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Over a plate of calamari, a taste of wine followed by delicious pickerel, I was drawn in to the story of a man who came to Canada from Switzerland to learn English. He wasn’t coming for long, just a year and he’d chosen Canada over England, the US or Australia because his father had found a program where he could get a 1 way ticket ½ price.
He grew up near Basel, surrounded by entrepreneurs. His grandfather had sold some land to the ever expanding pharmaceutical industry and while they still had the farmhouse they also supplied local farmers with various materials – such as fencing, nails, etc… his father, uncle and grandfather were all involved in running the business and in 1956 they built an addition to house their first piece of equipment so they could make their own fencing to sell. The kids were paid by piece work, so if they wanted something, they knew how to work for it. His mother had a clothing/shoe store on the ground floor of the building they lived in and would buy in some measure of bulk to supply 3-4 other stores.
We talked about the school system and how Switzerland (or Europe in general), seems to have got something right with apprenticeships – and with over 250 trades considered, many made their choice at the age of 14 and were on with it. He apprenticed as a pastry chef/baker but also made the decision he might like to be either a rock star or a race car driver. This was just as the British invasion in music was happening and while French had always been the language of business, English had suddenly become important. He learned how to play the guitar and took singing lessons, performing in Lucerne at a night club there as a part of the training program.
But what affected him most about growing up in a town that just celebrated its 850th anniversary – is how important it is to preserve history. The buildings are the space in which a legacy lives and he lived in a constant state of renovation. Compared to the structures there, with 2 metre thick foundations, the buildings in Canada appear quite small.
The one thing he had to do before he came over with that half price ticket was his military service. He applied to register early (the 17 week basic training program was supposed to take place when you were 19), was accepted and entered the program on 6/6/66 – the date has stuck with him and I need to mention it because when I asked about other dates, he waved off the need for detail.
He got the ticket, chose Toronto as his destination (Montreal was a close second, but he was committed to learning English) and was deposited by the Royal York on a cold, rainy night in October, 1966 – a few English words in his vocabulary and enough to rent a room for $7/week before he went to the employment centre on Monday. He started working as the pastry chef at the then new Four Seasons Inn on the Park. He was happy with the job – he was making 85 cents and hour and a loaf of bread was 7 cents. He was there for just a year to learn English so where he worked wasn’t really important. But he got a second part-time job at the Savarin Tavern – known for its buffet – as a pastry chef there as well and then a third job at a golf course. The list of places, people and exposure to a Toronto that was just beginning to find itself as a metropolitan area is mesmerizing… my parents moved to Toronto in the late 60s as well – so I imagine Paul and my father walking in similar spaces.
Yorkville was where he landed however – after a stint at a tobacco farm (the hardest job he’s ever done) a 5 month Volkswagen van trek to Acapulco (because the “big trip” was the other part of being in North America) with some of the other people he’d met from Switzerland doing the same thing – just here for a year… when he returned, a café became available and for $900/month – he had his own spot now. His friends from Switzerland returned home, and he got caught up in the music scene. He might not be a performer but he had been promoted to DJ (I don’t believe it was a paid gig) and he’d found his niche.
The Toronto Plaques website describes the area - in the 1960s and 1970s, Yorkville village was the heart of Canada's bohemian, counterculture community. More than 40 clubs and coffee houses nightly featured folksinger-songwriters, including Ian & Sylvia, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, and Neil Young, who performed some of their first compositions in these smoky venues. Yorkville's first coffee house, Club 71, was opened by Werner Graeber in 1959. By 1964, Yorkville had become a nurturing environment not only for folk music, but also for pop, blues, and later, psychedelic rock. Hippies and teenagers flocked to these unlicensed venues, which offered an alternative to Yonge Street bars.
Walking westward along Yorkville from Bay Street, you stop in at Chez Monique, at # 88, where the house band was the blues-rock band the Sparrows, who later became world-famous as Steppenwolf. Next door, at # 90, the Flick would be featuring groups like the Stitch in Tyme or the Lords of London.
These were the addresses our dear friend owned – and operated from 1969 through 1986. The coffee shop had become a night club/disco and with lineups 7 days a week, the strain took its toll. He wanted to find a place in the country where he could unwind and a group of lawyers/dentists/doctors that thought running a restaurant would be fun – joined together. He almost went to Kingston but he ended up with the Settler’s Hearth on Bridge St. in Belleville in 1978. Mortgage rates were high but they doubled in the 80s – if it weren’t for the real estate in Toronto, there would have been no sustaining the little empire the Swiss immigrant was building in Belleville.
But the renovations and restoration of these buildings have become a journey. There is so much more to tell about the process itself that seems to stand in the way of vision on a regular basis – but he perseveres and it was certainly my impression that it’s the history he’s uncovering through the renovations that keeps him motivated. He discovered what he once thought was a carriageway beside the old Cozy Grill building but has since determined it was a full laneway – there are some posters on the wall advertising the circus that are hanging on – and were featured during the Doors Open event a couple of years ago. He also thinks he may have discovered the original jail tucked within the walls of the same building – which he also estimates might be one of the oldest on Front St. He was a key voice in the development of the Waterfront Trail, you know him best for Dinkels and Paulo’s – the renovation of the buildings on Bridge St capture the essence of Europe that he still holds dear… he’s promised his wife more than once, he won’t buy another one – but the lure of potential with a historic building is strong… He noted that if she knew how many times he’s mortgaged the house she might be less enthused or tolerant – but admits her patience is one of her greatest virtues – to put up with someone who is in the restaurant business alone is crazy – add restoration to that and you must be. His sister and brother also came to the area – the Limestone Café was run by his sister and his brother was a revered jeweler… three of his four children are now back in the area – even though they didn’t make the move to until they were a bit older and managing the activities of four children became challenging while he continued to commute.
There is so much more to tell – but the next time you see Paul out painting a garbage can or fighting for a special type of lamp post, know it is simply in him to create a legacy – to leave something better behind that preserves the past at the same time.