We get mighty complacent here in the land of convenience. Our struggle for sustenance and shelter have become unrecognizably ritualized into habits of routine and automation. And while we now have the ability to interact in real time with humanity across the globe, we still do so from the cocoons of comfort, an antiseptic distance from other cultures, foreign ways of life and novel (to us) means of comprehending human existence.
With that in mind, my family decided we should expose ourselves to the exotic otherworldly land of mystery: Canada. By engaging with this radically different land, we would surely cast off the blinders of our North American-centric view of the cosmos and see how people live on other continents.
Imagine my surprise to learn that Canada is actually on the same land mass (look it up if you don’t believe me). It’s on the way to the North Pole from the Triangle, in fact.
Having priced airfare for several months, it became clear there was a huge premium to crossing the Saint Lawrence Seaway by plane, pushing the cost of a cramped seat, oversalted dime-bags of peanuts and a digital body scan of our naughty bits to more than $600 a beleaguered traveller. So, carpe-ing the diem, I boldly suggested we drive, as in, get in a car for thousands of miles/hours and behold the gorgeous scenery of I-95, the New Jersey Turnpike and the breath-taking splendor of the pristine oil tank fields of Elizabeth, New Jersey.
Barely able to contain our angst at the disappearance of familiar fast food restaurants once we crossed the Mason-Dixon line (which is moving south at the rate of 27 rust-belt refugees per day), we tried to adjust from the comforts of “Hardee’s” to the otherworldly “Friendly’s” where they put milk into their shakes (Eww, I know, right?).
We were shocked to find toll booths strategically placed to occur just as we’d fully accelerated from the last toll booth (in fairness, we were driving an overloaded Honda CRV, which I’m told boasts several horsepowers, so we’re talking every 30 miles or so).
The teenager was able to behold the grandeur of the gradually changing geology, climate and human exploits by spending every minute clutching her iPhone like she was hoarding ammo for the zombie apocalypse. Meanwhile, my wife was assisting me by gasping, clutching her seat and using a phantom break pedal during periods of white knuckled traffic navigation.
A couple days in NYC quenched the teenager’s lust for shopping at versions of her favorite mall stores. The same retailers as in her beloved Southpoint Mall, but with louder music, many more people, labyrinthian store layouts requiring a sherpa to find egress, and of course something like a 46 percent sales tax.
We even caught glimpses of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” between hordes of German tourists at the Museum of Modern Art. And we’d learned from previous trips to watch street performers from the second ring of observers so we could slink away when they passed the hat/bucket.
The excitement of New York was eclipsed only by our desire to take hot showers and not worry about the composition of the puddles we were about to step in.
Next we drove north through the oh-so-scenic New York/New England border zone (don’t worry, Tar Heels, the Blue Ridge Parkway still reigns supreme) toward the border crossing between the cultured USA and the untamed wilderness of Quebec. As we approached the border, our cellphones told us we were leaving the safe confines of unlimited texting, voice and data within our phone contract. We were about to enter a world so foreign, so mysteriously different from our own that even our cellphone plans proved useless.
The teenager took a few minutes to fully register the impact of this. “I can still text, right?” she asked. “No,” I replied. “I can still listen to streaming music, right?” “No.” The bargaining phase of cellphone grieving was becoming desperate. “How about if I just use Wi-Fi?” “If I go into Airplane mode?” “Can we upgrade our plan to work in Canada for six days?” “What if we bought a Canadian cell phone?” …all pleas met with a stern “No.”
As the reality of this digital withdrawal began to sink in, the teenager’s visage was that of a defendant shocked to learn she was facing life without parole. “We’ll have Wi-Fi at Auntie’s house where we’re staying, right?” “Yes, she has Wi-Fi.”
We somehow made it past the customs folks, posing as a clueless family driving north on vacation. No problems that the teenager’s passport had expired and she had to fall back to the good ol’ birth certificate (somehow, only the short form was sufficient).
Once deemed not an international threat, we crossed the dotted line and suddenly… everything …changed. Language, food, which side of the road to drive on (still figuring that one out…), even the most Gibralteresque life force of all – money – all utterly different from my cozy American expectations.
Stay tuned for the next installment and thrilling conclusion of our travelogue, when we are struck by the maudlin epiphany that people are people wherever you go…