I’m live blogging today from the Dalhousie University SHIFT conference. This student-organized conference began Thursday March 1st and ends today.

On Thursday night, the conference opened with a talk from Tamika Butler on social justice and equity in planning. Ms. Butler, a lawyer with a background in civil rights, has worked to increase transportation options for low-income and minority communities. She spoke about ways in which we need to confront our own biases and address intersectionality (e.g. ways in which individuals’ gender, age, ethnic and other identities can mean they face multiple barriers) when planning services and addressing issues like gentrification. Friday’s keynote speakers were Vikas Mehta and Katrina Johnson-Zimmerman.

Today’s keynote speakers include Susan Holdsworth and Gerry Post, an advocate for accessibility and equity in Halifax. Mr. Post addressed the need for a shift in regional governance to address the rural-urban divide in the huge land area of the Halifax Regional Municipality; integrated regional service delivery (e.g. for transit, location of services like Access Nova Scotia); and simplifying density bonuses so that it’s a more fair, equitable, and transparent process. He also advocated for the ability of citizen/community groups to advise development, using the example of Planning Aid in England.

This afternoon there will be a couple of workshops on redesigning streets, along with our monthly Planning Social at the end of the conference. If you’re in town, come and join us at the East of Grafton at 5pm!

imagesJohn Tory hasn’t been sworn in as mayor yet, but he’s already trying to undo some of the damage Rob Ford did to the transit system in the past four years. War on the car? Let’s talk about a war on transit.

Don Peat of the Toronto Sun and Oliver Moore of the Globe and Mail reported today on the cuts Ford imposed to bus service in 2011 and 2012, which saved the TTC around $18 million but resulted in significant service reductions on 41 bus routes and a further reduction along 63 other routes. Loading standards were also rolled back to 2004 levels, which is no surprise to anyone taking transit in Toronto today–the level of overcrowding is almost unbearable on many routes. Today’s TTC service is bursting at the seams with increased ridership, yet they have boasted budget surpluses in recent years reflecting their decreased spending on services. Does this make sense?

Tory has already asked TTC CEO Andy Byford to look at ways to restore these services and source the necessary vehicles, in order to have an immediate impact on the city’s transit problems. Funny–I think I remember someone else campaigning on a promise of increasing bus service because it would have the most impact on users for the lowest cost. Oh right–it was Olivia Chow. Interesting how nobody took her seriously on this except the TTC, which proposed 10-minute service on a network of bus routes in its extensive service improvement report, quietly released just before the election. The TTC also proposed solutions like time-based transfers and all-door boarding, two user-oriented options that other cities have been using for years.

Tory has also asked Byford to investigate whether it’s possible to move more quickly on the new signalling system that will allow subway trains to run more frequently (every 90 seconds), now scheduled for completion in 2020. Improvements to the system, as well as track upgrades, currently cause frequent daily delays on the subway. Tory has asked for a cost breakdown of the TTC’s proposed service improvements, and advice on which ones could be implemented quickly.

Quick wins will be necessary for Tory to prove that he is serious about improving transit, his key election promise.


Municipal elections are still over a month away, so voters have plenty of time for a little light reading. I thought it important to highlight a few key resources for Torontonians caught up in the Ford-Tory-Chow- race for mayor. This past month has yielded a wealth of information that should inform your political choices for the largest city in the country.

  1. The City of Toronto is very financially healthy. To quote a report released a couple of weeks ago from the University of Toronto Institute for Municipal Finance and Governance, “Toronto does not have a spending problem.” For those who don’t remember, in his bid to “stop the gravy train” Mayor Ford commissioned independent audits of the city’s services. Internationally recognized firm KPMG found that most city services were mandatory or essential, and there were few opportunities to cut costs without cutting services. The rhetoric that we must constantly cut costs and avoid spending on essential services or projects has had a damaging effect: it has caused us to delay spending on important infrastructure, services, and projects necessary to the city’s functioning. All voters should check out IMPG’s report, Is Toronto Fiscally Healthy? A Check-up on the City’s Finances, an excellent primer on municipal governance and finance, answering questions like “How much influence do politicians have on the economy?” (Answer: Not much).
  2. Toronto Star comparison of the candidates' transit plans

    Toronto Star comparison of the candidates’ transit plans

    Public transit has emerged as the leading issue in this mayoral race. Every newspaper has spelled out, in mind-numbing detail, the plans of each candidate: here’s a summary from the Toronto Star. The Toronto Sun went so far as to break down each of Rob Ford’s campaign promises in “10 problems with Rob Ford’s transit plan.” Yeah, that’s right–the Sun, people. Voters need to be informed on what are realistic plans versus empty promises. Do your homework and don’t be distracted by the beautiful technology.

  3. What this city needs is a long-term vision. If you want to see what a transportation vision might look like, check out TTC’s August 19th report Opportunities to Improve Transit Service in Toronto, which outlines their futuristic vision for Toronto. Read about The Big Move at Metrolinx. Think about your own needs, and those of your family members, ten or twenty years in the future. Check out the Toronto Board of Trade’s discussion paper, Build Regional Transportation Now, to get some ideas of how municipalities could work together to achieve common goals. Among the more revolutionary of their suggestions are: reviewing governance options for improved coordination and integration of transportation related planning, management and operational functions; integrating transit route planning and creating one regional network, fare system, schedule and public transportation brand; depoliticizing transportation decision-making; applying dedicated revenue tools to manage transportation demand; and including fairness and equity in the application of revenue tools. In terms of a housing vision, most candidates haven’t gone into much detail: Toronto Life examined Olivia Chow’s affordable housing plan in “Would Olivia Chow’s affordable housing plan work as advertised?”, particularly the concept of inclusionary zoning.
  4. Don’t read too much into opinion polls: they are often inaccurate. Polls did not accurately predict Kathleen Wynne’s majority win in June, as the media often portrayed the difference between Wynne and Tim Hudak as merely in the single digits (the result: Wynne won 48 seats, Hudak 28). The same thing happened in Alberta two years ago, when the race between Conservative Alison Redford and Wildrose Party’s Danielle Smith was considered too close to call (the result: Redford won a majority with 62 seats compared to Smith’s 17 seats). Vote for the candidate who has the best chance of fulfilling your vision for Toronto.
  5. Look for overlapping goals. Canada doesn’t have an Obama, a leader whose 2008 election strategy focused on pointing out shared ideas and beliefs, and suggested “yes we can”. Increasingly, Canadian politics are divisive, pitting owners against renters, old against young, the native-born against immigrants. Voters have to look for common goals themselves, e.g. the fact that even Rob Ford, a poster-boy for conservativism, is spending his final weeks before the election coming up with plans for public transit tells you something about this city. The fact that the city has needs far greater than it can address with its own paltry revenue streams (e.g. infrastructure, housing) says something about the division of powers between municipalities, provinces, and the federal government. Voters need to be reminded that we do have common struggles, ideals, and aspirations: politicians are extremely skilled in wiping these commonalities from our memories as they try to define themselves and their platforms.


I urge all who are able to vote to register or just bring identification with your local address on voting day, October 27th. Students, you can vote in the city where you live as a student, or in your hometown.

King William, the former Queen Beatrix, and Queen Maxima on the Koninklijk Paleis after the abdication

King William, the former queen Beatrix, and Queen Maxima on the Koninklijk Paleis after the abdication on April 30, 2013.

Koninginnedag (Queen’s Day) is one of the biggest holidays of the year in The Netherlands. The Queen often honours citizens for exceptional service to the country on this day: most become members of the Order of Oranje-Nassau. The Dutch also celebrate by wearing the colour of the House of Oranje-Nassau, of which the royal family are members, explaining the seasonal “orange madness.”

Free market in Amsterdam

Free market in Amsterdam

A girl sells her books in the Vondelpark

A girl sells her books in the Vondelpark

Traditionally, Queen’s Day has been the only day of the year when anyone who wanted to sell items could do so without a permit: the nation-wide vrijmarkts (free markets) are famous. Each local market has its own flavour: in Amsterdam’s Vondelpark, you’re likely to see children selling their old toys and books, homemade brownies and cupcakes, and performing on their musical instruments for donations from the thousands of passers-by. In my own Turkish-Moroccan-Indonesian neighbourhood, people sold second-hand clothing, china, and homemade snacks like loempia, donairs and onion bhaji.

April 30th, 2013 was a Queen’s Day like no other in The Netherlands: today Queen Beatrix abdicated her throne so that her son Willem could become king. The timing was particularly auspicious: Beatrix turned 75 this year, 2013 is the 200th anniversary of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and the 400th anniversary of Amsterdam’s Grachtengordel (Canal Belt). Unlike the United Kingdom, which seems to reserve abdications for scandals, there is a long history of abdication in The Netherlands. Before Beatrix, her mother Juliana abdicated in 1980 at the age of 71 and her grandmother Wilhelmina abdicated in 1948 at the age of 68.

Celebrating on the Prinsengracht

Celebrating on the Prinsengracht

As tradition dictates, this morning’s formal abdication took place in the Koninklijk Paleis (Royal Palace) on Dam Square, and was quite a sedate affair: the Queen, Willem and his wife Maxima, and members of the King’s cabinet signed the official documents of abdication. The ceremony was broadcast live and although the setting and occasion were very formal, Beatrix, Willem, and Maxima exchanged quite a few smiles and happy looks in the process. King Willem, Queen Maxima, and their daughters Amalia, Alexia, and Ariane appeared on the balcony overlooking the square shortly afterwards, smiling and waving to the hundreds of orange-clad spectators below. A couple of hours later the king’s coronation took place in the Nieuwe Kerk at Dam Square, and following this the royal party will travel by boat along the IJ River for more festivities. For the first time in 123 years, The Netherlands has a King. The Dutch celebrated as they usually do: partying in boats in the canals, listening to live music all over the city, and buying and selling things in the free markets.

Queen’s Day was originally Prinsessedag (Princess’ Day), first celebrated on the 5th birthday of then-Princess Wilhelmina, August 1st, 1885; it was renamed when she inherited the throne in 1980. When Juliana became queen the date was changed to her birthday, April 30th; Beatrix kept the date as a tribute to her mother. As of next year Koningsdag (King’s Day) will be celebrated on April 27th, King Willem’s birthday.

My generation, which represents one-quarter of Ontario’s population and 70% of inner Toronto’s population growth since 2006, is finally making headlines. “Echo boomers” (those of us born between 1972 and 1992) are much more likely to live in central, high-density neighbourhoods with access to good-quality transit. This trend is remarkable considering that one of the most persistent problems faced by planners today is the public’s lack of acceptance of planning concepts such as higher densities to support transit provision. In an article for the Globe and Mail, Doug Sanders explored Vancouverism, a Canadian-born model of livable density (“The world wants Vancouverism. Shouldn’t Canada?” February 23, 2013)  While planners from Melbourne to Dubai are adopting the principles Vancouver has espoused for 30 years, Canadian cities still lag behind supporting higher-density living. How can planners influence public perceptions of density?

Perhaps there are lessons to be learned from echo boomers, whose trends and patterns have been ignored for far too long in favour of their richer, suburbanite parents. Access to transit and proximity to work are the main reasons people in our demographic choose to live downtown, which is practical considering we’re much more likely to change careers than the previous generation, requiring more commuting flexibility. A recent report from TD Economics (Toronto: A Return to the Core) showed that key neighbourhoods in inner Toronto, such as Trinity-Spadina, grew by 16% from 2006-2011, supporting key real estate trends like a boom in condo development. Employment growth in Toronto’s inner city outpaced suburban job growth during the same time period.

Planners around the world have also been developing better ways to dialogue with community members about density. One strategy that worked in Perth, Australia, is conducting a comprehensive series of discussions with a range of people. ‘Dialogue with the City‘, an innovative and extensive deliberative forum with citizens, communities, industry and practitioners, was launched in 2003 to discuss and deliberate how to make Perth ‘the world’s most livable city by 2030’. The year of dialogue and discussion, funded in partnership with the Government of Western Australia, Western Australia Planning Commission, and private partners, seems to have contributed to a shift in perception among planners, politicians and the public over time. The Network City strategy is being used to implement the outcomes of Dialogue with the City and 42% of the participants said they changed their views as a result of the dialogue. Vancouver’s Greenest City dialogues have taken a similar approach.

Residents’ perceptions can change during the trajectory of specific projects. Planners at TransLink, Vancouver’s regional transportation authority, found that when they conducted public meetings on the proposed Broadway-UBC LRT line in 2011, local residents were quite upset about the idea of increased density along Broadway during the first round of meetings. It didn’t help that many of the businesses along Cambie Street had experienced financial setbacks during construction of the Canada Line LRT just a couple of years earlier. But by the time the second round of meetings happened, residents had become more supportive of the idea. In Vancouver and other cities with persistent housing affordability problems, another key to acceptance of density has to be the development and use of tools to protect affordability, such as community bargaining agreements and condominium conversion regulations.

Planners can learn from key demographic groups (echo boomers, recent immigrants, students, single-person households and seniors) who tend to choose more centrally-located, transit-accessible neighbourhoods. The old logic that these groups choose transit because “they can’t afford to drive” doesn’t necessarily hold true in the era of urban sustainability and hipster neighbourhoods. And planners can continue to develop processes that engage communities in discussions about what density really means–but this means providing information on building types and density levels that will support public transit, services, and employment, not just collecting opinions. Today’s online tools allow a broader range of community members to participate and have their voices heard than traditional public meetings, and don’t suffer from the same time/place constraints. They have the potential to allow early and ongoing discussion on polarizing topics such as density, long before plans and policies are formulated.

In what is possibly the biggest municipal story this year, Toronto mayor Rob Ford will be removed from office by December 14th–two weeks from now. Over a measly $3,150, which Ford himself referred to as “an insignificant sum”, the mayor of Canada’s largest city has been ordered out of office. Justice Charles Hackland issued the verdict: that Ford had contravened the City of Toronto Code of Conduct in using city resources (including letters sent using official letterheads) to raise money for his football foundation. Even though Ford refused to reimburse the money, as recommended by the Integrity Commissioner and City Council, this alone was not enough to topple him from office. The crux of the matter was that in any member of council faced with a violation of the Code of Conduct is disqualified from speaking or voting on the matter when it is discussed at council, since council has the right to levy a financial sanction. However, Ford voted on the issue at a February 7, 2012 council meeting. This puts him in contravention of the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act, for which the penalty is immediate removal from office. The judge declared that Ford’s seat is now vacant, but he suspended the operation of his declaration for 14 days to allow the city to make the necessary administrative changes. This leaves Ford 14 days to file an appeal, which he is certain to do (“Rob Ford’s appeal will be filed ‘in the next couple of days'”, Toronto Star, November 27, 2012).

While many feel that Ford “got what he deserved”, Rosie DiManno writes that it may have been better if Ford had lost in a re-election, rather than the courts (“Little to celebrate in way Ford got the boot”, Toronto Star, November 27, 2012). She feels that Ford’s supporters will reinforce efforts to have him re-elected. Adam Goldenberg agrees (“Rob Ford lost the batle, not the war”, Ottawa Citizen, November 26, 2012), saying that Ford won the mayoral race as an outsider, and the ruling makes him an outsider once more. It certainly puts Toronto into uncharted territory as a rush of candidates prepares to run for mayor in a by-election. But the mayor of the country’s largest city has a major impact: Justice Hackland wrote that such an influential mayor has first and foremost a responsibility to act with integrity; news of Ford’s removal from office trended on Twitter around the world on Monday. And it wasn’t the first time Ford’s opponents have resorted to the letter of the law in exposing the man’s errors: just a few short months ago, an emergency council vote was held following the issuance of a legal opinion on the matter of Ford’s cancellation of the Transit City plan.

As for Ford, as he put it,”This comes down to left-wing politics. The left wing wants me out of here and they’ll do anything in their power to.” We didn’t hear much about the “right wing” supporting him in his successful bid for mayor, and we rarely heard Ford describe himself as a right-wing politician. Rather, his campaign promise to “trim the fat from city hall” fell flat, and the fiscal conservative finds himself in the ironic position of being removed from office over a few thousand dollars. Adam Goldenberg of the Ottawa Citizen characterizes Justice Hackland’s decision as “a model of judicial modesty, which conservatives like Ford are supposed to love.”

Several writers have addressed the difficulties in governing Canada’s largest city; undoubtedly councillors face some major challenges in the weeks ahead (“Toronto councillors critical of Rob Ford’s defiance”, CBC News, November 27, 2012). In “What kind of mayor does Toronto need?” Toronto Star columnist Christopher Hume says that the city needs a mayor that understands transportation solutions, who can lead other Canadian cities towards more equitable fiscal arrangements for cities, who will celebrate the city’s diversity, and who will lead it towards planning for climate change. It needs a mayor who understands rules and is able to abide by them, but can unite people from polarizing viewpoints and make compromises.

“Toronto is a hugely complicated, even contradictory, organism, beyond the control of any one person or institution.” –Christopher Hume, Toronto Star, November 28, 2012

Ford will be absent while Toronto scrambles for a new mayor (“Rob Ford out: Mayor can’t run in by-election, city lawyer says”, Toronto Star, November 27, 2012), but nothing will stop him from running again in 2014.

Update: Ford appealed Hackland’s decision and won on January 25, 2013.

Zwarte Pieten arriving from Spain

Sinterklaas arrived in Amsterdam today, November 18th–not coincidentally, the same day as the Santa Claus Parade in many Canadian cities. An estimated 300,000 children line the canals and streets of Amsterdam to greet Sinterklaas as he arrives by steamboat with his helpers, the Zwarte Pieten. The arrival of Sinterklaas (intoch van Sinterklaas) has been celebrated in Amsterdam since 1934 and transmitted on live TV since 1952. The Dutch maintain a separation between Sinterklaas and Santa Claus, who they call Kerstman (the Christmas Man).

In the Dutch tradition, Sinterklaas lives in Spain (where the remains of the actual St. Nicholas lie). In mid-October, he leaves Spain by steamboat and arrives in the Netherlands, in a different Dutch city each year, then travels throughout the country. This year he arrived in Roermond, in the southern province of Limburg. While he stays in town, he’s considered the most important person in town–even more than the town’s mayor. His arrival also starts the traditional Christmas shopping season, which used to go up until December 6th, St. Nicholas Day. On the eve of the 6th, children leave out carrots by their wooden shoes for Sinterklaas’ horse, since he travels from house to house delivering presents on a white horse.

Sinterklaas arrives by steamboat from Spain

The Zwarte Pieten, the hundreds of Moorish helpers who work for Sinterklaas, deliver the presents by sliding down each chimney (the Zwarte Pieten also traditionally had the dubious job of catching naughty children and stuffing them into burlap sacks). Traditionally, the beautifully-wrapped present would be accompanied by a funny poem describing the recipient, written by Sinterklaas. It would be opened on December 6th. Children’s shoes would be filled with marzipan and other treats.

The tradition of Sinterklaas was brought to the US by Dutch immigrants, where the tradition of the Zwarte Pieten was presumably changed to elves. The Zwarte Piet controversy can be traced to Dutch colonial times: according to folklore, Sinterklaas had a Moorish servant boy named Zwarte Piet. During WWII, Canadian soldiers who liberated the Netherlands noticed the joy that the tradition of Zwarte Piet gave to the local children during the wartime years, and held a Zwarte Pieten party with many of the characters. Today, the intoch van Sinterklaas features over 700 Zwarte Pieten. The Dutch have tried to dispel the obvious racial overtones by rewriting the story to suggest that the Zwarte Pieten are not people of African descent, but are merely dirty from sliding down chimneys all night. (Just last year, the Dutch community celebrating Sinterklaas’ arrival in Vancouver with the Zwarte Pieten resulted in opposition by the African-Canadian community). The controversy hasn’t dimmed the excitement of the local children: when I attended this year’s intoch, the children cried out for Piet, not Sinterklaas, and many sported Zwarte Piet medieval costumes and hats. Sinterklaas is dressed as a priest with red robes, bishop’s hat, and gold mitre. The Pieten hand out pounds of candy and pepernoten, bite-sized ginger cookies. Large taai-taai, shaped as Sinterklass, can also be found in local shops.

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piete on wrapping paper

It’s interesting to see the progression of St. Nicholas from a third-century Greek bishop known for generosity and kindness to children, to stories around the world of his protection of the poor and of sailors going away to sea. In cities from Montreal to Amsterdam, the church of St. Nicholas stands at the main port of the city as a symbol of protection at sea. In Greece, the coastline features many small white chapels dedicated to St. Nicholas. After WWII, American soldiers dressed up as Santa Claus to give out toys to children in war-torn England, Italy, France, the Netherlands, and later Germany and Japan. In the Netherlands, during the weeks leading up to December 6th, kids can watch the Zwarte Pieten news on TV to see what’s going on with Sinterklaas. In Canada of course, we all await Santa’s arrival from the North Pole, where he makes toys for good boys and girls with the help of his elves. Dutch immigrants to Canada, as well other ethnocultural groups such as Greeks and Ukrainians, have helped shaped our Santa Claus tradition, which includes a parade in mid-November.

Bike parking at Amsterdam Centraal Station

Anyone who’s visited Amsterdam could tell you that while it’s “the capital of European biking”, it has serious parking problems. I’m currently teaching a class on metropolitan transport planning at the University of Amsterdam, and two groups of students have chose to study biking issues: one will examine the ever-rising rate of cycling injuries and the other the problem of parking.

A recent article in the New York Times mentioned that the City of Amsterdam plans to spend 120 million euros on cycling infrastructure in the next eight years. And it should, considering that it has  881,000 bicycles for its  780,559 citizens. While car-obsessed countries might be envious, there are some serious drawbacks to cycling’s increasing popularity in a city built on precious reclaimed land: while cycling increased 14% from 2001-2011, the number of cyclists seriously injured in accidents also increased to 56%. And building enough parking spaces for bikes is as much of a problem as it is for cars in the US or Canada.

Amsterdammers treat their bikes like Americans would treat a second-hand beater car with a rusted-out engine. Bikes are left out in the rain on a daily basis, they’re often left unlocked, and as one student told me, “they have little value.” Contrast this with Vancouver, where people go out of their way to rent the few coveted bike storage boxes provided by TransLink to protect them from the rain. In many North American cities it’s not unusual for cyclists to carry their bikes up several flights of stairs rather than leave them outside. Bikes are more expensive in the US (in Amsterdam you can pick one up for as little as 50 euros) they’re also more complicated: you need gears, and derailleur gears don’t respond well to daily rain.

Underground parking at Amsterdam Zuid Station

Another pervasive cultural practice in Amsterdam is owning three or four bikes; most people leave them in various places so they’ll always have access to a bike when they need one. In a city where every square centimeter of land is precious and most housing units are too small to store bikes (either indoors or out), this adds up to overcrowded bike racks, bikes blocking sidewalks, bikes affixed to every possible railing and pole, and bikes left for weeks in one place without being used. While some organizations will remove bikes left overnight (including the University of Amsterdam) this practice is controversial, as most people believe they have the right to park anywhere they want and for as long as they want. Covered bike storage is available for commuters at some places for a fee, but many people will cycle out of their way to park for free, leaving nearby neighbourhoods cluttered with two-wheelers. Shades of The High Cost of Free Parking, anyone?

The City plans to create an additional 38,000 bike parking spots at the rail and transit hubs over the next eight years. But more crucially, they plan to create more bike parking laws and enforce those that already exist, such as ensuring that Amsterdammers don’t leave their bikes for over 14 days in high-demand locations. It seems that the Dutch have discovered that unlimited free parking doesn’t work–even for bikes.


Settling into The Netherlands has been full of unexpected encounters and insights: waiting in interminable lines, adjusting to hordes of bikes and learning new social cues. On these and many other issues of integration, I can’t provide more valuable (or hilarious) insights than the writers of The Undutchables (Colin White and Laurie Brouke), the Holland Handbook (XPat Media) and many others who have written on this topic. However, I do feel qualified to report on one aspect of integration: the language.

The knee-jerk reaction to our difficulties with the language has been the same from both Dutch and non-Dutch alike:  “Everyone speaks English in The Netherlands–you don’t need to learn Dutch.” Yes, it’s true that most people speak at least a little English and many are quite fluent. I would say that most of the ex-pats I know have landed in jobs with very international staff, and English is indeed the lingua franca. However, that has not been our experience. At my job, people don’t seem to enjoy speaking in their second (or third or fourth) language for the entire day. While most of my co-workers speak quite good English, they regularly converse in Dutch at lunch or any other time when they are speaking to a native of their own country. The University of Amsterdam offers almost half of its degrees in English, but lectures, newsletters and events are often in Dutch. My husband has been looking for work as a gardener, and all the job postings are in Dutch–even the Netherlands branch of the International Association of Arboriculture (of which he is a member) advised him to learn Dutch. One woman who called him this week about a job sadly informed him that although his resume was nice, they really needed someone who could speak Dutch fluently.

Important paperwork, such as immigration papers, bank statements, and health insurance are also in Dutch. And good luck calling your gas company or cell phone provider–their automated services are all in Dutch, so you can’t even choose which option you need. If you take the tram or train, all the stops are announced in Dutch. And you will run into lots of people in shops, particularly those who immigrated here from a non-English-speaking country, who have naturally put their energies into learning Dutch over English. In many Amsterdam neighbourhoods with Turkish bakeries, Indonesian restaurants and Chinese groceries, you will encounter shopkeepers who don’t speak a word of English. And to be honest, I’ve always felt (as a second-generation immigrant in Canada) that learning the native language is necessary for integration.

So it was that, about a month after our arrival here, we decided that we needed to learn Dutch. This provoked the predicted response: it’s not necessary, surely you aren’t having that much trouble without it, etc. It also spurred commentary, from practical to laughable, on the best course to learn the language. The national government in The Netherlands  requires a certain level of Dutch as a condition of permanent residence and citizenship, and courses are provided for this purpose. There are also courses at the University of Amsterdam, the Volksuniversiteit, and of course at schools for travellers like Berlitz. Without fail, my co-workers who had taken a Dutch course–any Dutch course–told me how useless it was. The teacher didn’t know what they were doing, the homework was excessive, they didn’t learn anything, or the course “totally messed up what little Dutch I already knew.” The twice-a-week classes were deemed too difficult; the once-a-week classes wouldn’t teach enough. It was too hard to learn Dutch because everyone just switched to English. Their cumulative advice was not to take a course at all, but to “just find a Dutch person to talk to every week for an hour.” With memories of Elizabeth Gilbert’s gorgeous Italian Tandem Exchange Partner (Eat, Pray, Love), I wondered how I would find someone who would be willing to talk Dutch to me, in a monologue, without me understanding or contributing a response, week after week. After all, one can’t begin from nothing.

We enrolled at the Volksuniversiteit. In the first week of our course we learned the useful phrases, I am Steve Smith, I come from England, and I speak English–that is, the entire class learned how to say these things about themselves. The next day my Dutch co-workers were duly impressed that I could say, Ik ben Canadese. Ik spreek Engels en Frans. In the second week we learned pronouns, direct objects and a number of words for questions (how, who, which, etc.) This proved much more difficult because English has no deferential treatment: there’s no formal you like the vous in French and the u in Dutch. We have no genders: it’s the dog and also the house. So as our Dutch teacher commented, “The discussion on whether to use de versus het will go on forever.”

It was also difficult because–it pains me to admit this–I never learned English grammar at school. So when our teacher explained to us that we use the direct object rather than the indirect, I was transported back in time to my eighth-grade French class, when the teacher discovered that we didn’t understand this concept in English either! (Things got worse a couple of years later when we learned the conditional verbs in French, upon which our exasperated teacher exclaimed, “How can you not know what a dependent clause is?”) Sadly for you linguists out there, I am living proof that it is possible to finish school–even three degrees–without knowing this crucial information.

Tonight is week 3 and we have learned numbers and letters (useful when getting change and spelling your achternaam). But I’m pleased to say I can already ask for what I want at the kaashuis and understand the route numbers on the tram. The Dutch subtitles on TV and the ticket vending machines at the train station are almost legible to me at this point. This morning I spotted a billboard from the tram, and realized that I could read every single word of it. But I specialize in the detection of overall patterns–details like the meanings of conjunctions escape me. And it will likely take me at least a year to be able to hork up the Dutch g in gracht and morgen. So I’ll stick it out for a course or two, trying to memorize word lists and irregular verbs like zijn: as our teacher points out, the verb “to be” is irregular in every language. Like the others in the Volkuniversiteit Basis I course I’m learning Dutch because, despite all advice to the contrary, I need to. It makes my life easier.


It’s hard to believe that Jorge Amigo was once on the receiving end of so many cold shoulders from Vancouver women, he may have rivalled About A Boy‘s Will Freeman in his level of cool. Sub-zero. Dry ice. As Frosty as the Snowman.

This January, Amigo wrote a now-famous article in Vancouver Magazine entitled, “Do Vancouver women suck?” in response to Katherine Ashenberg’s “Do Vancouver men suck?” These and other writers (including myself) have noted a distinctly tepid social climate in this city that leads to lonely singles, particularly men of the failure-to-launch type and women of the cold-shoulder type. Outside of the dating scene, it also seems to lead to the formation of cliques and the social exclusion of those of us who weren’t lucky enough to be born and raised in Lotusland (see Jesse Donaldson’s “Three Customs of the West Coast Friend” in The Tyee, April 14th, 2012). After a tremendous response to his VanMag article, Amigo decided to do something about it: he started #bemyamigo, a social club that dares Vancouverites to “chat with strangers and help make this city friendlier.”

Since February, Amigo has held a regular social event every two weeks at The Union Bar (check out the latest event on eventbrite). Participants buy tickets that entitle them to a drink, browse a menu of appetizers created for the event, and chat with twenty or so strangers at a long table. Having found out about tonight’s event fairly last-minute, I decided to check it out.

I spent much of my time chatting with a woman who has just moved here from Dublin for work, a geologist working for a mining company, a musician friend of Jorge’s, and a multilingual woman who recently spent six months in Rome learning Italian. Most of these folks weren’t from Vancouver (which all of us felt was pretty typical) and most had come to the event on their own. Jorge himself was the perfect host, circulating among the participants and chatting with everyone. He was pleased with this evening’s turnout, which was a good mix of men and women (apparently the first event drew 22 women and only 3 men!) The conversations began with what people did for a living and how long they’d been in Vancouver and progressed to insights we’d picked up travelling in different countries and the social faux-pas committed daily on Facebook. Hilarious stories were told, and proto-friendships were forged–when we left, several of us made plans to attend a future #bemyamigo event and keep in touch online.

It’s too early to tell whether this little social experiment will make a difference in Vancouver’s chilly social scene, but several folks at the table seemed to think a critical mass of more sociable types has been reached in this city. While an event like #bemyamigo might terrify an introvert or one accustomed to their own little clique, sitting down with a table full of strangers who were honestly interested in meeting new people was a breath of fresh air in a city where even the weather patterns refuse to budge. Could you do it?

I dare you, Vancouver.