Toronto the Fun

Toronto skyline facing south from BloorI’ve previously described my complicated feelings about my adopted hometown, and one need only take a peek at the comments to this post reporting Toronto’s Economist livability ranking to know I’m not the only one with feelings like this. For whatever reason, when you live somewhere for too long, it’s all too easy to see the negative. Hell, even our new mayor thinks the city is “uptight.” Whenever I find myself mired in complaints about city council, the TTC, or even the weather, I know it’s time to give Toronto another look. There are many reasons to visit or to live here; you just have to be willing to see them. A few weekends ago offered just such an occasion: the chance to see Toronto with fresh eyes, to play the tourist in my own city. I spent two days experiencing new-to-me delights, and the result? I feel invigorated and happier to be home. Continue reading

Beyond the Basics: How to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in Toronto now

Celtic cross at MonasterboiceOh, North America! You have a lot of things to answer for, least among them the secularization of St. Patrick’s Day. But one thing at a time. Really, you don’t have to be religious or Irish to celebrate the gifts Ireland’s bestowed upon the world. Being curious and engaged, though? That helps.

Instead of my regular rapid-fire Tuesday post, here are six St. Patrick’s Day swaps to help you make the most of today.

  1. Instead of green beer, try some proper Irish craft beer. I like O’Hara’s Irish Stout, now available in bottles through the LCBO.
  2. Instead of Jameson, try a dram from Dublin’s newer distillery, Teeling. I highly recommend the rich and spicy Teeling Small Batch, a blend, and I’ve read nothing but good things about their Single Grain and Single Malt.
  3. Instead of whiling away the hours in an outpost of one of those franchised faux-Irish pubs, visit the real deal. I humbly suggest the family-friendly Galway Arms, which draws Irish ex-pats and Canadians alike with its warm service and companionable clientele. Bonus: draught Smithwick’s!
  4. Instead of wearing an offensive-sloganed novelty tee, try on some Donegal tweed or an Aran knit. This is a great time for Irish design, with all sectors of the industry poised for increased international attention. In Toronto, you can see what the fuss is about at the Irish Design House, an excellent source for all manner of Irish goods. Well worth the trip to Leslieville!
  5. Instead of James Joyce, read Donal Ryan or Maeve Brennan. Ryan’s The Thing About December and The Spinning Heart movingly chronicle life in Tipperary, roughly bookending the Celtic Tiger. Ryan’s writing cuts to the marrow of contemporary Ireland, but it’s not without humour or sympathy. You’ll laugh and cry at alternating sentences, and long to return to the characters after the covers have closed. Unfortunately, the glorious Maeve Brennan can only be given short shrift in a post like this; she commands volumes of her own. Though very much a woman of her time, Brennan’s voice continues to resonate today. Hers is the voice of the ex-patriot (though a very particular, very privileged kind of ex-patriot), and her stories and essays are essential to anyone looking to better understand contemporary diasporic writings or how the Irish shaped North America in the 20th century.
  6. Instead of The Mahones or Flogging Molly, listen to The Undertones or Rudi, stalwarts of the 1970s Ulster punk scene. Musically, there were lots of interesting things happening at the height of The Troubles. The Undertones and Rudi provide a glimpse into what it was like to be — or to try to be — a normal teen despite the conflict. At the very least, if they don’t have you rethinking your St. Patrick’s playlist, they’ll give you pause the next time you think of mixing Jameson, Guinness and Bailey’s. If a trad session is more your speed, though, check out The Gloaming — all the extraordinary musicianship you’d expect from traditional folk musicians, but with arrangements that are modern and frequently unexpected. And Iarla Ó Lionáird has one of the most hauntingly beautiful voices you’ll ever hear!

Random Observations upon Returning from British Columbia

The Rocky Mountains as seen on a clear day in Langley, British ColumbiaOver the last five years, I’ve looked outside Canada for vacations. Canada is home, and home just doesn’t seem interesting or appealing when you have the chance to escape your comfort zone, does it? But Canada is a big place — almost-10-million-square-kilometres big — so there’s actually quite a bit of room for the novel and different. I was reminded of this fact over Christmas when I visited British Columbia for the first time.

I’m still processing my B.C. experience, but my impressions were varied and generally positive. A few random observations:

– Vancouver is just like any other large North American city, except for the mountains and ocean peeking around seemingly every corner. That’s the draw of this place: the proximity to such natural beauty — an open-invitation to leave the city behind, if only for an hour. I was enchanted. The hiker in me can’t wait to return so I can spend time in those mountains.

Vancouver skyline– given B.C.’s reputation for being green, I was startled by the number of public recycling bins and garbage receptacles in Vancouver, Langley, and White Rock. This will sound like the set-up for a joke, but it’s not: waste receptacles are everywhere in Toronto. In B.C.’s lower mainland? Not so much. What do people do with trash on the west coast? Stow it in their pockets until they return home? Or are Vancouverites just more adept at those other two Rs — reduce and reuse?

– a lot of people complain about the LCBO’s monopoly on and pricing of alcohol sales in Ontario, but if my unscientific study is any indication, a public-private retail mix may not mean lower prices for consumers. My husband and I made a point of visiting a public and several private liquor stores in Langley, and we discovered that where whisky’s concerned, bottles there command on average $3 to $5 more than they do here in Ontario. And then there were the jaw-dropping exceptions to the rule, like a bottle of The Balvenie DoubleWood — about $90 here in Ontario — going for about $120 in B.C. What B.C.’s public-private mix does seem to guarantee is variety. Expressions that can sometimes be challenging to find at the LCBO — namely Auchentoshan Three Wood and Nikka Whisky from the Barrel — were easier to find at B.C. liquor stores. If one store didn’t have it, there would be another one not too far away that did have it. Perhaps that’s something worth paying more for?

Dram of Ardbeg Uigeadail at Vancouver's ChambarChambar. Known for its Belgian beers and seafood, this restaurant was a serendipitous discovery when we had all but given up finding an open bar that wasn’t rammed full of rowdy football-watching patrons. After a rainy Sunday spent walking around Vancouver, my husband and I were both looking to warm up with some whisky. We were returning to our SkyTrain stop after striking out at several Gastown pubs when we noticed Chambar’s large uncovered windows from the courtyard below. With its exposed red brick and amber-coloured tables, it looked chic and inviting and — above all — spacious. We were sold and quickly entered to settle in at the bar. They had a small but good selection of whiskies, including a bottle of the Macallan Amber, which I’ve been meaning to try and would have that day had the damp hours in Stanley Park not whetted my appetite for peat. On this visit, I ordered a dram of my comfort whisky — Ardbeg Uigeadail — but I would love to return to Chambar when we have the time to explore their cocktails and menu more fully. During our short time there, we found the beer and cocktail selection intriguing, the staff friendly, and the ambiance at once sophisticated and unstuffy. An added bonus? I’ve since discovered Chambar is committed to doing business ethically and sustainably. How very Vancouver!

Anatomy of a Jane’s Walk

I have a love/hate relationship with Toronto.

I love its diversity and openness. The city attracts people from all over the world, and without meaning to sound trite, there’s always something to do, not just during the summer. Toronto is a city of incredible potential, but for those of us calling the city home, it often fails to realize that.

We have crumbling infrastructure and a city council too mired in personal troubles and political agendas to even begin addressing the real problems undermining the good: lack of affordable housing, gridlock, pollution, and inadequate public transit. Those problems are apparent. What’s been especially troubling me lately, though, is a problem bubbling just below the surface: the loss of community.

The Gladstone Hotel, the first stop of the Convenience Stories walk, as seen from the south side of Queen Street West.Toronto is very much a city of small neighbourhoods, and while pride in our respective corners is strong, what about our sense of belonging? We feel connected to a geography, yes, but to our fellow inhabitants? Do we really interact with our neighbours? I think our answers to these questions depend on the character of our communal spaces.

With names as varied as the items therein, the convenience store is an unsung community hub and the subject of Convenience Stories, the Toronto Jane’s Walk I took in early May. The brainchild of design students at OCAD University, Convenience Stories grew out of a class project that sought to celebrate, and memorialize, the convenience store as a site of commerce and of socialization. Discussions of store design and product taxonomy had quickly become more personal, with colleagues swapping stories of shoplifting, break-ups, independence, and security, and the role their own convenience stores played in each.

A group of people with umbrellas gathered outside a Queen Street West convenience storeWe meet our walk guides, OCADU students, at the Gladstone Hotel to get organized before setting out eastward along Queen Street West in the rain. A short walk and we arrive at a convenience store that offers not only pantyhose, cigarettes, and milk, but an in-store coffee shop complete with seating and Wi-Fi. Our guides speculate that this feature was added in response to the changing cultural and economic character of the neighbourhood, and I quietly wonder what it would be like to have a store like this in my own corner of Toronto. What it would be like to stroll to the end of the street after dinner to buy bread or a magazine and, seeing a familiar face, have a neighbourly greeting ebb into chatter over coffee.

Convenience stores are great equalizers. Who hasn’t run to one in a panic, having forgotten to buy a much-needed staple for the next morning’s breakfast? Who hasn’t stumbled into one at an ungodly hour, looking to satisfy a post-club craving for salt or sugar? Who doesn’t have some memory of measuring maturity, our own grown-upness, by being allowed to walk to, or beyond, the neighbourhood convenience store?

A woman peeks in the window of the now-boarded-up Eight Variety StoreOur group makes its way toward Ossington Avenue. Like ducklings we shuffle, huddled under our umbrellas, until the rain finally stops. We’ve arrived at the recently shuttered Super Eight Variety Store. I stare at its sadly papered windows as our guides point out that the Super Eight is not alone in its demise. All over the city, convenience stores have been disappearing, small mom-and-pop shops no longer able to pay obscene Toronto rents and hold off large chains like Shoppers Drug Mart, which are increasingly carrying convenience store-type items.

But the demise of the convenience store in Toronto isn’t just a sad small-business story. We are losing vital community hubs. Places that draw everyone in our neighbourhoods. Cafés are social spaces, yes, but what if you don’t drink coffee or tea? What if you don’t have the kind of income or job that allows you to while away the hours in a coffee house? For many, cafés can be economically prohibitive, but a convenience store? A convenience store has something, is something, for everyone.

And I worry. As Toronto neighbourhoods lose their convenience stores, we lose more than having pantyhose, cigarettes, and milk always at our fingertips. We lose a place to connect with our neighbours, regardless of what is or has gone on in their lives. And I worry what that means for me and for my city.

On Toronto in springtime

There’s nothing like a change of seasons to make you fall in love all over again, and Toronto, I’m smitten.

Looking at the skyline from Colonel Samuel Smith Park.

Looking at the skyline from Colonel Samuel Smith Park.

As much as I love the colder months, there’s a special kind of magic in Toronto springs. And maybe this magic isn’t unique to Toronto as much as it is to urban centres, but it’s there nonetheless. It’s in repairing to a park at lunch to do a little pleasure-reading before heading back to the office. It’s in camping out on a patio for an evening of food and people-watching. It’s in observing the little things–the arrays of greens, the variety of blossoms, each glorious extra hour of sunlight. It’s in the way each moment seems a celebration of no longer being bound by closed windows and heavy clothing.

Spring is our big reveal and we revel in it.

Queensway condos peer through cherry blossoms in High Park.

Queensway condos peer through cherry blossoms in High Park.