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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.

Ring in the new

Ring in the new

This summer, a coworker and I were chatting while kayaking in the Burrard Inlet when I mentioned a former colleague had moved back from Europe and was now living on Salt Spring Island, picking up freelance work so she could work remotely. “I wish I could do something like that,” I said.

I recognized the look that flitted across her face before she said “Well, you could.”

I used to have that look. I used to say that to people when they said it about my decision to move to Mexico.

In the last couple years I’ve found myself saying things like “I always thought I’d do something like that again, moving to some other country” with a shrug, like it was too late.

People who know me at all know I like to travel. People who know me well know I moved to New Brunswick, Calgary, Mexico, and Vancouver for no other reason than the adventure of it. It’s what I do. I just haven’t done it for a while.

I always meant to put down roots in Vancouver after returning from Mexico. It’s the longest I’ve ever voluntarily lived somewhere. But it’s time for my repotting. Maybe past time. It was back in 2012, when I was working on the London Olympics, that I first got the birth certificates I’d need for a UK ancestry visa, which lets Commonwealth citizens with a grandparent who was born in the UK live and work there. Back then, I thought I’d want an escape after Steve’s imminent death, but I was wrong. I needed to not think about logistics, to not be away from my comfort zone. But recently I’ve been restless.

So I’ve given notice at my job. At the end of January I’ll head to South Korea to work on those Olympics, then finish up some things here at home and travel a bit. If all goes well I’ll be settling in the UK by June, trying my hand at more freelancing, less sitting in a cubicle, more European travel, shorter flights to do it.

I have plans to make that possible. I have layers of plans because some will work out and some won’t, and that’s part of the adventure.

The last time I felt like this, like I was working toward crafting another phase of life that excited me, my brother’s death derailed me. So I can’t shake the feeling that making these plans is an invitation for the universe to smite me. But I’m too rational to really believe that. Mostly.

As with my move to Vancouver I have no end game. I’ll settle somewhere until I don’t want to be settled there anymore. I’ll travel around the UK a bit but right now I’m thinking Edinburgh is where I’ll land, at least at first. By the end of the year, or decade, or some time after that, I may end up back in the Vancouver area, or I may end up somewhere else. There’s no need to plan that far in advance; there are too many variables.

I’ll sell my home. I’ll bring the cats. I’ll get rid of my stuff, except for a couple suitcases to take, and a bare minimum of sentimental and useful items I’ll store here until the future is clearer. There are a lot of logistics to work through but it’s not new; I’ve done this before. More than once.

There are always reasons not to take a leap like this. It’s going to be hard giving up the home I decorated to my taste and my taste alone. I’ll miss friends. I’ll miss the camaraderie of my workplace. I’ll be anxious about getting work and a place to stay. What if something disastrous happens to derail me before I even start? What if I can’t find enough clients, and can’t find a job? What if I can’t understand the Scottish accent? What if I can and they’re saying nasty things about me? What if I’m run over by a car because they drive on the wrong side of the road? What if a post-Brexit UK devolves into a Black Mirror-esque dystopia?

I’ve reached the point where I’d rather face these temporary what ifs about taking a risk than a lifetime of “what if I’d been brave enough to do what I really wanted to do?” I’m ready. Let’s do this, universe.

I don’t care if you like my tattoo

I don’t care if you like my tattoo

When I was young I would wait until it was unavoidable to admit my dad was dead. I wouldn’t correct the plural on “parents” but if someone asked directly about my father, well, I wasn’t about to lie, evade, or reenact the Monty Python parrot sketch.

I didn’t avoid talking about it to avoid my own pain. I was 10 months old, not yet a sentient being, when he died, so I felt an absence more than a loss. My reticence was to avoid the discomfort of others. When a child tells you her dad is dead, if you’re like most people I encountered you react as if you have just killed him yourself. My protestations that it was ok, I was too young to remember him, you haven’t picked the scab off a wound, didn’t erase the regret from faces. At a certain point I’d worry that protesting how little talking about it bothered me would make me seem freakishly cold.

In general us WASPy type people don’t like talking about death and aren’t good at it. About a decade ago I lived in Mexico for a couple of years and admired their openness and playful sense of the macabre, but whatever lessons I learned were mostly as an outsider who wished my own culture had less of the “do not disturb” attitude of talking about death.

Dealing with a loss that has rocked my foundations over the last few years has meant being more open about my brother’s death. Also? I’m an adult, and death is far less rare among acquaintances than it seemed as a fatherless child, and I buy into the philosophy that we’re all adults and we can handle a little discomfort in the service of showing our humanity to each other.

I still wondered how I would answer the first time someone asked me about my tattoo. I’d meant to get it in a place only I could see, but an aversion to pain and desire to be able to easily see it myself means it’s exposed when my ankle is. If only we lived in Victorian times I wouldn’t have had the fear of many awkward conversations to come.

I can’t remember who asked about it first, just that it was someone I didn’t know well. But I remember it being a lot easier than expected to say a simple: “It’s a memorial to my brother who loved robots.” I didn’t feel awkward, I felt relief. Since then, I answer with as much or as little detail as the situation warrants. Closer friends (and complete strangers on the internet) get the “everything’s better with robots” story.

It turns out I don’t mind being asked about the tattoo because I like being able to share in a very small way who Steve was and what he meant to me. If people regret asking, they generally don’t show it and honestly? I generally don’t care. We’re adults. Discomfort is not the worst thing we face.

Some people have made comments before asking – my realtor laughing at it, people expressing their distaste for tattoos in general. I learned that I don’t want them to feel badly, any more than people should have felt badly for talking about fathers in front of Little Diane.

I’ve also learned that I don’t care. I hadn’t considered before getting mine how personal and meaningful many tattoos are to their bearers. I hadn’t considered how welcome the question “what does it mean?” might be to someone who was showing their heart on their skin, even if they originally meant it to be on hidden skin. The tattoo is for me. It’s part of me. And I appreciate people who let me share myself with them, awkward bits and all.

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This Was My Year That Was

My online life, like most people’s, is an edited version of reality. Not in a conscious attempt to make myself appear in a certain way, but because some stories aren’t mine to tell and I generally don’t use social media as therapy. I feel like in a world where everything is the BEST and WORST and you WON’T BELIEVE WHAT HAPPENS NEXT, people who don’t rend their garments and wail are perceived as not feeling as deeply. In a world where I like to divide people into Elinors and Mariannes — as in the Dashwood sisters in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility — I am an Elinor. In a world … uh oh. I recently saw Lake Bell’s movie In a World and now I can’t stop using that phrase.

The Facebook year is the year I can present publicly, and it hits the highs fairly accurately and blunts the lows fairly consistently. I like to post pictures from my travels, and I love to travel, and I had a good travel year. I didn’t take a lot of pictures of me on a couch trying to anesthetize my brain after a hard day, or trying to write my feelings out … unless the focal point is the inevitable cat curled on my lap. Only my hesitation of appearing like a crazy cat lady prevents me from posting more of those.

But looking back, it was an interesting year, in those highs and lows. I was in Russia for 6 weeks, Chicago to visit a friend and fall in love with Chagall, at 2 NASA Social events to hear from smart people doing cool things. I haven’t posted yet about Galapagos and mainland Ecuador, or the NASA Social for the Orion launch, or Christmas in Maui, because the rapid fire succession of trips have left me scrambling on the reentry to reality. But here’s to a 2015 full of more highs, more adventures, and an abundance of love and kindness for all of us.

 

 

 

My bud the SPUD

My bud the SPUD

SPUD

It’s not that grocery shopping is so hard, it’s just that you have to keep doing it. Especially when you run out of cat food.

I’d generally avoid the big grocery shop which meant frequently stopping at Safeway on the way home from work, hungry for dinner, unwise choices hankering to be made. That was the best case scenario: worst was grabbing take out on the way home.

Then I met SPUD. I’d heard of it for a while — a grocery delivery company with a focus on local, organic foods and cute little trucks wandering the city. Think Whole Foods on wheels. Problem is I don’t shop Whole Foods, don’t care much about organic, try to care somewhat about local but do care about price, and it didn’t seem like a great fit for me. Plus there was the concept that grocery shopping isn’t that hard. How pathetic would it be to outsource?

But as life piled up, that kind of pathetic beat out the other kinds of pathetic that found me at Safeway making hunger-based choices. Now every Wednesday I come home thrilled to find a blue box of goodness in front of my suite door, sometimes with a bouquet of flowers on top (SPUD loves me too! Oh wait, I order them. Never mind.)

Every week I make considered choices about the week’s menus and fill my online cart with things like chicken breasts, salmon, produce, some prepared meals like Aussie pies and salmon & dill quiches, snacks, yogurt, and that all-important cat food. Sometimes I even eat all the produce.

Though the individual items are sometimes (though not always) more expensive than what I’d pay at Superstore if I ever psyched myself up enough to go there, or even Safeway, the total without the plethora of prepared foods and hasty choices is less than I was paying for food previously.

There are items I won’t get through SPUD. My weakness is cherries. The short growing season gives me such anxiety that I have to buy all the cherries while I can, and they’re expensive enough without the organic delivered premium.

I won’t often pay for the local, grassfed, yogic, college-educated beef and whatnot either, but I’m more a chickenarian anyway.

Another downside is my inability to visualise what, say, a pound of grapes looks like, so that I end up thinking “I spent how much on this handful?!”

But overall, SPUD not only takes away the burden (don’t roll your eyes) of going grocery shopping and curbs some unnecessary spending, it forces me to plan meals ahead. Now I just have to get better about bringing some of those meals to work for lunch.

If you want to try it out, my SPUD code will get you $20 off your first order (and I think I get the same discount). You earn points with orders and it doesn’t take long to accumulate enough to get $10 off.

If it doesn’t sound like it’s for you, enjoy this Stompin’ Tom Connors song: