Saturday, July 28, 2007

Trip to Ottawa: Journeys

To Ottawa

P-Doug and MG have been to Ottawa a number of times (in fact, she was born there, if I recall). Last May, he proposed my joining them on a long weekend trip. And so I did, from July 13-16. My share was to be a very reasonable 1/3 of the hotel and the gas. Time to stop pining and experience something, it seemed.

What do I remember about the trip? A week ago right now as I write this, we were still in transit. Let me see... they picked me up a little before 10 and after a quick trip to liberate cash, we got on the 401 and headed east. Now the plan was to get off the 401 at Hwy 115, but we breezed right past that exit without any of us noticing. Fortunately, we were in time to exit at Route 28 and head north to reconnect with the 115. On the way there, we had to slow down for a car turning left into a place selling raspberries, one of P-Doug's faves. MG suggests stopping. I invest in three apples and two bananas. Then we go into this boutique adjoining the stand. Unbelievable inside. The spices, the utensils, the teas, coffees, cakes, cheeses, sauces... it was like something exclusive you'd expect to find in Yorkville, but this was out in the middle of nowhere. I couldn't imagine what kept the place afloat. The irony was that despite the fact that it wasn't my idea to stop, I was the only one who bought anything. I ended up leaving with a bottle of spicy "Texas" hummus, an ingenious little pair of one-handed salt and pepper mills, and seven ounces of a very aromatic cheese (an ounce of which I'll be trying tomorrow in a two-egg omelet with onions and peppers). $40 lighter already, I joined them back in the car and off we went. Hwy 115 eventually took us to Hwy 7, which led us pretty much the rest of the way to Ottawa.

P-Doug's parents were from a couple of twin small towns along the way, and we lingered in each as he reminisced. It's a little strange, but kind of compelling, to see a place that at first has no significance to you shine under the light of someone else's experience. Suddenly the place is dear, and full of meaning. The sad fact is, you come to realize that's true of every place you see. Every home is someone's sweet childhood memory. Every corner is where 'the guys' used to hang out and watch the girls go by. Every store is where someone read something amazing or earned that sacred first buck absolutely their own; every school, where someone was turned around by a great truth, felt a first love, first heartbreak, first rise phoenix-like from the ashes. It's all around us, but we think it's all ordinary. You know, it's all amazing, if we only knew.

There were long stretches of 'empty' woodlands that reminded me of the central spine of Nova Scotia from my boyhood. Lakes that suddenly appear from nowhere. Hills that rise up and then swing you, as though by the arms, into the next valley where the next hill grabs on. Finally we were led to the 417 which brought us into Ottawa. We were going against traffic, for the most part. The lanes out of town were jammed. Construction in town forced us to improvise with our route, but we managed to navigate fairly ably to the Econo Lodge, which would be home for the next three and a half days. This was on Rideau Street, which is really the same street as Wellington Street on which the Parliament Building stand about a mile west.

In Ottawa

MG's not much for walking these days, but I wanted to get out and look around a little. P-Doug agreed to join me, and we pledged to be back in time to go to dinner. I think P-Doug understood me to want to walk to Parliament Hill, but I had it in mind to go the other way, to the Rideau River (not to be confused with the Rideau Canal; our hotel was between them). It was a short walk but a pretty one, and while we paused on the bridge, we speculated as to whether there had once been on older bridge on structures just south of the current one.

We did walk to Parliament Hill after that. It had been raining in Ottawa earlier in the day, and as we approached the Hill, there was a rainbow off to the south. I took pictures of it as we passed the National War Memorial. Corny, I know, but a serendipitous gift horse you don't look in the mouth. We took some shots of the Parliament Buildings and walked around behind them on the east side. I was trying to get a video of the Peace Tower as it chimed various quarter hours. At one point, I was standing near the statue of Baldwin and Lafontaine, with the Tower in frame. I stood stock still for nearly a minute, waiting. Moments to go. Then the Carillon began ring out the tune associated with the tower housing Big Ben in London... just as a French-Canadian family with a little girl came by, chattering loudly her questions about something.

Baldwin and Lafontaine. I don't know as much about them as I should... I don't think most Canadians do... but I do remember being awed by them when I did read about them. Chances are, most people in Canada wouldn't even know who they were. But they made Canada possible. Trouble with Canada is, most of us think the place started in 1867. There are a winks at history before that... the French and Indian War, the American Revolution (inasmuch as it affected us), the War of 1812 (okay, that's a biggie here), the Rebellions of 1837... but hardly anyone knows what happened between the rebellions and Confederation. Upper Canada and Lower Canada... Ontario and Quebec today... were united by the British government in 1841 into a single colony. The idea, stated plainly in Lord Durham's report recommending the idea, was to assimilate French Canada. Naked cultural genocide. Fortunately, the dual majority system that was set up was too unwieldy, and French Canada too proud, resourceful, and resilient for this to happen... witness Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine (who was, in fact, the first Prime Minister of the United Province of Canada). And not everyone in English Canada was a monster out to destroy French Canada... witness Robert Baldwin. Together, through the turbulent period of the 1840s and 1850s, Baldwin and Lafontaine worked out compromises and a modus vivendi for the two founding (European) peoples of Canada, and laid the groundwork for Confederation to come in the 1860s. Of course, everyone today credits instead a different Anglo-French pair for this; Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir George-Étienne Cartier. While of course it's only right to remember the people who built the edifice of Confederation, I think it's sad that we, as a nation, have nearly forgotten the people who laid the foundation and set in place the keystone of compromise and mutual recognition that, sometimes shakily, has seen us through to the 21st century.

On our way back to the hotel to link up with MG again, we passed an Indian restaurant called The Sitar. The aroma coming from it was arresting; it slowed us in our tracks and we finally stopped to breathe in the inviting scent. Unfortunately, MG's tastes do not tend to the spicy, and so idea of fetching her and coming back was kind of a non-starter. We made vague plans to hit the place for its lunch buffet the next day (Saturday) between our planned tour of the Parliament Buildings' Centre Block and the National Gallery of Canada. And so instead, we all went to the Korea Garden across the street, where the food was tasty and reasonable.

Parliament Hill on Saturday took up a lot of our time and wore us out (“us” being P-Doug and me; MG, as I said, is not much for marching around and had had her fill of the Hill in previous visits anyway). I'll blog on Parliament Hill separately. The point is, though, that we were pretty tired, and we abandoned our idea walking to the National Gallery in favour of first having lunch at The Sitar and then getting P-Doug's car and parking at the Gallery, which promised to be another wearying trek. The Fates were playing games with us that day. First, we arrived at The Sitar at 2:30... half an hour after they closed. The buffet lunch lasted daily till 2... after which time the place closed up till 5, probably for prep. So, instead, we ate up the road at the Shawarma King, where we eat had a huge plate of shaved beef and chicken on rice with salad and potatoes. Neither of us could finish it, and that's saying something. By then, it was getting late, and we knew the Gallery closed at 5. But, we thought, it's a short drive, we'll be there by 3:30 or so, and that should be enough time to see a few things. So we grabbed the car and off we went. An early turn on the way put us onto King Edward Street... which takes you across the Ottawa River, into Hull. Before we knew it, we were on Autoroute 50, bound for Montreal. We managed to get turned around and back to Ottawa. It was the first time I'd been in Quebec in several years... but it was hardly to be the last.

Time was ticking away. We found the Gallery, and set ourselves the task of finding parking. Following a large green P parking sign, we looped around behind the Gallery... only to find ourselves on yet another road that committed us to a trip across the river! Back in Hull, we turned around again and headed back to Ottawa...

The exact details of our misnavigation are lost to my memory now, but I can tell you this much: in the course of Saturday and Sunday, we made seven trips to Quebec and back (six on Saturday)... two of them deliberate.

By the time we got the Gallery, it was 4. P-Doug decided there was no way he was going to get to see the things he'd like with any kind of time to appreciate them, and so decided to put it off to the “next trip”. Instead, we haunted the gift shop with several dozen other people for an hour. There was an interesting dichotomy about the place. It's just a guess, but in overhearing snippets of conversation, I'd have said the majority of the people in the boutique were French-speaking. And yet the scarcity of French-language books in the store was remarkable; I'd say not one book in fifty was French. This, in the National Gallery, a mile or two from Gatineau, Quebec? Strange indeed.

Afterwards we ended up in Hull again, somehow, but this time P-Doug decided to just go with it, and we ended up driving for half an hour or so along the north shore of the Ottawa River. We finally stopped in a park at some sort of marina, sitting and talking as we looked south through a screen of trees across the river for most of an hour.

Gatineau – Aylmer, specifically – was beautiful, I thought. Lovely. Suburban but still somehow vaguely rural. As we headed back the way we'd come (our only sure way back!), P-Doug spotted a St. Hubert. This is sort of the Quebec version of Swiss Chalet, and it was in Ontario for a while before most of them folded up a few years ago. MG favours St. Hubert, so we headed back to the hotel and got her and had great supper there. I don't know why St. Hubert didn't make it here. Frankly, I thought the portions, the service, and the value for the meal at St. Hubert trumped what I'm used to at Swiss Chalet.

Sunday was about the National War Museum... which, again, I'll blog about separately... and a trip back to Gatineau... again, deliberate. This time, to visit Tigre-Geant, which is the French corporate name for what is Giant Tiger here in Ontario... another of MG's favourites. This one isn't a restaurant; it's a bargain store. Yet again, it wasn't my idea to go, and yet again, I was the only one who bought anything. Three pairs of nice shorts for work, three t-shirts (one with a Quebec fleur-de-lis on it, one with a squirrel complaining about his family driving him nuts, and one with a happy face skull-and-crossbones design), and a three-tape VHS set of Bob and Margaret episodes. Seventy bucks. If you're keeping score, that's $110 dropped in places I wouldn't have walked into in the first place on my own. Ironies abound.

But before we took off for the museum on Sunday morning, I took a little stroll on my own, just for fifteen or twenty minutes. It was a peaceful walk along Rideau Street to Cobourg Street, overcast and wet after the night's rain. There was almost no one around, and even Rideau Street was virtually empty of traffic. I took some pictures of a quiet park, some street scenes, curious features of buildings... it was a pleasant little side trip.

Monday, before we headed out, I walked back down to the National War Memorial to get better shots of the arrival of the Honour Guard, especially the motion capture I'd missed the day before. I had over half an hour spare before they were due, so I made a quick circuit of some of the things down there... the US Embassy (no doubt they have pictures of me too now), the monument to our peacekeepers (Reconciliation), the headquarters of Revenue Canada (booooo!)...

Back to Toronto

We left Ottawa early on Monday morning. It was decided we'd do the scenic route, and scenic it was. We first went to Kingston. There was a strange, ancient department store there called S&R that reminded me a little of Honest Ed's as it must have looked in its humbler days. This was someplace MG wanted to shop; P-Doug was interested in getting out on the block and visiting the book stores he drops into whenever he's in Kingston. For once... I didn't buy anything! It was interesting to see the spot where the first Prime Minister of (the Dominion of) Canada, John A. Macdonald, started his law practice, and a strange thing to walk the street he once saw every day.

In Prince Edward County, there's a place where you take a ferry across to the island of the same name. This takes about five minutes and puts you on what would be called “the scenic route” back to Toronto, roughly parallel to (but some distance from) the 401. The drive certainly was scenic, but after seven or eight hours on the road, the trip was beginning to wear on me. I was anxious by then to get home, make sure the cats were alright, call my folks and let them know I'd made it back safe, put things away, and press the 'reset' button for the next day (which was a workday) before there was no time left in the evening to accomplish those things. It seemed like a much longer trip back from the outskirts of the GTA home than it did when we were going!

1 comment:

L-girl said...

Thanks for sharing the trip. You may know we were supposed to go in June, but had to cancel. I was so disappointed! I can't wait to see the capital of my new country. Thanks for this excellent preview.