Why are we here?
This isn't a philosophical question, triggered by existential angst – I don't really do existential angst – but a literal one: Why are my wife and I here in Powell River, B.C., when we could have chosen any other place around the world for our retirement?
Why not England, where we were born, and where we both have family? What about Switzerland, where for a decade we both worked in an international school, which offers the best imaginable combination of natural beauty and creature comforts? Perhaps one of the other countries where we have taught: Belgium, where our two children were born? Thailand, where our modest pensions would fund a life of comparative luxury? The United States, where working at the United Nations school in New York put us in what may be the most exciting city in the world? Or in the sunshine of France, Italy or Spain, where we could have joined so many of our retired friends? Why Canada?
This much is easy to answer: Any Canadian who has lived in another country will appreciate the perspective this gives to the good fortune we enjoy here. Only from the outside is it possible to properly understand that we really do have the best available combination of spectacular geography, natural resources, economic strength, social cohesion and vibrant multiculturalism. There are certainly plenty of problems to resolve, but we are far better placed to start the work than other countries.
So, retirement back to Canada was never in doubt. But why not Toronto, one of the most dynamically diverse cities in the world, where we arrived to start our life in Canada 23 years ago, when I took a post at the Toronto French School? Or Victoria, where in 1995 we achieved citizenship, and where they count the blossoms each March? Or Vancouver, consistently ranked one of the most livable cities in the world?
Why Powell River, up at the end of Highway 101, 200 kilometres and two ferry crossings from the nearest multiplex cinema or multi-storey car-park? And we are not even in Powell River proper. We live on the edge of Desolation Sound, up a gravel road, with no TV cable, regular power cuts, limited cell phone coverage, no internet connectivity, no bus service and a five-kilometre trek to our mailbox. As our children, our friends and our relatives constantly ask us, why on Earth are we here?
It's not the weather. Summers may be glorious here on the Sunshine Coast, but winter seems to come in various shades of wet. It's not the world-class fishing; I wouldn't know in which end of the fish to stick the hook. It's not the economy. The very week we arrived in Powell River the major local employer, Catalyst Paper, had their refinancing plans scuppered. It's certainly not the transport links – no comment needed about the BC Ferries service.
Part of the answer, of course, is the setting. The forest, ocean and lakes around Powell River are a match for any of the world's more glamorous beauty spots, and I defy anybody to come up with a better way of spending a bright winter morning (there have been a few) than looking out over Lund Harbour from the cozy warmth of Nancy's Bakery.
However, Nancy's blackberry cinnamon buns would not by themselves be sufficient to bring us here to Powell River, even if my wife allowed me more than one a day. Yet from the first time we came on holiday to Desolation Sound seven years ago (largely drawn by the name, and the fact that it is literally at the end of the road), we have felt that this was where we wanted to live.
I've tried to ponder the question while walking our dog, but without success. Walking a dog in a city is a fairly mindless activity, allowing plenty of time for thought, out here it's far more distracting. The lack of cars means the dog is off-leash, and watching her explore the woods and beaches makes it hard to concentrate on anything else. Furthermore, the people we meet invariably stop for a chat.
Which, of course, is the answer. For the first time in my life I have real neighbours – as opposed to people who happen to live nearby. These neighbours cheerfully help each other (and us), and more than compensate for the absence of the city "high life." When I go into the coffee shop I get a genuine welcome, rather than a scripted sales pitch; the woman in the post office greeted me by name just the second time I went in; the owner of the bookstore makes time for conversation even if I'm not buying; the contractor building us a garage brings us a salmon he has caught. Everyone is less rushed than in the city, less reserved, and more willing to engage at a personal level.
I'm probably describing life in every small Canadian town, but I haven't found it in small towns elsewhere in the world. These tend to be tight communities, suspicious of newcomers, in which residents of twenty years still live in hope of being accepted one day. Perhaps Canadian small towns have the perfect combination of multiculturalism (making them open-minded) and isolation (causing them to value mutual interdependence). Whatever the reason, I know that this small Canadian town outranks all big cities in one vital measure: the warmth of its people.
We have led a wonderfully nomadic life, and have thoroughly enjoyed every place we have lived and worked. Each has been fascinating, exciting, interesting and attractive in its own way, but each has remained just that – the place in which we were fortunate to work. When we found Powell River, however, we recognized that this was more than just another stop on the way – this was somewhere that we could imagine belonging, and calling home.
And that's why we're here.
Michael Matthews lives just outside of Powell River, B.C.