A few weeks ago, I spent a week in Canada. A few people have been surprised that we went all that way for a week – in turn, I’m rather surprised at the time off work and money that people have to go longer than that! But our limited time in Toronto and surrounding area meant that we really wanted to pack things in – and pack things in we did. (‘We’ is my brother Colin and me, btw.) Colin had even made a spreadsheet with all the activities we would do each morning, afternoon, and evening – chiefly so that I “wouldn’t read all the time”. Obviously I sent back the first version when it hadn’t included any time for looking at bookshops.
Day 1 – travel and getting a bit lost
Thankfully Colin, like me, is a bit of a nervous traveller – in terms of getting to the right place at the right time and preferably earlier. I can’t stand those people who plan to get to the departure gate at the last minute, or wander off into shops when boarding is called. No. I need to be ready and waiting a long time before the last minute. As I always point out, one might as well be waiting in the right place as the wrong place.
So, I did get to do some reading on the bus from Oxford, and in the various waiting areas of Heathrow airport – and, indeed, on the plane. Though I did also watch the excellent film Lion, having a bit of a cry between the two strangers I was seated with. I’m not at all a nervous flyer, once on a plane, so I quite enjoyed the flight – and was very excited to touch down in Canada. As one of the few countries I’ve been keen to visit, it felt very exciting even to be there.
Less exciting, perhaps, to wander around the streets, getting lost between train stations and other forms of travel (unspecified in our plans) based on not-very-useful maps printed off in England. But Canadians are friendly, y’all. The stereotype is true. They helped a couple of clueless, jet-lagged Brits find their way across Toronto – and to a really, really lovely airbnb. It was in The Annex – a leafy suburban area of Toronto, with lots of independent shops and pretty houses. In fact – here’s the airbnb. You should go and stay at it. Larry, who runs it with his wife, was a total delight – funny and friendly and helpful.
Day 2 – church, bookshops, and wandering about
We found a Baptist church around the corner from our airbnb, and were given a lovely welcome by the people there. And then we were off – hurrah! – to secondhand bookshops. Or used bookstores, as I should say. My sole preparation for the trip had been printing off a map of them, and I’d plotted out a few for the first day (with the hope of doing a couple more later in the week).
I’d saved up some ‘credits’ for books I could buy, under Project 24, and could buy up to nine books on the trip – though was hoping it wouldn’t be all my remaining ration. In the end I bought six (and got some gifts – more on that anon) and was trying to buy Canadian authors for the most part. I did just that on my first shopping day… The opening hours amazed me. Bookshops open til midnight!
Selected Letters of Margaret Laurence and Adele Wiseman – the bookshop had two difference correspondences of Laurence, and I spent some time choosing between Adele Wiseman and Al Purdy. I hadn’t heard of either of them, so picked the edition I liked more… but, either way, a nice opportunity to get to know more about Laurence.
Swamp Angel and The Equations of Love by Ethel Wilson – two really lovely editions of one of the few Canadians published by Persephone.
My Remarkable Uncle by Stephen Leacock – a Leacock I didn’t have! It’s not a very nice edition… and it turned out that every bookshop had this, usually in nicer editions. Oh well. It did feel odd seeing so many Leacock paperbacks, since he hasn’t been printed in the UK for many decades, and all my copies of his books are chunky early-20th-century hardbacks.
After some bookshops and some FroYo, we spent the rest of the day walking and walking and walking until I thought I’d drop down dead. But we saw the university, which is very pretty. One of the universities, I should say.
Day 3 – Orillia, and Stephen Leacock’s house
Whenever we told Toronto residents that we were spending a day in Orillia, they looked puzzled and asked us why. Well, it’s because Stephen Leacock’s house is there, and I love him – not many people in the UK have heard of him, but all the Canadians I spoke to had (though not many had actually read him).
We took a 2 hour coach journey out to Orillia, and quickly discovered why people might not pick it as the first place to spend 7 hours. The waterfront was lovely, and there was a nice new books bookshop, but there isn’t a lot to do… and quite a bit feels a little run-down or dispiriting. Sorry Orillia. But Leacock’s house – well, it felt so wonderful to see it. It’s all wood panels, and his garden borders a lake with stunning views. Walking around the house where Leacock wrote many of his books was something I never thought I’d be able to do, and it was quite moving. And, to commemorate, I bought Stephen Leacock by Margaret Macmillan from the gift shop.
Day 4 – the entertainment district
Having done chiefly things I wanted to do on the first two days, day 4 was Col’s turn. And he wanted to check out the entertainment district – lakeside parks, galleries, museums and whatnot. It was a lot of walking, because things are spread out in Toronto, y’all. And it was all oddly sparse. I guess I’m used to the touristy jam-packedness of London (and, indeed, Oxford) so it felt odd to turn up in an area that supposedly would be touristy and find that we were the only people there.
We ate at a Mexican place that had outdoor seating – only we hardy Brits and a woman who sounded Russian chose to sit outside in the fairly cold temperatures. It might have been Day 4 that I had my first of four consecutive Dairy Queens. I love Dairy Queen so much.
(The books are the ones I bought earlier in the week, but I didn’t have a picture for today. Unless you want to see me eating Dairy Queen.)
Day 5 – Niagara Falls
But of course we had to go to Niagara! Another coach journey, another opportunity to do a bit of reading, and eventually we arrived – and were the only people who chose to walk the half hour from the coach stop to the Falls. (Why, one wonders, does the coach not drop people there? To encourage local bus services? It might have been to encourage people to buy things in the row of shops there – but that clearly didn’t work; it’s one of the most depressing little places I’ve ever seen, full of boarded up businesses.)
We’ve all seen photos of the Niagara Falls, but nothing could quite prepare me for how spectacular they are. Really worth visiting, even if you know exactly what you’re going to find. We didn’t cross to the US side (partly because I’ve decided not to go to America while Trump is President), but we’re still going to be partisan and say the Canadian side is better. It’s definitely got its fair share of tacky amusements – thankfully out of sight of the Falls. We went to an amusingly terrible waxworks museum (trying to guess who each one was was entertaining) and glow-in-the-dark golf (I WON). And I ate Dairy Queen in the rain.
We discovered, on the way back, that they’d overbooked our coach by about 30 people. After lots of walking back and forth, the customer services guy arranged for taxis to take us all back to Toronto! Quite the expensive mistake… and I felt a tiny bit of Schadenfreude towards the people who pushed in front of us to get on the coach when we overtook them on the way back.
Day 6 – laziness, and… ice hockey
I was exhausted by Thursday, and wanted to spend the morning enjoying Canadian Netflix, so did exactly that. Col went looking at another district, I forget which, and in the afternoon we reunited to explore a new area. I think it was Thursday that I bought my final book of the holiday – a Hungarian rather than a Canadian; A Journey Round My Skull by Frigyes Karinthy, which Oliver Sacks writes about. It’s a non-fiction book from 1939 documenting the author’s experience of a brain tumour.
And in the evening we went to the ice hockey – or ‘hockey’ as Canadians apparently call it. This was the compromise for our trip to Orillia. Colin likes sport, and seeing countries’ favourite sporting events. I do not like sport, and went under sufferance. It was the third sports match I’ve ever attended – a football match in 1998; half a rained-off cricket around the same time; this. The hockey was probably the best of the three, I guess, in that people were mostly nice (unlike football matches) and it wasn’t super long (unlike cricket matches). But there wasn’t really any vegetarian food. I didn’t understand what was going on. The Maple Leafs lost. I remain baffled that adults can care about who gets an object into a different place the most, but one half of the world does not understand the pleasures of the other.
Day 7 – Darlene and fish
One of the things I was determined to do while in Toronto was meet up with Darlene – blogger at Cosy Books – who gave invaluable advice when we were deciding where to stay and what to do. We’ve met several times in England, but it was lovely to see her on home turf – and we had a great time looking around the aquarium.
Naturally, we did something of a book swap – I gave Darlene a couple of hard-to-find E.H. Young novels, and she gave me Coral Glynn by Peter Cameron (which I remember reading about on her blog, and on Thomas’s blog Hogglestock) and Blow up the Castle by Margaret Moffatt. They both look a total delight – as is Darlene. And we bumped into Col when we left the aquarium, as he’d gone up the CN Tower (I’m not good with heights, so did not fancy it) – so we all went for a later lunch together, and she was able to attest that he is not really like me at all.
Oh, we started the day with amazing maple syrup and pancakes (and bacon, if you’re Colin) and a whistlestop rush around the Royal Ontario Museum. Or whatever ROM stands for.
Day 8 – the return to England
We left the house at 5.30am (urgh), determined not to miss the flight back. And we didn’t – the day was basically all travelling, encompassing underground train, overground train, plane, coach, and walking to my friends’ house to let myself in and sleep. A truly wonderful trip. One day I’ll come back, Canada! (And, Dairy Queen, please open up in the UK.)