If you live in Ottawa, you attract house guests.
I try to scare them away. “From November to March, every day is -35. And when it finally warms up, that’s when the mosquitoes come out.”
The unfazed are entitled to clean sheets, towels, keys, bus tickets, and a map. I wave them off with a smile to discover Canada’s capital.
When it comes to discovering my city, however, that’s when I get involved. Because beyond Parliament Hill, the museums, and the canal, there is a scrappy, homey city, unpretentious but not without charm, kind of like the people who live here.
And it’s the people’s story I like to tell.
Take your visitors to watch the sunset from Champlain Lookout. Marvel how, at the convergence of three rivers, centuries before Philemon Wright settled here, this part of the Algonquin Nation was the Pearson Airport of water travel: a place you passed through on your way to somewhere else.
Tell the story of the English, Celtic, and French settlers, who really did brave -35 temperatures and mosquitoes long before central heating and DEET.
Take your guests to Centretown and visit St. Patrick’s Basilica at Kent and Nepean streets. Designed by the same architectural firm behind the East and West blocks of Parliament, the stained-glass windows of this church bear the names of some of Ottawa’s early Irish: the O’Connors, Kavanaghs, Gallaghers, and Doyles, prominent among the hearty souls who came to build the canal, hew timber, and make Ottawa a 19th-century Fort McMurray.
Play a game with your house guests and see if they can pronounce the names of our neighbourhoods and streets. Is the area with the cute little overpriced houses near the governor general’s residence pronounced New Edinburg or New Edinburrow?
The street between Laurier and Nepean, is it Gloss-ter or Gloss-ess-ter? And in the market, Dalhowzie or Daloozie? Only the OC Transpo Voice of God knows for sure.
Make sure your guests understand that Ottawa has two official languages. Take them for a walk through the University of Ottawa campus, the largest English and French bilingual university in the world, where you hear French dialects from all over Canada, the Caribbean, Europe, and Africa.
Make your house guests useful and get them to pick up veggies in the ByWard Market. Non-French speakers will be able to brush up on their high-school French, and European French speakers will love it as much as, if not more than, Marché Raspail in Paris.
If the timing is right, take your guests east of the city to the Prescott Russell Festival de la Curd: music, bingo, and a celebration of rural life, all in French. And yes, European cheese snobs, cheese curds do warrant a festival. And yes, American visitors, French country music is a thing. A big thing.
Take your visitors across the river and visit Chelsea and Wakefield. “Wait … what?” they’ll say. “Why is there so much English even though we’re in Quebec?” Just shrug. Yup. Just like there’s lots of French in eastern Ontario, there’s lots of English in western Quebec. Language in our region is more about people than borders. And people in Ottawa come from everywhere.
You will hear the breathy staccato of Upper Canada-speak, with its over-polite “Sorry” and negative formulations: “I couldn’t possibly!” “You mustn’t go to any trouble.” “You’re not serious!”
You’ll also hear traces of the lilting Ottawa Valley dialect that makes Toosday the day between Monday and Wednesday and turns “th” into a furry mix of “t” and “d”. The observant house guest might notice “eh” less often in Ottawa, maybe because we tend to favour an English version of the Québécois sentence-ender, “là.” So you might hear something like “I’ll see you Toosday, dere.”
The linguistic cross-pollination works both ways, so in June of 2016, you might have read messages like: “Whatever you do, avoid Rideau Street. The sinkhole! OMG! C’est tout f*cké!”
Beyond the story of the English and French of the region, tell your guest how immigration continues to enrich our city with successive waves of newcomers from all over the world so your children are likely to have at least as many Nguyens and Mohammeds for classmates as Nelsons and Martins.
Take your house guests to your favourite place for pho, and tell them the story of Project 4000, when Marion Dewar, mayor at the time, convinced citizens in 1979 to open their homes, hearts, and wallets to Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian boat people. It’s a story that continues to inspire today as we welcome Syrian families to life in Ottawa.
Take them to your favourite place for shawarma, and explain how Ottawa has the fourth largest Middle Eastern population in Canada. Tell them how Arabic is now the third most spoken language in the region. The inevitable migration from Arabic to the Urban Dictionary to Ottawa vernacular has begun with “yalla” finding a place next to “let’s go” and “on y va.”
“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody,” wrote Jane Jacobs, the American-Canadian author credited for changing the way we think about livable cities. This is certainly true of Ottawa — an evolutionary urban project of creation that reflects each of us — a work-in-progress, shifting and changing, never grandiose, but always generous and welcoming, even to house guests.
Amélie Crosson immigrated to Ottawa in 1985. She writes speeches for work and fiction for fun, in both official languages