Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Things To Do in Denver When You're Alive

John Elway greeted me as I made my way off the Frontier Airlines flight, shortly after landing in Denver.  I'm not so sure I feel good about that.  Just seeing his toothy smile pushing a Lasik procedure at me made me feel uncomfortable.  As a Cleveland sports fan, the words "the Drive" went catapulting through my mind, and harrowing memories of past therapy-sessions made me tremble.  But I dismissed it when I came to my altitude-affected senses that in a short time I'd be knee-deep in a cask-conditioned pale ale at Wynkoop Brewing Company.

I believe it's been more than 15 years since I'd visited the Mile High City, and that's probably a conservative estimate.  But the reason then was primarily the reason now: visit my good friend Ron, as well as meet, for the first time, Adam, my contact and the Program Director for the Classic Rock channel on the Dial Global Network.  I also wanted to see if I could squeeze in a few innings of the Rockies-Dodgers game, having never been to Coors Field.  That would depend on the timely and skilled driving expertise of the young Hispanic man behind the controls of the blue Super Shuttle bus that was waiting for me when I exited the airport into the surprisingly somewhat-muggy Denver air.

Riding in a large van with people whom you don't know always sounds like a good idea when you're making the reservation.  You don't have to deal with the cost of renting a car and having it valet-parked for two days, and, better yet, you don't have to pay some cab 60 bucks to take you downtown.  What you do need is a resident-friend or family-member willing to cart you around while you're there, or a myriad of things to do that are within walking distance.  I was hoping for the latter.  I don't like to put people out, you know.

As we waited for the others to fill up the van, I directed my gaze towards the now-setting sun in the west, which had created an Ansel Adams-esque silhouette-portrait of the Rocky Mountains.  I would be transfixed by these peaks for the remainder of the visit, not to mention those of the perky young Mexican lady seating people at the diner on Sunday morning.   But that's later.  Now, I would have to contend with an hour-and-fifteen minute ride stuffed like sausages into a van with people who uttered not one single word the whole trip!  About halfway into town, I pondered the ramifications of breaking into "Meet the Flintstones" in honor of the late, great John Candy, but I'm not the most gregarious person, and opted instead to watch the magnificent display gradually fading away on the horizon, surreptitiously holding my breath so as not to ingest the noxious fumes of whatever my fellow passengers consumed on their incoming flights which seemed to be  filling up the van as the miles piled up.

Luckily, my stop was third on the agenda, at The Curtis, which turned out to be a fun, quirky hotel, with bell-hops dressed in black shirts and orange ties.  The decor was splattered with TV, movie, and other pop-culture motifs.  I was on floor 7, and when the elevator door opened, a voice said, "Welcome to Floor 7, the laugh-out loud floor!"  I was hoping it was false advertising, after the horrible lodging experience I'd had earlier in the summer in Toronto.   My room was tastefully done but still bright with color, including a desk-clock in the shape of a yellow VW Beetle.  I tossed my bag on the bed and made a bee-line for Coors Field to see if I could make it to the Rockies game.

The area of downtown called "LoDo" is a bustling, lively section, complete with all of the bars and restaurants you'd come to expect with three sports facilities nearby.  I walked (and sometimes ran) the equivalent of about 9 city blocks to the ballpark, only to discover that it was already the top of the 9th.  Sweaty and a little dejected, I sough comfort and refuge in the form of Wynkoop Brewing Company.  Named after a former Arapahoe County sheriff from the 1850's, Wynkoop's elicits stellar reviews within the craft-brewing community.  Before I launched into a bison-burger, I soothed my parched, baseball-less nerves with a couple offerings of the cask-conditioned Monkey's Fist I.P.A.  As the game let out, the building became increasingly noisy, and the two-hour time-difference was catching up with me.

Brushing aside the drapes in my room the following morning, I stood in awe of those jagged hills that transfixed me so completely the night before.  Living in Knoxville, I'd spent a fair amount of time in the Smoky Mountains.  And while living in Annapolis, we'd sometimes drive a couple of hours into Virginia to gawk at the Shenandoah Mountains for an afternoon.  But there's something infinitely special about the Rocky Mountains.  I like the way the arid, desolate brown patches merge in with the green, and as the day goes along, the sun splashing against them to create exactly what Katharine Lee Bates saw when she exclaimed "purple mountian majesties".  I told Ron later that I can't believe you actually get to wake up and look at these every day.

I love mountains.  I also love my pillow.  I may love my pillow even more than I love mountains.  My pillow and I are one.  If it were not for Donna, I'd marry my pillow.  But Frontier Airlines charges $25.00 per bag, which meant that in order to take my pillow, I would have to pay $25.00.  Not a big price to pay for love, you're saying.  You're right.  And I was wrong.  Because without my pillow, I was downright miserable.  I tossed and turned all night.  So after worshiping a mountain range and checking the Indians score, I sought caffeine.

Adam and I were supposed to meet for breakfast, but a prior commitment moved up our time.  Ron wasn't getting off of work until 4:30, so I basically had a day to kill in Denver.  I thought I'd take some pictures with my new phone, so after my morning workout at the fitness center, I headed down again through LoDo.  It was hot.  Not St. Louis-hot, but warm nonetheless.  Like a magnet, I found myself in front of Coors Field praying that they would move the 7:05 p.m. first-pitch to an afternoon start.  But, the Divine must favor night-games.  I visited a couple gift stores, walked past Union Station, and strolled north towards some condos on a hill so that I could get a better picture of the mountains.  But nothing was working.  And, I was getting really over-heated.  I headed towards the Tattered Cover Book Store, a cool spot that I'd heard Ron talk about on numerous occasions.  After perusing the stacks and finally deciding on something from Augusten Burroughs, I left to meet Adam.

I've always been intrigued by the West.  Our trip to Arizona about 6 years ago ranks as one of my favorite.  I like a lack of humidity.  I like the expansiveness of this part of the country.  And, yes, as someone once told me, the sky does seem to be more blue here.  But I'm not sure this particular section of Denver denoted anything remarkably "western" for me.  Aside from that big mountain range, everything looked....fairly normal.  A Rite Aid pharmacy is a Rite Aid Pharmacy.  And a car can blast past with you with Eminem pulsating out of the speakers in any city in America.  Oh, sure, there's the rogue cowboy hat and, of course, a Tim Tebow jersey, but did I suspect anything particularly "Denver-ish" so far?  I put this question to Adam, a Eugene, Oregon native, when we finally sat down for a 5 Barrel Pale Ale from Odell Brewing Company of Fort Collins, while sitting outside at Ted's Montana Grill in Larimer Square.  I got the feeling from him that people here in general are more active, seem to enjoy the outdoors more, and tend to be more "green" in their approach.  But, he said, not any more than people in Oregon or Washington State.  "What you do have here," he said, "is a bunch of former Wisconsinites and Minnesotans.  Somewhere along the way, they took a wrong turn and ended up in Colorado."  Sure enough, when asked, our waitress said she loved it here but sometimes missed her home...in La Crosse, Wisconsin!

I walked Adam to his train just in time to be picked up by Ron outside of The Curtis.  Damn, if he hadn't changed a bit!  He looks the same as he did when he was barreling through the door of an extremely smoke-filled room 132 at the Pontifical College Josephinum, ready to lay the smack-down on anything from Descartes to liberation theology.  Ron Valladao is one of the most well-read and most academically-gifted people I have ever met in my life.  And although I still consider us the best of friends, I do admit to being a bit sheepish, intellectually, in his presence.  Remember the Tyson-Spinks fight in '88?  It took all of 91 seconds for Mike to put Spinks on his backside and then hit the shower.  Same at the Josephinum.  I can recall a number of occasions over beverages in the make-shift pub in the bowels of the seminary when Spinks-like theologian wannabe's would scurry back to their dorm room with their breviary between their legs after a good brain-thrashing from Ron.

We made a mad dash for Pints Pub, a cool British-style watering-hole, complete with authentic English ale, served at proper temperature, some of them cask-conditioned and served via a real hand-pump.  As I expected, the time flew by too quickly.  Even on the plane-ride home, I thought of numerous subject-areas that we never even came close to touching.  Such is the case when you're trying to catch up on life-experiences stretched over some 20 years.  Although he's not a tenured professor at some prestigious university as I would have expected, he ought to be.  It's a shame that so much distance has to separate us.

Ron works weekends and rises early, so we strolled through the downtown capital area a bit and then said our goodbyes.  After Ron dropped me off, thirst got the best of me and I was determined to check out Falling Rock Tap House, a spot I noticed earlier in the day during my picture-taking spree and a beer-bar that a friend also suggested on Facebook.  It was packed, since the Rockies game had just let out.  I did manage to squeeze in an Alaskan Amber, a beer I've only tried one other time, via mail-order when we lived in Pittsburgh.  It's slightly-sweet texture and full mouth-feel was easy to enjoy.  After giving up my seat to a couple of inebriated female Rockies fans, I slowly made my way back to the hotel.  With a mild bit of hesitation, I did stop at the Rock Bottom Brewery, just down the street from The Curtis.  Surprisingly, I was impressed!  They won't get any awards for their names, but the "Red Ale" had nice malty, toffee overtones, and the "E.S.B." was hearty and flavorful.  I'll give credit where credit's due!

After another restless night without my beloved pillow,  I crawled over to a Starbucks next door to read the paper.  And before that big blue van came to pick me up, I decided to find some breakfast.  I love diners, and Sam's No. 3 was an ideal choice.  It was imperative that I sat at the counter.  Although I had some of the morning's paper with me, I was much more intrigued with the rapid-fire performance of the cooks and the take-no-prisoners display by the wait-staff.  And the chorizo sausage!  It's spicy flavor seared the top layer of my esophagus, but I figured it would grow back.  I couldn't get enough of it.  Or the delightfully well-endowed hostess who caught me gawking several times.  What can I say, I enjoy tempting scenery.

Trying to digest the essence of a city in less than 2 days can't be done.  But I like the feel of Colorado.  I can do 300 days of sunshine a year, low humidity, and an abundant supply of Dale's Pale Ale.  It would be cool to hang out with Ron more.  And I suppose I could even stomach the constant barrage of John Elway advertisements, too.  I'm sure Denver has a whole host of competent psychotherapists, though, if the need arises.  And if one of those guys can't help...or that hostess at Sam's No. 3 isn't working... I can always stare at those damned mountains.



Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Dad Knows

We had returned home from Mass at St. Peter's one Sunday and had started watching a football game.  But something was on my mind.  Fr. Scharff had given a homily about prayer, and some of it didn't make sense to me.  I turned to my father who was sitting in his rocker-recliner sipping a Carling Black Label and I asked, "Dad, why does God need us to pray to him?"  He took another swallow from his red-and-black can and said, "Now you're thinking, aren't ya."

I thought of that day on a number of occasions, including yesterday, when I finally watched Anderson Cooper's interview with Christopher Hitchens.  The avowed atheist is being treated for esophageal cancer and, of course, Cooper's questions seemed to dwell on how he was dealing with his illness in light of his popular beliefs.  He looked horrible, as most people will look when they've undertaken immense amounts of chemotherapy.  Cooper asked him, "Do you mind if people pray for you?" And Hitchens responded, "No, if it makes them feel better".  He added, "I don't think souls or bodies can be changed by incantation".

Does God need us to pray to Him?  Or Her?  Or It?  Can we be changed if we do?  And if so, why?  Cooper asks Hitchens if a story came out that he actually turned to prayer on his death-bed, would it be an accurate one.  Hitchens tells him that perhaps if he were full of drugs or deranged because of illness, that maybe he might, but only because of massive deterioration.  "I can't say that the entity that by then wouldn't be me wouldn't do such a pathetic thing, but not while I'm lucid." 

I'm not an atheist, but I have been re-formulating my views on religion, God, prayer, and my Catholic upbringing.  Actually, "re-formulating" makes it sound like I have a predisposed plan and that I'm fomenting an elixir to swallow that will instantly alter the religious landscape for me.  In reality, I haven't a clue as to how to organize my views on all of those topics.  I can't for the life of me figure out, within the simplistic construct of my feeble brain, how a divine entity profits from our supplications.  And I thought LeBron James' ego was massive.  Like that conversation with my father so many years ago, I simply don't get it.

Yet, I still do it.  I'll catch myself praying, and then the intellectual part of me says, "What are you doing?  And why are you doing it?"  My mother had some tests done last week and I could tell she was nervous.  I didn't want to let on, but I was probably more nervous than she was.  It turns out that the worry was for nothing, but I found myself walking down the street this morning on my coffee-run giving thanks to God for this.  After the intellectual side of me asked its benign questions, I shook my head in amazement.  Then I wondered about how hard my mother probably prayed last week.  Was her good fortune because of it?

I admire Christopher Hitchens.  Not necessarily because of his atheism, but because he continues, at least for the time being, to believe what he believes, even in the face of massive adversity.  Would I do the same?  Is it easy for me to hypothesize and snicker about the existence of the Divine as presented to me by Holy Mother Church while I'm relatively healthy, as opposed to a situation where I might discover I have an inoperable illness?  Would I immediately lapse into a litany of ceaseless "Our Father's" and "Hail Mary's"?  And would they be heard?

I'm traveling to Denver next weekend to visit my friend Ron.  We were in the seminary together.  Ron, at least what I know about him these days, espouses many of the same views as Christopher Hitchens.  It should be a good visit.  I know that Ron won't be angling to "convert" me, but I do know that I'll need to explain myself, spiritually.  It's been a long time since we've had a chance to sit down and discuss topics of a theological nature.  Surely, they will be far different than the ones we had during seminary.  Ron dwarfs me when it comes to intellectual acumen.  However, I'm not worried about it.  My journey isn't an intellectual one.  And I'm not necessarily looking for the answers from Ron or anyone else.  I don't doubt the existence of a being greater than me.  I just seem to place less and less credence in the explanation given to me by the church of my upbringing.

Some would say that maybe the answers lie within the framework of another church, or another religion.  Maybe so, but I doubt it.  Fear has ruled my belief structure for a long time, and I know that I'm in no mood for a denomination that will instigate more of it.  In the meantime, I'll keep searching.  I'm also going to look for a case of Carling Black Label.  Maybe it's also time to have another chat with Dad.


Image: Simon Howden / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image: renjith krishnan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Checking the Pulse of the Great White North

She was small, almost petite, lightly tanned with pink nail-polish and her hair in a bun, tucked up under her cap.  Standing in her cubicle, she eyed us with the same skepticism that any border-guard would have when sizing up foreigners who enter their country, or with somebody who claims to dislike hockey.  Examining our passports, it looked like she entered some information into a computer, but I wasn't sure.  Without looking at me, she asked, "Your reason for visiting Canada?"  Hmmm.....I detected a slight French lilt.  Perhaps she was originally from Montreal, or maybe Quebec City?  Donna knocked me on my arm to awaken me from my Brigitte Bardot-in-a-customs-uniform daydream.

"Uh, we're going to see a baseball game,"  I finally responded.

"Who's playing?" she asked, still looking at the passports.

"The Cleveland Indians and the Toronto Blue Jays," I responded, firmly.

"When is the game?"

"It's at 1:07 on Saturday."

Had she asked me for the pitching match-ups, I think I would have exploded in laughter.  However, customs-officials normally dislike anything that blows up, so I contained myself.  With her pink nail-polished hands still clutching our passports, she suddenly extended them in my direction and, finally looking at me, said, "Enjoy your time in our country."

Earlier in the year, I had been looking on the schedule for an Indians road-game to go to that would be within driving distance, and preferably one scheduled in a ballpark that we had yet to visit.  We'd been to Chicago, Detroit, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh.  So, a weekend series in Toronto seemed like a good choice.  Jill agreed to baby-sit the animals so we headed out on Thursday night, spending the evening in Buffalo and then getting up the next morning to head across the border.

Aside from being in Niagara Falls several years ago, as well as a quick trip to Windsor, Ontario, I really never visited Canada.  I was anxious to see Toronto, and even more anxious to check out the Canadian micro-beer scene.  More importantly, I was excited to observe some of the differences between our two countries, which also made me a little nervous, as well.  (I made a mental note to Mapquest to the nearest U.S. Consulate while I was there, just in case.) And who knows, maybe I'd even get some free health care while I was in-country, or maybe a good deal on the expensive asthma medication that I can no longer afford!

Our trip would take us on the QEW (Queen Elizabeth Way) through St. Catharine's, Hamilton, Oakville, and eventually the western suburbs and then into downtown Toronto.  But we would be going to none of these places unless I stopped to get some gas.  I exited the off-ramp and ended up at what looked like any Sunoco or Circkle-K or BP.  "Wow," I said to Donna.  "Gas here is only $1.09!"  Of course, as I would learn later, that's $1.09 per-litre, so already I had no idea what I was paying for or how much I was getting.  (I even downloaded an app for the iPhone that makes all these calculations, but the tank was already full by the time I reached for my phone.)      

The QEW (or the "Queen-E" as the locals like to say) looks remarkably similar to any three-lane highway in the U.S. that sometimes merges to two because of construction and sometimes broadens out to 5 lanes, in some cases.  I had to wrap my head around the fact that I was driving in "kilometers" and not "miles".  I suppose I'd never noticed, but my speedometer also registers in kilometers, so setting the cruise-control on 100 was easy. (that's about 60 m.p.h., which seemed a bit slow for a QEW-type highway, as evidenced by the fact that people with both Ontario license plates and loads of other U.S. tags were blowing my doors off!) This roadway, for a 100 miles or so, basically skirts around Lake Ontario.  There are some wonderful vistas of the lake throughout this drive, as well as an abundant amount of wineries and vineyards.  One difference we did notice is that the on- and off-ramps seem to be much shorter in distance than many of those in the U.S.

Traffic was a bit hectic but nothing out of the ordinary...until we hit the Gardiner Expressway into downtown.  Then, Toronto resembled a major city.  The downtown is dwarfed by the CN Tower.  And there must be a large amount of downtown dwellers because the predominant edifice looks to be apartment or condo-towers.  Getting off the Gardiner and inching our way north towards our hotel, I really got a sense of Toronto's multi-culturalism.  We passed what looked like an expansive Chinatown section, which also included a large number of Thai and Vietnamese restaurants.

One other thing about Toronto's downtown streets: bicycles rule!  They're everywhere!  I know, because I almost hit several of them as I attempted to follow my Google-Maps directions.  Unfortunately, Google-Maps is unaware that the city of Toronto strenuously dislikes left-hand turns, so it was a reverse-NASCAR route in order to finally arrive at the Sutton House.  The doorman asked if we were in town for "Caribana".  We, of course, knew nothing about Caribana, so he proceeded to tell us of the half-million people who would also be in town with us this weekend.  "Your hallway could get a little noisy tonight, so just let the front-desk know if you're having any trouble with noise".  As it turned out, we would make plenty of calls to the front-desk throughout the weekend.

We really had no definitive plans for our Toronto trip, aside from seeing a ballgame and perhaps visiting the Hockey Hall of Fame.  I had done some research on a few brewpubs and beer-bars and was hoping that Donna would indulge me.  Other than that, we planned on doing some walking around and just getting a feel for what Canada is.  Now, thinking back on our trip, I'm not sure we truly discovered it.

Walking down Yonge Street towards Eaton Centre, Donna remarked that you could easily be in New York City or Chicago, and I agreed.  I'm not sure if it was because of Caribana, but it seemed like the multiple ethnic-group kaleidoscope really dominated the areas of downtown Toronto that we encountered.  Traffic, car horns, buses, oodles of bicycles, and motorcycles filled the streets.  People walked past hurriedly.  Restaurants and cafes were brimming with customers.  Street musicians played with their cases open  for spare change and mimes plied their trade.  Even in front of Eaton Centre, some of the neon and signage invoked a Times Square-type environment, although a great deal smaller.

We finally stopped at 3 Brewers Restaurant.  We were both famished, and I was dying to try some solid Canadian craft-beer.  The "Red Ale" (one was the "Blonde Ale" and the other was the "Dark Ale"...were the Creative Department folks sick on the day they decided to name the beers?) would be a foreshadowing of what was to be found within Toronto's craft-beer community, at least as far as this three-day weekend was concerned.  It was red, and it had alcohol in it.  Next.

After walking around Eaton Centre and back up Bay Street, we decided to call it a day.  After being in our room for awhile, however, I thought I'd go for a walk and see if I could locate a place to buy a good barleywine to take back to the room.  The concierge told me of a place nearby "with tremendous selection".  That location took me through a neighborhood that included a predominate gay community, as most of the couples holding hands were either gay or trans-gender.  Fine by me, as long as they can point me to The LCBO.  I wish they hadn't.  The Liquor Control Board of Ontario had the same creativity as the guys who named the beers for the 3 Brewers chain.  Sure, there was plenty of Molson and Labatt's, but also stacks of Guinness, Hoegaarden, and a number of other mass-produced imports.  There were virtually no Canadian craft-beers.  There was some Sleeman, but I've had it, and it's far from a top-tier offering.  I finally found a 22-ounce bottle of pale ale from Great Lakes Brewery in Ontario.  As I would discover later, it resembled in no way the Great Lakes Brewery up the road from us.   

After being kept awake practically all night from the Caribana attendees in the room next door, I staggered off to a Starbucks down the street while Donna slept.  I wanted to try a local place around the corner, but for some reason it wasn't open.  As I read the Globe and Mail and sipped my coffee, I stared out the window that looked out on to Yonge Street.  So far, my impression of Canada was a luke-warm one.  Sure, their money is prettier than ours, and I LOVE that 2-dollar coin!  I like looking for the "washroom" signs as opposed to "restroom".  After listening to interviews with Canadian hockey players, I enjoy the accent. (And speaking of hockey, how can you go wrong with liking a country who's kids come out of the womb with skates laced up.) I even like the fact that signs are in English and French. (a great sign on the QEW: "Merging Traffic.  Please Leave Gaps") Try that in the States and there would be an ethnocentric riot.  Heck, I hear people moaning about the dual-language signs inside Home Depot!  But so far, there was just something a bit too....American about it.   Look at me, sitting here in a Starbucks, for crying out loud.

We walked down to Rogers Centre for the game.  It was an enjoyable afternoon, weather-wise, and the dome was open.  Our seats were between home and third, underneath an overhang, so as to not be affected by the sun.  Rogers Centre is one of the remaining stadiums that still has a synthetic surface.  But it had a bizarre color-scheme.  The seats were blue, but the railings were all painted a different color.  The walls were red, and the placards that held the numbers for each section were purple.  It almost gave me a migraine.

We sat in front of two elderly Jays fans, who turned out to be delightful.  They were quite knowledgeable, too.  After Tribe manager Manny Acta pulled Josh Tomlin in the 7th following a stellar performance, one of the ladies leaned in towards us and said, "He's doing so well.  Does Acta have him on a pitch-count?"  See, they do know more than hockey here!  Concessions?  Nothing radical.  And certainly nothing "Canadian". No special "Canadian sauce" for the hot dogs, no local Toronto-style sandwich, and certainly no Canadian craft-beer from which to choose.  Hell, the ketchup available for hot dogs was Heinz!

We walked over to the Hockey Hall of Fame after the game but opted not to go in because of the $30.00 price-tag.  Instead, we went in search of some cheap souvenirs.  Donna landed a cool "Canada" hoodie, and I found a t-shirt with the Canadian team hockey emblem on it.  We carried our bags back up Yonge Street and finally found Beer Bistro.  There, I did manage to find a couple of stellar brews, including a massively-flavorful Dunkel from Denison's.  Our young server, originally from Manitoba, was both easy on the eye and fairly astute about beer.  "That's a great Dunkel, eh?", she exclaimed, walking off to the get the check.  I knew I'd hear that once before heading back to the States!  My research told me about how expensive the beers would be, and it was all true.  For Lagunitas Pils, they wanted  $9.00...for a bottle! All of the American beers came with hefty price tags, but I wasn't after American beers, just American quality.  We then ended the evening at Bar Volo, an excellent place to round out the trip, since they easily had the largest selection of beers.  I had a couple of Quebec farmhouse ales that were supposedly "on cask", but they were far too cold and far less creamy to be true cask offerings.  They were good, though. 

After another pathetic night of sleep, we hit the road back to "the States".  We ventured off quickly, though, to grab a bite to eat.  Rather than hitting a McDonald's, I suggested dropping in to the supermarket and trying to find something, you know, Canadian?  Unfortunately, it looked exactly like a Giant Eagle or a Kroger, without the beer section and with slightly higher prices.  And except for paying with those colorful $5.00 bills, I could have easily been in Akron, Ohio.

Aside from the girls next door in our hotel room, the big downside to this trip was the drive back on the QEW.  Maybe it was border traffic.  Or construction.  Or people venturing to Niagara Falls.  I'm not sure, but the ride was horrendous.  An almost two-hour trip turned into almost 4-and-a-half hours!  The traffic was miserable.  By the time we arrived close to the border, Donna wanted to stop at the duty-free shopping outlet, and I was more than willing to comply.  I picked up some maple candy for my mother and a half-case of Sleeman (hey, it wasn't Molson!) for my father.

I've been thinking about this trip and I'm not sure how enlightening it was.  And I'm not just saying that because they squeaked out a win in the Olympics.  Yes, I was able to see a world-class city that I had never seen before.  But would my Canadian experience have been more "Canadian" if it had been a trip to Quebec, or Calgary, or Vancouver?  Experienced Toronto travelers would, I'm sure, be able to give me hundreds of suggestions about great coffee places or restaurants or beer-bars.  But with a couple of days on our hands in the heart of downtown Toronto, I can honestly say that were weren't blown away.  But I do have to say that Canada has us beat when it comes to customs-officials.  After the encounter with the gruff man who checked our passports at the entrance to Buffalo, I'll take the Brigitte Bardot-look-a-like on the Canadian side anytime!