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A Mainer Abroad: Surviving “Hell Week” in Canada

Hell week is over. Kaput. I survived the most difficult week of schooling at the university so far by giving shaky presentations, and taking insane examinations that I needed to apply to graduate school. The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is one of the tests that prove one’s mettle when it comes to applying for grad school. Think of the SATs, then increase the difficulty. The GREs also add in a few new twists like a security screening and hunter-orange gun-range safety ear muffs; not to mention a white noise machine crackling its deafening roar. I took my exam on Remembrance Day, the worldwide equivalent to Veterans Day. In the middle of my test in downtown Ottawa I could hear the 21-gun salute and the CF-18 fighter jet fly over the National War Memorial just a few blocks up the street. After my exam I walked to the Byward Market area of downtown.

Ottawans just call it “The Market.” It’s a classic part of Ottawa containing an old-fashioned bazaar with brick oven bakeries, fishmongers and Polish meat markets. It also has gentrified parts like the high-fashion mall and the American embassy not too far away from its heart. There’s really only one place I’d wanted to eat at in the Market since I arrived here back in August: Mellos Restaurant at the corner of Dalhousie Street and Clarence Street.

The diner has been in the market since 1942, but is being forced to close after 73 years because the new Mexican restaurant next door seeks to expand. The hostess gave me a seat at the farthest end of the counter. The whole diner was maybe 15 feet by 60 feet, including the entire kitchen and seating. The counter ran the entire length of the long wall with the entire kitchen staff behind it.

I watched the woman at the griddle. She relit one of the burners to the left of the griddle by spraying PAM in a sweeping motion from one burner to another. A candle lighter would have done the trick, but I watched with simultaneous bemusement and horror as she repeatedly used her homemade flamethrower to do the job. There was another woman working the fryolators and plating meals as they became ready. Everything near the fryers was covered in dense black clumps of grease. An ancient wood cabinet speaker from the 1970s hummed Led Zeppelin and The Band. There were no TVs showing sports. The food menu is petite, but the beer list is extensive. People were crammed into booths so that in most instances there were six people in booths made for four. It was an experience waiting for my meal. I didn’t need a TV to drive away boredom because the mess of things surrounding me occupied all my attention.

I had ordered a three-egg omelette with homefries, and I was surprised that it tasted so good. There’s something magical about watching your food get cooked right in front of you. The sight of the white eggs being cracked, split and scrambled in a silver mixing bowl before being poured into a searing hot cast iron pan, where they are then dressed up with goat cheese, spinach and cherry tomatoes, leaves you in anticipation. I was famished and it only made my hankering worse. It’s sad to think that Mellos restaurant will probably close for good by the end of the month.

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