Toronto : the city where I lost 5 months of my life.

In 2010, my husband and I went to Canada for a year on a working holiday visa. We decided to go to Toronto. Don’t ask me why, I don’t remember. All I know is that it was a bad idea…

We arrived in Toronto on Halloween and we hadn’t booked any accommodation. We had just spent a year in New Zealand where there are cheap hotels at every corner and we thought it would be the same in Canada. Both countries are governed by the same Queen, after all.

The few hotels we could find where either fully booked or really expensive and as we walked around Toronto, we came to realise how huge that city was In the end, we decided to stop in a hotel and pay ($150) for one night only, still hoping we would find something cheaper the next day.

The following day, we found another hotel for only $60/night and paid in advance for 2 nights. Another couple was checking-in before us. They clearly looked like junkies. When the woman was asked to present her ID, she realised that a corner was bended. She turned to her boyfriend, shaking all over like a drug addict with withdrawing symptoms, and asked him if he had used her ID again to unlock a door.

Our room was at the end of the second floor, next to the emergency staircase. There was a vacuum cleaner in the corridor but it hadn’t been used in years, judging by the dust that covered it. Our neighbour had left his door open. His room looked like a war zone, with the mattress and dozens of cans of beer on the floor. He enjoyed the company of a prostitute.

Our creepy hotel. Toronto. 2010.
Our creepy hotel. Toronto. 2010.

We dropped our bags in our room and locked the door. It didn’t make us feel any safer. The lock could be broken if someone decided to kick the door open. The carpet was so dirty it had probably never been vacuumed so we laid some news papers on the floor between the bathroom and the bed. There were cigaret burns all over the bed sheets. We couldn’t close our window completely so someone could easily pop in our room via the emergency staircase. There were insects on the walls, the room was cold, mostly because of the broken window and the heating wasn’t in better conditions. At least, compared with all that, the bathroom wasn’t too bad.

The place and the people were so creepy that we couldn’t fall asleep. Suddenly, in the middle of the night, we heard someone knock hard on the door. We froze and waited. The guy knocked again, harder this time. I was sure he’d come in and kill us. It turned out to be someone who got locked outside in the emergency staircase.

After 3 days spent in that hotel among homeless, prostitutes, weirdos and drug addicts, we finally moved to a shared house. It turned out the house wasn’t a lot better. Just a lot less bad. The owner was a greedy bastard, very eager to know if we already had found a job and how much money we made. His 2 year-old son was a real nightmare. When we didn’t woke up with his screams, it’s our flatmate’s volcanic farts that did the job. I don’t know what the guy ate but his bowels never seemed to like it.

The house was situated in the corner of Jane and Sheppard Streets. It seemed like a quiet area but for some reason, when we gave our address to people they asked us if we were crazy or wanted to die. We understood why after a guy was shot, three days after we had moved in. Gangs of Jamaicans, Koreans, Chinese and Mexicans shot each other from time to time. Luckily enough, nothing happened to us.

And if finding an accommodation had not been easy, finding a job was even harder…

Toronto. 2011.
Toronto. 2011.

Lukas got a job first. He worked in a paper factory and had to carry boxes around… in 12 hours shifts. He would work from 7AM to 7PM three days, have three days break, work from 7PM to 7AM two days, have two days off… After the second day he was told not to come back until the work agency called him. They never did. We had the feeling that they didn’t want him to work there because all the employees were Indians and they preferred to give the job to another Indian.

Lukas found another job soon after at Rogers, the main communications company, where he spent his days sorting cables and chargers. I found an office job at an ambulance company. The job itself was pretty nice but it was far from where we lived. I spent at least three hours in the public transportation, sometimes five if there was a snow storm.

During the week ends there was nothing much to do. It was so cold we couldn’t stay outside for too long. Even with several layers on I felt like wearing nothing but wet clothes. We killed time in the shopping centres. For people who hate shopping it was a torture but there was absolutely nothing else we could do. We thought about visiting another city but Canada is not Europe. Distances are incomparable. Toronto spreads over 21km from north to south and 43km from west to east. Canada is such a vaste country that we would have spent most of our week end in the train or in the bus. We did go to Niagara Falls, though. The waterfall was surrounded by hotels, casinos and restaurants… Las Vegas style. After all the waterfalls we had seen in New Zealand, that came as a shock.

Niagara Falls. 2011.
Niagara Falls. 2011.

Food was another thing we struggled with. Lukas comes from Czech Republic where the food is very cheap and I come from France where it’s very tasty. In Canada, the food wasn’t good and it was expensive. At least we didn’t put on weight.

We were also very surprised to see how dirty Toronto was in some places. Especially with the winter, people just threw their garbage in the streets, knowing it would be covered by the next snow fall. And when it melted it looked like Treasure Island. A cup of coffee here, a pack of cigarets there…

Three months after our arrival, my work contract ended and I couldn’t find another job. I remember spending a whole day in the bus and subway going from one interview to the other. And when I say a whole day I literally mean the whole day. I had three interviews in different parts of the city and I spent eight hours in the public transportation with, as a bonus, a guy who did a speech on God for at least half an hour.

Some of the interviews were very strange, mostly because the job descriptions weren’t clear. The first job consisted in checking boilers in people’s homes to see if they should be replaced. I had to follow an employee around to learn as much as possible about all the regulations and conditions about the boilers replacement and the next day I was supposed to work on my own. I didn’t wait the end of the day to quit. I didn’t understand anything of what my colleague had said to the potential customers. It was way too technical and I knew that after one day I wouldn’t know enough and I would look like an idiot. On top of that, I would have to go to people’s houses to check the boiler. In the basement. Alone. No way…

Squirrel. Toronto. 2010.
Squirrel. Toronto. 2010.

The second interview was an experience of another kind. The first thing that I found strange was that the company called me back the day before the interview at 9:30PM to ask me if I was still coming. When I arrived for the interview, the receptionist asked me to wait while she finished setting the meeting room. A girl came five minutes later and told the receptionist she wanted to end her contract and asked for a refund. Like if she had paid to get a job. I found that strange and thought that they might have been talking about something else. Twenty minutes later, myself and about fifteen other applicants were welcomed into the meeting room. We were seated in front of a screen and had to watch a video about Canadians struggling to refund their fifty loans and how happy they became after a man came to their rescue with a plan of merging them all into a unique one. After the video, we had individuals interview with a guy who was hiding in another room. He told me how great I was and how sure he was that I would be an amazing employee with outstanding performances. He never looked at my resume, nor asked me any questions at all. While I was waited for the other applicants to come back to the meeting room, an employee came to me to tell me how great that company was. When he was done with his propaganda I picked up my bag and left without saying a word. As I was walking towards the exit door, I noticed that another employee had followed me. I opened the door and left. What a bunch of creeps!

The other interviews but it didn’t work out because I had only eight months or so left on my visa or because I was in a different nationality that the people hiring. I spent two months in our small bedroom and felt like a rat in a cage so I persuaded Lukas to go back to Europe. Five months in Toronto was more than enough. We left Canada early April, right after a snow storm.  Eight hours later, we were welcomed by green grass and trees and positive temperatures.

I did find two positive things during those five months. 1) I saw a lot of squirrels. 2) I came to realise how great Europe is.