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.

from Susan D in Ottawa, Canada: more snow

Spring time snow in Ottawa

21 April. Snow again. This morning it snowed again. Surely it is time for the third Winter to be over and done, and if not, it needs a new name – third Winter of Despair.

Yesterday near noon, just as we were returning from our brisk walk in the Farm in brisk temperature, my favourite (unacknowledged of course) young neighbour roared out of the little lane that joins our street just across from us and stopped to say hello. On her bicycle and with her helmet, she might not be recognisable as a senior bureaucrat tasked with working on the federal government COVID-19 Economic Response Plan. She explained that now she had someone on her staff covering for her in the mornings and Saturday, and that she was working at the office from noon till 8.00 pm or so the rest of the time. I congratulated her on the very positive public response to the release of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit that provides a taxable benefit of $2,000 every 4 weeks for up to 16 weeks to eligible workers who have lost their income due to COVID-19. “Hmmm, yes” said she “but we are digging deeper and deeper into the bucket as we keep expanding coverage and support”. Then she brightened up, “But it is very interesting” and sped off. It was very heartening to know that her bright cheerful self was devoted to “saving Canada” (words of her husband).

20 April. Up then down. I feel unmoored today, although thankfully not unhinged. The daily list of chores did not serve as a framework for the day, just gave me a vague sense of ennui as I moved from one to another finishing one but not others. I feel like I am wandering aimlessly about the house and not sure where I misplaced my compass.

Yet yesterday was the opposite, with a most enjoyable first crack at not-quite-Spring garden clean-up. Lovely to be outside and not worry about anyone nearby coughing or sneezing or just getting too close. The sun was out (obligatory weather comment) and after a bit of strenuous raking, it was even possible to exchange the winter down coat for a lighter one. And in the evening we took a quick look, and then stayed till the end of the 25th year celebration in the London Royal Albert Hall of The Phantom of the Opera, offered free online. We may be closed in, but if we have Internet access there are so many offerings to help take our minds off the restrictions and the news – theatre, opera, concerts, movies, series, virtual museum and garden tours, e-books and so on.

17 April. Snow. The snow did melt a couple of days ago, but yesterday and today Nature provided follow-up reminders of Spring’s absence with little ice pellets and small snow squalls. Our walks some time ago in plus10 degrees seemed quite balmy for Spring, much as minus 10 degrees in winter seems, if not quite balmy, at least bearable. There is something most Canadians seem to need to talk about, no matter what – the weather. It might be, as some humourist has suggested, that we have been given extra seasons: Winter, fool’s Spring, second Winter, Spring of deception, third Winter, mud season, actual Spring, Summer (some descriptions substitute “road work”), False Fall, Second Summer and actual Fall.

Why do we have to have this inclement third Winter when reading the COVID-19 news and watching the escalating numbers could be ever so slightly more bearable if we were able to go outside without a parka and wave from correct distance to our wonderful neighbour-friends.

from Susan A. in Ottawa, Canada: April snowfalls and fines for dawdling …

15 April. April is the cruellest month.  When I awoke this morning just after 5.00, the little park behind our house looked strangely light.  Although the sky was clear, there had been a snowfall in the night!  It will surely melt during the day, but it was Nature’s rude reminder not to think about Spring just yet.

And then, checking Facebook while having a first cup of coffee, there was the sad news that the husband of one of my former colleagues at Statistics Canada has died from COVID-19 and that she herself is in critical condition in the hospital.  We had planned to get together after they returned from their stay in Toulouse and ours in Paris.  We returned at the beginning of March but they seem to have stayed till the end.

14 April. And that exchange with my daughter sapped my energy for the week as I waited for a decision.  In the end it was good news, for the time being, and she is at home with her husband and girls, tending her garden.

Now for a little recap of the week that was. 

Fines for dawdling in the parks. Last weekend was quite lovely as mentioned earlier and people were out and about in numbers, but parks had already been closed except to walk through.  Early in the week it was reported that a man had been fined $880 for walking his dog in one closed park, and a man playing with his autistic child in another park had been given a warning.  There were some subsequent negative comments in the press about the harshness of the action, but the mayor noted that warnings were not working.  Still, the communication about what is OK and not OK is as vague as the fines are steep.

Masks. One of my sister’s sons works for 3M Canada, a manager in the Personal Safety Division.  He was slated for a new job just before COVID-19 came to Canada.  Now he remains in his job, is one of the only workers in the offices, and seems to be working all his waking hours.  As one of his self/US protective measures, Mr Trump invoked the 1950 Defense Production Act allowing the government to stop 3M exporting N95 respirators to Canada and Latin America.  In response 3M cited global humanitarian issues as a reason to continue its supply to other countries.  Canada noted that some of the materials used in the masks come from Canada.  Eventually an agreement was reached after the sword rattling and subsequent diplomatic efforts.  That nephew of ours must be learning a good deal about business in a pandemic with an overlay of politics.

Street cleaning. On Monday evening our street was posted with the no parking signs which usually signal that it has finally become almost impassable due to snow banks and the impressive show of heavy equipment would restore it, albeit temporarily, to its two-way status.  Early the next morning there was a very impressive show of heavy equipment, this time to remove winter debris and all the salt and sand that accumulates over the course of an Ottawa winter.  The usual routine of a truck with a sweeper and water spray proceeded up and down the sides and the middle of the street and all quieted down for a bit, then there was a heavy rumble that put in mind the parade of tanks down the Champs Elysees for July 14th festivities.  The rumble was caused by a line of eight trucks spraying again, a sight never seen in previous years.  Later a neighbour told us that it was chemical disinfectant that was being sprayed.  Not confirmed by any press, but very unusual if true.

Easter. Easter Sunday was drab and drear, and we felt sad even though our dear youngish neighbour delivered home-made hot-cross buns for our breakfast.  We had a long phone conversation with our daughter, and caught up with the girls who are at home completing their school years.  The cheerful multi-coloured arrangement of tulips I had picked out to send to them was replaced by the florist with some blue bouquet of odd flowers.  Perhaps it was a representation of the mood of all of us – a little blue.

On Easter Monday we had a Zoom session with a group of our neighbours who we used to meet regularly for dinner or movie nights.  We are four couples, – all retired but one from interesting jobs, and we have a fine time together.  We were immensely cheered by one couple who appeared in large pink bunny ears and related their morning walk wearing same.  They had passed a mother with a little boy, at a six-foot distance of course, and the mother had said to the child “Oh look dear, it’s the Easter bunny.  “Thank you for my chocolate rabbit” said the little child.  The Easter bunny said it had cheered his day!

from Susan A. in Ottawa: A Dire Communication

5 April. The communication from the Premier was dire.  Without measures in Ontario – no self-isolation, no physical distancing, no 20-second hand washing –an estimated 100,000 would die over the course of the pandemic, which could last as long as two years.  With those measures plus some even tougher ones, the death toll could be brought down to between 3,000 and 15,000.  That is a relatively clear message – one hundred thousand, or 3,000 to 15,000 will die, and the number depends on all of us behaving as we are told. 

The Premier ended his message: “So please, this weekend will be nice outside, and I know it’s hard to do, I know how difficult it is, but please, stay home. Help us write an ending to our story that we can look back on, that our future generations can look back on and be proud of.”

The weather on Saturday was indeed lovely, sunny and warm.  Did people stay home?  No, our street had many walkers, runners and bikers, and the little park behind us had just a little less of the usual dog walkers.  So the message was either not heard, or heard and not heeded.  Nothing to be proud about.

3 April. Today we await the press conference of the Premier of the province to give us the straight news about how bad it is likely to be.  I will not watch, but will read it after the event.  Video is too hot for me these days; print is a gentler mode of communicating unpleasant information.  But I did make one exception – the recent speech of Angela Merkel to the nation, apparently a rare occurrence and therefore all the more powerful.  To me her words seemed informative enough, instructive enough and calm enough not to be terrifying, although the speech was criticised by the Czech Prime Minister for risking panic.  Compared to some of the incomplete, incomprehensible, erroneous communication on the virus, on the numbers and on the likely outcomes, her message sounded just fine to me.  While on the subject of effective communication, Jacinda Ardern is notable for holding a special press conference just for the children of New Zealand to help them understand the global coronavirus pandemic.  And still on the subject of communication, the repeated warnings about the need to “flatten the curve” could surely be improved upon for clearer, more forceful messaging.

Susan A. in Ottawa, Canada. March 2020

30 March. First day out of the house since March 3rd.  We went for a walk in Agriculture Canada’s largely deserted Experimental Farm, which is close by our place.  A light rain certainly helped the desertedness, and contributed to lovely misty vistas and trees covered with silver droplets.  In addition to many fields the Farm has barns, lovely glass green houses and many many trees. Minor coughing, but no one about to fear I would infect them.

There are 6248 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Canada today, and 351 new cases in Ontario, the largest single-day increase.

At his daily briefing (not to be compared with the daily briefing given by the leader to the south), Prime Minister Justin Trudeau noted that the trajectory of COVID-19 cases seems not to be that of the US. 

Although it is too soon to know the impact of Canada’s efforts to curb the spread, he said he is proud that Canadians recognise the importance of staying home and keeping their distance from others.  Encouraging words, but we have seen people walking down our street and not keeping a distance, and doubt that they were all couples or living in the same house.

During the briefing the Prime Minister also gave more details on the emergency wage subsidy he had announced last week. Businesses, non-profits and charities whose revenues have decreased more than 30% will be eligible for the rescue plan. The government will cover up to 75% on the first $58,700 salary dollars and it will be back-dated to March 15th.  Companies are encouraged to re-hire laid off staff.  Trudeau was stern, at least for him (the new beard seems to help with gravitas), about punishing any efforts to profit from the plan.

Post retirement excitement has been a massive renovation project to create our “old age home” for which painful undertaking we received an unexpected award….and eventual great pleasure.

25 March. After that, it was a fog of coughing, fatigue, relieved by free opera from The Met, Queen Victoria by Lytton Strachey and room service from Drew who stayed far far away at the opposite end of the house.  Now, finally out of the fog, I am dressed and upright for at least half of the day.  And looking around now I see that the virus has been busy making its way about Canada and the United States.

18 March and later. Today is the 12th day of our self-imposed self-isolation. 

In mid-February Drew and I headed off to Paris for a two month stay to visit with old colleagues and friends from an earlier 20 year sojourn, planning to eat in favourite restaurants, to visit galleries and museums, to just walk about and look at the beautiful city that we love so much. 

I was aware of the coronavirus being active in China, and I had played host to the H1N1 virus in 2009.   But only the foggiest memory remained of how sick I was.  I do remember being left down a long corridor in the hospital for an hour or so on a hard little chair, and thinking that lying on the floor was looking more and more attractive – what could be worse down there than what I already had.

We were not really worried as we headed off, but we did take the precaution of refreshing our pneumonia shots.  We also tried to get hand sanitizer, which the druggist informed me had flown off the shelves and would not be restocked any time soon.  We didn’t pay enough attention to that little warning.

Once in Paris, it was not long before the situation was made very clear about what was happening right next door in Italy.  We did go about to eat and visit friends and walk, but there began to be a cloud of concern hanging over us.  The media treatment was comprehensive, coherent and constant.  It was certainly interesting to watch the communication strategy as the country informed and prepared its citizens so efficiently. The Minister of Health spoke frequently and the President spoke to the country on television and visited hospitals to reiterate the government support for the medical and support staff.  At first, it actually felt comforting to be so continually informed.  But of course it wasn’t really comforting.  There were all those families that had been skiing in the Alps during Spring Break who were about to return to France.  By February 28 we started to consider returning home and booked a return flight through Montreal on March 3rd, for which we paid a considerable sum – and lost the long planned visit in addition to the lost money.  Upon arrival in Montreal, we were surprised that only passengers who had been to Iran were asked to identify themselves, not Italy.  And no evidence of temperature taking.  The only bright spot was not being charged for exceeding the limit on expenditure free of duty!

So, on the evening of March 3rd we returned to the winter snow and ice of one of the coldest capital cities in the world, which we had been so happy to escape.  At that point there were no COVID-19 cases in Ottawa.  Safe for the moment, we thought. 

But maybe not.  After a couple of days, I developed coronavirus symptoms – though no fever.  Having travelled from afar, it seemed responsible to identify myself and my symptoms to Ottawa Public Health.  A nurse took an excruciatingly detailed history on the phone and sent me off to the nearest hospital emergency.  The young fellow registering incoming patients whipped around in his little glass cubicle and put on a mask and gloves before touching my health card.  After a three-hour sit in a room by myself on a hard little chair (reminiscent of an earlier hard little hospital chair), a well-protected doctor came in and examined me, and sometime after that a nurse arrived, stuck two sticks down my nose, twirled them around and released me back to my bed where I stayed for an inordinate amount of time.

So, I had brought something home from France, but thank goodness not the really dangerous virus.  But whatever virus it was, it made me good and sick.