Last week, I spent four days and three nights in Ottawa. It was my first real visit to the city, having only been there last year on a road trip with the IceDogs in which we returned home right after the game.
Bright and early on Monday morning, I took the GO bus to Burlington, then boarded the jam-packed Lakeshore West train to Union Station in C.U. along with many commuters. So crowded was the train that many had to stand.
I had a two-hour wait for my VIA connection to Ottawa, so I took the time to check my e-mail, get my bearings and find the VIA departure area amid the mad crush of humanity. I quickly learned not to stop and smell the roses as being in the middle of rush-hour crowds in Union Station is akin to running with the bulls in Pamplona. I could have safely waited for the next GO bus/train to avoid the busiest time of day, but I opted to go earlier in case of any unforeseen traffic problems.
About a half hour before departure, passengers began lining up at the posted gate, where a service attendant went down one side of the line scanning boarding passes. On the other side, someone was wheeling a portable scale, stopping when he spotted some potentially overweight luggage. VIA has strict regulations regarding luggage. There is a charge for any bags between 41-50 pounds, and anything over 50 pounds is prohibited. He went past me without as much as a glance, as I was traveling with a small suitcase, having long since learned to travel light.
Soon, we were headed up the escalator to the platform, and I took my seat in Car 5. I’ll leave it for the reader to judge as to whether or not that was a coincidence. On the boarding pass, VIA notes they reserve the right to ask to see photo ID and to inspect baggage, but they did neither on the way to Ottawa or on the return trip.
Settled into my seat, I got some shots before the car filled up. As I looked around, it again struck me, as it did with the GO bus and train, that there was no graffiti, vomit or garbage, nor any smell of booze or beer cans rolling down the aisle, all common occurrences in the last city I called home. The SPRM feels like a million miles away in more ways than one.
This car was packed solid and I had a young man in his 20s in the aisle seat next to me with a huge lunch pack almost as big as my suitcase. He was listening to music on his headphones, but I couldn’t hear a thing, and like everyone else, he was quiet and respectful. The way it ought to be.
As we pulled out of Union Station, as part of the introductory announcement, they said disrespectful behavior toward staff or other passengers will not be tolerated. In Winnipeg, such behavior is almost expected. It’s a red-letter day when you don’t get treated disrespectfully.
After leaving C.U., we rocketed through the eastern suburbs of Pickering, Ajax and Whitby at speeds reaching 93 mph. That’s miles per hour, not Trudeau-metric. Unlike the GO train, there aren’t a litany of stops to make, so there’s nothing to slow them down besides the odd curve or when we have to stop to allow a freight train to pass.
As we followed the 401, an attendant came around to validate our tickets for a second time, a practice they would repeat on the return trip.
Past Oshawa, the scenery turns to rolling hills and farmland with more cows than cars visible from the train. To the north is the old Highway 2, the main route that connected C.U. to Montreal before the 401 was built, and to the south is Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. I had a view of Highway 2 on the way to Ottawa, and a view of the lake on my way back.
Aboard the train was a mixed bag of people, not commuters, but holiday travelers young and old. Many, like me, were traveling alone and aside from some brief exceptions, there was little chatter on board.
Perhaps the only significant conversation came from the older couple behind me, neither of whom knew each other before stepping on the train. Seated on one side was a man from Guelph who was taking a vacation to Ottawa after breaking up from a relationship. He will be going to Mexico soon, where he rents a place in a community of around 12,000 expats near Guadalajara.
On the other side was a woman who is a lawyer with a private practice in Kanata who went to school in Guelph. She made a special effort to lament how the public service has been downsized under Harper. No doubt, Bobo the Clown will make every effort to “fix” this.
He feels safe in Mexico, but she has friends whose daughter was killed there. They never found the body and it wasn’t investigated properly.
It is amazing what people will tell each other on a train, or a bus.
Around noon, they came down the aisle with the lunch tray. The guy to my right bought three water bottles at $2 a pop, and he would buy another when they came around a second time. As he only made a couple of trips to the bathroom, he must have a bladder the size of a 45-gallon drum.
For your reading pleasure, following is the economy class menu:
Chocolate bar or chips (Lay’s or Pringle’s): $2
Brownies or chocolate chip cookies: $3
Almond/dried fruit mixes: $3.50
Water or soft drink: $2
Milk, coffee or hot chocolate: $2.50
Orange, apple juice, V8 or lemonade: $3
Arthur’s Smoothie: $3.50
Coors Light or Molson 355 ml: $6
200 ml of wine or 330 ml of Heineken beer: $7
Classic cocktail (50 ml) or Bloody Caesar: $7.50
Instant oatmeal, chicken noodle soup, hummus and crackers, or banana bread: $3
Bagel with cream cheese: $4
Fontaine Santé salad: $5
Egg salad and bacon on a croissant: $6
Cheese, crackers, carrots and dip; Chicken salad sandwich; Black Forest ham and smoked Gouda with maple mayonnaise on a croissant; smoked turkey, apple and pesto wrap; whole wheat falafel wrap with fresh veggies and tzatziki: $7
Assorted cheese plate with crackers, fruit, nuts and chocolate: $10.50
Unlike WestJet, where all food transactions are cashless, they will take cash on VIA. Unfortunately, the same people who are handling money are also the same people handling your food or drink without washing their hands. On one occasion, I saw one of the attendants handling a stack of paper cups by the top end just after making change for someone. I realize this isn’t a traditional restaurant environment, but their sanitation practices need to be improved greatly.
Just past Brockville, I took my one and only bathroom break. Luckily, I wasn’t too far from the washroom, but on the return trip, it was a different story. The train shakes and, unlike tour buses, there are no railings to hang on to as you walk down the aisle. Even for me, someone who is steady on my feet, it was a challenge to get to the opposite end of the car without falling into someone’s lap.
Inside the washroom was another adventure. It’s clearly best to sit down under these circumstances, but with the toilet seat badly soiled from others who have preceded me, I opted to stand and do my business, trying as best as I can not to splash my pants.
There was ample soap and hand wipes, which I used and then returned to my seat thankful that I only had to use the washroom once during the four-hour trip in each direction.
After turning north at Brockville, the scenery turns to solid trees and brush. Staring out the window as we go past at 90+ mph, it all seemed like a blur.
Soon before reaching Ottawa, they came around collecting garbage, as they did near the end of the return trip.
I checked in at the front desk, where the clerk must have called me “Mr. Walker” about six or seven times. I appreciate friendly service, but this was over-the-top butt-kissing. Interestingly, the clerk was a spitting image of Tony Rinella, who, in addition to expertly selling our house in Winnipeg, has taken me to Minneapolis and back many times as the proprietor of Sun Ice Tours.
By sheer accident, I spotted the Richard and Annette Bloch Cancer Survivor’s Park, one of many scattered across North America. I always made a point of stopping at the park in downtown Minneapolis each time I visited, and I made a brief tour of this one before moving on.
The Cuban Embassy. The car has special red diplomat plates, a common sighting in Ottawa. It probably means they can do as they please, much as the way most people behave in Winnipeg. In case there are some readers who haven’t figured it out yet, Winnipeg is a place you don’t really ever get over.
Fortunately, I made it back to the hotel before it started raining, and I went to bed early to try and get as much rest as I could for the first of a pair of big days ahead of me.
At the crack of dawn, I was in the dining room for the complimentary breakfast. Oddly, the offerings were nearly identical to those at the Wyndham in Erie last October, the last time I stayed in a hotel. The oatmeal even seemed to come from the same mix.
Wearing my blue Atlanta Thrashers jersey, I was gawked at like a stranger who walks into a small-town diner.
I finished the most important meal of the day quickly, then caught a #9 northbound OC Transpo bus. Throughout my travels in Ottawa, I noticed that the vast majority of passengers, like me, paid their fare using Presto, an electronic fare card also accepted throughout the GCUA. Not only is the fare cheaper with Presto, but it is so much more convenient than having to fiddle around with cash. On larger buses, passengers paying with Presto can even board in the rear and tap their card on the machines by the door.
As someone who hails from Winnipeg, where I thought progress peaked at being able to pay with a paper ticket, the dramatic leap in infrastructure such as this still amazes me.
On the bus, I noticed a sign that read, “If you feel harassed, let OC Transpo know.” In Winnipeg, if you don’t feel harassed, it’s a red-letter day.
On Sussex Drive, I rang the bell at the foot of the Macdonald-Cartier International Bridge and exited through the rear door that I didn’t have to use a battering ram to open, unlike the case with Winnipeg Transit buses. From there, I crossed the Rivière des Outaouais into Quebec, something I swore I would never do.
Immediately upon entering the country, I began snapping pictures of the southern terminus of A-5, a fitting number for my first Quebec highway pictures. Right away, I noticed the massive traffic jam headed into Canada. I’ve heard it said that the public service is one big affirmative action program for the French, and this certainly proves it.
I spotted this church at the corner of Rue Jacques-Cartier and Boulevard Gréber. It probably means something different in Canadian, but I wondered if this was the place used car salesmen congregate to try and invoke a higher power to boost their bottom line.
I took note of this sign, as the accent was going the wrong way. For as militant as Quebecers are about their own language, including shoving it down the throats of their colony across the river, you’d think they’d be able to spell it correctly.
I continued north towards Boulevard Maloney Ouest and QC 148 for some pictures before returning south along the same route, stopping at Rue Saint-Louis/QC 307 for more highway pictures. On the way, I spotted some oddities for your viewing pleasure.
With two lanes of both major thoroughfares headed into the roundabout from all four sides, this must act like be a 50,000-volt magnet for fender-benders. Horns were honking like crazy and that I didn’t see some crunched metal during my brief time at this mess of an intersection is nothing short of miraculous. For the benefit of readers in the SPRM, it would be the equivalent of putting a roundabout at Portage and Main.
As bad as things are for cars at this intersection, it is even worse for pedestrians like me. There are lights at opposite ends when crossing Boulevard des Allumettières, but at Boulevard Saint-Joseph, you’re on your own.
While at one of the lights, I peered around the post to get a picture of QC 148, much to the amusement of a Muslim couple waiting to cross the street. After I sat down for a break at a bench, they walked past and laughed as they pointed at me. And a good day to you too.
I was hoping to avoid having to patronize any establishment in this country, but fatigue and hunger got the best of me, so I went inside a nearby Subway and placed my order, entirely in Quebecese. It was anything but an award-winning performance as I used my high-school French for the first time for real, but I know somewhere, Bruce Christie, my seventh-grade homeroom teacher at Arthur Day Junior High, is smiling and proud of his former pupil.
After eating, I wrote up some notes while listening to all the Quebecese around me. Very little Canadian is spoken in this country, and the most popular word of Canadian I heard was four letters long and started with the letter “F.” Seeing all the people running across the street reminded me of what I saw on Gréber, a busy street where so many just ran across against traffic, forcing cars to stop to avoid a collision. The people here appear to be a lawless bunch that makes Winnipeg look good.
Right across from me as I ate was this lawyer’s office. A female lawyer is an “avocate,” as the sign at right correctly states, yet on the one at left, it is incorrectly spelled “avocat.” When I, as anything but a fluent speaker of Quebecese, can catch the error, you know it’s bad.
Following the much-needed break, I headed back towards Canada, when I spotted this pillar of society panhandling, or hat-handling, at the on-ramp to A-50.
There was also this bit of odd street entertainment at the corner of Boulevards Sacré-Coeur and Maisonneuve.
Having put on countless miles on foot, I was done for the day and boarded the #9 bus to take me back to the hotel. First thing next morning, however, I was back at it for another day of exploration, this time mostly on the Canadian side. I was hoping to visit the Parliament Buildings and take advantage of the free tours they offer, but sadly, unbeknownst to me, they weren’t offering tours on this particular day because the potheads were holding a demonstration on the grounds.
Instead, I began my day with a visit to Lansdowne, home of the former Ottawa Civic Center and TD Place, home of the CFL’s Redblacks. Oh wait, it’s not the Redblacks, it’s the REDBLACKS. Watch out when they play the BLUEGOLDS or the GREENWHITES.
While waiting for a connecting bus on Bank Street, I spotted this character seeking donations to fund his weed habit. All he had to do was visit Parliament Hill and he’d undoubtedly get all he wanted.
Scenes around Gate 3 of the former Ottawa Civic Center. This is the area where we were dropped off around this time last year on the fan bus trip to see the IceDogs battle the 67’s in Game 5 of their first-round playoff series. Loyal readers may recall we left right after the game and got back around 5:00 in the morning. The Ottawa Civic Center was also one of two host venues when the WHA kicked off its first season on the night of October 11, 1972.
The Terry Fox statue was something I definitely wanted to see. I would have liked to have spent more time there, but the statue is in the middle of a busy sidewalk, where, like Union Station, you really can’t stop and smell the roses.
On the northbound lanes, there is a two-way bike path. I can’t imagine how scary it would be pedaling against busy traffic. I found it bad enough out on deserted Hecla Island in the SPRM many years earlier.
The galleries were arranged in chronological order, beginning with the early wars among the aboriginal peoples.
There was a phone where you could hear the dramatization of an Indian elder speaking about his first encounters with the French. I swear it sounded just like a good friend and loyal reader. He will understand and no doubt laugh heartily. I hope he was paid handsomely for the use of his voice.
I know “retards” doesn’t mean the same in Quebecese as it does in Canadian, but it was still odd to see. This particular display showed what was being done on the home front, and a noteworthy omission was “If Day” held in Winnipeg in 1942. They had fake Nazis on the street, renamed Portage Avenue to Adolf-Hitler-Strasse and even published a fake edition of the Winnipeg Tribune to show what things would be like if Germany won the war, all in an effort to sell Victory Bonds.
All told, I spent two and a half hours there and I can highly recommend it for anyone with an interest in military history.
After a stop at the café for refueling and rest, I was back on the road for some more sightseeing before catching the bus back to the hotel.
Upon reaching the bus stop, I spotted this rotund figure with the slogan “Keep it fit, hit the pit” on her back as she accompanied “Pita Pete” down the street. Had she passed by me, I might have been tempted to tell her to practice what she’s preaching.
The next day, I had plenty of time to sleep in before making my way back across the walkway to the train station.
Time went quickly, and I was soon on board the Toronto-bound train. The car was noticeably different than the last one, and even the woman sitting in front of me who travels this route frequently hadn’t seen one like it before.
The train was not completely full and I lucked out as the seat next to me, 5C in Car 5, was empty on the nine-year anniversary of my fateful inaugural visit to Carli Ward at Riverview Health Center. Whether or not that was a coincidence is left as an exercise to the reader.
As was the case on the trip to Ottawa, there would be little chatter on board except for a little bit in front of me before we left the station. A young woman in her 20s was telling the woman to her right that she was a student going to school in Toronto who was visiting family in Ottawa before going back to take her final exams the next day. She would later open her laptop and go through some sample questions on math logic. Hey, I got my math degree using paper and pencil.
As we were leaving, the announcement, “Hello, my name is Eric and I’ll be your service manager today,” came over the PA system, as it would after each of the Fallowfield and Kingston stops. Well, Eric, I’m Curtis and I’ll be your passenger today. To be more blunt, Eric, I really don’t give a flying rat’s behind what your name is. In fairness, however, Eric and his colleagues were much more pleasant than the bunch who were on the Ottawa-bound train.
The return trip offered me a view from the opposite side of the car, where I was able to see the lake, in addition to a couple of other odd sightings. One farmer was flying a Saskatchewan Roughrider flag upside down and I also spotted some assorted trailer trash sitting around an open pit with a fire going. The latter scene reminded me of an obnoxious former neighbor who would frequently burn railway ties in his backyard for no apparent reason.
Back at Union Station, I caught a Lakeshore West train and had a long wait at Burlington with many others for the #12 GO bus. Right behind me in line were three older women headed for Niagara Falls who were on the same VIA train from Ottawa as I was, just four rows ahead of me. I was able to help them with some directions and I hope they made their way there safely.
Tired and weary, I made it back to St. Catharines around 6:30 having experienced more over the last four days than I could digest.
I was glad I went, but I’m not sure I would return. There is still plenty I would like to see in Ottawa, but I might be inclined to save my money to go somewhere else.