I went from one capital city to another last weekend, jetting from Dulles to Ottawa for my mother-in-law's memorial service.
Ottawa is the capital of Canada. Canada is the country to the north of the United States.
(I point this out because we're constantly reminded of how poor Americans are at geography. Many Americans can't find the United States on a map. Most of those can't even find the map in the first place, and when they do find the map, they have trouble folding it up again so it will fit back in the glove compartment.)
I was curious about what these two cities had in common, aside from each being the capital of a large North American nation.
"Ottawa is very much like D.C.," said Jasmine Panthaky, a spokeswoman at the Canadian Embassy, who has lived in both places. "It is the city the country likes to hate."
When Canadians think of Ottawa, said Kelly Egan, a columnist for the Ottawa Citizen newspaper, "they think of money being wasted. They think of pencil pushers and stuff like that, all of the kind of cliches about public servants who seem to be doing a whole lot of nothing."
Hokay, I think there's some common ground here. It's not fair that Canadians in Calgary and Moose Jaw think of Ottawa as the land of fat cats and bureaucrats, just as it's not fair that Americans in Fresno and Topeka think of Washington as a cesspool of soft money and special interests.
Remember, my fellow Americans, we didn't ask for your sleazy politicians. You voted to send them here.
Both Washington and Ottawa were anointed their country's capital by charismatic leaders who were as mindful of the political repercussions of their choices as the geographic ones. George Washington wanted a location that wouldn't give a perceived advantage to any existing U.S. city and wouldn't exacerbate the divisions between Northern interests and Southern ones.
Queen Victoria was confronted with French-speaking Canadians who wanted Montreal as the capital and English-speaking Canadians who wanted Toronto. In 1857, she shrewdly chose Ottawa, which is between those two cities.
"In its early days," reads a Web site about the Canadian capital's history, "Ottawa was a rough place, awash each spring with lumberjacks fresh from a winter in the bush and eager to spend their hard-earned pay."
There are probably few experiences more unpleasant than being awash in unwashed lumberjacks. Alas, I didn't encounter a single lumberjack while I was there.
I was pleased to have one stereotype confirmed, however, when I saw a passenger on my Air Canada flight checking his hockey stick.
Ottawa is larger than Washington -- 774,075 people, according to the last census, compared with Washington's 553,523. But that's just within the city limits. Washington has its Canadian counterpart beat in terms of suburban sprawl.
Ottawans complain about their traffic but, said Kelly, "If you start at Parliament Hill, in half an hour you'd be in the middle of a forest pretty much. It doesn't take very long till you see cows and cornfields."
Leave Capitol Hill and in half an hour you'll see . . . the bumper of the car in front of you.
Ottawa has already settled its debate about smoking in public places. Smokers can't light up anywhere they'd want to: restaurants, bars, etc.
The latest dispute to roil Ottawa involves the pesticides people spray on their lawns. There's a strong movement to ban them. Imagine Takoma Park on steroids. (Of course, it wouldn't be steroids. Wheat grass, maybe.)
Just as Washington sometimes suffers when compared with New York, so too Ottawa in the trendiness department.
"I think it does have a reputation as a fairly boring place to visit," said Kelly. "That may be changing a bit. It doesn't have the cultural side of a Toronto or a Vancouver. It doesn't have a pronounced geography like Vancouver or Halifax to make it distinctive in terms of its look. There's a lot to see and do here, but it's not quite a city that rocks at night."
Finally, there's at least one way we're nothing alike at all. Last year, 10 people were slain in Ottawa. In Washington in 2004, there were 198 homicides.
And you know how the Mounties are said to always get their man?
In Ottawa, 90 percent of homicides are solved. Last year in Washington, 60 percent were cleared.
It wasn't all cheery Canadians and sugary beaver tails in Ottawa. We caught a kids' movie Saturday night and had an experience that wasn't particularly Canadian but was certainly modern and perhaps inevitable.
We were seated in front of two families with children. I'm used to little kids talking during movies; they can't help themselves.
I'd never heard grown-ups be quite so vocal, though.
The moms and dads commented on the action throughout, simmering down only slightly after My Lovely Wife twice swiveled in her seat and pleaded for some quiet.
After the film ended, and we were filing out of the theater, one of the women turned to the other and hissed: "If she didn't want to hear people talking during a movie, she should have stayed home and rented one."
What a lovely reversal of the natural order. Luckily, my wife didn't hear the comment. If she had, Ottawa's vaunted low homicide rate may have ticked up a bit.
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