I’m now officially settled in Ottawa after my first full week. Having never been here before, I did not have a whole lot of expectations, positive or negative. The post reports I’d read focused on the negatives. Summed up simply, the reports described Ottawa as cold, expensive, and boring. So far, it hasn’t been nearly as cold as expected, it is expensive but not crazy, and I’m far from bored.
Ottawa is not a typical foreign service post in that security is not an overwhelming issue. The trend over the last decade has been to move our embassies out of downtown areas to more secure locations in the suburbs — even in Western European capitals like London. Embassy Ottawa, however, is relatively new and located right downtown on the banks of the Ottawa river. I thus chose to live a short walk away, in new building overlooking the vibrant ByWard Market neighborhood. From my balcony, I can see scores of restaurants, bars, and shops. Everything is a short walk, from the food shops in the market to the modern Rideau Centre mall. I might feel different if I were living in the suburbs, but there is a lot to do and explore downtown.
Yesterday, I walked down to Bank Street, a different downtown area across the Rideau Canal, to find an old-fashioned barber shop (complete with straight-razor shave). On the way back, I walked about a mile down the canal. In the winter, after the Canal freezes 20″ down, they open it up for skating — all 4-1/2 miles of it. It is quite common to see whole families with skates over their shoulders walking through the mall or in the Market, having skated downtown from the suburbs. I was thinking about renting some skates and giving it a try, but the line was daunting. Instead, I just walked the ice. It was packed with people of every age.
After heading back to town, I stopped in to Confederation Park to catch the last week-end of Winterlude, a winter festival highlighted by an amazing collection of ice sculptures: beautiful works of art that will eventually melt into the grass. The cold temperatures clearly don’t prevent Ottawans from getting out and about. The talk around the embassy, particularly among the local staff, is how warm this winter has been. Daily temperatures are getting up to 25-30 degrees. For a Californian, I still find that plenty cold, particularly with the regular stiff wind, but it can easily be 20-30 degrees colder this time of year. We’ll see if the warmth continues — it’s supposed to snow most of this coming week.
Before heading home, I stopped to do some food shopping. There’s a supermarket about three blocks away where I stocked up on staples last week-end, but I want to get into the habit of buying most of my food from the local market shops and carts. I visited the butcher, a couple of vegetable stands, and the patisserie for a baguette. It was so much more fun than loading up a big basket at Safeway.
I think I’ll have to add my own, more positive, post report extolling the virtues of Ottawa in the coming months.