Winter Fireworks (or Death eaters coming to Embassy Ottawa)

One of the things I love most about my apartment here in Ottawa is the view at night.  Most evenings, it’s an expansive view of the market. Every once in awhile, however, I hear minor explosions off in the distance. Given that it’s Ottawa and not someplace more dangerous, that sound means fireworks.  In the summertime, just about every festival included a fireworks display so I’ve had a lot of practice doing spur of the moment photography.

As Fall gave way to Winter, the sky has been quiet. Until last night. It took me a minute or two to associate the sound with something that required me to get up from the couch.  Not only were there fireworks lighting the sky, but the launching spot from my vantage looked to be right between the US Embassy and the art museum. A perfect spot to catch those buildings lit up with the fireworks.

I’m in pre-packout sort mode so my photography gear is in several piles — stack for storage, stack to ship to Pakistan, and small bag o’ stuff to take on the plane.  Putting together what I needed to shoot, particularly not knowing how long the fireworks would last, would have been quite comical if anyone had been here to watch the mad scramble and rapid assemble. Tripod in the closet.  Camera in the bedroom. Damn, wrong camera — need the one in the other closet that has the tripod plate. Battery from the charger.  CF cards still on the desk from the last shoot.  Set it all up on a chilly balcony completely covered in snow from the storm a couple days ago. No time for a jacket. Can’t find the remote cord.

Anyway, got it all set up, adjusted the settings and started firing away.  It was a nice display, but I wasn’t sure if I captured anything particularly unique until I spent some time editing.  This shot jumped out from group (click on the small image below to blow it up).  I wish I could say it was all planned and that I have amazing timing, but sometimes the best shots are just pure luck.  I’m presuming the fireworks guys intended it to look like a ski masked face grimacing over the Byward Market, with maybe a little face next to it.  Whether intentional or not, it looks particularly ominous to me sitting right on top of the US Embassy as if Lord Voldemort were on his way.

For fireworks fans, here are eight more shots from the evening’s display.


Braving the Cold

Today was the first Saturday of the year for the Rideau Canal to be opened end-to-end for skaters.  The Canal runs over 5 miles long, making it the world’s biggest skating rink.

While I didn’t put on blades, I did throw on the heavy coat and shuffled a couple miles down and back (note to self: ice is slippery, even in snow boots).  Despite temperatures between -5 and -10, with ridiculous wind chills, there were plenty of skaters.  Every age group, from babies in sleds, to the elderly slowly gliding.

I particularly loved watching the little speed demons weaving in and out.  While there was the occasional slip and fall, the cold kept the huge crowds away so there were no collisions.

By the time I got home, my hands were numb, but I was ready to go find a pair of skates.

Decorating Doors

With the weather turning cold and snowy, I found a silly project that ended up being a lot of fun to put together.  There’s a longstanding December tradition at Embassy Ottawa for the various agencies and sections to decorate their main entrance doors for the holidays. The various efforts, elaborate and simple, face a committee of judges after which the winners receive awards and, more importantly, bragging rights at the mission’s holiday party.

The Public Affairs department has consistently excelled in the competition and entered this year as the defending champions.  My beloved Consular group, while competitive, has not won the contest for years.  After tossing around a few ideas for theme, we came up with an idea that merged our strategic mission with the season.  What would happen if Kris Kringle applied for a visa?  The result: Santagate.  I put together a mock-up of the local newspaper, The Ottawa Citzen, and wrote a couple thousand words about how Kris Kringle came in for visa and faced some unexpected skepticism from our consular officers given his 60+ aliases, the lack of a proper passport, and some unexpected attitude.

Although, there are a lot of inside jokes that aren’t nearly as funny to those who don’t know our people, it provided the construct for the real star of the presentation — the photographs.  We stages a series of shots involving Santa working his way through the visa section, being fingerprinted, pleading his case to an officer, being refused, and finally, being physically removed by our intrepid security guards.  From a photographic standpoint, it was a fun lighting challenge shooting through the glass with remote lights hidden on the client side (lighting it directly would have resulted in massive reflection and glare).

Part of the story involved a massive protest and ensuing political pressure for Canada to offer Santa asylum and immediate citizenship.  As a Canadian citizen, Santa wouldn’t need a visa to travel over the border.  We thought maybe some pictures of crying kids might work, but over the week-end I found a couple of pics online that, with the help of Photoshop, fit the bill.

With Santa’s online visa application, letters from protesting children, and some ribbon trim, the door told a good story.

We had lots of visitors loitering outside the door and, at this afternoon’s embassy party, Ambassador Jacobson called out Consular for both Most Original and Overall Winner.

On to the next obsessive project…

Hiking in Gatineau, Take 1

Fall seems to have come to Canada.  Temperatures have dropped and the leaves are just starting to change color.  I’ve been wanting to get out to Gatineau Park in Quebec for awhile and this morning I finally got my act together.  Just a short 20 minute drive away, Gatineau Park boasts 140 square miles of preserved land, including over 120 miles of hiking trails.  I picked the right time of year to get hooked: no bugs, cool temps, and very few people.  Not sure these photos do it justice, but it was a beautiful morning.

I’m going to try to get out there for a couple of hours each week-end.  Once the snow starts falling, I’ll have to start investigating my first pair of snow shoes.


When I first arrived here, my first reaction as I navigated through a snowy downtown Ottawa was how clean the city appeared.  Over the past six months, my initial impress has not changed.  Part of it is the weather and the way the city deals with it.  Snow gets plowed almost immediately after hitting the ground and there’s enough of it that the fresh white top-cover gets a regular renewal.  The city also invests in services that keep streets and sidewalks swept, steam cleaned, and cleared of debris.  As the nation’s capitol, Ottawa serves as huge tourist destination for Canadians so there also seems to be a strong interest in keeping the monument areas pristine.

Mostly, however, I believe it’s a Canadian thing.  Forbes Magazine in 2007 published a list of the world’s top 25 cleanest cities.  Canada ended up with an impressive five cities on the list, including the top spot (Calgary) and four in the top ten.  Ottawa was a respectable No. 4.  There doesn’t seem to have been much change in the last three years.

Although there are exceptions, there doesn’t seem to be nearly the degree of miscellaneous graffiti tagging in the downtown area as I’ve come to expect in urban centers.  The City has designated a few spots, urban walls and a skate parks, as exempt from the anti-graffiti laws.  I took a road trip out to one of these sites and found a series of “Jersey barriers” set up predominantly as open graffiti canvases.  Some are detailed works of art while others provide a spot for taggers to mark their spot.

There’s quite the debate about whether the legal graffiti zones curb or incite more illegal graffiti in the surrounding areas.  Compared to San Francisco and Boston (forget about New York or Chicago), however, Ottawa seems to be way ahead of the game.

American Citizen Services

A few weeks ago, I took on a new portfolio. That’s State-speak for a new set of responsibilities. For the remaining six months of my tour in Ottawa, I am the ACS officer. In some posts, American Citizen Services is a full-time job, dealing with every conceivable issue relevant to Americans living permanently or temporarily abroad. Here, because we have such an unbelievable local staff, the ACS work load can be managed in addition to my regular consular duties.

The portfolio includes passports, births, deaths, arrests, domestic disputes, abducted children, taxes, social security, voting, and scores of other issues. We deal with urgent matters whenever they come up and schedule appointments for more routine issues.

While I’m on the line adjudicating visa cases in the morning, I usually need to step out every half-hour or so to deal with an ACS case. Most of the routine cases involve passport applications and certificates of birth abroad. There are a series of complex rules to determine citizenship and they all come in to play over the course of a month or two. We get newborns, but also parents who want to get a birth certificate and passport for their 17-year-olds. The process often requires a review of stacks of old papers to establish birthdates, marriage dates, military service dates, employment dates, school attendance dates, etc. Sometimes the puzzle gets very complicated.

When Americans find themselves under arrest, it falls on the ACS officer to ensure they are getting fair treatment. I made my first prison visit a couple weeks ago, meeting with three inmates back-to-back. Although this is Canada, prison is still prison. I’ve been to a few in the U.S. visiting pro bono clients. I had the same visceral reaction to hearing the metal doors clang shut behind me after entering. There’s no such thing as easy time. Even in Canada.

Surviving the G8 and Canada Day

Tom McEvoy describes the game of poker as “Hours of boredom followed by moments of sheer terror.” While that description could well apply to any number of activities, it fit quite well for those of us working on the G8 advance team.  There was actually a fair bit going on behind the scenes in and around Huntsville, Ontario, leading up to the G8 meeting.  I had the honor/privilege/burden of wearing several different hats for the Embassy’s support team:  site officer, thank you officer, gifts officer, and control officer for two Under Secretaries.

It was a kick to spend a couple of weeks in new surroundings.  For two weeks, we lived out of rustic cabins just down the road from Algonquin Park, 7500 square kilometers of amazing hiking and canoeing, about 4 hours west of Ottawa and 3 hours north of Toronto.  We shared the environment with chipmunks, fish, ducks, lots of bugs, moose, and a bear.  During my daily commute from our cabin to the control room, I came perilously close to hitting a deer.  Twice.

Without going into any detail, however, supporting a POTUS visit was a great assignment.  The Embassy Ottawa team is a very experienced crew so I learned a lot from people who had been through the drill dozens of times around the world.  Some days were pretty quiet, interacting with the White House advance teams and getting things set up.  Other days had more than their share of sheer terror moments, juggling resources and making sure everything was covered.

In the end, everything went off as planned.  The President arrived.  The meetings took place.  Many bilateral meetings took place.  The President left.  My Under Secretaries arrived, met their counterparts, received seamless support, and left.

Upon return to Ottawa, we (E and G are joining me for the summer) had the pleasure of seeing our first Canada Day up close.  July 1st was the 143rd anniversary of Canadian Confederation.  Nationalism here seems to be at an all-time high after the Vancouver Olympics.  In addition, Queen Elizaveth and Prince Philip were in town.  There were free concerts and activities set up all over town and hundreds of thousands descended on downtown Ottawa.  Where else can you find a free double-bill of Bare Naked Ladies and the Queen?

After dark, we headed over to the Embassy and staked out a great spot on the roof to catch the fireworks.  Promptly at 10:00pm, they started.  We were so close, we could feel the explosions and feel the ash falling from the sky.  I took advantage of the great spot by trying my hand at some fireworks photography.  Here are a few:

For those who can’t get enough of fireworks pics, you can find the full set here:  Happy Birthday, Canada!