(Image: Isabella Giancarlo)

Oh Ottawa: Reflecting on a Canadian Life Left Behind


If Belle from Beauty and the Beast were 40 today, would she still be living happily ever after or would she have second thoughts about leaving her provincial life? Would she still identify with that life at all?

Growing up in Ottawa, Canada, I suppose in some ways I was a modern-day Belle leading the proverbial provincial life*. The grass is green, and there’s lots of it – in the summer months at any rate. With the federal government headquartered in the nation’s capital, the job market is robust and typically weathers market downturns well. There’s access to good schools and, of course, universal healthcare.

At home, we indulged in many popular American imports. Our family tuned in to ALF and laughed at Steve Urkel’s silly jokes, my dad received a hero’s homecoming when he signed up for a Jumbo Video membership (Canada’s answer to Blockbuster) and surprised us with a copy of the newly-released Batman movie, and in the 10th grade I became completely obsessed with The Phantom of the Opera when a touring version of the show came to town – so much so that I learned the libretto in its entirety and fancied myself becoming a Broadway performer (more on that later).

The author and her family in Ottawa (Photo provided by the author)

But, thankfully, not all of my life was cookie cutter and pop culture. My parents would take my brothers and me to our cottage nearly every weekend, roughly 45 minutes north of Ottawa, in the province of Québec. The cottage sits on a vast expanse of woodland that encircles a small lake – it was our own private universe to discover, and we would often go on expeditions to explore the old mica mineshafts and logging camps that had been abandoned for more than a century. Some people are weekend warriors; my parents were proud weekend lumberjacks – my mother in particular, who can to this day wield an ax like nobody’s business. And though, to their dismay, we would often whine about missing our Saturday morning cartoons, we would nevertheless tag along to help assemble firewood in the summer and fall and produce artisanal maple syrup in the spring. There is something about working the land and connecting with nature that is visceral and good. And nothing is as sublime as savoring maple toffee after it has cooled on fresh snow.

And then there was music. Some of my earliest memories are of my father playing his Gibson SG for hours. Over the years, he’s performed with a string of classic rock bands at countless gigs and benefits throughout the Ottawa region, including the Press Gallery Dinner (the Canadian equivalent of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner), during which the leader of the opposition took the stage alongside my dad for a cameo performance.

Some people are weekend warriors; my parents were proud weekend lumberjacks – my mother in particular, who can to this day wield an ax like nobody’s business.

I followed suit, first on the piano, followed by a stint on the trumpet in my great-uncle’s drum corps, before setting my sights on singing. And singing is what I did – through university. I blasted enough high C’s to drive everyone around me bananas, and had the pleasure of teaming up with my dad’s band on a number of occasions, which was pretty cool.

But upon graduation, the prospect of putting everything on the line and relocating to Toronto, let alone NYC, was petrifying. So I chose flight over fight and stayed behind, which is perhaps my only regret. Yet for every cloud, as they say, there is a silver lining, which in this case manifested itself in meeting a musician and sound engineer whose relentless drive was a source of inspiration for my own endeavors. Ten years later, he would become my husband.

Soon after, I started working at Canada’s National Arts Centre, which helped define my professional trajectory in so many ways. By supporting the launch of a multi-disciplinary festival series and a U.S.-Mexico tour of the NAC orchestra, I discovered a passion for amplifying great causes. With the help of generous mentors, I secured a coveted spot at the University of Chicago’s Graduate (now Booth) School of Business, which served as an ideal springboard for my transition to New York and a career in marketing communications and social good.

I quickly came to realize, however, that making it in New York is one thing — staying in New York is another. Probationary positions, the recession, layoffs, rescinded job offers, fleeting work visas… The setbacks seemed daunting, but this time I – we – stood our ground and fought through all of them. And eventually, after a number of years, we began to make some headway.

And then, this past year, it happened: The Big 4-0. Halftime.

Lumberjacking (Photo provided by the author)

In many ways, I truly believe age is just a number. but that didn’t stop me from deciding this would be the year I would run my first marathon. And become the proud owner of our very own small piece of real estate in Brooklyn. All of these life events, which culminated with the approval of my green card a few months later, were tremendously rewarding and brought my husband and me that much closer. But something deep down was gnawing at me: The feeling of permanency; the point of no return. Was I effectively trading everything I had known, the very identity I’ve associated with for the better part of my life, for something else entirely? Would I come to see my formative years as but the equivalent of a footnote and trivialize them as quaint? Was I becoming any less Canadian?

As I write these lines, as I relive the defining moments of my life, I now realize that could never be. It’s the catharsis and reassurance I had been longing for. Oh, Ottawa. You will always be mine to discover – je me souviendrai toujours.

So in sum, this is an ode to my provincial roots, which will forever shape who I am, even in my new adoptive home of Brooklyn. A tribute to my parents, who both turn 65 years young this week. A love letter to my husband, whose counterpoint has been a treasured constant in my meandering and at times uncharted life. And a nod to turning 40 and the realization that life’s journey is built upon seminal experiences that perpetually propel us to future adventures. One would hope that Belle would come to the same conclusions and be so lucky.

* OK, some might argue that, by definition, growing up in a capital city is the complete opposite of leading a provincial life – point taken. But unlike most world capitals, Ottawa exhibits the qualities and charm of a smaller, picturesque town, more so in fact than its metropolitan neighbors, Toronto and Montreal. It also boasts a calmer, more comfortable pace than their comparably frenetic energy.

(Image: Isabella Giancarlo)

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