Last week, in need of a quick vacation, the boyfriend and I decided to hop in the car and get out of the city for a bit. Though we love Philadelphia, there are times when one needs a break. Rather than head due East to the Jersey Shore, we decided to drive to a magical land where same sex marriage is legalized, drug laws are quite a bit more permissive and everyone has guaranteed health insurance. I’m not making this up. We drove to Canada.
Specifically, we traveled to Toronto. In many ways, Canada seems like America Jr., just a version of our country with different units of measurement. But in other ways, it’s a mysteriously foreign place, chock full of paradox and wonder. Philadelphia could learn a lot from a city like Toronto without sacrificing any of its gritty personality and acerbic charm. Allow me to make a few broad, sweeping generalizations about these countries after a 4-day trip; after all, I’m profoundly American.
To call Canada clean would be an understatement. The city gleamed over a crystalline Lake Ontario. There were garbage cans everywhere that people actually used. Our hotel room had a recycling bin. I’m not saying you could eat off the floor of the public transportation, but you certainly wouldn’t sit amidst a funk that’s a mix of urine and sadness.
Speaking of which, the public transportation system in Toronto was bare bones, but the integration of streetcar and subway can get you anywhere you need to go. It connects neighborhoods that brim with activity and commerce yet still contains character-laden, tree-lined streets with old homes. These neighborhoods are celebrations of multiculturalism pasted with posters about how to attain citizenship.
Where diverse neighborhoods are fostered, so are amazing ethnic foods. While there are specifically delineated towns for those of Chinese, Korean, Italian and Greek descendants, on the one street where we ate scrumptious Indian food, we had a choice of Thai or Ethiopian, as well. Brunch was like a competitive sport, and we waited in a long line, following the locals to delicious Eggs Benedict with Canadian Bacon. Or, as they call it, bacon.
Wouldn’t it be great if Philadelphia had a big tower right in the middle of it from which you could see for miles and miles? Toronto has the iconic CN Tower, which is the tallest free-standing structure in the Western Hemisphere. Sure, you could get a great view of our area if you work in the Comcast building, but the rest of us commoners have to settle for the view from down here. We should all get to see what Billy Penn does.
The people were friendly, polite and quiet. They were mannerly about everything from food service to driving without bobbing and weaving through traffic without being standoffish. They don’t engage in long, divisive political campaigns. We didn’t travel anywhere at night that we didn’t feel completely safe.
Probably the most important lesson that Philly could learn from the Great White North is having poutine readily available. If you haven’t had it, it’s basically French Fries smothered with cheese curds and gravy. It’s coma-inducing, comfort food that feels like a hug, and it’s everywhere. As Americans who demand everything with extra fat in every meal, we got ours with pulled pork and bacon.
All said, after a couple days, we missed Philadelphia and America. We missed the attitude and the temperament. We missed the history and spirit. We missed a hockey team that makes the playoffs and real professional football team. Frankly, it was hot, and we missed the gelato and water ice. There’s no place like home, but it’s great to get away sometimes to a place that feels familiar but somehow a world apart.