Friday, October 22, 2010

I ♥ My Hometown!

Ottawa is a lovely city. Living abroad, I’ve often had people ask me about my hometown, and that’s what I always tell them. I mean it, too. It’s physically beautiful, with an interesting variety of old buildings and lots of green space. It’s big enough to host several museums, historical sites, and festivals, but small enough to feel welcoming and accessible. It has hot summers and cold winters, beautiful spring days and fiery fall colours. It’s a nice place to visit and to live. Though life continues to take me to far-flung locations, it’s still my home, and the place where I eventually want to settle down.

Now life is taking me to the distant land of Japan. I’m going to be there for at least a year: the longest period yet for me to be away. And there’s no guarantee that when I leave I’ll be returning straight home; I may well decide to spend another year or more travelling in the region. So as I prepare to depart once more, I’ve put together a little photo diary of the city. I didn’t get pictures of all the places I wanted to, unfortunately, but I have enough to remind me of what my city is like and why I love it. It’s partly a way to help me remember it while I’m away, but it’s also a record of how the city is now in 2010. Ottawa is a changing city. Most notably, it’s rapidly expanding, with its borders getting ever further out, and new developments being built all the time. It will be interesting to see how many of these pictures still represent Ottawa in a few decades. For now, though, here is my hometown, told as a record of my favourite – and least favourite – Ottawa locations.

South Keys (Least Favourite):

This giant strip mall I’ve nicknamed “Brobdingnag”, because it feels like it was designed for much larger creatures than humans. The façades extend so far up that one has to step off the sidewalk and walk several metres away from the storefronts to read many of the signs, and the complex is so long that it actually fills up the space between two separate Transitway stops!

Rockcliffe (Favourite):

A nice place to go for a drive if you like looking at beautiful houses you’d never be able to afford.

The Museum of Civilization, a.k.a. Le Musée des Civilisations (Favourite):

Okay, technically it’s in Gatineau, but I think most people claim that Québec city as part of Ottawa, anyway. This is a pretty good museum of Canadian culture, with an interactive exhibition on the first nations, and another on the colonial history of the country. The special exhibits are sometimes good, and there’s even an IMAX theatre.

The Market (Favourite):

This is a lovely spot for strolling, shopping, or going out for lunch, and it’s right in the heart of downtown!

The U.S. Embassy (Least Favourite):

This imposing, guarded, and generally unfriendly structure makes no attempt to fit in with its surroundings. Overlooked by palatial structures like the Parliament Buildings and the National Gallery, it has neither charm nor beauty, but sits grumpily and superciliously on Sussex Drive between the ByWard Market and Major’s Hill Park.

The view from the Rideau St. Bridge (Favourite):

Every so often, I find myself walking somewhere, and I have to stop and say to myself “Wow. I live in a really beautiful city!” This is the place where that most often happens.

Parliament Hill (Favourite):

This building is grand-looking enough for our seat of our government, yet not too imposing. Its front lawn welcomes visitors who come to watch the changing of the guard, take in the light show, or participate in the Canada Day celebrations. It’s also a good vantage point for gazing out at the river, and the Peace Tower proclaims the correct time to people in all directions.

The Sparks Street Mall (Favourite):

During my last visit to Ottawa, I heard that this street was on the way down, which is sad. The open mall is a really nice place to eat lunch, shop, or just go for a stroll.

The National Arts Centre (Least Favourite):

Okay, I don’t want to make it sound like I hate the N.A.C. I’m just frustrated by it. I don’t go there that often, and I have nothing to say against its music scene. What I will say, though, is that of the plays I’ve attended there (and there have been several over the years) every one has been a disappointment. As a child I saw lots of good theatre in London, England, and more recently I’ve been to decent productions in cities like Toronto and Vienna. Maybe it’s not fair to expect Ottawa to rival those world-class cities, but there’s definitely room for improvement here. Whether it’s the physical building itself that’s the problem, or simply the quality of the productions, I’m not sure, but a city as culturally rich as Ottawa should be able to do better.

The Ottawa Public Library – Main Branch (Least Favourite):

Other cities I’ve lived in have beautiful central libraries. Vancouver’s has a coliseum theme, while Hong Kong’s is a bright and airy structure overlooking Victoria Park. In contrast, we have the Metcalfe Library, an ugly concrete structure out of the seventies. Such an important institution should add to Ottawa’s beauty, not mar it.

The Ottawa Canal (Favourite):

Unfortunately I didn’t get a picture of this in the winter, when you can visit it for beaver tails and skating! Even in the summer, though, it’s a nice place to go for a walk.

The Museum of Nature (Favourite):

This old stone building looks rather wonderfully like a castle. The inside is just as wonderful, full of exhibits about our fascinating natural world. Apparently its location is directly opposite the Parliament Buildings, and I was once told a story about one prime minister wanting to knock down all the intervening buildings and create a direct line of site between the two structures. It’s an impractical plan, of course, but I really wish it wasn’t, because I think it would look quite nice.

The Glebe (Favourite):

A nice, quiet, suburban area with a lot of character. The houses are nice, but not overly-large, and there are lots of interesting stores on Bank Street.

Shoppers Drug Mart – Glebe (Least Favourite):

Ever since the summer I worked as an inventory counter, I’ve had a loathing of this chain, which seems determined to make its presence felt in every corner of the city. Of all the massive stores I’ve been to (stores which, contrary to what the name implies, sell not just drugs but also cosmetics, stationary, books, cameras, and milk), this one is my least favourite. Dominating (as all Shoppers Drug Marts do) the block on which it sits, it forms a kind of corporate blight on an otherwise charming neighbourhood.

The Real Canadian Superstore – Westboro (Least Favourite):

Another store I had the pleasure of counting when I was an inventory clerk, this hypermarket looks like it could keep an army in shelter, food, clothing, prescription drugs, gardening supplies, and greeting cards for a year. Which I’m sure we’ll all appreciate when the nuclear winter sets in, but until then, I don’t see why we need this monstrosity taking up an entire block of Westboro Village.

Island Park Drive (Favourite):

Another nice street full of interesting and unaffordable houses.

Westboro Village (Favourite):

Take a walk around this area and you can see how it could really have been a village once upon a time. Now it contains a few interesting stores, notably one of Ottawa’s Ten Thousand Villages.

The Parkway (Favourite):

This strip of greenery and roadway runs along the north edge of the city, where it meets the Ottawa river. It’s a lovely place to go walking, driving, or cycling. It also symbolises one of the things I like most about the city: the amount of green space it incorporates.

Merivale Rd. (Least Favourite):

This is “Brobdingnag II”; I hate it just as much as South Keys, and for all the same reasons. I once heard a caller to the CBC express the problem very well: the whole street was very obviously designed for cars, not people. If you want to drive everywhere, then it functions as a kind of giant shopping mall. It’s not at all friendly to pedestrians, though. Each of the big-box stores that lines the street is the size of a regular city block. The sidewalk runs right alongside the busy divided road, and is separated from each store by a parking lot that’s easily as big as the store itself. The result is that walking from one store to the one across from it is a five-minute journey, and it would probably take an hour to go from one end of the “mall” to the other.

Kanata, Barhaven, etc. (Least Favourite):

The biggest limit to Ottawa’s beauty is, unfortunately, this: extent. While the downtown core and many of the surrounding neighbourhoods remain lovely, the city is rapidly expanding outwards, and none of that charm can be found in its newer settlements. Although I don’t often venture beyond the old city limits, what I've seen of the suburbs has been uniformly depressing: seas of identical houses and colonies of big-box stores. Bus service is minimal, and distances are so great as to discourage walking, so people have to drive everywhere. They seem, from what I’ve seen, to be free of local institutions, or any kind of local character. Of course, maybe I’m misjudging these regions. My few trips to them have mostly been in the context of my job as inventory clerk, and so naturally featured a lot of big-box stores. Still, they depress me, and I worry about the future of the city if it continues to expand this way.

Five things I would do if I had unlimited money and influence:

1. Turn Lebreton Flats into a parking lot and turn the downtown core into a busses-only zone. This would force people to take public transportation, and also get a lot of cars off our downtown roads.
2. Tear down the Metcalfe library and replace it with something that doesn’t look like a giant cinderblock. Preferably something with a roof garden.
3. Tear down the N.A.C. and replace it with something that could actually put on a decent production of The Nutcracker.
4. Pave over Bank Street and turn it into a walking street, similar to the Sparks Street Mall. (Does anyone actually like driving on Bank Street?)
5. Enact some zoning laws to make sure some thought got put into the new suburbs.

And one more thing…:

- Build an aquarium. Because I love aquaria and I think every big city should have one. Hey, I know, they could make that the new use for the Conference Centre!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

One Hundred Little Things - July 2010

I kicked off my last month in Ottawa rather fittingly with my favourite Ottawa event: Canada Day. As usual, I spent my afternoon wandering around downtown and my evening on Parliament Hill. The evening concert featured a large number of artists, the most famous being the Barenaked Ladies. I was a bit disappointed that they weren’t the main act, and that they had to share the time with so many other artists, but at least I can say I’ve seen B.N.L. live. They played a few songs from about ten years ago, one new one, and, of course, “If I Had $1000000”. I swear, that song never gets old!

I’ve done a few other touristy things this month, including going to the changing of the guard on Parliament Hill and paying my first visit in years to the Museum of Nature. The changing of the guard was okay, though quite perfunctory, considering that the Hill has no actual guard to change. I have very fond memories of the Museum of Nature, and was quite keen on visiting it again. It was closed for a while for renovations, and I visited it shortly after it re-opened. Visiting it as an adult, I could see its appeal for children, but it didn’t thrill me the way its London counterpart did the last time I was in England. The fact that there were little kids running around everywhere, bumping into me and getting underfoot, didn’t help. It’s still a decent exhibit, though, and definitely worth seeing. My memory of the place is too fuzzy for me to know which parts were new, but I don’t remember the blue whale skeleton being there before.

Work being over, I theoretically have a lot of free time, but the been keeping pretty busy getting ready for my trip to Japan. Big things like my travel arrangements are being taken care of for me, but there are still dozens of little things to be done. I’ve been doing a lot of clothes-shopping, trying to ensure I have everything I might possibly need over the course of a year. Japanese people being short and I being tall even for a Canadian, I’m not counting on being able to find anything over there that fits me. There’s also packing, cleaning my room, organising documents, renewing my passport, converting dollars into yen, getting vaccinated, buying omiyagi (gifts) for people in Japan, etc., etc. One of the things I haven’t been able to do is to inform the Ministry of Health about my change of location. I went into the local office to try and do it, but they wouldn’t accept the document I gave them, and told me I’d need something official to prove I was going to be working in Japan. You know, I really don’t see why I have to tell the Ministry of Health every time I go somewhere. What’s it to them that the reason I haven’t made use of their services recently is that I’m living in another country, being covered by a different health-care plan, and not, say, that I just haven’t gotten sick? And if they’re so keen on me keeping them in the loop, why can’t they make it easy for me to do so? Why do I need to prove I’m going to be working in Japan; can’t they take my word for it? Is it likely I’d lie about my location in order to avoid the benefits of OHIP??? This is one of those bureaucratic hoops I just don’t get.

Though we all had busy schedules, I tried to spend time with all my friends before I left. My last swing dance in Ottawa was the week before my birthday, so I and my guests got in for free. I danced with lots of people and had a really good time. For my birthday party I went to The Works with my friends, and then we all went up to Parliament Hill to see the evening light show. The show told the story of Canada in three parts: first the indigenous culture and colonisation, then the history of the country post-confederation, and finally a tribute to Canadian culture. The show was certainly questionable in some of the ways it chose to represent Canada, but it was good food for conversation, and some of the light effects were quite impressive, particularly the part where they made it look like the walls were popping in and out.

I also had a going-away party with people from church. It was nice to be able to say goodbye, and to have them all wish me luck. I got some really good going away presents, too. Nothing big, but all of it useful, from a Canada shirt (something I’d been meaning to buy, but hadn’t gotten around to), to a package of tissues (always good to have), to a portable U.S.B. hard drive (I just know that’s going to come in handy).

The vegetable garden ended up being a qualified success. We didn’t get any more spinach and the beans never grew. I also didn’t get a chance to enjoy the later vegetables, such as the carrots and squash. We did get some nice peas, although they only ended up being a handful. We also had some nice meals based on beet greens and Swiss chard, and the lettuce proved useful for sandwiches, although it turned into crazy tall mutant lettuce. I only got to try some of the tomatoes, but the ones I had were really nice, and I look forward to enjoying more in future years.

In the news, that oil spill that started back in April was still going this month. They say they’ve got it capped, now, but it’s still sickening to think about the environmental damage.

Movies I’ve seen this month:

Entre les murs – Decidedly un-heartwarming look at a high school teacher struggling to educate his class of unruly students. (Three stars)

Capitalism: A Love Story – Michael Moore’s attack on capitalism: a potentially fascinating project, if handled well. Which, of course, it isn’t. Moore unfortunately forgoes the journalistic principles of balance and reasoned debate entirely, opting instead for one-sided rants and childish pranks. And while vitriolic in his condemnation of the current economic situation, he fails to offer any concrete suggestions as to how it could be improved or what it could be replaced with. (Two stars)

Iolanthe – Gilbert and Sullivan musical about some fairies who start meddling with Parliament. Mildly amusing, but forgettable. (Two stars)

Ponyo – A new animated film by Miyazaki Hayao. Sweet and inoffensive, but a bit hard to follow, and definitely not Miyazaki’s best film. (Two and a half stars)

Towelhead – Despite the name, this film has comparatively little to do with racism. It’s certainly there as a sub-theme, which is played out rather interestingly, and I wish had been dealt with more, but the real topic is the awkward, and sometimes disturbing, sexual experiences of a thirteen-year-old girl. Although I can’t say I found that very appealing, it was rather a refreshing change to see a brutally explicit film about female adolescence, and I’m quite impressed with the performance of the eighteen-year-old lead. (Three stars)

Mao’s Last Dancer – Fairly interesting true story about a Chinese ballet dancer who visits the United States and decides to defect. It’s unusual to see a western film about Chinese characters, and I quite enjoyed most of it, although I thought the last half hour was a bit weak. (Three and a half stars)

Les Plages d’Agnès – Autobiographical documentary by filmmaker Agès Varda. I’ve never seen anything she made, which meant, unfortunately, that the documentary was mostly lost on me. (Not going to try)

My Big Fat Greek Wedding – A fairly conventional romantic comedy. Cute and amusing in places, but a bit forced and lacking in real charm. (Two and a half stars)

Gigante – Either a sweet and quirky romantic comedy, or a creepy and disturbing stalker film. It seems to think it’s the former; I’m pretty sure it’s the latter. (Two stars)

T.V. shows I’ve watched this month:

Doctor Who (New Season 5) – Another lame and corny season of this strangely addictive series. Matt Smith as the Doctor is quite likeable, but doesn’t have his predecessor’s ability to distract the viewer from the show’s many weaknesses. For the first few episodes, I really thought I’d had it with the show, but there are some intriguing developments later in the season, and I’m curious to see how they play out in the future. (I missed Season 4, so I don’t know who this River person is, but I like her!)

The Wire (Season 1) – In October, when I first arrived back in Ottawa, one of the first thing I did was request this from the library. I finally got it one week before my departure, which meant that I had to watch it in a kind of mad rush between all my leaving preparations. This complex and uncompromising police drama, set in the “home of the misdemeanor homicide”, is definitely of a pedigree above ordinary T.V. shows, making comparisons with The Sopranos inevitable. I wouldn’t say it impressed me quite as much as that landmark series, but it does have several strengths over the other show. Both deal with crime, but this one follows the stories of both the criminals and the policemen pursuing them. It also tries to explain its criminals, shows them with doubts and weaknesses, and makes them sympathetic in a way the DiMeo crime family never was. Comparisons are also inevitable with David Simon’s book Homicide, which partly inspired it. I had fun recognising characters and sub-plots from that book. I also felt similar feelings of disgust with the crude, violent, and often unethical behaviour of the cops. I’m sure it’s realistic, but it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the police. Although certainly a very good series, I can’t say that it truly grabbed my imagination, or that I’m terribly impatient to see the next season. Still, I’ll probably check out the rest of it some time. As someone pointed out to me, once you get a taste of good television, it’s hard to settle for the regular stuff.

Radio programmes I’ve listened to this month:

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Seasons 3-5) – Dramatisations of the last three books in the trilogy. True to their written counterparts, Season 3 is fairly entertaining, Seasons 4 and 5 mostly dull and depressing. My favourite part is actually the contrived happy ending that has been tacked onto the last episode, which gets all the characters back together and includes some all-new Crowning Moments of Funny.

Books I’ve read this month:

Easy Avenue by Brian Doyle – Several times over the past few years, I’ve read a children’s book, been disappointed in it, and wished I’d read it when I was younger and might have appreciated it better. This brilliant little book I wish I’d read when I was younger because I love it, and wish it had been in my life longer! For starters, it’s set in my beloved hometown. Since it takes place in the post-war period, it also provides a glimpse of Ottawa history: a pet fascination of mine. It’s also rather obviously modelled on Dickens’s Great Expectations, and is indeed very Dickensian in its story and characters. The story itself is nice and told with a good touch of humour. I’m taking it to Japan with me; I’m going to re-read it when I get homesick.

Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett – My favourite Discworld book so far! The story is comparatively tight and cleverly told. I enjoyed the many, many references to Macbeth and other Shakespeare works. It was also nice to have mostly female protagonists for a change, and Pratchett does a less-than-awful job of writing them.

The Flight of Dragons by Peter Dickenson – An interesting non-fiction book in which the author argues for the existence of historical dragons. This may seem like a far-fetched theory, and I’d certainly question some of his reasoning, but as a scientific and literary investigation it’s fairly informative, and several of his arguments are intriguing.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick – Sci-fi novel best remembered as the basis for Bladerunner. Quite a bit better than the film, with a more interesting world and better character-development. It actually contains a lot of interesting inventions besides the eerily anthropomorphic robots, many of which are only touched on vaguely. My biggest complaint is that so many of the themes it raises are left underexplored.

The Inimitable Jeeves, Carry On, Jeeves, and Very Good, Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse

"I say, Jeeves?"
"Yes, sir?"
"What do you make of this book?"
"The collection of short stories by Mr Wodehouse, sir?"
"That's the one. Bit rummy, what?"
"In what respect, sir?"
"Well the plotlines for a start. Dashed silly, if you ask me. Falling in love and out of love. Elaborate deceptions of elderly relatives. Burglary. Bribery. Blackmail. And some truly awful parenting practices."
"The style does tend towards the fatuous, sir."
"You said it, Jeeves. Why, if two chaps were to get together and perform the thing, it would be… something as a whatsit, Jeeves."
"Condemned as an improbable fiction, sir?"
"Exactly. I mean, take this hero lad. Seems like a good egg. Sound in the coconut, heart of gold, all that rot. It's just that he… well, you know, he doesn't seem to… do much of anything."
"You think the protagonist would be more engaging if he had some form of employment, sir?"
"Precisely, Jeeves. It's all very well to spend an hour or two with Bertram Wooster the infantile frat boy, but think of the fun one could have with 'Bertram Wooster: Private Investigator'?"
"That would certainly open up several dramatic and comic possibilities, sir."
"Or how about, 'Bertram Wooster: World Traveller', or even, 'Bertram Wooster: Member of Parliament'!"
"Aided, of course, by his loyal valet, sir?"
"Of course, Jeeves."
"Might I venture an observation, sir?"
"Certainly, Jeeves, venture away!"
"Well, sir, you might consider the purpose of the author in writing the stories. They were not, I believe, intended as high art, but merely as light entertainment, designed not to edify, but to bring a curl to the lip and a twinkle to the eye."
"Are they, by George? Well, call me an old stick in the mud, but the eye does not twinkle, nor does any other of the parts. I think the characters are positively beastly to one another. As far as I can see, they're all severely deficient in common s., and quite lacking in the m. of human k."
"One does discern a certain vein of schadenfreude, sir, such as is commonly found among the natives of this island."
"Really, Jeeves? You think that we Brits are full-up with this… whatever it was you said?"
"One hesitates to generalise, sir. However, if you will turn your mind for a moment to the plays of the late Mr Wilde, the fantasy novels of the late Mr Adams or the still extant Mr Pratchett, or those gentlemen of the Monty Python comedy troupe, you may remark upon a tendency in our comedic works towards the unsentimental, not to say the cynical."
"And you think this tendency reflects the British taste in humour?"
"To a limited extent, I believe it does, sir."
"With the upshot that much British humour is lost on our cousins across the drink?"
"I fear that may sometimes be the case, sir."
"Right ho! Thank you, Jeeves."
"Very good, sir."

Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynn Truss - (Sic) Well, if you’re going to write a book and subtitle it “A Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation”, then it shouldn’t surprise you when other people come along and deconstruct your punctuation! Actually, one of the things I learned from this book is that that comma that comes before the “and” in a list of three or more items is called an “Oxford comma”, though no explanation is given for why U.S. writers tend to use it while British writers tend not to. This and other subtleties of English punctuation are the nits the author of this book picks. I was thus expecting a fascinating read, but though funny and somewhat informative, I found it less than inspirational. Maybe that’s because so many of the points she clarifies are either ones I’ve been well-versed in since high school, or because I question several of the assertions she makes. (Shouldn’t that be “A Zero-Tolerance Approach…”?)

Dragonsinger by Anne McCaffrey – This sequel to Dragonsong is fairly slow-moving and action-free, and though it develops the world introduced in the previous book, there is nothing in the story that grabbed my attention, and the characters are starting to bore me.

The Mating Season by P. G. Wodehouse – Okay, I think I’ve satisfied a lifetime’s worth of curiosity about the Jeeves books. It’s time to stop now.