Shortly after our wedding, my husband and I began discussing leaving my hometown of Toronto so that we could buy a home that would we could a) afford and b) that would provide us with more than half a house with a basement tenant for the next thirty years. We realized that living in the GTA wasn’t likely going to be an answer for us, so we started looking east and west of the GTA for options.
Driving home to Toronto after visiting family in Wiarton, Ontario after one long weekend, my husband highlighted on a map where all of his ten brothers and sisters lived (which ended up being almost a perfect circle of southwestern Ontario) and said, “anywhere in there”, keeping us within a few hours drive of just about everyone. I was driving, reached across, touched the map and my finger landed on Stratford, Ontario. “Stratford?” I said. “I could do Stratford.”
Stratford, it was decided, was the “delicate balance” of what worked for both my husband and myself. Small town enough for him (growing up originally in Walkerton and Wiarton) and cosmopolitan enough for me (being raised in Toronto with family ties to New York City). We didn’t do much research about the City before we started looking for homes online; somehow we just figured it would be the right fit for us. That was now, almost ten years ago.
I remember telling people that we were moving to Stratford and in particular, I remember one woman’s response being “Stratford? Oh, I love Stratford! It’s so beautiful; the Festival and the restaurants, it’s so quaint…why Stratford?” she asked me. I looked at her and said simply, “for all the reasons you just mentioned!” Also, at the time the cover story of Toronto Life magazine was titled “Market Gone Mad”, which opened with the accounting of a tiny, 40s bungalow in Riverdale that was on the market for five days, had ten bidders and if I recall correctly was listed for $450K+ and sold for $650+ and was then slated for demolition the next day. Insanity. Pure insanity. We were living in a stunning apartment in Forest Hill, but there was no way we could afford to buy a home in the neighbourhoods we wanted to live in. So, when the the lovely woman at the Starbucks asked me what the difference between Toronto and Stratford meant for me, my response was, “My 1917 home is on a lot 50′ x 230′; it’s a 2 1/2 storey red brick house with a wrap around porch, finished attic and my backyard neighbours are Cynthia Dale and Peter Mansbridge, and we paid $230K.” Yup. That’s the difference.
Now, visiting Stratford and living in Stratford are two very different things. Stratford, like many smaller cities, is a hard nut to crack. For the first few years that we were here, it felt as if your name’s not Culliton, Erb or Orr, or if you’re not born and raised here, you’re not considered a local. As a neighbour of mine said once, “Karen, I’ve been here for 37 years and I’m still not a local.” I tried a number of outlets; photography classes, political groups, library book club and writing clubs, but it still took me a good number of years to really find my friends and my stride in this City. In many ways that’s still a work in progress, but it’s mornings like today that remind me of why I have so deeply fallen in love with this City and all she has to offer.
Walking through the Slow Food Perth Market this morning at Anything Grows, I waved and ran into friends in the parking lot, chatted with a few more in the store, connected with more online via Twitter (accounting all the delicious goodies that we indulged in from Lindsay’s Bakery). I talked social media and business opportunities with a newer friend and one of the smartest small business owners and users of social media in town, Shawn from Simple Fish and Chips, I introduced myself IRL (in-real-life) to a great local food blogger and foodie, Steve of Local Come Lately, (with whom I shared an incredible experience with back in December as part of a Charlie’s Burgers dinner) and then I got the best hug from the loveliest Welshman I’ve met this side of the pond, wishing me well on my recovery (after a recent stint of mine in hospital). Roasting Soiled Reputation‘s beautiful golden beets and using his greens beside Shawn’s Halibut will certainly help me in my recovery.
Why was it so lovely and touching for me today? Especially in light of my recent illness, I see all of these friends and acquaintances and I feel the genuineness in their smiles, their hugs and handshakes, their lassoing my twin boys for a moment on my behalf so I can have a quick chat with another and all for no other reason than we’re all just here, we’re talking, sharing, collaborating and enjoying…and I am overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude and love. Of course, it’s not just these lovely people at Slow Food Market, it’s neighbours that have called and brought by flowers, and friends that have dropped by beautiful soups made with care and love and newer friends that have come by to wish me well and talk about their new ventures.
What is it about this place that brings these kinds of people together? What magic exists that has finally proffered me the community that I’ve craved for my entire life?…for it is magic…
Anyone that knows me, knows that I feel passionately about my adopted hometown of Stratford, Ontario. I am incredibly proud of the municipal leadership that I’ve had the privilege of watching and supporting directly (as my Letters to the Editor often attest to) and I’m always touting the amazing story of Stratford to anyone that’ll listen; its recent reincarnation as an intelligent community, its incredibly passionate foodie movement (Savour Stratford, Slow Food Perth) and the awesome community of creatives that come together to create a culture of engagement, collaboration and inclusiveness.
So, to my adopted home, this is my Valentine to you…my love and affection for you as a place, my intimate connection with you and your souls, my support of you unbound, however, wherever, whenever I’m able…I’ll continue to show you my love and champion for you and for us all…
Happy Valentine’s lovelies…