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?