Life: Driving in the Big City

by Sioban Costelloe

Living in Toronto is a bit scary for an island-girl like me.

It is a huge challenge for anyone who comes from an island where one road leads to everywhere and our directions are usually up or down, left or right.

I am challenged when it comes to getting from one place to another, even when I'm walking.

Taking the subway should be easy. "You're going East or West, North or South. How hard could it be?" On my way to an interview in Toronto, I got off the subway train at my stop and went up the stairs from the underground to a street on one side but I did not know which direction to go. Was it left or right? So I decided to choose using "eenie-meenie-miney-mo". I went to the left, walked a bit, saw the subway entrance and got confused, and, not wanting to lose the subway entrance because that was the way home, I went back down the same way I came. Then, realizing what I had done, I decided to retrace my steps and ask the nice subway attendant the directions.

Of course, there are many entrances to the subway from the streets throughout Toronto, but I did not know that then, to me this entrance was the only one in existence and like a life-line I did not want to let go and lose sight of it.

Well, The Subway Counter Attendant saw me three times that morning and by the third time he was asking me if it was a joke or was I just plain crazy. I had to explain each time that I had never come this way before, had no idea which way I was going and because I was not sure of the direction, I was going to miss my job interview. He physically came out of his office, took me up on the street and pointed in the correct direction. I made it to the interview on time, at the end of the day I was laughing thinking about it. But the poor man trying to help me had a lot of frustration.

Being directionally challenged is frustrating for me too.

Even after living in Canada for seven years, I still find myself in a panic when I am driving on any of the provincial highways into or around Toronto. Where I come from, there are no huge highways that stretch 6 lanes across on either side, no provincial signs to read and no billboard neon signs that flash messages.

These are great if you know where you are going, but sometimes I would be trying to read the important messages coming across, only to find that I should have switched lanes at that point, and then finding myself further than where I should have been.

My very first experience driving on a provincial highway was once when I had a meeting in downtown Toronto. I had never driven the route by myself before, but had been a passenger in a car and seen it done dozens of times. As usual, I figured, how hard could this be?

I left at 9.30am for my meeting that morning and never arrived.

To be honest with you, I had to drive just 25 kilometers each way, but by the end of the day, I still had not arrived. Changing lanes on the 401 is not something I find easy to do. I remember looking into my rearview mirror and seeing car after car coming at a speed behind me. Never had I seen so many trucks, they looked so huge in comparison to my small little car. At one point I was stuck in between four trucks, two on either side, one in front and one behind. I was so stressed that I began to imagine what doom and gloom would happen if I slowed down, surely my car and I would be almost flat and looking just like a pastel.

Eventually, I decided to make my move on to the exiting lane to try to get to a highway stop. I rolled my window down stuck my hand out to wave a signal of some kind to the truck drivers to let me off. They answered with a big honk of their horns and I jumped because it was loud and I was already stressed out, not to mention that I had no idea where I was, I never saw Toronto 's skyline and my car was running out of gas.

I honked my horn back at them, and drove into a gas station that had a Wendy's and a Tim Hortons. For me, this was the jackpot; I was hungry and tired. I filled my car up with gas and parked to go inside to buy something to eat and hopefully find out where I was.

Walking up to the Wendy's counter, I asked the Customer Service Associate how much further to Toronto. She surprised me by saying "Don't you mean how much further to Montreal ?"

Montreal ? I must have looked surprised because she directed me to the side of the counter and indicating to wait one moment for her. When she was finished serving the customer, she asked where was I heading to and I said " Toronto ". She laughed and in a surprised tone she said Toronto is at least a 3 hour drive from here and back the way you came.

I was shocked and started to cry. Right there, in the middle of Wendy's, with my hamburger and coffee in hand. The nice lady directed me to a cubicle to sit and told me she would be back to help me get home.

I then dialed the office from my cell phone to explain what had happened and my Manager understood, found it very funny and of course I then became "Joke of the Day". I was laughing and in much better spirits by the time I got off the phone, with a promise to call her once I was on the road again. I then called my Business Associate whom I was supposed to meet that morning in Toronto and explained my situation and arranged the meeting for another day. The Customer Service Associate returned with a map and showed me where to turn off to get back onto the 401 heading to Toronto. Before leaving Wendy's I hugged and thanked the kind girl.

I started my car and followed her directions. Once back on the 401, I dialed the office to make sure that I was going the correct way. Once comfortable I continued along, After a while I could see the CN Tower and I breathed a heavy sigh of relief.

But curiosity is part of my nature and somewhere I decided to try getting into Toronto, so I exited onto Bathurst, which is a familiar road name to me. Well, I did it again, the CN Tower that I used as my landmark was getting further away from me. I couldn't begin to tell you where I was. I took all the back routes through Toronto, onto College street at one point. Of course I would have given anything to be the passenger and not the driver that day. I would probably never see Toronto so thoroughly again. Finally I saw Burnathorpe Road and I breathed a sigh of relief, to me that meant I was somewhere in Mississauga, close to work and close to home.

I finally pulled into the office parking lot at 5.00pm. Happy and safe, I ran inside. Everyone was glad and no longer worried.

Today, if I have a business meeting in Toronto, I call a cab that will take me to the exact point of my destination, a little expensive, but I am not panicking, begging truck drivers to let me off the road and most importantly can get to the meeting on time.

In my car, I always keep an up-to-date map of the City of Toronto. People will generally help you but if you are on one of the major routes you have to pay close attention to all the signs. The best place to stay is in the middle lane of the highway, this way you can merge and exit more easily.

For exact destination directions I always use AOL Driving Directions from the Internet. You type in your starting address and where your destination address is, there are options to have the directions in a text version with a map as well. I always use the text version.

Happy Driving and Good Luck.

CNM