Stretching along the coastline of the Pacific Ocean and tucked along the edges of centuries-old rainforest, Vancouver is a young city defined by its natural geography in ways unlike any other. It’s known by many names: Lotusland in reference to Homer’s Odyssey, the City of Glass from a Douglas Coupland novel, and Hollywood North thanks to a few seasons of the X-files and oodles of films.
Vancouver is a port city that came of age in the prohibition era and grew up into a diverse urban center with much to offer, including a burgeoning culinary scene and wine culture. Destination or layover, Vancouver is where you want to spend a few hours or days to eat and drink your fill.
A year ago on December 20, I discovered my life as I knew it was a lie. I ended my marriage and started to pick up the pieces to begin assembling a new life. How does one mark a milestone like that? For me, there was only one way: take a friend to Las Vegas, hock my wedding rings, and gamble whatever I got.
Las Vegas is a strange and interesting city. Beyond the Strip with its technicolour displays of excess, the town has a way of revealing to you parts of yourself that would be otherwise glossed over at home. It’s raw in a way only something built in a desert of nothing can be. So after a year of living through my own strange adventure, it made sense to close this chapter in that place.
Step One: find a pawn shop
Every city has pawn shops. They put our stories under harsh fluorescent light and strip away the memories we layer on our tokens; these places remind us that things are just things. Now, even pawn shops in Vegas have become a simulation of themselves. But all it takes to find something real is a willingness to turn away from those shiny neon distractions.
I found a pawn shop just off Fremont Street, in the decay of old Vegas. This is a condensed version of what transpired.
“I’d like to sell my wedding rings.”
“Are you sure? The most we pay is on the value of the gold and stones.”
“Yep, I’m sure. They’re not worth very much.”
a pause while the woman contemplates what to say next
“Most people can get more if they sell them privately.”
“Nothing you say will offend me. Let’s just see what they’re worth.”
the woman takes the rings and motions for me to follow; she weighs them and inspects the teeny tiny diamonds before turning to me with some reluctance
“With the amount of gold and small size of the diamonds, the best we can do is maybe… $60?”
I glance over at my friend, who shrugs
“That’s ten bucks more than I’d hoped. I’ll take it.”
the woman looks at me like she can’t believe this is what I want, so I try to reassure her
“Oh, this isn’t a bad thing. A year ago today I ended my marriage. I’m okay now. And I’m gambling the money to leave behind the bad juju.”
the woman smiles, obviously relieved, and fills out a form we take to the cashier to collect my $60
“Good luck to you.”
“Thanks.” We walk out the door and grab a drink.
Step Two: find the casino
Las Vegas is all about vibe. Superstition is everywhere, down to the guy playing the slots and the feeling of tables. No one is immune to the vibe; it clings to you like the decades of cigarette smoke not even remotely masked by the air freshener pumped in through the ventilation.
As much as it is about vibe, the city is also about history as it continuously reinvents itself. Classic casinos like Binions, The El Cortez, and The Flamingo are part of the essence of today’s Las Vegas, holding its stories in an ever-changing landscape. There’s a grit to these places, something that can’t be covered over by new carpet or fresh paint.
Walking through the lobby of The Flamingo, I knew. But not yet. Tomorrow.
Step Three: place a bet
We gamble every day of our lives. Maybe it’s not a table game or slot machine, but life is a gamble. We hedge our bets on buying a house at the right time, selling an apartment in a hot market, taking one job over the other in pursuit of career advancement, crossing the street on a red light. We trust our gut and are guided by instinct in the hopes of making the right decision. Sometimes we even weigh the odds.
The house, we know, always wins. Las Vegas is successful because of and despite this. It’s built on hope. Strangely enough, this might be one of the last vestiges of hope. And here hope is naked in all its forms, from beautiful to ugly and everything between. But however it appears, it’s honest.
The Flamingo had an open table with a dealer named Brian who explained roulette. I told him the story behind my wager and that I wanted to bet it all in one go. He nodded. I placed my bet on 20 black, the ball spun and spun before eventually dropping into a slot, and the house won.
Brian smiled and collected my chips from the table. I thanked him for helping close the door to this chapter. Goodbye, bad juju.
Step Four: walk away
That’s all there is to it. I left the table and didn’t look back. Everything I need now is in front of me.
The first year will have been the most difficult and the road ahead is far from clear. I’m not a whole person yet, but I’m living this life in honesty. That’s better than whatever comfort I thought I had in the lie.
And there’s always hope. We just need to look for it.
thanks to Erin for capturing the sale of my rings and the moment I placed the bet, and to Sandra for reminding me that my truth and this reality is always better
Next week, I’m going to Australia. Also Chile. Probably Germany, Spain, and Italy, too. The best part: I’m carpooling with a friend and it will take about five hours for us to reach our destination.
The Vancouver International Wine Festival runs February 20 through March 1. From wine-paired dinners and minglers to seminars, all roads lead to the main event: a series of massive tastings in an enormous ballroom where dozens of countries occupy hundreds of tables and pour thousands of bottles of wine. It’s a sweet deal, anticipated by consumers and industry alike.
Whether you’re attending one event or diving in for many, there are ways to make the most of your time.
Choosing An Event
- Determine your goal. Each event is suited to help you achieve something different, with a few overlapping benefits. Decide what’s most important to you: a focused tasting with a smaller portfolio, exposure to a wide variety of new wines, in-depth education on a specific region, etc. Ask yourself what you want to get out of the experience, and find an event that matches.
- Be flexible. Is the event you want already sold out? Many have wait lists. Get in touch with the organizers, ask, and keep yourself open to jump in at the last minute. It happens.
- Skip the perfume/cologne. It interfers with your ability to smell the wine and will make you unpopular with everyone including the visiting winery. We want to smell wine, not you.
- Dress for comfort and style. Many events are an opportunity to don your best threads, but keep in mind the situation you’re headed for. Dark tops are good for a wandering, nibbling feast (think hand-held bites) as things can get messy/drippy. Stillettos are lovely, but might not be ideal for a 3-hour tasting room tour with no seating to provide respite for tired toes.
In the Moment
- Be mindful. In a crowd, queue up and step away when you’ve had a taste. In a seminar, try to keep chatting to a minimum so your neighbours can hear the presenters. At a dinner, give the host a chance to talk about the wine and food – even at the end, when we might be a little tipsy.
- Sip responsibly. Have a designated driver and take advantage of spittoons. Keep hydrated. Eat well, and often. This is a marathon.
- Try something new. The best part of Festival is discovering a new gem. Break out of your habits and you’ll be delightfully rewarded.
Best Value (not sold out – yet)
- Seminar: Mod Oz, $45, Saturday Feb 28, 5:15pm. Taste some of the unexpected and hard to find gems coming out of a newer, modern Australian wine culture. Bonus: moderated by the talented Treve Ring and Mark Davidson. Access to these folks is worth the price of admission.
- Seminar: McLaren Vale Scarce Earth, $55, Saturday Feb 28, 5:15pm. Go glass-deep into the study of single vineyard terroir with shiraz/syrah from this diverse and complex wine region. Bonus: moderated by Rhys Pender, MW. Who better to help unearth the secrets of McLaren Vale than this witty Aussie.
- International Festival Tastings: $89 Thurs Feb 26, 7pm | $68 Sat Feb 28, 3pm. The Saturday night event is sold out, but don’t mind that. Enjoy a less crowded Thursday evening or Saturday afternoon; get the same exposure to outstanding wines with fewer elbows.
Dear North America: We need to get over ourselves. Stat. Our perspective is not everyone else’s perspective. Recent travels have reminded me of this, and I’m grateful.
Not everyone can travel. I know that. I’ve known what it means to not have any cash – and I’m not talking about needing to visit a bank machine, either. I admit to carrying on my shoulder the chip of those who have lived through poverty, and as much as I’d like to shrug it off there’s something that won’t let me. For now, at least.
It’s that chip – the at times big, hulking boulder – that tilts my head just enough to see things from beyond the perspective of privileged middle class. Because that’s where I am, despite the shudder I feel at acknowledging it – in a place of privilege. Not as much as some, yet heads above others.
I recently visited London, England and Paris, France. It was a 10-day getaway; a solo journey to remind me of who I am at my core without a prefix (Mrs.) or qualifier (woman/writer/wife/whatever). I received much advice before my trip – like where to eat and what to see. And I was cautioned about the size of things: Europe would have smaller everything, I was told. Bathrooms. Streets. Elevators.
Sure, my hotel room in Paris was tiny. But compared to what? Large North American facilities, where we’ve known nothing but sprawl because we have room for it. My 5’9″ frame fit (barely) in the shower, which was added to the room well after the building was constructed hundreds of years ago – but I had more than enough space for my single being to exist.
Maybe it’s our North American perspective that’s skewed. I was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the Louvre, and managed to spend seven hours in there without visiting every aspect of it. I got lost three times. (disclaimer: I have an incredibly bad sense of direction)
I think it might be more fitting to say that many of our consumer-culture items are bigger in North America. Not the macarons – I ate a delectable chocolate macaron in Paris that was the size of a giant North American hamburger (it took three sessions to consume). But many things are. From my limited new perspective I’d say we live in larger domiciles, eat bigger portions, and purchase items in larger quantities than do our European friends. I saw no 24-roll packs of toilet tissue in London – a good thing, because you’d have no place to store 24 rolls in your flat.
The chip on my shoulder forms part of the horizon against which I measure experiences, and it always will. I gain new angles to my perspective with every adventure. The trick is remembering why they came to me, and honouring their contribution.
So, my fellow North Americans. I ask that you please be mindful of how you approach those bigger-than or smaller-than observations. They speak of your own shoulder chips more loudly than you know.