What gives us our sense of connection with other people or feelings of rootedness in place?
These questions, which I write about as an historian, have been playing on my mind as I visit my family and the city of Toronto. Leaving Ilana behind to tend to the birth of a new generation of Victorians, the girls and I have spent the last week in Toronto, home to my siblings, parents, and a host of relations. Toronto is not where I grew-up, but while I finished my dissertation Ilana and I lived for two years on St. Clair West, in the heart of a predominantly Portuguese and Italian residential and commercial district. Eva was born here, coming into the world in the cramped back bedroom of a small apartment on Northcliffe Boulevard.
A modest stretch of immigrant Toronto, St Clair Avenue West is not sightly. It lacks the arching tree canvases and the early-century brick homes of the city’s more venerable neighbourhoods. It certainly has no mountain view. But the place has some magic in it.
Some of that magic is in the food. When we lived here, I used to buy my meat at Macelleria S. Gabriele, a bustling emporium of farm and game meats, prime cuts of beef as well as the inexpensive organs that are cooked mostly by relocated peasants. One of the butchers, smiling over a blood soaked smock, once showed me the enormous cow hearts that he puts on display for the biology students at a neighbouring high school. Half a block west of the Macelleria is Khmer Thai, where Ilana and I went for dinner on an October evening when she hoped that spicy food might send her into labour. Several hours later she felt her first contractions, so what better review could I offer? The St. Clair Fish Market stands a block further along. It was there, with the encouragement and advice of the lively Greek couple who run the place, that I first began to buy and cook octopus. I returned there this week for the same purpose, and cooked my favorite recipe, the grilled octopus from Molto Italiano, for my family. The couple, still there and excited to remember me, insisted on choosing my octopus and on giving Tillie a handful of Greek biscuits. Carry on and you reach Palermo, an originally Italian bakery/café now in its second generation of Portuguese ownership, where you can get a Cappuccino that glides gently and smoothly across the tongue and leaves you bolt upright. We were regulars there during our stay in Toronto. The owners bought Eva a dress when she was born and warned us off of Victoria. “It rains there 200 days a year” warned Ishmael, who is currently visiting his village in Portugal. “Maybe not for the whole days, though,” Adelia, his wife, suggested, injecting some cheer into a saddening good-bye.
Some people are deeply rooted in a place. Identities are formed and communities sustained on strips like St. Clair Ave West. Others seem to pass through, seeking advantage and pleasure in their choices of location but not a source of self. I think I probably belong to the latter set. I’m not sure that there is a place where I belong. I love living in Victoria, but I wouldn’t describe it as my particular spot in the world. And, although I marvel at St. Clair, I don’t think that’s my place either. I’m sure that many who live there, like Ishmael, off tending to his house “back home,” feel the same. But even for birds of passage there is something special in a place that becomes bound up with the people we love and the events we cherish. Particularly if that place can also furnish a fine piece of ham and a plateful of sardines.