Three weeks ago, Andrea and I were on a train, heading east for Toronto, for our annual trip to Ontario to remind our families what we look like. As is our habit, we take the train both coming and going, to provide us with some forced relaxation on either side of what tends to become a hectic time of trying to visit family and friends in several different locations. On the train, for most of the time, you're out of range of cell phone or internet, so your time is spent disconnected from the outside world, reading, napping, and talking with other passengers. And eating, of course - the Via Rail chefs produce amazingly delicious meals, three times a day.
Once in Ontario, we spent the first weekend with Andrea's family, as five of the sisters, plus husbands and children, gathered near Magnetawan to celebrate the milestone birthday of one sister. These birthday weekends feature much eating, drinking, laughing, and catching up on each other's lives - this one also featured a pumpkin beer tasting, a bonfire, and sparklers. We then spent a few days in Fergus visiting my family, a couple of days in Niagara on the Lake, seeing two plays and visiting two wineries, Thanksgiving weekend in Millbrook with Andrea's youngest sister and her family, before a final couple of days in Toronto, having dinner with Andrea's only brother and his wife, plus another sister and her husband and son. Then it was back on the train for the two day trip home, arriving back in Saskatoon only seven minutes behind schedule, on Thursday evening.
Even though it was vacation, I'm always keeping an eye out for how other communities handle the issues that every city has to deal with. In Niagara on the Lake, for example, we had the chance to spend a couple of hours with a former Prince Albert businessman, Paul Moser, who told me that residents there are allowed to buy an annual parking pass for a set fee, so that they can park downtown without feeding the parking meter. The parking meters are still there, of course, and the many, many tourists that flock there to tour wineries or take in a play or two at the Shaw Festival, provide parking revenues. However, the local residents don't have the disincentive of having to dig out change for the meter whenever they go downtown, and the city gets parking revenue from two sources - from residents through the passes, and from the tourists through the meters. These are the kind of options that I wish this city would explore, whenever we bemoan the lack of activity in the downtown area, while at the same time we hear that one of the reasons that people don't like coming downtown is because of the parking meters and the ever-vigilant ticketing people.
In Winnipeg, we had a few hours between arrival and departure, when we were able to wander about The Forks, the riverside area that has been developed with walking and biking paths, a children's museum, restaurants, and an indoor market. We noticed that several white lawn and kitchen chairs with writing on them were scattered throughout the market. When we looked closer, we saw that each chair had a suggestion written on it in black marker. It turns out that Winnipeg has a website called ChairYourIdea, to which residents can submit ideas for improving the city - some of the ideas are then written on the chairs. Some of the ideas are quite fanciful (I'm not sure how a Ferris wheel restaurant on the riverbank would work, although I'm sure the view would be great), some were more practical, like having a lending library for tools, that also provided seminars on simple home repairs, which I think is a great idea, especially for lower income families.
Vacations are a great opportunity to get perspective. While there are always lots of people in downtown Toronto, we also saw many empty storefronts, and more panhandlers and people sleeping on the street than I remember from past visits. We also drove through downtown Hamilton on our way from Niagara on the Lake - there open stores seemed to be the exception, with many blocks appearing to be completely vacant. Keeping downtowns vital is a problem no matter where you go.
While it's always great to see family and catch up with old friends, it's also great to come back home, and sleep in our own bed after three weeks of variable mattresses, and enjoy a good shower, after three weeks of variable water pressure. And I'm looking forward to reconnecting with my council colleagues, on Tuesday this week, as we're taking Monday off to vote!
"The ant is knowing and wise, but he doesn't know enough to take a vacation." - Clarence Day