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This report is taken from PN Review 144, Volume 28 Number 4, March - April 2002.

Letter from Ottawa Christopher Levenson

The joke, I'm sure, is made about many other cities across the world: a couple wins as first prize in a sweepstake a week's free holiday in Ottawa. They are delighted until, on asking what the second prize is, they are told 'two weeks' free holiday in Ottawa'. This ironic self-disparagement is typically Ottawan, indeed typically Canadian, but the judgement it implies is becoming ever less true, less fair. Over the years as I have shown around visiting writers as divergent as George MacBeth, Anita Desai, Tomas Tranströmer and Sujata Bhatt and, more recently, the Irish poets Theo Dorgan and Paula Meehan, they have all expressed pleasure and surprise at the attractiveness of the city.

In 1968, when I arrived here with my then wife and three young children, Ottawa deserved, as indeed it still does, that most deadly of compliments, that it was 'a good place to bring up children'. For this staid city of parks and canal-sightseeing boats had at that time very little beyond the Parliament Buildings themselves - in a watered-down Westminster Gothic - to suggest that it was a capital city. Despite the large population of diplomats (for whom Ottawa is still allegedly a 'hardship post'), the only ethnic restaurants seemed to be Italian and Chinese. Gradually over the last thirty years things have changed so that, especially around the Byward Market, the popular rather than the official centre of the city, one is assailed at every second step by the aromas ...


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