Confessions of an expat – A Canadian welcome

Laughing on the bus, playing games with the faces. She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy

So the New York move didn’t work out too well, but while I was on that side of the Atlantic, there was always Canada. That’s the 27-year-old me, the aspiring rock star, transported across the ocean with my girlfriend to impose on her parents, the old man in Long Island and the mother, who probably liked me even less than her husband did, in Toronto. Didi, Mandy’s Mum, would probably seem like quite an attractive woman if I met her now, but the world wasn’t obsessed with “cougars” at that time. The older woman had yet to be elevated to the level of sexual fantasy on that scale, and if she saw anything interesting in me, she hid it pretty well. That’s got nothing to do with civility and getting along, of course, but if there is an undercurrent of that sort, it can help.

To get from NY to Toronto, the cheap option was also in a way the most appealing: a Greyhound bus. This was part of American folklore. Simon and Garfunkel had sung about them: “Kathy, I said, as we boarded the Greyhound in Pittsburgh…” They’re just buses, but they are famous.

There is something therapeutic about watching the world go by on a train or a bus. Getting there at high speed by plane has its advantages, but if you’re not in a hurry, there is great fascination to be had speeding past fields and factories and into grimy towns with grimier bus stations and seeing the human flotsam that gets on and off. Everyone has a story to tell and you’ll probably never hear it, but that just gives more rein to the imagination.

As an added bonus, we entered Canada via Niagara Falls, and even though it was dark, that was another little kick.

Niagara: not the highest falls in the world, but the most famous

Toronto itself has changed since then (the early 80s), my Vancouver friends tell me, but the difference from New York was glaring. In the Big Apple people wouldn’t give you the time of day, but in Toronto it took 10 minutes to get out of the supermarket because the checkout girl wanted to chat. The underground trains ran on time and were spotless. People were polite. It’s those sorts of things that lead Americans to make fun of Canadians.

It was cold, but that’s okay sometimes and  a bit of snow and ice just adds to the impression of cleanliness.

There was a village feeling about the city that made it easy to wander into record company offices and talk about my music and their needs. One of them wanted a Christmas song for a popular folk group, so I labored over one without quite cracking it.

By contrast, Bloor Street and Yonge Street were long beyond my imagination, so when I went looking for places on foot I found myself walking for hours and not really getting anywhere.

One night I went alone to El Mocambo, a famous club, and sat drinking bottles of Molson Golden while groups of people shared big jugs of beer which worked out much cheaper. The waitress ignored my request for one, perhaps fearing that I would turn into a traditional English lager lout, but we drink beer in pints in the UK and it’s what we’re used to.  Working your way through a load of small bottles just seems pointless. I eventually persuaded one of the girl’s colleagues to do me a favour and I sat there with my jug like a good boy.

Big city with a small-town feel: that’s how it was then but Toronto may have changed

The off-licences were odd, too. They were like betting shops or catalogue shops, with desks in the middle of the floor on which were displayed lists of drinks. You filled in a slip, gave it in at the counter, handed over some money, and the bottle of wine would come out from the back on a conveyor belt, in a brown paper bag. I got the feeling I was being watched and would one day be challenged: “Hey, you were in here last week and you ordered the same thing. We don’t want your sort here, buddy.” But of course they’re Canadian, so they wouldn’t have done that.

All too soon Didi tired of having me around and I was on a plane back to London, but my transatlantic trip had whetted my appetite, and although it would be many years before I went long-haul again with the intention of staying, it was always in the back of my mind.