I am taking a break from tirades. COMMON is coming to town in October, and many people from outside Canada know little about this country or about Toronto specifically. This week's column provides information that will help you to make a more informed decision about whether to come here for COMMON and to better plan your trip when you do make the right choice.
Q: Is there more to Canadian culture than hockey?
A: Yes. We also like beer.
Q: Do all Canadians live in igloos?
A: Only in the winter. During August, the one month when temperatures rise above freezing, we move into tents.
Q: What is the difference between Canadians and Americans?
A: The best answer that I have come up with is not original. In fact, it has been repeated so often that I cannot trace its source. It goes like this: Canadians and Americans are very much alike. A Canadian is basically just an unarmed American with healthcare.
Q: I understand that Canada does not spend much on defense. Should I feel safe when I visit?
A: Canada's military weakness is a myth. Our soldier is well trained and works hard, but he does take off weekends and evenings.
Q: What currency do you use in Canada?
A: Its official name is the dollar, but we call it the "loonie." It got its nickname because the dollar coin (we don't have a one-dollar bill anymore) features a picture of a loon (the bird, not a politician). We also refer to it as "74 cents American." (The exchange rate, which is set by the market, varies from day to day.) Most tourist area establishments take American money, but they are not obliged to do so (this is Canada, eh). Nor do they have to honor (we spell it honour) the market exchange rate. Some offer a better rate to attract the tourist trade. Others are more than happy to accept American dollars at par. After killing off several brain cells in a bar following a hard day at COMMON, par might sound like a good deal, but trust me, it's not. To be safe, it is probably wise to get some Canadian money at a bank, an ATM, or a reputable currency exchange. Credit cards are also good.
Q: Where is Toronto?
A: If you are driving from the south, head to Buffalo. Keep going until you cross a bridge. A uniformed person will stop you and ask questions like these: Where were you born? Where are you going? How long will you be there? Are you a terrorist? After answering the questions, turn right and follow the highway. You will know that you are in Toronto when you reach the world's tallest free-standing phallic symbol (a.k.a. the CN Tower). Or you could just buy a ticket on a plane heading here, but you will still have to answer the questions.
Courtesy of the CN Tower
Q: I hear that Vancouver is a very beautiful Canadian city. Will I have time to visit it during COMMON?
A: Absolutely! However, you will have to take a couple of days away from the conference. Canada has the second largest land mass of any country in the world. Vancouver is three time zones and about a five-hour flight away from Toronto.
Q: Will I need to speak French in Toronto?
A: Only if you want to keep secrets from most locals. Canada is officially bilingual (French and English), but Toronto is predominantly English-speaking. In the city proper, out of a total population of just under 2.5 million in 2001, only 5,535 people claimed that they spoke French at home on a regular basis. Other languages offer fewer opportunities to keep secrets in Toronto. For example, 112,015 people claimed Chinese as their home language, 34,055 Italian, 29,205 Tamil, 27,295 Portuguese, 20,475 Spanish, 16,125 Russian, 15,305 Mandarin, 15,200 Persian, 14,365 Punjabi, and 13,950 Vietnamese. What's more, 610,100 people gave multiple responses to the home language question. In total, more than 100 languages and dialects are spoken here. One thing about living in Toronto is that whenever any country wins a major international sporting event, thousands of people throng into the streets waving flags, screaming like madmen and honking their horns to celebrate the win. (Horn-honking is usually restricted to people in cars, but not always.)
Q: So should I come to Toronto for COMMON?
A: Definitely! Toronto has a vibrant cultural scene, terrific restaurants that offer an exceptionally wide variety of cuisines, and great parks and public spaces (although mid-October weather can be iffy). Oh yes, and I hear that there will be a lot of really good sessions at COMMON.
P.S.: I was joking about the igloos and near year-round freezing temperatures. If you thought that I was serious, then it really is time that you experienced a little Toronto. Oh, and the jab about Canada's one-person army was also a joke. We also have a few ships and aircraft.