Toronto Expats: Leaving the 416, 519–and onward to the 613

When you write, there is a literal paper trail that recounts a ticking heart, forgotten impulse and mindset. I was digging through emails, retracing our stone cottage purchase back in November of 2012. I wrote something about leaving my “beloved 416” area code sometime soon after that for Toronto Life magazine, though it went to a slush pile. All of it rings largely true (including the church bells in West Galt that sound off every hour). It reads like familiar, dog-eared diary pages–all that I still boast about is here.

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It’s no big secret that we want to pull our mini tap root here and plant ourselves in the clay loam of Prince Edward County. After reading Geoff Heinricks A Fool and Forty Acres, I kind of want to grow pinot noir grapes too.

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Everyday begins with a coffee and a scan of properties in the County. I cruise a little north to Meyers Island and Hastings, a little east to Napanee and Amherst Island, but, the County has a firm grip on us. Who knows? We might secure a woodsy plot of land and build something dynamic. We might just find that perfect church or abandoned school house or barn conversion. If it’s a water tower, a silo or a lighthouse or something off the cuff, or off the grid–we’re interested.

photo credit: realtor.ca

photo credit: realtor.ca

But in the meantime, come back to that ticking heart, impulse and frenetic mindset of 2012, when we boxed up our Toronto lives and became expats in a place with dew worm vending machines.

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It’s been two years (*three now at time of printing) since the U-Haul trundled down Spadina and pointed due west for the 519. I was leaving Toronto and my safety net of Banh Mi subs, Jimmy’s Coffee, utopian bookstores and Bloor Hot Docs Cinema. I looked at the gauzy skyline in the rear view mirror with equal parts trepidation and elation.

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I had somehow convinced my partner that our dream home was a 150-year-old stone cottage located in West Galt, Ontario. Despite being the handy, power tool-skilled one in the relationship, Kim had only lived in brand new suburban builds in commuter bedrooms like Oakville and Burlington. On the flip side, I was like a heat-seeking missile for “urban rentals with personality” in Cabbagetown and the Annex. I fawned over brownstones with Murphy beds, Victorians with claw foot tubs and beat-up hardwood floors. Places that needed work, and power tools.

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The stone cottage needed a little cosmetic love and affection, but not a reality show gut job. Painting wasn’t daunting for us; Kim and I have painted the equivalent of the Great Wall of China at a combined thirty-six addresses. We could do cosmetics. Maybe we’d replace the en suite shower in time and build a deck come summer. When the house inspector gave the structure an A+ and fawned over the repointing of the mortar and underpinning, we said yes.

In turn, Kim gave up the convenience of a garage and storage for her golf clubs and hockey bag. Her workshop had to move to the bedrock basement (at a height designed for Smurfs). I agreed to walking 8km to work while Kim would brave a 4:30am alarm to drive 45 minutes to the steel mill in Hamilton for a 12-hour shift. Negotiations were seamless.

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How West Galt became the marriage of both our needs and wants no longer puzzles our city circle of friends. In fact, they come to us—seeking somewhat of an organic internship (or, that’s what we deem it). We arm them with axes and wheelbarrows and push them into the jungle foray of perennials. Our property is like an all-inclusive experience for condo dwellers limited to growing cat grass and oregano in a window sill.

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We have become caretakers of history (with a little help from our friends) in buying the limestone and granite house that stonemason William Webster cobbled together on the Grand River in 1861. The carriage house still has a rusty hitch on the side wall where his horses would have been tied. The black walnut trees wouldn’t have been tall enough to provide any shade then. Webster probably planted them.

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My urban skin shed so quickly in Galt that I worried that I was in denial. What about those Banh Mi subs and pork-stuffed sticky buns on Dundas? Didn’t I miss the bleary-eyed chatter with the hung-over baristas at Jimmy’s about where and when we spent Saturday night?

I knew what I didn’t miss immediately—living in 700-square-feet with an upstairs tenant who apparently had cinder blocks for feet. Now I could fry up crab cakes and not climb into a bed under a duvet that smelled like the Atlantic Ocean due to the proximity to the kitchen. When you make butter chicken in close quarters, even the towels in the bathroom smell like curry. And Irish Spring.

We now have space to make curries without a trace, and a patch of terra firma that sees the shadows of trees, not high rises. Everything I thought I would miss was quickly replaced by exploring our adopted hometown. I felt like a modern day Chris Colombus when I “discovered” the stiff Americanos at Monigram’s Coffee Roasters. We’re just minutes from a microbrewery where we can grab growlers for under fifteen bucks and attend beer classes on stouts and porters. There is a tiny cheese shop, a Jamaican take-away and the library regularly screens selections from tiff.

All my boxes have been ticked.

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Kim and I eased into the groove of small town like chameleons. After the 24-hour neon rhythm of the Annex, it was initially odd to see downtown stores closed at 6pm, or shuttered on Sundays. In exchange we can slip into the Carolinian woods on the rail trail to our coveted picnic spot by the remains of the old German woolen mill at the river’s edge. If we ever decided to take up fishing, we even have a dew worm vending machine at the intersection of Parkhill and George.

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I thought we’d be back to the city bi-weekly, like boomerangs, desperate to fill the culture and gastronomy gap. However, more often, we are driving directly to the airport, not downtown at all. It’s difficult to leave this soundtrack. From the back deck we have front rows seats to a steady flight path of orioles, osprey and chatty cedar waxwings. Our yard vibrates with bumblebees and hummingbirds. Church bells sound on the hour and the haunting echo carries along the storied Grand.

Of course, I still pick up back issues of Toronto Life as a tether to the 416 I know and love, but, I’ve become a full-time ambassador for the 519 now.

(*Editor’s addition: that is, until we adopt 613).

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