Press 2 for No

Canada: Where The Sun Also Rises

So much can happen in a week. You can go from worrying about a winter hat to sunbathing in your underwear (thanks to record-breaking November temperatures), from running to answer your phone to turning it off, from sipping a fine red Portuguese wine purchased for someone special at duty free (who turns out to be you) to eyeing the dregs of a bottle of Canadian “vodcow.” (Yes, you guessed it, Canadians are now distilling spirits from cow’s milk.)

For those who suffer from jet lag, they say it takes a day for every hour of time difference to adjust. Today, I’m sad to report, I’ve adjusted. I woke up at 8:15 instead of 5:15, and missed the sunrise – the first I’ve missed since my arrival at this cottage quarantine. My red lawn chair sat desolate on the dock while a flock of geese, as regular as a commuter train, squawked their way towards the sun.

The birch that didn’t make it

Such spectacles have become part of my daily entertainment. I also follow the antics of two red squirrels as they chase one another up and down the birch trees, or hop from pine bough to pine bough. They’ve become rather fond of sneaking up on me in my lawn chair, the rodent-like sound of their scurrying along the wooden planks of the dock always giving me a start. Sometimes, as I stand beneath the birches doing the dishes, I feel their beady little eyes watching me, and then there they are, mere centimetres from my head.

Every morning I call the Government of Canada COVID-19 line to report my symptoms, or lack thereof. Do you have a fever? asks a kind-sounding female voice. A cough? Are you having difficulty breathing? Press 1 for yes, 2 for no. Every morning, I press 2.

Hauling water at the cottage in 1958

Every day I split wood. I haul buckets of water from the lake to the cottage – at least 20 from sun up to sun down – to flush the toilet, to wash clothes, to do the dishes.

I walk up and down and up and down the tree-lined path leading to the main road, standing at the crest of the hill for a moment, looking in both directions. Sometimes I stand beyond the borders of my quarantine, in the middle of the road, feeling like a nervous deer. If I hear a vehicle coming, I turn back towards the cottage, quickening my pace. If they are closer than I’d gauged, I run.

Saturday night entertainment

At around 4:30 p.m., I sit on the dock again, getting ready for the sunset. I wait for a long, skinny mink to swim, ever so quietly, through a bed of reeds and along the shore. When all the pink has faded, and a dull, neutral tone washes over the hills, I begin to panic. What am I going to do now? Listen to the radio? Read? Watch the fire burn?

What am I going to do for the next seven days? What am I doing here? Why have I been wearing the same clothes for three days? Why did I leave Galicia and my tostada con tomate breakfast? The lemon tree? I see Stanley and Stella, staring up at me with their sad eyes. Angie, where are you going? they ask. Are you coming back?

Angie? Is that you?

So much can happen in a week. You can find yourself in the quintessential Canadian forest where the scent of freshwater and leaf mulch pierces your very being, awakening your wild northern heart. And then you remember that thing waiting for you next week when all the drama of travel and quarantining is over – your life. Dentist appointments and eye checks. Finding a job during a pandemic, getting a divorce during a pandemic, visiting a father in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s (during a pandemic).

Last week I caught a glimpse of this life as I took a taxi from the airport to the mechanic where my faithful Saturn Ion awaited my journey north. “There’s my house,” I said to the taxi driver as we drove past, hoping we wouldn’t see my ex walking down the street, or, even worse, his girlfriend.

“Are you okay?” he asked when I became silent for the first time in our 40-minute drive. He took ten dollars off my fare, offering to transfer my giant grey suitcase to the trunk of my car. Then he stood there, unsure of what to do next. “Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ll be okay.”

Finding my swing again…

And I am okay. For last night’s entertainment, I waited until the sky was completely dark and returned to the dock. I lay down. At first I was scared the squirrels would come and play in my hair. Then I worried about bears. Then I worried about the imaginary psycho killer I call Frank.

Finally, as my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I stopped worrying. The sky felt bigger at night, dome-like. I felt smaller. As I focused on one cluster of stars, it became two clusters, then three. Soon the entire sky scintillated and sparkled. The reflections of galaxies and solar systems, of countless other worlds, lapped at the dock.

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…

The Tide is High

The tide is high, and I’m removing my mask.

Twelve years ago today, I got married on a beach on the west coast of Canada. I stood barefoot in the sand and held a bouquet of freshly picked wildflowers. I’ll spare you the other details – the triple-layer lemon cake we (as in me and my husband-to-be) baked together, the poem I wrote, the Jeep that drove by as we recited our vows, honking. 

That’s all over now. Now I sit in Spain, alone, drinking a glass of Rioja. A pandemic ravages the world, and I can’t stop feeling like we’re all caught between a rock and a hard place. Every situation now comes with its own set of unpleasantries, and most of these include a mask.

Good-bye to the chiringuito – the ultimate summer pop-up. This one pays homage to the unlikely duo of California and Galicia (in case you didn’t get it).

Today, my blue surgical mask just wouldn’t cooperate. As I tried to recoup a modicum of happiness on what was supposed to be an anniversary marked by gifts of silk or linen–two of my favourite fabrics, incidentally – my mask drooped, got wet, and just plain prevented me from fully breathing in the bracing sea air.

I tried hard not to let this get to me – I understand the rules, after all, and want to do my part to halt the spread of coronavirus. But what are the rules when you’re alone in a eucalyptus forest in the rain and you begin to cry? Is it okay to remove your mask, or at least pull it down beneath your nostrils?

Trying not to identify too much with this lone pine.

Nearly every day I see evidence that others have faced such a dilemma. I’ve seen masks identical to my own floating in the sea, hanging on tree branches, pinned to barbed wire fences. 

Desperate times call for desperate measures, so they say. Not only did I decide to remove my mask as I walked upon the sands of Praia de Tuia (Tuia Beach) I removed all of my clothing. I walked into the September sea on the last day of summer, on the anniversary that would never be celebrated again, and dove in. Two fishermen watched from the rocks.

Good-bye to another chiringuito. You will be missed.

The tide pulled me out, then back to shore. Back and forth, back and forth. I floated there, looking up at the grey sky, not wanting to be anywhere else.

I don’t want to be anywhere else either, says Café the foster kitten.

P.S. In case the title reminded you of anything, here’s Blondie

Here comes the rain again


Today’s view.

So much can change in a week. The world can go from hot and dry to cold and wet. You can go from sitting beneath a pergoda at a table of blue-tiled mosaics with a group of fun-loving Spaniards eating steamed mussels with giant wedges of lemon to lying on your couch covered in a blanket, just wanting to be alone.


Last week.

But it’s impossible to be alone in Carrasqueira. Like so many other places I’ve tried to escape to – the off-the-grid cabin on Haida Gwaii, the thatch cottage on Inis Mor – such a quest has proven futile. People appear with bottles of home-made salal wine or bowls of wild blackberries. I never learn. I try and I try to resist social contact, making up excuses – I don’t feel well. I have to work.

Here, I do things like wait to collect my laundry from the clothesline until I’m sure no one is lingering on the “balcony” above my house (see Lockdown #8). I wait to water the garden until the pre-dinner walk and social hour is over. I go to the beach and do my grocery shopping during the lunch siesta.

Canada: A place you’d think you could be alone.

But such precautions, especially during summer, never seem to work.

Mercedes has installed a chair for her ailing husband to sit on to get some fresh air, with a bird’s-eye view of my house, of course.

“Your hose is dripping,” she observed the other day, craning her neck beyond the stone wall to peer into the furthest corners of my front patio (a dangerous activity while standing at the top of a 10-foot high precipice). “You had better tell your landlord.”

Red sky at night…

Another neighbour (80-year-old Josefa) has taken to eating lunch early to avoid the heat. The other day she was waiting for me as I mounted the steps with my new shopping trolly (a life-changing purchase I once thought belonged to the realm of grandmas).

“That’s not how you should pull it,” Josefa said from her kitchen window. She unlocked her front gate, and took over.

Quickly she realized that my trolly was not like her trolly. “It was only 18 Euros, from the Chinese store,” I apologized. “Mine was 44,” she said, “and has four wheels you can adjust to go up the stairs.”

Still, Josefa insisted on pulling my trolly, which contained five kilograms of cat food, several bottles of wine, a jar of pickles – basically all the heaviest items they sell at GADIS that I usually don’t buy – all the way to my front gate to show me how it was done. I thanked her. “Nada,” she said with a wave of her hand, returning to her siesta.


Rain-happy hibiscus.

A friend I used to work with at a restaurant in Vancouver who now works as a tarot-card reader predicts we have entered a time of great potential:

“Whatever the next six months hold for you will be aligned to your greatest path,” she writes on her Instagram feed. This will be the ride of your life, she promises.

In certain countries this could mean we have something to look forward to in the bedroom (see #3), but, unfortunately, I’m not from one of those countries.

Canada: Where a ride is just a mode of transit.

Instead, my friend’s post got me thinking, again, about the much more boring path of life. Once upon a time, I dreamed this path would lead to that of the lone writer of novels. I’ve made a few life choices to achieve this goal – foregoing children and choosing partners who also want to be alone, but not quite. People who brood, who like things like meditation, crossword puzzles, bonsai cultivation, science fiction.


Friends with benefits – in Galicia this means they have a car and can drive you to Portugal in 30 minutes.

But maybe this has all been a mistake. Maybe I actually like people, or, at the very least, need them.

After experimenting with saying yes instead of no to invitations to spend time with other humans, I think I may feel happier. I’ve seen a shooting star, stumbled upon a herd of wild horses, posed as a Portuguese maiden, drunk pink gin. Yesterday, I hiked in the pouring rain through a forest of eucalyptus and pine, and, afterwards, ate home-made pizza.


If you invite me over for dinner I promise to bring a salad.

So, thank you other humans. Who knows where our paths lead, or if there is even a path, but your company (most of the time) is very much appreciated.


Like I said, friends with benefits.

Summer Daze


When it’s summer but not really.

Once upon a time you could separate the good friend from the run-of-the-mill friend by whether they offered to help you move, or, in earlier years, held your hair back while you vomited.

Times have changed.

For those of us with parents over the age of 65, feuding family members, and husbands who left them for a younger woman mere weeks before the world went into lockdown, a good friend is now someone who will let you quarantine at their house. They will pick you up at the airport after you’ve travelled from a country where nearly 30,000 people have died from coronavirus, and then spend fourteen days bringing you food and drink.


Canada – a social distancing dream.

The latest travel restrictions from my home country of Canada stipulate that all members of this good friend’s household must be under the age of 65 and maintain a two-metre distance from you at all times. These are not just suggestions. Failure to comply (especially if someone dies because of you) could mean a fine of up to a million dollars and/or jail time (see below).

government“The summer has been long, and it still isn’t over,” reads the first line of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Man in Love – and I couldn’t agree more. While at first we embraced the freedoms of the “new normal” here in this little corner of Spain, it’s becoming clearer and clearer that it sucks.

And this isn’t just because of the trio of deaths at Carrasqueira #99 – Molly the stray cat, the baby seagull with the broken wing, the black cat who appeared, barely able to walk for lack of food and water – or my entire tomato crop that rotted on the vine. It’s a feeling, a feeling so difficult to define, that all of this – whatever it is – has only just begun.


Dear Baby Gull: We tried our best.

Since I left home at the age of eighteen to travel and work all over the world, my mother has called me her “little gypsy.” After three decades of moving dozens of times and working dozens of jobs, all whilst living on a planet that’s moving at approximately 1,600 kilometres per hour through an unknown universe, you would think I’d be used to a little uncertainty.

But now I see that my comfort with uncertainty relied on what appeared to be a stable core – a marriage, healthy parents, functioning First World economies, an address I could use for mail and government-issued ID.


Cabo Udra – who would want to sail away from such a paradise?

As someone in possession of a passport that allowed her the luxury of moving fluidly between borders, I flew from branch to branch knowing I could always come home to roost. But now coming home, according to my government, means putting people’s lives at risk.

Now, even traveling to a nearby branch feels odd, maybe even wrong. Last weekend on a car trip into the mountains of Galicia, the roads were practically empty. At what I assume were usually popular sites – an 11th century monastery, a neolithic fridge – we were the only ones there.


If you like Hot and Dry (yes, they deserve capitals), go to these mountains in August.

My companions joked of the mythic Santa Compaña (“Holy Company”) walking the twisty roads  – a procession of the white-robed dead led by a possessed human. But after a while, especially after the sun set, this was no joke. I could see the ghosts of a life that ended a mere six months ago float past.

Six months ago, my husband held me for the last time and my father, now in the later stages of Alzheimer’s, still knew my name. I’d toyed with the idea of moving to a small town in Canada’s Kootenays to start a new life and accept the job offer of a full-time reporter.


In the land of Santa Compaña, bring flowers.

Six months ago, I’d never heard of Wuhan or a KN95 mask. Terms such as “second wave” and “social distancing” weren’t part of daily life.

Now, every ten minutes or so I leave this blog post to stir a pot of green tomato chutney – an attempt to save some of the fruits of my labours. Chunks of tomatoes and onions simmer in vinegar and sugar, reducing into a thick sauce.

As the chutney thickens, I wonder whether it’s time to take action or wait out whatever it is we are waiting out. The sun of an endless Karl Ove summer beats down. I stir and I stir.


My three amigos.

In Praise of the Playa


Sand, sky, and sea: the perfect antidote to our times.

Yes, there’s the Rioja and the tapas, the flamenco and the paella – but then there’s the beach.

And now in the time of coronavirus, the beach is the one place where you can shed your mask, and even all of your clothing (see Phase 1), breathe deeply, jump into the ocean, and pretend it’s all just been a bad dream.


The emerald-coloured waters of Cabo Udra.

As you swim through emerald-coloured water so clear you can see every shell, every piece of kelp swaying on the sea floor, you will enter another sort of dream. A dream where, if you look to the west, an island shaped like a woman reclining juts from the open Atlantic, and, to the east, smooth grey rocks jut from a forest of eucalyptus and pine.

But it’s not just about nature. Beachgoing in Spain is a cultural experience you won’t find listed in any events guide. Here, the beach is not the kind of place where you just show up with an old towel and a tote bag containing your sunscreen and trashy magazine (although you will be forgiven for such transgressions).


The beach umbrella – the first item on anyone’s beach-kit list.

Who knew that beach umbrellas could be so colourful, so jaunty? That towels could be smooth cotton on one side and terrycloth on the other, eliminating the danger of an unflattering imprint upon one’s cheek?

Who knew that grandmother and granddaughter could wear matching string bikinis and walk hand-in-hand along the shore? Or that you could build cute wooden structures (called chiringuitos) strung with faerie lights, and sell freshly grilled fish and crisp white wine? That you could sit there in your wet bathing suit, toes sinking into the warm sand, and watch this whole show in slatted shade from beneath a bamboo awning?


For those who prefer sunsets.

Anything goes at the beach, and everyone is welcome. The young, the old. The wealthy, the poor. The prone-to-burn Canadian. Wear your swimming trunks or Speedo, bikini or one-piece. Go topless or nude. Don’t worry about fat rolls or cellulite. No one cares (and they’re not just saying that and secretly checking you out). It’s a kind of democracy of the flesh, and as refreshing as the sea.


Zen and the Art of Entering the Water.

Here we can gather in a ritual as ancient as humankind – to face the sun, to infuse our skin with saltwater, to walk upon entire universes – mountain ranges, civilizations – all ground up into fine particles of white sand.

And such a ritual deserves its very own beach kit.


Grumpy people named Angie may become annoyed when you play this right beside her head, but just ignore her.

The first purchase I made when I arrived in Spain was what I’d assumed to be a shopping basket. Little did I know I’d purchased the classic beach basket that almost every beach-going individual, months later, would sport in some sort of shape and colour.

Slowly, I’ve been  learning what other objects constitute the perfect Spanish beach kit. There is the low-slung beach chair, the sunscreen sold in bottles that squirt like bathroom cleaner, the insulated Thermos bag, the paddleball set, and, for the more adventurous types, the flotation device.

But beyond the kit is something that can’t be bought – an innate ability to relax, to sit for hours in a mini shade village created by a circle of perfectly placed beach umbrellas, and chat with friends or family, or, when the conversation wanes (which seldom seems to be the case), simply stare out at the blue, blue sea.

Every day I witness this spectacle with increasing admiration. As the tide comes in, I watch people stand and chat, entering the water in increments. Ankles, Calves. Thighs. It’s rare to see someone do what we Canadians do – simply stride into the water without thought, and dive. Perhaps this is because people here don’t like the cold, or maybe it’s something else. Maybe it’s a type of ease, of being able to ease into the moment.


Sorry, Portugal. I love you but your beach cabanas just don’t cut it.

Poco a poco – little by little – is something I’ve been told many times in Galicia, whether it’s about learning the language, or weeding my unruly garden. And the other thing people say to me, as I rush about or worry about this or that – something everyone I know from Toronto excels at – is tranquila.

The way they say this to me – the tone, the soft roll of the vowels – is as soothing as the rhythm of the waves crashing against the shore. Tranquila, tranquila.. Don’t worry, Angie. Be calm. Yes, these are uncertain times, so squirt on your sunscreen, spread out your towel, and close your eyes.

Some sad news. Our lovely friend Molly went missing five days ago and we fear the worst.


Hello mask, good-bye smile


The popcorn and cotton candy are back.

The manager of William Tell Restaurant (a former Swiss restaurant downtown Montréal) knew right away I was lying when I said I spoke the three required languages – Italian, German, French – and had several years of fine-dining experience. I was 22 and thought knowing the numbers up to 100 and a few greetings could pass for speaking a language. My clothing – a colourful assortment of natural-cotton garments recently purchased in Guatemala– gave away the rest.

“But your customers will forgive you anything with that smile,” he said, and hired me on the spot.

He was right, most of the time. The Swiss Embassy wasn’t pleased when I struggled to open a bottle of nearly $200 wine from a crate flown in especially for the occasion, watching chunks of broken cork plop into the honey-coloured liquid.


A flower that reminds me of my Guatemala days, and outifts.

After that, the manager watched me like a hawk, only giving me one or two tables at a time. Nothing I ever did was right. I didn’t know a piece of meat should be placed in front of a customer between three and nine o’clock – based on some imaginary clock – or that I should never touch the bowl of a wine glass. I didn’t know wine glasses had things called bowls.

“Will I ever do everything right?” I asked the manager after my first week of training.

“Not likely,” he said.

Miraculously, customers responded to my apologetic smiles with the largest tips I would ever receive (I went on to waitress well into my 30s). One distinguished-looking, and what I then considered elderly (he was probably 40), diplomat even offered me the key to his hotel room.


Karl, the latest foster kitten named after the usually non-smiling writer Karl Ove Knausgård.

We all know we have at least one good feature. Luckily, mine hasn’t aged. Not only does my discerning Aunt Mary compliment my smile, I once won the “smile of the day” award at my favourite Italian sandwich spot in Toronto.

My smile has garnered all kinds of underserved attention (for who can take credit for the way their lips curl upwards?), often from members of the opposite sex. While traveling in countries such as Guatemala and India, I suspect my smile may have even saved my life.

But that’s all over now.


A Galician beach during lunch.

Since Tuesday, for most of Spain, the nueva normalidad (the new normal) now includes the compulsory wearing of a face mask the moment you leave your house. The few smiles once enjoyed in a Galician fishing village not known for its smiling inhabitants are now hidden behind a layer of protective material. Our primitive selves are now forced to gauge emotions with only half the package, eyes asking eyes Can I trust you? Do you want to mate?

What happens when we say good-bye to smiles? Researchers say a smile can make you look younger, even thinner. It can induce more pleasure in your brain than chocolate, and, even if it’s fake (apparently there are 19 types of smiles and only six of them are real) elevate your mood. Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.”


A Galician beach after lunch.

But when you’re in a country that’s not your own and you still (you’re ashamed to say) can’t speak the language, joy is an afterthought. A good smile can bridge communication gaps, win over grumpy government officials (or babies), show a stranger you’re a good person – that even if you order tostada con tomate at eleven in the morning, you’re not a threat.

A smile can say, hey look, I’m always screwing up in your country – I don’t pull down my blinds or go to the beach at the right time – but I mean well, and I like you guys. Can we be friends?

Recently on a break-out-of-lockdown trip to Seville, my BBVA bank card was blocked. The only way to remedy this situation was to go to the nearest BBVA branch in person.


Yes, sometimes I go for breakfast at 11;00. Forgive me, Spain.

“Do you speak English?” I asked the bank manager. “No,” he said. I took a deep breath and tried my best to explain the situation. My blue surgical mask muffled my soft voice and hesitant Spanish, making it even more difficult to understand my mixed-up tenses and translations of complex banking terms.

When the manager raised his eyebrows and began to rustle his papers, I knew I was losing him. Any second now he would say sorry, give me the number for the English helpline, and ask me to leave. (I knew because this is exactly what had happened the day before at a different branch).


Seville – a city  whose inhabitants make you want to rip off your mask, and more.

I asked if I could lower my mask for a second. He nodded. I apologized for my bad Spanish, and then I smiled the Italian-sandwich-shop-winning smile. The effect was instant. The manager lowered his mask, too. He transformed from stern bank guy into a caring (and, I must say, handsome) sevilliano.

Within minutes I had withdrawn 300 Euros without a functioning bank card or an inspection of any of my ID, and received my new friend’s business card. “If you have any troubles in Sevilla,” he said, “I’m here.”


When I saw this street called Verde (Green) in Seville, I smiled one of the six real smiles.

The Wall


When a wall is so much more than a wall.

The weather was promising – cloudy and slightly cool. I put on a pair of shorts and a T-shirt, slipped on my Laura Ashley gardening gloves, and got out the broom. It was time for The Wall.

Walls in Galicia aren’t just pretty stones fitted masterfully together and draped with wildflowers and vines – they are symbols of identity. More specifically, they are symbols of a person’s good character, community pride, and work ethic. And if your wall is dripping with wildflowers and vines – you have none of those things.


Some people go for scallop shells to avoid The Wall thing.

Wall greenery is not picturesque in this neighbourhood, it is an affront. It is something to be “cleaned.” Why it took a Canadian woman so long to learn this fact is just another one of life’s great mysteries.

But, when you know, it’s even worse. Sometimes ignorance really is bliss.

While I’m no stranger to hard work – I was a tree planter in the wilds of British Columbia, Canada for six seasons (and anyone who has ever planted before knows you are practically invincible after such gruelling work)  – “cleaning” a Galician wall in public is a daunting task.


I don’t mind hard work, but check out this beach where we are now allowed to swim.

This wasn’t an interior wall, you see, it was the public wall, the one facing the town, the one everyone passed on their walk up la cuesta, the hill. It was nearly 15-feet tall in some places, and, before yesterday, chock full of weeds. In addition, piles of dead leaves from my kumquat tree mingled with patches of grass and bits of garbage at its base.

I knew the moment I took on The Wall, they’d be watching.

Sometimes it’s easier to just bite the bullet and confront your fears. The coronavirus lockdown provided the perfect excuse to avoid this. Unfortunately, Galicia was now in Phase 2, and going outside your front gate to weed your wall had been permitted for more than a month.


Travel within the province of Pontevedra is also allowed, where places like natural food stores that sell hazelnuts in baskets exist.

Within minutes, straw-hat neighbour (see Lockdown #10) stuck his head up over his front gate. “You are cleaning the wall!” he exclaimed. After about ten minutes he emerged with a mysterious plastic bag to deliver to the neighbour below. “Be careful of the ticks,” he said in passing. “It’s the season.”

Inwardly, I scoffed – I was Canadian, accustomed to things like horseflies that literally take chunks out of your flesh.

No sooner had I thought this then I looked down at my bare legs and saw several tiny black creatures scurrying for a place to call home. I walked back up the hill and into the house, furiously removing my clothing. But I would not be defeated, re-emerging with long pants and a long shirt. Of course, now that I was fully clothed, the sun came out.


The more than 400-year old holiness of stone (weeds allowed).

Straw-hat neighbour re-emerged to point at Stanley the stray cat who was assisting me by jumping on the weeds as I pulled.

“It’s good you have a cat here,” he said. “I just saw a rat run into the grass.”

The sun beat down harder and harder, and I recalled my tree-planting days – the heat, the mosquitoes buzzing on all sides. I thought of my ex-husband and his young new girlfriend enjoying a warm June day in Toronto, yanking harder and harder, ripping vines out from their roots.


“Don’t work too hard, Angie,” says Molly.

“It’s too hot to work,” said the neighbour below as he emerged with a mysterious bucket to deliver to straw-hat neighbour. “It’s too hot to work,” said power-washer neighbour, walking down the hill. “It’s too hot to work,” said a third helper, this time a stranger.

A woman passed with impossibly shiny hair hanging down her back, trotting gingerly down the steps in heeled black sandals. She brushed away at the indignity of the dust-filled air with her manicured red fingernails as I swept piles of dead weeds and dirt into my dustpan, sweating profusely.

“It’s too hot to work,” said the neighbour from the big white house someone told me was a “narco house” (see Fariña, or “Cocaine Coast”) after he’d parked his car. This time, he elaborated.

Bueu blossoms

Oh, the freshness of spring.

“We work from eight to nine in the morning,” he said, “and after seven in the evening.” It’s fresco then, he said – fresh.

What wasn’t fresh was his breath – the scent of hard liquor mingled with the sun-baked grass. Despite the blazing sun, he was in the mood to chat. I attempted to stoop down and fill the dustpan – I was so close to finishing and being able to hide inside the house again – but then worried that would seem impolite.

Sometimes it sucks to be Canadian.


Yes, we are too polite – but look at our pretty stamps!

“You did the hard part,” narco neighbour said, sweeping his hand across the now-clean bottom three-quarters of the wall. “The rest is easy.”

He pointed to the high bits I couldn’t possibly reach. “Easy,” he said again. And here I lost him, as I often do when things become too complicated for my poor Spanish. Instead, I did the nod-and-smile combo, a technique I’ve been mastering all over the world for years.

While doing so I noted things you observe when you focus on the person and not the words coming out of their mouth. The pale blue dress shirt, unbuttoned almost to his belly. The sweaty chest and brow. The thinning hair. The missing front teeth, and one of the few remaining ones, black with rot.

His eyes searched the heights of the wall, looking a little lost, until he spotted Stanley watching from above. “He looks like good cat,” he said. “His has kind eyes.”


Our dear Stanley.

Phase 1


Walking the path of freedom.

Laziness. Apathy. The lockdown time warp. These are my excuses for a 17-day silence. Oh, and an evaluation of my mental state by certain readers that happen to be family based upon the contents of my blog posts. As any writer knows, such scrutiny is our kryptonite.

Please, dear reader, don’t worry. There’s no need to worry about a woman who spends her days talking to cats and avoiding divorce papers and tax returns. Really. You should see the cupboards she has organized these past couple weeks, and even a couple of drawers.


Laundry – my new answer to “Do you have any hobbies?”

Plus, I’ve been kind of busy living life again. Life beyond the stone walls of Carrasqueira 99. Last Monday Galicia entered Phase 1 and it was like a magic wand passed over these green hills. Sidewalk cafés and non-essential shops rolled up their shutters. Families and friends reunited in groups of ten or less. Our one-kilometre radius of roaming space expanded to the whole province of Pontevedra.

I literally felt drugged by these newfound freedoms – heading “downtown” to experience the buzz of a café con leche first thing that blessed Monday morning and an albariño in the evening. In between I bought non-essential goods such as an embroidered throw pillow and a set of nesting baskets. I went to one of my favourite beaches – Porto Maior – and sat for hours watching the tide come in.


Porto Maior. Pure balm for the soul.

But one week later and the pre-lockdown anxieties have re-surfaced. It’s time to push play again, resuming our lives where we paused in mid-March, and all without the next great novel in the works (I wrote two pages and gave up, but thought about writing it A LOT) or a perfectly toned beach body (au contraire).

I learned about the impossibility of this ever happening (the beach body) on Sunday when I went for a hike with Miguel and Débora and we came upon a nude beach. As anyone who has been to Spain knows, people here are very comfortable with nudity in all of its forms.


O Canada. A family in Bueu flies a different flag each day. Thanks for the photo, Miguel.

Coming from a country that still displays the Queen of England on its currency – a woman whose gaze emits the subtle brainwashing of centuries-old conservative Victorian values – I hesitate to display my form.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Miguel and Débora wasted no time in stripping off (it was a hot and sunny day, sorry people in Canada who have been experiencing snow in May) and cooling down. I thought about my too-white flesh and my too-many-lockdown-cupcakes jiggly bits. Luckily, I had my period (the first time I’ve ever said this in my life).

So, here we are – a few pounds heavier and none the wiser. What to do and where to go in this post-lockdown world?


Free to flit from flower to flower – but don’t forget your mask.

After completing its four phases, Spain could enter the “New Normal” as early as July. The taste of true freedom is so near, but much like taking off my clothes in public, I hesitate to take the plunge.

Exposed again to the gaze of the world, will I jump into the wild blue Atlantic, or just want to wrap myself back up in a warm towel?


Also feeling anxious about saying good-bye to these two – Alaska and Emily – who have been with me since Phase 0. After nearly dying from a cat virus, they’re ready for their furever homes.

The Right of Spring


Time to smell the roses.

“Happy Freedom Day!” a friend in the south of Spain writes this morning. She sends pictures of a beach at sunrise.

Although my day didn’t begin quite so early, I was lacing up my hiking boots before nine. As I reached the top of the hill just past Miguel and Débora’s house, panting a little (okay, a lot), I reached the furthest point I’d been in 48 days.


Early-morning surfers in Cádiz. Thank you, Stephanie.

Today is the day adults in Spain can head for the hills if they’re in the mood, as long as it’s between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 a.m. or 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. and within a one-kilometre radius. If you’re over 70, other time slots apply.

While admiring the rows of grapevines leading down into the port of Beluso, I suddenly felt grateful I’d been stuck in one of Europe’s strictest lockdowns for 48 days. It was May now and March felt like another world. A world where the foxglove had not yet bloomed and the potatoes I’d watched an elderly couple plant still lay buried in neat drills.

A world where I’d been sending emails to my ex-husband that took hours to compose. How to express an all-consuming rage in 700 words or less? How to strike the perfect balance between I hate you and your new girlfriend and you were my family and I will always love you?


When you live down the hill from a castle.

But March felt far away now. Now the hills of Galicia were alive with the sound of spring water running, birds chirping, hens clucking, dogs barking. Every crevice bloomed green. Flowers belonging in hothouses grew wild: birds of paradise, calla lilies, jasmine.


Yes, these beauties grow wild around here.

While this isn’t the first time I’ve emerged so wide-eyed from a period of deprivation – 10-day silent retreats at meditation centres, tree planting in the “bush” of Canada’s west coast, living in an off-the-grid cabin 16 kilometres from town with no vehicle – these were self-imposed deprivations involving groups of other like-minded people.

To know you’re emerging into the world at the same time as millions of strangers, a communal awakening to a spring in full bloom, is something else altogether.

Unlike the cities of Barcelona and Madrid and Cádiz, alive with cyclists and joggers and surfers from the crack of dawn, I only passed a handful of people during my allotted hour in Bueu. All of them, in accordance with what seems to be a Spanish rule to always dress for the occasion, sporting what appeared to be brand-new exercise gear.

But what my walk lacked in quantity it made up for in quality. A look passed between me and my freedom-day comrades  – a look of recognition. We’d done it. We’d survived something together.

No, it wasn’t a war, or crushing poverty, or any of the other horrors of this world, but it was something. Something to celebrate if only just between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 a.m. or 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. in our one-kilometre radius. Within this space, the world was our oyster again.


I sure hope all this walking won’t affect my eating schedule, says Stanley.