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.