Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Ottawa Trips 2017

In 2017, in honour of Canada's 150th Birthday celebration, we made two road trips to Ottawa, once in February for Winterlude and again in July so that we could see the National Gallery's special sesquicentennial exhibitions.  For the winter trip, we traveled with our friends Kevin and Olena for a quick weekend getaway, with our main goal to skate on the Rideau Canal. For me, there is no better place to skate since I am not a strong skater, but I can propel myself forward adequately enough.  What I don't do well is turn, so going around and around in a small rink is quite the chore.  But the Rideau Canal gives one the opportunity to skate in more or less a straight line for  over 7 kilometres from the Fairmont Hotel to Dow's Lake before requiring to turn around and come back again.

There was the added bonus of the beautiful scenery that can be spotted along the canal, including multiple bridges and willow trees.  It was also a nice respite to pause for the free hot chocolate being passed out by CIBC around the midway mark, and then again for a Beaver Tail on our way back.  It was Olena's first time trying a Beaver Tail, which is a deep-fried pastry covered with different toppings.  I introduced her to my favourite, the Killaloe Sunrise, which includes cinnamon, brown sugar and lemon.  It took a while to skate almost the entire length of the Rideau Canal and back again, so it helped for us to spot the markers indicating how many kilometers we had traveled, and how many were left.

At the northern end of the Rideau Canal, Confederation Park hosted a large display of ice sculptures including some extremely intricate carvings of peacocks, nautical scenes, castles and more.  We watched the vendors making "Taffy On Snow" by rolling swabs of caramel candy onto a stick.  Kevin and Olena decided to try it and seemed to enjoy it.  There were various entertainment acts to watch throughout the park including a marching band, Indigenous dancers and aerobic dancers.

Byward Market is always a fun area to walk around, consisting of four blocks of shops, galleries and restaurants.  There was also street art to see, including a giant snow sculpture featuring four profiles of former Canadian Prime Ministers, obviously a Canadian version of Mount Rushmore.  We saw a restaurant patio with an outdoor heater and fire pit, hay-bale seating, as well as a bar made out of ice.  There were quirky sculptures all around, including the one hanging from the rafters of the main building in the Byward Market, consisting of farmers, butchers and grocers and shoppers hanging off of a large fluffy cloud.  Historic murals graced the walls of many buildings including one recognizing the importance of tulips in Ottawa.  During World War II, the Dutch Royal Family took refuge in Ottawa and to show their gratitude, they have sent 100,000 tulips annually ever since.

We did some shopping and eating while wandering around Byward Market.  I found a pair of sterling silver Inukshuk earrings that caught my fancy.  But the real discovery was the EQ3 interior design store that sold Marimekko Pillows.  I had been looking for something like this ever since I saw the Marimekko Design exhibition at the Toronto Textile Museum.  The closest I found prior to this was an entire bed sheet set featuring this pattern, when I only wanted covering for one pillow.  Here was a pillow already stuffed and covered with the exact pattern that I desired.  I was very excited!  We came across the Le Moulin de Provence Bakery, which had its 15 minutes of fame in 2009 when then President Barack Obama stopped by and bought a Canada maple leaf shaped cookie and declared "I love this country!".  I was intrigued by another set of female-shaped gingerbread-like cookies with the words "Power Equity Freedom" written in icing on the dresses.  Finally, we had dinner at Brothers Bistro where we shared an eclectic charcuterie plank full of cheeses, sliced meats, pate, sliced apples, dried fruits and nuts, followed by some hearty stews and pastas to keep us warm for the walk back to our hotel.

The next day, we wanted a quick bite of lunch before the long drive back to Toronto.  Rich and I stumbled upon Kinki Lounge and Kitchen, which we assumed this was a Japanese restaurant based on the the spelling of its name.  There were sushi items on the menu but there were also burgers and tacos.  Rich ordered a burger with fries while I ordered fish tacos covered with red cabbage.  We were seated at the back of the restaurant where some interesting art was hung.  There were large portraits of Amy Winehouse and and Kurt Corbain, as well as a wall fun of black and white "mug shots" of famous celebrities who were arrested in their youth.  It was fun trying to identify the stars based on their much younger photos.  I spotted Angelina Jolie, David Bowie, Elvis, Woody Harrelson, Johnny Depp and many more.  Kinki Lounge and Kitchen holds regular special events throughout the week.  Arriving at around 11am Sunday morning, we were extremely surprised to find that we had stumbled into their "Burlesque Brunch" which is held one Sunday each month.  For $20 per person, you get brunch and a burlesque show with full frontal nudity!  As intriguing (and a bit shocking, especially on a Sunday morning) as this was, we unfortunately could not stay long enough to partake in the show.  Instead they sat us in the back of the restaurant so that we could hear the music but not see the action on stage.  However the stairs that led to their change rooms was right next to our seats, so we got perfect views of the male and female burlesque performers as they came up in their outfits, and went back down without them.  This was a very unexpected and unforgettable experience that was perhaps foreshadowed by the phonetic pronunciation of the restaurant name.

When we returned to Ottawa in the summer, we had two main destinations planned—the National Gallery and the Diefenbunker.  At the National Gallery, we wanted to see the special exhibits that were assembled to celebrate Canada's 150th birthday.  These exhibits were in midst of being set up during our winter visit. Titled "Our Masterpieces, Our Stories", the works of Canadian and Indigenous Art were split into two sections--from ancient times through 1967 and from 1968 to the present.  A major goal of this new curation of Canadian art is to make the exhibits less Euro-centric and less male-dominated by incorporating Indigenous art and art by women in each gallery, time period, and style.  Accordingly, in the first gallery that we visited, traditional images of Indigenous people by painters like Paul Kane and William Berczy are displayed side by side with works by Indigenous artists like the recently deceased Tim Pitsiulak's Armoured Whale (2014), drawn with coloured pencil and black ink on wove paper, and Marven Tallio's Transformation Mask, made of cedar, fibre and shells.   While it seemed complementary to show works by Indigenous artists along side Euro-centric depictions of them, it was a bit more jarring to see their works paired with Abstract Expressionist paintings.

Female artists were also prominently featured.  Prudence Heward mainly painted portraits of other women, but without any signs of flirtation, overt sexuality or even smiles that might be present in depictions of women painted by male artists.  Her subjects usually gaze out at the viewer and are realistic as opposed to idealistic renderings of female figures.  Yvonne McKague Housser's elongated, skewed depiction in muted primary colours of the buildings in the mining town of Colbalt, Ontario have a slightly abstract feel.  Russian born Paraskeva Clark boldly painted a confident, vibrant and elegant self portrait of herself while she was 3 months pregnant in 1933.  Several years later, Clark's politically condemning painting titled "Petroushka" protested against the Chicago police killing of 10 striking steel workers.  A symbolic worker is depicted as a "petroushka", which represents human suffering in Russian folklore.  It was interesting to see the marble sculpture by Elizabeth Wyn Wood called "Gesture", displayed next to a portrait of the artist painted by her friend Gordon Davies, with her sculpture portrayed behind her.

This trend of featuring Indigenous and female artists continued in the modern galleries of Canadian art from 1968 to the present.  The Indigenous carvings and sculptures start to reflect more recent social references and issues.  Made of whale bone, soapstone, antler, ivory, musk-ox horn and shells, Manasie Akpaliapik's sculpture of the face of a distressed, glassy-eyed male with a beer bottle sticking out of his head, comments on the problems of alcoholism and suicide in the Indigenous communities.  While maintaining the basic iconic shape of a teapot, Michael Massie's sculpture takes inspiration from the Inuit culture.  The  base resembles an "ulu", a knife used by Inuit women, while the large vertical spiral projection is made to look like a narwal's tusk.  One sculpture of a Shaman looked more like the Orcs from Lord of the Rings than old traditional renditions of shamans.   Female Indigenous artists were represented, including a coloured pencil sketch of the freezer section of a Cape Dorset Co-op store by Annie Pootoogook, and a quilt decorated with felt and embroidered images of the personification of the Sun, along with humans, fish and animals by Marion Tuu'luq, that references various tales and legends.

There were other eclectic and interesting examples of contemporary Canadian art on display.  The always creative and often provocative art trio General Idea's piece called "Evidence of Body Binding",  presented a decomposition of the human body with 15 gelatin silver transparencies of body parts mounted on florescent light boxes, forming a polyptych.  The images were of General Idea artist AA Bronson whose body was bound with plastic fishing line. Joyce Weiland created her work "O Canada" by using her own lipstick-covered lips to press against the wove paper while she sang O Canada.  Photographer Jeff Wall is known for staging large-scaled scenes that addresses a theme.  His photo "Vampire's Picnic" is an allegory about the city encroaching on the countryside.  The photo of a bunch of creepy-looking people sitting out in the wilderness is quite gory if you take a closer look, with blood dripping from fanged lips, and decapitated bodies strewn about.

Hanging from the ceiling in the atrium was the most ingenious sculpture by Brian Jungen, who is known for creating sculptures out of common objects such as running shoes, bicycle parts and golf bags.  Here, he has created "Shapeshifter", the representation of a giant whale skeleton made from white polypropylene plastic chairs.  It was incredible to view the piece from afar and then see its construction up close.

Located in Carp, 30 miles west of downtown Ottawa, Canadian Forces Station Carp (nicknamed the Diefenbunker after the Prime Minister at the time) was built in 1959-61 at the height of the Cold War as one of multiple emergency underground shelters, meant to protect key members of the government in the event of a nuclear attack.  Situated 75 feet below ground, the 4-storey bunker spans over 100,000 square feet, and is made of 32,000 cubic yards concrete and 5,000 tons of steel. It was built to withstand a 5 megaton nuclear blast from 1.8 kilometers away.  The bunker was stocked with enough food, water and power to sustain up to 535 people for up to 30 days. During its years of operation between 1962 to 1994, the Diefenbunker was staffed with about 100-150 people on rotating 24-hour shifts.  The bunker was decommissioned in 1994 and turned into a museum and National historic site.  In the summer, daily tours are offered between 11am to 2pm.  Our tour started outside where we were shown the locations of the water and power supplies, communication towers and emergency escape hatches, in case the main entrance was destroyed.  When we entered the outer entrance of the complex, we walked through a 378-foot long blast tunnel, meant to absorb the shock waves of a nuclear blast, dissipating it before it can reach the front entrance of the bunker, whose door weighs over 4000 pounds and is 14 inches thick.

After walking through the long blast tunnel and through the heavy main entrance door, the first area encountered on the top level (Level 4) of the bunker is the Radiation Decontamination area.  Anyone entering the bunker who is detected with radiation must go through an initial shower with all their clothes on, followed by a second shower after the contaminated clothing has been destroyed.  They are given new clothing and put through a thorough medical examination.  Radiation detection systems are installed both inside and outside the bunker.  Also on this level is a hospital confinement area and a dentist office which provide full medical support, as well as the Message Control Centre which controlled the flow of encrypted messages coming in and out of the bunker.  We were also shown the emergency escape hatches that could be used to get out of the bunker if the main entrance was damaged and inoperable.

Level 3 seems to be where all the conference and meeting rooms are situated including the Emergency Government Situation Centre where analysis is gathered regarding civilian casualties as well as damage to infrastructure systems such as railways, airports, roads, bridges, water and food supplies, telecommunications, hospitals, etc.  This Centre would communicate with NATO and other allies in order to coordinate war efforts and help those in need.  Information would be fed to the War Cabinet Room where senior government officials including the Prime Minister would make decisions and decide courses of action. The room with the rows of swivel arm chairs including one with a red phone and the sign "Nuclear Defense Ops Advisor" seemed to come right out of the movies, and in fact, the movie "The Sum of All Fears" was filmed in the Diefenbunker.

Also on Level 3 were sleeping areas and lockers for lower personnel who were assigned bunk beds and shared a common washroom.  The Prime Minister had a very small and modest 4 room suite (which seemed luxurious in comparison), which included his own bedroom, bathroom, office and an office for his personal secretary.  It is interesting to note that although this bunker was called the "Diefenbunker", Prime Minister John Diefenbaker never set foot in it.  There are even rumours that he would have refused to go in the event of a nuclear attack, because he did not want to leave behind his wife, who would not have been allowed to come with him.  Next to the Prime Minister's suite was a CBC broadcasting studio from which messages to the nation could be sent.

Level 2 (second from the bottom) was where the kitchen, cafeteria, dining room, lounge and recreation area could be found.  The bunker had a large freezer area (on the bottom level) that could keep enough fresh food to last 7 days.  After that, dehydrated "ready-to-eat" meals would be boiled and could sustain the occupants for another 3 weeks.  The dining area was also where staff gathered for recreation including darts, pool table, and shuffle board.  There was a small shop where personal items such as toothpaste, soap, shampoo, laundry detergent, chocolate bars, soft drinks and magazines could be purchased.

In addition to the machinery rooms and the freezer (which would have doubled as a morgue during war times), the most interesting thing on the bottom Level 1 is the Bank of Canada Vault.  Built in a separate underground building attached to the main bunker by a tunnel, the vault would store up to 800 tonnes of the Bank of Canada's gold reserves.  Up to 1973, the value of the dollar was still pegged to the  gold standard, so the reserves had to be protected in order to maintain the nation's economy.  The doors of the vault weighed 10-30 tonnes and required 4 people with 4 separate combinations to open.  Prior to opening the main doors, a smaller round door (requiring 2 more combinations) needed to be opened to equalize the pressure between the inside and outside of the vault.  The gold would have been transported by trucks in the event of an imminent nuclear attack.  Preparations for this were actually made for but not carried out during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Today, the vault can be rented out for parties, receptions and even weddings although I could not imagine the acoustics would be very good in the space given all that concrete.  In addition to guided tours, the museum hosts spy camps and other activities for kids.  Although we received an extremely informative tour that went almost 2 hours instead of the usual 1 hour, we still did not have enough time to see all the rooms and read many of the posted informational panels.  We were at the Diefenbunker for about 2.5 hours and probably needed another 1-2 hours to fully see everything.  We might need to make a return trip next time we are in Ottawa, but for those who have not done this yet, it is a very entertaining and informative visit.

We had been going through a minor chocolate withdrawal since returning from 4 weeks in Belgium where we feasted on extremely high quality chocolate and significantly increased our minimum standard of what we consider good edible chocolate.  On the way back from Ottawa, we stopped off at Hummingbird Chocolates, which had won the 2016 prize for "World's Best Chocolate" in London England's Academy of Chocolate awards.   We bought the gold medal winner "Hispaniola", made of 70% cocao beans from Dominican Republic, as well as the "Oh Mama!" whose beans were from Nicaragua.  They were both delicious but it turns out that we actually preferred the one which had not won the award.  What we loved best though were the freshly-made chocolate-covered "butter tart cups" that we bought on a whim in addition to our planned chocolate bar purchases.  Gobbling them down in the car as we continued our drive, we almost turned the car around to get more!