Toronto-itis: How I dealt with that uneasy feeling returning home to an adolescent city

I had traveled in Europe for a month, taking in the sights and rubbing elbows with fellow city-enthusiasts (also known as tourists). It was my first time on a trip like this and I was excited to share my experiences with everyone at home. However, when I returned something had changed. From what I’ve heard, it’s common for people to feel somewhat disappointed when they return to Toronto, a kind of reverse-culture shock or ‘Toronto-itis’ as I began to call it. Naively, I assumed that I would be immune to this reaction, but on my return I caught myself saying, “What is this place?”

It was natural to begin making comparisons, poking at the fat and pinching the folds. The TTC seemed slower, the croissants harder, the sidewalks thinner, the buildings more oppressive. In a way, these acts of comparison were little battles staged in my mind, each attack marching from a colony built of memories from my travels. Opposite this stood my memories of Toronto, of my past, built in concrete and completed with fissures, fires and smoke – an old fortress cracking under the pressure of its own immense weight. Yet with each attack, I felt a pang of remorse. Why was I attacking Toronto? And why did I feel compelled to defend it?

An answer came as I walked over a bridge crossing Highway427  in my neighbourhood. There, in a moment of clarity (with perhaps a splash of car exhaust) I saw the bridges crossing the Seine, the Spree, the Tiber and the Thames. Side-by-side the images stood with their shining, slow-flowing rivers and fanciful structures dotting the shores. But here in Toronto, I saw the booming highway. This space that had once captivated me, instead disturbed me. A frothing vortex of cars rampaged, each one letting out a deep moan as it sped below, the collection of which built the cry of a restless city.

It was in this cry that I found the antidote I was looking for. This unfiltered sound reminded me of how young Toronto is. This city had barely needed to deal with the horrors of destruction, the pain of rebuilding and the nauseous rise and fall of empires which had plagued the old world. Hardly innocent, yet hardly grown, Toronto’s beauty emerged in its adolescent awkwardness, its confusion. How ruthlessly the city was drawn square on the round cliffs on the edge of Lake Ontario. How embarrassingly the city severed so many ties with the past of the earth (as old as Rome) beneath it. How devoted the city was to such a high standard, but how downtrodden it was to ever fall short of it. Toronto was openly struggling with itself and it laid it all bare. This cut of concrete in front of me was a raw admission, “I’m still working on it.”

As I crossed back over the bridge, night was descending. The roads were wrapped in strips of evening sunlight and the city reached a calm deep slumber. In the night, the highway grew bright, with thousands of cars and apartments popping out in the darkness. From their lights came terrifying excitement. Those ancient cities I glimpsed were built layer upon layer from structures that soon eclipsed daily life. It is in this that Toronto differs. It is as a city where anything seems possible, where the people of this city are slowly writing and reviving the city’s story with each step taken, each word spoken, each decision made, each building built, and each life lived. It is a city where our daily lives and recent memory are front and center, not eclipsed but instead highlighted by our conflicted past.

 

9 comments

  1. I’ve always felt the exact opposite upon returning home. The world has many incredible places, and yet every time I return to Toronto, I feel lucky to have this city be my home. The incredible culture mash up, the ever-evolving art scene, we’re a city with an appetite for change and I relish that.

    Toronto is being shaped by those living in it today. Look at how our waterfront is taking shape, how a blog got its citizens to name one of its new parks. I love just wandering the city and finding delights in the nooks and crannies of TO. This city enjoys all four seasons and celebrates on every possible occasion. Find a weekend without an awesome festival. Just this weekend we hailed garlic, wind, books, hip-hop, and robots. And there were probably five other events I didn’t even know about.

    I never feel compelled to defend Toronto as much as I can’t help but gush over the city I love calling home.

  2. The comparison of the fast-moving 427 and the slower moving rivers from your European travels is another apt example of our City’s age. Rivers, near their sources, or much younger geologically, flow at a faster rate. With age or as you progress further downstream to the mouth does the current slow to a more leisurely pace. If the allusion was intentional, we’ll done!
    Toronto is in the midst of growing up and discovering itself. As it matures it should figure out its own identity and be able to confidently portray that to the rest of the world without the need for validation from its older peers.

  3. I agree with Nihir,

    I have always felt incredibly blessed to live in this city and have this profound adoration and love for this city and country when I arrive back from my travels. All the multi ethnicities is so amazing!

  4. I’ve been lucky enough to make a few 3-week trips to Europe in the last couple years. As a direct result, I’m going through a Toronto-appreciation phase.

    E.g. Toronto has lots of leafy green neighbourhoods compared to major European cities. Most people live within a 10-minute walk to a good-sized park, if not closer. Compared with Paris or Rome, Toronto feels spacious and clean.

    The food choices in Toronto are endless. In Europe, you better like the typical cuisine because that’s mostly what you are going to get.

    I also love how Toronto has people from truly *everywhere* in the world, and it works! I’ve picked up on some of the racial tension in Europe and I’m glad that Toronto doesn’t have it.

    I could go on, but you get the idea. The trick is not to compare the bad of Toronto with the good of Europe. Apples and oranges.

  5. This is great – I think more people should know about all of your feelings. I think everyone’s comments reveal a common thread though – that Toronto is a great place to live and has a population that is deeply passionate about their urban environment.

  6. The big observation I had when I came back, not from Europe, but from Asia was how incredibly rich we all are. We live like kings here, all of us. In Burma I waited 3 hours for a vehicle to fill up before it left on its route and even then it turned off its engine to coast down hills. When I got back and sat on an empty bus I was amazed that it left with just…..me, and on-time. Our sidewalks, our roads certainly beat the crater filled roads in much of the world that take forever to travel on. We really are lucky.

  7. Toronto is just a place filled with people. It does not have any single “identity”. It is in a state of constant and rapid change, and attracts a lot of interesting and ambitious people – that it what makes it an interesting place to live. The “adolescence” analogy that some of these writers describe is merely a projection of their own insecurity, but it is false. Toronto is not “maturing” into some more recognizable and acceptable “adult” phase, where the writers do not have to feel quite so embarrassed about being associated with it, it is simply changing and and adjusting to the times we live in, and its growing and diverse population. This is a process which will continue for the indefinite future, with now-unforeseeable results. Torontonians are fortunate to inhabit a place that is not hidebound by tradition or dominant narratives of identity, and we should resist those – even earnest and do-gooding “urbanists” – who try to impose one on us. If Toronto is “adolescent”, I hope it stays that way forever, and does not develop an “identity” which defines the boundaries of what can and cannot be done.

  8. Interesting column. I used to spend a lot of time in London for work and had pretty much the same depressive reaction to Toronto every time I returned, except I never reached a point where looked beyond the negatives. While Toronto does have some positives – 16-lane freeways channeling le Corbusier’s 1920’s vision of speed and freedom, as well as lots of leafy parks – it might be a stretch to suggest as one poster did that our food scene can compete with those of major European cities. Certainly the Michelin Guide survives without a Toronto edition, and their scope is pretty global. But what kills me about Toronto is our almost uniformly shabby and ugly public realm. And our crap transit system. And the fact that so many people in this city think that somehow, the whole package is good enough. It isn’t.

  9. @Pman I think you’ve completely missed the point. Toronto is a city which is exciting to live in because its constantly changing and improving. Of course there are many things which are still improving and haven’t had the hundreds (and even thousands) of years to perfect as in many European cities. So forgive us if your home doesn’t quite live up to your lofty expectations. You could always just stay in London, no need to return if Toronto depresses you so utterly

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