Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Canada Trip, Day 2

Dawn came and went and we snoozed on.

We arose, rested, around 8pm and went for breakfast in the chain restaurant downstairs, marveling as we did at the incredible heat in the hotel corridor despite the outside temperature being extremely mild. Sadly, despite the restaurant being part of a chain we've used with great success in the past, today breakfast was inedible with the most bland, plastic-like sausage I've ever personally noshed on.

We were expecting a visit from Ali, the guy who had rented us the car and who had very kindly offered to pick us up at our hotel on Sunday morning and drive us out to the car hire dealership, and he showed up exactly on time to ferry us across town and temporarily sell us transport for the week. It took about 15 minutes to get there and sign the paperwork.

"I'm going to give you a truck" said Ali, waving in the general direction of the window. I could see a line of white Toyota pick-up trucks parked along the service road. All of a sudden the extremely reasonable cost of the car hire (about what a small subcompact would have rented for in New York) made sense.

"Er...We''re gonna need a King Cab" I said. "We have three people we're moving around."

"Yes, yes, yes. I am renting you a King Cab truck. Here, let's go and have a look."

He grabbed the paperwork and led us out the door to the biggest damned truck I could have imagined. It towered over me. It was half as wide again as the Steviemobile and seated about 27.

"I present to you your truck. A most sensible vehicle for this part of Alberta."

"And the mountains of Afghanistan" I muttered, noting the knee-high door sills and bumper lifted from a Chieftain tank. "Do they push-start many bulldozers in this part of Alberta, or is the appeal that one may safely pass over any stray bears one might encounter?"

"Most unsafe to drive over bears, sir" he replied, seriously. "They have learned to roll over and tear out the brake and fuel lines with their mighty claws as you drive. It is most unsafe to coast with no brakes in this part of Alberta and expressly against the terms of the rental agreement."

"I have no intention of driving over any wildlife" I said.

"However" he spoke over my protest "the Ford Leviathan Supa-Kab Turbo-X is fitted with under-frame bear-proof plates upon which their claws cannot find purchase, allowing you to drive over bears, cougars and many other examples of the local wildlife with no danger. Moose pose a separate hazard and you may either buy Moose collision insurance or simply avoid them."

"Where is the boarding ladder kept?" I inquired.

"Ha ha. Let me show you the correct technique. You open the door thus, take a small run up, leap thus and grab this bar, hauling yourself in."

"I'm sorry, Ali," I said. "I don't think..."

"Shuttup and get in!" came the voice of my beloved from somewhere inside. "It's perfect and we are taking it."

Before I could protest the mighty metal beast gave off a mechanical shriek and the engine burst into life. I held on desperately as the terrible suction of the engine's air induction gubbins aspirated huge volumes of air and a passing cat, mixing it with a half gallon or so of vaporized gas so it could be exploded in one of the cylinders before doing it all again.

Mrs Stevie stamped on the accelerator and a terrifying howl rent the air as the coffee-can sized pistons were driven down in their cylinders with about the same force needed to launch a space shuttle then rammed back up by a super-massive crankshaft surely salvaged from the Titanic. The vehicle was visibly trying to flip over on its back as the Newtonian sums were figured out by a universe so unnerved by this behemoth that it was forgetting to carry the odd one.

"Stop making that howling noise and GET IN!" snarled the truck-crazed Mrs Stevie.

"I don't wanna" I whined, but she reached over, grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and pulled me into the cab, almost suffocating me in the luxuriant nap of the Unicorn Hide upholstery.

Once inside with the doors closed we were isolated from the devastating ambiance pollution of the truck, and I began to see the appeal of the thing. Mrs Stevie spent two seconds reviewing the dashboard instrumentation, which looked like it had been lifted from the fire-control console of a battleship, and testing the build-quality of the various controls by wiggling them, then drove down the curb, up the opposite one, across twenty yards of snow ditch, a small herd of elk and the three lane carriageway that was pointing the wrong way, over a crash barrier and finally onto the other three lane carriageway where she combined driving at speed with attempting to figure out what each switch, stick and button did. I assisted her by pointing out possible collision hazards such as buildings and other road users while she practiced unannounced lane changes.

"Stop that screeching and stop cowering in the footwell like that!" she snarled playfully.

We reached the hotel eventually, where a problem raised itself. Everyone else was driving some variation of the vehicle we had, yet for some arcane reason the parking spaces were laid out for the vehicle we thought we'd be renting - a small to mid-sized sedan. Each monster truck was parked with its tires brushing the painted lines. Some people had just decided to park in one and a half spaces, which seemed very sensible when you consider that each truck probably represented a 60 kilobux investment.

I foresaw a problem. Mrs Stevie cannot see-saw a vehicle to save her life. She does not have whatever gland it is that enables one to reverse and steer productively when attempting to shift a vehicle horizontally a few feet by going back and forth, so if her space does not permit the operation to be performed only with forward-direction steering maneuvers she can and does perform five minutes of going backwards and forwards only to end up in exactly the same place she started in.

Mrs Stevie drove back and forth a few times in a futile effort to park inside the lines and far enough from other vehicles to ensure the safety of our Door Ding Deposit before realizing the Ford Leviathan Supa-Kab Turbo-X was in fact only two inches narrower than the stall and giving up. I encouraged her with playful banter and the occasional bout of good-natured laughter until she stopped the truck, whereupon she punched me. I protested that it wasn't my fault she couldn't park to save her life, but this statement of fact only served to trigger a stream of invective and hurtful language.

We went back up to the room to collect The Stevieling, who had very sensibly decided to sit this episode out, and to allow me to change my underwear. The Stevieling was scowling at the television, which was playing an episode of Big Bang.

"Why are you watching that show?" I asked. "You've always said you hated it."

"It's that or the weather, golf or the news" she replied.

"Local news might be a worthwhile use of time" I said. "Call it orientation."

"I do not require orientation in the various ins-and-outs of running a fresh produce stall."

"Eh?" My confusion was palpable.

"Today they are running a special report on the benefits of local produce and where you can find it."

"But I know for a fact there are twelve more channels you could pick" I said, a little bewildered at her obstinacy.

"Six in French, which I do not understand, three weather channels, two channels programming for the 2-4 year old audience and the channel menu. Are we leaving for Granny and Grandad's now?"

"Yes" snapped Mrs Stevie. "Hurry up so I can show you the truck they rented us."

And so we trooped into the hallway, where we were greeted by tropical temperatures again. The entire time we were there the corridor was somehow kept at something like 100 degrees Fahrenheit1 . The outside temperatures were a blessed relief, being somewhere in the low 70s with no humidity to speak of. Very comfortable for me.

The elevator doors had just opened when Mrs Stevie's phone rang. It was the StevieSis, telling us to come to the parent's house because the StevieDad had fallen and an ambulance was on its way.

We made good time to the parental manse, set on a mountainside about five miles from the hotel, and a few moments after we had entered the house a team of EMTs arrived in a palatial ambulance loaded with high-tech diagnostic equipment. I have never seen such a modern and well-equipped ambulance outside of a TV show.

The EMTs were on first name terms with everyone as it turned out they had been to the house many times before. They determined that the StevieDad had to go back to hospital, whence he had only just emerged after an operation a few days before, and he cheered up. They loaded him and the StevieMum into the wagon and off they went, followed by The StevieSis in The StevieMum's Ford Explorer and us in the Leviathan Supa-Kab Turbo-X.

Mrs Stevie's head was swiveling from side-to-side all the way down the mountain.

"Stop looking for bears to drive over" I said. "You'll put us in the ravine."

"Shuttup. I'm driving" she replied.

We got to the hospital and were immediately confronted by the usual hospital problem - where to park. The miniscule car park seemed to be full every time we arrived, but by driving around for a mere 20 or 30 minutes a space would open up and the Comedy of the Parking would commence as Mrs Stevie would attempt to fit the Leviathan into a space dimensioned for a Volkswagen Beetle. Eventually she put the beast in a stall and we figured out the pay-and-display machine calculus that had us buying a 24 hour pass every time and it was off to find The StevieDad.

The StevieDad was upset about the abrupt derailment of our planned day, and concerned for the rest of our visit and the upcoming wedding. It turned out he had good reason because he had an undiagnosed infection that was to keep him in hospital for the next two weeks.

The hospital has a strict policy about visitors in the emergency room - as many as you like until they get busy. This was good as the entire Canadian Battalion arrived in theater at about the same moment in time. Some of us had to wait in the lounge with comfy chairs while others hovered around the bedside making comforting noises. We rotated in and out of The StevieDad's bay.

We took turns to alternately reassure him and nag him about using his walker until he was properly enraged and ordered us all from the emergency room. I pointed out - quite reasonably - that he couldn't enforce his order on account of leaving his walker in the bedroom, and that if he hadn't left it there he wouldn't have fallen in the first place. I was about to mention the purple veins pulsing on his forehead when one of the electronic boxes he was wired up to started wailing and a stern2 nurse arrived and ordered us out.

I should just like to say at this point that during the visit I was constantly impressed by the amount and up-to-dateness of the technology at the fingertips of the Grande Prairie medical infrastructure. They have much newer, better and cleverer stuff than the hospital I visit every so often, and they pay for it all with a sales tax that is less than the NY sales tax. So the next time one of my American Readers listens to the tired old "Canadian Health Care" calumnies I want them to remember this - it cost my parents NOTHING for this excellent care in a state-of-the-art hospital with polite and friendly staff.

We chatted for a bit with The StevieMum and left her with The StevieDad - she wouldn't leave him until he'd been checked in - and went for lunch, promising to return a bit later. We killed some time in the original town center, making a point of popping into Wonderland, an excellent old-fashioned toystore that has a bit of everything in it from Legos to Marionettes. We used to shop there for Canada-specific Playmobil toys for The Stevieling and we did as we always do and loudly bemoaned that we no longer had a kid young enough so we could buy all the awesome new stuff "for her".

That last is true by the way. You could and probably still can buy Playmobil figures and playsets in Canada that cannot be had in the USA. Other parents would often marvel at the Inuit figures and extras in The Stevieling's collection - sleds with dog teams, seal hunters with complete miniature tool sets3, an igloo and so forth. I used to have no respect for Playmobil toys but 20 years down the road, having seen the play value for myself (and having secretly played with some of the stuff because it was so awesome) I have 180'd and recommend them everywhere I can.

We dropped by The StevieDad's ward later that night to nag him about his walker some more, but after only five or ten minutes of playful badinage he became agitated and had to be sedated. I think it might be something to do with his age because he doesn't drink that much coffee. Old people are known to be testy and have short tempers, as was demonstrated when I sat on his gouty foot shortly after we arrived. I don't think having a catheter shoved into his bladder improved his mood for the better either.

We went round to the StevieNiece's house to meet Mr StevieNiece and the StevieNiecelings, including the new baby who I may have mentioned is the most beautiful human being on the planet. We all got to hold her while she slept, though the women hogged her so I didn't get enough baby-holding time. I'll let you into a secret I've so far managed to hide under a gruff pantomime of indifference toward the child: I miss having a baby around the house. I never really recovered from New Daddy Syndrome and little miss StevieGreatNiece is adorable.

Mr StevieNiece is an affable fellow who had his life planned out ahead of him then had the rug pulled out abruptly right after he got wed to The StevieNiece. He has fallen on his feet though, and has a job that, like many in that part of the world4, takes him away from home for long periods but pays very well indeed. He and The StevieNiece had invited us to eat with them and he made steaks using a French technique I've never come across before.

The steaks were vacuum packed and cooked slowly using hot water, then removed from the bags and grilled.

I know. It sounds terrible, but the steaks were the most delicious, evenly cooked steaks I've ever personally tasted. For the first time I ate pink steak and enjoyed it. Normally, a steak that color will be raw in the middle and well-done on the outside, but these were cooked evenly and completely all the way through. Perfect, and we were angling for more steak meals ever afterward. He clearly would like to be cooking for a living but as he said to me, the market for an upscale restaurant in Grande Prairie is not large enough to keep one open long. I think his characterization of the town as "Burgerville" was perhaps a trifle harsh, but I could see what he was saying.

The boys showed us their special racing car beds, fabricated by Mr StevieSis their grandfather. He is an excellent carpenter and very inventive in conjunction with The StevieSis. Over at their house the boys kip down in bunk beds made up to look like a pirate ship. The racing cars were sleek, professional looking things that would have fetched a couple of hundred dollars in New York apiece. When I asked granddad what he used, he said "two sawhorses and a jigsaw".

Once the boys were in bed we went downstairs to sip drinks and talk while the women of La Famile Stevie hogged the baby. We had a bit of fun watching the boys on the video monitor their parents had set up while we spoke of jobs and family and when was I going to get to hold the baby for Crom's sake? The StevieNiece and Mr StevieNiece are looking at buying a bigger house and we spoke about properties for a while until it was time to leave.

On the drive home we once again took note of how closely packed the houses were. It seems insane that with all the space they have the developers insist on building houses so close to each other you can touch two by walking between them. The fire risk is substantial.

Our route took us past the railroad and I was surprised to note that the long lines of colorful grain cars that had been a fixture of the landscape on every visit were nowhere in sight. It was harvest time, but all I saw were some small, anonymous gray twin-bay hoppers. Next to the Real Thing these were drab toys. Where were the real grain cars? I wanted to photograph them up close for once. Just my luck they were not around.

We drove into the hotel car park, where Mrs Stevie spent a few minutes lining up the truck with the stall and then we retired, exhausted from the day's events and Mrs Stevie's parking.

  1. It occurs to me now that it is possible one of the foreign staff had confused Fahrenheit with Celsius when setting the thermostat. There were many South American people working in the hotel, though I was under the impression that the USA was the last bastion of Fahrenheit. Why people get bent out of shape about that beats me, but it drives some of my UK and Australian forum-buddies into fits of apoplexy at times. Neither scale is used for important stuff, and in real life you only need a five point scale - Hot enough to kill, too hot for the clothes you are wearing, just right for the clothes you are wearing, too cold for the clothes you are wearing and cold enough to kill
  2. By Canadian standards - she omitted to bracket "everyone should leave now" with "If it wouldn't be too much trouble I think" and "if that's okay with everyone, eh?"
  3. The toolsets were confiscated a) because they were too tiny for the small kid The Stevieling was then and 2) The Stevieling would have had a fit if she had found out what those Inuit Playmobils were having for dinner
  4. Which is basically a way-station for those traveling to and from the oil fields and diamond mines

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