Something was just a tad off. Here I was in the international city that is Toronto, Ontario, ready to embark on a brisk two-day jaunt through its much touted thoroughfares and neighborhoods, yet feeling rather indifferent. The scene resembled the U.S. cities from which I had just departed, recently visited, and would soon descend upon only with a small, almost imperceptible modification that couldn’t quite be explained. I felt the slight unease common to those traveling to an unknown land but without the attendant rush of excitement at new exploration. The surroundings were familiar enough to this American. But that was precisely the problem.
Waking up in Canada is like getting in a time machine and going back to prehistoric times to watch the dinosaurs, only you accidentally step on that fateful butterfly, crushing a small but significant forbearer of the future. Frantic at the possibility that this small disturbance in the space-time continuum might radically alter the society in which you live, or change the very fate of the world, or perhaps even extinguish your own existence, you scrape the bug off your shoe and hurry back to the time machine to return to the present. Emerging nervously from the machine after hurtling back through time, you feel a momentary rush of relief as everything—miraculously—seems normal. The buildings are familiarly shaped, the trees are the right height, the signs and billboards are in English, and pedestrians are dressed simply in jeans and t-shirts. Then you look down at your wallet and notice, to your horror, that the Queen of England is on the money.
Toronto was indeed a testament to the permeability of borders. A panoramic view of the city from the skyline jewel that is the CN Tower? If you accede to the impossibly overpriced ride up from the indifferent curators of this Seattle Space Needle knockoff. Take in a sporting event at the next door Rogers Centre? They’re playing America’s national pastime while the locals’ rapacity for beer and nachos matches even the most extreme stereotype of Midwestern largesse. Take in the cultural experiences at the many music and theatre options the city has to offer? Sure, although the largest and most crowded tourist attraction is the bustling, centrally located commercial mall known as the Eaton Centre.
To be sure, Toronto has its many charms and pleasures. The picturesque harbor beckons for a lovely stroll along the Queens Quay. The hotels are luxurious and well positioned. The outdoor markets and friendly breweries make for a relaxing afternoon. The city’s many institutions of higher education, its effortless cultural and ethnic diversity along with the wide-ranging cuisine which accompanies it, and the smooth and efficient public transportation which pulls its distant parts together are all to Toronto’s great credit. It’s no doubt a terrific city in which to live and work.
And yet, there was nothing new or emboldening about jetting off to see Toronto or exhaustively hunting for experiences there in my solitary sojourn abroad. There was no unique moment or defining feature. There was no hint of danger. Instead, I found an urban society and culture too close to my own, only with the occasional alternate spelling and the slightly alarming “sooree” offered as an apology. There was no need for that, of course. My time was pleasant enough. I ate well. I took in a baseball game. I rested in the cool breeze and bright sunlight of a peaceful afternoon. I shopped and schlepped and slept easily and contentedly.
But if that was all I wanted, I might as well have stayed at home.