Toronto without an agenda

August 12 - In the early 80s, Sir Peter Ustinov was asked for his impressions of Toronto and came up with a wonderful description – he said it was like New York, run by the Swiss. He was remarkably on the button; the city has all of the glamour and sprawl of the Big Apple, but it’s cleaner and less chaotic, and the people are much more polite. If New York City is a mad cab ride, Toronto runs on rails.

  My introduction to the city comes via a couple of Andrea’s friends who have offered us the use of their apartment while they go up country for a couple of days. Lots of Canadian city families have cottages – usually modest wooden cabins, near water, somewhere in one of the many wildernesses that are still left in Canada. The cottages are always stuffed with all the blankets and sheets and paperbacks that you wear out at your city home. Most of them are filled with 70s or 80s items, and mismatched furniture and crockery. It’s not out of place to open the cupboard and find souvenir mugs from ‘Vancouver Expo 86’, and drawers full of old holiday T shirts, shelves full of Dick Francis and Len Deighton thrillers. It’s all very charming and relaxing – you pull on one of those old T shirts and a pair of Bermuda shorts and your sandals and immediately feel at home.

  Toronto is hot and humid – we’re staying at Davisville, and our seven minute walk to the subway station leaves us both bathed in sweat. Thankfully the subway trains are air conditioned. We climb up above ground at Bloor and Yonge and the morning heat is like having a pre-heated electric blanket draped across your head and shoulders. Yonge – at 1,178 miles, the world’s longest street, is the central spine of the city, running up the middle of the grid. Every street that crosses Yonge goes west to east, so St. George Street East becomes St. George Street West, and so on. People talk about stores being on the south or north side of the street. I find this a little difficult to follow, but most Torontonians seem to instinctively know at any time where they are in relation to Lake Ontario, which forms the  southern limit of the city. I like this – the relationship of the city to a natural body of water.

  (on the train into Toronto, we pull alongside Lake Ontario, which is like staring at the ocean. It’s so vast you can’t see any end to the coastline to the east or west. The horizon is enormously wide and flat – like the Atlantic)

  I have no agenda at all for Toronto. I’m here to follow Andrea around as she reconnects with her past. She was a student here, and we visit the very pretty campus of the University of Toronto, where she and her brother Ian both studied. We also have plans to meet some of her friends for coffee. Some people that she hasn’t seen in fifteen years. Reunited thanks to the glories of Facebook. Strolling under the trees at Trinity college, I’m struck by how English it all looks. You can tell that they wanted to create their own little version of Oxford. And to be fair they have made a wonderful job of it. More interesting, though, is Massey College, a 70s style building that borrows from the zen stillness of oriental forms and works on clean, angular shapes with wide panes of glass overlooking water features and lawns.

  From there we walk on into downtown Toronto, and a familiar vista opens up of skyscrapers, designer label shopping, construction, endless traffic, honking cab drivers and thousands of pedestrians. It’s great to have the smell and racket of the city after two weeks in the woods and we soak up the coffee shops and the bustle.

  To be honest, our time here is brief (one and a half days), and with Andrea lined up for several meetings both informal and formal, we manage to stroll a little and relax. At one point, I instal myself in BMV Books on Bloor Street for an hour and a half while the old friends catch up on 15 years. It’s a heartache – they have some wonderful stuff at wonderful prices, but my suitcase is already so stuffed I know there’s no way I can make room for more.

  They’ll all have to wait for next time – maybe I’ll bring a book suitcase...