Greetings from VIA Rail service 47 to Toronto.
Tuesday was an eventful day full of exercise and exploration, and Wednesday is shaping up to be pretty hectic itself. I’ll try to bring you up to speed quickly. VIA Rail WiFi isn’t great so I’ll have to add pictures later.
My aunt lives somewhat outside Sydenham, and we visited an elderly couple who are friends of hers for lunch. They live on a sprawling property a five minute walk from her house, which the wife of the family insisted upon showing me around at great length. There were some absolutely fantastic views from the fields.
I was consulted on British politics as I had been during my visit last year, and had to be somewhat diplomatic with my answers. We could all agree, however, that Boris Johnson was not fit to be PM – that didn’t need any sugar-coating.
Brian’s Record Option
A very, very long time ago (the early 90s), my aunt began sending me tapes of a Canadian comedy band called The Arrogant Worms, which she purchased from an independent music shop in downtown Kingston called Brian’s Record Option. During my first visit to Canada in 1996, I was taken there in person to browse the stacks, and picked out a couple more comedy tapes.
Twenty two years later, in 2018, I visited the store again on a rainy Wednesday a few hours before I was scheduled to take the train back to Toronto. It was still there, and still almost exactly as I remembered it: thousands of records, CDs, cassettes and books on stacked shelves reaching up to the ceiling, in huge piles on various boxes or parts of the floor and stuffed into every available crack and crevice. And the moment I came in, Brian recognised me immediately, calling me by name, twenty-two years later.
We did a lot of catching up. I told him how my life had unfolded, he told me about how Kingston had grown and developed, the history of the shop (which predates my birth) and – somewhat solemnly – his plans for what would happen if he were to retire. He said he thought, when it finally came time for him to pack up shop, he wouldn’t sell it to anyone or take on an apprentice.
“When it’s finally time to be done,” he said, “I’d like to leave without a trace, so this place turns into nothing but a fond memory.”
About a month after my visit, construction work on the road outside caused the basement and part of shop floor to flood, ruining a chunk of Brian’s stock and damaging the premises itself. But as it turns out, the Kingston community wasn’t ready to let Brian’s Record Option turn into a fond memory just yet, and so held three separate fundraisers, one of which my father and I donated to.
Talking to him again this year, it was amazing how much Brian had taken it in stride. Discussing the catastrophe with him, he told me that they had managed to save about 70% of the shop’s stock – since it had only flooded the basement and the floor, a lot of the merchandise on higher shelves had escaped water damage, and quick action by Brian and helpful bystanders had allowed additional stock to be rescued before it was ruined. The fundraising had allowed repairs to be made quickly, and the shop re-opened this March.
If you’re ever in Kingston and in search of vintage vinyl (I had noticed a mint-condition copy of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours on my last visit) or cassettes – or just Brian’s eclectic and fascinating stories about his life – I can’t recommend this shop enough.
The Search For More Magic
So after catching up with Brian, I set out on the first part of my quest to play a game of Commander format Magic: The Gathering in every North American city I visit.
This… did not go as planned.
The first place I went was Kingston Gaming Nexus. I was introduced to their resident Magic expert, who’s a veteran of the game’s professional competitive circuit, who – while buying out most of my trade binder – informed me that it was probably better to look for Commander games over at SBT Comics in the Bayridge Center, and directed me to the 501 Express bus, which conveniently stopped directly outside.
I’m glad to see that buses don’t suffer the same stigma in Canada as they do in America of “the form of transit only poor people use.” The 501 even has a rack at the front for cyclists to put their bikes while riding the bus. In fact, Kingston is a very cyclist-friendly city in general – I’m strongly considering renting a bike if I visit again.
Once at the Bayridge Center, I proceeded to SBT Comics only to discover it was Pokémon night. Somewhat discouraged, I asked for instructions on getting back to my motel, and was told to get back on the 501. But seeing that it was a lovely day and my motel was only three miles almost due east down a single road, I figured I’d walk back.
This proved to be quite the adventure.
The Journey Home
Here’s a tip for travellers: distances on a map can be deceptive.
This is especially true when you’re a Brit who’s used to cities that have to compress themselves greatly. London’s urban area is about 600 square miles, into which it packs 8.8 million people. Despite having a population of 124,000 – only 1.4% of London’s – Kingston’s urban area occupies 400 square miles, only a third smaller. Everything’s very spread out, occupying a lot more space.
The walk took me past residential districts, giant strip malls and a sprawling plot of land earmarked for a new development, and some of it over gravel and sand rather than sidewalk. Since I don’t have mobile data on my British SIM (at least, not without paying extortionate pricecs), I made a detour into one of the strip malls to briefly leech Wi-Fi from a Starbucks. For those travelling in foreign countries without data, look for coffee shops and supermarkets – these seem to be the best place to get Wi-Fi that you don’t have to pay for.
Burritos and Beers
After getting back to my motel, a little dejected at not being able to play Magic, I got a message from one of my Twitter followers expressing surprise that I was in their town. She wasn’t doing anything, and I was hungry, so I suggested we meet up for food.
Incidentally, as another tip for travellers in Canada: there’s a Canadian online food ordering service called SkipTheDishes. If you don’t have a Canadian or American phone number, you cannot use this service at all. I did, however, get the location of a Mexican fast food joint called BarBurrito that Google Maps confidently told me was only a 25 minute walk away, and since my friend was going to take about that long to get over to Princess Street anyway, I suggested we meet up there.
Fifteen minutes later, I discovered I walk faster than Google Maps’ average, and so waited 10 minutes for my friend to arrive.
For a fast food outfit, BarBurrito’s got good food, good service and good value for money, although their food could stand to be a little warmer. I especially like that they print the calorie information of every option they offer, and their very wide selection of vegetarian options.
After eating, my friend took me to Stone City Ales, a local microbrewery, where I had an absolutely fantastic wheat beer and also absolutely bombed a joke about Canadian currency while talking to the waitress and agonised over it the rest of the night.
Return to Toronto
After checking out of my motel and saying my goodbyes to my aunt this afternoon, I got on my VIA Rail train back to Toronto. Currently pulling up to Union Station. Plans are a little up in the air right now. Catch you all on the flipside.