Friday, November 27, 2009

Toronto. Gray, dismal, and packed with hidden treasures.

I headed out to Toronto on the early early 7am flight out of Vancouver. I slept a bit, watched Taking Woodstock (sadly terrible), and landed in the afternoon in Toronto. I suppose I've gotten used to living in a city that is tucked up against a mountain range on one side and the ocean on the other because I found the flatness of the land unsettling. It made the high gray clouds and clinging low fog feel as if it expanded on forever. The airport is quite a long drive from the city itself and along the way, you skirt the edge of Lake Ontario on one side and occasional row houses on the other. Eventually this gives way to isolated gray apartment towers, clustered in groups of three or four, some with boarded up shops at the bottom. The closer you get to the city, the more towers appear in each cluster and the newer they look. The glass becomes clean, Jamba Juices and Starbucks begin to pepper their street levels and finally you reach the city, which as it turns out is just a massive cluster of these tall gray buildings. And this was my overarching impression of Toronto - gray. Granted it's November and was lightly or heavily raining the whole time, but still, the buildings, the artwork, the parks, all seem gray.

Here is a good example - Toronto City Hall. I suppose it looks a bit like a bird, with two wings curved around a central body. But why oh why, would the entire back of the building be concrete with no windows?? The interior curves are all windows facing towards the center pavilion, but the outside curve, facing the city and the expanse of the lake beyond is a striated face of solid concrete.

Below is another example from out front of City Hall. It's an ice skating rink with - you guessed it - gray concrete pillars and decorations.
My room was on the 23rd floor of the Metropolitan Hotel, which if you do happen to end up in Toronto, I highly recommend. I found a great deal on Expedia. Anyway, from the 23rd floor I was right under the cloud layer and could see quite a bit of the expanse of the city as it rolled out towards the massive lake. It was in the elevator of the hotel that I first started to get a glimpse of the other side of Toronto. There were five elevators, each of which was decorated with intricate Chinese woodblock prints. The paintings covered the walls from floor to ceiling and were covered in glass to protect the beautiful details.

Each elevator has a unique scene, each as remarkable as the last. (I must have been impressed as I promptly forgot my computer bag in the elevator and had to ride up and down many times trying to locate it)                                                                                                  The next morning, I headed out into the rain to walk the 5 or 6 blocks to my meeting at St. Micheal's Hospital. Apparently when it rains in Toronto, it really rains. I made it only a few blocks before I sought refuge in one of the malls that line the downtown area around Queens Street. As you can see from the picture, I was not a dry, or happy, camper at that point.

After I dried off as best I could in the entryway, (there's nothing like showing up to a meeting soaking wet) I walked into the main thoroughfare of the mall. Those of you that know me well know I am not a mall goer. I once got trapped in an IKEA at Christmas time and couldn't find the exit and that was it for me. Holiday shopping consists of me, the internet, and a bracing drink. But this mall, I have to say was remarkable.

The arched windows over the top cast a remarkable amount of light into the open atriums and wide corridors. The model geese hanging from the ceiling by what looks like thick fishing line give a sense of motion to the space, and being able to see up and down to all of the cheerily lit spaces creates an open, inviting feel. If you look closely you can see the windows rising four or five levels above the shops. I was shocked to see that those are apartments, some of which have balconies overlooking the mall. On one of them, I saw an older couple enjoying a leisurely cup of coffee and reading the paper. Being a bit of a sci-fi enthusiast, it reminded me of some of the descriptions from Blue Mars, part of the Mars Trilogy written by Kim Stanley Robinson.

I managed to walk nearly the rest of the way to the hospital through this mall, which connects underground to the buildings on all sides of it and as it turns out, right back to the building next to my hotel. And this was my realization about Toronto - it's a city whose gray exterior matches the Midwestern clouds and expansive skyline, but as devoid of color as the exterior is, the underground is as far to the opposite side of the color scale as possible. The city has dug down into the ground and created a spiderweb of interconnected tunnels, bright colors, and atmosphere that take a rainstorm to discover.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

What's in a (blog) name?

A couple of years ago, we rented Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman's several-DVD set of their motorcycle ride around the world, traveling from London through Europe into Russia, Mongolia, flying to Alaska, down through Canada, and arriving in New York.  Where it sure looked like hard work (motorcycling through mud and stuff), we were constantly reminded that they had a caravan of fellow travelers and video equipment and, I'm sure, an "abort ship" lifeline at their fingertips at all times.  They did not need to make that call, and in turn made some very cool DVDs.  We're bogarting their concept, sort of, at least for the title of the blog (no motorcycles, though - but maybe a moped in Greece).  That being said - and giving credit where credit it due - here's a homemade YouTube video with the theme song for the series, "Long Way Round" by the Stereophonics.  It's a catchy tune and every time I (Sarah) glance at the blog title, I hum to myself, "ba da da da, ba da da da..."


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The pause before...

Now if only that big button had racing lights, the sound of a thumping heart, and a fanfare blaring...that would be the kind of feeling I (Sarah) tend to get before booking a flight, buying a train ticket, renting a car, etc.  Without fail, there's a huge race up to the act of purchasing something on line and then the pause before saying, "oh, okay, I'll do it!"  When it comes to travel - unlike my usually realistic trepidation prior to a big choice/decision - I always err on the side of "book now, ponder later."  I suppose that's a good thing.  Not that my usual thoroughly-thinking-through-things thwarts me from doing anything, I'm just someone who likes to talk things through, see all sides, obsess a bit, and then decide.  There's often a very good reason if I decide against something - but, as I mentioned above, the anticipation of travel brings out that competitive nature in me that tends to lie dormant every other moment of the day.

Part of that heart-thumping feeling may come from my gullible nature when it comes to the power of the interwebs: if the interwebs tells me I'm getting a deal, I tend to believe it.  Not to the point that I'll buy buy buy a service that will find all of my long lost high schools friends at the click of a button (and a swipe of my Visa), but if a reputable site (such as an airline) tells me I'm getting a great deal - I can't pass it up!

This brings me to the moment that just passed about 20 minutes ago.  Here I am, at home, having slept poorly last night due to upcoming move-related stuff (I'm sad to say, my periodic excitement-induced insomnia has rubbed off on Steve who now occasionally suffers from the same thing...hey, misery loves company), and I got word from my Aunt Laur in London who said that we may be better off finding a cheap flight up to Edinburgh from London over New Years rather than driving like we'd planned.  That's all I needed to get the ball rolling...AND SHE'S OFF!

(Please read the following aloud in a quick horse race announcer voice)
sarah reads an email from her aunt and IMs steve to see if he's received the forwarded email from her aunt about how it would make a lot more sense for them to fly instead of drive because of the traffic gas prices UK drivers, sarah waits impatiently for steve's google IM to respond (steve is typing...), as sarah waits for steve's IM to pop up, she's on ryan air easy jet and kayak all at the same time searching for the best price, lest we forget the frantic switching back and forth to a currency converter site because sarah has no concept of how much a pound is versus a canuckian dollar...steve finally responds with a "sure, sounds good to me" which gives sarah the ultimate go ahead to zoom in on the cheap flight that awaits her on easy jet, but wait - if she doesn't book it this very minute maybe some brit over yonder across the atlantic sea is about to book a quick flight home to edinburgh to see his mum, thus taking sarah and steve's cheap flight!  how dare he?! she must book it now!  she goes through all the rigmorale to register for the website (though she'll get annoyed by their email promotions in the future and send them maliciously into her spam folder) when finally the moment comes to purchase her tickets and she pauses...

heart thumping....
should she "click here"...?
what about the brit who needs to visit his mum...?
what about figuring out how to get to gatwick airport from her relative's home in london...?
what about that hot cup of water I left in the microwave...?
the crowd has gone quiet...


There's a hush as Sarah waits for the email confirmation to come through.  She takes a deep breath and IMs Steve, "booked." to which he eloquently responds, "cool."

And that, my friends, is how every flight, camel ride, boat tour, hotel booking, and on-line reservation for a show with dancing girls will take place when we're on our world trip.  If you hear cheering crowds and whinnying blaring from our living room window as we approach our departure time - you'll know why.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Home base....Found!

The ongoing plan there for a while was that when we left Vancouver to head the long way round, we'd give up our apartment, store our stuff, and find a new place when we landed back at the end of the trip. But then, we got to discussing the feeling of being away from home for a while, of sleeping in random motels, hostels, kind people's couches, etc and how amazing it feels to return to your own bed after all that. How it feels to wake up in the morning and know exactly where the coffee maker is, where the towels for the shower are, and that you are finally home. So, we decided it was time to go find the apartment that would be home when we returned. It took us a couple of months and some stressful nights of indecision, but we got it done. Lease signed last night. Home Base Found.

It's the top two stories of the house, funky space, great view of the city, very excited. And our friends Amanda and Drew rented the downstairs apartment! For you Vancouverites, its on 10th and Ontario, just west of Main St. Housewarming party details to come.

Thinking about the feeling of having a home base has also made us realize we'll need to have at least a week in the middle of the trip where are able to just sit and relax, do our laundry, and keep the running around to a minimum. Our initial thought is to rent a little condo on an island in Greece for a week, but we are up for suggestions! Other thoughts were the French countryside, the Spanish coast, or Turkey. The trick I suppose is finding a place you are with not running all over trying to experience, to have the experience be just sitting at home, going to the market for lunch, and taking a long breath. But which of this places embodies that feeling the most? Opinions?

We're looking forward to leaving on the upcoming trip so in the end, we can return to our little Vancouver home.