In Which Ryan Goes to Canada

I am happy to report that on the first day of my excursion to the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia, nothing terribly frustrating or even particularly annoying happened en route. I flew out of New York’s nightmarishly bad LaGuardia airport (even that was pretty “ho-hum”) and into Seattle; from there, I rented a car (I impulsively upgraded from a boring Chevy Cavalier to a Subaru Outback for, like, a bazillion dollars more) and drove to Vancouver, British Columbia.

I’d never been out of the country before now. My family, as I may have mentioned a few times, was never exactly rolling in dough, so our “vacations” were typically moderately cheesy outings to overpriced timeshare condos at Myrtle Beach that were not even within walking distance of the actual beach. So this trip to the Great White North was a big deal in my mind, even though my friend Eric described Canada as both “unremarkable” and as “big, empty states.” (Incidentally he also called me a lesbian for opting to take the Subaru Outback, so take that for what it’s worth.)  I didn’t expect much difficulty getting into the place, since everything I’d read seemed to indicate that all I needed was my birth certificate and driver’s license, both of which I had on hand. 

So, my black Subaru Outback and I left the Seattle-Tacoma airport and started winding northward towards the Canadian border. It was pitch black and raining the whole time, but finally I reached the decidedly 70’s-looking border checkpoint, which appeared to be some sort of canopy structure over the highway that sheltered the small tollbooth-like entryways to Canada. Unfortunately when I rolled down the window to speak to the customs agent or whatever he was, I realized that this “canopy” was apparently just decorative, as rain was dumping directly through it and on to both the Canadian customs guy and me. So I guess he had a reason to be grumpy.

He asked me some fairly basic Customs-type questions, like “Do you have a gun?” and “Are you carrying any alcohol or tobacco?” (Sounds like a party to me!) When I answered these in the negative, he seemed somewhat disappointed–I guess he really was bored–and told me to proceed to the squatty cinder block immigration office just ahead, which combined the most attractive elements from your average DMV with that medicine-y aroma that you generally notice at the dentist’s office.

There was no line; no one else was interested in trying to cross the border in the middle of the night in a downpour, I guess. I handed over my license and my birth certificate, and the immigration person, who looked jolly enough prior to opening his mouth, suddenly subjected me to the closest thing I’ve ever come to an interrogation. “You live in New York?” I started to answer, but as soon as I finished the word “yes” and tried to tack on “in Brooklyn,” he had already moved to his next question. BANG! “Where are you going? Where are you staying? Why are you coming into the country? Is it just you? How long will you be here? Whereareyourplanetickets? WHENAREYOULEAVING?!”

What bothered me most about the whole process: When he asked why I was entering Canada, I simply said that I was coming for vacation, that I’d never been there before, and was just going to be a tourist for a few days. Apparently this is akin to saying “I like to eat the contents of soiled baby diapers” to someone, as he looked at me as if this was the strangest thing he’d ever heard. He later asked if I was meeting anybody here–I told him that there was a possibility, but that I didn’t know if any of my friends would be able to make it up or not. This, again, caused him to glare at me as if I was sporting a monocle and a Salvador Dali mustache; perhaps he has no friends that are flaky, but the more likely explanation was that he probably just doesn’t have any friends at all. I mean, the man even scoffed at the fact that I had my paperwork and hotel information in a plain manila folder. SCOFFED. Come on, Canada–is that really necessary?

Anyway, this not-so-pleasant man went away, presumably to confirm that I was not, in fact, Osama bin Ladin disguised as a small nerdy white boy. He returned several minutes later, gave me my documents back, and pointed at the door for me to leave. I was happy to.

After driving in Canada for less than half an hour, I began to notice several key differences between it and the United States. For starters:

The metric system is annoying.  I got aggravated very quickly with having to use the teeny tiny kilometers-per-hour scale printed in three-point type on the Outback’s speedometer. And while 100 km/h sounds impressive, it isn’t; it turns out to be about 6 miles per hour.

Traffic lights do weird things. Why, driving down the street, do traffic lights randomly flash green for no apparent reason? And why does it appear that some streets feature traffic lights merely for the sake of “offering” traffic lights, even if there is no intersecting street necessitating a light?  These are things that I do not understand.

The Department of Transportation (or whatever its equivalent is) has no style guide. This is the nerdy designer in me coming out, but the road signs I came across contained a horrid mish-mash of typefaces, colors, sizes, borders, and graphics that made absolutely no sense at all. I mean, why do some signs have a dotted line for a border? Am I supposed to use comically large scissors to clip them out of the landscape and take them with me?

I feel funny admitting it, but I was actually worried about getting around in another country, this being my first excursion outside of the borders of the United States.  But with minimal difficulty, I was able to make my way to Vancouver.  Plus, the fact that they actually maintain their roads was a little off-putting to me, as I’m used to potholes so bad that they jar the fillings right out of your head.  But hey, maybe it makes sense to use taxpayer money to repair the roads.  I guess they do things like that in other countries.

I arrived in Vancouver in the middle of a downpour at close to 11 at night, so it was pitch black outside.  I very nearly missed the hotel entirely in the dark, despite the fact that it had a gigantic illuminated awning on the front with huge letters that said “LISTEL VANCOUVER” that were probably visible from space.  But once I was able to drag myself up to my room, I felt as if somehow the elevator between the lobby and the sixth floor had taken a wrong turn at the Northern Hemisphere and deposited me somewhere in Europe.

Each room in the hotel is decorated individually with hand-picked artwork, including prints, paintings and carvings, from the collection at the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology.  My room, for instance, featured a scary-looking mask of some kind, which faced my bed–it made sleeping near impossible so I took it down and threw it in the closet.  Also featured was a lovely painting that presumably originated from somewhere in the Pacific Northwest; the label said that it was supposed to be “wolves,” though on first glance I thought it was a line drawing of Dutch wooden shoes.

The room was incredible.  The sheets smelled faintly of fabric softener, the pillows were substantial and not those measly flaccid deals that a lot of places will stiff you with, and the toiletries were amazing, scented with things like eucalyptus, green tea and lemongrass.  It was clear to see that someone had taken time and care to make the room into a place that would make a visitor comfortable and at home, while retaining all of the distinctive character of the region.  And then… the mini-bar.

I’m not exactly a gleaming paragon of virtue and self-control to begin with, so the fact that there was a (free) bottle of Evian along with a basket full of all kinds of (not free) snack foods and whatnot, many of which I’d never even seen for sale in the United States (I mean, they make a Mars bar?!  It’s like a Snickers without peanuts!), was very exciting. Plus, the refrigerator stocked with… uh… beverages of all kinds, was just asking for trouble.  I was able to muster up some degree of restraint, though, and to everyone’s relief, I didn’t single-handedly cause Canada to rethink its legal drinking age, nor did I require any emergency assistance from that state-controlled health care system that I’d heard so much about.

So, after I finished ooh-ing and ahh-ing over this newfound luxury that I’m not terribly accustomed to, I exploded my belongings and got into bed, smiling at the thought of this entirely new city that was out there to be explored.  And with that scary tribal mask thing locked securely in the closet, I fell asleep listening to the rain fall outside.

The next morning it didn’t take long to realize that the hotel was located right in the middle of downtown Vancouver, with the waterfront within walking distance and every kind of store imaginable (along with approximately seventy million Starbucks and “Blenz,” which I ascertained to be the Canadian version of Starbucks, but with a more nonsensical, vaguely perverted-sounding name) in between.  And with my trusty yet not especially helpful Fodor’s guide in hand, kind of like an enthusiastic friend who isn’t especially bright, I set out to do all things tourist-y.

Christ Church Cathedral.  As it had completely slipped my mind that it was Palm Sunday, I stopped by the Christ Church Cathedral to participate in the mass that was going on.  It was nice, especially the addition of a random trumpet to the typical organ and choir; the presence of a donkey in the Palm Sunday was also wonderful, especially since it kept shaking off rainwater on to random churchgoers as it walked down the aisle.  That alone made the whole thing worth the visit.

Science World.  As we all know, I’m a huge nerd, first and foremost, and also have the emotional maturity of a 9-year-old.  So of course I couldn’t pass up a visit to Science World, which is housed inside of an 1980s-futuristic geodesic dome thing.  Not only did I see a fairly disturbing Imax film about birth there, but I also saw some surprisingly elaborate Lego contraptions, including a functional roller coaster.  Also, I ate a veggie burger.

Granville Island.  Apparently Granville Island actually used to be a real island at some point in time, but plate tectonics (that, or engineering, I’m not sure which) caused it to fuse with the rest of Vancouver.  Granville Island is the home of a huge public market filled with all sorts of food items; commercial vendors aren’t allowed there, either, so the farmers that grew it sell everything.  The island also houses an extensive arts community, and there are dozens of art galleries and studios, in addition to a couple of theater companies and an arts college.  One theater company was apparently performing some kind of parody of NBC’s “The Apprentice,” and the poster included a photograph of a guy wearing a truly terrible Donald Trump wig unironically.

University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology.  Here’s a hint if you ever visit Vancouver:  If something says “easily accessible by bus!” it is most likely a blatant lie.  This was the case at the UBC Museum of Anthropology, which was a lovely enough place–visiting it in the rain gave it a very moody atmosphere that was kind of nice–but the “nearby” buses turned out to be on the other end of the FREAKIN’ HUGE CAMPUS.  Also complicating things was the presence of some sort of student-sponsored race that was going on the same day, so every two seconds I was more-or-less shoved out of the way by mud-coated frat boys running towards… I dunno, a keg, or boobs, or something.  Also:  UBC students, girls and guys alike, apparently have a fondness for apparel with the school’s initials printed directly on the buttocks area.  I don’t know what this means.

Shopping on Robson Street.  Robson Street in the middle of downtown is apparently “the” big shopping destination in Vancouver; this, coincidentally, was the same street that my hotel was located on.  On Robson you can buy nearly anything you can think of, and the salespeople are especially good at making you realize that you need much more than you originally thought you did.  And if you get thirsty, don’t worry!  There are more than enough Starbucks and Blenz (I still think that’s such a weird name) for everybody to have his or her own.

Vancouver Aquarium.  Does anyone else remember some television show that used to come on the Disney Channel maybe 15 years ago, back when it was still a premium channel on cable, that was about these people that worked in an aquarium in Vancouver or something?  No?  That’s just me?  Hm.  Well, anyway, the aquarium is nice but small, and certainly nothing like I remember it from that TV show from when I was 8 that probably didn’t even actually exist.  They have otters and seals and whales and dolphins and all of the typical aquarium accouterments, including ample screaming children all just begging to be drowned in the saltwater tidal marsh touch pool thing.

I was sad to see my two days in Vancouver come and go so quickly.  It was such a vibrant and exciting place that I felt like I could’ve easily spent the rest of the week there, even if I wasn’t doing much of anything.  Plus the fact that Canadian dollars are like an automatic 20% discount if you’re an American is nice.  I guess that gives me an even bigger reason to come back soon.

—2005