The end of autumn has fully arrived. Sunny days spent cycling to libraries and enjoying coffee by the lake are over. The time has come for days in which the temperature hovers just above freezing and an icy rain is falling.
The final leg of the trip takes me by bus up Bathurst street. Every time the door opens a blast of cold damp air comes in behind a cold person bearing an umbrella. As I sit in my seat I envy the large poodle a few seats ahead of me. He’s really warm and dry in his thick coat and is the happiest of all of us on the bus.
It is still raining when I get off the bus so even though I have only a few minutes to walk, I put all of my layers back on and put my hood up. Sage jokes that she thinks I am a cat. I don’t disagree. I am least comfortable when cold and wet.
The neighbourhood is a lot like many of the inner suburbs of Toronto. The main roads are filled with strip malls and the side streets are quieter and lined with small single family homes with the occasional apartment building breaking things up.
The Barbara Frum library is down a side street. The building is bigger than I expect. It seems amazing enough that our city has 100 public libraries but the fact that it has so many large libraries like this one makes me happy.
I’ve known about this library for some time. The name has always stuck with me for some reason, I think because I associate it with “John Frum” a figure associated with cargo cults that I read about some years ago. Out of curiosity I look up Barbara Frum and find that she was a well respected journalist who worked with the Toronto Star and the CBC who died in the early 1990’s. This library was opened shortly after her death in 1992.
Walking inside I’m a bit surprised to see the first floor almost completely unoccupied. A librarian sits at the main desk but otherwise there seems to be nobody here despite there being lots of space for people.
Going upstairs I’m happy to see that there are a few more people to be found. In one corner two 60-something women are working together, one teaching the other how to access the library’s electronic resources from her new tablet.
A look out the window shows that despite its having taken over an hour to get here, we are still a relatively short distance from the heart of Midtown Toronto.
I wander through the library and find it a great place for browsing. I check my two favourite areas, the 300’s of Dewey Decimal (Social Science) with everything from politics, to sociology to cultural critique is loaded with interesting choices. The travel section in the low 900’s isn’t half bad either. With those two sections well-covered I think I could probably live in this neighbourhood quite happily.
I always like to have a look at the foreign language offerings of the library as it gives me a really good picture of who lives in this part of town. Here’s what I find.
Looking at this I’m reminded – this neighbourhood has a large Orthodox Jewish population. And today, Saturday, is the sabbath. This may explain the small number of people inside and on the streets as well.
I’m reminded of the fact that today’s the sabbath again when I check out Google Maps to find a restaurant to eat at. Most of the Kosher restaurants nearby are closed for the day. I do find one that is open, though and make my way there.
This looks like a good bet and the potato pancakes I see on the menu outside sound like just the thing for a day like today. But then I get to the door. The place is packed with a line entering the foyer of the restaurant. I’m not getting seated for quite some time. And unfortunately I have to go back downtown to meet my friend Pallavi (who interviewed me in Hindi for her radio show some time ago) in just a little over an hour. And so I make my way back to the bus stop.
Soon Pallavi and I are on the subway heading east. She had originally suggested going to Little India for lunch but I mentioned that I knew of a Gujarati restaurant that is only a little farther than we intended to go. Because there’s no library immediately nearby and it’s one of my favourite restaurants in the city, I hope you don’t mind joining me on a bit of a detour.
While of course we enjoy each other’s company, it’s also especially fun to spend time with Pallavi because at any moment one or the other of us could switch to Hindi. It keeps me very much on my toes and I get practice not only with listening and speaking but shifting my brain.
Soon we are at Govardhan Thal – one of the only Gujarati restaurants in the area. I haven’t been here in almost a year and it’s been too long. Going here is a great experience for me. I know a reasonable amount about most North Indian food and some South Indian food as well, but if I go beyond that I am in completely new territory. And so my experience here is always one of trying new things and flavour combinations.
The food is all vegetarian and is all you can eat. You pick up a thali and several small katori and pick up your choice of dishes. There are so many choices you can’t possibly try everything. Soon after we arrive, someone comes by with a pitcher of buttermilk. While I don’t usually do well with dairy, and have never in my life been a milk drinker, I can’t pass this up. It is so delicious and refreshing and spiced as it is, I find that it doesn’t have the aftertaste that I don’t like when drinking plain milk.
As if this isn’t enough to satisfy your appetite, there are several women at stoves behind the counter who are constantly making fresh roti. Soon after sitting down, one comes over with plain roti with a generous amount of ghee on top of it. We each take two of those. A few minutes later another woman comes by. She has bajra (millet) roti. These are my favourite. I take some. Next, puran poli, sweet stuffed roti are offered. Pallavi turns those down, but I say “baad mein” – later. These are delicious but I’ll have them after I eat a bit more of all of the other wonderful things. She tries to persuade Pallavi to have some, telling her how good they are but we all know we need to pace ourselves. Soon after, though, masala roti are on offer. These are so delicious I can’t pass those up. While we eat I hear the friendly arguments between the people offering roti and the patrons: “No, I am good, I don’t need another roti.” “But these are really delicious and so fresh – you should try them!” It feels very friendly – like visiting family or close friends who show their affection by insisting you eat until you can’t possibly eat another thing.
One of the funny things about my speaking Hindi is the variety of reactions I get from Hindi speakers. Some are shocked and happy and compliment me on how good my Hindi is – even as I was simply saying “I’d like two more roti.” Others either don’t register that I I’m speaking Hindi and respond in English. There’s a third option that is much more rare and that is people who just treat it like a normal everyday occurrence and respond in Hindi. At this restaurant, most of the staff speak Gujarati to one another which I don’t understand, but 90% of the customers speak Hindi with the staff. So I generally don’t hear English except occasionally from the staff when speaking to me. On the other hand, once I speak Hindi there, they also respond in Hindi, quite possibly noting that Pallavi and I switch back and forth ourselves. A funny side effect of this, though, is that the staff always assume that we’re a couple. I understand the logic of the story they likely tell themselves: he learned Hindi to speak with her and her family. They show their assumption when we go up to pay. We’ve now been there twice and every time we have to tell them that no, we would like separate bills.
As we walk out of the restaurant, we’re already planning our next trip here. It may take almost an hour to get to from downtown but it’s totally worth the time.