Monday, August 23, 2010

Notes from a 9-Day Canadian Odyssey

Family vacations can be memory-making and fun, but they're double-edged swords, which can leave you with the distinct feeling that what you really need after the family vacation concludes is a RELAXING one, particularly after traveling 1,100 miles in the car with three kids.

It had been four years since The Spouse and I had taken a long road trip with the Picket Fence Post kids. The last time was when we went to New York City, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania. The Spouse thought we were clearly due so he planned a road trip to Montreal and Quebec City with a one-night stop in North Conway, New Hampshire to break up the ride home.

Thus we took off -- armed with a borrowed portable DVD player for the car and a bunch of used DVDs – and headed for the land where more people speak French than English. And let me tell ya, the four years of French The Spouse took in high school . . . totally useless. I'd taken Spanish in high school and, while I brought a couple of English/French books with me and tried to remember some key phrases, every time I was face-to-face with a French speaker, Spanish words started involuntarily popping up in my mind and I had to stop and fumble around in my brain for the right word. Most of the time I wound up just smiling mutely like some kind of idiot.

By the end of the trip, the three kids were comfortable saying, “hello,” “please” and “thank you,” as well as saying in French that they didn’t know how to speak French, how to ask someone if they spoke English and how to inquire where the toilet was located.

What they weren’t comfortable with was eating cuisine that didn't resemble American "kid fare." Every night, after a long day of traipsing around Canadian landmarks (La Citadelle, the Quebec parliament building, Old Quebec City, Parc Olympique, the botanical gardens in Montreal), we’d face the evening battle royal over where to go for dinner and what to eat when we got there. The Spouse and I only made them have one “fancy” meal where we all were served soup, salad, steaks and “frites.” Two out of the three Picket Fence Post kids were miserable all the way through the dinner, which, I will admit, we were having at a later hour than the kids were used to, contributing to their ire. On most other evenings, it felt like a Herculean struggle to try to lobby them to eat anything other than pizza, a hamburger/cheeseburger, some version of chicken fingers or pasta with "red sauce." On the side.

Not to mention that there were all these little fights that, by the end of the week, had picked away at my patience until there was nothing at all left. It was the non-stop bickering over the small stuff that really got to me, like who got to push the hotel elevator buttons, who got to open the hotel door with the cool key card, who went first on the escalator, who had to sit in the middle seat in the car, who "crossed the invisible line" in the car, why there weren't better snacks in the car, who got to sit next to The Spouse at meals, who got to sleep on the cot and who had to share the other bed with a sibling, especially The Youngest Boy who was apt to roll all around the bed.

I think the stress had started taking a toll by the time we got to the Citadelle for a tour and to witness the changing of the guard ceremony. The soldiers were all decked out in red uniforms and the black English hats (they're dressed like the guards in front of Buckingham Palace). During the ceremony, they marched around the parade area, submitted to an inspection by a superior, guards in the band played some music and one soldier brought out this ceremonial goat named Batisse, the latest in a long line of regimental goats. As we stood there in the hot sun and kept telling our 9-year-old to chill out and stop bellyaching, I started feeling punchy, so I started making whispered inappropriate jokes including telling the kids that after the guard members who were going off duty were inspected, the least prepared soldier would get shot in the knee as punishment. Terrible, I know, but what can I say, I was tired and cranky. The Spouse, appealled, set the kids straight – “No one’s getting shot!” – nonetheless, the children kept giving me sidelong glances as if they weren’t too sure about how this ceremony was going to conclude. (Fear not, there was no bloodshed.)

On the vacation’s lone rainy day, we went to the aquarium near Quebec City and saw some cool walruses and a whole mess of really ugly fish, then headed in the direction of this insane indoor amusement park at a shopping mall called MegaParc. Only problem was, the directions we’d received from our hotel's concierge didn’t happen to mention that there was a detour along the route. Said detour – the detour signs led us nowhere -- had us lost for quite some time as we kept circling around and around. The directions and crude map drawn by a French-only speaking clerk at a random store we'd passed were moderately helpful, while the offspring kept reminding us that they were hungry (I plied them with Jolly Rancher candies), that they needed to use the toilet and were sick of being in the car. I was with ‘em. On all three counts. Eventually, we found the place and man, was it loud in there what with an indoor Ferris wheel, roller coaster, bumper cars (which I feared would put my back out as the impact of hitting another object was so intense), spinning rides, rock climbing, a carousel, etc.

Amusing moments:

-- The kids telling us after our first historic tour that they were all done with this tour business. When The Spouse told ‘em they might very well learn something from the tours, he was informed that it was summer and summer was no time for learnin’ stuff.

-- Everyone was greatly amused that when you muted the TV in our Quebec it said, “Silence” on the TV screen.

-- When we arrived at one particular hotel we decided to be cheapskates and parked our own vehicle in the parking garage, lugging our stuff from the garage to the front desk. The route took us up and down seven flights of stairs -- the kids' luggage loudly slamming against the stairs -- and to an ancient, potentially killer elevator that nearly closed on The Youngest Boy, clipped his shirt sleeve a bit. Okay, so that’s not funny, exactly, but we joked about it during our hours on the road, that and getting shot in the knee for being ill-prepared the changing of the guard ceremony.

Now we're back and on the precipice of a new school year. Hockey practice starts for The Youngest Boy this week -- all of our first forays into playing on a hockey team (pray for me to locate my patience) -- and we still have to go back-to-school shopping and tackle that supply list. Our Canadian odyssey already seems like it was a long time ago.

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