Friday, 1 August 2014

Days 476 to 480: Toronto and the Donuts

Every now and again in a man's lifetime, something very special happens. A moment of magic that changes everything, so that everything else in that lifetime can be measured as pre- or -post event. In Toronto, that happened to me. I discovered this:

That is Tim Horton's Oreo Donut, and that unlikely combination of words come together to create something very special. Tim Horton's is a wildly popular Canadian coffee chain that makes slightly inferior but distinctly cheaper coffee than the other chains. Oreo is an American brand of biscuit that I'm not overly fond of. And in my language, donuts are doughnuts: doughy balls or rings, usually covered in sugar, and a pleasant if inessential addition to confectionery cuisine. Combine these three and all of a sudden we have a soft, tender, cream-filled ball of dough, covered in icing sugar and chocolate, and delicious enough to make grown men weep with joy. Even better, at C$1.49, or about 85p, they are accessible to people from all backgrounds. Tim Horton's Oreo Donuts are for all.

In the modern, cosmopolitan, world-renowned city of Toronto, it might seem inappropriate to claim that Tim Horton's Oreo Donuts were the highlight of Danielle and I's experience but there's definitely some element of truth there. It's fair to say we didn't really take to the city, although in the five days we were there, we warmed to it more and more. Part of the problem was getting off to a bad start. It was an overnight Megabus from New York to Toronto and it went better than expected, but we were still tired upon arrival. Our Airbnb room - which was somebody's converted basement, and was spacious and lovely - involved two subways and bus to get to. As it went on, the areas got rougher and rougher. Two grotesque women, straight out of a Grimm fairy tale, spent their entire bus journey hurling abuse at the bus driver, who took it stoically and sadly didn't slay them. As we walked to our room, the distant shouting of a crazy man could be heard. We later discovered our area was in or near part of the city called "Little Jamaica", and when I mentioned that to a local, they simply raised an eyebrow and said "Oh..."

But I can forgive that. Suburbs of all cities vary. What was less forgivable was our first day of exploring Toronto, in which we discovered a soulless city of glass, absolutely covered in diggers and cranes. Every decade or two, we were later told, Toronto goes through a crazy spell of construction. The CN Tower went up in such a spell in the early 70s. We were in the midst of one such spell during our visit. The transport infrastructure isn't so hot, and with inadequate public transport, the streets are often gridlocked with traffic. Every Canadian we spoke to about this maligned the appalling traffic problems the city and surrounds have. A light rail transit system was planned, but then Toronto's crack-smoking mayor, Rob Ford, came to power and decided he didn't want that kind of thing and scrapped it all, costing the taxpayer something like C$100 million.

But I can forgive a ton of construction, and even a crack-smoking mayor (for an outsider, it's rather entertaining), what is less forgiveable is the glass hell that is downtown Toronto. Danielle and I wandered around on our first full day in a state of genuine surprise. " But everyone we spoke to liked Toronto," we said to each other. All we could see, amidst the cranes, were endless ugly glass offices, shopping malls, and condominiums, criss-crossed by busy multi-lane motorways. The concrete pinnacle that is the CN Tower is many things but it is not a beauty; nonetheless, it was still the scenic highlight among an endless sea of modern anonymity. We could have been anywhere, if not for the Canadian flag (the Canadians really like to fly their flag, I believe it's to demonstrate they're not American). It was the opposite of charm.

But it got better. Toronto will never be our favourite city, but the following day we took a short walking tour which gave us some context. We also got away from the glass skyscrapers, which mostly swarm around the business district, and found better areas. Such as around the university, Chinatown, and the Old Town which isn't exactly ancient but is low-rise and has appealing buildings and the 19th Century St Lawrence Market. There are also the lovely Toronto Islands, a short and easy ferry ride from the mainland. Toronto sits on the side of the gigantic Lake Ontario, roughly the size of Wales, which means its a quasi-coastal city. The islands are a very easy getaway, and are covered in parks and trees and stuff for children to do.

 If you're fed up of your kids, you can forget about them for the day and pick them up later.

We were pretty lucky with the weather during our days in Toronto, but just as we were returning on the ferry, an ominous dark cloud stopped being ominous and emptied itself upon us. Desperate times.

Was passed by one of Toronto's most famous landmarks, the New City Hall, built from 1961 to 1965.

Very Brasilia. It was built by an unknown Finnish architect called Viljo Revell, and owes its existence to a minor champion of World Wonders: Eero Saarinen. He's the architect behind St Louis' Gateway Arch, which we'll be visiting soon, and was also the judge that insisted the unknown Danish architect, Jorn Utzon, win the competition to build the Sydney Opera House. He arrived late at the contest and insisted upon going through the reject pile, finding Utzon's design and the rest is history. Well, that's exactly the same thing he did with Toronto's new City Hall, digging Revell's design from the reject pile. Interesting party trick. I applaud the ambition but it's no Sydney Opera House and very much of its time - the 60s trying to be futuristic. The old City Hall, 1890s and happy about it, is much nicer.

Nevertheless, the new City Hall set a precedent for Toronto. Limits were changed and modern architecture became acceptable. A lot of old stuff disappeared. In some senses, it was the beginning of the Toronto we see today.

What brightened up Toronto considerably for us was the fact that we know some people there. On the Thursday, we met them. First of all was some friends -Anne-Marie and Rita - of Danielle's parents, who emigrated from Scotland in the 1980s. Danielle was at first a little nervous about meeting them, as she'd only met Anne-Marie once many years ago, and knew Rita by name only. But we had a great time. Their Scottish accents were intact, except for the merest of occasional twangs, and we bantered over food and some drinks.

This was immediately followed up by a visit to two friends of mine, Ian and Eileen, plus their incredibly cute young daughter, Keira. I know them both from my time in South Korea, back in 2004 and 2005. Eileen is from Ireland (and a good friend of Maebh's, whom I met a few months ago in Fiji) and married Ian, from Canada, a couple of years after leaving South Korea, and have been settled there ever since, producing an especially adorable - we're talking movie child star adorable - child as part of the deal. Well, happily, they were on great form. We ate dinner and then hit the wine, and all of a sudden we'd missed the last train home, so drank more wine. The next morning, this was found on my camera.

A Happy Birthday message to Handsome Matt, whose birthday is in March.

We eventually passed out in their basement room - thank God for Canadians and their basements. Danielle and I were in appalling, deathly form the next morning, and all we had to do was get back to our other basement room in Little Jamaica, and rest. Ian and Eileen had to sort out a toddler and go to work. Another tick in the box for "con" in the ongoing pros and cons list of "Children - do we need them?" Also: "Work - do we need it?"

Neither of these questions I feel fully qualified to answer as yet. But I do feel qualified, after many many experiences over the five days, to answer the most pressing question of all: "Tim Horton's Oreo Donuts - do we need them?" And the answer, of course, is "All the time!"


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