Photos and article by Eleanor S. Morris
To see Italy, Greece, Portugal, even China and Korea,you'd expect to go round the globe, right? Instead, consider Toronto, multi-cultural city where the world came--and never left.
Toronto is a town of exotic neighborhoods; the very street signs celebrate the fact. They read Little Italy or Corso Italia, Portugal Village, Chinatown (in Chinese), Little Athens along the Danforth (in Greek), Bloorcourt and Yorkville, the Annex, and Kensington Market, once the home of the Jewish community, now in permanent transition with new immigrants amid a lively bazaar of clothing, food, street vendors and non-stop excitement.
While the majority of Toronto citizens are of British extraction and there are other less populous ethnic groups, Little Italy and Chinatown take the prize with populations of 400,000 each. Runners-up are about 250,000 Jewish folk, no longer in Kensington but pretty much concentrated in Bathurst, Elginton, Lawrence and North York. Both Portuguese and Greek number 150,000, and these five groups are the most colorful. Each neighborhood keeps its ethnicity intact because Canada, to use the words of ex-prime Minister Pierre Trudeau is "a mosaic" of many peoples, rather than a melting pot. In each neighborhood people are busy being themselves, speaking their native tongues, buying and cooking their native foods, reading their native-language newspapers and books, and everybody seems busy and content.
Corso Italia in Little Italy is an area of sidewalk cafes, gelato shops and boutiques selling Italian fashions-- it's a though Italy has come to Toronto with Milan's fashions, Rome's cafes and Mediterranean verve. Every block has a cafe or at least a corner patio for watching the world go by while sipping a creamy cappuccino along with some delicious cannolo. Authentic Italian cuisine is served--with gusto--in the restaurants, and often music accompanies the fettuccine and the sambuca.
At the markets, the colorful fresh fruits and vegetable out onto the sidewalk: huge purple eggplants, golden delicious apples, red and green peppers. Street vendors tempt everywhere. Gelati, the homemade Italian ice cream, comes in exotic flavors like lemon and banana, and you can lick a cone of it as you walk along the Corso.
Breads? Some chefs bake fresh hot bread every half hour; others dream up almond and amaretto cookies, pizza and pasta. Cheese? Deli meats? Mozzarella, parmesan, capicollo, as well as prosciutto and mortadella were featured in the film "Moonstruck" by way of one of Little Italy's dellies on St. Clair West.
The first person listed in the city directory at the turn of the century was one Sam Ching, a laundry shop owner. Today, Toronto has more than one Chinatown--there are three!
Only Chinatown in San Francisco is larger than Toronto's, and here more than half report that Chinese in their first language. Inspecting an interesting but strange vegetable in a grocery, we asked the clerk what it was. He just looked at us; he didn't understand English. (We never did find out what it was, a bright green fluted sort of cucumber or zucchini shape but larger.)
More fascinating was a trip into an herb shop, where pharmacist's assistant Yao Huimong was helping Pharmacist Dr. Zhou to fill a prescription. On the counter in front of him were spread a dozen sheets of paper, and he placed on each sheet the exact amount of an herb, weighed in hand scales. "Were these for several people?" we asked. No, each sheet of paper was a daily "dose."
We asked what a customer nearby was buying. "A pregnancy help, to keep the baby healthy." Whatever it was, it was in a very pretty container. When we picked one up to take a look, it was snatched away. "Very expensive, fifty dollars."
In smaller Koreatown we passed Kim's Herbs which promised to cure all sorts of ills, including all headaches, headaches, back pain and nerves.
Along "The Danforth," George the Greek of The Friendly Greek Restaurant was delighted to pose with a patron, whose delicious-looking chicken souvlaki with pita bread was getting cold in the process. Her companion was enjoying a mouth-watering large helping of lamb souvlaki with sweet potatoes. rice and, of course, a wonderfully fresh Greek salad.
White stucco restaurants, vegetable markets, Greek cafes, delectable bakeries, all under the watchful eye of the imposing National Bank of Greece building across from friendly George.
Kensington Market originally was Toronto's large Jewish area, but now the community has moved north and taken with them numerous book stores, kosher markets and delis for bagels and lox, knishes and corned beef. Restaurants, too, for other delicious Jewish specialties. There are also more than 60 synagogues, for every branch of Judaism. About 60,000 survivors of the Holocaust arrived after World War II and the community has established a Holocaust Education & Memorial Centre to commemorate those who were killed.
People were outdoors along the neighborhood streets of this friendly place: mothers pulling children in wagons, older folks pulling weeds from their flowerbeds, others sitting rocking on front porches watching the world passing by on the quiet streets. While many homes were plain red brick, a whole row of them shone in the sun with red, white, blue, yellow and orange facades. It was fascinating to watch an older woman, clad from head to toe in black, walk down the front steps of her duplex, turn and march purposely up the steps attached to hers like Siamese twins--was she going to lodge a complaint or merely visit her very close next-door neighbor?
To feel like we'd really been to Portugal, we bought some colorfully handpainted "made in Portugal" plates displayed in a rack along the sidewalk.
A walk along Roncesvalles Avenue in the western part of Toronto will transport you to Poland for sausages, kolaches, and other Polish specialties good to eat. About 80,000 Poles have settled here and there's a statue of the first Polish pope erected at the corner of Roncesvalles and Fern. The Katyn Monument further down at the intersection of Queen Street commemorates 20,000 Poles lost in the Second World War. Here, too, is the city's small Ukrainian community.
The West Indies of the North is situated mainly in the Bloor/Bathurst area, but shops and restaurants featuring specialties from the Indies are spread throughout the city. In July, though, they get together for the Caribana festival, a carnival that draws more than a million visitors.
Bloorcourt Village describes itself as "the repository of the best of the bourgeois values--thrift, neatness and stability," while streets of The Annex are lined with trees and eccentric architecture. Yorkville is a trendy shopping and dining neighborhood: chic shops and fine food. The artsy neighborhood is Queen Street West, due to the Ontario College of Art's influence in the midst of funky shops, offbeat restaurants and trendy nightclubs.
If You Go: Air Canada has service from all major U.S. cities to Toronto. Call 1-800-776-3000.
For more information contact your travel agent or the Metropolitan Toronto Convention & Visitors Association, 207 Queen's Quay W., P.O.Box 126, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5J 1A7, tel. 416/368-9990.