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!


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