The past several weeks have been a whirlwind – and a hot one at that. Coming from Sápmi where the summer never warmed up much above 10 degrees Celsius, the tropical weather of Southern Ontario has been, well, very different. While a guidebook stated that winters here are robust, it is also as far south as the French Riviera and suffers a tropical climate in the summer. Though a bit overwhelming to the system at times, mostly it’s been wonderful to finally experience some summer heat (and forget those leggings and layers that I wore most of June and July). Besides the usual running around and organizing your new life and lining up for your essential cards, we have embraced the big city buzz and enjoyed the amazing diversity of people – not only in terms of different ethnicities (that dreaded word) but perhaps more importantly, in terms of people doing their own thing without others staring or giving you strange looks. That was probably the most refreshing and welcome impression – the beauty of human diversity that appears to be lacking in small places and communities where the pressures to conform can be rather oppressive.
And people are so friendly! Especially in the first week, when it got you off guard, sometimes your first reaction was that there must be a hidden agenda – or, yes, conspiracy. It reminded me of a friend who came to visit us some years back when we were living in Vancouver (and already took the the friendliness of strangers for granted) – she was met by a friendly customs officer at the immigration who had asked her ‘how are you?’ and she had thought that was a trick question. I know the Finns take pride in their stoic silence and lack of small talk, but personally, I rather be surrounded by friendly folks who don’t think other people are aliens.
Toronto is not as gritty as I had previously thought. During my previous visit in February, I figured it out: One can live in Toronto once one accepts and comes to terms with the fact that it’s not Vancouver; that it’s gritty rather than pretty. But there’s so much more green space – even hidden gems – in this huge city than one expects. We are staying at friend’s before our own apartment on the University campus is available (September 1) and are just East of the ‘Don Valley Parkway’ which we got to know from CBC Metromorning traffic reports while living in Hamilton a couple of years ago. Of course the image we had in mind of this Don Valley was an endless traffic jam but it actually is quite a large urban green lung that runs along the Don River with bike trails, green space, a city farm and a well known farmers market: a rediscovery of the farmers markets has also been a bonus – a place where you can buy organic produce directly from the farmers who grow it. Now that we are back on a continent where genetically modified food is the norm, supermarkets make you a bit jittery. There is even a real farm – I mean with real cows and sheep and other creatures that contribute to our sustenance – in Riverdale, run by the City of Toronto. (Does the mayor milk the cows every morning before heading his office?)
Last week we found another green oasis just a short ferry ride away – the Toronto Island. In the midst of the lush greenery, listening to the waves of the huge lake, promenading leisurely on the boardwalk, it was hard to imagine that the big pulsating city and endless urban sprawl is just a stone throw away. In fact we even swam in Lake Ontario in spite of all the warnings. Our taxi driver in from the airport, Vladimir from Ukraine, had told us, ‘Don’t swim in the lake, unless you want to glow in the dark..’ We couldn’t resist the temptation on a hot day and I haven’t noticed any glowing at nighttime. Actually, the lake is now on the mend, slowly recovering from its worst years. Eating fish from the lake is not recommended but swimming is ok, as long as the E Coli bacteria count is low.
One of the secrets the city is not revealing easily is the origins of the city as a settlement. As one can expect, the colonial history is commonly available at any brochure and website, but I’ve been trying to find out who settled in here first and where exactly. There are vague, often conflicting references here and there. It’s the usual beginning of any history: first sentence mentions the indigenous peoples (such and such ‘Indian tribe’ is very common) in passing and then moves on to detail the story that really counts.
One map mentions the Huron (‘Huron Indian tribe’) as the first inhabitants of the area. Somewhere else I read that the colonial officials bought the land of Toronto area from the Mississaugas (who belong to the Anishinaabe people). The name Mississauga (which is also the name of one of Toronto’s suburbs), by the way, comes from the Anishinaabe word Misi-zaagiing, meaning “[Those at the] Great River-mouth.” I’m guessing that the river in question is the Humber River where, according to one source, the settlement of this area began.
Interestingly however, the name of the city comes from a Mohawk word Tkaronto, meaning “where there are trees standing in the water”. We found this out quite serendipitously, as about a week and a half ago there was an opening of a feature film called Tkaronto. As the reviewer of the film writes in the Globe and Mail, “Tkaronto, Métis director Shane Belcourt’s debut feature, is a film about what it means to experience a profound sense of loss. Loss is there in the title, the original, long-gone Mohawk word for Toronto. It continues in the central stories of two urban natives whose sense of loss is both real and metaphysical.” (Check the official website of the film here. More info about the name Tkaronto, see ‘The real story of how Toronto got its name‘.)
For us, however, it was good to see the movie to get a better, more grounded sense of the place we have just arrived in. Especially in an urban metropolis like Toronto, it can be challenging at times. Challenging, yes, but certainly not boring.