It had been quite some time since I was in Canada. To be fair, even those times in my childhood when I had ventured into the Great White North, it was no further than Niagara Falls. No offense to the folks at the National Parks Bureau or the Cheap Plastic Bottles Of Water Supposedly Filled From The Raging Waters And Charge A Sawbuck For The Damn Things Retailers Association, but saying that Niagara represents the Canadian spirit is like saying you’ve experienced the isles of ancient Greece by getting Combo #2 at the Gyro Hut down at the strip mall.
So during my much-needed but as-yet blissfully wasted vacation, I decided to visit Canada for a short trip to meet a friend. A trip to Canada is not one to be taken lightly. Due to the events of September 11th, of course, traveling from Canada to the United States, and vice versa, is the equivalent of Defcon Five. Visiting the AAA educated me to the fact that I (or, more accurately, my mother) would have to rifle through what I estimate to be six million cardboard boxes in our attic to find my birth certificate and cross my fingers, knock on wood, and chant the name of Tom Cruise’s agent that it had the divine Raised Seal on it. Thankfully, it did, and so my ticket to the frozen paradise was assured, assuming that a disgruntled Al Quaeda nutjob didn’t hijack a moose and toss a pipe bomb on the ice at Game Five of the Sens-Sabres game.
I decided that it was also time to invest in a passport. I didn’t really feel the need to have one up to this point; the only time I was going to go to any other foreign country besides Canada was the one time I almost hitched a boat to Bombay when it seemed my Dell computer was threatening to not be shipped out in an appropriately timely manner. Unfortunately, I found out that passports are to be personally inspected by the conjured dead ghost of Dean Rusk, since it costs approximately two month’s salary and takes about three presidential terms to arrive. Needless to say, the passport application sits contentedly on my desk, staring balefully at me, knowing that some day I’ll get the urge to book a trip to, say, Austria in three months and then who is going to be sorry, huh?
Driving to Canada, of course, was a chore unparalleled, unequaled no doubt since the days of Sieur de La Salle. There are four highways, all interchangeable, that are required in order to get to the Toronto area. They all have the same droning pitch that lulls you to sleep, the same food court amphitheaters with the same Sbarro pizza and KFC/Pizza Hut shops, and the same lack of adequate bathroom facilities if one discounts particularly hardy scrubgrass as cover. About the only thing to differentiate these highways is the fact that if you’re unfortunate enough to be using the T9 text entry mode on your cell phone, the Queen Elizabeth Way, conveniently abbreviated to QEW, also spells out SEX, which can create some highly amusing communications for those of us who are foolishly paying more attention to driving than typing.
Many people will tell you that, all things considered, America and Canada share enough cultural influence that it’s not all that different. To me, it’s comfortingly familiar yet exhilaratingly different. It’s like the entire nation is on Daylights Savings Time and no one has told me. They export comedians and decent beer and we send them ugly chain restaurants. That said, the culture shock is more than social, it’s mathematic. I can’t imagine the shock and amusement I provided to my fellow North Americans with the following exchange:
Canadian: So, are you cold up here?
Me: Nah, when I left Pennsylvania it was like sixty degrees out.
Canadian: Oh, Fahrenheit.
The Metric Question was paramount in every accomplishment I made in Canada, which seemed to pretty much be relegated to irritating store clerks with American money and getting gasoline. The latter, I should point out, is a true-blue DP of a transaction in Canada, because you have to worry about the Liters-to-Gallon ratio as well as the Canadian-to-American-Dollar conversion. I could have been buying fifty gallons of leaded kerosene for a thousand dollars and I doubt I would have realized it.
Of course, this is nothing compared to the Tim Hortons-to-infinity ratio, which I’m pretty sure was close to one. I had always heard stories about how addictive Tim Hortons coffee was, and how there much be some sort of habit-forming additive in the recipe; an obvious elaborate fiction, much like how the makers of Carmex are accused of adding ground-up glass to their jars, crack cocaine is added to frozen Zingers, or how nicotine was surreptitiously added to cigarettes. But, damn, it was good coffee, and I would have gladly also partaken on what probably would have been the single best baked good of my choice had my companion not reminded me that my sugar intake for the trip would have rivaled Violent Beauregarde’s the time that Eastern morning fell on Halloween.
However, my friend also treated me to a breakfast pizza, which I found to be a quintessentially pleasing experience. Now, we certainly have breakfast pizzas in America, but all of the ones that I have managed to eat have garlic sauce and instead of meat have some sort of synthetic pig-related product that is crunchier than the cardboard used as its crust. These are almost exclusively found in horrible gas station kitchens, an insult to the word kitchen, and the occasional two-for-one special down at the hardscrabble convenience store. This breakfast pizza, though, was made with a wonderful red sauce, had real bacon on it, and the best cheese I’ve encountered since the last time I sat through Terms of Endearment. It was a delight, and I know no matter what ingredients I purchase, or what small nearly bankrupt mom-and-pop coffee shops I knock on the door of, I won’t match anything close to what I ate that morning.
One of my favorite things to do in Canada is look at the candy bars. Don’t know why, of course, since you can only rearrange chocolate, nuts, and nougat so many different ways. And yet the Canadians, via what appears to be a monopoly by the Nestle corporation, manage to do it pretty well. There was something called “spongy toffee,” a lie perpetuated by my companion into thinking it was sponge-like in texture, when in reality it was just toffee with a bunch of air bubbles blown into it and hardened to the consistency of a constipated diamond. And Canadians are apparently into bubbles-in-their-confections. I purchased about a half dozen versions of the “Aero” candy bar, which as far as I can tell is pretty much a chocolate bar that someone forgot to turn some random air valve off on when it was being molded into squares. They’re also really into maple, which is as close to a war crime as Ottawa is going to get to.
Traffic has an amusing spin about it, too. I noticed that plenty of roads seemed to have X’s painted on them, and I grew somewhat concerned that there was some metric traffic law I was not complying to. I was then informed that in Canada that simply means that there are railroad tracks ahead. A bit confusing, of course, since in America X’s on a road generally mean that construction crews have removed a bridge about 300 yards hence. There are other rather comical traffic oddities, such as bewildering flashing green arrows and the rule that apparently U-turns can be performed pretty much anywhere without repercussion, an act that in America sends you to Gitmo. There’s also the rather annoying habit of streets being renamed every fifty feet (excuse me, every fifteen and a quarter meters) to some completely unrelated and apparently random, which adds about fifteen unnecessary extra steps on Google Maps directions.
All in all, though, it was great to reconnect with the preferred vacation spot of my childhood. I got to connect with a good friend, experience a culture that is slightly different than my own, and realize just how forgiving the New York State Police are to speeding drivers. Eh?