I visited Toronto after a gap of 21 years and enjoyed the new buildings but also enjoyed the gentle welcome of Canadians.
I was last in Toronto 21 years ago when I did an attachment at the General Hospital at the height of the HIV epidemic pre ART treatment. This time I went for an international conference on neuropathic pain, a complication that we now recognise that leprosy patients often develop after their antibiotic treatment. So I was there with friends from London but also my friends Omer and Vivek from Sudan and India respectively. This was their first visit to Toronto and it was interesting seeing Toronto through their eyes.
As well as attending the conference sessions I skipped out to wander around and look at the new architecture. There is a fine new opera house, a beautiful light glass and wood structure with world class acoustics, next time I'll get a ticket for an opera. There was also a new semi-sunken circular Glenn Gould concert hall. I also visited the textile museum, a little known Toronto gem and recommended by a local. They had a fascinating exhibition called “Shiny” about ways in which cloth could be shiny ranging from silk threads in kimonos to glittering India scarves and mirror work. This was accompanied by a piece made of cast offs such as ring pulls which itself parodied the advertisements of major food chains, Macdonalds and Herseys the sweet makers.
In the evening I took Omer and Vivek round the downtown and we experienced the visual power of the huge black Mies van der Rohe towers built in the 1970’s and now contrasted against a huge white tower from the Bank of Montreal opposite. Underneath the black towers was an exquisite collection of Inuit art and we admired whale bone vertebra carvings, igloo art and abstract sculptures. We then walked along the down town, going into the opulent 1920’s Mellon building which had gilt lifts. The city hall complex has an amazing contrast of old and new buildings;the old City Hall is high Victoria art and reminded Vivek of Victoria Terminus station in Mumbai with abundant carvings and flourishes. Nearby is the new city hall which looks like a space age edifice with two semi-circular columns rising up around a circular glass atrium. We ended up in a jazz bar listening first to a young trio in their mid twenties playing the free early evening session. Later the definitive band came on, an octet of grizzled playing blues with a sax, trumpeter, piano, bass guitar and two singers. They were all in their 60’s or 70’s and i imagined they had been playing soulful blues together for decades. Omer and Vivek were entranced by the novelty of the experience and had never heard live music like this. Maybe the young trio will be playing together in 40 years time.
The Toronto streets were empty as we walked to the conference on Saturday morning which amazed Vivek who lives in a 24 hr city Mumbai. I was impressed by the cleanliness of the streets. At lunchtime Omer and I went to a subterranean food hall where there were 20 different outlets selling take way food and one could choose almost any kid of food, one day we had Mexican tacos, another Lebanese falafels. We sat on a scrap of grass between the high-rises to eat our enormous portions.
Being up the CNN tower was more fun than I had anticipated. We gazed out over the vastness of lake Ontario but also traced our steps around the city and identified the buildings we had looked at on ground level.
Toronto feels very multicultural, our hotel was in Chinatown and we ate Chinese food adapted for Canadian palates. I was taken out to the airport by a Pakistani taxi driver who was a Muslim from a persecuted sect in Pakistan and felt he owed his life to Canada, although it is easier to work as an taxi driver than an accountant.
On my bus ride in from the airport I had chatted to David Briggs world famous organist who previously played at Hereford and we reminisced enthusing over the Welsh border country. He is now at Toronto cathedral and busy trying to raise money for a new organ there. He had enthused over the cultural life of the city but also described the city as “New York on Valium”. I now see the comparison, Toronto is a quieter gentler version of America.
On reflection i think that being in Canada is nice entry to N America. It is gentler, more welcoming to visitors and lacking the aggression of New York or Chicago. It also has architecture and culture but on a lower scale.