Travels With My Friend
I was supposed to be travelling back from Nova Scotia today.
But I’m not. Instead, I went in early August. And instead of going to say good-bye to a close friend in person, I went to celebrate her life after she was gone, along with her family and friends.
These are hard words to write. You always think you’ll have more time. My friend thought she had more time — it was her suggestion I come see her in September, when all the tourists would be gone but the weather still like summer. She herself had a busy summer planned — travel, time with family, time with other visitors — and so I took the early-September slot.
I knew it wouldn’t be a normal visit. I knew she was much weaker than I’d ever seen her. I knew it would likely be the last time I could see and talk to her in person.
You always think you’ll have more time.
This is my travel blog. So why am I writing about the loss of my friend?
Because she was the best travel companion I’ve ever had.
I suppose that’s not a surprise. When you travel with your best friend, a person with whom you share so many of the interests that make travel so memorable — art, architecture, music, literature, good food — it makes travelling together so easy. Maybe it worked so well for us because we lived on opposite ends of the country, and so our periods of travel became our time to reconnect and to nurture our friendship.
After she was gone, I counted up how much of my travelling involved her.
Seventeen. Seventeen trips. Some of them as long as two weeks, others as short as a weekend.
It all started with a road trip. At that point, we were casual acquaintances, part of a crowd of thirtysomethings who hung out together in Toronto. One of my roommates was dating one of her roommates. We went to the same parties, had brunch together on Sunday mornings after church.
She told me about her upcoming trip to New Orleans. A mutual friend was driving her down for a job interview she had lined up with the New Orleans school board (she was a newly accredited teacher at the time, eager for a full-time teaching position when those were hard to come by). The two of them were also planning to go to the New Orleans Jazz Fest.
“I’ve always wanted to go to New Orleans,” I said.
“Why don’t you come with us?” she replied. It wasn’t an idle invitation — I could see she meant it. I had lots of flexibility with my time that year as I was finishing off a master’s degree while launching my freelance editing career. I was making slow progress on both at the time, so it wasn’t much of a decision for me.
“OK,” I said. “I’m in.”
I learned a lot about her on that trip. We enjoyed a memorable evening of live blues on Beale Street, saw Graceland, and had a bizarre three-hour tour of a Mississippi plantation where our tour guide looked old enough to have fought in the Civil War himself and we were the only tourists in sight.
What impressed me most about that trip was watching how my friend faced her fears. She was terrified of snakes, yet insisted we go for a long walk along creaky boardwalks through a Louisiana swamp. As we tramped along, she jumped at least a foot in the air at every little noise, convinced she would step on a snake before the walk was over. But she refused to turn back.
That road trip was the beginning of a friendship that lasted a quarter century. She introduced me to New York, a city she loved, and we went back several more times. The winter I spent in Paris, she joined me for Christmas and New Year’s. She couldn’t believe I had never tasted coq au vin, and so she insisted on teaching me how to make it. Chicken stewed in wine? Yes, please.
Another year she invited me to join her family in Florida for New Year’s. There were weeks in London and San Francisco, and a ski weekend in Whistler. We kayaked the Broken Group Islands (twice!) and Desolation Sound.
The summer she spent in Siena studying Italian art, I was in Prague on a writing course. We decided to meet up afterwards — or rather, I invited myself to stay in her dorm room for a few days before I had to travel on to Amsterdam to meet up with my father.
I tagged along when their entire class went to Padua to look at frescoes. We booked ourselves into a hotel room for two nights, along with some of the friends she had made on the course, intending to spend the next day in Venice. Being summer in Italy, it was hot, so we got an early start. By late afternoon, we were all knackered. There were five of us in total, and we decided to take a gondola ride. That led to beer and pasta with our gondolier. And that led to some of us sneaking out to smoke a joint along the canal with said gondolier. (You all know where this is going, right?)
To keep it short: we missed the last train to Padua. Five Canadian women looking for hotel rooms in Venice, at midnight in the height of tourist season. It wasn’t pretty.
But that mishap led to a lovely bonus day in Venice, and three of us decided to go to Murano, one of the islands adjacent to Venice, for lunch. My friend urged me to order the Caprese salad as I had never had it before. I was converted.
In addition to all of our, ahem, travel adventures, there were the numerous times she opened up her home to me whenever I was in Toronto. I would do my rounds of networking, as I called it, with clients, but I always had lots of catching up to do with my friends from when I lived there. She told me I was the perfect guest because I was never home, but, in truth, she was the perfect host.
Because of that hospitality, I always gave her first dibs whenever I lined up a home exchange, and she never said no. She joined me for 10 days the summer I was in Amsterdam — scheduling her time with me in between the chemo treatments for the disease that would eventually claim her life. I marvelled at how well she was doing. I could not keep up with her as we walked through the city’s streets. One day we cycled 20 kilometres to Haarlem and back. It was her idea to bike and that was the only day I could see she wasn’t 100 percent. She was close to collapsing when we pulled up to a café alongside a canal.
“You go sit,” I said, pointing to an empty table outside the café. “I’ll lock up the bikes.”
We spent another day in Delft, one of my favourite Dutch cities. It also happens to be where my friend’s father was born. She told me stories of childhood visits and we went looking for the house where he had lived. I’d met her father only once or twice, which is maybe why I could easily picture him as a small school boy running at top speed alongside the canals.
In 2018, we spent a week together in San Francisco. We cycled across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito — that time it was my turn to almost collapse at the end of our ride. And she joined me for a weekend in Montreal where I had another home exchange arranged. That was 2019. I had no idea at the time that it would be the last time I would see her. How could I? The pandemic kept us apart after that.
My friend was a high school photography teacher and she showed me the best places to catch that unique photo. Like the Eiffel Tower from a side street I would have never found on my own. We both loved taking photographs in old cemeteries, and so, on one of my visits to Toronto, she showed me the Necropolis, which has some of the city’s oldest graves. It was a warm summer evening, and we soon lost track of the time. Or maybe we didn’t know that the gates would be locked at 8 p.m.
Ever struggle to climb over a wrought iron fence in a short skirt? She had a good laugh that time — at my expense.
She never said a word about my photography skills until I asked her for feedback. “Well,” she said slowly. “Your horizons aren’t always level. And check your corners. You want to edit out any distractions.”
Needless to say, every time I edit my photos, I’m checking my corners. And thinking of her.
She was a far better friend to me than I was to her. There was one travel dream I had, a trip I haven’t yet taken and likely won’t, and years ago, when I first brought up the idea, she had mixed feelings about whether she wanted to join me. But later she told me about a conversation she had had with her mother. “You know,” she told her mom, “I really have no burning desire to make that trip. But it’s important to Elizabeth, so that’s enough of a reason to go.”
Who does that? Not me — that’s for sure.
I’m shattered I didn’t get one last visit with my friend and a chance to say good-bye in person. But I am so incredibly grateful she was able to spend her last years in Nova Scotia, surrounded by her family and by so much love. And I’m so grateful they shared her with me for so many years.
I will miss her more than I can say.
Through My Lens: Clouds on the Horizon
Welp. I have to say: not too impressed so far with Season 3 of 2020.
Canada has had a rough few weeks. I’m not going to offer a rant about how we got here or a sermon about where we need to go. Rather, I’ll just say that my way of coping has been to focus on my own self-care, which I think I’ve gotten pretty good at over the past two years. That means connecting with friends, cooking my favourite comfort foods, and taking some long walks to look for signs of spring.
Above is the view I had a few evenings ago, which, given the current state of affairs in our nation’s capital, struck me as rather allegorical.
I just hope the clouds are not an omen.
Raccoon at Scarborough Bluffs
I spent much of May gallivanting around the Eastern Time Zone, and most of June sorting through my photos and planning what blog posts I might write about my travels.
This photo though. Not your usual holiday snap, but it makes me laugh every time I look at it. I met up with this raccoon one evening in Toronto while exploring the Scarborough Bluffs with a friend.
For my non-Canadian readers, raccoons are known in this country as trash pandas. They’ve adapted remarkably well to urban living and are known for finding their dinner in our garbage cans. Toronto spent millions developing and purchasing raccoon-resistant green bins — only they turned out to be not so resistant.
Back when I lived in Toronto, I had a mom and her three kits hanging around my house for an entire summer. Every evening, like clockwork, they would amble along the fence in my backyard as I watched from my kitchen window.
Here in Vancouver, I see raccoons mostly in Stanley Park, although one hot summer afternoon, I noticed a hefty raccoon napping in the tree outside my window. The tree is long gone — it came down in a winter storm — but I thought the clever creature had found a innovative solution to the heat.
The raccoon got its name from the Anishinaabe word aroughcun, which means “one who rubs and scrubs and scratches with its hands.” Raccoons are known for washing their food before they eat it.
The Last Greyhound
It’s the end of an era today. At midnight tonight, Greyhound is suspending all services in Northern Ontario and Western Canada. The decision is justified, says the American-owned company, by a 41 percent drop in ridership since 2010.
Greyhound moves millions of Canadians every year, and has done so in British Columbia and Alberta since 1929. For those rural Canadians who don’t or can’t drive, losing the Greyhound means losing their ability to get to larger centres for services not available in their communities, like specialist medical appointments. It also prevents them from connecting with friends or family. And during our snowy, icy winters, travelling through mountainous BC is far safer by bus than by car.
It’s already being reported that 87 percent of Greyhound’s routes will be covered by smaller, private operators — including Indigenous-owned companies — which are ramping up as we speak. This morning the federal government announced funding to help fill the gaps and that it is working on a long-term national transport solution.
My student days of 18-hour Greyhound treks between Edmonton and Vancouver are (thankfully) long behind me. (I assure you, there is little that is more depressing than a 3 a.m. rest stop at Blue River in the dead of winter.) But I still regularly take the Greyhound for short hops between Calgary, Red Deer, and Edmonton. I typically take it during non-peak hours and the buses are always full. My fellow passengers are people of all ages and social classes. Many are tourists. Some of us choose to take the bus, while others don’t have a choice, In a country like Canada, with too much geography, public transit is not just a service. It’s a right.
This photograph is of the last Greyhound I will ever take in Canada, which I rode from Calgary to Red Deer last month.
City of Neighbourhoods
Toronto is many things to many people. For me, it is the city where I found my tribe, in that clichéd manner of speaking.
It’s where I moved to strike it out on my own as a young university grad. Back then, employment prospects in the Vancouver area — a region still struggling to rebound from a recession years after the rest of the country had recovered — were slim to non-existent. After a year of working at a dead-end job, I realized I had no chance of a meaningful career if I stayed. I didn’t know what I would find in Toronto, but I knew I wanted my chance to find out.
And so I loaded up my trusty Honda Civic with my belongings and drove across Canada. When I arrived in Toronto, people were shocked I hadn’t arranged for a place to live — the vacancy rate in the city at the time was close to zero. But as I perused the postings at the job centre, I knew I was in the right place. Toronto was booming. And, despite the naysayers, I soon found a place to live — a small post–World War II bungalow near Yonge and Finch that I shared with a college friend and some other people. The neighbourhood was called North York, but I knew it as Willowdale.
Back then, Willowdale was very much a white, suburban neighbourhood — not nearly as diverse as it is today. I had easy access to both the subway and the 401, but I was eager to move closer to downtown. I left Willowdale for Davenport — a neighbourhood on the edge of one of Toronto’s Italian neighbourhoods — and then, a few years later, on to Roncesvalles Village, the centre of Toronto’s Polish community. Another neighbourhood I got to know well was the Danforth, the largest Greektown in North America. Many of my friends lived there — still live there — and it is where I now stay when I visit Toronto.
This is the thing: Toronto is a city of neighbourhoods, each one as diverse and different from the others as one person is from another. It’s what makes Toronto feel like a small town, even though it’s so much not.
Once my Civic was unpacked, I signed up with a temp agency to give myself some time to figure out what I wanted to do next, which soon led to a permanent job. Grad school was beckoning, but so was a real job, and within a year, I was launched into the world of publishing, an industry that to this day I find extremely satisfying to work in. For that opportunity, and for the life-long friends I’ve met working in the industry (they would be my tribe), I will always be grateful to Toronto.
So when Toronto is hurting, so am I.
I started writing this post a few months ago, after the van attack in North York that killed ten people. The stretch of Yonge Street where all those people died on a sunny Monday afternoon in late April was the stretch of Yonge Street I drove or walked on an almost daily basis my first two years in Toronto. I wasn’t at all surprised that someone I know knew someone who witnessed the immediate aftermath of the attack. It’s a small world, after all.
Sometimes words fail and I gave up trying to write about what I was feeling at the time. But it has not been a good summer for Toronto. Once again, tragedy has hit close to home. Last Sunday’s shooting on the Danforth began only a block away from where a close friend of mine lives, and she missed being on the wrong street corner at the wrong time by a mere 15 minutes.
I’m still not sure I have the words I need. Hashtags are well meant, but I suspect will soon be forgotten by most of us in today’s world of five-minute news cycles.
Those five-minute news cycles are the result of our constantly changing world. I was reminded of this yesterday in my own neighbourhood. The garbage and recycling bins on Davie Street were taped shut in preparation for last night’s fireworks and city dump trucks were parked at the end of my street to prevent a van attack. Precautions like those are the new normal, but, truthfully, they do not worry me, just as going through security at an airport does not. I walk the streets of my neighbourhood in full confidence that I will return home again.
Sometimes the difference between making it safely home or being in the wrong place at the wrong time is only a matter of minutes. Why someone is spared and another is taken are questions we will never know the answers to.
What I do know is this: I have never felt unsafe on the streets of Toronto, nor do I believe I ever will. And I can’t wait until my next visit, when I will stroll the Danforth with my friend on our way to dinner on a patio.
Because there is nothing better than hanging out on a warm summer evening in one of the liveliest neighbourhoods in the City of Neighbourhoods.
Happy Birthday, NHL!
It’s Grey Cup Sunday in Canada, a day when some of us go a little wacky over that game played with a pigskin. I only mention it because this year’s game (held in Ottawa) was the 105th Grey Cup and I like to acknowledge significant anniversaries on this blog.
Oh, and I also mention it because it is a game always played in late November. Most often outside. And this year, in a blizzard.
No, seriously. They couldn’t keep the field clear. Players were sliding all over the place. Camera operators, too. And the half-time show? Shania Twain was brought out to centre field by dog sled. And then escorted to the stage by a Mountie.
Canadian enough for you? Hee.
But now I am going to change the channel and talk about the other most Canadian professional sport.
I’m talking about hockey. Of course.
Another hee. I’ve been waiting a long time for an excuse to post these photos. And today I have one: it’s the 100th birthday of the National Hockey League.
For my non-Canadian readers, just know that Canada is a hockey-mad country. And if you visit Canada during playoff season — you know, what the rest of the world calls spring — you will see for yourself just how hockey mad we are. Sixteen NHL teams play four rounds of best-of-seven series … it goes on forever.
If you still don’t believe me, how about this? A hockey rink has been built on Parliament Hill for the upcoming holiday season as part of the Canada 150 celebrations. (Except, um, no hockey sticks or pucks allowed, so maybe not so much hockey rink as ice rink, despite the boards surrounding it.)
All of this is to say that it would be most un-Canadian of me to let today go by without acknowledging the date in some way. A hundred years ago today, the owners of the Montreal Canadiens, the Montreal Wanderers, the Ottawa Senators, and the Quebec Bulldogs got together and agreed to form a hockey association they named the National Hockey League. At that time, the best players earned $900 a season.
The league had a bit of a rough go at first. The Wanderers pulled out before the first season was over because their arena burned down and Quebec pulled out before the first season even started because they ran out of money. Enter a Toronto team that had no name (eventually known as the Toronto Maple Leafs).
The first games were played on December 19, 1917. Toronto lost to the Wanderers by a score of 10 to 9 and the Canadiens beat the Senators 7 to 4. Some of the rules then in place: no forward passing and no zones. It took less than a month for the first rule change: allowing goalies to drop to the ice when making a save. (Initially, they were instructed to remain upright. Yeah, good luck with that.)
The nameless Toronto team took home the Stanley Cup in 1918, beating the Vancouver Millionaires of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association in a best-of-five series, although Lord Stanley’s Cup didn’t become the official league trophy until the 1926–27 season.
Last summer, one of my German friends asked me about “ice hockey.” When I gave him a funny look, he corrected himself.
“You don’t call it ice hockey in Canada, do you?” he asked.
“Yeah, no,” I said. “There’s only one kind of hockey we care about in Canada. And it goes without saying which one we mean.”
Canada 150: Ottawa
So, here’s a thing. In putting together my Canada 150 series for this blog, I realized that I actually remember the last time Canada threw a big party for its birthday.
That would be Canada’s Centennial, way back in 1967. (I know, I know. I’m dating myself.)
I was in Ottawa, our nation’s capital, with my family, and I remember watching the Changing of the Guard at Parliament Hill while sitting on my dad’s shoulders. I remember crying, because I was frustrated that I could not see over other people’s heads.
(I don’t know what it says about me that my earliest memory is of being frustrated, but there it is.)
I took this photo of the Changing of the Guard at Parliament Hill many years later. Fully grown, at almost 5 feet 10 inches tall, I’m happy to say I no longer have any trouble seeing over other people’s heads.
Don Valley Brick Works
And … I’m back.
Back in Canada, that is.
After 10 days on walkabout in southern Germany and Belgium, I have my feet firmly planted once again on Canadian soil. It’s good to be here.
My week in Toronto is mostly about work, and I have to remind myself I’m still allowed to play tourist in a city I know so well.
Which is why I’m posting this photo. The friend whose home is my home when I’m in Toronto has been telling me about her new favourite place for months now, and she showed it to me last Saturday afternoon. The Don Valley Brick Works is an old quarry and brick factory that provided most of the bricks for Toronto’s oldest and finest buildings for over a hundred years. It ceased production in the 1980s and has been converted into a park and cultural centre since my last visit to Toronto.
I love city parks, and this one’s a gem.
Canada 150: Prince Edward County
As a follow-up to my previous post, here’s a thought: one thing that makes living in Toronto so much more pleasant is having access to a cottage during the summer. The entire city (it seems) exits Toronto on Friday afternoons and doesn’t return until Sunday evening.
Many employers cater to this lifestyle by implementing summer hours, where you come in a half hour early every morning, but get to leave early on Fridays. It’s a great perk if you are lucky enough to work for such an employer.
And, as it happened, I also had access to a “cottage” — my parents’ home, who along with my much younger brother lived in Ontario for five years of the decade I lived in Toronto. Like the rest of the city, I would throw an overnight bag into my car on Friday mornings and leave the office at 1 p.m. sharp, heading east along the 401. It was always heavy traffic, but not as heavy as what you’d encounter at 5 p.m. (If for some reason I couldn’t get away early, I waited until 8 p.m. to start the trek.)
The minute I exited the 401, I literally felt the weight of the week lift from my shoulders. (I write “literally” quite deliberately as it was a profound feeling.) My turn-off was Highway 33, also known as the Loyalist Parkway. I would drive around the Bay of Quinte through villages with names like Carrying Place and Consecon and Wellington. If it was May, I’d roll down my window and breathe in the heady scent of lilacs in full bloom.
Finally, about three hours or so after leaving the office, I would pull into my parents’ driveway for a weekend of garage-saling and antiquing with my mother and afternoons on the beach with my little brother.
Loyalist Parkway is called that because it runs through the middle of the area where people loyal to the British Crown (the United Empire Loyalists) were encouraged to settle in the years following the American Revolution. The British gave the Loyalists land grants, and the peninsula that juts out into Lake Ontario was created a county in 1792 by the lieutenant governor of Upper Canada. It was named Prince Edward County after one of George III’s sons, but those who live there call it, simply, “The County.”
In my mind, it’s one of the prettiest corners of Ontario.
I look this photo in the old Quaker Cemetery across the road from where my parents used to live. The cemetery epitomizes for me the history of the area. How could it not, with headstones that date back 200 years?
If only they could talk.
Canada 150: Toronto
I think it would be terribly irresponsible of me not to acknowledge in my Canada 150 series the city that Canadians love to hate.
And that would be because I gave ten years of my life to that city. They were a great ten years and I have a lot of affection for Canada’s largest city.
To celebrate Toronto, here is a photo of the Gooderham Building, also known as Toronto’s Flatiron Building, which is located in the St. Lawrence area of downtown Toronto. Completed in 1892, it was built for the distiller George Gooderham and served as the headquarters of the Gooderham and Worts distillery until 1952.