It’s disorienting to take a step back and look at the whole picture, so when I boarded my flight to Ottawa last month, I mostly focused on the small stuff. (Side note: This is not Illinois-Ottawa, population 18,652, as a coworker assumed, but Ottawa-Ottawa. You know, the one in Canada.)
The small stuff included:
- watching various TSA workers suspiciously compare my normal human girl face to my truly heinous passport photo in which I look like an unwashed 13-year-old boy. (I do not exaggerate.)
- navigating the labyrinthine Toronto airport where I was forced to undergo security again as well as explain to customs that no – I am not from Iceland.
- exchanging paper American money for plastic Canada money in Ottawa airport (and buying a Fanta).
- thrusting a handful of loonies/toonies (looney-tunies?) at a bus driver.
- eavesdropping on some very weird bus conversations (one of which involved a screwdriver and cocaine).
- getting a little lost once I was off said bus and walking through an empty field.
- eventually finding the Starbucks where I, at long last, hunkered down for a few hours, soggy from a random rain shower but with fingers curled around a latte, there to meet up with a person I hadn’t properly seen in five years.
All of this was very exhausting and fun and makes for a good story (or at least, a rather winding list), but it’s also something I wouldn’t have done here in 2014 if I hadn’t booked a particular flight to Osaka, Japan in 2009. To explain, I need to zoom out a little.
I chose to go to the college I did for a number of reasons, but one of the biggest was study abroad. I started taking Japanese language courses as a freshman, ergo I chose to study abroad in Japan. (Also, Japan is super cool.) I bought the cheapest plane ticket I could find and after trolling the Facebook group for that semester of students, I connected with another random person also on the same flight. I’m utterly horrible at facial recognition, so spotting this person at our shared gate in the Minneapolis airport was a challenge. (True fact: I have followed strangers in my car because I thought they were people I knew.) It was one of those miraculous instances where you become immediate friends not only because of the circumstances you find yourselves in, but because you are just legitimately well-matched people. It’s wonderfully weird how these things happen.
And so, we had many Japan adventures together that short fall semester (cue ’80s movie montage), but, while I left Japan with the usual study abroad glimmer, she left with a boyfriend… who became her husband a couple years later. (Husband of the Canadian, non-Japanese variety, which is the random plot twist here that tends to throw listeners). And all of that is how I ended up spending my remaining vacation days in Ottawa a few weeks ago.
We hadn’t spent any significant amount of time together since Japan, having only seen each other briefly in Madrid and then Boston (two more places I would not have ended up if it wasn’t for this random connection), so this trip was long overdue. And while there’s always that small thrill of nervousness when you find yourself in actual meatspace with a friend you haven’t properly seen in 4+ years, a study abroad friend is, in some ways, a more known and immediate entity. There’s not that expectation or tendency to fall back into old roles or to only relive old jokes and memories (for better or worse, this is unavoidable with high school friends). Instead, there’s a certain understanding that comes from having first met and known each other when you were both so very much out of your element. Study abroad friends will always be outsiders in your regular life, which, in a way, makes them the very best people for it.
So maybe it was just the good company and the good weather (or momentarily escaping my life here), but Ottawa wound itself around me. The city felt small and navigable. There was a similar, albeit less grungy, feel in Ottawa (as compared to Milwaukee) in the way the intricate architecture of the older buildings met the sleekness of the new. But it was also intriguing to see how people moved through this place that seemed like a Milwaukee cousin once-removed. Where most Milwaukee bus stops might have, at most, a small group of 10 people waiting to board, in Ottawa there was often what I can only describe as a large horde at nearly every stop. (There’s something a tad disconcerting staring out of a bus window and seeing 30+ people glumly staring back.) And enough people were riding these buses that there were times any given bus was simply too full to board and everyone would simply wait for the next one. And while this isn’t out of the realm of possibility here, packed-to-the-gills buses just isn’t a regular occurrence. Milwaukee is a city where the average person is more likely to reach for their car keys or their bicycle helmet.
I did try some Canadian cuisine, notably BeaverTails, which got 5 stars from me, and the fabled poutine, natch. And… I discovered I am probably not the target audience for poutine, not really being a gravy person. (2 and a half stars? I’m sorry, Canada!) I had to be stopped from making a cardinal sin when I asked my friends if it would be theoretically possible to get poutine gravy on the side. (I was appropriately shamed for even voicing this thought.)
But besides a short tour through downtown Ottawa and a stroll through IKEA (not as random as you might think – I’d never been inside one before), I mostly spent time talking and catching up, so much so that I very nearly lost my voice. (There were also video games, a horribly great movie and a cheesy J-drama, for an accurate picture of things I like to do with friends.) And that’s really all I wanted: to step into an old friend’s life again and take a step back from my own.
Ottawa left me buoyant over how the somewhat random choices we make now can lead to wonderfully unexpected places, but it also left me deflated over the distance between me and the various people I care about.
But mostly, Ottawa made me nervous. This year has left me unmoored. I feel like I’m in this tiny rowboat on very still water, not going anywhere in particular. What few choices I have before me feel like the wrong ones, so I sit and do nothing. I want to ask five-years-down-the-road me what regrets to avoid and what paths to strike out on. I want to be making the kinds of decisions that, five years from now, I’ll be amazed at where they’ve taken me. I don’t know that I am.