Saturday, December 1, 2018

How tour guides are becoming the "new historians"

Finding Old Toronto

The first days of fall are expected by many. Toronto receives a kind of cold breeze that slowly enters the body penetrating the bones. The cold fulfills its function and warns the brain that not far away, the first leaves of the trees are about to fall. To me fall, means winter is just around the corner.

It is mid-day on a dark and gloomy Saturday that only motivates you to stay at home, doing whatever you do on a day like this. I am guessing that’s the thought for many of us, as we stood on the stairs of Old City Hall, as we contemplate the sky.

In a group of no less than 25 people where different languages and accents are heard, we shyly exchange a gaze waiting for our tour guide. We are about to join the Old Town History Tour by Tour Guys, a company “proud to have been the first free walking tour company in Canada,” as states on their website.

“Hi, my name is Joseph Fish,” says Joe, our tour guide. Before to start, he calls the Old Town History Tour as a “tour that describes the tragedies that shaped the city as we see it today.”

Knowing the history of a city is essential to understand some of the whys of the present. It enables us to ask questions, draw conclusions, and judge, to a possible level, the decisions that others made in the past that affect us today.

Taking a city tour has become part of the dynamics to discover those decisions, events, historical processes, places, and the reasons for the cities we visit or live. Today, and through the eyes of Joe, we begin to understand Toronto's past and how it has evolved to what we know nowadays.

In a “modern” society where everything is being simplified, the history of events and places has been transferred to the hands of clever, fresh tour guides, whom without even realize, are becoming the new generation of historians, helping to consolidate one of the most prominent industries in the world, the tourism.

Joseph “Joe” Fish, a 24-year-old Torontonian, is one of them.

“I was a student for a while, I just graduated from university with a degree in Neuroscience,” he says, “I am kind of working part-time as a tour guide until I find something more full-time, permanent, career-wise,” Joe says.

History serves to understand everything that surrounds us, how the civilization has evolved, why the world is, as it is, what is the reason for conflicts, the birth of cultures, cities, and countries. Joe’s stories of the Old Toronto remind us, that without the history of a city, we would create societies without a past or critical thinking for the future.

According to the World Federation of Tourist Guide Associations, that is precisely what a tour guide does, “a person who guides visitors in the language of their choice, and interprets the cultural and natural heritage of an area.”

In Joe’s words, “is someone who can engage people, who can, sort of being more casual, instead of, sort of treating like he is lecturing,” he adds. “A person that can actually involve people in the tour, making more like a dialogue, instead of just a performance.”

This generation of “modern historians,” educate locals and visitors, narrating stories in a way that redefines how we see the history of our cities. Who knew that spending some downtime with Joe, might be the key for me to understand the history of cholera in Toronto, as we stand in front of St. James Cathedral.

Yet, as a historical tour guide, is essential in fact to love history, to be sociable, to work hard, and to be ready for being in charge. Joe himself recommends this job to anyone.

“I think that if you are outgoing, if you like to meet new people, if you enjoy reading and learning about history, and doing your own research and putting together on scripts,” Joe says, and adds, “you get a lot of autonomy, is not like you are going to be handed a script that you can memorize, if you like a job where you can, kind of being in charge of yourself, I recommend it.” He says.

The same opinion has Derek Hanekom, Minister of Tourism of South Africa, who, in the convention that celebrates the International Tourist Guides’ Day, explains why tourist guides play such a vital role in the tourism industry.

"The tourist guide is a big part of the tourism experience. Not only because of the story they tell, but due to the human interaction," says Hanekom. "If as a tourist guide you don't love what you are doing, you will never be a perfect guide," says Hanekom in a press conference.

As we stand at the front of the Mackenzie House, last home of Toronto’s first mayor, William Lyon Mackenzie, I can’t stop thinking that tourism, an industry in constant transformation and growth, faces the rise of this alternative type of sight-seeing, that besides increasing the knowledge of public on history, opens up new labor markets.

According to the Ontario’s Ministry of Tourism, Culture, and Sport, Canada ranks as one of the world's top tourist destinations, and Ontario tops all provinces in tourist visits.

“Every $1 million spent by tourists creates 13 jobs and generates $604,800 in wages and salaries. Tourism in Ontario supports 389,000 jobs and is the largest single employer of young workers.”

Numbers from Statistics Canada indicate that in the second quarter of 2018, tourism spending in Canada generated $22 billion.

Outside the country, tourism is increasing as well.

According to the 2017 Annual Report by the United Nations World Tourism Organization, 393 million more people travelled internationally for tourism between 2008 and 2017. Just for last year, international tourist arrivals reached 1,323 million people.

“International tourist arrivals grew for the eighth consecutive year, a sequence of uninterrupted growth not recorded since the 1960s,” reads the report.

So, little does Joe know, that through his work as a tour guide, he is indeed helping a 25-group of people finding Old Toronto, while playing a vital piece in a big puzzle, the tourism industry.

About one and a half hour later, in a now, sunny and clear sky Toronto, we are in front of the historic St. Lawrence Market, our last spot in the Old Town History Tour.

Joe continues putting the tips on his pants’ pockets, and while he exchanges a 100-dollar bill to a cheery Chinese tourist lady, he answers my last question.

Joe, what would you say is the best thing about being a tour guide?

He smiles wide open, pointing out with his fingers to the people that surround him. “Meeting people from all over the world. I just love that.”

* This article originally appeared in Narcity Canada #locals

Sunday, November 18, 2018

A pet’s death hurts because they are family

‘For many, losing a pet feels exactly the same as losing a loved one, a family member’

Like every night, Yogi is trying to lie on the red couch placing slowly one paw after another, keeping his eyes on Veronika Zotochkina while he is doing it. 
He knows she doesn’t want him to be on the couch, but he will still give it a try. 
Hoping to get her attention, he finally sits on it doing his usual trick, raising his legs up and showing his puffy paws. With round brown eyes, a curly hair of a coppery yellow, and drool dripping down his face, Yogi, begins to moan. 
That’s Zotochkina’s most vivid memory of him. Yogi, was an three-year-old American cocker spaniel, who passed away five years ago after a fatal diagnosis of liver disease.
“He was very, very sweet, extremely attuned to my emotions, super curious, always testing your rules,” Zotochkina says. “For example, if you don’t want him to be on the couch, sometimes he would see that you are in the good mood while sitting and will try to jump on there.” 
Zotochkina, 29, born and raised in Russia, is a former clerk at George Brown College’s student affairs department and is now a projects co-ordinator at Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic in Toronto, an organization which assists women who are fleeing violence.
She has been living in Canada on her own for the last couple of years. Yogi, was his only family here. 
Usually, for pet owners, the death of their companion is not the pure loss of an animal, but it is a painful goodbye to a loyal and unique friend who gave unconditional love. 
Today, in “modern” society, full of loneliness and solitude, pets have become part of the family, even replacing a lack of partners or family members for people. In the event of the loss of a pet, the mourning process can be tougher for pet owners whose pets are their only companion. 
“I was depressed in bed for about three months, actually not moving much because the heartbreak was worse than I have ever experienced,” says Zotochkina. “The entire year every conversation about him would bring tears to my eyes. To this day it does, and it has been five years since he passed away.” 
Joseph Fabian, an assistant manager at Mulberry Inc., agrees; he came to Toronto from the Philippines a couple of years ago. He has two golden retrievers, Jojo, and Chucks. Thinking about the day they would die brings tears to his eyes. 
“The thing is that is so hard when you get attached to the dog you have,” says Fabian, “is like either you want to have the same one or a new one, or don’t have a dog anymore, you know what I mean?” 
When facing the loss of a pet, it’s particularly challenging to deal with the empty space, and immigrants like Zotochkina and Fabian can endure a more painful path in the process of mourning, not having anyone else. 
According to a study by Dr. Julie Axelrod Austin, a clinical psychologist from Mill Valley, California, when it comes to a pet that suddenly dies, people with no pets tend to show insensitivity and can’t really understand the depth of grief for pet owners. 
“Mourning a pet may not only be painful because of the loss itself but deeper due to the potential loneliness of this type of grieving,” says Austin. 
To Austin, when pet owners deal with the loss of a pet, they are dealing with “several mourning losses” at the same time such as the loss of unconditional love, of a dependant, of a life witness, of multiple relationships and routines, and in most cases, the loss of a main companion. 
Austin says the mourning process can be tough because pet owners feel responsible for another life, and they always make sure to provide physical and emotional well-being to their pets. 
“We hire pet walkers and sitters to provide our furry friend with company or exercise. We go to dog parks to enhance our pooch’s life with social activity,” says Austin. 
“All are efforts to provide our charge with the best care-taking possible. Consequently, the loss of a pet can feel like the loss of a child,” adds Austin.
Zotochkina agrees, “for many, losing a pet feels exactly the same as losing a loved one, a family member,” she says. 
Dr. Austin explains that the grieving loss is more profound when pet owners relied exclusively on pets for support and love. 
“For some of us, our pet was our only social companion in the world. We may not have had any other close contacts, due perhaps to depression, anxiety, or a debilitating physical illness,” says Austin. 
The grieving becomes unbearable when the pet owner has to deal with the loss of his primary companion; for Zotochkina, this was the most complicated issue when mourning Yogi. 
“I have many special memories with him, one happened on a day I was feeling very homesick and was lying in bed while crying,” says Zotochkina. “He ran up the bed, and though he was normally very hyper and cheery, he was very calm and just lay close to my face and licked my tears away.” 
According to The Canadian Animal Health Institute, pet ownership in the country has increased from seven million cats and 6.4 million dogs in 2014 to 8.8 million cats and 7.6 million dogs in 2016. On average, in Canada, about 41 per cent of houses have a dog, and 37 per cent have a cat.
To John Archer, a professor in the department of psychology at the University of Central Lancashire, the explanation is simpler, “at the heart of the relationship with pets is a unique affectionate bond. Quite simply, people love their pets.” 
“Pets greet their human companions enthusiastically on the worst days, they do not notice bad hair, they forgive mistakes, and they do not need to talk things through,” says Archer. 
“This perception of the pet as family translates into “parental” behaviour for many pet owners. Seven out of 10 pet owners allow their pets to sleep on their beds, and six out of 10 have their pet’s pictures in their wallets or on display with other family photos,” says a study by Ipsos Reid. “Almost all pet owners (98%) admit to talking to their pets.” 
That’s precisely what made Zotochkina fall in love with Yogi. 
“Pets teach you so many things, kindness, taking care of someone, the simple and pure joy of little moments,” says Zotochkina. “Unconditional love regardless of your mood, they are always happy to see you and always love you.” 
For Zotochkina, as for 83 per cent of urban pet owners in Canada, according to Ipsos Reid numbers, animals are considered to be members of the family, and for her, and for many that rely on pets as their only companion, mourning the loss of Yogi was tougher because she was by herself. 
In spite of that, just like with any loss, only time truly helps with grieving. 
“What I personally found comfort in, is the fact that I know that I tried to give him the best life which he deserved,” says Zotochkina. “I was just fortunate to own the best puppy in the world, and I am glad that he chose me to be his owner.”
*This article originally appeared in The Dialog newspaper

Federico Jusid, más allá de las Bandas Sonoras

Federico Jusid, más allá de las Bandas Sonoras

En el marco del pasado Festival de Cine Internacional de Toronto, conversamos con el galardonado compositor argentino Federico Jusid, quien recientemente creó la música para la película Life Itself, del director Dan Fogelman, creador de la seria de televisión This is Us.

De padre director de cine y madre actriz, se puede decir que Federico ha llevado el arte en sus venas, “el cine y el arte siempre estuvieron en mi casa” comenta Federico, quien desde muy pequeño tocaba el piano que había en su hogar.
Nacido en Argentina, pero radicado en Los Ángeles, California, Federico es mejor conocido por realizar y componer la música de la película ganadora del Premio de la Academia, El secreto de sus Ojos, trabajo que le mereció el reconocimiento a la Mejor Música de la Academia de las Artes y las Ciencias Cinematográficas de Argentina.

Federico, quien también es pianista concertista, director de orquesta y productor de cine y teatro, es consciente del gran trabajo que representa componer bandas sonoras para películas, lo cual tiene un reto adicional, al tener que interpretar el estilo de cada director.
“Para mí, cada vez que me contratan, siempre comparto lo que pienso y lo que siento, porque es mi trabajo, es un elemento de diálogo”, expone. “Se enriquece el trabajo y mi música va a ser mejor, porque él (director) me dice que está buscando”.
Jusid, quien realiza simultáneamente música para cine y televisión, señala que día a día los dos formatos tienen más similitudes. “Cada vez se acercan más, porque cada vez hay una televisión que es más ambiciosa en cuanto a sus contenidos, y cada vez hay un cine más informal, entonces cada vez esos procesos para mi están más cerca”, comenta.
Para él, es imposible elegir entre una y otra categoría de composición, “a mi me gusta de todo (…) uno se conecta con el proyecto y ya, eso es lo más valioso”, reseña.
Para Federico, como para muchos detrás de cámaras en el medio cinematográfico, el Festival de Cine de Toronto representa para la industria hispanoamericana una ventana de exposición, en la medida que la industria del cine se esta nutriendo de mucho talento hispano en sus producciones, “es una vitrina extraordinaria, es una de las vitrinas comerciales más importantes en el mundo”, explica.
Específicamente, para la película Life Itself, su método de composición fue poco ortodoxo, ya que combinó sonidos de pianos, guitarras, orquesta de cuerdas y la partitura pop de una canción de Bob Dylan. Para este trabajo en particular, como para los que ha realizado en el pasado, lo importante es entender muy bien la importancia de la música en la película, así como la importancia del valor agregado del compositor.
“Para mí es lo mismo que para un actor emprender un personaje”, comenta, “creo que el trabajo de un compositor de cine, es evidentemente resonar con la película, para que esa emoción sea verdadera, pero intentar comprender el lenguaje propio (…) y entonces ver si uno sintoniza con ese lenguaje, porque de lo contrario es un trabajo sordo”, resalta.
Para el compositor, el futuro del cine hispano es bastante positivo y su influencia es constante invadiendo y contagiando el mundo cinematográfico. “Para mí lo que es más interesante es que ya no es un elemento exótico, ya traspasamos esa cosa, de bueno, vamos a ver algo tercermundista”, y agrega que “ahora la gente ve un material maravilloso de directores colombianos, brasileños, porque les interesa el material, ya no es un ejercicio antropológico”.

*This article originally appeared in Latinos Magazine.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Love is in the Air at Thistletown

Love is in the Air at Thistletown

Like every day at midmorning after several kilometers in the trail, Rodrigo stops, puts his bike off the road, and looks far contemplating the gooses that swim downstream or up river.

Just before reaching the dam, he takes a couple of photos, drinks a sip of water, and take his bike heading towards the pool. It is a bright blue, sunny day in Toronto.

In his mind, it is just the perfect day to be outside, not too cold, not too hot.

“The Humber River Trail is a very special place,” Rodrigo Velasquez says. “I think it is one of the best ones in Toronto because you can reach Lake Ontario, go to the north of the city, and for us, we even have the Flagstaff Swimming Pool on our way, which is really lovely.”

To Velasquez, living in a neighbourhood full of spacious green areas, many bike trails, several tennis courts, the beautifully remodeled Albion Library, and a swimming pool around the corner, is literally, living in a dream come true. 

“I love this neighborhood especially because is green, the environment is green, is a quality place to live,” Velasquez says. “Also the facilities, I have the most modern library in Toronto, The Albion Library, which is an amazing place for my job and my leisure.” 

Rodrigo Velasquez, 46, born and raised in Colombia, is a senior consultant in sustainability, social responsibility, culture, and communications. He has been living in Canada with his wife for the last couple of years. Thistletown, a neighborhood located north-west Etobicoke, is his home now. 

Originally named "Coonats Corners" after the Coonat family who settled in the early 1800's, Thistletown remained farmland primarily until the Toronto real estate boom in the 1950's.

In 1833, John Grubb, an immigrant from Scotland settled down in the area, building a house that stills stands at 23 Jason Road. He built many of the roads including the popular Albion Road, where a post office was established and renamed Thistletown in honor of Dr. William Thistle, a well-respected member of the community at that time.

“If the people are looking for a dream home, where you can find a quiet place, good commute, excellent facilities, and also a really nice green environment, Thistletown is the place,” says Velasquez.

To Velasquez, living in a neighborhood where sustainability, green economy and culture have a dominant place, was a must-have in his list to move. His research led him to Toronto and eventually to Thistletown.

According to 2018 most livable cities report by the Economist Intelligence Unit(EIU), Toronto ranked seventh (tied with Tokyo), and third place in North America, for the world’s most livable cities. 

The report rates cities around the world in five categories: stability, healthcare, culture and environment, education and infrastructure. 

In each of the categories, cities are given a score between 1 and 100, where one is considered intolerable, and 100 is considered ideal. Once all category scores are compiled and weighted, an overall score is given between 1 and 100. 

Toronto received an overall score of 97.2 per cent.

Velasquez agrees “Toronto, and specially Thistletown is a really good study case about sustainable cities,” he says and adds, “What is a really sustainable city? Is not just a green environment, not just facilities is also affordability, so for me, is living in real life what sustainability is, good social environment, and also economic possibilities for people, for regular people, for immigrants like me.”

According to the ultimate neighbourhood rankings article by Toronto Life, Thistletown is described as an “affordable, diverse and quiet place to live,” the article describes. “It's green and idyllic, bordered by the Humber River, and West Humber Parkland and Summerlea Park.”

Finishing his day in the pool, Velasquez reflects thinking that is precisely what made him fall in love with Thistletown.

“Thistletown is like I am living in a place, where I always thought only existed in theory.”

* This article originally appeared in Narcity Locals

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Comedian’s workload is no laughing matter

GBC graduate Will French works 16-hour days chasing stand-up comedy success

Stand-up comedy, the business of making people laugh, is a form of entertainment that’s also a form of entrepreneurship. 
Will French, a graduate of the fitness and lifestyle management program at George Brown College (GBC), is working hard to turn comedy from an additional source of income into his full-time job.
The 28-year-old, while not completely paying his bills with comedy, is making headway. Along with Austen Alexander, French is in Dirtbag Cousin. The two met at Humber College where French won the Mark Breslin Award for stand-up excellence in 2016. 
The duo recently performed at the 2018 Toronto Sketch Comedy Festival.
“I started doing open mics five years ago, started getting paid work very recently,” French said. “I still don’t get a lot, I mean, here and there, but I am definitely not a full-time professional yet.”
After several years of working in the fitness industry, he decided to change the path of his life. He took a chance and went to study writing comedy and performance at Humber. 
“I was 22, I worked in gyms for six years, and I decided I wanted to change,” he said. “I wanted to try stand-up, so I sort of just stopped working in gyms and took a couple of years, and then I started to do comedy.”
Ever since he was a kid, he liked seeing comedy on TV and was fascinated by the thought of stand-up. He writes his material using his own life experiences.
“For stand-up, I just talk about my own life. Everything is true, I don’t make things up, so it has to be something that really happens to me,” said French. 
While more opportunities are coming for French, he said that most comics at his level have a day job. He, himself has been working in kitchens for around 10 years. 
As most comedy shows are after work and later at night, he estimates that a lot of comics are working around 16-hour days.
Besides the ability to go without much sleep or money in the early stages, comedians usually need a unique and recognizable style. For French, he said he recently discovered that the comedy inspired by his life is actually quite dark.  
“I’m not a fan of just angry dark comedy for the sake of being angry or dark,” he said. “I like dark humor a lot, but I only like it when there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, when there’s some optimism there, too.”
Taking the stage, hitting the road and trying to make strangers laugh is every bit the roller coaster that it sounds. For French, there’s a sense that you’re only as good as your last show.
“There were times when it goes so well, you’re like, I’m never going to have a bad day again, this is the best thing in the world, and I’m the king, I’m the best comic in the world,” he said.  “Then sometimes that same night you have another show where you’re like wow, I’m not funny at all, I suck, and I should probably quit.”  
Will French will appear as part of Dirtbag Cousin at the Comedy Bar (945 Bloor Street W) on April 22. 
With files from Lidianny Botto.
* This article was originally published in The Dialog newspaper