Toronto: I Left My Heart in Toronto

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On the night of Tuesday, November 8, 2016, the website of Canada Immigration crashed. I wasn’t surprised; the events of that unforgettable day, both in the Philippines and the United States, shocked many citizens in both countries.

No need to go into their specific reasons for suddenly looking for other options; suffice to say, I’m certain that thousands of Filipinos and Americans felt adversely affected—and panic stricken—that suddenly, the thought of moving to another country became a serious option. And obviously, for most of them, the first choice was Canada.

The result? Perhaps for the first time ever, went offline. The servers just couldn’t handle the deluge of inquiries and rush of applications.

Gorgeous country

Oh Canada! I understand the attraction completely. I’m quite smitten myself. I’m fortunate that I’ve had the opportunity to visit Canada many times since 2009. It is, indeed, a gorgeous, blue-sky country. Wide open spaces, first world infrastructure, one-of-a-kind attractions, addicting comfort food (poutine and beaver tails!) and a melting pot of global cuisines.

It is also a wine-drinking culture that’s very French, and yes, it’s true—all of it! Canadians are probably the nicest people in the world. You’ll hear “Oh, excuse me!” and “Oops, sorry” spoken very politely and with a genuine smile, as often as “Hi!” and “Hello!”

Canada is one of those countries that you fall for slowly, then all at once, so much so that you feel you don’t ever want to leave.

I’m certain you’ve experienced that feeling, just like this: on your last day, you want to move in slow motion, postponing the last-minute shopping and packing of your bags in a vain attempt to stall time and delay the inevitable. You wish you didn’t have to go on that final drive, the one to the airport, in this case, Pearson International, for the flight back to Manila.

Family bonds in the burbs of Toronto

My brother Joey and his family migrated to Canada and settled in the Greater Toronto Area in 2003. They’re now based in the town of Ajax, around fifty kilometers east of downtown. So on my first few trips to visit them, I spent most of my time in their quieter suburb, often arriving in autumn to fully enjoy the explosion of fall colors. I’d spend many a breezy afternoon walking to the neighborhood Food Basics for my stash of Cadbury chocolates, or penny pinching in Dollarama after browsing for books in Chapters.

And Costco of course. Always Costco! By early evening, my brother would fire up the grill and we’d just bond over single malts and steaks until my sister-in-law Annalee arrived from work, and we’d share a bottle of red before bedtime. My routine hardly varied, interrupted only by the weekly trips to downtown Toronto via the GO Train.

And yes, I must admit, I used to consider the city as an interruption to my blissful and serene three weeks of doing absolutely nothing in Ajax.

My very first time in Toronto was deep in December of 2009, when temperatures averaged -17 Celsius, and as a first timer, wrapped up in layers and clad in snow boots, I did the usual sights: the top of the CN Tower, a walk around the home of the NBA’s Raptors, the Air Canada Center, window shopping at the Eaton Center, etc. You know, those touristy things.

Honestly, though, I was not quite impressed because that’s what every casual visitor sees. The surface gloss, the easily accessible, the landmarks . . . the obvious. The true charm of Toronto lies deeper within, and it took me the better part of a decade to really discover and explore, and to finally know it.

Truly, madly, deeply in love

Time flies. My niece Meagan is now in college, and her folks invested in a condo in downtown Toronto, to save her the daily two-hour, round-trip commute via train. Their practical decision turned out to be pure serendipity: their broker convinced them to get a unit, sight unseen, in the Canary District, an area unfamiliar and still under development during the pre-selling period a couple of years ago.

But when they got the keys this spring, they were pleasantly surprised—no, shocked—to find out that their new neighborhood had become Toronto’s newest, hippest, and most beautiful and green downtown residential area. During my recent vacation in Canada last October, I spent most of my time in Canary Park, and I fell truly, madly, deeply in love with the charms of the city.

How could I not? From the 7th floor balcony, my view to the left is that of the Corktown Common, a verdant park filled with dozens of classical sculpture and modern installations, a museum embedded in nature. Stunning. Directly in front of me, in the distance, is the blue waterfront of Lake Ontario, where I can see the small jets landing and taking off from what’s been voted as the 4th best airport in the world, Billy Bishop, a.k.a. YTZ.

And to my right? The money shot, an unobstructed view of the CN Tower in all its epic half-kilometer high, 147-storey glory. For over three decades, it was the highest structure in the world, until the Burj Khalifa took the distinction in 2010. CN is still the 3rd highest, and every evening, it is lit up in a kaleidoscope of colors. It’s mesmerizing, truly ravishing to behold.

In the neighborhood

At street level, on the ground floor of Canary Park, is Souk, a brand-new, more casual outlet of Tabule, one of the city’s most beloved Middle Eastern restaurants. It became my go-to for a quick meal of authentic shawarma rice.

And how could I resist? The aromas of falafel, harissa, hummus, and cardamom lattes wafting from the kitchen would drive me mad whenever I’d walk by.

And a five-minute walk away, to the west, is The Distillery. It’s a compound of Victorian-era Industrial buildings that used to house Canada’s largest producer of alcoholic beverages, Gooderham and Worts. The brick structures now feature a collection of bespoke shops and many artisanal cafés and dining establishments, including El Catrin, the al fresco Mexican restaurant that’s not only one of the city’s best, but also one of its most romantic. The buildings are connected by cobblestone paths, with a surprise in practically every corner.

A foodies’ haven

I continue walking westward, and in twenty minutes, I’m at the St. Lawrence Market. For a food writer such as myself, this is paradise. No less than National Geographic named it as the #1 Food Market in the world! It’s a farmer’s market with the freshest, crispest, greenest produce, side by side with stall after stall of the best cheeses, homemade sausages, cured meats, and the sweetest pastries.

St. Lawrence Market first opened in 1803, and over two centuries later, it’s become a can’t-miss destination for any legit foodie. The fact that I can walk there every morning, and grab a freshly baked croissant for breakfast, with a “Nanaimo,” Canada’s traditional coconut-chocolate dessert bar for dessert, is indeed a blessing.

Speaking of which, a few blocks away on Power Street, is the St. Paul’s Basilica, home to the oldest Catholic congregation in Toronto. Sunday mass there is life-affirming. And also, Filipino character-affirming, since half of the attendees seem to be Pinoys! It’s a vast, breathtaking place of worship, reminiscent of the San Agustin Church in Intramuros.

And my prayer, whenever I’m there, is always the same—one of thanksgiving, and a wish for me to return to hear mass again on my next visit to my new favorite city.

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