How to have fun in Ottawa for less than $10

Recently, Melani and Jilly joined me in Ottawa for a working weekend. It was one of those weekends where we were a little short on cash, but it’s a small and family-oriented town, and we were staying in a downtown hotel half a block from Parliament Hill. Here, in Melani’s words, is a tiny guide to having a blast in our nation’s capital on less than $10. 

How to have fun without spending (much) money: Talk like a pirate. (Photo provided by Melani Litwack)
How to have fun without spending (much) money: Talk like a pirate. (Photo provided by Melani Litwack)

How to have fun in Ottawa when you’re three and Mommy is beyond broke

  • Watch the changing of the guard at the war memorial.
  • Check out the “castles,” statues, 3D map, people, canal, things to climb on and pedestrian tunnel between your hotel and the bookstore.
  • Spend Mommy’s bookstore gift card. Then have a tantrum because she won’t buy you a scooter.
  • Scream all the way to the market.
  • Stop screaming and have a photo op on the nice policeman’s motorcycle.
How to have fun without spending (much) money: Talk to a cop. (Photo: Melani Litwack)
How to have fun without spending (much) money: Talk to a cop. (Photo: Melani Litwack)
  • Go to McDonalds for the food that would have prevented the tantrum in the first place.
  • Start walking back to the hotel taking pretend pictures with a cardboard camera. Greet EVERYONE.
  • Sneak into the biggest castle through the spinny door and peek in the ballrooms.
  • Find a bowl of candy and take one.
  • Climb on more things.
  • Meet a man with parrots and have a complete stranger pay him so you can have your picture taken.
  • Discover a reflective wall.
  • Climb on even MORE things.
  • Meet a nice lady who’s staying in your “hotowel” and strike up a conversation. Find out she’s there for the same reason you are.
  • Play with all your loot.
  • Go swimming.
How to have fun without spending (much) money: Have a tea party in the park with Dad, who Melani and Jilly stumbled upon by chance in a park across from the hotel. (Photo: Melani Litwack)
How to have fun without spending (much) money: Have a tea party in the park with Dad, who Melani and Jilly stumbled upon by chance in a park across from the hotel. (Photo: Melani Litwack)
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No time to play in Ottawa

My hotel room in Kanata had a lovely view of a golf course, the gentle hills of southern Ontario, and Facebook on my phone so I'd feel a little closer to my family.
My hotel room in Kanata had a lovely view of a golf course, the gentle hills of southern Ontario, and Facebook on my phone so I’d feel a little closer to my family.

OTTAWA—Recently, I spent four weeks away from home, without my family. Although I was in Ottawa on business, I told myself I’d find time to check out a few museums, take a long hike through Hog’s Back Falls park and meet some interesting people whose zany quips would make great fodder for Life’s a Trip.

I have always loved Ottawa and the farmland around it. I lived in the city in kindergarten and in the farmland, near Inkerman, in Grade 1. My dearest friend while I was growing up—years before anyone even thought of saying “bestie,” lived in Kemptville, about 40 minutes south of the nation’s capital.

But this spring, I found myself working long hours and I generally crashed out hard in my hotel after supper. So while I had the best of intentions to gather stories for you, mostly what I saw was the Byward Market, the area around the giant IKEA and the section of Kanata where I was staying.

I took a bunch of pictures, though, and—I’m sorry, people, I really am—started to play with iMovie.

How do I get to Parliament? The long way

OTTAWA, Ont. – A parent’s answer to just about any question that starts “How do I get to …” – whether it be Texas or the ladies’ room – is generally “the long way.”

Baby Jilly and I had the morning to ourselves and the plan was to hit several thrift shops. In three hours, I figured, we could hit four, maybe five. We took the Ottawa River Parkway, mostly empty of cars on a chilly Saturday morning, and my eyes kept darting to the changing trees, to the rushing river and to the thin black walking and biking trail that runs parallel to the road.

We snuck up behind the Parliament buildings and got a stunning view of the green towers and ancient stone – a view you don’t see on postcards and travel advertisements. “I should take her there,” I thought, “to see the Eternal Flame and the cats.”

And then the geese flew over the car, honking like mad. They weren’t flying in their trademark V formation, probably because they’re at home in the nation’s capital and they don’t have to put on a show for anyone – they’re comfortable flying all willy-nilly, like you walk when you’re wandering your own downtown with your head down to read a text or up to check out the city’s crazy hidden architecture.

Like us, geese travel in families. Goslings stay with their parents for at least a year and so now, in the middle of fall, goose mothers are gathering their children for the road trip south, just like we did in August. They’ll get to their destinations in the southern United States much more quickly than we did. They’ve been clocked doing 1,000 kilometres in a day and getting to their wintering homes in under a week (it took us a week and a half). Hinterland Who’s Who says that families travelling with goslings will probably take longer to get there than adult travelers.

Jilly and I turned around and parked at Remic Rapids, bundling up against the cold. We wandered down to the Ottawa River and walked among the inukshuks that make up Art of Balance, dozens of rock sculptures dreamed up by John Ceprano, who has been making these public sculptures here since 1986. We could have spent an hour strolling among these little rock men who are believed to direct travelers along the safest route, but I had it in my head that we could get to Parliament, come at it from behind as I’d seen from the road.

Then we were distracted by the giant willow tree surrounded by dragonsnaps. A cormorant watched us from a large rock in the centre of the river. Geese ignored us. We walked under a dark, iron bridge and around blind curves in which were hidden squirrels and all manner of other little creatures that were but a blur, skittering away from us. We smiled at the few people we encountered and kept out of the way of cyclists. It was quiet and windy and I could sing and tell stories to the baby. I could not see Parliament.

“Just one more bend,” I promised her, but took three more. The highway was to my right, too close, and to my left … “Ah, baby, there it is. See the tower? Isn’t it pretty?” She was looking at her shoes, trying to figure out how to get them into her mouth. “Shall we keep going? Would you like to go to Parliament?” She examined her hands as though she’d never seen them before.

We turned back. We’ll get to Parliament another time.

Sunday morning architecture

For the first nineteen years of my life, I attended three religious services a week as part of a fundamentalist organization. It’s a rare Sunday now that finds me inside a church, but Melani assured me the First Unitarian in Ottawa would be worth the visit. Since Trev and I were spending the night after the truck rally at the home of a friend who is a UU member, we decided to tag along with her on Sunday morning.

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Unitarian Universalist church in Ottawa

The religious buildings of my youth were nondescript (read: ugly) square boxes with no windows. The Ottawa UU does it right. Designed in the late ’60s, the church is built high, up a long flight of shallow stairs to a concrete terrace. One can see directly into the sanctuary, through two walls of red-cedar-framed windows. There is no vestibule; rather, one steps from the bright, tree-sheltered terrace directly into the worship hall.

The ceiling stretches into the sky, following the line of the steeple. It is filled with aged cedar and sunlight streams onto the platform, illuminating the speaker and pianist.

Sun streams into the sanctuary. I'd love to sit here during a snowstorm.
Sun streams into the sanctuary. I'd love to sit here during a snowstorm.

If he were the type to feel comfortable at a Unitarian service, God would fit in here. The sanctuary is designed for higher thoughts. The long, cushioned pews are just soft enough that one may relax and just hard enough that one won’t fall asleep. Not that falling asleep is a danger: The service is designed to keep you moving, singing, greeting those around you. I’m not a fan of saying hello to strangers, but it somehow works in this space.

The service was bittersweet, being the congregation’s last day with a highly respected interim minister.

“As an interim, I don’t think I’m supposed to fall in love,” he told the almost-packed hall. More than two-thirds of the people there were wearing bow ties, his signature accessory. He smiled and told them: “I have fallen in love with you.”

Apparently the congregation has gone through some very big changes in the past year or so, but whatever shadow had hung over them seems to have passed. It was the warmest, most pleasant Sunday morning I have experienced in a long time.

This is one UU group that has truly earned the designation of a Welcoming Congregation.

The Monster (not so) Spectacular

The view from our seats in the nosebleeds.
The view from our seats in the nosebleeds.

I wish I’d had a camera the time we went to the Monster Spectacular in Quebec City.

Everyone – and the Colisée Pepsi has a capacity of about 15,000 – was wearing blue jeans. There were different shades and different styles, but they were all blue and they were all jeans. It was truly something to see in a packed hockey arena.

Generally we go to the rally at the Olympic Stadium. It is always within a thousand seats of sold out (and has a capacity north of 65,000). Because it’s held in October and April, we’re often competing with the Habs.

It works, though, because every time a goal’s scored at the Bell Centre, they flash the score at the Big O and the crowd – high on motor oil and jet fuel and pot fumes – goes crazy. Crazier. It was all about hockey in Quebec City, too. A dirt bike team in Habs jerseys raced a team in Nordiques jerseys. I’m sure it wasn’t fixed, but … the blue won.

We were at the home of the Senators last night. They reminded us of that … once. The arena was about two-thirds full (it holds about 19,000). The announcer tried desperately to get everyone worked up. Trev and I are pros. We yelled. And every time we yelled, we got flustered or downright dirty looks from those around us, even from the kids.

Lest we forget (there was a danger) that we were in the Home of the Sens.
Lest we forget (there was a danger) that we were in the Home of the Sens.

But I really knew we were out of our element in the Ottawa crowd and in for a completely different truck-rally experience when the MC said: “I want you all to be very quiet,” and they were. They were silent.

It took a jet car to get the crowd going (after the intermission). Older children finally screamed, in joy. Younger children screamed in terror, overcome with jet-fuel fumes. It was great.

Other than screaming children, it was just like being at home: I had to get up to get my own beer. No skinny teenagers hawking lukewarm draft in the aisles. I mean, my Canadian tasted better but – I had to get it myself!

What really suffers at an arena when compared with a ball field is the freestyle. The trucks have a strip of five cars to blow over. No school buses, not a lot of room to build up speed. There’s no chance to show off finesse and style. So what a driver has to do is, like Avenger, go nuts with donuts and flames or, like Brutus, flip over and need to be rescued by a peer. What’s great about a show in an arena are the parts that have nothing to do with monster trucks. We saw cycling stunts (link goes to my YouTube video) for the first time, and for the first time in an arena, Demo Dave performed a Wall of Steel Crash. (Link goes to my YouTube video)

I’d say last night’s Spectacular is the quietest show I’ve ever been to, and I’m including that mime I saw on the street last week. What was great about our trip was the journey: Me and Trev in the car with Vinyl Café on the radio and miles of road before us, heading to one of my favourite cities in the country. There will be more on that, and on friends and architecture. But not tonight.

This is what we live for: a truck going over. Last night it was my favorite truck, Brutus.
This is what we live for: a truck going over. Last night it was my favorite truck, Brutus.

The road to Ottawa is paved with kittens

I was almost asleep last night when Melani said: “I think you and Trev should go see the monster trucks.”

Going to the Monster Spectacular is a tradition with my son and I. We’ve seen every show – fall and spring – for the past four years. Except we missed them at the Big O in October. When we missed it again in April, I told him we’d see about Ottawa in June.

On Monday, against my wishes, he and Melani rescued a kitten. Now, I’m not against rescuing kittens. I’m pro kitten. But we have a (small) house full of animals and so when our older cat found a scrawny, dirty, seven-week-old kitten in our garden, I called Melani at work.

“No,” I said.

She said: “What?”

“Thud has found a kitten,” I said. “He’s looking after it outside, but he may not bring it in.”

“Oh …”

“Do you understand?”

She assured me she did. I tried to catch the kitten anyway; if I could get my hands on it, I could bring it to the pound, as I’ve done with countless strays over the years. I failed.

They tell me the kitten was howling and they could hear it all the way on the second storey. I was unmoved. Then it started to rain. I came home to find Melani and the children had already fallen in love with a pound and a half of filthy feline.

His name will probably be Boom, complementing the other cats, Thud and Splat.
His name will probably be Boom, complementing the other cats, Thud and Splat.

And did I mention sickly? By Thursday we were at the vet, where we spent (because this tangent has a purpose) exactly the amount we would have on two tickets to the Monster Spectacular. The monster trucks were off.

Saturday – the day of the rally – friends left for a three-week holiday in Alaska, leaving Trevor to care for their cat (why does my life revolve around cats?). We popped over there late in the morning to make sure everything was in order and … they had left Trevor his money in advance. It was just the amount we needed for tickets and gas and parking. He gleefully handed it over (“I am this family’s saviour!”) on the understanding that he gets it back in the form of a DSI.

We hit the highway an hour later.