I usually take ten minutes to walk that kilometer, but that night, it took longer. There were few vehicles on the road, but the subways were running and were actually more crowded than usual. Finally at the Old Mill, I changed into my party gear, unstuck my frozen eyelashes, fixed my smeared make-up and left my bag in the cloakroom. When I walked into the party room, people seemed to wonder why I was late—most of them had decided, early on, to take public transport. Yes, public transport. And why not?
When I first moved to Toronto, I settled with my three grown-up children in an apartment close to a subway stop, telling them that soon I’d buy a car and a small house. It’s been ten years, the kids have since moved out, but I have done neither. I take the sidewalks and the subway, for Toronto is pedestrian-friendly and the public transport system is very efficient. In Manila, I felt crippled without a car, but here, where parking is expensive and traffic can be a nightmare, who needs a car? I rent one to go on a road trip and borrow my son’s for shopping. Or else, I get groceries online.
Six years ago, I was ready to stop renting. Instead of buying a house in the suburbs, I picked a condo unit away from downtown but close to the subway. Within a two-kilometer radius—and,therefore, very walkable--are churches, my hairdresser, dentist, doctor, dance school, a post office, drugstore, library, grocer, fresh produce stores, restaurants. My workplace is one subway ride away. I used to live next to High Park, Toronto’s version of Central Park, and would jog there most mornings. On weekends, I’d jog all the way to Lake Ontario’s shore pretending I was on a real beach. I now live five subway stops away from this haven, but I can still be there quickly for its cherry blossoms in spring, its lush woods and calming pond in summer, its blazing colours in fall, and the fairyland that it becomes in winter.
Yes, there’s the weather. Today, it’s minus-4°C, feeling like minus eight, and it’s only the first week of November. But it’s sunny so I’m glad. The past two weeks, with gloomy skies and temperatures hovering around freezing, it was nasty–chilling rain, wet snow, or wind that could speed up or slow down your walk the way a headwind or tailwind affects an airplane’s flying time.
Soon the snowstorms will come and the subways will be packed with folks who’ll find it easier to hop on a train than dig their cars out of the snow and drive the slick roads. I’ll be thankful once more that I don’t own a car. I once had to drive through a sudden snow white-out and it was frightening, because my twenty years of Manila driving hadn’t prepared me for snow, much less ice. Experts say that when your car fishtails on ice, you should let go of the gas but not step on the brakes and steer in the direction of the fishtail. How can I expect to remember all that? Besides, if you ask any trucker about icy roads, he’ll likely say, “Be very afraid.”
So I’m happy to take the snowy sidewalks anytime, although, of course, they can also be icy. One day, I fell because I didn’t realize that under the thin layer of snow on the sidewalk was a sheet of ice. Thank God I only sprained a wrist.
The trick is to check the weather forecast before leaving home so you know how to dress. It’s not fun to have to wear a heavy coat on top of a sweater on top of one or two other layers of clothing. And to have to drag your snow boots on a sidewalk that hasn’t been cleared of snow. But what to do? I remind myself why I moved here, listen to Disco Inferno on my mp3 and rehearse hustle steps in my mind, careful not to dance them lest I slip again and break a bone this time.
TIPS FOR NEWCOMERS IN TORONTO
- With its population of 2.6 million, Toronto is Canada’s largest city, and the Greater Toronto Area’s 5.6 million makes it Canada’s biggest metropolitan area. It’s 16 percent of the total Canadian population of 33.5 million.
- Of the 468,000 Filipinos in Canada, about 185,000 are in the Greater Toronto Area. In the city of Toronto itself, the biggest concentration of Filipinos are in Scarborough, North York, East York and Etobicoke. In the suburbs, the cities of Mississauga, Brampton, Markham, Vaughn, Pickering, Ajax Richmond Hill and Oakville are popular places to settle.
- Canada’s welcoming immigration policies in the past decades have transformed its metropolitan areas into interesting cultural mosaics. Toronto is known as one of the world’s most multicultural cities. Almost half of its population are visible minorities, most of whom are South Asians, followed by Chinese and blacks. Filipinos come fourth. As a result, although the two official languages are English and French, most of the population are bilingual in English and a language other than French. In the 2011 Canadian census, Tagalog turned out to be the fastest-growing language in Canada.
- Canada is predominantly Catholic. Good Friday is a statutory holiday. You have a choice of sending your child to a Catholic public school or a French-immersion one, or even a combination of both, for free. Toronto has three major universities: the University of Toronto, York University and Ryerson University.
- After being a legal resident of Ontario for three months, you become entitled to a wide range of free health services. You can then walk in and out of a doctor’s office and go for diagnostics without paying a cent. If you don’t have private health insurance to supplement this, expect to pay for outpatient prescription drugs, dental and eye care. Emergency care and most in-hospital services, including surgery, chemotherapy and dialysis, are covered.
- In spite of the common lake-effect snow squalls, Toronto’s winters are mild by Canadian standards. Even if it’s almost always below freezing in the winter, Toronto gets an average of two or three hours of sunshine per day. In the summer, the average temperature is 25°C although it can go as high as 37°C, and the sun shines for about eight to nine hours a day. In the Northern provinces, winters can last for five to ten months and temperatures can go as low as minus 50 or even minus 60°C. Although I cannot imagine myself moving to Yellowknife or Nunavut, some Filipinos do, given the liberal tax breaks that are available to skilled and professional workers.
- Tourist must-sees in the city: CN Tower, Royal Ontario Museum, Casa Loma, Toronto Zoo, Art Gallery of Ontario; and ninety minutes away, the magnificent Niagara Falls. There’s also a chain of small islands in Lake Ontario called Toronto Islands. It is a part of the City of Toronto and is accessible only by public ferry. A popular recreation destination and home to a residential community and an airport, it’s the largest car-free community in North America.
- Toronto is a paradise for the performing arts–ballet, opera, symphony orchestra, and theater. Most plays you see on Broadway you can also see in Toronto. You can find just about any kind of cuisine here, too. And there are street festivals in each season, from the Caribbean carnival-style Caribana, the all-night contemporary arts Nuit Blanche, the summer Jazz Festival, the winter Cavalcade of Lights, to the long-running Pride Parade, (The province of Ontario, where Toronto belongs, legalized same-sex marriage in 2003. Since 2005, same-sex marriage has been legal in all of Canada.) And then, of course, there’s hockey, which any true-blue Canadian is expected to be crazy about.
- If you’re new to Ontario, as soon as possible, obtain a social insurance number (SIN) card, and although you will have to wait for three months for free medical benefits, apply for Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP). For more information and service center locations, go to http://www.servicecanada.gc.ca/eng/sc/sin/ and http://www.health.gov.on.ca/en/public/programs/ohip/
- Helpful websites for new immigrants:
Born and raised in Ilocos Norte and Manila, Odette Foronda moved to Toronto in mid-life and now manages the finances of L’Arche Toronto, a charity that looks after people with developmental disabilities. She is a mother of four and grandma of two. On the side, she's trying her hand at writing and dancing.