Written by Jim Bamboulis
“We can’t have black people move into this neighborhood; it will bring our property values down”. In 1991, at 15, this is what I overheard one person say to another in my high school cafeteria. It wasn’t a parent or a teacher, it was a student, a classmate. At the time, I was really confused. How did that conversation even start? Why wouldn’t you want black people around? How do they bring property values down? What does ‘property values’ even mean, anyway?
I attended Sir Oliver Mowat Collegiate Institute. A high school largely made up of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in far east Toronto. So white, that in social circles, the high school was renamed ‘Mo-White’. Zoning or fate, I don’t know how I ended up at that school but here I was. Regardless, like millions of others in the history of high school, those early days were tough. Bullied at times, I was and was made to feel like an immediate outsider. Besides barely knowing anyone, the school was located in the kind of neighborhood where even a Greek kid like me stood out. I had olive skin, not white and my name was (and still is) Bamboulis, not Jones. I suppose my clothing wasn’t up to high-end standards, my extroverted personality was muted slightly and what I brought for lunch definitely made me smell like the weird ethnic kid with the weird ethnic food.
For the first 30 years of my life, I lived in a subsidized apartment building in Scarborough, Ontario, an eastern suburb of Toronto, Canada. Overwhelmingly multiethnic, I spent 30 years in this cultural mosaic; a long time, enough time for the opportunity to meet a wide range of personalities. Some good, some bad, some ugly. And although I could easily delve into the scary elements of the government housing period of my life, I won’t.
This article isn’t focused on the rough and scary characters who lived next to me, around me. This article is focused on the good. About how my often emotionally deflating, residential environment, culturally nurtured the most vulnerable years of my life. About how my high school days awakened and molded my love of all people, from all walks of life, solidified my respect for different cultures and traditions and liberated my desire for travel, to grow, learn, appreciate and experience everything else that was different! Because different was gratifying, intoxicating!
It was in high school where my eyes were opened for the first time. Open to the fact that the people I shared an apartment building with, people I was exposed to, the experiences I had had and was having weren’t much understood by my new classmates. I use the word ‘understood’ because I realized that my classmates had no idea about a life, a neighborhood outside of their bubble. No fault of their own. After all, not everyone in Toronto, even multicultural Scarborough, was exposed to people named Mohammad, Martinez or Tien. I was the kid who came from the other side of the tracks with unbelievable stories of crime and drug abuse. To them, I came from a place they had only heard about from TV and movies. They’d listen, then turn away awkwardly.
Lunch was another battle altogether.
As a teenager, it’s natural to want to fit in. Keeping food simple was one way to do that. Simple is good but when you’re an ethnic kid, simple is never what you get. Sure, pizza, burgers (sans veggies), fries, chocolate shakes, coca-cola were consistently on my mind and in my stomach but meat and potatoes kind of food with simple seasonings like salt and pepper wouldn’t be the only dishes on display. I may have grown up poor financially but the food was always rich. In flavor, in texture, in culture. Mom created delicacies that people in this day in age can’t get enough of. Moussaka, stuffed grape leaves, orzo stew, and lamb. Did I try to prevent my Mom from packing those lunches for me? Yes. Did I eventually bring them to school? Yup. Did I make new friends doing so? Not really.
These aromas not only filled my high school cafeteria – made it smell better that’s for sure – but our apartment as well. So authentic, they would instantly transport any guests we had to Greece. Salt and pepper? Sure, as a base. In our apartment, lemon, garlic, clove, oregano, mint, and honey filled the air. But it wasn’t just us who appreciated the creation of ethnic food.
My apartment building housed about 500 people. They were from all over the world, living, and cooking side by side. As a result, incredibly, the air throughout the entire building was filled with a mix of aromas – from salt to saffron, juniper to jerk. The building was 21 stories high so you can imagine the combo of possibilities. We had four elevators, two of which seemed to work consistently. Often packed, they painstakingly stopped at almost every floor to let people off and on. Living on 19, my ride home was often the longest. And you could bet that every time those elevator doors opened, you’d be hit – like an aromatic brick wall – with a variety of different cultural meals dancing in the air together. Some smelled great, others not so much.
But looking back at those formative, vulnerable years, I’m thankful for those aromatic brick walls. They opened my senses and exposed me not only to the different flavors and aromas the world had to offer but on a much deeper level, gave me the chance to understand the role food plays on a social, cultural, emotional level in everyday life. Sure, food nourishes but the experience of food as a conduit for conversation, a sharing of traditions through ingredients, breaking bread with your neighbor from a different country and exchanging different traditional meals and recipes during respective holidays, coming together to appreciate and respect each others’ culture, through food, was something I took for granted. Looking back, THAT was real social media. Actually interacting with each other and doing it for the love of experiencing something, not the hashtags.
Despite having very little, food was a source of pride. It inspired happiness, togetherness, community. Neighbors would create a couple of extra servings to share with neighbors who were willing, excited to taste the culture they represented and who understood the time and effort it took to cook with all their heart and soul with the purpose of sparking conversation about the dishes they created. They shared with love in mind. On countless occasions, I can remember Mom’s homemade Greek meals on our dining table as well as a Filippino, Jamaican, Vietnamese or Hungarian dish a neighbor made for us sharing the space. Looking back, it was an honor and a great privilege to be a part of a community where crippling financial challenges didn’t stop people from readily sharing a piece of their souls – through food.
Greek hospitality is known the world over. Greek culture is food heavy. Growing up Greek, I understand the impact food has on relationships. These days, I often joke that if I stuff my face at an Indian buffet for lunch, head to an all-day Dim Sum for dinner then pay a visit to my Mom’s house, there will be a table full of food – no matter if I’ve already eaten or not. That mentality and passion along with my many years of experience with other like-minded ethnics growing up, who prepare and share their souls on plates, greatly influenced my motivation to do what I do today.
As a travel and food writer, photographer and videographer, my aim isn’t only to capture the moment through words, photos, and video but to capture the story and the person behind the moment, beyond the screen. For me, travel isn’t and has never been about the selfie; it’s about expanding the mind, learning and respecting the culture, traditions, and people who make it special, forging relationships, building bonds and chronicling the experience. Food is life itself, and for me, capturing the passion, appreciating the history of a dish and the experience of enjoying it is as important as the person preparing it.
As a Tour Guide, hosting Greektown Toronto Food Tours, my job goes beyond showcasing Greek food and culture. For me, my passion is to meet people from around the world and present an engaging, memorable, fun and filling authentic experience that reflects and brings to life my childhood, my family, cultural traditions, identify – through food. It brings me great joy to host guests and share with them the delicious flavors I grew up with and leave them with a feeling of gratitude, happiness, and love. And I’ve been lucky to have met many people from places I once shared an apartment building with many years ago.
It’s so easy to focus on the bad, the countless challenges. But when I focus on the good, I can sincerely say that living in government housing not only gave me a chance to meet some of the most empathetic, passionate, altruistic and caring people, from all walks of life, it fueled my career path. Building connections through travel and food, appreciating the pride that goes into creating a dish, celebrating a tradition and willingness to give, share what you have as an expression and reflection of love itself.
As for some of my high school classmates, were their parents cooking up meals and sharing it with neighbors? Maybe. Were they friends with Jamaicans and Somalis, Ethiopians and Pakistanis who were ready to give their last remaining food, graciously and proudly to their neighbors so they too could experience the flavors, ingredients, and traditions of their home country, through food? Maybe. What I do know is despite some rough times at Mowat High, I eventually realized how lucky I was to have attended that particular school. It helped open my eyes to things I may have otherwise been blind to. To learn things about myself and understand how lucky I was to be a bit different from the crowd.
It’s no accident that Scarborough is now home to some of the best ethnic restaurants in Toronto. Pizza slices are topped with more than just olives. And property values have skyrocketed!
Hey y’all. I’m Jim. That kid went on to spend 16 years in the broadcast media world before starting up Travel Mammal, a site dedicated to working with brands to promote travel, food, and cultural experiences.
Travel Mammal isn’t about the selfie or checking things off a list. It’s about both the journey and the destination. So enjoy it and happy travels, y’all!