Last weekend, we headed for Toronto for a couple of days' trip. It's quite a clean and eventful town with all kinds of restaurants and boutique shops. Lots of Asians too, i mean lots! When we were shopping in the mall of downtown area, my husband felt he, as a white guy, was minority. Within 24 hours of being there, we did 11 hours of walking!! My feet hurt badly after the trip. Staying in an old and classy-looking downtown bed & breakfast, we found interesting things to see immediately out of the house. So we kept walking and seeing until we finished a full circle of the downtown area. Of course, Chinatown was a must-stop for a Chinese who hadn't eaten in real Chinese restaurants for months! We gobbled down yummy dim-sum and Hong Kong style roast duck before hitting back the streets to finish the night walking tour. Well, I think my husband's writing is a better illustration of a Canadian city in an American's eyes, and I'll just contribute some photos:). So now I am turning it over to you, Ryan!
In my experiences in foreign travel, the act of crossing the border can be immediately and significantly felt beyond the obvious "WELCOME TO FOREIGNLANDIA" signs. Everyone speaks differently, architecture and culture change and food becomes an adventure. You are a stranger in a strange land, and it's usually not long before you're exposed as such in spite of that fake British accent you were sure sounded authentic.
Technically Foreign: When You Have To Remind Yourself Canada Is Another Country
For an American in Canada, however, it's "World Travel - Easy Mode".
(For the record: Yes, I am aware that technically both Americans and Canadians are American by continent, but since "United Statian" is just so awkward to say, I'll be sticking to the old familiar monikers)
If you happen to be driving, your Canadian Adventure starts at the border crossing. With an up-to-date passport in hand and minus any unusual circumstances, this is only slightly more involved than passing through a toll booth. A stock set of questions are asked, and if no eyebrow-raising answers are given, you're on your way, boldly plunging headlong into a strange and foreign country.
Probably the only major thing that will hit you is the metric unit conversion. That's the big thing you have to compensate for. Seeing a big "100" on a speed limit sign will give you a tiny thrill at first until you squint at the fine print on your speedometer and realize that's, like, 65mph. Aw. But if, like me, you're using a GPS and you switch the bulky old thing over to kilometers, you might be surprised how easily you can start to think in metric. Well, except maybe buying gas measured in cents per liter, I'm still working on that one. Still, even a 3-day trip should be enough, provided you're not one of those types who holds a strange sort of loyalty to a system of measure.
Oh, and almost everything is in English and French. But I'm from Texas, where everything is in English and Spanish, so it wasn't a hard pill to swallow. Your mileage may vary.
The other big area where you might fear change is money, and I'm sure in the before times this would have been a major point of contention requiring significant planning-ahead. But this is the after times, the 21st Century, a glorious age of borderless networks where computers provide a common language! You want a snack? Roll up to your nearest Tim Horton's (there should be one no more than 100 feet away from you at all times while in Canada), whip out that VISA/Mastercard and you'll be stuffing donuts in your face without missing a beat. Oh crap, the card machine is down and they're only taking cash! What can you do?! Well, find an ATM! Just make sure it one of its logos matches the one on your debit card! Stick it in, do business as usual, and you'll walk away with a colorful stack of Canadian cash (seriously, I love Canadian dollars, it's like future money)
**This actually happened to me in downtown Kingston. A hole-in-the-wall restaurant didn't take cards, so I had to leave Yue behind as collateral while I hunted down an ATM, hoping against hope that my guess was right and I wouldn't have to start hitting up locals on the street. I ducked into a bank, saw the machine had a VISA sticker to match the one on my debit card, stuck it in, entered the PIN and crossed my fingers. Sure enough, out pops funny money. The day is saved and a new dimension of Canadian convenience has been opened.**
As for everything else, it's just like driving into another state with its minor variations in license plates, local culture and self-reference. Maybe someone's accent is a little different than you're used to, but no more than you would already find traveling across the U.S. Honestly, I rarely heard the stereotypical "Canada, eh" accent, which is itself already similar to the Minnesota "don'cha know" accent. The radio stations play the same music, using the same format. Scattered advertisements by and large peddle the same familiar brands and products. Everyone dresses like you, unless you're a weirdo. Wherever you go, you can find the same stores and restaurants you know. Ultimately, the same way Canadians get mistaken for Americans abroad, it's simple for an American to blend into Canada...provided your accent doesn't come with a drawl.
Of course, Quebec is the giant asterisk "See Below" for this whole spiel, what with it's excessive French-ness and all, but even non-Quebecois Canadians think Quebec is like a foreign country, so MMMNNNYYAHH!!
Cell phones. This I can only speak for myself on: my Blackberry works the same in Canada as in the U.S. I've used it in Canada several times over the past year, both voice and data, and my Sprint bill has never changed. I cannot promise the same for others, but it only helps my immersion. However, I saw an ad for AT&T that said Canada calls were now considered local, so this may be a rapidly closing gap.
Finally, and this is more an interesting observation than a caveat, but across Canada, you can still see the cultural influences of the British Commonwealth. The best way I can explain it is this: Canada is just like the U.S., but in some mirror universe where the colonies never fought the Revolutionary War and developed normally as part of the British Empire. There are still scattered references to British Royalty (most noticeably with Queen Elizabeth plastered on all the money), they do the Prime Minister/Parliament thing instead of the President/Congress thing, a few key words are spelled in British fashion ("centre", "colour", etc.), and the "Loyalist" rather than "Patriot" is historically lauded in the Canadian public institution. Really though, this is all just for flavor, as Canadians don't consider themselves British any more than Australians do or Indians/Hong Kong Chinese did.
Last I am gonna contribute a dish I cooked, styled and shot tonight. Very simple 3-ingredient coke chicken drumsticks. For recipe, see coca-cola chicken. I used Chinese bok choy cabbage and cilantro for garnish.