By: Daniel Otero
I must have been 19 years old, flying over and over thousands of kilometres of pure virgin-green forest. Between boredom and exhilaration, desperately waiting to land! We were coming over from Iceland on a C-130 Hercules airplane and about to land in Halifax, Nova Scotia. A region that easily looks like Ireland and it can be confusing, close enough to Greenland and Eastern United States. And I thought in a morbid-kind of way, what if the airplane fell from the sky, in these woodlands nobody would be able to find us! Then, as the announcement came, I strapped myself down. The Captain, an old-crusty pilot from Vietnam was about to land and I think his hands shook a little too much. But after 15 minutes of winds and turbulence, you had to admire him. Having this feeling of ‘falling out the sky’ we landed in this magical country. I had been here before. However, I never did fly in. It was my second year of military service and I had finished doing a ‘hop’ from Ireland, England, Iceland and finally landing in “Oh, Canada!” It was cold and breezy, as I ran with my duffle bag down the tarmac. I had the energy of youth, something I couldn’t easily do presently! We all laughed as it was raining sideways, if you can believe that! We reached the terminal and thought, you got to be kidding! Whipping ourselves down from the pouring rain… This weather was extreme and it was still all too beautiful. Engulfing the base in a pure-natural state of green… I was young and happy. It was a “richly-deserved leave” of 30 days. When you’re young you do have this spirit of adventure, something that becomes more fearful as one grows older and I thought, “Nothing can stop me now!” In any event, I was energized and fearless against the world! Ready for a travel inside a country that’s the size or larger than the United States and barely populated due to its extreme weather.
Canada has a population of only 35 million in present time (2013), more of those living closer to the Canadian/U.S. border. The majority of the country is isolated, surrounded by the United States, Greenland (Norway) and Alaska (U.S.A.). And Canada when I was there it was considered a second world country. Today it is a first in almost everything: education, health, business and quality of life—especially for young immigrants!
I would travel across Canada and into the United States. Back then, this was my third trip to Canada in my life and at that point nothing ever prepares you for the learning experiences one should have. I dreamt of Toronto and Niagara, but it would be a first into Quebec. What seemed like a strange, foreign land [that is] only several hundreds of kilometers away from my country. Foreign indeed and strangely closer to home, with several hours of driving—the border crossing was as easy as a passport and if not, a driver’s license or any type of official I.D. (Identification) They have the same language as the States, so it was to be good fun!
I was in route via bus when it happened… Had to rethink twice to remember, are we in Canada or France. It suddenly dawned on me as the expressway became a smaller version of France and the language changed from English to French radically fast! Dual language is now commonly used and it felt so distinctively European, although I was in the Americas.
Now, the distance between Halifax and Montreal is approximately 1,239/1,244 kilometres (give or take). Whether it is train or bus, you’re looking roughly at a two or three night journey. This will depend on your plans or stopovers, well worth the ride, better yet worth the experience. If I was to do the trip today, I rather do it via train—quicker, less hassles. There’s more comfort for the money and as always, train routes in Canada are slower than Europe, but these provinces have beautiful views. The entire voyage will make you “Oh! Ah!” when the train or bus curves through a mountain pass or any natural scenery. Though, if it’s with enough time and reservations, you can get a discount and may be able to travel for around $130 Canadian dollars in today’s cost of living. Check before you go, prices are subject to change. Even scenes as miraculous as the Northern Lights are just glorious in these parts. It’s good to learn with Canada, that to travel this country–it cannot only be once. Throughout my life I had to return over and over! This land does draw you into nature. I began travelling into Canada when I was five years old, as a holiday with family and continued until I was 36. This nation is gorgeous and I’ve already been here seven times, speaking contemporarily as I write these words. It’s so abroad, but so close to the United States.
Je t’aime Montreal: I love you Montreal
Montreal has a meaning, if your French is rusty as mine. The actual translation is ‘Mount Royal’, given in honor of the King of France. Quebec was established as a French colony, by explorer Jacques Cartier. Where it turns controversial was during the French & Indian Wars (1754 – 1763)! This province that completely spoke French passed on to English hands when the British won the War. The French and Quebecois left behind–held on fiercely to their language and sovereign rights. The English did try to impose their language and however, it never did work. Until present day the controversy has been fueled by a Province that speaks more French than English and certain numbers of the population do not speak English at all and would prefer to be separated from Canada. Will this ever happen? I’m in no position to state out of respect and love for this country! And what makes Quebec in personality is their language and culture; it’s a flavor all its own. Absolutely unique and special, and what should change. Well, in my opinion, nothing—when it comes to language and customs. As far as politics are concerned, that’s an entirely different topic altogether and I’ll stay out of that one!
Lacking in knowledge of French! No problem, a quick greeting–Bon jour (Good day) and common courtesies as calling a person Monsieur (Sir) or Madame (Ma’am) are important. A smile for others will get you through any door. For those living in Montreal, they will easily speak both languages, English and French. Unless you’re in the isolated portions of Quebec, where only French is spoken, the principal cities have people which are readily bilingual and willing to help you out! Just behave and be patient!
Speaking of Quebec, let’s talk about a ‘Daughter of this Province’. Born to a Quebecois family and the youngest of 14 children, she became an international singer by the time she was 12. This young lady only spoke French and came from the small town of Charlemagne. By the time she was 17, she decided to intensely learn English, [she had no knowledge of the language beforehand]. Cleverly, she learnt the language in 18 months. This girl wanted to expand into the English global market and with her new found knowledge became an international-super star. Come on? Don’t you know? You should know her! Can you guess? Her most popular song of all time is “My Heart Will Go On”, you guessed it… It is Celine Dion! She had a fairytale wedding to her manager, Rene Angelil in Montreal… And here I’ll begin with this amazing city.
Montreal always gave me that feeling of France all over again; however, kinder! With the bilingual nature, French easily meshed with English in a colorful bilingual montage! But here it’s French-first. The first place I noticed beyond a doubt was ‘Notre Dame’. The Basilica is one with that of Paris, and only it is so from the front. Dion’s wedding took place here and it was a like the entire nation joined in, since it was televised at the time! Considered the ‘Royal Wedding’ of Canada.
Canada does have a Monarch, Queen Elizabeth II and a Prime Minister presently serving at Her Majesty’s leisure, Stephen Harper. However, it’s only in name. Since this is a Commonwealth with England. Many things here were never the same as the U.K. Canadians have their own distinct personalities and moreover, so do the Quebecois. Distinctively Roman-Catholic, compared to their neighbors in other provinces, which are most likely to be Protestant. And Montreal has that cool feeling about it, relaxed and composed. A little more layback than the rest of Canada!
One thing that draws us together is good food. Food is easy and a little more expensive here. It’s on the French side and flavors as taste are on the menu all over the new and old Town. Montreal is no exception with street food like poutine. You have fried potatoes or in a chip style with cream cheese and curd. Versions carry ketchup or curry sauce; others are a run through the mild to intense in delicious gravy sauces. You can’t leave Montreal without tasting or having poutine. It’s the staple of this City. Considered ‘the real stuff’, find La Banquise at 994 Rachel East Road (Rue est). Other things in Old Montreal are the varieties of maple syrup. It is big business in Canada and to take a bottle of traditional syrup is like going home with ‘gold’. Well, it’s what makes Canada so Canadian. From the symbol on the flag, to its trees, leafs–and to be tasted on a waffle or pancake. Voila, magical! The maple syrup is a must and pick-up. As in all immigrant societies, variety is a constant and changes are good! They keep the society open and fresh with ideas. The case of Montreal is not as different. Old restaurants in the City are landmarks like Wings, on the side of Chinatown, located on Saint Laurent Boulevard. The best noodles in Montreal! Around since the 1940s, Wings serves all goodness in Chinese cuisine and if you cannot be in a gourmet restaurant for breakfast, lunch and dinner—try vendor/street/takeaway foods. Equally as good, it is so French in a Quebecois sort of way and you’ll be avoiding any fast foods as McDonalds for that matter!
While spending a short visit in Montreal, drive or take a bus down the boulevards. You’ll get the rapid feeling of a city well founded in the 17th Century, but developed in the 19th. With Renaissance and Baroque styled buildings elegantly decorating the avenues of this City! Structures to get these feelings from: Saint Joseph’s Oratory and Montreal City Hall. Located on Queen Mary Road, Saint Joseph’s is cool and sleek, with a statue decorating the front. It feels like it was placed on a mount to elevate gloriously the entire City. And in a way it does, Saint Joseph’s is the largest church in Canada. Montreal City Hall gives the feeling of a perfect historical building and at one time a hotel. No other place can compare; therefore, get out and walk around for a while to get the grandest pleasures of these two City structures.
For education there’s McGill University, recognized as one of the best schools in Canada and throughout the world. Right now, when visiting, there’s no place I rather be than Montreal. It was home to the World’s Fair in 1967, today’s Expo and one thing to do and remember is visit the Biosphere; which it’s a version of a geodesic sphere.
Such buildings, food, people and education give Montreal that quality of life which Canada is known for. When all is said and done, one motto does come to mind, “Concordia Salus”. “Well being through harmony”, you give it indeed, Montreal. You’ve done it, indeed!
Hogtown here I come
From Montreal to Toronto via train is approximately 4:37 hours. You’ll be crossing into two different worlds, one of French-speaking Quebecois to English-speaking Ontarians. It’s all good, nice-warm feeling to say the least! The capital of Canada has always been misunderstood for Toronto, forgetting about poor old Ottawa, with its English versions of architecture, parliament and small castles or palaces. The same does happen in Australia–everybody is always going for the popular city of Sydney and forgetting about Canberra. Toronto is the vision that people look for in Canada. Plus, it is a city in unity with gardens and worried about proper social integration.
However, before I present Toronto, I must present the province of Ontario. Ontario’s beauty is a given and it’s the main province in all of Canada. After all, it contains the Capital. Several Canadians are from these parts and have made Canada proud. You have James Cameron, director of “Titanic” and “Avatar”. Avril Lavigne is here on the list, with her rock music and songs like, “Complicated” or “My Happy Ending”, where her career like persona have blossomed into a beautiful and successful young woman. Justin Bieber, a tinny bopper with songs like “Baby” and reputation to piss-off many. Others from Canada, funny man Jim Carrey for example; however, these three are right now on top of their game! Canadians are sadly stereotyped as Americans for their American-English. We assume they are Americans since their country is so close to ours! And there’s more to learn about Canada and nothing is what it seems. Canada has the six nations and Inuit, aboriginal people which were here before the white man. This country has it all and in good taste, like a beaver tail in cinnamon! Just come and see…
Toronto began its existence as York in 1793. It quickly evolved into a Victorian and Edwardian city, close enough to the United States to do a ‘skip and hop’ over Lake Ontario. But far enough to have its own unique blend of cultures, and Toronto gives this pop of newness. In a European and Americana sort of way, it brings both worlds together without being conflictive as it has happened historically in the United States.
Usually I get excited into a new visit or a return to an old one. I was pretty stoked, as I went in the direction of the CN Tower. In any part of the City you just look up, even when lost and there it is! The Tower is a like a guiding post to find across town. You know and it’s strange, a friend of mine had a dream that she was floating on something, as she was high in the sky. You never take dreams too serious until they come true! Going up into the CN Tower, I finally understood her dream. As we lay on the glass floor and took pictures of ourselves 553 meters above ground. Another friend, Sun Yongbin gave one of the best accolade and description of the structure, “As for Toronto, when I was on the top of CN Tower, looking down at all the other high buildings, I felt I was very small and they became very tiny then.” The CN Tower opened to the public in 1976 and it’s one of the tallest structures in North America. This is a symbol of Canada when approaching Toronto Harbour. Thinking further, it was time to revisit ‘an old friend’. The neighborhood and area of Yonge Street, it is considered by the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest street in the world. These past and more recent trips to Canada beauty shops have sprung-up throughout Yonge and in present-day it’s a matter of entering a Lush store. There are these feelings and smells of nature. And they are natural cosmetics, in there majority for women; if you have a scent for lavender, rose and tanginess in the air of soaps and deodorants. It’s just lovely… I picked up a couple of things, as I noticed the females just packing everything crazily into their shopping bags.
Lunch time, and there was a moment to go into Spadina. There, in this district was the old Chinatown, popular and international as ever. It’s recognized as the third largest in North America, after New York and San Francisco. Two-hundred thousand Chinese have made their homes here and it’s no wonder when 49% of Toronto is a city for children of immigrants. In a couple of years as many as 63% (Wikipedia.org, 2013) of this City’s population will be immigrants, outnumbering the locals. That’s okay, if Canada and especially Toronto can continue with the belief, “Diversity Our Strength”; they will be fine.
Stay along Yonge Street, University and Spadina Avenues. These three have a mixture as a variety that is as foreign, international. Not only Chinatown is good for eats, other neighborhoods beacon around here, like Corso Italia has a large Italian-immigrant population. You can listen to the sounds of “That’s Amore” while enjoying pizzas, breads and pastas.
There is Koreatown along Bloor Street, with small family restaurants and karaoke bars. Following Bloor Street, between Christie and Bathurst Streets you’ll find “The Annex”. Known as the Seaton Village, it’s good to notice the old styled homes kept as a reminder of the City’s past and what was once a very English colony. People lived in these Victorian/Edwardian constructions. The middle and lower middle classes, laborers and skilled workers made their lives here, building Toronto up from the ground for “King/Queen and Country”. This is not the case anymore, now Canada has its own set of governing laws since the 1980s. But if you’re a history buff, these are landmarks to compare the old with the new! Casa Loma is another example of a Victorian Styled Castle. For $18 it’s to be transported back into the early 20th Century, when Casa Loma was built with marble structures, furnishings, carpets and towers to become the envy of any Victorian Castle back in England.
Part of the history of this City is focused on the ROM (Royal Ontario Museum). Attracting visitors to see the arts, archeology and abstracts come to life. Best day of the week to come here is on a Friday. Capturing attention on the young, middle and old; come on down and catch a glimpse of magnificence. It’s good fun here, you know! It opens for almost 12 hours (11 and a 1/2 to be exact). An average ticket will go for $16. Discounts are as low as $10 and with special viewings up to $27. Give it a go, it’s one of the must see museums in this City and without a doubt, one of excellence!
After a shock of artistic beauty there’s still more, catch a ride up to North York. Here you will understand why Toronto is known as “The city within a park”. Natural beauty is coming out through Toronto Botanical and Edwards Gardens. It’s a peaceful walk to relax and reflect on a trip I’m about to end; moving closer and closer towards the border.
From Toronto to Niagara: One Hundred Kilometers to ‘good old’ U.S. of A.
In present day, one more thing that’s to fancy is a tour through the Distillery District. Close to Toronto Harbour and Don River Mouth; this area offers the comfort of buying distilled-bottled liquor to enjoy or the local shops, small restaurants and cafés. Hard to decide, and it’s when I choose to buy a bottle of Iced Wine, another must do! To try a bottle it’s like drinking iced heaven and later taking a remembrance for the family.
After the Distillery District, the following day I’m off to the border. If you missed the opportunity to buy a bottle of Wine in Toronto; then stop at the local grape farms on your way to Niagara, Highway 401 to QEW (Queen Elizabeth Way). I used to do it this way back in the day! This is the busiest expressway in North America and 100 kilometers from Toronto to Niagara. I’m headed into New York State, but want to do a stop at Niagara Falls. The bus will go at a rate, fast enough to leave us on the Canadian side in 90 minutes. Niagara Falls, Canada has the advantage of architecture and a view of the falls. The time that I was here was a bit chilly to do anything. A glorious time to visit Niagara Falls is summer. Firework displays, barbecues and music are a constant. There’s a boat ride worth all the hassles of lines, heat and crowds during July and August. Which side is better to stay on? If on a short holiday of Niagara, I mean, I love my country and all; and it’s still super cool to stay on the Canadian side. More things to do, [touristy] like taking the Skylon Tower at night to see all of Niagara Falls in its glory: with fireworks, falls and basically everything! Take the boat ride during the day, you’ll wear a blue raincoat and see how majestic this place can be. Canada is fun and walking through Main Street in Niagara, I think back of past summers. As I sat and had breakfast at the local diner and remembered seeing a man like, Nik Wallenda walking the ‘tightrope’ from the Canadian to the U.S. side. It was impressive and made my heart skip a beat a couple of times, in my own fear of heights! This was long past and again looked out the window and in my memory, now there’s nothing there. Too cold and windy to do anything, but admire this great view of nature, the falls. Finishing my breakfast and leaving the diner, I take my duffle bag, put it on my back and walk slowly across the Rainbow Bridge. In my imagination I see a lucky rainbow that has guided me through this week’s journey. Stopping for a moment, I symbolically cross the yellow line, look back and see the beautiful Canadian flag waving to me and look forward, and there it is, ‘Stars and Stripes’ (the U.S. flag). I look over the Bridge into the canyon drop and it feels scary as water rushes 202 feet (62 meters) below. This is my country, U.S. I’m walking towards it no matter what, right or wrong and I go forward into the gates with my I.D. card. I flash it once and proceed through the rotating-iron bars!
I’m off now to see my family. Back to New York City and recalling those days of youth. I’ll be visiting family and here will begin another adventure!