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Home in a time of coronavirus

Home in a time of coronavirus

I contributed a monologue to the storytelling podcast What You Call Home, for their isolation series exploring how expats and others are coping with the coronavirus situation. Listen to me speaking it here. This is my text:

I’m Diane, a Canadian living in Edinburgh, Scotland. I’ve been here about a year and a half which is enough time for it to begin to feel like home. Whatever that means. I’ve never had a family home to return to, and I’ve lived in various parts of Canada, and in Mexico City. I think sometimes I put myself in situations where I don’t belong because that makes it normal that I don’t feel like I belong.

Part of what I love about my life here in Edinburgh is how history, art and culture slap you in the face at every turn. There are so many festivals, theatre, books, arts, science, everything.

I can be wandering in my neighbourhood and come across a building from the 1600s. The building I live in right now is older than the Canadian province I grew up in, where a building from the 1930s is super old. 

I love that there’s a castle overlooking Edinburgh’s city centre.

On Princes Street, the main street in the New Town – and by New Town they mean from the 1700s – there’s a giant monument to a writer. It’s for Walter Scott, but I’ll take what I can get.

There’s a writers museum, a poetry museum. The National Museum, the National Library. I’ve seen an original Gutenberg Bible and the stuffed remains of Dolly the sheep, the first cloned mammal.

Most museums are free, so they’re something you can dip in and out of on a whim when it’s raining, for example. It rains a lot here, which makes me feel at home after living in rainy Vancouver for 15 years.

And now, with the coronavirus lockdown, all that feels very distant. My reasons for moving here feel very distant. I’ve joked to friends that I didn’t move halfway around the world to be in a different living room. I try to get out for a walk once a day for our allowed exercise – I call it the government mandated exercise. I’m lucky that I live by the water and by a beautiful system of trails, and away from the busier city centre. But some days going out has felt like too much effort.

I do shower and get dressed every morning, because it makes me feel human, and wakes me up after a fitful night’s sleep. But makeup is a relic of the past, and I don’t put my contact lenses in anymore unless I’m dressing up for a fancy video call.  

In the early days I also joked that as an introvert with a lot of solitary hobbies, I’ve been preparing for social distancing my entire life. But I like doing stuff outside my home. I like going for dinner and drinks with friends. I do like people.

I like living alone, and I’m used to living alone. But I’ve had a friend from London staying with me for the past few weeks, who arrived hours before the UK lockdown was announced. It’s an adjustment to share my space, but it’s also nice to have someone other than the cats to share the daily anxieties.

That feeling that we’re all in this together is one comfort I find in this situation. Friends from around the world have been checking in on me and vice versa. I’ve done more video calls in the last month than the last 18 months since I moved combined. Some people I hadn’t heard from in a while reached out because I’m away from home. But this is home now.

Part of the reason I moved to the United Kingdom was to be closer to travel in Europe. I started gathering the paperwork I’d need for my visa when I worked on the Olympics in London. I was jealous of my coworkers talking about going to Paris for the weekend, Rome for a few days. In Canada I could fly for 6 hours and still be in Canada.

Being closer to the rest of Europe has meant having a front row seat to areas that have been hardest hit – besides hearing about it from the news, I have friends in Spain and know people here from Italy with friends and family in overwhelmed hospitals.

I was supposed to be in Spain in a couple of weeks but of course that’s been cancelled. As has a conference I was going to, a writing course I was taking, some theatre productions I had tickets to. Seeing all the cancellations roll in, and seeing my calendar transform into endless open days, made those early days of social distancing hit home.

It also made me realize how important crafting this life in my new home has been to me. My calendar had been full of the kind of activities that inspire me and give me joy.  

With all this time at home, I can focus more on the homebound activities that inspire me and give me joy. I could.

There are so many courses and activities online especially now. One of my favourite Vancouver musicians, Dan Mangan, has been doing Zoom concerts every Saturday evening from his basement, and that gives shape to my week. I’m watching the National Theatre productions that go live on Thursdays. I signed up for a writing course just for fun, and a digital marketing course for some professional development. But my concentration has been shot, so I’m finding it hard to be productive.

I’m baking and cooking a lot, because it feels satisfying to make something productive. I’ve become a cliché, making my own sourdough starter, though I haven’t actually got to the stage of baking bread yet.

I am still working, so that’s where my main productivity efforts go. And it is an effort, not always successful one.

I’m lucky that I’m self-employed and mostly worked from home anyway. I used to go into an office once a week to do the communications for a small charity that supports people with disabilities. Now the in-person activities have been suspended, of course, and we’re all working from home. That work, finding information and resources for some of our most vulnerable people, keeps me from worrying about my own privileged situation.

I have clients in healthcare and financial services who have special communications needs now, so I’m hopeful I won’t lose too much business. I know other freelancers whose work dried up overnight, so working keeps me grateful too.

I was contracted to work on the Olympics and Paralympics this summer, but the postponement means a chunk of my income for this year is gone. We’ve been given contracts for next year’s postponed dates already, but my rent and bills are still due this year. I’m still hopeful I can replace that income, though, and it’s too early to worry about it yet.

As countries roll out their funding for employees and freelancers affected by these events, it drives home that I’m not really home. I’m not eligible for UK support, even though I pay taxes here, because that’s a condition of my visa – no public funds. I’m not eligible for Canadian support because I’m not a resident. I am eligible for public healthcare from the NHS, but I’m hoping not to need that anytime soon.

I knew all that coming here, though, and I came prepared. I’ll be ok for a while. But it’s still unnerving, to know that I’m on my own with no real social safety net.

I’m trying not to worry about things I can’t control – which feels like most things, at the moment. I try to limit my news intake to what I need to know to be effective at my job and to be a good socially distanced citizen. I try not to think too far into the future. Netflix is my drug of choice to stop my brain from spiralling into the worst case scenarios.

It’s at night, when I should be putting my phone away and trying to sleep, that I start doing things like researching the Black Death and the Great Depression. I laugh at myself for that — I mean, talk about worst case scenarios — but it’s been comforting. I think about the terrors and the rationing of World War II. Even before coronavirus, the war experience has felt closer to me here in the UK. And then when the shops were cleared of toilet paper and limits were placed on shopping quantities, it felt even closer.

It might sound strange, that those thoughts have been comforting to me. But they force me to think about what we’ve overcome. What’s history. We’ll get through this, too. Some day this too will be history.

My Olympic life

My Olympic life

Today marks 10 years since the opening ceremony for the Vancouver 2010 Olympics. And 10 years since I was running through the stadium carrying boxes of embargoed papers destined for the rights-holding broadcasters. Olympic rule: there’s always transportation issues.

I started working for the host broadcaster 2 1/2 years before that, and have worked since then for about a month around each Games time: London, Sochi, Rio, Pyeongchang and, soon, Tokyo. That’s been 12 1/2 hours of dividing my life into two-year intervals, though 12 1/2 isn’t one of those time periods we generally celebrate. Did I meet that person before or after Sochi 2014? I know I went to the Amazon in 2016 because that immediately followed Rio 2016. Pyeongchang 2018 marked my transition to full-time freelance.

The hours are long, the days off are non-existent. I’ve had some of the worst moments of my life and some of my best. The Olympics have led to friendships, headaches, work opportunities, tears, cultural experiences, endless colds, travel adventures.

I’m forever grateful for Vancouver 2010 and forever looking forward to the next adventure.

Out of place

Out of place

The move to Edinburgh is the most obvious sign of the changes I’ve made in my life over the past few years. I read the book Designing Your Life after I was already well into the process – job quit, bags packed – and it felt like an affirmation.

In retrospect I could see the “prototyping” I’d done before coming to the decision to transition to self-employment and live in the UK. I wasn’t simply looking for a new job and a new home: I was attempting to build the lifestyle I wanted. I’d started the process before my brother died, so the fact that I was ready to pick it up again was a relief.

That lifestyle includes freelance work that often allows me to work where I want when I want, with the flexibility to travel mid-week, take courses or visit a museum during the day, and be more purposeful about where I put my attention.

That lifestyle is possible because of who I am and the resulting choices I’ve made along the way, too. I’m not particularly unconventional by many standards – no punk phases in my past – but I often feel out of place. I don’t have an easy answer to “where are you from?” It depends on the context. Not wanting marriage or children, being an atheist – these things separate me from the mainstream to some degree.

That feeling of being out of place – of knowing my loneliest times occur when I’m surrounded by people – is what propels me to embrace solitude, but also to seek new places.

What do I want, here in Edinburgh, starting over in so many ways but bringing more knowledge of myself than ever? I’m answering that question all the time. I’m nesting in my new home, traveling to new locales, learning new things, indulging in old comforts.

But designing the lifestyle I want is also a matter of immense luck.

This was my second Christmas here, and I’ve been able to rethink what Christmas means to me, too, away from expectation and duty. I’m not going to get all Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus or post-ghost Ebenezer on you. But one of the ways I’ve added meaning to the season has been volunteering with Crisis.

They offer services to homeless people year-round, and work on strategies to end homelessness altogether. Over Christmas and New Year they put on a multi-day event where they take over a community centre and offer food, clothing, showers, personal services like hairdressing and massage, activities, entertainment, and a safe and warm place to hang out. The idea is to provide a festive Christmas season for those who want it, and also to connect those who are receptive with ongoing support.

My role seems insignificant: I was a general volunteer assigned to the recreation area, tasked with sitting at the tables and engaging with the guests in games and conversation. What’s the worst that could happen, I lose at Trivial Pursuit? Almost finish a jigsaw puzzle that turns out is missing a few pieces? (Turns out I’d’ve been lucky to get close to finishing the damn puzzles.)

Of course it’s not that simple. Last year before my first shift I was anxious. What if I was terrible at it? I’m not great at small talk, and not used to working with people experiencing homelessness. We were trained well and told that if we felt we couldn’t manage, we should ask to leave, no hard feelings. The important thing was not just our own mental health, but for the guests to be surrounded by people who weren’t judging them. I didn’t think I’d need that out, and would have been horrified if I had, but knowing it was there was what made it easier to walk through the doors of the community centre that first day.

I wasn’t terrible, but that’s because it wasn’t hard. I observed and hope to emulate people who were much better at small talk than I am, but the experience didn’t feel altruistic. We were just people hanging out, in a place designed for companionship among those who wanted it, and solitude for those who didn’t.

A few guests thanked me, saying it was so nice to have a place where they were welcome. Not just tolerated, but welcome. Imagine having that feeling so rarely? I never feel so out of place that I can’t sit in a coffee shop or wander in a shop or find a park bench without fear of being asked to leave.

Some told me their stories, some wore their stories in their mannerisms, some just wanted to play Trivial Pursuit or good-naturedly mock my attempts to finish a jigsaw puzzle. The stories were about mental illness and addiction, or injury and illness, or precarious employment, or family breakdown, or all or none of the above.  

I thought of my mom’s mental illness and alcoholism and how lucky we were that she and her kids were looked after by others. I thought of coming home from school to be told to pack our things and head to a hotel, and then a friend’s home, and then other temporary accommodation, and how lucky we were that there were places to take us in. I thought of how it’s a luxury to feel out of place when I have a place, and how quickly luck can change.

Home is where the art is

Home is where the art is

It’s been just over a year since I landed in Edinburgh with two bags of clothes and sundries, followed by two cats and five boxes of stuff.

If home is actually where the heart is, the cats were the biggest factor in making even Chateau Mildew feel like home instantly, and I’ll write more about the process of bringing them over soon.

But though I only brought marginally more stuff with me with this move compared to my time in Mexico, this is the first international move I’ve considered indefinite, getting rid of rather than storing the rest of my belongings. So what I brought is what defines my comforts of home.

The stuff was mostly clothes and shoes, some towels and bedding, and, most importantly, arts and crafts I’ve picked up in my travels. I used a service called Send My Bag, which is basically a user-friendly way to ship luggage and boxes via a courier but using their wrap-around service – it was DHL that actually picked up, shipped, and delivered my boxes. For the amount I was bringing over — i.e. not an entire household, but more than I could bring with me on the plane — the Send My Bag service was easy, had great customer service, and wasn’t nearly as expensive as I imagined, or as using a shipping company would have been.

I’d unframed what could be unframed for their travels, and now that I’m settled into my first unfurnished flat in Edinburgh, I’ve finally unpacked, reframed, and displayed the artworks and knick knacks that bring me joy and remind me of various stages in my life.

I brought the large canvas I was given as part of my contract completion bonus with the Vancouver Olympics, a view of the now-convention centre, then-International Broadcast Centre, by an acclaimed New Westminster artist. It was sent in the same special art box as the large abstract painting I created during a press day organized by my friend Sharon for an art-related television show, which I’m absurdly proud of even though it’s just colourful squiggles on a white board.

I carefully packed two mirrors from my time living in Mexico City – one of which made it to Edmonton then Vancouver then Scotland unscathed, the other which has now given up its rectangular shape and opted for more of a parallelogram.

I brought assorted prints from Ecuador, New Orleans, Key West, a Vancouver 2010 poster. There’s a photograph given to me in my first professional job working for the Alberta Playwrights Network, geese flying next to a boat they’d imprinted on, a thanks from the winner of our playwiting competition for prodding the provincial government to finally give him his prize money. (The prodding didn’t actually help, but he appreciated the effort.)

And then there’s the assorted objects and special books I’ve collected that remind me of a time in my life, especially my two years living in Mexico City or my time in each Olympic destination since Vancouver — London, Sochi, Rio, Korea — or that bring fond memories of a trip or a person.

Can I claim the robot that inspired my tattoo is art? Why not. It’s on my desk, along with a picture of my brother and then-baby nephew, alone on display from the shoeboxes of photos I unalbumed to bring with me.

Going through my belongings to narrow them down to two suitcases, two cats, and five boxes wasn’t as difficult as I thought it might be. I’ve been Marie Kondoing since before Marie Kondo was a thing, and stuff is only stuff … unless it’s not, unless it forms part of my memories, my heart, my home.

Chateau Mildew

Chateau Mildew

Toward the end of September I’d just landed in London after more than nine hours in the air, with another short leg to Edinburgh to come after this layover. Years of contemplation and months of preparation brought me here. I’d gone past comfortable to stagnant; I was ready for a change.

I’d turned on wifi as soon as I got a signal after border control, and not long after, an AirBnB message notification popped up.

I’d booked a cheap-ish, cat-friendly flat in Edinburgh for six weeks to give me time to find more permanent accommodation. It’s not easy to find a place that allows pets, either on AirBnB or more permanently, so I felt lucky to get something that wouldn’t require a mortgage.

It read, in part: “Sorry about this but we have just discovered a wee issue in the flat- nothing major, just a fairly mild damp smell in the shower room. We’ve had someone look at it and they’ve said they’ll need to do something about it at some point. We can either wait until you’ve left to deal with it or sort it quicker while you are there to get rid of the smell- you can see what you think when you get there.”

[An aside: In the latest episode of the hilarious Derry Girls, the “wee English fella” James says he hates that “people here use the word ‘wee’ to describe things that aren’t even actually that small!” Here being Ireland in that case, but the same holds true in Scotland.]

I replied to thank him for letting me know and I’d see what I thought after I arrived. I wasn’t thrilled, but I’m adaptable, and I’ve stayed in some very questionable accommodation in my life.

When I arrived at this questionable accommodation, the host’s mother let me in as arranged – though a little late. Her son had given her a different time than the one we’d arranged, so luckily she’d arrived early in order to do a bit of cleaning. Unluckily, my early-to-her arrival meant she didn’t have time to do much of that.

Exhaustion acted as beer goggles and all I felt was relief that the 13 hour journey was over, the flurry of pre-move activity was behind me, and that I could soon collapse into the rickety-looking bed, relief that my new life was about to start in earnest.

“It’s very basic,” she said apologetically as she brought out the vacuum cleaner. Two Ikea couches, a full kitchen, a bed crammed into a small bedroom, a shower. Each room was separate, including a room with a toilet and sink plus a room with a bathtub/shower and sink. It would do for six weeks.

After she finished her rushed clean while I sorted my baggage, she kept asking if I wanted anything else, apologizing again that there was no tea, coffee or milk as advertised in the Airbnb listing. “Please go away” was how I felt, but “no, thank you, I can go for a walk to pick up some things and then I’ll just go to bed” was what I said. She was lovely. I was exhausted.

She left me a container of soup and some buns that were likely for her own dinner, and then I was mercifully on my own. The cats would arrive the next day, but in the meantime I could get settled and sleep. And despite the creaky, uncomfortable bed, I did sleep.

The next morning, the exhaustion goggles were gone. I had a shower. That’s when I realized the smell was coming from inside this room, permeating the flat if I didn’t keep the door closed. I kept the door closed. I could still smell it, but not as strongly.

The carpet was stained outside the bathroom. It was stained in more places than that, but there was a large patch on the other side of the wall from the bathtub. Clearly a leak. I hadn’t noticed at first but the tub didn’t fit the room; its snout had been lopped off in order to cram it into the available space. And in that space, I suppose, water was accumulating and things were growing. If it wasn’t a ground floor suite, the downstairs neighbours would likely have a flood – but on the other hand, the owner would likely have fixed the issue by now.

There were multiple sprays designed to cover the smell of mildew in the closet. This issue was not new. Not a surprise. I wondered how many guests had left positive reviews because they felt too guilty leaving an honest one. “Cheap, allows pets, smells like mildew.” I told him I’d rather they get someone in sooner rather than later to fix it. I could have contacted AirBnB and asked to be relocated, but my options had been very limited when I booked the place months before; I didn’t have faith that they’d arrange something suitable.

You can get used to a lot if you set your mind to it. Sometimes I thought the smell abated, sometimes I thought the sprays worked, sometimes I thought I was just used to the smell.

There were other quirks to get used to. The blinds, it turned out, wouldn’t roll up or stay up, so I got creative with some hair elastics to force some light into the gloom. The ground floor windows were, however, frosted so passers by couldn’t see in. Which meant I couldn’t see out. The already rare winter light was further filtered, meaning I kept all the lights on. The better to see the carpet stains with. I got used to the gloom.

At least the carpeted areas felt solid to stand on. The bathroom and kitchen tile seemed to cover a wooden grid and I felt like one wrong step would have my ankle trapped in the world of the mildew. That felt true more than was true, but I got used to not making wrong steps.

After regular messages from the landlord about how difficult it was proving to find a plumber, I gave up. Finally, a few days before I was to make my escape to my shiny new flat, they set a time. The plumber arrived, identified the problem, and called the owner with the bad news: the attempts to patch up the bathtub had failed, further patches would fail, and the only solution was to rip up the room, remediate the damage, and reinstall the fixtures.

Did the owner give approval for the work to go ahead? HAHAHAHAHA no. Maybe he did after giving it some thought. Maybe he continued to tell people “oh by the way it turns out there’s a wee damp smell”.

As I sit in my cozy new flat, which smells only of my cooking, with unfiltered light coming in, I realize I hadn’t gotten used to the gloom; I let it descend. Sometimes you need the change.