Blame Canada

This is as close as the author will get to hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup

Blame Canada

If you are a regular reader of my Pugh's Views column in these pages (and I still haven't figured out why in the name of all that is holy anyone is a regular reader of the drivel I spew forth) you'll know I have regaled readers with tales of my short vacations to sports attractions.

Three years ago, my girlfriend Meghan and I made the pilgrimage to Cooperstown, N.Y. to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Two years ago, Meghan and I ventured to Canton, Ohio to visit the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Last year, we ventured to the New York metro area to see the USGA Hall of Fame and sightsee around the City That Never Sleeps. This year, we decided the Hockey Hall of Fame would be our stop.

Meghan is a huge hockey fan and knows more about the sport than I do. So you're probably asking yourself why we didn't make the trek to the Hockey Hall of Fame sooner. Is it because I am an inconsiderate jerk who doesn't care about his girlfriend's plight? Well yes, but that's beside the point.

My apprehension about visiting the Hockey Hall is because it's in flippin' Canada. Ever since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, getting two and from Canada has been a pain. I remember during college in the early-90s, some kids ventured from our campus in Bradford to Niagra Falls, Canada, because the legal drinking age in Canada was 19.

These days, it is a process to get into and out of Canada. Truth be told, Meghan and I were going to make the trip to Toronto (where the Hockey Hall of Fame is located) last year but didn't apply for our passports in time and had to scrap the trip.

This year, we both got our behinds in gear and applied for our passports in mid-May for our trip in early August. The reason we applied so early was because it takes the United States Department of the State six weeks to process a passport application which is where our journey begins.

Passporting fancy

I chose to get the passport card instead of the passport book. The passport card costs only $30 while the book costs $110. The passport card only allows me to travel to countries in North America while the book is needed for all overseas travel.

I have no real desire to see anything overseas and I didn't want to fork over $110 so passport card was the winner.

The most appalling thing about the process is the money grab perpetrated by various entities. In order to get your passport processed, you have to pay an "Acceptance Agent Fee" which in my case went to the Clarion County prothonotary's office.

My biggest beef is paying a government agency a fee for a service. Isn't that what my tax dollars are for?

Another money grab comes when you get your passport photo taken. I went to a pharmacy chain store located in the area to get my photo taken. I'm thinking the whole photo taking process is going to have a professional air to it but I was wrong. The clerk pulled down a small screen and brought over a stool for me to sit on. It had all the charm of a police mug shot photo without Holly Hunter intermittently screaming "Turn to the right."

The real outrage of the process was the cost of the photo. It cost me $15 to get a photo I could have easily taken as a selfie with the camera on my cell phone.

The scariest part of the passport application process is the fact you have to send the original of your birth certificate to the state department with the application. I was a little leery about sending out a piece of identification like that with no guarantee of its safe return.

Long story short, I got my passport and I got my birth certificate back without incident. Yeah, it surprised me too.

Don't bank on it

A few days before our trip, my dad mentioned to me that I should alert my bank I was vacationing outside of the United States. Dad related a story to me about a friend of his who vacationed in Canada and was unable to use his debit card north of the border because he didn't tell the bank he was leaving the country.

I figured it would be a simple procedure to alert the bank I was leaving for a few days. Wrong. I stopped by the bank a day before I was leaving the states. I was told all I would have to do was go in and sign a couple of papers. Silly me.

I went in and told the teller I was leaving the country for a couple days and asked what papers I had to sign. The teller related to me how the bank had changed its procedure on how customers had to alert the bank. Instead of just signing a couple papers, I had to call a toll-free number and work it out over the phone.

Am I wrong to be perturbed that I couldn't take care of this issue face-to-face in my bank's main branch where I have been banking for over 40 years and instead I had to call someone who was likely in a different time zone to discuss my bank account?

I blame the ridiculous expansion my bank has undergone over the past few years. For years, my bank had just two branches but then began expanding to the point where the bank has multiple branches strewn across two states with two of its branches located 119 miles from each other. Ridiculous.

So I called the bank's toll-free number and talked to a guy on there who asked me name, bank number, address, last four digits of my social security number which when you put them all together, is an extremely valid way to prove that I am me. According to the bank it is not. The guy from the bank asked me what was one of the last purchases I made on the card and where did I make it. I don't save my receipts and I don't have the peculiar knack of remembering exact totals of my purchases so I was at a loss.

The fellow on the other end of the phone said he couldn't authorize my request. Well, I went over the boiling point in those moments and I sang this fellow a four-letter serenade and demanded to speak to his supervisor.

The supervisor got on the phone asked me the same questions the doofus from before asked and I was transferred to another person. I was transferred to four different people and all of them asked me the same questions. It's like when you got to a doctor's office and four different people ask you what seems to be the trouble. Can't I just tell the first person I see at the doctor's office and they can relay it to everyone else?

So finally, after me blowing my top and narrowly avoiding a brain aneurysm, the bank finally approved my request.

We ain't in Pennsylvania anymore Toto

Meghan and I left for Toronto last Friday and the trip was uneventful as we traversed across Western New York before reaching the Peace Bridge just north of Buffalo.

Entry into Canada was slow but not ridiculously slow. The Canadian border patrol agent asked us for our passports, asked us where we were from and asked us why we were coming to Canada. He then let us pass and we were on the Queen Elizabeth Way headed for Toronto.

The QEW is a nice road but weird in its own way, For example, lanes completely disappear without warning. Here in Pennsylvania, when a lane is going to end there is a sign that reads "right lane ends" plus a sign with a visual explanation of the lanes merging to alert drivers to move over. On the QEW, there is just one little sign with the visual explanation around 50 feet before the lane ends so that took some getting used to.

As we drove along I noticed how there were familiar American businesses like McDonalds and Burger King located at the traffic exits but there were also restaurants and other places which used have a large presence in America but were elbowed out for the most part like the A&W fast food chain and Swiss Chalet.

Moreover, Canadian television is weird. The Canadian version of ESPN is TSN and TSN's highlights show is called SportsCentre. Switching around the r and the e seems unnecessary. I have trouble with the whole Canadian/English writing style where there are u's added to words like color and harbor and the use of the letter z is almost non-existent.

I had to stop reading certain books because it was too aggravating to see realize spelled realise.

It occurred to me that Canada had a feel of a dystopian America. It was like a "Twilight Zone" episode where everything seemed the same but wasn't. To be more succinct, Canada is the Hydrox cookie while America is the Oreo.

One thing I found out in Canada was that Verizon's cell service ends at the border. I got a message on my phone saying I needed to switch to roaming in order to use my phone in Canada. One thing I was not aware of was I needed to sign up for a plan where I could roam for $5 per day while I was in Canada. I was not aware of this plan but more on that later.

The only eventful part of the trip into Toronto was seeing a car fully engulfed in flames along the expressway. The Canadian firefighter was spraying down the vehicle with a fire extinguisher as we drove past. I didn't see any Canadian Mounties at the scene. I guess Snidley Whiplash must have been on the loose again.

Reefer madness

Meghan and I decided to venture into the city of Toronto the night we got into town just to find our way around. We took the complimentary van from our hotel to the Pearson Airport where we would be able to take the train into the downtown area.

We walked and we walked and we walked through the terminal before finally finding our way to the train. The train ride was smooth and then we had to walk and walk and walk again just to find our way out of Union Station in downtown Toronto.

The train trip went a great deal more smoothly than the fiasco of me trying to figure out the New York City subway last summer.

Once we got outside, we were quickly reminded that Canada legalized marijuana last year. The smell of pot was seemingly everywhere as we journeyed to a restaurant for dinner.

As we sat down to dinner, I went to look something up on my phone and it was a message from Verizon telling me that I had already expended $50 in data since I was roaming. I was shocked. I thought my plan covered international carriage. I was wrong. I had to go on to the Verizon website and sign up for the plan that charged me $5 per day for international roaming. Long story short; I'm dumb.

The highlight of the evening was probably the poutine we ordered at the restaurant. If you are unfamiliar, poutine is French fries covered in gravy with cheese curds mixed in. I think I heard one of my arteries snap shut on my fourth or fifth bite.

Hall of Lame

We trekked back downtown Saturday morning to get breakfast then visit the Hockey Hall of Fame.

We ate breakfast at this place called Eggspectation. Which when thinking about it, someone should have told me to lower my Eggspectation.

I mean, what kind of a clip joint doesn't automatically offer toast with an omelet and home fries? And the place's coffee was bad too.

We stopped by Toronto's Eaton Centre (there's that screwy e-r reversal again) and I was surprised by the amount of stores in the place. Here in America, it seems the indoor mall has gone the way of the dodo but in Canada it seemed like a thriving place.

Speaking of malls, the Hockey Hall of Fame is basically located in a mall. It seems the Hall of Fame was already there and they built a shopping mall around it.

The entryway to the Hall of Fame was in the basement of the place. It took us a few minutes to find the entryway since there was no sign telling us the place was directly behind us when we got off the elevator.

Inside the Hall of Fame's first floor was most of the memorabilia from the game of hockey stretching from the first days of the sport up to the present day.

I particularly enjoyed some of the throwback uniforms such as the Los Angeles Kings sweaters from the 1970s and 1980s when the whole team looked like skating Crown Royal bags.

There was also an exhibit of hockey in the media over the years including a display of hockey video games. One of the games featured was NHL '94 which I played the heck out of. I wish they would have had a version of the game to play so I could have shown the young whippersnappers a thing or too.

There were playable video games in another part of the first floor but those were all the new- fangled games with the controllers that frankly have too many buttons. Give me a controller with a directional pad and no more than three buttons.

Near where the playable video games was a fan experience where patrons could put on goalie pads and try to protect the goal or try to blister a slap shot past a goalie.

Both exhibits were done with video screens and on the goalie exhibit, the pucks came out of various slots in the bottom of a video board and it looked like hockey stars were shooting the puck.

I did not partake in either of these exhibits because I have hardly any athletic ability.

Meghan and I did try our hand at one of the hockey trivia games which were set up in the interactive area. Trivia did not go well either. I think between us, we got four answers right. I freely admit my hockey knowledge is limited because I didn't become interested in the sport until I was in my early teens.

The best part of the Hall of Fame is on the second floor where all of the Hall of Fame plaques are housed plus the NHL trophies are on display including Lord Stanley's Cup (actually, the facsimile Cup was on display at the Hall of Fame the day we were there because the actual Stanley Cup is spending its summer with the St. Louis Blues who won this year's NHL championship in June).

What makes the Hall of Fame room so special is the stained glass rotunda on the ceiling. The way the light shines into the room through the stained glass gives the Hall of Fame room an almost mystical glow.

After leaving the Hall of Fame, we walked down to the harbor (or harbour as those weirdos spell it) and took a boat tour around the Toronto harbor and the Toronto Islands. Before we got on the boat we decided to get a hot dog from one of the hot dog carts located at the harbor. Those hot dogs might have been the best meal we had on the whole trip. The dogs were all-beef and were about an inch- and-a-half in diameter. And when you bit into them, they had that snap. I wish someone would open a hot dog stand here in Clarion that sold those dogs but I guess I'll have to settle for grilled cheese.

Out on the harbor tour, the first mate on the ship was trying to give a history of Toronto Harbor and the Toronto Islands but it didn't really interest me. I like my history like I like my cheese; American.

Slowly I turned

Before we left Canada we decided to make a stop on the Canadian side of Niagra Falls. I hadn't been there since I was five and some of the buildings in the sketchier parts of town don't look like they've changed much in the 40 years since I had been there.

The portion of the town located near the Falls is just a collection of tourist traps looking to harvest the rubes for cash. We decided to take the Hornblower boat tour (it's the Canadian version of the "Maid of the Mist") because I had never been and we didn't figure we'd be coming back any time soon.

The boat ride was enjoyable and the spray from the Falls was a welcome relief on a hot day. My one problem with the setup at Niagra Falls is the lack of public restrooms. It's almost criminal to have a place with that much running water and only have a couple of restrooms available to the public.

Land that I love

After our trip to the Falls, we made our way to the Mad Max-like entry back into the United States. We waited an hour just to get to the border check. Once we got to the checkpoint it was simple. The border agent asked us three questions and waved us through. Canada is nice and all but I prefer America.

Postscript

Turns out, Canadian money is like flypaper, once you bring it back to the states, it is almost impossible to get off your hands.

I didn't feel like stopping at the duty free shop at the border and getting it exchanged there because the line was going to be long enough and I didn't want to add an extra hour onto our border crossing.

I went to my bank to get it changed and they said they didn't do that. Went to another bank in town and they said they would exchange it but there was a $25 fee I had to pay. Long story short, Canadian money stinks.