If you are experiencing a lucky day you may even catch a glimpse of a Great Blue Heron. The park is well preserved and holds true to its founding slogan: “To the use and enjoyment of people of all colours, creeds and customs, for all time” – and yes, that does include your dog.

You can invite one or more South African singers or bands to perform there in concert. Who do you choose?

I would most definitely like to see a band like Bright Blue perform here (yes, I know they have come and gone, but still, the question didn’t state that I had to be realistic). Also Chris Chameleon – I think he would fit in well with the Vancouver music scene.

Would you encourage South Africans to go there on holiday? If so, what shouldn’t they miss?

Vancouver is a great holiday destination. I wouldn’t miss the Museum of Vancouver. It covers everything about Vancouver’s history, from First Nation through to Hippie Vancouver. Both the Vancouver Aquarium and Zoo are really good and will keep children and adults entertained for hours. If you have the time, jump on a ferry and cross the Strait of Georgia to Vancouver Island. Apart from its natural beauty, you can visit some First Nation settlements and buy some awesome authentic Cowichan sweaters. For the sporty people there is Grouse Mountain and Whistler where you can hike, ski and snowboard to your heart’s content. If you are more of a commercial tourist, Robson Street should satisfy any shopping craving you might have. And last but not least, the University of British Columbia Point Grey Campus. It is a spectacular campus, situated on a peninsula and surrounded by the Pacific Spirit Regional Park forest. On-campus attractions include the Museum of Anthropology, the Beaty Biodiversity Museum with a blue whale skeleton hanging in the entrance, the UBC Botanical gardens, the Nitobe Japanese Memorial garden and the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, to name just a few. So yes, add Vancouver on to your list of must-see vacation destinations – you won’t be sorry.

What has been the highlight of your stay thus far?

I’ve been here for only two months, so I haven’t had that many experiences that I can share. Actually, come to think of it, I do have one experience, but I’m not sure if it was a highlight. The first weekend I was here I decided to go and explore the beach behind my residence. In an attempt to take in the beautiful trees on my climb (430 steps) down to the beach I didn’t notice all the warning signs plastered at the entrance. When I got down to the beach I was suddenly on a fine line between running home out of complete embarrassment and pretending like I didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. Why, you may ask? Because Wreck Beach is the only legal nudist beach in British Columbia. My semi-conservative genes were very confused, I tell you. It wasn’t so much the fact that everyone else was naked, but the fact that I refused to take off my clothing. (I was clinging to my coat as if losing that would taint my existence – completely unfounded, as I was wearing many layers below the coat.) I got some very strange looks. I decided it was time to go when this 70-year-old naked lady tried to sell me some dodgy-looking brownies. This much is for sure: every character can find a niche in Vancouver.

Do you have a favourite type of food or product from that country that you won’t be able to find in South Africa?

They sell these really good peanut butter sweets here that are wrapped in milk chocolate; they taste so good and yet they are so bad for the figure. While I was trying to distract myself from thoughts pertaining to chocolate peanut butter delights I found something that we used to get in South Africa when I was a child: those tiny bear-shaped biscuits made with real honey. Those were sorely missed when they were no longer available in South Africa, but I am happy to report that all is not lost, they are still available in Canada and they now come in four different flavours! Most of the food here is pretty straightforward, but they eat too much yam for my liking (for those of you that don’t know about yams, they are like sweet potatoes). They do serve poutine here (not as much as in Quebec, though). Poutine is a dish consisting of French fries topped with fresh cheese curd and covered in gravy (doesn’t sound very healthy). Rumour has it that it is really good, especially in winter, but I haven’t tried it yet.

You’re stranded on an island. You have rescued three South African items from the sinking ship. What are they?

Biltong, lots and lots of biltong. Some South African field guides (because you never know when you might have to explain what a kudu or a springbok is to someone who thinks every animal is closely related to a moose). Hum – not sure you could bottle the feisty South African character, but if you could I would definitely rescue that … Hang on, I’m South African! Do I count as a rescued item?

Are there any interesting trends in the city/country in general that you would like to share?

I hate to say this, but the Canadian stereotype is dead on target. People are so relaxed here it is ridiculous. Sometimes I feel like grabbing Vancouver by its proverbial shoulders and shaking it just to get a reaction out of it. What makes it even more frustrating is that I’m used to a high-pressure environment where you work like a dog to maintain high outputs. Here it seems people have an almost laid-back lifestyle and yet they maintain very high outputs. Ha, that is one thing I am hoping to master while I am here. Despite their relaxed appearance, Canadians live in fear of the law and comply with every last rule in the book. If you want something done, it is going to happen by the book, no other way. What makes it even stranger is that they are so friendly and helpful, not uptight and grouchy like many strict law-abiding nations are.

Also bicycles. This mode of transport is often associated with cities and towns in Asia and the Netherlands. Let me tell you, Vancouver should definitely be up there in the bicycle fanatic rating. This is partly due to inhabitants being obsessed with outdoor activities like hiking, jogging and, funnily enough, cycling, and partly due to the huge sustainability drive in Canada. So basically, if you don’t have a Nalgene water bottle, thermal travelling mug and a bicycle, you are just not in the popular crowd. Lucky for you, Canadians are very accepting and forgiving, so you won’t be shunned, but they will point out that you can recycle just about everything and will even take the time to show you where the composter is!

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