I’m sure you know one of those families that are so outdoorsy and stoic that it’s irritating. They’re always headed off on epic cycling trips or month-long paddling excursions. They don’t have any wimpy kids in their brood, who constantly whine, “My legs are tired. Are we almost there?”
No. Their kids completed their first triathlon at the age of 6 and can easily carry a 20-lb pack as they scale mountains.
I aspire for us to be one of those families. And I’m ready to irritate you with tales of our stoicism.
For the last few years, we’ve been promising our oldest that we would do an overnight hiking trip. Soon. When you keep saying that you’ll do something “soon” for YEARS, your kids start to lose faith in your empty promises.
I thought, for some time, that we would have to wait until Lark is old enough to walk a fair distance. She’s still only 5, after all. Although she requires no sleep and probably runs a marathon every day, when it comes to going on a family walk, her legs suddenly stop working.
She is very tired, she needs a break, she needs a snack, and this is boring.
I began to realize that if this overnight trip was going to happen soon, we’d have to take my daughter out of the equation. I told her with some hesitation that the three of us would be going on a camping trip without her. But that she would be having a sleepover at her aunt’s house.
She was not remotely disappointed. “Good,” she said, “Because I hate walking.”
The past many months of international pandemicdom has made me thoughtful. What kinds of experiences do I want for our family? What can we do together that is out in nature, creates growth and pushes our collective boundaries a bit? This excursion ticked those boxes for me.
I began researching all of the gear we would need. We have a lot of camping equipment, but it’s all for “car-camping” as snooty backcountry Canadians like to say. Translated, our tent weighs a tonne and is meant to be thrown in the back of the car for drive-up camping. The purists among us only consider it camping if you walk or paddle there. Or parachute. Whatever.
Although That Big Mountain Store had some great options for gear, their prices were high for what was essentially an experiment. I found stuff elsewhere, borrowed a few things, and hit Canadian Tire.
Last Friday, we tossed some packets of ramen in our bags and hit the road.
I should mention that I ran into trouble when I began looking for a place to do this hike. Ontario’s provincial parks system has a bunch of parks with hiking trails, and backcountry reservable sites. I narrowed my search down to the ones that were not more than five hours away, and then found that – sigh – most sites were completely booked until DECEMBER.
In this post-COVID world, no one is travelling far, and everyone wants to be outdoors.
Finally, I found an available site at Frontenac Provincial Park. This park is over 5,000 hectares but is apparently “threshold wilderness.” Anywhere else in the world it would probably just be wilderness wilderness, but in Canada, you know, we have tiers of these things.
On arrival, it was a balmy 12 degrees. We had a 5 km walk to our site.
I was relieved to find the trail very clearly marked. It was almost impossible to get lost.
The Arkon Lake loop was about 11 km in total, and relatively flat with a few small hills.
Craig and I were both super proud of our kid for not complaining and carrying his pack with minimal rests.
Although it was chilly overnight, the whole experience was amazing. You know that something feels like a success when you’re already planning your next trip on the way home.
It’s 5:00 in the morning and I’ve been up for over an hour already. My experiment of early rising that I spoke about in my previous post is well underway. Except, it hasn’t been a conscious decision to be up and at ’em at this ungodly hour. I’m dealing with a massive case of toddler jet-lag over here. My 26-month-old woke me consistently and hourly from 11:00 pm to 4:00 am, at which point I gave up on sleep and succumbed to the inevitable.
Her little internal clock has been turned on its head, because we’ve just returned from a week spent in Hong Kong, which is 13 hours ahead of EST. In an ideal world, I wouldn’t have attempted a trip of that distance and short length with a toddler in tow, but the stars had aligned to take this journey, so off we went.
I should clarify that this trip was a gift given to our family by the Children’s Wish Foundation of Canada, and has been something that’s been idling on our family back-burner for over five years. I was a wee bit skeptical – and slightly fearful to be honest – when my son informed me that it was his dearest wish to travel to China. After some contemplation, and a little research, I presented Hong Kong to him as an option. He was in. We were in. A few months later we got the green light from Children’s Wish, and we were all systems go.
At this point in his life, the Bean is a seasoned traveller. He’s only eight, but he’s already been to Australia 4 times. He can get on a plane and keep himself entertained for hours – 15, in fact – with movies, video games, books and iPad. I suspected, with a sinking feeling, that it would be a different story with Lark.
When we boarded our Air Canada flight to Hong Kong, we were assigned three seats together and one across the aisle. Guess who got to sit alone with the kids for the whole flight?
Craig was essentially in another country on the other side of the drinks cart, while I grappled with ear-buds popping out of tiny ears, spilled apple juice and pieces of puzzle that’d fallen into the abyss on the floor. Upon sitting down, I’d been horrified to learn that the arm-rests on our row didn’t lift up. Hoping that there was some magic key available to raise them, I called the flight attendant, a sympathetic character with a man-bun. “Sorry,” he said. “They don’t lift up. It’s only this row, for some reason.” Feeling cursed, I gave the arm-rest one more feeble yank, before accepting my fate. “I know it’s really annoying for families,” he added nicely.
It certainly was really annoying for the following 15 hours as my toddler squirmed on top of me, and my son complained about not being able to stretch out his legs and go to sleep. To make matters worse, my Lark decided that sitting with her father was inconceivable, and screamed as though being subjected to anaesthesia-less surgery every time I tried to pass her across the aisle. There were tears shed over Russia that night. Mine, hers, and probably those of all the passengers within a ten-foot radius. On touchdown, I kissed the sweet earth in gratitude.
After staying awake for the entire journey there, she promptly passed out at 6:30 in the evening. Good, I thought. This way she’s already getting on local time. Maybe she’ll even sleep through. Ha. Naive dreams. You know when you’re jet-lagged, and you wake up out of the deepest sleep ever, like, wha-? What time is it? How long have I been sleeping? And it’s been maybe an hour, but you feel completely disoriented? Right. So imagine that feeling, but instead of being able to roll over and go back to sleep, you have tiny hands patting your face in the darkness and a loud, clear voice in your ear, saying, “Mummy. Are you awake? I don’t want to go sleepies. I want to wake up now. Mummy. I need snack. Can I have Larabar? It’s not time for sleep-time.” After hearing my hushed insistence that it was, in fact, time to sleep, she’d respond in her little bugle voice, “NO, it’s not. It’s time to get up. Mummy. Mummy. Mummy?” And then she’d press her small face hard and lovingly onto mine, cutting off my air supply, so that I finally gave in, and took her to the bathroom, to perch on the edge of the tub whilst eating a snack and reading stories.
Usually, at around 4:30 am, either my husband or myself would take her out of the room and try to keep her entertained in the empty hotel lobby until breakfast was served at 6:30.
Sleep issues aside, toddler-travel can prove difficult for other reasons too. Everyone who’s ever cared for a toddler for more than say, 10 minutes, has observed that moving them from point A to point B is challenging. They may object to your proposed mode of travel – stroller, carrier, or feet. They may require many stops to observe and interact with their surroundings. You need them to enter a shop 20 feet away. Theyneed to look at this pile of gravel, or bit of fence, or clump of flowers – apparently for the rest of the day. These conflicting agendas mean that 45 minutes later, you still haven’t bought the bananas you set out to purchase that morning.
So now let’s imagine that you need to move this little person through a busy and unfamiliar transit system in a city of 7.2 million people. And she doesn’t want to ride in the stroller, she wants to walk. No, she wants to run. Actually, she just wants to run away. She wants to get on the escalator by herself and she definitely doesn’t want to hold hands with anyone. Is the train coming? Too bad, she’s busy putting her mouth on this glass partition over here. Which is why we left all of our parenting ideals behind and resorted to outright bribes. If you get in your stroller, you can have a treat when we get there, I said one million times in a week.
I don’t want to make it sound like caring for her was all on me, and my husband was off drinking margaritas or something. He was trying his best to do his equal share of toddler-time, but my daughter let it be known, in no uncertain terms, that Mummy was the preferred parent, in every conceivable situation. Mummy has to push the stroller, Mummy must carry me, I have to sit on Mummy’s lap, I have to go through the turnstile with Mummy, Mummy has to take me to the lobby at 4:45 am. “It’s like she’s addicted to you,” said my husband bitterly. I have never heard the mother-child bond referred to as addiction before, but if the shoe fits. If you let Daddy carry you, you can have a piece of chocolate, I said to my daughter.
Of course, please don’t think that the trip was all ruinous. Actually, it was amazing. We let Bean call the shots and saw all the things that he wanted to. My kids were treated so well by the locals. We were offered seats every ride on the busy MTR, and if people were often startled by a little girl darting amongst their legs on the sidewalk, they took it in stride and were unfailingly polite and helpful to us. Certain experiences would also just never have been had, as when Lark and I made friends with a bunch of old ladies in a playground at 7:00 am, who were there doing their morning calisthenics.
I’m led to conclude that while not without its challenges, this epic trip was worth it. My son got his dream trip, and my husband and I proved to ourselves that if we could survive this with her at this age, any future travel will seem like cake, right? Which has me dreaming of far-off destinations on this dark and chilly January morning in 2017.
Before any new planning begins, must sleep, though.
Last weekend, Craig flew to New York for a quick visit with his brother. He left bragging about the fact that he’d only packed a T-shirt and a pair of undies in his backpack. I think he brought a toothbrush too. He is a big fan of travelling light.
I also am a big fan of travelling, but sometimes have difficulty with the light part. Despite the many items that I may accumulate in my luggage on any given trip, for me one of the best aspects of extended travel is taking an extended break from one’s possessions. You move from place to place with all your worldly goods in little contained units, and it becomes pretty easy to forget about all the other crap that you own elsewhere in the world, like your basement, or even worse, your parents’ basement.
When I was quite a bit younger than I am now, I returned home from a half year overseas, and being a bit at loose ends, I allowed my father to cajole me into helping with a family project that was in the works. Sadly, while I was away, one of my dad’s two aunts had passed away, and the other had moved into long-term care. The result was that their house needed to be tidied up and sold, with all of their possessions disposed of.
A word about my great-aunties: they were two lovely old women who were both unmarried and childless, and so continued to reside together for the whole of their lives. In my childhood memories, their tiny house in North York was a treasure trove of interesting antiquities, but so rammed with things it was difficult to move. They had once shared that house with their mother, and so had inherited all of the items she and her forebears had ever owned, whilst continually collecting their own.
At one point in the 90’s, the two were forced to move from that location, and so found a larger bungalow not too far away. Family members tried to prune, so to speak, but my aunts were determinedly attached to their stuff, and the absolute majority of it made the move with them. So I found myself, at the age of 24, spending depressing days in their unlived-in house, trying to figure out what to chuck, keep, or sell of several lifetime’s worth of effects. I found I couldn’t see the forest for the trees, and was constantly getting bogged down in minor details like whether or not this antique stick-pin was worth anything. It was a massive project, but eventually we managed to unload all of the china, jewellery, furniture and miscellaneous other that filled the house.
And I could walk away with my youth, vowing that I would never, ever live like that or let my stuff get the best of me.
Which is why it pains me to make this confession: I’m a hoarder.
No, not like the TV-show hoarders that have tunnels through mountains of old magazines to their bedrooms. If you visited my house you’d probably think, “This place is quite tidy, it’s obvious a hoarder doesn’t live here.”
You would be wrong, though. Because I’m the worst kind – a secret hoarder. We have a half-finished loft space in our attic which has become the final resting place of every thing we’ve ever owned that I don’t know what to do with. It’s pretty crazy up there. As much as I’d like my husband to also take the blame, in all fairness to him, this isn’t his problem. I’m the one who created it. I am the gatekeeper/purchaser of all of the kidstuff that comes into our abode. If Craig had his way, he’d just chuck out all of our children’s toys and live in a white box with spartan surfaces and unblemished walls. The kids could wear utilitarian jumpsuits and we’d all be happy.
If you’re thinking this sounds familiar coming from me, it’s because I’ve blogged about this before. More than three years ago! Have things improved in my hidden hoarder’s lair? Changed? One thing that has changed is that we now have one more child and the accompanying clothes, toys and artwork cluttering up the place. But otherwise, no.
By now, everyone and their mother has read Marie Kondo’s magical manifesto of Japanese tidiness or whatever that book is called. I borrowed it from a friend last year and gave it a skim. I’m not an absolute convert to the cause, but admittedly, there were some gems in there. Kondo is an advocate of not organizing your stuff, but just going full-on minimalist. She says (in case you’ve somehow missed this) that you should hold each item you own and see if it “sparks joy” in you. If it doesn’t, it must go. Even if your deceased grandmother gave it to you.
This idea has started to make a lot of sense to me. I’ve just been finding lately – maybe always – that the owning of too much crap drags me down mentally. We don’t have much storage space, and every closet and shelf is bursting at the seams. We also have many things in the house that are linked, emotionally, to Gavin’s illness, whether they be medical documents, supplies or things that were given to him in hospital. I don’t know what to do with these things, but when I hold them they certainly don’t spark joy. They do whatever the opposite of sparking joy is. Trust me, it’s not a good feeling.
A few weeks back, I convinced Craig that it would be a good idea to paint our kitchen. Ourselves. We are not handy, and like busy parents everywhere, have none too much time on our hands. The project went on for a bit longer than projected, but we now have a white-blue kitchen instead of dusty old yellow. It looks amazing. In the process, we took down all the things that had made their way onto the walls over the years, and then put very few of them back up. We’ve both been looking around at these spare, clean surfaces and feeling that minimalism is good.
That set in motion a big clothing, book and toy purge too. With the spectre of my aunties’s house looming over me, I’ve decided to get rid of everything. I want to live in an environment that feels consciously curated rather than unconsciously cluttered.
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.)