To readers: please be advised that this blog contains no Paris content whatsoever. We will return to our regularly scheduled comments on Paris next month.
The lockdown catches us by surprise. On Monday we are in the library, collecting our books and chatting with a friend, on Wednesday we celebrate an anniversary with brunch at a bagel shop and a visit to the art gallery, on Friday we shop for food at the St. Lawrence Market. The following Monday, everything closes. I’m glad we picked up those library books. We’re going to need them.
At this point, the authorities implore us not to buy face masks, which are needed for front-line workers. A friend cobbles together some masks from cut-up bandanas, and her sister drops them off. Literally drops. She stands, masked, on our porch, holding them in a bag, and rather than put the bag directly into our hands, she throws it at our feet. We understand. We have no idea what to do, either. But having a mask seems like a good idea.
Life hasn’t changed much. Norman is retired, and I am a freelancer, accustomed to working from home. We learn to “attend” church online. We rather like the lack of traffic, the quiet, the clear air. We shop locally for groceries, but cannot use cash. I give an otherwise unusable five-dollar bill to a panhandler, wondering if he will be allowed to spend it somewhere. We make online donations to charities and struggling arts organizations. We write to far-flung friends and family and talk to neighbours. I follow a musician called Matthew Larkin on Facebook who is creating music in deserted Ottawa churches.
The weather is cold and wet. We go out for fresh air and exercise, sometimes alone, sometimes together, trudging down streets in our neighbourhood we’ve never noticed before, avoiding other people by crossing the road.
In a shop nearby two stylists with sewing machines are making masks. They are elegant and form-fitting, but the elastics are tight. I feel my ears are being pulled forward day after day. Norman cannot wear his hearing aids with the masks, because the ear loops dislodge them, and his glasses fog up. Once masked, he is deafer than usual and cannot see well. Over time, he learns to control his breathing so at least he can keep his glasses on.
Meanwhile, the world turns upside down. We once prided ourselves on using transit for most outings. Now if we cannot get somewhere on foot, we take the car. We once avoided single-use plastics and disposable items. Now they represent protection and sanitation.
Overzealous bylaw enforcement officers hassle people on park benches. Someone drapes benches with yellow plastic tape marked “Caution.” I contact my city councillor. No, he says, benches are for those who need them. City staff remove some of the tape. I remove the rest.
Signs appear warning us to keep a distance of three geese from each other. The local geese are unmoved by this appeal to their civic-mindedness and refuse to line up neatly.
As the weather warms up, tiny insects appear by the lake in swarms; my mask keeps them out of my nose and mouth. Disposable masks are now widely available, so we buy a dozen. They’re easier on the ears.
We line up outside food shops, and the city puts orange cones on the roadway to create more room for the queues, because the sidewalks are too narrow to accommodate them. We have long since finished our library books, and the pile of bought-but-not-yet-read books is dwindling. An unprecedented situation.
We come up with new projects. Norman takes down a dead tree. I digitize my dad’s old 35mm slides (here’s an example from 1969, showing my parents).
Norman builds a new stone pathway. I try new recipes (I don’t bake bread, but I make a lot of pesto – see recipe below).
We finally return our library books and recycle our wine bottles. I cut Norman’s hair. We and our neighbours are gardening obsessively. A neighbour gives us a hydrangea. I give someone else a rose of Sharon.
A local dress shop reopens, selling masks by an American fashion company. I choose a cotton one in a summery fabric with adjustable ear loops. A day later, I go back to buy another for my stepdaughter.
Walks are replaced by bicycle rides. I venture farther and farther along the waterfront bike trail. Parts of Toronto’s waterfront are quite wild, and I spot garter snakes, rabbits, and bright little songbirds. The mask keeps cottonwood fluff out of my nose and mouth. With mask, sunglasses, bicycle helmet, baggy shorts and T-shirt, I am for all intents and purposes unrecognizable. I enjoy the anonymity.
The parks are full of people. Family togetherness takes various forms, including the parent walking with a child while barking into a cellphone about return on investment or marketing budgets, as the child plods along, staring glumly at the ground.
We arrange physically distanced drinks with a friend or two at a time on our back porch. They bring their own glasses. I serve snacks that require no handling on my part, arranged on individual trays. Guests come and go along the driveway beside the house. They remove their masks once they are seated on the porch.
I have my hair cut and my first proper visit with my mother since March. She has dementia and lives in a long-term care facility. Zoom visits didn’t work; she couldn’t understand that she was supposed to look at the screen and kept staring at the staff member who’d arranged the call, complaining loudly that she had no idea what was going on. Window visits weren’t much better: we couldn’t hear each other, she would blow kisses for a minute, then complain of the draught and slam the window shut. We ended up with phone calls, in which she just kept asking when she was going to see me.
The July meeting takes place outdoors, under a translucent canopy that does nothing to shield us from the heat of the sun. I fill out a questionnaire and have my temperature taken. Given the heat, I am surprised that I register as normal. I wear a mask, as do all of the staff members, but my mother does not. She has had a fall and broken a tooth during the lockdown. Her hair is longer than I think I’ve ever seen it. But she is safe and well. I tell her about what is happening and she keeps repeating, “It’s all so strange.”
I ride my bike in the mornings before it gets too hot. There is usually a bit of a breeze by the water.
The local bookshop reopens and we buy books on race relations and indigenous peoples. The pandemic has exposed fault lines; we need to be better informed.
I find the gradual reopening almost more stressful than lockdown because the rules are too vague and differ from place to place. On my bike rides I see more and more people either without masks, or wearing them as chinstraps or hanging from one ear. The city finally makes the wearing of masks mandatory in indoor public spaces and on transit. Some people protest, most people comply.
I sit down to write a blog about Paris, but I can’t focus on it. So I write this instead.
After a while, I go back to the dress shop and buy another designer mask, this one in a silky fabric and a darker colour. For fall. I reckon I will still need one when the weather cools down.
In a food processor blend together:
8 oz / 225 g spinach
⅓ to ½ cup olive oil (to taste)
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
½ cup (125 ml) grated Parmesan cheese
3 garlic cloves
¼ cup chopped cashews (I’ve also used pistachios)
Any green herbs you like in any quantity you want: dill, basil, chives, oregano, parsley – all work well
Salt and pepper to taste
Use in potato salad, pasta dishes, over steak, slathered on a slice of baguette…
Bon appétit !
Text and photographs by Philippa Campsie. Thanks to Gill and Meg Morden for the homemade mask.