By Pete Dombrosky
I consider myself a pretty patriotic person, like many Americans do. So naturally, I consider the 4th of July one of my favorite holidays. Grilled meats, cold beer, explosions, warm weather, watermelon and did I mention the grilled meats? Throw in a parade, potato salad and some flag waving (with some Springsteen playing in the background) and I can’t think how a summer day can get any better. It’s just a down right good ol’ American time and it’s been a tradition of mine as far back as I can remember.
So in 2011, when my roommate (Rakesh) asked me to forgo a 4th of July celebration in the United States and spend the day commuting via plane from Canada to the U.S., I assumed he was joking. But in truth, he invited me to join him to visit his friend in Toronto for the long holiday weekend with promises of as much fun as I would have during a typical Independence Day celebration.
I was skeptical.
FEAR #1: Missing Independence Day/spending it abroad.
We would stay at Rachel’s place, so there wouldn’t be a hotel charge. The plane ticket would be steeper than I wanted to pay (around $220) but I could afford to pay it without flat lining my checking account. We would fly in on June 30, stay four nights, and then fly home on July 4. “It’ll be fun, we’ll go to a Blue Jays game,” he told me, “they’re playing the Phillies so you can root against them.”
Now, if there’s one thing that I love as much as America, it’s sports. And if there’s one thing I love more than rooting for my Pittsburgh teams, it’s rooting against those from Philadelphia. Additionally, I’ll rarely turn down a Major League game in the dead of summer. It’s just another one of those dog days traditions that I’m especially fond of.
There were plenty of other aspects that intrigued me about the Toronto trip (such as the purchase of a few fine, Cuban cigars), but the promise of anti-Phillies baseball and a BBQ sealed the deal. Besides, most of my friends in New York City would be out of town doing the whole BBQ thing elsewhere and there’d be a chance I’d be left sitting at home without the company of friends or the consolation of a BBQ.
I would do “Merica Day” abroad.
When the roomie and I flipped open our computers to check out the plane schedules, I ran into my second dilemma. There were plenty of flights on the Thursday we planned to leave, but the only reasonably priced flight that I could even consider making was at 8 pm. This wasn’t a problem for Rakesh. He could leave work early from Manhattan and make it to the airport with plenty of time to spare. My situation was different.
I had a non-negotiable work end time of 5 pm. I couldn’t leave a second earlier. So that meant I would have to bring my bag to work, sprint out of the building during rush hour in the financial district of Manhattan, catch a subway to New Jersey transit, arrive at Newark International Airport, check in, go through customs and make my flight before it departed – all within three hours. Hypothetically, if everything went right and I had no delays, I might have been able to pull it off. But…
FEAR #2: Missing a flight with a non-refundable ticket.
I don’t remember exactly how much my ticket was, but as I mentioned before I seem to recall it was around $220 or so round trip. My salary at the time wasn’t so scant that it would be devastating to lose $220, but I tend to be what some folks might call “cheap.” That much money could buy me 110 Lion’s Head Lagers at my local bar. I could buy 220 McDonald’s cheeseburgers from the Dollar Menu. More importantly, that could buy a great seat at baseball game or multiple decent seats for multiple games. It would be an utter and devastating waste that I just wouldn’t risk.
So I decided to book a flight the following morning. It was cheaper and I had that day off, anyway. I should have been happy that I was saving a little money and catching a flight that wouldn’t force me to rush my way across the tri-state area, but that’s when I became extra nervous. I would have to fly solo into a foreign country and find my friends with little to no help.
FEAR #3: Flying solo into a foreign country and finding my friends with little to no help.
I was apprehensive about this idea. I wasn’t thrilled about jetting off from an unfamiliar airport – Newark – and flying alone to our northern neighbors. It’s not because of a bad experience I had previously (I’ve always enjoyed flying), because I’d never been to a foreign country before (I had actually been to Toronto on a few occasions when I was younger) or because I’d never flew alone (I had once and it was a smashing success). It was because I had never flown alone to a foreign country. I would also need to locate my friends by my own accord once my plane landed and when it comes to direction, let’s say I’m no Magellan.
Once I attempted a 30-minute drive from my hometown in central Pennsylvania to a rival high school to watch a friend play softball. The trip took me three hours and I saw about 20 minutes of the game. This had been with the aid of Mapquest directions and a faithful friend (who unfortunately could get lost in his own home). If I couldn’t find my way around the region I’d lived in for almost two decades, what chance would I have finding my way around a strange city using strange money and the metric system to boot?
FEAR#4: Little to no understanding of the metric system/foreign currency/conversion rates with no understanding of what, if any, problems those aspects might cause me.
I had three choices. I could quit my job and leave with my roommate (a terrible idea for a print journalism major in a bad economy), skip the trip altogether (and sit at home alone during the holiday weekend and watch a Rambo marathon on USA Network) or play catch up a day later and test my directional skills on foreign soil. “Screw it,” I thought. “The airport won’t be far from her house anyway and if I have her address, a cabbie can figure it out for me. I’ll just give him however much Canadian-Monopoly money he asked for and I’d be home free.”
This is a good time to mention that I didn’t have a smart phone in 2011. Yes, I was 23 years old and I was limited to only texting and making phone calls because that’s all a flip phone was capable of. Say what you want about me and my antiquated ways, but I was perfectly content with the limitations of my “dumb phone.” I felt like the extra price for a data plan and expensive phone didn’t justify being about to FaceTime someone. And yes, I’m aware of how dumb that sounds considering that I easily get lost and a smart phone would instantly solve this problem. Still the fact remained; my flip phone wouldn’t help me find my way to any location, foreign or domestic.
With caution thrown to the wind, I booked a flight scheduled to leave Newark at 9 am on Friday, July 1.
I arrived at Newark Liberty International Airport early in the morning that Friday, and I made it through check in and customs with more than two hours left until my flight. It was just the way I liked it, plenty of time to spare and eat some breakfast before I boarded. I remember eating a bacon-and-egg sandwich with a small coffee. I was still hungry afterward, but I wanted to play it safe before heading to my gate.
FEAR #5: Getting diarrhea on a plane.
I remember only two parts of the plane ride up to Toronto. While looking out the window as the aircraft ascended above Newark, I couldn’t help but think that the city looked even more abysmal from above than it did at ground level. From the ground, it looks dirty and grey as if it was the setting for some depression-era movie. From above, you can just see a lot more of the dirty grey expanse, complete with factories and filthy smokestacks on the outer parts.“It is better to be flying away from Newark than to walk through it,” I thought. I would be truly despondent in four days when my return plane would be landing here.
My other memory was right before the descent into Toronto. As the plane dipped to the left to head down, Niagara Falls came perfectly into view through my tiny oval window. The water didn’t flow over the falls as much as it seemed to hover in place, frothing in midair. The falls looked so diminutive from 1000s of feet above; this view lacked the violence and raw power that a closer observer would notice. But the new perspective made me smile. It was a calming element before the nerves that would set in once I landed. That view of the falls would be the quiet before my storm.
The plane began to tilt to the left over Lake Ontario as it slowly reduced altitude and headed for Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport. The captain chimed in through the PA that we needed to turn off all electronic equipment as we began our descent. This was my signal to play Led Zeppelin on my iPod (don’t tell the captain, it’s a landing superstition of mine) and enjoy the rollercoaster-like descent to the ground. I was bubbling with excitement, both because of the impending landing (the only part of a plane ride I enjoy more than heading down is taking off) and because of the fun-filled mini vacation that was awaiting me. I was determined to stay positive and avoid thinking about getting lost.
Once the aircraft came to a stop at the gate, I slowly filed off the plane and into the airport. What makes this one of the more interesting airports I’ve ever been to is its diminutive size and lack of energy and retail stores. Only two commercial airlines – Porter Airlines and Air Canada – use this airport, so it has a very personal and intimate feeling. It was still about the size of a Wal-Mart or Costco, but compared to all the other airports I had ever been in, this place was like an ATM lobby. I don’t remember any Cinnabons or duty-free shops, just planes, people, a few hallways and waiting areas.
The other strange aspect of this airport is that it resides on a tiny island just off the shore of downtown Toronto, so you have to take a ferry 130 yards to get to the mainland once you exit the building. It was charming in a nonsensical way. I figured they could have just built a small bridge or even constructed the airport slightly more to the left, but what do I know. I’m from the country of O’Hare, LAX and JFK, where you practically need a golf cart to reach your gate without missing two meals.
Once I made it through customs with my brand new passport – ridiculous picture included – I exited the building and walked around it for 20 minutes.
This was, off course, before I realized the only way off the island was to take the ferry. I had been in Toronto less than 20 minutes and I had already gotten lost on a tiny island airport. It certainly didn’t bode well for my entrance into the actual city.
While I waited for the next ferry to arrive, I stood in the waiting area and watched a few of the televisions that hung from the walls. It was July 1 and in Canada, that meant Canada Day. The royal family appeared on the screen and shots of a parade followed. I had no idea what Canada Day was, but I figured it was something like Independence Day in the States. I didn’t bother asking anyone around me for fear of their getting upset at the silliness of the question.
FEAR #6: Offending Canadians who are as overly patriotic, idiotic and rude to foreigners as some Americans I know.
I recalled plenty of Americans who would scowl at a foreigner if they asked what Independence Day was in the U.S. (Cut to scene of a dozen American rednecks holding shotguns, waving the U.S. flag and sporting mullets. One spits tobacco juice on the shoes of a foreigner who just asked them why they were celebrating on the 4th. “How the hell don’t you know what the 4th of July is?” asks Cletus. “It’s the day the greatest nation in the world stopped lettin’ redcoats push us around! Everybody knows that.”) That was honestly a thought that went through my head and while it seems absolutely ridiculous now that I rehash it, it kept me from prodding nonetheless. (I later found out that Canadians are some of the most pleasant and helpful people on earth.)
After my ferry landed safely on the mainland, I headed to the street to call my friends and flag down a taxi. I called Rachel (my roommate’s friend) and asked her what I should do. She welcomed me to the country and instructed me to have the cabbie drop me off at the nearest subway station to the airport to avoid paying a steep fare. Then I should have a 15-20 minute train ride to the Bathurst stop and a short walk to her house from there. A trip any longer might make us late for the Blue Jays game, so it would need to be snappy.
Bada bing bada boom. It should be that simple.
I hailed a cab and promptly told him to take me to the Kipling subway station. He switched on his meter, cranked up his Jamaican tunes and we were off. During the ride the driver and I had a pleasant conversation. I can’t remember about what exactly, mostly the small details of my vacation I suppose. But at one point I realized that we had been talking for quite a while. Rachel had told me that the Kipling station wasn’t far from the airport so the fare would only be around $5 or $10. By now, the fare was already approaching $20. Traffic was a bit heavy (because of the holiday I assumed) so I figured that was the cause of the lengthy ride. But it went on. And on. And on. The fare was now up to $35.
I started to sweat. My anxiety grew. Something was obviously awry.
FEAR #7: Getting lost in a foreign country.
The course of the conversation with the driver got to my immediate plans for the day and out of my fear of missing the first pitch at the game, I asked him how long it would take me to get from Kipling station to Bathurst. The car slowed and he asked me to repeat myself.
“Will it take long to ride the subway from Kipling to Bathurst?” I repeated. “I’m a little pressed for time.”
The cabbie started shaking his head from left to right. He did this several times so I asked him what was wrong.
“You fucked up mon.”
My chest tightened up. My shirt was now fully soaked and I was in the first stages of a panic attack. I asked him what I did wrong. He repeated himself.
“You fucked up mon.”
I told him that I had no idea what he was talking about and I would really appreciate if he could explain it to me. He pulled the car over so that he could face me and telestrate on his palm.
“Where you came from, Bat-hurst,” he said in broken English. “Where I pick you up. That was Bat-hurst. You tell me Kipling station, but that far from Bathurst. That far from Bat-hurst. You fucked up mon.”
This all made perfect sense because this is exactly what feared would happen. And good fortune tends not to be my strong suit. According to what the cabbie was telling me, I had caught the cab on the same street that Rachel lived on, Bathurst Street. I was less than three miles away from her house when I got off the plane. So why in the hell would she tell me to go to Kipling station? She had been living there for quite a while and had flown in and out of Toronto frequently. She knew how to make the commute.
I asked the cabbie to give me a second and he cut the meter. I called Rachel.
“So you told me to get a cab to take me to Kipling, and then ride the subway to the Bathurst stop.”
“Yes,” she replied.
“But the cabbie said that I fucked up mon,” I said. “He says he picked me up at Bathurst.”
There was about a five-second silence on the other end. I feared that reception had cut out or my phone had permanently stopped working because…well…it was Canada and my phone was…American.
FEAR #8: Losing contact with my friends in a foreign country.
“Hello?” I asked. “You still there?”
“What airline did you come in on?” she replied. “Was it Porter?”
“Well, yeah, but what does that matter?” I said.
I heard a gasp and a giggle on the other line.
“Oh man, I thought you were flying into Pearson,” she said.
Unfortunately, I was not. Rachel was under the impression I was arriving at Pearson International Airport, the OTHER airport in Toronto. My roommate had flown into Pearson a day earlier and she assumed I was doing the same. If I HAD used that airport, her directions would have worked perfectly, my fare would be $10 and I would already be at her house.
“Shit,” I said.
I wasn’t going to feel comfortable until I arrived at Rachel’s house. But that would have to wait because the Jays game was starting in 30 minutes and there wasn’t enough time for me to go and drop my bag off at her place. So a new plan was on the board, and went as follows: The cabbie would take me to the nearest subway station, I would take the train to the stop closest to Rogers Centre and I would walk there and meet my friends.
This sounded relatively easy. There would be no misunderstandings, just black and white directions. But there was one issue I questioned. I had a great big duffle bag with me. It had to be big enough to hold four days’ worth of clothes (including two pairs of shoes) and I never imagined I would be lugging it all over God’s Canadian creation. If I couldn’t get into the stadium with it, then I would be forced to miss the game and depending on how my friends felt about this, so would they.
FEAR #9: Being denied entry at the gate of a sporting event.
I paid the cabbie more than $40 after he dropped me off at the nearest subway station. I can’t remember exactly how much, just that it was almost all the money I had exchanged for American cash in Newark. I had been in Toronto for an hour and I was nearly out of cash.
The next few steps actually went as planned. I got onto the train, arrived at the stop I was supposed to, and went topside. But, I wasn’t quite sure what direction the stadium was. This isn’t a normal problem to have in 2011, after all, when everyone has a smart phone there’s no excuse for getting lost. But as I mentioned before, I was the exception at the time and my flip phone would do no good.
So I did what people did years ago. I walked up to some folks and asked them for directions. Without hesitation, a husband and wife both beamed a smile at me and said “We’re going to the game right now, why don’t you walk with us?”
Although I was quite surprised, I cheerfully obliged.
I had been comparing New York City with Toronto since the rubber of my plane met the runway. Everything felt so different. Toronto was cleaner. It wasn’t nearly as loud and it just seemed to carry a better attitude than New York. And a big part of that positivity came from the people.
I asked for directions and they asked me to walk with them and have a friendly chat. I had to pause when they asked just to make sure they weren’t being sarcastic. That’s just how New York conditioned me. My skin became thicker and I assumed people to be apathetic instead of interested. I was prepared to be ignored before I was welcomed. It was a damn fine change of pace.
During the walk, my tension melted away. We mostly chatted about hockey (my favorite sport). They were Toronto Maple Leafs fans (obviously) and we compared their recent woes to the success of my team, the Pittsburgh Penguins. We talked about good places to eat in Toronto (they told me to avoid roadside hotdog stands like a puck to the teeth). Before I knew it, we had arrived at Rogers Centre and I could see my friends waiting. I thanked the pleasant couple for escorting me and we parted ways.
So that brought me to the final obstacle of my arrival. Would I get my bag get into the stadium? I figured since the previous steps went so well, I would be left literally holding the bag after they denied my entry. Security was checking women’s purses feverishly and there was a limit on the size of a bag you could bring in. Here’s the rule as listed on a nearby sign, as well as the Rogers Centre website:
Can I bring a bag or knapsack?
Guests are permitted to bring knapsacks and bags smaller than 16 in. X 16 in. X 8 in. into Rogers Centre. Hard-sided coolers and larger bags are not permitted. All bags are subject to inspection.
My bag was nearly twice that big and it was packed to the brim. There’s no way I’d convince them to let me in with it. I thought about what the reaction would be by the security at Madison Square Garden. There would be no hesitation. They would shake their heads, point the opposite direction and I would go home with my tail between my legs and watch the game on television. There would be no convincing and no exceptions.
I walked up to the table ready to explain why I had the large bag and already stumbling over my words like a drunken hurdler. I placed it on the table and the man asked me if I had alcohol in it. I told him I did not. He pulled the zipper open a few inches and then promptly closed it.
“Enjoy the game,” he said.
And just like that my final obstacle was defeated and I was free to enjoy the rest of my trip, without even missing the first pitch.
Bada bing bada boom.
It was that easy.
It’s safe to say that the middle portion of my trip was relatively free of fear and negative consequence. We went out to some nice restaurants and bars in Toronto; we went dancing one night, and Rachel introduced my roommate and I to Snakes & Lattes, which was one of more interesting cafes I’ve ever been to.
We also checked out one of the best grilled cheese places I’ve ever been to. Unfortunately, the name escapes me and I apologize for it. But we sat on a bar patio across the street from the restaurant and drank beer while our sandwiches were made. A few minutes later, the waitress crossed the street and brought us our food. Let me tell you, I’ve encountered few pleasures more relaxing than drinking a few beers in great weather while smoking a Cuban cigar and eating the most outstanding grilled-cheese sandwich ever. I’ve never felt more care-free and independent while being outside the U.S.
The fact that I had such a good time made me worry, of course. Things went far too well so that meant that something was bound to go wrong. I don’t consider myself a pessimist, but as you might have gathered, I tend to worry while abroad. As it turns out, I had one more obstacle to overcome.
My own stupidity.
It was July 4 and that meant it was time to head back to the States. My plane departed a few hours earlier than my roommate’s, so I had to leave the apartment alone, hop on a street car and ride it nearly all the way to the Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport (the same airport I flew I arrived at), walk for three minutes to the ferry, ride the ferry to the airport, check in for my flight and board the plane. This should be an easy task for any right-minded human being who has ever traveled before.
As I grabbed my duffle bag, Rachel approached me with simple instructions how to get the airport.
She told me to walk to the Bathhurst streetcar station, pay for a single ride and then board the next streetcar heading south. She said the streetcar will be heading this direction down Bathhurst (she pointed to the right). “Once you’re on it,” she said, “you’ll ride it for about 15-20 minutes until you get to the stop at Fleet St. Get off there because it turns and goes another direction after. From there, you just keep walking down Bathurst for a few more minutes and it’ll take you right up to the airport ferry.”
“Seems simple enough,” I replied.
I said my goodbyes and headed out the door. A few minutes later, I arrived at the streetcar station. I went inside to pay for my ride (with one of my leftover goofy Canadian coins) and walked out onto the platform to wait for the next streetcar heading south.
I checked my phone and saw I had about 3 ½ hours until my flight. It should take less than an hour to get to the airport so I had plenty of time to make my flight back to Murica. But still, I got some old familiar feelings once again.
FEAR #2: Missing a flight with a non-refundable ticket.
FEAR #7: Getting lost in a foreign country.
A short time later, a streetcar arrived at the station. I was one of the last to board it, after about 35 others ahead of me. I grabbed a spot standing right by the door. I didn’t want to miss my stop, after all, because I couldn’t get out of the doors in time. The car pulled forward and I expected it to roll onto the track ahead of me and go right, back toward Rachel’s apartment.
Of course it turned left.
My heart skipped a beat and I felt that clammy fear-sweat bubbling up all over my body. This was also a cocktail of frustration sweat and shame sweat, a toxic combination that surely left me looking like an enfeebled mouse at the mercy of the enormous world around me.
I exited the streetcar at the next stop – which was only about 25 seconds away – and walked back to the station. The teller at the counter gave me a puzzled look when I walked up again and purchased another ride. She never said anything to me, but I imagine she knew what was going on.
I waited a few more minutes and boarded the next car to arrive. It looked identical to the first, but I hoped that it would be going in the correct direction. I couldn’t see the sign that told where it was going, but that wouldn’t have made a difference anyway. I didn’t know where my correct streetcar would end up; the sign only showed the first and last stops of the route.
Once again I boarded. Once again it turned left.
I was starting to think that there were no correct streetcars that day and that maybe I should consider an alternate form of transportation. So I exited the streetcar at the first stop (again) and walked back to the station (again). I thought it might be helpful to call my roommate or rachel and ask them what the hell was going on. Time was ticking away and I felt nauseous.
I called Rakesh first. No answer.
I called Rachel. No answer.
I tried to remain as calm as possible. Panic wouldn’t get me anywhere, especially not to the airport. So I took a deep breath and considered what I was doing wrong. And that’s when it all became crystal clear.
I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I was exercising the only option available. I kept boarding the same streetcar because there were no other streetcars going in the opposite direction. If there had been, an hour’s worth of boarding cars would have eventually put me on one going elsewhere.
Through repetition, one should learn the difference between right and wrong. I was just doomed to repeat my lesson three times before I was capable of passing the test.
That’s when my phone rang and I saw it was Rachel. She asked if I was OK and I told her what happened, but that I had figured out the error of my ways. “We walked by the station and saw you there about 30 minutes after you left,” she laughed. “We just figured cars were running less today for some reason.”
“Nope,” I responded, “I’m just an idiot.”
With that I boarded the next street car to arrive and surely enough, it turned left after I boarded it, just like the previous three. I can’t remember how much time I had until my plane took off but it turned out to be plenty. I rode the car to my stop and exited and I walked a few blocks to the airport. Once I checked in and made it through security, I was able to grab a drink and a snack and sit down to browse online while I waited for my flight.
I can’t remember everything that crossed my mind before my departure from the Maple leaf nation, but I do remember smiling and shaking my head while considering the ridiculousness of my entrance into and exit from Toronto. It could have been a lot worse and for that I was thankful. After everything I had been through I still remained alive and well and set to head back to the land of the free and home of the brave.
Albert Einstein once said “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” This experience was chock-full of mistakes but also plenty of new experiences. And ultimately, I gained one major positive from all of the worrying and missteps along the way: If it hadn’t been for all my illogical fears, unfounded worries and needless skepticism of a foreign land, no matter how similar it was to America, there is no doubt in my mind that nothing exciting would have happened and this story wouldn’t have been as nearly entertaining.
And to me, there’s one fear that would have trumped all the others.
FEAR #10: Returning from a foreign country with nothing interesting to tell.