We just spent a weekend in Ottawa. There were some parts of it that could have been worth a redo. It wasn’t horrid, but we were glad to draw a curtain on a few bits. Some of it was worth a laugh, and some just gave us new wrinkles. And some of it was splendid. If a bit cold.
Ice, yes. There was plenty of ice.
Running through it was Rideau.
Throughout the French-speaking world, rideau means ‘curtain’. But in Canada, it’s a word of national significance. It carries some weight, some history, some patriotic connection. It gives images of an important building in Canadian government, and of an important waterway in the capital – which, in winter, becomes a very long ice rink.
It also gives an echo of Trudeau, the name of one of our most prominent prime ministers – and of his son, who will be running for his shot at the job this fall. (Well, technically, his party will be running for its shot at forming the government, and if it succeeds he will be prime minister. Such is parliamentary democracy.) It is occasionally joked that Trudeau sounds much like trou d’eau, which means ‘water hole’. What, then, would rideau mean? Rire means ‘laugh’ – is rideau from ‘laughing water’? No, it has a different wrinkle. Literally. Ride in French is ‘wrinkle’ or ‘fold’, and rider is the associated verb; from it comes rideau, a wavy, wrinkly sheet of fabric – a curtain.
It happens that there is a river that waterfalls into the Ottawa river a couple of kilometres downstream from Canada’s parliament building. The waterfall looks like a curtain. The falls, and from them the river, thereby gained the name Rideau. (Just think: If the locals had been more Anglophone at the time, all that I’m talking about would be called Curtain.)
After the War of 1812, when misguided Americans thought they could roll into Canada and be greeted with open arms as liberators (so glad the US doesn’t try to do that anymore), the Canadian government became aware that the St. Lawrence river was vulnerable to an invasion and if it were cut off, commerce and supply shipments would be severely hampered. So they determined to build a canal from the Ottawa River to Lake Ontario. The canal took its name from the river it parallelled and partially used: it became the Rideau Canal.
The main contractor building the Rideau Canal was a Scotsman named Thomas McKay. He bought a decent piece of land near the confluence of the Rideau and Ottawa Rivers and built a nice country pile on it, which came to be called Rideau Hall. When Ottawa became the capital of Upper Canada in, they needed a place for the viceroy (the queen’s local representative) to live and for state functions to be held. They leased Rideau Hall from the McKay family, not intending for it to be permanent. But after Canada became its own country in 1867, the government bought Rideau Hall from the McKays and started adding onto it; over the years it has gotten quite a bit larger.
And, as with residences of governors general throughout the Commonwealth, its official name is Government House, although no one calls it that. It’s still Rideau Hall. Even on its own official site. It’s where all sorts of official government receptions and so forth are held. The governor general lives in a small part of it (well, OK, a few thousand square feet, but just a fraction of the whole thing). The person who is really the executive head of government – as opposed to the ceremonial head – lives across the street in a decent stone house, nice enough but not at all suited to receptions and other large functions. That’s 24 Sussex Drive, the home of the prime minister. I suspect there’s a tunnel a few hundred metres long between 24 Sussex and Rideau Hall, but I don’t actually know.
So, then, to this past weekend. Aina and I were in Ottawa for the weekend. The excuse was a reunion for skaters from the Ice Capades (Aina was one of the last Ice Capaders; they got bought up by Dorothy Hamill, putting Aina and others out of work, and then they folded up altogether. They had a revival a few years later – with Aina’s best friend and roommate from Holiday on Ice as show director; he even put the show curtain on his credit card – but then the Ice Capades slipped under the waves altogether). But aside from that, it was a chance to do Winterlude in Ottawa, and skate on the Rideau Canal – and at Rideau Hall.
Did you know that Ottawa is the second coldest national capital in the world (going by average temperature year round)? Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, is the coldest. So you have to experience Canadian temperatures to have the complete experience. We were in luck. It was –15˚C on Saturday and –19˚C (just below 0˚F for the Americans) on Sunday. How do you stay warm? Keep moving.
Which we did. We skated all the way to the southern end of the skatable part of the Rideau Canal – 7.8 km one way – and back. Aina skates fast without any trouble; I have to put in real effort to keep up with her, and I worked up a sweat. By the time we were nearly back to where we started, we were actually a little tired. The ice isn’t exactly rink smooth, after all, and it has a lot of snow on it – shaved ice, actually, from all the skates. There are bumps and pits. Aina is used to rink ice, which is smooth. And we were both wearing figure skates, which have toe picks. We were riding the frozen eau nicely at around 4 minutes per kilometre when Aina hit a snow-covered wrinkle – fold, ride – in the ice and her toe pick stuck in the upslope, and she went flying, hit on her left knee, and sprawled forward.
I of course stopped immediately. No, I tried to stop, and the ice conditions and my conditioning were such that I ended up falling too (but with no noticeable injury). The upshot is that Aina ended up with a massive goose egg on her knee. The guys in the first aid tent obligingly let her ice it a bit and gave a bunch of overcautious advice (one of them was sure it was broken, in spite of her being able to walk and skate and its not producing massive pain or crunching noises). But Aina just wanted to go back to the hotel and ice the knee some more – after stopping to buy some flan at the ByWard Market, of course.
Well, she wanted to run a nice hot bath is what she really wanted to do. But when we got back to the room, she turned on the bathroom light, opened the bathroom door, and started to laugh. Why was she rident? It turns out the Novotel in Ottawa has shower stalls in the rooms, not bathtubs. (And their pool and hot tub were closed for maintenance this past weekend. This is the third or fourth time we have checked into a hotel and learned only then that their pool facilities are closed. I do believe it should be a requirement by law to let people know at time of booking that such facilities will be closed, if the hotel knows it at the time. It makes a difference in where we stay. Tell us when you get rid of the eau!)
But the knee was fit enough for walking on. And the next day we made the half-hour walk to Rideau Hall to go skating there, on their little rink just down a short hill from the building itself.
Ottawa is a very cozy city; nearly everything you would want to see is really quite close together. The farthest important building from it all is Rideau Hall. In the US, the president’s house is an intensely important symbolic building at one of the foci of the street system. American presidents are accorded the status of demigods (at least). In Canada, the prime minister lives in a nice, well-appointed house, but there are many people in rich neighbourhoods across the country who live in bigger; the governor general occupies the ceremonially important building across the street, but it’s nowhere near the centre. All of Ottawa focuses on the parliament, where democracy actually happens. So anyway, Rideau Hall is a bit more than 3 kilometres away, and on Sundays the bus service is infrequent. So we walked.
And when you get to Rideau Hall, you simply walk past the lowered gate on the entry road, and a fellow in uniform strolling around says, “Nice day for a skate!” and tells you to continue past the main building and over to the left and down the hill. Try doing that in Washington, DC; the security around the buildings there is rather more intense. You don’t have the sense that anyone expects anyone to want to attack Rideau Hall. At least not on a freezing Sunday.
And was Aina’s knee better? I would say so. She was skating beautifully, as usual. The ice was wrinkle-free. She got her redo from the Rideau at Rideau.