A LONG WAY FROM MANY PLACES
Toronto: Ifs, Ands and Buts
Ann and I were supposed to fly to Toronto yesterday morning, a bang-up holiday to celebrate her significant Beatles birthday. As her big day approaches, Ann has yet to lose her head; she’s still the brains of our modest operation. In our experience domestic tourism has generally involved dropping in on family members and so the idea of voluntarily spending time in Toronto was as remote as a getaway weekend in Winnipeg. Time has since erased some of the names in our increasingly skinny address book.
Queen Victoria designated Ottawa as Canada’s national capital in part to ease tensions between the newly federated and competing provinces of Upper and Lower Canada. But Her Majesty’s decree regarding her wayward dominion was more likely informed by the geopolitics of her era. Ottawa was a wise and strategic compromise.
Montreal, an island in the St. Lawrence River which connects the Great Lake Ontario to the North Atlantic Ocean, would have been a prime candidate except that the river serves as a natural border with the United States. Easy to cross and navigate. Toronto (York), at the west end of the internationally divided Lake Ontario, had already been razed once by American naval forces. Both cities were vulnerable to Washington’s aggression. Ottawa (Bytown) was less susceptible to sacking and could be reinforced and supplied from the British naval base in Kingston on the eastern shore of Lake Ontario via the Rideau Waterway – perhaps the greatest infrastructure project ever undertaken in Canada considering the technology of the times – or from Montreal via the Ottawa River, a crucial artery in pre-European North America.
Canadians have blamed Ottawa, the seat of the federal government, for everything for more than 150 years. Perhaps Ottawa can be held responsible for the rivalry between Montreal and Toronto, cities spurned by Buckingham Palace in its favour. They have always vied against one another: from the magical race to reach one million citizens, to Stanley Cups and Grey Cups, baseball championships and the unofficial designations of being recognized Canada’s cultural or corporate capital. Born in Montreal, I always perceived Toronto as an uptight, Protestant place to catch a connecting flight or visit on a dreary business trip.
Last February we noticed a banner ad in the Globe and Mail announcing a co-headlining concert in Toronto featuring John Hiatt and Lyle Lovett, two artists whom we greatly admire. The late April date, tonight, almost coincided with Ann’s birth certificate rollover. We did a little more research. The Boston Red Sox were scheduled to visit the Blue Jays last night. Ann could care less about sports but she’s never objected to sitting in a ballpark for a couple of hours. The beloved Canadian musical ‘Come from Away’ was still occupying one of the downtown theatres. Intent on walking everywhere we compared the low season senior rates offered by downtown hotels.
Ann said, “If we don’t do this now, we probably never will.” We’d both been to Toronto but we’d never actually gone to Toronto.
I suggested that a couple of afternoons spent at the Royal Ontario Museum and the Art Gallery of Ontario would not be a waste of our time. Somewhere near the Eaton Centre there was a ratty deli with a purple sign that served up exquisite corned beef sandwiches. There used to be a record shop on Queen Street, east or west, God only knows. There was also an opportunity to say hello to a few suddenly not so distant friends, have a drink and a laugh. And so together we booked and bought Ann’s birthday in the big town.
The world wobbled last month, March. We watched the calendar. The days began to flutter away, daytimer pages in a movie. Like a cat who eventually realizes that the lousy weather is the same outside the front door and the back, it slowly dawned on us that pandemics don’t exhaust themselves after a week or ten days, unlike a particularly nasty bout of the flu.
WestJet sent me an e-mail complete with a big blue REFUND button for our airfares. What that really meant was that the airline would deposit our money in a WestJet bank for future use – provided we flew with them again in the next 24 months; the fate of our money beyond that deadline remains something of a mystery. The helpful associate at the other end of the line had no clue.
We telephoned the hotel to cancel our reservations. The desk clerk respectfully inquired why. Well, gee. Surprisingly, we’ve had no issues with the ballclub aside from the fact that they’re not the Montreal Expos; I’d expected some sort of covid-19 raincheck. The usurious Shylocks at Live Nation/Ticketmaster have merely postponed the Lovett-Hiatt gig indefinitely. As for our theatre tickets, who knows? I mean, you know what those people are like.
Ann’s birthday tomorrow promises to be a memorable one for us isolated here in Edmonton; alas, we had other plans – but, you know, in the great, mysterious scheme of things they weren’t that big.
meGeoff has been your most unreliable, unbalanced and inaccurate alternative record of pandemic armchair travel since 2013. Sign up for e-mail alerts from the Crooked 9.