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.
Monday I received the greatest of gifts… six new friends.
We were one table among many, nearly 30 people from my West End YMCA aquafit class attending a seasonal luncheon. The faces were familiar. We had seen each other in our classes for months, if not years, wearing bathing suits in the pool, naked in the locker room. Always we were congenial, smiling, nodding, perhaps exchanging a few words. Ours was the superficial familiarity of strangers thrown together regularly, but who never really meet.
On Monday, we actually learned each others’ names, and our stories. What a gift! We learned that Florrie had come from Montreal in the ’70s but was originally from New Brunswick, that Anne was a former ballerina who, with her actor spouse, has lived across Canada, and that Agnes was from Hong Kong, spent ten years in Europe, and has been in Canada for over 40 years. Esmee came from Mexico City, applied to the U of T as a young mother to audit courses, and was offered a surprise scholarship instead. So began her long career in applied statistics. Judith was a career nurse who worked, among other places, at Baycrest, and is knowledgeable about residential care facilities for seniors. By the time lunch was over, we had moved to a level of conversation which ensures that, in the future, our interactions will be meaningful.
All this was due to the initiative and energy of three class members who invited the rest of us to “meet and mingle” in the Y Activity Room. What a splendid initiative! The original idea came from Mumtaz Jaffer, a Y member for six years who now teaches aquafit part-time, as a volunteer. Mumtaz came to Canada in 1984 from Tanzania, joining her aunt and sister already living in Calgary. Three years later she moved with her husband to Toronto, and had a career as an optician. When she became injured, she turned to the Y to help her own rehabilitation. She hasn’t looked back since. Mumtaz is an amazing woman with a long volunteer history. When she was working, she provided optical services to seniors in residential facilities. She considers it normal that she would volunteer to teach at the Y and then go the extra mile to start building a real community. Two other aquafit participants who shared her vision joined in to help make it happen. Both are retired nurses: Judith Thompson, a Y member for four years, and Caroline Shaw, at the Y since the ’90s.
Previous efforts to get the class together were several smaller group meetings in local restaurants. This time, the aim was to expand participation and taste some ethnic cooking. Mumtaz’s husband runs a catering business, Elite Foods (416-516-5546), which provides a diverse menu responding to the particular health needs of his clients. Our luncheon was a tasty tandoori chicken dinner with rice, corn and salad that he brought prepackaged as lunches. The daughter of parents who once ran a bakery, Mumtaz baked some cookies from their traditional Christmas recipes. She then wrapped a couple of cookies individually in a little bag for each participant to take home. Hers was the crowning touch to a delightful meal where the focus was on the people and the chance to get to know each other.
This luncheon was a personal initiative which spread by word of mouth, primarily among people who speak English. Hopefully, next year, the Y will itself sponsor the event, so that it can be advertised and made more inclusive. There are many faithful aquafit participants who speak little or no English, and many more men than ever before. Bringing them all to this seasonal luncheon will be the challenge for the future. In the meantime, this event represented the best spirit of the season, and is a gift that will continue to give in the months and the years ahead. My heartiest thanks to the organizers.