I come from a small town of roughly 3,000 people. We had exactly one gas station, and it closed at precisely 8:00 pm.

Toronto was probably the first city I visited — I was, of course, that gleamy-eyed 14-year-old staring out the school bus window, excited to see the Eaton Centre. When I moved here years later, I’d been to more places and seen more things, but moving here still hit me like a kick in the face. The city brought good food and public transit, sure, but what struck me the most was the culture — more specifically, the sheer abundance of it.

Over the last year, I’ve done some travelling — an attempt to make up for the years I spent at home, driving down random country roads without a destination in mind. I went backpacking in Europe during the summer, visited Prague, Vienna, Paris, and London. A few months ago, I visited Vancouver for the first time.

Everywhere I’ve been, there’s always one overwhelming impression that you take back with you. Neighbourhoods vary, but they all unite under one theme. Vienna was modern, yet artistically dressed in rich architecture and remnants of the empire that once thrived within it. New York City seemed to shape itself around the hustle — the idea of making something of yourself.

Of course, I’ve only been to each of these places for a couple of days a piece — maybe I’m wrong; maybe I’m too far outside to really understand them. But I never got these glimpses, these two-second first impressions from Toronto. Rather, I’ve been here almost three years, and I still can’t seem to pinpoint any one aspect or idea of it.

This is common of course — people always talk about how Toronto’s culture is hard to pinpoint. In a city as diverse as this, the air changes with the street, the neighbourhood. I think trying to grasp — or maybe explain — the culture of any city is probably difficult; it all depends on your point of view, opinion, and experiences. But Toronto is its own creature in the way that it doesn’t have just one feel or central theme. Instead, it incorporates many that unite to create a mosaic.

It would be easy enough to compare Toronto culture to my own small-town experience back home. I’d been almost nowhere when I came here. The entire experience felt so strange — gone were the warm smiles of passersby on the street. Instead, we sit in silence on the subway and avoid eye contact like the plague. It took me a while to realize that Toronto is still infused with that same Canadian kindness that I grew up with, but that it just manifests differently. It seeps out in heeded warnings to avoid toilet paper-less bathroom stalls and instinctive hands that reach out to steady me as I almost fall on my ass on the TTC.

But I don’t think that this is necessarily a Toronto difference; rather, it is the difference between the country and the city — or Canadian city one at least. But nevertheless, they still shape the Torontonian.

Even though I came to Toronto after having grown up close by, what hit me the most was the diversity of the city.

Way back in 2003, The Globe and Mail named Toronto the most ethnically diverse city in North America, and this title has been unofficially circulating the internet and the public realm ever since. Even now, more than a decade later and with no current statistics, people still think of it as such — and why wouldn’t they? The city houses speakers of over 180 languages, countless different neighbourhoods, cultures, opinions, and opportunities. Everyone you meet has a different way of thinking and living; each neighbourhood has its own culture, feel, and common understanding.

In the two-plus years that I’ve lived here, every person I’ve met has had their own way of life, heritage, and point of view. I’ve found that my friends who grew up here navigate and move between the different neighbourhoods so effortlessly; they know where to go and what to see. They poke at the world around them, intrigued, eager to explore and learn and listen. I think this is part of being a Torontonian — embracing the culture, exchanging your own, and learning from one another.

And while these are people that have grown up here, spent their lives here, I don’t think this is a necessity for being a Torontonian. In fact, most Torontonians I know have grown up somewhere else — they’ve brought their homes and cultures with them, and are eager participants in this exchange. I think part of Toronto culture is that it’s so open, that it allows us in, welcomes us to be a part of it, and make it a part of ourselves.

And again, maybe I’m wrong; maybe I’m just an outsider looking in and making shapes out of shadows. And maybe it doesn’t even matter what we think Toronto culture is, and the elusivity just builds its intrigue.