The summer holiday
My daughter and I visited Canada for two weeks this summer, in late-July/early-August. It was an 8-hour flight to Vancouver, and 12¾-hours return from Toronto. I hate those long flights, because I rarely sleep on planes, and the toilets get so filthy.
This year we rode the VIA Rail Canadian cross-country train from Vancouver-to-Toronto. It was my fifth or sixth time and my daughter’s second. I figure what with university looming next year this might have been her last chance in a long time to experience such an adventure - and it might be the last time she is agreeable to traveling with her family. In the future it may all be about her friends. I myself approached the train journey with a diminished feeling of adventure. Who knows if I will ever do it again? My son took the train with me one time and unlike his sister he did not enjoy it. Perhaps my wife would like to do it, if she could ever squeeze enough vacation time out of her job and I can squeeze together enough money to pay for it. But that remains an iffy thing for the future.
Canadians are surly, rude and slow. Or, maybe that’s just me.
The short of it is that Canada’s environment is fantastic. But the problem is the Canadians. The land is beautiful like a park, smelling of chlorophyll and with wildlife running around urban parks. Landscapes stretch to the horizon. But despite the international reputation I often hear of Canadians’ friendliness I always find Canadians to be surly, rude and slow. Or, maybe that’s just me. Service is terrible. Service in hotels, restaurants, shops, doctor’s offices, everywhere you look. Of course, I am conditioned to and spoiled by Japanese life where, even if the people are being deliberately rude to you the average foreign tourist would never recognize it. Here service if fast. It’s not just fast, it’s immediate and polite, and delivered with smiles. Canadians and the rest of the world ought to learn some basic manners.
Coming from 33º C and high humidity in Tokyo to 24º C and a cool fresh breeze in Vancouverwas like taking a powerful drug. When I left Tokyowomen were carrying parasols and wearing elbow-length gloves to protect their precious fair skin form the sun. Emma and I reveled in the temperate climate and were struck by a sense that Vancouverites - and maybe all Canadians by extension - were really quiet compared to Tokyoites. It could have been only our imaginations, or it could have been an effect of a considerably less dense population than what we are used to in Japan. Or, it could be that I am conditioned to everyday spoken Japanese which - as with other Asian languages, primarily Chinese - sounds like it is normally delivered at shouting volume. (Well, it is.)
There was a shocking clash of poverty and affluence mingling should-to-shoulder in Vancouver. We felt safe despite that, surrounded by expensive condominium towers on the one hand and tattoo parlors, homeless people, prostitutes and street buskers simultaneously on the other hand. In Tokyo there are many more people than in Canada and they are all walking around with a purpose, engaged in the work of the world’s third largest economy. (The Chinese economy surpassed Japan’s to claim No. 2 in August.) But in Vancouver we saw only people relaxing. Even businessmen downtown, the very ones you might expect to see going about the business of money, investments and production with determination, were strolling with Starbucks in their hands, casually chatting on the outside steps of office buildings. No, it wasn’t the lunch hour. It was the middle of the working day. Is this any way to run an economy? Torontonians walked around with a more focused air about them, but Guelphites displayed even more of the casual thing. Of course, it was the summer time and many people - if not on vacation from school - might otherwise be justifiably operating in a lower gear. But I don’t know ... .
Before boarding the train on the evening of Friday, July 23rd we had a full day in Vancouver. What to do? Ascending Grouse Mountain - an animal preserve - in North Vancouver was recommended. I thought going up the mountain would be a great experience for Emma, but I had reservations because, being a naturally conservative fellow who likes to be in control and who does not like surprises, I worried about the novelty of it. But no problem, because reaching it was very easy. Public transportation worked just like the travel guide books and the Internet described, which I thought was an unusual display of competence by Canadians. Take the Sky Train to Waterfront Station. Then take the Sea Bus across the harbor to North Vancouver. The ferry departs every 15-minutes. Then take the Number 236 bus to the end of its route, which is the cable car station at the foot of the mountain. Easy. If in doubt, ask someone. People seemed easy to talk to. And then just follow the crowds. The view was great: downtown Vancouver; Stanley Park; English Bay; Burrard Inlet; First and Second Narrows spanned by the Lion’s Gate Bridge and the Second Narrows Bridge respectively; the UBC campus; the international airport in the distance; other cities, like Burnaby, Surrey and Richmond; and in the far distance, Mt. Baker in Washington state, USA rose above the clouds. At first I thought it was just a cloud. But over the course of hours the sky cleared and I realized I was looking at a distant mountain - to the south, meaning it could not be a Canadian mountain.
On the journey through the B.C. interior the destruction of western Canadian forests by the notorious pine beetle was sorely visible. I knew what I was looking at as the VIA Rail train passed mountainside after mountainside of red-tinged, dead pine forests, and I hoped the Asian tourists didn’t realize they were looking at the dead wood of a forest catastrophe. Fortunately (though it is precious little comfort), I was told that the dead pine trees are still useful as timber. But I couldn’t help but wonder at the fire hazard they represented and after returning to TokyoI read in the newspapers that this year British Columbia was suffering the worse forest fire season on record. Connection?
By comparison, in northern Ontario I was shocked to see very low water levels in lakes and rivers within view of the tracks. Water levels were so low that occasionally I could see the usually submerged features of beaver lodges. I presumed they were abandoned. In Guelph I thought I noticed a paucity of common urban wildlife. I mean, there were very few squirrels in the parks and I saw only one cardinal and no blue jays or robins. I even wrote a letter-to-the-editor about it to the local newspaper, which was published on August 7th after our return to Tokyo. Are these all signs of ecological deterioration due to climate warming? The pine beetle. The low water levels. The low number of squirrels and other common urban wildlife. I worry about the squirrels most because, according to the Book of Revelation, squirrels are a harbinger of the Apocalypse.
Canadians are really difficult people to talk to. Their use of language is lazy and appalling, which surprises me in a bilingual, multi-cultural country. Canadians don’t finish sentences. Or else, they change their point in mid-sentence without acknowledging the shift. Or, they say things inconsistent, incompatible, incongruent with and sometimes just downright contrary to things they just said moments before and are unaware of it - or perhaps they just don’t care. Sometimes I felt like launching an invective-laced assault directly in people’s faces against this kind of language misuse, in which case they would have seen me as the bad guy, not the other way round. Naturally, I controlled myself. Now, I know that in the past I have written that language has less to do with communication of information than it has to do with just being a decoration for our lives. But come on!! Cleverness is one thing, but habitually downright deliberate stupidity-garnished-with-rudeness language ought not to be either tolerated or settled for. It’s true, after all - growing up and living in Guelphis much the same as living in Tokyo: in both places, even if I know what people are saying (which is not always the case), I don’t know what the hell they are talking about (which is more often the case).
Squirrels are a harbinger of the Apocalypse.
I have written about it before - and maybe it is a corollary of this spoken language problem - but Canadian signage is relatively bad. I find that things on roads and highways are quite badly labeled - by which I mean not labeled. Finding things in Canada can be frustrating. (Not as bad as in ancient Japan, however, when withholding information or disseminating false information was a security strategy. Even today Japan is not an information-friendly culture. In daily life there is so much that people don’t tell you. And in fact, if you are making direct inquiries about something there is roughly a 50% chance that what you are told is neither factually true nor complete - either because people are lying to you purposefully, or because they are trying to be agreeable by telling you what they think you want to hear and thereby make you happy and keep your mutual relationship in the lap of good feelings.)
Interestingly, I saw a cicada - a dead one - in Guelphfor the first time in my life. Growing up I always heard the cicadas in the trees in the summer time. But I never, ever in my life saw one. Until now. In JapanI see cicadas all the time in August. I wrote of an incident a couple summers ago when I was hanging laundry on the balcony one hot evening and the apartment’s light attracted one cicada that flew out of the darkness and right into my face. I really hate when that happens. In August the air is thick with their chirruping.
For the first time in my life I witnessed someone being arrested, although I guess I shouldn’t call it a highlight of the trip. At mid-day I was driving home to my mother’s house after a trip to the pharmacy. In the approaching lane in the distance I could see a patrol car’s strobe lights flashing. As I approached I saw there was a white van stopped at the roadside, boxed in by two patrol cars, one fore and one aft. It was right in front of a large house I have always admired and imagined to be a university students’ house - a big, boxy building with a wide porch, and a good place for a lot of books. As I passed I saw two officers and two 30-ish women. One police officer was talking to a distraught woman on the sidewalk by the fore car. Simultaneously a police officer a few meters to the rear was handcuffing another woman with a cigarette dangling from her lips. She was bent at the waist with wrists behind her back. Very sexy! There was no second vehicle, so it was not a road accident. Maybe there was a confrontation on the sidewalk between a motorist and a pedestrian and the police were called by neighbors. Or, maybe one police car stopped the van with two passengers for driving erratically. Narcotics or open alcohol were discovered and backup was called, followed by an arrest. I never learned the truth of it.