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It’s a Small World… Or Is It?

Mural on Preston Street, Little Italy, Ottawa, May 2017

In April, I bumped into a friend at the Rideau Centre. She was on her lunch break and I was running errands. We had a coffee date, a quicker unscheduled version of the one we had been trying to plan for a while.

Then, a couple weeks ago, I ran into my former director at the Byward Market. We did that awkward North American hug greeting, then the traditional sixty-second life summary before hugging again and parting ways, hypocritically promising to “have a drink and catch up soon.” I hadn’t seen him since my last day on the job but I remembered him well for two reasons. First, he headhunted me and seemed convinced he had the skill set required to save a Crowd Corporation—hint, I did not—,second, the day I resigned to go freelance he blurted out, “ME TOO!” and quit a month after me.

Last week, when Mark came back with green Ninja Turtles rain boots size 9 with “TJ” instead of “Mark P.” printed on the sole, I knew exactly what to do. We walked two streets down and one street up to TJ’s house and traded one pair of Walmart boots for another pair of Walmart boots. Mark was amazed I knew where TJ lives. I was lucky with that one—Mark and him are both October 2012 babies, I met his mom a few times at the park when she was on mat’ leave and no, Mark, I have no idea where Lucas, Zaïd or Molly live.

These days, it feels like Ottawa got a hell of a lot smaller.

Don’t get me wrong, bumping into friends and walking to someone’s house are still rare treats. The city is very spread out with distinct suburbs and neighbourhoods linked by highways and I can’t think of a single gathering point where you’re bound to meet someone you know. Half of the year, people don’t even hang out outdoors much—they drive to work and then back home because yes, fucking cold.

But for years, Ottawa to me was a sea of strangers with one island—Feng. It took me time to meet people, mostly through work at first—some became friends and so I began to build a social circle. In the outer circle are all my former co-workers, current clients and some parents I saw circling the block pushing a stroller between 2012 and 2014 when I was also circling the block pushing Mark’s stroller, neighbours, etc.

I guess it’s not surprising I’m running into friends or acquaintances once in a while. I’ve been living at the same address in Ottawa for fifteen years now. That’s almost half of my life.

Yet, while these “what a small world!” moments could bring out a homey feeling, I still don’t consider Ottawa my “hometown” even though use of this word is appropriate here since it is my fixed residence.

Canada is part of my identity—exact percentage of Canadianess varies depending on situations and mood, like most immigrants—but I find it hard to relate to Ottawa. I don’t work for the government, I didn’t go to school here, I never became a morning person, we don’t have a cottage nor feel the need to go camping in Gatineau Park and I couldn’t care less about most local issues making the headlines in the Ottawa Citizen, starting with rush-hour traffic patterns and the pathetic attempts to develop a 21st-century public transportation system.

I have a cordial, yet passive relationship with Ottawa. I know my way around and I understand local quirks—hell, I’m pretty sure I adopted some of them. Ottawa has good work opportunities for me, it’s picturesque, safe, friendly and I’d argue it’s less boring than the rest of Canada believes. Yet I don’t volunteer, I don’t attend many local events, I don’t get into city politics, I don’t do garage sales, music festivals or “clean up the neighbourhood park” events. The level of NIMBYism drives me crazy and I find many residents are so sheltered they don’t appreciate what they have or how Ottawa could change for the better.

I fell in love with a country but no matter how much I tried, I never developed strong feelings for Ottawa. It’s still my home, as in “the place where I live” but it doesn’t define me. I’m okay with that. In fact, maybe I’m secretly relieved that I don’t have strong roots here because it’s a convenient excuse to occasionally give in to wanderlust and escape without any guilt.

How about you? Are you in love with your city? Do you feel the need to put down roots in a place?


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