Saturday, February 26, 2011

A Toastmasters Evaluation of Ottawa

"Happy to have been here, and happy to go home as well."
- what I was thinking in the departure lounge of Ottawa International Airport.

Ottawa's objectives for this particular project were to:
a) facilitate educational progress
b) build relationships between international collaborators and
c) provide a favourable first impression of Canada

I would have to say that all objectives were passed with flying colours and with light snow in the background. There were many things that I liked, one thing that confused me, and one suggested improvement for an even better experience.

Like all good openings, Ottawa started off with a strong hook. Everywhere I looked, up and down the streets, across the houses and flying through the air, I saw snow. Lots of snow.
This was a very effective way of getting a seasoned Australian audience wide-eyed and receptive to the body of the experience. For someone who grew up on the sandy beaches of South Australia, the snow in Korea at first seemed surreal.
But snow in Korea is nothing compared to Snow in Ottawa™.

I felt it in my fingers. I felt it in my toes. Snow was all around me...

Like the icing on some kind of massive suburban cake.

Love it or hate it, snow is just a fact of life for those living precariously close to the poles. Although I found myself bemoaning its arrival on occasion, overall it was a pleasant and reliable companion to have on my trip. As soon as I stepped out of the warmth of any well-insulated Canadian abode, I would find myself thinking "Hello snow, my old friend. I've come to talk with you again."

The conversation consisted of a crunching sound beneath my shoes.

Another area where Ottawa scores high marks, is in its high concentration of Canadian people. I've met the odd Canadian English teacher in Korea before, and have found them to be worthy drinking partners. Our shared Commonwealth roots allow us to chat about all sorts of things unintelligible to your average rest-of-the-worlder. Such topics include a searing affection or lukewarm disdain for cricket, lingering familiarity with the Queen (because she's on our coins), and the ability to speak the English language more correctly than our immediate neighbours.

But the famous Canadian way of saying 'out' did surpass novelty value after a couple weeks.

"Ooh, so you're goin' oot, eh?"

"Yeah, I am. Mate."

Another pivotal part of the Ottawa experience was going to Tim Horton's. Although not a regular coffee drinker in Seoul, I was converted to Tim's 'Large Double-Double,' which is the colloquial name for a coffee with two helpings of cream and sugar. You can get enough coffee to give you a cheshire cat grin and involuntary hand shudders for a mere $1.47.

The food in Ottawa was generally excellent. I managed to eat Italian food without pickles, sandwiches without coleslaw and pizza without sweetcorn.

Foodwise, everything in Ottawa is expensive except for eggs, which you can buy at an enormous tire store called Canadian Tire. You can buy a dozen eggs there for only $1.20.
Why do you need to go to an enormous tire store to purchase cheap eggs? It's one of those Canada things.

"F@$#ing cheap eggs!" as Bao would say, walking victoriously out of the tire shop. 

The research experience was very enlightening. I immediately felt more academically free than in Korea, where the barrier of hierarchy between professors and students remains a stalwart reminder of Confucianism's former glory. In Canada, as with Australia, students can refer to their professors by first name, or even by nickname if they like. They can also use the word 'whatever,' when replying to a criticism, without fear of physical harm.

One thing that could be good or bad, depending on how you like your cities, is Ottawa's size. Ottawa is around the same size as Adelaide, which is often teased by our eastern Australian counterparts as being an irrelevant destination that most holidaymakers plan to avoid. If you imagine Seoul's population to be a birthday cake, Ottawa's population would be a single slice.
I, however, like small cities and big cities alike. We spent some of our youth living in the town of Pt Augusta, a small village in outback South Australia with its own tribal chieftain (it was Mayor Joy Baluch at the time).

We had three supermarkets, two sets of traffic lights and a single toy shop in the whole town.

One thing that I thought was Korea-specific, was the rapid accumulation of jingling coins in one's pocket. I don't understand money at all, but I'm sure there's some kind of mathematical relationship going on between the values of coin denominations and the local prices specific to each country. In Australia, I'd hardly ever have to deal with coins, or would run out of them in front of the parking ticket machines. In Korea, I always seem to have too many, especially the pesky 10 won coins that are only useful for purchasing coffee from 100 won vending machines. 
In Canada, it was the same as Korea. After a long day out, I would often find myself with two pockets full of silver. Which I didn't mind much, but here's what confuses me: Have a look at the denominations above.
On the far left is the $1 coin, then the 25 cent, then the 5 cent and the copper coin is the 1 cent coin. What would you guess is the coin on the far right? Logic dictates that it would perhaps be a 2 cent coin. It's actually the Canadian ten cent coin, unintuitively smaller than the 5 cent and a cause for much ponderment.

"What are you talking aboot, eh?"

Now it's time for a suggested improvement. The photo above is from the frozen Dow's Lake, which we skated along until dusk. Nearby was a large restaurant selling Mexican food, where we entered with Professor Tsang who wanted to do some work on a laptop. This was how the conversation went:

Prof Tsang: "Is there a wireless internet connection here?"
Waiter: (mild frown) "We are a restaurant."

Here's me at a hairdresser:

Me: "Can I get a haircut?"
Man behind the counter: (without looking up from his magazine) "You're going to have to wait."

Some places in Ottawa had very good service, but there were many instances that made my other favourite cities look sparkling in comparison. I'm no whinger and take what I can get, but hey, man, how about a smile and a bit of cheer when you're selling something?

Let's turn those frowns upside-down!

Overall though, Ottawa was a memorable experience and I had a great time. I brought home a plethora of gifts and goodies, including Fisherman's Friend.
The snow was good, the research was interesting and the food was excellent. 

I even enjoyed the flights on Air Canada. Northern Canada looks a bit like the moon. My eager efforts at spotting muskoxen from these heights proved fruitless.

As I sat on the plane though, I realised that the highlight of the trip was the people who I met along the way. The lab members were all friendly and welcoming, Bao's family members were warmly hospitable and I made great friends with Ji-Young nuna, who I'm convinced is a scientific genius. I look forward to going back someday.

Now that I've arrived home in Korea, things are starting to heat up. The new term is starting, my wonder-woman of a wife is 7 months pregnant and the pressure is on to produce some results in my research. I once asked Professor Tsang what advice he had for being a successful PhD student.

He said "Work hard. And think hard."

1 comment:

witney S said...

I really enjoyed your posting as always! There were a lot of spots where made me giggle. =)