Ottawa - My two girlfriends and I have been in Ottawa less than two hours and already we can tell something major is about to happen. Every store, whether peddling bridal gowns, furniture or sex toys, has a Canadian-themed window display. Canada Day in Ottawa is what the Stampede is to Calgary or July 4 to the entire United States - our own massive, all-out party.
Before the main debauchery begins, we have plans to visit the Diefenbunker - definitely not your average tourist destination. The half-hour drive west on Hwy 417 to the town of Carp is full of sparkling sunshine and specially selected bad pop on the CD player.
We leave the sun behind to follow Meghan, our friendly and knowledgeable tour guide, who just graduated from high school, into the four-storey underground facility built in 1961 to house our government in the event of a nuclear war.
It's like walking into a Douglas Coupland nightmare. The shells of two one-megaton bombs (larger than those used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki) provide a surreal greeting. Inside, we find a mini-city: hospital, berths for 535 people, computer rooms (the 1960s IBM's take up most of the space), offices for major government departments, CBC studios and a Bank of Canada vault.
In the war cabinet room, I sit in the prime minister's chair and feel a thrill of power before remembering why the room would be used in the first place. Everywhere we go, furniture, clocks and equipment are mounted on springs or rubber or chained down for shock protection.
In the combined cafeteria/games room there's a mannequin of a young male army recruit with a brush cut leaning on a mop. Suddenly he waves, turning out to be a present-day employee and Meghan's brother. It's a creepy moment; the bunker of 40 years ago has just come alive.
We emerge almost three hours later and focus on hunger to avoid thinking about what we've just seen. A pleasant stop at a local Carp ice cream stand where a family originally from Newmarket serves up massive chocolate-dipped ice cream cones helps ease us back into ordinary existence.
Back in the city, walking downtown brings us into increasingly dense crowds of people dressed almost exclusively in red and white. There are flag shorts (maple leaf at the crotch), flag skirts, flag dresses, flag kilts, flags worn as capes and sarongs. There are entrepreneurs selling glow sticks, light-up maple leaf headbands and temporary glitter tattoos. There are maple leaf baseball hats, red-and-white-striped Dr. Seuss hats, Roots Olympic hats. A bald man has a flag painted on top of his head. A kid has reddened his mohawk.
There are flags on buildings, flags sticking out from strollers and hair. A young woman has a red bra strap purposefully peeking out from under her halter.
There are so many people, we hold on to one another's arms and shirts and plan a meeting place in case we get separated. The view down Wellington presents an endless flow of moving patriotic humanity.
Finally, we locate a spare stretch of grass at Major's Hill Park and spread our blanket. We listen to Daniel Lanois playing while speedwriting postcards in the fading light under the potent and surprisingly delicious influence of the homemade sangria we've smuggled in.
Just before 10, fireworks erupt directly overhead. I find myself clapping and yelling like a child. I can't help contrasting the benign and absolute beauty of these explosions with the nuclear one we contemplated earlier.