Adventures in Ottawa – the city that woke me up

Nothing like a delicious French pain aux amandes to make you re-think your life
Nothing like a delicious French pain aux amandes to make you re-think your life

I have a Christmas card from last year signed:

“Here’s to a lovely 2014 – X”

I’ve had lovely moments this year.  I’ve been unbelievably fortunate and have collected some of the most rewarding, happiest moments of my life.

2014 has also been a year of confrontation.  Confronting the inner deamons that possess us all, confronting a comically disastrous love life, confronting the difficulty of saying goodbye, missing people, falling in love with Paris, leaving Paris, and finally – the one that exhausted me – confronting an entirely different life I had expected in June.

If not for the University College London losing my transcripts and refusing to process my application (which I turned in on time) due to their own fuck up (and despite their incorrect assurance that they indeed had my transcripts), I very well may be living in London right now.  Oh bureaucracy.

It’s okay, I’m over it – now.

But that took a long time.  Four months, actually.  At this point in my life, I’ve realized that I don’t particularly want to study French in London (what was I thinking?); I had no resources to do so, or any real concept of what to do with this degree.  Honestly, I’m grateful for the unexpected turn of events, as well as for my short time in Milwaukee, and will miss driving along the icy shores of Lake Michigan once I leave.

As I said though, this acceptance took time.

Not until packing my bag, boarding a plane, and visiting one of my best friends in Ottawa did I finally wake up.  I had been living inside my head for months with the vague sense of watching the world happen while I simply existed, sitting at the bottom of the ocean.

It wasn’t dark, and I wasn’t sad exactly, but my senses felt dulled, and the decompression from switching in-between cultures shocked me into simply complying with my new life, but refusing to live it internally.

Until traveling to Ottawa.

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Our experiences color our perceptions of people and places, so I’m admittedly quite biased, but I’d highly recommend a trip to Ottawa.

I’ve discovered some of my favorite travel destinations by mere happenstance.  Visiting Vienna with family friends, visiting a friend in Marburg, visiting Provins on a friend’s whim – have you noticed a pattern?

Ottawa was no exception.

While I myself cannot claim expertise of the city, a born and bred “Ottawa-ian,” and fellow Parisian survivor, made certain we frequented her favorite places.

While this adventure wasn’t particularly literary, it was quite fantastic.  If you’re desperate for a French fix and can’t quite make it to France, Ottawa and the nearby city of Montreal could be the perfect budget-tolerable compromise.  I hope you visit!

Alors, voila: the last adventure I needed to buy a plane ticket elsewhere and move forward.  To commemorate the experience, I created a list for myself, and for you, detailing my Canadian adventures and favorite aspects of Ottawa after experiencing the true local flavors.

1. Beaver Tails

I told my mom I munched on beaver tails in Canada and she looked as if she might disown me.  No, I wouldn’t recommend an actual beaver tail.  These delicious, heavenly treats are doughy, sugary, and free from an ounce of any real beaver meat.  Perfection.  According to my born and raised Ottawa friend, you simply can’t visit without sampling beaver tails.

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2. Nordic spa

From getting naked in Marrakech for a traditional Hammam spa to diving under freezing waterfalls in a Nordic one, I have a penchant for unusual spa experiences.  If you do nothing else in Ottawa, visit Le Nordik.

Fairy lights illuminated this welcoming corner of the Canadian woods, where waterfalls, cool pools, hot tubs, saunas, cabins, and fireplaces decorate the forest floor.  Each particular location had its own theme – I especially enjoyed the eucalyptus sauna.

The typical nordic treatment focuses on “three cycles of three”: hot, cold, relaxation.  Repeating this three times soothes your nerves and softens your skin, and while my friend and I “accidentally” spent an hour in the relaxation room, neglecting our third cycle, it made a difference!

The vast expanse of land allowed for privacy and true serenity.  We wandered from waterfall to waterfall, only occasionally sharing our space with other guests.

Granted, we weren’t entirely alone.  My friend and I agreed that most of the couples sharing our infinity pool would return home for a little sexy time.  We went home, ate nachos, drank wine, and watched The Bachelor – the first time since my birthday of truly “feeling 22.”

Honestly, I’d return if nothing else than to revisit this unexpected luxurious place where, for the first time since June, I finally relaxed and enjoyed myself.

 3. Old Town, Montreal

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Okay, Montreal is bizarre.  French and Canadian cultures collide in a confusing, albeit pleasant mishmash.  The city appears far too modern to be French, and far too French to be North American. It didn’t make sense and I loved it.  Unlike some cookie-cutter type places (the kind we could plop anywhere in the world before someone noticed the difference) Montreal struck me as so unique, so bizarrely individualistic, it couldn’t be anything other than what it was.

While I didn’t explore it enough to offer much tourist advice other than the standard “visit Old Town,” I would highly recommend a day trip here from Ottawa! If you’re accustomed to Parisian French though, beware. Which brings me to:

4. “Suivant”

The French Canadian accent reminded me ever-so-slightly of quacking ducks.  There.  I said it.  Perhaps living in Paris affected my opinion of the proper French accent. Honestly though, I speak French.  I understand French.  But I don’t think I understood 40% of what the French Canadians said.  It all started in the airport.  Clutching onto my passport, I waited in line for immigration, straining my ears to catch the controller’s words. “Next” – and then an indecipherable sound. “Next” – an indecipherable sound. “Next” – oh. Finally, I heard it. They were saying “suivant.” But they weren’t saying anything I recognized. The “ant” in “suivant” reminded me of a duck on a hot, dry summer’s day.

I greatly loved the region and the people, I just couldn’t understand them.

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 5.  Nightlife

Locals call the main strip of bars and nightclubs “The Market.”  Technically, it’s the Byward Market, but, as I learned from experience, simply telling a taxi driver “the market” will suffice.  We spent most of our night in the bar Heart and Crown, a local favorite, but I feel compelled to promote The Keg as well.  (Tip Yvonna please, it’s in the name of travel funds).  Afterwards, we sampled poutine – the disgustingly delicious drunk food to trump all drunk foods.  French fries and gravy.

6. The Atmosphere 

While this may not help contribute to your tourist agenda, my favorite aspect of Ottawa had nothing to do with its food or proximity to the French.  Certain cities simply have a welcoming, pleasant, friendly atmosphere.  Liverpool felt much the same way, in that everybody seemed open and willing to sit and chat.  Even while grappling with a national tragedy, the city fostered a feeling of warmth that would make any traveling vagabond wish to return time and time again.

Most importantly though, Ottawa woke me up, and offered just enough of a European flavor – complete with my pain aux amandes – before I set off on my next adventure.

Have you ever been on a trip that snapped you out of something? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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