My Disarming Love for Canada

A misguided, but magical solo weekend in the cold north from a few years ago.

I first visited Canada in November 2017, barely six months after I graduated from university. I flew direct from Dallas (DFW) to Toronto (YYZ) on 3 Nov 2017 for a long weekend, arriving with perhaps $200 after lodging and transportation—scarcely enough to do anything with. Twenty minutes after landing, I boarded the direct train from the airport to downtown Toronto and was greeted by a text from Rogers Wireless welcoming me to Canada. Two minutes later, I got another text erroneously saying I had exhausted my international allowance and would shortly be disconnected. Naturally I was disconnected too quickly to resolve the problem by phone!

So there I was, with no working cell phone and very little cash for a whole weekend, on a train to a city I had never visited before and certainly didn't know how to get around. I arrived downtown, immediately hailed a cab, and asked to be taken to the nearest cell phone store. The driver likely misunderstood my request or scammed me, taking me in a circle and dropping me off no more than two blocks away from where I started. I later learned he dropped me rather closer to Chinatown. I paid him CA$20.

I walked another block or two west to what looked like a major road and began going north, later realizing I was on Chinatown's major north-south corridor, Spadina Ave. After asking for some directions and waving off an aggressive necklace salesperson, I entered the Chinatown Centre at 222 Spadina and asked for any means of connecting my phone to proper service.

I can't recall the cost, but remember it was excessive and demoralizing; I later learned I should've purchased a prepaid SIM, but of course I wasn't sold this option, it was my first international trip and I was supposed to have my own service so I didn't look into it. I walked away with a random Canadian number and was able to get my bearings.

I walked all over downtown, then along the water near Harbour Square Park, then up to Graffiti Alley back through Chinatown. I criss-crossed the streets all over. I visited a now-defunct skate shop and rode on a Boosted Board for the first time (RIP). Eventually I took the train up Yonge St to the Davisville stop and found my Airbnb somewhere around the southern terminus of Pailton Crescent.

The house was nestled near an auto shop, and my window faced the work area. The room was small and there were other guests in the other rooms. It was warm for the season, but getting colder; exhausted, I ordered a small pizza and lounged on my phone for half the evening, thinking about the sights. It was Friday, so I had two nights left before an afternoon flight on Sunday, but absolutely no idea how I'd fill all that time.

I slept and awoke on Saturday, and truly can't remember a single thing of substance that I did all day. It was a cold day, but beautiful; I ostensibly had an appointment to visit a friend at the Royal Bank Plaza, but went there only to find it canceled. I believe I wandered through the streets, taking pictures and stopping in silly tourist shops. At one point I stopped into a run-down shop for a Maple Leafs shirt, and the salesperson rushed to the back to find one in my size—he was very kind for just a $9 transaction!

At some point later I settled in a coffee shop for the afternoon. It was nestled between two residential buildings and had no width to speak of; I went up to the second floor and asked the table next to me for a plug for my laptop. Later that table would discuss the plight of the young actor in Toronto—I suppose one of them was in the scene and the other trying to enter it—and I would read my book, enjoying the ambiance. After that and a few more hours of walking around, I returned again to the Airbnb, slept, had a quick breakfast and returned to the airport.

I should mention what is probably obvious by this point: I knew not a soul in the entire city and had no prearranged plans whatsoever. Years after this trip, I would learn that some of my favorite artists, musicians etc. were in Toronto at the same time and I had many shows to choose from. Shortly after my return, I would begin exchanging emails with a friend who relocated from Fort Erie to Newmarket—within driving distance! I would also discover a tattoo shop not a mile from my Airbnb that I now desperately want to visit, but can't in COVID times. Still, despite my utter lack of knowledge, tasks or plan, I loved the city. The people I spoke to throughout the city, even incidentally, were kind and asked interesting questions. I did my best to return them in kind. The t-shirt merchant I mentioned above chatted with me for ten extra minutes about his experience immigrating from Ecuador. The cell phone salespeople gave me directions and chatted about a road trip they took to St. John's, Newfoundland.

I felt that there were stories all around me, little slices of life, and there was just enough willingness to talk about them that it made everyone interesting. I wouldn't get the same feeling again until I overheard strangers on the phone on the streets of Manhattan. There was something more approachable and welcoming about Toronto, though, to the point where I've never stopped thinking about the city fondly.

In the intervening years I've had many conversations with friends who would disagree about my impressions of the city. Surely it's bigger, more bustling and thus less personal than many other Canadian destinations. It's also expensive, with awful traffic. Many people leave Toronto at some point and many more disappear into its orbit, but (in my experience in the US, anyway) it's rare to come across people who think about the city at all.

I retain my impression of the city. Visiting it, despite my utter lack of plans, was one of the greatest joys of my young adult life, and I've always wanted to go back. Not three months later I made plans to visit again by driving from Detroit, through the southern Ontario countryside, but those plans were cut short by an awful snowstorm and I had to turn back once I reached London. I most recently made plans that, if not for the pandemic, would've been next month.

I've been reflecting on this trip lately because I've learned I now qualify to apply for Canada's Express Entry program, provided I have a job offer or enough cash savings. At this point in my life it's not the time, but it's hard to discount the possibility of one day moving.