The City Canadians Love to Hate
Two weekends ago — oops! I neglected my blog again?! — I was in Toronto for business. It had been just over 19 years since my last visit to Canada’s most populous city, whose greater metropolitan area of 5.3 million brings many of its inhabitants to believe that their city is the centre of the universe. I could have stayed in a hotel since I had been brought to the Big Smoke by my day job, but instead I elected to stay with RCP, who’s been wanting me to visit him ever since he moved there from Halifax some eight years ago.
The plan was for RCP to meet me early Friday evening at Pearson International, from where I would be renting a car for two days so that I could travel on Saturday to the far northwestern corner of the GTA to visit one of my own clients. My mistake, though, was that I didn’t call RCP the night before leaving Halifax to confirm my flight number; a week earlier, I had left it at “I’ll be landing around 7:00 on Air Canada.” For whatever reason, RCP remembered the time but thought I’d said I’d be flying on WestJet, and that’s a problem because WestJet flights go to Terminal 3 while Air Canada flights go to Terminal 1. My flight arrived some 15 minutes late and it took forever for the baggage to arrive on the carousel, so, not knowing yet that we had had a communication problem, I was a little pissed off when I found no RCP in the receiving hall. It became evident that I would have to get my rented car and drive into the big city I didn’t know, without a co-pilot, at night, while it’s raining. The only thing I knew is that Pearson is northwest of downtown, so I resigned myself to head east and south and get to the foot of the CN Tower, and figure out from there how to get to Wellesley Street East.
After getting my rental car, returning to Terminal 1 for another look for RCP, and leaving two messages from a pay phone on RCP’s answering machine (and hoping he had the good sense of returning home when he didn’t find me), I got into the car while thinking to myself, “This ain’t gonna be pretty.” But that’s when I noticed that the car came equipped with a GPS device. I had seen one of those last year when my eldest brother visited me in Halifax, so I poked at it to figure out how it works and, a few seconds after I finished entering my destination address, it instructed me to turn right from the exit of the parking garage. Instantly I found myself on a freeway with five lanes of traffic heading in one direction, with the GPS instructing me to hang left for an exit in so many kilometres. It’s then that I realized not only that I would be okay, but that I was in love with this device and wished I owned one. Eventually I found myself on what I remembered to be the Gardiner Expressway that runs through the centre of downtown and received the instruction to exit right on the Jarvis Street exit. Minutes later, I was at the front door of RCP’s apartment building, found among a cluster of 20- to 30-storey buildings known as St. Jamestown, Canada’s most densely populated neighbourhood. I found a place to park, called RCP from yet another pay phone, and soon found myself in his 26th-storey one-bedroom apartment.
After a very late supper, we went for a walk to the nearby Church and Wellesley area, a.k.a. Toronto’s Gay Village. We eventually stopped for a drink at The Black Eagle, where the strangest thing happened. We had just found a spot to stand on the outside deck when I looked over and I did a double-take when I noticed the guy standing just a few feet away from me at the other end of the deck.
“Hiker?” I asked, clearly unsure. But even as he answered back with a simple nod to the negative, the guy still looked exactly like my good friend Hiker from Fredericton. A few minutes later, Not-Hiker-Hiker came over to me and flirtatiously said, “Well, I could be Hiker if you want me to…” And to that I laughed and explained how, upon closer inspection, the only thing that distinguishes him from the real Hiker is that the latter’s hair is more salt-and-pepper than his. Stranger still, as we talked, Not-Hiker-Hiker revealed that he, too, is originally from Fredericton; however, upon reflection, I wonder if that was just a flirty lie. Nevertheless, I’m sure that if the two were to be in the same room, most people would conclude they are at least brothers if not twins even though there’s clearly no relation between them. The only difference is that Not-Hiker-Hiker is way more extroverted than Hiker.
On Saturday I visited my client in the outer limits of the GTA, a visit that I think was most productive. On Sunday, I finally met Brian for the first time over brunch. It’s always neat to meet someone you’ve met by reading his or her blog. Brian is never shy to opine and provoke on his blog, and in person, he is just as frank. However, while it may be hard to believe from reading his blog that he was ever shy a moment of his life, the possibility of that trait having existed in him at one point can be discerned upon meeting him in person. And in case he happens to be reading this, I can’t help trying to make him blush (if that’s even possible) by declaring that his pictures grossly underrepresent how good-looking he is in real life. A very good-looking guy with a brain: Go figure, eh?! 🙂
By early Sunday evening, I met up with my Halifax day-job colleague Ex-Friend and JR, another colleague who lives and works in Winnipeg but whom I hadn’t met yet. Later that evening, The Woman joined us for drinks at the bar in the lobby of the hotel where the guys were staying. In JR’s case, I had no trouble matching up the voice I had come to know on the phone and the person in front of me, but in The Woman’s case, there was an interesting gap — one of many I would encounter as I would meet my other colleagues whom I’d only met by phone until that Monday. Full-Moon Marg was a total surprise: she has a charming mischievous look to her that I suspect even she doesn’t realize she has. Go-To-Girl was as I expected (although a bit more shy in person) and my direct supervisor was very much as I expected (although she had sent me a snapshot her herself a while back), but Jamaican Sunshine was the polar opposite of the “Miss Cleo” image I’d imagined of her. And it turns out that the Green Monster Tamer likes to bake in her spare time; thus she had prepared a huge, beautifully decorated cake to celebrate the out-of-towners’ visit. Some people I had imagined close to retirement age are in the 30s, while others I had imagined in their 30s are close to retirement. Everyone struck me as extremely competent in their specialized area, although some have a narrow focus while others have a “big picture” approach.
Overall, though, I thoroughly enjoyed meeting my Toronto colleagues, not just to finally put faces to names, but because I now have a much better sense of how what I do fits in the big picture and how everyone else fits in that picture. Now when I encounter a problem, I understand not only who I’m supposed to call, but also why that person is the best person to call. Now when I make that determination, I can mentally imagine the floor where they work and say to myself, “No, she looks after this and this problem is about that.” The fact this opportunity came nearly seven months after I started may not have been such a bad thing: if it had come soon after I started, the information might have shorted the already overloaded circuits in my brain. This way, when each of my colleagues demonstrated what exactly they do, I felt all the loose links finally connecting.
But what about Toronto itself? Did I like it better this time than the last time I was there 19 years ago? Or am I still one of those Canadians living outside Toronto who loves to hate Toronto?
Well, it’s the last one; I still dislike Toronto and possibly like it less than I did after my visits in 1985 and 1987. That strikes me as strange because I generally like urban settings, especially big cosmopolitan cities. I tried to have an open mind, because there’s a part of me that desperately wants to like Toronto, but I just can’t bring myself to that. I can see its appeal, including the fact it is Canada’s most multicultural city, but it simply doesn’t captivate me like the more European Montreal does. I don’t even like the subway in Toronto, as efficient as it might be. St. George station, where I would transfer from one train to another to go to and from work, is typical of Toronto subway stations: 1950s bathroom-like tiles on the walls and pilars, which compare poorly with other cities like Montreal where public art is integrated to the stations.
Interestingly, in the five days I was in TO, only The Woman unequivocally declared loving the city. Everyone else was more muted, with some stating they like it now and consider it home after many years of getting used to it, while others saying they still don’t like it after 33 years or practically have no choice but to live there now. I hope I’m paraphrasing him correctly, but Brian summarized his view of Toronto as a city overflowing with potential and creativity but lacking in imagination, and when I think back to the streetscapes and general feeling I got in the GTA, I think he’s spot on. But while The Woman is enthusiastic about her adoptive city, she did concede that it has a very “work, work, work” culture, whereas in her native Montreal, people leave work at 4:30 or 5:00 and go have a cocktail before heading home. That brought me to think about how that could explain why my day job has turned out the way it is: although I’m sitting in Halifax, I report directly to and am associated with Toronto, and that is rubbing off. It’s not that those of us outside Toronto don’t have a strong work ethic, but perhaps we tend to view things, including work, on a different scale — one that is not as large as Toronto itself.
Nevertheless, it is clear that if I’m offered an opportunity to continue working at my day-job employer after my current contract ends, that better not be in Toronto. I would be very unhappy there. And if I’m unhappy, my employer would not get the best I can give because it wouldn’t be there for me to give.