A Brick Lover’s Toronto

I recently travelled for the first time since Covid—a solo trip to Toronto to celebrate my first year of motherhood (in a pandemic no less). It’s been two of both now but Covid got in the way of going earlier.

As someone who attended university in Ottawa, I had been to Toronto a few times on weekend trips and it was fun but not particularly inspiring. The destination of this trip actually wasn’t that important to me. What was more important was having a much-needed getaway (I am inclined to urban spaces) and seeing and staying with an old friend I hadn’t seen in several years.

Brick houses in Cabbagetown.

But the destination surprised me. It was so much older and beautiful than I remembered. I found myself enchanted with all the brick houses, taking picture after picture because they were all so beautiful and different and teeming with character. Coming from the West Coast where our building materials are wood and glass (Douglas Coupland nicknamed Vancouver the “City of Glass,” and it was only incorporated in 1886), there was something comforting about the solidity and permanency of brick. I wish I could call one of these houses mine.

Such love in the details here. And that red door! Cabbagetown neighbourhood.
The symmetrical, two-pronged staircase leading to the blue door is perfection. Also in Cabbagetown.
Yet another lovely duplex in Cabbagetown.
View from my friend’s condo in the Annex. It was not uncommon to see turrets. Turrets, folks!
Of course there were also turrets on Casa Loma.

Housing was on my mind as my husband and I had just learned that our landlord was about to sell the beloved house that we rent the top floor of in Vancouver. We’ve been there for three years and were hoping to have been there a lot more. Now we’ll have two months from date of sale to find a new home.

Looking back through my photos of the Art Gallery of Ontario, I noticed how many were paintings of houses and rooftops. Definitely a theme here.

A wall of Lawren S. Harris paintings in the Thomas Collection. Left: Houses, Richmond Street, 1911, oil on canvas. Top middle: Street Scene with Figures, Hamilton, 1919, oil on wood-pulp board. Bottom middle: In the Ward, Toronto, 1917, oil on wood-pulp board.
Maximilien Luce, Gisons, The Cathedral, 1897, oil on paper mounted to canvas.

These two women beside each other in the AGO also caught my eye: Saint Anne with the Christ Child (c.1645-1650) by Georges de la Tour on the left and Melancholy (c.1627) by Hendrick ter Brugghen on the right, which purportedly depicts Mary Magdalene. They look like they could have been painted by the same artist. The works share so many similarities: dramatic late-night scenes illuminated by a single candle, two women with downcast eyes thinking and feeling deeply. They face each other, as if they are made to converse about life and death. I wrote a poem about the two women the next day at First & Last Coffee. The weather was delightfully warm enough in early May that I could enjoy their wonderful patio space.

One of my hopes for the trip was to have some quiet time wandering, reflecting, and writing. I headed to Toronto’s Necropolis, because just like Vancouver’s cemetery has inspired many a poem, I thought this picturesque Toronto cemetery could too.

Entrance to the Necropolis, featuring a Victorian Gothic chapel.
The most recognizable monument in the Necropolis. Jack Layton’s wife Olivia Chow created this bronze bust.

The Necropolis is one of the city’s oldest cemeteries, established in 1850. It sits to the west of the Don Valley Parkway, which is shown in this painting below by William Kurelek that my friend and I saw the day before at the AGO. We spent at least half an hour trying to find the hidden crucifix near the edge of the trees. We gave up and googled it instead.

William Kurelek, Don Valley on a Grey Day, 1972, mixed media on hardboard.

I also took a pilgrimage to Knife Fork Book, a poetry dispensary located in Capital Espresso on Queen Street and picked up some reading material for later.

Street art of…houses, what else?

As someone drawn to architecture and its endless forms, I found Toronto inspiring after all.

O Toronto!
Nathan Phillips Square with the Romanesque-style Old City Hall in the background.
Spadina Museum (a Victorian mansion) near Casa Loma.
One of many old stone buildings on U of T’s campus.
St. Michael’s Cathedral.
Old meets new in the Daniels Building for U of T’s architecture, landscape, and design program.

When I posted some of my pictures on Facebook, a friend commented, “Who knew Toronto could be so beautiful?” Indeed, who knew?

Historic home of Daniel Lamb, business man, City Father, a founder of Toronto’s first zoo, 1842-1920.

And for those curious, I do have a poem in the works that combines my love of Victorian houses with my interest in cemeteries and my surprise appearance in Jack Layton’s Ottawa rental before he was Leader of the Opposition. Strange what memories and alignments a trip might spark and a poem might allow.

The Great Empty vs. The Great Filling

As a UVic alumna, I receive their Torch magazine whose recent cover article features cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Robin Mazumder and his research on how cities affect our mental well-being.

For his PhD in psychology, his research focused on stress responses when people were dropped via virtual reality into two separate locations in central London: 1) next to a high-rise building and 2) next to a low-rise building.

I imagine the participants of the study being dropped into a high-rise scene like this for the first location. (Photo of NYC by me)

Not surprisingly, author Michael Kissinger summarizes:

What he found was that tall buildings make people uncomfortable when they’re surrounded by them. Conversely, people have less of a stress response when they’re in environments that are built at what’s considered “human scale,” or the European model where buildings tend to top out at five storeys. 

Reading this brought me back to my literature courses in university. In the early 20th century when the development of urban spaces was accelerating at a fast pace, German socialist Georg Simmel was similarly concerned about the affect of the city on an individual in his landmark essay “The Metropolis and Mental Life” from 1903. In fact, he was the one who coined the term blasé, which Merriam-Webster defines as “apathetic to pleasure or excitement as a result of excessive indulgence or enjoyment.” It’s a paradox: to feel something so strongly that you end up not feeling anything at all.

Many moving parts on a typical street in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Paris.

Simmel says that the extreme excess or intensification of stimuli in the city “agitates the nerves to their strongest reactivity for such a long time that they finally cease to react at all.” Examples of stimuli he gives include “the grasp of a single glance . . . each crossing of the street . . . [and] the tempo and multiplicity of economic, occupational and social life.”

Bryant Park in NYC. Love this dynamic park nestled behind the public library.

I have to admit that I am a city lover. I sang New York’s praises after visiting it for the first time (well aware now that living there would likely be a very different experience). In BC, I once had a job in what some would consider an idyllic pastoral setting where sheep and cows grazed in fields outside my window, their bleating and mooing a lunchtime lullaby. But I longed for blinking streetlights and fast-moving things: cars, bikes, people. Looking back, I think I was drawn to what those fast-moving things represented: opportunities.

While I don’t live downtown and am not surrounded by high-rises, I do live in a city and enjoy venturing downtown because of the different pace of life it offers. When Vancouver was shut down early in the pandemic and on and off since then, I looked forward to roaming around Gastown only to be dismayed at how empty it was. The photographs from around the world in this New York Times article “The Great Empty” capture that melancholy well.

Gastown’s famous steam clock (photo by me). What is time anymore?

If I were a subject in Mazumder’s study, I wonder what my response would have been. If he had conducted his study both pre- and post-pandemic, would there be a significant difference? Would the long amounts of isolation and at-home time make a bustling city scene more attractive than normal? Would we be less stressed and more excited? Or would the long absence of this hustle and bustle trigger anew the anxiety of crowds and stimuli that we had forgotten we were used to?

Grand Central Station, NYC, back in 2011.

I have a chapbook out now called ‘Let Us Go Then’ that alludes to T.S. Eliot’s quintessentially modernist poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” that one could argue features a speaker (Prufrock) desperately trying to overcome the blasé. The first stanza of his poem comes to mind when I think about “The Great Empty.” Obviously Eliot is writing in a very different context than our current pandemic one, but he is addressing emptiness of another kind: emptiness with modern living and all of its “fillings” as I paradoxically call them in my final poem of the chapbook.

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question ...
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

“A patient etherized upon a table” and “half-deserted streets” strike an eerily familiar chord. I find a degree of solace in this world-weary speaker who presents as an urban, educated individual who is painfully unsure of the world he finds himself inhabiting (and where he fits in, as a result).

The speaker is longing for emotional, spiritual, and physical connection.

I joke that I never knew I was extroverted until the pandemic hit. Give me people! (another Paris photo)

This longing ties into Michael Kimmelman’s introduction to that New York Times article showing mesmerizing photographs of empty public spaces:

Their present emptiness, a public health necessity, can conjure up dystopia, not progress, but, promisingly, it also suggests that, by heeding the experts and staying apart, we have not yet lost the capacity to come together for the common good. Covid-19 doesn’t vote along party lines, after all. These images are haunted and haunting, like stills from movies about plagues and the apocalypse, but in some ways they are hopeful.

They also remind us that beauty requires human interaction.

Burrard SkyTrain Station, Vancouver.

Human interaction indeed. That’s what Robin Mazumder comes back to in the UVic article: designing cities that are at a human scale, where most necessities are met within a 15-minute walk or transit ride, where spaces foster mixed uses and diverse users that create opportunities for community—a good kind of filling, maybe even a great one.

A mixed-use space (Woodward’s atrium in Gastown, Vancouver) I wrote about for my Master’s research.

‘Let Us Go Then’ Chapbook Announcement

Ever since arriving home from a Europe trip with my husband in 2017, I got the idea to write a poem for each place we visited. Four years later, these poems are going to be published in my debut chapbook titled ‘Let Us Go Then’ coming out this December with the Alfred Gustav Press as part of their Series 26, which includes three other people’s chapbooks. For those unfamiliar with the term, a chapbook is a very short publication or the literary equivalent of an EP.

Here’s the back cover blurb:

“Let Us Go Then invites you down European streets into scenes framed with art. Like parallel trains travelling through space and time, the poems map a trip alongside a marriage.”

If you’re interested in ordering, here’s the link with details. Note it’s a subscription-only press so orders must be placed by October 1. http://d-zieroth.squarespace.com/the-alfred-gustav-press

Signing the contract for my chapbook in 2020. A long-hoped for day.

I have loved writing and editing these poems and I can’t wait to have them out in the world, in friends’ and families’ (hopefully even strangers’) mailboxes before Christmas. Not every poem/place could fit within the scope of this chapbook (sorry Florence, Vernazza, and Munich), but the 10 poems that did make the cut give a good sense of the month-long journey that I feel incredibly privileged to have taken and grateful as to when I did it. Sights include Paris, Monet’s Garden (Giverny), Nice, Rome, Venice, Neuschwanstein Castle (Bavaria), and Amsterdam. Some poems were written on location (though morphed into very different poems through the editing process); others were written soon after arriving home; and the most recent were penned in 2020 after rereading my travel journal.

I did a lot of writing on the train. This is somewhere in France.

In anticipation of the book’s publication, here are some photos (taken by me) that capture scenes addressed in the poems either overtly or subtly. Think of these photos like easter eggs in a Taylor Swift song. Can you guess where they’re from?

Gazing at Glass in Durham Cathedral

On our way to Hadrian’s Wall and the Lake District, my husband and I stopped in the small town of Durham to see their towering, world-class cathedral.

Elvet Bridge in Durham

Durham Cathedral is a great example of Norman or Romanesque architecture. It was built to house the shrine of St. Cuthbert from Lindisfarne. The cathedral you see today was erected over St. Cutherbert’s tomb in 1093 and completed in a remarkable 40 years.

Durham Cathedral

There’s another famous figure associated with Durham Cathedral: The Venerable Bede, an eighth century monk who wrote the first history book of England. Fun fact: his Ecclesiastical History of the English People was the first work to use the AD dating system (anno Domini, meaning the year of our Lord or when Christ was born).

Tomb of Venerable Bede in the Galilee Chapel

Romanesque or Norman Architecture

Rounded arches and vaults are characteristic of Romanesque architecture (meaning “from Rome”). In Britain, however, it’s more common to call this architecture “Norman” because it was the Normans who came to England from Normandy (France) who introduced this style.

Compared to the Gothic-style York Minister I blogged about last week, Durham Cathedral impresses you with its bulkiness and solidity. You can immediately notice the difference. There’s a weight and heaviness to the nave with those chunky stone pillars that you don’t experience in the lighter, airier York Minster nave. Because churches in the Romanesque period were made of stone, they had to be very thick and the windows small to prevent the building from collapsing. Over time, a leaner style was achieved that led to the Gothic style of ribbed vaults, flying buttresses, and pointed arches.

Geometric patterns were common Norman decorations and I enjoyed spotting different markings in the stone pillars of the nave (e.g some had a chevron pattern, others a honeycomb).

Durham Catheral’s website states that during the monastic period (1093-1539), the walls would have been painted and the windows filled with stained glass. After the Reformation, however, the walls were all whitewashed and the stained glass removed. The stained glass you see today is almost all Victorian. I wonder if this section below is a remnant of the monastic wall paint showing through like old wallpaper.

Stained Glass Windows

My favourite part of Durham Cathedral isn’t the architecture but the numerous stained glass windows that give more colour and life to this dark and sombre structure.

Of course there are the classic stained glass windows showing Biblical scenes like the crucifixion:

The Rose Window and 3 stained glass windows above the Chapel of Nine Altars

. . . but you can see those in practically any cathedral. What’s different about Durham Cathedral is its abundance of contemporary stained glass windows and how well these modern artworks complement the traditional ones and even combine with them in such a historic building.

The millennium window

The Millennium window is a great example of an artwork blending classic and contemporary motifs. Installed in 1995 to celebrate the 1000th anniversary of St. Cuthbert’s shrine arriving at Durham, it begins with imagery of St. Cuthbert’s tomb and the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, moving through England’s history with depictions of coal miners, cows, and a computer (bottom left) printing out a 12th century account of moving St. Cuthbert’s coffin.

The TraNSfiguration window

I couldn’t make out many scenes in The Transfiguration window, but I loved the use of the orange and blue complementary colours centered around a swath of blazing light. The window seamlessly integrates representational figures in the lower half with abstract representations in the top half. It was designed by Tom Denny and contains Biblical stories and scenes from Durham’s history.

The Daily Bread window

The Daily Bread window was a gift in 1984 from Durham’s Marks & Spencer department store, of all places! Mark Angus is the artist. It’s a modern interpretation of The Last Supper seen from above. I had a wonderful chat with an elderly docent about this window, where he asked me questions to help tease out more of the meaning. Instead of literal people, the artist represented the apostles as circles resembling worlds with their own colours, uniqueness, and personalities.

“Which one do you think is Judas?” the docent asked me.

“That dark greenish black one on the left.”

“I would agree. And notice how it’s painted further out than the other circles are, as if he’s in the act of leaving the table. And which one do you think is Jesus?”

“Centre bottom.”

“The brightest one. What do you think the green and blue colours refer to?”

“Water and land?” I venture.

“Or earth and sky with stars twinkling in the night, emphasizing that Christ is Lord of heaven and earth. And the colour purple?”

“Royalty.” I gaze more at the wave-like pattern in the background and it brings to mind folded clothes or the loose robes that hang from the cross at church after Easter.

I loved looking at this painting of the Last Supper because I’ve never seen one like it before. It’s simple yet rich with symbols. I also love that I got to talk about it with someone who’s probably looked at it a hundred times and who deepened my experience by sharing his insights with me. There are often docents posted in galleries and museums—if you get a chance, pick their brain because they have a lot of knowledge and are usually happy to share it!

Another moving artwork in Durham Cathedral: this sculpture of The Pieta by Fenwick Lawson. It breaks with tradition by depicting lying at his mother Mary’s feet instead of in her arms.

Wandering through Waco

Normally when my husband and I visit his family in Texas, we stick to Houston and Austin (where they live). This past Christmas, however, we had some more time to visit close friends in another, smaller city of roughly 130 000: Waco.

I didn’t know much about Waco but when I told other people I would be going there, they were quick to jump on David Koresh’s cult that left 80 people dead in 1993. Apparently the rural complex at the Mount Carmel Centre just outside Waco attracts many tourists to this day. We did not go there.

Instead, we went to a site in downtown Waco that is emblematic of how the economy of the city has changed in the last few years, giving it a better reputation and thousands of tourists each year: Magnolia Market at the Silos. This food truck park + garden + bakery + antique stores + seed supply store sprawls across two and a half acres under two grain silos. The market is the result of the success of Chip and Joanna Gaines’s hit HGTV show Fixer Upper.

Unlike most of the world, it seems, I had never heard of this couple, nor their famous show. I toured their big warehouse full of farmhouse chic furniture and home goods, but I honestly didn’t find it much different than similar home stores in Vancouver. But I was told Joanna Gaines was the one who made that barnyard look famous (shiplap, anyone?), so what do I know?

Speaking of fixing up homes, we stayed in one (not by Chip and Joanna), but by East Waco entrepreneur and community activist Nancy Grayson, who also runs the Lula Jane‘s bakery just down the road on Elm Avenue. You can read more about her and the bakery in this article. The Airbnb, called “The Peach House” was fabulous. I loved all the details of this fully restored house, including the door knobs, the sun room, the original wood floors. And what’s a better welcome than freshly baked goodies waiting for you?

I learned this style of a house is called a “shotgun” house. Why, you ask? Here’s what Encyclopedia Britannica has to say:

Shotgun houses may have derived their name from that room format, as it was sometimes said that a bullet shot from the front door would pass through the house without hitting anything and exit through the back door.

These houses originated in the Southern United States and were the most popular style from the American Civil War to the 1920s.

The house is within walking distance to Waco Suspension Bridge that opened in 1870 and was the first bridge to cross the Brazos River. A steel cable suspension bridge, it became the prototype for other suspension bridges like the Brooklyn Bridge (I included a photo of that below to compare the two). Originally it was open to traffic (beginning with cattle, then stagecoaches, etc.) but now it’s only a foot bridge.

Just a little ways down Brazos River is another beautiful bridge: The Washington Avenue Bridge built in 1902.

As you may know, I have a thing for bridges so it was delightful to come across these two in Waco (we were only there for a day though, and catching up with friends was more important than seeing ALL THE SIGHTS). For instance, we didn’t go to the Dr. Pepper Museum. The drink was invented in Waco, but seeing as I don’t like that drink anyway, I don’t think I missed much.

I’ll leave you with a few other notable downtown buildings: McLennan County Courthouse and the ALICO building, a 22-story office building, the tallest building in Waco and the second oldest skyscraper in Texas. Like the Waco Suspension Bridge, these two buildings are also on the National Register of Historic Places.

All postcards found on Wikipedia, sourced from the University of Houston Digital Library.

Catching our Breath in Nice

It’s been a year since the Artist and I left for Europe. In looking back at my posts, I’ve realized I haven’t written about one of the eight places we visited. So, last but not least . . . Nice.

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Nice felt like the Waikiki of France. Tropical. Laid-back. Beautiful views and turquoise blues. Hotels slung along the shore, such as Hotel Negresco with its signature pink dome.

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Nice was a perfect place to catch our breath after the bustle of Paris. We had two nights here before moving on to the Cinque Terre. Our only agenda was to walk la Promenade des Anglais, explore le Parc de la Colline du Château (Castle Hill), and relax.

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As you can tell by the photos, Nice is sunny and warm, even in October. We climbed the winding steps at the eastern end of la Promenade which brings you to the 16th-century Tour Bellanda, the only remaining part of a medieval castle that stood atop this hill (you can see it in the photograph above).

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Castle Hill was the city’s original site. It was dismantled by soldiers during the French occupation under King Louis XIV in 1706. This limestone rock is a natural formation standing 93 metres tall. There are plenty of footpaths at the top, castle remnants, an impressive waterfall built in the 18th century, playgrounds, and cafés.

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It’s a beautiful place to wander, have a picnic under a tree, and take in the views of la Baie des Anges (Bay of Angels) to the west and the Port of Nice to the east. You can also see inland to the red-tiled roofs of the city and the Provençal hills further beyond.

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The cherry and cream-coloured Hôtel Suisse at the base of Castle Hill drew my attention with this plaque honouring James Joyce’s sojourn in the city, where he began Finnegans Wake. I’m wrapping up my project of writing a poem for every place we visited on our trip and this plaque provided the inspiration for my Nice poem which I’m quite excited about. It’s a departure from my usual style.

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La Promenade is dotted with beaches. We couldn’t stay here and not hop in the water, though we got about as far as our knees before the wind proved too much. We found Cinque Terre a better/warmer spot for actually swimming in the Mediterranean.

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We ate our favourite dinner of the whole trip in Vieux Nice at a restaurant called Le Tire Bouchon. We stumbled upon this place and felt especially lucky when a British couple at the table beside us told us that this is the best spot to dine in the city (apparently they come to Nice often and have tried a lot of restaurants). The Artist ordered steak and I had a lamb shank served on the creamiest bed of mashed potatoes. Quelle présentation!

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There’s a wonderful flower and produce market called cours Saleya that we enjoyed wandering through and buying some fresh fruit. The streets in this old part of town never cease to surprise with their unexpected turns, oddly shaped and squished buildings, and peek-a-boo glimpses of architectural gems. And with colourful flags overhead, the streets exude vibrance and cheer. We didn’t know if it always looked this way or if there was a festival happening at that time, but we really loved the vibe in Vieux Nice.

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