Ottawa: North America's Most Charming and Pleasant Provincial Backwater
7 January 2016
Ottawa, ON Canada
The first time that had I visited Ottawa was during the summer of 2003. It was romantic weekend getaway with my then girlfriend from Montreal. I was impressed with Canada's national capital from the beginning. I returned to visit a few more times over the next three years. My best visits were when I was doing a series of art performances. The first time was with a troupe of actors from Montreal to perform Car Stories during the summer of 2005. The following summer in 2006 I helped to organize the first and only Ottawa Infringement Festival. I gave my best performance of "The Fall of New York" at the venue which today is known as Bytown Cinema. What I most appreciated about Ottawa were the audiences. In the many parts of the world that I've performed only Ottawa ranks with Vienna where the audience "gets" it. Indeed, all of my best performances over the course of my career have been either in Ottawa or Vienna.
After two weeks in Ottawa in 2006 I was keen to relocate from Montreal. Alas, life took me on a rather long detour. I take those circumstances to indicate that it wasn't the proper moment to move to Ottawa. Instead I went to Boston, Berlin, Belgrade and Vienna. Obviously my detour was quite an interesting one which helped me to fully appreciate Ottawa when I did decide to settle.
My first return to Ottawa after a decade was after a grueling three day and night trans-continental trek by coach from Vancouver. This was after the excruciating 17 month expedition along the US West Coast where I spent most of my time living and exploring every metropolitan area between Seattle and Los Angeles. Looking back almost a year later, I still can't believe how I managed to escape unscathed. The life saving superpowers of poetry is all that I can come up with. Anyway, after the long ride from the West Coast I found myself in Ottawa. I felt as if I had arrived back in civilization. Though still hundreds of kilometers away, I could feel and smell my native Atlantic Ocean. I was free of the push and pull of the unfriendly currents of (in my opinion the misnomer) Pacific Ocean.
I spent three days recovering in the home of a Couch Surfing host. I continued on the journey to my ultimate destination Montreal. Montreal had changed very much over eight years. It was a bit disconcerting to see how so many of my friends had changed. Many had settled down with families and children. Others had stagnated. The city itself looked almost like a ghost town. On all the major thoroughfares stood rows of closed shops which had gone out of business. The city seemed grey and shabby. Moreover, the city was becoming more homogenized socially and economically. It was clear that 9 years of Stephen Harper had brought hard times down on the city. I stayed in Montreal two months. My existential being was getting precariously quickly. I needed to bail out or else I was going to crash.
My Couch Surfing host offered me to stay in the spare bedroom for as long as I needed to stabilize. I wasn't so keen on the entire set up of the living arrangement but it was the viable option and I took it.
By this time it was May and Spring had arrived. The house where I lived at had extra bicycles. The bikes were taken to the shop to be upgraded and road ready. This is how I discovered Ottawa's amazing bike paths. From May through November I had biked thousands of kilometers all around the Ottawa River Valley.
Ottawa is the smallest and most rural of the G7 national capitals, though I think that Bonn, the West German capital during the Cold War, is smaller. But Berlin is now the capital of united Germany. Years ago a work colleague in Montreal told me that she came from a farm in Ottawa. I was skeptical at first because in my previous visits, Ottawa appeared as a small yet proper urban city. But as soon as one ventures 2-3KM from downtown, it's obvious how rural Ottawa is. In the middle of the city limits lies the Central Experimental Farm. It's a farm owned and maintained by the Federal Ministry of Agriculture. The Central Experimental Farm takes up 4 square kilometers (1.5 square miles). In New York City terms that's roughly the size of Greenwich Village, SoHo and TriBeCa combined. To have a farm of that size in the middle of a city is rather jarring for a native New Yorker.
Canada is a rural country and given the size of the Ministry of Agriculture, farming is a key industry of the country. It's also a sign of how much political power the large landowners and ranchers have in Canada. Indeed, Ottawa doesn't have any large industrial parks on the same scale as the Central Experimental Farm.
The main industry in Ottawa is of course the government. This is a government town in extremis. Most people work for the Federal civil service and the politicians. As a result of the city serving as the national capital, Ottawa has the most educated population in Canada and is the third most educated city in North America after Boston and Seattle.
That is one of the characteristics which I find very pleasant. This is a city of educated people. They are professionals. They're very polite. Unlike most Western cities, it takes effort to run into jackasses. People aren't fashion conscious. Even better, residents don't have a superiority trip as they do in Toronto, New York or San Francisco. The culture isn't prone to superficiality. Thanks to this, it doesn't engender judgmental attitudes or sentiments. This is the first city that I've been to in a long time that people don't get on my nerves.
My criticisms of Ottawa are petty but they are worth mentioning. Though Ottawa is a polite city, it's not the friendliest. People aren't prone to start conversations with strangers. The social events that do occur are for the most part good but it's difficult to meet new people. Ottawa certainly isn't a place which will be in my memory of sex and romance. It's hard to get a date with women in this town. The worst fault that I find with the people of Ottawa is that unfortunate Anglo-Saxon capitalistic degenerated outlook. There is a distinct conservatism to Ottawa. It is the national capital of one of the richest capitalist countries in the world. Unlike Montreal or Seattle, there isn't a strong current of anti-capitalism in Ottawa. Yet on the other hand, there isn't an obsession with money and wealth as found in Toronto, New York or Los Angeles.
This is the thing. Ottawa is a conservative city but it isn't reactionary. It sure as hell beats Portland, Oregon which is a liberal reactionary city. I have had some testy and heated debates with older residents of Ottawa. My landlord displays the typical condescending attitude that many Canadian whites hold towards First Nations people. Another retiree was an admirer of Margaret Thatcher. In spite of her appreciation for Thatcher, she vehemently hated Stephen Harper denouncing him as a fascist. It was remarkable how she attempted to square that circle considering that Harper is the ideological offspring of Thatcher. She would probably respond by saying that Thatcher made people rich in the process where Harper isn't making anyone rich. That's Ontario for you.
This is the first time that I'm living in Ontario. I've lived mostly in Quebec. Quebec is on its own trip. The Anglophones from Quebec, especially Montreal are unlike their counterparts in Ontario. I've noticed that Anglophones from outside of Quebec that live in Montreal for at least 4 years have different attitudes and values from that of Ontario. With that said, Ontario is English Canada. Ontario is the real Canada. The entire country spins on the Ontario axis. It's not by accident that the national capital is on the Ontario side of the border with Quebec.
I have a much deeper understanding of Canada than I had in Montreal and Vancouver. British Columbia is on the West Coast and is in fact in a completely different civilization. For the first time, I see the perspective of English Ontario on Quebec. The view from across the Ottawa River is that Quebec does what it wants to do. There's one set of laws and values for English Canada and a completely different set for Quebec. I also find it hard to see all the troubles English Canada has done to Quebec. English Canada has very little control over Quebec. The tenure of Stephen Harper illustrated that. The Conservative Party of Canada pursued a policy of benign neglect. Since many Quebecois wanted to separate, Harper basically cut them off from the rest of the country. As David Byrne wrote in his song "Puzzlin Evidence" Quebec got what it wanted but lost what it had. It gained almost all the fruits of being separate from Canada but losing all the influence it had over the country. By the same token that's the reason why the best prime ministers have generally come from Quebec. But I digress.
Ottawa is a very sleepy town. It's international airport has very few flights per day. One must really pay attention to notice. It seems that air traffic is tightly regulated over Ottawa. Helicopters are rarely heard. During a Canadian Football game last autumn there was a flyover by a Canadian military jet. The sonic boom frightened and unnerved the residents which caused the Canadian Air Force to issue a public apology. The loudest sound one will hear is that of the muffled engines of cars on the Queensway highway.
Despite all this, I thoroughly enjoy Ottawa. I've been to enough decent poetry and spoken word events to be satisfied creatively. I've been to a few gospel choir concerts which have been outstanding. Apart from a bit of loneliness and sexual frustration, I'm happy to report that I'm happy and stable in Ottawa. I usually detest provincial backwater towns but Ottawa has captured my heart. It's the most charming and pleasant provincial backwater place you will find in North America.
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