Second City

Fayes T Kantawala finds Toronto highly livable - and always just short of spectacular

Second City
Toronto’s Billy Bishop airport is probably one of the most beautiful airports I have ever seen. Set on a tiny little island surrounded by glittering water and soaring skyscrapers, the airport is located right in the middle of the city. It’s so in the city that during landing you pray the plane’s wing doesn’t hit a balcony on the way down. Once grounded, the views are so spectacular that you momentarily forget that the whole place is the size of a high-end bus stop, complete with only one baggage claim.

I was in Toronto to visit friends, and although I used to live in Canada many years ago, I cannot say I’d ever really been to the city. I was also tempted to go because I recently found out that if you have appropriate documentation for the U.S, you can travel to Canada visa-free. ‘Visa Free’ are two words Pakistanis don’t hear often. It is a strange and wondrous concept to me, and it is for so many of us. The thought that we can just show up at a foreign airport without having provided a genealogical survey of our family and at least two blood tests years before seems, to put it mildly, implausible. And so I just got out of my plane with my passport and a prayer.
There is just enough culture to be attractive, just enough sunshine to be warm, just enough diversity to be exciting. Just enough. In that way I found it similar to Chicago, which also has a "second city" syndrome

Rest assured that although diminutive, the airport boasts an ever-ready team of people that materialise uncomfortably fast the moment you show a Pakistani passport. But this was a pleasant interlude, because one the first thing you’ll notice is how deeply, completely and unflinching polite the Canadians are as a people. I know it’s a generalisation but it’s true. I heard the world ‘sorry’ more than I hear ‘hello’. Even on my way to Canada the people were all nicer, smilier. I got to the check-in early, and the lady at the kiosk put me on an earlier flight because “Why should you have to wait?” Contrast that with the fat American Airlines agent who, after my flight had been cancelled last week, told me that that cancellation weren’t her “thing.”

“But you’re literally sitting under a sign that says ‘Cancellations’,” I reminded her.

I didn’t know precisely how voluminous a woman she was until she stood up, slowly rotated the sign the other way and looked back at me with one aggressively arched eyebrow as if to say “Try me, B***h”. But, like I said, the Canadians were so sweet that they complimented me on my suitcase even as they searched it.

At the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto: 15th century fountain from Mamluk Egypt

One of the main things I wanted to do in Toronto was to see the Aga Khan Museum of Islamic Art. It opened to great fanfare a few years ago with an exhibition featuring six Pakistani artists, including Imran Qureshi, and I’ve been sharing about how amazing it was ever since. The museum isn’t easily accessible and it took about 30 minutes to drive to its suburban locale – only to find out that they were between shows and only the permanent collection was open. (Note: the only downside of Canadian niceness is that the Uber drivers all feel like they have to chat to you about your hopes and dreams. I found myself lying to gain their approval, but that’s another story)

It’s a beautifully designed space, all modern and chic, but if I’m being honest the whole experience was a bit underwhelming. The building is nice but not earth-shattering, the manuscripts pretty but not jaw-dropping, the gardens expansive but not head-turning. Perhaps I had built it up in my head too much or maybe I caught it on an off week when there was no major show on. But then again, no. Because the feeling of being ‘just shy of spectacular’ is something that stayed with me my whole trip, and is a feeling many travelers to Canada share. To a degree it makes sense because as Robin Williams once put it, “Canada is like a really big loft above a really great party.” Being in the shadow of a larger, messier, much fatter neighbor is not without consequence, and you can’t help but measure everything in Canada against America.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s a wonderful place. If ever there was a place to live a happy, fulfilled life, it’s probably Canada. Everything is extremely livable, pretty and overwhelmingly pleasant. In my brief time in Toronto, I found that the Iranian food is fantastic, the streets are clean, the ice cream flavours inventive and they have the largest selection of French fries I’ve seen in a long time (There is this one dish called poutine, which is a life affirming layer of fries, topped with cheese and soaked in gravy. I mean, right?)

But considered as a whole, the city was underwhelming. There is just enough culture to be attractive, just enough sunshine to be warm, just enough diversity to be exciting. Just enough. In that way I found it similar to Chicago, which also has a “second city” syndrome. Indeed, the feeling of being compared to another flashier city is so pervasive that both cities have extremely famous improv theatre groups also called “Second City”.

I did other stuff there too, like going on long walks through ravines and seeing the city Aquarium by night, but this was the second weekend in a row that I’ve been traveling, and as my flight touched down back in the city that I find too noisy, too dirty, too expensive and too overwhelming, I was surprised that I felt I had already been away too long.

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