Toronto Tales

© Joe Fusco

While working a job that requires you to work during the holidays, I wasn’t able to go home to Chicago this year. Instead, I took my “weekend” (Thursdays and Fridays) off between Christmas and New Year’s Eve to venture to Toronto because 1. Why Not? and 2. I had never even been to Canada before.

© Joe Fusco

My boyfriend and I hopped off the plane, found a free shuttle bus from the Billy Bishop Airport to Union Station downtown Toronto, and discovered that we were only a couple blocks away from the Hockey Hall of Fame. So of course, after replenishing our hungry stomachs, we ogled our way through the HHF.

I’m sure you can guess that there aren’t too many women featured in the museum. After locating my favorite Blackhawk players, I stumbled upon this quote from Hayley Wickenheiser, a Canadian player who is regarded as one of the best hockey players in the world and has four Olympic gold medals and one silver medal under her belt. I felt slightly more at ease seeing her in the Hall of Fame museum (not to be confused with her actually being inducted). Read more about her on her website, she’s amazing.

That night we rented an airbnb in the Annex neighborhood. It’s a lovely part of town where the houses and apartment complexes are all decorated in a fine brick fashion leftover from the ’70s. Our room was a tiny studio space with a bed, a bathroom, and a “half kitchen” which really just means you’d better like microwavable popcorn and TV dinners, minus the TV. That night my boyfriend’s hockey teammate, who was home in Toronto for the holidays, hooked us up with a party inside an old church called Revival. It’s definitely a cool thing to check out if you’re ever looking for an underground club scene without all the tourists.

In the morning we were looking for a nice cafe to grab breakfast and coffee and found this gem of a spot:

First & Last Coffee | © Joe Fusco

First & Last Coffee is managed by Sharon, a twenty-something year old woman who recalls getting many a comment about being the sole female manager of this charming, rustic coffee shop. Just order the breakfast sandwich and a cappuccino and maybe show some respect for a woman running the show? That might be a nice thing to do? Right? Anyway, next time you’re looking for a good coffee shop in Toronto, make sure to hit up First & Last because you also get the bonus of supporting women-led businesses that support their LGBTQ clientele as well.

I wish I’d had more time to talk to Sharon about female-led small businesses in Toronto, but she was busy doing that thing called work and we wanted to check out Casa Loma about a 10 minute walk from the coffee shop. Next time!

Casa Loma | © Joe Fusco

The fun thing about visiting Casa Loma right after Christmas: It is still Christmas inside Casa Loma. Like, hardcore.

Some brief history: Casa Loma was built over three years between 1911-1914 for $3.5 million dollars by Sir Henry Pellatt, a financier, industrialist and military officer who loved nice things and worked with his dad in the family business, as one does. He lived there with Mary Dodgeson, later Lady Pellatt (because, of course), who was actually appointed the Commissioner of the Girl Guides of Canada in 1919 and was awarded with the highest Girl Guides honor, the Silver Fish. And now I’ll say Lady Pellatt was Sir Henry Pellatt’s wife because that’s really not the most important piece of information you need to know about her.

This holiday decor was just in the stables, wait until you see the 800 foot tunnel connecting the castle to the stables, garage, and a smaller house that financier Sir Henry Pellatt hid out in before moving away to his farm after going bankrupt. Drama!

Row and rows of Christmas lights lined the tunnel, there was a super creepy Santa’s Workshop on display in the furnace area, some dancing gingerbread men projected onto the walls, ice dancers skating on a patch of ice in the indoor courtyard (two very talented women worth checking out), a crazy magic show, Clara and the Nutcracker dancing around the castle and so on and so forth… You have to see it for yourself. Partly because you just have to. Mainly because I only took shaky Instagram story videos of the whole thing.

Okay, now back to the WOMEN!

Day 3: Exploring Kensington Market.

© Joe Fusco

It feels like you’ve entered a whole new world when you walk up through Kensington Market from the streetcar. Tiny stores sitting right on top of one another, unable to dodge the graffiti art that covers each building and makes the whole neighborhood ultra colorful and bohemian chic.

We wandered into a shop called Tibetan Boutique. I’m sure you can imagine what was sold there. Interestingly, there were a lot of Nepal-inspired clothing stores mixed in with the thrift shops. I think it’s worth mentioning it might be important to be weary of cultural appropriation while shopping in this part of town, but also be fully aware of how comfortable these clothes are and just be conscious of what you’re buying and how you’re wearing it.

Dolkar, owner of Tibetan Boutique in Kensington Market | © Joe Fusco

Meet Dolkar. A Japan-born woman who spent many years in Nepal before opening a Tibetan Boutique in Manhattan and finally planting her feet in Toronto where her family now resides. She has an adorable photo of her grandson near the cash register. The way her face lit up when she talked about him was meaningful in its own way of proving how important it is for families to stay together, no matter how far one moves away.

Something else to be aware of is how diverse Toronto is. They say no one is originally from Toronto; everyone’s family comes from somewhere else. There are 200 languages spoken in Toronto so no matter where you’re from, you’ll meet a heck of a lot of people who also are not native Torontonians.

Dolkar was incredibly kind and engaging, sharing with us her background of places she’s both lived and owned boutiques. She helped my boyfriend and I both find a pair of “cool pants” that are traditional Indian garments and picked out bracelets for each of us; mine meaning “world peace” and his means “friendship and luck.” Next time you’re in Kensington Market, if you stop in any Tibetan Boutique choose the one at 161 Baldwin Street.

Night 3: How do nomadic travelers find a bed to sleep in?

Remember the hockey friend who sent us to the Revival dance party in an old church? The same friend hooked us up with a place to stay for the next two nights. The second night, we stayed in an airbnb that a friend of his rents out. He had guests coming the next day so we had to find a new place to rest our heads again for the third night.

And that is how the universe led us to Ann Marie.

Ann Marie and her daughter Shay | © Joe Fusco

Scarborough is called Toronto but it doesn’t really feel like Toronto. It’s not a suburb, though. I guess it’s like Queens, where you still consider it the city but it’s not Manhattan. I also discovered that it takes an hour and a half to get to Scarborough from Kensington Market. As opposed to New York, people also drive in Toronto so when we showed up at Ann Marie’s house that evening she was almost shocked that we had taken the newly renovated subway system to a bus and made it without knowing where we were.

Ann Marie had a feeling deep in her gut that she should host these strangers while they were in town. Of course, we had been referred by a mutual friend, but Ann Marie isn’t one to host someone she doesn’t know. The universe sent her an impulse that hosting these two strangers from NYC would be a positive experience.

© Joe Fusco

Ann Marie and I found common ground in the work that we both do. She is a case manager for women fleeing from domestic abuse and I do homeless outreach with the goal of placing our chronically street homeless clients in temporary housing so they can work their way into permanent housing. Of course, as happens in life, working with the homeless was not something I had ever really planned on doing. I moved to New York to study acting at the William Esper Studio for two years and from there go on to become a successful actor that pops up in all your favorite shows.

Ann Marie told me that you cannot resist the path life leads you on, because it’s leading you on that path for a reason. There is something very special about the surprises we are given in life and there is something very real about allowing these surprise twists and turns to guide you instead of forcing yourself in a path of resistance and continually becoming frustrated over anything that doesn’t work out.

Ann Marie was born in Jamaica and her daughter, Shay, was born in Toronto. Her family had moved from Jamaica when she was a young girl. Another story of families from very different places adding to the diversity of Toronto. And whether it’s a Jamaican tradition or just the kind air that everyone breathes in Toronto, Ann Marie and Shay were some of the most hospitable hosts I have ever stayed with. Just look at the breakfast they cooked for us the next morning!

French toast with pears, plantains, eggs, fresh fruit, and a homemade batch of smoothies and tea! All fresh that day! Ann Marie eats fresh foods from the market every day. Talk about healthy lifestyle goals!

I think Scarborough was a surprise for all of us, but it was definitely a surprise that left us feeling like we had gained family in Toronto and New York next time either of us are visiting.

Our final day ended on top of the CN Tower, because they told us that if we came to Toronto and didn’t go up in the CN Tower that we should leave Toronto shamefully with our tails between our legs. You just have to make sure you look cool in a thrift shop jacket you bought in Kensington Market, otherwise you have to do it all over again.

Which, I would gladly do Toronto all over again in a heartbeat!

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