Oh, Canada: Toronto pt. I

Okay, first of all… sorry for the super long silence. It seems like a lot of work and travel and conferences and what else makes me really tired. And tired brain does not want to write, especially since in my work I do have to make some creative decisions from time to time (translation is not as easy as some of you might think).

But now I’m back! At least for a while. Paid work always comes first, and currently this is more of a “let’s write things so I can look back at it all later” sort of a project anyway. But since this Canada trip was in June, I figured it is time to write about it before I forget everything. I mean, it has already been almost 5 months. Oops?

It was my first time in North America (or that side of the planet, for that matter), but my boyfriend has been to Canada once before and a few times in the United States, so he was the expert on this trip, even though he probably did not think that way himself…

We arrived very late in the evening and basically just crashed into bed the moment we could. At that point I had been awake for, if memory serves, some 30 hours. I cannot sleep on the plane, so I just watched most of True Detective season 3 (and then the plane back was not from the same company and thus had different series and movies, so I still haven’t seen the last 3 episodes, grr!). After that I tried to keep myself awake while taking the train to the city centre and then after a short subway trip later trying to find our hotel. Which, in the end, wasn’t really a hotel, but a student dorm. I was not aware of this when booking it, but that was my mistake, not theirs. Still a bit of a let-down after such a long trip.

CN Tower was celebrating Pride Week.

We also got a bit unlucky in there otherwise, too: the room had not been cleaned when we arrived, and since it was very late in the evening, no one was going to come clean it, either. Luckily one of the two (kinda small) beds in the room was still untouched, so we both slept on that that first night. Not comfortable, but we were so dead tired we probably would have slept happily on a stone slab.

And, as you can probably guess, we both woke up stupidly early the next morning, because of the time zone differences. While we knew we are on a very different time zone, our brains did not. That meant some time to unpack a few essentials and wait until 7 or so before showering. Didn’t want to wake people around or underneath us up with too much noise. Honestly, I don’t even know if I have EVER been awake that early without an alarm. Was an interesting experience, at least!

On the first full day we went to get a Toronto CityPASS, as it seemed like fun. I mean I say “we went to get it” but actually you can get it at any of the places that are a part of it, so it doesn’t require much effort. It includes a few places you can visit a bit cheaper, which was nice. In the end we never actually got to Casa Loma, also known as the X-Men headquarters, which is a bit of a shame. Nerd couple opting out of the nerdiest thing on the list? Boo to us! But at least we did everything else. “Everything else” in this case means the CN Tower (views, woo), Ripley’s Aquarium (fishies, woo), Royal Ontario Museum (old things, woo) and Toronto Zoo (animals, woo).

We got lucky: the octopus was super active in the aquarium.

To be honest, most of these were a bit disappointing in some way or another. The CN Tower was cool, but I felt it was a bit expensive for what it was. The aquarium was so full of people it was hard to see much through the hordes of kids and their parents. I think our timing may have been the issue: I think there was a Blue Jays match starting a bit later that same day, and probably some people spent their day doing touristy things with the kids. I base my assumption purely on the amount of Blue Jays paraphernalia in the aquarium and around it.

The Royal Ontario Museum was sort of nice, but somehow underwhelming. There were super interesting parts, but sadly also a lot of stuff I just walked through like a zombie. I also remember talking about how it is not that impressive over some coffee and snacks. I think it tried to be too many things in one go: part art, part “normal” history, part natural history. Ended up being mostly a mess.

The zoo was amazing. But… It is approximately 1.5 hours away from the city with public transport. And I think like an hour by car. It took us two subway rides and one long, long, looooong bus ride to reach it. I mean, I knew North America was car country, but this is just silly. Why not have a direct line between, say, a bus station in the city and the zoo? At least like, you know, a few in the morning, one or two during the day, and a few back in the early evening when it closes? Silly Canadians, assuming everyone drives everywhere. Making life difficult for tourists that don’t want to just stay in the city.

Deep sea creatures are scary. This bugger was almost the size of my head.

We also had booked a Toronto greeter for one morning. The form asked us to choose our interests, but we both sort of felt like the older gentleman who took us around town does the same tour with everyone. None of our special interests were actually taken into account. It was still very interesting and informative. He took us to places we would never have gone otherwise, like a old, fancy hotel near Union Station, a church where the nearby school choir was having their practice, and the Canadian Broadcasting Centre. I enjoyed all of this quite a bit, and sometimes it is nice to be taken out of your comfort zone. Not too far, mind, but straying a bit outside of it is good.

Our greeter was a sweet guy, but I’m glad the tour was only until lunch time. So much walking and talking with someone you don’t really know can be a bit tiring, after all. The rest of the day we just meandered around in search of poutine and popping into interesting shops on the way. I finally found the “I drink and know things” shirt I’ve wanted for forever in a nerdy shop. And we bought some comics, because of course. And got that poutine. Not that many properly touristy things, I guess, but maybe that’s a good thing for a change!

I feel like this lion is not impressed with my photography skills.

The next morning my boyfriend wasn’t feeling all too well, so I ended up leaving him in the hotel room to snooze off his jet lag. Poor thing was really not up for my kind of crazy tourist touring. Even though I had been toning it down a bit for him…

So I went out alone, wandering about the city. First to the Walk of Fame, where I failed to find Margaret Atwood’s star, but found a bunch of other fun ones instead (such as Leslie Nielsen, Rush, David Cronenberg and Ryan Reynolds), and then headed towards Chinatown and Kensington Market. I love how big cities have sometimes these Chinese areas where you barely see any English. It is like a mini-trip in the middle of your bigger trip. Makes me think I should go to China some day, too. (Who am I kidding, I was thinking that already before.)

I found (by accident) the most instagrammable spot in Toronto.

As I mentioned, I also went to Kensington Market. A very different kind of area in the middle of Toronto. In general, I feel that Toronto is filled with fancy skyscrapers and generally very ultramodern things. Kensington Market, then again, is all over the place. The buildings are low and all the colours of the rainbow and a bit of a mess, but that’s exactly why I loved it. Apparently the locals don’t all approve of it, but for me it worked. It made me feel like I’d be somewhere else than in Canada, somehow. Maybe in Brazil or something. I mean, I’ve never been in Brazil, so what do I know, but the sweltering heat probably made me feel like I must be somewhere further south. Sadly I only took one or two pictures there, but I also felt like it is more of an experience than something just a picture could convey. So if you ever are in Toronto, go see that little town in the middle of the big city. It is fun. And if you get lucky, maybe you will see a raccoon! (I didn’t, sniffle.)

Toronto Islands offered great views.

After my tour in the confusingly not-quite-Canadian areas, I head back to the hotel to have (very) late lunch with my boyfriend. But even after that it was still relatively early, so I felt like I could fit even more into this one day. So, I decided to go spend my evening on the Toronto Islands. They are a cluster of islands near downton Toronto, in Lake Ontario. The boat trip there is relatively cheap (I think around 8 CAD for a return ticket), and the views were just amazing. It was a nice break from the busy business Toronto, and the islands are big enough that you can get away from most of the other people if you really want to. Spoiler alert: I did. Being born in a very sparsely populated and very unsparsely forested country makes me weird like that, heh.

It was so difficult for me to remember this was a lake, not the sea.

I took the ferry to the Central Island and then walked all the way to Ward’s Island docks. Let me tell you, I had not really thought this all through. I was rather wiped out by the time I got to the other dock. I think I did like 20k steps that day. Was it worth it? Yes, yes it was. But would I recommend anyone else to do all of this in one day? Not necessarily. I think you could easily spend the whole day just on the Islands, though, and still easily get to 20k steps. And maybe you are more lucky than me, and your plans won’t get scrapped because one of the docks was closed due to the recent flooding…

And, of course, after all that walking around I had deserved a big, artery-blocking dinner. My boyfriend chose the place, and he chose VERY well, but I’ll talk about that in a later post. Food deserves its own post, which will be written when I get around it. I shall make no promises so I won’t let anyone down, you know?

A bathing capybara!

And then, the day I had been waiting for and my boyfriend had been dreading! The zoo day! The excitement was a bit dampened by the 1.5 hour trip I mentioned earlier, but the zoo itself was amazing. So much space and the enclosures seemed to have been built for the animals as well as for the visitors. Too bad it was a very hot day, so quite a few of the animals looked rather sleepy. Poor polar bears, for example, but at least all the animals had possibilities to get some shade and some even could go swimming. There were also parrots without a cage around them at all, which was amazing!

We also saw quite a few chipmunks running around in the zoo area. They were most likely not part of the plan, but they were also super cute, even if they managed to scare me a few times by suddenly appearing from somewhere relatively near to my feet and running the other way. Sudden movement right next to you can do that to a person. “WHAT WAS THAT!” And, well, in the city there were just (relatively) small birds and squirrels, so it was fun to see something I’ve actually never seen in the wild before.

Because of the heat, most of the animals were rather sleepy.

The day after the zoo was easier for everyone: travel times were sensible and no walking around in the painfully bright sunshine. It was Royal Ontario Museum time. As I mentioned earlier, there was a bit of everything in there, and somehow only the dinosaurs and stuffed animals made an impression on me. Then again, dinosaur skeletons and stuffed animals ALWAYS make an impression on me, I’m easy that way.

This fellow is one of the very first things you see when walking in to the museum.

Of course there were also some interesting artworks and such, but because it was such a mishmash of everything, I somehow mostly got confused in there. Then again, this exact same reason probably makes it an excellent place for a family outing, as there is something for everyone. I mean, we also spent most of our day in the museum, so it wasn’t that bad. Of course the museum was rather big, too, so just walking through everything took some time. I still do feel like it would have been a better experience if they’d just go with one theme instead of a bit of everything. But maybe I’m just difficult to please. Except for those dinosaurs and stuffed animals, that is.

I had made a reservation for a fancy meal for the evening, so we didn’t have to figure out anything new to do. But, as I said, again, more about food later. Let me just say: totally worth it! I rarely regret splurging stupid amounts of money on a good meal, as long as it actually is good.

I love small, old-school bookshops.

The last day we went our separate ways again: my boyfriend went to a comic shop and some Magic the Gathering shop, and I went to be all cultural and stuff in the Art Gallery of Ontario. Such a lovely place. I feel like it was also a bit all over the place, but somehow it didn’t bother me here. What bothers me in a museum apparently just means variety in an art gallery. That’s how my brain works, apparently. And you know what was the best part? I could go out to eat a nice lunch in the restaurant outside the museum area (but in the same building) and get back in with the same ticket, as it is valid the whole day!

I can warmly recommend booking a time for Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Room, if you ever have the chance. I didn’t do so instantly after getting in to the gallery, because I figured I might not like it much. And then later I t hought I might as well while there anyway, so I put my name in for an hour or two later, and had to only wait maybe 10 minutes to get into the room (as they only let a few people in at a time for you to get the full experience). Definitely worth it! A relatively surreal experience, but in a good way. Much like teamLAB things are good surreal experiences.

And, of course, there is plenty of more traditional art too: Cézanne, Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso, Magritte… and a bunch of Canadian artists I had never heard of before, but whose work I enjoyed, like Kathleen Munn and J. E. H. MacDonald.

The trip home and the few days after were rather rough, but apparently not bad enough, since I already have a trip to New York planned for March. Well, I say “New York”, but actually my plan includes also Providence and Salem. Because why would I go to the other side of the world for 2 weeks and stay in one place, when I could also go see H. P. Lovecraft’s hometown and the famous witch-hating town! Hooray! Okay, maybe my interests are a tad morbid, especially considering Lovecraft was actually a complete douchenozzle, but what can I say, I love the Cthulhu mythos.

But before that there will be a post about Canadian food, at least, and probably something about Tenerife (I’m going on my first ever all-inclusive, normal tourist trip, uh oh). And maybe something about nerdy spots in Gent? Anyone want to know nerdy things? No? How about I’ll tell you anyway? No? Ooohhh, okay, we’ll see.

Either way, everything will happen Later (which is not really a registered trademark, and if it is, it definitely isn’t mine, but I kinda hope it would be).

This was actually the third time I visited Amsterdam, and the shortest of those trips. Which is why I’m glad I have already had the chance to visit the Van Gogh Museum (well, technically just their collection in another building, but still) and the Rijksmuseum (twice, since the first time it was being renovated, at the same time as the Van Gogh Museum… not the best trip, that, museum-wise). Of the “big three” there would still be the Stedelijk Museum, but somehow I haven’t been that interested in it. I think I have only lately started to realize that not all modern art is necessarily weird and, in my opinion, kinda bovine excrement. So maybe next time I’ll go visit that one. And at least then I can say I’ve been there, too, if nothing else!

The cat of the Cat Museum.

I have also done a canal cruise (twice: same boat, different people), visited the KattenKabinett (or the Cat Museum), the Anne Frank House (I heard now you can book your ticket online, but if you haven’t done that, go early, later the queues are insane), NEMO Science Museum, one of the at least two different sex museums in Amsterdam, and the Heineken experience, the last of which was recommended to me by someone who studied event organization. Apparently the school used the Heineken Experience as an example on how to do things well. And based on my experience as a non-beer-drinker (at least back then, have added to my bad habits since), it really was interesting and even at times informative.

I have, of course, also visited the Artis zoo in Amsterdam, but I cannot really recommend it. It made me mostly just sad, as the animals seemed very stressed and the enclosures were mostly very, very small. Not sure what the situation is now, as it may have been upgraded in the last 5+ years, and I really hope it has.

Outside of the zoo, I don’t think I have had any really bad experiences in Amsterdam. I’ve stayed in a fancy hotel (way out of city centre), a hostel (but in a private room), and a cheap hotel (in the city centre). I haven’t had any complaints about any of them. Same goes for most of the museums, restaurants and bars. I feel like the restaurants are the most likely ones to disappoint, because I often get my hopes way too high. So it might be at least partially a “me” issue.

The main reason I was in town, this time with a bunch of friends, was to see Tool. A band none of us had thought we would ever see live, and had been waiting for… well, in my case, ever since I started to listen to them, which was some 15 years ago. And since we were going to go to Amsterdam anyway, we figured we might as well make it a “weekend” trip in the middle of the week. The concert itself was on a Tuesday, after all. A few nights, a few days of strolling around, and the gig in the middle. I, of course, I had by then fudged up my own plans sort of by accident and had to leave early on the last day, leaving the rest of the group entertain themselves (which they managed just fine, as usual), as I had a flight to Canada to catch…

Typical Amsterdam view: bikes and a stop for public transport on the bridge over a canal.

So on this trip we skipped the big museums, and instead mostly just ambled around, soaking up the city itself. The only museum we visited was the Rembrandt House. I hadn’t really even realized it was a thing until the other girl of our group was saying she would like to go there. So we did, as the whole trip was her idea, as she had never been in Amsterdam before. We also went on the canal cruise since she wanted to do that, and I believe most of us enjoyed that surprisingly much. Even if it was impossible to hear half of the announcements. Bad sound quality on that boat, boo.

Rembrandt seemed to be a hoarder of interesting objects.

We were also supposed to go visit the Botanical Gardens, but we found out, to my dismay, after walking all the way there, that it was a rather expensive experience. I’m somehow way too used to the outside park area of Botanical Gardens to be free, as that is usually the way the Finnish ones work, and then you just pay for the greenhouse part. I felt a bit guilty for dragging everyone that far, especially as it was a really warm day, and we were all a bit tired and cranky as it was. But I think they forgave me, at least after some snacks and drinks.

I feel like this trip was maybe the most relaxing Amsterdam trip I have had, even with the oopses of bad planning. Maybe it was the company, maybe it was because I, for once, had no over-the-top plans to visit ALL THE MUSEUMS, or maybe a bit of both. But I do feel like I’d still have a lot of things I want to see and experience in Amsterdam, like that Stedelijk Museum. And maybe check out NEMO again, as the last time was quite a few years ago, and I’m sure they have upgraded stuff since then.

And then there is all the food I would still want to try. And all the amazing parks. And the trendy but somehow still welcoming bars. And the locals who are usually super nice even though the city seems to be drowning in confused, drunk and/or stoned tourists, especially near the Red Light District area (which looks amazing in the night, but make sure you don’t listen to what other people around you are saying, if you do not wish to lose all faith in mankind, where focus is on the word “man”). Amsterdam just is a gift that keeps on giving.

Amsterdam by night.

And for the more nerdy people: Make sure to check out if the PopCult shops (which does not seem to have an actual website, silly buggers) have something that interests you, and, if you are into board games, make sure to visit Friends & Foes, even if it is a bit out of the way from the usual tourist fare. Excellent service there, and apparently also possibilities to try out some of their board games on certain days. The website seems to have a calendar for it, but not sure how up-to-date it usually is.

So, umm, yeah. I guess I didn’t do much on that trip. But there is only so much one CAN do with a bigger group without pre-planned schedules. And for me there was only one afternoon/evening and one almost full day (with the concert in the evening) to spend on anything, anyway. So, next time more planning and maybe a smaller group of people, even if it is sometimes fun to travel in a bigger group. I just have the bad habit of trying to make sure everyone enjoys whatever it is we do… which means hours spent discussing what to do, heh. And sometimes it is impossible to please everyone, because everyone has their own interests.

But Amsterdam beware: I will be back! …Again.