FLORENCEVILLE, New Brunswick – You might not think that a place called “Potato World” would be very interesting, and, well, you’d be right.
“This makes the Spam Museum seem like the Smithsonian,” I said to my two teenage boys as we gaped at old tractors, mechanized spud sorters, posters of the many, many diseases the humble tuber is susceptible to, and signage of epic dullness.
“The Potato Development Centre was established in 2000,” began one, “to strengthen the value-added growth, competitiveness, innovation and sustainability of the New Brunswick potato sector.”
Despite this, I came out of the place happy, almost giddy — impressed that they could extract $16 from passersby to tour a few rooms promoting nearby french fry-processing giant McCain Foods; moved at how mundane they managed to make a subject that, viewed creatively and without vacant hype, could have been fascinating, and deeply, deeply grateful that I have not spent my life in corporate communications, turning out this kind of stuff.
Elated, I spent an extra $20 and bought the “Potato World” T-shirt as a prize of war and an ironic anti-fashion — I bet you don’t have one.
The truth is, after driving a thousand miles across the vast pine forests of Canada, I would have paid $16 to tour Boredom Land. Not that the scenery isn’t beautiful — it is, endless expanses of thick green treescapes; farms straight out of a Playskool set, with proud silos and happy cows and Grant Wood cylinders of hay glowing golden in the twilight, interrupted only by craggy, mist-shrouded coastlines.
But as the hours bunch into days and the days huddle into weeks, a glaze I’ve dubbed “beauty burn” sets in, a condition similar to “museum burn,” a state summarized in Boston by my older son when he pushed away from the table after a meal and announced, “I’m all lobstered out.”
Nevertheless, the great thing about visiting Canada is that, as an American, the whole place is a revelation — whatever little we know about it we were taught in the fifth grade, and by the time adulthood hits, most Americans know exactly nothing about our neighbor to the north.
Oh, we might dredge up a few hazy associations beginning with “m” — Mounties, maple syrup, moose — but that’s about it. Few Americans even know who Canada’s current president is — do you?
Gotcha! Canada has no president; it has a prime minister, and he is . . . no, this isn’t Wikipedia. I’m not telling.
Beside, you’d only forget. I keep forgetting. Hint: it isn’t Pierre Trudeau — he left office in 1984. Our capacity to not think about matters Canadian is boundless.
For instance, until I got here, it never crossed my mind that “Nova Scotia” means “New Scotland,” not in the historic manner that “New York” refers to somewhere in England, but in a living way that puts several varieties of oatcakes in the grocery stores, towns like Whycocomagh along the highway, and a nightly “ceidihl” — pronounced “kay-dee” — an energetic performance of fiddle music and dancing in Baddeck, the charming town where we pulled in for the night.
“Is oatmeal all right?” said Joanie MacLeod, proprietress of Mother Gaelic’s, the bed-and-breakfast we blundered upon. I smiled and thought of Samuel Johnson’s definition of “oats” — “a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.”
“Oatmeal will be fine,” I said (and, to be fair, breakfast turned out to be oatmeal and toast and homemade jam and eggs and fresh fruit. Nobody went away hungry).
Culture in Nova Scotia is an unexpected blend of Scottish and French, of Acadian restaurants serving rabbit pie and a distillery making single malt, of boxes of Capitaine Crounche in the cereal aisle and lots of plaid.
“If it’s nae Scottish,” a sign read, “It’s crrrap.” But I wasn’t goaded to return fire at my hosts. I resisted the impulse to pull off at the Anne Murray Center in Springhill. “From humble Nova Scotia origins,” the guidebook ballyhoos, “Anne Murray has amassed more musical awards and accolades than almost any female singer in history.”
“It would be like shooting a duck in a bucket,” I said, letting the exit flash by.
You do at times feel like you’re encountering a simpler race — go to a Tim Hortons, the ubiquitous doughnut chain, order a small coffee, and they’ll hand you a little 7.5-ounce cup, almost shocking after years of wrangling the giant beverage buckets sold in the States. Canada also still has phone booths.
OK, OK, the prime minister is Stephen Harper, and he’s currently locked in a race against Michael Ignatieff, leader of the Liberal Party — it’s strange to see that term used without contempt, given how “liberal” has devolved into a slur in the United States. It’s like having a Treason Party. But then nothing so focuses the insanity of politics like examining the details of someone else’s contest, shorn of our automatic biases and emotion. Ignatieff, an academic, is being accused of not being Canadian enough because he spent time in other countries (his wife is named Zsuzsanna Zsohar, which makes her sound like the villainess in an Ian Fleming novel).
So how does Ignatieff refute the charge? Of course, he rents a bus and travels the length of Canada, eating BBQ and wearing cowboy hats, a trip his opponents dubbed the “Just Visiting Express.”
Foreigners like to pretend that Americans have a lock on superficiality, but that’s not true. We’re simply better at it.
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