Sunday, February 07, 2010

Canadian Impressions: February 2010

Recently, I was in Canada for a few days. It was my first visit ever to the country, and left me desiring for more. Canada may not appear foreign if you are an American, because you don't need a visa to travel there. But I did find Canada to be very different from USA. And, since I am comparing apples to apples - Toronto to New York - I think my impressions are representative. First, the Canadian winters. The average daytime temperatures are about 10 degrees lesser than those in the New York east coast area.

I landed there pretty early in the morning on a Sunday, 7 am, hoping to make the most of day (and also for some reasons beyond my control). We later walked the streets of Downtown Toronto scouting for breakfast. We moved from shop to shop looking at the operating hours. None of them would open before 10 am. By 9:30 am some Starbucks opened up. Though I was grateful, if you have been up since 3 o'clock in the morning, you want food by 9 am, not just a coffee with a snack. Lesson number one - Canadians are in no hurry to open their shops on a Sunday. Be prepared to wait till 10:30 am if you want a proper sit down breakfast. There weren't too many (rather any, when we started) people at the Younge Street - believed to longest in the world - even in the downtown area. Finally by midday few people started venturing out.

In a few hours you understand the reasons for the Canadian way of life. It was freezing. Further movement was subject to a hat and a pair of warm gloves. We finally gave up and had a juice and a pretty average Thai soup. The only thing great out the soup was the potion. I closed my day with a very early dinner. The biggest reason, almost all dining places closed by 6 pm. I returned back to the hotel by 6 pm to sleep for a good 14 hours. What better lesson in hibernation can you ever get.

Armed with the lessons of day 1, we begin day 2 in a relaxed Canadian way. Monday is the first day of the week and I noticed is the laid back and balanced Canadian life versus New York. The operating hours of a bank branch that I visited- 9:30 am to 4:30 in the evening. Compare it to 6:00 pm for a similar institution in New York. Or Indian public sector institutions, which work from 9:30 am to 5:30 pm. ICICI Bank, a private bank I was closely associated with as a part of my job in India, has its branches open from 8:30 am to 7 pm. Indian public sector banks which used to have their customer service hours from 9:30 am to 2:00 pm, have extended them as computerization has reduced the amount of manual work involved. However, the merit of timings become apparent after 5 pm when the winds become really chilly. You feel a strong desire to not go out unless you really have to. But a lot of eating and drinking places are open late on weekdays. I mean late by Canadian definition – 11 pm. We adapted to style of Canadian commerce and skipped our breakfast for an early lunch instead.

The rest of our stay passed nicely. Though we saw all around the Downtown, the Financial and the Theater districts, I decided against venturing too far out. I also tried this great place that serves vegetarian cuisine from around the world. We also met an old friend Karan, who is now settled in Toronto. Few other takeaways from the visit, Toronto isn't full of Indians as a lot of us think. I spotted fewer Indians than I usually do walking in Jersey and New York. Karan insists that it is the most cosmopolitan city in the world though I disagree. I believe the place has far fewer people of Asian – Chinese, Korean, and Japanese – origin too. The population is largely Caucasian White. I didn't visit the Greek, Chinese or Indian settlements around the city. But it does have food from all over the world, lots of Thai places, tea houses, Chinese restaurants, Sushi places and Pizza outlets. The public transport if good with Subway in the north to south and streets cars (buses or trams if you prefer) that run on rails in the east west direction.

Colder Toronto weather; higher transient population or the tougher corporate life in New York could all be possible explanations. But all of them lead to the conclusion that Toronto is more focused on family and having a relaxed balanced life as compared to New York. (Btw, Toronto is a more expensive city than New York.)