What I did in Canada

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.)

28 thoughts on “What I did in Canada

  • November 12, 2017 at 8:28 pm
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    What a marvellous-sounding trip Simon! You got a lot done in your week. And bookshops open until midnight – such temptation…. :)

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    • November 13, 2017 at 11:43 pm
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      I know! The ones that were open til midnight did only open at noon, so the bookshopping had to shunt forward a bit…

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    • November 13, 2017 at 11:43 pm
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      It was fab!

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  • November 12, 2017 at 8:50 pm
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    The Canadian side is “better” – is only true and valid if you want to look AT the cataract. Particularly on Friday nights with the lights upon it. However, if you want the thrill of the Falls, to stand on the very precipice of the water and be caught in the mist with the roar in your ears, you must be on the American side (which you admit you chose not to do). Come on back sometime and visit Three Sisters Island! Glad you enjoyed your trip!

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    • November 13, 2017 at 11:44 pm
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      When Trump is no longer President, I’ll come back and see the other side! You have made it sound rather wonderful.

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  • November 12, 2017 at 9:54 pm
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    Glad you enjoyed visiting Canada, even if it was only Toronto and near attractions. Niagara Falls
    is better on the Canadian side; in season, you can take the Maid of the Mist and actually get very near the falls. The city is tacky but in the summer it is like carnival town–colourful, noisy with people and tourist shop after tourist shop. I’m from Montreal and strongly recommend that any future trip you take to Canada include my beautiful city, as well as Quebec City.
    I enjoy your blog very much; sometimes agree with your reviews, sometimes not. Please keep on writing.
    By the way, Canadians do not say “y’all”. That is reserved for Americans from the South.
    Regards,
    Nadia

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    • November 12, 2017 at 10:28 pm
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      I’m from Grand Island, NY. Can you tell me where on the Canadian side you can “get near the Falls”? LOL

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      • November 12, 2017 at 11:10 pm
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        You can stand right at the brink of Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side. Mesmerising watching the water go over!

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        • November 13, 2017 at 11:51 pm
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          Yes, what Tui said!

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    • November 13, 2017 at 12:27 am
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      Quebec City is one of my most favourite cities. And Montréal is foodie heaven!

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    • November 13, 2017 at 11:46 pm
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      Oh, the y’all wasn’t an attempt at imitation – I’ve just started saying that myself from a diet of American TV shows!

      I’m sure I’ll be back one day :) Canada is so big that I couldn’t consider myself to have made even a cursory dip into the waters without coming four or five times! So many parts of it I’d love to see.

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  • November 12, 2017 at 10:03 pm
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    You certainly made the most of your time here and I’m super impressed you made it to the hockey game! I (clearly with a bias) hope your next Canadian adventure will be on the West Coast! We also have Dairy Queen ;)

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    • November 13, 2017 at 11:47 pm
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      Next time! It would be so lovely to see Vancouver. Especially if you’ve got DQ… But I suspect this might be my one and only hockey match ;)

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  • November 13, 2017 at 12:27 am
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    Since all my fellow country-erm-persons are offering suggestions for your next trip, I’ll add my part of this fair land to the offer: Nova Scotia (and Prince Edward Island, if you must) from Jun – Oct is the fairest of the fair. And be sure to get outside of the Halifax area.

    It was a delight to get your perspective on my former home (area) in Ontario. Thanks for taking the time to share!

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    • November 13, 2017 at 11:50 pm
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      Haha! Thanks Debbie – I’m going to have make many return visits, aren’t I?! I did watch a movie filmed in Nova Scotia (I think) on the way back – Maudie.

      And I don’t like peanuts, so I’m afraid I didn’t try that one! I was all about cookie dough and chocolate, basically.

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  • November 13, 2017 at 1:59 am
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    Glad to hear that I am not the only traveler who likes to get to the airport, train station, whatever, early!

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    • November 13, 2017 at 11:50 pm
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      It just makes sense, doesn’t it, Marc?!

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  • November 13, 2017 at 3:31 am
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    Thanks for the details of your trip.
    Glad I am not the only one who needs to be at the airport well in time. I am at the butt end of all jokes in our family on this.

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    • November 13, 2017 at 11:51 pm
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      Haha! Yes, people tease me, while I’m getting stressed on a bus hours before I need to be…

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  • November 13, 2017 at 3:40 pm
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    What fun, Simon! I grew up in a Dairy Queen; I can understand why you would crave their treats (although I have new favourites now). That’s the only bookstore open that late, so you were lucky. Were you able to visit Ten Editions, which is between where you were staying and the ROM? They have so many old middle-brow second-hand goodies. (But, then, maybe you have so many more options to buy that kind of thing on your home-turf.) I love both sides of the Falls, but ultimately prefer the view from the Canadian side, especially as you can get right inside them by taking the tour of the tunnels beneath with the very ground trembling around you. The river trails are lovely too in nicer weather, and Orillia might have been a little more inviting in the heart of the summer, but I love that you took a pilgrimage there for the Leacock house – what devotion. If you are coming back this way, I’d be happy to send you some bookish tidbits if you are interested in where writers have lived in this city; there are loads of places to check out (but not proper museums, just to view from the sidewalk). It was a delight to read about your explorations and it gave me a better idea of how different things would be/will be touring London. I suppose I’m just accustomed, for instance, to it taking time to get between places and could possibly be an unexpectedly productive and efficient London tourist with Toronto expectations!

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    • November 13, 2017 at 11:42 pm
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      I’d forgotten you were in the area – I should have said and we could have gone bookshopping together! I did go to Ten Editions, and it was such a wonderful Aladdin’s cave – if I were an Anglophile abroad, I’d spend ALL my time and money in there – but you’re right, it had the sort of books I was trying not to buy while abroad. And all those bookcases too tall for those of us who aren’t good with heights!

      I think the main difference between Toronto and London, in terms of getting about, is that London has more underground stations – so you don’t walk very far to find the nearest one. And obviously I’m a bit more used to London public transport, so less likely to get lost (though far from impossible!)

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  • November 13, 2017 at 5:44 pm
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    I shall bookmark this post for that lovely looking air b’n’b. Sounds a great trip.I like to be an early person too.

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    • November 13, 2017 at 11:40 pm
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      Hurrah! I do hope you get a chance to visit it, Annabel.

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  • November 14, 2017 at 12:42 am
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    Loved the travelogue and in particular how you and Colin compromised and planned your trip!

    Totally understand why you did not cross over at Niagara. I wish it were so easy for those of us on the other side of the border!

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  • November 14, 2017 at 12:40 pm
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    Lovely piece, what fun. I have been to an ice hockey game once and was very disappointed that they didn’t fight as much as I thought they would. Make of that what you will. Sounds like you had a good compromise though and saw a lot. I plan to do the Toronto Marathon one day and look forward to exploring the city then.

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  • November 16, 2017 at 8:17 am
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    Sounds like a great trip! I’m a bit embarrassed, as a Canadian, to not know Stephen Leacock. I feel like I have vague memories of the name, but that’s about it. I’ve added a couple of his novels to my wishlist now, though, so thanks!

    If you make it over to Vancouver at some point, be sure to come visit Vancouver Island as well!

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