Barrelling through the early-morning intersection, a bus threatens my toes, which are, admittedly, hanging over the sidewalk’s edge a little too eagerly. As the gale induced by this no-doubt speed-limit-obeying bus subsides, I step out into the crosswalk, not caring whether the light is with me: the one-way, four-lane thoroughfare is clear of traffic for at least half a block. Why would I wait for the light?
An emigrant from Alberta, where folks still cherish small-s sensible traffic laws (perhaps as one element underpinning a small-c conservative social order), I have acclimatized significantly to Ottawa in just a few years. Like other pedestrians here, I now regard traffic lights as no more than polite suggestion, delivered with a hint of a Gallic shrug and a charming lack of contractions. Walk, do not walk: it is up to you. The timing of the crossing isn’t the only negotiable: location, too, is entirely up for grabs in a manner reminiscent of Dr. Seuss. Cross it here, cross it there; cross the damn street anywhere.
Living proof that it is possible not only to learn new tricks (given sufficient survival impetus) but also to apply them early in the morning, I am following a divide-and-conquer strategy with my senses. Perhaps I am intuitively compensating for that befuddled state researchers now say diminishes our mental functioning for several hours after we awaken. In any event, sensibly enough, eyes are responsible for visual stimuli: watching for the tell-tale sheen of wet ice, a peril new to me and my Western feet. Ears are responsible for auditory stimuli: monitoring for traffic noises that would prompt those cautious feet to break into a dignified scamper.
So it is that I do not consciously notice anything unusual until I am almost across the street. My ears pick it up, my subconscious mind processes and categorizes it, but my conscious self only gets involved when the output seems, well, unlikely. I clearly hear the unmistakable yet completely improbable clackety-clack of a fertilizer spreader.
Curious, I recklessly spare some attention from my feet and look up. My ears have not deceived me: there is a fertilizer spreader being pushed along the sidewalk. But my conscious brain is also still to be trusted: what is being spread here in this modern-day Carthage is not fertilizer, but salt.
On the Prairies, most years, ice control is only an occasional problem. With the standard winter precipitation being a snow so dry that it packs down hard and squeaks when you walk on it, freezing rain isn’t an everyday concern. Even when ice becomes unruly, winter temperatures are usually low enough that salt is ineffective. Before moving to Ontario I had heard about the use of salt on winter roads but never seen it. So co-opting a fertilizer spreader to scatter salt on a sidewalk, however sensible, catches my attention.
It isn’t the first time that Ottawa has had this effect. In my early days here, garbage pick-up day was a shock to my system: I saw blue boxes of cash stacked carelessly out front of every downtown restaurant and bar. Through effort of will I over-rode my first impulse, which was to collect bottles by the wheelbarrow-full. In this land of no bottle deposits all that apparent filthy lucre was just sticky recyclables: no more or less valuable than the empty jam jars with which they were jumbled.
It seemed that other treasures were also apparent only to me: politicians walking along Sussex on a Saturday afternoon, TV political correspondents returning their movies to the corner video store in the soft summer evenings. Was I the only rube in the entire city, the only one still doing double-takes, the last person to have come from away? Some days it seemed so.
Yet if the political swirl was understandably second-nature to Ottawa residents, how had nature itself faded into the background so successfully that it wasn’t worthy of note? Through the summer, was I the only one who noticed when one of those cute squirrels traversed the sidewalk with their unique, undulating gait? Come fall, was I the only person over the age of four who appreciated the profligacy of red and burgundy blanketing the ground, or forgot the purpose of an errand in the picking up of leaves? Some days it seemed so.
All that was then: this is now, and my acclimatization is almost complete, with only the occasional fertilizer spreader in January to remind me of the distance I’ve come. With my collection of salt-stained shoes and three umbrellas I can almost pass for a local. As always, however, the most important changes aren’t external but, rather, subtle shifts in perspective that go well beyond jaywalking without a second thought.
These days I assume that summer air will have texture, and wonder what friends visiting from Alberta are talking about when they complain about relative humidity levels less than 50%. I’ve learned that a dry cold really is easier to tolerate, and that ‘the east’ is a day’s drive from here. Most surprisingly, after battling their depredatory incursions into my flower boxes for several summers, I see those formerly cute little squirrels as pesky rodents. And the federal politicians glimpsed on the street? Yup, they’re starting to look sort of appealing.