It’s been almost a year since I stepped off a plane in Toronto and was surprised by the warmth of the bright May day. Almost a year since I tried to get on a TTC bus with a $10 bill and made it onto the subway only to stand squinting at the map, disbelieving that there could be only two lines. Almost a year since I held Shaun’s hand and walked quiet residential streets as the sun went down that very first night – later sitting in a tiny Vietnamese restaurant and knowing, just knowing, both of us feeling it in our bones, that at that moment we were exactly where we were supposed to be.
I suppose it’s to be expected that I would feel at home in a place where, on the surface at least, everyone is welcome. According to its government’s website, Toronto is home to 2.79 million people who between them speak over 140 languages and over 48% of Toronto’s inhabitants were born in country that is not Canada.
I wonder if there’s anywhere else in the world I could live for just one year and feel at home. It helps of course that I’m British and most of Canada is essentially British in culture, only better. In Toronto, only my accent, a northern British anomaly, marks me as a foreigner but in a city where almost half of it’s residents were born outside of the country is there any such thing as foreign? I’d like to think not, even though I know better than that.
In 2003, the Mayor of Toronto at that time launched a campaign with the motto – Toronto: You Belong Here. The campaign was intended to bring communities together at a time when Toronto was reeling from the effects of a serious SARS outbreak. Did it work? I have no idea. There’s nothing like a pandemic for increasing fear of others but the motto itself I love.
You belong here. There’s something precious about those words. Especially in North America, especially right now.
Just a few weeks after I arrived in Toronto I watched Justin Trudeau march in the Pride Parade, a welcome respite from watching David Cameron march to his podium in front of Number 10 to announce more cuts to British public services. And when Black Lives Matters protesters stopped the parade I was grateful to be there to witness it. Direct action, in action.
At Toronto subway stations little girl scouts sell cookies and homeless men and women rattle cups for change. People from all over the world are welcomed to settle here (in theory) while indigenous people still fight discrimination every day. There is no such thing as a perfect city but Toronto at least felt alive, its people engaged and taking steps to right society’s wrongs.
A few months into my time in Toronto my next door neighbour’s ma arrived for a visit and we sat out with her in the backyard one August night, burning dead tree branches in a bonfire. She’s Irish and has lived in Toronto 30 years or more.
‘I’m sick of it’, she insisted. My neighbour shook his head.
‘I want to go home,’ she said.
‘It Toronto not home?’ I asked her.
‘No.’ she said. ‘Never’.
‘She’s been saying this for thirty years’, my neighbour said, still shaking his head.
By that point I had been in Toronto for two months and it already felt like home. That’s not to say the pull of my actual home, Newcastle, has ceased. It’s still there. But so too is whatever it is that’s pushing me away. My connection to home is like trying to force two magnets together at the same end. I am North and so is Newcastle and right now something invisible but powerful stops us sticking together.
That long, hot Toronto summer seemed to last forever. Each day was an opportunity to do something new in this city that still felt limitless. I was free of responsibility and my time was my own. I took myself out for coffe or lunch almost every day. I went to the cinema in the afternoon. I planted flowers and herbs in the garden.
When I did finally get a job I was working less than twenty hours a week doing box office for Cirque du Soliel. And then – as had to happen eventually – the money ran out. I calculated the cost of freedom and realised that if I didn’t start working a full time job, any job, I was going to be stuck here exactly like this, barely able to pay rent for the remainder of my visa.
As winter cut in and the heavens slipped a few shades from sky blue to granite grey I took a customer service job in a music venue and began working more and more hours. On a serious mission to save money I stopped doing much outside of work. I watched The Walking Dead, Family Guy and as many true crime documentaries as I could get my hands on. Before I knew it I had slipped into a routine I’ve been trying to avoid for the majority of my adult life. Work, eat, sleep, repeat.
Which isn’t so bad, really. If you’re going to get your head down and work for a winter it might as well be in Toronto. I didn’t go full recluse either, I’ve have far too much fear of missing out for that but I did settle. I stagnated. I stopped feeling like an outsider. Stopped looking for new places to go and new experiences to have and spent all my free time at the library writing copy for pocket change.
I also stopped writing for me. The notebook I always keep in my bag was abandoned somewhere in the apartment, gathering dust. I know enough about myself to know that when I stop taking notes it means I’ve stopped paying attention. Subconsciously, I tapped out of trying to do anything other than get through the days. Work, eat, sleep, repeat.
Can anyone blame me for wanting to hide out? So far I think we can all agree that the majority of 2016 and this year so far has been an unmitigated shit-show. But going offline, disengaging fro the world and receding into yourself is a cop out.
One thing I am sure about is that I need to keep paying attention, taking notes, writing and trying to create a story out of the chaos of these experiences. For too long I’ve stopped myself with the question, ‘who cares?’ Because who does care? The world is too ugly and life is too difficult for too many people. Who cares to read about travel stories or route maps, about the Winter Festival in Ottawa or the best noodle soup in Toronto, Chinatown? Not me. Not for a while now.
We’ve recently lived through a turning point in human history, a turning point away from compassion and towards intolerance in the UK and US in particular. Now there is even more reason to share your stories. Because sharing your stories is not nothing. Having a voice and an opinion on what you see and experience in the world around you is not nothing. Not ever.
This realisation more than anything else convinced me that it was past time to move on from Toronto and, yet again, leave behind a place that feels like home. For reasons that I’m sure will become apparent to me in hindsight, I can’t settle down to one apartment, one job, one life for very long. One life just doesn’t feel like enough. Moving around feels like away to live multiple lives, each one a sample-sized variation of the one that came before.
Wherever you go, there you are. True, but in a different place I can be a slightly different version of me. Not a better version, I don’t think I believe in progress anymore, but a different one. I hope that one day one home will be satisfying enough but until then I’ll keep trying out different ones. I left Toronto a little over two weeks ago and now I’m in Banff and ready to start a job selling boat tours on a lake. I hope I belong here. For now.