Sunday, July 15, 2007

Whoa, Canada — Part II: You say “potato,” I also say “potato” the exact same way

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When we last saw our heroes, they were stuck deep in the wilderness (a few miles off Route 2 at Route 13) of Prince Edward Island, Canada, stranded with a busted bicycle tube, little water, and several energy bars growing sticky in the heat.

My wife and I, sweaty and thirsty after a two-hour bike ride, stared at her flat rear tire for something like five minutes. We were stranded just outside Hunter River, Prince Edward Island, a village of unspoiled landscapes rendered picturesque mostly because nobody was there to spoil them. We’d had the bike trail to ourselves for the two hours we’d been riding, and there wasn’t anyone around now, either — no one to ask for help.

I snapped my fingers. “I have a plan,” I said to my wife. Then I yelled: “If only Superman were here to save us!”

We waited.

Helpful tip, in case you’re ever stranded someplace: That doesn’t work.

“It’s 15 miles back to the car,” my wife said, shielding her eyes from the sun.

“You got another bike tube?”

“Back at the hotel.”


“You got your cell phone?”

“I don’t think it works in Canada,” I said.

“Try it anyway.”

“I didn’t bring it.”


“Are you wearing sunscreen?”

“Yes. You?”



“Did you bring it?”


“Crap! Do we have flares?”

“Why would we have flares?

“We could start a fire, try to signal passing ships.”

“We’re landlocked.

“I meant helicopters.”

She slapped at a mosquito on her neck.

“We should start walking back,” I said. “At four miles an hour, we could be back in three and three-quarter hours.”

We headed back along the Confederation Trail, walking our bikes. My wife has a Garmin fitness gizmo on her wrist that connects to GPS satellites, and it tells you your precise location on the planet Earth, where you are, and how fast you’re going. She glanced at it.

“Three miles an hour,” she said.


The sun, which had been hiding behind clouds all morning, beat down like a hammer. It was so hot our eyeballs ached. My wife, a marathon runner, decided things would go faster if she ran and dragged her bike behind her. I pedaled slowly beside. That worked for about 6 miles, until she began to turn a shade of eggplant and decided to walk again.

We shambled another kilometer. With my overheated brain baking under a Red Sox hat, I struggled to remember what a kilometer was. I decided it was probably a kind of fruit salad.

Long story short, after running and biking and trudging for miles under a blinding sun on the hottest day of our vacation, after more than 20 mosquito bites between the both of us, after a miniature duathlon by my wife, after a bright, shiny sunburn, we finally made it back to Charlottetown. Our car was gorgeous — and steaming hot from sitting in a parking lot for nearly six hours.

Hmm? What’s that? No. We didn’t go riding again after that, no.

This spud’s for you

Instead, we ate. We ate extravagantly and thoroughly, appetizers and double portions and ice cream, and then we counted down the hours until it could be considered polite to eat again.

We ate raw, live oysters, twice, chasing them with freshly brewed beer — anesthetic, I told them. We had a pound of mussels for an appetizer, just the two of us — which sounds impressive until you figure that most of it was shells.

We weren't the only ones — everyone we saw ate and boozed like the moon was scheduled to crash into the planet sometime later that evening. Mostly boozed. Three college-age Canadian guys stopped into one restaurant, the Gahan House, famous for its brewery in the basement. The waiter brought them a cylindrical tube four feet high, about seven or eight inches in diameter, full of beer, with a spigot near the bottom. My wife and I sipped our pints and watched them drain it, leaving trails of foam down the inside of the barrel, dab their mouths with napkins, and then leave. The next day, sitting in the sun at another restaurant down the street, my wife kept telling me there was a lady two tables over drinking out of a fishbowl.

“Is there gravel on the bottom?” I said, craning my neck.

“I don't think so,” she said.

“A fish?”

“If there was, she ate it.”

She was an average-sized lady, holding a round glass goldfish bowl under her chin and sucking beer out of it with a straw. I watched her set it back on the table, empty, and I softly applauded.

With every meal, there were potatoes. If there’s one thing Prince Edward Islanders are proud of, it’s the damn potatoes. We took long drives around the country, past PEI’s many potato-processing factories, and for miles around it stunk of french fry oil. Every restaurant was the same: Mashed. Hashed. Frenched. Boiled. Sliced. Wedged. Cubed. Au gratin. Totted. Curly’d. Latke’d. Baked. Baked with cheese. With cheese and bacon. With cheese and bacon and gravy. French fried with cheese curds and brown gravy.

At one pub my wife, who has been trying to cut down her meat consumption, ordered the vegetarian option: a potato burger.

The waitress wrote it down. “One potato burger. What’dja like on the side? Fries, baked potato, or potato salad?”

My wife stared at her blankly. “Baked?” she said.

A little later, the waitress brought out the plates. I ordered a burger: two patties between bread with cheese and bacon.

“You got two?” my wife said, and she wiggled her hand at me, a gesture that signified a clot of fatty cow meat shimmying perilously through my aorta.

I shrugged. “I wanted just one, but two was the minimum number I could get.” It’s true — there was a triple burger on there, with options to get extra patties, if for some reason you were feeling suicidal.

The waitress gave my wife her potato burger — actually, a massive tater tot, served with two baked potatoes, each roughly the size of an infant’s head.

I wiggled my hand at her.

What you say about society

You go on vacation to different places on the globe, as opposed to the hotel over in the Industrial Park, to absorb a different culture. Normally, that’s my favorite part of the vacation. On PEI, the culture is … uh … whatever the polite word for “backward” is.

It wasn’t just the leggings, no. And it wasn’t just the mullets. And it wasn’t just the expressions (“What up?”). No. What gave my wife and I the distinct impression that we had somehow traveled back in time several decades to The Land That Pop Culture Forgot was the music.

The most popular rock station there (SPUD-FM, honest) played a variety of music: from 1981 Rush to 1989 Rush.

We waited in a restaurant for our oysters and potatoes flambé to arrive while the radio cycled through a sort of unholy early-Reagan-era compilation album.

“Supertramp,” I said, my head in my hands. “Supertramp.”

“Haven’t heard that song in a while,” my wife said.

Later, I discovered during a Bachman Turner Overdrive two-fer that jamming napkins into your ears is not effective at all.

“Haven’t heard that song in a while,” my wife said.

“When’s the damn millennium coming already?” I barked.

At the next table, three people were talking about a gig one of them just saw. A Grand Funk Railroad cover band.

It was “really wicked.”

My wife cocked her head. “Haven’t heard this one in a while,” she said.

It was “Cuts Like a Knife” by Bryan Adams. Seemed like a great idea. I picked mine up from the table and held it to my wrist.

Canada Day

Just before we left, the locals began a four-day Canada Day extravaganza. It’s their day of independence — except instead of casting off the yoke of British oppression, they asked the Britain for permission to amend their own constitution without British permission. Close enough.

My wife and I took a walk through Charlottetown’s beautiful waterfront park. We didn’t get far — the park had been fenced off overnight. A ticket booth was by the gate, where you paid to see the Canada Day whatnot inside.

Tickets were $45 each. And that, my friends, is how they have free health care.

So we sat under a shady tree not far away and leaned on each other, careful not to touch sunburns, and read books.

“You suppose they have Canada Day re-enactments?” I said to my wife. “History buffs recreate the Great Asking of Permission? The Great Shrugging of Shoulders?”

She shrugged her shoulders. She’s part French Canadian.

Streams of Canadians surged past us on their way to the waterfront, all hopped up on Tim Horton’s. A couple of dorky-looking teenagers came close enough for me to smell the poutine on their breath.

“Dude,” one said. “Who sits around reading books on Canada Day?

I tipped my Red Sox hat in his direction, fighting a strong urge to jam him into the nearest locker. Then I nudged my wife on the shoulder.

“Ow,” she said.

“Having an OK time?”

She sighed and watched the Canadians go by. “I think I’m ready to go home.”

I nodded. “I’m having a good time, but I’m ready to be back in America. I don’t know if we belong here today.”

We didn’t. And I didn’t feel 100 percent right until we came back to the good old USA: yes, days later we were back on my American porch, with American neighbors, my American holiday on the horizon. And I smoked a Cuban cigar I’d found somehow hidden deep in my luggage, watched an empty Tim Horton’s cup rattling down the street, heard a car blasting some song about that good old American hero, Tom Sawyer.

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