This summer, I finally made the move back to Toronto after giving Stratford, Ont., – the well-known rural home of Shakespeare, swine and swans – the five-year college try.
To say that small-town life didn’t agree with me is probably putting it mildly. To say that living in this seemingly bucolic but actually often bleak and occasionally sinister spot led to a slippery slope from which I am gradually climbing back to health and happiness is only partially true. What I do now know is that too much change at once, living alone for the first time in my life and misguidedly choosing an isolated, alienating environment located in Ontario’s snow belt as my new locale was a geographical cure that, as is usually the case, didn’t work.
Coincidentally, I have met several people who have made midlife decisions to leave their urban home for what seem like greener pastures in the countryside, only to return. No one is wrong or right here but, to quote my brother Eric, who recently moved to West Harlem and claims these words are from Andy Warhol: “The best thing about a small town is that, when you leave, there is nothing to miss.”
Without going into detail, the last two years have included a vicious addiction to sleeping pills (in particular benzodiazepines, ie. the class of sedatives ending in ‘azepam’) that brought me to my knees, a six-week stint in rehab and a whole new world that has opened up to me along what has been an often rocky but also beautifully spiritual path to recovery/discovery.
In a nutshell, the Big Smoke has beckoned me back and I have answered its call.
Now that I have bought a house in Kensington Market, hanging on for now to the 1950s mini-mansion in Stratford that came complete with vintage pool, boudoir and magnificent view of the river (views are greatly overrated I’ve now found, especially when you’re so isolated on your prestigious street that being out of milk means a car trip to the nearest corner store), I have begun moving into the narrow 10-year-old townhouse in my former neighbourhood of 28 years.
It now turns out that friends kept mum five years ago in the face of my fierce determination to trade Kensington – a colourful, crowded, ethnically diverse and uniquely feisty enclave in the heart of Toronto that had been the first real home of this wandering Jew – for a mostly anglo town of a mere 30,000 people. I still don’t know entirely what motivated me to make that move but there were neighbours from hell who terrorized me for four years and then, unbeknownst to me at the time, bought my adjoining house.
A search for peace, quiet and safety were not good reasons to re-locate. In spite of my best efforts to build a home – and I have made some wonderful friends in Stratford who will remain so – peace, quiet and safety soon became devastating loneliness and a form of exile. The sound of ducks quacking in early morning after sleepless nights caused me to panic. I realized that nature is not my thing. I need people, buildings and things happening around me to feel safe. I felt cut off from my passion: the world of food, this in spite of a chef’s school in Stratford and lively, clever people like chef/teacher Paul Finkelstein and organic farmer Antony John who are both outstanding in their fields.
On a much happier note, thins brings me to a couple of culinary tips for those settling into new digs.
My first purchase during a whirlwind few weeks of hanging chandeliers (I have six in my dining/living room area) and creating, according to a friend, an over-the-top space that resembles New Orleans, was a bright red whistling kettle and a pound of my favourite coffee. Sadly, the latter is only available in Stratford: the house brand at Revel coffee shop that comes from brilliant coffee people – Las Chicas del Cafe, two young women from Nicaragua located in London, Ont., who import fair trade beans from their family and other growers, then blend and roast them. The best. They’re also sold, I hear, at chef Mark McEwan’s Toronto gourmet food shop in Don Mills.
Next came my numero uno ingredient: dijonnaise. I use this combo of mayonnaise and mustard to coat chicken and fish before roasting, on sandwiches, in tuna salad etc. etc. It is indispensable. I also cannot be without Renee’s Wellness cucumber dill dressing – the most delicious storebought salad dressing I have found.
I also keep the 4-year-old Quebec cheddar from Cheese Magic on hand at all times and the wondrous double-smoked bacon from Sanagan’s: the best butcher specializing in naturally-raised meat in town. Both shops are Kensington stalwarts. Peter Sanagan, who recently bought Max Meat’s on Baldwin St. from Solly Stern whose father opened this Market landmark more than 60 years ago, is one of a new generation of merchants in my ‘nabe who are proof that the key to positive change is giving shoppers what they want.
This blog entry comes with a warning. Beware of seeking grass that is greener on the other side. And if you do, remember that great places to visit are not always a good place to live.