Saturday, August 25, 2012

Cottages, boats and paint balling

The journey from Guha's to my friend Byron, another Strategic Coach escapee, was pretty short, less than an hour in fact but along the way we found quite a lot of things to delay us so that we arrived Chez Byron and Daina in Baysville around 5pm-ish, just in time to find Byron tinkering in his insanely tidy man cave (garage) and thirsting for Martinis.  (In addition to being Coach alumni Byron and I share a passion for martinis of all types so our occasional meetings usually have this theme running strongly through them with hell to pay the following morning!).

Byron is something in software so connectivity for him is paramount.  I had wondered quite how he'd manage in the middle of nowhere on a smallish lake (called Dickie Lake which was only about the size of Bermuda) but of course when we entered the house I counted easily a dozen internet related devices whirring, buzzing and chirping away all at the same time.  Byron says as he's in software he has to buy everything to see how it works and it sure looks like he'd bought everything Apple puts out, mind you he has 3 children who get the cast offs (if you can call 3 month old stuff cast offs that is).  I think he's tuned out that Apple ching sound that you hear when anything happens on an Apple device as it was constant.  He told me that the reception was 'pretty lousy' and he'd nearly killed himself climbing trees, putting in satellite dishes and various other arrays but I am also pretty sure only NASA or maybe his main office in Toronto has better internet reception.

From the back garden
As it was a lovely evening again (we really lucked out on this trip in a big way for after the tennis when it rained cats and dogs, the weather has been magnificent), we went out for a tour around the local lake and again it struck me that how you define 'cottages' depends very much where you are.  Some of the lake homes were simply enormous but both Daina and Byron said wait until we get onto the Lake of Bays and you'll see some really big places.

Dickie Lake cottages

I am really impressed by how Byron has managed his life.  He is CEO of a disparate software company that has no office but 20-30 staff (he's a bit vague about numbers) located anywhere there's a good internet connection.  The only proviso is that they meet for lunch or dinner in Toronto once a month so they remember what they all look like.

And meet at Byron's cottage for a company paint ball competition a couple of times a year for some real honest team building!

The Lake of Bays is huge, I'd put it around the size of a medium size English county.  Sussex probably.  While Byron had been vice president of the 300-strong Dickie Lake Association (of cottage owners), I could not begin to think how many cottages were around the Lake of Bays which as the name suggests is pretty big and is composed mainly of various shaped bays.  The lake (and indeed all of the Muskoka and indeed Great Lakes) was fed by the Canadian Shelf, basically the entire northern part of this huge country which is under snow and ice for months each year, and was of various depths.  Mind you the size of the lake equated with the size of some of the cottages there.

A rather nice way of coming to the cottage and avoiding the car crush

When they bought the cottage Byron put in a fire pit where he could do the rugged outdoors bit in full and cook steaks over an open fire.  And that was the plan for the evening but while the fire was getting going in earnest we had plenty of time to check out Byron's paint balling arsenal of weapons and play ourselves.  Byron showed me some of his bruises and I can believe that they hurt particularly when the gun itself was in semi-automatic mode.  Mind you it was good fun though.

I'd never done a campfire cookout before outside of a couple of outdoor barbecues so had never experienced the delight of eating smores.  These things are marshmallows toasted on the open fire between 2 Graham crackers with a couple of slices of chocolate thrown in for good measure.  Massively sweet, calorific and definitely not that good for you but really quite scrummy.  Byron's daughter Rowan showed me how to get the outside part of the marshmallow off so you had access to the really gooey middle bit.

Traditional caveman cooking steaks over an open fire -- except for using the Apple 4S iPhone as a timer that is!

And that was it.  The road trip was over.  Many thanks to Byron, Daina, Shea, Sonia, Rowan and Stanley the dog for a really pleasant stay.  Our first cottaging experience was great.

Next stop Bermuda and home.

Guha's Babies

Leaving Ontario’s west coast on a Sunday meant we drove against the cottager traffic most of the time.  This was the day they’d rush back to the City ready for the work week.  Friday by contrast was the day the reverse happened.  I had never seen a Canadian ‘cottage’ before so was keen to experience it.

In Bermuda a cottage is thought of as being a stand alone single storey house.  What we’d call a bungalow in England in fact.  However over the years, Bermuda cottages had been built on and extended in all directions so quite often they sprawl.  When we’d first arrived in Bermuda it was to a 2 bed, 1 bath bungalow – a cottage indeed, and we lived 12 happy years there.

Because we were bimbling still, we aimed north to go through Collingwood, a resort town on Georgian Bay.  They have a ski mountain there, the closest to Toronto, which is very popular to the point of exclusivity.

I’d found a B&B on a lake called Rosseau in Muskoka, the district which is considered to be prime cottage country because of the massive preponderance of both lakes and of course cottages.  Lakes Rosseau and Muskoka are very large indeed, not quite Great Lake size (Huron is as big as England) rather the size of, say, Yorkshire.  It was near Port Carling, a very small speck on the map that in summer time grew in size from 300 to more than 3,000 with the summer cottagers.

Not exactly what I'd call a cottage!  Very swish.

The B&B was very pleasant on the lake and Viv and I were most comfortable there.  We headed off to a big resort called Windermere for dinner (another golf resort) and settled down for a cottage night, our first.  At breakfast, mine host told us off a place only 5 minutes away (Ha!  Never believe people that live in the country.  Maybe to them it seemed like only 5 minutes away but it took us nearly 40!) where an Indian guy raised lions and tigers. 

Now I’m a skeptic at heart so the likelihood of there being an Indian actually training lions and tigers simply miles out in the bush where in the winter the temperature fell to minus a hell of a lot for simply months was highly unlikely so we just had to take a look. 

Apparently this Indian had trained Elsa the lion in that early animal movie, Born Free.  This was too much and when we finally found the drive and turned in all we saw was a ramshackle house and what looked like a bunch of poorly tacked together cages with all the brush overgrown.  Like a trailer park in fact. 

And then the dogs started barking… and pretty soon after that an elderly guy with a floppy hat wandered out and looked around wondering no doubt what on earth was happening to destroy his peace and quiet.  That’s when we saw one another and I explained what we were about and he genially welcomed us in.

Guha with Mum and Dad. When the weather gets too bad, he still takes them all indoors out of the cold but they still get their daily walk in the woods.
This was Guha and he told us pretty quick that he’d chosen this remote location because he wanted to lie low beneath the radar as he was much in demand for what he did.  Guha was a 13th generation animal trainer and for as long as he remembered he always had lions and tigers, Indian lions and tigers that is.  Bigger and more rare than their African counterparts.  He told us his 110 year old mother who lives in Darjeeling still keeps Guha’s elephant for him and rides him every day just to remind him who’s boss.  Apparently the elephant DOES remember who Guha is when he visits.

First was mum and dad – the big lion and lioness.  Guha told us that lions are pretty frisky for the first 7 years of their life but once they hit fully grown up age (7 years old) they become very lazy.  And these guys barely moved a muscle the whole time that Guha talked to them.  He’d brought these 2 lions up himself from the age of 6 days (poachers took their parents) and they’d lived with him and his wife until they were 7 years old.  Each day Guha would go into their cage with their food (they are 800 pounds in weight and eat 250 pounds of meat each week apparently), talk to them and have a cuddle.  They were in fact quite loving lions and certainly when he spoke they listened intently.  Eating that lot would make you pretty sleepy though and as it was nice and sunny they certainly took advantage of that.

There’s only 200 Indian lions left in the wild and in all the world’s zoos and Guha has 6 of them.  His lions are much in demand for stud purposes; there are 3 boys with Guha, all 4 years old so still adolescent but their older siblings are in several zoos around the world busily doing what needs to be done to prolong their line. 

Guha’s Siberian tiger is currently with Cincinnati zoo on the same mission.  There are fewer Siberian tigers than Indian lions courtesy of the poachers, so the issue is more critical.  Guha frequently takes in females for mating purposes but the big problem with this for the tigers is that prior to mating, the female needs to have selected a secure place to bring up the cubs so staying for a month at a time with him doesn’t work.  Guha wanted to carve off a decent area within his 100 acre holding that he would enclose safely and simply kick the 2 tigers out there for a while but apparently the local authorities couldn’t get their heads around a couple of 12 foot long 1,000 pound tigers roaming around in the wilderness so baulked at the notion.  Guha seemed bemused about this ‘ridiculous’ decision as quite often he’d have the tiger in to watch TV with him and his wife so really how could they be considered dangerous?

So as a result the tiger is elsewhere doing the business and so successful has he been that there are now 32 young Siberian tigers that are being reintroduced into the wild in Siberia some time in the next few weeks.  Guha will be attending to advise on the details however his tiger will not be going to Siberia.  He’s coming home presumably for some nice home cooking and TLC from Guha and his wife.

Guha also has 1 black panther and 2 cougars (father and son) plus the other 4 lions all of whom responded amazingly to his voice.  The elder cougar (who’d just lost his wife and unborn cubs in childbirth) in fact had a conversation with Guha going back and forth like a human would.  Guha had had all these big cats since they were only a few days old so was a father to them all.  The cougars liked to watch TV even more than the tiger but while the tiger knew its place and wouldn’t climb on the furniture, the younger cougar would try when Guha’s wife wasn’t looking.  However she was very firm with them and wouldn’t let them get away with much.

One of the last 12 black panthers left in the world

The talkative cougar that likes to watch TV and climb onto the furniture -- much to the lady of the house's displeasure

Two 'babies' -- aged 4 and only 400 pounds.  These are the active ones.

Amazing story but when we spoke more, the rest of the story was equally so.  Guha has a PHD in economics from LSE and was offered the chance to do another, in German, at Heidelburg when he was only 21.  That was where he met his German wife who didn’t believe it when he told her that his girlfriends were the big cats at Frankfurt Zoo where he volunteered.  Clearly Guha is a romantic as well.

He’d come to Canada to teach and somehow ended up in North Bay teaching Economics to students who didn’t want to learn, only argue with him so he quit and moved to Muskoka with his big cats.

We asked if he ever sold any of his ‘babies’ (he has 3 sons dotted around Canada as well all who help out when they are around – they used to go swimming with the tigers when they were younger so are clearly as comfortable around the big cats as mum and dad).  Guha told us Disney are always trying to buy some of the cats – and he has relented but never took money for them, only ensuring that they are treated ‘royally’ (which means 3 personal attendants each).  But there was one occasion when the children of the Emperor of Japan visited and took a liking to a couple of the black panther's babies – there are only 12 left in the world, Guha has 1 and now the Japanese royal family have 2.  Guha insisted that the Emperor's children spend time with them prior to taking them to Japan (they spent a month) and Guha went over for 6 weeks to make sure they are OK.  They are truly being treated ‘royally’ now!

As these are huge cats and the cages while comfy are pretty small, we wondered about exercise.  Guha said he takes them out for a 2 hour walk every day. I wondered if they acted like dogs when taken off the leash who ran around crazily, Guha said what leash?  He treated his babies with respect and they did the same for him.  They would accompany him quite happily and placidly in the forest to the point where if they ever saw or heard a moose or deer, they’d be the ones that were afraid more than the others.

Having a conversation, going for a walk, watching TV together -- this was an extraordinary visit and one that quite frankly when I drove into the driveway I wanted to turn around and drive straight back out again.  It was a privilege to spend an hour with Guha and his amazing cats.  Long may that happen. Thank you very much, Guha.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Huron Country

I’d been talking to my friend Brian for at least 3 or 4 years about visiting him in his new home on the shores of Lake Huron.  Brian was a long time friend from Strategic Coach, the entrepreneurs course I’d been taking for more than 10 years in Toronto.  We’d both given the course up a couple of years ago (mind you I just restarted last week) but had kept in touch and had finally agreed a date.

I’d organized a car hire – a car I’d been wanting to try out for ages in fact, a Chrysler 300 gas guzzler. 

I don’t know if its just me but I have hired 2 fantastic German cars in the UK in the past year – a VW Golf and an Audi A4, both diesels, both managed 50+ mpg in town driving. In fact I’d driven the VW from York to London, spent 3 days driving all over London, down to Southend in Essex and Canterbury in Kent and still drove it down to Dover all on half a tank of diesel.  That is simply ridiculous so I struggle to get excited when I see US adverts for cars that proudly announce energy efficiency at 31 mpg for motorway driving.  Why can’t US manufacturers simply licence the technology the German car manufacturers have and save 50% on their gas costs?  

The car is great though.  Big, comfy and filled with neat gadgets designed to make me feel comfortable.  I’d also bought a GPS as after my struggle with maps on the European road trip from last year, I have given up on the map versus GPS struggle.  GPS wins hands down.  But when there’s road works you still need a map to give you a broad idea of where you’re going.

I’d never driven in Toronto so leaving was a bit of a challenge particularly when we hit the airport region near Mississauga.  Viv had specified no motorways, toll roads or unmade roads so we went almost the entire length (seemingly) of Bloor Street and hit a traffic light at the airport where we had a left turn to make without assistance from the lights amidst mayhem, manic traffic.  We survived somehow though.

Once clear of that we were in endless farmlands with the intent being to target St. Jacob’s, a pretty village somewhere in the west.  Viv had also booked us into a motel in Stratford and a play at the Festival Theatre – Henry V, part of the annual Shakespeare Festival – so we had a time constraint looming in the background particularly so as our speed of travel was distinctly in the bimbling mode.

This is pig country.  The bacon, ham and pork is just fantastic.  Clearly Thursday is a real banner day.

But the country is reaaaaaally big.  The land is laid out in vast chunks all surrounded by what are called “Line” roads.  Brian later told me in the early days farmers were assigned 100 acre square parcels, around which were laid out roads in straight ‘lines’, hence the name “Line” roads.  So out somewhere in the middle of wherever we changed from Line Road 119 to Line Road 111, which somehow doesn’t quite give the trip much romantic sparkle.  Some counties have climbed down off their perch and permitted more interesting names to be used but others are more puritan.  Speaking of whom let’s talk about the Menonites.

Menonites are protestant extremists that sprang up just after Martin Luther nailed his objections to that church in the 16th century and took his opposition to orthodox church a few steps further to the left (or right even, depending on your own politics).  To give you an idea, they thought Luther’s articles were a few hundred too few so they added on a whole bunch more, all radical, which alienated not only the Catholics but also the newly self-proclaimed Protestants as well so everyone, and I do mean everyone, persecuted them.  The Jews must have been relieved to have been given some time off, I would think.  So given the fact that there were so few of them, they fled in all directions. The Dutch went east to Russia where Catherine the Great welcomed them and sent them to Siberia, far enough away but in the knowledge they'd get things going there, whilst the German and Swiss went west, ultimately to the US mainly Pennsylvania where many protestant religious groups settled.

After US independence, large numbers left in their wagons for western Ontario as they had been treated well under the British (i.e. pretty much left alone and not been asked to join in any imperial wars) and feared that the new USA would conscript their young men into the US Army.  The Amish and other similar groups remain in Pennsylvania still but large numbers now control large tracts of farming in rural western Ontario. 

The Menonites are split into various strata as over the years many gave up orthodoxy and embraced many of the ‘new’ ways while still holding to their religious beliefs.  But some of the ‘Old Order’ remain and you can see them in their traditional garb driving their coach and horses along the highways and byways.  But they are good businessmen and have prospered over the years.  Most of the old order drive cars now (except on Sundays), the proviso being that they are black in colour to match the men’s attire.  I met a retired government property assayer who told me that he’d visited all over the region and found that the Menonites were very far advanced in their usage of modern technology even the old order so while you may consider them curiosities because of their garb, their accents and their ‘ways’, they know what they are doing and they do it really well.

A Menonite convoy.  Mind you this was Sunday so the cars were likely in the garage at home whilst they went to church in the old ways.

St. Jacob’s is a largely Menonite enclave and that was why we were heading in that direction but as the day wore on it became clear we (a) couldn’t find the damn place and (b) even when the GPS had got its act together, we’d have no time to do anything other than leave so we redirected our efforts towards Stratford and Henry V.

Stratford is really a lovely little town.  Settled like everywhere in the region in the mid 1850’s it has no big or new buildings to speak of other than a couple of theatres and retains a really nice olde worlde feel to it.  Once an industrial town doing I’m not sure what, now Stratford is solely tourism and pretty much solely Shakespeare.  Even the river running through it is called the Avon (there are some similarities with the Avon River in Christchurch, New Zealand, but not many). 

Avon River walk in Stratford, Ontario.

Once we settled ourselves at the Festival Inn on the outskirts and found the theatre we walked into town along the riverbank which was really lovely, circumnavigated the town in really quite short time and settled ourselves into the Mercer Inn for dinner, a nice boutique Inn that had declined to house us for the night but fed and watered us really well.

The Festival Theatre was nice, set out in a horseshoe pattern with the stage jutting out into the middle so the actors could easily move around in the auditorium.  We were on the left hand side but really close so felt ourselves in things. 

They kept fairly closely to the original script including all the potentially edgy bits about the English massacring the French prisoners that both Lawrence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh had omitted from their films.  All the ‘English’ accents were decent too.  And of course who wouldn’t catch a breath when Henry went into his “Once more into the breach, dear friends” and “We happy few, we band of brothers” speeches?  Shakespeare wrote some fabulous lines but he also integrated some humour and political satire as well that stands the test of time very well.

By contrast to the previous day, the next day was a breeze.  I put it down to it being Viv’s birthday of course!  We found St. Jacob’s and went through the Menonite Museum (most interesting) and the Menonite bakery next door where the cherry tarts were fanstastic.  And the drive to Grand Bend was a breeze too for the GPS had got its act together and had we not taken some deliberate detours, we would surely have arrived at Brian’s house somewhat sooner than we did.  However all’s well that ended well and we did arrive at Brian’s house (now 3 years old) which overlooks Lake Huron in very good time.

I hadn't expected to find a broom maker making brooms in the old fashioned way but here in St. Jacob's we did.
It tells you something where another protestant church (above) has been sold and turned into a toy shop and day care centre in St. Jacob's high street.  

Lake Huron as all know is one of the Great Lakes – the others being Ontario, Erie, Michigan and the largest of all by a factor of an awful lot Superior.  They are all connected by rivers, canals and other waterways, so you can get through to about half way across the continent by water provided you follow the connections properly.  Huron is 3rd one over from the Atlantic.  Michigan is just about below Huron with Superior, the monster, to the west.  Brian overlooks Huron and the view is simply sensational.

Rum Swizzle overlooking Lake Huron.  It wasn't hard to drink it!

That part of the coastline also has a real beach.  Well, real if you classify ‘beach’ in its proper way as being the stuff churned up from the sea floor by wave action but not a real beach if you classify it as being either sandy or pink like Bermuda’s.  But as Huron only has silt and mud at the bottom and not rocks and coral like Bermuda, you can’t blame it.  The texture actually reminds me of the mud flats at my home town, Southend, when the tide’s out.

Ultimately we went for a swim and it wasn’t as cold as I expected and was in fact very pleasant.  I’d never swum in a lake before or in real fresh water, so this was a new experience for me.  Huron even had waves and something of a current and undertow to make it familiar.

The hot tub on the upper balcony was pretty darn nice!

Grand Bend is interesting.  Staying with Brian enabled me to see the town in two completely distinct but parallel lights: the summer resort catering to wild young party goers and the all year round town where normal people lived normal lives.  The main street was a cut down version of Key West with fewer seedier aspects and looking back on the trip I did there last year with Viv, there must have been another side to it.  We just never saw it.  In Grand Bend we saw that through Brian’s eyes.

Brian is part of the Rotary Club who recently began a series of projects providing aid to primarily southern Africa.  Apparently in the past, each small rural township in the Huron area had had local schools and in fact a complete local infrastructure at each town. With a declining birth rate, school numbers have declined as has the population generally so the county decided to amalgamate several smaller townships’ infrastructure into larger more economically efficient structures from schools to hospitals and local administration.  At the school level this means school closures with new larger schools being built and the children being bussed in from outlying areas.  But what happens to the old schools?

Well, first the stuff in them goes into the dumpster and then the buildings get offered first to the local community and then get put up for auction.  That’s where Rotary stepped in.  They asked if they could simply take the stuff that would be thrown out and give it away to poorer places.  The answer was a qualified ‘yes’.  Qualified because the authorities didn’t want stuff given away and then being resold at a profit so they specified it had to be given away.  As Rotary had found in South Africa another Rotarian with the capability to give this stuff away, this was no problem.  So up to now they’ve filled 19 forty-foot containers (5 this year) at a cost of $5,000 a pop which Rotary themselves raise.

Anyway Brian’s group had organized to empty a school in near by Zurich and pack a container and promptly volunteered me to hump and carry as well. 

The school was jam packed full of stuff including 100 desks, 200+ chairs, teacher’s desks (that weighed a ton), blackboards (the proper slate ones weigh 10 times as much as you’d think) and I felt that there was no chance that lot would go into one container.  However 3 hours later the container was 2/3 full and I take my hat off to those guys who packed it.  I also take my hat off to the association who came up with the very creative idea and the authority who backed it.  The children in Africa will certainly benefit from this what would have been garbage.

The seedier (or parallel) side of Grand Bend, Viv and I saw as Brian and his wife Irene went off to a wedding, leaving us to fend for ourselves.  I dragged Viv into what I thought from a simple drive by to be the party place in town (called Coco’s) to have a beer.  For some reason some guys were setting up cameras and another older guy and his wife were talking away at them so I asked what was happening.  

The cameraman told me that they were videoing a documentary of the people who work and play in Grand Bend (take a look at and how they interact.  The older guy whose name was Mickey and who was the owner of Coco’s gave me a card and said the documentary was at that moment shooting. After this random people came up and started talking to/at him very loudly and the cameras sprang into action vigorously.  It all reminded me of a TV programme my son Ali watches called Jersey Shore.  I checked it out later online with Brian and I had my suspicions fulfilled whilst he was more than a little surprised to find out about it.  

Mickey is the grey haired guy next to the blond (his wife) in profile.   A few minutes after the girl in yellow joined them and began a lengthy, loud conversation that will surely make it to the next episode and should not be missed.

I’ll go back in a while and take a look at some more recent episodes to see if Viv and I have made it onto an edition.

Sunset over Lake Huron
I’d also seen what looked like a broken down old pub (called Paddington’s) so Viv and I went off there only to find not only very nice beer, very nice fresh lake fish (called pickerel) and a charming young waiter from Cayman (named Lee) who gave us a bottle of his own very hot sauce.

On our final morning Brian got up at a hideous hour to make us his legendary waffles which promised to provide enough fuel for the remainder of the day during which we’d make our way up to Muskoka, providing that the GPS allows it of course!

Thanks Grand Bend and of course Brian and Irene, it was a blast.  

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

August in Toronto

Toronto is a great city, so great in our opinion that we bought a condo in TO a few years back and try to use it as much as possible.  This year however we haven’t used it as much.  I was here in March but Viv hasn’t been here for nearly a year however this is Rogers Cup week and with a bunch of friends arriving, this will be great.

2012 has been the hottest and driest year on record for much of North America and first day after we arrived the humidex index hit 49 degrees Celsius! Now that is hot, hot, hot.

Canada has escaped much of the economic slowdown seen by other parts of the world including its large neighbour to whom they export 80% of everything they do, make or dig up.  The banking system is solid and the politicians relatively conservative.  I’ve never been convinced though that the banking system’s solidity has been entirely due to foresight and wisdom as bank CEO’s the world over have or at least in the pre-Lehman days had the same short term intent to maximize that quarter’s earnings to maximize that quarter’s bonus.  Call me cynical if you will but I cannot see Canadian bank CEO’s being shy about maximizing their personal earnings.  I think at least a part of it is due to the Canadian banks not being quick enough to the sub-prime party, but of course cannot prove it.  My firm, for example, was never solicited by US investment banks so we like the Canadian banks can put our hands on hearts and say we never became involved too.  But was that because we were wise and conservative or because we were never asked?  That’s a good question.  I like to think it’s the former of course and will give the Canadian banks the benefit of the doubt as well.

The upshot of all this has been no financial disaster, no loss of AAA credit rating and a massive uptick in investor sentiment about Canada and her prospects.  Also a strong loony which for Ontario’s manufacturing exporters in particular has been a blow.

One of the nice things about visiting a place regularly but sporadically is that there’s a stack of circulars and advertisements to plough through amongst them monthly updates from realtors.  Apparently there could be a housing bubble being created in Toronto as house prices continue to tick up, according to some ‘experts’.  Realtors all say “No” of course but as rates globally are going nowhere for years, what do you expect for the price level of real assets?  With limited investable options real assets are of course going to do well.  So long as the economy is pretty solid (and Canada’s exports are stuff the world really wants a lot of) and the financial system is solid (which new regulations have reinforced), Canada’s future looks pretty rosy to me.

One of the great things we love about TO is the foodie scene.  There’s always new restaurants to try out as well as old friends.  One ‘old friend’ is the Bright Pearl restaurant on Spadina in China Town.  The first time we went there was in 1987 on our first visit when having walked around China Town we discovered this classic old ‘tea house’ which served dim sum and all the other favourites inside a huge mainly gaudy red and gilt interior with old Chinese ladies pushing round trolleys of siu mai, har gow and all the rest of the wondrous things.

To our horror it has gone!  Replacing it is the Golden Diamond specializing in all day dim sum.  Well there was no way we’d go to the upstart so made do with Mama’s Dumpling House also on Spadina which was very fine indeed.

I also like the Keg.  OK call me cheap or cheesy or whatever but the food is always good and the place unpretentious and I just had to have a big, juicy steak.  However we made the mistake of adding on a to-share item celebrating Lobster Season (a lobster tail).  What we see in Bermuda are tails maybe the size of your hand.  What arrived was a tail of some mutant sea creature the size nearly of the table!  Well, that ruled out any chance of dessert!

But the real reason for this week is the tennis at the Rexall Centre at York University.  We wanted tickets originally for Wednesday through Saturday as that means in a single sex tournament, we’d see the top 32 players in action each day and more importantly get the best chance of seeing the best matches on the stadium court.

One rule I have is to forget the final.  The tickets are the most expensive and you only get to see the singles and doubles finals.  From experience I know that there is no guarantee of a great finals match, much better to see the rounds of 16 and then the quarters and semis when all the great matches get played.  However seeing as there would be 5 and later 7 attending en masse, we apparently triggered extra deals so finally ended up agreeing to go Tuesday through finals day Sunday thereby completely blowing my cardinal rule.  Mind you, all the top players play this event as it is worth 1,000 points and is an important leader to the US Open.

That was the thought anyway.

The London Olympics blew this up completely.  Nadal had already announced he wouldn’t be playing due to his knee injury so interestingly none of the better Spaniards would be coming as well – Ferrer, Lopez, Verdasco.  And then Feds dropped out at the last moment saying he was too tired after the Olympics.  Also Monfils backed out as did a couple of others depleting the field considerably.  However Murray, Djokovic, Tsonga, Berdych and Del Potro would be the star names and they WERE coming so that meant the tennis would still be good.

The location of the event is a mystery though while the facility was just fine, its location in York University is curious to say the least.  I suppose that the organisers felt that being 30 miles away from Downtown in the middle of absolutely nowhere gave them plenty of elbow room and parking space but let me tell you getting there was tortuous to say the least.  It’s at the end of the subway at Downsview where you catch a 106 bus that winds through endless housing estates for 20+ minutes before dropping you thankfully right outside the stadium.  Without helpful signs, that first day was something of an exploration.  The tennis though was just fine as were our seats and the 38 degree weather.

Wednesday was a disaster for the organisers though as first Del Potro and then Tsonga were simply hammered by Radek ‘the lip’ Stepanek and Jeremy Chardy showing not the least interest in the game, being there or pretty much anything.  Probably a hangover from the Olympics when both had done well but without Nadal, Federer and Ferrer, this was a massive chance for both to earn some easy ATP points so it is a puzzle what they were doing.

The first big name to win was Andy Murray on the Wednesday who came straight from winning the gold medal at the London Olympics and hammered his opponent in fairly convincing terms after which the organisers had baked him a cake upon which they’d stuck a candy gold medal.  Murray to his credit was charming and cut himself a monster piece.  However one of the other spectators suggested that the organisers usually baked a cake for Feds as that was his birthday and it was lying around anyway.  I’d like to think that wasn’t the case though.

Andy Murray and the cake

Mind you he pulled out immediately after citing an injury so maybe he, Del Potro and Tsonga had planned it all beforehand.

And then came the rain.

Talk about disasters.  Drop outs, miserable losses, spurious injuries, and then hours of rain which whilst good for ducks, gardens and in general most aquatic fowl was simply dreadful for the tournament which on its own two feet did very little to cover itself in glory.  I checked in with the Guest Services desks and chatted with clearly frustrated volunteers who told us the rules (which was what they knew) and nothing else as the organisers made no announcements and told the Guest Services people that I spoke to nothing of import.  Their practical suggestions though were most helpful but that didn’t make it any better as by then our 3rd and our friend Arrigo’s 1st day at the tennis was a total washout.

Add to that the fact that the website was updated seemingly with a 24 hour delay and the absence of meaningful information was nearly total.  However this did mean that the Friday when our numbers would have swelled to 7 would be a cracker.

Thankfully Friday’s weather while still grey was at least not much rain.  Nick, Elaine, Martin and Gill had joined us from various directions but the early rain meant that we only managed a couple of matches on the stadium court (#4 seed Berdych being thrashed by Gasquet) and old ‘sable hair’ Djokovic thrashing Querry before the organisers concluded the daytime tennis around 5 pm so they could get the stadium ready for the night session.  Having paid $150 a ticket to watch 2 games, it would have been nice to see another game, even a doubles which is over usually in an hour due to the no-ad scoring system and 3rd set tie break format.  But no, tough luck buddy, you are in Dirty Harry’s words ‘S O L’.  That was another real bugbear I had with this event: the lack of consideration for the daytime paying customers.  Clearly they place more appreciation to TV scheduling than the thousands of customers paying $100+ to watch.

Mind you, with the schedule we had loads more tennis outside as most players had 2 games to play that day, if playing doubles maybe 3.  So we found the Grandstand court and outside courts to watch some great doubles and surprise, surprise Djokovic playing Tommy ‘no underpants’ Haas because the stadium court was turned over to Canadian boy Raonic’s game against Isner.

What an atmosphere and what tennis.  From our Aussie Open adventure a couple of years ago Viv had spotted through careful and lengthy scrutiny with some decent binoculars that Tommy Haas wears no underpants when playing.  Now normal people need a little support in that vital region so personally I find that unlikely but you never know.  Anyway now that he has no clothing sponsors and simply pulls out from his bag whatever he fancies to wear, Tommy’s shorts choice that day was dark coloured so further updates on the underpant situation was impossible.

Underpants or not?  What do you think?

Haas’ backhand has to be the cleanest in tennis.  Single handed and absent the wrist that both Feds and Gasquet overuse (in my opinion anyway) it really is a thing of beauty.  But Djoko simply doesn’t miss so even the best of those immense groundies comes back with interest.  It made for a great contest but at 10.30 pm we all realized that it would take an hour to get back to downtown TO at which point few restaurants outside of Chinatown would be open.  And that’s where we ended up.

Who has the better backhand, Viv or Tommy?  Bending knees to Viv.  Firm wrist about even.  Watching ball maybe to Tommy.  Big grin, well that one's easy!!

Saturday’s tennis was slated to start at 12 noon but on the bus it started raining so the doubles slated for the stadium court was first deferred and then moved to another court so that when the rain stopped and the singles game started (at 3.30pm or so) the doubles we were slated to have seen was playing on the Grandstand court.  The singles game was Gasquet against Isner and was over in 80 minutes as Gasquest administered a considerable thrashing again … at which point yet again, that was it for the daytime session as they wanted again to get things ready for the evening.  By that time the doubles we had been slated to have seen was over so there was no other tennis at all.

The match clock as Gasquet and Isner left the court clearly showing 80 minutes and that's your lot guys!
Again I have to hold the organisers responsible for this as tickets today cost $160 and again we had just one game.  I understand that nobody can predict weather, injuries and freak results but that doesn’t mean that consideration cannot be given to thousands of people paying $160 a pop to watch just a single game of tennis.

The rain policy is interesting though as it says that if there is less than 90 minutes of match time on any particular day, people can apply for either replacement tickets at later sessions or subsequent years.  2 days means 25,000 people looking for recompense.  Talk about mess!  This particular day could easily have been saved by putting the doubles on the stadium court or at least waiting until a later time for it to be watched on the Grandstand.  I cannot imagine there being anyone there as if you’d shown up, you’d be in the stadium watching the singles not the doubles.  Nuts.

Random rainbow over Toronto from our living room on the 44th floor.

That did mean we had plenty of time to prepare for our big dinner to be held at Sotto Sotto on Avenue Road.  I’d bought a cask of Heineken for the week and the extra time we had meant this was retired prior to dinner which proved an as usual very jolly experience.  It must have been an extraordinary experience for the restaurant too as we closed the place down with our waiter leaving a complimentary bottle of Limoncello on the table at the end.  I do like Sotto Sotto though.  The food is always great.

Final’s day started at 4.45 pm so Martin offered to drive us.  Mind you we were all feeling a little slow that day as we had stayed up very late composing a group letter to the tournament organisers by that well worn and successful method of taking it in turns to provide one word each to the letter which Viv very faithfully scribed.  This we all felt would do the trick.  (I did re-read it this morning and well it is interesting).

The first game up was the Bryan brothers against Granollers and Lopez from Spain and was closely fought with the Bryans winning a 3rd set tie break.  Djoko then hammered Gasquet in the final being very gracious in his post match words and then it was all over.

Doubles final at top and Novak being gracious in his post match interview below.
Now the party has dispersed again leaving just Viv and I to plan our Ontario road trip.