VANCOUVER – The joke in Vancouver these days is that it's literally not possible to give the world a warmer welcome. As one local newspaper headline put it: "Welcome to paradise. Sorry about the weather."
It is a bit strange to come for the Winter Olympics and realize it's possible you'll never actually see a flake of snow. There are cherry blossoms outside city hall already, and the crocuses are blooming in my old neighborhood. People are cleaning up their gardens and trimming their hedges.
As Mayor Gregor Robertson told me, "There's a little bit of spring in the air."
|Larry W. Smith / EPA|
|A general view of the city of Vancouver from the top of one of the living quarters at the Vancouver Olympic Village on Feb. 9.|
Granted the warmth did strike a bit early this year, but Vancouverites are not the least bit surprised. I used to live in Vancouver and remember the handful of times it snowed because it came as a shock – and because I had neither a snow shovel nor an ice scraper for the car.
The fact is this is the warmest and wettest city ever to host the Winter Olympics.
It's also the largest, most metropolitan and most diverse. Most people already know about its stunning geography – nestled between the snow-capped peaks of the Coast Mountain and the Pacific Ocean.
But as John Furlong, head of the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee told me, when they were bidding for the game they discovered lots of people have a superficial knowledge of Vancouver.
"We all feel here that we live in the best place on earth," Furlong said. "That this is a bit of a jewel that people have really never discovered."
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'The Best Place on Earth'
Even the British Columbia license plates declare it is "The Best Place on Earth." It's routinely been ranked as one of the most livable cities in the world. You can leave your downtown office and be hiking up Grouse Mountain in 20 minutes. You can golf in the morning and sail in the afternoon. Its food scene is world-class. Bon Appétit wrote of Vancouver's "thriving Asian restaurant culture, possibly the most vibrant in North America." There are multi-million dollar condos, flashy cars, and lots of private wealth.
It's also a city with a social conscience. Greenpeace set sail from here. Committed activists have fought for everything from sustainable logging to affordable housing. (And they are protesting what they believe is a huge waste of public money being spent on the Olympics.) They were going green/eating organic/buying local here long before it was hip anywhere else.
There certainly is a laid-back feel to this place. People say thanks to the bus driver. The woman making my morning cappuccino genuinely wants to know what I'm up to today. One man told me there's no point trying to get any business done on Friday afternoon because everyone's gone home. And then there's the popularity of something called "BC Bud." No, it's not local beer. It's locally grown marijuana.
The mayor, Robertson, not only has Hollywood good looks, he's got a resume that's perfect for this place: sailor, organic farmer, family man, green entrepreneur, and his politics are left-of-center. He got elected on a platform of ending homelessness and making Vancouver the greenest city in the world.
What does he want the world to know about this city? That it's friendly, dynamic and culturally diverse.
"People come from all over the world, so there's a lot of acceptance, a lot of respect for each other's cultures," he said. "And when visitors are here they're treated like they live here."
Almost half the population is made up of immigrants, and 52 percent have a first language other than English.
|Barbara Walton / EPA|
|A homeless man with his possessions in a shopping trolley is questioned by police in the streets of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, not far from the Athletes Village and only five blocks away from the site of the opening ceremony for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics on Feb. 6.|
Not all beautiful
But there is a less uplifting side to the city. Walk 15 minutes from the chic shops of downtown and you run into the Downtown Eastside, Canada's poorest postal code. Drug use, poverty, prostitution and homelessness are rampant here. Any illegal drug you want you can get.
There's a concerted effort by the government to clean up the area – there are shelters and housing projects. It's also home to North America's first supervised safe injection site where heroin addicts can shoot up with clean needles. The mayor says it's all about harm reduction – reducing deaths and the spread of AIDS and other infectious diseases.
And unlike other Olympic-host cities that have tried to cover-up problem neighborhoods, Vancouver has put one of the Olympic lanes – the traffic lane that dignitaries, athletes and the media use – right through the Downtown Eastside.
"We've taken a deliberate approach to say 'here's our city.' We are being transparent about it," Robertson said. "Look, we have problems like every big city in the world has and we deal with those problems. We're not trying to cover it up."
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'Gold medal for whining
And though they claim to live in the best place on earth, Vancouverites love nothing more than to complain about it.
"If there was a gold medal for whining, complaining and moaning, Vancouverites would win it hands down," long-time CKNW radio morning show host Philip Till told me.
If it's not the weather (what's with all the rain?) it's the traffic (stop telling me to take the bus!) or the Olympics (what a waste of public money!).
But if an outsider dares to criticize, look out.
"The moment an outsider comes in and starts whining, moaning and groaning about Vancouver… Oh no, we can't have any of that. Then we're suddenly back living in the greatest city in the world," said Till.
There is a pride of place in Vancouver. And they want the world to know it. Just don't expect any snow.
Dawna Friesen is an NBC News Correspondent based in London. She is also Canadian.