In fact when I left home in the darkness at 3.30 this morning it was absolutely the last thing on my mind. For months I’ve been working flat out on a huge funding proposal (of which more another time). It was the best I could do to throw some clothes in a suitcase with a random assortment of adapters and print off my boarding pass for a long-planned but ill-prepared trip to Toronto.
I travel a lot and journeys are normally a great adventure (beautiful views, interesting people, time to sit and think) but this trip was grim – a 7 hour stopover in Paris with no power to get on with the aforementioned proposal (the random assortment of adapters didn’t stretch to a European one), an 8 hour hour flight squeezed into a window seat surrounded by boisterous 12 year-old boys from a Hungarian ice hockey team, endless lines of tired, grumpy passengers jostling for position in the passport queue on arrival.
But once I’d gathered up my belongings and found myself a cab, things started to change.
I never did find out the name of the man behind the wheel, but the conversation moved faster than the traffic as we struck out on the snarled up highway heading into Toronto on a beautiful warm day at the end of what he told me was the longest, hardest winter he could remember. Before long I learned that he arrived in Toronto from the Punjab as a young man aged 25 (he’d recently turned 70 but couldn’t bear to stop working). He started working in a factory but the money was poor and he had dreams – and a young family. He wanted his children to have an education (all now have MBAs) and a house he could call his own. When he heard there was money to be made driving taxis, he and a friend invested in $600 in a car and started their own business, working 10-12 hours a days, 6 days a week to build a future for themselves and their families. Some money was sent home to India but eventually he was able to sponsor his brothers and they, too, set out in search of the ‘Canadian dream’.
All of this was unprompted.
I make a point of never telling cab drivers what I do unless I’m able to deal with the consequences (rarely pleasant, unless I’m in Glasgow). And so, as we drove down town, I listened to his vivid descriptions of the places we were driving through and the people who live there….how the Italians and Portuguese had built the roads and continue to dominate the construction industry, about the new wave of Indian students being sent to Toronto by their middle-class parents, of the Eastern Europeans looking for new opportunities as the political narrative sours in Europe, and of the racism that prevails even as Trudeau hugs Syrian refugees arriving through Canada’s much-lauded resettlement programme.
Of course, none of this came as any great surprise.
Toronto was recently named the most diverse city in the world – half of its population is made up of residents born outside of Canada and it is home to 230 different nationalities. In fact it was the photographs of Colin Boyd Shafer taken as part of his Cosmopolis Toronto project back in 2014 that first kicked up my desire to visit Toronto in the first place.
What did surprise me however was the warmth of the conversation, the nuanced analysis of the complexities of migration in these heady days of Trump and Brexit and Windrush and my own desire to capture it, to write it down in something more than the 140 characters that my Twitter account has to offer.
So I decided to start writing a blog and thanks to the kindness of the man I shared a car ride with this afternoon, I can. Having spent nearly 24 hours travelling half way across the world clutching a bag with all my papers for the next month – including the very latest version of ‘the proposal’ and my laptop – it was only when I answered the door 30 mins after he dropped me at my accomodation to see a familiar face that I realised that it was no longer with me. I’d left it on the back seat, to be spotted by my driver as he pulled on to the highway. He drove to the next junction, turned around and returned it to me.
I think there’s going to be a lot to talk about over coming weeks…