Still breathing but barely

I cheated on Winnipeg

It felt a little guilty to bid adieu to summer in a city not my own. But the promise of a fantastic music festival featuring some of my all time favourites was too much to resist. And so, just over a month ago, I said my goodbye to summer in Ottawa.

My main motivation was the Ottawa Folk Festival, but I’ll admit I was intrigued by the newness of it all. I’d never been to Ottawa, and it was foreign and exotic. I was keen to sink my teeth into something different.

Was this a minor act of betrayal, or an indication of something deeper? Was I getting sick of Winnipeg, my old flame, my one-and-only, and craving something new? I spend much time singing Winnipeg’s praises, and there’s well-documented proof of how strongly I feel about its summers. But sometimes you have the urge to try something new. Your city’s appeal pales when a new environment is introduced, especially one with a killer shawarma scene and a cheap music festival featuring Neutral Milk Hotel.

When we have wandering eyes, new things seem exciting. So was Ottawa to me. Winnipeg is my steady, but Ottawa is - different. It is clean and accessible, and progressive in ways our city is not. Bike lanes are not scarce. Poutine is plentiful. Downtown is populated and pedestrian-friendly, and there was evidence of money and civic pride.

Like Winnipeg, Ottawa features a body of water that cuts through the city. Unlike Winnipeg, this body rarely floods and seldom swallows bodies. The cities felt similar, at least geographically. No mountainous terrains, which these prairie legs were ever-thankful for after long days of wandering and consuming many Montreal-style bagels.

But when something is new and exciting, it’s easy to ignore the deep-seated issues that each of us has. Ottawa has troubles that would surely reveal themselves the longer I stayed there. In fact, some of the more superficial ones made themselves evident right away.

The more time you spend away, the more you miss your city’s foibles. I yearned for our grit and true character. Winnipeg can roll with the punches and celebrate the good times. Ottawa could perhaps be described as … stodgy? As my travelling companion - an Ottawa ex-pat herself - lovingly put it, the city has a bit of a stick up its butt.

The Saturday of the Ottawa Folk Festival was overcast and chilly, and it rained lightly. This was enough to scare off crowds when biggish name acts (including a pre-controversy Sun Kil Moon) were playing. I thought of the best times I’ve had at our own folk fest, rain days themselves. Winnipeggers come prepared and embrace such circumstances. Mud stains are badges of honour for we of hardy stock. Our festivals are grounds for the weird and wonderful, while Ottawa’s crowds are tentative, unsure of letting loose.

In Ottawa in September, the leaves had begun to change colour. I wondered what I’d left back home. How my own city was changing. This brief season in Winnipeg when it’s so majestic, with sickly elms taking on vibrant hues and the smells of far-off fires filling our nostrils and inciting so many allergies.

I wondered how my own city could change for the better. As our election creeps up, let’s think about how we can take the best parts of Ottawa - or any other city - and apply them to our own humble piece of the country. Maintaining our best parts while driving us forward. And let’s act on these plans ourselves - voting is an awesome power, but it’s not our only power. Let’s work on our relationship, Winnipeg. After all, the enemy of all great relationships is stagnation.

Laina Hughes is a writer from Winnipeg. Pick up a copy of her book Wolseley Stories at McNally Robinson.

Published in Volume 69, Number 7 of The Uniter (October 15, 2014)

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