Wednesday, July 23, 2003

Vacation 2003, Part Two: Of PDQ's, Nosebleeds, and Ticket Stubs

The Toronto deal was amazing. A ritzy hotel room, a fine meal, a baseball game and The Lion King, all at the price of the hotel room alone. But after all was said and done, we were a little nervous about The Lion King. I mean, what we'd seen on commercials looked a little hokey. Carved lion's heads perched on top of the actors? Disney songs? A Broadway show based on a cartoon? It all sounded like something aimed at two-years olds, not fully-grown adults with a modicum of taste.

The other option for the deal, Mamma Mia, looked a little more up our alley; but it was sold out, so we decided to check out The Lion King, give it a whirl and see if it worked for us. Because, hey, even if we didn't like it, we'd still be ahead of the game with the other three things, right? I'm not usually one to go for shows with big dance numbers and unreasonable amounts of glitter, either. After telling Mike our plans for the next day, he told us that the "prancing and dancing quotient" was very high, but we'd enjoy the show anyway. I assured him that I'd pay close attention to its relative PDQ and report back.

We woke up the next morning and headed for some breakfast at a little place on Bathurst that Mike likes to take his guests to, had a nice meal, and then parted ways with our host for a while. Unfortunately, by then, we were cutting things a bit tight. We still had to check into our hotel, go to the SkyDome box office to pick up some Jays tickets, and get to the show in time for the curtain. The Crown Plaza wasn't hard to find, but parking in the labyrinthine parking garage behind the convention centre sure as hell was. It took us almost 15 minutes just to find the section of the garage that connected to the hotel, which for whatever reason they seem to want to hide from traveling tourists.

Another 15 minutes later, we were checked in and headed to the SkyDome. We took the SkyWay, which may not have been the best way to go considering the elevators were all messed up. Reaching the base of the CN Tower, we searched in vain for a box office, found none, asked at the Tower information desk and were told we were looking on the wrong side of the dome. Looking at our watches, we decided there just wasn't time anymore. We took our chances with getting tickets after the show and sprinted off to King Street.

When Stacey called to book the show, she was assured that we'd have some of the best seats in the house. "Wow!" said the phone operator, "There's actually a BOX SEAT left! I'm surprised they're still available!" So, of course, Stacey leapt at the idea of seeing the show from box seats. Who wouldn't? What she didn't tell Stacey (or didn't know) was that the box that she gave us was literally right next to the edge of the stage. It was stage, width of curtain, and then our box. Apparently the phone operator was a MORON. Our angle was pretty much ideal for seeing into the "wings" of the backstage areas while actors and technicians were getting ready for the show and we had a bird's eye view of the pit, where the musicians were prepping. Immediately, we saw that the magical illusion of theatre would have its work cut out for itself to “wow” us from where we were sitting. If we could see the rest of the stage, that is.

As it turned out, the seats weren't as bad as we had thought at first. Not to spoil the experience or anything (for those of you who still want to see it), there are actually portions of the show where actors in costumes come marching down the aisles of the theatre, and we had a great view of that. We even had an actor singing from our box at one point. And we were close enough to the stage that we could really see the expressions on the actor's faces. A few things were lost in the back corner of the stage that we couldn't see and a few of the special effects were spoiled, but all in all, it was a great show. The costumes were ingenious, the acting from a few of the supporting roles (Timone, Pumbaa, and the bird) was truly superb, and it was far less cheesy than we were prepared for. The PDQ was also acceptably low.

I think one highpoint of the show for Stacey was that we were sharing the box with a mother and her two-year-old son. Stacey commented that the little boy and I had the same look of wonder on our faces at one point. I still contest that, however. One thing I should mention was that, at one point, one of the actors in a jackal suit actually waved to this little boy and he waved back, absolutely delighted. Great kid. He restored our faith in young children, who as a generation seem to be going all to hell, lately.

We got talking with the lady with the little boy. She’d heard that instead of going to the baseball game, we could trade in our tickets for a trip up the CN Tower instead, if we preferred. This surprised me, of course. I mean, despite their close proximity, the Toronto Blue Jays association and the CN Tower management surely weren't affiliated in any way, were they?

But the notion was tempting. The game was already half-over by the time we got out of the show, and I'd decided that looking down on the game from the highest "nosebleeds" in Toronto might be kinda cool. As a result, we wasted twenty minutes waiting at the information booth at the Tower only to find out that the lady had misguided us, proving once again that most of the people you meet in a day are morons.

We found ourselves sprinting again, this time for the box office on the other side of the Dome. When Stacey called to book the deal, she was assured that we'd be able to get tickets in the 100 section, field level, on the day of the game. "Don't worry!" said the moron phone operator, "the Dome's been pretty empty all season!" Nor was there any other option, really. The only way to secure your seats was to go in person to the box office, and it just wasn't possible before game day.

Of course, we happened to be there for the two-game series of the Jays vs. the Montreal Expos, and for the first time that season, the Dome was nearly packed. The best we could get was up in the 500-level which, next to watching the game from the top of the tower, were the most nosebleeds-y seats we could get. Mike was also at the game and we had hoped to work out a way to sit together. No chance of that when we got down there since the 100 level was completely sold out. After a hurried conversation in the aisle while an entire section of people yelled at me to get out of the way, Stacey and I found our lofty seats, some food, and a cup of beer for me. The second half of the game was a great time, nonetheless. Expos took it 3-2. We finished the game without needing any oxygen tanks to combat the thin atmosphere.

Fighting crowds the whole way, we made it back to our hotel room and collapsed after a busy, busy day. I made a few calls, found out our plans for the evening were cancelled because a friend had previous plans, and then set out again for our restaurant.

After some deliberation and a recommendation from a co-worker, Stacey made reservations at a place called the Kit Kat 2, and it didn't disappoint. The restaurant is a suave little Italian place on John Street with a lot of friendly charm and atmosphere. We were all set to eat or pre-paid meal when I shuffled around in pocket and realized my ticket stub was gone. And, of course, they couldn't give me the deal if I didn't have the ticket stub.

After a frenzied search of my pockets, my wallet, and my shoes, practically turning my clothing inside out on the spot, just in case, I had to admit that it was gone. It must have fallen out of my pocket when I was paying for something earlier. Despite the change in plans (paying now vs. not having to pay a dime), the food was excellent and the service was even better. They were so nice about the missing stub. They still didn't give me the meal for free, but they said that if I found the stub later, I could mail it to them and they'd refund my money. What nice, nice people.

We capped off the evening with a walk down part of Queen Street West and back to King Street to check out the Canada's Walk of Fame. It was kind of neat. We went back to the hotel early to enjoy our palatial room with a view of the SkyDome and brief glimpses of fireworks along the shorefront.

We spent the next day at the Metro Toronto Zoo. As you may remember, Stacey made a donation in my name and "adopted" a Golden Lion Tamarin at the zoo. It was the first chance I got to meet the little fella. Herberto, my little monkey, appears to only have three legs, further stressing the importance of conservation money for these beautiful creatures. If you haven't been to zoo lately and love animals, please go and visit soon. The zoo needs your help. The Americas exhibit where Herberto was living is literally falling apart. Despite the disappointment of seeing the dilapidated condition of certain areas of the zoo (some of which hadn't been renovated since the mid-70's, by the looks of things), we had an excellent time, took lots of pictures, and managed to time a brief bit of rain concurrently with a stay under some shelter.

We finished up the day with a trip to Stacey's cousin's place and met his new baby. Josh and his wife Karen are awesome, and the baby's pretty cute too. While we were there, Toronto got hit with the craziest rain and hail storm I've seen in years. After our visit, we met up with Mike, his girlfriend Dolly, our friend Ryan, and his girlfriend Nancy at The Green Room, one of Toronto's swankiest little clubs. Check it out some time.

After an equally-short overnight stay at Mike's, we were back on the road back to Ottawa. And thank-our-lucky-stars, it was a lot less eventful than our last trip between the two cities.

Be sure to check back soon for Part 3: Canaba Day, Poorly-Timed Nightmares, and Lobster-Serving Biker Bars!

Friday, July 18, 2003

Vacation 2003, Part 1: On International Bridges, Whitetail Deer, and Caffeine-Free Root Beer

Stacey and I had been planning our vacation for almost a year. Last year, shortly after returning from BC, Stacey committed to attending a Grand Family Reunion in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, where she would meet the ancestors of the early settlers of the town. Stacey is a direct descendant of the Jung family, one of the first families in the area. Anyway, we have both spent some time in the Maritimes in the past and we both agree that it is one of the most beautiful parts of Canada. The reunion didn't need to be a reason to go there; it was an excuse.

Fast forward to 2003. SARS hits Toronto and the city's tourism began to suffer at the hands of the travel advisory. After much hand-wringing on the part of the city's management, some brilliant PR person came up with the bright idea of offering an unbelievable package deal to draw people in. For $125, you get a hotel room at a fancy-shmancy hotel, a dinner in a swanky restaurant, tickets to go see a musical, and tickets to see the Jays play a little baseball. It didn't take Stacey and I long to decide that we wanted to do that. The only problem was, we weren't the only ones who were interested. The promotion's phone lines were flooded, day and night, and it was impossible to get through. I'd sort of given up on the idea. It was one hell of a deal, but sometimes these things don't work out.

Little did I know, Stacey kept trying without telling me, persevered, and finally got through, just after they announced that a whole other month of bookings would be available. And so, as part of my birthday present this year, she got us a room at the Crown Plaza right next to the SkyDome and tickets to see the Lion King. Of course, due to the high popularity, she couldn't get a booking until the final weekend of June.

If you've ever been to Ottawa on a Canada Day, you'd know that it's the place to be. It's hard to compare it to other days of the year. It's like New Year's Eve, but more red and less cold. It's kind of like Mardi Gras, but without all the beads and uninhibited public displays of sexuality (for the most part). It's like St. Patty's Day, but with the drunken yahoos all mixed in with families with their kids and red hats instead of green. But whatever you compare it to, it's usually a lot of fun. Stacey and I were determined to be in Ottawa for the 1st.

It was immediately obvious that the solution lay in combining the three things in an uber-vacation that would span most of Eastern Canada. The first leg would bring us to Toronto for the deal, a trip to the zoo, and back to Ottawa for Canada Day. And then we'd book it out to the east coast for some R&R by the side of the ocean. A fine plan -- but a lot of driving.

The first part of the plan involved working the Friday before hitting the road at the earliest possible time. We were staying with my good buddy Mike the Friday night, and we'd planned to catch a drink or two after our arrival. Most of that week was sheer chaos. Our house isn't air-conditioned and there were thousands of things we had to take care of before we could get out of town. Suffice it to say, we tried to get everything packed, but it didn't quite work out that way.

As Friday progressed, it was clear that we weren't going to get out of work early. I was stuck completing a proposal while Stacey was taking care of a last minute bit of work that landed on her desk that afternoon. Despite the rush, we didn't get home until 5:30, finished our packing and got on the road. We were hours behind schedule as it was.

Everything was going well until we reached a point along the 416 about ten kilometers away from its junction with the 401. We were making good speed when we suddenly ran smack into a wall of traffic. It was a literal parking lot. Cars were frozen in place for at least a kilometer ahead of us, wrapping around the bend.

We played it cool. Stacey and I joked about the awe-inspiring scenery ("Look Honey! Rocks!") and watched people getting out of their cars and walking a few hundred meters ahead to see what was up. After what seemed like an eternity, the wall of traffic began to inch forward. I continued to point out pine trees and road signs along the way as new scenery presented itself. We concluded that it was probably a fresh accident around the bend and that the emergency crews were cleaning it up and we'd soon be on our way.

As we rounded the bend, I didn't like the new scenery one bit, even to joke. Hundreds of cars stretched out in front of us, as far as the eye could see. More people had abandoned their cars in favour of walking, seeming to have no concept whatsoever that their actions were actually making a bad situation immeasurably worse. As the minutes dragged by, we rounded another two bends with an identical view of featureless stopped traffic. But we knew that it couldn't last forever, eventually we'd reach the accident site and we'd be able to speed on past it to the exit to the 401. It was about then that we both realized we needed a bathroom.

As we approached the exit ramp for the 401 east, we found that we'd underestimated how messy the traffic jam really was. The police had closed the 401west exit and was funneling three lanes of traffic up the 401 east ramp. And of course, as people always get when stuck in traffic for over an hour, everyone was impatient and refused to let people merge properly. It was a colossal mess. The consolation was that there was still another entrance ramp to the 401 west, and after a short detour again, we'd be on our way.

Another half hour of agonizingly slow progress ensued. Upon reaching the 401, we realized to our horror that they had completely closed the westbound 401. The police were merging the two lanes of the 401 with the (formerly) 3 lanes of the 416 into one single congested lane and were funneling the whole kit and caboodle into downtown Prescott, Ontario, with no signs, no updates, and no information supplied. Thank-you, Ontario Provincial Police for your masterful handling of a happy-fun situation!

As we crossed over the 401, both of us swearing at the top of our lungs, we were faced with a decision. We could follow the endless, retardedly-slow chain of traffic through Prescott or we could break away. Unfortunately, there was only one break-away option: the bridge to New York State. It was about then that we both realized we needed a bathroom BADLY. When we saw that almost no one was taking the bridge, we mentally flipped a coin and decided to take our chances in the United States.

Of course, then I started to panic. Ever since September 11th, I've been a little wary of US Customs. I don't have a passport. And Customs officers are scary. Hey, anyone with the power to legally perform a body cavity search is scary enough in my books. On top of everything else, we hadn't in a million years expected to enter a foreign country that particular evening. Nor did we have any good reason at all to enter their country. We tried to concoct a reasonable white lie to explain less than two hours in the US and opted for honesty instead. Because honestly, we had nothing else that was gonna fly.

As we approached the Customs gate, we hit another wall of traffic. Apparently we should have realized that thanks to September 11th, it's not only harder to get into the US, it's also slower. WAY slower. We waited another half an hour before reaching the front of the line. Fortunately, the customs officer was mercifully nice. When we pulled up, one of them was saying "You know, if I had a nickel for every set of directions I've given to the other bridge into Canada..." and we knew that we were going to be fine. The officer looked over our driver licenses quickly, gave us directions across the north of the State, and informed us that the 401 had been closed for hours and that there was a fatal accident involving a tractor trailer and a mini van.

It was about then that we both realized we needed a bathroom RIGHT AWAY.

We pulled into the local Walmart in Ogdensburgh, NY, the first place with a bathroom that we could see. While we were there, Stacey insisted on hunting down a few cases of her favourite drink, Stewart's Root Beer, because it's hard to find in Canada and she thought it had caffeine in it and it would keep her awake for the rest of the drive. Now, if you've ever had Stewart's Root Beer, you might know that it comes in bottles that look suspiciously like regular beer bottles. And you might also know that they actually contain no caffeine at all.

I realized both things moments after pulling out of the parking lot with two bottles open and placed neatly in the drink holders on the dashboard. Then I start to panic again. If a State Trooper saw us drinking from the bottles, we'd be pulled over. Of course, even if we were caught, we weren't doing anything illegal by drinking root beer. I put my fears aside as we pushed onwards into the wilderness of northern New York State.

It was unbelievably dark. If you've ever driven across that part of the State, you'd know that there's not much there. There aren't many houses, not many lights, and overall, it's not a good place to break down. As we were crossing a particularly dark portion of the road, Stacey, who was driving, spotted a pair of eyes at the side of the road reflecting back at her. As she'd been told to do, she slowed down and started honking her horn to scare whatever it was away (flashing high beams actually makes animals freeze). Despite her efforts, a mature whitetail deer emerged from the underbrush in front of us and smacked against the side of the car with a sickening thud.

We screeched to a halt at the side of the road, afraid that the side of the car had been totaled and there was a carcass on the road behind us. Remarkably, when we looked at the side panels, there was only a very small scratch on the passenger door. Even more remarkably -- when we looked for the deer, it had disappeared. Relieved and a little freaked out, we got back in the car and continued on our way, hoping that the deer was okay.

There was another half-hour wait to get back into Canada across the Thousand Islands Bridge. Feeling cocky, we left the root beer bottles out. The customs guy didn't care, of course. Back on native soil, we merged with the 401 only to find traffic moving smoothly.

At this point, we were still over three hours away from Toronto. We were three hours behind schedule and it was 11 pm. We made a quick call to our host and another friend to let them know we weren't going to get in until late and told them our implausible tale. They were suitably amazed. I know I'd be a little incredulous if someone was telling it to me.

The rest of the journey was uneventful, except for our overwhelming exhaustion (keep in mind that we had worked a whole day before setting off). Closer to Toronto, I had to load up on caffeine (real, this time, in coffee form). We nearly didn't make it. While I was driving I was starting to hallucinate strange things like flocks of birds and tunnels of light and stuff in front of the car, which was more than a little bit frightening. We pulled into Mike's driveway shortly after 2 am (an 8 hour trip, a record for being our longest between the two cities), panicked for a few moments when he didn't answer the door right away, and then collapsed in his kitchen with a nice-and-cold five-year-old beer. The beer tasted a little funky, but at that moment, it was the best tasting beer in the world.

Part Two: Of PDQ's, Nosebleeds, and Ticket Stubs will be posted soon....

Thursday, July 17, 2003

Happy Birthday, Monkey!

It's only fitting that my blogging hiatus would be broken by a post celebrating MPFH's One-Year Anniversary! Awesome cool.

A few things of note:

* I've just returned from three weeks of vacation (hence, the hiatus) and I have many stories to tell, for those of you that are interested. If all goes well, I'll start writing them down later today or tomorrow, depending on what's expected of me at work. I've spent the whole day today answering emails and getting back on my feet again, but getting back into the swing of blogging is on my "to-do-once-everything-else-is-done" list.

* I've added a new link to my buddy Matt's blog, which was inaugurated in my absence. Matt's another Canadian in a foreign land, currently bunking-out in Scotland. Check out his blog for an insight into yet another distant part of the world and watch out for music and movie reviews. He has fine taste in both.

* I have a stack of photographs to share, if I ever get around to scanning some of them and figuring out where to post them. I'll keep you in the loop while my procrastination continues.

* I'm happy to report that Radiohead will be coming to Canada in August. The Toronto show is sold out, but if anyone wants to meet up with me in Montreal instead, let me know. Tickets are still available, but for a very short time, I'd expect.

* Go see Pirates of the Caribbean! It's much more fun than you're probably expecting. Best pirate movie EVER. Arrrr!

* What do bridges to the USA, deer, and rootbeer have to do with one another? Find out soon!

Wednesday, July 02, 2003

On Hiatus

Hey everyone! MPFH is going to be on hiatus for the next three weeks or so. Sorry for the inconvenience, but I won't have any internet access over that time.

In the meantime, enjoy seeing Johnny Depp as a pirate. An effeminate pirate.