Monday, September 29, 2008

The Next Toronto Star?

CN Tower A gray Canadian day.

I haven't had much reason to want to go to work lately, but I actually wanted to take this business trip to Toronto, despite it falling on a weekend. We were scheduled to go to an event at Canada's Wonderland, an amusement park north of the city, and although my travelling companions hate rides and wouldn't go on any with me, I did get to eat a waffle ice cream sandwich and some tiny, freshly-fried doughnuts.

I'd never been to Toronto itself, though I was in its suburbs for the Eden Music Fest back in 1996, when Bush, Live, and Everclear were among the headlining acts.

I also recall being on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls as a five year old and visiting another Canadian amusement park, Marineland, where I was too short for most of the rides. I think that trip also marked my first Dairy Queen experience, where I got a can of Diet Coke that had French writing on it. As a small child, I was amazed.

Growing up in Central New York, you get pretty used to Canadian accents, Canadian coins, and Canadian delicacies like pizza and wings. So when I got to Toronto on Sunday, nothing seemed too terribly foreign to me. Except the fact that I had to use my passport to get into the country, and stand in a customs line for almost an hour.

Like Syracuse, Toronto is a pretty industrial city, with lots of warehouses and factories and smokestacks. They've made lots of attempts at converting those buildings, many of which are from the early 20th century. We actually got to take a meeting and have lunch in the really cool warehouse campus of the old Toronto Carpet Factory in Liberty Village, whose conversion includes not only hip office buildings but also the ristorante CaFfinO.

In the narrow driveways between buildings, you can see old streetcar tracks that they've preserved - in fact, showcased - as part of the conversion.

But not all parts of Toronto are beautiful and historic like the carpet factory. Most of it is ugly and beige or gray, and not just because of the cloudy, cold weather we encountered upon our arrival. Train tracks and railyards cut the city off from harbour access, and even the CN Tower - which we didn't pay the $21 to go up into - is horribly forboding and cold in design, looming over the city like a huge push pin, less sci-fi than Seattle's Space Needle and much less utilitarian than any of NYC's lofty observation deck office buildings like the Empire State Building or Top of the Rock.

There's something very San Franciscan about it's public transportation, though, with many streetcars still in use - and looking like they haven't been replaced since maybe the '60s. They share the traffic lanes with cars, often causing bottlenecks while collecting and depositing passengers on busy, narrow streets with parked cars on both sides. The subway station entrances also really reminded me of BART, but since we were there on business and relying on rental cars, I didn't get the chance to explore.

The main exploring I did was upon my arrival, when I was starved for lunch and Kevin was nursing a migraine. Of course, the front desk at our hotel refused to recommend any place to eat besides their own restaurant, so I was on my own to find something authentic and local. And what better than a local chain restaurant called The Pickle Barrel, where I drank Nova Scotian beer (Alexander Keith's Red Ale) and ate Albertan steak in possibly the best caesar salad I've ever had. It didn't matter that my meal has had pretty much in the mall. It was delicious and I am no stranger to suburbia.

During our meetings today I lightheartedly said that I would move to Canada for the right opportunity, and I think I meant it. But I hope there's a side of Toronto beyond my visitor's experience today, because if there isn't, I'm not sure how long I would last.

But I'm glad I went on the trip, if only for the chance to take advantage of Sebouh's companion upgrade and fly in Business Class on the way home. I really don't belong with the "luxury travellers," but where do I belong? I felt like a schmuck amongst the elite in the front of the plane, where they give you as much Cabernet as you want, and I don't know when to stop. The flight attendant kept telling me I could take more bags of snack mix, like I was a little kid flying for the first time. I think she sensed my glee, which I wore on my cheeks in a red that matched the wine that constantly filled my (real!) glass.

And now in New York for a couple of weeks before the next business trip.