Let’s get this out of the way first: Canada is gorgeous
I mean, the churches, the ancient government buildings:
My family and I recently spent a week touring Canada (our annual summer vacation someplace north). We visited Niagara Falls:
Toronto (where my son and I took in a Blue Jays game; they lost 7-0 to the Mariners, whose pitcher threw a complete game two hitter of 95 pitches):
After that it was lovely Montreal:
And finally two days in old Quebec City:
Now lest you think that I am merely bragging about my awesome vacation, allow me to burst that bubble for a moment:
I wanted to attempt an expression of how even the most beautiful places suffer much of the same blight of every large, industrialized city. The same dank alleys. The same random graffiti tags. The crudeness of the McDonalds that is literally across the street from this:
which has been in existence at the same location since 1786 (we did not eat there; we could not afford it), points to a similar inconsistency of life, the scattering of fast food joints (remarkably more expensive than here in the US; by the way, the gas prices at the Shell are per liter, which amounts to about $4.46 per gallon) mixed in between ancient architecture and the bright smattering of flowers
displays a modern confusion, asking without answer what exactly it is that we want. The last image of sadness above, the one of the forlorn little girl with apparently nothing worth looking forward to in life, is boldly painted upon the Quebec City social services building, beside more vulgar scrawls of graffiti, and a superfluous, angry demand to “lutter contre le racisme,” which, with no knowledge of French, you should be able to figure out.
In fact, some of the bleaker parts of town (where, in fact, we stayed, considering the cost of Quebec City), have absolutely gorgeous murals. The following is delicately painted alongside several others on the pillars holding up a highway, through an underpass surrounded by discount stores and what appear to be homeless people and daylight prostitutes:
I would like to review our stops, discussing what we did and the culture surrounding us. I took far too many pictures, my son eventually condemning me for being “too much of a tourist.” Of course since we started in Niagara Falls–profoundly a tourist spot
perhaps he is correct. I will save you too many more pictures unless they apply to my point (so expect plenty more, along with a few other images to back me up that I did not snap myself.)
Niagara Falls is, of course, a wonder to see:
And yet the town itself, which I described to a friend as “an ice cream/casino funhouse,” is not meant for actual Canadians. Literally two minutes over the US border, you drive into a boardwalk-style town, filled to capacity with wandering souls from every nation on earth, looking to see what we’ve only heard about or dreamed before. The restaurants are mediocre and designed for quick eats before spending more money on games and rides and t-shirts with a maple leaf and the word ‘Canada’ for thirty dollars. The prices are outrageous. In a candy store where we meant to buy our children some treats the woman behind the counter told us the total would be seventy-three dollars. It was not even an overwhelming amount. We said no and walked away baffled. We had a few drinks, swam in the hotel swimming pool, watched fireworks over the falls at ten PM (apparently something that occurs every single day)
We left town en route to Toronto the following day.
Now Toronto felt almost like home to me. A large east coast city, it is designed similarly to the large east coast USA cities I know most intimately. It is crowded, traffic is a mess, there are people everywhere, and such a dazzle of places to go with no place to park that one cannot help but wind up a little angry.
However, unlike those cities I know, the town is remarkably clean
In fact, here is a comparison to my home town:
The people, too, are on the most part very friendly. Back at home cars vindictively cut people off with grubby faces roaring obscenities at the wrong people, while in Toronto many stop right in the middle of the street and wave you on to let you cross.
The prices, of course, are still very high, the tax rate doubled due to their nationwide free health insurance (come to whichever conclusion you like). The food was rather good and the experience was very pleasant, the baseball game a joy with similarly expensive snacks and beer, and the seats we had were obscenely close to the field
Toronto seems almost like a city I would move to, some day, if the US continues to collapse into the paranoid, hate-filled mess it has been devolving into since the middle of the Clinton years. I probably won’t, still loving America like a resented mother, but such stray thoughts often come to mind while on vacation.
Montreal was my favorite city, if not the one where we had the best time. A stunning, glorious place
The trouble here was a lack of time. Montreal is a big of a haul from Toronto. We chose to try and save some money by making this a driving trip. By the time we left Toronto, all of us were pretty sick of the car. Everyone was irritable. The children had been fighting over space in their shared bed, kicking one another, keeping both my wife and I awake, and so we finally switched, my wife with one child, me with the other. We came to understand why they could not share a bed, both of us getting kicked and being kept awake. In Montreal, despite seeing so many lovely things, we did very little. Also the culture is far more French, the language mostly French, and none of us are especially fluent. Of course plenty of people also speak English (a guy begging for money was bilingual, at first saying “Pouvez-vous,s’il vous plaît, m’échanger de l’argent?” I replied “Sorry,” understanding the basic premise. He countered, in English, with, “If you think I am looking to buy drugs you can go into the restaurant with me.” He had no discernible accent. I shook my head and walked away.) But there was an unexpected rudeness to the crowds this time, a pushy arrogance of people refusing to acknowledge the existence of others. We took a tour around the harbor and smiled at the sites. But it did not compare to the boat beneath Niagara Falls, where everybody got soaked in our thin plastic ponchos:
But Quebec City, our last stop, was yet another new experience, and one that saved us all from the dwindling interest our constant driving imposed.
Quebec City has a remarkable shopping district and a truly fascinating history.
The second image above is of the old armory, a place that was often frequented by an aging Napoleon III as France continued turning against him and he fled to the province of Quebec, standing there and looking down upon the peasants with contempt, similar to the way the construction worker in the white helmet was doing to all of us.
And yet, of course, the market district is set up for dazzled tourists like ourselves, gathering collections of cheap crap to sell to excited visitors:
Some places, we pretentiously declared alongside our fellow shoppers, were of much higher quality (and even more expensive).
You can even see me greedily looking on in reflection at the marble and jade figurines, deciding which ultimately meaningless work of handcraft I want (I settled for a family of three polar bears, the mama eating a fish while the children look on surly), which sits here beside me now on my desk
I have no idea why I bought this. Caught up in the moment, I suppose.
Our final day consisted of a visit to the falls of Quebec City
The children declared that they wanted to zip line over the falls
Somehow they convinced me to join them
It was horrifying. I was convinced I was going to fall every second I was up there. I did not scream or close my eyes. All I did was hold my breath.
And yet there remains this perminant rainbow just above the water. Tourists wander down and retrieve smooth sticks that look like elephant tusks.
My son, returning in the second picture, got four of them, one for each of us.
And so our trip concluded, with my mind, mired in its negative, generally apocalyptic swamp, coming to evaluations and judgments, and realizing that it was truly a wonderful trip.
As we were leaving
with the shore and the towns growing more and more distant,
I realized something I have a hard time saying about anything: I love Canada, for all its minor flaws and presumptions. It is a wonderful nation, its politics far less jungle-like than in the US, and the people are mostly calm and polite and even friendly. My wife made a suggestion for the reason for this, which may in fact hold some merit:
Something to consider, perhaps, as we sink back into our daily lives; sober, serious, and no longer void from our everyday responsibilities. As we prepare to resume our otherwise mediocre existence . . .