Uhh, I’ve never actually met the guy.
So it appears I’ve got nothing.
Uhh, I’ve never actually met the guy.
So it appears I’ve got nothing.
Tim Hortons was sold to Wendys or Burger King or some other notable American fast-food corporation a few months ago, and though the news triggered panic, fear, grief and outrage in some corners North of the 49th, I think we’ll actually be better off for it.
First of all, Tim Hortons, believe it or not, is just a company that sells coffee. (Pretty shitty coffee, I might add.) That, I guess, and some donuts, a strange panini sandwich with painted on grill marks and a whole range of bland and oddly divergent food items that it seems to roll out at random every few months.
But that’s not what it really sells. Nope, its biggest asset is how it’s been able to associate itself so closely with our national identity – or that esoteric notion of ‘what it means to be Canadian.’ (If we’re being completely honest, it probably ranks up there with hockey and the CBC in importance, right?) Tim Hortons has shamelessly self-promoted the lie that, all across this immense country of ours, anyone can walk into – or ‘drive-thru’ – a Tim Hortons, grab a cup full of hot, 20-minutes-or-less fresh Canadiana, breathe in that familiar smell and suddenly feel at one with the hockey dads, zamboni drivers and, umm, CBC radio hosts between Victoria, B.C. and Saint John’s, Newfoundland. (Especially the hockey dads, zamboni drivers and CBC radio hosts living in the funny-named places like Flin Flon, Moose Jaw, etc.)
I hate to break it to you, but it’s so obviously total horse hooey. And to remind you of just how flimsy and contrived this idea is, have a look at a TV ad Tim Hortons recently broadcast to an American audience. (WARNING: You might feel shafted. You might feel betrayed. I bet you it will even break your heart a little.)
Weren’t you waiting for the narrator to reveal that the secret to the Tim Hortons magic is… Canada? Didn’t it feel like a parallel universe, like Canada no longer existed in a Back to the Future 2 alternate reality? Do you see now how they’re just selling us this idea: that their coffee, their honey crullers, their weird panini sandwiches with the painted on grill marks, their company, their entire brand relies on this shameless, hackneyed association to our shared experience. Without that messaging, Tim Hortons is just a boring, uncreative company that sells bland coffee, honey crullers and weird panini sandwiches with painted on grill marks.
There’s nothing intrinsically Canadian about Tim Hortons. We’re not losing part of our national identity. Canada isn’t somehow diminished because an American conglomerate bought up a coffee chain that couldn’t sell its products on its own merits but had to cash in on our own collective insecurities by purporting to be a symbol of our nation. Because, really, if our national identity hangs on a coffee chain, then that’s a real problem.
Just a little McNugget from McDonald’s latest quarterly report. Here’s the honest-to-Jah press release intro quote from the CEO:
“The McDonald’s System is committed to creating the best experience for our customers by offering great-tasting food and beverages and a memorable and contemporary experience,” said McDonald’s President and Chief Executive Officer Don Thompson. “During the quarter, we evolved our strategic Plan to Win framework to enhance our focus on the customer through insights, planning and actions. To reignite momentum over the next 18 months, we’re focused on fortifying the foundational elements of our business by concentrating our efforts on compelling value, marketing and operations excellence to become a more relevant and trusted brand.”
(Please note the areas the McDonald’s System plans to focus its efforts. Nothing at all to do with product.)
Our good friend Jonah moved to Kunming, China in January. He joined a gym. It’s been an experience. It’s better he tell you about it than us. You can also check out his blog here.
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After moving to China, I found myself with a lot more free time than I previously had in my Canadian life as a full-time worker. For the most part, my only commitments have been the 10 hours of Chinese lesson and 4-6 hours of English tutoring I’ve had each week. With all that time on my hands comes a sense of responsibility to do “the right things,” which of course includes finding a gym and staying healthy. Finding a gym in Kunming is not that hard, but as is the case with most things, you more or less get what you pay for.
After a month of settling into Kunming I started my Chinese classes and was able to meet a fellow expat who was also looking for a gym. He did the scouting for both of us, and the price range for gym memberships was about ¥888 (~$160 CAD) for 1 year to ¥3000 (~$550 CAD) for 6 months. Considering that we were both unemployed expats, living off savings from our previous jobs, we decided to go with the budget gym at a cost of about $160 for the year. Overall, it had everything we needed – a squat rack, some benches, and heavy things to lift. Sure, it was a little dirty, the bathroom smelled and nobody put their weights away, but that seemed like a small price to pay. That was only the beginning.
During the initial two weeks I couldn’t help but be amused by some of the quirks. Before I keep going though, I don’t mean to shit on the good people who showed up there to try and improve their health. Sure, they might have had some unorthodox or even questionable ways of doing so, but showing up is more than a lot of people do, so good on them. With that said, the gym etiquette (a term used very loosely here) was a big departure from what you might expect in the west. Most people showed up in whatever shoes or loafers they were wearing before their lunch break started. Jeans were also quite common, but shirts were optional. As for the people who did change clothes before working out, a fair number of them chose to do so in the actual gym.
Living in China, you get used to the smell of cigarette smoke just about everywhere. In restaurants, office buildings, elevators, hospitals. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised when I smelled it walking into the changing room. I think the only thing moresurprising was seeing the smoker posing naked in the mirror, then quickly acting natural when he realized he was spotted. Of course smoking isn’t just limited to the changing room; people are often smoking in the front foyer, and sometimes on equipment in the gym. Cigarette butts and ash next to a dumbbell is not an uncommon sight. If the smell of cigarette smoke while you’re exercising is a bit off putting, there’s a simple solution – go during lunchtime. The smell of smoke will be overpowered by the restaurant’s kitchen just below the windows.
Speaking of lunch, I was initially impressed when I found out this gym has its own restaurant. I also thought that the goldfish-filled pond was a nice touch too, until I noticed a few of them floating belly up and motionless. The restaurant also became less appealing when the large goldfish disappeared from the pond and the smell of cooked fish started coming from the kitchen.
I was getting used to the gym’s quirks after the first two weeks, so when I came in one day and there was no power, I figured it’s just another day in Kunming. Then there was no power the next day. Or the one after that. Around the fourth or fifth day the sound of a generator could be heard from down the hallway. At no point did this seem like a good sign, but at least there was electricity. In addition to electricity, there were also a lot of fumes, being that it was a gas-powered generator. This effectively cut the usable area of the gym in half for a few days until someone clued in that maybe we were better off without any power. It was only when my girlfriend Coomi’s mom came home one night and asked which gym I go to that we figured out what was happening. It had been on the news that the gym was closing and moving to another location in June, and a few people were upset. I wasn’t as upset about that so much as the fact that they didn’t tell me. Even after bringing Coomi the personal translator with me, details were difficult to ascertain. We were just told that the new gym would be “better”.
The most noticeable effect of having no power or running water has been the smell when you enter the gym. It’s one of the worst, most overpowering smells I’ve had to deal with. I don’t want to get too graphic in case someone with a light stomach is reading this, but most bathrooms in China stink with running water, so imagine what one without it smells like after a few days/weeks/months, then add the smell of sweat, stale smoke and not ever being properly cleaned to that equation. After the gym I crave nothing more than clean water and soap to wash my hands now. On the plus side, the number of members has drastically dropped, as most of them have probably already found a new gym or gave up on their already halfhearted attempts. The fitness classes are also almost all cancelled, except for yoga, which apparently does not require lights or terrible C-pop blaring out of a stereo. I do, however, miss watching the most uncoordinated man alive struggle through the belly dancing class.
Back to the bathroom topic: one person must have found the lack of running water equally. distressing, as he (or she) decided to take a shit in the stairwell between the third or fourth floors and leave it there, where it remained for about 3 more weeks before being cleaned up. Normally I wouldn’t have noticed this, since the gym is on the third floor, but for some reason the rickety elevators don’t stop on the third floor, requiring you to go up to the fourth floor, then walk down a flight of stairs. Of course, you could just use the stairs in the first place, but they have a tendency to provide less and less head clearance from floor to floor. I’m not sure if that was an intentional part of the design or just someone’s way of improvising on the construction of the building.
It didn’t take too long to get used to not having any power though. There is ample natural light that gets in, and I’ve never been a fan on running or cycling in one spot. What has been a little more difficult to get used to is things like walking to the other side of the gym and back multiple times looking for the other 20-kg dumbbell, finding that dumbbell, discovering it has rolled over someone’s spit (and maybe ash too, for good measure), and then returning to the bench you were going to use to find someone sitting on it texting, playing a game, sleeping or having his girlfriend take pictures of him.
Another strange scenario was when my friend was finishing a set of squats and had seven other Chinese guys stop what they’re doing and watch him, all while commenting in indecipherable Kunming dialect. After that, one of them stepped in and tried to do the same weight. It was a little bit uncomfortable, but mostly annoying. It’s also not unusual to see someone decide to abandon his shirt mid-workout and start blatantly posing in the mirror for most of his remaining session. This usually sets off a chain reaction, leading to a situation where most of the guys in the gym are shirtless, flexing in the mirrors between sets. In all fairness, I’m not going to judge if someone wants to check themself out while getting a pump; whatever motivates you, right? But for a lot of them, the only thing they seem to have pumped in the last few months is their guts, which makes me think maybe they should work harder, smoke in the gym less and stop imagining how ripped they are. Just a crazy idea.
As of July 2nd, the gym was still in its original, utility-less location, although more and more equipment was lying on the floor in pieces, signaling that a move was in preparation. I figured this must be good! I took a picture of a sign at the front desk to bring back to Coomi for translation. By this point I already figured out that people selling you things in China will sometimes say anything to make the situation better. If their claim is true or turns out to be true, that’s just a bonus. June was more or less the hopeful estimate for a new location, but I had even heard some rumours from the expat circle that it would be December. In any event, I managed to find the “new location”, which ended up being locked. Upon calling them, I found out that the new location is actually only a new temporary location before they move to the new permanent location. Even more convenient is the fact that this new temporary location won’t be ready until September, if all goes well. In Chinaspeak, this means “September, but not September, because if we told you when we really think it’ll be ready, you’d be mad and I don’t want to deal with that, so I’ll make something up and hope it doesn’t come back to bite me or that I’ve found a new job by then”.
So that’s what happens when you buy the cheapest gym membership available in China. The facilities can be questionable, some of the people can be questionable, the staff can be misleading, but the experience is priceless. Actually, no. The experience is about ¥888/year, of which your membership will be on hold for two months until the new temporary location is ready, if everything goes well.
It’s dark. It’s been raining. We’re on the side of a highway. Somewhere in Maine. Something is smoldering under the hood of our car. Waves of smoke waft up, an invisible cloud of heat is felt whenever we approach the source. The acrid smell of burning metal and steel fills our noses. This stench had caused us to pull over onto this gloomy stretch of highway in the first place.
We don’t know where we are. We’re outside a campground. Outside of Bangor, Maine. How far? We check our phones, both are nearly dead. No roaming data, no Google. Panic. Maggie pulls out her CAA card. I call the number provided and, thankfully, get a signal. And a dispatcher. Who breaks up every second word. We soon get transferred to a US agent and then wait. Each minute will cost $1.50 at some future date.
Our car continues to smolder, the smoke actually seems to intensify. We find what looks to be an ember, some super-heated steel below the engine. Should we douse it with water? I don’t know shit about cars. Would we crack a casing if everything around it is too hot? Maggie asks me this while I’m on the phone, now trying to tell the agent where we are, not knowing at all where we are. “We’re outside a Koa Kampground,” I say. “There’s a sign that says Camp Lane.” Is this sign real or kitsch, I wonder.
The trailer across the road is alive and a curious, shirtless teenaged kid wanders over. Maggie asks about dumping water on the smoldering steel. He says he’ll ask his dad. “He’s good with cars.” I tell the agent that there’s a trailer across the street. The kid returns home, where there’s been yelling and swearing since we arrived.
The agent says we’re in Canaan, Maine, but we only have an 11-kilometre tow radius coverage under Maggie’s plan. The nearest town that has a AAA-approved shop is 18 miles away. This will cost us $18. American dollars. I don’t have any American dollars. This is a problem. I ask her, “Don’t we have 100-kilometre coverage?” She says we don’t. I ask her to call up the Canadian dispatcher that I was talking to originally to confirm this. She complies and puts me on hold, at $1.50 per minute.
The kid returns, with two girls his age, and says he’s not sure whether to hit that spot with water. But his dad did tell him that he had something like this happen to him before. His dad kept driving with it though and then one day, it blew up and his car caught fire on the highway. “If he was wearing a seatbelt, he’d be dead,” the kid says. We thank him for his help. He heads home.
An SUV screams by and honks at us.
We don’t have the extended coverage. The agent says the tow-truck driver will take us to an ATM before dropping off the car at a shop. “Fine,” I say. She says the tow truck will be here within 45 minutes and she will text or call with a better estimate when she has one. I opt for the $1 text. She sends four.
We wait. The car continues to smolder and smoke. Maggie pokes a hole in a water bottle cap, turning it into an improvised fire extinguisher. I love her. We attack it from the wheel well, to no avail. Then we move on, taking precise shots at it through a small gap beside the engine. On the second try, we get it.
Then we wait. With phones dying. Without knowing what happened. Did the exhaust finally quit on us? Is this engine related? How much this will cost? Where are we? Where are we heading? Will there be a motel or a hotel or at least somewhere to set up our tent?
We stand by the car – or more accurately, a hot, smelly immobile hunk of steel in its current condition – having completely ceded control of our fate to fate. We listen to the cussing and fighting and crassness from the trailer across the street. I don’t want to meet that kid’s dad. I start sweating about money. We were on our way home, the second last day of our five-week trip. Bank account has looked better. Our $1,200 car has so far cost us nearly as much in repairs over the last six months. If this is an engine problem, we’re not pouring any more into this thing. But then what do we do? How do we get home with all of our bags and boxes and camping gear, crammed into the car? How will we get to Yellowknife, where I start work in two weeks? And how do we make any plans when our phones are dying, we don’t know where we are and we can’t Google? I miss the ability to Google car questions right now, even when the answer will definitely not provide any tangible benefit, and likely lead to more questions, wilder speculation and greater anxiety.
The tow truck driver arrives and he’s all business. After a few frustrating minutes, he manages to lug the Passat up onto his rig and we’re off. He speaks slowly with a slur, like someone who has put back 16 drinks. It takes me a few minutes beside him to conclude that he hasn’t had 16 drinks. He’s an ally. He says he’ll take us to Skowhegan, rather than Fairfield, because there are hotels near the mechanic shop.
We rumble through the darkness, our driver ignoring the prompts from the oddly impatient GPS lady-automaton. But then we turn down an illuminated main street and its lights bring us our first rush of familiarity and comfort. The driver, Guy, takes us to the drive-thru ATM and, thankfully, my card lets me take out money.
Guy drops us off at the shop and tells us where the two hotels in town are. We walk down to the coziest looking of the two, about three blocks away, and ring the bell. A grey-haired woman, eyes half open, answers and apologizes for not having any vacancies. “It’s all booked up with the fair in town,” she says, referring us to the hotel down the street. We head that way, down the deserted main street.
What are we going to do if there are no vacancies there? Where will we stay? How will we pay for all of this? What if they can’t find the part, like when we were in PEI and stuck for five days? We actually catch a lift with the tow-truck driver’s friend, on our way to the next hotel. We arrive and no lights are on and no one is home. The driver shrugs and takes us back to the shop. Where we go to sleep. In the parking lot. In our car. Which may or may not be making the trip home with us.
Atop Signal Hill, Newfoundland, a perpetually distracted young man tweets a message and photo link to a largely uninterested world by tapping a touch-screen on his handheld computer. From that same place, Guglielmo Marconi, 113 years earlier, fumbled with balloons and kites in a constant and biting December wind before successfully receiving a wireless message – a crude “dot.dot.dot” Morse code transmission, the letter “S” – that was barely audible over the static in his telephone receiver. The message, which originated in Cornwall, England, bounced off the ionosphere, across the Atlantic Ocean and into Marconi’s ear and news of the achievement spanned the globe. A popular Canadian Heritage Moment dutifully recounts the message came “Through the air, across the ocean. The first time ever.”
The young man on the hill takes a photo of a small vessel as it chugs out of St. John’s harbour, the focal point of the city. The boat is crammed full of tourists, who have allotted two hours of their vacations towards a sightseeing expedition, and they snap photos of the hill the young man stands upon, in part due to Marconi’s accomplishment. The young man and these tourists will show these photos to loved ones when they return home to demonstrate that they did in fact visit the harbour and the hill, and so they can also recite the few tidbits they learned during the brief breaks between photo-taking. Though today it is used primarily as a hiking or jogging trail by locals, the young man and the tourists will say that Signal Hill also has served as a lookout and communications hub for ships entering and exiting St. John’s perfect harbour, the most easterly port in North America. The hill’s information placards boast that the harbour is likely the world’s most sheltered and has nurtured communities for thousands of years, going back to nomadic Mi’kmaq hunters, and later European explorers and settlers. The mouth of the harbour opens to the Atlantic Ocean at the Narrows, as tight as 61-metres across at one point, before doglegging into the harbour proper, nestled between the magisterial green hills and today’s city. This anomaly allowed the city to flourish, providing safe haven for fishing vessels and as a strategic fort for both French and English troops during Canada’s defining skirmishes and later Western forces during the World Wars. Charles Lindbergh recognized St. John’s geographic importance, buzzing over the Narrows during his famous almost-34-hour maiden solo transatlantic flight in 1927. Through the air, across the ocean. The first time ever.
The young man hikes down the hill and stops to marvel at the ancient rock, trying to slow things down inside his head so as to imagine just how epically gradual the geologic and glacial forces were that created and later carved out the shapes of Signal Hill and the harbour. But this futile meditative time-travel exercise is interrupted by the roar of twin turbine engines: a passenger jet, taking off from St. John’s airport with 200 or so perpetually distracted humans aboard, accelerates assuredly overhead. The young man catches a glimpse of the giant metallic glimmering bird through a patch of blue in the fog and then it disappears just as suddenly, on its scheduled five-and-a-half-hour transatlantic voyage. Through the air, across the ocean. At least once a day.
We went to the Hubbards Fire Hall bingo last night and, from the get-go, I was pleading with the gambling gods to lose every game.
This obsession came after a quick scan of the room. My girlfriend and I were likely the youngest people playing by at least 20 years and I couldn’t help but feel that I didn’t deserve to take any money from the grey-haired dabbers, who eyed up us newcomers as we bought our cards and took our seats at the fold-up tables. I imagined they’d put in years of devotion, investing money into this local game – hobby? passion? – treating it like a community co-op and expecting the dividends to pay off due to their careful honing of meticulous superstitions, crafted through painstaking trial and error. (Some ladies in the room had as many as ten different dabbers lined up on the table, which they used selectively for specific games). They, far more than I, warranted the big jackpots – or the “cupcake” or “bonanza” or “lucky seven,” as the games and gimmicks were called. (It should be noted, the technical jargon of bingo ranks up there with the airline industry or brain surgery in its complexity and foreignness to outsiders.) Who was I, some young upstart from away, to come in and take part of this bounty that they’d been cultivating for months, years, decades? (I also recognized that there was likely some pension and retirement money in the room and I certainly didn’t feel comfortable taking any of that away.)
My sense of intrusion certainly wasn’t allayed when my girlfriend called a false “bingo” on the first game of the night, thinking it was a one-line winner, instead of the two-line or one-line-and-four-corners game. (Part of this had to do with Bingo’s aforementioned peculiar vernacular and with the accent of the Nova Scotian caller, who sounded, oddly, a bit like folk-rock troubadour Doug Paisley.) We heard frustrated sighs when she called it, amplifying my feelings of infringement, and then gasps and tsks when it came out that we had got it wrong. Her face turned beat purple. (She wound up winning the game with two other players, bringing home $17.)
It hit me last night that I don’t like to make waves in a new place, something that has been apparent throughout our Maritime road-trip this last month. I told my girlfriend, around the third or fourth of the 20 or so games, that I was rooting against myself, that I was terrified of possibly having to call “bingo” in this room of 50 or so seniors or near-seniors. She looked at me perplexed: “I want to win,” she affirmed, before scolding me subconsciously for distracting her and making her miss the most recently-called number. (She played nine cards per game, while I contented myself with three.)
As each game progressed, I would look at my card and see that I only needed a couple numbers for a winner and I’d get sweaty at the prospects of the required sequence being picked and having to single myself out in this room full of retirees. Luckily, I’ve never been a particularly lucky Bingo player, and really with lotteries in general. My only real run of success was during Quebec Carnivale week in grade school, where I’d get picked at random to wear a Bonhomme belt and get odd food and drink privileges during the festivities. Not much of a prize.
My cards would get darker each game, and my heartbeat would pick up, only to have the room fill with annoyed rumblings – filling me with relief – when a “bingo” was called somewhere behind or beside me. (One octogenarian at the table behind me would whisper-yell her “bingo.”) Despite a close call or two, things went as well as I could have hoped for during the first half of the night: I lost every game.
At this intermission, I spoke with the lady beside me, who told me the games at the Hubbards hall – located at the eastern tip of a beautiful stretch of the winding 329 highway that snakes around rustic coves and idyllic fishing towns – used to be much larger, with bigger jackpots. She didn’t have an answer for the drop-off, but I imagine it had something to do with that blanket legislation that slowly snuffed out smoking across this country over the last 15 or so years. (During said intermission, half the players ran outside to huff down a smoke.) The sweatbox of a room, which was heavy and humid due to the mugginess outside the last couple days, may well have played a part.
My aversion to attention had nothing to do with the friendliness of the folks at the hall, who were all really helpful. This sort of hospitality has been standard since we started our trip out east. I’ve always thought the ‘Canadians are too friendly’ stereotype was bullshit, and that it was really a superficial politeness that could be seen as almost standoffish or disinterest. But from Quebec City onwards, the people we’ve met, be it in rural PEI, or Tadoussac, Quebec or along country roads in Nova Scotia, have been genuinely interested in us, in our travels and in giving us memorable and positive experiences in their hometowns. At the bingo hall, a couple of old ladies at the table in front of us would tell us which one of the dozen or so coloured game cards would be up next. They “yoo-hoo”ed me at first to get my attention and inform me of the next card, before then giving me the thumbs up when I held up the card before the each game. Some of the volunteers in the hall would also come over and explain the rules for some of the more unique, obscure games. This was all very much appreciated and it made us feel much more comfortable in our new surroundings.
It was just after the intermission that my unease began to slowly morph into a disinterest in the game. Bingo doesn’t offer you the chance to change strategy or increase your chances of winning through tactical means, other than buying more cards, and so I found it stale that there was nothing that I could do other than blot out the number that was called out. I did enjoy thinking about the different permutations and combinations that I needed in order to win a certain game, but that excitement would be assuaged each time a different number was called.
And as I got more bingo weary, and the games ended anticlimactically, it suddenly hit me: Oh shit, I think I want to win now. I no longer viewed the game as a charity donation, or as a low-key night with my girlfriend, a bag of Hickory Sticks and a couple Cokes. My growing annoyance wasn’t from the deterministic nature of the game, but my shitty Bingo-playing abilities.
As I got more comfortable in the room, I suppose I got greedier. (What does that say about humans?)
Each game wore on, and the losses kept mounting, and I felt more and more disappointment. No thoughts about taking a pensioner’s nest egg anymore. I could use this money for gas. No worries about singling myself out amongst this tight-knit crowd. Just numbers I didn’t need, being called at random, affecting my mood.
When the “bonanza” and the final jackpot were called, the hall emptied at light speed and we were back in the car, driving that twisting road home, and I was confused as hell about my bingo experience. Was there a moral somewhere here?
If you set your expectations low, you won’t be disappointed?
You should do something for the fun of it, because as soon as you start getting selfish and taking things too seriously, you’re bound to be let down?
Or was the moral just not to play stupid games of chance?
Yes, that’s the one.