By Christina Vani, TVA member and volunteer

It all started with a t-shirt.

Well, not actually. It all started with a vegan bake-off, my move to The Big City, and revelling and indulging in the abundant culinary possibilities that my new home in Toronto offered this suburb-raised Montreal vegan.

The grand voyage of the aforementioned t-shirt started in February 2012. I was in my second semester of graduate studies at U of T and my sixth month of my life in Toronto. I had begun frequenting gatherings hosted by veg associations of various stripes and was becoming more familiar with the TVA and its cast of beautiful characters.

TFVB - Totally Fabulous Vegan Bake-Off 2012-1

Then, I heard about the Totally Fabulous Vegan Bake-Off and my mind was blown. I knew that I had to enter, but not just for guaranteed entry into the event or even the free plates of sweets that were destined for my face or, finally, the opportunity and privilege to be in a room full of other like-minded individuals.

One of the main reasons for which I yearned to be an entrant in the TFVB in 2012 was, well, I really wantedthe t-shirt that competition participants received as a token of gratitude and as a symbol of competitive badassery and beauteous comraderie amongst fellow vegan bakers. This t-shirt, when I would proudly drape it over my 5’1’’ frame, would loudly, but sweetly, proclaim to all who beheld that I, Christina, baked for hours and hours one February morning just for the love of baking and sharing decadent goods, and, of course, to have the product of my toil judged mercilessly by hundreds of strangers.

The shirt would, essentially, be a badge of honour, of strength, of vegan mothafrakkin valour. It would bemine and recognized by other vegans. I would no longer be the token vegan amongst nonvegans; I’d be a vegan amongst vegan equals. It would be grand; I could literally taste the victory.

So, I entered the bake-off, sampled no fewer than 17 bites of baked goods (this is the truth: ask my mum and sister), and did not win anything. But it was worth it, because I got to show my mum and sister this vegan world of mine in a brand new light. I got to show them that there are others that populate this dreamlike compassionate universe, and I had the distinct pleasure of indulging in vegan baked goods made by others—a true treat, so to speak, for one that is usually the baker amongst her family and friends (though I’m not complaining, either: baking is, in itself, a rewarding exploit, and not just because bakers get dibs on tasting their creations).

And, of course, it was worth it because I got the lovely and proud t-shirt upon the front of which a simple cupcake is emblazoned, and upon the back of which the following words cause friends and future friends alike to smile despite themselves: “Vegans: Making the World Sweeter, One Cupcake at a Time.”

Aaaahhh…

Fast forward six months. I’m living in a monastery in rural Italy, sharing space with up to twelve other people, almost all American artists or “worktraders,” working for an arts non-profit. Though some of us lived and slept at the monastery-turned-hotel, we spent much of our days at a house located approximately 45 minutes away by foot, across the valley and, thus, uphill both ways. At this house, we thirteen shared all of our meals, meditated, brainstormed, and created art.

The house had food; the monastery had sleeping quarters—and an intermittently-functional and somewhat-reliable Internet connection. Needless to say, our group of mostly 20-somethings flocked to the monastery regularly, and usually by foot, in order to stay in contact with, well, The Outside World.

Like I said, food and Internet were separated by no fewer than 45 minutes by foot. In the midst of a lengthy heat wave in the summer of 2012, this hike was no easy feat.

One day, while I was already at the monastery, a friend arrived, soaked in sweat from the between-locales hike. I had an extra t-shirt on me—the t-shirt—and lent it to her when she, her chest still heaving from the energy spent, asked if I had dry clothing to spare. I thought nothing of it. Heck, we lived together; I’d get it back, washed and sun-dried, by the weekend.

I did, however, make a point to express to her the sentimental value of the shirt: that it represented my first experiences living in my newly adopted city; it embodied becoming acquainted with a community that I’d glimpsed only from afar for so many years and of which I was finally becoming a part; it succinctly summed up the subtle and unimposing way in which I like to be an activist.

TFVB - Totally Fabulous Vegan Bake-Off 2012

If you’ll indulge me for a moment longer, here’s a little bit more background: This friend is originally from Hawaii. After this stint in Italy, she was planning on travelling the world quite literally, going from country to country to document the goings-on for a Hawaii news and lifestyle web site to which she contributed regularly.

It was when she left Italy that I noticed that The Shirt was gone.

For months, I was the perennial pain in my friend’s side, messaging her every so often on Facebook to 1. inquire about her travels; 2. see how she was doing; 3. ask her about when my shirt would find its way back to Canada (at this point, I was still in Italy, but I gave her my mum’s address). She was lovely and patient each time she responded—in the midst of her travels, too. My shirt was in Hawaii, she said, and she would arrange to have someone ship it out to me; otherwise, upon her return from globe-trotting, she’d mail it out herself.

normal human being would have let the shirt go; but I’m… eccentric, let’s say, and I insisted on having this item returned. I first contacted her about the missing item on September 1, 2012, in Labro, Italy; I finally received it, many messages and just over a year later, on September 30, 2013, in Toronto, Canada, with a tender note written on handmade paper from Tibet.

What a journey this humble t-shirt had! How many countries it has seen! Who knew that my initial desire to share my baking with a community of which I longed to be a part would lead to my possessing a piece of apparel that would practically circle the globe, spend a year in an American state that I have never seen and may never see, and finally arrive in my mailbox with care?

When I opened the package, I was filled with more than just relief or closure; it re-opened a spout from which a flood of memories was allowed to flow. My heart burst with memories of my half-year in Italy; and, especially, it burst with the love for Toronto, my new home, which has welcomed and hosted me and has shown me that vegans don’t have to hide in the shadows but can vibrantly and vivaciously indulge in plentiful delicious joys—like those of the Totally Fabulous Vegan Bake-Off.

What the TVA does effortlessly and masterfully is promote the cruelty-free lifestyle of veganism without pushing ideals on others, and without deception or condescension. They promote values of compassion with peace, understanding, support, and totally fabulous events that centre on scrumptious vegan food. Much of their activism is exactly the kind of brand that I am eager to support: it’s the kind that says to the omnivorous public, “Trust us: we’re really not missing out.”

That’s what this shirt meant to me: being part of a totally fabulous community of compassionate, fun, and caring individuals that care about each other, about animals, and about the well-being of the World and all of its inhabitants.

And it all started, and came peacefully full-circle, with a humble little t-shirt.

(Special thanks go to Tina, the friend that set this story in motion)

Check out Christina’s own blog at veganinsuburbia.blogspot.ca