The follow-up questions from U.S. Customs are usually the most stressful: “What kind of fruits and vegetables?” “What exactly were you arrested for?” “Do you really think that joke’s funny, sir?” But when I told the border guard we were travelling to Old Orchard Beach in Maine for the Labour Day weekend, his follow-up question was, “Why would you want to do that?”
I think it was a rhetorical question, but still I answered, “I’m not sure.”
If you don’t know Old Orchard Beach, it’s the closest ocean resort for those of us living in southern Quebec. Closest, loudest, crassest. Each summer, thousands of Quebecers make le pilgramage to la plage, and never more so than on Labour Day, the last weekend of the summer.
Labour Day at the beach is like a New Year’s Eve party: too many people, everyone’s uncomfortable, it’s only truly bearable if you’re drunk, and there’s way too much partial nudity. And yet, it’s something you feel obliged to do.
Having grown up in Nova Scotia, surrounded by beaches not abutting amusement parks, Old Orchard is somewhat overwhelming for me. My beach experiences didn’t include stretching out on the sand so close to your neighbour that you can tell whether his sunblock is tropical or coconut scented. But I do understand the appeal of a beach and why you would spend the last long weekend of the summer fighting traffic and crowds for your square foot in the sun.
Every summer growing up, my family rented a cottage for three weeks on the Northumberland Strait. My Dad, a bookkeeper, would spend only two weeks with us and then back to work. But he owned those two weeks. He vacationed like he was the boss of vacations. As often as weather would allow, he would be on the beach, reading, swimming and tanning, back when tanning wasn’t a crime against humanity. For two weeks, he caught rays instead of accounting errors. Dad understood that summers equal beach. That’s math, so Dad would know.
Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, people flocked to the beach because popular culture led them to believe that plunging in sea water was good for their health. These days, we’re more sophisticated and far less influenced by fads, so when we’re not challenging each other to dump ice water over our heads to raise money for Lou Ferrigno’s disease, we flock to the beach not for physical health but for mental health.
Summers in Canada are unbelievably short, barely long enough to ripen a tomato or for raccoons to eat all your broccoli. I started cleaning my swimming pool in May and will keep the pump running until mid-September, much to Hydro-Quebec’s delight. In between, there was a three-week window when the kids were brave enough to actually swim in it.
I rarely swam in my freezing pool this summer, but I did swim at Old Orchard Beach, even though I suspect ice-bucket challenges are more temperate. If going to the ocean on Labour Day is New Year’s Eve, swimming is like a midnight kiss with a stranger – cold, a lot of high-pitched screaming and mostly unpleasant for everyone involved. But again, it’s got to be done.
So the answer to the question, “Why would you want to do that?” is because we need to squeeze as much mental health goodness out of summer as we can, and travelling hours and hours to get to the beach on Labour Day is a way of saying, “I did summer. I owned it like a cheap souvenir T-shirt. I gobbled up summer the way that seagull just gobbled up the deep-fried pickles I spilled on the sand. I made summer my beach.”
Incidentally, the reason they call it “Labour Day” is because waiting an hour and a half at Customs to get back into Canada was quite the chore.
Any other questions?
My parents are going to Nova Scotia for the first time this weekend. Any suggestions?
p.s. What scent is your sunblock? 🙂
Scent-free, all the way! (Unless I use the kids, in which case it smells like Froot Loops.)
Advice? Cape Breton is breathtaking and they really do the Celtic culture up good, without being, you know, too nauseatingly Celtic. It’s organic, if I can say that. Pictou County, where I cottaged as a kid, is also lovely along the Sunrise Trail. Plus, you can take a ferry over to Prince Edward Island for a day trip.
Thanks for the recommendations, I will pass them along!
Froot Loops sun lotion, haha!
It might be my north European heritage or my midwestern landlocked stoicism, but I’ve never found beaches appealing except if they were windswept and/or fogged over. Sounds like you had a great weekend. And wow, speaking of stoicism, border guards do not appreciate humor. They make me nervous – I can’t answer even innocuous questions without sounding like I’ve got something to hide.
I live on the border and cross often. There are jokey guards but they’re as unnerving sometimes as the fierce ones.
Happy Labo(u)r Day! Here’s hoping that supplied you with enough mental health to last til at least like…October.
It’s gone, all gone I tell you!
Reblogged this on VIVIMETALIUN.
Lou Ferrigno’s disease is turning into The Hulk, and nobody should try and cure that. I wondered the other day if that’s what my kids will remember most about summer, that ice bucket challenge. You definitely sound like you owned summer. Nice job.
I’m guessing yes. Beats “The Summer of Ebola.”
Catching rays instead of accounting errors. Pshaw.
They should call me Stretch Armstrong.
That reference is freaking me out. I won’t look it up though; too stubborn.
My stepfather has a condo on Old Orchard Beach. I was there recently but just for the night. It’s been a while since I’ve stayed for a week. You describe it well, especially this line: “I suspect ice-bucket challenges are more temperate”—Haha, yes! The water is a bit nippy! But oh, how I’d like to go to Pat’s Pizza tonight. Yum.
What must it be like to live there. I imagine you must coo your eyes and think of England.
He lives in New Hampshire but they go there in the summer.
Ross, I may have asked this last year, but why don’t you go to Cape Cod? Old Orchard might be the closest beach, but Cape is only an hour farther, and has water you can actually swim in without getting a frostbite. In July-August, the water temperature is about 22-25C, and since there are miles and miles of beaches, it shouldn’t get that crowded as Old Orchard, which, according to you, is responsible for providing access to seawater for the entire Quebec. I’ve seen crowded beaches on the Cape, but since on Cape swimming in the water is a viable alternative to being on the beach itself, it should feels half as crowded as Old Orchard will ever be.
but, but, but – the tradition, will nobody think of the kids, they have to learn the tradition …
Ha! It’s true.
I think you’re right. When will I learn to heed the wisdom of X!
Don’t heed my wisdom till next June, though. (although, you really should rent something in advance)
So true Ross, so true. As a Bluenoser, I rarely swam in the ocean – too cold. For me, even today, “going to the beach” means a lake with a beach. Visiting an ocean beach meant bundling up against cold and fog(even in summer) and walking the sand to look for rocks (say amethyst on the Fundy coast) or sea shells (not many) or driftwood. A brisk walk while wrapped up is a visit to the ocean for me. The one exception is the north shore of PEI. The water is so shallow for so far out that it warms quickly and stays warm. If you actually want to swim there you have to pack a lunch and walk out a kilometer to get water deep enough. Quite often there would be sand bars at a half a kilometer where the water may be only ankle deep. From shore, with no local knowledge, you can look like Jesus walking on the water a half a kilometer from shore. Quite ego boosting : “Hey world look at me walking on water!” At which point the sand bar would end and you would sink out of sight – leaving just your lunch bobbing in the waves.
I think Quebeckers avoid the Maritimes ’cause they get hissed at and booed. They feel more at home on Maine beaches. Which is fine. Ha! Current company excepted of course. 😀
Great post Ross- brought back lots of memories. Thank You.
I miss the Maritimes. And, hey, we swam all the time. But you’re right, you can’t beat sandbars.
That explains your slightly bluish tinge. I just thought perhaps it was an Adorrian some where in your ancestry.
I love the thought of “owning summer” and had to smile at the phrase describing your dad “owning it like a boss.” That’s the way my dad was, too–in a delightful and fun Chevy Chase sort of way. Thanks for some unexpected and wonderful memories 🙂
Thanks, Michelle. Glad you liked.
Customs, schmustoms. A friend and I got stuck on the Peace Bridge once. We broke down halfway across—an old Volkswagen Rabbit with a flooded engine—and neither the Yanks nor the Canucks would help us. Some peace.
Believe it or not (why would I lie?) we see a lot, and I mean a LOT, of license plates from Quebec on the Garden State Parkway over the summer. Cape May, NJ, is a magnet for French Canadians. Why? WHY?!
Mostly because Quebeckers, God bless their souls, have made themselves unwelcome in the east or west of Canada. They figure the Americans won’t know and won’t care where they’re from. And they are right!
Dude, they migrate to Florida too. It’s a pack thing.
Maybe we need a border fence up there, too.
Don’t think U.S. Border Patrol wouldn’t love it.
Heh, I like this 🙂
I lived in Maine (Portland) for 6 years, but only ever really went through the crazy-tourist-areas like Old Orchard Beach in the off season. I much prefer a less crowded beach, where I can enjoy the view of the water and moments of peace… so I can understand the border-guards question. But I remember one year we took my Grandmother up to Maine near the start of the summer, and we had to drive through that area and stop at a place in York, because she had fond memories of a childhood spent driving up from Connecticut to visit her grandparents at their summer home on Long Island in Casco bay.
And was it madness?
Complete and utter. I could have walked faster than we were able to drive. We didn’t go to the beach, just a candy shop, and in the end that was mostly a drive-by, “look, that’s the candy shop I remember,” keep driving…
I am trying to imagine the world in which you live. I have never dealt with customs. I have never been to Canada. But everyone in college drank a lot of Clearly Canadian and Labatt’s, so that should count. We are four hours from Mexico but no one in his right mind would make that trek without a bulletproof vest and a deathwish, so I will live vicariously through you and your customs. What I cannot get past is: you rented a cottage for three weeks. I have never heard of such a long vacation. In fact, the longest vacation I ever took in my life was 5 days, and I found that quite indulgent (two of those five were travelling). How do your bills get paid? How do the dogs get fed? The lawn mowed? In three weeks, squatters would be on our land, and our house would be foreclosed upon. Wouldn’t you have already eaten at all the restaurants in 3 weeks time?
Funny. Is this a cultural thing? I dunno, employers are obliged to provide paid vacation, with time depending on seniority. This doesn’t happen everywhere? Come to Canada, folks! As for three weeks, oh, there’s so much to do, eating out in restaurants being the least attractive to me at least. Doing nothing is the best part. And hopefully you’ve arranged for some good neighbour kid to look in on your plants, etc. No squatters to be found.
And, yes, the Can-US border is paradise compared to your southern border.
Employers here provide two weeks if you are salary but usually you use it up on sick kids. I don’t think I could do nothing. You clearly have a better life.
We used to go to Maine every year as a family when I was a kid- along the lines of other crazy things we Canadians do is driving 12 hours to the States just to get deals on Nikes!. One year we went to Old Orchard Beach and I experienced the same culture shock. I couldn’t believe the sheer number of people crammed onto a beach. Also, a seagull stole my entire dish of french fries… which was traumatizing.
You ever wonder why seagulls and squirrels can adapt to human behaviour but deer can’t figure out not to cross a highway?
But I digress.
Retail outlets are still a big deal over the border. North Conway, NH!
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We are a summer destination town here in Florence, Ore. Sadly, we see a lot of tourists here with Lou Ferrigno’s Disease. Mostly in their butts. Fortunately, the cold water tends to keep the swelling down. I’m glad you have a place that has so much family tradition attached to it. I’m sure your father is glad to know it continues. And that Ferrigno Disease doesn’t run in the family. (Note: I think you spelled “Labor” wrong…)
I have an extra U chromosome.
I would totally stink at Canadian Wheel of Fortune.
With Pat Sajacque.
I think Id just ask for a “U” with every spin.
The great news about reading stories relating to the end of your summer, implies that it moved down South, so I can start writing my own stories of fun, sun and sea.
I’ll understand if you don’t like them…
My daughter is planning to spend some GAP time in South Africa in the new year. Please save some summer for her.