Ottawa Culture

Over the years, I have tried explaining what it is about Ottawa that gives me a rash. I have a love hate relationship with this City. I love it, for all its warts, but I could never put into words what actual warts Ottawa has.

It all started when I was 13. We had just moved back after a posting. We were living in our old hood, what was Westboro, a cute community, 15 minutes outside of the downtown core. It was full on WASP, but not tony enough, after all, Mountain Equipment Coop hadn’t moved in yet, and made it the place to come shop and spend a day. No, it was just WASP at that time. The gentleman across the street, had decided his house, a charcoal grey, needed new trim. So he began to paint it, a beautiful shade of periwinkle blue. He managed to paint only half the trim, before the petition started to circulate in the neighbourhood. It was a polite, diplomatic, cease and desist letter, outlining that the periwinkle blue was an unsuitable colour for the neighbourhood. My parents were the only people on the block who refused to sign the petition. They thought it was ridiculous to stop someone from painting their house. As my Mother pointed out, the blue was cheerful, and looked great. It turned out, the gentleman who spent time painting his house trim that colour, was actually an architect. The neighbours weren’t thrilled with him, he lived a “life style”, they didn’t care for. I guess they didn’t appreciate that he traveled, never had children, but was married to the love of his life, who happened to be an attorney. In protest, he left the trim half painted, it stayed like that for 3 years, before they decided to move to Toronto, leaving Ottawa to never return.

The most interesting people seemed to disappear from Ottawa. For years, I couldn’t figure out why. It was safe, beautiful, clean, mostly affordable, and was almost perfect on paper.

Looks can always be deceiving.

My husband and I moved into a small walkup in good Ol Westboro, it was a steel of a price, was beautiful, and heck, did I mention it was cheep! We moved in the year before Mountain Equipment Coop built their insane new store just down the street from us. So mostly, the hood was still middle class WASP.

It was about a month into us moving in, that we noticed by-law officers circulating, leaving tickets and warnings. I sat at my living room window while sick, and watched ticket after ticket being left in mailboxes or windshield screens. It was the oddest sight, no one was out, except for the officer. The street was unnaturally quiet, we even joked that it was like living in the middle of a cemetery, you could not even hear a dog bark after 8pm with the windows wide open.

Ottawa’s flaws begin to shine through slowly, as we began to fall deeper into our careers and life. Our friends, who just bought a new house. Began to get complaints that their garbage had been put out 10 minutes before the allowed time. Their car was over the sidewalk on their driveway by, literally an inch, the colour they chose for their front door was not in compliance with the neighbourhood colour palette. It seemed like an endless list of ridiculous complaints. They quickly grew tired of the tickets, the complaints and the inhospitable environment that they were coming home to. They moved to another neighbourhood, the same things started up again, complaints would come their way, they began to get ticketed for by-law violations. It wasn’t just them, I began to notice those working in our Human Resources department sit on their phones calling in various by law violations in their own neighbourhoods. I thought I was going mental, but no, this is just Ottawa.

It came to me in a recent trip to Ottawa, that although it is a stunning city, and has so much to offer. It is 90% made up of Federal Government Employees. Many of whom will never get fired from their jobs, so they have nothing to lose, but they also have a sense of entitlement. It is that sense of entitlement that creates a really toxic undertone to Ottawa. It is what I began to feel suffocated by.  It wasn’t just that sense of entitlement, but the sense of superiority.

Let’s just get something straight, there is a sense of entitlement everywhere, but in Ottawa, it becomes cumbersome and rather tiresome because that one person in the neighbourhood ends up leading the rest down the wrong path. It is a part of Ottawa’s culture that I never understood, nor did I ever like.

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Mong Nardo

I will never forget his smile, or his way of tapping you on the shoulder and calling you “buddy”. When we arrived in the Philippines, this lovely 60 + year old, became our personal driver. Mong Nardo, a personality that was bigger and happier than sunshine, his happiness and pride hit you square on, and if it didn’t rub off on you immediately, he would work on you, until you were insanely happy. He knew everyone, and I mean everyone. He could park anywhere, and knew every guard, salesperson, jeepney driver, and every piece of gossip happening in every household in every neighbourhood. He told us stories and lots of them, stories of the Philippines during WW2, and being a child planting bombs for the Americans. His stories were always captivating and maybe slightly exaggerated, but who cared, he was awesome. His true happiness came when talking about his family. His wife, children and grandchildren were his life, his heart, his everything. Every morning, we would pile into the car, blast music, and he would drop us off at school, always yelling out “you have good day buddies, see you later.” At the end of the day, we would pile back in, and he would ask “you learn a lot, right buddies.” Then launch into the fact that one of his children had grown up to be a doctor, and one a lawyer, and he had 2 still going to school. We were always impressed, and loved hearing his stories. When he wasn’t there to greet us, and it was another driver, we always sighed in disappointment. He didn’t worm his way into our hearts, he danced. I think I loved him the moment I met him, we all leaned on him, we all trusted him, and felt secure with him around.  He was so good, that my parents entrusted him with everything, he delivered us to school, picked us up, shuttled my Mother everywhere, and began filling in with Embassy drivers delivering letters and packages. My Father quickly saw that he needed to be an embassy driver, and had a secure job with a  medical plan. After a year of being our personal driver, he moved to be a full time driver at the Embassy. We were happy for him, but incredibly sad for us.

By our 3rd year in the Philippines, both my brother and sister were in University, and I was left alone, going to a new school, and ride alone in a car with a driver I detested. I was incredibly lonely, I had lots of friends, and life was good, but as usual, I was split in 2 and it was always difficult to keep things in check. Our personal driver just wasn’t the same. He wasn’t Mong Nardo. On one day, A navy car drove up in the queue of cars, it had Canadian diplomatic plates, the windows rolled down, and all I heard was ‘Buuuuudddddy” and a smiling Mong Nardo hopped out of the driver’s seat. I was so excited, I ran to him, and jumped into his arms screaming “Mong Nardo!!!” He laughed and hugged me back. Everyone in the queue stared at the strange sight, it was not normal to hug a driver, people were whispering, and making comments.  In my head, Mong Nardo had become my cherished Uncle, every time I left him, I told him I loved him, and he would respond back with an I love you. I am not sure we ever exchanged that in public, or that my parents every knew that I told a gentleman that was not of blood, or 50 years my senior, that I truly loved him like he was my uncle, but I didn’t care.

He handed me a lollipop, and told me that our family driver Ray was on the opposite end of the city and my Father ordered Mong Nardo to pick me up. I was so happy to see him, I asked him if we had time for our regular treat. He laughed and said “of course, buddy.” I got into the front seat, and we were off to our favourite little stand, to have a calamansi juice and a sweat treat to chat about school. It was our secret, every time he got a free chance to pick me up from school, we drove to the same stand, and sat on the hood of the car, and I told him all about school and boys, while he nodded and laughed, and told me about what his grandchildren were up to. I loved those moments, being in a part of Manila I normally didn’t go to, unless I was with Mong Nardo, eating local foods. He knew more about my life than my parents. He would then drop me off at home, usually to a parent less house and the rest of the local staff were busy preparing for another event or official visit. Mong Nardo, always seemed to know when I needed him, when I was at my loneliest.

One afternoon, my Mother announced that she and my Father were going on a trip together. I would be left for 5 days alone in the house, or could go sleep next door at her best friends house (our neighbours happened to be my parents best friends, we did a lot together as a family). I cried. I was so upset, I didn’t want to be left behind. My Mother didn’t understand why I was so upset, but I don’t remember her trying to console me that much. I was 12, and absolutely petrified. My Father gave me the usual sh-peal of if something happened to them, I had every right to stay in the house until my Aunt arrived from Canada. The lecture and process had been hardwired into my brain, I knew the process, but it didn’t make it any easier. By the time I would leave for school, they would be gone. I was gutted. As much as I loved our neighbours, I didn’t want to sleep at their house. I wanted to stay in our house, I decided to sleep in my parents room, with the lights on, and the t.v blasting for company.

There he was, Mong Nardo arrived this next morning. Told Ray our personal driver to take a hike, and drove me to school. I cried the whole way to school, and told Mong Nardo how scared I was about being alone. He laughed and said “You not alone, buddy, I am here, and you are family, we will take care of you”. In many ways, I knew he was genuine, that he would be there if I needed anything. I dried up my tears, and got out of the car. The day dragged on, but there in the queue of cars, Mong Nardo was there again to pick me up. Telling me he rearranged his embassy work to make sure he could pick me up. He must have told the rest of the staff how scared I was, that night, Mong Nardo came back, and slept at the house, and I sat at the kitchen table with the staff, breaking all barriers of staff versus diplomatic kid. None of them waited on me, they just knew, I needed my family. I looked around that table, and for the first time in 3 years, I felt at home with all of these crazy characters, who were paid to work in the house, not embrace me as a family member.