Top 5 Understated Toronto Favs

In the last few years, I’ve been extremely lucky to travel much to visit and work in many of the most interesting places in the world including Spain, Bhutan, Mexico and Kenya. Today, I want to list a few things about a very special place that I have written little about here before: Toronto. I emigrated with my family to this cold but friendly city more than 15 years ago. Ever since moving to this adopted home, I’ve always felt good coming back from travels and trips both short and long. So in the manner of lists about everything that are popping all over the place and for no particular reason, here are my Top 5 Understated Toronto Favs: (Warning! This is an opinionated piece and has no claim to objectivity!)

1. Tea Heaven

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Yes, I know this is a surprise but I believe tea is king in Toronto! China and India might be the places most associated with ancient tea drinking traditions, Kenya and Sri Lanka might be some of the largest producers of tea, Japan and England might have woven the most etiquette and ritual around tea, and, my native Iranians might have chosen it as their national drink, but it is Toronto, my friends, that in my mind owns the title of Tea Heaven. Wondering why? I challenge you to find more variety of teas anywhere in the world! While different places focus on a few special types of tea (for example, the super sweet and milky Chai of India and the small and strong red tea of Turkey), it is extremely hard to find all of these in one city in the world. In Toronto, you can find authentic Persian tea, Indian tea, Chinese tea and even a Japanese tea ceremony master! In addition to these, there are many many independent teahouses with different atmospheres all over town. My buddy Hamed’s Samadhi Teahouse in Kensington is a hub for art and spirituality events, while other places, such as Bambot, focus on board games. Because of Toronto’s cultural diversity ,many of the big franchises – Starbucks, Second Cup and the tea-dedicated David’s Tea – have a lot of teas on offer, something that is hard to find abroad.

In my recent travels, especially in Western Europe, I loved the coffee (and sorry to say, I’m not at all impressed by Toronto’s coffee scene, except maybe the Jet Fuel in Cabbagetown Parliament), but missed the tea. And now, a big reveal: in the cold winter days, when the sun shines through the frozen sky, I long for a big cup of Tim Horton’s green or Earl Grey tea! I know, this comment kicks my reputation as a tea enthusiast and I do agree the coffee at Timmy’s kind of sucks but the teas are surprisingly good (and are of the people with affordable, no frills prices)!

2. Public Library Champ

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For a few years after I moved to Toronto, I was completely obsessed with the public libraries: their open spaces, seemingly unending cultural resources (especially the movie and music sections), and great services, made me swoon with joy every time I walked through their colourful bookshelves. Over the years, this passion has turned into a kind of mature and settled love, where I still long for them but am not desperate to spend as much time as possible with them. Yes, my love of public libraries is old but the memories are still fresh: the first time I searched the Internet, the first time I opened a New York Times Review of Books Magazine, the first time I checked out 20 world music CDs: they all happened here!

In addition to being culture meccas and democratic spaces where the patrons don’t have to buy over-priced coffee, be hipsters looking for degrees, or even shower, to enjoy the free Internet, space and heat, libraries in Toronto offer great services such as free museum passes (in the last year, I’ve visited 5 good Toronto museums with these gifts) and great public and often free speeches: I’ve seen Wade Davis talk about his Into the Silence book and Thomas King share short funny-sad stories from his An Inconvenient Indian there. In short, if you live in Toronto, the public libraries are some of the hippest, awesomest, coolest places to be! And some of them are even in historical buildings and have great collections to check out (for example, the Osborne’s Collection of Early Childhood books). Check them out!

3. Movie Mecca

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Toronto is a movie mecca: it hosts two important international festivals (The Toronto International Film Festival and The Hot Docs Documentary Film Festival), more and more films are being filmed here, and there are important movie interest hubs all over town. In the last few years, I have seen Werner Herzog and Slavoj Zizek give talks on their films here. The Zizek talk was fantastic, you can watch it here. Among the institutions peppered around town are Queen Video (legendary video rental store), Suspect Video (strange horror and erotic sections) and Bloor Cinema (docs and late night replays). Sorry to say the National Film Board of Canada Mediatheque closed down recently. To end this on a fun note, Toronto also has its own very weird underground cinema, Cineforum, with some of the most fringe selections I’ve seen!

4. Food Funhouse

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Fusion is, or can be, confusion! But in Toronto, mostly its awesome. Again, another thing that struck me when I arrived here with my extremely unexperienced palate was to see the diversity of the culinary arts available to explore here. 3 Chinatowns, 2 Little Indias (that I know of) and a very large number of Japanese, Greek, Persian, Thai, Mexican, American, French and … restaurants to choose from. You can be authentic and go to the suburbs to try ethnic food without hearing much English or knowing exactly what you are eating (check out this blog for hints) or be cosmopolitan and try unusual fusions such as Thai and Hungarian or Korean and Mexican!

5. Multicultural Kaleidoscope   

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There is a lot of cultural diversity in Toronto and even if you don’t find the best of something, then at least you have leads to where you can find the best! This is best reflected in the music and art scene, as well as, the diverse neighbourhoods. A great place to start is to check out the international festivals from Harbourfront Centre’s summer festivals – they have featured Orchestra Baobab and Balkan Beat Box in explosive free concerts before- to Toronto Fringe Theatre Festival and events such as the Luminato Festival and International Festival of Authors. Small World Music is an independent world music promoter with nice events in the GTA and NXNE brings alternative rock bands to stages large and small around town.

For more underground tastes, there are also a lot of places that are more niche and off the beaten track, two places with very different approaches are Beit Zatoun (an activist hub) and Good for Her (for gender and sex activists). If you have any interest in classical music, there is a ton of free and very affordable events happening in Toronto. A great place to find them is here. One of my favourite venues especially for chamber music and piano recitals is Music Toronto events. Finally, if you are into performance and digital media art, there is much possibility here. The annual Nuit Blanche is a place to start (although I have to say, I’m not a huge fan because of many reasons) but there are also regular programs of cutting edge artists from Marina Abramovic to Ai Weiwei to Robert Lepage.

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Looking into Haiti’s eyes

A few days before the new year’s eve, I received an email from my good friend Sahand, an independent documentary filmmaker and photographer based in Toronto, that his feature documentary, Haiti: Children of Heaven, is released online and is available for public viewing. Ever since Sahand first told me about this project a few years ago and showed me some preliminary footage and photographs of the children on the island, I’ve been waiting for this time when his work is available publicly. Haiti: Children of Heaven is what I would call a “lyrical documentary”. Reminiscent of Peter Mettler and Werner Herzog, fact and poetry weave together in Sahand’s vision. Informative and sometimes strikingly heartfelt interviews are followed by beautiful images of children and the landscape to great effect. Sahand wants to capture the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake on the island’s inhabitants. And the movie does that (and much more) well. Over the course of an hour, Sahand shares beautiful and heartbreaking stories of people he has met and interviewed over a year and the waves of desperation and hope that have been washing over the Haitian masses like the waves that wash the Caribbean seashore. The list of Haiti’s catastrophes is long: the 2010 earthquake, the Cholera outbreak, the post-election violence, the horrendous dictatorship of Papa Doc before that, and many other catastrophes that have haunted the island since the time when the indigenous populations were massacred and slaves were brought by European colonists a few hundred years ago.

Sahand first went to the island when his dentist invited him to join her on a short trip to a school there where she was going to do volunteer dental work on the children. When he arrived, he fell in love with the children who followed him everywhere. The lively and cheerful children at the school loved him and his gentle playfulness, his unending energy and his love that could see beyond their poverty, their misery, and the sad narrative at the root of the learned helplessness present in many of the people of the island. He started teaching them a little Yoga and English and showed them how to take photographs. He was smitten by their innocence and open-heartedness. During his stay there, Sahand met and gained the trust of many people, from teachers working at the school to local entrepreneurs and artists. You see many of them in his movie, talking openly about their dreams and frustrations: vulnerable yet dignified. And indeed this is the magic of Sahand’s work: like some of the best filmmakers of our time (e.g., Michael Glawogger and Hubert Sauper), he respects his subjects which in turn allows them to share with him and, therefore, with us, his audience, an intimate side of themselves that would be impossible for us to see otherwise. This is most successful with the children whose often silent and wordless presence in the movie is so expressive, so innocent, and so hard to watch, because we know that they face unimaginable dangers growing up in one of the most impoverished and dangerous cities in the world. For months after he came back, Sahand talked about the Haitian children’s beautiful eyes. Having worked with children in challenging contexts, I feel I understand the dilemma he felt (and feels) as an artist visiting Haiti and experiencing its pain and beauty and witnessing the contradiction between the charm of the island and its inhabitants and the ugly challenges they face on a daily basis. And what better symbol than the children’s eyes that simultaneously express their innocence and take in the harsh images in front of them?

Sahand’s most intriguing stories come from Cite Soleil, an impoverished and dangerous slum that even UN forces and NGOs are afraid to go into. Sahand had spent time there, meeting many people and getting them to share their stories on camera. You can meet some of these people and hear their voices in the movie. Cite Soleil’s gangs and desperadoes are infamous (e.g., see the dubious documentary Ghosts of Cite Soleil) but there are also many artists who live and work there. Sahand told me of an improve cirques and comedy due whose bitter humour chills your bones and is rooted in the every day experiences of the camp inhabitants; he told me of a sculptor who uses human bones to create sculptures that sell for thousands of euros in France; and he told me of Chelo, a hip hop artist who has lost many members of his family in the earthquake and walks around rhyming and singing songs of suffering and hope and silently refusing to record any of it, for the pain is too much to make a plan for the future. Sahand’s film is accompanied by Pouya Hamidi‘s haunting and whimsical soundtrack. His eclectic and minimal sound accompany the images, effectively helping us connect on an emotional level to what we see on the screen. Pouya told me an interesting story about the soundtrack: when he started working on the score, he was living in Montreal and by chance found a Haitian-born singer there, Athesia, who after seeing clips of the film, agreed to sing on the soundtrack.

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Sahand in Haiti

For a few days in the April of 2012, I had the privilege and honour to visit Sahand in Port-au-Prince. I was interested to see the island and meet the people first hand and experience the stories behind the camera but most importantly I wanted to spend time with Sahand. I arrived in Port au Prince on a small plane from Miami that carried an eclectic collection of missionaries, businessmen and military personal. I was curious to see who will sit beside me. As it turned out, a strong, large man in a suit sat next to me who turned out to be a bodyguard of the Mexican president who was going to visit Haiti in a few days. He also turned out to be a very jovial person and prone to intense laughter at my jokes and stories. He invited me to a private party that I did not go to but still wonder what it would have looked like! When I arrived at the airport, it was wonderful to see Sahand, who with his braided hair and confident smile, looked at home in the chaos surrounding the airport. He soon got us into the back of a truck and we were on our way to Wharf Jermie, a district in Port au Prince where he was staying at a school and working with children. At the school, Sahand introduced me to the open-hearted and playful children. Spending time with Sahand, meeting the children and some of Sahand’s friends, especially a boxer and teacher who was trying to set up a gym in Wharf Jermie for children, were the highlights of my trip.

Over the next few days, Sahand and I explored Port-au-Prince, which years after the earthquake still looked like Apocalypse Now. We visited the downtown area where broken buildings, homeless people and huge rats competed for our attention; we visited the iron market where you could buy voodoo tools, unusual musical instruments and handicrafts; we visited energetic gospel church services that were more like concerts; and we got caught in torrential rain. Lack of street lights and maintained road in Haiti can turn rain into a mighty problem for the traveller there. Once we got caught in rain that filled up the streets, turning into a small flood, and seeming to want to wash everything into the sea. I remember trying to get from one shelter from another dark street and falling into a hole in the middle of the street that was almost as deep as my height. Fortunately, Sahand held my hand and pulled me out of the hole and I got away with minor bruises on my foot. By instinct, I had put my passport and money in a dry plastic bag a few seconds before this episode!

After a few days in Port au Prince, Sahand and I went for a multiple day hiking trip across the mountains to Jacmel, a small port town on the Southern coast. I remember this trip fondly, as we swapped stories from our similar experiences growing up in Iran and shared meals, drinks and laughter. Seeing the mountains of Haiti was refreshing. In the villages, we got to talk to local people who were not as affected by the disasters of the capital. Poverty was still prevalent but somehow seemed less devastating. Jacmel is a beautiful town which is known as the art capital of Haiti with many artists and musicians. We met some of these people randomly, a man making paper mache sculpture on the beach, another painting colourful pictures, and some people practicing music. After relaxing for a few days and having some fresh seafood we head back to Port-au-Prince. One evening during our walk from Port-au-Prince to Jacmel, as the day was drawing to a close, we realized we were still a few miles from the next village and decided to try to find a place to spend the night on the way. As the days was darkening and the only flickering light around us were fireflies (“Coucouy” in Creole), we saw a peasant home in the distance. We reached the door just in time to avoid the first drops of rain that were starting to fall from the sky. After some questions, the family opened the door for us and allowed us to spend the night in their storage room for some money. The typically large family consisted of a man, a couple of young women, a grandma and an army of children of all sizes and shapes who sat on the floor of the small house, looking at the two bearded, tired and dusty men who had appeared out of nowhere at their door. The lady of the house (or the main lady of the house) asked us in a loud rural voice, suited to conversations across large fields, whether we wanted dinner and breakfast. For dinner, we were offered a big cluster of bananas and for breakfast heaping bowls of rice. The storage room was small and windowless but more than enough to rest our weary bodies in the night. As the rain subsided and Sahand and I lay on the makeshift bed and listened to the sounds of the night. The delicate sounds of the countryside – crickets, water drops, wind – were periodically interrupted by a loud donkey bray. Each time we heard the sound, we could not avoid laughing out loud. Tired from the walk and teary-eyed from laughter, I went to sleep in this middle of nowhere. In the morning, we woke to the sound of a hissing radio playing gospel songs (“70% static, 30% song!”). During our breakfast, the whole family was again present with children looking with open-mouthed fascination at us. As we were preparing to hit the road again, the lady of the house, who had seen us play with the youngest child, a boy of about 2, asked us to take hime with us! Shocked, we refused, telling her this child should stay with her mama. We walked on the road again and into the mountains once again baffled and mystified by the contradictions of this land. Watch Sahand’s film: “Haiti: Children of Heaven” by following this link.

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Resting on the mountains on the hike between Port-au-Prince and Jacmel