Friday, September 11, 2009

A very Canadian summer

When I was back home for a visit a few weeks ago, a friend asked me what I missed most about Canada when I was in Japan. We were driving through the streets of Toronto at the time and it hit me that what I missed most about Canada was right there in front of me.

"I miss this," I said, as we drove through city blocks lined with tiny restaurants serving cheap food from around the world. Indian, Thai, Greek, Jamaican, Korean, Ethiopian, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Lebanese. Ten different countries in two city blocks.

I miss being able to have a burrito for breakfast, a falafel for lunch and souvlaki for dinner. I miss Red River cereal. I miss blending in with the crowd. I miss being able to speak English with everyone I meet. I miss being able to read the cereal box while I eat breakfast. I miss Grape Nuts. I miss the wide-open spaces, the small big cities and the unspoiled wilderness. I miss George Stroumboulopoulos. I miss Tim Hortons.

Don't get me wrong. I love Japan. But I often feel like an outsider living on the fringes of a world I am part of but don't really belong to. I am not Japanese and I will never be Japanese. I am treated with respect and kindness by most of the people I encounter. But the polite smiles and deep bows only serve to highlight the distance between us.

So it was nice to get out of Japan and go home for a few weeks. I spent a little bit of time in Vancouver and a lot of time in Toronto. It's funny how you notice things that you never really paid attention to until after you've been out of the country for a while. Take the liquor store in Ontario, for example. The stores are nicely laid out with helpful signs for each section: Ontario wine, B.C. wine, Australian wine, South African wine, Chilean wine, fine scotches, Japanese sake. And then, the one section I had never noticed before: The Party Zone. Classy!

Of course, no summertime visit to Toronto would be complete without a trip to the CNE. I like the CNE for the atmosphere, the free samples and the mini donuts. I hate the rides. I do not look at the rides and see fun, thrills and excitement. I look at the rides and see nausea, terror and the possibility of serious injury or death. (I like the ferris wheel, though. Ferris wheels are nice and slow and you get great views from the top.)

My sister was getting frustrated that I wouldn't go on any of the rides (not including the ferris wheel. We rode it twice). So I made a deal with her. I agreed to go on one ride as long as I got to choose it. I looked around the midway and immediately ruled out anything that went upside down. I also nixed anything that was more than five feet above the ground and moved at a high speed. Roller coasters were out of the question. We were too tall for the kiddie rides. The haunted house was too lame. The only option was the tilt-a-whirl.

The tilt-a-whirl didn't look so bad from a distance. But appearances can be deceiving. I knew I had made a mistake when, just before the ride was about to begin, a greasy carny walked over to our car, gave my sister and I a pair of high fives and yelled, "ARE YOU READY TO GO FAST?!?!"

"No!" I said in a panicky voice. "We want to go slow!"

But it was too late. The platform started moving. We were going around and around in circles, slowly at first and then faster and faster. Parts of the platform were raised and lowered, which caused the cars to spin in different directions and at different speeds. The cars would swing and snap unexpectedly. Not only was the platform rotating in one giant circle, but our car was spinning wildly at the same time. I started to feel violently ill. I couldn't focus my eyes. We were being spun around and around and around and there was nothing we could do to stop it.

"Let me off!" I screamed. "I'm going to be sick!"

But no one listened. The ride seemed to last an eternity, with me struggling not to vomit all over my sister's lap. I can't believe people actually pay money to put themselves through this type of torture and they actually enjoy it. I almost wept with relief when it was over.

After the madness of the CNE, my family escaped to Georgian Bay for two days. We went to the town of Lafontaine, which is where my grandfather's side of the family is from. The Marchildons were part of a group of families from Quebec who moved to the area in the 1800s. It's still very much a francophone community today (it's also the only place in Canada where every second mailbox has the name "Marchildon" written on it). The lake is one of the most beautiful places in the country.

We drove up to Georgian Bay with my dad's canoe tied to the roof of the car (does it get any more Canadian than that?). I should explain that the canoe is my dad's pride and joy. He built it himself, out of wood and entirely by hand. The canoe is a work of art (he told me to say that. He also told me to put a picture of it up on my blog. Here you go, Dad!).

One of my favourite things about Toronto is the TTC. I love the way the subway stations smell. They have a distinctive smell. If I had to describe it, I would say it's a mixture of old newspapers, stale air, dirt and metal. You're hit with this smell as soon as you walk through the doors. The smell hasn't changed in 30 years. There's something comforting about it. It smells like home.

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