Saturday 10 December 2022

Full in the Panting Heart of Toronto

Full disclosure: for years I've thought the Men's Schola was singing "Fool in the Panting Heart of Rome" back in the halcyon days when Benedict XVI was gloriously reigning. Only now do I discover they were attempting to pronounce "Full." That's what happens when you don't give the mere congregation the lyrics. 

It has been a very Toronto week, notwithstanding my 8-hour-a-day work schedule--save for Monday, whose afternoon I long ago arranged to have off, knowing that jet lag would strike around 12. Instead of working, I telephoned my Canadian goddaughter's mother, and the latter came to get me in her automobile. We traversed the highways and byways of northernmost Toronto; I seem to recall these once having been thinner and racing past fields, not vast expanses of ugliness. We then went through neighbourhoods I've never seen before--there are Polish cities I know better than those parts of Toronto--and we never stopped talking.

Still, there was a very homey, very Canadian sight in one cul-de-sac: two tall boys on rollerblades playing road hockey, using a bona fide net. And even better, they were my friends' sons, three years older then when I saw them last. The eldest gave me a hearty squeeze. Inside the house there were more children, one of them the very pretty little girl who is my goddaughter. Naturally she did not remember me, but we soon became good friends. 

Tuesday I managed to sleep until 6 AM and had a good day's work. What I did in the afternoon completely escapes my mind, but I am certain it involved eating cookies. The Advent fast is nigh impossible at my parents' house, for my mother bakes dozen after dozen of traditional biscuits, and every one tastes like Christmas. 

Wednesday I got the message that a prominent local activist I knew very slightly at 18 had died, and that someone should write about this. Reading the obituary, I realized that not only should she be eulogized, someone should represent work at her funeral. Consultations led to the realization that the most senior person in Toronto that day was me, and so it was that one of my oldest friends came by in his car, and whisked me off through more neighbourhoods about which I know nothing to a church I haven't been in for 20+ years. 

I saw many people I know, of all ages, two of them nationally famous, one of them internationally so. I exchanged greetings with a woman I first met when I was 18  and her husband (ditto) and her mother (ditto). I exchanged greetings with a man I might not have spoken to since I was 19. And I must say, that was a very full church for a woman who had been 97 and never blessed with children. 

To the cemetery we went, my old pal--my actual prom date, come to think of it--now driving me through streets both familiar and unfamiliar, and once again the conversation was freely flowing. And then after the interment, the drive home. I bowed out of the funeral tea (to be precise, a late lunch at Red Lobster) to return home to work. 

After work, I went downtown to dine with my Toronto brother. This time I took public transit, and this too was a mix of familiar and unfamiliar: although the routes are the same, the elements have changed slightly. There was a new place on the bus to put my transit card--and the machine depressingly informed me how much money was left on it. The subway train--which for some years now has been one long snakelike compartment-- rang with the shouts of a mentally ill man. The northeast corner of Dundas and Yonge Streets looked onto a neon and jumbotron scene from Bladerunner and stank of now totally legal marijuana. The streetcar along Dundas Street West was dotted with people who wore masks and people who did not. The restaurant was dark, chic, tasty, and expensive. Oh, what it is to be a grown-up with a real job and to eat in the kind of restaurants I barely dared look at as a student.

My brother, happily, was materially the same. He is still into vegetables and initially ordered all the vegetable dishes on the menu (plus lamb chops and haute cuisine lasagna), but the waiter thought that would be too much. 

Afterwards my brother generously drove me home--the streets were all familiar even in the darkness--so once again I had the enormous treat of seeing Toronto by car. (When you're a non-driver married to a non-driver, car rides are as exciting as magic carpets and much more comfortable, I imagine.)

On Thursday I went to my goddaughter's house for supper. Her dad was summoned to pick me up from the nearest subway station. He pointed out that I could have waited for him from the nearest bus stop instead, but I said that for all I knew that intersection is patrolled by drug dealers. A fair main, he allowed this to be so. 

Anyway, once again I was met by some truly delightful children, and I had the great privilege of discovering that I was seen in the light of a gigantic huggable teddy bear by my goddaughter. She and a toddler both managed to sit on my lap, which was very cozy. There was dinner--the adults got their very own table for maybe as much as 10 minutes--and then family prayers, in which I felt greatly privileged to take part. My goddaughter and her siblings went off to bed, and I had a good long chat with her mother until her father drove me all the way home. So I had yet another magic carpet ride through the sprawling metropolis. 

Friday's exciting excursion was a 45 minute walk in the cold through very familiar ways to a new hairdresser to put my hair in some order. It was very reassuring to see that every woman in the joint, clients and staff, had curly hair. I emerged de-frizzed and went home to eat supper.

This morning I walked for an hour--it was bitterly cold--to visit my sister and then we went to the local mall, she to have her nails done and I to have lunch with another old pal. Then I had my nails done myself (although less ornately) and walked home. 

Tomorrow I go by train to Montreal. 



Monday 5 December 2022

Return of the Native

The first thing you should know is that I have had an "Overuse Syndrome" flare-up in my right arm, which is why I haven't been blogging recently. 

The second thing is that I got on a plane in Glasgow yesterday morning and was deposited, about 7.5 hours later, in Toronto. 

Pearson International Airport was neither as crowded or slow as reporters been writing for years--perhaps because it was Sunday, or perhaps because I was lucky. Before speaking with border security, I stood in front of a large machine and stuck my passport in it. The machine froze when I pressed the screen to admit that I was bringing in an animal product, so I hit "QUIT" and picked up the resultant print-out as instructed. I joined a rapidly moving queue to the human border guards and soon found myself confessing my 300 grams of Scottish cheese to a solemn, mask-wearing, pale South Asian woman of university age. 

I was pleasantly surprised that instead of telling me my cheese--a present for my dad, who apparently no longer drinks single malt--would be confiscated, the border guard asked me if I had anything else to declare, handed me a yellow slip, and sent me on my way. I gave the yellow slip to the last man who looked at it, and he made no protest at all. 

The airport staff were all wearing masks. I was wearing a mask, too, for a family member believes he got COVID from the airport and strongly advised me to wear one. Most passengers were not and, when I spotted my parents in the Arrivals waiting area, I saw that they were among the very few watchers sporting them. 

There were no official questions about COVID tests or "vaccination status" or anything health-related at all. 

The parking ticket machine was in its usual place, beside a bin divided in half for trash and recycling. The highways were the usual frightening snarl of danger, and as usual, my mother looked to see when it would be safe for my father to get into the right lanes. 

"I haven't picked up anyone at the airport for years and years," Dad said. 

Three years.

The flags--for Canada, for Ontario--were in the same places. The sun was strangely bright, and the air outside was very cold. The buildings were the same and in the same places. The signs for Algonquin Park still rather weirdly (if accurately) pronounced it to be 250 kilometres away. Yorkdale Mall--the height of schoolgirl glamour in 1985--was looking positively decrepit. The charming little houses in my parents' neighbourhood looked modest and unassuming and great places to bring up two or three children. However, each would cost about $1,500,000 before being ripped down to build a wasted-space, cookie-cutter behemoth.

The front lawn looked tidy. I got down on my knees and kissed the ground. It smelled green and tasted of chlorophyll. I thought belatedly of dogs, but oh well. Did John Paul II think about dogs when he kissed airport tarmacs? Very probably not. 

The kitchen was the same, and when later I made coffee the tablespoon was in the same little drawer in the spice cabinet it has been kept for 30+ years. When I sat in the sitting-room the view was exactly the same as on Skype. I momentarily felt as if I had suddenly appeared in the TV show I had been faithfully watching. My mother pointed out the latest cushions she had embroidered. Although new in themselves, they were not all that terribly different from whichever cushions were newly embroidered in 2019. 

The coffee, by the way, came from a 930 gram Tim Horton's can on the top shelf of the cupboards on the left, as I should have expected. Instead I was pleasantly surprised. Three years is a long time, even at my age. I felt as if I had travelled back through time. 

I spent the afternoon looking at familiar things and sometimes touching them. The jadeite frog. The remains of the dolls' china tea set. My grandfather's cigarette lighter with "RED" scratched on it no later than 1975. I found the clothes I keep in Toronto to save having to bring clothes over from Britain. My blue flannel pyjamas are at least 10 years old, but they look almost new. 

My mother showed me the photographs tucked into my grandmother's old wallet: I was particularly charmed by the coloured one: my parents were in their twenties, going to a formal dinner, my pretty mother wearing the green-and-blue gown that's still in her closet and the both of them with round, soft faces. 

"I never throw anything out," my mother has said on occasion, which is not true of the garbage and the recycling, but is definitely true of the personal effects of her family, living and deceased. Fortunately, this is a big house, and six living former occupants have moved most of our stuff out. While looking for dumbbells, I found a ceramic plaque, a gift for me from Italy, reading Attenti al gatto  (Beware of the Cat). I imagined taking it back to Scotland and affixing it to my veggie trug to ward off, gargoyle-like, the neighbouring felines.

My sister Tertia arrived with her son and her dog for supper. The time machine effect dissipated as Pirate is now taller than his mother and has a wild shock of dyed black hair. Also, it was a novelty to hear this larger-than-expected pocket bully click-clicking over the ceramic kitchen tiles and across the wood floor of the dining-room. She hovered under the dinner table, shoving a hopeful snout under the crotcheted lace tablecloth. We ignored her hope, and we also ignored Pirate checking his phone under cover of the table. I have lost track, but I think he's 18. 

My sister and I talked about language-learning. Functionally fluent in Spanish, she was recently summoned at work to explain to two children from Central America why they couldn't bring Nutella sandwiches into the building. She had to look up the word for "hazelnut".  She laughed merrily about their conversation.

A wisp of a five-year-old memory of a badly beaten young Pole passed over my mind. He was in my husband's room at the hospital, and he wanted his clothes back, and the nurse was frustrated because she couldn't explain that the police needed them. 

"My wife speaks Polish," addled Benedict Ambrose shouted helpfully, and my heart squeezed with fear. But miraculously I could, in fact, say "The police need your clothes; they're evidence" and the young Pole nodded. 

But Tertia and I spoke about Italian, not Polish, and I was intrigued that after only a week or two of Italian classes, she had cheerfully chatted with a Roman cab driver, for this shows one essential difference between my sister and me: she is cheerful and relaxed about languages, whereas I agonise over every syllable unless I am in a psychological state in which I can automatically rattle out words.  

No account of a visit home is complete without reference to languages, so there it is. The first language story is, however, my father examining a page of Paul Kingsnorth's The Wake, and murmuring, "Why did he choose the past participle instead of the aorist?" I did not know English ever had an aorist, but there you go. Every member of my family seems to have a vast, mysterious reservoir of specialist knowledge. 

I went to bed at 20:00 EST (or, my body thought, 1:00 GMT) and fell asleep over an old paperback. I woke up definitively at 3:58 AM, and now I have half an hour or so before I start work. 

A blessed Advent to all my readers!