One of the first things I noticed when I came to Ottawa was just how many rules there are. The rules are both written (“no food or uncovered drinks anywhere except the kitchen”) and assumed (“When the House is sitting, you wear a suit to work”). There are unspoken rules about how cold it needs to be before you can wear a hat and scarf to work and there are rules about what you need to take off before going through security (belt, anything loose in your pockets, and your coat and scarf, for the record.) Even the streets seem to follow rules, with Metcalfe running parallel to O’Connor which runs parallel to Bank which runs parallel to Kent and so on and so on.
Rules, in a well-worn cliché, are both a blessing and a curse. For example, I really appreciate living in a city where the rule is that on Sundays after 9 PM, you can get as many $3 pork tacos as your student budget can cover. On the other hand, I’m not so enamoured with the rule that states “if it looks safe, you can probably jaywalk; if it doesn’t look safe, you can probably jaywalk because the driver is expecting you to anyways.”
Good and bad, there are so many rules that it would be difficult to even try to make an itemized list. Even rules that appear to be made out of some misguided sense of benevolence (the aforementioned $3 tacos are accompanied with a $3 whiskey shot deal) can collectively work together to make the city seem strange and scary at times. The rules keep me from fully integrating into the vibe of the city. I feel lost, out of place, and like I’m sticking out like a sore thumb because I do not understand how to navigate the city and its customs—everyone knows I’m from somewhere else because I do not know The Rules.
But the thing about realizing that Ottawa—or any new city, really—has so many rules, is that you begin to detect an undercurrent of kindness in the whole structure of the rules themselves. It’s the rules that lead a security guard in a forbidding glass building to print you out a Google Map of where you need to go. It’s the rules that allow you to witness the Governor General smiling in the midst of performing traditional Québécois dance. And it’s the rules that lead the whole office to fall silent as the MPs on CBC take a moment to remember the lives lost in the terrible tragedy in Québéc City.
I may never know all the rules of this pretty, organized, swiftly moving little frozen city. I might continue to have to say, loudly and publicly, “Oh, it doesn’t work this way in BC.” But as I move in and out of buildings where I am cheerfully greeted in Franglais, I remember that the rules are not just there to confuse and alienate me.
Sometimes the rules are just there to remind me that no matter where you go in the world, someone will be there to tell you that now, it’s home.