Almost immediately after I scored my job in Toronto in October last year, I went straight onto Craigslist to look for a shared apartment to live in. Prior to that I surfed a handful of hostels and cheap hotels around various parts of the city for two weeks, waiting on that elusive moment where I secured a local income and could afford to pay rent. I was super keen on finding somewhere to live in this exciting new city and couldn’t wait to finally have my own private room, with access to a half decent kitchen.
And indeed I found somewhere. Surprisingly quickly. I responded to one ad, viewed the room that evening, and moved in the following day. Now, it wasn’t the nicest apartment in the world – I could tell from the outset that it was to be the overall dodgiest dwelling I’ve ever resided in. But I couldn’t fault its location on the outskirts of the beautiful Kensington Market, not to mention a bunch of awesome flatmates who quickly became good friends, and my comfortable little room which kept me hell warm during the frosty winter months. Aside from our shifty landlord and the feeble wifi network that was often unusable for weeks at a time, I couldn’t really complain.
Everything was going more or less ok at my pad on Dundas West & Augusta until Tuesday last week.
I was on my way out for the evening to see a Pete Murray gig, when I was greeted at the front door by around 15 people all looking very serious and official. There were a few from the fire department, a few from the council and a few from the Red Cross. A lady introduced herself and in no uncertain terms told me the city had no choice but to close down the building due to safety concerns. I was instructed to go back upstairs, pack myself a change of clothes and find a friend to stay with. If I didn’t have a friend to stay with, I could talk to the Red Cross and they’d be able to put me up for the night at a community centre somewhere. I was told the building would be open the following day between 10am and 4pm with the fire department in attendance, and everyone who lived here had those hours only to pack their stuff and get out.
Everything changed in that moment.
One second, you think you’re piecing your life together, then the next, your whole apartment gets evicted immediately & without notice and you realise you’re homeless.
I don’t know exactly how many people lived there, but at a guess I would say at least 40 of us lost our home that night.
I studied the eviction notice and found the building severely failed an inspection, which happened a couple of days beforehand:
1. The building was not designed or approved to be used as a rooming house 2. Fire safety systems in accordance with Division B Section 9.3 are not in place. Equipment such as a fire alarm system, emergency lighting and exit signs have not been installed in accordance with the Ontario Fire Code. 3. The means of egress for occupants of the basement is an exit that is through the main floor retail store. This is neither a suitable nor an approved exit to allow occupants to quickly evacuate the building 4. There were numerous uses of temporary wiring (i.e. inappropriate use of extension cords) throughout the building 5. Cooking is being performed in areas not designed for food preparation on hot plates in several areas of the building 6. The electrical panel for the building has not been appropriately wired resulting in a potential electrical fire risk situation 7. The furnace rooms in basement and second floor lack appropriate fire separation as per the Ontario Fire Code 8. There are unrated storage rooms (containing textile rolls) and sleeping rooms within the corridors that are lacking the required fire separations as per the Ontario Fire Code 9. Lacking approved fire safety plan and posted emergency procedures
In other words: if there had been a fire, we all would have died.
I heard from one of the tenants who lived in the basement that the conditions downstairs were extremely cramped & unsafe – and he shared the space with 24 other people. I had no idea about that.
As painful as it was for everyone, it was clearly for the best that the place got shut down before tragedy struck.
Thankfully, a very kind friend was able to put me up at her house that night. I probably would have slept in a park if it wasn’t for that.
I returned to the apartment the next morning. The Red Cross (who did an AMAZING job at helping us all, by the way) had found emergency accommodation for up to 2 weeks for anyone who needed it at a hotel near the airport in Mississauga, around 30km east of Toronto. But I can tell you this much: if I had to live in Mississauga, I would have just headed straight to the airport and caught the next plane back to Australia. It wasn’t an option.
By a stroke of good fortune, I found out through a friend about a summer hostel in the city that offered single rooms at a monthly rate. I booked a room straight away and spent the day moving my gear across on the tram into this building where I remain today. It’s far from ideal, but it’ll do for now. I have accommodation sorted for August thanks to another kind friend who is letting me rent her room while she’s away. I have no idea what will eventuate come September.
So here I am, nearly 10 months into my Canadian adventure, homeless, broke, single, about to turn 30 and feeling generally dejected and infuriated towards my ex-landlord for putting so many people in this situation. This is not quite what I had in mind.
But you know what? I wouldn’t have it any other way. Life throws these little pieces of shit at you every now & then but it really does make you appreciate the happy times even more, when they eventually come around again.
To everyone I’ve met and made friends with since I arrived (especially you hilariously beautiful people I work with), you’re the reason I’m still here. I bloody love you guys.
You may have evicted me from my house, Canada, but not yet from your country. Just you watch me turn this the hell around.
Well it’s been nearly 6 months since I first touched down on Canadian soil, and I’m very pleased to report that it’s been a delightful experience. I love this country!
I’m at the stage now where I feel like I’ve passed my probation. Settling in Toronto has given me the fantastic opportunity to get to know first-hand what life is like within the boundaries of the most populous & multicultural city in Canada, and I’ve done enough travelling around the province and south of the border to gain a basic understanding of the North American way of life in general.
So in no particular order, here is a list of a few Canadian quirks, loves, frustrations, tongue-in-cheek observations and comparisons to life in Australia that I’ve come to notice so far during my time here.
Rather than being sold in the screw-top plastic bottles we’re used to in Australia,milk in the eastern provinces of Canada comes in a package of three 1.3 litre plastic bladders (to give 4 litres in total). You simply place the bladder into a jug, cut a small hole in the top corner and pour. Admittedly the first time I tried to pour using this method, the bladder fell out of the jug and cow juice spilt everywhere, but I’ve since figured out how to keep it in place and see its benefit. It’s a surprisingly effective, drip-free pouring method, and once the bladder is empty you’re left with a hell of a lot less waste than that of an empty carton or bottle. 1L cardboard cartons are also available, but it’s a lot more cost-effective to buy the bladders.
The fat content of milk here is predominantly referred to as a percentage, and the descriptions are slightly different from home: it’s 3.25% for homo milk, 2% for partly-skimmed and 1% for low-fat.
Also there’s none of that ‘permeate-free’ marketing garbage infiltrating Canadian milk labels like it does in Australia. It’s just plain milk.
Australia has Oporto, Britain had Wimpy, America has McDonalds and Canada has Tim Hortons!
It was founded by hockey player Tim Horton in 1964 as a donut shop, before quickly expanding into a Canadian fast-food institution, well loved by almost every Canuck for their assortment of donuts, sandwiches and weak coffee.
I made the fatal mistake of bagging out Tim Hortons on Twitter after I tried one of their sandwiches for the first time, which wasn’t met with an overly joyous response from locals. My displeasure was justified though: it was not a very appetising meal at all, and the particular branch I dined at didn’t even have any seating so I had to stand at a crowded bar to eat it.
Since then I’m happy to say that Tim Hortons has grown on me. Their donuts have proven a lifesaver in the early drunken hours of the morning. I quite enjoy their Timbits (a popular bite-sized donut snack) and I’m somewhat smitten by their signature caffeinated recipe the ‘double double’ – brewed coffee with two sugars and two servings of cream. I’d never appreciated coffee with cream until I had my first double double only last week.
Oat & aboat
I was under the impression that every Canadian I was to meet would pronounce the word “about” as a-boot, but this isn’t the case. I don’t know about the rest of the country, but in Toronto they say a-boat. It’s so adorable 🙂
Another thing I’ve found synonymous with the Canadian accent is that if a word ends with R like door or floor, there’s an emphasis placed on the R at the end so that it sounds like doorrrrrhh or floorrrrrhh. This too is super adorable.
I find it quite odd that there is no need for the suburb in Canadian addresses – all you need is the street, city, province and postcode. In my case, the city is simply Toronto; there is no need to note the suburb of ‘Kensington Market’ anywhere in my address. The postcode is what holds the key to that specific information.
However in Sydney, for example, I worked on Miller St, in the suburb of North Sydney, state of NSW, postcode 2060; each of those details are required on the address for the post office to make the delivery. You can’t just put Sydney as the suburb – you have to put North Sydney specifically, because the postcode 2060 encompasses the areas of HMAS Platypus, HMAS Waterhen, Lavender Bay, McMahons Point, North Sydney, North Sydney Shoppingworld and Waverton.
People generally don’t refer to their suburb when they speak of where they live either – they either give a specific cross-street, or just say their city: ‘Toronto’ or ‘Etobicoke’ or ‘Mississauga’, all of which include multitudes of smaller neighbourhoods. I’ve heard that the naming and outlining of suburbs are only a recent addition to Toronto’s cartography.
Thanks to the grid system, cross-streets are a very popular way of communicating addresses, much more so than in Australia. In Toronto, if meeting a friend at a restaurant you’d simply say it was at ‘King & York’. Everybody knows where that is already. But back at home, we tend to use the full street/suburb address of 124 King St, Newtown… we wouldn’t really say ‘King & Bucknell’ cause most people wouldn’t have any clue where Bucknell St is.
Although I’ve passed through many areas of the world where cars drive on the right-hand side of the road, it took quite some time to get used to the fact I’m now living long-term in a country where the flow of traffic is opposite to that of home. There were a few instances early on where I’d mistakenly wait for the tram on the wrong side of the road, and when I enter a car I still habitually head toward the Canadian driver’s side when I should be aiming for the passenger side. I know I’m getting used to it though: I watched a British movie the other day with a driving scene, and it felt strange to see cars driving on the left again.
I haven’t actually driven a car over here yet, but I’m looking forward to the challenge when the day comes.
In Australia we have the “turn left at any time with care” lanes at intersections with lights, but these dedicated lanes don’t exist over here – instead, it’s completely ok to turn right at an intersection on a red light if it’s safe to do so.
There are no green & red men on the traffic signals at pedestrian crossings. The signals in Toronto (and much of North America, from what I’ve seen) display a white man when it’s safe to cross, followed by a red ‘stop’ hand and a countdown timer showing how many seconds are left until the lights change.
If a pedestrian is walking parallel to a road and comes to an intersection where there is no pedestrian signal, the pedestrian has right of way. Unlike in Australia where you wait for cars to move through the intersection before you continue on, in Toronto the cars will stop for you and let you cross first.
Everyone in every city I’ve ever lived in (including this one) is unhappy with the state of their public transit system, but I can honestly say that Toronto’s subway/streetcar/bus system run by the TTC is brilliant! Sure, there are times where scheduled streetcars don’t arrive or when a subway line is out of action for a weekend, but so far I think the pros outweigh the cons. The combination of a grid street plan with a city-wide bus, tram & underground system means public transport can get you very specifically to where you need to go, all on a single ticket which is pretty well affordable.
Something I find unique about TTC streetcars is that doors don’t open automatically when they stop – if you want the door to open, you need to stand on the step. It was an awkward moment learning this from the people behind me on a crowded tram when I was trying to figure out how to disembark at my stop.
There is another company called GO Transit who run bus & train commuter services in the Greater Toronto Area, and while the service has always been on time and comfortable whenever I’ve used them, it annoys me that their transit centres in regional areas are so bloody far away from the main hub. When I went to Unionville I had to walk 45 minutes in the freezing snow to get to the main street. Downtown Oakville was at least an hours walk away from the train station, and it was a $20 cab fare to get from Oshawa GO Station to Oshawa itself. To compare this with Sydney, it’d be like getting off at Merrylands but being told you were in the centre of Parramatta.
They’re mostly referred to as cell phones here, not mobile phones.
Canadian cell phone plans are extortionately expensive 🙁 I’m paying $65 / month at the moment with Bell Mobility. With tax, that takes it up to around $74. Add on the very minimal 7 minutes of calls (3 minutes of which were to my own voicemail) and 7 US text messages that I sent last month and my bill turned out to be $88. The only thing it’s good for is my 1GB of data. In comparison, I paid $35 a month with Virgin in Australia which gave me 2GB of data and texts/calls to just about anywhere. The only time I ever paid more than $35 was the month I made a few phone calls from within New Zealand while on global roaming.
There is a caller ID service here that automatically sends your name along with your phone number when you call someone. It’s pretty neat, because even if you don’t have the number stored in your address book, you get to see the name of whoever is calling (providing both parties are subscribed to the service).
Area codes and phone numbers are formatted differently over this side of the world. An Australian mobile number always starts with 04 and would be formatted as 0416 123 456, but in North America the cell number always starts with a three-digit location-specific area code and is formatted as 416-123-4567. The same format applies to landline phones.
Traditionally, Toronto had two area codes, 416 and 647, but the numbers are nearing exhaustion so last year they released a new area code into the mix: 437. I had no idea about this when I first got my SIM card so I chose any old number and ended up with one of the new 437 area codes. Now every time I give my digits to someone I get weird looks because it doesn’t begin with 416 or 647, and I have to give the whole spiel about how it’s the new Toronto area code. It’s important that people know this too – if they aren’t confident that I have a local number, they may hesitate when getting in touch as the cost of calling/texting a number outside the local area is significantly higher.
Toronto is a place like no other when it comes to cuisine. It’s incredibly multicultural here, and I love how there are numerous pockets of the city dedicated to the fare of specific worldly regions such as Little Italy, Little Portugal, Koreatown, Little Poland, Chinatown and Little India.
In other neighbourhoods that aren’t necessarily laid out to feature a certain geographical area, the fusion of cultures & cuisine is second to none. In my own locale of Kensington Market, for example, we have restaurants featuring Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, Tibetan, Indian, Afghan, French, Italian, Portuguese, Hungarian, Spanish, Greek, American, Mexican, French Caribbean, Jamaican, Colombian and Venezuelan cuisine – and that’s not to mention other eateries that specialise in vegetarian, seafood, apple pie and grilled cheese sandwiches. To say that my taste buds enjoy living here is an understatement.
Poutine is an artery-clogging but delicious Canadian dish of hot chips, cheese curds & gravy that I became aware of in the months leading up to my departure from Sydney. For some reason I had the impression it would be more of a specialty menu item, but it turns out it’s massively popular and you can get it anywhere from dive bars to to posh hotels; from street carts to chains such as Smoke’s Poutinerie and Poutini’s who dedicate themselves entirely to said meal.
There are hot dog carts on every second street corner in downtown Toronto, where you can pick up a fix of German/Italian/Polish sausage on bread for as little as $2. I can’t believe that some of them are even open and manned at 6:30 in the morning when it’s -15°C and blowing a blizzard.
An abundance of eateries around Toronto are open 24 hours, including a bunch in Chinatown just down the road from me. It’s great to know I can order a huge bowl of Vietnamese pho from across the street at 3am, should I ever feel the need.
After hearing so many horror stories of people being chased down the street for not tipping their waiter, I was petrified when I first started dining out because I didn’t want to offend anybody by not offering enough. I’ve since learnt that it’s pretty much compulsory to tip every waiter/barman/taxi driver/concierge in the US, but the rules are a little more lax in Canada, I guess because the service wage is higher. You won’t get chased down the street for not leaving a tip, but it’s not going to gain you any brownie points either. I go with 15% for average service but 20-25% for great service.
For reasons unknown to me, people in North America refer to an entree as an appetiser, and a main course is called an entree. It’s pretty funny.
There are a couple of words I’ve begun using here that I’d never be caught dead using in Australia.
You don’t drink soft drink – you drink pop. And never refer to the sweet clear carbonated stuff as lemonade because that specifically refers to the traditional recipe of water, lemon juice & sugar. If you want the pop form you need to call it Sprite or 7-Up.
People don’t live in apartments, they live in condos.
Electricity is called hydro.
Full-cream milk is homo.
You go on vacation rather than on holiday. But it’s a holiday when referring to a national day off, except instead of a public holiday, it’s a stat holiday (statutory).
People not from Toronto call Toronto the centre of the universe.
And god forbid if you ever call it a toilet – it’s a washroom!
Film is not a form of entertainment I’ve particularly enjoyed over the years, but there is something about the film culture in Toronto that speaks to me more than it has anywhere else in the world. There are a bunch of amazing indie/arthouse cinemas dotted around the city that delve deeper than the usual Hollywood rubbish such as the Bloor Cinema (one of the only in the world that focus solely on documentaries), the Royal (host of the European Film Festival and a rare venue that gives up & coming filmmakers the chance to showcase their works) and the TIFF Bell Lightbox (the Toronto International Film Festival, screening 365 days a year). In addition to my beloved Netflix subscription, Toronto’s cinemas have opened up a whole new world for me of motion picture discovery.
There’s little need for covertness in Canada when it comes to weed. It’s as though it’s perfectly fine to smoke anywhere you like. It’s still entirely illegal to do so (unless medically regulated), and arrests do occur especially if you’re caught with more than 30g on your person, but people smoke it anyway, the authorities tolerate it to a certain degree, and everyone gets on with their lives. So long as you aren’t caught dealing the stuff, really.
As a matter of fact, only about 200 metres from home, along Augusta Avenue in Kensington Market is a funky little BYO ‘vapour lounge’ called the HotBox Cafe. Providing you don’t deal or ask, it’s completely ok for any old Joe Bloggs to use one of the in-house vapourisers and relax at their table while they study/read/socialise/chill to their hearts content.
I also highly recommend their ginger tea.
I knew I’d be up for some inclement Canadian weather pretty quickly seeing as I landed in Toronto just in time for the winter. It turned out to be the most brutal season experienced in decades, complete with metres of snow, wind chill reaching 39-below-zero and an ice storm… but despite the polar challenges, I’ve fucking loved every second of it!
Come to think of it… there are two things that piss me off about the cold weather:
As soon as it snows the council & shop owners start coating the sidewalks with salt, as it assists in melting the ice. The salt gets onto your shoes and creates ugly white marks. You then need to spend the next four days meticulously cleaning your shoes: the first cleanse of the day only moistens the salt and camouflages it with the underlying material, the second cleanse starts to remove some of the grime, and the third cleanse usually wipes the stubborn stains away. You have to repeat that process again in the evening after you’ve walked home, and continue with it for days sometimes until the snow melts away and the salt disappears from the surface. Then it snows again and the whole process starts over. I HATE CLEANING MY SHOES.
Secondly, it’s really difficult to go running outdoors when it’s icy & windy as heck. I used to be pretty active in Sydney but I’ve cut down on jogging since the Toronto winter graced us with its presence. Hopefully I can get back into a regular schedule in the coming few weeks.
They’re red, not green.
It’s commonly known that Americans write the date as mm-dd-yyyy. We wouldn’t dream of putting month before day in Australia, but Canadians tend to take a diplomatic viewpoint of the situation and accept it either way, thanks to both European and American influence.
I actually find it makes a lot more sense logically to write the date in the Americanised style. If the month is written first, it goes to follow that the sorting order appears numerically by month (Jan 1st, Jan 2nd, Jan 3rd) rather than date (1st Jan, 1st Feb, 1st Mar). I can’t wait for the day the international standard of yyyy-mm-dd is widely accepted in informal situations, but until then, I’m a happy convert to the American format.
It does get confusing sometimes in Canada with the dual acceptance… I recently quoted ‘December 3rd’ to somebody when I should have quoted ‘March 12th’.
In a similar inclusive style to that of the date, it’s completely ok to pronounce Z as either zed or zee in Canada.
The music of Canada is one of the primary reasons I chose to move here to begin with. After stumbling upon the music of Newfoundland folk/rockers Great Big Sea a few years ago, it became a dream of mine to one day see them perform on home soil – a feat achieved in November last year.
Since then I’ve been introduced to dozens more indie Canadian artists who I probably would never have heard of if it weren’t for my GBS discovery. Some of my favourites so far include Hawksley Workman, The Tragically Hip, Joel Plaskett and July Talk. I also learnt quickly that Drake is the darling of Toronto.
The live music scene in Toronto is pumping – plenty of local & well known musicians pass through the city’s eclectic venues on a nightly basis. But the best gig I’ve seen so far was at the Virgin Mobile Mod Club last Monday night – a fundraiser for the Company Theatre, feating Alan Doyle & Murray Foster (from Great Big Sea), Alan & Greg Hawco (actor & composer from TV show Republic of Doyle), Ed Robertson (from the Barenaked Ladies), Blake Manning, Stuart Cameron & Danhmait Doyle (from country band The Heartbroken), Keith Power, Kendel Carson, Barry Canning, Patrick Boyle and Tom Power… wow! A mindblowing assembly of pure Canadian talent. I can’t wait for more experiences like this; it’s only gonna get better as the summer months approach and more tours come to light.
On a freezing winters day if you needed to get from, say, the Eaton Centre to the Ripley’s Aquarium on the other side of town, you could walk the entire journey without even stepping foot outdoors. This is thanks to the PATH, the world’s largest underground shopping complex: a 1,200-store, 27km labyrinth of walkways beneath the city that acts as a link between dozens of buildings in downtown Toronto. It’s a brilliant idea – it might be -20°C outside, but it’s entirely feasible to do your grocery shopping, go to the bank, buy clothes, have lunch, take a class at the gym, fill a prescription, post some mail, watch a hockey game and venture up CN tower all while wearing a t-shirt & shorts.
Toronto isn’t the only Canadian city to feature a network of connective tunnels – Montreal has the 32km Underground City, Edmonton has the 13km Pedway, Halifax has the Downtown Halifax Link and most other major centres have some form of subterranean climate-controlled link between inner-city buildings.
I miss the simplicity in Australia of knowing exactly what you’re going to be charged at the cash register when you’re out shopping, because taxes are included in the price already.
In most cases throughout North America, items on shop floors are listed as their pre-tax price, and tax is added on at the register. It’s not so much the increased price at the end that annoys me, but more because if I pay cash for something, I always like to have the correct change prepared already to hand straight over to the cashier. Maybe I’m OCD, but it sucks to have to wait until it scans to find out how much I need to prepare.
When I first started dealing with North American cash it took a while to get used to the 25c coin denomination seeing as all I’ve ever known was the 20c/20p coin. It’s kinda cool though, and I like not having a stupid big 50c coin.
I still find it difficult to use the terms penny, nickel, dime and quarter, it hasn’t quite sunk into my head yet. I still prefer to say 1c coin, 5c coin, 10c coin and 25c coin, but people look at me funny when I do that. I really feel like a knob when I say ‘loonie’ ($1 coin) or ‘toonie’ ($2 coin) 🙂
They also look at me funny when I refer to paper money as ‘notes’ instead of ‘bills’.
Props to the Canadians for phasing out the penny. I hate the pile of copper that builds up in my wallet when in Europe or the US.
The first thing I had to learn when it came to banking was that rather than a savings account, Canadians use a chequing account for their daily spending. I became so used to pressing the SAV button on card terminals back at home that I did the same by habit in Canada the first few times and of course the transaction always declined. I’m used to the CHQ button now, and it does make a whole lot more sense to use your savings account for actual savings and not for day-to-day use. It just sucks that when you do have money in your savings and accidentally press the SAV button, the bastards at the bank charge you a $5 savings access fee.
Which brings me to my biggest Canadian frustration of all: spending money electronically.
In Australia I have a Mastercard debit card that allows me to spend my own money anywhere in the world where Mastercard is accepted. Simple.
Canada, however, uses a debit card service called Interac which can only be accepted for in-store transactions at select retailers within Canada and is utterly hopeless for those who wish to buy stuff online. So my bank gave me an even more useless “virtual” Visa Debit card for online purchases (it’s basically a card with a number only, no chip or magnetic stripe). Unlike my Australian Mastercard debit card (accepted throughout the entire Mastercard network), my virtual Visa Debit card can only be used at online retailers that specifically accept Visa Debit. In other words: virtually nobody.
For example, I had to physically go to Billy Bishop Airport to buy a plane ticket over the counter with my Interac card, because Porter Airlines won’t accept Visa Debit online. Greyhound doesn’t accept it either, so I had to use my Australian credit card to reserve a seat on a bus. (Thankfully, however, Netflix is fine with Visa Debit, so at least I get to watch my documentaries).
I wouldn’t have this problem if I had a credit card, but the bank won’t give me one because I’m a foreigner. So I’ll just have to live with the ridiculous fact that a bunch of Canadian retailers aren’t able to accept my hard-earned CAD, but are happy to accept my dwindling foreign AUD.
Tea has been my preferred choice of beverage since it was forced upon me while I lived in England, but it wasn’t until I discovered Canadian retailer DAVIDsTEA that I began to feel a real passionate devotion for the leafy hot drink. My workmates introduced me to Davids almost as soon as I started my job, and nearly every day since I’ve ventured to the shop either at the Richmond Adelaide Centre or on Queen St for my tea fix. I’m nearly two thirds of the way through sampling at least one cup of each of their blends.
Not only do they keep a delicious menu of nearly 150 varieties, but they’re one of the most loveable brands I know of. From their delightfully happy retail staff to their #caturday pics of felines exploring the insides of DAVIDsTEA boxes, everything about them is tops.
If I had to choose the #1 factor that’s brought the most joy and happiness to my Canadian experience so far, it’s gotta be the people I’ve met along the journey.
Seriously, what a top bunch the Canadians are! For quite some time now I’ve held Belgians, people from Perth and New Zealanders (only when sober) in high esteem as those who consistently come across as the most genuine, happy people I encounter throughout my travels, and it heartens me very much to now add the Canucks onto that same list. And I don’t just mean those who are born Canadian, but anyone from any country who has spent time here and adopted their beautiful, cheerful way of life.
Generally speaking, I feel a camaraderie here in Canada that’s rare to come across elsewhere in the world. It’s very similar to the Australian sense of mateship, where you celebrate the good times with a hint of larrikinism and stick together when times are tough. There’s a definite sense that the population supports & appreciates each other’s contribution to society. People smile. People say please and thank you. People are engaged and interested. People are happy.
And it’s true what they say about Canadians being delightfully apologetic. A few weeks ago I accidentally stepped in front of a car just as his light turned green, but instead of swearing at me, he smiled, waved and mouthed ‘sorry’ as if he took blame for my own error.
Aside from the cranky old bloke who runs the local coin laundry, there are very few people I’ve met so far in Toronto who I can say have been unpleasant!
To everyone so far who I’ve met with, lived with, dined with, drank with, explored the city with and – especially – worked with: you guys absolutely rock. You’re the reason I booked my flight back to Toronto after my three week Australian rendezvous in May. You haven’t gotten rid of me just yet 😀
In the very early hours of the morning I was awoken by strange whirring noises and sharp flashes of light radiating through my bedroom window. At first I thought it was some kind of hallucinogenic dream, but as I regained consciousness and peered behind the curtains I found a streetcar creeping along the tracks at a very slow pace. Each inch it travelled, it would let out a bright electrical spark at the point where the trolley pole touched the overhead electrical line. I assumed it was a faulty tram on its way back to the depot for repairs and I returned to my slumber, completely unaware that Toronto was in the midst of one of the most catastrophic ice storms in recent history.
Unlike a conventional storm of wind & heavy rain, an ice storm is formed when light drizzle mixes with a sub-freezing ambient temperature. A layer of ice gently and gradually materialises on exposed surfaces; often unnoticed if it occurs overnight, as proven in my case. Its dangers include an increased risk of road accidents, slips & falls on the footpaths, and the collapse of trees & power lines under the pressure of the icy build-up. This can of course lead to loss of electricity, heating and plumbing – all vital for survival during the winter months. As I write this, an estimated 250,000 people across Greater Toronto are without power, a very un-Christmas-like situation which may not be rectified for another three days.
Having said that, the meteorological anomaly also has the ability to transform everyday objects such as bicycles, plants and rubbish bins into spectacular works of natural art, quite unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed before. It wasn’t until I woke up again at around 9am that I looked out my window and first saw the effects of the ice storm for myself, on the overhead electrical lines above Dundas St West. One thing was for sure as I made my way outside to investigate further: there would be no streetcars today.
Earlier this week I pulled some Bear Grylls moves through the brambles in order to reach a near-frozen river, which left me with slightly dirty shoes by the end of the day. I hadn’t yet bothered to wash them, but a thought struck me this afternoon while admiring the first proper snowstorm to hit Toronto this winter:
Can a walk through the snow clean dirty shoes?
I donned my filthy footwear, took my camera along for some company, and set through the chilly streets of Kensington Market to find out.
And so after 50 minutes, two slippery falls and some minor frostbite to the fingers & cheeks, I made it back home. I scraped off the layers of ice that had built upon my footwear, anxiously awaiting the answer to my question: can snow clean dirty shoes?
I remember the day clearly. It was the 9th of Februrary, 2012 and I’d recently begun using Last.fm, a music recommendation service that takes note of the songs & artists you listen to and attempts to find other bands you might enjoy based on your listening patterns.
One of the first recommendations offered to me was a band I’d never heard of called Great Big Sea. The blurb on their Last.fm profile declared them to be a “Canadian folk-rock band from Newfoundland and Labrador, best known for performing energetic rock interpretations of traditional Newfoundland folk songs.” Straight away I was intrigued, given that I love the folk-rock genre and that they hailed from such a remote & faraway location you rarely hear about in the music world.
I quickly navigated to Youtube where I clicked through to one of their more recent releases, Nothing But A Song, an original tune from their 2010 album Safe Upon The Shore. It’s rare that a newly-discovered song resonates so well with me: I had a beaming smile on my face by the second bar and from the moment Alan Doyle’s captivating baritone made its passionate entrance, I can honestly say I was hooked.
I found the album on iTunes before the song had even finished. Over the next 49 minutes I embarked on one of the greatest journeys of musicianship and songwriting I’d been on – from the uplifting reflective opener of Long Life (Where Did You Go) to the hauntingly grievous title-track shanty that is Safe Upon The Shore; from the faith-restoring Good People to the comical cover of The Kinks’ Have A Cuppa Tea – and then there’s my personal favourite ballad, Yankee Sailor, the heartbreaking tale of a Canadian courtship torn apart by a wealthy & charismatic American seafarer, delivered with such an intensity and conviction that it brought shivers to my spine. These guys epitomised the type of music I loved.
And such began my musical love affair with Alan Doyle, Séan McCann and Bob Hallett, the mighty talented bunch of folk-rockers from the city of St John’s, Newfoundland who make up the core of Great Big Sea (that’s not to mention Darrell Power who retired in 2003, as well as Kris MacFarlane and Murray Foster who have been supporting members of the band since Darrell’s departure). Formed in 1993, the group today boast a discography of 9 studio albums (7 of which have made the top 10 in their home country), 3 live concert recordings, a plethora of singles and a lifetime’s worth of tour dates across Canada, the US and indeed the world.
Over the next six months or so I relished in getting my hands on the whole GBS back catalogue. I’d buy a new record of theirs on iTunes every couple of weeks and it never ceased to amaze me how each one held my attention and captured my imagination from start to finish. I was particularly impressed with how they were able to sustain such a positive, upbeat attitude while developing their musical style quite substantially over the years. They delivered a raw, traditional folk sound on their first few albums such as their self-titled Great Big Sea in 1993, Up in 1995, and 1997’s breakthrough record Play, before branching out to the more pop-inspired melodies of Sea Of No Cares and Something Beautiful in the early 2000’s.
They returned to their heritage in 2005, releasing an album entirely of traditional Newfoundland folk tunes called The Hard And The Easy. It’s been the greatest Great Big Sea discovery for me to date and it may just make the cut as my favourite album of all time. Each time I listen to it I feel richly immersed in Canadian maritime history made up of intertwining Irish, Scottish and French lineage; I’m transported to the ports, harbours and seaside communities along the Newfie coastline such as Tickle Cove, Harbour LeCou, Angle Pond & St John’s itself, and I’m carried away by stories of murderous captains, Arctic whalers, legendary horses and able young seamen both hard working & voyeuristic. Their two most recent albums Fortune’s Favour and the aforementioned Safe Upon The Shore yield a slightly more rock-influenced and heavily-produced characteristic which in my opinion, perfectly caps off nearly 20 years worth of recording.
Merely 2 months after first setting my ears upon Great Big Sea, I chanced to see in a local gig guide that they were about to embark on their first tour of Australia. I immediately booked a ticket and was lucky enough in April 2012 to catch their show at The Basement, an intimate venue in the heart of Sydney’s Circular Quay, where I was offered my first glimpse into exactly how energetic these guys really were in real life. Up until this point they were a barely-accessible folk band from the other side of the world, of whom I’d only ever heard a handful of recordings, but now here they were metres in front of me performing a killer set of in front of a devoted ex-pat Canadian audience. It was at that point I can say I officially became a devoted fan of Great Big Sea!
To give you an idea of exactly how much I’m into these guys, this is my graph of top 10 artists I’ve listened to since I began using Last.fm in early 2012, and the number of times I’ve played tracks by each of them:
Crazy huh?! As you can tell, their music has taken up a large portion of my life over the past few years. I even recorded my own little cover version of Safe Upon The Shore, and I namechecked them in a song I wrote a few months ago called I Wish I Lived In Canada.
Earlier this year I did actually go through with the decision to leave behind my job, home and life in Sydney, and embark upon a new adventure in Canada, where I have since settled in Toronto. There were a number of reasons why I chose Canada above other destinations, but one of them was for the opportunity to see Great Big Sea perform to a local crowd within their home country. And on the 28th of November 2013 I succeeded in ticking off the #1 entry to my Canadian bucket list, after catching Alan, Séan, Bob, Murray and Kris play a sold-out show as part of their XX tour at the General Motors Centre in Oshawa, around an hour east of Toronto.
It was an absolutely incredible performance that fulfilled my every wish, to the point where I couldn’t even sing along with the opening tunes Ordinary Day and The Chemical Worker’s Song because I was too overwhelmed 🙂
The one thing that strikes you about a Great Big Sea audience is that as soon as the band sets foot on stage, EVERYONE gets their arses up off their seat and claps/moves/dances/sings/screams their lungs out along with EVERY song. The vibe is indescribable, unlike any other show I’ve been to – and this is coming from a huge live music fan with very high expectations, having seen over 350 artists perform in my time.
I booked well in advance and as such, scored perfect seats in the centre of the auditorium, only 4 rows from the front of the stage. Highlights for me were Bob’s rousing a-capella rendition of Come And I Will Sing You, Alan’s kick-arse guitar solo in When I Am King, the chilling singalong harmonies of Séan’s classic, General Taylor, and the montage of fans projected onto the screen during the beautiful Good People. The two & a half hour show left not only me but the thousands-strong Oshawa crowd with a soul so uplifted that I doubt I’ll reach that level of musical contentment again for many years to come.
Only a couple of weeks ago, Séan announced that the XX tour will be his final with Great Big Sea. I’m extremely grateful I got to witness the GBS boys live in concert in Canada before Séan’s departure, and I wish him all the best with his upcoming endeavours.
I wanted to write this post not only to express my adoration for the band, but to hopefully inspire newcomers to check them out, and also as a way of saying a heartfelt thanks to each and every member of GBS over the years for giving us all the wonderful gift of music that truly changes lives for the better.
Whatever the future brings for Alan, Séan, Bob, Murray and Kris, one thing will remain for certain:
Great Big Sea fucking rock!
Have you got a Great Big Sea story to tell? Where did you first hear of them and what do they mean to you? I’d love to hear from any likeminded fans – feel free to leave a comment below!
I can barely believe it! For the second time in my life I’ve succeeded in quitting my job, packing my bags, moving out of my humble abode and driving my possessions up to Queensland for storage at my parent’s place north of Townsville. At 1:50pm on Wednesday 25th of September 2013, I’ll be leaving the life I’ve established over the past four years in Sydney to embark upon a new adventure: first, a five-day stopover in New York City, before flying into Toronto for a working holiday. I have the potential to live and work in Canada for two full years, but having merely booked three nights accommodation at a backpackers so far, I can only see as far forward as October 3rd; anything beyond that date remains a mystery. This sense of not knowing – of having a blank canvas future in a foreign country – is amongst the greatest feelings I’ve known.
This is not something I’m new to. In 2008, I journeyed to England for an extended period of time, although the catalyst upon which I decided to travel this time differs quite substantially to the circumstances of yesteryear. It wasn’t until I’d conquered the misery of a failed online romance that I came to fully appreciate my time in Britain, by which time my working visa was nearing an end, resulting in my return to Australia much more prematurely than I would have liked. Now, four years wiser, I’m set to recommence the voyage on nobody else’s accord but my own. It’s an understatement to say that I CAN’T WAIT!!
As much as I would have adored returning to my beloved England, unfortunately my quest for obtaining European citizenship through Italian ancestry has turned out to be a lot more complicated than I initially anticipated. I came to realise earlier this year that it’s likely to be a few more years before it comes through (if ever), so I started focusing my attention onto other potential worldly locations to explore. The majority of countries that participate in the working holiday program stop issuing permits once you enter your 30’s, so with a year to go I figured that if I wanted the full international experience once more, it would have to be now or never. And it just so happened that Canada came out on top of my list of the potential worldly locations.
Well, it’s mostly thanks to my all-time favourite band Great Big Sea, who I discovered nearly two years ago. The Newfoundland folk/rockers came up as a recommendation for me to listen to on Last.fm – I was hooked after the first song and spent the next six months getting to know their incredible back catalogue of releases. Their lively renditions of traditional Newfie folk tunes and optimistic original compositions paint pictures in my mind in a way that no other group of musicians have been able to match. I was lucky enough to catch the GBS boys perform live at The Basement in Sydney in April 2012, and ever since then it’s been a dream of mine to catch a gig of theirs on home turf. Combine that with the fact that every Canadian I’ve met has been infectiously pleasurable to be around, and it made perfect sense that I should get to know the land of poutine & maple syrup for myself. Oh – and it helps that I love the cold as well!
My Canadian bucket list
After many hours spent at the library vehemently studying every Lonely Planet, Eyewitness, National Geographic and Frommer’s guide available at my fingertips (not to mention Charley Boorman’s series, the barrel-of-laughs-and-full-of-ideas Extreme Frontiers: Canada), it’s clear to see that the world’s second-largest country is full of compelling cities, attractions, festivals, roadtrips, activities and experiences. The following is by no means an exhaustive list, but I’ve taken a few notes of unique things I’d like to tick off while in Canada. Some of them may be a little far-fetched (eg. crossing the Arctic Circle) but you never know what might eventuate!
– Try some authentic Quebec poutine
– Sample fresh maple syrup syphoned straight out of a tree
– Eat a Nova Scotian Donair
– Experience a proper Canadian Thanksgiving and White Christmas
– Take a girl on a date to the 360° Restaurant at the top of Toronto’s Sky Tower
– Sit in the audience of a Canadian TV show
– Catch a Great Big Sea play a gig to a local audience (this will be happening and is booked for November!)
– Spend time in St Johns, Newfoundland, and witness the landmarks that Great Big Sea mention in many of their songs
– Visit the French territorial island of Saint Pierre off the coast of Newfoundland (just to get my passport stamped)
– Join a local folk/rock band with likeminded musicians
– Take a sip of the famous Sourtoe Cocktail (an alcoholic beverage poured over a human toe) in the Downtown Bar at Dawson City, Yukon
– Go kayaking on Lake Ontario
– Take a boat trip underneath Horseshoe Falls
– Visit Boldt Castle in the Thousand Islands along St Lawrence River
– Have a go at adventure caving in the Vancouver Island caves
– Take the train through the Canadian Rockies
– Learn to ski
– Go ice skating on a frozen river in one of Canada’s cities
– Feel the blistering chill of -20° (or colder) weather
– Go on a roadtrip from Toronto to Detroit
– Visit Sydney, Nova Scotia and compare it with Sydney, Australia
– Visit London, Ontario and compare it with London, United Kingdom
– Visit the town with the weird name of Moose Jaw (cheers Kumlu for finding that one!)
– Get up close & personal with squirrels, beavers and moose in the wild
– *Mum, cover your eyes* Get within a few hundred metres of a wild Grizzly *Ok you can uncover them!*
– Eat moose meat (sorry, vegetarian friends)
– Watch a hockey game
– Watch a baseball game
– Go shopping at Walmart at 3 in the morning (although I’m not sure if they’re open 24 hrs in Canada? I know some stores are in the US and I’ve always found it amusing that people shop there at ridiculous hours of the morning)
– Explore the subterranean terraces of Toronto’s PATH (27km) and Montreal’s Underground City (32km)
– Catch a bunch of acts at the Just For Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal
– Travel far enough into Manitoba or the Northwest Territories to see the Northern Lights
– Cross the Arctic Circle
– Learn French
So long, Australia!
Although the Sydney lifestyle didn’t turn out to be for me in the long-term, looking back on my time here I’ve had a brilliant run. I’m eternally grateful for the countless hilarious hours spent with a fantastic group of mates (which included some pretty impressive achievements over the years such as three 26km+ charity walks and winning the Peoples Choice Award at the 2012 SydneyVision Song Contest). From living in a beautiful apartment with very pleasant housemates in one of the most picturesque Sydney locations to landing a highly stimulating & challenging role at Nespresso; from getting to experience the most delicious cuisine across the city with my foodie friends to having access to explore the likes of Burning Mountain, Newnes, Condobolin, Thredbo and everything in between: I’m left with many, many happy memories of this place. I offer my heartfelt appreciation and thanks to all my Aussie friends and family for being so awesome. I’ll see you all again soon.
I will try my hardest to blog about my upcoming travels more frequently than what I have been doing recently, so make sure you subscribe and keep in touch!
And on that note: let the Canadian adventure begin.