A view of the pandemic (so far) in five masks

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.

Mid-March: homemade.

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.

April: couture.

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.

May: disposable.

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).

June: imported.

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.

July: seasonal.

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.


Pandemic Pesto

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.

About Parisian Fields

Parisian Fields is the blog of two Toronto writers who love Paris. When we can't be there, we can write about it. We're interested in everything from its history and architecture to its graffiti and street furniture. We welcome comments, suggestions, corrections, and musings from all readers.
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23 Responses to A view of the pandemic (so far) in five masks

  1. narellerj says:

    I empathise with you and your distraction. It’s hard to focus on what was once normal. Our library had a click and collect for patrons, so we all had something to read, but now it’s progressed to be open “normal” hours with a limit of numbers in the building.

  2. Bernard KIRCHHOFF says:

          Thanks. I survive but  Carbona is a pain.

  3. Kate Fitzgerald says:

    Brilliant! Thank you so much for writing this — such a refreshing change from all the bad news here at home (USA). I recognized so much of our own daily existence — the compulsive gardening, the lack of library access, the pleasures of anonymity while out exercising, just to name a few. Canada has seemed to maintain its sense of humor (three geese?). Wish I could say the same for US. Thank you again.

  4. Heather Franca says:

    I enjoyed this very much. Xo

  5. Laurel says:

    I enjoyed this very much. These months are indeed a journey to reflect on. Quite different from our usual travels.

    We adopted masks early on (mid-March) and I revived my sewing skills to learn to make them for ourselves, family, neighbors, and community. The excess of time and a need for purpose allowed me to refine my design and after making about 150 I think I have it down. We will be wearing these a long time so I am starting to plan designs for the fall and winter holidays,

  6. Kiki says:

    Thank you Philippa and Norman. Your ‘report’ reads kinda ‘nice’ if I may say so. HH and I also can’t really complain, he’s still working mostly from home which is a totally new thing to me after 22+yrs of marriage. I love cooking for the two of us and now that we may again receive and go for visits, we have a visitor overload (nearly!) as everybody wants to see our ‘new’ rental flat. Our house, the beautiful, 1920 built Meulière in France is unsold, the last very interested ‘buyers’ backed out on the 3rd day of the quarantine.
    And your pesto sounds deli. I make it too with anything I can get my hands on. You can also try it with rocket leaves etc. it’s good in any and every way. Love from Switzerland.

    • Thank you. It is true that while this is a strange time, it is not, for us, a terrible time. I’ve had worse times in my life. By the way, what is your favourite pandemic comfort food?

  7. Kiki says:

    Oh, and I forgot to say how much I loved and was amused by the 3 geese distance – I lived in T’ranaaaa for a bit and never noticed geese as an ever present animal! This is really cute 😉

  8. Jan Whitaker says:

    Very familiar! Our bookcases are bulging.

  9. Gail says:

    Thank you for the lovely update! Glad you are well. Things down here in Atlanta are quite alarming, so it’s nice to read of a more peaceful pandemic time.

  10. We all have similar, but nationally different, stories to tell. You have inspired me to try and recreate the last 5 months here in rural England (the UK is third on the leader board, numbers are terrifying and we still have no idea what we’re supposed to do so just do what we feel is right based on all we’ve learned since March). Lots of walks, masks are on again off again but seem to be on again now, although shop keepers are not going to enforce them as they fear and risk abuse by those who don’t agree. Who knows?

  11. Oh, and could you provide an alternate, nut-free version of the pesto for your nephew? I would like to make it for a family dinner, as we hope they may come down here for a visit soon…..? Maybe just leave the cashews out?

  12. Heather Kossow says:

    This women writes an interesting Parisian blog but this time it’s all about her experience with lock down in Canada… doesn’t sound too different to me!

    Sent from my iPhone

  13. Valerie Sutter says:

    Hello Philippa I’m a happy recipient of your blog and just wanted to let you know that I tried out your recipe for pesto sauce which you included at the end of this particular entry, and loved it! Only after I finished it and declared it quite delicious (I substituted walnuts for cashews, having neither cashews nor pistachios) did I realize that I had forgotten the parmesan! Yet it was delicious anyway. Thank you for sharing that recipe. My recipe for pesto is different: I merely put basil, pine nuts, parmesan, salt, olive oil, and garlic together in a blender, and voila. I liked your addition of spinach. Valerie Sutter

    • The recipe is a much-modified version of something I found in a magazine, and I believe the original called for walnuts. I substituted cashews because that is what I had on hand, liked it, and kept it. The spinach is mainly a vehicle for the garlic-lemon flavour. I love basil pesto too, but I don’t make it because it would use up my entire basil crop from the garden!

  14. Dawn Monroe says:

    I do enjoy receiving your Parisian Fields. I am glad to know that you two are doing well. We are fine here in Northern Ontario and some parts of the province outside of large urban areas of the Toronto Windsor corridor are opening up. Libraries, while they have been given the green light to open, are for the most part sticking to curb side pick up of books you have requested from their online catalogue. I continue to work on Famous Canadian Women web site and FB page. Still finding information on so many accomplished women! Almost 3,200 up on line now. blessings, strength and happiness to you both. Dawn

    • Thank you so much. Glad to hear you are well, too. I have just finished a book that might interest you: “No Man’s Land” by Wendy Moore (Basic Books, 2020), about a military hospital in the First World War staffed entirely by women. A Canadian surgeon called Evelyn Windsor worked there. Have you run across that name in your research?

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