Narbonne - Living away from your home for a year can give you a couple of new lenses through which to view it.
We're in Narbonne, in the south of France, until at least the end of next summer, and this place is Toronto's opposite in so many ways. Ancient, proud, uninterested in what others may think of it an old woman with big, strong hands still picking her plums and her roses.
But I learned something a few weeks ago that drew a subterranean connection between this 2,000-year-old city and my hometown, still in its swaddling clothes, and it was this: about 600 years ago, the city fathers of Narbonne deemed having an ancient Roman wall around their city a waste of good stone. So they tore this monument down and redistributed the stone to various civic projects.
Some of them are quite lovely, but think of the lost legacy, the capricious decision-making of mortals given a free hand to choose today, if they will, over yesterday - the constant battle between development and heritage-building. It made me realize that Toronto's struggles are the ones all cities go through.
I love Toronto for the way it tries - sometimes nobly, sometimes gracelessly - to grapple with its legacy. And although in my daily life there I love its streets, its parks, the cafés, the patches of wild that surprise you driving through certain valleys, in the Toronto of my heart and soul, it's the stone that speaks to me.
I love those few remaining blocks of stone that built the first Toronto of our almost-vanished past, heralds of an unknown future, put up in foolish hope that a great, permanent city would stand here.
The stone of the Island Lighthouse built on Gibraltar Point in 1809, that welcoming eye; the stone of the pitiful, dissolving Bishop's Block on Adelaide West, made in 1829; the heavy grey blocks in the walls of the Stone Distillery in the old Gooderham & Worts site. There is no way to knit together the Victorian city that once stood there, but our roots are in it and it fills me with gratitude and a forlorn kind of love.
The city that lurks behind and beneath the one we live in is one we're not yet in love with, not enough in love with. We intuitively know its value to us as citizens: something in us is jarred when we hear of a lost pier turning up under the soil somewhere near the lakeshore. We know that in the name of progress, such a thing can only be measured and photographed, but already we are alert to the pang of loss that comes when we hear it's been broken up and covered over again.
I want to live in a city where that pang becomes a cry, where utility and need don't always trump the story of place.
I'm in a city right now where you could dig in your own yard with a spoon and find something older than Canada two inches down. I wonder what it would mean to be able to live, or to be forced to live, in the daily awareness of what came before you.
I sometimes walk slowly along King from Parliament to University, or up Yonge from Front to Dundas, and I spend the whole time with my face pointed toward the rooftops. There, above the brand names and the video screens silently blaring ads at your benumbed eyes, you see the remnants of a gracious old downtown, one where the buildings fit together.
The old red brick and white stone; the stately repetition of windows in their fine, century-old fittings; the filigree of masonwork just below the roof, corbels and keystones too high up to be noticed unless you look: small gestures of pride made by someone who was thinking about leaving something worth cherishing behind.
His novel Consolation (Doubleday) was long-listed for the 2007 Booker Prize.