FACE IT: YOU'RE GOING TO CANADA. MAYBE YOU CAN STILL CALL YOURSELF A SKIER IF YOU miss out on Whistler, or interior B.C.'s Powder Triangle, or Banff National Park's castle-like hotels and bluer-than-blue lakes, or the European flair of Quebec's resorts, or helicopter skiing in the nation that invented it. But call yourself a fool while you're at it. There's a bounty of snowy greatness in the Great White North, it's close enough for many of us to drive to, and it's usually ours for bargain prices-thanks to loonie-insulting exchange rates. Failing to take advantage of Canada is inexcusable unless your excuse, like my ski buddy's, includes the phrases "just a roach," "outstanding warrant," and "bastards at customs."
I skied the more wintry side of the 49th parallel twice last year, and I went up with none of the trepidation I take on other foreign ski trips. Crossing the longest undefended international border in the world seemed fairly minor, given that Americans deal with Canadians most every time we turn on the TV (William Shatner, Michael J. Fox, Matthew Perry), listen to the radio (Celine Dion, Alanis Morissette, Shania Twain), go to the movies (Mike Myers, Jim Carey, Keanu Reeves), or read e-mail spam (Pamela Anderson did what?).
But high culture aside, Canada is not simply a colder version of the U.S. After clearing customs in Vancouver I went to an ATM. The machine took my American bankcard, then spit out money depicting the Queen of England. Yup, the monarchy Americans overthrew 229 years ago still matters to Canucks. Yankee skiers beware: Canadarequires some getting used to.Take Canadians' over-the-top courtesy. It can be maddening. Canada is the world capital of the awkwardness that happens when some stranger and you are walking straight toward each other and you both move to the same side. In Canada, you can mirror the stranger for three to four lateral moves before somebody steps forward. Remember, this is a country that thought it impolitic to ask Britain for independence until 1931. It's so unassuming it didn't establish its own flag until 1965. Only in 1982 did it get permission from Britain to amend its constitution so it could amend its constitution without getting permission from Britain.
Last year, while driving between the B.C. ski areas of Apex Mountain and Whitewater, I heard a fascinating Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio programme (sic). It covered an acting class at the University of Calgary that teaches students how to talk like Americans. No one in higher education believes proper English speakers should use "didja" or "nucular" more often, but with so many U.S. film and television productions being shot in the less-expensive North, they feel they need to be able to communicate. One focus of the class is to do away with Canadian inflections, especially the little uptick at the end of their sentences that makes declarative statements sound like questions. Canadians like to leave room for discussion, the professor noted, whereas Americans end their sentences more conclusively because they take more of an "and that's that" approach.
The meanest Canadians seem to get is when they're laughing at the hulking superpower to the south. In a TV show called Talking to Americans, Rick Mercer, a comedian and satirist, travels in the United States asking people ridiculous questions to exploit their ignorance about their northern neighbor. Should Toronto continue its polar-bear hunt? Should Canada change its clocks to the American standard? Americans take the questions seriously, and give reasoned and therefore laughable answers. Mercer's coup occurred in 2000, when he asked then-candidate George W. Bush if he planned to meet with Prime Minister Poutine. Bush responded that he and Poutine were friends and Canada was very important...Never mind that there is no PM by that name, and that poutine is in fact a pile of french fries, cheese curds, and gravy on which Canadians likke to snack.
Your first trip to Tremblant or Kicking Horse will reveal Canucks' special take on the "ou" sound in words such as "out," "about," and "house," which sound to the American ear like "oot," "aboot," and "hoose." You might find yourself at a Tim Hortons doughnut shop, mystified at the locals' predilection for saying "sohrry" and "shedule," not to mention the ubiquity of Tim Hortons doughnut shops. The biggest stereotype of Canadian-speak-"eh?"-is barely less popular than Bob and Doug McKenzie would have us believe. It flows out of doughnut-stuffed mouths with such regularity, it can't be conscious. That was some sweet pooder, eh?
And oh yes, to ski in Canada is also to learn that what we call beer, they call water.
More baffling can be Canadian terms that don't even pretend to resemble American English. Before skiing in Canada, you should be able to translate the following: "I was on holiday at Great White on Boxing Day. There was a metre of fresh and line-ups were keen. I finally got on a chair with a First Nations fella who could talk the ears off a moose. Then the hydro went out. Lucky for me the chair was padded like a chesterfield. Still, I was dreaming of a warm peeler bar, with a rye and a two-four of Kokanee. I froze to my nubbins even with my wool touque on, because the ex-why-zed on my MEC was broken and a blizzard was just givin' 'er, soaking me like so much homo milk."
"Huh?" you say? Well, don't, because Canadians hate Americans' affection for "huh?" Instead, learn the local idioms. Know that the speaker in the previous paragraph was on vacation at Great White the day after Christmas. Three feet of new snow had fallen, resulting in long lift lines. He boarded with an aboriginal man we might call a Native American, who ran his mouth. The electricity went out, stranding him on a chair padded like a couch. He imagined himself at a strip club with a bourbon and case of beer. His hat provided little comfort, given the broken XYZ zipper on his Mountain Equipment Co-op (the Canadian version of REI) jacket. The blizzard knew no restraint, pouring down like homogenous milk that has nothing to do with sexual preference, or the fact that same-sex unions are allowed in all Canadian provinces.
Oh, and provinces are like our states. Canadians no doubt apologize for any confusion.