When my wife told me that the Rotary International Convention was going to be in Montreal, Canada I just shrugged and said “hmppph!” I thought… (Well, I know lots of Canadians… It hardly seems like they’re from another country.) So, for the next few weeks I went about my day-to-day business, not giving the trip much thought at all while my wonderful wife made all the arrangements.
When we got off of the plane in Montreal it immediately became clear that a bit of pre-trip preparation would have been wise. “Everything’s in French!” I said staring up at the signs. Lori shook her head as she walked past me. “That’s right Mr. Obvious! What did you think it would be?” I grabbed my suitcase and began following her, mumbling quietly. “I don’t know… English?”
Soon we found ourselves in line at the customs station waiting to talk to an agent who was tucked away in a glass booth. I was busy people watching, when over the intercom I heard an impatient “NEXT!” I stepped forward dragging my bag and handed all of my paperwork through a slot to a pleasant looking young lady in a uniform. As she studied my passport I started looking around at all the other activity around me. “LOOK AT ME SIR!” The agent yelled. All of a sudden I felt like I was in elementary school, so naturally I started acting like it. I thrust my face forward and stared at the agent with wide open, bugged out, unblinking eyes. She and my wife were not amused. “Stop it!” Lori whispered through her clenched teeth. The agent looked at me, then down at my passport several times thru narrowed eyes. Then she asked, “Have you brought any gifts for the people of Canada?” That snapped me out of my bug-eyed stare and my head cocked to the side as I thought (clearly not long enough) about the odd question. “No.” I finally said and then wrinkling my nose. “Was I supposed to?” Again, neither the agent nor my wife was amused and without her eyes ever leaving me the customs officer rather firmly stamped my passport… and we were on our way.
Instead of staying at a hotel, my wife had arranged for an apartment in the downtown area so that we could better experience the city… and our inability to communicate. But despite the language barrier, we managed to find our way there. As we began unpacking and exploring we discovered that the apartment was comfortable, the area was beautiful, and the neighbors very nice. Of course… I went straight to the very modern looking refrigerator. “Hmmm… that’s weird!” I said, as I stood there with the door open. “There’s no ice machine and no ice cube trays. Oh well. Add a bag of ice to the shopping list!” Our quest for ice had begun.
Now, you would think that a city that was completely frozen for a good portion of the year would have vast storage bins of ice… everywhere. But no! Apparently, after ten months of everything being frozen, they didn’t want to see or even talk about ice. And to make matters worse, as we wandered through the city, we couldn’t tell from the outside what a store actually sold. So we wandered in and out of stores for hours, babbling to confused retailers, grunting and using sign language. When we would find a cleverly disguised grocery store, we would first wander aimlessly around the store, then ask for ice with a combination of bad French and sign language. We would blow on our hands, fake shivering until they would finally nod and send us to the sweaters or the heater department. Finally, someone directed us to a liqueur store where we found a lone, drunken, English speaking Canadian who sent us to a Shell gas station. We couldn’t believe it! Only five blocks away, and there it was! It was beautiful! It looked like… AMERICA! Guarding the front of the store in an identical glass cubical as the customs agent was a fellow who, after I handed him five loonies, gave me a little plastic bag of ice the size of an IPad.
I really liked the people of Montreal, so when I go back and they ask me if I’ve brought any gifts for the people of Canada… I will proudly show them a box full of ice cube trays.