I like my city but I often complain about. Careless drivers, inconsiderate people and a lot of immigrants who think I need to accommodate to their norms; my small quiet well behaved dogs scare the hell out of these people. But above all this, unfriendly people. I must admit, I look unfriendly but I am not. Chat me up and I can converse with the right person forever. If anything, I’ve got a complex personality, a balance between introvert and extrovert-ism within.. A lot of times the introvert in me is prominent. But Toronto is unfriendly..yes. I think that comes with the Territory though, living in a big city.
In Toronto the Good, I’ve been a frequent burger-and-pint patron at my local bar for 15 years.
Each time I go in, it may as well be my first.
There’s a reason the expression is “Toronto the Good,” not “Toronto the Friendly.”
I once met a guy with Caribbean parents who’d grown up in London, England, and then thought he’d won the lottery of life by meeting a Canadian girl. He moved here, had kids and was happy. When he heard my U.K. accent though, he confided that he liked Toronto well enough, “but the people are pretty miserable.” We looked at each other and our eyes said: “Can’t have it all, huh?”
Friedrich Engels, in The Condition of the Working Class in England, noticed that 19th-century London had an eye-contact problem. “Each keep(s) to his own side of the pavement . . . while it occurs to no man to honour another with so much as a glance,” he wrote.
Nowadays, it’s far more marked here than anywhere else I’ve been, including London. The absence, for those who move here or return from other places, is an odd beast: impossible to discuss coherently with anybody who doesn’t already know it.
Some moments from other cities will illustrate what I mean by “friendly”:
Years ago, I’m 26 and in New York. Of course I’ve spent my airport cab money on clothes and am improvising it by subway. Smartphones and apps don’t exist. Lateish for my plane and loaded with baggage, my jitters are noticed by two locals, who approach me unbidden to ask where I need help going. They’re strangers to each other as well as to me, but that doesn’t stop them debating my best route with pleasure so animated it echoes off the subway tiles. My useful little flash-mob comes to a consensus and we three part with big smiles; me back to Toronto Where That Would Never Happen.
Years later, I’m in London, negotiating double-decker buses and deep subways with a baby and stroller. Every time I can’t move without help, extra arms appear — and kind faces make frank, practiced eye contact, usually with my child as well: asking her name and sparing a few seconds to lean right in as she whispers it with a toddler’s sibilance.
This summer, it’s Berlin. In the stairwell of our rental-apartment building neighbours look at us, nod a solemn acknowledgment and then pause to hold the door open. This without exception. They call my daughter “kleine Maus” (little mouse) with chuckling affection and with an over-the-shoulder “schoenen tag!” (have a great day), they’re gone.
None of these towns are legendary for warmth but they’re warmer than here. Strangers in Toronto have been known to address my kid with a term of endearment . . . maybe five times in her four years. Strangers in Toronto will share a giggle or a rueful “I know!” about something when we have dealings in a store or doctor’s office. Occasionally. Strangers in Toronto help me haul the stroller down the streetcar steps into terrifying traffic that has come to a fragile pause, but usually Sheba doesn’t get a grin or a hello, and I am rarely honoured with eye contact from my Samaritan.
My immigrant friend who complained of “miserable” Toronto misread things a bit though; it’s not misery, I’m sure, but unwillingness to be the first. In a community that doesn’t practice eye contact and “good morning,” social forms taken for granted elsewhere read, quite logically, as alarming. Greeting a stranger in an elevator, waiting room or — as happened recently to me, on a porch crowded with parents of my daughter’s camp friends — elicits a startled, high-pitched “Hi!,” as though caught with lowered pants.
The German philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote that “One of the inherent qualities of the gaze is that it expects to be returned by the person to whom it is given.” The Toronto problem is that expecting no return, most are unwilling to gaze.
For all of us, whether tuned in to it or not, the steady beat of transient human connection, unfreighted by any personal need or intimacy, is a buoy for the spirits; a few grains of humble, but transformative sweetness. Our hearts soften a tiny bit when strangers make eye contact and the effects are powerfully health giving.
Can a society be good without being friendly? It’s a fascinating socio-ethical question. My kid still doesn’t know friendly places from unfriendly ones, because she hasn’t learned to be sensitive to social nuance. I treasure this brief period of her life; melt inside when she tells a stranger “I like your earrings!” and the stranger beams with grateful surprise.
Oh Toronto, Good or otherwise: can’t you give us a healthier dose of that?