Legal booze for the underage crowd, eh?

Stepping off the ferry from Port Angeles, Wash., to Victoria, British Columbia, only a few short hours ago, I couldn’t wait to order my first legal alcoholic beverage.

Stepping off the ferry from Port Angeles, Wash., to Victoria, British Columbia, only a few short hours ago, I couldn’t wait to order my first legal alcoholic beverage. I wondered what it would feel like to sit at a bar and what sort of validation would come with ordering and downing my own drink.

Now, sitting in a tropical-themed restaurant and bar, hardly hearing anything the unnaturally tanned bartender is saying over the blasting Caribbean music, I feel out of place and slightly uncomfortable. This is not where I belong—and that’s not just because I’m in a different country. Once the remainder of the gin and tonic is in my system, we leave and I’m feeling less drunk than when we first walked in.

The second night is similar to the first. Instead of going to a bar, though, I decide to simply order a glass of wine with dinner. As the curvy waitress waltzes up, I ask her what she might suggest. Resting her perfectly manicured hands on the top of her short denim skirt—clearly manufactured to get more tips by the end of the night—she spits out, “I really don’t know what you’re looking for.”

Taken aback, I shrug it off, smile politely and in my ongoing pursuit to fake-it-until-I-make-it, say, “I’m craving something red, uh,” I stumble for a second, “with lots of…body.” Her knowing smirk tells me that she’s seen my type in here before—young and naïve when it comes to alcohol—and trying to hide it.

She brings me a glass of some wine that I don’t even remember the name of and I soak up the atmosphere as I let it breathe. Italian music plays softly in the background, but it can hardly be heard over the chattering of the many families and couples packed into the small space.

If I was hoping for a golden moment in time when the music would stop and I’d have some great epiphany about who I was in the world, I certainly didn’t get it then. For some reason, I expected my first alcoholic experiences to hold some sort of meaning. But, really, it just seemed pretty normal. I might as well have been just drinking a glass of water.

It’s my third and final night in Canada. At this point, ordering a drink feels pretty commonplace. I almost don’t get one, but I’m out for Mediterranean food and women scantily clad in bedazzled bras are jingling around the restaurant, zagareeting (i.e., making belly-dancer calls) loudly and the situation is crying out for a margarita. And that’s when it happens. A young waitress in her mid-20s approaches, her short blonde ponytail bobbing up and down as she walks. After ordering my food, I ask her to bring me a margarita.

Her pale skin turns pink and she cocks her hip to one side, looks down at the ground timidly and says, “I feel really embarrassed asking you this, but can I see some ID?”

Validation rushes to meet me as I realize this is the moment I’ve been waiting for. Smiling a little too much, I tell her that of course she can see my identification and I hand her my driver’s license.

The young woman proceeds to tell me that she had just returned from a vacation in Las Vegas, Nev., and was surprised at how often they card people in the U.S.

“I’m 25 years old, and I was like, ‘Of course I’m old enough to drink.'” She told me that although they rarely ask for ID in Canada, they’re supposed to, and patrons are expected to be able to show two forms (lucky for me, I had my passport too, but she didn’t ask for it). Apparently, an establishment could even be closed down for a few days if they were to get caught selling and serving alcohol to a minor. But she really can’t tell me much more than that, because she simply doesn’t know.

If I were to order a drink at a restaurant in Portland, I’d be carded immediately. My waiter or waitress would know precisely what could happen to their establishment (and what would become of their job) if they didn’t.

I think about this as I sip the salty-yet-sweet drink that is my first margarita. I can taste the tequila, and for the first time since I set foot in Victoria, I feel like a legitimate adult. And I realize that come tomorrow afternoon, when the customs agent checks my passport and readmits me to the state of Washington, my drinks for the next two years will have to be ordered virgin.