I shrug off my rucksack, collapse onto the bed and wait to arrive. At some point I doze off.
When I awake, it’s late afternoon. Toronto is hot – freakishly so, my host later tells me – and when I step outside, I have to learn to breathe again. My frail English constitution is confused – should I start sweating, or just save time by dying on the spot? I wander through the baking heat in search of a Starbucks. This is my first time in Canada – or it will be, when I finally get here.
I hate flying for so many reasons. If you want to break the ice with the average Brit, ask them for their views on membership of the European Union and prepare to have your ears blown off. I’m like that with flying. I used to have a paralyzing fear of takeoff – these days, it has receded to a level of terror I can medicate myself through. But beyond the bottomless abyss of dread that flying hurls me into, I have philosophical issues with it as well. Flying is a technological marvel, and the modern world couldn’t run without it – but it also feels … wrong.
Let’s talk about Morocco for a second. I’ve never been, and I have a romantic fantasy about arriving there for the first time. I’ll be on a ferry, it’ll be dawn and the dim, rose-fingered line of the horizon ahead will be broken, raggedly shadowed as the light gets stronger. Land ho! Over the next hour, Africa will emerge, unveiled and climbing into the light. By the time we dock at Tangiers, I’ll have been staring at African mountains for hours. My brain – always sleep-deprived when I travel, always overloaded with sights and sounds, and probably jittery from too much coffee – will have grown accustomed to the simply insane notion that I’m approaching another continent. This thought process (“Seriously?” “Yes – look.“) would have had time to sink deep enough to change my mind, allowing my thoughts to catch up with reality.
My first impression of Toronto, after being magically shot across the Atlantic in a colossal tube of metal called a 787 is that Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” is a lot better than I’d been told. As I stagger into a taxi, I’m still remembering staring fixedly at dwarves on the inflight entertainment screen in an attempt to blot out air turbulence. I’m still doing it as the taxi leaves Pearson Airport and the driver, hearing I write about travel, starts selling Toronto to me. His conversation and my thoughts get mixed: Bilbo Baggins suddenly lives in a condo; Saruman lives up the CN Tower. Upon reaching the door to my apartment, I realize I haven’t eaten for hours and get lost in the memory of chasing a tiny microwaved sausage around my airline meal plate – until I come to, standing there motionless with the key in the door. My thoughts are mired in another time zone. I get indoors and lie on the bed, and nothing feels real.
“First you arrive physically. But only after a while, your soul gets here too.”
Is it as simple as culture shock? Perhaps for Nilson Tuwe Huni Kui that might be true – but not for me, surely. Canada isn’t so different to the UK. Barring the scale of the architecture and the blue sky overhead, differences seem superficial. I’m charmed by the way police cars look like the ones in “Due South.” I spot a building I’m certain was in “Battlestar Galactica.” But squint and this could be an English city (perhaps one preparing for a bid to be a City of Culture, because everything here is curiously litter-free). This isn’t culture shock, and I’m not Crocodile Dundee.
Then, the most confusing feeling of all – guilt. As if I’m here under false pretenses. In some pseudo-puritanical sense, I feel like I haven’t earned this. I’ve skipped straight to dessert without eating my greens. I’ve cheated. This is of course ludicrous. Should I have tried to cross the Atlantic in a canoe, perhaps, or maybe on a pedalo? Should I swim it with Ben Fogle? It’s absurd – but the feeling lingers, and I think I know the root of it. If I fly somewhere, I’ve missed all the fun of getting there. I’ve cheated myself out of that adventure. However impractical the alternatives, planes are just too fast for my sense of what constitutes “travel.” It seems I’m one of those Slow Movement people, which must explain why I’m so unfit these days.
I doze, wake up, step out into the stifling heat, grab a coffee to go and head towards Downtown. It’s a good hour before the single-story shops of Yonge Street have grown into skyscrapers around me, and that process is gradual, less observed than felt. There no sense of cheating here, no desirable experience dodged. I’m moving at the right speed to arrive, and I do so comfortably. It’s an odd feeling, because here I am, fully present in the middle of Toronto, but still feeling like I haven’t arrived in Canada yet.
It’s only a few days later, staring out of a high-rise window at storm clouds rolling over the city, that I feel a sense of arrival thump within me. My first thought is Ahuh, so they have crappy weather here too – and my second is Ahuh – “here too.” My inner time zones synchronize, and all thoughts of hobbits and sausages leave my mind. I’m finally here, and it’s time to go exploring.