When I worked in the United States, I didn’t travel too much for work; maybe the occasional trip to Silicon Valley or New York for annual events, but my job didn’t require me to go too far because I had local clients. Most of the internal teams I worked with sat locally in Chicago or New York, and so for our annual group gathering in 2018, we met halfway in Toronto, Canada! I had only been to Canada once previously to Montreal in late summer 2016. I had heard a lot about Toronto – the likes of, “It’s like Canada’s New York but feels more like Chicago.” Many compared Toronto to Chicago due to its similar size, cold winter climate, skyline appeal, presence near a Great Lake, and for business and diversity. Personally, I had played volleyball against many teams from Toronto, as we both frequented the Midwestern and Great Lakes tournaments. Many of those teams I created a bond with, and they lived up to their “Canadians are the nicest people” stereotype.
October 1, 2018
The short trip from Chicago to Toronto was easy as could be, possibly easier than going through any of the New York area airports, despite having to go through immigration. After arriving, I headed quickly to the hotel and met my colleague and friend Victoria for some breakfast at Cafe Landwer a few blocks away. The old diner style restaurant catered to our dietary needs and was a great start to the day.
Not far from our hotel was the Google Toronto office, where we would spend the majority of our time as a group during these few days in Canada. The office was small compared to many of the offices in the U.S., but it had a warm local feel to it. The classic staples of Canada adorned the office decor – maple leaves, cabin accessories, flannel, timber, etc. It was wonderful to be in a different setting to meet many of my New York colleagues in person for the first time and also spend more quality time with my fellow Chicagoans outside of our normal habitat.
One of our activities in the afternoon was to visit Sidewalk Labs at East Bayfront, one of Google’s venture projects that looked at the future of urban innovation. At the time, the venture partnered with the City of Toronto on an urban development project at Quayside, a riverfront area in Toronto. The plan prioritized the use of technology to create a smart city to improve the quality of life, infrastructure sustainability and to solve for common urban problems. As a group, we were able to tour some of the ideas and proposals for the project, ranging from the use of timber for skyscraper construction, improved mobility paths for cars, bikes and pedestrians, housing affordability and heavily-reduced carbon emission plans. There was an area that visitors could submit ideas for the smart city. One that I vividly remember was “a water fountain that auto-adjusts to the height of the person,” which would help people of all heights but also people who may be in a wheelchair. I really enjoyed the session at Sidewalk Labs to see how these types of ventures are looking at the future of living, and it was empowering to dream of the possibilities. [Update – in May 2020, the project was cancelled, citing economic and financial reasons.]
After the visit to Sidewalk Labs, I walked around the city with a few others to see some of the important landmarks. It happened to be a cloudy day, so it was hard to find a clear view of the massive CN Tower, a communications and observation tower in downtown Toronto. The tower held the world record as the tallest free-standing structure for 32 years until 2007, when Dubai’s Burj Khalifa skyrocketed taller. At the time, it was also the largest free-standing structure in the Western Hemisphere – no wonder the clouds were blocking a bit of my view!
Right next door was the Rogers Centre, home to Canada’s only Major League Baseball team, the Toronto Blue Jays. The retractable roof makes it convenient to host events during the coldest and wettest of weather.
That evening, we had a group reservation at Drake One Fifty, a stylish, trendy restaurant in the Financial District. The menu had a range of fish, beef, lamb, pizza, shareable plates and of course, delicious cocktails. After dinner, a lot of the longest-tenured crew kept the night going at Cactus Club Cafe for couple more hours before calling it a night.
October 2, 2018
Our second day in Toronto we spent mostly at work in meetings and planning for the year 2019. I met up with a few Canadian colleagues at lunch, and then headed back to meetings. That evening, the leaders of our offsite planned a fun event at St. Lawrence Market, a major public market first established in the early 19th Century. Our activity was a cooking class, and with such a large group, we had several stations with different activities – sushi-making, pasta making, and more. Most of us really enjoyed the “wine station” – a free flow of vino that we carried from activity to activity!
Later that night, I met up with one of my Canadian volleyball rivals and friends, Tyler, another 6’5″+ middle blocker who often attended regional tournaments. He and his teammates were actually meeting after a weeknight volleyball match, so it was perfect timing to meet out for a drink at the gay district on Church Street. We shared many memories of playing against each other, and they courted me to move to Toronto and join their side of the net, so to speak. Of course it sounded like fun, but I would soon return to my squad in Chicago to prepare for another competition.
October 3, 2018
Our final day on the quick trip north of the border, I had a big presentation in front of the whole group. After 3.5 years working with the same client, I had many learnings to pass on to my fellow colleagues who worked in a similar capacity. Slide presentations tend to be the default, but I always looked to make it personal and fun. I spent a decent amount of time on the visuals of the presentation – fewer words, strong use of white space and unique visuals. The presentation was a success, and it was a nice finish to my time in Canada.
Soon enough, I was headed to the Billy Bishop airport on Centre Island, which has a perfect view of Toronto’s skyline. Even though Toronto reminded me a lot of Chicago, it was nice to have a change in scenery. Less than two weeks later, I was headed on vacation to Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia, so I had squeezed in a lot of international time during October 2018. I’m sure I’ll be back to Toronto at some point, and I hope to spend some time at nearby Niagara Falls and the surrounding areas of wilderness.