When people find out that my husband is originally from Australia, I usually end up fielding a few questions about it. How’d you meet, Is his family still there, Does he like it here, and the inevitable: WHY did you choose to live in Toronto and not Sydney? (Subtext: Are you crazy?)
Yeah, it’s a hard one. On February days, when it’s a grey -22 degrees, and everything is covered in salt, and my car just got stuck on an ice bank whilst trying to park, and the inside of my nostrils is frozen, I ask myself the same question. These are problems that just don’t exist in Australia. In truth, I adore life down under, but being there doesn’t make sense for us right now. Life is pretty great in Canada most of the time, so we continue our day-to-day in The 6ix.
BUT. As a foreigner, whenever I visit Australia, I can’t help but compare Sydney to my hometown, and I have to admit, Toronto comes up short in a few areas. Both cities are the largest of their respective countries. Both are vibrant, multi-cultural centres of business and the arts. Both have amazing beaches… oh wait, that’s just Sydney.
I’m not talking about the obvious factors like sunshine 362 days a year, world-class beaches and charming marsupial wildlife. There are a few other areas of comparison in which we in Toronto could really pull up our socks. So many things about our city are fabulous, but there are some things that have me rolling my eyes and muttering, “Come on, Toronto, we can do better than this.”
I’m not sure if it’s because they live in a country infested with extremely poisonous critters, but Australians have very different attitudes than Canadians when it comes to safety. Nowhere is this so evident as in each city’s playgrounds. Most cities in Australia are home to tonnes of beautiful parks, where the children’s playgrounds are areas for fun, play, exploration, and yes, a hint of danger. All of the latest research on child development finds that children should be exposed to a healthy amount of risk. This advice has definitely been taken to heart down under, as proven by this:
As any Torontonian parent can tell you, many of our playgrounds are in dire need of an upgrade, often sporting rusty old equipment that dates back to the 70’s.
And unfortunately, when room is finally found in the budget for new equipment, the results can be disappointing, as when the play structure was recently replaced at the small park nearest to us.
Cries of dismay were heard around the neighbourhood. If it isn’t obvious from the photo, this structure is about two feet off the ground. Shiny and new? Yes. Elements of risk? No, unless the child happens to be under the age of two. I’ve never seen “flying foxes” in any of Toronto’s parks, like the one you can see my son whizzing along on above. There couldn’t be any, unless there was someone there handing out helmets and getting people to sign waivers. Because safety, everyone.
Trust me, this is all coming from one of the world’s worst helicopter parents, but even I see the advantages of allowing our children to experiment with adventure and learn from their own mistakes, and our parks should be places to let them do that.
As I lack a degree in urban planning, I’m definitely not qualified to comment on public infrastructure. Of course, I’m going to anyway. According to this stats site, Canada and Australia rank very near to each other when it comes to public infrastructure. Therefore, my opinion on this matter is based on my own, highly subjective experiences.
No one who regularly takes transit in Toronto could possibly rave about the TTC. We are still glacially phasing out tokens as a form of payment. In 2016. Our subways run efficiently… until they don’t. Then they fail us in a most spectacular way. Our streetcars are mired in gridlock, and city council has been bogged down in transit squabbles for what feels like decades.
Sydney’s transit system may not make international Top 10 lists, but at least it wins the beauty contest. Starting a morning commute with a ferry-ride across one of the world’s most scenic harbours definitely beats finding out that the Bloor Line is closed for track-work again – after you’ve taken the bus to the station.
Each time I visit Sydney they seem to be installing another light-rail line, building another tunnel under the city or recreating the ticketing system. In Toronto…still waiting.
3. PUT ANOTHER SHRIMP ON THE…
Sometimes it’s the little things that make life in the big city better. One such thing that I’ve always admired about Sydney is this:
“What is that?” Canadians are asking. Australians are just shrugging. “What? There’s one of these in practically every park in the country.” This, my friends, is a public barbecue. They are there for public use, and at the most popular spots are heavily utilized. There are barbecues in some Toronto parks! someone out there is saying. Yes, some. Only, you have to bring your own charcoal. You can bring your own portable barbecue, but you need to buy a permit in order to use it.
From the Australian standpoint, there are few events in life that aren’t made better by a drink or two. Most Canadians probably agree, but we’re hampered in our drinking by puritanical laws that prevent us from indulging in wild excess. One such law stipulates that alcohol in Ontario can only be sold in government-sanctioned branches of the LCBO and the Beer Store. These operations keep fairly normal hours, but they close at an archaic 6:00 on Sunday evenings, meaning if you want a bottle of wine of a Sunday night, sorry! Only recently has beer been made available for sale in some supermarkets and we are unreasonably excited about it. We are also not allowed to drink in public. Anywhere. So when you haul your portable barbecue – with permit, naturally – or bag of charcoal to the local park, you will not be able to enjoy a beer with your sausages.
Hence, the other day I read with envy an Australian friend’s Facebook post describing how she’d celebrated her birthday with friends and a bottle of champagne at her kid’s soccer practice. How much better would soccer be with champagne? Am I right, moms and dads? Isn’t everything made better by champagne! Birthdays aside, Australians have an endearing habit of breaking out the bubbles on just about any occasion. It’s Wednesday! Yay, let’s have champagne!
Obviously, that’s a terrible adjective, but I think it describes a certain je ne sais quoi in the Australian character. Maybe it’s all the champagne-drinking, but people in Sydney, and even more so in small-town Australia, tend to be pretty relaxed. It could be due to the fact that an inordinate amount of an Australian’s weekend time is spent lounging on their world-class beaches and having barbecues with their mates. It could be the fantastic weather. Maybe loads of Vitamin D just chills one out.
Meanwhile, in Toronto, whenever I ask friends and acquaintances how life is, I get the same response: “Good! But… we’re so busy these days.” And my response is, “Yeah, me too. We’re really busy too.” Busy working? Busy cooking and cleaning? Busy shovelling the snow off the driveway? Busy posting about our busy lives on Instagram?
Sigh. Busy can be good too. But it’s summer y’all! And this summer I’m taking a page from the Australian laid-back playbook. There will be picnics and barbecues. (Oh don’t worry, I’m getting that permit!) I’m going to hang out at the beach, even if Bondi is one million times better. And at soccer practice, that’ll be me with the champagne – come and join me. (As long as you don’t mind drinking out of plastic cups and pretending it’s juice. I don’t want to get arrested.)