Searching for Poutine in the Provinces

A mere two weeks after their previous expedition, our intrepid explorers, Jeff and Donnie, set out once again, this time into the wilds of deepest, darkest Canada!

August, 2009

by Jeff Kravitz

Saturday - Aug 29, 2009.

After our recent episode with pick-pocketers, we were prepared and kept our valuables and IDs in money belts secreted under our clothing. We would foil any Canadian Evildoers! (Actually, Canada is a very safe place. The only Canadian Evildoer I have ever heard of was Snidely Whiplash, and he was probably being kept busy chasing Dudley Do-Right of the Mounties!)

It was a rainy Saturday, and the journey to the frozen north was relatively uneventful, except for a brief stop for a sandwich lunch at the world-famous Roscoe Diner in the world-famous metropolis of Roscoe New York, whose population-count depends heavily on the number of customers in the diner at any given time of day. (The 2000 census put the real population at 597!). One improvement at the diner worth mentioning is “Free Wifi”! We then continued northward, not finding any castles,or gold-leaf-encrusted palaces, or half-timbered medieval villages, or sun-drenched azure coastlines.

Eventually we found ourselves at the Canadian border. On previous journeys into the great white North, we entered into Canada unannounced and without fanfare. This time, however, due to increased security, we encountered an impressive looking “Export Control” area, festooned with a vast array of video cameras, and with lines of cars and trucks awaiting approval of their desired entry into the land of maple syrup. We waited briefly, and then when our time came we handed our passports to a bored young man who recited many questions from memory. Where were we from? Where were we going? What was the purpose of our trip? Was there anything in the vehicle that we were intending to leave in Canada (You never know. We might have been evil Vermont-made maple-syrup smugglers!). In actuality, we believe that the Canadian government now checks passports when you enter Canada because they know that the US government will check them when tourists return to the US and if they don't have them, they won't be allowed back into the US, and the Canadian government will be stuck dealing with the mess.

After being allowed to pass into Canada, we drove a short while into the city (village, hamlet?) of Gananoque, Ontario! Gananoque is known as the “Gateway to the Thousand Islands”. It has a population of about 5200, and is quite small, and surprisingly not very touristy. I had been there before when I was a young teenager, but my only recollection was the name, which stuck with me. Its main (perhaps only) tourist attraction is the Gananoque Boat Line, which runs boat tours of the Thousand Islands.

We made a short drive through town, looking for hotels, and found the usual suspects: Quality Inns, Comfort Inns, Holiday Inns, etc. etc. They all looked like old 1950s motels, with a little refurbishment. We stopped at a couple and asked about rooms, but their prices were outrageously high, but the third try was more reasonable, and we had a room for the night. We settled into the room, and then went looking for dinner.

Sunday – August 30, 2009

We awoke and did our normal morning activities, had the mediocre, complementary breakfast, and went to the local Gananoque tourist information office to get a local map. We had to decide whether to take the Thousand Islands boat tour, but since the day was very overcast and it was raining intermittently, we decided to drive along the Thousand Islands Parkway instead. The road followed the St Lawrence River, and there were sufficient views of the islands and the river that we felt satisfied that we had seen the Thousand Islands.

We drove about two hours to Ottawa. We had no good map of the city, so we had to guess how to find some of the hotels that we had previously investigated. We finally found one to our liking, which was close to Parliament Hill and the major attractions. After checking in and settling into our room, we went out to see part of the city. First we walked the short distance to Parliament Hill, only to find that the street was full of people.

It was the Gay Pride parade! This was the fourth Gay Pride parade that we had come upon by accident, and the third one in a month! The three Gay Pride parades we had seen this summer had been in three different countries and two different continents, and we had not planned to see any of them. I'm beginning to think that they're following us. We went into the Tourist Information office to get a map of the city, and then went a few blocks to the Byward Market. The market is a multi-block area full of shops and restaurants, and we wanted to find a place for lunch (actually, since it was about 3:00 p. m. by now, it was more like drunch). We had a late lunch in a sea-food restaurant, and then walked around the market area. Ottawa is a pretty city. Very clean with lots of parks and flowers and lots of museums.

Eventually, we got tired and went back to the hotel to recuperate. Later that evening, we got hungry and went down to the bar in the hotel for a light meal. Donnie had a very nice salad, and I had some soup and what they called a “Sample Sized” hamburger, which was ideal since I only wanted a small snack. Oops! This is Canada. I forgot. I should have remembered when the waiter neglected to ask how I wanted my hamburger cooked. In Canada they have a law that requires all hamburgers be cooked well-done. Yuk! Well, for a gray, overcooked, dry hamburger, it was reasonably tasty. Hamburger lovers – don't bother ordering hamburgers in Canada!

Monday – August 31 2009

The day was beautiful, not a cloud in the sky. The temperature was in the mid 70's. I wore a short-sleeve shirt and slacks. Since this was Canada, and not the south of France, Donnie wore her parka and mukluks and she kept muttering something like “mush, you huskies”. Did I mention that she was a big fan of the Iditarod dog-sled race held every year in Alaska? This is surprising because Donnie doesn't like cold weather, or winter, or northern places.

After breakfast, we went to the Museum of Civilization. This place is fantastic! The building itself is an architectural masterpiece. It's modern, curvy, full of beautiful spaces and light, and even though the museum houses ancient artifacts like totem poles, the modernity of the architecture doesn't clash with the exhibits.

The exhibits are amazing. The ground floor is devoted to aboriginal cultural art and artifacts (aboriginal is the new word for what we used to call “Indian”). However, the difference is that the exhibits are not just items displayed in cases, but designed to look like real aboriginal villages or dwellings. The designers of the exhibits are just as talented as the architect of the building.

Upstairs, on the third floor, the “Canada Hall” is even more amazing. It's set up as a series of historical locations and settings in Canada's history, full of old artifacts, but placed as they were originally. For example, you walk into a room, which has a high ceiling, lit to look like an evening sky. The room is set up as a small village in the 1800's, with old shops, and homes, and a church, each filled with real artifacts of the period. The shops look like they are still in business. Many of them were real businesses that closed and somehow were acquired by the museum.

For example, a Ukrainian Bookstore, that was run by a Czech immigrant that spoke 7 languages. The entire contents of the store, looking like it did from the 1930's, is in the museum, including the store front. Next to it is a Printing company store, complete with all the printing equipment and other supplies from the original store. There was even a Chinese laundry from the late 1800's or early 1900's. It even had a dummy which looked like the owner who was ironing some clothes. More amazingly, behind him was a sheet hanging to dry, and the sheet was backlit, and a projection simulated a shadow of another Chinese worker who was moving around behind the sheet, doing laundry, and the two were conversing in Chinese! The dummy looked fake, of course, but the first time you saw the shadow of the other man move behind the sheet, and heard him speak, you thought there was a real person there.

There were many such exhibits covering many years of Canadian history, and they were all fantastic. I think the Museum of Civilization in Ottawa is one of the best museums I have ever been to.

After lunch, since it was a beautiful, sunny day, we decided to make the best use of the good weather and we decided to take a boat tour of the Rideau canal. The canal was built in the 1800's, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We walked from the hotel to the canal, and we got there just after the 3:00 boat left, and the next boat wasn't until 4:30. We walked down toward the Rideau Locks.

These locks are another historic marvel. There are 8 locks, all run manually, using 19th century technology. Amazingly, when we got there, there was a boat down at the bottom lock, and it was going to be coming up.

For the next hour we watched the lock-keepers (there were about 6 or 7 of them) manually turning capstans to pull the chains to open and close the lock gates on the 8 locks to get the boat up from the Ottawa River to the Rideau Canal. It was fascinating to watch. After the boat went up the locks to the one we were standing next to, we decided it was time to go to the canal boat tour. We would have watched the boat go up the final three locks, but we needed to go.

We took the boat tour along the Rideau Canal for the next hour and a half. There wasn't anything particularly amazing or photogenic, but the ride was fun and relaxing, and the scenery alongside the canal was pretty. The young man doing the tour commentary told lots of silly jokes and stories, so the journey was fun.

When we returned back to the canal tour dock, we decided to go back to the Byward Market for dinner at one of the ethnic snack-bar places, but when we got to the market we discovered that everything closed at 6:00! Well, not everything. The restaurants were open, but none of the shops or snack bars. We had a uninspired Italian dinner, and walked back to the hotel. Between the museum, and the locks, and the boat tour, the day was lots of fun.

Tuesday – September 1, 2009

Today we decided, since the weather was perfect, to go to a place called “Upper Canada Village”. I had been there over 20 years ago, and remembered that it was fun. Upper Canada Village is what is called a “Living History Museum” or Outdoor Museum. It has over 40 buildings dating from the 1800's, mostly moved from different parts of Canada. It also has people dressed in period costumes describing what it was like to live in that era. This is similar to other such museums we have visited, in places like Massachusetts, Virginia, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland. The difference is that in Upper Canada Village, there is a person in each of the buildings at all times. In the other museums, you had to consult a schedule to see when there would be a person demonstrating or talking in a particular location. Another nice thing is that many of the places in the village are fully operating, meaning that they really produce items that are used in the village.

For example, there is a water-powered sawmill, using saw-blades and other technology from the 19th century, and the wood that they cut from huge logs is used to repair the buildings in the village. Similarly, the flour mill produces flour for the bakery, which bakes bread that is served in the restaurant, and is sold in the gift shop. The blacksmith makes parts and repairs for all the machinery and farm implements.

One of the most impressive places was the wool mill. Using original 19th century machinery, some of it very complex looking, they washed, carded, combed and wove the raw wool into blankets which were used in some of the houses and also sold in the gift shop. The complex machines in the wool mill were still operating and the miller told us that they were probably the only such old machines still in operation. When I asked him how difficult it was to keep them operating, he said that it wasn't really very hard, mainly just keeping them well oiled. He said that back then they made machines to last forever.

We also learned interesting information at the cheese factory. The cheese maker told us the reason why American (and Canadian) cheddar cheese is orange and not white. During the late 1700's and early 1800's, the English imported cheddar cheese from America (until the war of 1812, when they stopped importing it from America and set up the Canadian cheese factories), but they wanted to make sure that English cheese buyers could tell the difference between English cheddar and American (or Canadian) cheddar, so they required that an ingredient called Annato be added to turn the cheese orange. The cheese maker said that it had no effect on the flavor. He said that American cheddar is still orange just for tradition.

Upper Canada Village is a great place which was very interesting and a lot of fun, and is highly recommended.

Wednesday – September 2, 2009

Today we checked out of the hotel in Ottawa, had a really good breakfast at the Moulin de Provence Boulangerie in the Byward Market, of cafe au lait (fantastic coffee with hot milk, in huge bowls!) and croissants (Donnie, of course, had a chocolate croissant!) and then we went to the National Gallery.

The National Gallery is another beautiful architectural masterpiece, with lots of glass and beautiful naturally lit open spaces. By the way, all of the museums: The Museum of Civilization, Upper Canada Village, The National Gallery, are run by government agencies, and staffed by government employees.

The main reason we wanted to go to the National Gallery was to see a special exhibit of portrait photographs by Yousuf Karsh and Edward Steichen. Karsh was a very famous portrait photographer, who took portraits of many famous people. He lived and worked in Ottawa, in the very fancy castle-like Chateau Laurier Hotel. (He is also an Armenian, like Donnie!) The exhibit, although small (there were only about 20 pictures by Karsh), was incredible. The portraits by Karsh were so beautifully lit, with a Rembrandt-like light and shadow, and so well composed that they were photographic masterpieces. He is one of my favorite master photographers. There were portraits of Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway and Boris Karloff, among others. There was a fantastic image of Peter Lorre. After being amazed by the Karsh portraits, we walked around the rest of the museum, seeing paintings by some well-known artists that we liked, and then about noon, we started the drive to Montreal, bidding farewell to Ottawa.

Ottawa was a pretty city, with some really wonderful museums, but the odd thing was that it was deserted. Every where we went there were very, very few people. The marketplace, the restaurants, the streets, all were almost empty. When we went to the National Gallery, in many of the rooms, we were alone. Montreal, on the other hand, was not deserted. After driving for about 2 hours we arrived on the outskirts of Montreal, only to get stuck in a traffic jam because of an accident on the highway.

Eventually, we got into the center of town, and found the tourist information office, where the man there, who was extremely helpful, spent at least 20 minutes telling us everything we could possibly want to know, and helping us pick out a hotel and book the room. It turned out that we are staying in a hotel in Chinatown! The hotel has two pagodas on the roof, two marble lions on either side of the entrance, a Chinese restaurant in the lobby, Chinese food available from room service, and most amazingly, given all that, it's a Holiday Inn! Also, there are two pages in the usual hotel binder in the room, describing how the principles of Feng Shui were used in designing the hotel, including redesigning the hotel to move the main entrance.

After checking in, we walked around Old Montreal for a while, and then had a nice dinner in a Chinese restaurant that the man in the tourist information office had recommended. We had forgotten where he had said it was, but we stumbled onto it around the corner from our hotel!

We walked a bit in Chinatown after dinner, and came upon a little store where a man was making and selling Chinese candies. One was called Dragons Beard candy, because it looked like little rolled up white hairs in a little ball. We tried two, and they were delicious, so we bought some more to have later. We then went back to the hotel for the night.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The next morning we walked around old Montreal again in the morning, seeing a number of 19th century stone buildings. I was having difficulty being impressed by the “old” buildings since we had just gotten back from our trip to Europe, where in Brittany we had seen 14th, 15th, 16th,17th, and 18th century buildings, and even a few from the 9th century. After having lunch, Donnie wanted to see “underground Montreal”. The city of Montreal, probably because of the wonderful warm, sunny weather they have in the winter, has a network of underground passages and shopping mails that covers most of the downtown area.

For the next two hours, we wandered under Montreal, through corridors, building lobbies, passages, up and down stairs, escalators and elevators, through shopping arcades, etc. etc. making a big circle from near our hotel through the whole downtown area and back to our hotel, only going outside once! It was actually very interesting, but it tired us out.

We had a wonderful time in Canada. Ottawa was very pretty, and had some wonderful museums. Upper Canada Village was amazing and lots of fun. Montreal was a big city, but had many interesting things to see which we didn't have time for, so we will definitely go back.

Oh, and about the title of this narrative. Poutine is a Canadian delicacy (?). It consists of French Fries, covered in what is called "cheese curds", and gravy. We didn't actually have any on this trip!