In my high school writing class, I had to write a personal essay about “my favourite place.” Determined to think outside the box and stand out from my peers, I decided that I would instead write about many places — ordinary ones that I loved for their imperfections. It was a nice thought that earned me an A, if I remember correctly, and fed into to my alarmingly rose-hued view of the world. At seventeen, I was afflicted with the tendency to romanticize every aspect of my life.
This past September, I moved to Toronto after visiting in two very short stints the year before. The extent of what I’d seen included the Eaton Centre, a small portion of Yonge Street, a couple restaurants, and, of course, Drake. What visit to Toronto would be complete without seeing Drake? I had experienced so little, but I was so enthralled with the busyness and the crowds. On the way back to the airport, my cab driver boasted that “Toronto is the best city in the world. You can come here with nothing and build yourself up. You could live here your whole life and never eat at the same restaurant twice.” Well, that sure sounded nice. Toronto began to take on a mythic proportion in my mind and became this otherworldly wonderful haven of high rises, parties, and designer clothing. I was certain this was where I was supposed to be.
It soon became apparent that I wasn’t the only one who thought so. Back up north in my small, snowy hometown of Thunder Bay, almost everyone I knew was feeding into my idea that I was “bigger” than what my hometown could possibly offer me. I constantly had people in my ear telling me that I needed to leave if I wanted to do something with my life and that when I left, I was going to do great things. With all those voices, my vision of Toronto continued to take on this massive existence in my mind.
On Instagram, the girls I knew who had left home for bigger, brighter cities seemingly had glamorous, exciting lives, and I wanted my life to be that way, too. I would manage to squeeze the fact that I was moving to Toronto into almost every conversation I had. I wanted everyone to know that big, exciting things were going to happen to me. On vacation in Montreal I got a tattoo, and naturally, I managed to steer the conversation in that direction then as well. The artist rolled his eyes, “Good luck.” He used to live in Toronto. I was taken aback; no one had ever been so cynical in the wake of my fresh-faced, golden dreams. “It’s a hard place to make friends,” he continued. “People only want you when they need something, but if that’s your game, then maybe you’ll be alright.”
I would be lying if I said those words didn’t slightly alarm me. But, the beauty of delusion is that I didn’t have to entertain any potential reality aside from the one I crafted for myself. I would be happily nestled between glass towers, reveling in a foreign sense of anonymity. Everything would be refreshingly unfamiliar, exotic and dazzling. I would have all the opportunities in the world because a cab driver told me so. I stocked up on makeup and clothes and dyed my hair blonde in preparation for my life to take on the plot of Valley of the Dolls.
I’ve now been living in Toronto for five months. Free time is suddenly a vast burden of mine. Every time I ride the subway to find another place to fill my days, I think about how places are far more magical when you don’t stay there for too long.
When you tell people that you’re moving to the city, no one prepares you to be lost without the slightest clue as to where you’re even trying to go. No one tells you that being polite and pretty isn’t enough to land you a minimum wage, dead-end retail job. No one warns you that you’ll spend your Friday nights alone with nothing to do but stare out the window at an expanse of traffic and lights, wishing that something would happen. When people have spent years making you feel important, no one prepares you to feel like a nobody.
This is not to say that Toronto is some fraudulent, lonely abyss. My problem is that I’ve been overly sentimental about places and memories, rewriting them in ways that serve my idealized vision of what they should have been. The places I wrote about in my high school essay are and were nothing special at all, but I needed them to be so that life felt bearable. I needed Toronto to be glamorous so that the future felt less imposing. You can call me naïve — I am — but I’m confident that I’m not the only one to have ever fallen in love with an idea or used it as a way to cope with feeling stuck.
My experience uprooting my life in the north to live in faster and cooler southern Ontario reminded me of the time my good friend Taylor and I went to Osheaga a little over a year ago. In true fashion to my custom of over-romanticizing everything, I had convinced myself that I was going to Woodstock. It’s ridiculous. I know. Of course, I had set myself up to be disappointed because the experience could never live up to what I had made it out to be in my head. Near the end of the trip, Taylor shared some advice her boyfriend had once given her. When I landed back in Thunder Bay, I went home and opened up my journal to a blank page and wrote in all capitals:
MANAGE YOUR EXPECTATIONS.
It’s a little piece of advice that is especially important to me today. Life after leaving your hometown will rarely be the way they make it seem in the movies. It won’t be nearly as impressive as the people on Instagram make it seem, either. It is easy to acknowledge this, but it is very hard to know it. I bought a white fur coat and enrolled in a professional writing program and thought I would be Carrie Bradshaw. I am learning to be okay with just being Sidney.
It is fair to say that I’ve been disillusioned. Cities, like small towns, have their merits and their shortcomings. I think that my five months in Toronto have exorcised me of the pipe-dreaming ghost that lived in my head. With that being said, I’m still hopeful. Happiness, like anything else, takes work. I still think that can happen for me here. And it certainly helps that I can try something new for dinner every night.
Editor: Michelle Clevett