First-time visitors to Toronto usually have some pre-conceived notions about the city. If they’re from the U.S. they might assume that Toronto is just like any large U.S. city or that we all speak French or that it’s cold in the summer. Lately we have been hosting American friends whose previous experience of Toronto was either limited or non-existent and who had some misconceptions.
First we clarify that Toronto is not like many American cities where downtown areas are not the most desirable places to live and educate children. Most visitors are surprised that living in the suburbs is not the goal of most young downtown couples and families. We also explain that many young people cannot afford to live in the city because of exorbitant real estate prices so they end up in the suburbs, often facing a long commute.
But we’re excited to show off the town and promote the many advantages of city living. Most of our visitors are impressed that restaurants, movie theatres, bookstores, cafes, grocery stores and the subway are a short block away from our place. Since many live in places where driving is essential, it’s easy to amuse by just walking around the immediate neighbourhood. Meeting the deli lady who treats us like family and the erudite coffee shop owner who serves us ‘the usual’ are always highlights.
When we exhaust that option our first stop is generally the Art Gallery of Ontario and its recent outstanding exhibitions – the Cardiff and Miller installations and the work of Ai Weiwei. We always look at the ship models in the basement and point out the ones made by the prisoners of war. No visitor is allowed to leave without having at least a quick look at the Group of Seven – taking care of our Canadian Content requirement (Cardiff and Miller notwithstanding).
Funky Kensington market is next, where Wanda’s Pie in the Sky is always a hit, sometimes followed by a quick browse through Blue Banana and a gawk at the garden car. Then it’s a circle around U of T that often elicits remarks like, “It’s Hogwarts!”
Everybody wants to see the water – incredulous that there is a huge lake on the other side of the expressway and the imposing towers. Although most of the visitors come via Porter Air and take the shortest ferry ride ever to a city, they don’t feel as if they’ve actually seen the waterfront. So it’s off to Harbourfront, a walk along Queen’s Quay (navigating the acres of construction) and to the wondrous Music Garden. Our Boston friends really appreciate the Yo Yo Ma connection.
No visit is complete without a meal on The Danforth. Although it’s not as Greek as it used to be, our heritage requires us to pay respects to our old neighbourhood. After driving by the first house my family rented when they immigrated to Canada and pointing out the elementary school I attended, we pop into Mezes for grilled octopus, dips and souvlaki. And no matter how stuffed our guests are, we always cross the street for dessert and make them eat loukoumades at Athens Pastries. They rarely refuse.
Most have said they would love to live here if it weren’t for jobs, family and – reality check – the fact that it’s another country. They are impressed by the diversity, sophistication, energy and creativity of the city. Of course we try to present the best of Toronto and, when possible, introduce visitors to friends and family to get a better feel for what’s it’s like to live here. We know we’ve done our job when our visitors begin considering their next visit before this one is over.
– Miria Ioannou
Photos by Miria Ioannou and Schuster Gindin
Click on any photo to enlarge.