Undoubtedly philosophers are in the right when they tell us, that nothing is great or little, otherwise than by comparison.
— Jonathan Swift
We lived in our grown-up dollhouses completely unaware that, at any moment, a hand might come in and change around everything we’d become accustomed to.
— Jodi Picoult
In the beginning, there was a dollhouse — a beautiful Victorian manor. Not an heirloom piece, but rather a Playmobil model fresh out of the packet. It was delivered to me as a present, by way of the North Pole, though I also knew to thank my parents. Each of its five rooms came with its own box of vaguely historical fixtures and finishings, complete with a mock-vintage family. There was a lovely plastic conservatory just off the kitchen, and cheerful red and pink flowers adorned each windowsill. On the morning I unwrapped it, I could only stand back and gaze in awe at its mansard roof. Even though it was love at first sight, I couldn’t get close to the thing, as we were staying with my grandparents for the holidays and two maiden great-aunts took it upon themselves to set up the furniture. (The assembly required a great deal of attention.)
For a few weeks, all remained as it was supposed to be, with each room decked out precisely as in the picture: the boy in his pyjamas in the bedroom and the father, with his detachable brown whiskers and purple top hat, sitting in a chair beside the fire, next to his dowager mother, who could’ve been played by Maggie Smith. Then I decided that I was stifled by the arrangement. I couldn’t bear the orderliness, so I took everything to pieces and started again.
The worlds I built were magical and always changing. Those chambers could host a pirate party, some domesticated action figures, even a variety of creatures — really any old toy that wanted to find a home, which was all of them. In miniature form, my universe expanded, as dollhouses are as much for dissolving boundaries as they are for preserving order. I was transported out of myself, but I was also more myself than ever in the hours I spent carried away by a stream of story that wound its way through my head and down my fingers. I can’t recall there being a tension of exclusion or opposition in those sequences: this was not the point. My characters preferred to nest. The joy was in the placement of each carefully curated chair and table, the minute dishes and tea sets. There was never any question of whether this habitation was a home, because it wasn’t only one thing.
Years later, I remember, I spent an evening around a dinner table in Toronto with friends. I was about to head back to England for a few weeks. At the end of the night, one of them hugged me and wished me a good trip home, while her partner, an immigration lawyer who had answered several of my own confused queries about residency, looked at her incredulously and said, “But this is her home.”
There was another instance on a bus, where an older lady overheard me on the phone and proceeded to quiz me on where I came from. I responded with the nervous enthusiasm of the transplanted, who are required to assume the role of cultural ambassador at a moment’s notice. We chatted back and forth for a stretch, maybe three blocks. Then, with a tug of the overhead cord, a ping, and a departing remark that my displaced self was caught in the in-between, and that I would never belong, neither here nor there, the woman reached her stop — which was, as it turned out, my soul.
It is not wise to heed the prophecies of strangers on public transit, I know, but her comments have stuck to me like gum under a seat. They form a lingering presence in my mind, a low murmur of doubt. What the woman perhaps meant to say was that I should be sure to keep my emotional house in order; that I should not just expect to pull in one day to the depot of belonging. And if I saw her again, I would tell her that she had a point.
“Home” has always been a loaded word. “I want to go home,” we say. “Have you heard from home?” And a remark “too close to home” might be far from desirable. Here would be the place in an essay to bestow some great wisdom, one of those quick-fire quotes from long-dead minds that are so perfectly sincere, so blisteringly obvious that they have become saccharine — as old profundities have a habit of doing. But the truth is that no two sayings say the same thing. There’s no place like it, of this we can be sure. It’s where we want to be, as David Byrne has sung. Other than that, it’s anyone’s guess. From its Old English and Germanic roots, the word could denote a village, a community, a space to rest one’s weary sense of self. It’s for this reason that the 1980s saw “homelessness” enter the common parlance (replacing undesirable expressions, such as “vagrant” or “bum”). “Houselessness,” as that other sage Fran Lebowitz has pointed out, would imply a lack of something tangible — an issue that an official might easily solve. Better to speak to a spiritual deficiency, then, if the haves wish to be kept off the hook.
As real estate prices continue to rise, I read of aspirational dollhouses — whose collectors post pictures on Instagram — and their trendy open-concept kitchens with white cabinets, sleek islands, teeny succulents, and three-inch chef’s stoves. Square footage is easier to achieve when it’s a twelfth of the actual size. Social media has exploded what was previously a niche hobby, one that has undergone a mini-renaissance. Some of these designer dwellings come with a hefty price tag. The intricate, 1920s-style creations of a maker in Los Angeles can fetch as much as $200,000 (U.S.). What’s most revealing, though, is that this is a thoroughly adult pursuit. Once upon a time, there was a mother who just wanted to play.
Dollhouses began their life as toys only following the Industrial Revolution, and it was after the Second World War that they became a more affordable entertainment (tell that to the L.A. dream house). Centuries before, they were intended to signal wealth or, in the case of “Nuremberg kitchens,” to teach young ladies what was expected of them — here, Ibsen’s play springs immediately and traumatizingly to mind. Displayed in private homes, they also served a public function: to keep up appearances. With the surge of fun-size properties on social media, such desires have come full circle, except they’re inverted. Now, our personal lives, our ideal homes, are projected out for all to see.
Speaking of idealized, Instagram-ready concepts: recently, miniature lovers had cause to rejoice — the grand opening of Little Canada, a multi-million-dollar, multi-model attraction in downtown Toronto. And what better way to spend an afternoon when one is already in a Gulliver frame of mind, far away on a distant shore, than to stride among the Lilliputians. Look on my height, ye minis, and despair!
The appeals were numerous: set in the sprawling space of a former GoodLife Fitness (a location that has already served as a temple to sculpting), a rich and, one might say, eccentric Dutchman turned Canadian has put the proceeds of his own good life toward a 1:87 replica of the Golden Horseshoe, Niagara, Toronto, Ottawa, and Quebec, with plans to expand further north, east, and west in the coming years. I had waited patiently for tickets to be released, and when they failed to appear on the designated day, I duly sent a note. “Big apologies,” came the reply, “we’ve hit a little snag.” Of course, I couldn’t be cross. Not with this pleasantly gentle wordplay. Perhaps it would be nice to work at such a place, I thought, where things are either great or small, so well defined, so organized.
What a lark, what a plunge to leave the house! For it seemed such an adventure to burst through the subway doors again, a smile tucked beneath layers of cotton, and emerge into the bright lights of Yonge-Dundas Square — still busy, still grimy. I proceeded through passport control, otherwise known as the entrance desk, and stepped into a realm of immense attention to detail. Welcome to Wee the North!
In Our Home and Miniature Land, a quarter-hour of day gives way to five minutes of night, as the wide-screen skies fade to an azure hue and the lights of buildings and cars twinkle below. The display has various mechanized parts, from vehicles that appear to move of their own accord to minuscule wiggling chickens not much larger than sesame seeds. In a hora scene, a bride and groom are raised up and down on chairs for all eternity — or at least until the power is switched off. Having had this experience at my own wedding, I can attest that it would not be a pleasant way to spend time everlasting.
Behind a house’s glass back door, a pet dog waits to be let out. Roads are painted with a delicate filigree of cracks, though traffic, aside from a pile‑up on the Gardiner Expressway — thanks to an errant moose — isn’t too bad. Creative flourishes are around every corner: zany scenes of anthropomorphic animals, details that are a bit off, a touch wacky, like the cross-sections of rooms at the Château Laurier (and oh, what a dollhouse this would make) with their dizzying array of film tableaux, ghosts, portals, and Yayoi Kusama’s polka dots. The designers were given free rein to play, and perhaps this is the best part of the exhibit: that it has a sense of humour. Outside a warehouse in snow-dusted Quebec, the name Evergreen (operator of the anything but petite Ever Given) is visible on a stack of shipping containers. Suffice to say that I went in expecting an aura of earnestness and deference and discovered a dose of irony. How very appropriate.
Little Canada’s big visionary, Jean-Louis Brenninkmeijer, who is, humorously, very tall, comes from a family with a global clothing store empire — the sort of family that could inspire a sitcom. For instance, Brenninkmeijer’s cousin is married to a Dutch princess. The plot would write itself. In 1999, Brenninkmeijer was sent to Oakville, Ontario, for what was supposed to be a two-year stint of retail management training. He ended up staying, moving his wife and four sons into a mansion previously owned by an NHL player. After he hit fifty, he was forced to retire from the firm — refreshingly, not because of an indiscretion but because it was the family’s policy to make room for younger generations. In need of a new project, he decided to devote his time, money, and considerable can‑do attitude to a startlingly intricate replica of the country he loves. It’s enough to make you feel a bit inadequate as an immigrant, as if creating anything less than a 45,000-square-foot celebration, complete with a fifty-foot-long version of the Horseshoe Falls, is somehow unappreciative.
“The world is still okay here,” Brenninkmeijer’s father observed, in his native tongue, on a visit to his son’s new land. These words are displayed just outside the gift shop. And this is where the starry vision of inclusivity begins to lose a bit of its lustre. It’s certainly a funny time to be modelling patriotism — and here on Little Parliament Hill, Canada Day is celebrated every fifteen minutes, fireworks and all. Then again, I also spotted a unicorn in our nano capital city. Yes, a Pride parade marches along one of the streets, and there are figurines in wheelchairs, tiny turbans and headdresses, as well as a variety of skin tones carefully painted by a team of model makers. Still, if the larger display is meant to act as a time capsule freezing a moment of cultural history — the last decade, to be precise — where are the protests, where’s the anger? The only signs held by small hands herald the championship Raptors. Over at the Rogers Centre — which, before anyone asks, has a roof that retracts in sixty seconds (compared with twenty minutes for the real thing) — the Bautista bat flip plays on the Jumbotron, over and over and over, to a chorus of cheers.
Considering that some guests may object to the exhibition’s blind spots, the wooden barriers are fairly flimsy; there’s not much to prevent a person from hopping into the middle of Toronto’s Financial District to enact a scene from Godzilla. Maybe what Little Canada relies on is that famous Canadian politeness. The company’s colours are red and orange, which raises the question: Was this intentional — the meeting of the nation’s pride and its conscience — or a happy branding coincidence? Brenninkmeijer has said in interviews that the scaled-down state is willing to represent reality, but not to take a stand. He does not wish to perform the Canadian equivalent of navel-gazing. (Which would be . . . where, Winnipeg? That location has yet to be built.) However, there are plans to add a monument of minute shoes and toys around the Centennial Flame and to include a former residential school, which could make for some very bleak animatronics.
And, of course, the sunny vision of this land of dreams should allow for darkness, just as computerized day turns to computerized night. As I wandered the basement of 10 Dundas Street East, part of me wondered if the $60,000 that went into the construction of the baseball stadium could have been put to better use. Incidentally, a single square foot of a micro-Toronto block costs $1,200 to make. So at least rent is cheap.
I left a piece of me behind in Little Canada. I was Littlized — placed in a futuristic bubble where cameras took pictures of me from every angle and then 3‑D printed a snack-size me. At three-quarters of an inch, I now stand in Toronto’s wee Distillery District. I attempted something of a Rodin expression of contemplation, striking a thinker pose, though the figure looks more like it is shedding a tear, perhaps after an overpriced coffee from Balzac’s. Either way, it’s open to interpretation.
Tales of strangers in strange lands are as old as time, and difference is easy to digest through size. Alice is frequently too tall or too tiny, as is Lemuel Gulliver on his travels. Poor Thumbelina is so slight that fate — in the form of a hideous mother toad — sweeps her up and launches her on her journey (with much crying along the way). Tom Thumb’s heroic arc starts off as a projectile sneeze from a cow that had swallowed him whole along with a mouthful of hay. Growing up is hard to do, especially when one is so small. “It’s no use going back to yesterday,” Alice says to the Mock Turtle, “because I was a different person then.”
The games are over now, as are the innocent days of wonder. I am a long way from my childhood bedroom, and the act of rearranging one’s life is more complicated than a quick rummage through the toy box. Flights of imagination have been replaced by real planes and the painful realities of distance — realities that have become more excruciating as the world has shrunk, and not in a good way. The four walls of our existence have come closing in. Too often our castles have resembled prisons. We’ve all been suffering from an acute case of localization; the prognosis is not yet certain. In other words, it’s difficult to keep a sense of proportion.
In the midst of the stillness, it has been tempting to pull out the magnifying glass and start probing: Am I happy? Am I the truest version of myself? I think back to the day, ten years ago, that I ascended an escalator at Heathrow, sandwiched between two large suitcases, as I cried and waved to my mother and sister, who cried and waved back at me from below. That day, we mourned the loss of the way things had always been. It was a terrible shock; change always is. I am still scared that by being here, I am less of the person I was — as cultural touch points slip from my grasp and old expressions begin to feel strange in my mouth.
Beyond that initial, momentous move came a decade of decisions, a string of choices: the apartments, houses, jobs, visas, a citizenship ceremony in which I waved a tiny Maple Leaf flag, a marriage, and, well, a life. A life that I like. The model immigrant is pictured as determined, forward-looking, but my head is on a swivel — as it is whenever I cross the road. My feelings of place, and my place within it, are knotted. My heart is divided. I want to stay and I want to go. I want to be in both countries at once.
Today, my dreams of planes, the freedom of flights, are cut with scenes of a crowd jogging along a runway, some waving, almost jubilant, but all desperate to escape what was no longer a home. The Syrian artist Mohamad Hafez, who now lives in Connecticut, used to make dioramas of Damascus laced with nostalgia. When the conflict broke out, his works changed to fragments of bombed-out streetscapes, crumbled houses spotted with mortar holes and a smattering of objects — a flash of a life that had once been — that had somehow survived. Some of his pieces are displayed in suitcases, as in the exhibit Unpacked: Refugee Baggage. A few of those cases were donated by survivors of the Holocaust.
There is a comfort in smallness but a helplessness too. Perspective is hard won — especially when life can appear to be a constant battle of eating the right side of the mushroom. The homes we want will always struggle for balance with the homes we have. And perhaps the spaces we conjure, those shoeboxes of memories, the spots that tug at roots or on the heartstrings, bear little resemblance to the places we inhabit. But look closer and there is always something to cherish.