Mrs. T and I are much taken with Stratford, the charming little Canadian river town that is home to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. The people are friendly, the houses pretty, the food fabulous, and we’re staying at a six-room downtown boutique hotel called Xis that is all but unimprovable. The décor is modern but comfortable, while the staff is wonderfully attentive without being oppressive. Nor can I imagine a tastier continental breakfast than the one served here each morning, which features fresh fruit, homemade granola, local bread, and two kinds of cheese. If only there were a rowing machine in the basement, Xis would be perfect.
Stratford, much to my surprise, looks rather like Smalltown, U.S.A., surrounded as it is by vast expanses of flat farm country. What sets it apart from Smalltown, of course, is that it is the home of one of North America’s biggest drama festivals–there are four full-scale theaters in town–which explains why a semi-rural community should be home to boutique hotels and four-star restaurants, and why the Stratford Police Pipes and Drums should have turned out in fully bekilted force to serenade playgoers en route to the festival’s opening night, a red-carpet event that caused a lot of respectable-looking gentlemen to pull their tuxes out of mothballs.
This is the first time I’ve been to Canada in years, and I spent the whole of my previous visit at a friend’s summer house, so I’ve been walking around town each afternoon in search of impressions. Mostly I’m struck by how similar Canada is to America–and how intensely aware it is of its neighbor to the south. While I have no doubt that surface appearances are deceiving, it’s also true that every other story I read in the Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper, is either about the United States or makes prominent reference to it. I’ve yet to hear anything like a regional accent, and though one local restaurant claims to serve “world-famous Chinese and Canadian food,” the only evidence I’ve seen to date of a distinctively indigenous cuisine is the van parked a block from Xis that sells nothing but French fries and what Canadians call “pop.”
The main thing I’ve noticed since arriving on Sunday is that everyone here seems to be nice. Granted, I’ve yet to meet a Canadian I didn’t like, but the unfailing agreeability of the people whom I’ve encountered in Stratford suggests that niceness might well be a component of the Canadian national character. Between this visit and my 2008 encounter with the writing of Hugh MacLennan, I’m increasingly inclined to think that I ought to consider spending more time in Canada.
Might a visit to the Shaw Festival be in my future? Not this summer, alas–my dance card filled up months ago–but don’t be surprised if I head north again next year. I like it here.