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Hell Is Other Tourists

Victoria, B.C. is great, if you don't mind the borders or flashbulbs.

By 7.9.03

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I've never been much for omens, but the early morning before I left for Victoria it sure felt like something was brewing. A distant thunderstorm knocked out the power for miles and all the normal internal noises and distractions of my home went silent -- clocks and fans stopped, the refrigerator ceased its hum, the glow of CD players and VCRs faded to black. I stumbled through the house to open the front door onto the wraparound porch, and stepped out. A rotating beacon of light -- likely advertising a car sale in nearby Bellingham -- painted the underside of the clouds on this otherwise starless night. The wind blew steadily. The air was cool but loaded with humidity, signaling what was likely to be a scorcher come sun up. It was time to hit the road.

And is it ever, I half-thought, half-muttered as I eased my '91 Sunbird onto I-5, heading south and then west to Anacortes. The six day break, including an overnight with my favorite group of reformed commies to catch the ferry the following morning, was one part lark, one part necessary respite. I picked last week because it was my friend Kevin Michael Grace's birthday on the 2nd, and after all the craziness over the collapse of our former mutual employer, I thought we could both use a night or two on the town.

I must've looked haggard when Grace answered the door. After playing 20 questions with a border guard in Anacortes and then having my car searched on the other end in Sidney Harbor, I needed a drink. We lunched at his favorite pub, where Guinness is served with a shamrock carved into the foam, and hit several used book stores. I found the Penguin Lives volume on Joseph Smith and Selina Hastings' biography of Evelyn Waugh. If there's anything more cathartic than beer and books, I've yet to discover it.

After the birthday festivities, we alternated between days at Grace's place -- pecking away at a couple of projects -- and evenings of frivolity -- movies, mini golf, the wax museum (with a good Kennedy, a lousy Ford, and, in Grace's words, "that tart Anne Boleyn"). It was early enough in the tourist season that the crowding was minimal and the traffic was nothing like Seattle's soul draining pile-ups. The hotel room was cheap but well serviced. The weather was obliging. The waitresses were good looking. In short, Victoria grew on me.

Right up until the last night, that is. Because I was out of the U.S. on the 4th, I needed my fireworks fix. The only place to service that was a Saturday show at the internationally renowned Butchart Gardens. What I didn't realize was that almost every other tourist on the island would have the same idea (for future reference: "internationally renowned" = "crowded") .

The literature advertises "55 acres of flowers" but that can fill up in fairly short order, and it did so as thousands of American, Chinese, and French tourists packed the paths to overflowing. The gardens are sold as a family outing, so mothers wheeled babies through, while young children begged their fathers for ice cream, hot dogs, and other items sold at the gouging concession stands. Mostly Chinese and Sikh men operated enough home video cameras to give George Orwell a heart attack.

Worse, it seemed that nearly all those who weren't filming had a photo camera and wanted copious documentation that they had, in fact, visited the Butchart Gardens. The flashbulbs constantly added to the glare of the sun. People posed for pictures every few steps and took their sweet time shooting. This created invisible cordons all over the place which we constantly struggled not to break. Eventually, it wore us down. We headed for the fireworks area well over an hour early.

In that long wait, I started waxing philosophical. "You know, Kevin," I said. "Sartre got it wrong… Or, maybe not so much wrong as not quite right."

"Hell is other tourists?" he asked.

"Exactly."

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About the Author
Jeremy Lott is an editor of rare.us.