Hogtown contemplations redux
One thing I can say about Toronto without hesitation is that I would never discourage a young person from moving there. I know that obvious comparions can be tedious, but they are what I've got — and so — what you will get.
And so I cannot help but compare the streets of a bustling multi-cultural metropolis with the quiet by-ways of Ottawa or, as I like to call it, The City That Always Sleeps. What curious, imaginative young person would not prefer the chaos of the former to the serene tedium of the latter?
* * *
My own Hogtown sojourn ended where it began, in the home of my oldest friend, sharing bottles of beer, a half-watched hockey game, and the comfortable companionship that comes of long and close acquaintance. And night with Vern (and later, with Helena, when she arrived home from her small neighbourhood restaurant, with which I provided a name some eight or more years ago, and into which I have yet to set foot — too many painful memories), left me feeling considerably less melancholic than I had been.
Not all connections with my old home are broken. (Which I knew, of course, but which knowledge needs tangible reinforcement from time to time.)
Before that, was walking, walking, walking. A mode of transport I don't use often when at hoome, but one I prefer when visiting, whether some place new, or old familiar haunts.
And Toronto, of course, is both familiar and and changed, new to me.
Below, for those who might care, are some observations on the changes time and money have wrought upon Toronto. And of things that remain — or which seem to remain — more or less the same. (Well, of the changes and otherwise, that have been wrought upon one very small section of a pretty large city.)
* * *
Like Kensington Market, Parkdale itself is an area that still mostly looks largely unchanged from when I left eight years ago. But right on its borders, at Queen and Dufferin, loom like a fucking invading army, towers of glass promising an expensive high-rise future that will forever destroy the existing social fabric of a shabby, low-rise neighbourhood that has been for decades home to newcomers, to the poor and the working classes. (And to pockets of the middle classes, too; Parkdale is no slum.)
Being here now is like crossing a quiet expanse that you know will tomorrow be a battlefield.
* * *
At first glance, the phrase beautiful Toronto seems an oxymoron at best, a snide joke a worst. But (as I have noted before, and which has many times been noted by others), its neighbourhoods often have an organic, human-scale beauty that seems to have sprouted organically. It is especially noticeable in areas like Parkdale, where even still, the middle classes huddle cheek-by-jowl with the working classes and the desperately poor, and where wave upon wave of immigrants have rolled in and left a tithe of their numbers to permantly leave a positive mark upon the area.
In other words, Toronto's is not a physical beauty, like San Francisco's or Montreal's glamour, but a beauty of character, a beauty that requires a visitor to sit and stay for a spell, to get to know the place in order to appreciate what is there.
In an absolutely related note, I ate out five times during my trip. First, stopping on the way from the train station, at my old haunt, Java House, where both the prices and the qualities of its strictly bar-food level offerings seems utterly unchanged from a decade ago. (That was where, in the days of my habitual alcoholism, I was known to the staff as "Mr. Steam", for the Steamwhistle pilsner I then preferred. But I digress.)
The second was in Chinatown's Swatow, a non-descript hole-in-the-wall which turns out to be my friends' favourite and which Raven's reading on Chinese blogs told her was possibly the best place in Chinatown for the real thing. (And yes, my cheap lunch was very good.)
But it is in Parkdale that the cullinary differences between Toronto and (oh, say) Ottawa are made plain.
To put it simply, I went up to the plate three times and three times hit a culinary home run. The first was at Tibet Kitchen where on Wednesday I went for a mid-day breakfast. Ordered a simple beef with tomato on rice dish that was marvellously flavoured, about as tasty as anything but the very best food I've had in Ottawa. Ever. For about $13.00, taxes and tip included.
The place just happened to be up the street from where I've been staying.
Thursday night I took my host (and my father's sweetie) Frances out to an Italian restaurant that had been one of my regular places back when Parkdale was my home — maybe four blocks down the street. And Amico's veal (forgive me) parmesan was old-fashioned but every bit as a good as I remembered. And frankly better than any Italian food I've had in Ottawa, by quite a stretch. Dinner for both of us, with two beers apiece, ran about 60 bucks. And half of mine served as breakfast before we left for the train station this morning.
And Friday, I managed (after much internal debate) to convince myself to forego repeating yesterday's lunch in favour of, y'know, something new.
Nepalese instead of Tibetan. Not a big difference, you might think, but you'd be wrong.
Kasthamandap Nepalese Cuisine is another hole-in-the-hole, a block or block-and-a-half from the place I'd been to the day before. And if not better, than at least more unfamiliar — and so more of a happy surprise.
I had the Sukuti Daal Bhat Tekati set, which came served on a plain tin plate. A small bowl of dried curry beef rich with flavour and not too much oil, a small black lentil soup, a heap of steamed mustard greens, generously drenched with garlic, slightly sweetened potatoes, radish pickles (sweet) and fermented mustard leaf pickles (hot!). None of it was quite like anyting I've had before and all of it was delicious. (Most if not all of the items on menu have vegetarian twins, by the way.)
It was one of those meals I took my time with, a bite of this, a pause, a bite of that. Fucking heaven, to put it in a professional food reviewer's idiom. (The only disapointment was the mango lassi, adequate but served luke-warm — which might well be the traditional Nepalese way, but not to my taste.)
Like I said, three tries, three home-runs and not a one of them high-end. Thank god Raven and I (especially Raven, I admit) are decent cooks, because eating out costs a fortune in Ottawa and the results tend to be mediocre at best.
* * *
No doubt due in part to tha food, and aided and abetted to having recovered from Tuesday's brutal hang-over, as well as spending my last night with friends, my mood is considerably improved over that recounted in my previous entrty.
It's still a little sobering how few people there are in Toronto that I still want to see, and still strange to feel so much a stranger in city that was home for so many years (decades); I am a visitor to Toronto now, if one returning to a familiar destination, but I am no longer one coming homing.
But I am glad I made the trip. As the old saw has it, a change can be as good as a rest, and this has been both, if not for my feet.
* * *
One final thought. Ottawa claims a popolution of very nearly 1 million people, but it sure as hell doesn't feel like a city of that size. As a pedestrian wandering downtown, one might (might!) guess it at a quarter of a million.
On my first day in Toronto I walked about seven kilometres, Union Station to Parkdale. Doing that in Ottawa would have got me half-way to the airport. (To be fair, doing that east-west instead of north-south would have kept me within a more-or-less urban core. But the point remains. Ottawa's million people are spread monstrously thin, Toronto's knit tight into a city.
But for all that, I'm 52 years old and have come to like Ottawa for what it is, instead of dislike it for what it isn't. Still, a little more diversity, a little more density, would be welcome changes to the nation's capital ...
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