Tag Archives: matt’s canadian adventure

In Praise of Tour Guides: World Tourism Day 2011

(As today is the UN’s World Tourism Day, I thought I’d repost this old entry…)

As I may have mentioned here in the past, I’m an information junkie. However, I’m an information junkie cursed with a terrible Swiss Cheese of a memory, possibly caused by an old gypsy woman, and therefore I’m a fan of tour guides.

(The Glass Floor in the CN Tower can hold the weight of 14 hippos.)

We spent a lot of time on tour buses this week, mainly because a ticket lasts for something like five days and thus it’s easy transport around an unfamiliar city. The great thing about this is that it also comes with a commentary and, as I’m the sort of guy who sits and listens to DVD commentary tracks, that’s a selling point.

(The horses in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police are classed as officers, and get badge numbers and official funerals.)

I enjoyed the Toronto tour guides a lot (ShopDineTour Toronto, for a free plug), not least because they pull off the sort of trick that I just can’t – they know what they’re talking about, they can remember it, and they can communicate it in an entertaining way. This is the sort of thing I struggle with – my brain has a communication and information retention firewall installed, and so when the guide on the way to Niagara Falls is reciting the history of Toronto AND making it interesting, I’m in awe. He just seemed to know vast amounts about John Graves Simcoe, the guy who founded Toronto, and yeah, sure, he’s making a living from reciting this stuff but it’s something I could never do. I’d get the script all tangled up in my brain, and then knock myself out on a low-hanging branch.

(Casa Loma, a mansion/castle just outside of downtown Toronto, was used as the filming location for Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters in the first two X-Men movies… but not the third.)

That said, I also want to give a shout-out to guides from other cities – some the people who first got my respect as guides were the US National Park rangers on Alcatraz Island, who not only knew all about the old prison there but also the oysters and fish that live around the island. It’s a cool, outdoorsy job, but it’s also got a sense of the geek spirit, in the most postive way – the idea that this stuff is cool, it’s good to be enthusiastic about it, and there’s nothing wrong with communicating that enthusiasm to the people who pay to do the tour. It’s fun.

(Yonge Street is the longest street in the world, stretching 1896 miles out of Toronto. Many dispute its claim to this, however, but I don’t care.)

And don’t forget the drivers – heck, my main regret from Niagara Falls was that they didn’t give the driver a mic as well, because he was as clued up as the guide and had a fun double-act thing going on. We were near enough the front to hear this, but it was gold. The personalities made a pretty long journey that much more entertaining.

(The city was originally named York, but when New York got too big, the Canadians renamed it Toronto so there wouldn’t be comparisons.)

But for courtesy, friendliness and entertainment value, we probably have to give the award to the guide we saw a few times throughout the week, who recognised us and said hi, bothered to tell us when the bus times were so we didn’t end up inadvertantly stranded, and, while we guessed he was a bit geeky from his first MacGyver reference, the fact that he admitted to being a comic collector in front of a bus full of people gave him geek kudos. AND he had his Toronto knowledge. You can’t ask for more than that.

(Toronto is North America’s third largest film and TV filming location, after LA and New York.)

So if you’re ever in Toronto, check out the yellow buses. They’ll even give you a free map!

Toronto Smells! Follow-up ( #SmellyTO )

Apparently Toronto’s mystery smell is the fault of springtime. It’s always the quiet ones…

Toronto Smells! ( #SmellyTO )

No, please, Canadians please come back. I can personally vouch that Toronto didn’t smell when I was there last year. However, it seems that there’s a mysterious smell been tormenting the city this morning. But don’t despair, all great cities have their smelly moments – witness the Big Stink of London in 1858.

Not that I’m suggesting that Toronto is dirty like Victorian London. I love Toronto, certainly more than I love London…

Writer’s Block: Heroes and villains

What do you mean, ‘childhood’ (although if you want to stretch a definition of ‘superheroes’, then my childhood sci-fi heroes were Doctor Who and Optimus Prime…)?! I got into superheroes when I was a responsible adult and Forbidden Planet opened in Wolverhampton, around 1999-ish. My favourite superhero is Superman, the original and best. There are a bunch of reasons for that (not least because he went toe-to-toe with the Ku Klux Klan in real life), but here’s something I wrote a while back that sums up why (without actually summing anything up at all…):

I’ve spent the last week in Toronto, and I’m also a monumental geek. Those two facts may be evident from this blog, but they both collided this week. See, I own, and wear, a Superman t-shirt.

Toronto has a major, if under-reported Superman connection – it’s the inspiration for Metropolis, the character’s home city. Joe Shuster, the artist who created Superman along with writer Jerry Siegel, lived in Toronto for the first 10 years of his life, learning to draw and working as a paperboy for the Toronto Star – it’s no coincidence that when Clark Kent first got his gig as a reporter he worked for the Daily Star, although it was renamed as the Daily Planet within a couple of years.

Toronto is also home to the World’s Biggest Bookshop, which may be somewhat corporate, but hey, I’m a book geek, the place was calling to me. There I am, browsing the history section (I think), when an older guy spots my shirt:

“Superman fan, huh?”
“Oh hi, yeah, I am.”
“Up, up and away… Anyway, just wanted to say I like the shirt.”
“Cool, it gets a lot of comments.”
“Really? Glad I’m not coming across as being strange then.”

There’s a CTV News article on the Shuster-Toronto link, and Joe Shuster’s final interview, in which he talks about his background, was published in 1992; it seems to be a way of him restating the link between his most famous creation and his Canadian heritage. It’s a good interview, tinged with sadness and nostalgia. In some ways it’s a reminder of just how different the world was when Superman was created back in 1938.

We’re at the top of the CN Tower, the second tallest free-standing structure in the world. One of the coolest parts of this is the glass floor, 2.5 inches of reinforced glass that can, apparently, hold the weight of 14 hippos, although I think we need to get 14 hippos up there to check this out. The fact that it’s five times stronger than it needs to be doesn’t stop people from being scared of walking on it – after all, it’s looking straight down over 1000 metres, and if you’re scared of heights, it’s going to make you a bit twitchy. Me? I’m daft enough to be one of the people jumping on it.

A middle-aged lady, however, was scared, which is why she starts shouting “Superman, Superman!” at me. I end up having to hold her hand as she walks gingerly across the frame, with me telling her all the time that it’s perfectly safe, that they use this stuff in space shuttles. I think she felt better with the Superman logo being around, even if it was a fat Brit wearing it – I ended up having my photo taken.

So maybe Superman, one of the USA’s archetypal heroes, owes something to Canada too. I like that idea, but maybe that’s because it fits my stereotypes – I always see Constable Benton Fraser, who’s a character seemingly popped out of Canada’s subconcsiousness in much the same way that the Doctor popped out of Britain’s, as having Superman-y characteristics. I like the idea that Toronto, which has cemented itself as one of my favourite cities, has also influenced one of my favourite characters. It’s kinda cool.

We’re riding around on one of Toronto’s many tour buses (that’s another blog – don’t worry, Canadian tour guides, it’s going to be a nice one), and this is something like the third time we’ve done the loop and I’m a bit jetlagged, so I’m zoning out a little. I notice that, as we’re held up in traffice on one of Toronto’s many streets filled with cafes and restaurants, a guy dressed as a chef is pointing at me. To be honest, at first I try to ignore him – I’m from Britain and therefore have an instinctive need to not make eye contact with pointing strangers – but it becomes impossible. As I look at him, he draws an imaginary triangle on his chest, pointis at my shirt then gives me a thumbs up. I wave and he goes back to work, leaving me slightly bemused.

The Toronto-Superman connection is relatively understated, although comic fans are familiar with it. There aren’t plaques memorialising it, although there was a postage stamp in the 1990s, and there’s a Joe Shuster Way in west Toronto (I’m gutted I didn’t find out about that until I was back home). Then there are the wider links – Canadian Margot Kidder, who played Lois in the Christopher Reeve movies, used to date former prime minister Pierre Trudeau; a scene in Superman II was filmed on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls.

Talking of which… On the day we went to Niagara Falls I wore my Batman t-shirt. I got no comments. None. Nada. In fact, of all the clothes I own, the only one that ever gets comments is my Superman t-shirt.

So why do you think that is?”

Over a barrrel

Today is the 109th anniversary of Annie Edson Taylor becoming the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and live to tell the tale. Not only is this a cool story, but it’s also a blatant excuse for me to post a new link to my blogs from my holiday to Toronto and Niagara a few months ago. Yes, it’s self-indulgent, but hey, it’s helping me back-up some of my old posts so I don’t care.

There’s also a picture of me being attacked by a stuffed bear dressed as a Mountie. Obviously.