The other side of Canada
People who know me are familiar with my romping tales of adventure and misadventure accumulated during numerous meanders across Asia. Those same people are shocked to learn that, until very recently, I’d never been east of Jasper in my very own country.
I started to address my Canadian travel deficiency this year while working for a Toronto media consortium during a month-long freelance writing and research contract. Not surprisingly, having been hemmed in by the Rocky Mountains my whole life, I found a certain exoticism in Ontario. I expected to take note of the subtle variances offered by the nation’s right half, but I didn’t expect to occasionally feel like a stranger in a strange land.
I’m pleased to inform my fellow Northwesters, and British Columbians in general, that bagged milk still exists in the East. Sure, Americans find this hilarious, but they’re increasingly satisfied to drink beer out of plastic bottles, which seems far weirder to me. Milk hasn’t been sold in bags in BC in more than 20 years, and verbalizing my delight at its Eastern continuation to my colleagues earned me the nickname “Milk Bag.”
There are plenty of patriotic maple trees in Toronto, along with oaks, black walnuts and other unfamiliar hardwoods. Alighting on them are cardinals and climbing them are opossums. I witnessed both in the first week, the latter at 2:00 a.m. on a mysterious marsupial mission in the hotel parking lot. Curious, I drew closer to the little grey-white creature only to recall an episode of The Simpsons when Homer refers to a family of possums, stating, “I call the big one Bitey.” I was braver handling the yellow-tinted snails that emerge after Toronto’s apocalyptic thunderstorms.
Soon it dawned on me that the city was thick with brick houses. I started to pester my colleagues with questions: how are brick houses made? How are they insulated? Do they get dank and moldy? I knew they existed, of course—the most affluent Little Pig owned a wolf-proof one, after all. As a native of a part of the country that’s rich in softwoods, I never imagined that a modern Canadian house might stray from wood framing, wood walls and perhaps some bisque-coloured vinyl siding.
For the first couple of days I searched fruitlessly near my hotel for a Safeway, Super-Valu, or Overwaitea to provide me with sustenance. A co-worker pointed out that a large store called Metro was, in fact, a grocery store and not an urban clothing store like I had reckoned. I knew there were Harvey’s restaurant franchises out East; television has been informing me for decades that they make my hamburger a beautiful thing. However, a fellow researcher insisted we go out to lunch at an Eastern chain called Five Guys, which served up a burger so large and rich that it was my last meal of the day. What Western-Canadian fast-food chain do Easterners most covet? A&W.
If you ever get the chance, patronize an Ontario Beer Store: it’s a no-frills, industrial shopping experience, like buying a case of suds straight from the brewery floor.
During my time away from northwestern BC, locals reminded me that Toronto was not only the centre of Canada, but also the universe. The city has a way of reinforcing the message that you’re nowhere if you’re not driving on the 401 or hustling along Queen Street and Yonge. But I could have been anywhere out East and the sensation of being in a world noticeably dissimilar to the West would have been the same. In T.O. I was always mindful of what John Travolta’s character in Pulp Fiction told his Los Angeles partner about Europe, and that I could repeat back home about the Canada that sits beside Lake Ontario: “They got the same stuff they got here, but there it’s just a little different.”