Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Toronto, La Ville-Reine

Starting your vacation on the same day the world "springs ahead" an hour is not the best way to begin when that vacation also involves waking three hours earlier than usual and driving five hours between two countries. I wish I had taken that into consideration when planning this trip, but I did not. This is probably what led me to feeling nauseated and miserable for the first half of the drive to Toronto. (Studies are increasingly indicating  that switching to daylight saving time is bad for one's health.)

Toronto is one of my two favorite cities in the world. (The other is Osaka, Japan.) When I calculated the drive to Montreal from Detroit as being a little over 10 hours in good traffic, I was only too happy to suggest a stopover in Toronto for the night to break up the long drive. To save money, my boyfriend Greg and I booked rooms at hostels for our trip, so our first destination in Toronto was Chinatown and the Chinatown Travelers Home, our first hostel.

This being Chinatown, the hostel had signs posted in both Chinese (I don't know which dialect) and English. The house lady didn't speak English, but she had a young woman with her to translate most of the time, and it really wasn't too much trouble, since she already had my information from booking ahead of time. She calculated the total price for the room and wrote it on a piece of paper. I don't think they accept credit cards aside from the initial online booking through Hostel World, so Greg and I paid in cash (only about C$37).

If you choose to stay in Chinatown, remember to bring slippers with you. I did not, though Greg had some with him. Every time we entered the hostel, we removed our shoes which we left by the door, and wore slippers into the house. The hostel provides some for public use, but if you have your own, it's best to use them.

The hostel and the room were very clean. We had booked a double private with a shared bathroom. Since this was the off-season, so to speak, I had didn't have to wait in line to use the shower which was located downstairs in a standard house bathroom. Attached to our room was a teeny, tiny toilet room with its own sink. It was pretty nice not to have to leave the room to use the toilet, and having the sink right there was also convenient. We also had a TV and cable. I think there was also a mini-fridge, which we didn't use. The bed was a little hard (actually, it reminded me of the mattress I had in my dorm in Japan), and the mattress was too big for the frame, so one side sagged a little. It was more amusing than annoying, I think, since no one fell off in the night.

It was still early afternoon when we checked into the hostel, so there was plenty of daylight left and we headed out to explore our surroundings. We ended up walking to Kensington Market, recommened to me by a friend, located just a few blocks away. I think I can safely say that Kensington Market is unlike any place I have ever been before. Basically, it's maybe a half dozen blocks of townhouses that have been converted into funky and cool, mostly thrift shops. There are also a number of cafes, restaurants, bars, and a few grocery markets. It's a really neat place to hang out! Though possibly hipster central.

If you find yourself in this neck of the woods, I suggest stopping by the Fairies Pyjamas for some very unique clothing items. I wanted to buy so many things there, but I had very little money and it was only the first day of our trip. A lot of the other places didn't stand out as much to me since they were largely vintage stores. There are a couple of cheese shops for my fellow cheese lovers, and a tiny chocolate shop that was a little disappointing in that it didn't offer as much as I thought it would based on outside appearance.

On our way back from Montreal, we again stopped in Toronto. Our second hostel turned out to also be in Chinatown, but further to the north, much closer to Kensington Market and also the University. Which university I have no idea, but the name of the hostel was University Apartment and I recall seeing "university" on the map.

I did not like this hostel as much as the Chinatown Travelers Home. We had to wait several minutes for someone to come out and greet us. In fact, to get into the building, we had to have a fellow traveler who was returning as we were arriving let us in. The house routine wasn't posted in the room as it was at the first hostel, so we had to look around at the entrance, and the room was so tiny that the door hit the corner of the bed when you opened it. There was no toilet in the room, though there was a sink and a tiny television. With so little floor space, I kept tripping over our bags while trying to climb out of the room or use the sink. There was a 24 hour parking garage located right next door, but it's like something out of a post-apocalyptic film and doesn't open until 9am, so don't plan on getting an early start if you park there. The price of the room was almost exactly that of the first one, so between the two, I much preferred the first.

We had more time to spend in Toronto on our second time through. That first night, we walked over to the Eaton Centre, a huge shopping complex that I have visited a few times in the past. It's big. Really big. And so surprisingly close. We could have taken the street car over, but it was about the same amount of time to just walk. I really expected to take more public transportation in Toronto, but we simply didn't need to.

After picking up some wonderful beef shawarma plates at the Urban Eatery, we headed out to find a store that I had discovered and fallen in love with on my previous visit called Bluenotes. Last time I purchased two pairs of cute boxers to sleep in and a couple of novelty T-shirts for friends. Since I hadn't really bought anything on the trip thus far, I decided this would be a good place to once again find fun and useful souvenirs.

Bluenotes prices are shockingly affordable. I could have bought 2 pairs of new jeans for around $30 - and I nearly did! I'm used to finding jeans in a mall in the middle of nowhere America for no less than $40 a piece,  $30 when on sale, and $60 if located in a large city like San Francisco. For $15, I bought 2 T-shirts, one for me and one for Greg. Even though I did lose $7 on the exchange from US$20 to Canadian, this was still a good price. And there was so much more that I wanted to buy!

We also stopped by a store called Roots, recommended by another friend, and the Bay, also known as the Hudson's Bay Company. You know, the fur trading company founded in 1670. Yes, the HBC is still in operation almost 250 years later, making it "the oldest commercial corporation in North America and one of the oldest in the world" according to Wikipedia. Because I have a thing for history, I had to stop by. The store attached to the Eaton Centre is ginormous and also well out of my price range. We didn't end up spending much time there.

The next day we went to Casa Loma, the beautiful mansion on a hill that has been surrounded on all sides by the city of Toronto in the past 100 years since it was built. Technically, Casa Loma is not finished, but it has been open to the public to tour for many decades, and most of the rooms have been restored so you can see what it was like in its day when Sir Henry Pellatt and his wife still lived there.

Casa Loma has been used as a filming location in many movies, most notably to me, as the interior of Charles Xavier's School For Gifted Youngsters in the X-Men films. The conservatory was used as Storm's classroom where Rogue first meets Bobby, and the great hall was transformed into a sort of living room, where they all gathered to watch the troubling news regarding Senator Kelly. One of Scott Pilgrim's showdowns also took place outside.

It's a real shame that Greg couldn't see Casa Loma in the spring or summer when the gardens are in bloom. They're very beautiful! Even without the outside tour, we spent many hours here, though the place was swarming with children due to a special carnival event going on. Also because of this, a number of rooms had been dismantled to make room for games, trapeze equipment, a storyteller, and one end of the upstairs hall was curtained off for a fortune teller. It might have been more fun if I had been expecting it. I visited Casa Loma once before (in summer), and a couple of rooms were open this time that weren't before (the conservatory and other rooms are often rented out for weddings and other gatherings), so it was nice to be able to get in to see them finally. This is one destination you should not miss when visiting Toronto!

Greg and I decided to skip the CN Tower because we've both been up before. I am told that on a clear day, one can see the spray from Niagara Falls from the observation deck of the tower. I have not observed this myself. Clear days are just too hard to come by!

That concludes our brief stay in one of the world's greatest cities. I realize that many Canadians consider Toronto to be dirty, noisy, and overcrowded, and its people to be snobby and rude, but honestly, compared to other places I've been, Toronto is virtually spotless and overflowing with cheerful do-gooders. It remains one of my favorite places on earth!

Saturday, March 9, 2013

A Week's Vacation

Salut! Je suis en vacances jusqu'au 15 Mars. À bientôt!

Hi! I am on vacation until March 15th. See you soon!

Monday, March 4, 2013

Catching A New Job

Yes, I have another new job. No, I did not replace Crazy Wisdom, but my other job at a grocery store. I now spend half my week at the new Ann Arbor location for Catching Fireflies, a "whimsical gift gallery" that sells all kinds of fun, crafty things for the home and more. (You can shop online, so even if you aren't in the Southeast Michigan area, check it out!) My roommate Kimmy got a job there first, then when another position became available, I was ready to throw my hat in the ring, too.
Leaving the grocery store was extremely anticlimactic. I'd worked for the company since 2008, starting in California and transferring to Michigan to be closer to my family when my father became ill. 

On my last night at work in San Francisco, a girl brought in a cake and the managers wrote off some goodies for us all to share in a little farewell feast. Later, I had a going-away party at a nearby bar and many coworkers came to show their support. Everyone knew why I was leaving, and many had separately come to me to offer hugs and wishes of luck. When my father passed away two months later, they all signed a card and sent it to me. The store I was actually working at, the one I just left, did nothing. A few managers and new friends came to me and offered their help and support, but no grand gestures. And leaving there was just another night. A handful of people told me they'd miss me, which was very kind of them. I'll miss them, too, though I am sure I will still see many of them on our off days for coffee dates or when I go in to shop.

The rough thing about leaving is that I am losing my insurance and a good chunk of my retirement fund (since I wasn't 100% vested yet). But I had to leave. I was no longer proud to work there, and I just couldn't take the depressing atmosphere. I kept hearing this from so many transfers over the past couple of months, and I'm going to agree with them: the store I came from was like a family. This one is not.
I'm also taking a cut in pay. But what is life without risk? I've done the math, and I think I can make it, though a few published stories would certainly help. (I'm waiting to hear back from you all!) Also, Catching Fireflies is, so far, an absolute joy to work for. One of my goals is to start selling my crocheted creations, and just as Crazy Wisdom pushes me to want to write and get more stories published, Catching Fireflies makes my hands itch for crafting. My boyfriend Greg and I are planning on turning the second bedroom in our future apartment into a craft room so we can both pursue our artistic interests (he does a lot with metal while I mostly deal in fabrics and yarn). 

April, the woman who started and owns both Catching Fireflies and the Yellow Door Art Market in Berkley,  got her start selling crafts right next door at the Ann Arbor market while she was  student. It seems like a daunting application process to me, though I think once I amass enough stuff (and can rope Greg into joining forces with me), it's quite do-able. With this new position, I will be inspired almost daily to get in gear and work toward that goal. 

Creative people thrive on creativity. Without it, our souls starve and life loses meaning. (Just look at all the artists and writers who have committed suicide.) I think I am right where I need to be right now with my twin passions becoming my sources of income. Becoming self-employed is a little frightening, though, so baby steps. And maybe some connections along the way?

**Check out this lovely article at AnnArbor.com about the new store's opening!**