Friday, November 25, 2016

Our Fifteenth Anniversary in Toronto

Anyone who reads these blogs from time to time probably knows that we take our kids everywhere. If I think back to before Ana and I had children I am pretty sure we expected to do what most others do and take short "sanity breaks" from time to time away from the kids, banking on somebody to take care of them so that we could have some time on our own. But once we had kids, we didn’t really do that, and I don't remember us ever having a discussion and making a conscious decision on this topic. On the rare occasion that we found ourselves together without the kids we really missed them, especially as the kids got older, and it didn't seem right that they were missing out as members of the family. It also worked out easier for us not having to find and pay for babysitters!

Now I do realize that we are really in the minority here, and I completely understand the reasons for doing trips without the kids – it's cheaper, it's easier, it is definitely more relaxing, but also it allows the kids to develop independence. These are all good reasons. But we've simply never been comfortable with it. And as a result our kids might be a little less independent than others who have spent more time away from their parents, but on balance we've always felt the benefits greatly outweigh this.

So as our fifteenth anniversary approached we decided to take a short trip away without the kids. We have been leaving them on their own more in the past year since they are now old enough to be at home by themselves, so both parties are getting a little more used to spending time apart. We asked the kids what they thought about this and Stella was pretty sure we should be celebrating our anniversary as a team, but I suspect Magnus may have spoken to her later and convinced her that we should be allowed out on our own.

So on Friday after work I drove over to Glenhyrst to pick up Ana. As she was still finishing up a few things I had a chat with her colleague Yvonne.

"So what are you guys going to do all weekend?" she asked.

"Well, we're going to a Toronto FC soccer game on Saturday, besides that we have no plans so will just wander around and see what happens. Although on the way over I realized I forgot to grab a jacket so I might have to pick one up," I replied.

"Oh, so you'll be doing some shopping?"

"Shopping?? Hell no, we're way too cheap to spend money on frivolous clothing. Ana will probably just steal a jacket from some homeless guy in Toronto that looks about my size. I'll shake off the dirt and grime and it should be fine."

With that we took off, made a quick stop to say hi to the kids and Ana's folks, and were soon on the 403 highway heading for Toronto. After a deadly serious 30 second discussion about the wardrobe situation, we took the next Brantford exit and went straight to Value Village to pop some tags and get properly geared up for the weekend. Now normally I refuse to go into any retail store – especially clothing stores – but in this case I considered it an excellent surprise start to our weekend adventure so I marched in there, went right to the men's section and started trying on jackets, as I sang that awesome Macklemore song out loud, over and over again (I wear your granddad's clothes, I look incredible). I have never enjoyed a Value Village visit as much as I did in that moment. But my joy was short lived as Ana too decided she might like a weekend jacket so we spent the next half an hour going through each and ever ladies coat they had, in an agonizing search for a perfect one. She did eventually find one she liked but it was missing a belt so she sent me gathering all the belts I could find (on the sly). I found it was easier to actually crawl on my hands and knees down the isle because then I could see which jackets had belts hanging off them. I removed each one, walked it over to Ana, presented it to her, got the nay, and then returned it. After a dozen or so I finally found one that was a suitable match, so I dusted off my knees, we paid for our jackets and were on our way.

The drive into Toronto was reasonably non-congested, but since we weren't in a rush the traffic we did hit was less irritating then normal. We found our hotel – a Holiday Inn near the intersection of Carlton and Yonge Streets – and squeezed the car into the underground parking, checked-in and then continued up to our room, which was small but very cozy. I had packed a cooler of drinks so we enjoyed a round of happy hour bevvies while we discussed our plan for the evening. We went with our default plan that comes into effect anytime we aren't sure what do to – start walking and keep on walking until we find something interesting to do.

This moment was the one I had been most looking forward to. Our visits to Toronto are typically day trips, characterized by an endless search for parking spots, manoeuvring our van through narrow streets congested with vehicles, bikes, streetcars and pedestrians, watching the clock to make sure we leave in time to beat the highway traffic, and a generally blistering, frantic pace. What we never get to do is have the time for leisurely exploring, so that is what we did. We slowly walked the streets, checking out some shops, listening to the plethora of languages we heard being spoken by the people we passed who originated from a hundred different countries, and smelling all the big city smells. Some were nice - frying food, perfume and cologne, leather, e-cig vapour, and others not so nice like car exhaust, the ever lurking smell of sewage and the updraft of oil, grease and mechanical smells as we walked over the giant grates beneath which the ferocious, speeding subway trains passed. We saw many young people, primed, beautiful, and looking for a party. We saw middle aged couples and groups of couples enjoying meals and drinks on the outdoor patios. We passed homeless people, and their faithful dogs, sitting together in small nooks between buildings, covered with blankets, sticking to themselves. We passed glamorous couples, looking the part. We noticed tourists, with their maps, and thick glasses, looking around mesmerized, perhaps lost. The sounds of the city were excellent - the screeching of streetcar steel wheels on steel tracks, jazz music, rock music, people laughing, the howling sirens of emergency vehicles, the idling of cars stopped at traffic lights, and the muffled conversations of people inside those cars, the honking horns of impatient taxi drivers, girlie show hawkers enticing young men to come in and enjoy the views, patio waiters taking orders, and their customers telling loud stories to their friends. Everywhere we looked lights punished the darkness. Store lights, billboard lights, headlights, streetlights, traffic lights, and the ever present glow from the ever present smart phones.

We passed many restaurants that appealed to us, but decided on a sushi place, and at 11 we were their last customers for the evening. The staff was all Japanese and spoke little English. I ordered a Sapporo and Ana, a lemon water. Our plate of sushi arrived and it looked and tasted magnificent. The waiters and cooks gathered at a table beside us, to enjoy their own meal at the end of an undoubtedly long shift. They devoured a giant pot of noodles, flavoured with several bowls of different coloured sauces, and ate greedily, spoke little, and appeared very tired. Ana and I talked about things, I can't remember what. But I do know that even after fifteen years of being around each other nearly all the time, we never run out of topics to discuss. There are always ideas to consider, events to be discussed, viewpoints to be presented, decisions to be thrashed out, memories to be celebrated, and plans to deliberate. We talk a lot about our kids, and we love talking about our future, and what it may hold.

After paying the exceptionally modest bill for the fine meal, we turned ourselves back towards the hotel and walked until we arrived there. We were tempted to stop for a nightcap along the way, but decided against it, as a sense of tiredness was creeping in after a long week and a long walk, so we returned to our room and enjoyed a lovely night's sleep in an enormous hotel bed.

Saturday arrived and I switched on the television to see what we've been missing in the cable world. Turn out…not much. I flipped through 50 channels of garbage, and then flipped through them once or twice more hoping something good would appear but it did not. So I finally settled on MuchMusic and watched lame pop videos while Ana went through her morning routine of beautification.

Once we were ready for the day, we left the hotel, looked across the street and saw two breakfast joints – a Cora's and a Golden Griddle. I have been to Cora's on a few occasions and really didn't care for it too much as the amply supplied fruit tends to overwhelm the meaty and doughy aspects of the breakfast, so we decided on the Golden Griddle and got exactly what we were expecting. We were seated beside the window so could watch the city coming to life outside. A group of girls walked by and one of them had somehow gotten part of her shorts tucked into her shirt and half of her ass was exposed to the day. Perhaps party goers from last night?

Directly beside our hotel was the old Maple Leaf gardens hockey stadium that had been retired many years earlier. The rink was still there but is now the Ryerson University's athletic centre while the other half of the building had been converted to a flagship Loblaws grocery store. We went for a walk through Loblaws and it was an impressive store indeed, and huge. We noted that they had a breakfast counter there where you could get breakfast sandwiches and fresh coffee so we marked that as a possible option for the next morning.

Ana's retail radar had been pinging off something big to the west of us and sure enough we found a massive Winners store there. Ana dove into the deals while I had a cursory look for pants, but I followed my usual routine of giving up if I don't find something in the first 90 seconds of looking and then went outside to watch the city. The city was now fully woken up and there were many people on the streets and cars on the road. A group of cyclists pedalled by and they were all wearing helmets with skewers protruding out of the top and sides, and upon each of these skewers was impaled a single marshmallow. I figured this was probably a big city biker gang, maybe called Satan's Shmallows?

We walked up Yonge Street and passed a Nerdery that sold Magic the Gathering cards -  Magnus's latest obsession. If you have never heard of a Nerdery, here's how it works. Remember when you used to play Dungeons and Dragons in your mom's basement back when you were 11 years old? And how you had a massive collection of Star Wars cards that you spent every penny on and fawned over for hours? And how you used to collect figurines and paint them and set them up and pretend they were battling? And how you used to collect superhero comic books and guard them with your life? Well, it turns out you are not required to ever grow out of that. It's called Nerd Culture and they are taking over the world. These little Nerdery shops exist everywhere and are a gathering place for proud, self-proclaimed Nerds who revel in the land of the imaginary. We were the first customers of the morning and the dude who unlocked the front door and let us in was happy to show us the latest and greatest in his inventory of Magic the Gathering card sets. We picked up a set for him, and were tempted to buy an 18 inch tall Wonder Woman action figure for Anna's colleague Yvonne, but when I saw the price tag of over $200 I axed that deal.

We continued up Yonge Street all the way to the main branch of the Toronto public library. Libraries have always fascinated me and since I have never been to a library in Toronto I just had to see it. We stepped through the doors and into a magnificent, multi levelled chamber complete with a glass elevator, book store, fish pond, hundreds of public computer terminals and who knows how many thousands of sweet, juicy books, journals, newspapers and magazines. We noticed there was a free cartography exhibit featured in the gallery so we began there and found an incredible collection of old maps (many of which were of Iceland) that were handsomely displayed and painstakingly annotated.

From here we took the elevator up to the level which housed the library's awesome collection of vinyl records. With the help of the super friendly staff I checked out an old Miles Davis album and we sat down at a listening station, plugged in our headphones, and listened to some fine jazz music. From here we wandered the floor for a while, enjoying the view offered by the wide open central galleria to the levels below. The entire building was so artfully designed, angular, inviting and functional. Another interesting feature was the glassed-in, sound proofed study bubbles, which were futuristic capsules dotted throughout the library, and available by reservation. I was tempted to tap on the glass to see if I could get the attention of the student creatures inside, but I remembered getting into trouble for doing that one time in a pet store, so I restrained myself.

From here we continued to Yorkville, one of the more expensive areas of the city and home to a number of ritzy art galleries. One of these is called Hefels and is also an art auction house and Ana had to speak to somebody there about slogging off some Glenhyrst art they didn't want anymore. As I am unable to participate in art speak without breaking into rude laughter, I excused myself from the conversation and browsed the gallery while Ana did her negotiations with the art ladies. After I had enjoyed all the paintings I slipped outside to admire the Joe Fafard sculpture just in front of the building. It features Emily Carr slouching in front of a dog who is sitting under the legs of a big horse being ridden by a monkey that is not paying attention. The surfaces are all sloppy and creamy and the whole presentation is rather strange, but I loved it. I was to learn many weeks later from my father that Joe Fafard is actually a Saskatchewan boy and specializes in sculpting giant horses, cows, pigs and bison. Just as I was about to hop up on the horse to sit with the monkey, Ana came out so I played it real cool and pretended like I was handling the boredom well.

We continue our walk through Yorkville, and then past the University of Toronto and then found another gallery with a lot of old religious art and stopped in to check it out. The owner was there and tried his best to sell us a hideous ancient painting for fifteen grand but he must have mistaken us for something other than thrifty window shoppers.

We decided to take the subway to Bloor West village, which was new for me as I'd never taken the Toronto subway before. It wasn't as bad as I was expecting as I'm used to hearing the traffic reports on CBC Toronto every morning, and every morning seems to be a disaster on the subway, but I guess it helped that we were traveling on the weekend. I was just happy that we were not in a car fighting the traffic and struggling to find parking. Being on a subway always reminds me of the years I lived in London, England and the many, many hours I spent on public transport there, and really never feeling the need for a car.

We got off at the Jane station and immediately found a Thai restaurant for lunch. As it was already close to 3pm we were the only lunch patrons and were extremely well taken care of by the attentive staff. I ordered up a Singha beer and Ana went for an ice water and we made a toast to a lovely day in such a remarkable city. After a full load of green curry, pad thai and spring rolls we continued on our walk and explored the many shops along Bloor. I didn't actually explore any shops, instead I like to stand just outside the shop and watch the people and cars go by while Ana hunts for deals and squares off with the merchants. She picked up a fancy water bottle for Stella that had this misting feature where you could spray your face – apparently a hot item with the grade five crowd these days. The afternoon had heated up nicely so we found a gritty little pub on the sunny side of the street just in front of a giant intersection. I ordered up a big pint of cheap Moosehead and inhaled that while we inhaled the car exhaust from the hundreds of vehicles passing by. It made me think about how nice it will be when we are all driving electric, emission-free vehicles and can sit and enjoy a beer in a big city without smelling and tasting the spewn remnants of burnt diesel and gasoline. At times like this, I wonder why we get all wound up about battling climate change, trying to convince people it's the morally right thing to do. Instead, why not just stop burning filthy carbon products because it's bloody disgusting and makes a mess out of the places we live?

We jumped back on the subway and returned to Dufferin where we got into the queue to catch a bus to BMO field for the soccer game. As we waited I learned a nifty trick from a homeless guy sitting on the sidewalk right in the midst of the bus queue. He had a plastic donation cup and he slid it out right in the path of the pedestrians who already had limited space to pass by all the people waiting for the bus. Naturally, every third person accidentally kicked over the cup, scattering the meagre collection of coins across the sidewalk. About half of them would stop and help him collect the coins and then drop some of their own money into the cup, feeling guilty. The other half would scoff at the huckster, knowing damn well what he was up to, and they would continue walking. Too bad the homeless dude couldn't apply his initiative and creativity to an actual job, I think he would do well.

A bus finally arrived and we were drawn into a crush of people jamming into it. Once it was packed to capacity the driver lurched forward and we were on our way. To put it simply, the bus was hot, smelly, and extremely slow due to all the construction delays. At one point, when we were a mile or two from the stadium, and had been at a standstill for ten minutes, a guy on the bus lost it and yelled at the driver to open the door so he could get out and walk. Turns out, it was the best idea of the day and practically every person on the bus followed buddy's lead and hit the pavement to march the remaining distance. As we were halfway there the ear piercing roar of a fighter jet pierced through the sky, but we couldn't see where it was coming from. One of the other walkers yelled, "We're under attack!" and pretended to hit the deck. We would find out later that the day's game was dedicated to the veterans, and the CF-18 fighter jets were there to salute our war heroes.

There is really nothing that compares to the energy of a professional sports game. Toronto FC is a relatively new team to the city, and one that has been having an excellent season and is shooting for the championship. We found our seats, which were high up mid field and offered an excellent view over the entire pitch. Toronto was playing Philadelphia and the game was good, but what was even better was watching the insane supporters behind Philadelphia's goal. Every so often somebody there would ignite a smoke bomb that would first blind the choke the goal keeper with a blanket of thick red smoke, and then spread out and gas the entire stadium. It was quite hilarious.

In the end TFC managed a 2 – 2 tie which was…better than a loss. Ana really loves soccer and she went wild every time FC scored. The game was great fun, especially towards the end when the crazy FC end zone supporters pulled out a giant drum and let the crowd in an "Icelandic Viking Clap", made famous by those crazy Icelanders and their magnificent team during this year's Euro cup. When the game was over, the crowd spilled out into the parking lot and started moving en masse through the exhibition grounds. We walked and walked for a very long time and Ana and I talked and enjoyed being outside and not stuck in a giant traffic jam. As night fell we reached King Street and jumped on a streetcar all the way up to John Street. The streetcars in Toronto are a real pain in the ass when you are a driver - as you often get stuck behind them - but as a passenger they are great fun and almost take you back in time as there don't seem to be a lot of electric streetcar systems still in use in cities. Maybe that's because the last time Toronto did any transportation infrastructure upgrades was back in the roaring 20's.

We walked up John, leisurely checking out the many restaurants and their menus and eventually settled on one which didn't even have a sign, but the patio was loaded with people – always a good indication, unless it's a Hard Rock Café, Hooters or Rain Forest Café. The server crammed us into a small table and served us up some beers from their expansive drink menu. There was a big table of Quebeccers beside us who were loud and funny and effortlessly switched back and forth between English and French all night. Ana and I ordered fancy salads and enjoyed our meal as we talked, watched the many patrons coming and going and also the tourists and locals passing by on the sidewalk. It was a beautifully warm September evening and such a great time to be able to enjoy the city at a leisurely pace, on our own terms, in our own way. I felt very much in love with my wife at that particular moment.

We finished up our meal and, though it was getting on in the night, we weren't ready to call it yet so we walked over to the Cineplex cinema and bought tickets to Star Trek! This particular cinema actually served beer so I dished out twelve bucks for a Stella tall can and enjoyed that while Ana munched her popcorn and diet Coke. The movie was mediocre at best, leading me to believe it's time to put this particular Star Trek reincarnation to rest. But I did mange to stay awake…I think.

By the end of the movie, we were finally done for the day so we jumped on a bus which took us back to the hotel. We considered walking but since Ana's phone was reporting that we had already walked over 20 kilometres during the day, we decided that more exercise was not required.

The next day arrived and after packing up and checking out of the hotel we returned to the Loblaws for coffee and breakfast sandwiches and were not disappointed. Here we discussed our plan for the day. I originally wanted to visit the AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario) or maybe the new Aga Khan Museum but Ana instead talked me into going bra shopping with her. That sounded like a lot of fun. But it really wasn't because she didn't involve me at all. I thought maybe I could help with measurement, cup analysis, closeness of fit, lift judging, handling and ease of removal, but she didn't even let me stay in the bra department after she saw me pick one up and sniff it. So I just waited by the front door and tried to look cool.

By this time we were missing our kiddies so decided to head for home, but we had one last stop to make. We pulled up to Nosso Talho, which in Portuguese I assume means "cheap pork". This is the ultimate Portuguese supermarket and they sell all that weird food I have come to love so much – octopus, pork feet, pork ears, blood sausage, salted cod, little frozen mackerel, and smelly cheeses of all cuts, colours and eye-watering odours. We picked up a few of these goodies, but our main purchase was four huge pork legs with which we would make the winter supply of chorizo sausages with Ana's folks. I had brought along our Yeti cooler but could only fit a single pork leg in there so we laid the rest out in the trunk of the car on plastic bags and I felt like quite the serial killer as I closed the trunk on all that raw flesh and sped away.

Our drive home was fast and smooth and soon we were back in Brantford at John and Maria's house delivering Magic cards, water bottles, pig legs and cod bags and all were overjoyed with their gifts. Although we were only gone for two nights it seemed much longer and we were very happy to see the kids and tell them all about our adventures.

And thus ends the weekend of our 15th wedding anniversary.