Canadians are exceptionally well governed by a parliamentary form of democracy. Elizabeth II, Queen of the United Kingdom, is also Queen of Canada, a fact that comes as a surprise to many travelers, especially some Americans who perceive Canada as being similar in all respects to their own country.
There’s a possibility I might be going there on a holiday in a few months to do a road trip with my fellow blogger. She gave me this to flip through to whet my appetite. The last thing I expected was this: that what I’d encounter in its pages would make me want to write about it here. After all, it’s a reference book. And everyone knows those are dry, factual and objective.
… but instead discovered an unintentional self-portrait of the author.
Factual and objective may well be what this book was aiming for. Luckily for us, it missed.
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways:
1. The delightful passive-aggression
As an Australian, I have the luxury of feeling contempt for various parts of US culture from afar, and hence I can do it in a casual and relaxed way. Not so Mr Pratson. He needs to defend his noble birthplace* from the constant foghorn of cultural onslaught from the south. And hence you discover little bits of editorialising in the text, like the quote at the top of the page.
It’s the work of a master, to sculpt such a factual-sounding sentence but slip in so much more. ‘Exceptionally well governed’, to me as an Aussie, subtitles as ‘Unlike your pageant-like popularity-contest elections, we have a ceremonial head of state who acts as a figurehead while letting the politicians quietly and efficiently get on with the job of actually running a country. So put that in your pipe and suck on it hard.’ As an Aussie, though, I’d be culturally required to add the self-deprecating addendum ‘…although while we may be proud of our country we still recognise that most of the people running it are bastards.’ We share so much with our Canadian bretheren (and sisteren, of course), but there remain these small differences.
Also, the part ‘…especially some Americans who perceive Canada as being similar in all respects to their own country’ is a barely disguised version of ‘JESUS IF I HAD A DOLLAR FOR EVERY TIME ONE OF YOU FORGOT THERE WERE OTHER COUNTRIES AND WE ARE ONE OF THEM I’D HAVE A CHALET IN QUEBEC BY NOW SO LISTEN AND LEARN YOU ARROGANT TWATS.’
Moving on to page 2, we get:
Unlike the United States, which likes to think of itself as a ‘melting pot,’ where all groups tend to be assimilated into the dominant Anglo-Saxon culture, Canada considers itself a ‘cultural mosaic,’ where its citizens can be equally proud of their ethnic heritage and of being Canadians.
Likes to think of. Ouch. Unlike the United States… its citizens can be proud. Nuff said. Take that, global superpower.
And on page 3, ending the introductory section, one more thrust with the blade:
Canada is still very much a country in political transition. The encouraging note in this great national debate is that Canadians are among the most reasonable people on earth, and their political destiny will not be forged in violence, as in the case in so many nations, but will evolve out of the innate good sense of the Canadian people themselves.
In so many nations. Such a gallant restraint from naming names.
In the following sections, similar passively-aggressive barbs are directed at the US in the cases of national health insurance systems, public broadcasting, and law and order. (A sample: ‘Visitors are often surprised at how safe an clean Toronto is, considering that so many cities in North America are quite the opposite.’) Surprisingly though he gets through the section on Canada’s use of the metric system without a single pointed remark. This is one place where he’s a much better person than me. I’d give it a chapter to itself and title it ‘Why the metric system is clearly superior to antique abominations like ‘foot-acres’ and ‘fluid ounces’ and so-called ‘inches’, you fuckknuckles. Read and wake up to yourselves. I mean, you already lost a Mars mission because of it FFS.’
2. The beautiful love story
This book is a story of one man’s beautiful, innocent, intense infatuation with his one true love: his country. You are his new friend and he wants you to see – no, really, really see – just how wonderful she is.
The famous Mounties are one of the best police forces in the world, even giving you a traffic ticket with a smile and courtesy.
In the easternmost provinces, just getting close can give you a spiritual frisson:
Visitors to Prince Edward Island feel a sense of peace and renewal almost as soon as they set foot on its luxurious red shore.
In Quebec City the air always seems clear and fresh. The slower pace of life can be savored like old brandy. In Quebec City the illustrious ghosts of the past seem to whisper with every step you take: ‘Here I governed a people, here I fought my enemy, here I set out to explore a wilderness, here I prayed, and here I died.’
It works, though. The more I read the more I want to visit. It’s even getting to a point where I think I mightn’t even resent the smarmy grin on the gob of the copper writing me a ticket for a few hundred bucks. I might even smile back and wish him a lovely day.
3. The gradual painting of a picture of Mr Pratson’s own lifestyle, habits, hobbies and dreams
I skipped to the easternmost territories first. As I read I realised that the image forming in my mind of these places looked pretty much exactly like the little English town Aidensfield in the TV show Heartbeat. Couldn’t work out why, until I realised he pretty much only describes in his book activities that the average resident of (or visitor to) Aidensfield would do. Like: long walks in the countryside, seeking out quaint examples of local craft, enjoying a quiet pint with locals in the pub, stopping to read historical plaques and markers, popping in to the local church for a lovely little look, exclaiming over the exciting gustiness of the Atlantic winds near the stately old lighthouse, having a packed sandwich on a scenic knoll, and so forth.
But then again, I don’t know what Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island are really like. Maybe that’s what a visitor does there. So to check, I skipped back to the sections on big cities – ones I know have thriving scenes of art and culture and food and nightlife etc etc. I mean, I listen to Wiretap. I know there’s stuff going on.
So here’s an extract from the Montreal chapter, under ‘entertainment’.
Thursday’s, 1449, rue Crescent, (514) 288-5656, is Montreal’s top bar for cruising – for both sexes. The well-heeled yuppie crowd considers Thursday’s its chic watering hole, at least as of this writing. Expensive.
Le Festin du Gouverneur, at the Old Fort on Ile Ste Helene, (514) 879-1141, is an unusual dinner theater, where you are part of the cast. You take part in a seventeenth-century banquet in old Quebec. It is a lot of fun.
I love the way you can tell which one he’s actually been to and which one he’s reporting on second hand, like a British man in a pith helmet talking about the tribe with the lip plates that do interesting things around a fire on yonder ridge every second moon.
4. The author’s unbelievably perfect name
If I was creating him as a character I couldn’t have chosen a more perfect name. Frederick Pratson. As I imagine him: everyone’s favourite grandparent. An unassuming fellow who takes pride in his country. Gets cantankerous when someone says something nasty about Prince Charles. Who asks for nothing but a pleasant landscape and a new walking path – or the promise of an opera show – to be perfectly content. Who has devoted himself to this grand project of systematically traveling through Canada so he can document its marvels and share them with as many people as possible. He asks for no recognition or recompense other than, every now and then, a smile or thankyou from a traveler he has assisted. By day he is active, exploring and striking up conversations with whichever local character serves him his local ale or gives him directions. By evening he dons his bifocals and types up his day’s findings with two index fingers. The only thing that would make his brow furrow is the music coming through the walls from that new-fangled discoteque next door, which is apparently all the rage for fashionable youngsters at the moment, but even so, could they not keep it down just a bit? Their need for such volume is beyond him.
5. The guidebook
It amazes me, though, that this is a guide written by a single author. All hats off to this amazing person who’s travelled the length of a country as big as Canada to compile a set of guidebooks singlehandedly. What a project! I just picked a Lonely Planet off my shelf at random and it had twenty-five authors.
It makes me wonder: did Mr Pratson come to guidebookery as an enthusiastic traveler? Or as a local historian? Or as an author of other works? Why doesn’t he have a Wikipedia page? I may go and try to change that right now.
*I don’t actually know where the late Mr Pratson was born, and I haven’t been able to find other information about him**. So I’m guessing.
Front page image from Pay A Visit