An Ode to Toronto

I’m sitting on my balcony, watching cars and people cross the intersection below. The sun is setting, but its one of the first warm evenings of the season and I am not yet ready to move indoors. The rain stopped a few minutes ago, and the saturated colours and sounds of the city surround me: the familiar trundle of the streetcar as it crosses the perpendicular tracks, the splash of traffic over puddles, laughter and conversation wafting upwards; the dark red brick that defines Toronto architecture, asphalt, concrete, glass towers and glassy blue water in the distance. This is my Toronto.


I look down at the Wheat Sheaf pub, a three-storey corner building of red brick with green gabled windows, that has stood at the corner of King and Bathurst streets for over 200 years.  I see the neon OPEN sign in the window, the raindrops on the plastic tables and chairs that line the patio, and I imagine it’s first patrons – British soldiers – walking up from the garrison for an evening pint. The cars and crowds have not appeared yet, nor have the two-storey buildings that line the route now. The soldiers are walking up a wide dirt road, sparse cottages lining their way. They arrive at the entrance and the leader of the pack holds the door open for his friends to pass.

Some years later, after the garrison was shuttered and the Fort York cemetery became a resting place for civilians too, after the railroad was laid and the Wheat Sheaf was swallowed by the expanding City of Toronto, a factory was built across the street. Four storeys, same red brick, same green shutters.  I look through the fourth-floor window, and instead of a co-working space, I imagine garment workers in neat rows, their sewing machines anchored to the same hardwood floors workers walk on today. The streetcar passes and snaps me back to present day. The familiar bell dings, the wheels trundle over the opposing tracks. I imagine the garment workers hearing the same familiar sounds, but they don’t look up. They are paid by the piece, and they are efficient. The foreman enters, counts their pieces and hands over their pay. Another workday complete, I imagine them walking down the creaky wooden stairs, chatting with friends. As they exit the building on Bathurst Street, some walk to the streetcar stop eager to get home, some cross King Street and enter the bank to deposit their earnings, and a few of the younger workers decide to cross the street and step into the Wheat Sheaf for a quick pint before heading home to their lodgings.  They are laughing, cajoling, patting each other on the back. First they are English, then Irish, then Italian, Portuguese, Greek. Time moves forward, more factories sprout along King and Bathurst streets, always in that same red brick. The years continue to pass, there are more cars, more people, the red brick is painted over, hidden behind siding and neon signs. The factory is converted into lofts, the bank becomes a restaurant, and the Wheat Sheaf remains. Many of the factories are demolished to make way for parking lots, and those parking lots make way for glass condo towers with concrete balconies like the one I am sitting on today.

Once upon a time, this little corner of the world was born as a small hamlet to serve the Garrison down the way. It grew with the population, and it evolved with our needs. This corner has seen cycles of wealth and poverty, and wealth again, yet beneath the glass towers, behind the neon signs and layers of paint, on the hardwood floors of independent coffee shops and the exposed bricks and beams of modern offices lies the heart of Toronto.  The factories are gone. Fort York cemetery is now the neatly manicured Victoria Square, but the buried soldiers and civilians remain, resting beneath dogs playing fetch and lovers embracing on a park bench. The Toronto Bank is now a high-end restaurant, with a vault full of wine.

As I look across from my balcony in the fading light I see condos and commerce and modern life, but I also see Toronto’s history. We are not a city famous for any battles, or treaties, or even famous citizens. We have something better: a history weaved by a million stories, built by immigration and stitched together with camaraderie. Co-working spaces have replaced the garment factories, restaurants and coffee shops have replaced the abattoir and markets, our credit cards have replaced the bank, yet the Wheat Sheaf remains.  As I pack up my notebook in the last minutes of twilight, I see a group of friends exit the pub, laughing, joking, living.


The train pulled into Philadelphia’s 30th Street station on a rainy Saturday afternoon. This was my first trip to Philly and I was looking forward to it, although I didn’t know what to expect.  The extent of my research was a google search on “Things to do in Philly” last night after checking into my flight.  Whatever Philadelelphia had to offer me, I was happy to be travelling, and happier still that I had packed an umbrella.

As I came up the wet subway steps, my eyes fell on a sign for the Gaslight Pub.  Good!  It was nearly 4 o’clock in the afternoon, I hadn’t eaten a proper lunch, and I was starving. The moment I stepped into the pub, I was overcome by the familiar scent of alcohol, wood and damp, and I could feel my spirits lifting as I shed the stress of traveling onto the hardwood floor.  I don’t know what it is about the smell of pubs that has such an ability to unwind people – the smell isn’t exactly pleasant – but I cannot deny it’s magical effects. I ordered a French Onion soup and a glass of wine, and looked out the window at a city waiting to be discovered.

The rain had no intention of letting up, and I had no intention of staying in.  After checking into my hotel and finding my umbrella, I was on my way to the Liberty Bell half a mile away.  Short of my final destination, my umbrella and I had no plan.  I walked past some mid-century architecture and a closed restaurant, questioning the route I had chosen, when I saw a traditional English garden to my right.  I tucked in to take a closer look and was pleasantly surprised to find that the garden backed onto a beautiful open lot criss-crossed with cobblestone streets and colonial-era buildings.  As I tipped back my umbrella to get a better view, I saw a man dressed as a pilgrim sneaking a quick cigarette on his break.  Save for the cars at the end of the lane, I imagined that I was looking at the same view that a Philadelphian would have taken in on a rainy afternoon 200 years ago. I wandered along a cobblestone laneway to a cluster of buildings on my left, and entered a walled garden.  I was standing in front of Carpenter’s Hall, the meeting place of the First Continental Congress in 1774.  Led by John and Sam Adams of Boston, the rebel leaders of the American Revolution met here to air their grievances to an absent King and commit to a course of action.  Although this course did not include bloodshed, by the time the Continental Congress reconvened in July 1776 to draft the Declaration of Independence, war had begun.

Carpenter’s Hall

As I stood there looking up at a traditional and rather small colonial building, I noticed a familiar feeling brewing inside me: a feeling of joy and discovery and confirmation: I was awakening, my mind sparking ideas faster that I could keep up with them.  If Boston is where the rebels dreamed of independence, Philadelphia is where they manifested it.

City of Brotherly Love.  The location the rebels chose as America’s first capitol was no accident, and neither is my presence here today.  Seventy-five years before the Founding Fathers declared independence here, William Penn declared his vision of Brotherly Love in his Charter of Privileges.  Expelled from University for non-conformity, persecuted for his Quaker beliefs and a disappointment to his family, William Penn set out to create a city where brothers (and sisters) from different faiths could live side by side, united in their acceptance and respect of their differences.  Now they were united by a common dream as well.

As I continued past Carpenter’s Hall, slightly disoriented by the rain, I found myself looking up at an imposing building, perfectly symmetrical, with a dominating bellfry and flanked by three arched walkways on either side.  The crowd was my first sign that I had stumbled onto something significant, the roped off inner court was the second.  I was looking at Independence Hall, the first seat of American Government, where the Declaration of Independence and United States Constitution were signed and the where rebels emerged from the chrysallis of war as hero Founding Fathers.  Ordinary men – carpenters, smiths, lawyers and landowners – had achieved the extraordinary: true independence.

I circled Independence Hall, taking in the majesty of the building that the Carpenter’s Association originally built as a simple State House.  There were guided tours available, but I preferred to stay outside and continue exploring.  The steady rain and I were becoming friends now, eliminating the need to worry about lighting as I snapped photographs. And suddenly, I stumbled upon my destination: I was standing in front of the Liberty Bell.  I peaked through the glass and wondered what all the fuss was about.  I had reached arguably the most famous landmark in the city, but my journey and the discoveries I made along the way were immensely more satisfying.


Isn’t that the whole point, though?  So many of us set a goal, program it into our internal GPS and follow the most direct route to get there as fast as we can, scarcely glancing aside as we barrel forward, only to arrive at our destination and find disappointment. The Liberty Bell was a disappointment, but I didn’t mind because my journey getting there had been an unexpected pleasure.  What I learned about the time and place and people of revolutionary Philadelphia was much more valuable – to me and to history – than a cracked bell.  If we all slowed down for just a moment, if we wandered on the way to our destination instead of constantly seeking the shortest route, I wonder: where would our journey take us?  Would we still find what we are looking for?  Or will we discover what we didn’t even know we needed?  I set off to find a famous cracked bell in the rain, and I discovered that even the wildest dreams can be manifested at remarkable speed.

Ordinary men doing ordinary things changed the course of history.  So can I, so can you. All we need to do is look around and see the opportunity.

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A flicker of opportunity in the window

Genesee County, America

I have travelled two hours from home, and am barely 30 miles from the Canadian border, yet I find myself in a different world.  It wasn’t immediately apparent.  As we crossed the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge the topography didn’t change, and the border guard could have easily passed for a Canadian.  As we drove east on I-90, the corn fields and silos still looked like the ones I drive past when I venture into the farmland north of Toronto, albeit a little shabbier.  I noticed I had entered this new world when we got off the freeway.  The houses along New York State Route 77 were adorned with American flags, John Deere tractors sat in front yards, old hand-painted signs dotted front lawns and there seemed to be a pick-up in every driveway.  The houses were mostly clapboard, kids played in the front yard, and the adults looked weary.  The movie sets of Anytown, America are based on reality after all.

We drove through the town of Pembroke first, though I saw none of the commerce I expected.  Main Street must have been elsewhere.  We approached the one-stoplight town of Corfu next.  The main intersection was centered around a gas station, a bank, a Presbyterian church and a gun store.  This was definitely not Canada.  As the light turned green and I hit the gas, I quickly glanced left and right: a store with a classic Pepsi sign, and another church steeple in the distance.  Guns and absolution are easy to come by in Corfu, but groceries may be a little harder to find.

We continued our drive along Route 77 past narrow strips of farmland (all corn, which I assume will yield high fructose corn syrup one day) and farmhouses advertising fresh produce.  We didn’t stop.  We had a concert to get to, and even if we didn’t, I felt uncomfortable stopping because I was so clearly out of place.  I felt like an alien in a foreign land, unsure of the customs and unsure of myself.  Our next stop was the Luke Bryan concert at Darien Lake.  We parked at the end of a neat row of vehicles in the grass, and got out of the car.  It was a bucolic scene: farmland separated by rows of oak trees, two silos rising above the field to my left, the sun shining and happy concert-goers spilling onto the lawn in a sea of jeans, plaid shirts and cowboy boots.

We speak the same language, share the same vernacular, even the same accent to the untrained ear, but the nuances that distinguish me from my southern neighbours are not subtle.  As I took in my surroundings on the amphitheatre lawn, I felt the distance I had travelled.  We are all accustomed to the social and cultural norms of our hometowns, and struggle to notice what others immediately see.  Only by leaving the warm blanket of Toronto was I able to see how safe and secure it is; how polite, orderly and reserved.  My Canadian reservation melted away as soon as the concert started, and thousands of us – all just people now – danced and sang together, buoyed by the energy emanating from the main stage.  And then the fireworks started.  Over to the right and at least a few miles down the road, a burst of colourful fireworks lit up the night sky, and I was grateful to be in this corner of the world tonight, where life was so much more buttoned-down.

The concert ended and we joined a sea of cars and pick-up trucks heading for a single exit.  Now I missed my orderly Canada.  After an hour, we finally made it back to Route 77 and were on our way to Buffalo.  We passed through more hamlets along the way.  The moon was a sliver, and beyond Main Street the landscape was pitch black.  In between farm houses and hardware stores, I spotted churches, gas stations and a seemingly disproportionate number of volunteer fire stations.  We drove past a primary school, two funeral homes, and Choose Life billboards, Walmarts and discount stores.  I felt like an anthropologist.  I was curious, intrigued by everything I saw.  As a child growing up in a big city I had always imagined country living as a bucolic life filled with open fields, wildflowers and freedom.  The houses in my imagination were well kept, the gardens pristine, the world safe to explore.  The reality I now saw was something much closer to the poverty line – farmers growing corn for large corporations, junk accumulating on their front lawn, stress accumulating in their heads – and I wondered: did they dream about the simple abundance of city life the same way I dreamt about the country?  The joy of having a house on a cul de sac, a neatly manicured lawn, a short drive to the supermarket and access to all their material desires?  Did they visit cities with the same eager curiosity that I started my journey with, and leave just as disenchanted?  Are we all ultimately searching for the same peace?  And if it’s not in the city or the country, then where do we find it within us?

Mojave Desert

I answered my calling to be a writer in May, and I experienced my first writer’s block in June.  I was visiting Las Vegas, and exploring the Mojave Desert that surrounds it for the first time.  Up until this point in my life, I had only flown over desert.  I clearly remember my first daytime flight into Las Vegas: the sky was clear, I had a window seat, and I was mesmerized.  I watched the land below slowly morph from the Great Lakes and bright green squares I am so familiar with, to wheat-coloured squares, then circles, first continuous and later interspersed with mountain ranges.  Slowly, the mountains turned burnt orange, they developed cliffs and buttes, and the occasional farmed valley or airstrip reminded me that humans really have conquered every corner of the earth.  I would spot the occasional road to nowhere, disappearing into a valley or around a bend.  And then Lake Mead appeared, a shocking, incongruent bright blue against the orange rock, a clear line in the earth showing where the water levels had been only a few decades ago.  Lake Mead gave way to the lush landscape of the Las Vegas suburbs: suburban homes with front lawns and backyard pools, golf courses, fountains, and sprinklers and commerce.  By the time the airplane landed, the desert was no longer recognizable.

Flying over under-construction Las Vegas suburbs
This is how my desire to see the desert – and more specifically the Mojave desert of the American Southwest – began, fueled by National Geographic photos and conversations with friends and acquaintances who had visited.  I learned about Bryce Canyon, Sedona, the salt flats north of Salt Lake City (who knew Salt Lake City got it’s name from an actual salt lake?), and Moab, Utah.  The American Southwest had been added to my bucket list.

Now here I was: in the Mojave desert, seeing and feeling the red rock and canyons and desert flowers for the first time, marveling at how blue the sky was, how beautiful such a foreign and arid landscape could be.  I reveled in the desert’s beauty, and loved every moment I spent in it.  I felt calm, grounded and excited all at once.  There was so much I was feeling, so many ideas I wanted to explore: why is this arid land so beautiful?  How can so much life survive here with so little water? How did it’s native inhabitants survive here?  And by the way, where was the water?  What is the impact to this environment of the sprawling metropolis less than an hour away?  Why must we abuse Mother Nature?  What was life like here before the towns became ghosts, when they were railroad towns and mining towns?  Before the towns even got here?  Before Europeans got here?

Abandoned Cima general store
I felt joy in the desert.  I felt freedom and expansion and sheer bliss as we drove along an open road to nowhere (it disappeared over the horizon), with no other cars in sight: my life lay out before me as a series of endless possibilities.  Yet when I tried to write, to coherently organize and document my thoughts, I couldn’t.  Words made it onto the page, but they were empty, meaningless.  They were void of the joy I felt hiking through canyons and climbing peaks, void of the freedom that filled my heart as we drove through Joshua Tree forests, sand dunes and lava fields.  I simply could not find the words to express my emotions.  I felt frustrated and defeated, so I accepted defeat and walked away.

Icebox Canyon, Red Rock National Park (there was no ice)
If we don’t document an experience, does it mean that it did not happen?  In our age of start phones and Instagram and Snapchat, many meaningful (and many non-meaningful) moments of our lives are captured, recorded and broadcast for all our “friends” to see and comment.  But what about the experiences and feelings that are not captured by a digital image or a written word?  Are they any less real?  Any less lived?  Of course not.  Ask anyone who remembers a time before smartphones, before digital cameras, maybe even before the proliferation of 35mm film, and they will tell you: memories are documented in the mind and in the heart, not on social media.  Psychologists have even proven that taking photographs actually reduces our memories (   So I accepted that my first trip to the desert would remain a cherished memory locked in my heart.  There would be no blog post.  And then this story formed itself and tumbled out early one morning in late July, six weeks after my trip.  By accepting and embracing my writers block, I was able to move past it.

Driving north out of the Mojave National Preserve to I-15


Quick!  Think of home.  What is the first image that comes to mind?  Is it the house you grew up in? The house you spent your summers in?  Is it your hometown?  Or any other place that you have spent years of your life in?  When I think of home, I think of a place I have barely spent a season, but that I have been able to locate without the help of a map for as long as I can remember.

First you need to get yourself to Sparta, Greece.  From there, take the Sparta-Githion road heading south.  Cross the river, and then make your first right and take the road that goes up the mountain.  Stop the car when you get to the first town square.  Get out of the car, cross the square on foot.  On the opposite side, there is a short, steep downhill that levels off into a road.  Take that road.  Walk past the house that juts into the street. You’re almost there.  A little farther along you will see a downhill-sloping driveway on your left, leading to two attached houses.  Walk down the driveway, then up to the balcony with the metal railing.  Take a seat and look out across the valley.  Close your eyes.  Breathe.  Feel the love and comfort of home wrap you up like a warm blanket.

Growing up, there were many places I referred to as home.  They were the houses I lived in, yet although I called them home, slept there every night, made memories and lived out my daily routine for years at a time, I forgot them as soon as I left them.  I may have spent formative years there and made many beautiful memories in those houses, but my magnetic pull was to a place I barely knew.

The first time I went to Petrina, it was to be seen.  One of her daughters had a new baby, and she wanted to show her blessing off to the village that formed her.  The second time I went to Petrina was to be shown.  I was older now, nearly five.  I was shown the house where my mom was born and spent the first years of her life.  I was shown the grandfather that loved her, the aunts and uncles and friends that surrounded her, the orchards that fed her, and the town square where she – and now I – danced and played.  And just like that, the invisible cord that connected me to my mother stretched right through her and plugged me into the same land that she was rooted in.  Her roots became my roots.  And then I went back to playing.

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Mom and Uncle Jim with their grandparents, early 1960s

The next two trips to Petrina were different.  Mom was gone.  Dad took us in his dad’s red Jeep Niva with no air conditioning.  We drove around the town square this time, down the hill, squeezed past the house that jutted into the road (Dad said the house was there first, so when they made the road they had to pave around it), and into the now familiar driveway.  I sat on great-grandfather’s knee while he spoke to Dad, looking out across my valley.  It was hot, the wasps were out, I was sticking to my clothes and great-grandfather’s bony knee was not exactly comfortable to sit on, but I didn’t fidget.  I settled in.  More trips followed.  Great-grandfather was bedridden, and then he was gone too.  Uncle Spiro bought and fixed up the adjoining house, and we slept there now.  Grandma and I sorted through the boxes of family photos in her old bedroom as she shared stories I had never heard before.  Every trip was similar: always in summer, never for more than a week, and a feeling of being wrapped in a blanket of belonging the moment I turned into the driveway.  In Petrina, I wasn’t the girl with the funny name, that looked different and never quite fit in.  In Petrina, I was with my tribe, and my grandfather’s name gave me an all-access pass.  I loved it there.  And then I grew up.

My affinity with Petrina didn’t fade, but my memory did.  I went to university, got summer jobs, and then a full-time job.  My priorities changed.  I didn’t have all summer off anymore, and with the vacation I did get, there was a whole world to see!  So I disconnected the cord that tied me to Petrina, and I floated.  I floated to Europe, and Asia and South America, and I loved it all.  Seventeen years somehow passed, and I was offered a chance to return.  I said yes.

I got myself to Sparta, Greece.  My aunt picked me up from the bus station in her air-conditioned Jeep, still dressed in her bathing-suit and coated in salt.  We drove down the Sparta-Githion road, so deep in conversation that I barely noticed we were crossing the river.  She took the first right, drove into the first town, and parked the car.  I walked across the town square, down the hill, past the house that juts into the street, to the driveway I could sense before I saw it.  I turned, looked at the house, walked up the steps and sat on the balcony.  It was siesta time.  The house was quiet.  I looked out across the valley, breathed, sank my feet in and started to cry.  I was home again.

Petrina_end articleMED
View of Taygetos from Petrina
View from my balcony.  You can see the ledge in the lower right-hand corner



I did not remember my dreams.  A mixture of sunlight and anticipation woke me before my alarm.  I pulled the curtain back and checked the time on the large clock face across the street.  Just past 6:30.  Good.  I have ten more minutes to sink into my bed, to enjoy both morning and sleep.

It is now 3:00pm and I am sitting on a patio in Lower Manhattan.  I landed hours ago, made my way into the city, enjoyed a leisurely brunch in Greenwich Village before crossing the west side highway at 14th street and settling under a tree along the Hudson River Greenway for a little rest.  Now I am back in the city,  somewhere near the convergence of West Village, Tribeca and SoHo.  Somewhere I have not been before.  It’s hot and humid and sticky, the first real day of summer, and the city is full of citizens coming out of hibernation to enjoy the warm weather nature has granted.

I look out and see the beauty that once was New York.  Before cars and traffic and  never-ending construction, before over-population and the seemingly permanent stink of garbage from over-consumption, there was a city of natural wealth and beauty and promise: majestic brownstones on quiet, tree-lined streets, hot summer days made bearable by the ocean breeze and cool, moist earth underfoot.  Granite and marsh, and humans.  Humans can play a positive role in shaping the earth.  We can harness her strength, her resources and her power, and  use them for our betterment.  But there comes a tipping point between humans and Earth – the same tipping point that can occur in intra-human relationships – where the dominant party stops bringing out the best for the subject’s benefit as well, and instead start bringing out only what he wants to better himself.

Mother Earth is no different than an abused and mistreated woman, expected to give us everything she has and expect nothing in return.  Our society tells mistreated women to stand up to her partner, fight back, take what is hers and leave him to fend for himself. We cannot fathom our most honourable and abused mother of all – Earth – doing any such thing, yet that is exactly what she is doing to us each and every day.  She is asking us to treat her better.  She is asking us to change our ways, to once again remember to consider her best interest along with hours.  She is telling us what we need to do to reverse her revolt.  What will it take for us to listen?  When will we see the irony of the plastic flowers in our lawns, where real ones once grew so readily?

May 19, 2017



This weekend I am in New York.  Or – to be more accurate – Brooklyn.  At this moment,   shortly after 9 o’clock on a Sunday morning, I am sitting at the Brooklyn Heights Promenade.  I am in a church of sorts, the congregation consisting of local residents looking for solitude, a stroll or a morning run, and visitors like me observing the view: Ellis Island, Statue of Liberty, New Jersey, Lower Manhattan, Brooklyn Bridge, and the Empire State Building all in my line of vision.  The choir is unique: birds chirping the melody, walkers and runners keeping beat, and the constant hum of traffic underneath reminding us all that this church we currently sit in is in the middle of the country’s biggest metropolis.

Brooklyn Heights.  I have heard the name before many times, read about it and seen countless movies and TV shows set here.  I see the beautiful brownstone row houses with the walk-up steps and instantly associate them with Brooklyn, which then calls to mind hipsters and well-to-do young families.  These are the people that call this place home. But do they see what I see?  Is that what draws them here?  The tree-lines streets are no doubt beautiful, the mature branches forming canopies, shielding young families from the sun and from the noise of the world that is just across the river.  The soil is fertile, the climate temperate, the little wildlife that remains resilient.  Do they see the natural forest that once was?  The rich soil and bountiful harvest?  The awe inspiring views that Mother Earth has graced them with?  The vista before it was glass and concrete and steel?  I look up from my notebook and I see industry: cargo ships, ferries, ports and skyscrapers.  It is the industry that makes this incarnation of Brooklyn Heights possible, that provides the jobs that pay the money to afford the beautiful and protected homes in this serene corner of the city.  But what if there was another way?  A way that better respected the beauty that we so dearly grasp the last wisps of in this church where I sit?

May 21, 2017

Brooklyn Heights