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Check the date!

How time flies! It seems like only yesterday that news of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative was first announced, and then implemented. This, of course, required Canadians, many of whom had enjoyed travelling in and through the US for years, to now produce a passport upon entry to “the States” by land, sea and air. In fact, it was almost five years ago that discussion of this initiative first started, and almost three years ago (June 2009) when the policy came into effect.

For families like mine – where most of our travel took place in Canada and the US – this meant you needed a passport for the first time ever. Even if you were just making a quick run across the border for groceries. Or to pick up someone at the airport. Or to visit a friend. And also for families like mine, who weren’t prepared to shell out the cost of passports for everyone all at once, (they’re about $85 apiece!) you probably started getting your family’s passports one at a time, nice and early in advance of the deadline.

If this was your process, it’s time to start checking your dates – Canadian passports are typically valid for five years (three years for children under 3). Depending on when your family started acquiring their passports, the expiry dates may be approaching soon.

I know my passport isn’t exactly top-of-mind for me: it stays in a safe place 95% of the time. If you’re a passport holder who doesn’t travel outside of Canada often, it’s probably not top-of-mind for you either. You know you have it, and that’s enough -enough to safely envision that spur-of-the-moment cruise in the Carribean with a Detroit departure. But that expiry date can sneak up on you! And while simply having a valid passport may be enough for entry into the US, many countries you may ultimately travel to could require a certain length of remaining validity, like three or six months.

It’s time to check your expiry date, and figure out a system for keeping track of it. Maybe writing it down on your yearly calendar is the answer – a simple “renew passport” notation could be the answer. Or check it today, and then make checking the date part of your birthday routine every year.

After all, it would be a real downer to decide to jet off to Europe this summer and then discover you’d have to postpone your trip.

For more information about Canadian passport validity and renewal, visit Passport Canada.


Up On The Hill

Parliament Hill, that is, home to Canada’s House of Commons and Senate. No trip to the nation’s capital would be complete without taking time to drop by and check up on your elected Member of Parliament. ( mine did not appear to be present – his seat was empty)

Visiting Canada’s Parliament Buildings is surprisingly easy, considering that this is the centre of the country’s government. You just hike up the long curving driveway (private vehicles are no longer allowed to drive right up to the door), present yourself to the incredibly polite doorkeeper and say you want to take a tour. She tells you what time the next tour begins, and you’re set!

Well, not quite. This was my first time taking the official tour – the last time I was inside was for a private tour (long story) in 1993. Things have changed a bit, the most obvious one being the level of security. Now, upon entrance, you go through a security check very similar to, yet slightly more thorough than, what you’d encounter at an airport. There’s an x-ray machine for your belongings – we were required to power up our cameras and Kindles to demonstrate their legitimacy – and a metal detector to pass through. We were allowed to keep everything with us but our ice skates, which they tagged and sent off somewhere for us to retrieve later.

And then you’re in! With 45 minutes until the next tour, we were encouraged to view the Peace Tower on our own, as well as the public gallery of the House of Commons. I was very excited about this gallery sitting- husband frequently watches Question Period on TV, and I figured it would be slightly more exciting in person.

Lots of stairs - at least the MPs are getting their exercise!

To sit in the gallery, you go through yet another level of security- xray, metal detector – and then they keep everything. Everything -coats, cameras, phones, bags. They even made me take off my scarf. (perhaps they thought I might fashion it into a lasso and hogtie an MP?) In the gallery, each seat is equipped with an earphone that allows you to clearly hear what is being said below, in French or English. The security guard posted at the entrance will hand you a map of the House, so that you can see who sits where.

Except on a Friday afternoon, there’s no need for a map – there’s no one there! Only five or six MPs were present; it was explained that after morning Question Period on Fridays, most MPs clear out for the weekend, heading home to their ridings. (or perhaps they were heading out to Winterlude) There was an MP reading something, and another responding, but they appeared to be as bored as the spectators. We were tickled to see that one of the Conservative backbenchers present appeared to be preparing the mailer that goes to her constituents. Poor thing has to do her own folding and stapling!

We didn’t stay long in the gallery, and retrieved our camera and coats before heading up the Peace Tower.

Peace Tower Clock

View from the Peace Tower

The view is certainly glorious – and it’s a fun diversion to play count the Canadian flags from each of the four windows. If you can twist and angle your body just right, you’ll see you’re just under the clock. You also catch a glimpse of the bells as you ride the elevator up or down – if you’re lucky, you even get to hear them ring.

Immediately below is the Memorial Chamber, housing Canada’s Books of Remembrance.  It’s a sobering reminder of the sacrifices made by thousands of Canadians in time of war.

Then it’s time for the tour – you wait for your guide in a hall containing lists of the members of each Parliament. The guide then arrives, and gets things started. A frequent mention throughout the tour is the Fire – coincidentally, we were visiting on the 96th anniversary of the fire that destroyed the Centre Block in 1916.

The Senate

Portrait of Queen Victoria. Notice the crown to the right. There's a story about that.

On this day, we were not allowed to take pictures in the Library, which is a shame; the place is so beautiful, I could have stayed there all day. Then it’s on to see the Senate Chamber. Just outside the Chamber are the portraits of Canada’s monarchs through the ages. The portrait of Queen Victoria has a neat story attached to it, which our guide did not share. However, Alex has taken the tour 4 times in the last two years, so she told me. Ask your guide while you’re there. Inside the Chamber, the murals depicting scenes from the First World War are breathtaking.

Two of the Famous Five - and me!

After your tour has concluded, you can wander the grounds outside and see the statues and monuments. The one I make sure never to miss is the one depicting the Famous Five. I’m not an art or statue kind of girl, but there’s something about this one that just speaks to me.

Like all good attractions, the Parliament Buildings do have a gift shop, which you can visit before going outside. It’s very small, and the merchandise is limited -I’m not sure who would be in the market for golf club covers that say Parliament Hill, Ottawa on them. There are some nice artistic prints available, and some interesting books about Canada’s government and history. Oddly enough, there are also action figures of past Prime Ministers, but only two – Sir John A MacDonald and Sir Wilfred Laurier. Each figure is dressed in the common style of their time, and has a small side table as an accessory. MacDonald does not come with a miniature bottle of whiskey, which I think would increase sales.

Oh, and by the way, admission is free. If you arrive outside of a tour time, or after the buildings have closed to the public for the day, you can still tour the grounds yourself. I did just that in 1993 – and bumped into my local MP in the rear parking lot!


It’s not all downhill from here

Was reading a friend’s blog today, wherein she chronicled some of her experiences with skiing. Although we’ve no snow yet here in the Banana Belt of the Great White North, our thoughts are definitely turning toward the winter recreation season. Her blog reminded me of a great deal that I don’t think gets nearly enough publicity.

Here in Canada we’ve got what they call the Snowpass. Essentially, it’s a program offered by the Canadian Ski Council that gives kids in Grade 4 and 5 the chance to ski for FREE. Be sure to check the website for participating locations – they’re all over Canada.

My earliest ski adventure happened when I was eight; here in Southwestern Ontario, our downhill ski venues are few and far between, so many of us look to Southeast Michigan for quick day trips. I can still count on both hands the number of times I’ve skied since then, but I can tell you this: I love it! There’s just a feeling of freedom and an incredible rush of adrenaline when you’re hurtling down the side of a hill, picking up speed the further you go. And yet, if you’re me, you never feel out of control. Yes, I’ve had my share of bumps and bruises, and I’m a long way from being any kind of an expert, but it’s fantastic!

So, when my own kids were little, I didn’t hesitate to take them over to Mt. Brighton and let them give it a try. They seemed to enjoy it too; I even have a video here somewhere, I’ll dig and see if I can find it.

It should be noted that skiing the so-called “garbage dumps” in Lower Michigan in no way prepares you for, say, Searchmont, in Northern Ontario. I was 13 when I encountered that lovely resort on a school trip; as I stood at the top of the hill, I was shocked to see, you know, trees, right there in middle of the hill. There’s a world of difference between a natural hill/mountain and something man-made.

Nonetheless, get the Snowpass, find a ski hill near you, and let your kids give it a try – and you try it too! It’s one of those things that everyone should do at least once. I’ll make you a deal – apply for the Snowpass, and I’ll post the video of me trying out the baby jumps, and maybe even some photos.

Here comes the rain again

It’s raining again, which is, sadly, becoming more normal than snow during the winters in these parts. I see all these rom-coms and sob-fests of US Thanksgiving homecomings, yada yada, and there’s always this white fluffy blanket of snow. And I think, where do these people live? I’m in Canada and the marigolds and roses still have their blooms.

But rain’s got me thinking about a particular travel challenge. Everyone feels more enthusiastic and adventurous when the sun is shining, or the weather’s co-operating. But how do you cope with the rain? Let’s face it, walking, using public transportation, and especially any outdoor sightseeing, just suck in the rain.

I saw a Samantha Brown travel video a while ago, she was in Munich IIRC, and she mentioned remembering to bring along her umbrella. It was just your basic, collapsible, telescoping umbrella. Folded down to a size where she could fit it in her shoulder bag. I was surprised by how insubstantial it looked.

And there’s the problem. I purchased an umbrella this year that I’m happy with, as a public transit user. It’s lovely, black with red polka dots, makes a bit of a statement, and most importantly, keeps me relatively dry. But it’s not telescoping- folded, it’s still two feet long, and there’s no strap on the handle for hanging, so it’s a bit of a pain to put it somewhere when I arrive, wherever somewhere happens to be.

But those little collapsible “travel” umbrellas, the ones like Samantha Brown had in the video? I don’t get it. I’ve never had one last more than two rainfalls before it breaks – the wind gets under it, the flimsy little hinge on the rib breaks, you name it. It becomes useless faster than you can say “It’s supposed to clear after lunch.”

So, give me some hints here. How do you cope with the rain when you’re wandering the world? Imagine you aren’t driving, and your budget will only withstand so many taxi rides. And do you believe Samantha Brown really gets by with such a flimsy umbrella?