Colder than people in TO?

Toronto_080131_0126.jpgIt’s a Canadian reality that if you are not from Toronto or don’t live here, odds are you hate this city. A similar situation can be found in most countries. New York, Madrid, Paris, London, São Paulo, are all the object of ambiguous feelings by Americans, Spaniards, les français, Brits, and Brazilians respectively. So the Vancouver billboard promoting a brand of beer with the words “colder than people in Toronto” was not surprising even if it annoyed a few Torontonians and allowed Vancouverites to laugh and puff their chests in self-satisfaction.

I’m not a Torontonian and Alan and I came to Toronto from the city that perhaps hates this city the most – Montreal. Montreal’s attitude towards Toronto is steeped in the complex conflict between English and French that marks this country but also in the fact that Montreal only recently lost its position as financial and cultural capital of the country to Toronto, when most of the multinational corporations’ headquarters left Quebec because of the separatist movement. Even the most level-headed Montrealer can’t avoid holding negative opinions about Toronto. When we announced to our friends that we were moving to Toronto we might as well have told them we lost a cherished family member or were diagnosed with a terminal disease. Every single one of our well-traveled, open-minded, and otherwise cheerful friends reacted in exactly the same way. “Oh no! Why?? You’re going to hate Toronto!” they exclaimed, before starting a long list of stereotypes Montrealers believe fiercely about Toronto beginning with the Coors commercial line and going on to say that Torontonians only think about money and work, they don’t know how to have fun, they only talk to you to know what you do for a living, there’s nothing to do in Toronto, everything closes early… the list goes on and invariably ended in my favourite: “Toronto is not as multicultural as Montreal”. That one always makes me laugh as it shows that either the speaker had never been to downtown Toronto or hadn’t been here in over 30 years. We usually simply nodded, pretending to agree.

Alan and I had never been to Toronto before so there was no point in arguing. Initially, even Alan had the typical Montrealer reaction when I told him I had decided to do my PhD at the University of Toronto. “I’m not going to Toronto!” Fine, I said, I’ll commute. Eventually he came around and accepted the inevitable. By that point I had convinced him to arrive with no expectations and give the city a fair chance. I didn’t know Toronto but I’ve always been suspicious of easy generalizations so I didn’t take any of what we were told seriously. I arrived in the city with the same attitude I have about any place I’ve ever lived in – an open mind and determined to like the place so I can make the best of my time here. No point in being miserable for minimum of five years we would have to spend here.

HappyEven with our positive attitude, we were pleasantly surprised. Every person with whom we interacted in our first few weeks here was welcoming and friendly. As soon as we mentioned we had just moved here, they would say “welcome to Toronto!” Granted, we live in the gay village, perhaps one of the friendliest places in town but we’ve had similar experiences hanging our in other neighbourhoods. We found that much like in most places in the world, if you are friendly and make an effort to talk to people, they will talk to you. Alan quickly got to know everybody on the subway platform on his way to work and we are on first name basis with all our neighbours and all the people that serve us in all the stores and restaurants we frequent regularly.

In time, we found that every single stereotype held about Toronto was at most, a myth. Torontonians are not just focused on money – the city has its Bay street lawyer types but it is also home to a very vibrant artistic and bohemian community. If you follow my friend JP’s blog, you’ll find that the indie music scene is quite impressive and it’s easy to watch live shows and have a lot of fun for next to nothing. Toronto’s diversity is perhaps one of its features that I will miss most when we finally leave. Alan used to get home from work full of excitement telling me he overheard people speaking Swahili on the subway. For the nature lovers, the big city of Toronto can be an oasis as well. Its green spaces and ravines make it indeed a city within a park.

The only thing we initially missed about Montreal was hearing French on a daily basis and the food culture. But as my food blog indicates, I’m slowly discovering that Toronto has much to offer in the latter regard as well. If only our Montreal friends would come to visit us so we could show them…

Barcelona is NOT a war zone

In about two weeks, Alan and I will be going back to Barcelona for a month. Of course, for us, visiting Barcelona is not quite living any other foreign destination – we lived there and Alan still fondly refers to it as “home”. But still, I like roaming through travel forums to read about other people’s recent trips, what they saw, what they did. Inevitably, they share their impressions and these can be either positive or negative. While I enjoy reading about other people’s experiences, I also get very frustrated with human beings’ (natural?) propensity to generalize, essentialize, and misunderstand a culture not their own. We have all heard of Parisian waiters’ fame for being surly and rude, which is nothing but a stereotype. In forums about Barcelona, people tend to focus on two issues: crime in Barcelona and the rudeness of the Catalan people.  Because I got tired of trying to dispel some of these notions, or at least to put them in perspective, in the sites I belong to, I decided it was about time I got it out of my system here.
Continue reading “Barcelona is NOT a war zone”

Immigrants against immigration?

Since I came back from Barcelona, I’ve been active in a few immigration discussion groups. I share my experience as an immigrant to Canada and try to help others who are either planning to come to the White North or are recent arrivals. Overall it is a very rewarding experience that allows me to meet some very interesting people but once in a while a more controversial debate emerges.

There has been recently a discussion on the number of immigrants Canada welcomes on a yearly basis. While all of us in that particular discussion group have benefited from Canada’s open immigration policy, a number of people expressed concern over its impact on Canadian identity and quality of life. Others complained Canada lets in too many Chinese and Indians and that it has a negative impact on the country – someone blamed the Chinese for the high real estate costs in the West Coast and I’m not sure what they had against the Indians; there was some mention of too much cultural distance and that there must be some sort of “deal” between Canada and India since these people would hardly qualify as skilled workers. The words are not mine, let that be clear.

I was flabbergasted. How can an immigrant be against an immigration policy that, at its core, is not even that open? Most immigrants to Canada – including the Chinese and Indians above – must meet strict criteria regarding level of education, work experience and working knowledge of one of Canada’s two official languages. As for the Chinese and Indians, both countries have a huge population and both value education above most things so I wouldn’t be surprised if hundreds of thousands skilled workers from those countries applied every year to come to Canada.  But it troubles me that people would be suspicious. Is it because these communities are often very insular? Many feel they don’t make enough of an effort to integrate. But how much is enough? Do we want people to stop eating their traditional foods and to stop speaking their language when they are among people of their country of birth? Or wouldn’t it be enough that they obey our laws and respect the charter of rights? Besides, it might not seem that they are integrating enough but I’m sure that a Chinese person who has lived here for 20 years would have a hard time re-settling in China.

And what about the threat to Canadian identity? But if even Canadians haven’t decided what this Canadian identity consists of, how can it be threatened? I think the Canadian identity is simply a set of values – fairness, equality, social justice, tolerance, all values enshrined in our charter of rights and freedoms – and as long as new Canadians respect these values, I see no danger.  But it seems that the immigrants themselves have decided to defend Canadian identity… But what did they want? To close the door after they came in?

Sorry for the rant…