Vancouver to Venice

At what point does home not really feel like home anymore? I remember when home was a place I longed for during extended trips abroad or something I marvelled at when I returned, a little more worldly and a lot more appreciative of the city I was declaring as my place of residence on my immigration slip.

Vancouver, BC was that place for more than 12 years. I moved there following 3 months of beach huts and guesthouses in South East Asia. Broke but ready to live on my own for the first time at the ripe old age of 23.

For the next 8 years I would live on the corner of Harwood and Nicola in Vancouver’s whimsical West End. My neighbors ranged from folks who had lived there since the very first pride parade marched down Thurlow Ave to independent filmmakers, punks and pensioners. A block from the beach, I thought I’d live there forever.

Eventually I migrated to the other side of town to shack up with my now husband, still basking in my city’s reputation as the most liveable place on earth. And it was. It still is, in a lot of ways. But like all good things, that chapter was coming to a very natural and amicable conclusion. I had hiked its trails, skied its mountains, and soaked up its ocean shores. There was nothing left to look forward to as life became kind of cyclical. As the late B.B. King would croon, the thrill was gone.

It was the 4th of July weekend in 2012 and I was finishing up at a conference in San Diego. Having not spent time in Los Angeles in a while, I was eager to reacquaint myself with Vancouver’s cinematic sister city. So I convinced my husband (then fiancé) to meet me in Venice for a few days. I can’t really describe it, but as I was sitting on a patio waiting for my husband to arrive, observing all the sun-kissed surfers and nouveau bohemians blow by me, I distinctly remember feeling like I was home.

Fast forward to May of last year, floating listlessly in a West Hollywood pool praying time would stand still, as my husband monitored his phone to make sure we wouldn’t miss our flight home to Vancouver. Again, that feeling. Like we shouldn’t be leaving at all. I declared right then, perched on a pink pool floatie, hazy from the unnecessary Pimm’s cup at breakfast, that one day we would miss our flight home. One year later, we did.

It’s been exactly 3 months since we missed that flight. And we’ve settled in Venice, precisely where I silently predicted we would 3 years ago. I’ve lived outside of Canada before, but this time it doesn’t feel like I’ve left something behind, aside from friends and family of course. With every hidden mural, underground tavern or new walk street to discover, everything about being here feels natural and familiar. Maybe it’s because there are so many similarities, at this stage of Venice’s evolution.

Like Vancouver, cars aren’t necessary in Venice. Neither are heavy winter coats, fashion-forward clothes or having to look far for the nearest community garden. Venice is undergoing considerable gentrification, much to the chagrin of some of its long time residents. The man who runs our local plant shop tries to warn me about the dangers of living here, every time I pop by to replace another succulent I’ve killed. What he doesn’t know is the city I came from has the same income inequalities and clashing of cultures Venice is experiencing now.

One of the most impoverished streets in North America sits a short 10-minute walk from my former high-rise address in Vancouver; a neighbourhood where tiny condos quickly sell for a cool million, sometimes thousands of dollars over asking price. In Vancouver, displaced people struggling with drug addiction and mental health issues live in and among some of the cities most touted hot spots and eateries. The same thing is happening in Venice.

Similar to Vancouver, Venice is far from perfect, despite having one of our main thoroughfares being named the coolest block in America. There are often LAPD choppers buzzing above our little mid-century mod apartment in the middle of the night. Gang tags can suddenly appear everywhere, but are quickly painted over by storeowners. Power lines obscure the otherwise perfect palm-lined skyline as I look towards the beach from our kitchen window. But Venice has soul and character and a history that has inspired some of the most prolific artists and musicians of the last 100 years. The creative fervor in the air is so intoxicating it’s hard to resist. So for now, she is home. And I grow to love her more each day.


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Sex in America

Let’s pretend for a moment that it’s 1950. I’m in a floral housedress, bosom prominently pointed due to the unnatural architecture of women’s undergarments of that era. My husband is relaxing in the lounge, catching up on the news of the day as I present him with a happy hour snifter of scotch. A ham or some other animal protein sits roasting in the next room.

After dinner, and a martini or two, the moment strikes where lovemaking is probable. The sultry sounds of Sinatra play as we climb into one of the twin beds placed parallel in our bedroom, for a brief conjugal encounter – in the dark, in silence, ever so discreetly.

Snapping back to 2015, I’d like to think people were properly getting it on in those days. But the residual effects of North America pre-sexual revolution seem to have lingered well past the dawn of free love.

When my husband and I recently decided to live in Los Angeles for a while, I was prepared for a few cultural and social discrepancies compared to Canada. However, having landed in a state made famous for it’s entertainment industry and liberal thought leaders, a few things have surprised me.

Let’s start with something as simple as purchasing contraceptives. The first time my husband popped into our local pharmacy to pick up some condoms, he set off an alarm system. Not the kind of alarm system that prompts an employee to check your bags, nor did a staff member or security guard approach him. It was more of a public shaming of sorts. Attention shoppers: the gentleman wearing the Dodgers hat in aisle three is about to get laid!

Obviously, I had to see this for myself. So we went back to the store, prepared to be cast as Canadian sexual deviants. Sure enough, while extracting a box of condoms from a conspicuous plastic bin, a loud alarm began to sound, alerting everyone in the store as to what we were up to. And, as my husband reported, nothing happened. No one checks on you or asks what your intentions are with the 12-pack of Trojans you just tossed into your basket. People simply stare as you slink towards the toothpaste aisle like nothing happened.

A lot of people we encounter in the U.S. assume that the Canadian healthcare system is something to aspire to. And it’s true; we have much to be grateful for. Until a fellow expat of mine pointed out that the local women’s clinic will give you condoms and birth control for free, no questions asked. Items that are most certainly not free at home. I know this isn’t the case nationwide, but I thought it was surprising considering an alarm comparable to an air horn goes off when trying to purchase prophylactics.

Without getting into the many sexualized starlets that hail from the Golden State, it amazes me what’s considered acceptable and what’s considered taboo as it relates to women. Let’s take the Free the Nipple movement, for example. I’ve written about this before, after Instagram removed an image I posted of a Vancouver-based burlesque dancer, nipples perfectly concealed by a pair of pasties. Nipples on the beach are a no go in California, if you’re a woman. Even where I live in Venice, which has always been the bohemian epicentre of SoCal. Meanwhile, bare bottoms are all the rage, on the beach, by the pool or even walking down the street.

While not particularly common, outside of designated nude beaches, going topless in Canada isn’t considered a criminal offense. Nothing makes me more patriotic than having the freedom to bare my breasts in public, even though I rarely exercised the right to do so.

While we’re on the topic of nipples, I frequently encounter a hot pink van promoting topless maids in my neighborhood, which confuses the subject even more. Nipples out while sun bathing on the beach? No way. Nipples out while tidying someone’s apartment? No problem.

We’ve definitely made sexual strides on both sides of the border, but the line between what’s considered appropriate and what’s considered pervy remains a little bit blurry.

Originally published in The Province.

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Keep Venice Weird

For decades, Venice has been known as a place where the wonderfully weird and way-out converge. A community of nonconformists trying to preserve a piece of Los Angeles that’s still pure in origin and protected from over-gentrification.

Despite the influx of newly renovated mid century mod palaces, pretty faces and tech companies migrating to the neighbourhood en masse, Venice is still weird.

The Venice Boardwalk is where the more colorful locals tend to congregate, although anywhere between Washington and Ocean Park, and east towards Lincoln is a people-watching paradise. Middle-aged men whizzing by on skateboards with the same temerity of a teenager, because no one gives a fuck how old you are. It’s irrelevant. No one is judging anyone. Everyone simply observes.

Even on upscale Abbot Kinney people don’t take themselves too seriously. One night, after too many craft cocktails, we found ourselves at Abbot’s Pizza for a slice on the way home. While in line, a popular 90s dance track came on and my husband started to boogie a little. Then the woman in front of him, dreadlocks piled high on her head with a toddler in tow, began to dance uncontrollably until the whole line-up was going for it.

During lunch one day, we overheard the table next to us chatting with some older gentlemen who declared they were long-time Venice residents. When asked what they did for a living, they said they used to play with a band called The Mamas & the Papas.

We’ve become addicted to what I call affirmation shakes at Café Gratitude on Rose Ave. When ordering, you ask for your smoothie beginning with ‘I am’ followed by whatever concoction you’ve chosen, like ‘Grace’ for example (my favorite). I am grace. And then you suck it back through a paper, recyclable straw while listening in on the tarot reading going on at the next table.

Staying on Victoria Ave, a sleepy, palm-lined street about 10 minutes by bike from the beach, characters still emerged daily. The Barry Gibb lookalike who walks his little dog every morning – same time – always rocking an ankle length fringed vest and flowing scarf to match. The mysterious tube TV that was left on our sidewalk and remained there for 10 days. The artists, established and aspiring. Folks who never left the 70s…or the 70s never left them.

But if it’s madness you crave, the Boardwalk is your jam. You’ll encounter iconic buskers that work the strip every day like Harry Perry, who rocks out on guitar while twirling circles around the tourists on his jacked-up rollerblades. Being recognized by him is kind of like a Venice rite of passage. There’s the Venice Beach Freakshow luring lookie loos in with America’s smallest man and the bearded lady – the best 5 bucks you’ll spend at the beach. There’s the transient travelers with signs that say ‘will strip for cash’ or ‘field goal my nuts for 20 bucks’. Or the more creative offerings like the First Organic Television, which is basically a guy with a TV screen wrapped round his face shouting nonsense at you as you scurry past him.

One of the things I love most is the non-stop party vibe of Venice. Men on roller skates dancing to disco in the basketball courts before the b-ballers arrive. While cruising the bike path, every few minutes someone breezes by with a ghetto blaster blaring everything from Marvin Gaye to the new Kendrick Lamar album. And what better way to end a day in Venice than jumping into the centre of the Drum Circle – a weekend ritual that goes from late afternoon until sunset – and dancing like hundreds of eyes aren’t watching your every move.

The woman we stayed with – Jenny, a designer and long time Venice resident – told us a story of how she had to leave for a while to appreciate how special her neighborhood is. Right around the recession she needed to, as she described, restore her faith in Americans. So she kitted out a VW van and embarked on a road trip that followed along the outer edges of the continental US. North along the west coast, east through the mid west, south along the eastern seaboard until her beloved van blew up in middle-of-nowhere Florida. Literally, flames a mile high.

Not wanting to quit before her journey was complete, she bought a miniature school bus and converted it to a road-trip-ready vessel that would carry her through the final leg of her tour.

These are the people who built Venice. The weird and the wonderful.







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Viva Venice

Three years ago, I was in San Diego on business and decided to extend my stay in SoCal to meet my husband for the weekend in Los Angeles. We settled on Venice, having never spent much time there before. I remember very distinctly sitting on the patio of a Mexican restaurant on Washington Boulevard, waiting for my husband and fantasizing about what it would be like to live there.

The breeze was constant, the temperature was perfect and the vibe was friendly. Neighbourly. And peaceful. Like stumbling upon a tropical oasis in the middle of an arid desert, Venice seemed like a tight-knit community tucked away in the chaos of LA County.

After a few more subsequent trips south, we find ourselves back in Venice to soak up the warmth and the weirdoes. The nouveau bohemians and the Jim Morrison tribute bands. Aspiring artists and American-made treasures ­– vintage, reworked or made new. Musicians seeking a new scene or experience to draw inspiration from. Writers, like me, in sidewalk cafés lingering long after their americanos are finished.

After surviving another long, wet winter on the west coast of Canada, every time I step outside here I breathe a sigh of relief. No socks, no umbrella, no bra. My suitcase was stuffed with only sandals, flowing dresses and kimonos, things I seem to accumulate like crazy despite the cooler climate of home.

We bike everywhere. Big rusty cruisers and no helmets, right alongside the bustling traffic heading to the beach. Something I’d never attempt at home, but all the locals do it, so somehow that makes it feel safe. You hear so many horror stories of traffic in LA, but not in Venice. Not if you do it right.

We’ve holed up in a quaint B’n’B hidden amidst sprawling bougainvillea and lemon trees. Our host has lived in the neighbourhood for 20 years and tells us how much the area has changed. Shortly after she took possession of the house, a teenager was shot and killed down the street. Venice 13 gang tags kept popping up on her fence and well-known hipster haven Abbot Kinney was nothing more than a few shops and dive bars. Balancing gentrification and the history and character that makes Venice so special is delicate business.

While some of Venice’s more iconic sights like Muscle Beach and the longstanding Freak Show will always draw a crowd, it’s the allure of the unexpected that pulls me in. The tropical flowers that grow in every nook and cranny of every side street. Designer pop-up shops in parking lots (I scored a dress and kimono by Mumu yesterday). Masterful murals adorning doorways and alleyways while skaters fly by on their longboards. The charm never seems to fade.

Maybe it’s just a honeymoon phase. Maybe there are dangers and nuisances the locals are concealing. But from where I sit on this breezy backyard patio just off of Abbot Kinney, the fantasy continues.

Standing on a hill in my mountain of dreams,
Telling myself it’s not as hard, hard, hard as it seems.

– Going to California, Led Zepplin






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