Alberta’s animal magic

Wondering where all the wildlife action was in my posts about the Rockies? Well bear with me (see what I did there?)

As I said here, nature is everywhere in Canada, coming right down to the doorstep in Toronto. Canadians are quite blasé about their wildlife – “Yeah, I’ve seen a bear,” said my friend Rosie casually.

A bear, for heaven’s sake!

I, however, am a little more excitable and when we hit Alberta, I was on all-eyes-alert for anything. ANYTHING.

And I was rewarded pretty early on, with this stunning close encounter with this mule deer in Banff. Leaving Colin to get the photos, I merely stood and watched this magnificent creature – who had no idea she was the focus of the animal paparazzi – eating grass and then calmly walking away.

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Now I know it was only a deer, but I spent every trip to the Highlands of Scotland trying to find one and never seeing anything so this was quite something. Plus there was the stillness of the animal juxtaposed with the busy tourist centre we’d left a few minutes previously. We meant nothing to this animal.

Not too much later, driving through to Lake Louise, Colin and I were given an even better treat with the sighting of a beautiful stag walking through the forest. The road was busy and we couldn’t stop for photos but the image is burned onto my memory.

Of course, me being me, I got excited at anything: the many hawks riding the thermals or peering down from telegraph poles; the mountain goat by Canmore: the gorgeous little chipmunks and the gophers we saw on the prairies – the one pictured was obviously used to being photographed and posed like a red-carpet star. Plus there were the dinosaurs at Drumheller.

(The bears remained elusive. The closest we got was several hundred metres where we were told a black bear had gone into bushes. We waited but the bear never reappeared. I did see a cowboy, however, complete with leather chaps standing at the entrance of his farmland.)

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But the best came not long after the mountain goat, after my cousin Vicki, in a perfect tribute to The Terminator, announced there was a storm coming in. We decided to get home before it hit and were heading out of the park when something frolicking in a clearing grabbed us all. Vicki slammed on the brakes.

“Could be cougars,” she said, looking back at the three animals.

I swear, if I’d had a tail it would have stared wagging.

And then she said: “Nope. There’s too many. Cougars are loners. They’ve got to be wolves.”

God bless her, storm gathering pace, she reversed the car back to where the animals were. That’s where this picture was taken. Stepping out of the car and viewing the creatures more closely, it was obvious that these were large animals and everything about them looked like wolves.

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So why the bad photo? As I lifted my camera up, Mother Nature showed that she’s more than wildlife. Within seconds, the rain came hurtling down and the wind picked up, literally knocking the camera as I tried to hold it steady. I had no choice but to run back to the car, already soaking after less than 30 seconds.

It was the beginning of August yet we were in the middle of a hailstorm so loud and violent you would have thought someone was bombarding us with golf balls. I expected the windshield to shatter at any moment. Vicki had told me about cars being damaged by hailstones. Now I understood (and also why the car insurance is so expensive in Alberta compared to the UK).

The car was silent (we wouldn’t have been able to hear each other anyway) and Vicki received a round of applause when we emerged at the other side of the storm. That was serious driving.

This was the end of my Rockies adventures and they moved me more than I had expected. My author friend Douglas Jackson – who writes a brilliant blog – once talked about going up on the Borders of Scotland and England and seeing views that the Romans had seen almost 2,000 years ago. Watching these animals in their natural habitat, I understood perfectly what he meant: the sense of timelessness and unity as I watched a scene that the First Nations would have seen; a Canada from long, long ago. This was compounded by the storm – we were powerless, nature was in control. After all, only a few weeks earlier, Calgary and the surrounding areas had been devastated by heavy rains.

I’ve always hated the idea of borders and nations and visas and immigration quotas and my experiences in the Rockies made me see even more how we don’t own the earth, it does not belong to us, we only share it with all the rest of its inhabitants, we’re all just lodgers on this land. Perhaps we should send the world’s politicians to Alberta so they can learn this lesson too.

I can’t thank my family in Calgary enough for an amazing week filled with laughter and love and many, many memories (Vicki, I still feel guilty for the black eye I gave you when you were a little girl). I love you all and I hope it won’t be another 20-something years before we meet up again.

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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.

Young men – and women – here’s a place you should go

First of all, I’m sorry that you’re going to be singing THAT song for OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAthe rest of the day, but the YMCA is definitely worthy of a post. (Furthermore, I’ve never seen any cowboys or construction workers in it, although a nice policeman smiled at me as I went in the other day. What is it about those uniforms…?)

One of the things Ged was adamant about during our time in Toronto was that we would attend a gym. However, there was the slight problem of membership – although gyms aren’t particularly expensive, you are tied in for a length of time far outwith the six months we’re staying here.

It was a TV show where the kids were going down the Y to shoot hoops (see how with the local lingo I am now?) which gave us the idea of investigating a little further. And we are very happy we did.

For $109 CAD (about £68, if Mr Osborne stops mucking around with the economy and the pound doesn’t slide again. Thanks for that, Chancellor), the two of us get full access to the Y with a membership policy which we can cancel with a mere two weeks’ notice.

And the goodies in store are amazing. Forget all the ideas we have about the YMCA in the UK. This is not a drop-in centre to help those down on their luck. Not only is there a gOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAym for those hoop-shooting kids, but there is a full programme of classes, a weight room, cardio machines, running track, swimming pool and workout machines. It also gives us free entry into some of the talks and programmes the Y runs.

Best of all, however, is the rooftop garden: an oasis of wild Canadian plants carefully tended by the volunteers who help make the Y so special. Surrounded by the skyscrapers of downtown, the garden OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAmakes a unique spot to escape, with the gentle tinkling of a water feature making a lovely backdrop to yoga practice.

Yeah… I just said that. I think Toronto’s hipster vibe is getting to me.

Despite the many hipsters in this city, the Y’s gym-goers are a wide range of ages, shapes, races and sexualities – a true melting pot, in fact – and thankfully far removed from the nightmare stereotype of fit bods in competition with each other to have the best six-pack going. I’m fairly sure that for several of my fellow workout buddies, the best six-pack going is Molson Canadian.

That’s not to dismiss the amazing work that you see going on around OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAyou. It’s not much for some, but at my grand old age, it was at the Y that I finally ran 5k, inspired by the middle-aged people lapping me on the track. I think that makes me the first in my family to do it. I also have some decent guns going and as for that six-pack – Keith’s IPA is better than Molson Canadian.

Special thanks go to Jess, my kettlebell instructor, a volunteer at the Y who I can truly call awesome. She planks and lifts weights at the same time, for heavens’ sake! That is worth the A-word. And also to my Thursday night cardiofit-arriba (ie. zumba) instructor, Karina. This class is fantastic. Not only could she teach Shakira and Beyonce a thing or two, but half the class would be in her backing group. I sometimes think I should be paying for the entertainment value as hips shimmy and legs lunge.

I can’t get “pumped” or “stoked”, as Jess seems to think we should be by the prospect of exercise (I mean, do I look crazy? I’m in agony here), but the relaxed atmosphere makes exercise a lot more bearable. And I’m already sadly thinking: “Only ten more KB classes to go…”

Not such a beautiful game

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a football fan in possession of 40 bucks must be in want of a game. Or at least the sight of a stadium.

One of our first walks* in Toronto was to BMO Field, the home of Toronto FC. (This is a common occurrence on holidays as somehow, Ged’s routes always seem to take us to a football stadium. We even snuck into Estadio Teresa Rivero, as it was then, a good four years before we moved to Madrid.) Ever since, we’ve been determined to take in a game so discovering that TFC were to play Montréal Impact – the nearest thing to a derby game as we could get – we marched off to the stadium to buy tickets.

Plans changed quickly, however, upon getting to the stadium and being surrounded by thousands of TFC fans – there was a game on that day. As we walked along to the ticket booth, I realised how much I’d missed the atmosphere of a live game: the anticipation, the excitement, the camaraderie, the beer – BEER? They sell beer in the stadium? Fantastic.

So instead of seeing the league leaders, we handed over our $82 and settled down to watch TFC take on Real Salt Lake.

Now as views go, I’d always loved the vista from Easter Road with the seagulls sweeping over the Firth of Forth. It made an interesting OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAdistraction for when the Hibs weren’t playing too well. (Which at the time was more often than not.) But BMO Field has to have one of the best in Canada. Spreading out before us was the whole of Downtown Toronto, with the CN Tower shining in the sun. (Naw, it was grey skies, but give me some romantic leeway please.)

The stadium itself is nice-looking, holding a little more than 21,000 spectators (which made a mockery of the announcement that 21,841 people were at the game. Most of the stands were about two-thirds OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAfull, such is the appeal of “soccer”) but we were amazed to see free-standing seats, tables and even a set of comfy armchairs by the side of the pitch. Added to that was the wide range of concession food stores with everything from pizza to nachos to chips (the TFC website gives guidance on what a chip butty is) to popcorn. No pies nor Bovril.

The game started, like all games in North America, with the singing of the national anthems – the StaOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAr-Spangled Banner for RSL and O Canada for TFC. A fine young chap with a healthy set of lungs gave a great rendition of the US’s theme tune but it was O Canada which truly touched me. The game was two days before Canada Day and the crowd were in a truly patriotic mood. They quickly joined in with the pro and the stadium was filled with voices as I scrambled to take a video. I have to admit to getting really emotional about it all (and consequently my video went skew-whiff) as the anthem ended in cheers and fireworks.

And that was about all the fireworks there were. The next 90 minutes were filled with some of the most turgid, lacklustre and quite frankly comical football I’ve ever seen. And I’ve watched Escape to Victory. The players played like girls. No, not like women. Like girls. Like girls who had just had their hair blown dry and painted their nails and would rather push over their opposition than muddy their Manolos on a football.

Pushing is rugby, lads, not “soccer”.

It was no surprise when the lack of discipline resulted in a handbags-at-dawn and two red cards – one for each side. Also, both sides should make their next away trip to Specsavers because they couldn’t OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAdifferentiate between red and white shirts. Throw-ins, passes, anything and everything was sent directly to a member of the opposition, to sighs of sorrow from the fans and “FFS” from Ged.

Worse was a manager who couldn’t see beyond 4-4-2 and kept to that formation even though it wasn’t working. In the UK and Spain, such a decision would have been met with boos of derision from the crowd but one of the problems is that the majority of the spectators didn’t really know much about football and cheered anything that moved near the goalmouth.

RSL won 1-0, with a nice goal right on the 45th minute. Scotland’s Steven Caldwell (brother of Hibs’ Gary) missed a sitter in extra time but it didn’t really matter because he was named man of the match two minutes later.

And that’s the trouble with Canadian football – there’s no danger. The crowd will cheer and applaud blindly as they’re there to enjoy a day OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAout. They had started their fun two hours before the game, meeting for that “tailgaiting” where they have picnics on the back of their cars. The game seemed like a nice little sideline. The managers sat in front of the dugout and watched; none of Sir Alex Ferguson’s legendary pacing and screaming and boot-kicking. And there’s no relegation so once you know you’re not going to win the league, there’s nothing to play for. Everything was sanitised and clean – the TFC website even gives guidance on when to wave your scarf. It’s football, Jim, but not as we know it.

But it wasn’t all bad. Some of the spectators have formed their own little ultra section, with a drum and crowd singing (although not much, it has to be said), the game was thankfully pretty free of the diving which blights the Spanish game at the moment, and then there was the half-time.

A group of tiny children, led determinedly out by a star of a wee man about 2ft tall, played their own little game in the centre circle to the accompaniment of the Benny Hill theme tune. They were fantastic and should be signed up straight away. And sent out to play on Wednesday.

On the tram back home, I listened to a couple of youngsters chatting about the game. “That was cool,” said one. “Two good chances at goal and a fight.” He grinned.

I despaired.

*marathon-distance, getting-lost treks

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.

A shore thing

I’ve been quiet for a while. My apologies but we’ve been travelling (more to come later) and then moved into our new home in Toronto – which makes our ninth bed in a little under three months. I’m an old woman and it takes it out of you.

Oh, okay, I’ve been having a bloody lovely time and not venturing much further than Facebook, The Guardian and the Daily Mail (my bad) when I get onto the internet.

And where have I been enjoying myself? Whenever possible, Ged and I head off to The Beaches which lie around 7km east of Downtown. I know that because we’ve walked it a few times and these sore feet don’t lie.

The pain is worth it, though, because to reach The Beaches you have to go along the amazing Queen St East, a fantastic collection of homes and specialised, independent shops – butchers, delis, florists and vintage stores. Now I’m not a fan of “vintage” as more often than not it’s a euphemism for “second-hand and worn-out”, but here you can find wonderful designer outfits at incredible prices. I almost bought the most amazing 1960s wedding dress until I realised that the price of the operation to remOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAove a few ribs so it would fit outweighed the bargain. Just. We also popped in to a true North American greasy spoon cafe – the sort you see in Grease or Fried Green Tomatoes – for a lipsmacking burger.

You know you’re getting closer to The Beaches themselves when: a) your feet start crying and b) you pass the Ashbridge Estate. From the street, you see a two-storey home – there are no high-rises here, adding to the airy, spacious feel – dating back to 1854 (above right). It is a beautiful green and white wooden home with a large porch surrounded by two acres of stunning gardens. You expect to see John Boy Walton looking out from the upstairs window as he writes his diary for that day before wishing everyone goodnight. Amazingly, the estate, the first residential home in east Toronto, was inhabited by the same family for two centuries before being bequeathed to the city in 1972.

The Beaches itself is the area around four of Toronto’s beaches: Woodbine, OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAKew, Scarboro and Balmy. Here, you find a wide expanse of golden sand and the turquoise blue waters of Lake Ontario lapping up onto the shore while seagulls, cormorants, ducks, swans and geese fly overhead. It is truly, truly beautiful. Even on a cold April day, which was when we first visited, it makes for an impressive sight. You have to keep reminding yourself that you’re looking at a lake, and not even one of North America’s biggest, and only the lack of salt air reminds you that you’re not at the beach.

In front of colourful homes with the best view ever (below), a boardwalk sweeps round the bay next to a track filled with joggers, power-walkers, roller-bladers and cyclists (who seem to have no bells on their bikes and think it’s perfectly okay to almost run you over as you cross the track). Entering Woodbine Beach, you negotiate your way past dozens of beach volleyball pitches filled with the bOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAeautiful (and not so beautiful) young (and not so young) people. Forget those teenage beach movies, everyone plays volleyball no matter their age, size or six-pack. Toronto’s strong winds make the area a haven for kite-surfers and even if the water isn’t inviting (lifeguards warn if the pollution level gets too high), they can be seen practising on the beach, leaving me in awe of their upper body strength. Honest. That’s the only reason why I spend so long gazing at these young men…

The beach is surprisingly quiet, even when full. Spaniards take note. Music is rarely played loudly and the oOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAnly screams come from the jet-skiiers bouncing their way across the water. There’s none of the continental obsession with bat and ball (thank God), although there’s a little too much frisbee for my liking (Really? That’s a sport?). And I must admit to giggling when the 20-year-olds next to us practised their martial arts stick-fighting and added the Star Wars noises for extra effect as they swung their weapons. In the words of Brian Potter: “Have you ever kissed a girl, son?”

The sun is also incredibly strong. In eight years in Madrid, enduring temperatures of 40C, we were never burnt. It has happened a couple of times here, making sunscreen a daily ritual never mindOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA the cloud cover. The toilets can also ruin my lavatory love some days, too.

However, my favourite memory of The Beaches so far is not the sand, nor the shops, nor the joy of the young people. It was spending an afternoon watching hundreds of cormorants (right) flying north for the summer, dozens and dozens of v-shaped formations swooping over the water then soaring high to change squadron leader before diving low again. It was like a perfectly choreographed ballet. I’m already sad that we won’t see them return again come the Fall.

Cistern addict

Of all the things I thought I’d be writing about, this never entered my mind.

But by God, Canada, I’m in love with your lavatories.

See, I even have to call them the name by which the Queen calls them. No humble “bog”, “netty” or “place no-one can go for me” will do for these mighty beasts. It has to be the regal title for these thrones of thrones.

It’s not the porcelain palace itself, mind you, it’s the power of those flushes. In Europe, we have a nice, sedate, gentle flow of water that softly swirls around the bowl and then meanders down to sewerland (which is somewhere around the Wear, I think). But that won’t do for North America. Oh no. Here, we have a tsunami of a flush, a giant whoosh which threatens everything within its path before storming off to invade another waterworld elsewhere.

It takes everything prisoner.

And it gets better. These tyrants of toilets also flush themselves. No handles or buttons here. You stand up and pow! Your little gift to nature is on its way in a most hygenic manner. (Gave me quite a turn in the Eaton Centre, I can tell you. I was ready to call the Ghost Adventures crew out.)

Not that I should be surprised at the over-fastidiousness of the flushing regime. Once in the washroom itself (only the US has restrooms because obviously we all rest there), you’re greeted by a 12-point diagramme of how to wash your hands, starting with “Turn tap on” and ending with “Use the paper towel you’ve just dried your hands on to turn the tap off”.

Now I don’t know about you, but it seems a little odd, in a city where recycling and green living is everywhere, to be encouraging people to overuse a natural resource such as water by letting it run while you dry your hands (although being on the side of Lake Ontario, Toronto has plenty to spare, which is good because those flushes must use up gallons).

However, that seems to be the way here. You’re encouraged to recycle everything and they make it easy to do, with special bins for glass, plastics, food waste and paper as well as your everyday litter. But while you’re categorising your rubbish, a gas-guzzling giant of a 4×4 speeds past you. And then another. And another. They were singing the praises of one such vehicle on TV the other day because it did – wait for it – an incredible TWENTY-FIVE MILES PER GALLON. No amount of recycling is going to replenish that petrol supply.

Similarly, one mother saw no irony in telling her children to hold their breath as they passed a smoker in a bus queue next to us (“Okay, breathe out again. Good job, guys.”) while ignoring the fact that they were on a main road with dozens of exhausts passing her while walking through a major Western city that is inevitably filled with pollutants.

(And don’t even get me started on public transport, the greenest way to get a city moving. A 15-minute journey in a car took me two hours on public transport one day. But I recycled my coffee cup at the end of it so I suppose that’s all right. I mean, can you really call two and two-quarter lines a subway system? Isn’t it more of a subway wannabe? But I must admit I like the trams, even though we got trapped on our first one. We rang the bell, it stopped, nothing happened, we looked at each other, tram started moving again. Next stop, Ged stepped down on the the exit step to ring the bell again and hey presto! The doors opened. Turns out that won’t happen unless you step on the step. Why? Why? Do Torontonians have a sweepstake on how many tourists they can bewilder each season? If so, I want in. Watching this must give you hours of fun.)

However, for all my wry ranting, I am impressed by how easy recycling is here and also by how willing everyone is to do it, probably because it is so easy. One big difference we noticed on returning to the UK after our time in Madrid is the lack of litter bins on the streets (I recall, in Newcastle Central Station, being told they had been taken away because of the IRA, an argument which has as much sense as being told you couldn’t take shopping bags into a Spanish supermarket because of ETA – and I was actually told that) and how dirty the streets are as a consequence. Here, the streets are clean and the landfill sites are, it was reported the other week, not filling as quickly. If only the UK government would take note.

In fact, I’d be flushed with happiness if they did.