First published in CAMBRENSIS magazine (Issue 55, March 2003)
I look out of the window of the 757 and spy the busy criss-cross streets of Toronto. In the distance is the CN Tower, and closer, a couple of lakes. That’s one of the beaches, says Jackie – an elderly lady sitting next to us. Beaches? I ask – Sure, she replies, there’s plenty to do in Toronto.
Having collected our baggage, and made our way to the airport collection point, we head Eastward, towards North York, with our aunt. The four-lane roads allow for a great deal more traffic than we remember in the UK, and I feel glad that it’s not me at the wheel. Driving in Canada is undoubtedly a different ball game altogether. The roads seem to be endless, and chock-a-block. The maximum speed limit is 100 kilometre per hour, (approximately 55mph), and yet it’s apparently not unusual for people to travel up to an hour just to get to work.
As we approach the greater city area, I note the grid-pattern street structure. My aunt tells us that Toronto city was designed originally by an army officer, John Simcoe, which explains the highly regimented arrangement. My sister points out Dufferin Street as we travel and I wonder if there’s any relation to the Welsh Duffryn Gardens.
We arrive at last at the junction of Bathurst Street and Wilson Avenue. All major areas of the city are known by the intersection of the two main streets, and it is evident that a lot of businesses exist at these crossroads.
Bathurst is a region with a large Jewish community. We see that the stores here reflect this and note No Frills and Prime Kosher Meats, King David’s Pizza House, the Shalom Judica Gift Shop, and even Galilee Catering. There are of course the regular stores too: the Shopper’s Drug Mart and Starbucks.
Looking around the neighbourhood, it seems characteristically Canadian – plenty of space and a maple tree every few yards. My aunt’s place is within walking distance from the Bathurst – Wilson intersection. It’s around fifty years old, and with its wooden floors and elegant furniture, it seems quite French. It reminds me of my pen pal’s place in Cognac, France.
A couple of doors away, there is just the foundation of a house. I ask whether there is a new one being built. My aunt says she doesn’t know. They’ve just taken the old one away, she tells us. It’s a common affair apparently – as soon as the inspector gives the all-clear, a house may be removed from its foundations and transported to another location. The houses are generally built from wood and hardboard, to retain the heat.
All houses also appear to have steps leading up to the front door to account for the heavy snowfalls during the long Winter months. This design allows people to make effective use of basements. The snowfall can start as early as late November, and last until late April. One has to be well-prepared. Everyone is responsible for clearing the snow from their own driveway.
The next morning, we decide to venture down to the Eaton Center – a well-known shopping mall in the city centre. Armed with umbrellas, emergency telephone numbers and transport directions, we step forth into Barclay Road. Maple leaves line the edge of the road as we make our way along. There is no pavement along this stretch, but the neighbourhood is very neat and tidy. We pass a garden with a tree and a sign attached. It reads: ‘Please be considerate – keep your dogs out of the flower beds. Thank you.’ A black squirrel runs across our path and into a nearby hedge, as we turn into DeQuincy Street. We head towards the intersection of Bathurst and Wilson.
At the intersection we need to use the pedestrian crossing. Fortunately, these aren’t so different from the British crossings. A red hand indicates that we must wait. When it’s time to cross, a white man appears, and there is a noise rather like a cheeping baby bird. The right hand flashes again when our time is up. Even when pedestrians are crossing, and when the traffic lights are red, drivers are allowed to turn right, so we take great care.
We wait opposite No Frills for the Eastbound York Mills bus. The traffic along Wilson Avenue seems never-ending. My sister reminds me that we have forgotten to post our picture postcards, but the option of returning to the Shopper’s Drug Mart is out of the question – the bus arrives at the traffic lights.
I stand with my hand outstretched as the bus pulls up. The doors swing back and a lady driver greets us. I wouldn’t hail a bus if I were you – she says – y’might get a taxi. We climb aboard and purchase two ‘transfer’ tickets. These cost two dollars, (two ‘loonies’ as the locals say). With these we may travel from any single point along the bus-underground system, to any other point, without breaking the journey.
The doors close, and we set off. I notice the letters TTC on the tickets, and ask the driver what the letters stand for. Take the car, she tells us. She looks serious, then she laughs out loud. It’s Toronto Transit Commission, she admits. We chat about the differences in wages and housing between England and Canada, as we speed along.
Once again, my sister and I observe the green parklands, apartments and town-houses. There certainly seems to be a lot of space in Toronto. That’s Yonge Street - the driver mentions, as we cross a busy junction - we’ll soon be at York Mills. It turns out that this particular ‘street’, is in fact the longest in the world. It begins all the way at the harbour of Lake Ontario, near the city airport and the Toronto Islands, and runs north for 1170 miles, eventually becoming a highway.
York Mills station comes into view. We have by this time queried the number of places called York in Toronto, and have learned that the city was called York, after King George III’s son, the Duke of York, around about 1793. It was renamed Toronto in 1834.
At York Mills, we take the subway train Southbound. The place is reminiscent of the London Underground system, as we pass a registered busker. We pass Lawrence, Eglinton and Rosedale stations, and we exit at Dundas.
My sister recalls having visited the stop on a previous holiday. We’ll soon be in the Atrium Shopping Bay, she says. It seems a clean and customer friendly place, and evidently geared toward the lonely tourist. A Red Lobster sea-food restaurant greets us as we make our way into a great hall. There also is a magnificent example of modern art. The piece appears to be untitled but I guess that Metallic Cyclists Suspended In Mid-Air would probably fit the bill.
Outside, some rail-tram tracks curve their way through the centre of the intersection. They are the remains of a now disused system. The Eaton Center lies across the other side of the street – and yes, we look again at the road-sign to confirm – it is the same Yonge Street. We wait again at the pedestrian crossing until the white man appears. My sister points out a yellow school bus. Just like in ’The Kids of Degrassi Street’, she says. I agree and we reminisce about the 1980s BBC TV series set in Toronto.
The Eaton Center is welcoming, and seems to be full of people from many backgrounds and cultures. A life-size cardboard mountie greets us as we pass the Animal House souvenir shop. We locate the escalators and head toward the food court, thinking that maybe something Chinese or Italian would be nice. We are not disappointed. This is no ordinary food court – it’s International.
We have a choice of New York Fries, Mrs. Vanelli’s Pasta, London Style Fish & Chips, The New Asia Restaurant, Acker Tree Jamaican Cuisine, A Taste Of Satay, or Bagel Boys. It’s a tough decision, but we opt for the $3.99 sweet’n’sour special from the New Asia. With my strong English accent it takes three attempts for me to explain to the lady behind the counter what we would like, but in the end we carry our food on polystyrene plates and utensils to a vacant table.
After our meal and a drink of bottled water we decide to head off again. We investigate a tourist information centre and find the staff to be exceedingly helpful. It’s possible to use the computers to view the history and sights of Toronto if we wish, or we can just choose a number of the many leaflets and brochures available. Apart from the Bata Shoe Museum, we learn that we can visit the Ontario Science Center and the Royal Ontario Museum. My sister hands me an advert for Old Cabbagetown. It reads, ‘Victorian charm, Toronto’s finest heritage architecture, fabulous food and mooing cows’.
We wander further into the bustling mall. My sister heads towards the Jean Machine store – she is interested in buying a Paul Frank shirt for herself and another friend. We are by this time well aware that popular brand name clothing is often half the price of any we might obtain in England or Wales. The one thing to watch for is the tax – there’s the provincial tax and the goods service tax, normally resulting in a total of 15% of the sale-value.
After a lengthy browse through the many ‘monkey’ design shirts available, we conclude that shopping is hot work. A Yögen-Fruz frozen yoghurt kiosk conveniently presents itself around the next corner. I order cranberry flavour from this magic machine. Atypically, my sister opts for the chocolate.
As we sit, eating our yoghurt and watch the folk meander past, I think of the Cardiff St. David’s Centre, and my sister agrees on the similarity of the design of the mall. It seems to be a mini culture within another. Outside in the city one might feel lost. Here within the golden-railed escalators and the convenience food, amid the bookshops and the brand names, it seems like a home from home.