Another warm, blue-skied autumn day swallows Johannesburg whole. I have been back in South Africa for two weeks and it has been a little over a year since I first arrived in Toronto – on a similarly warm, blue-skied day. Johannesburg’s autumn and Toronto’s spring are more alike than I would have suspected, though this overlap is short-lived, and soon our temperatures will fall into the teens as theirs soar into the deliciously sticky 30s.
Looking back over the spring, summer, fall and early winter I spent in Canada last year, I realise that all of the hopes and expectations I didn’t know I had were surpassed. I had planned to spend some time with my family and to give life in Toronto a chance, but had no idea what that really entailed. At the end of a year, I simply intended to return home. What an abstract word that has become.
I could never have imagined that being with my family for such an extended period of time would have the impact it did. I learnt how it feels to be a daughter, a step-daughter, an older sister, a younger sister, a sister-in-law, an aunt. I found a family I always had without really realising that I had it – or what that would mean, what love and support I would feel, what sense of belonging.
I learnt how frustrating and demoralising being unemployed can be. How lonely a big city is when friends are few. And how quickly these maladies are cured by a few pennies earned in local currency and by finding some truly wonderful like-minded people. People. That’s all that any of this is really about.
I learnt how to salsa – well, I made it up mostly, but I did it with enthusiasm. I learnt to accept that $7 (R63) was a reasonable price to pay for a glass of wine in the city, an amount that would buy you a pretty good bottle in South Africa. In summer, I learnt the joy and beauty of cottage living. In winter, I learnt (too many times) how quickly colds spread when you spend two hours a day crammed into a subway car. I learnt to know and love Toronto – its busy streets, its quaint streets, its buses and streetcars, its sunny parks and waterfront boardwalks, its endless variety of food, music and dance floors – and I learnt to call it home.
The names of Toronto’s subway stops echo in my head now. And I realise how much I loved living in a city that doesn’t use numbers to designate its streets, instead using words I have never heard elsewhere, words I could swirl around in my mouth as I counted down to my stop: Pape, Spadina, Ossington, Dufferin. That said, I also lived in Toronto long enough to earn the right to complain about the public transport – especially when the buses let me down late at night with only snow and ice for company.
With so many lessons learnt and so much love formed, I was surprised at my emotional sobriety on the day I left. But leaving just felt like a natural transition, another shift. And it was easy to say goodbye when I knew with certainty that I would be back.
On New Year’s Day, I woke up in a friend’s apartment in the heart of downtown Toronto. There were five of us left standing – and by standing, I mean sprawled thick-headed and fully-clothed on a pull-out bed and a mattress. We moaned, laughed at the night’s festivities, used up our host’s toothpaste, watched some infomercials and went to find some breakfast – at 1:30pm. Walking along Queen Street West, braced against in the biting wind offered by the first day of 2013 and ice crunching underfoot, I looked up to see a not-so-subtle sign I had never noticed before.
I’m not sure I’ve changed. But I think Toronto helped me to grown up. Just a little.