Bear with me, readers. For the time being, I’m in my hometown of Ottawa, Canada – perhaps not the most exotic of locales but highly deserving of recognition nevertheless. My forthcoming foreign travels and thus glamorous blog posts will have to wait because, at present, I’m making a (re)connaissance mission: spending long-overdue, ‘quality’ time with my parents and childhood friends, and by (re)visiting the old haunts and new ones, I’m (re)discovering the city of my youth.
This is uniquely precious time that I haven’t had at ‘home’ in over a decade of living and working in the United States. Being a ‘resident alien’ with only a work-permit visa, my identity was entirely wrapped up in my job. As I’m not currently practicing architecture, I realize it’s no longer my career that defines me and I should step back and think about what’s important – life in general. Some close friends of mine have come to similar conclusions but from another perspective: newly stay-at-home mothers – being somewhat domestically-focused has provoked thoughts about what they’re doing with their life, transitory as it is, and how best they want to live it.
Whereas in the past my typical 3-day weekend trips to the motherland would be crammed with numerous rendezvous, I now find myself with rare, relaxed, unscheduled time to seize the opportunity to make those leisurely neighbourhood strolls with my father, get cooking lessons of Spanish and Latvian family dishes from my mother, and share long talks about the state of the world and ‘whatnot’. My parents still reside in the same abode of 27 years, so yesterday I biked the familiar route that I took for ages, the same path that diverged and led to 3 distinct places: to elementary, to junior high, and to high school. Ottawa is a lovely city of human scale, safe, bountiful in clean air, green space, rivers and waterfalls, and unlimited outdoor activities. Memories of my happy childhood easily swell to the surface: recollections of high school plays and Wednesday night ski club outings, French grammar and literature classes, snowball fights and wet woolly mittens on the radiator (that particular smell forever lodged into my psyche).
If there’s one element that any visitor recalls of Ottawa, it’s the Rideau Canal, famous in postcards as a scenic waterway which in winter magically transforms into ….wait for it…. the ‘World’s largest skating rink.’ It was recently designated as a UNESCO world heritage site, but then any tourist guide can tell you that and rattle off the city’s historical buildings and cultural highlights. What excites me to see are good strategies taken by architects and urban planning committees to develop my native city in an innovative and meaningful way.
Three years ago, a pedestrian bridge was built spanning the picturesque Rideau Canal, connecting a significantly residential and commercial ‘Centertown’ with the University of Ottawa and a public transit system, previously only crossable at this point during the winter months when it was frozen. Its value initially fiercely questioned, it is now one of the city’s most applauded public projects, allowing a few thousand pedestrians and cyclists to cross day and night, linking neighbourhoods and providing new views. There’s a proposal out for another two and I cross my fingers that the City doesn’t spend ages mulling it over nor that the approvals processes drag needlessly. Not that it’s an equitable comparison by any stretch of the imagination whatsoever but I am reminded of the numerous bridge crossings in great cities like Zurich, Amsterdam and Paris, and the possibilities they afford. Providing any infrastructure that encourages physical and visual connections challenges the senses and results in a more dynamic urban life. Oh, to have more urban densification, especially in a city that endures a glacial -30˚C in the winter! (Author’s note: It was during those frigid days that we, as angst-ridden teenagers just shy of getting our driver’s permits, were resigned to take the L.C. or ‘Loser Cruiser’ (a.k.a. the bus), a term coined by my best friends.)
Since it is a more ‘formal’ city, genteel and orderly (often a problem of created capitals), Ottawa is home to a wealth of national museums, monuments and heritage structures that tell historical events that have shaped the very character of Canada. I walked the grounds around the new Canadian War Museum, observing its raw, fragmentary structure emerging out of the earth; it emphasizes regeneration implicit as the grass greening on the building’s roof.
In true form, the Remembrance Day national ceremony took place here in Ottawa on November 11th, to honour those who pay the ultimate sacrifice. To mark the solemn occasion, people gathered, on this sunny, cloudless day, at the National War Memorial dedicated to the Canadian forces that fought in the WWI&II and Korean wars, against the backdrop of Parliament Hill. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder, thousands paid tribute to the fallen, the inter-generational crowds growing yearly as international peacekeeping efforts continue.
Marching in unison, resplendent in uniform and medal, were different regiments, many of British heritage. Speaking of Brits, Prince Charles and Camilla, on an 11-day whirlwind tour of Canada, attended this and other commemorations honouring Canada’s persons, places and events. Fortunately, no unsightly gaff happened in their presence, nor on the part of the royals themselves. It will be interesting to see who will play the role of the next official head of state and whether or not we’ll remain the last monarchy in the Americas, with Charles (!) as king or transition to a new institution altogether.
In contrast to the neat alignment of military formation upheld during the service, throughout the remainder of the day, a sea of people randomly came from each and every direction to lay their poppies, in true Canadian tradition, on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Lest we forget.
Fun fact: Ottawa’s shapely coordinates: 45˚25’15”N 75˚41’24”W