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facts & arguments

Victoria's secret gardens

Vancouver Island is where you come to get away from everywhere else. Jacob Buurma learns to embrace the pace

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Maybe it was the noise. Maybe it was the traffic. Maybe it was the endless winter shovelling. After seven years in Toronto, our young family decided to uproot to Victoria with no fixed job prospects. We were mesmerized by the slower pace of life, secluded beaches and milder climate. My last stop out of town was a clothing donation box where I crammed in my puffy winter jacket.

Four years later, Victoria has delivered on all its meteorological promises. Snow is rare and I'm usually hiking in the woods without a jacket by Valentine's Day. The climate is so exceptionally temperate that one of my friends is growing a lemon tree in his front yard. But despite locally grown citrus, the Island life isn't exactly what we expected.

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The differences weren't immediately obvious. Two years ago, I heard a local singer-songwriter perform downtown. It was the best live music I'd discovered in Victoria and I resolved to attend all her future gigs. But late in the set, she giddily announced that she'd just been hired by a record label in Los Angeles. It was her last show in Victoria. She moved south a month later.

That same week, I had breakfast with the guy who planted the lemon tree. Though still in his 30s, he'd achieved one of the top positions in privacy law in Victoria. That morning over egg sandwiches, he broke the news that he'd just been offered a job in Toronto with much more room to grow. He, too, was gone in a month.

Putting these events back to back, I realized that the reasons people come to Victoria are the same reasons many talented people leave. People move to the Island for the serenity and slow pace, but others grow weary of the Island's inertia and leave for big, bustling cities. There are notable exceptions to this rule, but the brain drain from the Island to larger urban centres is undeniable. Lemon trees aren't enough.

We stuck it out for the citrus. Soon enough, the city's obsession with gardening began to take root, too. The first spring, a neighbour and I ripped out a fence and planted a row of young cedar trees in its place. The next year, I experimented with a few veggies in a corner of the backyard. Now, I have a small arsenal of garden tools and watch YouTube videos about lawn care and heirloom carrots. Once, I met a fellow Victorian on a flight and one of her opening questions was, "Do you have a garden?" Where else is this question more relevant than, "What do you do?" I'm convinced that if the local McDonald's rebranded as "McTea Garden" their sales would skyrocket.

Gardens are private, closed-off spaces; they are worlds unto themselves. In some way, this mirrors the collective psyche of the city. Victoria is an achingly beautiful place to live, but it's also resolutely private and shuttered from the outside world. In Toronto, everything happens on the street: food festivals, political speeches, protests, celebrations. In Victoria, everything happens in the backyard behind a 12-foot-tall cedar hedge.

But when your whole world is a garden, myopia sets in. Reading the front page of Victoria's Times Colonist, I began to believe that seagull population control and bridge-construction delays were the great social issues of our time. By contrast, visual reminders of global events were inescapable in Toronto: a dignitary's motorcade, a protest march along the waterfront, Syrian refugees sleeping in hotel lobbies. Shots fired halfway around the world echo on Toronto's streets. The city pulses with the refrain, "Anything could happen today. Anything could happen today."

But Victoria whispers, "Nothing will happen today. Let's go for tea." The first major sign on the way into downtown is an art installation that reads, "Night is for sleeping. Day is for resting." This couplet sets the tone for our city's ambitions. It's confirmed by a local bumper sticker: "Relax, it's not the mainland."

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People come to Vancouver Island to get away from everywhere else. When I arrived, I was amazed by the huge piles of driftwood on the beaches – gigantic logs displaced from distant forests that meandered down the Strait of Juan de Fuca, rolled onto the shore and went no farther. A similar movement takes place in the opposite direction. Every year, scores of drifters arrive in Victoria, souls displaced from distant cities that meandered down the Trans Canada, rolled onto the shore and went no farther. Victoria's beaches are where the vast populations of driftwood and drifters mingle and await their next move.

We were those drifters. And it was in the quiet of awaiting our next move that we discovered the genius of Victoria. The city's wilderness spaces are an ideal place for reflection and redirection. The pace of life is slow, but slow enough to help detox the soul. Ironically, this relaxed pace means that relationships form much faster – there's simply more time to be together.

So I've made my peace with Victoria. And I'm receiving the gifts of an unhurried life and a northern Mediterranean climate. After years of rolling my eyes at the Times Colonist, I now read it from cover to cover. Some days, when I'm working from home on a conference call, it just seems right to tap the phone on mute and try to sneak in some gardening. Maybe, one day, I'll find room in the front yard for a lemon tree.

Jacob Buurma lives in Victoria.

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