Sunday, February 20, 2005

The Toronto trilogy - part one - Toronto, Toronto, I love ya, Toronto, it's only a day away

Toronto was a grower for me, following an eight hour flight and a typically irritating tussle with immigration, my fatigued initial reaction was that the city was all building sites and grey snow. It didn’t have the buzz of New York; probably because it was Sunday and everyone was sensibly at home. Nor did it have the instant appeal of Boston, because the lush greenery that compliments Boston’s mix of Colonial, Victorian and Federal architecture won’t survive in Toronto’s sub zero winter temperatures. There’s a distressing number of homeless people struggling to survive on frozen streets sleeping on heated vents under piles of dirty blankets – but their presence is all the more conspicuous because the more fortunate prefer to spend their time in the PATH - the underground city which riddles Toronto’s downtown. Sometimes you feel like you’re stuck in a North America of the mid seventies. Snow tyres are necessities on the cars and trucks so they look typically huge. The workmen are rugged in heavy dungarees and hobnail boots and there are more handlebar moustaches than at a Village People look-a-like contest. It all feels very practical and dour.

But Toronto isn’t the tediously functional city it first appears to be. There’s the exclusive district of Yorkville and the cooler younger homelands of Queen Street West and Kensington Market. Expecting to encounter a stream of ruddy lumberjacks, it’s instead occupied by the stylish, the self-assured and the beautiful. I was surprised by its cosmopolitan complexion; its Chinatown is typically bustling, its Portuguese, Italian and Asian communities a surprise. It mixes modern commerce with colonial history; it’s a young and fresh university town and an exclusive enclave of the nouveaux riche. The city begins to reveal itself as one of effortless style laid over chunky affluent confidence.

Canadians are more direct than their cousins further south. Having set my bullshit-ometer to hyper sensitive to accommodate the infinite cheese of an American service culture, I had to reset to accommodate their more friendly, but pragmatic demure. They love it when you wince at their mild but sub-zero temperatures, telling you that a couple of weeks ago it was -24 (and out of the city, a very nippy -42).

It was mild when we were there, the temperatures didn’t drop below -5 although with the wind chill it was cold enough (Gareth upgrading its cold status from ‘eyeball cold’ to ‘bollocks cold’). The chill can be quickly warmed with a cup of Tim Horton’s hot chocolate so you can comfortably sit and watch (and not do) ice-skating in front of City Hall, visit the CN Tower, see some real, proper NBA basketball, shop at Sam the Record Man or the World's Biggest Bookstore or just hang out with real people living real lives. Valentine's Day was spent eating Burritos in a sparsely populated Tex Mex on Queen Street West with groups of, presumably, singleton Torontonians.

With most cities, four days is usually quite enough for me, mostly for the same reason they appeal; New York’s intensity, Boston’s tranquillity, Rome’s antiquity, Paris’ timeless style, Vegas’ crass commercialism. But I could have spent a few more days in Toronto visiting the Hockey Hall of Fame, or the Bata Shoe Museum, or the Royal Ontario Museum. We only scratched the surface really, there is still plenty to reveal.


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