One of the great pleasures that comes with living in a small town in northern Vermont is the ability to become an international traveler just by driving a few miles up the road.
From where I make my home, there are four border crossings no more than 20 minutes away. The closest is a five minute drive.
Given the proximity, it’s not unusual to find Canadian currency here and there. Right now I’ve got a blue Canadian $5 bill in my wallet; former Canadian Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier on one side, an astronaut working with Canadian robot Dextre on the other. There’s also a hologram of Mackenzie Tower, which is part of Canada’s Parliament. (Canadian money rules, you guys.)
It’s been over a year since I’ve been able to cross the U.S./Canadian border, though, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. And that $5 ($3.94 U.S. as of today) is burning a hole in my pocket and my heart.
I miss Canada. A lot.
My personal knowledge of the country doesn’t expand past the Quebec province, but I absolutely love visiting there. Whether it’s quaint towns like Knowlton, Sutton, and Frelighsburg, which lay just over the border, the collision of traditional European and modern metropolitan of Old Montreal and Montreal proper, or the unrestrained beauty of Quebec City, it’s a welcome and convenient escape from the mundane.
The rest of Canada I know from the CBC, research, and my favorite podcast, Stop Podcasting Yourself, which is based in Vancouver. And while I’ve never traveled beyond Quebec, I long to, and I thought that would finally happen in 2020 with a short summer trip to Ontario. Instead, that’s still in the category of “someday,” along with longer trips to Newfoundland and British Columbia.
Growing up, there were primarily three things high schoolers in northern Vermont associated with Canada: the drinking age of 18, Montreal strip clubs, and Rocket Superclub in Lacolle, QC. I didn’t drink, I still haven’t been to a strip club at age 46, and the club scene never appealed to me. So I never headed north, aside from an ill-fated senior class trip to the La Ronde amusement park, at which the drinking age collided with school rules, which led to all sorts of ugly fallout.
Anyway, I didn’t start traveling regularly to Canada until I was in my mid-20s, and it would take another few years before I really appreciated the opportunity. And now I’m keenly aware of its absence when I have a yearning to wander north.
Most of the things I miss probably pass for commonplace to the people who make their home there.
I want to browse the massive magazine selection at Attractions Muzik & Affiches, the music and book shop in the Domaine du Parc shopping mall in Cowansville. I’d love to stop by the Dollorama downstairs from there and buy a handful of Coffee Crisp chocolate bars to bring back home, maybe wander across the parking lot to explore the borderline-surreal discount store, Tigre Géant.
I’d savor the opportunity to cruise the shoreline of Lac-Brome, a steaming hot Tim Horton’s coffee in hand as my wife and I marvel at the ritzy homes that dot the landscape. Or maybe drive alongside the miles and miles of apple orchards that run parallel to the U.S./Canadian border, just a few miles from our home.
Then there’s the ceaseless road construction of Montreal that’s as fascinating to behold as it is frustrating to be delayed by. And the hot dogs at Ikea and the warm duck confit salad with maple and balsamic vinaigrette at aux Anciens Canadiens Restaurant in Quebec City. And looking at antiques in funky shops in Knowlton.
We can’t forget about the comic book shops on and around St. Catherine Street in Montreal. Or eating a late-summer anniversary dinner on the back deck at Restaurant Lyvano in Frelighsburg. Or how easy it is to get lost in Sherbrooke.
The last time my wife and I were in Canada, it wasn’t a great experience.
It was a Sunday morning, and we had a feeling things were going to go bad with this virus everyone was talking about. We decided to do a short trip to Old Montreal. Slipping away not just to another country, but to a part of the city that felt like old Europe.
We arrived right at lunchtime, and after wandering around for a bit, we ate at a crêperie. It was busy, and the place was understaffed. We’re patient people, but by the time our order came, we were at our limit. The crêpes were delicious, but within a couple hours of finishing, we both felt sick.
Cutting our day short, we drove home and enjoyed an evening and night of mild food poisoning. We were frustrated and wished we’d just stayed home. Looking back now, though, I’m glad we went.
It made for a memorable trip, if nothing else.
I don’t know when we’ll be able to travel north again. Things are still bad down here, and it’s no picnic up there. But when the day comes – and it will – I’ll be ready to go, passport in hand and Canadian $5 bill in my wallet.