No doubt there is nightlife and boogie in Toronto, but we didn’t find much of it. That’s probably because we — traveling with children ages 10, 14, and 17 — weren’t looking for it.
Still, we hoped to have our own brand of fun. And we did. What follows is a handful of highlights from the Toronto leg of our summer vacation, August 10 – 15. (The Cooperstown and Niagara Falls legs are documented in a previous post.)
Leg three: Toronto, Ontario
We drove into the city on a Wednesday afternoon. Lydia, sitting in the way back, observed, “This is another one of those cities with cranes. Like Chicago.” I had to agree.
After dragging our bags into our hotel on Yonge Street, at one time designated the longest street in the world, and feeling daunted by possibilities for What Now?, we walked blocks and blocks to Yorkville Ave. for ice cream. At Summer’s Sweet Memories, Eli and I tried their famous flavor, Toronto Pothole: almonds, marshmallows, chocolate chunks, and peanuts in chocolate ice cream. Later in the week, we went back again, for the same flavor. That was one of my good delicious vacation ideas.
The first night in a new place requires research and patience. We yelped a lot of places, looking for a dinner destination, and oddly ended up in the Pickle Barrel in a booth that was barrel-shaped and upholstered in green. I don’t think I could recommend this place to another traveler, and yet it was a good safe choice for the first night. There was chicken; there were salads. Eli raised the conversation topic: “Will gendered bathrooms ever change?” Five brains devoted themselves to this question for a good while. Although we considered ourselves on the side of restroom integration, Eli predicted that society will not welcome a change in this area during his lifetime. Back to the hotel we went, unable to avoid Yonge-Dundas Square, which has night lights, if not boogie, and crowds, stores, and walls of video billboards. The Guterman kids were strangely unmoved.
The hardest part of being on vacation — and, yes!, vacation can be challenging — is to make everything up, to fashion a day when the day calls for you to do nothing. Fortunately, on our first full day in the city, we had tickets to the third Blue Jays/Red Sox game. To fill the morning hours before the game, we covered a lot of ground: a walk through the University of Toronto to Kensington Market and then through Chinatown to the ball field at the Rogers Centre. Food highlight: breakfast as the Average Joe’s on Baldwin in Kensington Market — tiny, about 12 seats, immaculately clean, five precisely-made and satisfying meals, and cappucino both delicious and beautiful.
The entrance into Rogers Centre is impressive. We walked from the outside through the turnstiles and, boom, onto an open deck that looked out onto the field. Wow. It was a great game: the Red Sox led for 8 innings, and then, in the 9th, with the score at maybe 5 to 2, Papelbon choked and the Blue Jays turned it around. Four sweet runs after a long spell of nothing. At sports moments like that, team alliances matter nothing to me. I clapped for all the Blue Jays’ excellent hits and stolen bases. Eli remarked, “Only sports can make you feel like that.” It was Camp Day, and everyone 14 and under got to run the bases after the game, so Lydia, Grace, and I went down on the field and participated in the orchestrated fun.
The CN Tower was next door, but a family squabble prevented us from unifying enough to follow through and go up. Mid-afternoon, the sun was iron hot, and our long walk to the Distillery District seemed like a test. There, Eli wandered around, Lydia and Grace took a Segway lesson, and we ate at the Mill Street Brewery. Jane (that’s me), on the way out, uncharacteristically bought a six-pack of the restaurant’s stock ale, or “patio beer.” Eli, who had sampled it from his mother’s glass during dinner, validated the choice: “It has a nice aftertaste.”
Tired of walking, having already walked three sides of a huge square on the map I carried, we took two cabs in a straight line back to our hotel, completing the square.
Last summer we spent a week in Bar Harbor, including a day biking on the carriage roads in Acadia. That day was a low point in our parenting history. Grace, overwhelmed by the hilly trail and road-to-nowhere woodsiness, had cried almost the entire route around Echo Lake (seven miles?), a test of Jimmy and my patience as well as persuasive skills. (“No, you’re not going to die. Let’s just pedal around the next bend and see where we are,” times 20.) So this summer we decided, not blithely, to test our skills and Grace’s new maturity, and take the 15-minute ferry to Toronto Island Park and rent five bicycles. Which we did. There was no crying. Perhaps the pleasure of that day — sunshine, flat terrain, sand beaches, bicycle-only roads, shade trees, lunch at The Rectory Cafe, and a ride on the carousel — had as much to do with parental relief as it did with family recreation. Still, it’s beautiful there, another city like Chicago, San Francisco, or Boston for that matter where the waterfront is as much a feature as the downtown. (And Toronto’s is an island.)
The ferry back was bittersweet. (Aren’t all return ferry rides so?) Back in the city part of the city, we ate a late dinner at Queen Margherita, all the way out on Queen Street East. The place seemed hip and the pizza carefully made (fired not baked, hand-shaped crust, more sauce — shimmering — than cheese, and alluring toppings, like arugula). I wondered, as we were eating, if this was the kind of place my sister Emily meant, when she said before our trip, “You’ll like Toronto. Lots of hipsters and coffee.” Coffee I know, but I’m not too clear on identifying hipsters. I asked Eli, who responded, “No, mom, these are yuppies.” So how does one spot a hipster? Something to do with “worn, expensive, and vintage-looking clothing,” said Lydia scornfully. Whatever it was, we weren’t it.
The next morning at the kids’ urging we grabbed food and coffee from the Tim Hortons across from our hotel and walked to the Bata Shoe Museum, skirting Queen’s Park, idling up Philosopher’s Walk, and passing in front of the Royal Conservatory.
The shoe museum is for real, and probably one of the most interesting small museums I’ve ever been to, not just for the artifacts but for how they’ve been curated. The long history of shoes is a gendered one. Ornate, jeweled, and elevated shoes have always meant that their wearer is “free from everyday cares” and especially labor. In Europe both men and women wore high heels until around 1730, when men gave up the custom. Women were considered “irrational” and could wear impractical shoes. Men were “rational” and wore sensible ones. In 17th century Venice, women in chopines towered above others, so that they could be seen (rather than see, an important distinction). And while they were expected to wear the early version of platform shoes, women also had to “bear the brunt of criticism leveled against the wearing of them.” (That sounds like a familiar double bind.) The beaded shoes worn by First Nations People and Native Americans seemed much freer of gender and heel height distinctions.
We ate lunch at b espresso, an out-of-the-way spot for philosophers and musicians run by the Conservatory. My favorite Toronto coffee was served to me here. In addition, Eli and Grace dubbed their facilities “the nicest public bathrooms ever!” After they exclaimed their joint review, Jimmy and I each ducked into one and emerged agreeing, “how true.” Lovely sinks, faucets, latrines, tile, and lighting. These are the kinds of important sights my family notices.
On our last night in the city, we split up. Jimmy, Eli, and Lydia headed back to the Toronto Island Park for an outdoor triple bill: the Sadies, Janelle Monae, and Arcade Fire. As they headed off, I felt a little wistful, missing one of those once/only opportunities. Jimmy reminded me of the hours they would be standing, holding on to their individual postage-stamp squares of lawn. Although I want to be the kind of person who would only find that experience fun!, I fear I am not. That may not be my kind of adventure.
Instead, I complied with Grace’s plans for us: a café writing date back at the Distillery District. She packed up her notebook pc, and I made sure I had my bound notebook and a camera, and we cabbed down there. At 4pm on a Saturday afternoon it was far more crowded than on the weeknight we went as a family. There were brides and their entourages — several of them — walking languidly across the cobblestones. Photographers followed. I wondered aloud if they were bride models, and I took pictures of them, to Grace’s embarrassment. I retorted, “Grace, they are posing for photographers in a public place! If I want to take their pictures, I will!” One of the street vendors told me, huffily, that they are real brides. “They all love to have their pictures taken against the stone walls, and especially near that old truck,” he said and pointed with his nose.
I couldn’t persuade Grace to sit down in Balzac’s Coffee, and we end up in some smoothie place. (There was no such thing, or word, as “smoothies” when I was a kid.) I wrote on paper and Grace online.
If you know me, you know I’m not much of a shopper. However, I did allow Grace to pull me into a small one stuffed with women’s clothes and called Lilith. It was a hodge podge — no categories (e.g. skirts) and no color divisions. A sewing machine was visible, and behind the counter was strewn fabric scraps, ribbons, hangers, and tools. The proprietor, a voluptuous and curly-haired woman about my age in a clingy and sleeveless knit dress, put her hand lightly on my forearm shortly after we entered the store. At first I found it friendly — “oh, we’re going to be instant girlfriends” — but after a few times I felt my boundaries being infringed on. People can pull you along, one fingertap at a time, whether they are conscious of what they’re doing or not, and I let myself be pulled. It took all my personal resolve to resist her suggestions that I buy this dress, or that. Her ruffles, cowl necks, lettuce edges, and bias cuts are not in my sartorial repertoire, although sometimes I have wished that I could be, too, that girl.
On our last night in Toronto, Grace and I watched Date Night on pay-per-view and ate dinner in the hotel. I was still awake at 1:30am when the concert-goers tiptoed in.
Do people who don’t live in or travel to Canada realize how cool it is? Eli and I have been conjecturing that the Canadians deliberately affect a kind of mildness as a way to keep the rest of us off their tracks. Our last stop in Toronto was to the Art Gallery of Ontario, which is as amazing — art AND architecture — as the National Gallery, which we saw in 2008 when we went to Ottawa. Frank Gehry designed the AGO’s new building, which from the outside is striking yet organic to the neighborhood. Inside, the central staircase and the Galleria Italia are impressive, lofty structures made intimate by being fashioned of wood.
The art, too, is an experience. I stood mesmerized for a long time in front of this wall-sized Ondaatje painting and even tried to draw it at a table set up with paper and pencils. On my copy I wrote, “The seemingly spare is hard to render,” and Jimmy saved it.
In general, I liked the snow, space, and plainness of the works that pulled me closer, especially David Milne‘s studies of the woods around his painting house and Alex Colville‘s paintings of his wife (“life’s journey as a personal quest,” according to the curator’s description).
In the aboriginal galleries, we learned of something called the Erasure Period, from the late 1800s to 1950, when the Canadian government prohibited aboriginal culture expression and restricted other liberties and that Cape Dorset is today Canada’s most artistic community.
Every trip seems to end in a gift shop, and this one did, too. Perhaps that was a good transition; commerce helped us surface from our immersion in art. We left much later than we intended on our last day, and it was almost 4pm when we got in the car to retrace the route back to Boston.