Tuesday, February 12, 2008

36 (or more) Hours in Our Nation's Capital

Living in Iqaluit, Ottawa is a big city getaway destination. I used to scoff at Ottawa's charms. I chose instead to visit bigger cities, warmer climes. Now, our nation's capital offersthe lure of stores, sidewalks, restaurants and, ironically, warmer weather--all a magical 3 hour flight away. Last weekend, I took the magical plane ride to spend time with friends. I say magical because life here is such a contrast. Most things are made, not bought. What we buy depends on the availability at a few stores, most of which are varying sizes of the traditional general store. If you come from a large southern city, like I do, you are used to finding ingredients when you want them. Consider herbs. Basil, cilantro, mint: you can find them at almost any grocery store in Toronto. Maybe not every day, but often enough that you could set out to the store with the idea of buying them. Here, fresh herbs arrive on Tuesdays and Thursdays at Northmart. They are unpacked and quickly snatched up by eager shoppers. Unless there is a blizzard, which means flights may be cancelled. Once, Northmart was out of bananas. Never did I imagine I would find an occasion that called for singing, "we have no bananas today", but I did. I don't mean for this to sound negative. The impredictability makes every trip to the grocery store an adventure. People seek out a lot more "country food" (local Arctic fare) for fresh meat and fish, which is nice. It just makes me realize how fantastic the wealth of living in a big Canadian city is. I decided to bask a little in this on vacation.

On the first morning, I had time to myself in the By-Town. I woke up and decided to take a luxurious day doing whatever I wanted. I don't know Ottawa very well, but I wandered to Wellington Village. There, I spent an hour at Bridgehead, Ottawa's answer to a fair trade Starbuck's, eating, drinking fancy coffee and reading the newspaper. When I had walked in, I was totally overwhelmed by the choice of items on the menu. I couldn't even begin to think about what to eat. I wanted to eat everything...so I did: chili, cookies, gingerbread latte. And I kept eating. I walked toward Westboro and in between stopping to shop at outdoor stores I ate a "cheese bagel" (more a danish than a bagel really), another latte, and a mocha chip cookie. The cookie, a product of the 3 tarts bakery, was so good. Indeed, everything there looked good, so good that we returned there the next day to buy a box of assorted chocolate treats.

The food fest did not stop there. That night, we had dinner at Sweetgrass, a restaurant that cooks with an aboriginal theme and that must be one of the most welcoming places ever. The wait staff attended patiently to all my questions (I always have lots of questions), and I had the yummiest tomato-chorizo soup, a chipotle-spiced seafood plate and a chocolate tart. The next night, we had a much different but no less friendly dinner at the Manx, a pub that made me very happy with its pulled-pork naan pizza. You gotta love fusion. Saturday night it was Thai basil, a thai resto off the beaten path but worth the drive. We ordered som tam and then dared each other to eat it because it was so spicy! Sunday, it was brunch at Stoneface Dolly's, where the eggs benedict comes on homemade bread that is apparently never soggy. In fact, if you were to have one meal in Ottawa, you could manage to hit many birds with one stone there, as they have Bridgehead coffee AND 3 tarts desserts. We ended our weekend of excess with antipasto and homemade lentil soup by the fireplace. Oh, and chocolate.

Just in case you think that ALL I did was eat in Ottawa (though that's pretty close), I'll add that I went cross-country skiing in Gatineau Park. Coached patiently by my friend's husband, I managed 2 hours of skiing in the bright sunshine and tree-lined trails. It felt good to be outdoors at temperatures under -20C, and to find massive snowfalls entertaining rather than frustrating. Perhaps the Arctic will inure me to winter chills forever. Even Arctic winter chills...wouldn't that be nice?

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