The MEC Vancouver store. Image via Wikipedia
I’m finishing up a two-week vacation in Canada, two days in my native Toronto and the rest in British Columbia: Vancouver, Victoria and Kamloops. In June I spent five days in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, just south of Montreal.
From this trip, I’m carrying home a new strategy for gin rummy (thanks, Mom!), some new clothes and shoes, two Olympics hats. Nothing fancy. But I know where to shop and what I can’t (yes, really) find in New York City.
I grew up in Canada and go back several times a year, stocking up on favorite items, some of which we natives know all about, but visitors might not.
Some you might find fun or useful:
222s. It sounds like ammunition, and in sense, it is — a powerful headache pill that contains codeine. They are not sold on the drugstore shelf but you have to ask the pharmacist for them. They really do the trick.
Beer. While you can find some Canadian beers in the U.S., there are many great microbreweries. We love the apricot-flavored beer we find in Quebec. Sleeman’s is another favorite. After you’ve tried some of our best, weak dreck like Coors or Budweiser will never cross your lips again.
MEC. It stands for Mountain Equipment Co-Op, and there is one in every major Canadian city; similar to an REI or EMS, offering everything you might need for outdoor adventures. Their duffel bags and backpacks are well made, good-looking and affordable. I always know someone’s from Canada if I see them in NY or Europe with an MEC pack. It’s a co-operative, which keeps prices low, and you can join it too. They also have a full-time executive charged with ethical sourcing.
Something Mountie-related. They’re everywhere…T-shirts, mugs, caps. They are a 137-year-old mythical part of Canada’s history and unique in this respect — Americans don’t wear FBI T-shirts or buy FBI bears or drink from FBI mugs, but Mounties are well-loved. I especially like them because they saved my Mom’s life, busting in her door when she lived alone in a small town and needed rescue. (This is part of what they do, filling in for local or provincial police.)
Voltaren. I took it as an oral steroid for my arthritic hip but in Canada (not the U.S.) it comes in a tube as a topical cream, also something you have to ask a pharmacist for.
Algemarin. My favorite product, ever — a German-made, dark blue, sea-smelling bath gel that turns your bath into a grotto. I’ve never found it in the States.
Canadian candy. Crunchie, Aero, Big Turk, Crispy Crunch, Macintosh Toffee. All are amazing. The chocolate is much smoother and sweeter than anything made by Hershey. Try it once and you’ll be hooked for life.
Miss Vickie’s chips. The best potato chips ever.
Butter tarts. Not made of butter. A sort of molasses/raisin filling, so gooey they can’t be eaten tidily. So good!
Tuques. A simple wool pull-on hat, the type you can tuck into your purse or pocket. I snagged two Vancouver 2010 Olympic ones on sale at a rest stop.
Peameal bacon. Americans call it Canadian bacon; we call it back bacon or peameal bacon. If you get to Toronto, go to the St. Lawrence Market and have a peameal bacon sandwich.
Aboriginal art, sculpture or jewelry. It might be Indian or Eskimo (the correct word is Inuit, pronounced In-weet), but there are many lovely examples to be found, whether lithographs, silkscreen prints, soapstone or bone sculptures, scarves, silver jewelry. I grew up surrounded by Inuit prints and sculpture and love it; a small soapstone bear, so tiny he fits into my palm, sits on my bedside table, a gift when I was a child.
A U of T T-shirt or cap. OK, it’s my alma mater — but Malcolm Gladwell went there too. It’s Canada’s Harvard. Americans have only heard of McGill, but U of T kicks its butt. (That’s U of Toronto.)
A maple leaf sticker, badge, luggage tag or decal. If you plan to travel in parts of the world where Americans are unwelcome, this is a standard trick — look like a Canadian.
A newfound taste for Canadian media. Pick up The Globe and Mail or The National Post, or magazines Macleans (newsweekly) or The Walrus or Maisonneuve (sort of Harper’s-ish) or Adbusters or Azure, the shelter magazine. Listen to CBC Radio, especially and see how differently (or not) stories are conceptualized and reported. You’ll never find Canadian magazines in the U.S. (except for a few libraries) and if you like the radio you hear, you can keep up with it on-line.
A loonie and a toonie. Our $1 and $2 coins, good souvenirs.
Appreciation of a nation with cradle-to-grave government-supplied and run healthcare for everyone and $5,000 a year tuition at the nation’s best universities. That’s where the new, dreaded HST (Harmonized Sales Tax) and all those taxes on liquor and gas and stamps goes. Payback!
A Roots or M0851 bag. Both are made of gorgeous leather in a small but simple/cool array of styles. Both have their own stores in many Canadian cities, selling everything from a tiny change or makeup purse to weekend duffels and dopp kits. Tough to resist. (They sell leather jackets, too.)
A Holt’s bag. They’re now bright fuchsia. Holt Renfrew is Canada’s (only) answer to Saks/Neiman-Marcus/Barney’s/Bergdorf. Even if you just buy a pair of socks or a lipstick, it’s worth a visit to their elegant stores. The Toronto one has a lovely quiet cafe on the top floor. The Montreal store has terrific period Art Deco doors. (Their accessories department is small but offers excellent, European options — I saw Keira Knightley there a few years back, and admired her Chanel sandals.) Holt’s is in several Canadian cities.