Just Ottawa

Does a City Name Itself?

I love the nicknames given to cities. All of them. I like the antiquated ones and the modern ones, the crude ones, the disparaging ones. All of these nicknames, like all nicknames in general, speak to the inner truth of something that is difficult to encapsulate. How do you sum up a city in a few words, let alone a thousand? The proper name of a city tends to avoid synonymity, to aspire to a certain neutrality, whereas a nickname communicates something more visceral, often sordid, rife with connotation. The difference is that of examining someone's business card versus digging through his trash.

The only criterion that ought to apply to these nicknames is that they be valid, that they ring true both to those who know them and those who are just hearing them. A city cannot make up its own nickname, like in some corporate branding exercise, no more than can a person, save for the most conniving narcissists among us. A nickname must arise organically, bubbling up from the depths to hang in the air for all to breathe in. It must be as an oil stain on a driveway, a dent in the wall from a rowdy birthday bash.

What then do we say about a city with no nicknames to call its own? This occurred to me recently as I sat perched on a rock in the middle of the Ottawa River, lounging with a friend on a sunny August afternoon. We had hopped our way out to where the shallow rapids gave way to deeper waters and halted at the brink to admire the view of downtown. I could think of no nickname for Ottawa. Bytown? Perhaps, although not a true nickname if one consider that it used to be the proper name of the place. Further investigation, by no means rigorous, yielded nothing better than "Snottawa."

It was around this time that someone told me about the charming slogan, "Ottawa: Where fun went to die."

I must confess that my first reaction is to agree, to echo this hearty contempt for a place that scarcely warrants a nickname. A place where nothing gets done, where everything is far away and hardly worth the trek, where the downtown and the suburbs are virtually indistinguishable on a given night, where art is a joke and a joke sits in the mayor's office. We live in a city built by the shrewd and ruled the meek, where vision extends almost as far as the next set of traffic lights, and where even the parks where we walk are dogs are run by a shady quasi-bureaucratic cartel.

Why not leave? Why not do as so many of my peers have and get the hell out of Dodge? (Sadly, Dodge in this case is not a nickname for Ottawa, just part of the expression). Certainly, I hear the siren call of the hip mecca's of youthful energy, Toronto and Montreal, stimulation and experience. I also have toyed with the opposite, with the pastoral idyll of a remote town, a tiny village, farming perhaps, maybe even the open road. To say that the grass is always greener is all fine and good. At times though it seems more like a choice between grass and sun-bleached astroturf.

By all rights I should be counting the days, making notches in my wall, but I'm not. Not really. I may talk like a prisoner. I may talk a great deal about leaving this place, about the dire need to leave, about the superiority of so many other places to live, but there is something that I can't quite give up on. It is something that is difficult to describe, which is strange considering the immediacy with which it makes itself felt. Ottawa is neither aesthetically endearing or so ugly as to have its own gritty charm. Indeed, the bulk of the city could be razed and salted and I probably wouldn't notice, or care. There are pockets, however, little nodes of concentrated meaning that stand out in all of this white noise. These are the spots that catch you off guard, that breathe a certain strange energy into you. Some of them are landmarks, like the statue of Champlain in what I think is Astrolabe Park. Others are curiosities, like the iconic Wah Shing Store on Somerset. Some of these places are forbidden, probably no longer accessible, like the basement of the Chateau Laurier, or kept hidden away behind fences.

I feel as if, in my brief time here, I have been scouring this city like a set-designer, singling out the ideal shooting locations. This city is not a stage in itself, or in its entirety. Far from it. Rather, it offers a series of backdrops, a whole array of splendid sets with which to build my own Verona. A set cannot be believable if it seems unreal, which is not to say that it must be realistic, but it cannot be real if it is too obvious, overwrought. It is the utter lack of apparent richness in this place that makes these small corners so convincing. It is the joy of discovering that at least the city's flag isn't beige.

I am sure that there are bigger sets in bigger cities. A greater wealth of imagery. I likely will defect in the long run, but it seems an utter travesty to consign this backdrop to storage, to the hungry moths of forgetfulness. I am wholly guilty of the very worst affectation in saying this, the ripest cheesiness imaginable, but I haven't been able to shake the allure of a thoroughly Ottawa romance, and I doubt that I'll leave until I do.