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07.01.2003

Roberval

I'm writing tonight from the town of Roberval, on the shores of Lac St. Jean, Québec. Lac St. Jean is a very large lake some three hours north of Québec City. On the map the lake shows as a ring of settlements tethered to Quebec and Trois Rivieres, far to the south, by a pair of long, snaking roads. Everything else is pure wilderness, glacial lakes and moraines for hundreds of miles to the north and west. If you look at a population density map of Quebec, it looks like someone shook the page hard, and all the dots fell straight to the bottom. The guidebook says that about 14,000 Québecois live north of this lake. One of the townships north of here is the size of Germany.

To anyone who lives in a dull-looking part of the world, and is looking for ideas to pretty things up, I have one word: glaciers. Get plenty of them, move them back and forth for a while, and you cannot go wrong. I've been staring at pine forests reflected in of mirror-flat lakes for six hours now. It is beautiful here to break your heart. And at night, you can watch the Simpsons dubbed into French, an experience guaranteed to deflate every pretension you may have about your ability to speak that langugage. D'ouh!

Deflating pretensions may be a kind of Canadian theme. For example, I'm impressed by the way Canada completely destroys the impression of unbounded wilderness the New England states work hard to create. Look at a map of Maine or Vermont and you'll see that both states peter out into vast empty blanks towards the northeast - no roads, no towns, nothing but beforested mountains and UFO country. Until you get to the Canadian border, that is. Then there appears a densely settled patchwork of roads, towns, and rolling farmland that could just as easily be Iowa or Illinois, minus eight billion American flags. You go from dense forest with a population density of zero to a bucolic grid of pokey farm towns, and it makes the wilderness business to the south look a trifle silly. Canada even rubs your nose in it by repeating the trick on a much grander scale, fading its towns out into forest and tundra that fill a third of the entire continent. Nice.

I'm also impressed by how crafty the country can be, instilling a false sense of security in the first-time American tourist. Visiting Québec is like foreign travel with training wheels. You don't need a passport to get in, you can pay for stuff with American dollars, and even though everyone is speaking French, you know they'll all understand English, if you just press them hard enough. If things get really dicey, you just have to point the car south for a couple of hours to be back on nativist soil. Piece of cake!

And just like that, Canada has secretly trained you to be an Ugly American. When you finally do visit a real foreign contry, you'll find yourself acting like a complete fool, yelling in English and waving fistfuls of dollars at some uncomprehending store clerk, while some doe-eyed backpacker with a maple leaf patch snickers at you and picks up all the hot local chicks.

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