Christmas 2020 has been the most wonderful opportunity to access music. It’s as if multiple choral groups and musicians decided to share their talent and creativity with the world in a common desire to rise above COVID-19 and give a gift of hope. The result has been memorable in the best possible way.
The most sublime of the music emerging this season has been Messiah/Complex from Against the Grain Theatre. Billed as “A daring reimagining of Handel’s classic featuring voices from across Canada,” it is a breath-taking rendition of the classic music in Arabic, Dene, English, French, Inuktitut, and Southern Tutchone.
Produced in cooperation with the Toronto Symphony and the Banff Centre for the Arts, the production was co-directed by Joel Ivany of Against the Grain and Reneltta Arluk, Director of Indigenous Arts at the Banff Centre. The twelve soloists and four choirs come from every province and territory. They sing in their own languages and with visuals of the entire country… amidst northern snows, by ocean waters, in the woods, on the prairies, in the heart of our largest urban cities, at work or school, beside campfires. The language has been updated and the photography is contemporary. All of the artists contributed from apart, on video. But they worked together to give Canadians and the world a seasonal gift that would lift spirits and provide hope in this difficult time. The production is a musical and visual tour de force which shows the talent, creativity, and diversity of Canadian people and the breathtaking beauty of our country.
It is a profoundly moving experience. In the few weeks since it launched, there have been 55,000 views. Viewers are wild with praise: “so beautiful and so terribly long overdue,” from New York, another writes, I am “sobbing thru the beauty of this Messiah… and saluting CANADA for leading and showing the rest of us what true Diversity and shared Joy and Beauty and Hope look and sound like and unite us across all different races, religions, cultures into what makes us most extraordinarily HUMAN.” From Nashville: “absolutely extraordinary! Leave it to Canada to bring us a performance of such unusual brilliance at the tail end of such a miserable year.” “Life-enhancing,” “transformative… I will never hear Messiah the same way again,” “not enough superlatives.” “Possibly the most uplifting thing I have seen during this whole wretched COVID time.” “Astonishingly good musically and challenging, eye opening and… beautiful.” “Like no other Messiah I’ve ever heard or seen. Stunning visuals, beautiful voices, and whole new meaning for some of the words.” You get the idea. Whatever your normal response to the usual Messiah, this is a truly memorable experience which you should not miss.
This production went public on December 13th. Streaming has now been extended to January 31st. The history of how the production came about and profiles of the soloists are readily available on YouTube. Accessing the production itself seemed slightly more difficult. The performance is free of charge and can be streamed as often as you wish. To access the performance, you register on the ticket portal of Against the Grain’s website. Select a ticket beginning ASAP; only one ticket is necessary. Once done, you can access the ticket in your account. When you open your account window, you will see the name of the production, Messiah/Complex, in red. Click that and another window will open, with the words “view livestream.” That opens the YouTube stream of the live performance. It took me a while to figure it out, but it is well worth it.
I now see that Margaret Atwood posted a Tweet with a direct link to the video on You Tube. If she can do that, I can too.
Enjoy and Happy New Year.
Don’t anyone ever say that the Christmas spirit is not alive and well in Toronto.
On the Tuesday before Christmas last week, my husband, who is the chef in our family, went to do his final shopping for Christmas dinner. He is seventy-six and looks his age (although he insists that he is still only thirty-nine). He uses a cane for balance and to alleviate the pain in his back.
He went first to Fiesta Farms, our favourite local supermarket known particularly for its organic foods and excellent fruits and vegetables. He went early in the morning, assuming that he would beat the crowd. Alas, when he arrived, there was already a long line-up of customers all masked and appropriately socially distanced. The line-up was the longest he had ever seen since we returned to Toronto. It stretched across the front of the store, around the corner and all the way down Christie Street to the end of the store at the back. As he walked down the sidewalk beside the line-up, several people suggested that he join the line-up ahead of them. Each time he demurred, reluctant to jump the queue. When he got to the end of the line-up, the woman ahead of him also suggested that he go to the front. He insisted that he could wait like everyone else. He wasn’t there more than a couple of minutes when the store employee staffing the front of line-up approached him and insisted that, no, he was to come into the store right away. Apparently someone from the line-up had told him about my husband, and getting him into the store ASAP became a priority. That saved my husband at least a half hour of waiting.
My husband then went to the local neighbourhood butcher shop, Vince Gasparro’s Meat Market on Bloor Street West. Again, there was an unusually long line of people, maybe fifteen, lined up on the sidewalk outside. Again, a woman ahead of him suggested that he go to the front of the queue. She said that she knew the woman at the head of the line and she would not mind. My husband responded that perhaps the people between them would be less keen. Whereupon, his neighbour went down the line asking each person if they would mind my hubby going ahead. None did. The woman at the head of the line went into the shop and spoke with Pat Gasparro who was working the cash register. My husband is a regular customer there, long known to the family. Pat stepped out of the shop and yelled, “Irvine, get your ass in here right away.” And he did.
When my husband got home, he was delighted that the shopping had gone so quickly and that he had been treated so well by his fellow shoppers. Are people with canes treated this well all the time? Or was it the spirit of the season? Whatever. It was a community act of kindness which was much appreciated.
In recent years, the City of Toronto has started naming laneways. It’s an interesting endeavour which is greatly enriching the city. It includes all different types of people. In learning about past residents, we learn about our neighborhood and we build community for the future.
The first such endeavour near us was the laneway between Manning and Euclid Avenues, south of Harbord Street named after Frank Kovac. The proprietor of a local car repair shop at the corner, Frank had a reputation for honesty, ingenuity, and providing the best possible deal on any repair brought to him. When he died of cancer at an unduly early age, everyone in the area wanted to recognize him. Naming the laneway after him seemed the ideal way.
Another laneway south of Harbord between Markham Street and Palmerston Boulevard was named after Lucie Tuch. She and her sister were the children of eastern European immigrants who lived in the large house at the corner of Markham and Harbord. Both girls became dentists and practiced together in the family home for decades. Lucie also died of cancer prematurely, a great loss to her family and her patients (including myself) who loved her.
While we were in Vancouver, eight other laneways were officially dedicated in the area.
One is in honour of Alan Borovoy, who was raised on Grace Street and later was General Counsel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association for forty-one years. Apart from numerous test cases on civil liberties before the courts, Borovoy and his organization were instrumental in securing the Canadian Human Rights Commission and the Ontario Human Rights Commission.
Another lane is named for Wayne and Shuster, Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster who, after high school at Harbord Collegiate, appeared more than 65 times on the Ed Sullivan TV Show in New York City. They became Canada’s most famous international comedians. Wayne grew up on Palmerston Avenue. He died in 1990 and Shuster in 2002.
Another of the laneways is named for Beatrice Minden. She attended Clinton Street Public School and Harbord Collegiate and, after the death of her husband in l966, created the Beatrice and Arthur Minden Foundation to support cultural and medical organizations and scholarships in Toronto and Israel. For her 90th birthday, friends and family created the Beatrice Minden Endowment at Inner City Angels. This gift brings two artists to work with students of Clinton Street School each year. For Clinton’s Centennial in 1988, Beatrice funded the creation of “The Art Room.” She died at 99 years of age, after fifty years of philanthropy.
Morley Safer Lane is named for the son of an Austrian-Jewish upholsterer, born in 1931. Morley attended Harbord Collegiate and, briefly, the University of Western Ontario. He decided early that he wanted to be a foreign correspondent, so quit university to become a newspaper reporter. He had a 60-year career as a broadcast journalist and reporter, best known for his long tenure on the CBS news magazine program, 60 Minutes.
Joe Bertucci Lane runs parallel to Clinton Street south of Harbord. Joe Bertucci was described as a “neighbourhood character” and long-time resident of Little Italy “who sat on his porch and always provided a helping hand for his neighbours.”
Then there is the Huggins Family Lane. John Huggins and his wife Wyvonie immigrated to Toronto and bought their first home on Clinton Street in the 1960s. For many years, they were the first and only black family in the area. John worked as a porter for the CNR, Wyvonie raised four children who attended Clinton and then King Edward School. Their lane connects Manning and Clinton.
The laneway between Euclid and Palmerston south of Harbord is called the Jewish Folk Choir Lane. The choir began in 1925 and became one of the most popular choirs in the city in the l940s and 50s. Apparently, “songs of resistance and solidarity… had been part of the Choir’s repertoire during its heyday.” Conductor Emil Gartner and his wife Fagel Freeman, the accompanist for the choir, lived on Palmerston Avenue. Their home became the centre for choir activities even after the conductor died in 1960.
The Via dei Giardini Lane, meaning “Way of the Gardens,” is unique. It is named for five families: the Vellones, the Decarias. the Rizzutos, the Dadettas, and the Soldanos, all of whom emigrated from Southern Italy to the Palmerston community in the early 1960s. They lived next to each other and, together, created a garden where they used to grow and then can peppers and tomatoes. Working and harvesting their joint garden was a tradition for 45 years. This laneway is between Euclid and Palmerson south of Ulster.
Check out the laneways in your area. If they are not named, there is an opportunity to do so through the city. If they are, it is worth the effort to find out the stories behind the names.
I used to ride my bicycle to work all the time. Then, thirteen or fourteen years ago, a car knocked me off my bike while I was riding on Bay Street. The car did not stop. I was sufficiently stunned that it took the urging of pedestrians on the sidewalk to get me to stand up and move off the road. That was the last time I rode a bicycle in Toronto.
The expansion of the bicycle network during the pandemic is an incentive to climb back onto a bicycle and make cycling part of my life again. Last week, my son took my old bicycle to “Dave… Fix my Bike” on Christie Street to have it serviced. This week, I picked it up. Dave warned me that I should be wearing a yellow vest all the time, and that cycling in the city is not easy. I just came back from my first excursion and learned that he is right.
I went out very early on Sunday morning, when I thought there would be little traffic. I planned to cycle east along the bicycle path on Harbord Street, then down the new enclosed bicycle track around Queen’s Park, then back along the old bicycle path on College Street, and up Palmerston Avenue to our back laneway. A short jaunt which I figured would be manageable as my first bicycle venture in years. It was manageable, but not without some trauma.
I knew almost immediately when I rode my bicycle up our laneway that the seat was too low. But I had insisted upon that, and was glad of it for the moment. I needed to make sure that I could put my feet on the ground and prevent a fall if I should lose balance.
Once I reached Harbord, I learned that bicycle paths are not without their hazards. The old paths are not protected from traffic and veering out of the bicycle lane is a constant fear. The road surfaces are cluttered with debris, gravel, and even glass, and it’s necessary to beware of potholes. The worst are the streetcar tracks which are a notorious trap for bicycle tires, so much so that even I remember that it is necessary to cross the tracks at a ninety degree angle.
Watching the road is not sufficient. One must also watch for the cars, on the road and also parked or parking. Madly ringing my bell, I was petrified of being doored by any one of the many cars I actually found stopped beside the cycle path. And then there were the other cyclists. Most knew that I was a very slow-moving hazard blocking the path, and passed to avoid me. The occasional one came up behind and we exchanged comments.
Generally, the venture went well, except that my bicycle basket fell off and I had to brake to avoid hitting it. I pulled the bicycle onto the sidewalk, re-attached it and proceeded on my way. But then it fell off again. This time I decided to carry it, held by my left hand over the handle for the front brake, hopefully in a position which did not block my knee as I pedalled. The basket was a pain but I managed to get home without feeling obliged to jettison it. Next time, no basket.
Next time, I will also use the derailleurs and the speed controls to manage the bicycle. This time, I put my right hand on the handle and the rear brake and did the entire trip without changing the controls. At Queen’s Park, the track goes up and then down a little hill. Frozen as I was, without the confidence to let go, I could not take advantage of the bicycle to enjoy the change of pace.
Coming up Palmerston, I was on a small local street which I had to share with passing cars. It’s less reassuring than when riding on a designated bicycle lane or track. At the corner of Ulster Street, I had to make a left turn. I was frightened to make the appropriate hand-signal and asked two women pedestrians if I could make the turn. They assured me that I could. When I explained that I hadn’t been on a bicycle for years, they suggested that I get rid of the basket and raise my seat. Right on.
As I rode down Harbord, it occurred to me that if I were to fall, I would hurt myself and it might take months to get over it. I wondered if I should be doing this. But then I told myself that cycling was on my bucket list and I couldn’t give up. If I did, that likely would be the end of it for me. So I went on. I’m sure that it will get easier. When I ride the ravine tracks and the Leslie Street Spit, I will be happy that I did so.
We know we are back in Toronto when we can walk around the corner from where we live and find a first-rate new restaurant. “Y Not Italian!” is very small, with 24 seats inside and just a few tables on the patio. Last Saturday afternoon, our son and daughter-in-law suggested we try it. I assumed a reservation would be necessary and was sceptical that we could ever get one on such short notice. When I phoned, they had a table for 5:00 p.m. which was just what we wanted.
“Y Not Italian!” Is an off-shoot of the larger (96-seat) EVOO (Extra Virgin Olive Oil) restaurant at 138 Avenue Road. It opened in mid-February and closed because of the pandemic less than a month later. During the pandemic, it has survived preparing take-out and also Meals for Front Line Workers, twice a week, for several local hospitals. Its menu is similar to the pop-up patio menu at EVOO, and features delicious, home-baked EVOO bread and EVOO olive oil. Both restaurants are owned by Peter and Nikole Catarino. Prior to opening EVOO in 2016, Peter had a restaurant called Spuntini (meaning “appetizer”) on Avenue Road for over twenty years.
We had three courses each and were delighted by what we ate. My daughter-in-law had the Sardine alla Griglia as an appetizer, which featured three large sardines. I had the Melanzane Parmigiana, eggplant topped with tomato sauce and cheese, which was the best eggplant I have ever tasted. Among us, we had two salads, the Insalata Caprese like no other such salad we had ever had. The Gnocchi con Formaggio was very good, and the Fettucine al Divo with chicken, roasted red peppers, white wine, sun-dried tomato pasta, and cream sauce delicious. My husband had a veal scallopini with mushrooms in Marsala wine sauce. Probably because we were having such a good time, and the early evening air was so pleasant, we all opted for dessert. My Tiramisu was a real treat. All portions are very substantial.
Prices are more than reasonable. The three-course meal for four people, without drinks and tip, came to $150. The service was excellent. The waiter was masked, the food was nicely paced, and we had no sense that we had to hurry. Because I had made a reservation, the restaurant had my name and telephone number to meet the public health requirements.
During the pandemic, take-out has been the mainstay of the restaurant. One Google reviewer noted, “the kids loved it and even better, the adults loved it as well!” Other reviewers have called it “a little gem.” The promo indicates that the take out is “good for groups.”
“Y Not Italian!” is at 538 Manning Avenue M6G 2V9, at the corner of Harbord Street. Reservations are essential for the patio. It is open after 5:00 p.m. to 9:00, Tuesday to Sunday. The telephone number is (416) 546-7576. Delivery can be ordered through Uber Eats.
My husband and I went to Vancouver on January l9th for the winter. We were booked to return to Toronto on March 26th. The pandemic intervened and we elected to stay in place in our apartment on the west coast. Our house sitters were exceedingly generous and insisted that we stay away until we felt safe to return by air. We had assumed it would be the end of April. But then the end of April dragged into May and then into June. Clearly, we had to come back. Our house sitters had a life of their own, and we wanted to come home. It appeared as if Air Canada was “physical distancing” by declining to sell all the middle seats on the aircraft. That seemed safer, but the policy was only in effect until June 30th, so the time to return was now.
Returning home after an absence of five months presents challenges. I have no idea where whatever I need is stored in the kitchen. It’s there, for sure, but where takes some thought. The garden is overgrown and number one priority is to get the gardener in to do a “spring cleaning” and plant whatever is necessary for the summer. Then there is the car. The winter tires need to be changed, and because it has sat for five months without being operated, the brakes need to be rotored. Post-pandemic lock up, I need to get a haircut, and a pedicure. Still on the list is a visit to Costco to replenish basics, a window cleaning from White Shark, a chimney sweep, and a meeting with the accountant to finalize the income taxes we were not able to file from away. The list gets longer daily.
Apart from the domestic issues, Toronto as a city has all sorts of appeal. In the drug store, I found Lysol disinfectant wipes on sale at $3.00 off. In Vancouver they had been hard to find. At Fiesta Farms, I found cleaning alcohol which I never could get in Vancouver. Fiesta Farms has shopping hours for seniors, pregnant women and the disabled every morning from eight to nine Monday to Saturday. Those hours are much more extensive that we have experienced elsewhere.
People in Toronto are wearing masks and masks are now mandatory both on the TTC and in all public places. In Vancouver, masks are recommended on public transit and “when physical distancing is difficult” but are not required. Wearing masks takes some getting used to, and the protocol for how to deal with them (when eating for example) is not clear, but they are reassuring.
In Little Italy, there is considerable change. “Il Gatto Nero,” one of my favourite bistros which has been in the neighbourhood for forty years, has now closed. Around the corner from our home, an old café which I have never seen open has now put out a makeshift patio onto the sidewalk and we actually saw someone sitting there eating takeout. Across the street, a new restaurant opened in mid-February at the corner of Manning and Harbord. Called “Y Not Italian?” It is an excellent restaurant which we visited Saturday evening and which I will write about in a separate post. We probably got reservations on short notice only because the restaurant patio just opened last Wednesday. Within weeks, I predict that it will be swamped and tables will take some time to get.
The prevalence of bicycles in the city is refreshing. The new 25 kilometres added to Toronto’s bicycle network, in addition to another 15 kilometres already approved for 2020, is sufficient to get me back on a bicycle. That City Counsellors voted 23-2 in favour of the expansion saves years of future hassle. Although the addition is considered temporary, I cannot imagine that, when people become used to cycling on the expanded network, there will be any desire to do away with the changes. More likely, this will be a stimulus to further growth. For all the problems of the pandemic, some good is clearly coming out of it.
It was my first trip around the Stanley Park seawall this visit. And my first time riding an electric bike ever.
The attendant at Jo-e Cycles on Denman showed me the electric bike I would rent. It looked new, had small tires, an internal battery, and was somewhat heavy to lift. He lowered the seat and handlebars, demonstrated the derailleur control, brakes, bell, and then use of the additional electric power. To turn the electric power on or off, “you press down on this button for at least three seconds,” he said, “and there is a five-speed program: zero is coasting, one to five from slow to fast. I would recommend you stay on zero and one.”
When I left the store, the idea of additional power on a city street was too much. I cycled the bike on my own steam down the bicycle path from Denman to Stanley Park.
The cycle path around the Stanley Park seawall is nine kilometres long and designated one way. It heads north and east around Coal Harbour to Brockton Point, then west past Lumberman’s Arch and the Lions Gate Bridge to under Prospect Point, and on to Siwash Rock. It then heads south past Third Beach and Second Beach to exit at English Bay or to return past Lost Lagoon to Georgia Street.
Once on the cycle-only trail in the park, I pressed on the power and felt a surge of additional push up a small hill. That was nice, and certainly easier than if I had been pedalling on my own. Then I tried the power-pushed coasting past the pedestrians walking beside the yacht club and around Coal Harbour. This was fun. By the time I got to Brockton Point, I had the hang of it and felt sufficiently secure that I was willing to stop and take some photos.
Taking photos required that I get off the bike. That was easy enough. Getting back on was more difficult. I discovered that my legs are so short that lifting them over the bar and the battery of the bike was a major challenge. Stopping near a curb, a rock, a log or a fence helped. Standing on the additional height made it easier.
At Third Beach, I left the elevated cycle path to read some signs. When I tried to get back onto the cycle path, I found lifting the bike up the few inches of elevation difficult. Worse still, there was no place for me to stand to get back onto the bike. I had visions of falling off the path as I struggled with my balance on the bike. Fortunately, a friendly passerby offered to lift the bike and to hold it while I got back on. I greatly appreciated his help.
The cycle-path is paved all around the park, but in places it is narrow, there are several blind corners, and other cyclists pass from behind. I did exactly as I had been told, coast at zero and speed at one. Coasting is not passive, it still requires pedalling. According to the health app I discovered on my iPhone recently, I did over 5000 “steps” cycling around the park. Pedalling may not use the same energy as does walking, but at least it is something. As for the speed, it was fast enough for me. With all my stops for photos, I got around the park in two hours. Some people run around the park is less time than that. For me, it was the perfect pace.
And the vistas from the seawall are sublime. Such lovely views of the mountains, the harbour, the beaches, the trees and the people enjoying it all. There’s no better way to spend a quiet Sunday morning.
In the past, I have written about Tafelmusik’s Sing-along Messiah. Last Saturday, I shared a sing-along experience with a great choir which was totally different, but equally uplifting. On Sunday, February 23rd, the Bach Choir will perform Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana in concert at the Orpheum Theatre in Vancouver. This weekend, they invited other choirs and the public at large to join their rehearsal in a sing-along run-through. It was an utterly delightful experience.
German composer Carl Orff wrote Carmina Burana in 1935-36. It is a cantata based on 24 poems from a medieval collection which covered a range of topics described in Wikipedia as “the fickleness of fortune and wealth, the ephemeral nature of life, the joy of the return of Spring, and the pleasures and perils of drinking, gluttony, gambling and lust.” Written in secular Latin, Middle High German, and Old French, it is one of the favourites of the classical music repertoire. You can hear it on YouTube. Normally sung with full orchestration, for the sing-along, Stephen Smith, rehearsal accompanist for the choir, played the piano.
Cathrie Yuen, Assistant Conductor of the choir, led the singing. She started with a series of exercises, to get the body in shape and the voice ready for the demanding music which followed. Then down to the serious business of singing “Oh Fortuna” and the twenty-four other movements that make up the cantata. After most major movements, Cathrie had suggestions for improvements and the group repeated the singing as she wanted it done. Needless to say, most people knew the music well.
My friend and I chose to sing alto and had never seen the score before. Of course, we had never sung it before. We felt good if we were able to find in the score where the rest were actually singing. It was great fun. And, sitting in the choir, the music was wonderful.
The Vancouver Bach Choir is in its 89th season and is one of the largest symphonic choirs in Canada. Under the direction of Leslie Dala, it performs traditional and new choral works, for a local, national and international audience. Since 1984, it has also built a multi-tiered children’s program that provides choral training to over 350 singers from kindergarten to post-secondary school. More recently, the Sarabande Chamber Choir has emerged for graduates of the youth program, current Vancouver Bach Youth Choir members, and outside applicants.
Donations from the Singable Saturday event were given to the Vancouver Adapted Music Society. Sam Sullivan and Dave Symington, two Vancouver musicians who became disabled as a result of sports injuries, co-founded that organization in 1988. The Society has specialized adaptive equipment which allows people of all levels of disability to learn to play the guitar, bass, keyboards, and to study singing. It also has a fully-accessible studio, which enables disabled musicians to learn studio techniques, record their music, and perform at Vancouver-area gigs. A worthy recipient of a most inspiring event.
While walking beside the sea in Ambleside park a couple of weeks ago, I came across a cluster of translucent domes sitting on the grass beside what used to be the beach refreshment stand. A sandwich board beside the sidewalk read: “Dinner with a View, January 15 – February 16. Seatings at 5:30, 7:30, 9:30. Book Online. Promo Code POPUP60 Dine with a view experience #dinnerwithaview.ca.” A passerby told me that he was taking his girlfriend there the next night to celebrate her birthday. I thought that would be a fun experience and made a note to check it out.
The website was enticing. It offered “a perfect evening” “under the sky,” “at an incredible place,” “with those you cherish most.” And a celebrity chef to boot. What more could you want? Apparently, this was the third Dinner with a View pop up experience. The first ones were in Toronto and Montreal in the spring of 2019. The next will be in San Diego next month and Chicago in the fall.
Making a reservation was an interesting process. There were two costs: $199.00 for the dome and $109 for each meal; drinks and tips were extra. The costs of the dome and the meal had to be prepaid, and clients had to choose one of three blind pre-set dishes: fish, meat, or vegan. The menu was guaranteed to be shellfish, pork, and nut-free.
But, according to the internet, “all reservations had a minimum of four and a maximum of six.” That was a problem. My husband and I had only recently come to Vancouver and our usual dinner partners were out of town. How could we put together four people for what appeared to be a relatively expensive event?
I checked their reservation calendar and discovered that all the 7:30 sittings were booked, but that there were vacancies for the 5:30 and 9:30 weeknight sittings. I sent an email enquiring if they would take us as a couple. We would be willing to share a dome. They replied that they would offer us a private dome at 75% off the dome price for the next night. We couldn’t go then, but we agreed that I would check in the following morning at 9:00 a.m. when they reviewed the reservations and see if there was room then. I did, and there was, and I made the reservation directly with the head office for the 5:30 sitting.
That day started dark, dreary, and wet. But, as happens often in Vancouver, the weather in the west cleared during the day and by the time of our dinner date, it was a lovely evening, clear but crisp. After parking directly opposite the entrance, several staff standing beside a fire pit welcomed us and showed us to our dome.
It was a translucent plastic dome designed to simulate a terrarium, with a door that zippered open and shut. On the wooden floor inside was a table with chairs, each with a blanket folded neatly over the back. We had a heater at our feet and were surrounded by plants. The terrain outside was aglow with white lights in the trees, an aqua screen adding more colour, and outdoor fire pits with blazing fires. All this behind a white picket fence beside the sea with a pale sunset in the west. It was utterly enchanting.
Wearing toques, our servers were young people, friendly and cosmopolitan. One was from Quebec, had never been to Vancouver before, and was eager to practice her English. Another was from Chile, in Canada on a work permit that she wanted to extend. They popped in and out, zipping the door open and shut, always attentive to what we needed.
And the food? It was exquisite. We started with a beet and apple salad appetizer which instantly told us that this cuisine was superb. My husband had black cod with onions and leeks. I had chicken with tiny carrots, fingerling potatoes, and mushrooms foraged by the chef. Our dessert was a fruit, mousse, and mint crumble that was light and utterly delectable. We were satisfied that the cooking was as good as, if not better than, anything we had ever had in Toronto.
Our chef was Paul Moran, Executive Chef of the widely-acclaimed 1909 Kitchen restaurant and The Hatch pub at Tofino Resort and Marina on Vancouver Island. He apprenticed with David Hawksworth in Vancouver and was the Top Chef Canada Winner in the 2019 Food Networks Canada’s Top Chef competition. He visited us in our dome after our meal and we chatted at length. It was a warm and wonderful conclusion to a fabulous evening.
The Lunar New Year started this past weekend. Also called Chinese New Year or Spring Festival, this is the big annual holiday for over two billion people. More than a quarter of the world’s population, and many more than celebrate Christmas. In Mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, Indonesia, the Philippines, Viet Nam, North and South Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan, Singapore, and in cities around the world where these nationals now live, the “Lunar New Year” is a big event. So it is in Vancouver.
Red-coloured banners, ornaments, and lanterns abound. In Chinese culture, red stands for energy, happiness, good luck and success. Shopping malls advertise Lunar and Chinese New Year celebrations with all kinds of special features: night markets, food halls, musical performances, traditional dances, children’s craft workshops and art exhibits, lantern displays, a “Community of Castles” pop-up display illustrating different scenery and architecture, special sales, photo opportunities and door prizes. Supermarkets such as Osaka in Park Royal West Vancouver, which I have written about previously (here, and here), overflow with brightly coloured packages of special holiday sweets.
The 47th Annual Chinese New Year Parade took place on Sunday, starting at the Millennium Gate on Pender Street in the heart of Vancouver’s old Chinatown. It went on for two hours over a 1.3-kilometre route. Thousands lined the streets to watch the lion dances, traditional dance troupes, marching bands, and martial arts performances.
With a friend, I attended the Opening Ceremonies of the Lunar New Year on Saturday afternoon. This was the first day of the 15-day New Year festival. It was held at the International Mall, beside the Millennium Gate. Under bright red lanterns soaring to the ceiling, hundreds gathered to hear greetings, in English and in Mandarin, from Vancouver’s leading politicians and many of the local consular corps. I thought the speeches would go on forever.
Then a man wearing traditional costume threw red envelopes out to the crowd. Red envelopes signal the sharing of blessings and are traditional New Year’s gifts from parents, grandparents and older friends to children. Red envelopes normally contain money. These red envelopes contained lucky candies. An agile acrobat performed with hoops. And, finally, the Lion Dance began, with two giant multi-coloured dragon lions gyrating at length on the stage. The audience loved it.
The first day of the Lunar New Year changes every year. It is celebrated on the second new moon after the Winter Solstice and falls anytime between January 21st and February 20th on the Gregorian calendar (which we use).
Each year in the Chinese calendar is named after one of twelve animals. The animals rotate on a twelve-year cycle. In order, they are the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. People believe that the years represented by the animals affect the personalities of people born during that year.
This year celebrates the Year of the Rat. The years of the Rat include 1912, 1924, 1936, 1948, 1960, 1972, 1984, 1996, 2008, 2020 and 2032. Although rats are the smallest of the zodiac animals and may be scorned by many, they are recognized as an animal with spirit, wit, alertness, flexibility and vitality. If you were born in the Year of the Rat, you are thought to be adaptable, quick-thinking, intuitive, energetic and optimistic in outlook.
You can find which animal you are by inserting your Gregorian birthdate into this Chinese Zodiac Sign Calculator.
Someone born in October 2009 was born in the Year of the Ox. According to the Chinese zodiac, oxen are “diligent, dependable, strong and determined. Also patient, methodical and persistent. Having an honest nature, they have ideals and ambitions for life, and attach importance to family and work. They achieve their goals by consistent effort.”
Most people born in 2007 were born in the Year of the Pig. But someone with an early January birthday (January 8, 2007, for example) is actually born in the Year of the Dog. This is because the previous year continues until the new year begins.
Dog is a symbol of loyalty and honesty. The Chinese zodiac says that people born in the Year of the Dog “possess the best traits of human nature. They are honest, friendly, faithful, loyal, smart, straightforward and have a strong sense of responsibility.” Although they may be “a bit introverted and timid,” they can make true friends for life.
Several times over the weekend, people wished me a happy new year. They said, “Gong hei fat choy.” According to Chinese new year etiquette specialists on the internet, however, using that phrase is technically not correct. That wish is actually for the recipient to become wealthy in the year ahead and is best used with fellow workers or in business. For your family and friends, better to say “Xin Nian (new year) Hao (good)” (pronounced: shin nee-an how).
Xin Nian Hao, everyone.
For years, Aziza Café on College just west of Dovercourt has been a favourite for all-day breakfasts, brunch, and lunch. This past summer, the café moved to a new location two blocks east of Dovercourt, at 870 College Street. Two weeks ago, I was delighted to find the new Aziza Café and to talk at length with Lina Fonseca, and her daughter Amy Fonseca Reis, who are co-owners of the business. Theirs is a fascinating story, and their café is one to watch. It’s a work in progress which promises great things in the future.
The move has brought a more upbeat ambience. A Buddha sits in the window. A wall of wooden shelves and mirrors dominates the room, adopted from the hairdressing salon which was the previous tenant. The walls are hung with art. At the moment, it is a coffee shop (and tea emporium) that serves the same wonderful food made from the finest fresh ingredients that marked the café in the past. Apart from dining in the café itself, their menu is now available for corporate catering at Food-ee/Aziza Café and also for home delivery via Doordash and other residential delivery services.
In the future, the plan is to use the large patio out back, which becomes an oasis of green in the summer, and to encourage a casual vibe where people could come with their computers. They also see their café as becoming Toronto’s first bodega, a grocery store that sells food, as is popular in New York City. See the New York Times story by Julia Rothman and Shaina Feinberg entitled, “We Spent the Night at a Bodega and Wrote It All Down.”
Lina Fonseca, 53 years of age, was born in Mozambique to a Portuguese father and a mother from Malawi. Lina’s father came from a wealthy family and was an officer in the Portuguese Army for thirty years. Her mother came from an African village and had no formal education. She became the mother of nine children and also manager of the large family farm with over two hundred employees. Lina’s father did a great deal of entertaining and insisted that his wife and four daughters learn French cooking. When Mozambique became independent in 1974, the new government seized all her parents’ assets and the family moved to Portugal. There, Lina’s father bought his sister’s family farm, with no running water and no electricity, and the girls grew up having to make everything including all their cheeses and sausages.
Lina came to Canada by accident, alone, at 18 years of age. A Portuguese cousin who spent her summers visiting relatives in Canada broke her leg and could not use her airplane ticket. Lina’s father asked all his sons whether they would like to travel on the ticket, but none wanted to go. Lina said she would like to go to Canada and, because the visit was to family and would only last the summer, her father agreed. By that fall, Lina had tasted life as an adult and had no desire to return. She telephoned her parents and told them she wasn’t coming back. Two years later, she secured permanent residency status.
Since then, she worked as a chef and as a waitress in numerous restaurants and bars, some her own; one she operated for three years in a hotel in Gibsons, British Columbia. She has also helped run a large bakery. She has three children, including a son who is interested in a military career like that of his grandfather and has just joined the Canadian army. She talks to her sisters in Portugal almost every day on FaceTime. She admits that it was her children who inspired her effort to resurrect Aziza Café after her previous business partnership ended with significant debts and a new landlord took over the property.
Lina’s daughter, Amy Fonseca Reis, at 25 years old, is now co-owner of the business. Amy considers herself an introvert, in contrast to her mother who is a “people person.” Amy is an expert in modern technology. She takes care of the books and deals with all the apps which must be used nowadays in the business. She is also an “idea person” who has a vision of where Aziza could go, and what they could do in the future. It’s an ideal combination, one partner with years of experience in the industry, the other skilled in technology and a visionary. At the moment, the two of them run the café themselves. They look forward to hiring more staff and moving forward.
Visit their café, or order in for delivery at home or at your place of business. Their phone number is 416-516-9909. I think you will agree that their fare is excellent.
The bright yellow neon sign in front of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church at King and Simcoe in downtown Toronto drew my attention as I left Roy Thomson Hall after the Vivaldi concert a couple of weeks ago. It cycled through several messages: “A Christmas Carol Read by Tenor Ben Heppner and other GREAT voices,” and then, “An Evening of Readings, Carols & Gingerbread, Sat, Nov 30 at 7 p.m.,” and finally, “FREE Admission, Give generously to our Refugee Program.” I thought that this would be a wonderful way to start the holiday season. And so it was.
I took my new favourite TTC route downtown, using the Bathurst streetcar southbound to the marvellous King streetcar, which runs constantly without any waiting. The dark wooden balconies of the beautiful old church were bedecked with evergreen boughs and bright red bows. A large Christmas tree covered in white lights stood at the front, as white candles lit the floor below the podium. I was greeted by a lovely usher wearing the yellow T-shirt of the Refugee Sponsorship Program (STARS), a long scarf in seasonal colours and a Christmas bow in her hair. A brass quintet and a pianist on the grand piano played Christmas music as we waited for the program to begin. At the conclusion, we all went to the Great Hall for a Gingerbread and Cider Reception.
The Dickens story was divided into five staves, stave being another word for chapter, and also for staff in musical scores. The internet dictionary indicates that Dickens used the term “because each individual stave is a stand-alone story with its own distinctive mood. When taken together, all five staves combine to form a harmonious whole… as if the book is a Christmas carol, and each chapter is part of the song.”
Ben Heppner, who retired from professional opera five years ago and still hosts “Saturday Afternoon at the Opera” and “Backstage with Ben Heppner” on CBC Radio, began the readings. He was followed by Patricia Garnett-Smith, a British actress who came to Canada in l954 and has appeared in numerous theatre productions, films and commercials. Then came Kwagiulth and Stó:lo First Nations mezzo-soprano, Marion Newman, who has sung numerous roles including the lead in the world premiere of the First Nations opera “Giiwedin.” Canadian soprano Neema Bickersteth, who was raised in Alberta by parents from Sierra Leone, continued the story. She specializes in contemporary opera and musical theatre, is a Dora Mavor Moore award winner, and is slated to play the title character in Scott Joplin’s reinterpretation of “Treemonisha,” one of the world’s first Black operas. Rick Phillips concluded the readings. He is the producer of SOUND ADVICE, a guide to classical music and recordings heard weekly on CBC Radio One and Radio Two, author of “The Essential Classical Recordings—101 CDs,” and a well-known lecturer, consultant, and musical tour guide. Needless to say, the readings were stellar. Between each stave, the audience joined in singing Christmas carols accompanied by the glorious organ.
The event was a fundraiser for the St. Andrews Refugee Sponsorship program which has brought two Syrian Kurdish families to Canada: Gulistan and Abdulrazzak Abdo and their four children from Aleppo, Syria in 2016 and, in 2019, their relatives Abdulrahman, Amina and Roushin who were then living as refugees in Turkey. The extended family now live on different floors of the same apartment building, and are busy integrating into Canadian life. They have signed up for ESL and other courses, the children are in school and daycare, the older ones have gone to summer camp. The family gives back by helping with the coffee hour after church and volunteering in the Out of the Cold program. The success of this sponsorship has encouraged STARS to raise funds to sponsor another family. Learning the details of what these families and STARS have experienced encouraged me to think again about what I can do to help in the effort. The need remains as desperate as ever.
For me, the Christmas season is well underway.
The hot tub located in the women’s locker room of the West End College Street YMCA in Toronto is one of the highlights of the Y experience. (The men have a hot tub, too, but I know nothing of what happens there.) Unlike some Ys, where access to the hot tub is limited to members who pay a premium, the West End Y hot tub is open to everyone. Many love the warm luxury of the hot water and the “water therapy” provided by the jets. Together with the steam room, sauna and showers, the swimming pool, sports facilities, and the Zen deck on the roof, it provides “the ultimate spa experience” for those who like to treat it as such, even for a day.
The current hot tub is a pool clad with white tiles, up three stairs from the showers, sauna, and steam room. These stairs make the hot tub inaccessible to those in wheelchairs, hardly conducive to the Y’s commitment to physical accessibility. How this was missed during a relatively recent renovation escapes me, but it was. Putting that aside….
The tub holds a maximum of eight people at a time, sitting on underwater tile-clad benches, with jets on two sides. Sometimes when I use the hot tub, I have the hot tub to myself. Other times it is full. Each time, I wonder what my hot tub experience will bring that day. Consistent with the prevailing etiquette, sometimes all the bathers like to talk. Other times, it is apparent that some individuals want quiet time and it is best not to clutter their serenity with chatter.
I have met the most interesting people in the hot tub. One day, I was the sole fluent anglophone among four Portuguese women of a certain age, all talking to each other in Portuguese. I discovered that they had immigrated to Canada thirty or forty years ago and worked as cleaning ladies. They were talking about their summer vacations “back home.” All had second and even third homes in Portugal, near their families, which were opened up and aired out every summer in anticipation of their arrival. They all had at least one luxury car, a Mercedes, or an Audi, or a BMW, which they kept in Portugal for their use. I loved the fact that these modest immigrant women were so successful and that Canada had given them the means to be so.
Another time, I shared the pool with a trio of much younger women from Vietnam. In faltering English, they described how they came to Canada recently and, having learned about the Y from their friends, came to “use the spa.” Two had lived in Cambodia during the Vietnamese war; the third came from Ho Chi Minh City. Another Vietnamese woman told me that she worked long hours as a nurse and, although not a Y member, she spent her days off at this Y as a guest, because of the spa. When I admired the very distinctive flowered green bathing suit worn by yet another woman, also from Viet Nam, she told me that she had made it herself. She was the very first person I have ever met who made her own bathing suit.
The hot tub has become a font of invaluable information which consistently improves my life. A woman who was a writer told me about a legal book she published which was available as part of a series for young people from the Toronto Public Library. Although I have been very active in public legal education during my career, I did not know about the series and went to borrow her book right away. She also told me about a book store on Bathurst near Bloor which I did not know existed.
Just last week, I met a woman from Porto, in Portugal, who sews for a living from her studio on Vaughan Road. Among her clients is Malabar, Toronto’s pre-eminent costume emporium on McCaul Street. I figured that anyone who works for Malabar must be good. I told her about the sewing I needed to have done and she invited me to visit her studio. I gathered up some old jackets and dresses which have languished unworn for years and brought them to her. She pinned everything carefully and suggested several design remakes which were simple but which updated the outfits dramatically. I think I have finally found a fashion designer/seamstress/tailor who is more than a worthy successor to my beloved Frank the Tailor, who retired several years ago. (See my post about Frank, here.) After spending two hours with Naty, I went home and wrote this post on the YMCA Hot Tub which I have wanted to do for years.
Like traditional “waters” and community wells of old, the hot tub is the locus of the best that that Y has to offer. Where else could I meet such a variety of people and, by asking just a few questions, learn their stories, and become their friend or at least their acquaintance? It’s a marvellous means for cross-cultural interaction. By its mere existence, it reflects and builds the community of which it is a part.
The fifteen days of Asian New Year have come and gone. Already. Where has February gone? It’s the Year of the Pig and, in West Vancouver where we have come to escape the worst of eastern Canada’s winter, the celebration was bright, cheery and more extensive than I remember it being ever before. I missed the big Asian New Year’s parade held in Vancouver on February 3rd. Next year. But I did catch the festivities held on the north shore.
On January 31st, at the Osaka Supermarket (originally bought by T & T and then by Loblaws), I was struck by the colourful decorations which greeted shoppers on arrival. Ah yes, it is Chinese New Year I thought. I wandered over to the multiple high piles of large boxes, bags, and packages full of cookies, candies, rice cakes, decorations, and other goodies that the Chinese buy in great quantities to share with family and friends during the holiday. There were so many, all so enticing, so mouth-watering, all seriously not recommended for my diet.
Then I found a variety of boxes full of kinds of oranges from all over the world. Among them was a pile of large red plastic baskets, each filled with mandarin oranges, all individually wrapped in paper and cellophane. Here was a Chinese New Years delicacy that I could indulge in. At $8.80 for a basket of 24 oranges, I thought them a bargain and bought a basket for myself. These proved to be the largest, sweetest, most delicious mandarin oranges I had eaten since I was a kid. I learned that oranges were a lucky food for the Asian new year, and that these oranges were especially imported from Japan. Later I bought two more baskets to take to my friends.
On the first weekend of February, just before the first day of the lunar New Year on Monday February 4th, West Vancouver sponsored two full days of festivities to celebrate Asian Lunar New Year. I was struck that the festival was not limited to the Chinese but extended to all Asian nationalities who celebrate the lunar new year. That gave my head a shake; so many cultures in the world take part. Bright red and gold balls, and placards full of facts about lunar new year traditions decorated the atrium of the West Vancouver Community Centre. People were everywhere, many dressed in red, eager to take part in the action.
I was fascinated. Young men did Kung Fu, others beat on drums, young girls and boys played on a grand piano, troupes of children dressed in lavish costumes performed intricate dances, and several young women played traditional instruments. Almost everyone present picked up an activity “passport” which led us to different stations where we could learn more about new year activities. We learned the names of the twelve revolving years of the lunar calendar, and about the qualities of The Year of the Pig. We learned what foods are traditional for the season, and why red packets are given as gifts. Two young girls designed and distributed elaborate sugar treats which we tasted with delight. Altogether, a totally delightful event.
On the first day of the Lunar New Year, the cashier at the Fresh Market, our local supermarket, handed a red packet containing a chocolate coin to each customer at the register. Yet another New Year tradition extended into the broader community. We are indeed lucky to live in a multicultural community where we can celebrate New Years many times of the year in many ways. Happy Lunar New Year.
On Monday, the Toronto City Council continued its debate on their response to Doug Ford’s changing the ward boundaries and cutting City Councillors from 47 to 25 in the midst of a municipal election campaign. The law which purports to authorize Ford’s actions was not yet introduced at Queen’s Park when the debate on what is an existential issue for the City of Toronto had already begun.
“Bill 5, The Better Local Government Act, 2018” (who says?) was introduced for first reading only on Monday afternoon. Tuesday, second reading was delayed by an Opposition amendment. It is now scheduled for second reading tomorrow, Thursday, August 2nd. The expectation is that the government will use every effort to push the law through as quickly as possible without any Committee hearings or any consultation.
I attended the City Council debate on Monday and was struck by how much time the hard core of councillors who supported Ford’s actions spent pontificating about the advantages of reducing their number to twenty-five. “Twenty-five reps works well for the province and the federal government;” they said, “it can work well for municipal government as well. It’s “a welcome move,” “taxpayers will be happy,” “a first step to ending the chaos at city hall,” “there is no need for any referendum; that occurred on June 7th,” “the province has all the power, we can do nothing about it, move on.”
Another group of councillors supported reducing the wards and the number of councillors but were very unhappy with the process and timing. They made it clear that their constituents did not like arbitrary change mid-way through an existing election.
The majority of councillors were adamant that this was an arbitrary interference with the fundamental governance of City Council without consultation and in the middle of a municipal election, according to the existing law and set for October 22nd. Reflecting a multi-year Ward Boundary Review undertaken by the City in recent years and conducted with significant public and professional consultation, the existing law provides for 47 wards and 47 councillors. These numbers provide approximate voter parity and reflect changing voter populations in different parts of the city. Numerous diverse candidates from communities not previously represented at Council have already registered as candidates “for the right reasons.” Now no one knows what is going on. And the City Clerk has made it clear that it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to accommodate the proposed changes in preparations for the current election.
Several councillors spoke about the unique governance structure of the City of Toronto, the multiplicity of community councils staffed by local councillors, committees, commissions, boards, and institutions which now require councillor participation and already have trouble finding a quorum. Others spoke about the work of city councillors where they must be responsive to personal, local concerns, development applications, the desires of multiple Business Improvement Areas, residential associations, community groups, the nitty-gritty of city life which puts more demands on local politicians than on federal and provincial representatives. If immigration is the primary preoccupation of M.P.s, provincial M.P.P.s are preoccupied with education and health care issues. Everything else falls to the municipalities.
Others noted that the actions of Doug Ford were directed only to the City of Toronto. If the number of municipal councillors is to be determined by using provincial and federal constituencies, many Ontario cities would be reduced to one councillor, or perhaps a councillor they would share with another town. Councillor Shan noted that Scarborough, with a population of over 600,000, now has six Councillors and would be reduced to three under the new rules. Markham, with a population of 350,000, has twelve. Already under the existing rules, Toronto has more constituents per councillor than any other city in the province; under the new rules, the numbers would double. So much for voter parity which is supposed to be a fundamental principle of the right to vote in Canada.
Many councillors were particularly articulate about the significance of Ford’s attack on the city and what must be done. See Gordon Perks on YouTube. He is absolutely right. If we value our municipal government, and the work that city councillors do on our behalf, we have to respond.
City Council has voted its opposition to the reduced numbers, and has requested the provincial government to conduct a binding referendum before proceeding with the legislation or, alternatively, to permit the City to put a question on the 2018 ballot. It has also requested the City Solicitor to consider the validity and constitutionality of any provincial legislation, including its potential violation of the rights of the citizens of Toronto to fair and effective representation, the practicality of conducting the election, the Clerk’s capacity to implement the changes, and any errors or flaws in the legislation and to report back to City Council at a special meeting… on Monday, August 20, 2018 with options for City Council’s consideration. (Passed 31:10)
Former mayor David Miller, lawyer David Butt in the Globe and Mail, and I have called for litigation to challenge what Ford is doing in court. There is jurisprudence which describes the nature of the “right to vote” under the Canadian Charter, but my lawyer son tells me that that the Charter “right to vote” does not apply to voting at the municipal level. Previous efforts to use the courts to stop the amalgamation of the City of Toronto were unsuccessful. This case, however, is unprecedented. How the province has proceeded, the lack of any consultation with those affected, and the timing of the change of the law (in the middle of a current election campaign) all distinguish this case from prior jurisprudence. If ever there were a fact situation that demonstrates the most arbitrary provincial action against a major city within its jurisdiction, this it it. It would make an excellent test case.
In the meantime, we have to follow Councillor Perks’ advice and make sure that the provincial government (including the alleged “adults in the back rooms”) know that what they are doing is beyond the pale. As Councillor McMahon said on Monday, “It is simply wrong.”
Tomorrow, those who want to show their opposition are invited to attend Queen’s Park and be present in the public gallery when the government seeks to go forward with second reading. There is also a rally scheduled for the lawn of the Legislature at 11:30. See you there.