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the thing about places and homes

Toronto was my first view of Canada, a grey slushy view in the dead of March that called into question my parents’ entire sanity. After the idyll of a tiny German university town (complete with castle ruins!), nothing about this place that was too big and too loud and too cold made sense. It had giant box stores in the middle of the city and a downtown that wasn’t entirely dedicated to pedestrians. It was basically barbaric.

It wasn’t where we ended up settling, a few months later. Ottawa felt like home as much as Germany or China had felt like home, which is to say that it was my answer when people asked me where I was from. But after four transcontinental moves in 11 years I felt restless if I stayed in one place for too long, and as soon as I could leave I moved to Kingston for school, then Toronto for work, then North Carolina for a boy, then Toronto again when I no longer loved him (though I hadn’t realized that at the time). When opportunity called from Vancouver, I didn’t think twice about picking up my life and driving 55 hours across the country with my brand new husband. There was no reason to think that this move would be any different from any number of moves I had made before.

Almost immediately, I missed Toronto with a fierceness that surprised me, a fierceness that served as its own sort of myth. A fierceness rooted perhaps not in pure unadulterated love for the city, but was instead a reflection of everything that had gone wrong in my world. We moved to Vancouver, and Trump got elected. We moved to Vancouver, and there were deaths in the family, and mental health crises, and cancer (fuck cancer). We moved to Vancouver, and the rain started and never ended.

A city is not to blame for the traumas that occur within its boundaries, but the hurt has to go somewhere.

In Vancouver, we lived a five minute walk from an urban corridor that had been expressly planned so that the view to the mountains would be unobstructed for miles. This view was part of my daily commute, the backdrop to my coffee runs, and all I ever felt was a gnawing guilt that this sight didn’t move me as everyone said it would. In May, when the rain finally relinquished its death grip on the city, Vancouver was beautiful, streets lined with cherry blossoms, green everywhere you looked. There were summer days where, lounging on a beach waiting my turn on a rented paddleboard, Vancouver felt like Camelot.

I knew the surface reasons why we had to leave Vancouver: we found it hard to make friends, the natural rhythm of the city clashed with our night owl habits, we’re not outdoorsy at the best of times, and the rain, oh god, the rain. None of these felt like good enough reasons not to stay. When people asked us why we were moving back to Toronto, we gave non-committal answers that invoked families and careers. They sounded right, were even accurate. But they weren’t true. What was true was that when I cracked open a novel that opened with a lonely walk home from the Elgin theatre along Yonge Street towards Cabbagetown, I started crying and couldn’t stop.

I didn’t just miss the vibrant neighbourhoods that might be the closest thing to real multiculturalism there is on offer, as low of a bar as that is. I didn’t just miss the sight of the CN Tower piercing the skyline against all decent notions of aesthetics. I didn’t just miss the stadium that will forever be known as the Skydome and the venue that will forever be known as the Air Canada Centre. I didn’t just miss the way Lake Ontario sparkles, or the shocking green of the Don Valley in the rushed glimpse between Castle Frank and Broadview.

It wasn’t even that I missed the people, although I did, with a dull ache that didn’t feel like pain so much as a deadening of all my nerves. Having lived most of my life extremely online, the thought that I could miss my friends when the internet existed snuck up on me, hit me over the head with a packet of unwritten postcards.

Mostly, I missed who I was when I was in Toronto, missed the concept of myself that only seemed to exist here. I missed being the kind of person who knew where to go and how to get there. I missed feeling an endless spider web of connections stretch before me, seemingly just a text away. I missed the freedom to be a stranger, knowing that safety was just around the corner. I missed feeling like there was always something to do, someone to see, and that if I chose to stay home tonight then tomorrow would be another day filled with wondrous things I would probably still be too lazy to engage with.

I could’ve built the same in Vancouver again, if I’d tried hard enough, I’m sure. I was 27 and privileged and gripped with the blithe indifference of privileged 27-year-olds that let me pretend that I wouldn’t ever truly fail at anything simply because I hadn’t spectacularly failed yet.

But that invincibility won’t last forever, and eventually could be turns into could have been. How much more time was I willing to lose in the rebuild, in the ritualistic tearing up of roots every time the wind changed, pretending that I was okay with the shedding of the flotsam and jetsam that made the difference between a house and a home? My entire life, whether by choice or by circumstance, I tried on new cities like I try on clothes, imagining that my terror of not living up to my potential would settle if I just kept running.

I truly wish I had liked Vancouver more, wish I could look at gorgeous vistas of mountains and water and be satisfied.

Toronto is a little grimy and brash and obnoxious. That’s okay. I’m a little grimy and brash and obnoxious, too. We have great intentions and terrible follow-through and we tell ourselves lies about our own virtue, Toronto and I, pretend our goals are more lofty than they are. We try too hard in that irritatingly eager theatre kid way and ask for the moon and usually fall short, and even when we don’t it was probably the wrong question to ask.

Truth be told, Toronto annoys the shit out of me. The soul-killing traffic, the sociopathic drivers, the overcrowded and underfunded subway, the ruthless real estate, the inhumane gentrification. The absurd machinations of city hall and the 45 (then 47) (then 25) city councilors and the endless downtown-suburb culture war exacerbated by the lingering ghost of amalgamation. The way that in the brief months of summer, the sweltering heat conspires with the ubiquitous road construction to form a haze of dust and misery that would not be out of place in Fury Road. I hate how people in other cities talk about Toronto, and when I’m in Toronto, I hate the benign narcissism that gives rise to that reputation.

None of these irritations is unique to Toronto; none of this is special. But in Toronto, they’re mine to love. Maybe it’s as unromantic as the taxi light theory, and my brief stints in Toronto just happened to be during times when I was ready for a home. Or maybe I never felt homesick for other places because I wasn’t a person yet, when I lived there. Toronto makes me feel like a person. Here you are, the city promises, against the tide of a world that is falling apart, and here we’ll be. Like we could never be abandoned again.

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