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.