Where the Heart Is: Calgary is more than cowboys

Growing up, I always wanted to leave Calgary.

It’s commonly associated with conservativism, oil and gas, extremely cold weather and most importantly, being cowboy crazy. This is something I have run into whenever I introduce myself as a Calgarian. And for the most part, these are all true.

The electorate strongly leans blue, and the economy is fundamentally comprised of the oil and gas industry or tourism (thanks to Banff, the Rockies and the Calgary Stampede).

And yes, Calgary can indeed go stampede-cowboy crazy.

Every summer, the city transforms into an ode to the rodeo and anything Western. Dedicated stores selling cowboy boots have a boom in business, and white event tents scatter the downtown area, hosting pancake breakfasts in the morning, and live music and dancing all night. Even corporate Calgary enjoys the fun — devoting team spirit to themed events and mandating Western wear. A sight to behold, the downtown core becomes a sea of cowboy hats, plaid shirts, bootlegged jeans and of course, cowboy boots. Any Western movie producer would be giddy over the availability of free extras.

In my mind, Calgary had never been anything special. I revelled in travelling elsewhere and wished I had grown up somewhere else in the world — so many other cities seemed to be more interesting, exciting, historical and beautiful. Especially after visiting Europe, the city and Canada as a whole seemed sterile and lacking compared to the cities steeped in culture and history that I had just returned from.

I knew I wanted to move to Vancouver and attend UBC since I started high school. I figured I would leave Calgary in the rearview and venture off to the West Coast. Of course, I would miss my family, but I always thought that even if I didn’t know where I would ultimately settle, it wouldn’t be in Calgary.

Cut to my first year of university, moving to Vancouver, a city I had visited a number of times over the years of growing up but always briefly. I was mostly a stranger to the city, never having visited campus before moving day, with the one concrete landmark I knew (Lonsdale Quay) far and across the water. I had grown up competing in a high-level sport, which until recently had been a significant part of my life both in regards to the time and energy commitment it required but also was also an integral part of my self-identity. Partaking in the sport helped me to develop a strength of character and various translatable life skills and granted me opportunities that I am continually grateful for. However, leaving the sport left a void not easily filled, both in finding a new passion and also creating a dramatic shift in how I viewed myself.

Moving to Vancouver meant a fresh start and a chance to find myself and my identity outside of the sport. New school, new city, new friends. I quickly fell in love with the close proximity of campus to the many beaches and found a new circle of friends. I was establishing the young adult version of myself, enjoying the freedoms and the independence that living away from home had to offer. Vancouver instantly had more opportunities for concerts or events, and new favourite restaurants, coffee shops and scenic spots to discover.

While I have fallen in love with my new city (with the exception of its great expense), with favourite memories of visiting Spanish Banks at sunset, late night Breka chats and biking the loop around Stanley Park, it has also directly contrasted with my memories of Calgary and has made me realize the comfort I feel for the city that was my home for 18 years of my life.

Calgary is in many ways like a chameleon. My friends and I poke fun at the city, but each time I visit, I recognize its beauty in the unique mix of architecture, downtown murals, abundant and rich food scene, peaceful alcoves along the river and numerous city lookouts.

The city and its diverse makeup of individuals exudes a warmth of welcome, and is an easy home base to escape to different environments if inter-city life doesn’t feel appealing; mountains and lakes, the badlands and prairies are all an hour away or less.

When home for the summer, one of my favourite things to do is go driving at the edge of the city. Driving by endless fields with the windows down, my sister, friends and I sing along to music. A quintessential teenage experience to be sure.

We will park the car on the edge of a field, and watch the vibrant sunset late at night, the end of another perfect summer day. There is nothing like Calgary sunsets, their vivid colours filling the sky, clouds accentuating the streaks rather than covering them. Even in winter, Calgary is a sunny beacon. It might be -20 degrees but at least the sun is shining, light reflecting off the snow, the air crisp and fresh to the first breath.

And so now, when I step off the plane to come home, I truly feel at home. In the city I know and love, I have come to a newfound appreciation for the positive life and energy it is imbued with. I have come to value its sometimes hidden, unique qualities from other cities, and accept that like anything else, it is not necessarily lacking, it is simply one-of-a-kind.

I feel lucky enough to have found two homes, and I hope to one day make many more all over the world.