Sunday, February 19

Roll Bus Roll | Toronto, ON

The snow appears somewhere in upstate New York, around midnight. We're stopped at a service station, the buildings invisible in the inky December night, where the bus driver lights a cigarette and other road travellers chew sleepily on burgers. The pretzel booth is closed, and outside the air is whip-sharp. In neat sections between the building and the bus lies white, unspoilt snow: unspoilt not because it is fresh, but because it has frozen solid and is not worth standing on. It is the first snow I've seen in a few years, London's annual three flakes not counted. I take a blurry photograph, which I later delete; our twenty minutes are up. We return to the bus and sleep all the way to Canada.

In Toronto, snow is part of the colour scheme, falling neatly into its retro-rusted aesthetic; orange, yellow, washed blue, hues that look like sun-faded colour polaroids. As the bus skirts Lake Ontario and buildings climb up either side of the road, I wake, travel pillow askew on my shoulders, and look out at wide expanses of snow between water and skyscrapers. Somebody once described Toronto to me as a more compact New York. After two days walking the city I begin to understand this observation, but from the early morning bus window, where everything is cast white, blue and grey, the city looks too modern to be New York.

Rarely mentioned are the more tedious parts of travelling: getting off an overnight bus with unbrushed teeth and a heavy backpack; a strong desire to go to bed battling your sightseeing plans; trying to find a bank and get your phone to work in a new country; all while conscious of how many hours you've been wearing the same clothes and how your skin feels like a stale raisin. Everything itches, and you're sitting in a strange new room, listening to dustbin lids outside and a dog barking and from downstairs, inexplicably, the Downton Abbey theme tune.

Then you go to the bathroom to throw cold water on your face and you see a poster of Springsteen on the wall and suddenly, overwhelmingly, you feel at home. And before you know it you're in a coffee shop on a street near Kensington Market, drinking a cardamom spiced latte and looking out at the snow-covered triangular Toronto roofs, while James Brown sings something about Christmas. Your teeth are clean and the world seems right again.

It is December twenty-first. Kensington Market is clustered with old buildings painted aqua and burgundy, and shops with names like 'Cheese Magic'. People eat tacos in a bright corner restaurant, step out of butchers and grocers with Christmas food, wander along colourful facades in small groups. A gift shop ripples with last-minute shoppers, Toronto tea towels, and dog-shaped cushions. The streets are scrubbed a flat, wet grey and outlined with thin trails of snow, the sky low. We're not cold yet.

North-east of Kensington Market is the University of Toronto campus. The smudged-beige brick buildings with their arched windows look Georgian, London-ish, and in this snow, yes, like Hogwarts. Nobody is about. A black squirrel occasionally flickers up or down a tree. I learn that one of my boots isn't as snow-proof as I'd thought.

There seems to be a pattern to these colder climes, where around three o'clock every afternoon the freezing air sharpens to a denser grey and curves itself inside your bones. Time for a cup of Tim Horton's coffee a few blocks south.

Every Wednesday evening from six until nine, Toronto's Art Gallery of Ontario offers free entry. It happens to be Wednesday, so we go; in north America, art gallery and museum admission is akin to the price of theatre tickets, and I'm mourning London's standard free entry. Just after six we join the queue bordering the front of the building. I find Hockney straight away, and a whole exhibition on Canadian art. We climb a wooden spiral staircase all the way up to the top floor, level with Toronto's vertical cluster of lights, and lie on giant bean bags in a film room where we're captivated by Francis Alÿs' Reel/Unreel. Bus tiredness and museum legs combined, though, means it's not long before we're back outside in search of poutine.

Poutine. Chips, gravy, cheese, hot and velvet and salty, the kind of food I haven't found since leaving England. Each forkful into the cardboard box is heaven and home and the best thing I have ever eaten (though I feel this way about a lot of food). 'It's like eating the equivalent of a hot water bottle,' says Lizze afterwards. As we step back outside, snow has begun to fall, silently and gently, the first snowfall we've seen in years, and we're buoyed home by childish excitement, catching snowflakes on our tongues, spinning in the streets.

Thursday the sky is bluer and we walk the city from west to east, ending up at the St Lawrence food market for pierogi and knish and almond pretzels. Close by is Toronto's distillery district. Its tall red brick industrial buildings and cobbled streets, so familiar to my English eyes, are now flats and restaurants, but today it is the final day of the Christmas market and the space is thick with woolly-hatted Canadians. Everybody's eating something: the Campbell's soup queue is enormous, and there are people clutching wobbling funnel cake, boxes of poutine, or, more strangely, whole turkey legs. It's the first Christmas market I've been to where the snow isn't fake.

After black sesame lattes at Tandem Coffee we walk down to Lake Ontario, where the ice has been cut up into triangles. At the water's edge we watch planes land at the city's precariously placed airport and imagine what it'd be like here in summer. My feet are freezing. Snow on snow on snow. Back towards the city centre the streets are damp, the snow melted by cars, surges of people from the train stations, and the warm bellies of buildings. Skyscrapers turn from teal to golden to purple. We're at the ice rink in Nathan Phillips Square and skaters pass in front of the giant white letters of the TORONTO illumination. There're no side rails to Canadian ice rinks: separates the wheat from the chaff.

I buy Lizze a hat for Christmas, and we head through Chinatown where we spontaneously try dried persimmon (I still can't decide if I like it or not) and find a 'British-style' pub near the university campus. I'm used to the reservedness of true British pubs so it seems striking how bold and forward guys are here. The first man is either very drunk, very dull, or very deaf; then a Bud Lite promoter gives us free beers and we accidentally gatecrash a high school reunion. Later Lizze tells me that as the high school guys were approaching us, she overheard the words 'follow my lead', and we laugh all the way home (via a steamed-up Jamaican late night diner for fried plantain).

Roll bus roll, take me off
A rolled sweatshirt makes the window soft
If I fall asleep, don't wake me up
Roll bus roll, take me up

If I get one seat, I hope it's the window
And if I get two seats I'll just lie down
But if I get one seat and it's just the aisle
I'll still be asleep before the hundredth mile

*   *    *

FIKA Cafe  |  28 Kensington Ave
Kensington Market
University of Toronto
Art Gallery of Ontario  |  317 Dundas St W
Smoke's Poutinerie  |  578 Queen St W
St Lawrence Market  |  93 Front St E
Distillery District
Tandem Coffee  |  368 King St E
3D Toronto sign  |  Nathan Phillips Square
Madison Avenue Pub  |  14 Madison Ave
Sonic Boom Records  |  215 Spadina Ave

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