Toronto transplant: my friends share how the city compares to their distant homes
In the end, the city is a reflection of those who live in it
I grew up in Vermont, a quaint and mountainous state in the northeastern corner of the US. I’m not sure if I should say this on the record, but to give you a sense of my town, we don’t lock our houses before going out. You can imagine the contrast between Vermont’s dirt roads and Spadina Avenue, where I lived last year.
I first flew to Toronto in the spring of 2019 to visit my friend, Jonathan. He was two years older than me and had an apartment on Spadina Avenue, wherever that was. From the airport, I took the TTC to Queen’s Park station and dragged my bag onto the street. There I was in Toronto with my skateboard and my backpack, with my phone at five per cent battery.
Many international students have shared that same experience in which Toronto feels like a foreign land. However, during this unusual year, U of T students are living all around the globe. In our separation, one of the few things we have in common is this city. Yet, because U of T students have such diverse backgrounds, everyone experiences Toronto differently. In an effort to get to know Toronto a little bit better, I interviewed four of my friends to find out what Toronto means to each of them.
Toronto’s manicured decency
First, I spoke with Vera Frantseva, a Rotman student who grew up just outside of Moscow, Russia. Before starting at U of T, she spent a year of high school in Hamilton, Ontario, and when her mom suggested that she might study at U of T, Frantseva remembered responding, “No freaking way.” But, lo and behold, here she is, and because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Frantseva has not been home to Russia since 2019.
“What differences have you noticed between Toronto and Moscow?” I asked her.
“Russia is still a conservative country… Sometimes, you can’t really be who you want to be,” said Frantseva. “The culture here [in Canada] is more welcoming, and everyone here is pretty much coming from somewhere else.”
In day-to-day life, Frantseva observed that Canadians seemed more outgoing and less defensive when interacting with strangers. She could talk to people on the street without worrying if they had bad intentions. “If I’m going to stop someone on the street in Russia… people are like, ‘What do you want from me? Are you going to steal my phone, or are you going to say something?’ ”
Murray Smith, a computer science student from Halifax, added that people in Toronto seem more aware of social and political issues. “There’s so many white people [in Nova Scotia], and so you don’t get a lot of different perspectives,” he said. “There’s a lot of situations where I’ve heard very casual racism, sexism, and homophobia, things… that I would not have experienced in those same circles in Toronto.”
For Frantseva especially, Toronto’s political climate allowed her to discuss opinions that she might have kept quiet about in Moscow. “In Russia… you never know if you’re going to say something and then somebody else is going to say things to somebody else,” said Frantseva. “You can get in trouble… so you gotta keep your mouth shut about some things.”
Max Jimenez De Luis, who studies international relations, was my roommate in first year, and as a soccer fan, he had several jerseys from around the world. During high school, he lived in the Dominican Republic, which has felt most like home for him. “That’s where my friends are, where I went to high school, the place I enjoyed living [in] the most.”
I asked Jimenez De Luis, with his perspective on Latin America, to compare the ambience of South American cities to Toronto. “You might think that Toronto is loud, but [South America] is even louder. And you might think that this is a fast pace; it’s even faster. It’s just chaos, sort of, in a way,” he said. “[In Toronto], it’s an organized chaos.”
Chloé Chayo, an economics student from Brazil who had frequently travelled to Argentina before moving there, had something to say on this as well. “Buenos Aires has a lot more charm to it,” she said. “You have the more narrow streets, you have the wider streets, you have the streets with holes in them, [and] you have the cobblestone streets.” To Chayo, the manicured ‘decency’ of Toronto did not impress her.
Furthermore, Toronto’s history is just a blip when held up to the extensive histories of other cities. While Frantseva appreciates Toronto’s diversity, she misses Moscow’s unified legacy rooted within Russian culture. “I’m used to seeing older buildings and… beautiful monuments,” Frantseva said. “[In Canada], it’s not as widespread as back home.”
While history is built into Moscow’s streets, the same does not hold true for Canada. On a phone call, Frantseva’s mom once commented, “Toronto is a city with no face.”
Anonymity in the big city
Although Smith is from just a couple of provinces over, I thought his perspective would be an important one. With its nautical iconography and scenery, the Atlantic Ocean is a defining part of Halifax, but Smith left that behind by studying in Toronto. “For the most part, the culture shock wasn’t major in any way,” he said. “It was just… little idiosyncrasies that I found [that] didn’t really line up with how I thought the world just worked in general.”
Smith embraced the scale of Toronto and its convenient transportation. “When I really stayed there for an extended period of time… I was really amazed at parts of the city that I didn’t even know existed,” he said. “The other thing that I found was really cool about it was just the scenery… coming from a place like Halifax where our downtown core is two blocks.” After arriving in Toronto, Smith explored underground malls, several parks, and gawked at the many Starbucks stores within a block of his residence.
Chayo had a somewhat different view of Toronto’s vast transportation network. “My city in Brazil… it’s not a city that allows for a lot of independence when you’re growing up. I was always in the car… I couldn’t really experience the city until I got older,” she said. Now, Chayo enjoys walking to campus through Queen’s Park, watching the colourful leaves hint at coming seasons.
But Toronto’s abundance of chain stores couldn’t replace the personal touch of her home. “Argentina just has so many local coffee shops and local places where you’d go, and you would be served by the owner of the place,” she said. “They would recognize you, and they’d know you by your name… That doesn’t happen in Toronto, even if you go to the same place.”
Smith actually liked the anonymity of the city and the feeling of blending into a crowd, but Jimenez De Luis and Chayo, found that Toronto lacked the warmth and hospitality he was used to. “Toronto — it’s cold, right? And the people are cold,” he said. “If you walk down the street, you just see students minding their own business, and you don’t really interact with them. And, somehow, I’ve fallen into that way of life,” Jimenez De Luis said. “I’ve missed the heat of the people [in the Dominican Republic] .”
Safety in the streets
Although Chayo grew up in Brazil, she moved to Argentina when she was 16 years old. With such a diversity of experiences, I assumed — correctly — that she wasn’t easily fazed. But one thing was often on her mind when she first came to Toronto.
“Every time I would be on the street in Toronto, I would be like ‘Wow, I can actually carry my phone in my hand, and nothing’s going to happen to me,’ ” she said. “It took me a year to start calling people on the street because I would always have my phone in my pocket and not take it out for anything… [I thought] that someone could grab it and steal it from me.”
But while Toronto’s safety felt like an improvement in some ways, the catcalling she had experienced in South America remained. “I want to give you the full picture,” she told me.
Even when walking a short distance in Argentina, Chayo would be catcalled. “All the time, all sorts of comments — horrible, absolutely horrible,” she said. During her first semester in Toronto, she didn’t get catcalled at all, but when summer came, that all changed.
It wasn’t as frequent at first, but Chayo found the comments to be more direct and threatening. “I was just walking to the gym [in] a sweater and leggings… And this man stops, turns around, follows me… and then, he literally talks to me for the whole length of the street, asking me my name.”
Chayo and Frantseva agreed that they are both wary of aggressive physical harassment in Toronto. At this point though, Chayo tries to push the catcalling to the back of her mind to forget about it. “I know that like 99 per cent of the time, nothing bad will happen to me,” she said.
A city reflects its people
My international friends all had different thoughts about Toronto, but overall, each of them was happy to be studying here. Whenever Jimenez De Luis feels homesick, he drops by Kensington Market for some authentic fried plantain and beans, and Smith leads a game design club where he’s found a strong sense of community.
He noted how making friends in such a big city was an exceptional experience because it means you’ve found your small circle out of the thousands of faces in the crowd. “That makes [friendship in Toronto] very special, I think,” he said.
Of them all, Chayo gave some of the highest praise regarding the city. “I just attribute it with happiness, but maybe that’s not the city itself but like the mental place?” she said. “[There is] spontaneity… freedom and independence, and so much opportunity… I never felt that I couldn’t be myself or that I couldn’t be genuine.”
As I’m living across the border this semester, Toronto feels like some far away place. However, someday soon, I’ll find myself back there, standing on a street corner and waiting for the traffic light to turn red. Asking my friends to reflect on Toronto helped me to see the city in a new light because, in the end, the city is a reflection of those who live in it. It’s not the companies or the condos or the restaurants. It’s the people.