Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Who's On the Money?

By Paul Gerald

OCTOBER 19, 1998:  Canada seems like a really great place. It’s pretty, it’s less densely populated than the U.S., and it’s friendly and safe. It’s just that there are a few things that don’t make sense.

Take the money. The first meal we had up there, I got a $10 Canadian bill in change, and it was the first currency we had seen that didn’t have Queen Elizabeth on it. (Can you imagine if we had British royalty on our bills?) It had somebody named McDonald on it, so I asked the waitress who he was.

“I have no idea,” she said, with no sense in her attitude that she should be expected to know such a thing. I didn’t make much of this – I figured she was just surly and ignorant – until I asked two guys at a table next to us who McDonald was. They had no idea, either.

Throughout the rest of my week in British Columbia, I asked a dozen more people about this guy – him and somebody named King who was on the $50 – and the best answer I ever got was “They must have been old prime ministers.”

Now, I don’t claim that every American can tell you all about our 10-dollar bill’s Alexander Hamilton, but when faced with Lincoln and Washington and Jefferson, I think we could do better than one in 10 people saying they were “old presidents.” I never did find out who McDonald and King were, and most of the people I asked thought it was odd that I expected them to know.

Somebody finally explained some of this to me: “Nobody knows much about Canadian history, because, basically, nothing’s ever happened here,” he said. “We just sort of … plod along. Besides, our politics isn’t the cult of personality that it is in the States. We don’t know what the prime minister eats for breakfast every day.”

This made sense and also made me consider living in Canada. The only scandal anybody seemed to remember was a prime minister named Jacques Chirac, who had a mistress or something. Nobody seemed too sure of the details, he wasn’t run out of office for it, and they certainly wouldn’t know about his mistress’ favorite sexual props.

Still, there is an undercurrent of oddness in Canada, a stream of little things that pop up to remind you that you’re in another country. Canadians don’t want to hear this, but when Americans are in Canada, we sometimes need these little reminders that we’re not in some slightly goofy version of the States.

That actually took no time at all. We drove into B.C. on August 25th, and – I’m not making this up – we saw a guy walking down the street with a hockey stick. That night at dinner we watched a TV sports-talk show. The hosts were a hockey coach, a CFL player (anybody remember the CFL?), and a fashion model. The subject was hockey.

There’s more on the money. I was making a $3.50 purchase with a handful of coins, and after I had come up with two dollars, the guy got impatient and said, “Now just give your toonie there.” I was going to protest that nobody can get my toonie that easy, especially a man, but it turns out that since the one-dollar coin is called a “loonie” because it has a loon on it, the two-dollar coin was destined to be, yes, a toonie. I made my purchase but still eyed the man carefully.

I was happy to see that they drive on the right side of the road, but the metric thing took some getting used to. A speed limit of 110 on the highways got me excited at first, until I realized 110 k.p.h. wasn’t even 70 m.p.h. But the flashing green traffic lights were a puzzle. Sometimes they flash, sometimes they don’t, and like the mystery of McDonald and King, nobody could explain the flashing green lights. When I asked, they all looked like they had never really noticed.

They’re also poisoned, in their spelling, by their more recent British heritage. Ice cream places in every neighbourhood advertise numerous flavours, and one time we went three kilometres to a theatre, where three toonies and a loonie earned us admittance.

Dazed, we finally retreated to one of the truly positive things the English did give Canada: pubs. But even there, there was a problem. First I hassled everybody about McDonald and King, endearing myself to the patrons, then we ordered fish and chips and were told the kitchen had closed – at 8 o’clock. This was at 9:30, so I asked the waitress where we could eat in the neighborhood. She looked at her watch and said, “Well, gosh, it’s 9:30, and you’re right in the middle of downtown, so you probably won’t find anything.” This was in Vancouver, you understand.

We had a beer, then it was 10, and the pub was closing! I was beaten, so I hit the road doing 110, headed for a KFC, which is still a Kentucky Fried Chicken up there. I decided that maybe the Canadians close down early at night because they start drinking too early in the day, and I can’t say I don’t understand why.

I have no doubt that they’re getting in the mood to bet their toonies on a hockey game.

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