On Monday Rachelle and I drove from London, Ontario, to Toronto. We’re currently staying in a house in the downtown Toronto area, within walking distance of the University of Toronto. We arrived the day after G20 ended, so we didn’t have any issues with that.
Final Days in London
It seems that regardless of how many times I spell out “London, Ontario,” I still get messages from people saying, “Oh wow… I’m in the UK too… we should meet up while you’re in town.” I guess some people don’t realize that Ontario is a province in Canada. Sorry to disappoint some of my UK readers. I’m sure I’ll visit UK’s London at some point, but for now… it’s Canada.
I spent about a week in London. Overall I had mixed feelings about the city. I liked the people there, but for the most part, I didn’t care much for the city as a whole.
For starters, London is a city that definitely sleeps. I’m used to 24/7 cities like L.A. and Las Vegas, where there’s always something to do at all times of day. Rachelle and I sometimes wanted to stay out late and do fun stuff, but aside from bars, most places closed on the early side. This was in stark contrast to all the nighttime activity in Montreal.
Hunting for Booze
One evening Rachelle wanted to buy a bottle of tequila as a gift for her show technician. Apparently it’s a Fringe tradition to gift your tech with a bottle of booze. However, this turned out to be more difficult — and annoying — than we expected.
First, in Ontario you can’t just buy liquor at any corner market or grocery store like you can in the USA. I’m a bit out of my element in explaining this, so if you’re more knowledgeable about this area, and I’m not quite getting it, feel free to share more details in the forum discussion. But from what I’ve seen, it appears that other than in licensed bars and restaurants, you can only buy liquor for home consumption at certain government-run stores called LCBOs. LCBO = Liquor Control Board of Ontario. I’m guessing there may be some exceptions though.
Rachelle already knew about the LCBOs, so when we were in downtown London, I used my Droid phone to locate the nearest LCBO. We walked there in a few minutes and found out they were closed. It was 7:30pm on a Saturday, and they closed at 6pm. A downtown liquor store that closes at 6pm on a Saturday? Wow! Those are some pretty conservative hours.
The next day we tried another LCBO (at 12:30pm on Sunday), and it was also closed. Sheesh!
Finally we returned to the first LCBO later on Sunday, and it was open. That was the first time I’ve been to an LCBO. It seemed to be well-stocked with many varieties of beer, wine, and liquor. Rachelle bought some tequila and gave it to her tech later that night. He thanked her, took a swig, and we all hugged goodbye.
Another frustration I had with London was the parking. Seriously, I think it’s the worst of any city I’ve visited, perhaps aside from Manhattan. A city as small as London doesn’t seem like it would merit such bad parking. This looks like the result of questionable legislation combined with poor urban planning.
First, there’s apparently some law in London that says that no one can park on the streets between 3am and 5am — anywhere in the city. This includes residential streets, so we had to try to squish 3 cars in Karen Bell’s driveway at night or risk getting a parking ticket. Personally I think that’s a bit crazy, and apparently the residents aren’t too fond of this law either. It seems like more of a tax than a law in my view. It might make sense in the winter if the snow plows have to run often, but in the summer? No overnight parking on the streets at all? This law creates problems for residents and visitors alike. What’s the justification for it? Extra money for the city perhaps?
Also, it was sometimes difficult to find parking during the daytime, especially at peak times. London is filled with thin streets that are overcrowded with cars. Parking is often limited to one side only, and there are lots of no-parking zones that seem overly restrictive without good cause.
Eventually I figured out some good places to park, both in the downtown area and just north of it, but more than once we had to hunt for a spot. Also, the 2-hour time limits during business hours were a bit annoying. The crappy parking in London made me feel nostalgic for Vegas, where ample free parking is available city-wide, even in the busiest areas and at peak times. I also have a lot more respect for the Vegas city planners.
I wish I could say, “London is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.” But I really can’t make that leap. Although Karen Bell was an incredible host during our stay, I found the city of London itself to be rather tourist-unfriendly.
One thing I really did enjoy about London was the Fringe Festival. Not counting Rachelle’s show, she and I saw 5 other Fringe plays, including: Long Time Passing, Fishbowl, Gunpowder, Monster, and 39. All of these shows were unique and interesting, and for an average price of about $8 per person per show (we bought the “buddy pass”), it was well worth it. Of these 5 shows, I would say that Gunpowder was my personal favorite. It was a hilarious play about a Clouseau-like detective.
Even though I indulged in some heavier foods on this trip, the busyness of helping Rachelle with her show and doing the Fringe thing caused me to skip at least one meal per day. That helps compensate for consuming a few kilos worth of Karen’s home-baked vegan cookies.
The Toronto Fringe is even bigger than the London Fringe, so I’m hoping to catch at least a few more shows before leaving Canada next week. London’s Fringe has about 50 shows spread across 7 venues. Toronto’s Fringe has 150 shows across 27 venues.
I didn’t like the humidity in London (or in Toronto for that matter). Even though it was 70-80 degrees most days (when it wasn’t raining), it felt less comfortable to me than 100+ degree days in Vegas. Vegas summers are hot, but the dryness makes a big difference.
Aside from the Fringe, I found London to be on the dull side. Again, I liked the people, but the city itself was underwhelming. Since I grew up in L.A. and now live in Vegas, I’m used to cities with lots of stimulation. In London there just wasn’t much to do, especially at night. Perhaps my most interesting find in London was when I stumbled upon a WWII Sherman tank in a park.
London simply wasn’t big enough to be exciting nor small enough to be quaint. It was somewhere in the murky middle, leaving me feeling that it lacked a strong identity as a city. Even some residents would refer to London as a “city 2 hours outside Toronto,” so it’s possible that London draws upon a wider area for much of its identity, such as the province of Ontario.
On the other hand, London’s nature had me reflecting on my own preference for a highly stimulating environment. After I processed my initial impressions, I opted to look for the good in it and to do my best to embrace it while I was there.
London seems to be a very family-centric place. Many yards don’t have much in the way of fences, or the fences were practically see-through, so I’d imagine this fosters stronger connections with neighbors. One day I accompanied some people to the park to fly a kite with a couple of little kids on a breezy day. Other times I lingered over a meal to savor the experience and enjoy good conversation with friends. After a while, I began to see the appeal of that slower pacing. I doubt I could handle that on a daily basis, but every once in a while, it’s nice to slow down and savor life’s experiences. I think if I lived in London, however, it would have a demotivating effect on me. It seems like an easy place to become complacent.
This trip got me thinking that I should take more time to slow down and savor some of the simpler experiences in life, as opposed to trying to pack lots of activity (work or play) into each day. But at the same time, I wouldn’t enjoy that sort of pacing as my daily default.
On Friday afternoon, Karen Bell, Rachelle, and I took a trip to Stratford, a quaint city 30 minutes north of London that’s known for its Shakespearean Festivals. We walked around and did some shopping for a few hours. It was really beautiful there — and very green — especially by the river. I quite enjoyed that trip.
Here’s a pic of Karen and Rachelle next to the river in Stratford. We saw many ducks and swans along the riverbanks.
I’ve seen Rachelle’s play, unADULTeRATED me, seven times now. I never grow tired of it. Her show relies heavily on audience participation, so she has to do a lot of improvisation, which keeps it fresh. Even though the overall story arc is the same, the show turns out differently every time. I’ve recognized a few repeat attendees in her audiences; it’s neat to see people coming back for more.
Obviously due to my connection with Rachelle, it’s fair to say that I’m biased, but now there are plenty of others who can confirm how frakkin’ talented she is. During her week in London, two of her shows received standing ovations, which is impressive for a Fringe show. Also, at the awards night following the 2010 London Fringe, Rachelle’s show won the Best of the Fest “Most Daring Show” award, out of about 50 shows total. It didn’t surprise me that her show won that particular award. When I first saw her show in Montreal, I told her afterwards, “Wow… you really take a lot of risks with your show, risks that most performers would never go near, but somehow you’re able to make it work.” This is definitely not a scripted show where the actors recite memorized lines.
In her play Rachelle plays a clown character named Fizzy Tiff, and her play takes you through a mock rehearsal of a date with her lover. The part of her lover, however, is played by an audience volunteer. It’s a real volunteer too, not a shill, so the show turns out differently each time. IMO one of her best shows was when her lover was played by a woman — that was a pretty wild one. Another extremely funny show was when her lover was played by a guy who was older than her dad.
I don’t want to spoil any surprises for you, but I’ll mention that since Rachelle plays a character who’s a bit neurotic, her “date” blends story, humor, and sexiness in some unusual combos. Even though I’ve seen it multiple times and in two different cities, I find myself laughing anew each time because it’s never quite the same. Rachelle is really good at injecting improv-style humor that isn’t planned in advance. I know the general pattern of how Fizzy’s date is likely to flow, but the twists are always fresh. In a way it reminds me of a computer adventure or role-playing game where there are semi-scripted sequences and choke points the player is expected to pass through, but the actual gameplay experience is unpredictable due to the freedom of choice element.
Here’s a pic of Rachelle getting her Fizzy on before taking the stage for a promo appearance.
If you want to see Rachelle’s show in Toronto, she’ll be performing July 3-10 at the Tarragon Theatre. Her show is only $10 at the door. I’ll be at the July 3, 4, and 5 shows. I’m flying back to Vegas on July 6th. (See Rachelle’s showtimes.)
I’m usually available to hang out and chat for a while after her shows. Some members of our forum community came to see Rachelle’s London shows, and I enjoyed chatting with them afterwards about life, the universe, and everything.
I only arrived in Toronto a couple days ago, and one of those days was spent at Niagara Falls, so at this point I can only share some limited observations. Other than going for a long walk around the downtown area and a little eating and driving, I haven’t seen much of the city yet.
Toronto has a big-city feel that reminds me of New York City, but with fewer skyscrapers. I was drawn in by some of the interesting architecture as we drove around. I hope to see more of that. I would say that Toronto feels a bit more laid back than NYC though.
Some interesting architecture at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto:
Rachelle and I went to a Whole Foods on Avenue Road (Toronto could use a bit more creativity in naming streets, methinks), and the organic produce prices were about 40% higher than what I’m used to in Vegas. Are people really paying $4-5 for one organic cucumber? Maybe that Whole Foods doesn’t have enough competition. Many items had the prices listed as “per 100 grams,” perhaps to make them seem lower. I imagine some people would cringe at seeing tomatoes at $5 per pound.
On my first day here, I was surprised to see a guy casually smoking pot in broad daylight on a busy downtown street. While walking around later, I caught the scent of marijuana smoke at least a couple more times. (Having lived in Berkeley when I was a teenager, I know that smell quite well.) I posted a Twitter/Facebook update to ask if that was normal here, and the response was overwhelmingly affirmative. Some people said it’s even more pronounced on the West coast of Canada.
Supposedly marijuana is illegal in Ontario, but people tell me those laws aren’t strongly enforced.
Canada and the Queen
One thing I find odd is Canada’s apparent obsession with the Queen of England. Her picture appears on Canadian currency, and there are streets and parks and other things named after her too. I even heard on the radio that the Queen thinks of Canada as her home away from home.
What’s up with that? Can anyone explain this? Doesn’t paying homage to another country’s monarch seem a bit loony?
I’m getting used to the metric system. I’m now very good at doing mile-kilometer and celsius-fahrenheit conversions in my head. It’s cool that my Droid phone automatically switched to metric when I crossed the border, so now it gives me navigation directions like, “In 600 meters, turn left at …”
Since I have a Canadian rental car, it’s fun to be driving down the freeway and seeing the speedometer at 120. Makes me feel I’m going super fast, even though I’m barely doing 70 mph. Canadian speed limits are lower than what I’m used to in the USA, but everyone drives the same speed.
I enjoy telling Canadians that Vegas temps are currently in the 40s, and they respond, “Wow… that’s really hot!” I don’t know why that amuses me, but it just does.
Rachelle and I were out at 2am last night, and I was fine wearing shorts even though it was only 12 degrees outside.
Smart Phone Advantage
I’ve been using my Droid phone a lot on this Canadian trip. I had to pay extra to enable it for data access abroad, but it really comes in handy.
I especially like using the navigation and search functions. I like that it can give real-time navigation directions for traveling by car, on foot, or via the subway. This saves a lot of time and makes it easier to be spontaneous when going out.
I also like the search function, especially as it integrates with the GPS and mapping functions. It sure comes in handy when searching for vegan food nearby or trying to find a particular kind of store. After selecting a destination, the phone can navigate me there step by step. It even counts down the distance in 10-meter increments as I walk. Often I hold the phone in my hand and pretend it’s a tricorder. My phone has the tricorder sound effect on it from ST:TNG, so occasionally I pause to scan people with it too. By their reaction I can tell if they’re a Trekkie. I wish I’d scanned the guy smoking pot — it would have been fun to see his reaction.
I love the instant re-routing for the voice navigation. While driving in the car yesterday, a couple of times the suggested route wasn’t possible due to road construction. For example, I was told to turn right on a street where I could only turn left. Whenever I deviate from the anticipated route, the Droid immediately plots an alternate route and starts giving new directions without missing a beat.
Another cool thing is that I can post Twitter and Facebook updates from my phone, including taking photos and uploading them in seconds. I usually don’t post pics to Twitter, but I often do so on Facebook. I posted several new pics yesterday.
During short breaks, such as while waiting in line, I also use my phone to catch up on email. Most of the email I receive doesn’t require a personal response, and the Droid makes it quick to read and process those. For anything that requires a response longer than a couple sentences, I prefer to use my laptop.
I just wish this phone had a longer battery life. Using the GPS functions (like navigation) drains the battery especially fast and causes the Droid to become hot to the touch. I use a free app called TasKiller to kill off any background apps, so the battery lasts longer, and it doesn’t get so hot. But even so, using the navigation for about 4 hours straight is enough to completely drain a full battery, so if I forget to kill the navigation app when I’m not using it (even if the phone is otherwise idle), I soon end up with a warm but powerless brick till I can recharge it.
Feature-wise the Droid phone I have is comparable to an iPhone 3G. I chose the Droid because it integrates very well with the Google apps I already use, like GMail, Google Maps, and Google Calendar. I’d have gone with the iPhone if I thought it more useful to integrate with Apple’s iStuff.
I don’t think I’d want to travel internationally w/o this phone. It’s just way too handy and versatile. On days when the battery died early, I really missed it.
On Tuesday Rachelle and I went to Niagara Falls for a day trip.
Niagara Falls is only a 90-minute drive from Toronto. It’s a scenic drive too. I especially enjoyed seeing Lake Ontario from the highway.
Niagara Falls is on the border between the USA and Canada. The border runs right down the middle of the river. There are two major waterfalls there. One is called the American Falls (on the left in the pic below), which is on the USA side. The other is called the Horseshoe Falls (right side of pic), and that’s on the Canadian side. An island in the middle of the river separates the two falls (center of pic).
We brought our passports just in case, but we ended up staying on the Canadian side the whole time. I’m pretty sure that’s the more interesting side. From that side we got a great view of both falls.
We were close enough to the USA that we could have walked across the Rainbow Bridge to get there, but we didn’t see a reason to make the crossing, given all the things to do on the Canadian side. It did feel strange to be within walking distance of my home country and not bother crossing the border. It just seemed like it would have been more trouble than it was worth.
We got an “Adventure Pass” for the day (about $40). This allowed us to use the People Mover (basically a bus) to travel to different stops along the river. It also included 4 different activities: (1) a ride on the Maid of the Mist, (2) a ride in an elevator built in the 1930s followed by a walk along a boardwalk to see the rapids at the narrowest part of the river, (3) an excursion behind the Horseshoe Falls, (4) a really cheesy movie / simulated experience about the history of the falls.
Here’s a pic of us wearing the plastic cover-ups near the Horseshoe Falls:
Here’s a pic of a rainbow in front of the Horseshoe Falls:
Lots of people told us to do the Maid of the Mist ride. It was well worth it. Even with the plastic cover-ups provided, it was a very wet ride. We sailed right up next to the Horseshoe Falls from below. We got wet due to all the wind and heavy mist created by the falling water. I think that waterfall does about 34 million gallons per minute in the summer. It was impressive to see it up close.
The area next to Niagara Falls (on the Canadian side) seemed a bit silly in terms of the touristy stuff. It’s filled with casinos, campy decor, places to eat, and various attractions like a ferris wheel, water park, wax museum, house of mirrors, a giant maze, a haunted house, Dracula’s something or other, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, and lots of other goofiness. It felt like a cross between the Las Vegas Strip and Hollywood Blvd, but in a more compact area.
Here’s a pic of the Canadian city next to the falls:
I didn’t care for the campiness of the surrounding city — and that’s saying something given that I live in Vegas — but I really enjoyed the natural beauty of the falls. It’s one thing to see it on TV, but it’s quite another to see and hear the roaring waters and feel the mist on your face. I’d definitely recommend a day trip there (or a few days if you want to meander) to anyone who thinks it might be worth a trip.
We opted to hit Niagara Falls less than a day after arriving in Toronto because it’s expected to be much busier later in the week, with July 1st being Canada’s birthday, and July 4th being a major USA holiday.
At least a dozen people have expressed interest in a Toronto meet-up, so I’m up for doing that while I’m in town. I think the weekend would be best since some people still have M-F jobs apparently. I’m leaning towards Sunday late afternoon or early evening. Rachelle has a show on Sunday at 3-4pm, so sometime after that would be great for us since we have that evening free.
The next step is to select a good meeting spot. I don’t know the area well, so I’m open to suggestions. We’re staying a few blocks from the intersection of Bathurst St and Dupont St. It looks like there’s a big park in or near the University of Toronto, which is within walking distance for us. Would that be a good spot?
I wouldn’t suggest that we meet in a restaurant — we’d likely have too many people to make that work, and most restaurants aren’t very good for mingling.
In New York City, Erin and I hosted a two-hour meet-up in a dance studio in Midtown Manhattan on a weekend morning. That one drew about 40 people. We opted for an indoor location since the weather was on the cold side, and there was a chance of rain.
I’d expect a Toronto meet-up would be smaller than our NYC meet-up, maybe 15-30 people if I had to guess.
I’d suggest a public place like a park. The weather is expected to be nice this weekend, so let’s do something outdoors if possible. In the spring we did a picnic-style meet-up in Vegas, and that was a nice relaxed environment to hang out and talk for a while.
Can any Toronto locals suggest a good location for a Toronto meet-up, something that would be (1) free, (2) easily accessible via Subway, (3) conducive to mingling and lots of simultaneous conversations, and (4) ideally within walking distance of Bathurst & Dupont?
The meet-up will be free of course and open to anyone who wants to go. There’s nothing formal planned. Just hang out, meet cool people who live in your city, and chat about anything that interests you. It’s very relaxed and casual.
Once we have a meet-up location worked out, I’ll post about it on my blog to let you know the details.