Four months into the New Normal

As I write this, Montreal is slowly emerging from a long winter. Terrasses are being set up, patio furniture brought out of storage, lines forming in front of ice cream stands, parents with babies cooing over flowers in the park while buskers play a short distance away and the attentive can pick up the smell — sometimes discreet, sometimes less so– of cannabis. Yesterday, I walked by a restaurant and was surprised by the simultaneously reassuring and disconcerting sound of cutlery clinking against plates, which I could hear through the large, open windows. Farmers’ market vendors are pitching their tents, fresh and posters are popping up again on phone poles and church notice boards. Everything kind of feels like spring, like plants pushing against a layer of grey ice until it cracks. Except it’s not early spring at all. It isn’t April — it’s July.

It has been a weird, scary and tense four months. More than 8000 people have died in Canada, about 5600 of them in Quebec, of which well over 4000 were residents of homes for the elderly. Schools were closed. Restaurants, bars, gyms, stores (except for a few essential services) and office buildings were shut. Playgrounds were covered in police tape because people were worried about the virus lingering on surfaces and sticking to little hands.  No one could visit anyone in hospital. No one could go to the library, use public restrooms, have friends over or work in a public workspace.  No one could meet a friend for coffee or a meal. We were afraid to breathe the air. Every time a jogger sped past me when I was running errands, I wondered if I or anyone would get the virus from breathing in their backdraft.

And of course, we couldn’t touch each other. At all. My back seized up from the lack of touch; I would have emptied my bank account for a massage. During one weird moment, I started keeping an eye out for the family of mice who lived behind my refrigerator for a few weeks two years ago, thinking that I’d be a bit less lonely if they came back. Finally, I ran into a girl I used to take a class with, in line for the grocery store, and she gave me a plant. Valérie (Montrealers will understand) is now on the corner of my desk.

After 18 months of travelling, I have been stuck here for more than four months. A visit to my mother’s side of the family in New Hampshire in March was down the tubes; my grandmother died, at 97 about five weeks after I’d been hoping to visit. My father’s bucket-list trip to London, which I’d been invited on, had to be cancelled. Work trips to Winnipeg and Gaspé? Forget it. Suddenly, my world — along with everybody else’s world — shrunk to a few blocks. The weather wasn’t cooperating either. At the beginning of May, when terrasses are being rolled out and parks are alive with people, I trudged through late-season snow past the closed pizzerias and bric-à-brac stores, on my way home from picking up lightbulbs or something, and thought, “God, this is desolate.”

It hasn’t been all terrible. Unlike thousands and thousands of people, I have had work all this time — although during the first six weeks or so, it was all-COVID-all-the-time, which was exhausting. Moving in-person events online hasn’t been all  bad — I’ve been able to “attend” birthday parties and late-night chit-chat sessions in Ottawa and Quebec City, conferences in London, a press conference in Iqaluit and a book launch in New York. When the Irish music group I was part of went online-only, friends from Japan and from the Maritimes were able to drop in. At the beginning, there was a great sense of solidarity, with front porch singing challenges and rainbows popping up in people’s windows, although after a few weeks, when we realized we were going to have not just a rough couple of weeks but a rough couple of years, people did tire of the games.

Now, the ice is cracking. There has been some evidence that outdoor activities are safer than indoor, so everything from concerts to dates to union meetings is now taking place in parks. Bars are setting up their terrasses, and people are even talking about vacations again — within the province, because no one here can go to the US or Europe. The smallest things are still fraught with danger, and we still don’t know if there will be a second wave, but we’re making the most of our borrowed time.

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