We scoured the city from the plane as it came in to land, looking for signs of the snow that we hoped would be there, but there wasn’t much to be seen. Not that it wasn’t cold enough. A thin draft of icy air blew between the plane door and the aerobridge as we alighted and reminded us just how far we had travelled from Belize.
The train from the airport to Union Station in downtown Toronto held us in its artificially warm embrace and it wasn’t until we had to leave the station and make a dash for the subway that the cold had a chance to bite. We donned what coats we had, inadequate as they were, and stepped into the city at night.
It was only 50 metres until we were indoors again, but that short dash was enough to confirm that this was not winter as we know it. This was the big league, a proper chill, a chest freezer on high. I loved it as soon as my cheeks started to sting. It’s been 20 years since Emma and I last spent a winter in Toronto and the unaccustomed cold was just as much of a novelty now as it was then.
We made our way through the metro system to Broadview Station, our disposition diametrically opposed to the commuters who have seen it all a thousand times before. At Broadview we skipped across the road and were warmly welcomed back to Jill, Anthony and Jackson’s (Emma’s cousin, husband and their son) place where we checked into our regular suite on the third floor.
Toronto survival gear (coats, scarves, gloves and mittens) were issued while we scoffed down grilled cheese sandwiches to make up for the meals we had missed while flying that day. I don’t need a scarf I thought. A coat… of course I’ll need a coat. A toque… (beanie) of course I’ll need a toque. Gloves… of course I’ll need gloves. But a scarf… I’ve never seen the point.
The next morning was a little over two weeks before Christmas and there was a tree to be procured to help make the season bright. We donned the afore mentioned Toronto survival gear and ventured forth for a stroll down the Danforth, a trendy street in inner Toronto lined with specialty shops and restaurants. Jill and Anthony had put in an order for snow in anticipation of our need for a white Christmas and almost on queue little white flakes were wafting from the sky. I zipped my coat as high as it would go. It was snug and I was warm but a cold draft slithered down my neck.
After collecting the tree, hot dogs needed BBQ’ing for lunch. Volunteers though were hard to find despite Jill’s insistence that BBQ’ing in the snow is a Canadian tradition. I agreed to take on the task because it was a good excuse to stand outside in the falling snow. I clad myself in Anthony’s bogs (big winter snow boots which he occasionally insisted belonged to him), my coat, toque and tongs and stepped out into the freezer where a cold draft ran down my neck.
After lunch we all took Roscoe (Jill and Anthony’s cocker-poo) for a walk. I’ll try the scarf I thought. Snowflakes the size of dinner plates kept on coming and the grey city was beginning to look like the winter wonderland one imagines when singing Christmas carols. It was a delight and the scarf around my neck kept the minus eleven-degree air from where it wasn’t supposed to be.
‘Scarves are beginning to make sense to me’, I commented to Jill.
‘You should call your next blog scarf enlightenment’, she replied.
Amy, Oliver and Jackson made snowballs and threw them at each other before discovering that of the adults I yelled the least when errant missiles headed my way. Scarves, I discovered, are especially useful in a snow fight, though they don’t do much for your face.
By the time we got home sufficient snow had accumulated for shovelling. Amy and Oliver set to but without any clear intent of clearing the walkway. A snowman was the real objective though Anthony declared it to be the wrong kind of snow. ‘It’s not packing snow’ he said and he was right. It was all fluffy and soft and wouldn’t stick together like a snowman should.
The next day was a more sombre occasion. Emma’s grandma Evelyn passed away earlier this year and with ourselves and other Australian relatives scheduled to visit at this end of the year, her memorial service was held over until our collective arrival.
Family and friends gathered as families do, in Oakville, to farewell one of their own and I pondered whether our sadness was because someone we love had died or because we who remain are poorer for their passing. Probably it’s both and probably the point is moot. The emotions we experience when we say goodbye strip away the day to day, remind us that our day is coming too and nudge us to hang on that much tighter to everyone still here.
An early Christmas back at Shirley and George’s (Emma’s aunt and uncle) after the service was the perfect way to do just that. I haven’t got the words to describe how great it was to see family from home that we haven’t seen since January and family from Canada we haven’t seen for much longer than that. Neither do I have the words to describe the happy contentedness that came with sitting in their company while the afternoon wiled itself away.
It would have been nice to all spend a few more days together, but there were so many visiting Australian’s that George and Shirley’s house was bursting at the seams. We returned from Oakville to Toronto along with Jill, Anthony and Jackson and got back to some serious touristing while they got back to school and work.
Jill and Anthony and Shirley and George had given us Toronto City Passes and so we headed off to the Science Centre one day and then the aquarium with Brendon, Kathleen and Isaac the next. Later we also visited the Royal Ontario Museum and took a trip up the CN Tower for the second time in a matter of months, this time for the winter views.
The aquarium was unexpectedly excellent and had me happily snapping away at jellyfish, clown fish, seahorses, rays and other curiosities. It took us hours to get through, though that may have been because our progress was stymied by happy chatter and a quest for the perfect selfie with a shark.
At the end of the week the family was reunited for an axe throwing party. It’s what Canadians do to let off some steam I suppose. In a big warehouse in a seemingly abandoned part of town we gathered, regaled in our best lumberjack shirts, to compete for the title of trans-continental axe throwing champion (yep… I just made that up).
Axe throwing is like darts… with axes. Not full axes, but little ones. Hatchet sized, not that the smaller size makes it any easier. ‘The trick’, Anthony told me, ‘is all in the follow through’. I believed him because he was the reigning transcontinental axe throwing champ. I endeavoured to study his movements as he demonstrated how to do it in kitchen one morning while preparing a batch of ‘world famous scrambled eggs’.
To throw an axe you lift it up behind your head and fling it forward while simultaneously lunging forward and sticking your chest forward and swinging your arms down past your side. Easy right? Not so much as it turns out. It’s tricky to get the axe rotation right and a foot placed slightly forward or slightly back from the mark can be all it takes to turn the rewarding ‘thock’ of a hatchet lodging in timber into the frustrating ‘ping’ of metal as it rebounds and skitters across the floor to land somewhere near your feet.
Fortunately there were coaches on hand to help us through it and after the warm up I was feeling quietly confident. My confidence however was misplaced as it quickly became apparent we were in the company of some skilled practitioners. Uncle Ewan and Uncle George are the true lumberjacks and their age should fool no one. Their consistency left me trembling in my boots, and the more I trembled the more my axes behaved like boomerangs. Anthony too, the reigning champ, was having a bad day.
We went round for round in an action-packed tournament until scores were added up and the final eight revealed. George was minor premier and unquestioned favourite for the title but in an unexpected turn of events he was upstaged in the first round of the playoffs. Ewan threw consistently while George suffered an uncommon bout of the hee-bee-jee-bees.
At the end it was Ewan, and Anthony’s nephew Nick who played off in the final and they went axe for axe until someone called out, ‘Bring out the big axe’ (a full size axe used to break deadlocks). The threat of the big axe broke Ewan’s mojo and his next offering pinged off the target like a basketball off a backboard. Nick capitalised on the error and a new transcontinental axe throwing champ was crowned.
We got up to lots of other things during our second stay in Toronto – too many to describe. They included a day of indoor mountain biking, ice skating at Nathan Phillips Square, tobogganing on the slopes of Riverdale park, a day trip to Niagara Falls and time spent wandering the malls of the city looking for Christmas presents.
In between times the wine and laughter flowed freely at Jill and Anthony’s place as we sat around listening to old vinyl, playing Mario kart with Jackson on the third floor, watching The Eagles and Led Zeppelin in concert in the basement, playing a dice game called Farkle, and on Christmas day… racing wind up reindeer across the kitchen floor.
Alas all good things come to an end and on the 27th December (Emma’s birthday) we packed up our things for the second last time and eagerly awaited the arrival of our friends from Ottawa to whisk us away for our ‘Grant’ finale. Just one week separated us from the end of a year roaming the world, and what a week it was, but that’s another story.