Unless some people told you, you’d never know they’d been on vacation.
A problem with going out of town for a few days is that when I come back, I’ve been on a journey and none of my friends are any the wiser. It’s like Bilbo taking his trip and returning to the shire; life went on in his absence, and still goes on, with no regard for his adventure.
Granted, very little by way of life-changing happens on trips to Texarkana, but when I come home to Austin, my cafe friends are none the wiser that I’ve been away. Matter of fact, it doesn’t register on their radar the fact that I may have been out of sight for any length of time — it’s an unfortunate downside to being in a scene where people come and go seemingly at random and make few out-of-channel plans to meet up.
I returned home from my trip tonight and wanted to go sit in a bar with grown-ups. My cafe friends were oblivious that I needed someone to talk to over beer. No one agreed to my invitation, so I showed the back of my hand and went to be alone over a beer and a book.
Suits me fine.
In lieu of any actual reflections of my vacation to Toronto, Ontario, Canada — my head is still too heavy with maudlin thoughts and emotions — here is a disjointed collection of facts about Toronto in no particular order:
- Flying to Canada was exciting because it was my first flight on a commercial jet. Now I know what turbulence feels like, and the g-force during takeoff is the most I’ve ever felt (zoom!).
- When we landed at Toronto-Pearson (YYZ), after the captain made his “thanks for flying and welcome to Canada” message while taxiing, the flight crew played a Bryan Adams song on the intercom. Bryan Adams. Yeah. Was kinda nice and friendly, really. I leaned over to my Canadian flightmate and asked, “Is, is that Bryan Adams?” He just grinned. Hey, at least they didn’t play Celine Dion.
- The airline is required to verify your passport before boarding any flights to Canada, and the flight crew hands you an immigration form to fill out before you land. This form is scanned and OCR’d by an automated system at Canada Customs before your interview. Be sure to fill it out correctly or you will get delayed, like I did.
- The US Customs area of the Toronto-Pearson airport is a nightmare, a disorganized maze of slow lines, angry people about to be late for their departure, and agents ineptly trying to keep it all flowing. Actual purgatory. I stood in a line to check into my airline, then another line to get into the Customs area so I could stand in another line to fill out the Customs questionnaire computer, then another line to wait to be interviewed by a live agent, and then stamped and allowed into another line to wait on the scanner. Finally, after scanning, I could put my shoes back on, reassemble my backpack, and run to the pisser to unload the bladder that started alerting me at the beginning of the first line.
- Speaking of purgatory, dealing with Rogers Telecom is a pain in the ass. Now I understand the level of bureaucracy and expense and shitty service that my Canadian peers complain about. Holy crap. I went to a Rogers store to buy a prepaid SIM card for my unlocked phone, and was in the store for an hour, mostly talking over their phone to an operator to activate the SIM (because they don’t do that in that particular store — it’s for cable and new cell plans only), and then I had to call back because the operator didn’t actually turn on my data plan (which is why i effing bought the new SIM), and had to call back to reach technical support. Each time, the price just got higher and higher. That’s a special level of hell. I just wanted a 1GB data plan so I can use Google Maps for fuck’s sake. After enough time, I finally got what I wanted, at $70cad for a 1GB prepaid plan. Seems Canada’s carriers are still in the 90’s and are charging people for calls during the day but are unlimited during nights and weekends (god, I haven’t heard that term since 2000). Can you believe? Oh, Canada. You guys need a Googie monster to scare your telcos into the present.
- I lost my hoodie somewhere between the airport and the hotel. Dammit. Rookie mistake. It was probably lost on the train, because I was running on impulse the whole way and once the doors opened at my stop, I jumped up to exit and didn’t even think to look back at my seat. Luckily my Toronto friend helped me located a new hoodie that afternoon.
- The weather was so nice that I didn’t need to pack my jacket. Hell, I even packed the wrong clothes. I packed two pants and one shorts, but should’ve packed two shorts and one pants. Sweatin’ balls the whole time until Friday when I decided to wear shorts and not bother taking my hoodie along during my ambles. Ugh.
- Tim Horton’s is a coffee and donut chain that also has some sandwiches. After years of having gourmet coffee, Tim’s coffee is rather pedestrian. No wonder they’ve opened a brother chain called Timothy’s Coffee. Tim’s is more ever-present than Starbucks. The one time I went for coffee and “Tim-bits” (which are flavored donut holes), they didn’t have any Timbits, so one of my trip goals was not fulfilled. Ah well.
- Canada has started printing their bill currency on plastic to take advantage of many anti-counterfeiting measures. They print nothing smaller than $5. Their dollars are a coin colloquially called a Loonie because of the bird on the obverse side (and not the Queen on the face side). They also have a $2 coin called a Twonie. When I got change from a purchase, I had to keep my head straight about it and actually count everything, because as an American I’m not accustomed to getting $2 coins in my change (also, their quarter, dime, and nickel are similar to ours in size but with different images).
- Canada, as a nation, has two official languages: English and French. Many people can speak both. Almost all signage is written in both languages.
- Celsius is easy to figure out. 10C is 50F. Kinda cool if you’re not used to it. 20C is about 68F. Rather nice. 25C is warm. >30C is what we get in Austin.
- Toronto has an official gayborhood, and this makes me happy. Actually, I was happy when I stepped out of my hotel and walked a block south to see a whole line of crosswalks with rainbow stripes going across Church Street.
- Turns out, I can actually walk over 8 miles in a day. My pedometer logged roughly 20,000 steps for the first two days; the last two days were lower because, fuck it, I’m fatigued. I shudder to think how I would’ve handled it had I not bought insoles for my sneakers last week. Ugh.
- Toronto’s buses and trains are actually pretty nice. The main lines don’t exactly need to run on time, because they run so often. The moment I step onto the subway platform, if the train is already closing its doors I only have to wait something like 7 minutes until the next one. Never really felt insecure or unsafe. Once you pay the $3 fare to get into the system, you don’t need a transfer pass to get to another train, but you might need one for transfer to a bus. Toronto even has electric streetcars that run along many of the major streets. Most of the multi-car streetcars and some of the newer subway trains have articulated mezzanines between the cars that are wide and allow you to see from one end of the train to the other. Pretty cool.
- Many cultures are represented in Toronto; matter of fact, it’s the most culturally diverse place I’ve been to. I heard more languages in 4 days than I have in the whole 15 years I’ve lived in Austin. That’s a mind-opener. Some of these cultures have their own areas; there’s Chinatown, Japantown, Greektown, and so on. If you want to live like a world citizen, Toronto’s a good place.
- Proper street pronunciations:
- Spadina – spuh-DIE-nah
- Yonge – young
- Dundas – DUN-dass
- Bloor – bluer
- Toronto has an area that’s similar to NYC’s Times Square called the Yonge-Dundas Square. It is a valley walled in by tall buildings festooned with signs, billboards, LEDs, and video screens playing adverts constantly. It’s a loud crush of humanity, always busy with people walking around between the streetcars, subway entrances, street traffic, shops, bums, rock bars, restaurants, everything in one place. It’s a place full of orange and blue light. Watch your wallet and bag and enjoy the ride.
- One of the biggest castles in North America is a place called Casa Loma built by Sir Henry Mill Pellatt who made his millions by being the first to bring hydroelectric power from the generators at the Canadian side of Niagara Falls to the citizens of Ontario. He and his family, and all of their servants, lived in the castle for 10 years before the first world war caused some of Pellatt’s outstanding investments to go sour, forcing him to declare bankruptcy, move out, and auction off the property and contents. It’s a museum now and is a beautiful place complete with turret towers, secret passages, and a subterranean tunnel under Austin Blvd to the other end of the property where the stables, garage, greenhouses, and coal heating plant were located. Several movies have been shot at Casa Loma, most notably “X-Men” and “Scott Pilgrim VS The World”. I took way too many pictures, y’all.
- Ontario’s Legislative Assembly is located in Toronto, and the legislature is currently in session. When I visited, they had just taken recess, so my guided tour was able to enter the Chamber. It’s very similar to the British parliamentary system, and there is a bit of pomp and ritual involved, in which the Sargent at Arms carries a ceremonial mace into the chamber and presents it to the speaker before placing it at the end of the secretaries’ table. Only then can session begin. When session ends, the Sargent removes the mace and stores it in its glass case. At one time, during the war of 1812, American troops raided Toronto and razed many of its buildings, and one of the spoils of that war was the original mace, which sat on display in the US until 1934 when President Roosevelt returned it to Canada as a gesture of friendship. I like that the tour guide looked at me when she made that dig on American history (the other tour guests were Canadian and British).
- For the most part, the stereotype about Canadians being polite is true. Not in the form of “please” and “thank you” and “yes ma’am”, but in being generally mild in temperament and friendly. I watched the traffic patterns in downtown, and in the whole week, i really only saw one or two instances where someone got salty. Generally, if someone’s in the pedestrian crosswalk, traffic pauses until they get through. Like woah. Drivers even weave and swerve and merge with ease, and nobody gets cross about it. Generally, the only time anybody honks is if someone’s slowing down the traffic or is not paying attention to the light. (Out in the suburbs is a slightly different story.) I think the politeness is less about being taught what’s right, but more about people understanding that any altercation will only serve to slow down your commute and delay your arrival. Just let the person cross the street and you can be on your way. That’s an amazing lesson.
- The CN Tower was originally intended to be a transmission tower, but city planners saw the potential of making it into a sky-needle sort of structure with observation decks and restaurants. It’s certainly one of the taller buildings in North America, and aside from the plane flight, it’s the highest I’ve stood above the ground. The tower can wobble as much as 1m during heavy winds, which really isn’t that much. And, of course, when you leave, you have to wait for the special elevator that allows you to exit through the gift shop.
- Ontario has province-run liquor stores called the LCBO (Liquor Control Bureau of Ontario). You can buy ready-to-serve alcohol at bars and restaurants, but bottled distilled spirits and wines must be purchased at an LCBO. Luckily, there are many of them all over the place. You cannot find 50mL “airplane bottles” – the smallest they carry nowadays is 200mL, which is too big for US TSA regulations. I had an LCBO clerk tell me that I just needed to buy a few 100mL empty bottles and fill them with whatever, then write the contents on the outside, which is what her daughter does to get through TSA to the States. I had to laugh. She even said she takes the plastic bottles and sneaks them through the metal detectors at sporting events. Hah! See? Friendly.
- The Royal Ontario Museum is a really great place. I paid an extra bit to go see the current exhibit on Pompeii, which was pretty outstanding. It had what you’d expect: artifacts dug up from the ash, pictures of the frescoes, models of the town and of typical dwellings, factoids about Roman life in Pompeii, details about volcanoes and the timeline of the disaster when Vesuvius erupted, as well as plaster casts of the empty spaces in the ash where people were trapped and killed by the pyroclastic flow of ash, pumice, rocks, and toxic gases. Those bits were kinda gruesome, but there it is. The rest of the museum was neat, but I only had until 5:30pm to view things, so I toured the First Nations exhibit detailing native culture and then the Chinese/Japanese/Korean exhibit, each of which had a ton of really interesting things. Again, I took too many pictures. ROM is really a multi-day thing if you really want to get the most out of it.
- By the way, the women in downtown Toronto know how to do it. I have never in my life seen so many beautiful women. What makes them special? They have class; a sense of self-worth. A particular walk like they mean business. Very few people dress sloppy. How many students did I see in the University of Toronto area with sweatshirts and yoga pants? Not many at all. It’s just not expected. Maybe it’s just the fact that I’m in a foreign town that makes me take notice and declare they’re classy. If I were to see the same women in my own town of Austin, I’m pretty sure that I’d curl my nose and write them off as posh downtowners and leave them at that. I really need to widen my standards.
- As many people as I saw, as much as I walked, as many photos I took, I still felt just as alone in Toronto as I do in Austin, but the newness of the scene dulled the gnawing sensation and distracted me from it for a while. I have a friend in Toronto who was able to hang out with me for one afternoon, but the rest of the time I was up to my own devices, so I generally just walked around, got a sense of the landscape, became a floating eye, much like my typical dreams. Just observing, learning, finding my way and living off the land, as it were. Can’t really expect much more.
- The trip cost me quite a bit, mostly on airfare and boarding, but the tours and meals ate up the remainder of my budget. Nothing in Toronto is cheap, especially when you consider the exchange rate ($6usd is around $8cad) and the higher sales taxes. I made a Google spreadsheet and entry form so I could log my purchases as they happened or from receipts, and it gave me a good indicator of how I was doing budget-wise. Sadly, I came in slightly over budget, but if not for that spreadsheet, i would’ve blown that budget by a much larger margin. Ask me later if you want to know how I did it.
There are more things to write about, certainly, but that’s for another time. For a vacation, Toronto was a good decision. I’m still mentally processing what I’ve learned. Still have emotions. Right now, the strongest emotion is the dread of jumping back into my normal life and my abnormal job in the morning. I’m not pleased at that prospect at all, but it’s how I can afford to take a trip to Toronto. I certainly do have a new perspective and a new baseline for what I can do and what I shouldn’t put up with. Maybe, in time, I can tell you more of the internal things I’m thinking, but until then, please enjoy these factoids as outlined above. I’ll post pictures in due time.
Have a vacation coming up in mid-September. Nine days off. Right now, my highest plan is to visit Toronto; would be my first trip out of country. So many things to plan and expect. I need to find some way to carry money or a credit card while I’m there. I need to get my phone unlocked so I can buy a SIM card and a prepaid plan once I land. I need to book the flight. I need to book my lodging (hopefully a bed and breakfast). I need to assemble a list of things that would be cool to do and see. I have a few friends in Toronto that I’ve been wanting to meet in person for 18 years, so that will be good.
Ultimately, I just want to get away and feel like my life is worth living (my job is killing me).
If anybody has any advice, I’m all ears.
It takes the first sulphurous whiff of a papermill on my way in to town to smother my hope and raise the vapors of despair in my soul. The decay and desparation in Texarkana is palpable. I may have been born here, I may have spent the bulk of my young life inside these city limits, but after finally, resolutely, pushing my way out and staying out, every time I come back as an outsider, I’m reminded of every reason I left.
Every family business shuttered because the next generation left town. Every stately house with a blue tarp hanging over some part of the structure. Every vacant lot that was previously the homesite of someone’s dreams. Every gas station turned into a payday loan store. Every quickmart turned into a smoke shop. Every stand of pine trees turned into a stripmall. Every stripmall turned into a godbox. Every steel-sided structure with a brick façade and a cross on top. Every block of homes bulldozed for a hospital parking lot. Every hospital turned into a juvenile detention center. Every bogus statistic that tells you to fear the boogey man, because crime is on the rise (the cops said so). Every downtown intersection with the stoplights pulled down because it costs too much to keep them running. Every downtown business throwing in the towel because the money is along the interstate.
I hate change, I really do. My internal behaviour indicates this. Why? Because it’s uncontrollable. Change happens. I’d rather it didn’t. I’d rather things didn’t change, only improved, only maintained. Instead of letting things rot, instead of tearing them down, instead of building a new thing in its place, why not just maintain? We have no connection with the past; no sense of history. Our only sense is that old things are old and worthless, and new things are what we need, but now the only place to get new things is Walmart. And those new things are worthless, but we want them.
I think I’d rather have all the delapidated, crumbling structures torn down a la Detroit. Just vast swaths of nothing, empty spaces sold for their true value: nothing. This was once a booming industrial town — now it’s an in-joke. When I ask, “so, what’s there to do here nowadays,” the residents just look at me and brokenly laugh, shrugging, “This is Texarkana.” Why is there not anything worthwhile here? I currently live in a city where distractions are a dime a dozen. I mean, there’s got to be life here, activity aplenty, right? There’s got to be interesting things with lasting value here, right? Right? It just seems so small, so unimportant. So desperate.
Decay has happened, Texarkana. You did it. You let it happen. You failed yourselves. You stopped caring. You looked at the fuzz in your own navels and found it more interesting than your community, you sons of bitches. You had all the power to make your town a wonderful place, but you let it all go to Hell. Your fault.
My own problem with Texarkana, truth be told, is that it’s a reminder of my own failings, a signpost marking the source and shape of my own failings. It’s a damage that I’m trying to overcome. Were it not for my family who still call this place their home, I’m pretty sure I would have no problem with never coming back again.