Accidentally Torontonian

Toronto is never satisfied. It obsesses about its shortcomings, even as it lands near the top of “best cities in the world” lists, a pessimism born from privilege. Toronto is the commercial, financial and cultural centre of the country even as it dreams of becoming New York City when it grows up. It’s the centre of its universe, but also the centre of self-doubt, perpetually comparing itself to everywhere around it.

It was only supposed to be a year: move to Toronto, get the certificate, move back to Calgary and continue with life.

23 years later, the move back to Calgary hasn’t happened. I have become, accidentally, Torontonian.

That was never the plan. I never had any desire to move to the Big Smoke.
Growing up on the east coast, Toronto seemed incredibly distant, a mysterious chunk of population somewhere past Montreal where folks moved later in life, and from where repairmen ordered parts for your fridge.

Later, it gained an unfortunate reputation as a breeding ground for snobbery. I remember the handful of kids transplanted from Toronto. Young and naive, many of them assumed us yokels would be awed by their big city pedigree, and flaunted it accordingly. That was a bad idea that backfired consistently, leading to ostracism and the conclusion that TO was a jerk factory.

After finishing school, I was faced with a decision: Halifax’s economy was small and sputtering, and I felt the need to move somewhere with more opportunities. Toronto’s economy was in the dumps, Vancouver was too expensive, I’d already lived in Ottawa, and I didn’t think my French was good enough for Montreal. Calgary beckoned with an oil economy firing on all cylinders, and I made the leap.

Soon after landing, I discovered something Calgarians share with Haligonians: antipathy for Toronto. The more folks I met, the more I realized those feelings of resentment travel across our great land. In fact, the unifying force in our country isn’t the great outdoors, maple syrup, poutine or even hockey: it’s animosity for Toronto.

Some of that has nothing to do with the town itself. It’s probably aimed at residents of every big city around the world, from Beijing to Buenos Aires. I think it stems from the inhabitants’ sense that they’re from somewhere just a little more sophisticated, important or awesome than anywhere else. I breathed that in when I landed in Hogtown in 2000.

I loved Calgary. I had no intention of leaving, until I hit a ceiling at work and needed a diploma to keep moving up. I found a program at Humber College, packed everything in boxes and bought a one-way ticket, confident I’d return in a year.

Toronto didn’t impress at first: it felt too big, impersonal and uncaring. It seemed less like a city with an identity or personality, and more like a sea of people crammed together on top of each other.

That feeling started to change when I moved to a friendlier neighbourhood, and found parks and shops I liked, a favourite pub and a go-to coffee shop. I started to discover what there was to like about this big fat city. There were neighbourhoods branded everything from “Little Italy” to “Little Tibet”. There were festivals and a theatre scene I stumbled into after an acting class. There were the bucket list concerts I finally got to see, museums, restaurants and all the other things tourist bureaus stuff into ads.

I ended up staying another year. I found a job and then a girlfriend. I got another apartment. I found another job and another girlfriend. I kept discovering more things to like about the city: bike trails, the islands, ravine hikes and more.

Years passed with the plan to move back to Calgary quietly receding in the rear-view mirror but never overtly abandoned. And then something quite unexpected happened: I started becoming Torontonian.

I’ve transformed, and I doubt the me from 23 years ago would recognize the current one. I’ve become that guy, the infinitely impatient one muttering under their breath at people lollygagging on the sidewalk when they’ve got places to be right now. (Could you walk any slower, buddy?) I talk about how the vibe in places like Kensington Market needs to be protected from gentrification, as if “vibe” were something that shows up on Google Maps. I read blogs and magazines about the city as often as I read ones about Canada itself. And I’ve embraced the idea that there’s something impressive about living in the biggest city in the land.

Recently I had to confront just how Torontonian I’ve become. Part of me will always hate myself for admitting it, but one night in front of the TV — how can I really be saying this?

I found myself cheering for the Leafs.

You can’t spend 23 years somewhere and not have it change you. Halifax will always be home, because home is where the heart is. But home is also where you hang your hat, and that’s Toronto. It’s where my condo leers over the perennially pissed-off drivers on the Gardiner Expressway. It’s where my cats constantly fight and make up. It’s where I found my wife, and where all but a few friends live. It’s the city that needs constant reassurance, but which is somehow quietly certain it’s the Centre of the Universe.

That’s what makes a good city great: a balance of contradictions.
A friend had a theory that life sorts you into the city in which you truly belong, by size, temperament and so on. Calgary is young and a little conservative. Ottawa is bureaucratic, well-planned and restrained. Halifax is friendly and loves a good time.

And Toronto? Well, Toronto is never satisfied. It obsesses about its shortcomings, even as it lands near the top of “best cities in the world” lists, a pessimism born from privilege. Toronto is the commercial, financial and cultural centre of the country even as it dreams of becoming New York City when it grows up. It’s the centre of its universe, but also the centre of self-doubt, perpetually comparing itself to everywhere around it.

That describes me a little: a collection of contradictions. It’s what endears me to the city. Like me, Toronto doesn’t have just one identity. At a certain point a city becomes too big for that, and its identity becomes the sum of its parts. Or maybe that’s way too Zen and Toronto is just like every other big city, with its good, bad, beauty, ugliness and endless complexity.

By my calculation, sometime in 2025 I’ll have spent more than half my life here. Assuming I last long enough, will I retire and end my days here? Will I move back “home” to Halifax? Maybe I’ll go back to Calgary. Maybe I’ll find a villa in Italy. Who knows? But this town has shaped me as surely as any other has.

I have become, unexpectedly, Torontonian.

My Goodbye Tour

I’m 52, comparatively young for some, but old for more. To me it’s indeterminate, but closer to the far end of the spectrum than the start. I think about that far end more and more, reminded of my own mortality by the growing count of friends and family who have fallen victim to disease, accidents or other ends. Who knows? I might drop dead in the next moment from some terrible undiagnosed ailment, an accident, a falling piano … the list is endless. Or, medical science might take its next great leap forward and finally discover the fountain of youth.

I’m not taking any chances, and I’m not waiting for the fountain to appear. I’m starting my goodbye tour. A goodbye tour, not a bucket list. The latter is grandiose, a willful denial of mortality by indulging every suppressed travel urge and risky behaviour that’s ever haunted you. It’s the stuff of midlife crises, Hollywood and too many Paulo Coelho novels.

My goodbye tour is about little things, the legion of small but non-trivial moments that make a life. If I’m lucky enough to lead a long one, at the end I have a hunch I’m not going to be sprawled on my deathbed muttering, “God, I regret not seeing Machu Picchu.” That’s too big a thing to haunt me, too grandiose. Bucket list items aren’t woven into the fabric of our lives; the little things are. They’re the everyday, but are by no means mundane companions on our journeys around the sun. They have wormed their way into my heart through simple repetition and familiarity. Isn’t that how a stranger becomes a friend, after all?

Toronto’s High Park in the sun, down by the pond where gentlemen anglers gather to catch carp. Or is it perch? Who knows?

Elias’s falafel joint on Jarvis, so I can hear him try unsuccessfully to sell me an apple cake for the umpteen-millionth time.

The bike trails by the Don River, where new pathways beckon, if the hidden tree roots don’t dump you on your butt first.

Those are the things I think I’ll miss if I live long enough to one day find myself propped up on a pillow, wondering if I’ll shuffle off this mortal coil during my next nap. They’re the things that have found a way into my heart while the Alhambra, Empire State Building and Louvre haven’t. Those are amazing things. They enrich our lives. They help us dream and take us outside our little existences to see a bigger world.

The unintended consequence of looking at our little lives from outside is that we can see what actually makes a life, and it’s not the broad strokes, the grandiose swooshes of jetting off to another exotic location. What makes a life are the little things, repeated, that form a foundation and help us understand that the most heartfelt parts of life are often the smallest and most subtle.

The cat that waits for you to come home every day so he can show you how much he loves you by rolling around on his back all over the dirty floor.

The shop at the market where you can travel the world by sampling all manner of fancy cheeses impaled on toothpicks.

The hidden vista on Toronto’s harbour islands. It’s just a concrete slab squatting ungainly in the water, but its semi-secrecy means almost no one goes there, so you have it to yourself with the best view of the downtown anywhere in the city.

These are the things I think I’ll miss as I wonder which breath will be my last. They take root in your heart when you’re not looking. I’ve been to Paris, Tokyo, New York and plenty of other amazing cities. I’ve seen fabulous museums and wonders of nature, and there are countless more that would take my breath away. But no memory of these wonders will break my heart as I say goodbye to this world, the way the memories of my life’s constant companions will. I like to think of those little things as good friends I choose to spend time with, instead of the big, bright shiny things I could spend time chasing down.

That’s why I’m taking time to live the little things, in case I realize one day it’s too late to live them any more.

The chocolate shop where I know exactly which four absurdly expensive truffles I’ll get, and are worth every cent.

Strolling through ritzy neighbourhoods in early spring, wondering what it’s like to have that kind of money, but not caring too much about it.

Greeting every dog in the elevator with “Hello, puppy!” because I secretly hope that’s a signal to the owner to let me pet them.

I remember an article from ten years ago about the regrets of the dying. Nowhere did it mention, “I wish I had climbed Kilimanjaro.” It talked about having the courage to live life on your terms, staying in touch with friends, not working so hard, things like that. Kilimanjaro is no doubt a life-enriching experience, but life isn’t built out of mountains. Thanks to social media, our culture now fetishizes dramatic selfies staged in front of ruined temples, mountains, desert landscapes, expensive restaurants and other exotic locales. Sure, I will make time in my life for them; they’re amazing and wonderful and give me perspective about what awaits us in the world outside the 9-to-5.

But I feel confident no one posing in front of the Amalfi coast on Instagram is going to reach for their phone as life draws to a close, gaze longingly at that picture and whisper, “No regrets!” I think that person will understand that life isn’t built on drama: it’s built on the quiet magic of little things.

Originally published in the Globe and Mail.

Farewell to Ballybrophy

I had it all planned. I’d waltz into the pub, and the bartender — casually wiping down the bar between patrons — would ask me what I wanted. I’d say I was here to pay a debt. He’d look at me quizzically, and I’d tell him the tale of my grandfather, Ed Brophy, who criss-crossed the Atlantic in WW II on convoy escorts, trying to keep the transports safe from U-boats. One story is that a ship he was on was torpedoed and split in two. One half sank while the other stayed afloat long enough to rescue the men on board. He was on the lucky half.

Ed was Irish through and through, by inheritance but not by passport: we think his grandfather came over in the 1880s. Ed fit every Irish stereotype: a consummate joker and a dedicated drinker, blessed with the gift of gab and a wicked sense of humor. I remember seeing a photo of him at a St. Patrick’s Day party, one half of a duo keeping a drunken friend in between them upright. One day my sister pointed out he was the one in the middle, not the help.

Ed was full of stories. One was that after an Atlantic crossing he paid a visit to the village of Ballybrophy in Ireland, the nominal seat of the Brophys. On arriving at the village pub, he proudly proclaimed he was a Brophy and he’d buy a drink for any Brophy who’d come forward. There were apparently a lot of Brophys in Ballybrophy (shocking, I know). So many came forward that Ed quickly realized he didn’t have enough money to cover the bill and escaped out the back.

It’s a great story. I have no idea if it’s even half true, but that’s the great thing about great stories: their accuracy is less important than their ability to capture our imaginations. This one captured mine, and I resolved to pay back Ed’s debt if I ever made it to Ballybrophy.

I never thought I’d have the chance until my sister decided we needed a homeland tour. I was initially skeptical of the idea of revisiting our Irish roots: the last Irishman in our family was probably born 170 years ago. What connection did we have to them and to Ireland? When someone asks, “what are you?” I say I’m Canadian, whether they’re asking about geography or identity. A century and a half have severed the ties to the old country. I liken it to being shipwrecked on an uncharted Island: there’s no way back to “where I’m from.” Time has erased the route. Even if I wanted to return, who would I return to?

Not only that, but half the family tree’s Irish and the other half’s a mix of English and Scottish. If we’re Irish, it’s by choice as much as by blood. That’s the funny thing about identity: ultimately, it’s a matter of what you choose to call yourself.

But the music, traditions and culture of Ireland live on in Canada’s east coast where I grew up. That much is in my blood. I took the journey, not so much to reconnect to the homeland, but because it promised to be a great vacation. Ireland is beautiful, the people are great, and the butter is unbelievably good. Some of the tales I’d been told turned out to be true: there are a lot of potatoes consumed, it is often quite damp and many folk do enjoy a drink or two.

But Ballybrophy is not what it must have been in WW II, much less in the mid-19th century. The train station is now almost a whistle stop. Half the buildings are abandoned. A water pipe for filling steam locomotives that haven’t visited in who-knows-how-long stands forlorn on the platform.

We wandered around and took a few photos. I looked in vain for a pub that might answer to the description of an antiquated village roost, something that looked at least a century old. There was none. A train pulled in, a few people got off, someone got on, and we departed on our little tour bus. The bumpy, winding back roads to our lodgings afforded ample time to reflect on what home really is.

Home isn’t where you want it to be. It’s not where you imagine it is. It’s neither the wellspring of romantic notions, nor the stuff of legends. Home is prosaic and everyday. It’s where your cat, your spouse and your kids are. It’s where you burned your first curry and where you mourn the loss of those you’ve loved. It’s where you can’t seem to fix the drip on the damn kitchen sink and where you held your housewarming. It’s a thousand tiny things and the bigger ones that make a life.

We all tell ourselves stories to embellish our world, or to make sense of it. Home is where we eat and sleep and live as we craft those stories. It’s the place where we dream about all the other places we’ll come home from.

After we returned to our accommodations, I looked up Ballybrophy on Google maps and found a pub down the road. We missed it. Maybe it’s the same one Ed wandered into that day in the 1940s. Maybe it isn’t. Maybe the whole thing was just a great story told by a great storyteller, and never happened.

But if the owner of the Green Roads Lounge Bar in Ballybrophy, Ireland, wants to contact me, I’ll send you 20 euros to buy a round for a few people and we’ll consider Ed Brophy’s debt paid.

The Importance of Being Italian

I’ve learned several important things being married to a Canadian-Italian woman. Things that define the Italian community I’ve been grafted onto. Things I never really paid attention to when I was young, but which I do now that I’m older. Here are the top three:

The importance of family

I had a pretty decent family growing up. A decent, whitebread WASP-Irish middle-class family. As a kid, I thought we were pretty tight. When I met my wife, all that was blown away as I learned about Italian families, including…

  • Weddings with 400 guests (and a whole roast pig trotted out around midnight).
  • Visiting the in-laws regularly and spending five hours sitting around the dinner table, talking and eating.
  • Attending every communion, confirmation, birthday and other significant occasion for every niece, nephew and mother/father/brother & sister-in-law.
  • Vacationing together.

This didn’t happen in my family, partly because of distance (being scattered around several different provinces and states, depending on the year), but also because we simply weren’t close the way my wife’s family is. Everyone went their separate ways after growing up, and the broader web of aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and cousins was similarly scattered, estranged or just not that connected. Time and our parents’ infirmity brought my siblings and me back together, but my wife’s family has never lost that connection.

They have an advantage, living in the same city, but they enjoy a stronger connection that gets reinforced with every text, call and family event.

Arthur Miller wrote that nothing is bigger than family. Miller wasn’t Italian, but the sentiment is. Growing up in my house, family was important, but not everything. For Italians, family is everything.

The importance of food

The main disadvantage of growing up in a whitebread WASP-Irish household was the food. We never lacked for any, and it was good, basic food. When I say “good,” I mean it in the nutritional sense of the word, not “good” in the way Italian mothers apply it to food, which is a celebration, an event and a show of love. Food in Italian households is so important, it’s almost a competition: people will talk about how good someone is at making pasta, how their homemade sausage stacks up, or how crisp their crostoli are.

My family was content to just have something edible on the table. It didn’t have to be gourmet (how many helpings of East-coast delicacies such as boiled potatoes and fried haddock I ate, I’ll never recall) but mom certainly tried. Not to the level that she felt she was in competition with anyone, but she tried.

That’s not the way it works in traditional Italian households. At least as a guest, meals are a multi-stage affair, with a range of antipasti greeting you when you walk in, then the various courses, followed by dessert and a fruit tray after that, maybe with some chestnuts or something similar.

Food and family go hand-in-hand: one facilitates the other. As you eat, you talk and come together. Bonds are renewed and strengthened, and it’s a perfect opportunity to comment on how much better nonna’s gnocchi are than the ones you had at so-and-so’s last week. Food makes it all happen.

The importance of talking

The national sport of Italy is supposed to be soccer. This is not true. The national sport of Italy and its diaspora is TALKING REALLY LOUD.

As kids, we were discouraged from talking too much, especially at the dinner table. Dad’s constant refrain was “I’m trying to eat!” This was a command to give dad a rest from idle chatter after a hard day’s work. We weren’t an expressive bunch, something I chalk up to the dour Scots-Irish genes running through our DNA, equal parts quiet reserve and emotional constipation.

I can’t imagine ever being told not to talk in an Italian household: conversation is an essential social lubricant. Volume is a whole other ballgame. I keep trying to explain to my wife that her “disagreement” is my “arguing” and her “raised voice” is my “yelling.” Growing up, not only was witty and vibrant conversation kept to a minimum, but raised voices were considered dangerous, a failure to keep emotions in check. In Italian households, it would be unusual and highly suspect for people not to raise their voices, and would indicate some deeper problem.

Putting it all together

It might sound comical, but these are significant differences. Family, food and talking weren’t venerated in my household the way they are in my wife’s, and millions like hers. Does that mean I had a lesser upbringing? No. My family prioritized lots of things, from education to stability. Each family is unique. None is better than another simply because of what they hold dear.

I’ve come to accept the volume of our conversations. The food is even easier to embrace. The family thing grew on me: a younger me couldn’t have understood its value, but as I’ve gotten older, it’s importance has become clear.

I wouldn’t trade my childhood for my wife’s. Except for the food.