What does it mean to be Italian in North America? Today An Italian-Canadian Life welcomes a guest post by Amy Di Nardo, a university student studying nursing in Toronto, who hopes to work in the gerontology field. She loves garlic, kitchen-floor dances, and espresso. (I can’t say I blame her…)
The neighborhood I currently live in Toronto (Downsview) is very diverse. If I go for a walk on a Saturday afternoon, it excites me to hear different languages — whether it be Yiddish, Italian or Russian being spoken at different intersections. At a nearby park, I see young children playing on the swings, while a group of elderly ladies walk by, deep in conversation.
I have lived in Toronto for just about two years and it was a huge transition. I found that it took a great deal of time to adjust to the the rhythm of a large city. In my hometown of Sault Ste. Marie, I grew up in an Italian bubble. The city contains a very large Italian population relative to its size and due to its isolation from other major cities (nine hour drive to Toronto), a unique culture was created that lives and thrives within the community.
The ways in which ethnic communities interact, both internally and externally to other groups, seems very different in small versus metropolitan centres.
It didn’t take me much time to find an Italian presence in Toronto. The first experience I had was going to College Street for the Tarantella Festival. The street was closed off for dancing, musicians, vendors and artists such as Mimmo Cavallaro and Rionne Junno. I wouldn’t expect this sort of large-scale event to come to Sault Ste. Marie.
After this event, I was introduced to the popular GTA magazine, PanoramItalia, and the newspaper Lo Specchio. There were profiles, articles, events, language classes — everything you can think of! I quickly realized how organized and vastly different the Toronto Italian community is from Sault Ste. Marie — however, I still cannot put my finger on the exact variances.
A year had gone by, and I had yet to meet an “Italian neighborhood” in Toronto. A friend suggested that I go visit Corso Italia, at Dufferin and St. Clair, when I feel homesick. She was right — I walked down the street and it had the old-world European feeling that I had been missing. Even today, I love to go walking down Corso Italia, step into the stores and sit to read a newspaper with an espresso at Tre Mari bakery.
Recently, in my own neighborhood, I walked down the street and heard a loud and beautiful Calabrese-peppered argument over the fence! It was an elderly couple, fighting about grass that was too long. I wanted to say something, but I knew the time wasn’t right. And a couple blocks south, I spotted an elderly Italian man in his greenhouse, tending to a fig tree. He had the most beautiful tomatoes I saw all summer.
Living in Toronto has taught me a great deal about my own developing identity as an Italian-Canadian. I continue to wonder about how the memory of places, people, and events, have and continue to shape who I become. And, I cannot help but wonder, what role do other peoples’ memories play in my life? I place side-by-side, two pictures of vast gardens — one in Italy and one in Canada. While separated by decades of time, and an ocean away, my great-grandmother’s home in Calabria feels so close and familiar to me. My cousin Matthew tends to his tomatoes and basil in the same fashion and care as our grandparents did.
I used to often visit my Zia Emma in Sault Ste. Marie. She got married at 18 and lived in the same house until she died at age 89. Almost daily, after hanging clothes on the line, she went to the street corner with her friends to sing melodies and lullabies that their mothers sang to them in Italy. The manner in which Zia spoke of them, were as if they happened yesterday. Her recollections were so close to her and clear, they almost became part of my own memories.
And today, I walk down the street and see the old Italian man singing and fussing over his garden. I can’t help but want to ask him, “What are you thinking about?”