Friday, August 19, 2011


Time was Toronto was nothing to me but a headache. Drive from Chicago to Montreal, or Montreal to Chicago, and just about in the middle there’s this awful pain where you have to sit in a crawl of cars sixteen lanes wide for three slow, nauseous hours, and that pain has its own special name, and that name is Toronto. It is the single most dystopian stretch of unavoidable highway on the continent. If there is a circle of hell particularly made for bad drivers, it is that stretch of the 401, on an endless loop.

It is also, incidentally, the worst advertisement for a city there has ever been. There is nothing about that stretch of highway that says, Hey folks, how about you get off this dire road and come live here? No beautiful views, no alluring advertisements, no spectacle, no respite, nothing to suggest that there is anything more to the place than exhaust and exhaustion.

But life has a way of taking us to strange and sometimes awful places, and the human propensity for happiness being what it is, there are a percentage of people who can be content damn near anyplace. No matter how depressing or inhospitable the clime, someone ends up there eventually, and ends up happy. Mongols, Koreans, Chinese, and Russians, have been vying for control of Primorsky Krai since time was time, despite the large and dismembery tiger population. The Yaghan evolved to live happily in Tierra del Fuego, entirely naked in the barely zero-degree temperatures and perpetual rain. There are people living in the deepest depths of Amazonia, although there are parasitic catfish there that have been known to swim up the urethra and extend their spikes to lodge permanently inside the penis. There are people living in the Sahara and in the Himalayas and even in Atlanta, and many of them will tell you that these uncomfortable haunts are God’s own sweet country, the very Promised Land itself.

Yes, you’ll often end up in places you never intended to go, and find them better than you’d expected. I tell myself this frequently, these days, because while I know that theoretically Southern Ontario is much nicer than the Mongolian plateau, I can’t shake the feeling that I am not really meant for Toronto.

Not that I think Toronto is a bad place. I mean, nobody would ever really think Toronto is bad, aside from its highways. Canada doesn’t have bad cities, no crumbling pits of urban despair comparable to those in the U.S., no burnt and bombed-out shells like you might find in the more brutalized corners of Africa. Toronto is, I know, going to be very safe and clean, it’ll have arts festivals and music venues and probably a few surviving libraries. People tell me it’s very nice.

The problem is that nobody has ever been able to tell me much more than that. Everyone says its “nice”, or “pretty cool”, or “good, y’know”, but nobody ever says anything more specific. In the six or so years of my life I’ve been meeting ex-Torontonians, being told the place was “nice”, I’ve asked again and again, well, what’s nice? What’s good? What should I do there? Where should I go? What should I eat? And I swear, all I ever get is that sort of speculative look up at the ceiling and a little to the right. There are a couple of tourist spots, but nobody’s ever been to them. There are a couple of cool street fairs, but no one can remember when they are. There are no famous dishes, no pervasive local music style, no remarkable historical district. Ask people from Montreal what to do there and they can rattle off five minutes of suggestions immediately, twenty minutes if you give them a little time to mull it over. Same for Chicago, for Miami, Austin, San Francisco, anywhere I’ve ever met anyone from. I’ve had people sell me on Cleveland- let me repeat, Cleveland- more passionately than anyone’s ever tried to sell me on Toronto. We’re talking about a city whose single biggest claim to international fame is how cheaply and readily it can masquerade as other cities, or no particular city at all.

Am I resisting it because of this blandness? Because I’m afraid that life in Toronto is going to be uniformly beige, broken up only by the occasional patch of ecru, a streak of taupe if I’m really lucky? That I’ll have to go through my days there squinting and pretending it’s New York? Can a reputation for dullness really be enough to cause the slight but indisputable feeling of dread with which I approach my new home?

It can’t just be the Leafs, can it? It totally can’t. Can-not. Because that would just be silly. No, ridiculous. Completely ridiculous. Completely and utterly and thoroughly, embarrassingly and unspeakably ridiculous. Nobody in their right mind actually transposes their feelings about a sports team onto the city itself. Mature and reasonable adults do not dislike cities because of sports teams, they dislike them for artistic and intellectual reasons, such as those I have outlined above. To hate a place because you hate its franchise is just plain childish. Or, worse yet, adolescent.


Team colors are to municipalities as flags are to nations. Plenty of people don’t really know the flag of their hometown, but everybody, sports fan or no, knows the icons of the preeminent franchises. These logos are, like flags, emblems of particularlity, symbols of here-ness standing against there-ness. Out of sight of the major monuments, down on the streets, the souls of cities are all a bit fungible, but the images on the banners and balconies are indisputable. Wear another team’s merchandise and people are apt to think you’re from out of town. Be another team’s fan, and you’re apt to always feel a little… foreign. Which, of course, I am, but c’mon, this is the only place outside of America where an American can really pass for a local. It’d be nice to be able to feel local as well.

I just can’t help it- on some level, some deep depth of my under-consciousness beyond rational discipline, I equate Toronto with the aptly, if irritatingly, named “Leafs Nation”, a name that has the hostile ring of a foreign power. It’s like Bizarro-world Montreal, where everyone hates speaking French and dresses badly and feels sort of warmly about the Monarchy, and my heroes are made villains. Leafs Nation is that strange country that has all the arrogance of Habistan without its victorious heritage, and all of Habistan’s self-pity without the sexy accent. It practices the same religion, but worships its own pantheon of lesser gods, honorable but fundamentally unremarkable men made great through the desperation of the faithful rather than their own achievements.

But even if the Leafs were not the Leafs and rather some other, more respectable foe, it does not change the fact that living in the territory of another team is like living behind enemy lines in a very small, very civilized war. Nerf war, if you will. Part of the joy of being a fan in Montreal was the communion, the synchronicity between place and feeling. I dare say that’s a goodly part of the joy of being a fan anywhere, for it’s not only the bandwagoners who find the heart of their passion in the place rather than the players. To be a fan of the visiting team is to wish against where you are, and as much as I can’t stand the Leafs, I don’t relish the prospect of being aligned against them in their own barn (not, of course, that I would ever be able to get into their barn, being as I am a plebe).

They always say, every Leafs fan I’ve ever met, oh, what a parade it will be, when it finally comes, and they’re right. It’ll be a hell of a parade, and it would suck mightily to be the one sober person there, trying to rain chilly snark down on the revelry.

Lucky for me, it’s not gonna happen anytime soon.


Zuuko said...

I feel so sorry for you to be moving to Tronna. I had to live there two years. Don't be afraid to check out a game at the ACC. No one will be paying attention to your pumping the tires of the Habs, as they'll be too busy closing a deal via blackberry.

Although, the people are nice.

Don't get me started on the Toronto's homeless...

B.C.B. said...


I live in Toronto and i think your blog is wonderful.

If you ever want to meet up and watch some hockey games that would be awesome. Maybe we could even convince some of the other Oiler Bloggers in the centre of the universe to come out too.

Tronna is not such a bad place but just kind of lonely and cold for the first year or so.


E said...

zuuko- how am i supposed to get into the acc? i was under the impression that no one gets into the acc without either a) a wheelbarrow full of cash or b) a friend/relative/employer with a wheelbarrow full of cash. being as how i have neither, i'd have to come up with some sort of elaborate scheme of deception involving a mascot costume and possibly ether-soaked handkerchiefs, and i'm just not sure i'm that devious.

bcb- thanks for the most gracious offer, i will most certainly take you up on it come season-start. the cold i can handle, not so sure about the lonely...

Zuuko said...

Your best bet is to date a lawyer and/or a banker who will take you. On the downside, they'll probably spend the rest of the game cursing at their blackberries when the Japanese market opens down 2%.

meredith said...

i love your blog!

& don't despair - just like every city is a promise land to someone, there are plenty of armpits to endure.

e.g., i just moved to alabama. 'nuff said.

may these tragic places improve, or may we move.