Throw another Kebab on the Barbie


With the summer break almost upon us, and a visit from Gary and Catherine rounding up the Aussie contingent, we decided to throw a backyard barbie for a few of the local folk who have been really helpful to us during our first five months here in Canada.

After a fun morning on Centre Island, we caught the GO train back to Oakville with an hour or so to spare to get things ready before the crowds arrived. Gary and Catherine decided to stay in Toronto for a while longer just to look around a bit more, and they would return home a bit later once the party was in full swing. With a bit of time to kill, I thought I’d have a go at cooking a pavlova - a uniquely Aussie dish - so I downloaded a recipe from the web and had it mixed and made and bunged into the oven by the time the first few guests arrived.

We had a lovely afternoon, with a feed of beef, pork, chicken and salmon kebabs grilled on the barbie, potato bake, and a collection of salads and deserty things to round the meal off. Good tucker!

But we mainly wanted to take the opportunity to say a heartfelt thanks to everyone who has really gone out of their way to make us feel so welcomed into our new Canadian lifestyle.

End of an Era... again


Primary, or Elementary schools as they are called here, differ from Australian schools in that they go from Kindergarten to Grade 8, rather than to Grade 6. This means the students stay longer in this environment than in any other during their formal education. As a result, graduating from Grade 8 is quite a big deal and Alex was lucky enough to be part of this Canadian milestone.

The day commenced with a Mass at Mary Mother of God Parish Church for Holy Family students as well as those from St Marguerite school. To give the students time to prepare for the evening celebrations, they were not required to go back to school after the morning mass so Alex and I snuck off to have lunch together and watch Brazil and Ghana on the big screen at the same time.

The evening festivities were held at the Le Dome Function Centre in Oakville, and consisted of an awards ceremony for the parents and then dinner and dancing for the students. Alex was asked by his teacher to be the Master of Ceremonies for the evening, and despite trying hard to get out of it, he did a sterling job. The Grade 8 girls looked stunning and in my opinion were dressed very age appropriately. Even the boys scrubbed up alright in their ties and jackets, looking far more grown up than I was ready for.

Whilst the students were enjoying their time alone, we celebrated over dinner at a Greek restaurant with the Liebregts Family, whose son Jon was also graduating. Alex will now begin high school after the summer, starting Grade 9 at Holy Trinity Catholic High School which gives him the added bonus of experiencing life at both elementary and secondary levels whilst here in Canada.

Congratulations to all the Grade 8 students on a job well done!

Island Hopping


When you live in a new place, it's tempting to draw comparisons with the place you're more familiar with. Not so much in terms of a better-or-worse type comparison, but more as a way of being able to get a better grasp on the "lay-of-the-land" of the new place. For example, when we first got here, it was helpful to relate various suburbs to what might be thought of as their comparable suburb back in Sydney... you know, like is this area a Lane Cove or more of a Mount Druitt? (Apologies to any Sydneysiders reading this... I don't mean to diss on your suburb, but you know what I mean... Some areas have a totally different character than others.) For Sydneysiders, we've found that Toronto has its Vaucluse and Turramurra areas (for Torontoans, think Oakville), and it also has its fair share of Green Valley and Claymore suburbs too (Torontoans, think Jane and Finch). Again, I know that sounds really judgemental, but there's no denying that different areas have quite different characters.

With that in mind, how do I explain Centre Island? We were looking for something to do last Sunday and someone suggested Centre Island to us. I'm glad they did, it's a beautiful place! Again, using Sydney as a comparison, imagine taking a cross between Centennial Park, The Domain, Manly, a little bit of Darling Harbour, adding Bankstown Airport just for good measure, and putting the whole thing on an island and floating it just offshore of Sydney.

The Toronto Islands are located offshore of downtown Toronto, a short 15 minute ferry ride away into Lake Ontario. Consisting of Wards Island, Centre Island, Olympic Island, and a few other smaller islands, the place is quite an oasis - so close to the hustle and bustle of Toronto, but you could be anywhere. The islands are still in a fairly natural state, with lots of trees and waterways, and threaded with several kilometres of cycling and walking trails. It also has a small theme park for kids called Centreville, a couple of restaurants, plenty of grassy parklands, a marina, a small airport, as well as being home to about 100o people. As you can see, it's kind of hard to categorise as it's a little eclectic.

We caught the ferry on Sunday morning out to the Wards Island wharf. It was very busy at the ferry terminal, and we found out that the annual dragon boat races were being held on Centre Island, and there was quite a crowd heading out for the day. We took the enjoyable 3 km stroll from Wards wharf over to the Centre Island area, stopping in at the fire station along the way to chat to a very friendly firey. We also stopped to check out the dragon boat races - very lively! The kids got excited when we arrived at Centreville and spent some time on the rides... very cheesy, very expensive, but a bit of fun I suppose. We explored a bit more before having lunch at the Island Paradise restaurant, before catching the ferry back to the city and heading back to Oakville on the GO train.

We plan to go again with our bikes and spend a bit more time exporing the islands. Regardless of how you might try to categorise Toronto Islands, they are a real hidden gem of recreation in Canada's busiest city, and well worth a visit.

The Very Simple Life


Can you imagine a life without the modern conveniences that most of us take for granted - conveniences like electricity, a telephone and a car? Can you imagine what your life would be like if nothing much had really change since the days of your great grandfather? Can you imagine what life would be like if you basically just turned your back on modern living?

Heck, I can't even imagine what life would be like without broadband, so I found our visit to a Mennonite farm quite fascinating. A large community of Mennonite folk live at St Jacobs, near Kitchener, and since Donna has always been absolutely fascinated with learning about other religions, we took the opportunity to do a Mennonite farm tour when we were at the St Jacobs Markets buying some groceries on the weekend.

I'm not sure what you know about the Mennonites, but they are similar in principle to the Amish folk that live around Pennsylvania. If you've seen movies like Witness or For Richer or Poorer, you may be a little familiar with the Amish. The Mennonites come from a common ancestry as the Amish, and consequently they have many things in common... apart from the same basic beliefs in Jesus Christ and the bible, they both also choose to live a plain, simple, often agricultural lifestyle, and they generally shun most forms of modern technology. Perhaps one of the most noticable aspects of the Mennonites is their refusal to drive a car and to travel by horse-drawn buggies instead. Strict mennonites also don't have electricity or telephones, or computers. Of course, like all religions, some adhere to these strict beliefs far more rigidly than others and there are probably plenty of Mennonites who live "normal" lives that don't observe strict Mennonite traditions, in the same way that their are probably plenty of Catholics who don't observe strict Catholic traditions.

The Mennonites who do still adhere to the strict traditional ways of their religion are often referred to as Old Order Mennonites, and there are many of them living in the St Jacobs area. There are also other variants of the religion, with names like Conservative Mennonites, Progressive Mennonites, Markham Mennonites, and even the Dave Martin Mennonites (that last one sounds like a jazz band to me). Each of these variants has a slightly different view of what it means to be Mennonite, and how strictly they interpret their religion.

The Mennonite tour that runs out of St Jacobs takes you to a nearby Old Order farm, and gives you a unique insight into various aspects of their lifestyle. We were shown a maple syrup operation and were given an explanation of how pure maple syrup is made. We got to look around the farm a bit, we saw some of the traditional little black buggies they travel in. We learnt about some of their religious beliefs and how they express those beliefs. All in all, it was an informative and interesting look at an Old Order Mennonite lifestyle. Their farm was an absolutely beautiful piece of land, immaculately kept, and quite varied in its output of produce.

There is probably a great deal to be said for living a simple life, although I think I would miss my broadband too much.

Toronto by Night


While Donna's brother Gary and his family were here, they were keen to check out the "big smoke" of Toronto city. After a fairly full day in Niagara, a decision was made to stay on the Eastbound QEW and drive through to Toronto. The traffic was very heavy - fairly typical for a Friday rush hour in Toronto. In fact, I'm told that traffic in Toronto is heavy pretty much every day. Nevertheless, we eventually got into the downtown area and found a parking spot just near the Air Canada Centre.

It was busy in town. The Bluejays were playing the New York Mets at the Rogers Centre, Cirque de Soliel was showing at the ACC, and the city was getting ready for the weekend's Gay Pride events... Toronto has one of the largest gay and lesbian festivals in North America, and the Gay Pride march on the weekend was expected to have over 100,000 participants and around a million spectators. In other words, the city was pretty busy.

We went for dinner at the Richtree Market, where we'd been a few weeks ago with Sharilou and Mark's family. Great food and reasonable prices, but keep track of what you're spending if you go there, as it tends to add up pretty quickly. After dinner we walked around a bit, ending up at the CN Tower. Gary was keen to see the view from the top, so he took his family and Kate up there while Donna, Alex and I just looked around a bit near the base of the Tower. While we waited the 'Jays game finished, and there were people everywhere.

The tower viewers finally returned and we took a final stroll back to the carpark before heading back to Oakville after a very long and busy day.

Whatever floats your Boat


On the road back from Niagara falls on the QEW, you drive over a large bridge which goes over the Welland Canal. The Welland Canal connects Lake Erie in the south to Lake Ontario in the north, and is a vital link in enabling shipping traffic to pass from the Great Lakes system all the way up the St Lawrence River and into the North Atlantic Ocean. The interesting thing about the Welland Canal is that it is completely man-made. Of course, there is also a natural waterway that connects Lake Erie to Lake Ontario... it's called the Niagara River, but it has a slight obstacle to shipping traffic called Niagara Falls. The ships are able to go downstream ok, but they seem to have a hell of a time going back upstream.

Hence we have the Welland Canal - a massive 50+km manmade river which allows huge cargo ships to safely travel between Erie and Ontario. It is basically a detour around Niagara Falls. But the Falls exist because Lake Ontario is considerably lower that Lake Erie, and a large natural plateau exists between the two lakes called the Niagara Escarpment. This is essentially the cliffs that the Niagara river goes over to create the falls. So to compensate for the huge difference in altitude as you travel the 50+km canal, it passes through a series of "locks".

As we drove over the Skyway bridge, Gary looked down and noticed a ship travelling up the canal. We all thought it would be rather cool to see a big ship try to get through one of the locks, so we turned off the QEW, and managed to find the road beside the canal on the offchance that we might see some lock action. As we drove alongside the canal we finally found the ship steaming alongside of us, so we continued to the next lock which was a couple of kilometres upstream. With amazingly good timing, we managed to find Lock Number 3 and made our way to the viewing platform as the big ship approached.

The locks work by having an enormous channel - large enough to hold a cargo ship - with huge steel gates at either end. The water is lower at one end than the other, so when a boat wants to go upstream they close to top gate and open the lower one, letting the water in the lock go down to the lower level. The ship sails into the lock, they shut the lower gate, flood the lock so the water rises to the higher level and then simply open the top gate to let the ship continue on its merry way. Heading downstream is the same thing only reversed. Simple really.

There's a little more to it than that, but it's mostly just safety precautions - like tying the ship into position while the lock is flooded to ensure it doesn't move, and a few other precautionary safety steps - but basically it works as described above. We were lucky to be in the right place at the right time to see the Diamond Star - a cargo ship from Halifax, Nova Scotia - pass south through the lock heading for Lake Erie.

The whole process took about 45 minutes, and there are 8 locks to pass through on the Welland Canal alone, so you don't want to be in a hurry to get from place to place. Regardless, it is a remarkable feat of engineering and was very interesting to watch in action.

Close up and Personal


When Marilyn Monroe made the 1953 film "Niagara", she got to take a ride on a little boat called the Maid of the Mist. Today, this famous boat ride still takes passengers all the way up to the monstrous wall of water as it cascades from the cliff face 170 feet above, and right into the vortex of the Falls themselves. The roar of the water is deafening, the river swirls around you like whitewater rapids, and the spray coming off the falls is somewhat like standing in front of a firehose!

When we first visited Niagara in Winter, "The Maid" was not running... it was way too cold to be sprayed with a firehose! So when we visited Niagara last weekend and saw the boats motoring up and down the river, poking their noses into the huge wall of mist emanating from the Falls, we were keen to finally get down there and experience it for ourselves. We bought our tickets (which were much more reasonably priced than I expected) and descended into the gorge to board The Maid. There are actually several "Maids", each plying the river, heavily laden with passengers from the loading wharves on both the Canadian and American sides of the river. We were issued with our very attractive blue sprayjackets and boarded our boat along with a couple hundred other sightseers.

As we got closer to the Falls, the commentary over the speakers narrated the trip with all sorts of interesting facts and trivia about the Falls (in English and French)... the heights, the widths, and all sorts of amazing tales about people who had gone over the Falls - some intentionally and some unintentionally - and lived to tell about it. As we got closer and closer to the wall of water and spray, it was pretty hard to imagine why anyone in their right mind would intentionally go over the falls, but I guess the world is full of strange individuals!

As we cruised past the less-spectacular Bridal Veil (American) Falls, and on towards the more famous Horseshoe (Canadian) Falls, the sound of thousands of birds echoed off the gorge walls like a scene from some bizarre science fiction movie. The Maid ventured closer and closer to the Horseshoe Falls until we were literally being smothered in a heavy spray, accompanied by huge blasts of wind and the boat being rocked around in the eddies of the river churning below us. With the Maid's motors driving hard against the current just to remain stationary, we stayed in position for several minutes, staring into the noise and the spray before we slowly turned away and headed back downstream to the wharf. It was actually quite an exhilarating experience to be standing there copping the spray in the face, and hearing the deafening roar.

I think we will have to do this again in a few weeks when The Robs arrive! It will be exciting to do it again with them... to say nothing of seeing Robyn's reaction to the fact that Marilyn Monroe was here!

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