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'MY DAD is stranger than your dad." That's what her shirt said. It was blue with yellow lettering. She was an exotic femme fatale prancing down Robson Street in Vancouver, British Columbia, a few weeks ago when I was there. And she wasn't the only one. But wait. There's more ...

I was back in Vancouver to write about the restaurant scene for a wine magazine—one of several current freelance gigs. Robson is Vancouver's hyperfashionable upscale shopping drag—its equivalent of Rodeo Drive or Fifth Avenue. After seeing that woman's shirt, I slid into a local drugstore just to buy a notebook and pen to write all this down.

Why? Because that's the other reason I traveled to Vancouver again. You see, my dad was from India originally, but he came to the states when he was a teenager, and he passed away when I was a teenager, so he never taught me anything about the culture, the language or anything.

I've been to India a few times, of course, but I didn't feel like venturing halfway around the world again, so I went for the next best option—to explore the lost exotic half of myself: the corner of 49th and Main in Vancouver, the city's Punjabi neighborhood. There's pretty much no other place in North America where the street signs are in both English and Punjabi. Or where you can infiltrate 25 different exotic fabric shops or 12 jewelry shops—all in two blocks.

The East Indian population in the greater Vancouver area dwarfs that of any other locale on this continent. Even Fremont. Now, if only that killer Indian buffet place on the corner of 51st and Main simply sold alcohol, I would have stayed longer.

Anyway, Vancouver is one of the great cosmopolitan cities of the world. I shoved my dilapidated ATM card into one machine on Robson, and these language choices popped up: Chinese, English, Punjabi, French and Italian—in that order. About 25 percent of the city's population is Asian. As the brochures repeat ad nauseam, you're right there on the water and you can go skiing, kayaking and beaching all in the same day.

It's right up there with New York, Montreal, Paris, London, Berlin and—fasten your seat belts—San Francisco. If you're one of those irrational lunatics who still think that San Jose will become anything remotely similar, allow me to quickly explain why downtown San Jose can learn a thing or two from Vancouver's Granville Island neighborhood.

Twenty-five years ago, Granville Island was an industrial wasteland under the freeway. Somebody somewhere had a vision, and now the place is completely redone as a thriving community filled with artists' lofts, unique shops, crafts, studios, a brewery, an art school, a wonderful hotel and a huge public market chock-full with local products. No chain establishments are allowed anywhere in the neighborhood. Twelve million people visit the area each year, and Project for Public Spaces just named it Best Neighborhood in North America.

Without further adieu, I do admit that Jim Zetterquist of the Preservation Action Council of San Jose beat me to this whole idea in a newsletter last summer. He talked about his vacation to Vancouver and asked, "Why can't we do this in San Jose?" He said that San Jose should offer guided tours of downtown, Kelley Park, New Almaden, Lick Observatory, the Mystery House, Santana Row and Alum Rock Park—so visitors can get an overall feel for the city. He's right. That would help make San Jose more of a destination city.

Finally, let me say that the Tourism Vancouver folks are the most helpful folks in the world if you want to verify details for a travel story. Hypothetically speaking, you can phone them up and ask something like, "Hey, what's the name of that dog who's always passed out on that one corner behind that body-piercing shop on Granville Street?" And they'll tell you.

And this all began with that one orgasmic-looking woman parading down Robson Street. The lost exotic half has returned. Hallelujah.

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From the June 22-28, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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