Tuesday, August 21, 2007

First Impressions of Toronto

It's big. Flying over the city at night it was bigger than Lake Ontario, all red and orange and sequined.

The traffic lights have yellow backgrounds (not black, as from where I come from). The lights switches are upside down. The toilets are permanently flooded. Driving down the road is like cutting your own hair in a mirror.

In the main street there are stalls and beggars and men with blind sticks playing the flute. There are bits of cabbage in the gutters and the footpath suffers from a measles of bubblegum. In the windows of Asian eateries there are animal carcasses strung up for display. They are red and sunburnt and shiny with sweat, and the chickens have floppy necks.

In the hostel where I stay there are no teatowels in the kitchen. The hall smells like a fish-and-chip shop and the lounge like a butcher's. The air-conditioning works, but the air comes in from a back-alley filled with the smell of ancient grease. In the entrance there is a sign on the wall saying "No soliciting."

The hostel is in a place called Kensington. Kensignton is cramped and shabby and leans on a funny angle. The shabbiness is partly a fashion statement and partly a sign of poverty and neglect, but it is hard to know which is which.

Bills grow like bark on the lampposts. Some of the graffiti is neat and colourful, bordered with thick black lines. The rest of it is black and jagged and suggestive of social problems. Men with limps walk down the street talking to themselves. A thin man puts up small yellow posters and makes loud barking noises. I go up to one of the yellow posters: it is an advertisement for the Kensington community centre family weekend.

In the evening there are tramps in the shadows and shiny new Beetles in the street. Walk ten metres off the main street and you see a respectable neighbourhood with new cars rolling down the road and squirrels playing in the trees. It is strange that a city so big can be so compressed.

I have never thought of Universities as decadent places: all that studiousness is disarming. But compared to its surrounds, the University of Toronto is luxurious. It has wide green spaces. It has a football field with clean black gates and grass as bright as new beans. It has ivy and red bricks and spires. It has buildings with signs outside featuring short biographies of the architect. It is clean.