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Are Vancouver’s residents as cold as the icy sidewalks?

Rosemary Blomeyer, left, walks to her favourite breakfast restaurant with new friend Jean Collette.


Every morning around 8 a.m., Rosemary Blomeyer emerges from her basement suite in a Mount Pleasant home, tapping her umbrella along the driveway and sidewalk as she navigates her way to the residential street corner.

There, Ms. Blomeyer, a visually impaired German immigrant in her 80s, listens for the footsteps of passersby, flagging them down when they are near. Sometimes, this takes just a minute or two; other times, much longer.

At 8:20 a.m. on a frosty December day, a woman on her way to work hurries by Ms. Blomeyer, her brisk pace typical during the frenetic, morning rush. But then, she stops and turns around.

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"I am blind," Ms. Blomeyer tells her. "Could you please walk me to Cambie [Street] and 13th [Avenue]?"

The would-be passerby, a woman named Jean Collette, obliges. Ms. Blomeyer takes her arm and the two walk, slowly and carefully along the icy sidewalks, to the White Spot restaurant where Ms. Blomeyer has breakfast every morning.

This act of kindness has happened at least twice a day – once on the way to the restaurant and once back home – every day since Ms. Blomeyer's deteriorating eyesight completely gave out more than a year ago. That's roughly 60 strangers per month, though there are many repeat volunteers.

It is a charming occurrence in a city where residents recently listed social isolation as their most pressing concern, over poverty, homelessness or any other social ill. An oft-referenced survey conducted by the community-based Vancouver Foundation released last year found residents feel it is difficult to make new friends in Metro Vancouver and are worried about the growing sense of disconnection.

"They said we live increasingly in silos, separated by ethnicity, culture, language, income, age and even geography," stated the report, which triggered a flurry of stories and discussion on loneliness and isolation in Vancouver.

"They lamented what they saw as a deepening civic malaise that has resulted in more people retreating from community activities. They said this corrosion of caring and social isolation hurts them personally and hurts their communities."

However, the survey also noted that a significant reason for this disconnect is indifference – "a wish to keep to ourselves, a feeling that we have little or nothing in common with the person next door, or a sense that our neighbours don't want to know us, so why bother."

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It is a point Ms. Blomeyer raises when asked for her thoughts on people in Vancouver supposedly being cold or unfriendly.

"People are nice; you have to talk to them first," she said. "My older brother [was like that]: He didn't talk to you if you didn't talk to him first. That was just his makeup."

Ms. Blomeyer left Germany for Canada in the 1950s, arriving alone in Montreal two months shy of her 22nd birthday.

"There was nothing in Germany after the war," she said. "At that stage, there was a lot of red tape and it was very different. I like the openness, and the nature, and you have a lot of that here."

She has fond memories of skiing with new friends in Montreal, each having chipped in $150 to rent a cabin for the season.

A months-long, cross-continent "camping" trip with a friend followed, taking Ms. Blomeyer across the U.S. and Canada before settling in Vancouver.

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"That was one of the best experiences I ever had," she said.

To depend on others in blindness could have been tremendously frustrating for someone as independent as Ms. Blomeyer, who still refuses to let people open doors for her.

But instead, she says the disability has allowed her to meet a lot of people, including some who have become close friends.

"Some people walk me regularly, on their way to work at the hospital, or to the train," she said.

"There are many repeats from people who live around here, or work at City Hall, or park around here. They come by my house."

"Some of them are quite something, though," she continued with a chuckle, recalling a woman who tried to leave her halfway.

"She said, 'I'm going to leave you here,' and I said, 'You cannot do that!'"

There are others who want to help, but fear they will be late for work.

"I say, 'Is your boss going to shoot you?' They change their minds. I think it's a sort of insecurity in people. I say, 'Tell them you walked a blind lady. They'll forgive you. Bosses here aren't that awful, are they?'"

Ms. Collette, the would-be passerby who ultimately turned around to accompany Ms. Blomeyer, later told The Globe that was her first time walking that route.

"At first, I did want to keep walking by because I've got to get to work," she said. "But she said she couldn't see and she needed help, so I thought, 'Why not walk her? It's not that far out of my way.'"

Vikram Vij, who co-owns the popular Vij's Indian restaurant in Vancouver with his wife, Meeru Dhalwala, first met Ms. Blomeyer in 1996, when the owners of the eatery purchased their Mount Pleasant home. Four other tenants vacated the house as part of the agreement, but Ms. Blomeyer remained.

She has since become "a fixture of the house," he said.

Asked for his thoughts on countless strangers volunteering to walk with his tenant every day, Mr. Vij called it "brilliant" – and said it is proof Vancouver isn't as frigid as so often described.

"I don't know why people think that Vancouver people don't do it; we do it all the time," he said.

Paul van der Hoop, whom Ms. Blomeyer calls her favourite server at the White Spot, can recite endless facts, big and small, about the woman he has served for roughly two decades: she grew up near the Germany-Poland border; she reads palms; she won't drink more than two cups of coffee.

He, along with the hostesses and the restaurant's manager, has walked Ms. Blomeyer home on many occasions.

"Every day, someone stops and offers her an arm," he said.

"I think it's great. This changes the perception [that Vancouver is unfriendly], I think."

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