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Late last August, tears falling into my farewell hamburger from Frite Alors!, I inched my way out of Montreal and into the murky borderlands of Québec. My summer in Canada was over.
I made up this list to cheer myself on the ride home:
Dorval (YUL) is Montreal's main airport, a distant, weaselly warren of tunnels and construction areas that violates the cardinal rule of airport construction: do not put a large mountain between yourself and the city that you serve.
No one at Dorval has made the connection between the giant aluminum winged things that float in hourly from the sky and the enormous crowds of people packing the arrivals hall. The people at Immigration Canada behave as if they are genuinely shocked and bewildered to see so many people yet again materializing out of thin air, for the 589th consecutive day. Where do they all come from?
They do their best to check documents and be friendly - they've even installed a helpful clock (a tribute to retarded bilingualism: "estimated waiting time: 55 minutes/55 minutes"), and they have a friendly officer manfully bearing the complaints of all the passengers at the head of the line. But they seem overwhelmed by all the mysterious strangers filling their airport.
Follow the winged metal cylinders, I want to tell them. The secret is in the winged metal cylinders!
I can only imagine the morning routine at Dorval.
- Eh, Giles, ca commence! Y'a des tas de gens!
- Merde! Qu'est-ce qin va faeire?
- Tsi bouing de la faroule, non?
On my last arrival at Dorval, the wait was up to seventy five minutes, and to get to the passport counters you had to zigzag along a nylon rope maze with about forty switchbacks, an experience akin to passing through a bureaucratic intestinal tract. Immediately to our right, past the nylon rope, was the baggage area with a beautiful view of all our suitcases, neatly lined up next to the conveyor belts. A large caged dog who had made the transatlantic trip in the cargo hold had been unloaded along with the baggage, and he spent the entire seventy five minutes barking and howling disconsolately as his cursing owner snaked back and forth with us through the line, trying to comfort the animal whenever he got near enough to the cage, which only intensified the barking.
Montreal pepperoni is wide, pale and flaccid in a way completely unbefitting the traditions of this noble sausage. It's like finding a piece of salami in your pizza, but instead of manfully putting the stuff on top where it can be evaluated and condemned by a just world, the pizza makers of Montreal sneak it in under the surface, so you have to tease it out with your teeth like a Guinea worm.
Reliable Canadian sources tell me that I am full of it, and that Montreal is home to some of the finest small-diameter, wine-dark pepperoni anywhere, but I was both lazy and fixated on chatting up pizza girls at the local we-employ-only-Russians pizza joint, so the sample size was limited.
"Big deal", you are going to say, "parking is a hassle in any city". But Montreal has the twin weapons of bilingualism and snow days, leading to the most inscrutable parking signs known to modern science. For example, you might see:
NO PARKING 8:30 - 9:30 Monday Friday* SAUF AVEC PERMIS 2 hour maximum 18:30 - 22:00 December / April DELIVERIES ONLY * (après 18h jours feriés)
I list this typical set of rules together for convenience, but in the wild you are likely to find them distributed over a deep inheritance hierarchy, scattered up and down the length of an entire street. They are arranged to maximize potential ambiguity, with some very subtle touches. For example, signs demanding sticker parking theoretically have an arrow pointing from the signpost in the direction that they apply:
RESIDENT PARKING ONLY HERE TO CORNER. MUST DISPLAY STICKER >>-------->
But these signs are always mounted at an 89.99 degree angle to the sidewalk, so that they are essentially orthogonal to the street, whose denizens live in fear.
In the United States, you are free to turn any way you damned well please at an intersection, unless there is an explicit road sign prohibiting it. In Canada, you must look for the turn sign with green arrows showing which turns are allowed. You heard that right. The government has to *specifically allow* you to make a turn before you can contemplate making it.
All you needed to know about the two countries.
I understand the need for taxes. Freedom isn't free, let alone things like the Canadarm 2. I am not bitter about paying a surcharge on everything I buy to fund the Nunavut Festival de la Francophonie, since in the end the sight of Canadian currency is irrevocably linked to ‘monopoly money’ in my brain, and in a more philosophical sense, we die broke anyway.
But what does rankle me is the completely non-deterministic nature of the Canadian sales tax. You have not tasted anxiety until you arrive at a gas station with a five dollar bill in hand, buy a muffin and small coffee, and stand shuddering at the checkout, waiting to see if the sales tax will be $0.11 or $34. On one memorable night, I paid $0.69 sales tax on an $0.80 pack of gum, and only a spare quarter in a forgotten pocket saved me.
But did somebody say muffins?
For all that Canada is an advanced civilization, the country remains sadly behind in muffin technology. The pre-requistes to a good muffin, any American will tell you, are a golden baked outer crust, fluffy middle, and a reasonable attempt at non-greasiness.
The P & A offers something resembling chewed-up brown paper towels, with or without chocolate chips, proudly boasting “only 190 calories”. The only other muffin contender was the local gas station, with a promising-looking muffin bin of ten flavors, all of which turned out to be variations on compressed sheet cake.
Tim Horton’s offers muffins, but I knew better than to try one and risk having to criticize Tim Horton's on this blog. No one wants a Canadian death squad on their ass.The Burrito
The failure of Canada to independently develop the burrito is one of the great mysteries in the development of human civilization. All the key elements are in place - Mexicans, tortilla bakeries, a large drunk population, the concept of flat pancake-like thing wrapped around a savory filling (thanks to crêperies), the concept of a starchy, vaguely spice-filled Latin American food (thanks to the empanada bakeries), even the concept of 24-hour cheap bulk food (thanks to the 0.99$ pizza parlors).
But just as the Chinese were never able to make the leap to the printing press despite inventing ink, paper, movable type, and educating a large literate class, Canada can't seem to make the conceptual or cultural leap to the burrito. Perhaps it is a niche in the Canadian stomach already occupied by poutine? Or is it the invisible hand of Tim Horton's "taking care" of any entrepreneur who dares open a burrito stand?
The world may never know. But the world is certainly not going to consider moving permanently to a place that does not offer giant foil-wrapped cylinders of Mexican food at three in the morning.
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maciej @ ceglowski.com
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