MAD DOG: It's North, It's White, but Is It Great?

I just spent three days exploring a very small part of Canada by car. Obviously it's not fair to judge an entire country based on such a limited experience but I'm going to do it anyway. Hey, it's my job.Canada, for those of you who slept through four years of geography, is the big country to the north of the United States that Bob and Doug McKenzie made famous. It encompasses 3,849,674 square miles and is inhabited by 427people, putting it on par with the Atlantic Ocean. The good thing about it is it keeps the Arctic glaciers out of Minnesota. The bad thing is that it's too much like the United States, and I say that in only the most derogatory way. Canadians are very much like Americans, except of course they'll beat you to a pulp with their hockey sticks if you even think about saying that. They speak English and yes, they do say "eh" at the end of most sentences, though it actually sounds more like "aye?" with the emphasis on the question mark. French is common there. While I didn't hear many people speaking it, I did listen to French radio stations, watch French television, and eat a lot of French fries. Road signs are in both English and French, which is like being in class and having the answer on the front of the flash cards right next to the question.Their English does have its differences. Gas stations are called gas bars, pawn shops are hock shops, and Indians are called First Tribes, or aborigines, as in the 20th Annual Aboriginal Hockey Tournament which was held in Sudbury right before I got there. Honestly. I like First Tribe much better than our politically correct Native Americans. Not to quibble, but even though they were Americans before I was, any scientist will tell you they're not native, they migrated here too. It just happens that they made it here a few thousand years before my grandparents. While First Tribes is an improvement, I vote we opt for "Previous Owners" and be done with it.As in the U.S., their basic currency is the dollar, though the paper money looks like a kid drew it with a spirograph. Also as in the U.S., I heard Rush Limbaugh on the radio, proving that their dollar coin isn't the only loon in the country. Luckily there are things there that aren't in the U.S. -- any country where I can buy Cadbury Crunchies is okay in my book.My first Canadian experience was in Sault Ste. Marie. The Canadian one. Both Canada and the U.S. have a Sault Ste. Marie, or Soo as everyone calls it. The two Soos would be one were they not separated by a river, a bridge, and unfriendly customs agents. "Where are you coming from?""The United States.""Why are you going to Canada?""It's not the United States.""When did I forget how to smile?""Why are you asking me?""Have a nice trip. Next!"Soo, Michigan and Soo, Canada are reminiscent of Minneapolis and St. Paul, except no one could come up with a second name. Actually, this is nice because it lets you ease into being in a foreign country without the shock of finding yourself in someplace called, say, Moose Jaw. (NOTE: Moose Jaw is a real city only it's in Saskatchewan, which is a province much farther west and a lot more fun to say than Ontario.)My first Canadian heart attack wasn't from one of their omnipresent buffets, it was when I left Soo2 and headed towards Sudbury, which I knew was about 180 miles away. The first sign I saw said -- Sudbury285 -- and I thought, "Oh my god, this is going to take a lot longer than I thought." Then I realized it was kilometers. It's amazing how quickly we adapt. Before I knew it I was thinking in kilometers, much as I adjusted to the temperature being in Celsius and the food being inedible.There aren't many tourists in Canada this time of year. I started to wonder who actually does come to visit when, on the way to Sudbury, I started seeing signs for motels and restaurants that all said "Spanish." Somehow this area didn't feel like it would be a hotbed of Hispanic tourism and it was odd that so many places advertised that they spoke Spanish, but what do I know? It all made sense when I got to the town of -- you guessed it! -- Spanish. Interestingly, the town of Espanola is 30 km farther. That's a long time to wait for a translation when you've gotten used to road signs which immediately give you the answer.Canadian tourism is based around mines, sports and mines. Every tiny town that has someone in it who's even heard of a traffic light has a mine tour, a mine museum, and of course, a mine gift shop. Sudbury has the World's Largest Nickel on display by the Big Nickel Mine. Elliot Lake has the Canadian Mining Hall of Fame. Is it any wonder the department of tourism uses the slogan "A mine is a terrible thing to waste"?Contrary to what you think, sports in Canada doesn't mean hockey, it really means curling. There were curling arenas everywhere. In fact, there were more curling arenas in Sudbury than movie theaters, four to be exact. Since it's important to take in another culture when you're visiting -- and all the mines, mine museums, and mine gift shops were closed until May -- I stopped off to watch some curling at the Ontario Winter Games.Curling is Canadian cricket. Or shuffleboard on ice. Maybe a mixture of bocce and sweeping the kitchen floor. Is it any wonder it's so popular? The game begins when someone, I'll call them the pitcher since I'm too lazy to find out what they call them, slides down the lane -- or whatever they like to call it -- holding a large granite stone hockey puck with a handle. The best American analogy would be a bowler whose thumb is stuck in the ball as he or she slides down the alley. When they finally get their hand loose, the stone glides along the ice while two teammates madly sweep in front of it, trying to get rid of any cigarette butts, back bacon rinds and Labatt's cans that are in the way. The goal is to get the stone to stop in the middle of a bulls-eye at the other end. It's easy to figure out how to play; what's not easy is to figure out why. There were a few disappointments in Canada. I didn't see back bacon on the menu anywhere so I couldn't try it. I didn't get to stop at the Bite Me Bait and Tackle Shop by Nairn Centre because they forgot they weren't a mine museum and were closed for the winter. And I only got to hear the word hoser once, and that was on a humor show on the radio. But it's a big country and there's plenty more to explore. Hopefully it will be in Saskatchewan next time because, after all, it's more fun to say than Ontario.

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