Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Ottawa and Eric Idle

Sometimes I pick up crazy books from the bargain table at the bookstore - typically light reading that is helpful for a little mental R and R. I recently snagged a 2005 book by Monty Python comedian Eric Idle. It caught my attention because it is a "comic tour of America." It's always fun to read about our home through the eyes of a foreigner, and Eric Idle proves to be a lot funnier than Alexis de Tocqueville.

Sure enough, the book has several laugh-out-loud passages as Mr. Idle and his entourage tour North America for 80 days in a performance tour. This book has some crude language, so it is obviously not for younger readers. If you are familiar with Monty Python, you'll understand what I mean. In fact, the book has a good bit of recitation of old songs and humor skits from Monty Python.

It's not my intention to write a review, but rather to highlight a single passage that shows not only Eric Idle's prowess as a wordsmith, but also how he was moved to such picturesque prose by one of my favorite (or should I say "favourite") cities: Ottawa (Ontario), the capital of Canada. Since my wife is from Ottawa, and since we have several beloved family members there, I've gotten to enjoy the city many, many times over the years. In fact, I've often said that Ottawa is like an adopted hometown.

Before I quote Eric Idle, let me give you some of my impressions - which are far more rambling and far less poetic than the author's...

To an American, Ottawa is exotic and European. It is not only a stereotypically clean place inhabited by a civilized and polite populace, it is a place of elegance, of stately parliament buildings, of British pubs, of tea houses, of gardens, of canals and rivers, of ethnic neighborhoods, of statues and paintings, a place where both English and French are spoken, where women still wear skirts and elegant scarves and where men can still be seen strolling around in tie and jacket. You are also equally likely to find bicycle rickshaw drivers with dreadlocks, tattoos, and pierced tongues - and the various diverse groups all seem to get along with one another with a genuine and cordial politeness that seems contrived to the American.

Downtown (or more accurately, in centre city), Parliament Hill and the stately grounds of the Chateau Laurier Hotel are cut in twain by the Rideau canal (which, in winter becomes literally the world's largest ice skating rink, upon which briefcase-carrying government workers skate to the office after stopping for coffee at kiosks set up on the ice). Near this intersection is the Byward Market, bustling with restaurants, bars, coffee shops, street entertainers, grocers, and a real-live fresh-food year-round open-air market.

A few blocks away on Elgin Street, there is a small restaurant that has become an institution in Ottawa, a place called the Mayflower. The front is a bright and noisy diner that is always packed to the gills (and with good reason). The back is a delightfully dark and dingy pub that looks like time stopped in 1921 (except for the fact that smoking was recently outlawed). I first met Mrs. Hollywood at the Mayflower - at a bright and airy outdoor table in the summer of 1991.

It has always amazed me that more Americans don't know about Ottawa. It is the perfect vacation getaway - with charming B&B's, old-world grand hotels, as well as the modern luxurious hostelry of the caliber of the Four Seasons - and everything in between. There are museums, art galleries, and a host of fine restaurants.

Being the national capital, Ottawa is both cosmopolitan and quintessentially Canadian. It's English, French, freezing in the winter, broiling in the summer, hockey-crazed, on the metric system, and has a football team that never makes it to 4th down (Canadian rules). They have one- and two-dollar coins with the image of the Queen of Canada (who simultaneously happens to be the Queen of the United Kingdom) on the obverse and various animals on the reverse. You will not find more gracious people than in Canada. Even the panhandlers tend to be painstakingly polite.

Having given you my unsolicited random observations (this is a blog, after all, and you, dear reader, are a good sport and still reading along...), now take a look at Eric Idle's commentary (page 52 of the book). As I was reading, I kept waiting in vain for the joke to fall, but it never did. Clearly, Ottawa has charmed Eric Idle as much as it has me...

"Ottawa is a glorious city situated at the confluence of the Rideau and Ottawa rivers. The latter separates Quebec from Ontario, and, more important, the French and the English; and like so many other things, it sounds better in French: la Rivière des Outaouais. This magnificent old city of massive gray stone, castellated buildings with elegantly carved Norman windows, capped by steeply angled roofs of green copper, is filled with fountains and squares, markets and malls, and a big, broad river spanned by many bridges. It feels more like Europe than North America. This morning the view from my gabled windows in the Château Laurier hotel is breathtaking. In the faint, pinkish blush of dawn, a perfect pale hunter's moon hangs over the stately river; three huge plumes of steam from a power station on the far shore fill the middle distance with haze; the bright oranges and reds of the turning leaves bisect the powdery greens of the trees, giving a tinted picture-postcard look to the entire scene. As if on cue, the rising sun lights up the waterfront, adding highlights and reflections while the moon fades gently into the morning."

Eric Idle is as eloquent as he is funny. And Ottawa is every bit the delightful picture that he paints with his words.


Peter said...

Thanks. Now, I've got to do two things. Buy the book, and visit the city.

TMG said...

Nice thoughts squire, but it's also the second bleeding coldest capital city in the world. S'truth!