I am visiting my native Toronto after almost a year away. Having lived in Scotland for over four years, I am beginning to find remarkable aspects of Toronto life I never found remarkable before.
The first, now most obvious, one is that every box, bottle, bag, jar and can in my parents’ kitchen is labelled in both English and French. As sometimes the English and French are on the same side, as in the case of the “egg noodles nouilles aux oeufs”, it is like seeing double through a pair of mismatched lenses.
The second is that sales taxes are added on at the till, so that a postage stamp that reads $1.85 in truth costs $2.10.
The third is that the vodka section in the LCBO (liquor) store is vast, perhaps reflecting the large migration of Russians into my parents’ neighbourhood. The endless stretch of Korean and Persian signs northward is, however, still old news to me.
The fourth is that the subway system is more crowded than ever, and that there, at very least, Canadians of European, let alone British, descent are now a minority. And if a fellow passenger on my bus home is white, chances are that when he answers his cell phone, he will answer it in Russian.
The fifth is that even though it is bitterly cold outdoors, ankle-deep in snow, people keep remarking on the warmth of the weather. Apparently it was much much colder in January.
As for me, I have to stop saying “Hiya”, the standard working-class Edinburgh greeting, to Toronto bus drivers. It sounds a bit rude here. And I notice that I am more relaxed as I walk home from my Toronto stop. In Edinburgh, which is smaller and therefore its violence is nearer, I am watchful.
A grasp of all these details means that, should I choose, I could now write a story about a fish-out-of-water Scot in Toronto. (The essential thing to add is that many people around him would not understand his Scottish voice. On my Edinburgh bus, even now, I have to sharpen my hearing before I can discern if a neighbour is speaking Scottish-English or Polish. )
Some of these details are controversial. Canadians love to sidestep controversy, so it is almost a sin to notice that Asians vastly outnumber Caucasians in Finch Avenue subway station. “So what?” the polite Caucasian Canadian will demand of another. “So what?”
So it’s interesting. It wasn’t like that before. It is like that now. To set a story at the intersection of Yonge Street and Finch Avenue, a writer must acknowledge, at very least, the massive Korean and Persian populations.
Feeling dizzy at the bilingual labels is also controversial, touching on Canada’s most bitter and ancient quarrel, that between anglophone and francophone. And although our food labels are produced in both official languages, only 12% of the residents of Ontario are fluent in both English and French. So although we all see French daily, hourly, most Torontonians don’t hear it or speak it. French for most Toronto adults is visual, not aural.
That’s interesting, too. Controversial issues are often interesting, and that is why authors must be brave and write about them.
There is another way in which writers must be brave. To know a place, you must take public transportation. And you must not listen to your headphones while you do so. Because in Edinburgh I have to travel through a slum to get home, I have realized that a car is like an incubator, keeping its occupants safe from shocks and danger. However, car travel also robs a writer from (literally) rubbing shoulders with her fellow man, about whom she must write if she is to be a writer of any worth.
And it is not enough for her to rub shoulders with him. She must listen to him, too, and even–if addressed–speak to him, listening carefully to his pronouncements and storing them in her memory: “Oh aye, if ye didnae laugh, ye’d greet,” said the boozily cheerful man at an Edinburgh bus stop last week. (Not “och aye”, mind you. Edinburghers tend not to say “och.” Oh aye.)
“That white kid,” said the First Nations (i.e. American Indian) man to his pal on the Toronto subway on Saturday. “He was everywhere, man. Everywhere. Like City TV.”
Only a lifelong Toronto person, I thought, could get that simile and remember the now deceased, still beloved announcer’s bass voice behind it. I smiled. Despite its constant change, Toronto retains its memory. That too must be noticed.
Wisdom! Be attentive!