Note: This is long. Don't feel obligated to read the whole thing. But if you do, drop me a comment via the link at the bottom, so I know that this was not for nothing.
Here's how you make a Canada: take the United States, spread things out, get rid of most of the people, force the ones who are left to think that Europe is great, and to become slow and slightly fruity. Then devalue your currency, throw in an obvious case of cultural inferiority and Bang! You've got yourself a Canada.
We had a nice enough time visiting Canada (Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, specifically) for a couple of days this July. We all stayed at a B&B
, where the hosts were, by my standards, overly accomodating. I'm sure that some people (okay, most people other than myself) like a personal touch. Call me crazy, but I just don't. Our hosts were very nice, but it got to the point where we tried to find out information for ourselves, because a simple request of "Where can I buy some sunscreen nearby?" called out the Canadian Hospitality Troops, whose job it was to give us three different options of quaint, wonderful, quite Canadian methods and/or locations for obtaining sunscreen, followed immediately by the dispatch of runners to determine the current availability of said methods and locations. Calm down folks. No one's going out of their way to hate you, so you shouldn't be going out of your way to make us love you.
The girls loved it the place. Our hosts were grandparents and had a small cache of simple toys in the family room. These toys, which would normally have been relegated to the lowest bin in Maddie and Lucy's bedroom toy hierarchies, were suddenly seen as a gold mine, simply because they were the best kind of toys: someone else's. This managed to keep the girls busy for at least an hour each morning, which means they were worth their weight in synthetic diamond
The girls also shared a room. They stayed up late and whispered and giggled and kept getting out of bed, which I happily remember doing as a kid. We had to send them back to bed with strict admonitions, but we were laughing our heads off in the next room the whole time. After the second night, the novelty had worn off, and they went to bed a little more normally.
Once they were down for the night, Joy and would play a board game, read our lengthy tomes (Harry Potter V
for her, Cryptonomicon
for me), or, better, watched Canadian TV. Canadian TV is amazing. I watched about 3 hours total over our five days there. It consisted of the completely useless Canadian Weather Network, some current American shows, gads of commercials explaining how wonderful Canada is, and, the best, Canadian Idol. It's like American Idol, with 90% knocked off of everything: the budget, the talent, the charisma. American Idol is no bastion of televised integrity and musical virtuosity, but the Canadian version was utterly, horrifically fascinating, train-wreck style. We couldn't believe how bad it was. Which is why we watched it.
We spent a day at Niagara Falls doing some of the touristy stuff - rode the whirlpool cable car and the Maid of the Mist, all four of us. Maddie, in Good American eldest child fashion, kept referring to the American Falls as Our Falls, and to the horseshoe as Their Falls. Clearly, the horseshoe falls are more spectacular, but she showed her patriotism by proclaiming early on that our falls are very nice, too. And she thinks that maybe she even likes them better. Lucy asked for a lollipop.
The Maid of the Mist is pretty lame, until the boat reaches the midpoint of the arms of the horseshoe falls and cranks its engines to keep you right there for... five minutes? ten minutes? I'm not sure. It was so thunderously cool that I couldn't tell you how long we were there. Lucy was scared and could not be convinced that we would not actually be going under the falls. When the splash from the horseshoe falls really started pelting us, it was like standing in a torrential downpour, while a freight train ran circles all around. Maddie and I took our hoods off (yes, we were all wearing the requisite blue ponchos) so as to better experience the fun, and were thoroughly drenched. At this point, Lucy, who I was holding, buried her face in my shoulder and started crying, hard. I felt bad, but there was nothing to do. After about a minute, though, she must have realized that nothing horrible was going to happen, and her crying segued directly into maniacal laughter. She rose up like Mr. Hyde to face the falls, and enjoyed the rest of the ride.
Clifton Hill ("Fun By The Falls!") completely S. U. X. Imagine all of the worst, gaudiest things you've ever seen at the boardwalk on a teen beach, then pack them into two or three blocks of steep hills, stick them beside a Planet Hollywood and a skanky casino, and you have the perfect picture of Clifton Hill. Not my scene.
Of course, it rained on and off the entire day, but we got some lucky breaks, and ended up getting really wet on the MotM anyway, so it wasn't THAT bad. If you're headed that way, pack some food in your car, because the eating options in the area near the falls range from suck to suck.
Happy Rolf's Farm
On another day, we went to a petting zoo (really a converted farm), sporting all of the usual suspects: ponies, pigs, goats, rabbits, chickens, lots of ducks and geese. They had a walking trail, a pavilion and some playground equipment for the kids. It was all free. Well, free to you and me. The fine, overly-gracious people of Ontario pay for it with their outrageous income taxes. Suckers.
The walking trail at the farm leads toward Lake Ontario, where the trail branches. If you choose not to loop back into the farm, but follow the other branch up a small hill, you find a nicely-landscaped area overlooking Lake Ontario, dominated by a fairly tall flagpole flying the maple leaf. There are twenty-six small trees planted along the approach to the flag, each with their own small plaque, showing a peron's name and a city of origin. At the base of the flagpole is a waist-high rock bearing the standard pewter plaque that explains the whole setup. This is their 9/11 memorial.
I tried to find out (via the Internet) if this was the official Canadian 9/11 memorial, but was unable to find any information, either positive or negative (note that a single hit demonstrating something else as the official memorial would disqualify this one, but I found nothing
.) The plaque refers to 9/11 as a tragedy. The design has not yet been chosen for the U.S. memorial. That'll happen this fall, and I sure hope the word "tragedy" is not included. When an old man who lives alone runs out of his medication, and doesn't have anyone willing to help him get more, and he dies and a week later the neighbors find him half-eaten by raccoons, that's a tragedy. When someone tries to get something out of their glove compartment at 80 mph and causes a twenty car pile up, killing eight people, that's a tragedy. Even if some poor lady goes along as an undiagnosed schizophrenic, and one day listens to the voices in her head and chops her ski instructor into little tiny bits, that's a tragedy. The joining thread is that none of these things involve humans with malicious intent. Given the choice, before she became a chemical/electrical slave to her malfunctioning brain, the schizophrenic ski bunny would most certainly have chosen against the coming events.
But as we all know, that's not what happened on 9/11. There were a number of humans with malicious, specific, intent. So to call it a tragedy seems belittling to me. I was a bit pissed as I was standing there. I was remembering what that day felt like. Waiting to see what was going to blow up next. Knowing that had things been a little different in your own life, just a little, that it could be you choosing to jump instead of burn, and when you heard those bodies hit the pavilion roof in that amazing documentary, you winced, because it really was a little part of you slamming into the metal. I have a damned tough time calling that a tragedy. I guess the word "massacre" doesn't look too good on a plaque. On the other hand, Victor Davis Hanson, who completely kicks ass, also refers to 9/11 as a tragedy
, so maybe I shouldn't be so hard on Canada. VDH has also referred to the hijackers as "heinous savages", which is the best two words description I've heard of them so far. And incidentally, Canada, thanks for all of your help in Iraq.
Deep breath. ... ... ... Okay, back to the trip. Our other big stop: Marineland
Everybody Loves Marineland
It gets great reviews and high ratings, and I can see why. Overall, I'd give it a great value rating, too. The main show, starring walruses, seals, sea lions, dolphins and Neocia, an orca, was absolutely top notch. It was genuinely funny. The animals were obivously well taken care of and enjoyed playing with their trainers. You could pay a little extra money ($5 Cd) and actually get a couple of minutes to pet, feed, and say "Hey" to the beluga whales and the orcas. We did that twice. There were bears that you could feed, which was kind of pathetic, as I regard them as nature's toughest land-based killing-machines-when-they-wanna-be, and felt kind of embarrased to see them begging for ice-cream cones full of bear chow. There were maybe twenty black bears in the enclosure, and it was kind of cool to think that if they got out and wanted to, they could have ripped up every human being in sight (maybe 150 of us at the moment), and there would be nothing we could have done about it! Okay, so that's only a cool thought if you're me. But the whole bear thing was kind of disturbing
. They also had a walk-through deer yard with what had to be two hundred spotted fawns, but I don't think that those guys could do you any real damage, even if they ganged up on you.
The weird thing about Marineland, though, is that it's gigantic. It's on, according to our hosts, 1,300 acres. I looked for some confirmation of this on the Internet, but couldn't find any. But I believe it. I've been running a lot recently, and I have a pretty good sense for distances measured by foot. There was something like a half mile between all major attractions, with nothing but trees and hilly scrub land in between. There were times when, due to the natural contours of the area, you wouldn't have even known that you were in an amusement park. Assuming that the acreage estimate is correct, you have eleven attractions in that space, or .008 attractions per acre. Cedar Point packs 84 rides into 384 acres, or .21 rides per acre. The Magic Kingdom in Florida fits 36 rides into 98 acres, for a rpa of .36, which is probably too low because as anyone who's ever been to the Magic Kingdom knows, every square inch of that place is packed with something to see or do.
I'm a live-and-let-live kind of person, but was a little shocked at the cultural diversity present at the park. Observant!Joy pointed out early in the day that English speakers seemed to be in the minority, and after watching and listening a bit, I found that she was right. You don't get this kind of mix at what I consider the tourist capitol of the world, Disney World. Lots of French. Lots of German. And lots of what I'll have to call, for lack of more cultural sensitivity, Arabic. Though I have no way to even estimate the attendance at the park that day, it was certainly not crowded. We didn't have to wait in line to ride the World's Biggest Steel Coaster. I saw, however, at least five large families walking around in which the man wore a full, black beard, and the grown women wore burqas. Okay, they were showing their eyes (stone the sluts!), and I think there is technically a different term for this get-up, but I'm not wasting my time on it. It's a burqa. So, as I'm watching these people, I'm feeling some amount of contempt for the women, that they would let themselves be treated this way. I'm seeing the little boys running around, and visualizing all those nice pictures I've seen of little Wahhabi boys holding AK-47's while their Daddies smile around them. I'm seeing the little girls zipping around with the boys and cannot imagine that they're looking forward to wearing the full garb when they're old enough. And I look at that man who forces his wife? sister? daughter? to wear a full-body black curtain when it's 82 degrees, sunny and humid, and I think "Terrorist." Which is unfair, and even as I'm watching him, I realize it, but I can't help but to think it initially. The best I can do inside is reduce his mental sentence to "Misogynist, with Prejudice", and the thought that he was probably really, really happy on 9/11/2001. I need to get myself an IDF t-shirt
for the next time I'm at a large tourist attraction, just to piss off people like that.
And so, as their song says, "Everybody Loves Marineland." And it's apparently true. Middle class Anglos from Pennsylvania. Snotty French Canadians (poor sample, I know - those who weren't snotty didn't stand out - but we're having fun with stereotypes today anyway, so oh well). Young Germans in very good shape. Misogynistic terrorist sympathizers. Everybody. Didn't see a lot of people in, uh, what's the nice way to say it?, very bad physical shape there. I don't think they'd make it very far. So, not quite EVERYONE loves Marineland. I'd have to say that people who can't walk more than mile without sweating profusely and having to sit down are unlikely to even LIKE Marineland, let alone LOVE it. So Marineland must be discounting their human rights. They are not included in "Everybody." So, if the owner and employees of Marineland ever take over the world, it'll probably mean death camps for the grossly out of shape. But once the Marineland gestapo is defeated, as we all know they eventually will be, it could mean Reparations for the out of shape survivors! I believe that something like a lifetime supply of Cheddar Cheese and Sour Cream Wavy Lays would make them happy.
Presque Isle, My True Home
On the way home, we stopped for an afternoon at Presque Isle on Lake Erie. I know that it's really a peninsula, not an island, but it was obviously named by the French, so you can't expect too much, if you know what I mean. Despite the silly name, though, Presque Isle is one of my favorite places on the Earth. The National Geographic Society claims that it sports the second-best sunsets in the world
. That's right, this little lake beach in Pennsylvania is #2 in the whole forld. I was also told (though I couldn't confirm it) that it was recently rated as the best swimming beach in the world. I believe it. We usually go to Short Jetty beach, which is pleasantly uncrowded, even on a perfect summer day in July. The sand is clean, perfect for making castles and dragons. The water is comfortable, with small waves, clear enough, even when you're waist deep, to see your feet and the schools of silvery minnows that flit by. It's relaxing. It's quite safe. There's no salt in your hair if you decide to swim. There are no jellyfish.
Did I mention the fine, friendly people of Erie, Pennsylvania? They really are. Someone once told me that after returning from a trip to Erie, they felt like a movie star. Why, you ask? According to them, Erie, from a physical appearance standpoint, is a sort of anti-Hollywood. Ridiculous, I thought. But after Joy and I spent some time there several years ago, we had to agree. We felt like greek deities. Maybe a good marketing angle for them would be "Erie: Come, Be Beautiful".
Of course, there's also Waldameer
, a little amusement/water park just before the entrance to Presque Isle. The kids like the rides, obviously, and the food is cheap. Knoebels and Idlewild are better on a raw scale, but they're not two hundred yards outside of Presque Isle. There are some neat local restaurants, and every major chain that you've come to expect as well. Waldameer and nice swimming for the kids + feeling like movie stars and calm beach experience for the adults = perfect small family vacation.
Conclusions and Qualifications
There was a lot of other business going on that didn't make it into this little essay. Marital dispute about taking fruit across the border. Debit card lost. Buffalo an industrial hole. Cheap beer in New York state. But that's just your standard road trip fare.
Lastly, I don't want to give you the wrong impression of Canada, and maybe I've done that. So I have to qualify all of this with the fact that the kids had a blast. Joy had a great time, too. And really, this ego-centric post-mortem aside, so did I. 75% of the Hess family vastly preferred the B&B to a nice suite hotel. The kids took no notice of the cheesy Clifton Hill or the 9/11 memorial, or the Islamic misogynists. They just ran around, ate ice cream, and had fun. Which is how it should be. I don't want to give the impression that I spent the whole time grumbling and bitching, because I didn't. But I don't think I'll be heading back to Canada again, because, you know, our
falls are really quite nice, and I think that I do
like them better than their falls after all.