It’s only been like five months since I wrote it, but I finally crossed another thing off my to-do list…and even then I really half-assed it.
Drive into Canada. Somewhere. Just cross the border, buy a weird bag of milk, and come home
Despite my well-documented lack of enthusiasm for long car rides, this weekend I drove literally all the way off the top end of Maine and into America’s northern neighbor.
That’s right, sports fans. This weekend, it was Crawfin’ Canada. (This is a long one, gang. But it’s a fun one. Cultural comparisons ahoy!)
I set off pretty early (for me) on Saturday morning, anticipating a five-hour drive to Maine’s northern border. My friend Abby – mentioned in these pages before – goes to school way up on the U.S.-Canadian border, thus the inspiration for the trip.
Since this was going to be the furthest I’d ever driven in one sitting, by a long shot, I was nervous for the trip for a handful of reasons – whether one tank of gas would get me there, whether I’d come across a moose (a legitimate concern), whether I’d get halfway and realize I’d left my passport behind – but I was pleasantly surprised.
Despite running out of cell signal an hour and a half from home (oh, Maine), the drive was pretty great. I’d left my run just too late to be able to experience the fall foliage at its finest, but the colors were still absolutely incredible.
Some of the yellow-to-orange trees quite literally looked as if they were glowing, even in the overcast daylight that Saturday brought. The air was fresh – okay, it was damn cold – but the bland, straight shot of I-95 North gave way to winding country roads through Maine’s northern woods once I got onto State Route 11, dipping through little towns like Portage and Ashland.
I managed to find Fort Kent without any real navigational worries – thankfully Google Maps will still work on GPS even when you don’t have reception – and after a late lunch Abby and I set off for the border crossing. There’s one right in Fort Kent, which crosses to Clair, New Brunswick, but the one we wanted was in Madawaska, about 25 miles east.
On the way up, I’d already begun penning my next column, expecting that I’d run into woes at the border either going into Canada or coming back into the U.S. I figured it might make an interesting juxtaposition with the illegal immigration issues this country is facing right now, or at least there’d be a good awkward moment for my readers to laugh
at with me about.
But now I’m going to have to think of something else for Sunday’s white space, because I had no worries whatsoever. I half expected there to be a poster of me on the guard’s booth window, noting me as the only Australian who hasn’t been to Canada (seriously. Everyone I know has been, aside from me), but the border guard just laughed and made some wisecrack about whether I brought any bear spray.
It wasn’t all that simple though: I thought that, being a member of the Commonwealth, Canada would be sweet with my Australian passport and nothing more. But I guess since I was in the U.S. on a green card, rather than a tourist visa, that required scrutiny of that instead. We had to park for a few minutes while my green card was pored over, but it was quickly returned and we were on our way into Edmundston, New Brunswick.
And that’s where the first slap in the face came from: EVERYTHING WAS IN FRENCH. SHIT.
I mean, I knew from working in Maine that there’s a huge French Canadian influence and history throughout the state, thanks to generations of laborers past. However, I’d kinda ignorantly assumed that, given Edmundston’s proximity to the land of the free and home of the brave, it’d be a little more Americanized. Well damned if I wasn’t wrong.
We found the hotel easily enough, and tracked down the bar that had been recommended to Abby as “the place to be in Edmundston.” Sounds good to me. We set off on the
mileKILOMETER-long walk to Le Vieux Poele, which was decidedly not the nightlife spot it was made out to be.
The steakhouse was full of people eating dinner, and once that crowd thinned out, it was full of…nothing. Employees cleaning the bar around our beer glasses. Turns out that while the place rocks out on Wednesday nights for student night, it shuts at 10:00 p.m. on a Saturday. Huh. After sampling some Canadian brews – Molson Canadian (Bud Light of the north), Alpine Lager (Bud Heavy?), Rickard’s Red (pretty solid drop) and a Hop City Barking Squirrel (now we’re talking!) – we cashed out to find that it was a reasonably cheap outing so far.
But what I didn’t account for was tipping. Oops. I don’t remember where I’d heard it, or from whom, but I was blindly under the assumption that tipping wasn’t customary in Canada, much like back home. So when the “choose tip percentage” option came up on the credit card screen, I had no idea what to do. I punched in 18 percent, figuring that was acceptable in the U.S., then asked the bartender what the standard is.
“Same value as the tax, so 13 percent.” Oh. Well you got overtipped.
Before we left, it was decided that we should take some cash out, since the cabs in town didn’t accept plastic, much like Augusta. Another thing I hadn’t anticipated was using an ATM, or whether my American bank cards were equipped for such purposes, but I managed to get my hands on a few bucks’ worth, and was quickly reminded that everyone else’s currency is much more colorful than America’s. The 20s were bright green and, much like back home, had plastic windows as anti-counterfeit measures. One and two-dollar coins were also a nice throwback to home.
After that we needed sustenance before continuing on to the next venue, so we stopped at a chain sports bar next door called Boston Pizza. It was exactly like every chain sports bar I’ve ever been in in the U.S., down to the microwaved food and expensive beers, except for the fact that all the TVs were showing hockey and all the commentary was in French. Sacrebleu!
The waitress was good enough to call us a cab, despite an unavoidable tipping hiccup, and so we headed to a joint called Wilma’s on the recommendation of our first bartender. According to Google Maps, Wilma’s was a nightclub, which filled me with dread. But when we got there I was filled with equal parts bemusement and whiskey-gingers.
Wilma’s, for all its divey 90s dance club charm, had the absolute fanciest, cleanest bathrooms I’ve ever seen in a bar. It also had snack vending machines, right out in the open, as did the V.P. earlier in the night. The ones at the V.P. had packs of cigarettes amongst the chips and candy bars, just in case you have the munchies and a nicotine craving!
The karaoke guy spent more than half the time we were there singing catchy American pop tunes, and the other half doing duets with a blonde in a zebra-striped outfit. The bar was cash-only, no tabs, and had measured liquor pours, unlike the heavy hands I’ve become used to in the U.S. We caught a bit of a buzz in any case, and the unwanted attention of a drunk man in his late 40s who was rather interested in telling Abby she was breaking his heart. Or that he wanted to stab us. One of the two.
We decided to beat a hasty retreat when he really turned up the creepiness, so we had the much-obliging bartender call us a cab. It arrived promptly and we headed back to the hotel.
The next morning we didn’t have any real plans, but I wanted to wander around a grocery store and ogle the strange and unfamiliar products, perhaps even buying a bag of ketchup-flavored chips or some weird chocolate bar. We first needed breakfast, and after much back-tracking we found a “family-style” restaurant called Oulette’s Fish Market. Our navigation on the streets was nothing compared to our efforts navigating the menu at Oulette’s – every word was in French again. Oops.
Thankfully it was easy to figure out words like “saucisse,” and “jamon” is an obvious one for ham, so we managed to each order a plate of food that was edible and what we wanted. Magic.
Following breakfast, we made a brief yet wondrous trip through a Rite Aid pharmacy clone, two supermarkets and a liquor store before opting to begin our international journey back to the good ol’ U.S. of A. I snagged a mixed six-pack of Canadian craft brews, none of which I’d ever heard of (obviously), while Abby delighted in discovering a grapefruit shandy she’d loved before…but then was disappointed when she finally tasted it.
After that we packed our purchases in the car and headed back towards the bridge to freedom. Our passage was far easier this time, with the American border control officer taking a quick glance at my green card and Abby’s passport, asking us a few cursory questions about the nature of our visit and our purchases, then told us to have a nice day and waved us off. My fear was that there’d be a hitch with my green card, or me having left the country without notifying Homeland Security or something, but of course there was no issue.
I kinda rushed through Sunday’s proceedings because I figured if you’ve read this far, you’re hovering over the X button at the top of your browser and contemplating throwing your computer through a window, but I wanted to squeeze in some of my impressions and observations about Canada.
- It felt utterly surreal that French was suddenly the predominant language, and we’d literally spent two minutes driving across a river from America. As we drove parallel to the border in Maine, I joked that Canada looked exactly the same as America from here, so why bother? I couldn’t have been further from correct.
- While the people who served us were friendly enough, it felt like their attitudes towards us cooled considerably once we addressed them with a “Hi” rather than a “Bonjour.” I know that travelers get better responses in non-English-speaking countries when they attempt to speak the language, but I was surprised to feel like such a hassle five minutes from the U.S.
- I feel like the Canadians and French have their own distinct cultures, but in my (very small) experience in Edmundston there appeared to be a fair bit of American influence to it still. That probably comes with proximity, but it was interesting all the same.
- After many years of saying, “Canada doesn’t really grab me. I’d rather see more of the U.S.,” I think my mind has changed. While the language barrier in the French parts of Canada would still be a hurdle for me, I’d love to see more of the place and see what their larger cities are all about.
- It might sound fun to order a Molson, but they’re miserable. If you’ve had Bud Light, you’ll receive no surprises there.