Archives for posts with tag: Toronto

I am an American living in Toronto. I arrived in 2004, at a time when it was fashionable for young liberals to threaten to move to Canada and, on a more personal but related level, when one-upmanship meant a lot more to me than it does today. This means I’ve lived in the city for almost a decade. For almost a decade, nobody back home cared about it. “Ooh, Toe-rahn-toe,” some would say when I told them where I’d gone for school—an out-of-state tuition I could afford, across an international boundary but on the same system of glacial lakes. How exotic, this implied. Usually, though, I’d just get a vaguely perplexed stare, and whoever I was talking to would change the subject. This is how most Americans think about Canada: briefly, barely, and with little understanding. It isn’t because of willful disinterest, necessarily. I think most people just prefer the mystery. I have relatives with advanced degrees who still think I speak French. 

Because of this, I’m a little tickled to have my mayor’s name on all my American friends’ lips and Facebook walls. Actual shits are being given! About Toronto! Getting America to acknowledge the existence of Toronto is kind of like getting your sheltered Republican grandpa to admit that he’s long suspected Obama’s probably not a Muslim. It’s not the best-case scenario, but it’s a step.

A step to what? That, I’m unclear on.

I’ve lost track of all the major media coverage we’ve gotten back home.The flashy tail end (knock wood) of a years-long public spectacle is being (and has been) broadcast, in distillation, for all the motherland to see; really, all the world. Once the mayor was lampooned on the opening sketch of Saturday Night Live (and why yes that would be the sketch reserved for the most interesting and important news of the week, thank you very much), I knew I had to cut myself off. I couldn’t even pretend that I cared they screwed up the accents.

This is all very exciting. It also feels terribly absurd.

For the record, I did not vote for Rob Ford. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t, because I am not a citizen and cannot legally vote for anyone. My experience of Rob Ford’s tenure as mayor of Toronto has been one of a civically concerned and emotionally invested denizen without full license to have either concern or investment. From a bleachers seat, I’ve watched the mayor oppose every remotely compassionate by-law thrown in his direction, well before he admitted to using and buying drugs, driving drunk, and publicly insisting he has “more than enough to eat at home” in the context of his poor, poor wife’s bits. Somewhere along the line, Toronto stopped being the aloof but gentle leather-jacketed enigma I’d envisioned when I moved here, an ignorant American, at 18. It became, instead, something more familiar: a divided city.

While I’ve been here for some time, it’s Ford who has made me realize that I can’t reconcile the symbolic Toronto of my shaky but gut-trusting understanding with the truth that it’s a real city with real city rifts still figuring out how to grapple with both. If I could, I’d likely be less surprised that we’ve found ourselves with a leader so obviously, so cartoonishly, villainous, yet with such broad appeal.

Audiences abroad won’t likely catch the nuance. They haven’t been backgrounded on policy and demographics, growing pains in a city most viewers will not know. Instead, they’ll see more of the gong show they didn’t expect from a place they may not have given thought to, be momentarily surprised, and forget. They are not commiserating with us; they are eating popcorn and waiting for the next outrageous plot twist. It feels uncomfortable but oddly uplifting, like lapses into tenderness from a largely indifferent lover who occasionally bangs your friends.

Notoriety is a narcotic buzz. It’s like being in a fight, waiting for the next punch to land. That is, until you’re unable to feel anything at all.

 

 

 

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Every Tuesday night I take a bus, then a subway, then another bus to get to the church where my choir rehearses. I sit on public transit for an hour, give or take, and I get off and walk for three minutes down a woody path that cuts straight through a cluster of apartment buildings and spits me out within view of the church.

I didn’t always know about the path. Before I found it I would get off at the next bus stop and walk, at an impatient clip, for 11-13 minutes through an outdoor mall to get to practice. Sometimes I would stop on the way for a too-hot and too-expensive cup of soup from the luxury grocery store on the periphery of the complex. Then another member of the choir showed me the path. The shortcut saves me a minimum of six minutes.

The shopping centre route I used to take is the maze with all the recycling signs.

The path is genius. It acts as a bridge where the grid of the city lets up into an unwieldy tangle and smells like forest, to boot. But, also like the forest, my path is unlit.

This past Tuesday, the sun set in Toronto at 6:20p.m. Last week Tuesday, sunset was 6:31. Rehearsal, both Tuesdays, began at 7. Both Tuesdays, the “give or take” hourlong commute gave instead of took and I was late.

Last Tuesday I got out of the bus with my earbuds tucked in. It’s probably not a good idea to walk into a wooded, unlit path after sunset with earbuds tucked in, but I was listening to a podcast about a woman who got attacked by a shark and I didn’t want to stop listening. So I walked into the dark, wooded path without being able to see very well, and also without much ability to hear things apart from the podcast, which was very good.

That’s when the man appeared.

I saw his arm first, which he extended toward me with a piece of paper at its end. Then I saw his hood and his shape. He said something I couldn’t understand.

“NO!” I shouted at him. I half-heard my own voice as it came out of my body, girlish and shrill. I had re-watched Clueless the night before and it occurred to me that I’d just sounded like Cher.

“God!” said the man. He sounded wounded. I could hear him because I’d pulled out an earbud. “I–I’ve lost my cat!”

I could tell from his voice he was telling the truth. He had probably asked me, “Have you seen my cat?” before I could hear him, and he probably lived in one of the apartment buildings adjacent to the mouth of the trail. He was probably trying to hand me a poster he’d made with his cat’s picture on it and a number where I could reach him. He was upset.

“You can’t just sneak up on a girl walking by herself in the dark like that!” I realized I was crying.

A serial perpetrator of sexual assaults in my neighborhood (possibly, allegedly, a teenage boy) didn’t stop my nighttime jogs. I don’t carry weapons and I don’t know self-defense. I walk alone more often than I don’t, usually through the city, sometimes at night. While I wouldn’t say I haven’t been cautious, I haven’t really been scared either. I guess you could say I’ve been macho.

But I wasn’t crying because I’d been macho. My tears were hot and so was my face. I was crying because I was angry.

I was angry because I had acted like an asshole. Fear and a pair of earbuds and a guy who didn’t know not to approach a woman in the dark because he had never lived as one made me into the kind of person who shouts at a guy who’s just lost his cat. Who shouts at someone who just lost their cat? An asshole. And, well, me.

I was angry at myself for other reasons, too–for losing composure, for being slow on my feet. But probably, more than anything, I was angry at the cosmic injustice of knowing that, if guy had hurt me, people would be wondering why I was careless enough to walk down a dark path wearing earbuds. And I was angry at myself for being careless, too! It was all very circular.

Anyway, nothing actually happened. Thank goodness! But now I have to think about whether it’s a good idea to keep taking my shortcut. And it’s a bummer.

I was just in Detroit for Rosh Hashanah with the bf’s family, and man oh man is that an exciting place. So much hope! So much promise! And yes, so much that still needs to be remedied. Still, it was mighty nice to see the city from the perspective of civic-minded community builders instead of ruin pornographers.

So great was my inspiration that I wrote about what I saw for the Toronto Standard, focusing on how Toronto could benefit from Detroit’s brand of forward-thinking collaboration in these currently semi-trying times (I say semi-trying because, really in the grand scheme of things, they aren’t so trying–yet, anyway). Let’s hope optimism is actually contagious, as the wise man once said.

I can’t wait to go back.

The funny thing about the word “suburbs” is that it means different things to different people. Where I grew up, it often meant–and still means, really–a place for white people to go when they wanted to be around other white people and maybe live in houses with matching siding. “Suburbs” meant backyard swimming pools and a nice selection of parochial schools within walking distance of one’s cul-de-sac. Oh, and did I mention white people?

Toronto’s suburbs present a striking juxtaposition. When examining the GTA against the ‘burbs of  my hometown (Milwaukee, Wisconsin: population 594,833 and falling) you’re not only comparing the sprawl of a growing megacity with that of a recession-beaten Rust Belt town; you’re also looking at a case study in white flight vs. immigrant settlement and, frequently, prosperity. You’re measuring the value of what “suburban” means in a multicultural megacity vs. one of the most racially segregated municipalities in the United States. 

My EthnicAisle colleague Nav asserts in his thoughtful Toronto Standard essay that white scenesters are suspicious of Toronto suburbs because of the perceived “inauthenticity” associated with big box supercentres and a shortage of the indie accoutrements of bird-printed psyches. What he forgets to mention is that these white scenesters (which I think is a problematic description but am deciding not to reword because, let’s face it, y’all know exactly who he means) are often the same people who get very serious about the “authenticity” of dim sum in Markham, or the chapatis in Brampton that render all others a waste of your damn time.

This paradigm shift, from what I gather, is a newish development here in the GTA. The Scarborough of comedian Mike Myers’ (‘member him?) childhood was called “Scarberia;” now, “Scarlamabad” might be more appropriate.

Incidentally, when my parents first drove me up to Toronto from Milwaukee that fateful September weekend in 2004, we stayed overnight at a relative’s friends’ house the night before my dorm move-in. I didn’t know the city at all back then so I couldn’t tell you exactly where, but I do recall someone mentioning that it was nearish York University–another school I had applied to. The Salvadoran family we stayed with gushed about how lovely Toronto is, chirping heartily about the “Bastantes Centroamericanos!” that lived in the area. After I moved into my dorm the next day at the corner of St. George and Bloor and walked around my neighbourhood, I wondered where they had gone. It took me a few years to figure out I was looking in all the wrong places.

The Ethnic Aisle, a blog about race and ethnicity in the GTA (and beyond!!), is holding a ‘Suburbs vs. Downtown’ event on Monday September 26th at 6pm at The 519 to discuss the divide between the city and the ‘burbs and what it has to do with differences in culture and identity. Details of the event can be found here.


When one mentions “the Ethnic” in the same breath as anything related to “the gays,” there are certain things we (as in, the royal, reading-this-right-now “we”) tend to expect. Attitudes influenced by religious and cultural conservatism, for instance. I’m not going to get into that, though. Instead, I’m going to talk about Juan Gabriel.

Juan Gabriel is the longtime darling of Mexican balladry and is, as my friend Bill would say, queer as a two dollar bill. At least, unofficially.

“Lo que se ve no se pregunta,” says Gabriel whenever questioned over his sexual orientation. Translation: “You don’t ask what is obvious.” From that, one might deduce a further translation along the lines of: “Mind your own business, asshole.”

Juan Gabriel began his career over 40 years ago singing primarily in the Ranchera and Mariachi styles—genres that, despite a predominance of men in shiny outfits crooning about their feelings, rely on a pretty thick patina of old timey machismo. The incongruity of the effeminate Gabriel, not only accepted but universally beloved within a realm of puffed chests and unironic moustaches, has always fascinated me. This, considering that “gay” was something that didn’t exist in the public sphere of Latin American pop consciousness until very recently.

To gain a better understanding of Juan Gabriel’s public sexuality, from a cultural and historical perspective, I called upon years of studied knowledge from a veritable subject expert in Latino pop culture.

My mother was more than pleased to receive my call.

But my dad was also on the phone (they do that parent thing with the two receivers). He’s a subject expert too, I guess. A Gringo-Latino pop culture ambassador of sorts, Rick Korducki was eager to give his own two–okay, 20–cents on the matter.

“I’ve been having this conversation for 30 years!” said Rick.

Rick launched into an anecdote about his friend Pepe, a Puerto Rican dude who, like everyone else in the Latin world, couldn’t get enough Juan Gabriel back in the 1980s. “We would talk about Juan Gabriel, and Pepe was like, ‘Yes, he’s gay. But he’s not gay. Okay?'”

“But they call him Juanga!” interrupted my mother, pointing out an apparently common colloquial feminizing of the artist’s name. “Google about him, and you’ll find lots of things.”

“Now you’ll hear that.” Rick again. “Attitudes are changing. There’s especially more acceptence about people being gay in the celebrity community among Latinos. [But in the past] people knew, and would acknowledge, that Juan Gabriel was gay. There was kind of like this agreement, ‘Let’s all pretend that he’s not. Let’s give him a pass.'” He addressed my mother. “Verdad, Mamita?”

“He’s a great artist. He writes great songs, he sings great songs, and the people love him.” This was my mother’s way of agreeing.

“Juan Gabriel is the Johnny Mathis of the Latino world. I mean, Johnny Mathis–people kinda knew what was going on with him even if they didn’t say it outright.”

Get out of here, Rick. Mama, what do you think? If Juan Gabriel had started his career today, would he be public about his sexuality?

“I think so.” She paused. “Yes. Everybody knows about his romances with other men anyway. Times have changed.”

And they have, somewhat. Ricky Martin came out last year, which was a really big deal. There are regularly gay characters on telenovelas now and, even though they are almost exclusively draggy excuses for wardrobe department fun, they do exist. It’s getting easier to forget about the deeply entrenched Catholic values and leftover hacienda patriarchy that, as I said earlier, I’d rather not get into. Then again, there’s also queer, Toronto-based Nicaraguan artist Alvaro Orozco, who just narrowly avoided deportation from Canada on the grounds of humanitarian claims because being out in Latin America still carries major threats. It’s a sticky subject. Not everyone is so fortunate to get a pass.

*

While writing this, I YouTubed some Juan Gabriel to get into the right headspace. There’s a lot of him on there, if you’re curious, but I was drawn to a familiar recording of his Mariachi classic Inocente Pobre Amigo. The top comment below the video box reads: “Los que critican su sexualidad no tienen ni derecho limpiarle los zapatos a este gran canta autor.” ‘Those who criticize this great artist’s sexuality aren’t even fit to clean his shoes.’ It’s gotten 91 thumbs up.

This post is part of EthnicAisle, a project about race and multicultural issues that I’m thrilled to be a part of.

A few weeks ago, I received an email from the fabulous food writer and publicist Mary Luz Mejia alerting me to a very dangerous restaurant development in my ‘hood. What is so dangerous about a restaurant, you ask? Behold.

That, my friends, is 18 flavours of self-serve frozen yogurt. Apparently there are dozens more, but 18 are offered on any given day. Real, live-culture, tart frozen yogurt. My biggest dessert vice.

The grand opening of Menchie’s on Bloor street, just blocks away from my Toronto apartment, was beyond spectacular. For one day only, folks were invited to drop in and sample as much frozen yogurt, toppings, and sauces as their hearts desired. So, I sampled. I sampled long and hard.

I am writing the following statement as a fro-yo addict and not as a paid Menchie’s publicist, so take these words to heart: Menchie’s is going to be a huge, walloping, super hit. The sheer variety and inventiveness of the flavour offerings (cake batter! banana bread!) was insane. Then, of course, there were the toppings.

I also got a photo with Menchie himself. Because, apparently, I am five.

(Yeah, that’s right. I stole Menchie away from a cute balloon-toting toddler to nab this shot. Sorry kid)

After two heaping servings of fro-yo with about every topping you can imagine, I could have still eaten more. But, because I didn’t want everyone in the place to think I was a huge greedy slob, I opted to finish my date’s second serving instead of getting thirds. But, oh, will I ever be back. And, if you know what’s good for you, so will you.

Oy. This has been an intense week, followed by a particularly treacherous weekend. The G20 summit affected my city in ways I could never have anticipated. Friends of mine were arrested without cause, assaulted by police, gassed and targeted with rubber bullets. Storefronts in the downtown core of my beloved city were smashed to bits by out-of-towners in black sweats, including some small businesses whose owners I am told will have to pay for the damage out of their own pockets. I spoke with a heavily accented business owner after Saturday’s mayhem as he stood, destroyed, outside of his vandalized jewelry store beside a pile of glass. I asked him whether his business had been looted, and he shrugged. “Don’t know yet,” he said blankly, though I immediately recognized that this was beyond the point. He, as a small business owner who came from elsewhere to make a life in Canada, had been targeted along with big businesses who are actually able to absorb the costs of the damage. He wasn’t expecting this kind of treatment. He shouldn’t have.

I saw a police cruiser set ablaze, was charged by riot cops, was illegally searched, and in general felt like an outsider watching the spectacle of my city from behind a hazy shield. The city sat in stillness as we, its residents, tried to march through our daily lives like zombies as tension brewed around us. This is not the home I know. This was not my city.

Today is a beautiful summer day, but I remain shaken by the tension of the last 72 hours. Please forgive me if I seem discouraged or pessimistic.

I hope my last post didn’t make anyone think I’m on the brink of flinging myself into oncoming traffic (because a precariously employed Type-A is essentially tragedy waiting to happen). If there’s any truth to my life, it’s that things always end up working out. Tonight, that half-full glass comes in the form of Azar Nafisi.

I first encountered Nafisi in my first year of university, when the spine of her memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran caught my attention from a packed bookcase at Milwaukee’s  Broad Vocabulary bookstore. I had only just read Lolita myself, which had left enough of an impression to keep me submerged in a state of dreamy fangirl veneration for at least the following year, so even though I knew nothing about anything (and even less about Iran), I was sure I needed this book.

I plowed through Nafisi’s account of clandestine book club meetings in one sitting and immediately decided that she would be my new hero. The timing was perfect: my recently handwritten four-page fan letter to my childhood role model, Madeleine L’Engle, had gone unanswered (I had no way of knowing, but she was in the clutches of dementia at the time), so I was ready for an upgrade.

While the transition from 18 to 19 isn’t quite a leap from innocence to adulthood, for me it marked the difference between a time when it seems appropriate to pen hyperbolic confessionals to your literary role models and one in which you respect their work from a measured distance. Maybe this is the reason I never bombarded Azar Nafisi’s literary agent with a slew of emails until the poor, defeated soul relented with a contact address for my stalking convenience. Still, I can’t help but imagine how my 19-year-old self would react if she knew I was about to see Azar Nafisi, in the flesh, as a rookie Toronto journalist five years down the line. She’d probably look in the mirror and breathe a sigh of relief.

I’m having a little bit of a personality crisis. Okay, so maybe it’s more of an identity crisis, but I really wanted to use the New York Dolls as an AV aid.

Specifically, this blog is having a crisis of direction. I started writing BGH in November with the very ambitious goal of making it a nearly-daily forum for ideas, recipes, and projects. Trouble is, I don’t know what this thing has become. Back in May I had the idea to restructure and introduce new features, but I didn’t follow through. People just didn’t seem interested, and I don’t want to bother folks with things they don’t care to read.

I guess the question I have is, what should I keep writing about? Should I focus more on the food? Should I focus more on myself? Should I entertain more of the DIY projects and current-event opinions that I’ve only occasionally brought up so far? More Toronto-focused content? Less Toronto-focused content? I want to know.

TELL ME, DEAR FRIENDS!!

(……..please?)

XO Kelli

My bud Davey D observed that this blog has been short on the “hands” content lately. I guess I would agree, except that I think recipes kind of count. Cooking fits under ‘doing,’ right? Anyway, what began as a multifaceted “look! Kelli has ADHD!” kind of blog situation has gradually morphed into a “food blog with a side of narcissism” thang, which seems to be what often happens. Does that mean things are going to change around here? Maybe. But not until after I get this bit of introspective hand wringing out of the way.

Here’s my navel. Watch me gaze.

Five days ago, I returned to Toronto after three weeks of traveling, reminiscing, eating, partying, and “finding myself” (barf) abroad. It was my first time embarking on a trip sans chaperone, couch surfing the apartments of old and new friends as I figured out how to navigate each new world. As one might be inclined to do, I thought a lot about things: myself, my family, my career, my place in the world, and the meaning of home. I carry an American passport, which means that even though I’ve been living mostly in Canada for the better part of the last six very crucial young adult years, I am still a U.S. national. This meant that, more often than not, I was introduced to others as “so-and-so’s American friend.” Sometimes I would correct them, but usually I felt it wasn’t worth the bother. After all, they were right.  I can’t stand a coffee that contains two sugars and creams.

But I found that, when thinking about what it meant to return “home” after this three week journey, the answer was different than it might have been even a few months earlier. Where I used to always refer to Milwaukee, Wisconsin as my sentimental homing locale, in Europe I began to realize for the first very serious time that the mid-sized rust belt town that had spawned me no longer fit the person I had become. Too much time had been spent collecting outside influences. Too many fragmented pieces of my adopted city had penetrated the membrane of my self and affixed themselves to my idea of where I think I belong.

It has taken me a long time to acknowledge, in a really serious way, that Toronto is my capital-H Home. For a long time, the thought made me feel guilty. It seemed wrong that I could so easily leave the city–and for that matter, region, country, and state of mind–that contained the whole of my family, loved ones, and cultural reference points. And, I might add, the people from that first home weren’t exactly helping to suppress those feelings. As I’d been reminded through years of offhand comments, I chose to leave them. I was jumping ship. A city quitter, too good for the place that brought me up.

When the global market crashed in my last year of university and Toronto wound up serendipitously containing one of the stronger economies in the continent, it made sense for me to stay–especially since Canada had just loosened its work visa requirements for recent grads of Canadian universities, making the prospect extra-feasible. Plus, after spending four summers returning to a “home” I no longer recognized following academic years in Toronto, the thought of staying put for awhile seemed appealing. Still, I wasn’t necessarily planning to put down roots.

A lot has happened in the past few months. Among these, I’ve signed an apartment lease, thereby committing myself to a minimum of one unbroken year in the same place–something I’ve never done in my life. I’ve begun to disentangle myself from the university bubble that had been the original reason for my Canadian existence. I’ve became more invested in city politics, organizations, happenings. I’ve made new, non university-related friends. I have become part of a place and, in the process, reinvented where I feel I belong.

So, when I was abroad and people asked me “where in the states are you from?” after hearing my giveaway accent, I would tell them “I grew up in the states, but I’m from Toronto, Canada.” I tried on other answers to that question, but this was the one that felt the most honest.  I guess home isn’t a fixed address, but for now, this is the one I can turn to.