Unless some people told you, you’d never know they’d been on vacation.
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.
As I mentioned in my last post, yes, I did get laid off today on October 25th. It’s been a long haul at AMD, but it’s time to move on to somewhere more profitable. They gave me an agreeable severance package that means I’ll be paid through to February and medically covered through to the end of April. I’m not as freaked out as I would expect; then again, this is the first I’ve ever received a severance package, an obvious benefit of working in the corporate realm.
I’ve already heard about some leads elsewhere that I’ll likely follow up on. I need a few days to rest and think while I rework my resume. Put out some feelers, yadda-yadda. I’ve been employed consistently for the past 11 years – last unemployment was in the recovery after the dotcom crash of 2001 – and I’ve never taken an actual vacation in that time, so I’m feeling like I need to just take some time off, go find myself, rest from the burden. I’ve never been to New Mexico, or San Francisco, or Marfa, or the coast, or plenty of other places. Needing to plan ahead by requesting vacation days off in advance had its dampening effect on exploring during time off. As it stands, I can just drop everything and go whenever I feel. That sounds like a good idea.
I took today off. For working that late schedule last week, we were offered 8 hours comp time, and I took mine today. Mid-week was fine. I was actually busy today; a positive side benefit of having a day off during the week is that every place is open for business, busses run on a more frequent schedule, and lines are shorter since everybody else is at work. Win!
Got up this morning at 7:30, spontaneously (been doing that lately…I blame my back). Took a shower, got dressed, checked the web, and took my car to the dealership for a 9:00 appointment to get my timing belt, water pump, serpentine belts, and dry seals replaced. Handed over the keys, walked next door to Thunderbird Coffee. Had a bagel and a cup. Caught the glare of a mildly nutty woman who muttered constantly to herself; first thing I heard her say was “I’m not crazy” as I walked past. Good times.
There’s this one annoying band that apparently every barrista in this damn town loves to play during their shift. Peter Bjorn and John. Fuck those guys. Every god-damned time I hear the barristas play those earworms, I want to smash the tip jar. If I never hear another god-damned tune of theirs again, I’ll be happy. It’s like “PBJ” is this year’s Moldy Peaches. Stabby. So yeah, the barristas at Thunderbird played them, and after suffering that nonsense at my other usual joints, I finally researched and discovered who it was, and now I know the true name of the devil. Dammit.
I drown out the nonsense with an album by the Greek-born DJ Dousk. A few weeks back, I heard a chillout DJ mix on the Digitally Imported Chillout stream which included a few songs he wrote; I learned who he was and picked up his album “D.I.Y.” In my opinion, this guy is one of the best understated trance-ambient musicians and DJs this year. If this stuff came from Greece, I have to wonder what else is growing wild around Europe. With it queued up on my music player, this album eventually became the soundtrack to my day.
So, with a bagel and a cup in me, I put on my headphones and ambled up the road four blocks back to my apartment for some sittin’ down, chillout lunch time. My friend Josh posted a link to a 25-part series called Rail Away, highlighting tourism and travel by rail in several countries and what kind of sites and attractions you can see during your journey. I got a few of the episodes in over the course of the day, and now I have the wanderlust to travel Europe again. I cursed Josh for giving me that itch.
I answered that itch, somewhat, by leaving the house after lunch. Since I had no car and had the day off, I decided to hop the bus downtown. Discovered that the #5 Woodrow route goes from my front door to the downtown core; all this time, I assumed it bypassed downtown and went to Riverside. Who knew? Not I. Also discovered how handy the Capital Metro trip planner is; you give it endpoints, and it tells you the routes, transfers, and times to the next connection. Sooo much easier than looking at PDFs and timetables (wooble).
Took the bus downtown and hung out at the Hideout. It’d been a few weeks since I last went. Was nice to sit there in the window during daylight hours; you see all the suits, normals, junkies, and hotties strolling past. Daytime barrista was friendly, too. Got some pictures of one of the cow sculptures that have appeared around town; apparently it’s a citywide art installation called Cow Parade, and each cow is decorated by a different person and will be auctioned off for charity. Kinda like those 8-foot tall guitar sculptures, I guess.
While at the Hideout, I got a call from the service manager telling me my car was repaired and ready. Hopped the next bus back up. Stood in the 104°F heat for 20 minutes waiting on the return bus with the belly full of black coffee; ugh. But got back to the dealership, wrote the check ($$$), picked up my car, and headed back home. Watched more train videos.
After cooling my heals, I got hungry. Had dinner at Pho Thaison. Egg roll and #1 Pho. It was the best Pho I’ve had in weeks. So damn good, I actually had a mouth-gasm. Woah mama. If you haven’t been there, I suggest you go to the location on Anderson Lane. The best in town, in my opinion.
Had my after-dinner coffee at Epoch. Chatted with my cafe buddies Willie and Doug (decent folk, all). Sweat my ass off on the porch; since I don’t smoke anymore, I don’t much get any benefit from sitting out in the heat if nobody I know is there. So after they went off, I headed home, too.
But instead of home, I went driving, following the drifting winds like a rudderless boat. Ended up at Waterloo Records. Picked up “4×4=12” by Deadmau5, and then, related to some of our discussion at Epoch, got a pair of Neil Young albums: “Harvest Moon” (1992) and “Dead Man [soundtrack]” (1996). Also got a copy of “The Big Lebowski” and “Kingpin“, which I’ve been seeking for a while now. I have the “Dead Man” soundtrack playing now, and it has put a nice polish on this decent mood I’m in. Do yourself a favor and watch the movie, and you will appreciate the power of the soundtrack; some of Young’s finest work.
So here I am, busy yet rested. Got a glass of vodka on the rocks, “Dead Man” on the playlist, a fresh blog entry, a full belly, tired feet, maintained car, new experiences, a wanderlust, and a decent mood. All told, it’s been a good day.