Susan D’Antoni in Ottawa, Canada: Isolation

17 July 2020

The solitude of my initial isolation was quite pleasant as I prepared the rental house for our granddaughters, and ranged through a too large selection of books culled from the many not-read options in my library.  In the end, I read When We Were Orphans by Kasuro Ishiguro (acquired from the sale of books at our local library), The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (bought because I wanted to know whether I agreed with the award of a Pulitzer prize) and Factfulness: Ten Reasons we’re wrong about the world – and why things are better than you think, by the wonderful Swede, Hans Rosling.  The first I found a beautifully written story.  The second I found a gripping page turner, much to my surprise.  And the last I loved; I had truly saved the best for last.  I bought the book when it was released after Rosling died, but being quite familiar with his work I had never read it.  Our current worldwide situation, made it rather attractive: the title promised a more optimistic reading and thinking than current events, and it more than fulfilled the promise.

I came upon the work of Hans Rosling while working at the Paris based UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning (better known as IIEP).  He used software called Gapminder to graphically convey his messages about the state of the world over time.  In those days when graphics were not so well used as now, I found it very powerful and potentially interesting for the educational planners studying at IIEP.  Rosling himself was a very powerful and entertaining communicator.  As a youngster he had wanted to become a circus artist – his parents preferred that he get an education and so he became a medical doctor and eventually professor of international health at the Svenska Institute in Sweden.  There he set himself the task of sharing and explaining a worldview gained from analysis of large data sets – that things are getting better in the world – even though we tend to think they are getting worse.  Through his many presentations and TED Talks he energetically shared this vision, and occasionally gave a sword swallowing performance at the end.  Before he died, he worked along with his son and daughter-in-law to put his messages in a book.  His heartfelt address to the reader is on the fly leaf, and concludes thus:

This book is my last battle in my lifelong mission to fight devastating ignorance …Previously I armed myself with huge data sets, eye-opening software and energetic lecturing style, and a Swedish bayonet for sword swallowing.  It wasn’t enough.  But I hope this book will be. *

Then two weeks ago, our granddaughters finally arrived in Ottawa from Florida.  Heart could be removed from mouth and put back where it belonged.  As pre-arranged, they phoned when they had crossed the US/Canada border that is currently closed to all non-essential travel and there was relief for everyone watching the progress of their three-day journey north.  They were very well prepared for the border crossing with a folder of documentation, including negative test results.  The official just stuck to a series of questions, and satisfied with their answers he sent them on their way with the specifics of the required fourteen-day self-isolation.  They were directed to stay in the house or in the garden.  No one could come on the property except for deliveries.  And they were contacted by telephone to ensure they were complying with the rules. They have worked, gardened, cooked and today their period of self-isolation ended. We are celebrating with dinner together in our garden.

And to conclude, I would not be a Canadian if there was no mention of our foe, the weather.  We have been having extremely long heat spells, even the mornings and evenings, that keep us indoors most of the time.  Even with a spacious home, this additional restriction weighs on one, and is yet another unpleasant indicator of advancing years.  Heat that was once bearable, now saps all energy and turns me into a limp, lethargic lump.  Nonetheless, I am continually heartened to see the smiling faces of our granddaughters across the street, safe from the rising numbers of COVID cases in Florida.

* Hans Rosling. February 2017

Susan D’Antoni in Ottawa, Canada: Tout se complique

26 June

After a long put off appointment at the local hospital, I am self isolating in our newly vacated rental house.  Being cautious and careful about the continuing presence of COVID 19 in our midst, we considered the wisdom of my venturing out of our family bubble for the first time since we returned home from France in early March.  Having had the comfort of being strict in our isolation to date, it felt uncomfortable to break it.  So I moved across the street to camp in our former home for two weeks.  Much of my time has been spent in my current abode anyway, cleaning up after the tenants departed in preparation for the arrival of our granddaughters.  Now I have the luxury of getting up from my couch/bed and being able to get straight to the cleaning effort without any pleasant distractions like having coffee with Drew and reading email and news.  Drew is not here and the Internet access is currently almost nil unless I go out and sit on the front porch, which I feel reluctant to do in my nightgown.

It is an instructive experience to be without Internet access.  It is not only a loss of the connectivity with friends and family through email and Facebook, but also the loss of Radio Classique France, my favourite streaming radio station, and no nightly movie entertainment.  I do have a radio, but have found that it offers only pop music over the available stations.  Even our national CBC does not offer pleasure to my ears. 

This is early in my period of isolation.  Day one was the beginning of withdrawal symptoms, but greatly alleviated by delicious dinner delivered to the front porch by Drew.  Day two was a bad night on the couch, the struggle with the radio and finally coming to terms with the fact that it was useless except for news.  However, a good book tempered my unhappiness.  Now it is day three and after a better night on the couch in a pleasantly cool temperature – a break from the heat wave we have been having – I feel the ongoing cleaning of the house and the books from the cache I have will be fine to occupy the day.  The computer does allow me to write this blog entry offline and then try to send it from the front porch.  A technical solution is being sought to remedy the lack of Internet access: I doubt that the granddaughters would survive one day without.

Ever since we relocated from France, the granddaughters have spent some time with us in the summer.  Here they have the freedom to walk –or run – about by themselves, in a way they do not in the big city in which they live.  But this summer is different.  This time they want to come to be safer from COVID 19, as Florida experiences a not unexpected spike in new cases, along with a number of other southern states.  As they prepare for their journey north, they are still waiting to hear from their respective universities, one in Vermont and one in Quebec, specific details about what the institutions will be able to offer them.  The youngest is just about to start university and is leaning towards waiting for another year to start her university experience in possibly better circumstances.  She plans to look for work here, and we would be delighted to see her stay. 

As the granddaughters prepare, I fret.  I am concerned about the logistics – their long drive here, the drive through the states that are considering requiring anyone entering to self isolate for two weeks, the uncertainty of the Canadian border crossing even though they are Canadian citizens, and their health insurance situation.  All this puts me in mind of the title of a favourite book by a famous French cartoonist, Sempe – Tout se complique.  For a Canadian, that phrase describes France rather well – everything feels complicated.  The phrase would serve quite well for our life with COVID 19: everything is complicated.

Susan D from Ottawa, Canada: COVID time – a reflection

14 June

I feel time is playing tricks, behaving like an elastic band.  Time seems to have stretched out: it feels like forever since we were enjoying ourselves in Paris.  Now each week dissolves, leaving hardly a trace.  I have finished my nightly meetings with Alec Guinness in his “positively final appearance”, but a bit from the December chapter stuck in my mind. “The days, they say, are drawing out. All that strikes me is that in spite of the slowing up of time, the weeks gallop apace; Sunday comes sharp on the heels of Sunday.”

At first, it seemed that enforced isolation would have one positive aspect.  Time without without socializing, shopping, travelling or hosting travelling friends would free up time to address some of those things one can always find a reason to leave for another day, month or year.  There is the basement, never sorted out after moving, and the perfect thing to do during the winter months of which Canada has so many.  Then there is the idea of learning and doing something new – writing a children’s book based upon a doll that belonged to my daughter.  When rescued from the garbage and cleaned up, he looked just fine as the main character for a story – perfect for spring creativity and increased energy.  Spring would also be a good time to address some landscaping at the front of the house, of which there is really none.  And then there are all those bookcases full of books, in fact, a whole library of unread books, good at any time of the year.  However, there is another side of COVID confinement – no cleaning help.  Now too much time is filled with cleaning a rather large house, and Monday comes sharp on the heels of Monday as the dust rolls down the halls and the cleaning cycle starts up again.  No new tasks get taken up.

Right at the moment, time seems to be collaborating with its colleague, the weather.  Early summer arrived with 30 degree days several weeks ago, but down jackets have been donned again, and tonight the temperature will descend to 6 degrees.  As Ontario has begun to open up further, although cases are still not falling consistently, the weather seems to be intimating that it is April or perhaps early May in COVID time, and too soon to be tossing aside so many precautionary measures.  I read a comment today that COVID is very young as a virus, mere months old, and we have hardly gotten to know it.  Nonetheless, the more than three months of self-isolating feel much longer: time is still playing its tricks.

Susan D from Ottawa, Canada: Opening up

Encouraging correct physical distancing

2 June: Opening up

Two weeks ago Ontario began to move into the first stage of reopening, which would permit the resuming of construction projects and the reopening of some workplaces, seasonal activities and healthcare settings.  But this was done without the support of the Chief Medical Officer of Health who felt the curve was not falling enough.  One week ago, there was a spike in new cases, blamed on Mother’s Day gatherings and some bad behaviour in parks.  In a popular downtown park in Toronto where city officials said thousands of people ignored physical distancing rules.  The premier said it looked like a rock concert without a band, and that he’s disappointed with everyone who was there. A stern reminder of our civic responsibility to follow the rules.

Following the statistical reports of cases and deaths over the last months has been painful, and makes one want to turn away from it all and read a book or watch a watch a movie.  One statistic has been particularly hard to consider: it has been reported that more than eight of ten Canadian deaths from COVID-19 have been residents of long-term care institutions. In late May the Ontario Premier resorted to making a formal request for assistance from the Canadian Armed Forces to provide some staff relief, and general assistance to support day-to-day operations.  A report was issued by the military that was scathing and shocking: many residences did not provide a proper level of care and the examples cited were hard to read, impossible to accept.  Public response has been loud and emotional, and the government has announced an independent commission to investigate the province’s long-term care system. It has taken an emergency health situation to shine a bright enough light on a situation that has deserved action for some time.  The news makes one ashamed of how vulnerable members of our society are being treated in their latter years.  Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated that Canada is “failing” its elderly. “We shouldn’t have soldiers taking care of seniors,” he said last month. “In the weeks and months to come, we will all have to ask tough questions about how it came to this.”*

As the opening up across the country progresses, the discussion and debate of how soon it is prudent to do what, seems to be overshadowing the daily reporting of cases and deaths, the ups and the downs – the current state of our collective wellbeing.   I find it worrisome to turn one’s attention from the main issue – there is a virus among us that spreads easily before announcing itself in a host and for which there is limited care in many cases, no cure, and no available vaccine yet in sight.  It is natural to want to look for a return to a former life pattern, and to feel comforted by even the possibility of its return, but we cannot let down our guard, especially those of our age group.  I cannot forget the friend who lingered in France as the number of cases rose, and returned home to die. We must remain very careful, very vigilant; to borrow the mantra of those given to strenuous exercise programmes – no pain, no gain.

*The Washington Post

Susan D in Ottawa, Canada: Graduation ceremony

25 May

Two years ago we sat in the early morning humid heat of Florida along with our daughter and her family, to see her oldest child walk across the stage set up under the spreading trees to receive her secondary school diploma. We were delighted to have been able to participate in this important life event of our first granddaughter.  It was a nice ceremony, followed by a procession of the graduates along a treed pathway to another area for photos and congratulations and best wishes and hugs from family and friends.  We prolonged the celebration even further by lingering over lunch at her favourite vegetarian restaurant.   Then she apologetically headed off to continue the celebrating at various parties.  It had a very satisfying feeling for all of us.

This past Saturday was the graduation of her younger sister.  This time we did not fly to Florida to repeat the previous experience, we just rose early, dressed, drank coffee and then settled on the couch at home to watch the ceremony on the computer.  Although we had been surprised that the school had decided to go ahead with the ceremony, we should not have been given the late stay-at-home order and the early re-opening in the state of Florida. 

The school had established what they felt was a safe setting by moving the event to the football field.  Guests were limited to four for each graduate and the field was divided into spacious squares by taping the ground.  The graduating class wore masks (matching their gowns).  The staff officiating did not.  

The ceremony followed the familiar pattern and both student speeches were thoughtful and well articulated. I felt a pang of pride as my granddaughter crossed the stage (a little tear escaped too).  At the end after the closing remarks of the head of school, the screen went blank and there we were back at home by ourselves – no smile, hug or congratulatory remarks to the graduate, or her also proud parents.  We were glad to see her, but the experience felt empty in comparison with two years ago.  But we did see her, and we do feel grateful for that and the jerky sometimes frozen feed that brought her to us.  How many youngsters have not had the recognition and closure that a graduation ceremony brings to their years of secondary or university study.  And how many family members have not been able to be with them, even if the ceremony took place.

Susan D in Ottawa, Canada: The Queen’s birthday weekend

20 May

We jumped straight from snow flurries and frost warnings last week to summer on the long Victoria Day weekend – we celebrate not on her actual birthday, but the Monday before.  The 24th of May is also the day that it is safe to plant one’s garden without fear of frost killing off new plantings.  The tulip festival that usually culminates on the weekend was cancelled for COVID safety, but the tulips didn’t know so they are all out in their glory with no busloads of visitors to appreciate their beauty this year.  

The population came out in number on the weekend.  The little park behind our house was full of people picnicking on blankets, playing Frisbee, tightrope walking, climbing trees – all enjoying the weather and themselves, and mostly, but not always, keeping the required safe two-metre distance from other groups.  There were more people than we remember seeing in the park.  Our street was also full of people walking and talking, riding but not driving; some ignoring the distancing requirement.  Sitting on the front porch one evening, we watched two young girls who were at safe distance talking as they sailed up the street on their scooters, and we watched as they came around the block again and again and again, until we lost count.  They looked so happy to be sprung from wherever they have been confined.

Susan D in Ottawa, Canada: Safety – Guns

12 May

The sun is out and it is snowing and there is a frost warning, and I have just watered the newly fertilized cedar hedge in my winter coat and hat.  But there seems to have been some good news in Canada to take our minds off COVID-19.

Canada is not known for its gun related violence, unlike our neighbour to the South.  Although there have been grievous incidents they have been infrequent.  The recent mass shooting in Nova Scotia was a shock.  On the first of May, the Prime Minister announced an immediate ban on some 1,500 makes and models of military-grade “assault-style” weapons in Canada.  “These weapons were designed for one purpose and one purpose only: to kill the largest number of people in the shortest amount of time.  There is no use and no place for such weapons in Canada.”

Since the announcement there has been sniping from the opposition that this will be a costly (owners will be recompensed for turning in prohibited guns), but limited (the policy covers only specified guns) and largely ineffective policy (inadequate control of the high level of gun smuggling of guns across the US Canada border).  But it is one step, even if a small one. 

We have regular reminders in the news about the gun situation in the US.  But what remains foremost in my mind is the experience of my daughter in Florida some years ago.  Concerned about the drug problem at the local school, she researched alternatives for her daughter at the end of her Montessori schooling years.  The school she selected put a significant financial burden on the family, but she felt it was the best choice for her serious, studious daughter.  Several weeks into the new school year, a recently terminated teacher returned to the school with a guitar case containing an assault rifle.  He killed the principal, he killed himself, and he killed the sense of security my daughter had sought for her child.  So I am happy with all moves the Canadian government makes to reduce gun violence, especially when there are so very many demands upon the public purse due to COVID-19.

From Susan D in Ottawa, Canada

6 May 

Local entertainment

Our back garden is very small, the addition to the house having taken up as much of the lot as city by-law allowed.  Nonetheless, it provides us with endlessly entertainment, primarily by the squirrels that treat the large old oak tree and several elderly lilacs as a sort of jungle gym. At this point of maybe-Spring they are extremely energetic, leaping from branch to branch, occasionally hanging upside down by their hind legs.  One of them, grey with a white tummy, seems almost demented; it leaps about on the ground all by itself, and does little back flips every now and then.  We do wonder if there is something in the garden that when nibbled enhances squirrel reality.  Two black ones chase each other continuously and seem to be playing, siblings we think.

Perhaps this speaks to a certain level of boredom: we watch all this action over the course of the day as we eat our three meals at the table in the bow window overlooking the small garden, the small park beyond and the small pond beyond that.  The pond is connected to the Canal and is emptied when the canal level is reduced to create the longest skating rink in the world and is, therefore a mud flat from Fall to Spring.  It almost feels as though we are at the cottage when the water comes in, and a good thing too while the Quebec border seems set to remain closed to Ottawa cottagers.

Of late we have been sharing our meals with the garden animals.  Being confined to the house, we have resorted to an old bread machine that is becoming less and less competent at its job – no matter the setting and the bottom crust is far too crusty.  So as we nip off the hard bits of breakfast or lunch or dinner bread, we have started to share them with the squirrels.  To add a little a little excitement to this routine, we have decided to train the squirrels to come at the ringing of a set of little bells brought home from Austria.  So far, the conditioning effort has had no effect.

After writing this, during my nightly visit with Alec Guinness via his journal, A Positively Final Appearance, I came upon his delightful squirrel description.

From my study window I see three very young squirrels experimenting with their tails.  First they curl them over their heads as if they were inflated umbrellas; then they make undulating rhythmic movements with them, like grey waves; then they spread them wide and flat on the ground so they appear to be feathers; and finally, fed up with all that, they just fling them around in the way women did with their silver-fox furs in the thirties.

Snow yet again

It seems that May is taking lessons in cruelty from April; flurries are forecast for Friday and Saturday.  The timid little lilac buds that have barely begun opening must be saying to each other, “Oh no, not again”.

From Susan D in Ottawa, Canada: Front line workers

April 30

As we head to the Experimental Farm for our largely people-free walk, we go along the lovely Queen Elisabeth Driveway owned by the National Capital Commission.  On one side is Dow’s Lake, a small man-made lake on the Rideau Canal, which is the oldest continuously operated canal system in North America and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. On the other side is a little park area that hosts the annual Canadian Tulip Festival, the largest of its kind in the world.  The May festival that began in 1953 has a history: in 1945, the Dutch royal family sent 100,000 tulip bulbs to Ottawa in gratitude for Canadians having sheltered the future Queen Juliana and her family for the preceding three years in the Second World War.  Since then, the Dutch royal family has continued to send tulip bulbs to Canada’s capital each year – a lasting gift known as the “Tulip Legacy” that inspired the festival.   The tulip is Ottawa’s official flower.

It is a lovely drive, and if Spring ever comes, we will be treated to the view of all those beautiful tulips and reminded of their history.  However, every day we are treated to what to us seems to be an architectural abomination and evidence of a lamentable lack of both city planning and respect of by-laws.  Marring the symmetry of the row of elegant old houses looking down upon the National Capital Commission parkland is a huge house built upon the land of two former houses, and resembling nothing so much as an upscale grocery store.  It irritates me every time we pass it.  However, the photo above shows that the inhabitants have something to say to those of us who notice their house.  For now, I forgive them the structure behind the sign.

In our neighbourhood there was some early pot and pan banging at 7.00 each evening to tell the front line workers they were appreciated, but little by little it diminished and then ceased.  So the recent announcement of the Ontario government was heartening: for the next four months front-line workers will receive a $4 per hour salary increase as part of a temporary payment to recognize their their dedication, long hours and the health risks associated with COVID-19.  Those working more than 100 hours a month will receive lump sum payments of $250 per month.  This support comes rather late in the long list of government support packages, but when criticized, the premier credited additional federal government support for finally making it possible.  It is heartening to see cooperation, not sniping, between the various levels of government.

From Susan D. in Ottawa, Canada: Aging in place

a piece of Paris

22 April

 Snow still

The wind is howling and the snow is descending in gusts and blowing from the rooftops. Perhaps this wild April inclemency has been sent not from cruelty but rather from compassion, to divert us, to ensure a topic for conversation, to make us happy to huddle together in the warmth of our homes.

Ontario modelling

The grim modelling released earlier in the month was replaced on Monday by new data indicating that Ontario has appeared to have peaked ahead of the forecasts. The earlier projections had called for 1,600 deaths by April 30, and 80,000 cases. On Monday, there were 11,184 confirmed cases, 802 people in hospital and 584 reported deaths. Hospital resources have not been overwhelmed. People without COVID-19 related symptoms have even been urged by the hospitals to “visit us”, and not stay at home until they are desperately ill.

Nonetheless, we older souls must heed the advice of the Ontario Premier: “Until a vaccine is found, the best way to protect those over the age of 70 and those with complex medical conditions is to ask them to self-isolate at home.” And that will be for some time as experts constantly reiterate.

Our old age home

We remind ourselves daily how fortunate we are to have our lovely spacious home in which to self-isolate. When we returned to Canada in 2010, we were both very unhappy about leaving Paris and found it very difficult to appreciate either Ottawa or the house we had kept for our almost 20 year absence. We needed a new adventure. When the house across the street came up for sale we launched ourselves – me with a little trepidation, Drew with none – into a project that would consume us for three years, to create a house that would allow us to age in place.

The renovation saga that followed is banal: the foundation was rotten, there was fire damage on the first floor ceiling that compromised the entire four-floor staircase, there was asbestos in the attic along with some water damage, and on and on, mostly unidentified in the inspection. We engaged an excellent architect, and I researched universal design to make sure we chose items like door handles that are easy for arthritic hands, a shower accessible to a wheel chair. But we failed in our choice of a contractor who bolted for Portugal before the work was fully completed, another banal renovation experience. Our neighbour and former friend sued us to keep land he had encroached upon. We won the legal battle, but it was extremely unpleasant and detracted for some time from the pleasure of being in our new home.

We had very few bits of furniture from our years of living in tiny Paris apartments when we moved in. Furnishing the house to overcome the extreme minimalist effect took us some time, and all the while the architect who wanted to put his work in the annual Ottawa award ceremony was nipping at our heels. When he finally decided that our furnishing efforts would not disgrace his design and that he could Photoshop the limited landscaping efforts, he submitted his work on “A Piece of Paris” (his submission photo above). To our amazement he won the awards for both best renovation and best kitchen and one of the little plexiglass awards now sits in a bookcase along with a couple of folded up newspaper articles.

It has been only recently that we have felt truly happy and pleasantly comfortable in our old-age-home-to-be, having found our own favourite places in it and having space for our family when they come to stay. Our enforced isolation, which is unlikely to end for some time yet, has proved a very good test of the design. We could not have known how soon we would need it.