Our Trip to Canada September 2005

Photo: Toronto sky. It's been a long seven years since I last visited Canada but having reached a period of relative calm in our family I reckoned that my matriarchal role could lapse for a couple of weeks and on 6th September Jim and I headed across the Atlantic to visit my sister and her family. The Aitkens, Catherine, Alastair, my niece Lauren, 21, and nephew Sean, 20, were most welcoming and even though they have all been home to visit in recent years we still had lots of catching up to do.

Jim's brother Stephen ran us to the airport and we were able to check in a bit later because I had pre-booked our seats so no queue and no hassle at the airport. We flew with Thomas Cook, who I can recommend, plenty of leg room and cheerful flight attendants so complete with our stock of magazines and a choice of Alexander McCall Smith novels we enjoyed a very pleasant flight.

Photo: Toronto skyline. Catherine and Alastair met us at Pearson Airport, Toronto, which has been greatly improved since my last trip, and we were soon on the highway to Bronte, Oakville. The Aitkens live in a great house, large, modern and comfortable and quite a contrast from our Victorian tenement. We quickly settled in to the joys of basement retreats, a choice of three bathrooms, a sun deck looking out to the creek (complete with sunshine), a giant fridge stocked to the gunnels - and producing ice and filtered water and the wonderful utility room which absorbs the messy kitchen clutter. No pulley here nor piles of ironing on the kitchen table. We had to remind ourselves of some of the rules that apply - keeping the windows closed when the air conditioning is on and getting rid of any wee spiders - as they bite!! Then all we had to do was settle in and make some holiday plans.

Photo: bronte. First of all we investigated some of the developments in Bronte, which is a naturally beautiful spot situated on Lake Ontario. The harbour is very attractive and has been considerably extended and there are masses of speed boats docked there. The road down from Lakeshore Boulevard to the harbour has lots of interesting little shops selling gifts, clothes, jewellery and health and beauty shops catering for all your needs. At the week-ends there is quite a bustle and usually something going on with galas, outdoor plays and concerts; while I was there I saw some of the Bronte Pop Idol event.

Photo: the aitkens. At other times, particularly in the mornings and evenings you can enjoy a quiet walk along the long, long promenade meeting only the odd fisherman along the way. At the end of the promenade there is a striking lighthouse restaurant, which we planned to visit but did not get round to. However, Catherine's friend Isabel Gilmour reports that their fish (halibut) and chips is fabulous.

From Bronte it is only a short bus ride into downtown Oakville, which is a pleasant place to wander around. There are some lovely old houses and churches and pleasant walks along the Lake. Oakville has lots of interesting shops, restaurants and cafes. Jim and I enjoyed sitting in the town square in the sunshine watching life go by. The life going by is considerably smarter and less bohemian than in the West End and as Jim remarked 'People look as though they just bought their clothes yesterday'.

Photo: jim. In Canada the shop assistants and restaurant staff tend to be very polite and efficient. You can buy a coffee, or my favourite new drink Chai Tea (a tasty herbal brew which clais to help you on 'the road to happiness'), and sit and read your book undisturbed for hours. Pretty handy for me as Jim is content persuing this activity whilst I browse in the shops. I had plenty of presents to buy and the childrens' clothes are fabulous - some very expensive and some great bargains. My great shopping temptation proved to be costume jewellery where the selection is never ending but the clothes shops mainly only stock sizes 8 - 14, which rules me out. I hardly saw an item of clothing that would have fitted me the whole time I was in Canada. Doesn't seem fair that they are all so slim given that you seldom see anyone walking. Thank God for accessories.

Photo: Bikers stop. Apart from spending time in Oakville and Bronte, we went with Catherine and Alastair on some Sunday drives into the country and visited Jordan Village, the Wine Country, where we tried the glorious ice wines, made from frozen grapes. We also went on a drive to Caledon, where I had stayed for a couple of days back in the 80's with Catherine's friend Chris. We drove through Erin with its immaculate country homes and had a picnic at Belfountain, where there is the most fabulous jewellery shop - as Jim pointed out I "could have got lost for at least two years". Also out for the day was a huge group of bikers with mightily impressive Harleys and Hondas.

Some of the best fun we had was in Toronto, only 40 minutes or so drive from Oakville and easily accessible on the wonderfully efficient GO Train. Toronto is a fantastic city Established in 1834 it was born out of the British settlement of York, compared to Glasgow it is a huge city with a population of 2.48 million (5 million in the Greater Toronto Area). It is one of the ost multicultural cities in the world and forty nine percent of the population were born outside Canada. More than 100 languages are spoken and there are over home 80 different ethnic groups. Full of contrasts it positively flaunts its cultural diversity and the city is characterised by the diversity of distinct neighbourhoods, cultures and communities.".

Photo: Toronto skyline. When you alight from the GO Train at Union Staton you are immediately struck by the huge skyscrapers on Front Street. If you walk South this will take you towards the Harbourfront and Ontario Islands but invariably who chose to go North through the Financial District then headed for Queen Street West, with its offbeat boutiques and cafes. The streets are laid out in a grid system, the same as Glasgow, so it is pretty easy to find your way about and each neighbourhood has its own appeal. Going West towards Spadina you find yourself in Toronto's colourful and cluttered Chinatown with displays of exotic fruits and bargains galore.

Photo: China town. Just beyond Chinatown is Kensington Market, which has all the joys of Cold Harbour Lane in Brixton mixed with never ending shops selling some fine retro fashions. Kensington Avenue is fascinating - so much so that in my fascination I accidently ripped the leg off my trousers on a car bumper. (I quickly acquired a pair of Vietamese fisherman's 'pants' for 20 dollars). One shop that I absolutely loved was 'Courage, owned by Pat Roy and Stewart Scriver - a true Aladdin's Cave with bargains galore and vintage everything.

Photo: Toronto Film Festival.In this area you can truly see the diversity that characterises Toronto with 'Fine British Meat', West Indian products, the ubiquitious Asian Cheesecloth shirts and I kid you not - a choice of kilts. To sit and enjoy a coffee in this neighbourhood is really to watch the world go by - we even spotted a piper, with a wonderful suntan and fine handlebar moustache. Obviously a weel kent local he stopped for a chat with several passers by. There is a lot of noise and conversations taking place in many languages however the bustle is not businesslike and there is a languid air around this district.

Photo: Pat, Catherine, Allister in Toronto. In contrast, further North on Bloor and Bay the City becomes sophisticated, more energetic and earnest but still lots of fun. Jim and I had coffee al fresco on the roof terrace at the Hyatt Hotel - very posh with great service and lots of little trays of goodies offered, glasses of iced water and brilliant views over the city. At street level we also had a great time spotting some of the stars in town for the Toronto Film Festival - Danny Aiello was looking decidely suave and animated, whilst being interviewed in Hazelton Lanes in Yorkeville and Susan Sarandon, was friendly, smiling and gorgeous as she exited the Four Seasons in her limousine. (Not to be outdone we ventured into the hotel to use the toilet and mistakenly, and hilariously, Catherine and I exited by the door the stars were using. From behind the barriers curious eyes asked 'who the hell are these two?' as we sauntered past the chauffeurs with their doors of the swanky cars held open. Where we would have ended up had we jumped in God knows? - we could be in Hollywood now. Perhaps in some character roles?) Meanwhile Jim also saw passing by Kris Kristofferson, Kurt Russell and Ray Mears!!.

Photo: film festival. The atmosphere of the Film Festival, apparently second only to Cannes, was tremendous. We aimed to take in some of the films but the procedure seemed fairly complicated although we did manage along to 'The Constant Gardener' with Ralph Feinnes and Rachel Weisz - brilliant film with fabulous photography. We absolutely lapped up all that Bloor and Bay has to offer, in particular, Jim loved the Indigo Bookshop which has comfortable reading areas, inside and outside and a great selection of reading material plus a coffee shop.

Photo: Pat and Catherine in Toronto. Having two sons, four brothers and all male cousins - family-wise I am more used to male companionship so it was a great treat savouring the more feminine delights of the City with my sister. We checked out the expensive coats in Escada and left with a little bag with containing their catalogue even though no purchases were made. We drooled over the mouth watering goodies in Pusateri's - the deli of all delis and hung out for hours in Holt Renfrew, the equivalent of Harvey Nicks. One thing quite different about Toronto is that the shop assistants in the posh stores do not have a superior attitude - they are enthusiastic about you sampling the new perfumes and so on but not pushy about purchasing and very chatty and friendly. We hesitated slightly when asked if we would like our faces done up by Yves St Laurent beauticians but quickly found ourselves sitting side by side like a couple a chookies. This turned out to be a very pleasant pampering experience with no hard sell whatsoever. Nonetheless, I now feel compelled to by that Touche Eclat in Frasers, Buchanan Street, Glasgow.

Photo: Waiter in Little Italy cafe.

The City was awash with festivals and we enjoyed ourselves at the Vegetarian Festival on the lovely Harbourfront, where the antique shops are also worth looking at.We admired Toronto's varied architecture and the many lovely buildings, one of our favourites being BCE Place.

Photo: the girls. One of the highlights of our holiday was meeting up with friends old and new when the Aitkens held a party. It was quite different eating out on the deck on a warm September evening with the odd bat flying past. It was great catching up with the 'two Graces' Grace Blair from Belfast and Grace Mackie, from our home village of Old Kilpatrick. Other Old Kilpatrick people at the party included our cousin Willie McColgan and his wife Marie and Isabel Devine, whom I have known since youth club days in the village.

Photo: the aitkens. All Catherine and Alastair's good friends came along - Lesley, Denise, Silvana and Charlotte, Rick, Ivan and Dave. We also met some neighbours Carol and John Flynn, from the Falkirk area and Marie and Mike from Northern Ireland. Typical of Toronto - there was a real mix of cultures and much interesting discussion about the the trials and benefits of immigration. How young men arrived in Toronto with some qualifications but barely enough money to feed themselves, whilst others left countries in strife and little command of the English language. Success is both recognised and acclaimed - something arguably at odds with the Scottish psyche.

Photo: sean. Something else that is much in evidence is the appreciation of the material benefits gained by some but more interesting is the value placed on friendship - a topic which is openly discussed. There is still plenty of banter, as you would expect to find in any party in Glasgow but it is somewhat softer and interspersed with praise. More than one guest extolled to me the virtues of my sister - and she in return is concerned about their lives and hopes. It makes you think about what may be taken for granted at home. When there is no family around then friends are recognised as being of extraordinary importance.

Photo: the aitkens. I was made very welcome at many homes and invitations galore were issued - we managed to visit Silvana, Kirsty and my mother's and Catherine's friend Isabel Gilmore. Isabel can set a table good style complete with Royal Albert, embroidered tablecloth and home made banana bread and butter cookies.

Photo: Pat and friends at party.The Aitkens also entertained and we had some great visits from Lauren's lively 'friend' Steve, who always has a smile on his face and a story to tell. We particularly enjoyed a visit from our cousin Catherine Morgan, from Old Kilpatrick, and her daughter Jacqueline. Catherine has been in Canada for thirty odd years but used to live next door to us when we were children so we had many memories to talk about and we laughed until our sides ached. We also spent time with the young people and Lauren, Catherine and I had a girls day out at Sherwood Place, one of the huge malls and also shopped at Oakville Place. We co-jointly celebrated Catherine and Sean's birthdays with an Italian meal,

Photo: the aitkens. we were even invited along to Philthy McNasty's the local club where the youngsters go. We were made very welcome by Ricci, the other Sean, Boris and assorted friends of Lauren and Sean. I don't think my children would ever have welcomed my presence at any of their haunts at that young age? There does not seem to be quite such a focus on playing it cool or perhaps there is greater confidence.
However, we were careful not to overstay our welcome.

There were lots of highlights and loads of laughs so hopefully it won't be too long before we hop back on that plane. Toronto is a brilliant city to visit and Oakville a great place to live. Now I am back in our old tenement I feel I should aspire to the higher Canadian household standards and already I have made a start - I have rearranged my cutlery drawer.

You can find some more photographs of our trip in Jim's photodiary