On July 10, 1997, I arrived in Toronto with a truck full of personal effects to take up residence. I had never lived in Toronto before, but I had visited, and it seemed like a good place to go. Just a month later, I met Aina Arro, to whom I have been married since 2000. Nearly every interesting, enjoyable, and profitable thing that has happened to me in the intervening 20 years has resulted directly or indirectly from decisions and connections I made in my first year in Toronto – in fact, to some extent, it was all in place by the end of that summer, though I didn’t know it yet. I sure wouldn’t be who I am now if I didn’t live in Toronto.
Toronto is like that kid in school who’s so popular nobody likes her. And then you happen to get to know her and you find out that she’s really interesting. And ridiculously insecure.
I grew up in Alberta. To grow up in Alberta is – I think this is still true, but it sure was at the time – to learn from your youngest years to resent the East, specifically Toronto. The biggest city in Canada, so full of itself, sucking all the talent from the rest of the country. Like New York, sorta, but really so not New York. In truth, Toronto is like if Chicago had become the biggest city in the US instead of New York. And if Chicago could not shut up about what it needs to do if it wants to be a real world-class city.
People in Toronto love living here but will not always admit it. The city has so much, there’s always something to complain about if you want, and Canadians love to complain. And if you really want to resent the moneyed smug-yet-striving obnoxiousness of certain sectors of Toronto, just pick up a copy of Toronto Life magazine. Any copy. I know. We have a subscription. For some reason.
The name Toronto has a different flavour from those of many other major cities. The consonants are all on the tip of the tongue, while the vowels are three o’s (each one pronounced differently). It’s not that no other major city name has those characteristics – London does, for one. But the t’s give a crispness. And the o’s lend an architectural quality. And it has an echo of brontosaurus, although the local basketball team is named after a different dinosaur (in fact, its name is that of a kind of bird, but in this case the branding makes clear that Raptors really means Velociraptors). Its football team, meanwhile, is named for a classical reference quite opaque to the average citizen – Argonauts – and the hockey team’s name involves a regularization of an irregular plural: Maple Leafs. They’re also famously losers. And every year their fans hope that will change.
If you pronounce Toronto fully, it marks you as not from here. The standard reduced local pronunciation is “Tronno” or “Tronna” – but many people don’t call it that either. I grew up knowing it as “T.O.” and that’s still common across the country. When I arrived here some people liked to call it “T-dot.” I don’t hear that much anymore, which is fine with me; it seems forced. Because the City of Toronto (formerly Metro Toronto, of which the old City of Toronto was just one civic unit) has the area code 416 and the surrounding suburbs have the area code 905, the area codes have been used as distinctions, and Drake has popularized calling Toronto “the Six” – oh, sorry, apparently I’m supposed to write that as “the 6ix.” You can also just say “the city” and anyone anywhere in the region will catch your drift.
There are different accounts of the origin of the name Toronto, including one meaning ‘meeting place’ and another meaning ‘plenty’, but the most accepted etymon is the Iroquois word tkaronto, meaning ‘place where trees stand in water’. Which apparently originally named a spot on the north side of Lake Simcoe, more than an hour’s drive north of Toronto, but as it happens, right now Toronto is also a place where trees stand in water, because the level of Lake Ontario is more than a metre above normal (unnervingly high, in fact), and has been for two months, thereby interfering with many usual summer activities.
But the trees still stand. Like people in Toronto. It’s a great place to put down roots and then get swamped. Most people I meet in Toronto came here from somewhere else. That’s one of the things that make this city so incessantly interesting.
Enough with the words. I like taking pictures, and Toronto is a great place for that hobby. A picture is not worth a thousand words – there is no fixed exchange rate, and really it’s a foolish conversion to try to make. I would like to ramify this word Toronto with just a few of the pictures I’ve taken of some of the places and happenings in Toronto over the years. Attach them to this word in your mind. You will not see all of the city, just the parts I frequent; you get no impression of the endless suburban sprawl. But you do get a good sense of why some people call Toronto a city in a forest. And why it’s one of the most multicultural cities on earth. I am also limiting myself to photos that I think are especially visually catchy.
Click on any picture to see a larger version on Flickr – and to see even more Toronto pictures there too. There’s also a book version.
See more photos – including many of people – in Toronto, part 2.