Finding Toronto’s soul

When we first came here, there was one thing of which I was certain: I would never want to live in Toront. This was a city with no soul, no emotion, and certainly nothing much to recommend it. We even chatted about this with a friend who OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA coincidentally was here on a press trip. “I asked the PR guy why people in the UK should choose Toronto when New York is so near and he said New York was obviously miles better – then he realised and went back on what he’d said,” our pal told us.
The problem was that at that time, we were living in an area called Victoria Village, although it’s better known as “Where?” Here, to be exact. Not knowing Toronto, we had taken faith in a description that said it was 20 minutes from Downtown, not realising that the description was written for superheroes with their own cloaks. Mere mortals relying on public transport had on average a 45-minute trip. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe photo above shows Downtown in the distance – our admittedly not bad view from the supermarket. Also, apart from a Tim Hortons and a very nice pizza place, there was nothing around except a school and lots and lots of houses. This is clearly car country, with the nearest supermarket and signs of life being a 25-minute walk away. There’s not even a pavement to walk on, turning our evening paseos into a daredevil venture as 4x4s went shooting by us. (The manicured lawns come right down to the road and as you can’t go into someone’s house without taking your shoes off, we dreaded to think what the reaction would be if we walked on the grass in our boots.)
The worst moment came when we were spending an afternoon in a OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAlocal park (pictured). There’s a huge greenland area next to Victoria Village, with parks rolling into forests and then back to landscaped areas again. We’d gone for a wander a few days previously and had found a nice spot to rest just outside one of these woodlands not far from our apartment. It wasn’t until we were leaving that Ged pointed out some of the rubbish on the ground. “Drugs,” he said. Sure enough, our return to that area turned into a walk home as we saw a group of young men on what I’d hoped to call “our seat” smoking a variety of substances. Which is why we ended up in the landscaped park, determined to enjoy the rare sunshine in what had turned out to be a wet cold and very disappointing spring.
But our enjoyment was not to be. Resting on a bench after competing with each other to go higher on the children’s swings, I noticed a young man close by muttering to himself.
“Pyschos always come from quiet suburbs,” joked Ged. “All the mass murderers lived somewhere like this.”
We kept on chatting, with me keeping one eye on the young man – who brought out a meat cleaver and started throwing it into the grass, angrily shouting at it all the while.
We left. Quickly. And never went for a walk again.
It wasn’t all bad, however. One of my abiding memories is the advert OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAfor a car salesroom (above). The woman on the swing moves backwards and forwards and for some reason, I always felt like Marty McFly was about to land right next to it. Also, about 20 minutes walk away was this gorgeous little church, which dates back to the 1850s. Wandering around the gravestones and seeing all the history of this little area was amazing.
We were there for six, looooooooong weeks before transferring – via Montréal, which yes I will get round to writing about – to our present place in The Annex, right here. We’ll see out the rest of our time in Toronto here, and wOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAe couldn’t be happier.
Apart from being a little hipster hub – thank you Yelp for confirming this. We’re exactly on this little orange spot in between Bathurst Street and Spadina Avenue (which is pronounced Spah-diner, not Spad-eena) – this is a brilliant location for a holiday in Toronto. It’s filled with bars, restaurants, take-aways, delis, coffee shops, music stores, health food stores… The local neighbourhoods hold farmers’ markets and street fairs and the streets are always busy. Waiting for Ged one night, I got into a lovely conversation with this amazing Colombian, who showed me the badly mangled legs a motorcycle crash had left him with and how the doctors said it was a miracle that he could walk. “No miracle,” he added. “I wanted to see the beautiful ladies so I had to walk.” If you’re in Madrid, think of Lavapies without the fear you could get mugged and the mounted policeman; if you’re in Edinburgh, we’re talking Newington meets Marchmont meets the buzz of Hogmanay; and if you’re in Newcastle – well, there’s nowhere like this, which is something the city councillors might like to think about.
Above is the view from the end of our street, showing where we buy our bread (Cobs, which has heavenly cinnamon buns and the best lemon tarts ever) and KO Burgers, where we may also have sampled one or two delights. Or four or five. I lose count.
Far from being miles away from Downtown, we can now walk to the Y OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAin 25 minutes, through the beautiful greenery of Queen’s Park (below) and the impressive buildings (here) of the UofT (that’s the University of Toronto, for those of you not in the know). The Beaches are 30mins by subway, Koreatown and Little Italy lie close by but best of all – or perhaps worst – we’re within staggering distance of Kensington Market and the Cloak and Dagger.
Kensington Market – I may have disOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAsed you when we were still living in the Hellmouth (actually, I did, here) and for that I am eternally sorry. Now the sunshine is here and we no longer are flying visitors but near-enough locals, I love you. Yeah, it’s hipster-tastic and wanky things regularly go on, but it’s alive and buzzing and still has the best tacos and I’ve also found a place that sells pear cider. Best of all, I get to practise my Spanish when we buy tomatillos for green chilli. “Ahhh, you’re British,” they say, “That’s why your accent is so… different.”
I still think Downtown is very bland, with poser pubs and no atmosphere, but here in The Annex, I think we’ve found the real Toronto. And it’s going to be very, very sad to say goodbye to it at the end of September.

Nature, (oh) boy

Whenever you enter a park in Toronto, no matter what its size, you see the sign: “A city within a park”. Now I never thought that made sense, until we moved to our new home in The Annex.

We’re on the 17th floor and have a (small) balcony and when you look OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAout, this (left) is what you see. I showed the view to my sister and mam on Skype and they, like me, were amazed at how green and leafy the city is. That’s when I realised that the slogan was right: Toronto is a huge park with homes in it. Lots of them, granted, but they live side by side with nature.

I should have realised earlier how cheek by jowl the city is with the natural world. After all, on our second night here I watched a raccoon dance across the neighbours’ rooves. “Welcome to Canada,” said my cousin when I Facebooked it. “Oh, you’ll get fed up of them,” said my Torontonian friends. News flash: I haven’t. I won’t. They’re fantastic. With their little Zorro masks and fluffy fur – and claws which mean I will never get within 10ft of one unless there’s a glass wall between us. Nor is there any fear of touching their faeces, which I was also warned about. These OPI nails aint going anywhere near that.

Raccoons aren’t the only animals to make their presence known. Squirrels jump around everywhere while our route home to The Other Place (so terrible I’ve gone into The Liz Jones World of Diary Writing and capitalised descriptions that don’t need capitalising) used to take us past the Don Valley and the river (there’s even a creek!) and one night I saw its deer calmly munching on the grass of the nearby office blocks. After all the years of trying to see one in Scotland…

Then there is the wide variety of birdlife which makes me think OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAtwitchers aren’t quite so geeky after all – we caught this magnificent heron at the Parc national des Îles-de-Boucherville but the groundhogs proved a little more elusive to photograph. Fair enough, it was long past February 2nd and to be honest, they’re quite scary little buggers when they start di gging. I felt much happier oohing and aahing over the sunlight glinting off a dragonfly’s wings.

The weather is, of course, the biggest presence Mother Nature has to offer. The days now are getting hot and very, very humid and April’s bitingly cold winds and snow are hard to remember. But the rain is still around, although it’s a pleasure when it means we’re treated to sunsets like this (below).

We were reminded that we weren’t in Kansas (okay, Madrid) anymore on Sunday, while watching American Dad, when a tickertape from Environment Canada started feeding its way across the screen warning OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAof a tornado and telling those in affected areas to go down to the ground floor or the basement if possible. Although the tornado was nowhere near us – and thankfully didn’t amount to much – there was a sharp change in the wind before the lightning hit. And what lightning. At times I felt like Richard Dreyfuss watching the clouds light up before the spaceship arrives in Close Encounters… othertimes it was as if I were at a Yes concert enjoying the light show but thankfully without the music. Also like a Yes gig, the show seemed never ending.

But the natural world is not all sweetness and light. My lavvie love affair has gone down the bog after a trip to High Park, where long queues and lingering smells meant a day trip to Toronto’s biggest park turned into the biggest exercise in cross-legged walking ever seen. Eventually, I’d had enough. I’ve seen I’m A Celebrity… and if the woodland is good enough for Carole Thatcher, well it would have to be good enough for me. So I found a secluded spot, left Ged on watch and answered the call of nature.

But Ged seemed to be fussing a bit, trying to catch my attention at a time when you don’t really want your attention caught, and I asked him what was up when I climbed back onto the trail.

“Did you see any plants like that?”

He pointed at a bizarre pen-and-ink drawing of a… leaf.

“Don’t think so…”

I took a closer look at the sign. Warning: Poison Ivy.

Now beyond the song, I wasn’t much sure what else was bad about Poison Ivy but a Will Robinson-type warning only means bad news. We tried to match the drawing with the leaves around us; however, as they were all green and sort of leafy-shaped, anyone of them could have been Ms Ivy. I spent the rest of the day wondering about every itch on my body and cursing the Thatcher family once more.

Toronto may be a city in a glorious park but when it comes to toilets, I think I’ll keep the two separate from now.