I ❤️ Ottawa! For Real! 

Earlier this week, I got a chance to visit one of my favorite cities, Ottawa, Canada, for the second time. Like many other places I travel to, my favorite thing to do is that I just like to observe what is unique to each place and its people. Howbeit, I try to keep and share only good and funny aspects! My goal writing this is that you will find humor or inspiration or both, in my writing.

Our Cisco Office Buildings in Kanata.

Personally, I simply love Ottawa. Since the first time I visited in May 2007, I fell in love with the city. My travel adventure to any place isn’t necessarily as anyone would expect; for example, ancient ruins, historical castles, downtown, coffee shops, shopping centers, restaurants or museums don’t always spark my interest about a place, unlike normal tourists. When you read what I highlight below, you will understand.

When I booked my hotel, although I looked it up on Google maps first, I guess I overlooked the fact that I was actually staying in Quebec, instead of Ontario, where my work office was going to be. I didn’t find it a big deal though, since I was renting a vehicle to get around. I loved the Ottawa River that separates Ottawa and Gatineau; I imagine it’d be beautiful in the summer! At the time of my visit, it was mostly covered by sheets of ice. I also liked the bridge between the 2 cities with double lanes each way, one of them being a HOV lane.

  • Ottawa’s winter, just like most of the country, is brutal!

Aerial view of the Ottawa area

Well, this is a given about Canada, but before you judge me for living in the south for so long, I have had my share of snow and cold. I lived in Rochester, NY which sits right below Lake Ontario, between Toronto and Ottawa, for about 4 years. It didn’t matter if a few feet of snow fell overnight or a monster blizzard descended over Rochester; schools didn’t close and we didn’t get a day off from work due to the inclement weather.

Besides being Canada’s capital, apparently Ottawa is also the 4th largest and the most educated city in Canada. Ottawa is also the 7th coldest capital in the world and apparently, nearly a half of its population is under 35 years of age! Very interesting! Although I really love the city, it is extremely cold there. My few days visiting reminded me how much I definitely do NOT miss the north!

  • HOV lanes everywhere 

Champlain Bridge (between Gatineau & Ottawa)

I have not been to a place that is comparatively not large but has many high occupancy vehicle (hov) lanes practically all over the place. Seriously, even in a 2-lane bypass each way, I saw HOV lane signs. The funny part about it though, I noticed that most people don’t adhere to the rules. I don’t know if HOV means something else in Canada, but each time I glanced at cars moving to my left in the HOV lane, there was often a single person in the vehicle.

Also, ironically, I didn’t see any sign for traffic cameras in those lanes, so may be that explains why people just don’t follow those rules? Still, as a visitor, I played it on the safe side, and stayed in regular lanes. I am not as fearless as those people, or, unless HOV means something else up there on our northern border! Normally HOV lanes in the US are mainly in the major highways, not traditional alleys.

  • No traffic law enforcement officers in sight

For 3-4 days I spent in Ottawa – Gatineau commuting for 30 minutes one way everyday, I didn’t spot a single LE officer vehicle, traffic or otherwise. Either, police officers there look different from those here in the US and I didn’t see them or simply people don’t violate traffic laws up there or the crime rate is extremely low. Either way, I was surprised.

  • Extremely patient drivers

I travel very often but I have never been to a place where everyone drives below the speed limit, literally, almost everyone. For 4 days I was there, I only saw one or 2 people speeding but the rest drove really slow. While I used to speed, several years ago I decide to stop and be responsible about it.

While in Canada, as I juggled between remembering miles versus kilometers on my Canadian rental SUV dashboard, I often noticed that in a single lane road all drivers were trailing way behind me. Then I’d slow down, although I was not really speeding. Also, people don’t honk or tailgate up there. People drove as if it was for fun and not in a rush to be anywhere important.

  • Small traffic light panels

Tiny Traffic Lights

Canadians have to have the best sight vision than the rest of the world! The green and yellow light panel holes are awfully small; in some locations though, I noticed that the red lights were mostly normal size. I will let you judge for yourself from the above photo. I think all other countries I have been to, the lights are often the same size but I could be wrong. I found it quite interesting.

  • People randomly walking in the rain

When I landed at Ottawa International Airport, the weather was really damp. It was very rainy and very cold. However, what puzzled me was that I would see people, on several occasions, just walking in the rain; some had umbrellas, others didn’t. Some were walking their dogs on the side of the roads, others were just busy going to places. I thought it was quite interesting!

  • Food Menu

Drinks are part of the main course? And entrees mean appetizers there?

Of course I would talk about food; albeit, not in a sense you’d expect. I found it hard to understand the restaurant menu at the hotel I stayed at in Gatineau. I didn’t anticipate appetizers to be called entrees (or may be because it’s really entrées in French?), and definitely not the main courses to have sodas on the list etc. Or, I am probably clueless and this is normal? I loved breakfast choices though. I am glad I was only there for couple of days, otherwise, I would have easily put on a few extra pounds.

Delicious breakfast choices for sure! Glad I was there for a short period of time!

  • French & English

Well, thankfully I could understand both languages but apparently if you live in or travel to any part of the Quebec province, you are absolutely expected to understand or speak French. It reminded of Belgium’s Fleming and Walloon. Although I stayed with a Hilton hotel, an American franchise hotel chain, everyone introduced themselves in French and it seemed like they expected others to do the same. However, if you respond in English, they will switch to English too.

All TV channels, almost all of them, are in French. It took me a while to scroll through many channels to find ABC, CNN or anything that sounded a little American enough :). Also, you should have listened to my Google maps navigation lady trying to pronounce French roads: chemin, rue etc. I laughed so hard! But as soon as I entered Ontario, my lady would gain her momentum!

The pronunciation of this in English by my GPS was priceless !!

  • Quebec, Je me souviens

I remember!

Something that caught my attention and made me wonder its meaning was the Quebeckers vehicles license plates: the top said Quebec, obviously, but the bottom had the phrase “je me souviens” which means “I remember or I do not forget“.

It turns out that this is the official motto for the province of Quebec. Although its full significance isn’t known according to articles, but it can be paraphrased to past political memories (perhaps between French and English), ancient lineage and traditions, which is beyond the scope of my article’s intention. I was just curious when I saw that on all cars on the upper side of the Ottawa River.

One other thing I noticed a lot is that Canadians are openly vocal about their views of the current American politics. I am especially very uncomfortable expressing about my political opinions anywhere, live alone with strangers, and in another country.

Delicious meal prepared by friends from Rwanda who live in Quebec!

In the overall, I simply love the people there especially that I got to stay a few days and drove around this time. The city is beautiful, even during a bitter cold winter, people are very polite, strangers will go above and beyond to make you feel welcome, with great intention. At the hotel, restaurant, work, everyone was extremely nice to me. I joked to my friends that I was thinking of staying there for good :). I hope to visit in the summer though!

Tour D’Europe, In My Own Words!

In the warmth of the European summer 2012, I was honored to be invited to my best friend’s wedding. I was very thrilled and looking forward to walking past the European airports ‘walls, at last. In the past, as I navigated between terminals to reach connecting flights at the London’s Heathrow or the Netherlands’ Amsterdam, I’d peek through the bus or airport terminal windows to gaze upon the city’s beauty. I wondered when I would be able to get out and wander in the streets of London but I was anxious to reach my destination at the same time.

On July 6th, we touch down in Milan, and are immediately waved onto two buses that would take us to the gate for immigration purposes. I have never seen more confusing signs than the Linate airport. As we step out, the driver signals everyone in our bus to go left. I follow the crowd only to find myself before a sign that says “EU residents”. I quickly switch lanes to go to the “Non EU Residents” when a policeman rushes in my direction and harshly points me to go back. Exhausted and jet lagged, I gather my courage to explain to him, in English, that I am not a European resident. He does not understand a single word that comes out of my mouth. Unwillingly, I turn around and join a very slowly moving line. The female Immigration Officer that checks our passports is the slowest I have ever seen.

After what seemed like eternity, it’s my turn and I hand my passport to her. She doesn’t seem to have a clue about the Schengen visa that is stamped in my passport and proceeds to asking me questions. In Italian! I respond to her that I don’t speak Italian; she keeps talking and I grow silent. She calls her supervisor and they chat in a language I don’t understand. Few minutes later, she comes back with my passport. I grab it as quickly as possible and disappear to avoid the possibility of being asked further questions I don’t get. I let out a sigh of relief and annoyed by the fact that this is the most touristic country I know, and yet, an Immigration Officer who speaks no other language besides Italian, at the airport. My friend on the other side begins to worry about what might have happened to me because I am already more than an hour late or so since after I landed.

Duomo di Milano, Italy

Duomo di Milano, Italy

The very next day, Honorine and I board a flight to Paris, and Geneva afterwards. I don’t remember any question asked in either of these two countries; perhaps because I understood their main language: French, of course! I enjoyed touring the city, visiting the Eiffel Tower, the United Nations Headquarters, the International Telecommunications Union HQ, riding in the Geneva Trams etc.

Paris, France

Different parts of Paris, France

Paris

Paris, France

Different parts of Geneva, Switzerland

Different parts of Geneva, Switzerland

Genève, Suisse

Geneve, Suisse

Fast forwarding to several days later, I set for Croatia, my main reason for this trip. On the way, my flight connection is in Berlin, German. I face exactly the same issue: an Officer who speaks only German and he is yet to verify my visa to Croatia. Similarly, he talks to his supervisor before I am directed to the Security Check. Couple hours later, on a hot afternoon, I land in Zagreb. Lining up to show our passports, I silently pray that someone will at least speak some English, so that I can be able to explain that I had applied for the Schengen visa through the Italian embassy. This time, I am more concerned with the process mainly because I was told that I can use the EU visa as Croatia was scheduled to enter the European Union in 2013. I am very afraid that the Officer may wonder where I got that information. To my surprise, he doesn’t ask a single question, and with a smile, he says: “Welcome to Croatia”. That was the beginning of my adventure in the most beautiful country I have ever seen.

My best friend was running a little late. In the process of finding a pay phone and exchanging my cash into Croatian Kunas, there I see my friend’s fiancé, and we both walk to my best friend. It was great to see an amazing woman I met in school six years earlier, and haven’t seen her in 3 years. Later that afternoon, my best friend and I go to tour the city, run errands, chatting, exploring, talking and what not. However, every turn I make, there is at least one person staring at me. I check my outfit to make sure I didn’t spill food on my clothes or have stains. Everything is fine; a brown polka dot blouse and a light blue knee length jeans don’t look any different from what other women around me are wearing. Children, older people, eyes on me everywhere I go.

Zagreb, Croatia

Zagreb, Croatia

Confused, and with million questions into my head, I decide that it’d probably be a perfect time to figure out what’s so different about me: not another single black person anywhere. None! Not in the super market, shopping center, ice cream shops, restaurants, nada. Only then, I come to a realization that many Croatians have possibly never seen a black person in their life time. I figure that this is probably the part of the globe where only white people live, almost exclusively. To this day, I wonder if my best friend even noticed people looking at me or if I look different. Ms Z. is the most diverse and loving person I have ever met. To seal my anticipation, her parents are just like her: wonderful people. I have never liked the sound of my first name than when Ms. Z’s Dad called me. Their warm welcome overwhelmed me. I left a part of my heart in Croatia!

On the wedding day, the DJ was hired for the entire night. I am not a dancer by any means, but I was determined to make it up as I go for my best friend’s special day. We danced until about 2am. When I took a break and sat outside to chat with other guests, two men and their wives approached to ask me about myself. They knew much more than I expected about my home country, Rwanda. In the end, they confessed that they have been talking behind my back, as I danced, saying that Beyonce had arrived in Croatia. I was not sure if I should say thank you or that’s nice. I gathered a smile and explained that it was just creativity, nothing of experience. And a “thank you” of course.

Zagreb, Croatia

Zagreb & Bjelovar, Croatia

During my days in Croatia, I am sure that I counted almost all black people in Zagreb and Bjelovar: a teenage boy and girl who looked like tourists at one restaurant, and one couple at the Zagreb airport on my way back to Milan. A little girl (about 5 years old) one seat over, looked at me without blinking for about two hours during my flight from Zagreb to Berlin, leaning forward because her mom was sitting between us. Her mom was super nice. She patted my hand when I was scared from the turbulence. She offered a hug, should I need to be comforted.

Without a doubt, I fell in love with this beautiful country, and its people. I hope to go back when I have more time. In the end, I had traveled to 4 countries, boarded 10 flights at 10 different airports in just 11 days. I doubt I would do it again. Next time, I will plan my trip better! My very first night back home, a cold finally caught up with me and I was down for two weeks! Nonetheless, it was quite an experience!