A Quarantine of One’s Own

The lure of the north.

We unwrap the thick layers of plastic from around our dinner and lower our masks. It’s the first time in the four hours since we boarded the Porto-Lisbon-Toronto flight that I see my seating companion’s entire face. Frank, it turns out, has a rust-coloured moustache and the nose of a Portuguese conquistador.

“What do you mean we have to quarantine when we land in Toronto?” he asks, biting into his semi-frozen turkey sandwich. Meal service, like so much else in the Age of Covid, has been modified to keep everyone safe. In another six hours, just before landing, we will receive a microwaved pizza pocket.

“I never heard anything about a quarantine,” Frank repeats. As I explain what I’ve been obsessing about since August, and what every airline informs its passengers about in warnings on websites and in emails – the Government of Canada’s mandatory 14-day quarantine for anyone entering Canada as per order of the Quarantine Act – I am reminded of how it can come in handy to be part of the ignorance-is-bliss crowd.

I know it’s easy to get distracted by the charms of Portugal, Frank.

While Frank was sampling his native country’s wine harvest for the past two months, I was reading the fine print of the Quarantine Act, and pricing out hotels and AirBnbs, watching my options grow slimmer and slimmer as Ontario entered its second wave, and all of Europe began to batten down the hatches.

I was staying up until three o’clock in the morning watching sitcoms like Gossip Girl and Jane the Virgin, trying to escape my pandemic woes, wishing I was a teenager with a crush on an inappropriate boy instead of a near-half-a-century old divorcee lying in bed with a stray cat.

What? I’m not good enough for you anymore? says Stanley.

Frank’s ignorance is forgiven when he tells me I look ten years younger than my real age (after sneaking a peek at my birth date on the contact tracing forms we have to fill out). He then suggests we quarantine at the cottage I plan to go to together. “We can pick up a few bottles of wine on the way,” he winks.

Now that Frank is masked again it’s hard to tell if he’s joking. But since he’s 69 (I peeked, too), and he tells me I’m the same age as his daughter, I laugh, wondering if I should inform him that making any stops on the way to one’s place of quarantine, even to pick up wine, is illegal. Instead, I push play on the only in-flight entertainment on offer, Aladdin.

A good number, that’s for sure, but maybe too old for me?

Eight months ago, I started writing this blog when I found myself in Spain at the beginning of a worldwide pandemic and the country went into a two-week lockdown that would end up lasting three months (see “Lockdown”).

Now I’m ending this blog in Ontario’s cottage country, where, thanks to the generosity of my parents’ best friends whom I’ve known my entire life and call Aunt Judy and Uncle George, I’m quarantining at the end of a tree-lined path with a view of the lake.

Even though rifle shots echo through the forest as I write this (it’s deer hunting season I’ve been told), and my imagination runs wild at night with the plot line of a classic girl-alone-in-the-woods horror movie where Frank sometimes appears, for the first time in a long time I can relax. When you’re the type of person who moves around a lot, by choice or by necessity, sometimes you forget what it feels like to be home.

The cottage at dawn (thanks to jet lag I can brag about waking at dawn).

Here, memories help create this feeling. As a child, I remember picking wild blueberries in the surrounding hills and learning how to bake a pie. I remember swimming across the lake to the rock face, escorted by canoe, pulling myself up the slippery slope and jumping off.

Here, we played game after game – Euchre, gin rummy, charades – sat by campfire after campfire, staring up into the starry night. Within the pages of photo albums dating back to the 50s, my father dances with Aunt Judy in the kitchen, my mother balances stacks of poker chips.

The cottage’s humble beginnings.

It’s easy to feel at home here. Nothing is fancy. Everything looks slightly beat up, dusty, worn in. Since I know Aunt Judy and Uncle George and their four grown children could well afford to spruce things up, joining an elite crowd who also frequent Ontario’s cottage country, including the likes of Steven Spielberg and Kate Hudson, I know this is by choice, and it’s a choice I hope they will always make.

The cottage is a time capsule, paying homage to a place where people have gathered at its hearth for decades, bound by the simplest of desires – to be closer to nature. 

The walls are decorated with long lost art forms – back-of-paper-plate sketches, pressed wildflowers, finger painting, birch-bark etchings, collage maps. Stacks of board games and card games and their accompanying paraphernalia, including a 1.75 litre Caribou liquer bottle filled with pennies, speak of a time pre-dating Netflix, even television.

Deer-hunting season never goes out of style, it seems.

Cupboards are filled with grandma’s mismatched china and thrift store finds. Glasses of every conceivable shape and size testify to a crowd of cottage goers spanning four generations – from the drinkers of Manhattans to Labatt Blue to baby formula.

But Mother Nature is the star here. An entire wall of windows faces the lake. Nearly everything in the cottage – the solid-oak table that can seat up to 16, the faux-leather couch, the wicker rocker – faces the lake. A guest book documents wildlife sitings – bear, moose, mink – and weather events. High winds knock down trees. Minus forty-degree nights kill car batteries. A lake frothing with whitecaps pulls docks from their moorings. 

More than childhood memories or the comfy furnishings of this cottage, it’s the abiding power of nature that makes me feel most at home. Waking to the call of wild geese. Listening to the wind move through the forest like a wave.

A place where high-school wood working projects are always welcome.

After weeks of coordinating my return as though it was a voyage to Mars, I could have kissed the ground when I first arrived here. Instead, after a three-hour drive following Quarantine Act rules to minimize stopping as much as possible, I peed on it. Immediately, a red squirrel scolded me from the branches of a pine tree. “Sorry,” I said.

Then, finally, I stood still, looking up at the white glow of birch against blue sky, the car engine growing quiet. The lake reflected a scene I knew off by heart, but had forgotten somehow. Yes, I thought. I’ve made it. This is Canada. This is home.

I spread out a handful of unsalted peanuts for the squirrel – a peace offering she eventually accepted. 

My new friend insists on more than just peanuts now.

P.S. Due to poor cell reception at the cottage, I was only able to download a fraction of the photos from this lovely area. Please stay tuned…

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