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10:40 a.m. - March 07, 2006
Vacation 1998
Well, the birthday went well, as we survived Applebee’s with a four year old and an almost nine month old. (Nine months, wow!) Last year, we also had a birthday at Applebee’s, which was fraught with hot dogs on the floor, overreaction and a bit of trepidation, as we had just found out the birth mother was pregnant with Kristin.

Katie even left part of the tip for the waitress out of her Hello Kitty change purse.

So as we were sipping wine and watching the Apprentice, I got to thinking of all the things we’ve done together. And my mind crept back to a discovery I made about three weeks ago. It was a small thing, a French / English phrase book that we took on our trip to Maine and Canada in 1998.

I’ve always been a travelin’ man. When I was five, my parents packed me off to Arizona with my grandparents, and I loved every minute of that journey. My grandmother and I used to look at maps and atlases all the time, and by the time I was eight years old I was the family navigator, and in all those years only got us lost once. But that was even explainable, as Dad was in the wrong lane and chose the Garden State Parkway instead of the New Jersey Turnpike when we were going to visit my brother, who was in the service at the time.

So by the time 1998 rolled around I had been to 47 states, and most of them by automobile. I’ve always loved the open road, and on vacations I do not take interstates unless I have to. I prefer to see the people and country along the highways and byways. Also, in my business I have had the chance to travel a bit around the country, and that experience had solidified my love for an open road vacation. Airports remind me of work, and I really don’t like the crowds or the waiting. I’m no sheep – no siree. Baaaah to that thought!

So with only three states to go (and realizing Hawaii was going to be a while to get to) I decided that 1998 would be a good time to complete the lower 48 and head to Maine. Alaska was going to be my white whale (and I did get there, but that’s another story for another time).

My pre-married vacations had always been Smed in a car, driving to a general area. In 1993, I basically kissed Liz goodbye and headed to the Pacific Ocean on US Highway 20 and 26, then went home via US 12 for the most part. With her in the mix, though, vacations had to be negotiated. But I was determined for Maine, my way.

The internet was around, so it was easy (relatively) to find tourist info about Maine. I was always intrigued by the National Park there, Acadia. Liz wanted to stay in a bed and breakfast or a country inn. So I found one (the Lucerne Inn), planned a route, and away we went.

It was Labor Day weekend, and the first part of the journey went fine. We drove over to Columbus, swung north and then over into Pennsylvania. We shed the interstate at Sharon, PA and headed north up to New York state. Just south of Buffalo we started to head east, and spent the night in Geneseo.

Sunday, of Labor Day weekend, we learned two truths. The first is never drive in the Adirondacks during Labor Day weekend. Oh, it was pretty, but it was slow going. We went up to see Saranac Lake and Lake Placid before heading over to Vermont.

The second truth is if you can, choose a Comfort Inn over an Econo Lodge. We had a good experience at an Econo Lodge before, so we took a chance at the one in Montpelier. Oops. The lady at the front desk basically foisted two beds on us, instead of a queen. “Same price!” she said. Like whatever. The air conditioner was loud and noisy and we were squabbling like feral cats in heat. The only redeeming thing was we had a nice dinner the Culinary Institute there.

The next day, we tooled through the countryside in Vermont and New Hampshire, and wound our way toward Ellsworth (or where the inn was, between Ellsworth and Bangor). It was a lovely place, and being Labor Day night, we were the only guests booked into the inn that night. So that was weird. We had the dining room and fireplace all to ourselves.

The room was fab, the national park pretty, we got some shopping done in Bangor (we bought a wreath to hang over our fireplace) and it was just relaxing. After three nights, we decided to head up north, and go home through Quebec and Ontario. That’s why we had the French / English phrase book.

Heading to Quebec on Maine Highway 6 and 15 and US 201, you feel like you’re at the end of the world. It’s beautiful, desolate, serene, well, except if you really really have to go pee. That spoiled Liz’s appreciation for it, after a while. But we found a restroom and off we went to Canada.

French speaking Canada. Liz took Italian in college, and I had some Spanish. Fat lot of good that helped us.

We knew we were in trouble in St. Georges, when I tried to find an ATM. I had to get my head around the fact that everything was in French, and even the acronyms were French (because KFC was PFK there). I found one, and I turned to Liz and said, “Uh, I think that phrasebook is going to be worthless.”

It was lunchtime, so we found a McDonalds. Of course, it was all in French. Thankfully, we could order by number, well at least with our fingers. In this part of Quebec, some people don’t know much English, so we found out. But they weren’t hostile to us, at all. They probably were going, “Naïve Americans, hah hah. Spend your money here!”

I also had to get adjusted to the Canadian money. For our lunch I handed the woman a $20 (Canadian) and got a handful of change. Yep, it was my introduction to loonies and toonies. I clinked a lot when I walked.

We drove on, seeing signs we couldn’t read, but I knew where we were supposed to go, so we found route 112 and headed toward Sherbrooke and Montreal. Along the way, we listened to some local radio stations (and heard some God-awful French rapping – if there’s one language you shouldn’t rap in, it’s French). I stopped to get gas in Sherbrooke and Liz needed to use the facility.

Sheepishly, she went up to the lady and made a motion like she wanted the restroom door key. The lady looked at her for a minute, and then said, “Oh, I’m sorry, you want the key to the washroom?”
“Yes, please!”
“Don’t worry, some of us speak English here!”

With that, and with us being worried about stopping somewhere and not being able to communicate at all, we decided to spend the night in Montreal, and found a Marriott. Now, we were normally going to stay in Comfort Inns and the like, but we thought we’d at least find English speakers. Well, duh. It’s a big city.

The Marriott wasn’t that expensive, thankfully. Of course, this is when the Canadian dollar was worth about 60 cents, too. The room was marvelous, and we ALMOST stole a bathrobe. We walked around the city and found a charming little Greek / French café to eat in that was almost empty.

Well, we found out why.

There was only one other party in the restaurant when we were seated. It took about a minute for the waiter to come over, and we gave our drink order for a bottle of wine and some water. After about five minutes, here comes the wine, and then he goes away before we could order dinner.

In about another five minutes, or so it seemed, here he comes for our order. It took about 10 minutes to get our salads, and when we were done with that it took a while for him to clear them off and then finally get our entrees to us.

The clincher was when my water glass was empty. In vain, I tried for what seemed like 10 minutes to get someone, anyone, to fill up the water glass. A lot of the staff were over way across the way, at a table that was somewhat hidden, just yukking it up.

Our original plan was to have dessert and some more wine, and then stumble back to the room. But we decided that we’ve had enough, so we tried to get the check. It took another five minutes to get that. I looked at Liz and whispered,

“How much Canadian money do you have?”
“About $40.”
“The bill is $83, total. I have $48. Let’s just throw the money on the table and go, because it’ll be an hour before they swipe the credit card again.”
Yeah, we left a $5 Canadian tip, but that was too much. At least we have a rude waiter story to tell forever.

The rest of the trip was great. We drove through Ontario, got stuck in traffic in Toronto (all the time listening to Canadians cluck over the whole Clinton / Lewinsky thing because the Starr report was being released) and stayed the next night near Hamilton. We then pointed ourselves toward Windsor, gave away the rest of our Canadian money to some firefighters who were conducting a charity drive, and headed home.

The clincher of the trip was when we were crossing the toll bridge. We were stopped, of course, and the attendant asked “Country of origin, please?”

I said, with all seriousness, “Indiana!”

Liz, she lost it. Totally.

Later, she said, “I always knew Indiana was in another world.”

But at least they speak English there, or at least attempt to, so I feel a bit more at ease.

I really want to go back to Quebec. It’s beautiful, and I want to explore some of the northern parts of it. However, now I know. I’d better actually take a course in French before going up there. Because I’m enough of a doofus in English – I don’t want to be an illiterate doofus again!


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