Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Cards close to the chest

Lately, I haven't written anything of consequence that would have Ottawa at its centre, for better or worse, as the original intent of the blog claimed. Inspiration was coming from all sorts of oblique angles and strange, unlikely, sources but never from the capital of beige.

As usual, it takes a visit to Montreal, rushing to the rescue of senses. But it also took a visit from an out-of town friend to refocus and reload, so to speak, to gain further ammunition in the back-and forth shoot-out over Ottawa. The combination of the two perspectives, plus maybe the sunny, crisp weather we'd been having, it all helped crystallize a few more impressions.

First, Montreal.

Unlike many of the locals, my roots or family or even university experiences have nothing to do with the city of Montreal. My eyes, when I go there, are strictly the eyes of a visitor, perhaps beyond the mere tourist stage, but definitely an outsider. I don't know all the street names, McGill is a bunch of historical buildings, not my alma mater, and I never got to "party" in Montreal, most likely because all my partying happened in Alberta...or Ottawa. Therefore, when I go to Montreal, I am still in awe of the stained glass windows on Notre Dame, I eat crepes somewhere in the Vieux Port, I repeatedly climb 'the mountain' and revel in Mt. Royal's natural views as well as the, let's say observation of local humans in their natural habitat. My senses still get relatively intoxicated by the fine curves and angles of 18th and 19th century architecture and equally by the fine curves on the Quebecois ladies. And I'll add that the opening hours of restaurants seem a bit weird, my stumbling through la langue francaise quickly leads to a normal English conversation. But I do appreciate the slightly off-the beaten path attractions, will have a beer or a coffee at a 'local' joint as opposed to something completely touristy, and I have scoured the museums and galeries, perhaps more than the locals do...because locals, everywhere, tend to get complacent. To me, Montreal has always had this slightly heroic stature; things are faster, more colorful, heavier-hitting than in English Canada. Church spires straight from the old continent almost rub shoulders with risque sex shops, and anarchist punk kids do their thing in city parks. One can actually run into a street demonstration of some sorts, on most weekends. One will always hear new music or see very original art in Montreal. And then there are the statues of important men, with and without horses, including Dollard d'Ormeaux who'd saved, in the 1640s, the then-fledgling French settlement from a big Iroquis raid. A geniune hero, in the physical mould, pictured in the Three Mousqueteers era garb. My friend simply remarked: "hey, this is old, because the guy is dressed like a mousqueteer...we don't have d'Artagnan in Western Canada".

Pondering what that statue of a guy from the 1600s meant, my reaction is not (anymore) the polite and deferential Western Canadian "this is old and gorgeous stuff". It is more along the lines of "Ottawa has some great bronze statues of some important people, too, but none of them kicked ass like that." Which brings me right back to the meaning of Beige.

When you look across the still frozen Ottawa river back to the Parliament Hill, sharp in the morning air, with the noble spires rising out from the equally impressive natural setting, it is a view to admire. My friend really liked it. Many of my visitors, in fact, have remarked about the scenic and tranquil walk across the Alexandra bridge (facing the parliament and Chateau Laurier, not the other way around) - it was almost the best city skyline in the country, according to one person.

What Ottawa has and what Ottawa does very well are the facades, the large cultural institutions, the occassional dash of neat and always monumental architecture. It is what capitals are made for, after all. What Ottawa does not do as well, especially if the Montreal comparison comes into play, is the life that animates these spaces. Not that there aren't the ever-present tourists; au contraire, the tourists help make the Byward market the place that it is and the tourist always come. There is no truly low season for visitors. But what happens with the touring itself is that Ottawa is a disjointed mosaic of several interesting areas, centered around the Hill and the Market, with the rest of the city being spread very thin and quite unremarkable. Instead of the expansive and lively streetscapes of Montreal (old and not-so old), the streets here all exist in isolation. Elgin Street is a microcosm. Sussex drive and the adjoining few blocks present another microcosm. Wellington street is the "power corridor" inhabited by suitcase-carrying nervous types, usually in a hurry to make that next meeting. Ottawa shows the visitor a tableau of disjointed, albeit stimulating, urban existence, a grouping of insular communities that rub shoulders..and rarely come together. In Montreal, the spirit of the city, even though it is a very diverse and complicated city, is something that just hangs in the air. It's a restless and simultaneously hedonistic spirit. The spirit of someone who is not in a hurry for that next appointment.

1 comment:

Dennis said...

I have to say, as a person from the west also, a musician and engineer, living in Ottawa for almost 12 years now, this comparison you've made between Montreal and Ottawa tells me that I have not been crazy, believing that there was something "not quite right" about living in Ottawa.

It is crazy that there are no responses to this post. Perhaps the Ottawa natives (perhaps at 12 years a resident, I am considered one too?) cannot relate, cannot understand, or simply, cannot face the beige reality?

Sitting in a cafe a few months back in the Mile End area of Montreal, I pondered this exact point.....why? Why MUST I "escape" Ottawa at least 1-2 times a month to visit Montreal? Why does the fact that I am here simply because I built a career in high tech, and if it wasn't for that, I wouldn't be here? Why does the thought of raising children in a city so beige, and therefore render THEM so beige, scare the crap out of me? Why are great musicians playing to 3 people in Ottawa, when the same musicians play to a packed house in Montreal? Why does the regular person in Montreal CARE about music and art? Why are clothes in the Montreal version of the same store in Ottawa COMPLETELY DIFFERENT?

All I know that in this blog entry, you have perfectly encapsulated the soul of Ottawa. A thin skin of a glorious facade, trumpeting it's capital-ness and foundation-ness, wrapped around a core of.......nothing. There is no "air" in this city. No pulse. No sense of urgency of life. No....nothing.

I'm reminded of a feeling I had once, coming back from Paris. At this point, I had been living in Ottawa for 5 years. Life was going well. Career was going well. I was going to Montreal on weekends about 3 times a month, needing the one weekend to do domestic stuff.

My flight from Paris was transiting via Montreal, and this was the first time that I had landed in Montreal coming back from a business trip. All other times, it was always directly to Ottawa.

The FEELING I had when I touched down in Montreal vs. Ottawa was astounding to me! I felt that I had come home. Whereas in Ottawa, it always felt like I was touching down in a connecting city/airport, but, where I happen to live.

Regardless, amazing piece! And to all the Ottawan's out there thinking/saying/responding, "well, if you don't like it here, just move".....and my answer is, believe me, working on it! Proximity to Montreal is a funny thing....the closeness makes weekend jaunts much like heading to the cottage. The sanity injected by Montreal, always made me fresh to come back to Ottawa life. Besides, salaries here in Ottawa are insanely better! And there is a very good reason for that....what other reason would people want to live here? ;-)