Leslieville Lives; Stories from the ‘Ville – Diane Walton
Meet Diane. Many of you know her from her photo project, A Day in the Life of Leslieville, and…this one. We first met over our respective dogs at Cherry Beach. Maybe 10-12 years ago. My Bella loved her George. George loved me. Diane and I had the best conversations making a round or two then. We still see each other, sometimes in the most random of places. That east end whirlwind seems to be everywhere! And the kind of friend I’m glad I found.
Diane was born and bred in the suburbs of Toronto of 1st generation Italian (Mom) and Brit/Irish (Dad) parents. She’s the youngest of six: 5 girls 1 boy, and nearly didn’t make it into this world, spending 6 weeks in hospital with spinal meningitis, just an infant. Meningitis wasn’t the only ‘near-death experience’ she survived. Others involved cliffs, a scarf, bears, jumping off a moving train, coral snakes, a car & a rickety bus at 10,000 ft. “Recalling some of these, I have to believe I’m here for a reason!”
She grew up in the 60s and with 8 in the house describes life as…eventful. “My parents partied a lot and our house was a den of activity – and iniquity – the 3 older siblings in the throes of the hippie culture, us younger ones still in grade school. I kept busy and was into everything: sports, dance, the school choir, was a Junior Forest Ranger at 17 (anyone remember that?) and played the accordion. Lol. If I’d known it was going to make a resurgence with the 80s Zydeco craze, I would’ve stuck with it!”
It was the summer of ’78 that changed everything. Diane headed to Lake Louise with a friend to work and had such a blast didn’t return to finish school. Eventually yes, going on to study Photography at Ryerson but the travel bug had bitten. In the summer of ’83 she headed to the UK with SWAP (Students Working Abroad Programme). “It was ‘supposed’ to be a 2 month summer work experience, but I met, and eventually lived, worked and travelled with a bunch of madcap Aussies, doing everything from making beds, washing floors, working on a kibbutz, selling jewelry on the street and bar work to keep the funds topped up. I never returned for my final year at Ryerson or for the next 18 years, 16 of those spent in Australia & Southeast Asia. I got my Australian Permanent Residency through my partner at the time, Peter.” She worked odd jobs under the table until her status was finalized in 1986, and landed a gig as a travel agent in Sydney. After she & Peter split, Diane was lured back to the UK, this time by a friend who ran a catering business. She took a hiatus from the desk and spent May-August ’87 travelling Europe and cooking for bands on tour including Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Fleetwood Mac, Pink Floyd and Bruce Springsteen. “Watching concerts every night, personally serving The Boss his dinner and cleaning up Michael Jackson’s dressing room while wearing his Billy Jean hat and white glove were definitely highlights!”
In 1990, a 2-page brochure from a small (now huge) company, Intrepid Travel, landed on her desk. They needed tour leaders. The travel itch had returned. She applied, got the job, and spent the next 3 years in Southeast Asia leading adventure trips through Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia and Borneo. “It was a special time. Southeast Asia remains a favorite part of the world and 26 years on I’m still friends with the Intrepid gang. Omg, the stories! One of the many that stick out was taking a group to Laos from Thailand by boat (read large canoe). I had scrupulously checked everyone had their visas, only to arrive and find out I didn’t have mine! It took sweat, tears, fast talking/gesturing and lots of ‘baksheesh’ to get out of that mess. That story was later published in a Lonely Planet guide as ‘No Visa, Will Travel’. I get sweaty palms just thinking about that!”
Even amazing jobs have a shelf-life and she eventually returned to Melbourne, working in the office; first in operations, then on the road in Aus & NZ selling the trips. “It’s easy to sell something you love. And I have the gift of the gab (so I’m told – ha).”
A few years later, she bumped into an old travel agent friend which changed Diane’s path – again. Kerry was head of Media/Communications at Victoria University and persuaded Diane to finish her degree there. That same year (’96), she spearheaded the Dalai Lama’s tour to Australia and asked Diane to volunteer as one of the photographers. “It was a dream experience. I was a huge fan of his from my days in Asia. And he’s really funny!” The tour culminated in a photo book and a co-op stint as writer/photographer for the University Alumni Mag. “Funny. My job was very similar to this Leslieville Lives project. I would photograph and interview visiting profs and ‘behind the scenes’ staff, like the archivist.”
She finished university/continued freelancing there, and started a small sideline photographing weddings and mothers-to be. She added teaching (tourism) to her resume, and joined a community theatre group who wrote, directed and performed all their own work. “If you ever want to test your mettle and self-confidence, step on a stage and perform your own work – especially comedy. Or teach.”
In 2001, Diane returned to Toronto for a 6 month mat leave fill-in at a friend’s travel company. “It seemed a perfect opportunity for an extended visit, but the best laid plans…My dad fell ill and passed away and a few months later my mom had a heart attack*. Then, 9/11 happened. The travel company had to let me go, but I was reluctant to leave my mom despite job prospects being ‘nil’. I had no contacts after being gone 18 years so did it old school – pounded the pavement with my resume in a day pack”. She ended up back in the bar biz by night and as a real estate office receptionist by day. “That was a crazy busy but great time. We had lots of laughs which led to writing my bi-weekly newsletter, ‘Surreal Estate’. After 10 weeks at the front desk, my boss put me through the real estate course.” *Mom survived the heart attack and is alive and well at 95!
The rest is history. Diane never returned to live in Australia. She got her real estate licence in 2002 and has been at it since. She claims she’s still jetlagged from all those years of travel, and has pretty much stayed put bar a few short trips, one biggie back to Aus in 2013 to visit friends. “I kind of live vicariously through the people I meet/write about now. Everyone has a story. Creeping ever closer to the big 6-0, I’ve finally created a nice balance between work and projects I do for the pure joy of it.”
Today, Diane lives in Leslieville with her dog, Sunshine. She’s been adopting seniors for about 13 years now. “My heart goes out to the oldies. They deserve a few good last years.” Over the years her work has been published in Australian Photography, Lonely Planet, The Toronto Star, True Real Estate Stories, travel brochures, textbooks & private publications. She continues to write, blog & take photos, has a love/hate relationship with hot yoga and plays (lousy) golf. “I feel extremely lucky and grateful, but there’s been some major losses too. In the last 7 years, two of my siblings have passed away as well as several friends and my 2 precious dogs, George & Gracie. All you can do is move forward and navigate through it or you’ll get stuck in the grief. I’m just so glad I chose to step through the doors that opened throughout my life. When opportunity knocks, open up! ”
Interview by friend and poet ‘lawyer-ate’ Jim Smith
Featured photo & last photo by Tony Hicks
Photo of Me, George & Gracie by Marcia Leeder
Other photos supplied by Diane Walton