Friday, July 1

Toronto Diary - Day Four.

Tuesday, June 21

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Here is the day in pictures. I've had a bit of a long week, so I'll let the pictures do most of the talking. This was one of my favorite days of the vacation. Most everything went well, we stayed indoors for most of the day, and nobody got too cranky.

We spent most of the day at the Eaton Centre, the world-famous big-ass mall in the bowels of Toronto.

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We had brunch in the food court, and split off to explore every inch of the mall's splendor.

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I made a friend.

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Me and the Missus had a drink in the bar on the top floor before noon. Buzzing from my "Love Potion #9, we took in some of the upper-level views.

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After the Eaton Centre, we stopped by Much Music studios, in the aftermath of the big awards show.

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Much is way cooler than MTV, because they let you right in the door.

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We even met a VJ.

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After the stroll through Much Music, we headed for the Hard Rock Cafe. We saw memorabilia from such acts as Rush, Nickelback and Our Lady Peace. Psssh...Canada.

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With our stomachs full of horrendously priced desserts, we went to the nearest Googolplex to check out Batman Begins.

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The movie was actually very good. Big ups to Christopher Nolan, one of my favorite directors.

I'll have plenty more to say about day five. We go to Niagara Falls tomorrow.

COMING SOON - DAY FIVE.

(Questions, comments or concerns about day four? Sound off in the comments section.)

Wednesday, June 29

Toronto Diary - Day Three.

Monday, June 20

Waking up on a Monday morning without having to go to work is a welcome feeling, but it’s usually accompanied by going right back to bed. Not in this case, as we had to get going to two of the biggest tourist attractions in all of Toronto; The Royal Ontario Museum and Casa Loma. While brushing my teeth, I realized that my toothbrush got smashed in the suitcase somewhere along the way, misaligning all my bristles. It works much better now, honestly.

Driving to the Royal Ontario Museum took us straight into the very heart of Toronto. We parked our car just feet from the Eaton Centre, one of the largest shopping malls on the planet. We were just there to grab some cheap breakfast; shopping was for another day. I had never ate a veggie sub for breakfast before in an empty mall food court, but there's a first time for everything.

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So early into the vacation, and we were all in wretched moods. I was already burned out on the hours, the Missus was in a lot of pain because she hurt her leg at the Zoo the previous day, and Ben and Sherry were constantly at each other over navigating and driving. This was the day that it all came to a head.

It was good to get it out of the way early on, as to enjoy the rest of the trip. Before we get to the meltdown, however, here are some fun facts about Canadian Television.

What’s On TV? Canadian Television & You

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Canadian Television is basically the same crap that we have in the states; they just have a Canadian equivalent. We have MTV; they have Much Music, that sort of thing. The one thing they have that we certainly do NOT have is a French station that played nothing but terrifying children’s shows all morning. These French clowns would prance around, singing surreal songs and riding those old-fashioned bikes with the huge wheel in the front. Sometime in the evening, the children’s programming would cease in favor of soft-core porn. No thank you.

The morning programming was similar to ours, only their weathermen were simply never right. Every day, they predicted rain, and it never rained. In fact, the only time we saw a drop of rain was when we finally got back into Madison at the end of the trip. They did the traffic report, which was the same thing every morning:

Oh, looks like a lot of congestion on the 424. Good luck with all of that, ‘eh?

And now sports.

Back to business. The trouble started when Ben (or Sherry, it doesn’t matter who) misread the map. He claimed it was only “a few blocks” from our car to the Museum. Keep in mind that it was pushing 95 degrees that day, and the Missus was gimpy. A few blocks made all the difference.

In reality, a few blocks were about 20. The Museum was over two miles away.

As the Missus limped along with me, she said “I’d rather be at work”. I couldn’t blame her. When we finally got to the museum, the four of us split up as I tried to comfort the Missus, in tears because her leg hurt so much. When we all met back up towards the end of the Museum venture, things pretty much uncorked.

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For the sake of fair reporting, here’s where everyone went wrong.

Ben clearly misread the map, but he’s not to blame because he had a near-flawless record for 95% of the trip. He did a much better job than I ever could have, and I respect that immensely.

Sherry was a little sensitive because she had obviously worked very hard on planning out every day of this vacation. Criticizing things was like criticizing her. That being said, she was a masterful driver in the big city, and took on a task that I never could have done on my own. I respect her for that as well.

The Missus was sensitive because of a mixture of the blistering heat and her bum leg. She was really hurting, so any additional walking in the bowels of Toronto was quite hellish for anyone, especially her. She was quite furious, but was quick to apologize and fully understand the reality of the situation.

I was always the first to criticize everything. It would appear that I was never having fun, but I usually only open my mouth when I’m angry about something. Nonetheless, if I was truly angry about something, I’d do something about it. Apart from my crotchety old man routine, I felt as if I usually kept my logic and wits about me and made sure that nobody in the car killed me. Come to think of it, I don’t know if I brought anything useful to this trip besides my money.

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Looking back, I think we were all in bad moods for the same reason. We felt tiny. I mean, we are four intelligent, independent people who had absolutely no idea what they hell they were doing. Everything we did was done with hesitation. Every decision had to be voted upon. Simple tasks and directions were being swallowed whole by the city. We, as Americans, felt arrogant, pompous and quite loser-y. When a city backs you into a corner like that, it's only normal to start lashing out at each other. It's how us shaved apes keep order. If our petty little squabble was the worst thing that happened over the course of the week (and it probably was), then we all had a pretty good week.

Anyways, we came to the (simple) conclusion to take the subway back to our car. Had we been knowledgeable of the city to begin with, we would have done that right away and saved the headache. That boneheaded misstep was enough to put all of us back onto the same happy page again.

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We drove to Casa Loma, which had a nice free parking lot. This place was way more interesting and beautiful than I thought it would be. It also featured the scariest basement ever.

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The courtyard was amazing, and the views of the city were impressive. This brightened all of our spirits, and we eventually participated in a group tickle fight (I may have dreamed that last part. You should probably ignore it.).

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I purchased an iced tea in the outdoor beverage area, while Ben & Sherry split a Spongebob Squarepants popcicle.

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This was a long day, and we wrapped everything up with a dinner from the hotel across the street from us. It was there that I consumed the single greatest veggie burger ever made. It took us a full three minutes to even determine if it was meat or not, that’s how good it was. I swear to you, burger technology is really moving onward and upward in leaps and bounds. A perfect ending to a rocky and important day.

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TOMORROW - DAY FOUR.

(Questions, comments or concerns about day three? Sound off in the comments section.)

Tuesday, June 28

Toronto Diary - Day Two.

Sunday, June 19

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That first morning in the city, I quickly realized that this wasn’t going to be a vacation as much as it was going to be a whirlwind tour of duty. Sherry had meticulously planned out every angstrom of this trip, and we only had so much time to take in every single attraction in Toronto, one of the biggest cities on the planet.

Opening my eyes, it took me a while to realize just where I was. The lush, king-sized bed in the hotel room put a good three feet of space between me and the Missus, so while pawing around in the darkness; I thought I was all by myself. Knocking my watch off the nightstand, I grabbed the remote control and turned on the television, switching to Much Music, the Canadian equivalent of MTV.

A quick word on Much Music. It’s an interesting network. We used to have it here in the states, but about five years ago they pulled the plug in favor of Fuse, a network out of New York City. They play standard Music Television fare, but then they surprise you with Canadian bands that are still an underground novelty here in the states. The first thing I saw when I turned on the station was an Arcade Fire video, followed by Death From Above 1979. I instantly felt that I belonged here.

“Happy Anniversary”, I told the Missus as she opened her bleary eyes.

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After breakfast, the first big Toronto stop was the world-famous CN Tower. This is the tallest observation deck in the world, at least that’s what the sign told me. The CN Tower is right next to the Rogers Centre, where the Toronto Blue Jays play. Ironically, the Milwaukee Brewers were in town that day for an afternoon ass-whooping.

It was here at the CN Tower where we exchanged more American money and bought a City Pass. A City Pass is a neat way to get admission to a bunch of local attractions for one price. For about $50, we got well over $100 worth of tickets to most of the things we had been planning on seeing in the first place.

Another quick word on Canadian money. They have one and two dollar coins in Canada. The one dollar coin has a picture of a Loon on it, so they are referred to as "Loonies". The two dollar coin is referred to as a "Toonie". Now you know.

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The four of us got into the elevator, shooting us straight into the air at about 15 miles per hour. The elevator was glass, so it was nothing short of awful watching the ground disappear from under you so quickly. Our tour guide was a funny, sarcastic young woman who kept me from vomiting all over her. Here’s some sample dialogue that she had with us, some overall-wearing rednecks and a group of French-speaking tourists sharing an elevator:

Redneck: “How fast are we going?”
Guide: “About 15 miles per hour. This is actually the same speed as an opened parachute falling from a plane.”
Redneck: “A military parachute?”
Guide: “No. Actually, the military chutes fall a little faster because they’re in a hurry…to kill people.”

(Silence and muffled laughter by the four of us)

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The CN Tower gave us some truly amazing views of the city we were about to dissect. The tour guide also let us know that the Much Music Video Awards were going on tonight, and they were closing off some streets and broadcasting live. We decided that we would check that out if we had the chance, or at least watch it on television. The Arcade Fire was playing live, so I was pretty adamant about checking it ‘oot.

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After seeing every square inch of the CN Tower, we found our car and were off to the Toronto Zoo. But first, a few words on parking.

Parking & You: How to Lose $100 a Day for No Reason

Driving in Toronto is nothing short of a sick joke. However, I despise public transportation and choose to avoid it at all costs. It’s because of this that we spent literally hundreds of dollars just on parking in those eight short days.

Parking at the Rogers Centre was $14, and we found places that were as cheap as $6 throughout the week, but we usually had to park at anywhere from 2-5 different spots per day. You can do the math. Take it from me, if you plan on spending any length of time in Downtown Toronto, I strongly recommend taking the Subway or using some sort of tour bus. I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t mean it.

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Now then, the Toronto Zoo was beckoning. Several hours and several more miles of walking later, we came to the conclusion that it was a pretty large zoo. We saw every animal you would think that would inhabit a zoo, and we also saw some things that I had never seen before. Like turtles mating.

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Maybe it was the heat. Maybe it was the sheer amount of walking. Maybe it was the pungent scent of sunscreen emitting from a million screaming children. Somewhere along the way, we all started to get a little cranky. So early into the trip, and we were starting to take potshots at each other and argue over insignificant stuff. The zoo was beautiful and one of a kind, but it was a welcome treat to get back to the air-conditioned vehicle.

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We had some time to kill before dinner, so we decided to check out one of the beaches in the city. I cannot stand beaches, as I can’t swim and my skin is milky white. I get sunburn just sitting too close to a computer monitor, so I normally don’t have many good things to say about beaches. This beach was no different. Some highlights were Ben getting hassled by a clearly intoxicated German man ("cut your hair!"), or a woman collecting litter dressed as a clown, complete with makeup and red nose. I couldn’t leave fast enough.

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My pants are rolled up in a fruity fashion because I didn't want to get them dirty. Don't worry about me.

Before getting back to the hotel, we drove by Much Music studios to check out the crowd for the awards show. There were already 15,000 people there three hours before show time, so we thought it better to watch the awards on television. We got dinner at the hotel, and the waitress bothered us about basically everything. She made poor Ben feel so guilty about not finishing his food, he wrapped it up just to make her feel better, knowing full well that we had no fridge or preserving device in our hotel. We had a mini-bar, but I instructed nobody to open that thing if they valued their money or sanity. A mini-bar in a hotel is like a Pandora’s Box of alcohol and cashews. Avoid it at all costs.

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During the Much Music Video Awards, we decided to quickly run to the nearest airport to exchange a bunch of money. This eventually resulted in an hour of wasted time, money wasted on parking, and no money exchanged. The changing station was perpetually closed, and the man we asked was nothing short of a complete ass to me and my friends. Again, we were starting to see how the rest of the planet viewed Americans. Then again, most of the inhabitants of Toronto are French, so it’s possible that they’re like this all the time. I kid the French only because they hate me. We made a vow to never return to the airport again (we returned two more times), and went back to watch the rest of the awards. By the time I got back in front of the television, the Arcade Fire had already performed. I sipped my Guinness in shame, and felt very worthless and small.

TOMORROW - DAY THREE.

(Questions, comments or concerns about day two? Sound off in the comments section.)

Monday, June 27

Toronto Diary - Day One.

Saturday, June 18

At around 7:30am, the four of us weighed down the trunk with about 200 pounds of luggage and hit the road. The goal was to reach Toronto within ten hours (make that eleven hours, considering we’d be crossing into the Eastern Time Zone).

The travel was routine enough, as we mostly kept to ourselves in an attempt not to annoy each other. I had brought along several methods of subterfuge, including my IPod, GBA and back issues of Alternative Press magazine. I used none of these throughout the entire trip, instead deciding to bother everyone else in the car and stare longingly out the backseat window.

I was looking forward to driving through Chicago, not because I like the city, but because I wouldn’t have to stop in it. So many times have I had a complete psychotic breakdown on the Chicago Tollway; it was nothing less that a treat to give them their change, and quickly pass through their filthy city.

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Somewhere in this stretch of highway, this guy almost killed us because he was too busy eating.

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Chicago had the last laugh, though. Due to construction (which never ends in Chicago), they had raised their toll fees to an obscene level, robbing us of at least seven dollars by the time we ate brunch. We were in need of something to raise our spirits, and Alexander’s was just what we needed.

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Alexander’s was nothing short of a perfect 10. The place was spotless, the waiter got all of our special vegetarian orders correct without writing anything down, our food was on the table before we knew it, and it was reasonably priced. I ordered a vegetable omelette, which was my first of about 7 over the term of the vacation. Happy and well-fed, we were back on the road within an hour.

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The travel plan called for a trip through the heart of Michigan. This meant journeys through Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids, Lansing, Detroit and Flint. I made it very clear to everyone in the vehicle that we were not to stop in any of these locations, as I didn’t feel like getting shot so early in the trip. My terrified, white-boy attitude towards the murder capital of the world was frowned upon by the other cultured folk in the vehicle, but they heeded my warnings and made sure to get gas before the “death stretch” of highway.

Somewhere between Detroit and Canada, we stopped at the most backwoods gas station/bait shop that I've ever seen. As I was getting back into the car, I could hear gunshots just across the street.

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Before we knew it, we were quickly approaching the US/Canadian border. We had our identification in a folder for quick access, and went over some sample questions just to make sure we had the routine down cold once we got to Border Patrol. We began to see the giant bridge that led us out of the country, and immediately noticed the speed limit sign giving us an early indicator of what we were in for.

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After a lengthy wait in line, we got the car to the window, and began the question barrage with border patrol. Ben was driving the car, so he was the primary focus of most of the questions.

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At this time, I’d like to offer you a few tips with dealing with authorities at the border:

Border Patrol & You: 5 Tips to Keep You ‘Oot of Prison

Tip #1 – When asked a question, don’t repeat the question back to the cop.
Tip #2 – When asked a question, don’t look at others in the car for the answer.
Tip #3 – When asked a question, answer the question.
Tip #4 – When asked a question, attempt to answer the question within 30 seconds. Patrol hates it when you hold up a line.
Tip #5 – When the patrol agent pauses and cocks his/her head, you’re screwed.

Ben whizzed the interview down his leg with flying colors. Before you could say “profiling”, the four of us were standing in front of the car while three cops were tearing our luggage apart. We had been in Canada for no less than two minutes, and we were already facing immediate deportation. I didn’t think for a second that it could go any other way. A highlight of getting the car torn up was when another car was trying to exit the search area. The four of us were standing in front of the exiting vehicle (where we were instructed to stand, mind you), and a Border Patrol authority yelled at us, “Get ‘oot of the way!” We were scared about the on goings, but it didn’t stop me from laughing right at this cop without even attempting to hide it.

Border Patrol found nothing (of course), but we were now running about two hours behind schedule. We made sure they didn’t steal any of our stuff, exhaled, and began to explore Ontario.

The first thing we noticed was the metric system. We had to look at the little white numbers on the speedometer, which aren’t very descriptive on American cars. Normally, there’s huge gaps in the metric speedometer, so you could be going anywhere from 45 to 90 miles per hour without really knowing it.

The temperature was another story. I have no idea what Celsius temperature means, so when they told me that it was 32 degrees out, it meant absolutely nothing. For a while, I was living under the assumption that in order to convert the scale, you had to multiply the Celsius temperature by ten. I soon realized that it wasn’t an apocolyptic 320 degrees in Ontario, but I still don’t know the right conversion formula.

Our first stop in Canada was John’s Restaurant. We had a round of grilled cheeses, and I ordered a Labatt Blue. When I ordered the sandwich, they asked me if I wanted it on “white or brown” bread. I had never heard anything like this before, and I assumed that the waitress meant “brown” in reference to rye or wheat bread. I began to wonder just how simple Canadians were, considering they didn’t know the proper way to title bread. I, of course, was being an arrogant American.

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When we paid the check in American cash, we got our first taste of Canadian money. They have beautiful, multicolored cash, complete with hockey players, Queens and beavers. Sure, the $50 looks a little fruity, but anything’s better than American money. Now it’s time for a quick lesson aboot Canadian money:

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The Exchange Rate & You: 5 Tips to Keep You from Going Broke

Tip #1 – When you give the exchange station $100, you will get about $125 back.
Tip #2 – Everything in Canada is 25%-400% more expensive than in Wisconsin.
Tip #3 – Gasoline in Canada is .94 cents… a liter.
Tip #4 – There are about 3.7 liters in a gallon. Figure it 'oot.
Tip #5 – A beer is at least six dollars.

Ontario looks a lot like Wisconsin, and it really should. I mean, we have the same natural features as our neighbors to the north, although their street signs have little crowns on them instead of the badge-shaped markers we have signifying our highways. Essentially, there’s nothing of interest whatsoever in Ontario until you reach Toronto and the surrounding suburbs.

Then it gets interesting.

We found our hotel and checked in at about 11:30pm Eastern time, a few hours late of our goal. We settled in the best we could considering the shape we were in after a 15 hour excursion. We set the alarm clock for 7:00am, and tried to get some sleep. Tomorrow, the vacation officially began. This was the view from my bedroom window for a week.

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TOMORROW - DAY TWO.

(Questions, comments or concerns about day one? Sound off in the comments section.)