Once you’re over the bridge you go through Canadian customs. All they did is ask me if I had any alcohol, drugs or weapons (I thought it best not to ask if they knew where I could get some!) and then waved me through. I have a feeling that getting back into the United States might be a bit more difficult.
Driving through Canada is pretty much the same as driving through the more sparsely populated parts of America; lots of fields and trees with the occasional farmhouse breaking up the monotony. For such a large country with a relatively tiny population, it’s not really surprising that there isn’t much here. The biggest difference you notice is that everything is displayed in foreign money. By law, everything has to be in both French and English, and you also have funny Frenchie dollars and they measure things in litres and kilometres rather than good old imperial measurements. So when you’re filling up with gas, you have to convert from litres to gallons and also convert between US and Canadian dollars. I gave up trying after a while so they could have been charging anything.
Before the frivolities commenced I thought it was time to get the oil changed on the Dream Machine. Not a difficult task, you would imagine, especially as every other business in America seems to be a garage, but remember that we’re dealing with Frenchies here. The first place I tried, a local chap that had been recommended, took one look at it, shook his head, and muttered something about not being able to get a filter for it. Okay, on to the next place: the largest mechanical chain in the country. After explaining to the chap what vehicle it was, he came out to take a look, shook his head, and said that their ramps weren’t strong enough to lift it up. What? It’s hardly a juggernaut! He was adamant that it was too big though, but then added that they COULD do it, but it would cost me a lot more. What was he going to do, get Harry Potter to wave a wand over it and lift it up into the air? He did suggest a place where I could get it done, but of course when I went there they took a look, shook their head, etc. eventually I gave up, it’s far less hassle to just wait until I get back into America, and went for an ice cream instead. Just a normal ice cream cone, then I wanted some strawberry sauce on top of it. “Oooooh, no, more than my jobs worth to put raspberry sauce on it, the raspberry sauce is for the frozen drinks only”. That was the final straw. Fortunately the weather was hot, so he won’t have long to wait before the ice cream melts and he won’t need medical treatment to extract it from his backside!
One of the best things about being in Canada at this time of the year is that I won’t be in the USA for 4th July, when the Yanks celebrate us letting a few farmers jab us with pitchforks before we cleared off leaving them to deal with Oprah and Michael Jackson by themselves. And they claim this as a victory? Anyway, I had escaped the celebrations so the Union Jack t-shirt could stay in the cupboard for another year. Little was I to know that July 1st is ‘Canada Day’, when the Canadians celebrate us letting a few farmers jab us with pitchforks, blah blah blah. Anyway, apart from a small amount of flag-waving through the streets and a day off for the workers (irrelevant to me, obviously!), the major activity on Canada Day is drinking beer. Excellent!
Not wanting to be antisocial, I wandered along to a party that some friends were having to join in with the festivities. We got there quite early because there were a couple of ‘tasks’ that they needed assistance with. Task number one was transferring a keg full of beer from a car into the house and covering it with ice. I liked the sound of task number one! Task number two was slightly different though, as it involved some manual labour moving a small amount of soil into the garden. That would be a ‘small’ amount in the same way that an elephant is a ‘small’ animal, Everest is a ‘small’ mountain, and the Titanic running into an iceberg was a ‘small’ hiccup. A slight overestimation in the amount of soil required to cultivate a small flowerbed had resulted in a ski-slope worth of muck being dumped in the front yard. This wasn’t part of the plan – I’m supposed to be on holiday! The situation was remedied later on with the discovery that the majority of people at the party were wine drinkers, and so a one-man assault on the keg ensued, somewhat successfully. I have a hazy memory of some fireworks down by a lake, which I’m sure were very pretty and patriotic, and somehow I managed not to end up sleeping in the newly-moved pile of dirt.
On the subject of drinking, all alcohol consumption in Ontario is controlled by the government. You can’t buy booze in a supermarket or a corner shop; you have to go to either the ‘Beer Store’ or the LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario). ‘Beer Store’ sounds much snappier, possibly because the government paid a consulting company millions of dollars to come up with the name ‘Beer Store’. I could have done that! Once you’re in these places they offer free samples, have walls full of what pop is available, and all you do is point at what you would like, pay for it, and a case comes careering down a chute and arrives in front of you for you to pick up and take home. Because of this, all the prices are regulated so you don’t get ripped off, and it’s so well organised that it’s the only type of shopping that I’ve ever enjoyed. In fact we went there a few times!
Downtown Toronto is a bit of a sprawl, not particularly pretty, and without a lot of obvious attractions for a big city. What it does have, however, is the CN Tower – the tallest building in the world. Unfortunately this means that it does attract a lot of tourist filth, getting in the way of people like myself who are carrying out valuable research! It’s also an obvious target for a terrorist attack, which means that the normally over-the-top security that you get is even tighter here. they have some new machines that apparently can detect explosives (whether they can or not is anybody’s guess of course), and they are straight out of a science fiction movie. You walk into a kind of pod, stand there with your legs apart and your arms out, and then after a couple of seconds you are sprayed with jets of air, aiming at strategic parts of your anatomy. I don’t know where they thought I might be hiding explosives, but I can guarantee that there are none jammed up THERE! Then a green light goes on any you walk out of the pod. You get to keep your clothes on, so what these blasts of air are actually doing is beyond me.
Once you have paid your money and got past the security checks, there is then a wait for a couple of hours to get the elevator to the top. You are herded along by a team of youngsters who haven’t quite got the hang of crowd control; in fact they’re a bit dopey and they haven’t got the hang of anything, least of all those movable barriers that you get when lining up to check in at the airport. They had a collection of ropes and stands that they were clipping together in random sequences hoping to get the people into some kind of orderly line, but the way they did it they were creating dead ends, loops with people walking around in circles, and paths that would lead two separate lines of people walking straight towards each other. And as if that wasn’t difficult enough for them, they also had the ‘moose factor’ to take account of. At the entrance there is a large moose, dressed up as a Mountie (naturally!) that everyone is supposed to walk past. Presumably this is to make sure that everyone sees it, but maybe it’s a ‘lucky moose’? Anyway, they had set up these paths that a genius lab rat would have no chance of navigating, and people were walking in but not going past the moose. “Please walk around the moose”, “Sir, would you walk around the moose”, and “Hey, you, walk around the frigging moose, eh” were just some of the phrases they were using. I would happily walk around the moose if I could get near the bloody thing and shut them up. I finally got there after hurdling half a dozen barriers, and even took a picture of it to make the visit worthwhile, before trying to regain my place in the queue.
The views from the top of the tower, if you can shift enough peasants out of the way to get a good look, are very impressive. There is a small airport near the tower so it’s spooky to watch planes flying underneath you, and there’s also a glass floor in part of the observation deck that you can stand on and look down, again quite a spooky experience. The glass floor is designed to support the weight of fourteen large hippos (a couple of the people there certainly fell into that category, but thankfully there weren’t fourteen of them), and after taking a look around you get the pleasure of standing in line for ages to go down again. There’s the option of paying more cash and standing in line for another couple of hours to take a trip to a higher observation deck, complete with higher-altitude peasants an d their screaming kids, but I thought I would give that a miss.
When you finally get onto terra firma, relief is at hand (oo-err!). right next to the CN Tower is an old converted railway roundhouse. Not particularly appealing in itself, I agree, but the fact that the roundhouse has been converted into a brewery certainly adds an amount of charm to the place. They do tours of the brewery, half an hour of a chap talking about hops and barley, but the tour is sandwiched in-between all-you-can-drink sampling both before and after the tour. So it’s not so much ‘sampling’ as ‘guzzling’. You can also buy some of their beer to take away with you, but if you haven’t got through enough of the free stuff by the time you leave then you probably shouldn’t be there in the first place!
Outside the brewery is a small area of land that is overgrown, which apparently is a federally protected weed patch. Only in Canada! So if you do anything to this weed patch (very tempting after a couple of hours worth of free samples, I can tell you!) then the federal authorities come town and take you away. Just what I need is a Mountie trotting over and throwing me onto the back of his horse! By the time sampling has finished it has magically transformed itself into two weed patches swimming around in front of your eyes, so the chances of you picking the correct one are reduced in any case.
I was enjoying myself so much getting trollied on a regular basis that I almost forgot to go and see the Toronto Blue Jays play a game. ‘Americas Pastime’ seems to translate quite well into Canada, although it’s not particularly well supported in a land where hockey is king (even when the entire season is cancelled). The Toronto sports fans were still intent on enjoying a night out though, and some of the fans were quite entertaining. The team plays in the Sky Dome, apparently now called the Rogers Center but nobody actually calls it that. It’s a multi-purpose, artificial surface place that is used for all kinds of things (Glasgow Rangers and Dinamo Zagreb were playing footy there the following week), has a retractable roof that can be opened in the summer, and is quite a cool building despite the fact that it’s not really suitable for playing baseball in. What it does have is the biggest and best scoreboard anywhere. This thing is huge and shows the game in great clarity, which helps if you’re in the upper level because the action is quite a long way away. For $6 you can hire binoculars to watch the game, which gives you some idea of the size of the place. The Sky Dome also has a hotel built into it, and some of the rooms overlook the field so you can sit there watching the game from the comfort of your bed. But if you’re staying in one of those rooms and you’re playing games of your own instead of watching the action going on down below (fnarr, fnarr), then you had better make sure that you close the curtains. Reports from the past tell us that you’re not just going to be spotted by a few people in the crowd but also a cameraman and his producer, who will relay your activities onto the biggest and best scoreboard in existence.
As well as playing the Canadian national anthem, there are some other minor differences in the ballgame in Toronto. A lot of the heckling is in French, the crowd enjoy singing and chanting a la footy terraces, the crowd roundly boo opposition home runs, and quite a few people bring in their cowbells. At one point I definitely heard someone shout out “I like your balls”, and I think I heard “Your mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberries”, but maybe that was the earlier beer sampling playing tricks on my mind. The stadium has got the narrowest seats ever known to mankind, even a hobbit would have to squeeze into one, but fortunately it’s pretty empty there so you can spread out over a dozen or so seats.
The game included three injuries due to the teams playing on a glorified carpet, including one bloke who hit a home run and then hurt himself getting to first base. It took him an age to limp around the other bases in agony in what must have been the longest home run trot in history.
Buying beer and hot dogs inside the stadium is also a strange experience. Separately, a beer costs $3.26 and a hot dog $3.44, giving you s total of $6.70, or you can buy a combo for $6.69. Of course when you add on the tax, the final price is still $7.23, but why are they such strange numbers. Whatever happened to $3, $3.25 or $3.50? Where do they come up with $3.44? I could understand it if the tax brought the price up to a round number but it doesn’t. Frenchies!
Toronto also has, believe it or not, a basketball team. The baseball team struggles enough getting people in to watch, so you wouldn’t have thought that basketball would be such a big draw, but the games are apparently regularly sold out. Further investigation reveals that the hockey team and the basketball team are owned by the same people, and because hockey tickets are virtually priceless, they have got the hockey fans by the short and curlies. If you want a ticket to get into hockey, you also have to buy a basketball ticket. Or SEVERAL basketball tickets. Even this season when there wasn’t any hockey, people still had to buy basketball tickets to keep the rights to their hockey season tickets just in case the players and the owners decide to grown up at any time in the future, and the vast majority of people did. It must be a nightmare to spend nine months in the snowy wilderness with only hockey to look forward to twice a week!
Niagara Falls, Ontario
Simply stunning! If you can get past the fact that this is the single biggest tourist attraction in Canada and at least attempt to be civil to the massed hordes of peasants that are constantly getting in your way, then spending a few hours hanging around Niagara Falls is well worth it. All you need to do is shut out all of the noise going on around you, find a decent spot to sit down, and watch the water float by. There are a couple of mildly interesting tourist jaunts that you can take part in; the ‘Behind the Falls’ experience (which involves going down some steps and standing by the side of the falls rather than actually behind them), and a trip on one of the many boats that get as close as they can to the falls without being sunk. Everybody on these boats is kitted out in rain gear to keep them reasonably dry, but it’s more fun sitting and watching these large boats being tossed around by the force of the falls. Watching one get too cocky and sink would be very entertaining!
Because the river determines the border between Canada and
the USA, there are also falls on the American side in Buffalo. All you have
to do is drive across a short bridge into the USA and take a look. Sounds
simple, right? Well it might be if you’ve got an American or a Canadian
passport, but if you’re a Limey then it’s not quite as easy as
that. I drove up to the border checkpoint, waited about half an hour for
my turn, and then the chappie asked me where I was from. “United Kingdom”,
I replied, and all at once his face took on a stern expression. He took a
look through my passport, asked me assorted questions about what I was doing,
where I lived, what I do, blah blah blah, and then started grilling me about
whose vehicle I was driving. I told him that it was mine, registered to me,
and I had bought it in California but he just couldn’t get his head
around the idea that it really did belong to me. I explained that I didn’t
buy it in Canada, I didn’t buy it in the UK (and drive across the Atlantic!),
and that I was returning to the USA after leaving a week earlier. The problem
is that when you go into Canada they don’t stamp your passport, so
he then started questioning the fact that I had left the USA in the first
place – despite the evidence that I had just driven across the bridge
and was technically still in Canada. I sometimes wonder if these people are
in the right job! His weaselly moustache twitched a couple of times, he gave
me a piece of paper, and told me to park up and report to a building for
further grilling. Of curse by this time the people in the cars behind me
were getting very upset about being forced to wait for twenty minutes. Tough!
I wandered into the building I had been sent to (he kept my passport so there
was no chance of doing a runner!) and found myself in a holding tank for
anyone non-American that was trying to get into the country. The place was
packed, with only a couple of people there actually doing any work, and occasionally
one person would get called from the baying mob and taken into the office.
While I was there I’m sure I saw one of the immigration officials walk
in with a bundle of piano wire under his arm and some fresh pliers for removing
fingernails! At least they had a television in the holding tank, so I entertained
myself with news of George Bush riding his bike into a policeman in Scotland
and injuring himself. It made me wonder whether or not I really wanted to
enter a country run by this man! The other news of the day was that London
had beaten out Paris and had been awarded the 2012 Olympics. Tempting as
it was to go back into Canada and taunt some Frenchies, I didn’t want
to push my luck! Eventually my name was called and I went through the same
questioning that the bloke at the drive-through hut had fired at me. Finally,
with another twitch of his moustache (why do they all have moustaches?) he
stamped my passport and let me in, after almost two hours. I jumped into
the Dream Machine and drove off, witnessing a family of Puerto Ricans being
barbecued over an open fire in my rear view mirror. While I was in Toronto
I met a guy who, despite having a Canadian passport, was born in Baghdad
and whose name is ‘Yasser’. I don’t think he dares to leave
his house, never mind the country!