Being a Distinguished Visiting Fellow And Freezing In Ottawa

I am now back in Norwich having completed the visit as Distinguished Visiting Fellowship in Ottawa. Here is my plane letter/diary, which I kept while I was there and finished on the way back to the UK.

The visit was hectic. On my first Friday I gave the Founders Seminar at Carleton which was reasonably well attended. I spoke on HIV/AIDS and social justice, not something I knew a great deal about so it was good to have the chance to get my head round the issue. The following Monday I gave a seminar which was attended by a crowd of two people, a third put their head round the door and fled. Fortunately, for my ego, on Tuesday I gave a class which the students were expected to attend so it was full. This was organised by Chris Brown a Professor in the Department of Politics. He came to get me to walk across the campus. I recognised him. I had met him in Botswana where he had been a District Officer “Development” based in Molepolole in Kwaneng district.

The first weekend was not active, mostly sorting out my work and actually writing a bit. The week had passed so quickly that I was feeling a little panicked at how much I had to do and how much had not been done. I was invited out on Saturday by Carolyn McMaster, a friend of long standing. She was in Pretoria in the early 1980s, handling the CIDA support to Botswana, when I was an ODI Fellow there. She invited two couples who had been posted in South Africa by the Canadian Foreign Ministry. We had a fun evening, mainly talking about things Southern African. I had asked directions to bottle store at the hotel and ended up in one that sold only Ontario wine. I got the most expensive, which was $29-00 a bottle. The fact that this was the most one could spend on a bottle is telling. It was a Syrah, and to be honest it was not too bad. Somehow the words Ontario and wine don”t go together in my mind.

I subsequently had an interesting interaction with the shop assistant at that store. There was a sign saying that they do not take $100 bills. I asked if this were legal. “Yes”, she said, “we don’t keep change”. I thought about this and it seemed a little illogical. “OK”, I asked, “If I buy $96 worth of wine then you will accept the $100”. “No”. “Then this does not make sense”. She agreed but was most upset that I had called her on it.

The 17th March was St Patrick”s day, not marked in the UK or South Africa, but very different here. The streets were full of people wearing green, with shamrocks inked on their faces (and possibly other body parts), and silly little hats. Either there is an Irish community in this city or any excuse for a party.

I usually took the bus from Ottawa University to Carleton. It is the large yellow American school bus. I have always wanted to be on one of those. However, interestingly the seats were really uncomfortable and there were no seat belts. Sitting at the back was quite unpleasant and made me feel ill. So the commute was 12 minutes fast walk to the bus, a 15 minute journey and then five minutes in the “tunnels” at Carleton. The tunnels are amazing, they join all the buildings. It is possible to walk from one end of the campus to the other without going outside. They are populated by people who drive “the carts”, which are sort of golf carts that scoot through the tunnels to do, who knows what missions. I wonder if there is a sub-culture developing, “sub” in both senses of the word.

The hotel room I was in had a small kitchen (it was really an apartment) and there was a laundry on my floor, which was good. Having washed shirts during my first week I set about ironing them. It was a very long time since I had done this, and the iron turned itself off every 15 minutes as a safety feature. So frustrating. I then discovered a laundry across the street that would do all this for $1-49 per shirt. My basic philosophy when travelling is to try to avoid have laundry done when the cost is greater than the price paid for the garment originally, but this was well below that and such a saving on time.

Right next door was a gym. I had originally chosen this hotel, ( because it had the best exercise room of all the ones suggested, but then I spotted the gym. They charged $65 a month ($70 with the tax), so I joined. I figured if I went 10 times it would be worth it and was full of good intentions of going in the morning and evening! Hah! But I did manage 20 visits ($3-50 per visit says the economist in me) and also got a great deal of reading done on the bicycle and cross trainer so was pleased with myself.

Ottawa is an interesting little city. I soon developed a feel for the area round the hotel and the Universities. The weather was kind over the month I was there. There was snow on the ground when I arrived and the canal was frozen. By the time I left the canal was mostly thawed and almost all the snow melted. I got down to a vest, shirt and fleece by the end of the visit, which meant that some of the locals were going round in shirts with the sleeves rolled up. At the beginning my dress was vest, t-shirt, shirt, fleece and coat!

As the 18th was my birthday I decided to go to a “Comedy Club” round the corner, “Yuk Yuks” on Elgin. It was the fourth round of the Canadian stand up comedy championships. The club had an empty bar upstairs, with a faint sour smell of puke, and a packed basement. Some of it was very funny, some was not! Then I had a MacDonald”s vanilla shake as a special treat. I think what I particularly like is the chemical additive taste.

My second weekend was rather fun. On the Friday I was invited to the annual Royal Commonwealth Society Humanitarian dinner. It was attended by the great and the good of Ottawa and I think the average age was 60+. I was the only male present who was not wearing a tie (I simply don”t have one). It was rather like being one of the characters in a Robertson Davies novel. The people were nice and very earnest. The guest of honour had been Canadian High Commissioner in South Africa, where he was mugged rather badly. He spoke from the heart about his impoverished childhood and upbringing, and then went on to describe the despair felt by aboriginal children, who have an alarmingly high suicide rate. He is engaged in trying to improve their lives through literacy.

On the second Saturday I went out to the University and worked all day. I got a great deal done and felt very pleased with myself. My host here, is Michael Brklacich, Chair of the Geography and Environmental Studies Department (to see who he is and information about the department see ), was given tickets for an ice hockey game. His neighbour has season tickets and could not go. These were excellent tickets as well, costing $190 each, and about six rows away from the ice. Mike very kindly invited me to go with him. It was deeply interesting and a lot of fun. I ate the most unhealthy meal I have had for ages, a steak sandwich with fries. I avoided the beer and had a glass of red wine instead. The game was fast and furious and in the end the Ottawa Senators (our team) won by four goals to one.

Sunday I tried working, not very successfully I am afraid. In the evening I went and had dinner with Peter Henshaw who works for the Privy Council as an advisor. He is also an expert on post world war two history of Basutoland, Bechuanaland and Swaziland. I filled about four pages of my notebook which was really interesting (a small but select group of people share this enthusiasm).

The third week had to be one of writing, and it was. I decided, after the discussion with Pete to try “pitch” an op-ed proposal to the Globe and Mail published in Toronto. They showed interest and so that was an additional small task, altogether about a day of drafting, getting comments and submitting it. It was run on the 2nd April the day of the public lecture. An op-ed is only 700 words, so they have to be carefully chosen, see The Globe and Mail.

On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday I wrote. On the Wednesday evening I gave a presentation to the Africa interest group, made up of past diplomats and are an interesting group of people trying to influence Canadian foreign policy. I then had dinner with Stephen Lewis, who is an iconic Canadian public figure. He is also a thoroughly decent person with a sense of humour, I came away having changed my mind on some things.

Thursday was a pain because I had to travel to New York, and that meant catching the 06h15 plane. It seemed to me, that, as I already had a boarding pass, getting to the airport an hour before departure would be ample time. Wrong! There is a US immigration office at Ottawa and this took for ever, indeed I resorted to asking people in the queue if they would mind me going ahead of them. It was ok but a bit stressful.

The cab ride in from La Guardia was simple and quick. The two day meeting was held at the Desmond Tutu Centre. This is a former seminary with outstanding 19th-century Gothic architecture. The dinning area or refectory was super with stained glass windows and wood panelling. It has been wonderfully developed and the bed was the most comfortable I have slept in for a very long time. The desk and chair were, on the other hand, totally inadequate. It is worth looking at

In addition to the meeting I was able to see the multi-media show that was unveiled in Durban on 2nd April as part of the South African AIDS conference. This is based on the HEARD project on female truck drivers and was shot by Liz Rubincam. The pictures are on her website under “truck drivers”, and I expect both will soon be on ours

It was a busy couple of days and I was quite pleased to get on the plane to Ottawa on Saturday afternoon. Both ways the planes were quite empty and so I was able to stretch out and work, although the flight is short, only 55 minutes in the air. That Saturday was apparently the nicest in Ottawa for months but in New York it was grey and rather miserable. On the Sunday it was pouring with rain but Mike very kindly took me to the Gatineau park outside Ottawa for lunch, it is not far, a 20 minute drive. It was amazing to see the amount of snow on the ground as one left the city and headed for the hills. There must be micro-climates. It was good to get out of the city and be reminded that there is countryside. It would, I think, be spectacular in autumn

By my last week the temperature had risen and there were joggers running wearing just shorts and t-shirts. One measure of temperature would be the number of people outside and what they are wearing. It still seems cold but there are chairs outside restaurants and a few hardy souls are using them. Before it was just the smokers! There was one day when walking to the bus I thought my ears were going to fall off!

The last week was really busy. On the Monday I gave a talk in the morning at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; a lunch presentation at the IDRC, and then had a meeting and gave a seminar at the University of Ottawa (the other university in the city and quite different, it is French and English medium and much more part of the city whereas Carleton is suburban).

On the Tuesday I talked at the Canadian development agency, CIDA. The finale of my visit was a public lecture on Thursday. This was at Carleton and was, sadly not very well attended, hindsight tells us that it was right at the end of the term and so was a time when most students were either gone or rushing to hand in overdue essays. I began with a joke, well actually I began by saying I was going to tell a joke because “Canadians are terribly serious and you need to know that this is a joke”.

On my final night we organised a dinner at Thai restaurant. It was great. There were 12 of us including people I had not seen for a very long time including Chris Brown”s wife who I had known in Botswana. Jonty Crush (a friend from Waterford days – 37 years ago) was there along with his wife. The last week also saw a number of dinners.
It was a really good four weeks and although not as much was accomplished as I should have liked, it was intense and busy. There was not really a spare moment and looking back there were a number of unexpected achievements. It was a window into Canada and Canadians (they are quite serious and apologise a lot, but on the other recognise they are a favoured nation and take global responsibilities to heart).

I am going to end this letter here because for those people to whom it is being posted it in now four pages long any more words and I will have to either reduce the type size or go on for another two pages. Smaller type is hard to read and I want to watch a movie on the plane so two more pages is not going to happen either. It is also over 2000 words long, which is half the length of the article I wrote and more than three times op-ed.