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!

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.

Women and Whisky

A flight of single-malt scotches on a fireside table.Nestled just west of Toronto’s Little Italy, on the far end of College Street, is a paean to Scottish culture. With a name evoking a storied Roman past, The Caledonian is an upscale pub that’s as warm and homey as it is polished.  It was also host to the women-only Balvenie whisky tasting I attended on May 6.

Matching my gait to The xx melody filtering through my headphones, I head to College from Ossington subway station. It’s a beautiful spring evening, May 6 — the air fresh despite the rush-hour traffic, the hazy light inviting the mind to wander. A knot takes shape in my stomach. I had been to a tasting before, but not in Canada and definitely not by myself. What if I’m the youngest one there? Or the eldest? Or the lone single in a room of pairs? Worse still, what if I’m out of my element, too inexperienced with scotch to fit in or enjoy the evening?

Should I turn back?

I imagine what I’ll tell my husband, who — sharing my love of whisky — had been so encouraging.

“Why don’t you go? You’ve tried a lot of Irish whiskey,” he had pointed out. “And there will probably be a lot of women your age there; whisky’s a bit older than college tastes. You could make some new friends.” The man had faith in my whiskey knowledge and my ability to blend with the crowd. How could I disappoint him?

How could I disappoint myself?

I fell in love with Irish whiskey less than a year ago. I had been a bourbon drinker, but when my local LCBO was out of Woodford Reserve one day, my gaze fell on a shelf of Spicebox Whisky. This was new. Intrigued, admittedly, by the retro-style label, I brought a bottle home and savoured the smooth sweetness–like the caramelized sugar of creme brulee–with notes of allspice. What a treat! I started wondering if all whiskies were like that, and with a trip to Ireland on the horizon, I vowed to try a some proper whiskey in my travels. (Spicebox is only 34.8% alcohol; whisky is actually supposed to be at least 40% alcohol.)

Our first night in Dublin, my husband and I found ourselves in the Fitzwilliam Hotel bar, looking for the perfect way to cap a once-in-a-lifetime Kevin Thornton dinner. We seated ourselves at the bar and after exchanging a few pleasantries with the bartender, we asked him to suggest a few Irish whiskies. I settled on the single pot still Redbreast 12 Years, and I was immediately won over. Smooth and full, tasting of spice and dried fruits, it was sweet, but not cloying. It was exactly what I was looking for that evening, and it continues to be a favourite spirit of mine, the benchmark against which I measure all other whiskies.

Back home in Canada, I continued my whiskey education, trying as many Irish whiskies as the LCBO stocks. (There’s one or two I still haven’t tried. I have to save my pennies for those. Exhibit A.)

The very glass of proper whiskey that began it all.

The very glass of “proper whiskey” that began it all.

Now, I was ready to try scotch, brave the peat.

I walk into The Caledonian, hoping my thinly worn nerves don’t show. Past the bar, crowned with shelves of whiskies from around the world, I spy the Glencairn whisky glass-lined tables in the pub’s curtained back rooms, as yet empty but for a lone mother and daughter duo. Oh, no. Were my worst fears about to come true?

I must look as uncertain as I feel. Or maybe I don’t, because in my experience at The Caledonian, proprietress Donna Wolff greets everyone as a friend. The pub is suffused with her warmth, and it’s hard not to think the pub is really an extension of Donna’s own uncanny ability to make her guests feel at home. She welcomes me tonight with affection — I am called “sweetie,” genuinely — and leads me to the nearer back room. She takes my coat as I settle in at a small four-person table between the fireplace and kitchen door. I order a drink — water — so I’ll have something to occupy my still-anxious hands. I am alternately playing with my straw and peeking at my email on my phone when Valerie arrives.

Valerie addresses the wait staff by name. Unlike me, she’s a Caledonian regular, but like me, she’s on her own tonight. Stevie, our waitress, seats Valerie across from me, introducing us as if we’re friends of hers whose first meeting ends years of name-only acquaintance.

“Have you ever been to a tasting before?” Valerie asks.

We trade stories, of whisky and travel, of work and family, and soon we are old friends. We order dinner as the room around us continues to fill. A pair of friends, Jassi and Nabila, complete our table, but we’ve barely exchanged pleasantries when our attention is called to the doorway joining the back rooms. It’s Donna introducing the event and our guide for the evening.

Guided by Beth Havers, Canadian brand ambassador for The Balvenie and Glenfiddich, we sample three of The Balvenie’s core range single-malt whiskies one at a time: the DoubleWood 12 Year Old, the Caribbean Cask 14 Year Old, and the Single Barrel 12 Year Old. As an Irish whiskey drinker only recently acquainted with its Scottish cousin, I am continually amazed by the variety and distinctiveness of scotches. The Balvenie trio we taste are at the sweeter end of the spectrum, with notes of fruit and spice. The DoubleWood, tasting of honeyed apple and nutmeg, is my favourite, but I really enjoy the richness of the Caribbean Cask and the brightness of the Single Barrel, too.

Beth explains how each whisky is made, inviting us to discuss with her and with each other what we’re smelling and tasting. My table relaxes into a rhythm of sipping and sharing and laughing, and soon we’re no longer comparing only tasting notes.

“Whisky’s such a great social lubricant,” Jassi observes.

And it is.

Over two hours on the evening of May 6, my doubts about my age, my palate, and my ability to fit in all drain with three drams of Balvenie. I had set out that night to expand my knowledge of scotch, but in sharing with strangers an experience of something we all love, I extended my community in Toronto. I was at home among those whisky women, and I can’t wait for the next tasting in July.