I have been in love with England all my life. I blame literature… and my mother… for most of my issues but especially for this. When I woke up in the hotel on the morning of January 15, 2021, I knew that it would be a painful goodbye, but that I would not have time nor the emotional bandwidth to process it. All of our goodbyes were painful and sudden. The boys were sent home from school in March 2020 and never saw their school friends, classmates, or cherished teachers ever again, and likely they never will. They did not get to say goodbye. I have many friends whom I did not get to say goodbye to in person. It feels like the life we carefully and joyfully built for four years was ripped away from us and it has left a hole that we have not quite learned how to fill, maybe we don’t want to. Aren’t most people walking around with a broken heart of some sort?
Our private driver was there to collect us bright and early the morning of January 15. In our four and a half years of living in Cheltenham, we had fostered a positive relationship with Taff. He was recommended to us when we moved to Cheltenham as it is a two plus hour drive out of London and it is definitely not recommended to drive a rental car with jet lag and have that as your first UK driving experience on the left side of the road. So he was the first person we saw on our adventure in the UK and the last. He also drove my parents from the airport to our front door and then back again every time that they came to visit. He is a jolly man who loves to chat and has a charming Welsh accent. My partner helped load us and all our luggage into the vehicle, then took his seat in the front and said to our driver, “Oh, is Taff not driving today?” to which our driver replied, “I am Taff,” and laughed. I blame poor facial recognition skills, exhaustion, and masks for this gaffe. Our day was off to a fantastic start.
All the boys were instructed to look out the windows the entire drive, happily there were no vomit episodes. We arrived at Heathrow airport, with plenty of time to spare. We do not like to cut things close with flights, we always prefer to be early. There was the madness of going through security, then toilets. We then found food to eat and set up a sort of picnic for ourselves on the floor away from people. The airport was eerily quiet. We did not see many families and felt silently judged. I wished that we could have held a sign that said, “we are not going on holiday, we are only travelling because we have no choice.” The seats in the terminal had large cut outs to force people to social distance and most seats were empty anyway. We ate crisps and sandwiches and made it to our gate with no issue.
We had hoped that our plane would not be full, but it was packed. The eight hour flight definitely felt a full eight hours. None of our children slept, but they were all fairly well behaved. Thank goodness for in flight entertainment. I sat with Mr. K. My partner sat with Mr. G and Mr. L and beside a stranger. It was honestly extremely uncomfortable to be in such close proximity to other people after avoiding it aggressively for so long.
After surviving two airports and two flights, we were in our beloved Ottawa! This is the first time we have moved to a place that we had lived previously, and there is a lot of comfort in that. There were little bits of snow near the taxi queue and the boys were wildly playing and falling on the ice as we tried to hail a cab. At this point we had all been awake for nearly twenty hours. We piled into a van. There was a plastic partition between the passengers and the driver. The partition had instructions to not touch it. Mr. K kept touching it. I made sure that Mr. K kept his face shield on for the entire ride and obviously we had our masks on, but I felt so guilty to be coming from the UK with it’s nightmare variant and in this man’s private vehicle. I hope that we gave him a generous tip, I don’t even remember.
We arrived at our Airbnb. It was cold, probably close to -20 degrees Celsius. The boys were wildly climbing the snow hills that are created by snow plows on Canadian streets. We searched everywhere and couldn’t find the key to our Airbnb. The boys would not listen to me and kept falling because they had absolutely no snow or ice skills plus they were exhausted which creates a special kind of stupidity in children. I shouted at the boys to get off the snow and I cried. I had hit my wall. I stood on the street of that dark frozen Ottawa neighbourhood surrounded by suitcases and tears ran down my face, I couldn’t stop them. After contacting our hosts and learning that the key was placed in a different location than the one described to us, we were able to set foot inside.
All five of us were hungry, exhausted, and truth be told, a bit stinky but we could finally take off our masks and that felt amazing! My partner tried to order us food from multiple locations but nothing would work as we had a UK phone number, an Alberta banking address, and a UK fixed address. This continued to be a theme for us as multi-factor authentication really does not work when you are in a state of flux. Eventually, it became a situation where we would have to be on the phone with the bank so that they could manually override the authentication just so we could order food. Once in our quarantine location, we could not leave for any reason for two weeks. I looked around our prison, it was clean, there were plenty of beds, the only things to eat were a jar of sugar or a packet of jam. A window in the largest bedroom was broken, and there was no television.
Luckily, we have some angels in our lives and we call them our friends. A dear friend, whom we got to know in Cheltenham, left us a full grocery at our door not long after we arrived. She had been through similar, when her family came back to Ottawa from Cheltenham, and she had someone leave food for her, and was paying it forward, as she knew how tired and hungry we would be. My partner saw her briefly as she was masked heading back to her car and he thanked her. Later, this friend said that she had never seen my partner look more crazed. In among the food items there were toys and books for the boys to borrow, which was a wonderful thing considering we didn’t know how long it would be before they were reunited with their own toys. A second beautiful friend, whom I have known since I was ten years old, dropped us more groceries and craft supplies for our boys. It honestly felt like a miracle. We had food, we ate, we showered, we slept. We woke up far too early the next day as the boys would continue to be on UK time for weeks yet.
We awoke to a magical sky full of snowflakes. It snowed the entire first day of our quarantine, and most of the days to follow. The snow piled higher and higher. Despite this, and a lockdown/stay at home order in Ontario, our friend deliveries kept coming. We received groceries ordered from my sister-in-law who had heard of our difficulties with procuring food. She even had wine delivered. She is a kind smart lady. We had friends who dropped off a TV for us to borrow. These deliveries happened during snowstorms, people drove to us and climbed treacherous snow piles as our Airbnb hosts were definitely not on top of snow removal. We had doughnuts delivered, fresh bagels, gin, cheese, homemade jams and jellies, baked goods, emergency toilet paper, snowsuits and snow boots for the boys. It was wonderful and we felt so loved and grateful.
I slept next to the broken window, the outer of the two panes was broken. When we reported it to our Airbnb hosts they thought that it was likely a product of kids playing street hockey or a snowplough, the most Canadian ways to break a window. They did not seem overly concerned and did nothing about it. They had the snow removed only if we reminded them. The house had a sizeable army of tiny ants that collected all our little crumbs every day and had them piled in the corner. We were tired enough that the ants became entertainment and the broken window was a nice cool draft that I grew to enjoy- except when it reached -40 Celsius at night, then I slept with two blankets.
The best part of our Airbnb was that it had a fenced backyard, or a back garden as we were still used to calling it. I made sure that the boys and I went out every day. My partner did not join us, he could not have cared less, he is not an outdoors person. He also chose to pack his brogues as his only pair of footwear. Smart leather boots that you have to lace up are hardly the footwear for a bimble through deep Canadian snow. The boys were amazed at how cold it was. The coldest it ever got in our time in the UK was maybe -3? Perhaps more with humidity or wind but this would be an exceptionally cold day, not the norm.
It was there, in the yard of the Airbnb, that the boys learned winter. They learned that you really do need to bundle up, that tucking your mittens into your coat sleeves and your boots into your snowpants (never say snowpants in the UK) prevents cold wet wrists and ankles. They were surprised every morning to look out the window and see the snowperson we had built was still there. It was still there when we left the Airbnb. When you build a snowperson in Ottawa, you have a friend until spring! The boys learned that all snow is not snowball snow, when it is really cold, the snow just crumbles in your hand or remains as chunks of aerated ice. The boys learned to not put their tongues on metal in the winter as it will stick, really during the times of Coronavirus, this is a nice all season rule. The boys did not know what icicles were, or that if you run on ice you will fall. They did not ever really learn the ice skills and they fell a lot. Hopefully next winter they will learn.
My partner and I made to do lists, wished we could get going on the to do lists, we studied French, we read, we watched shows. I obsessively organized and cleaned every inch of the Airbnb and wished I was able to use my nervous energy to organize and clean our house that I had still not seen. I’m sure whoever opened the closets and cupboards of the Airbnb after we left was surprised that The Home Edit had been there and sorted things. We had Zoom meetings with our lawyer to finalize the sale of our house. We kept having to print things off, which obviously was not possible for us, as we were not allowed to leave our prison during quarantine. Luckily, one of my angel friends did a lot of emergency printing for us. She printed our entire mortgage, drove it to our Airbnb, and left it in the mailbox, no questions asked. What would we do without the help of friends? Truthfully, I don’t even know.
Quarantine was a strange time, it was a change of pace, but it was also frustrating. Canadian Health services checked on us during our quarantine and we had no symptoms to report. We were told that a police officer could check on us at any time during quarantine, but this never happened. The day that quarantine ended I walked to the Enterprise Rent-A-Car and picked up the car I had booked. I spoke with another human in person, with masks on from a distance and it all felt surreal. The person who helped me with my rental was very kind, gave me a free upgrade, and told me about how her branch had been closed for much of the year and that she was happy to be back at work again. No one asked me to prove why I needed a car, although I did feel awkward saying that I had come from the UK. I continued to be scared to tell people I had come from the UK for quite some time, as I could see the fear in their eyes when I did so.
We drove our kids to see the outside of our new house, we still could not go inside, we had not officially closed and we didn’t have keys. The first reaction was not positive. The boys were worried that we “wouldn’t all fit.” Our house is a back split and from the front you can only see one big window and a garage door, from the side you can see how it grows to three levels, but the side of the house is not visible because there are large trees and hedges in the way. There was no sign of raccoons at this time, but we weren’t especially looking. The boys were happy to go back to our Airbnb after such a let down.
Once we had the keys, and the boys were able to run around the house, they changed their tune. They especially loved the “super-basement,” second basement level. The lights flicker in there and I still avoid it and shut the door at night in case the parasite people or ghosts want their privacy. Coming from the UK where no one had a basement to having two basements has been exciting. The cell reception was not perfect on our walk through of the house with our real estate agent, so the basement actually had a whole extra room that we didn’t know about, a bonus room is always good (the ghosts/parasite people love it I’m sure)! There is also a light in our basement that we cannot figure out how to turn off. All of our parents think that they can solve the mystery, even over the phone, obviously we are such inept adults. No one has figured it out, and it stays on until it burns out at this point (once again benefiting the ghosts/parasite people).We noticed that although the house has two laundry rooms, and two kitchens, it does not have a dishwasher. Annoying, but we figured out where we would put one in the kitchen and decided that would be one of our first projects.
As I worried about basement interlopers, we didn’t realize that we had attic intruders. Houses have sounds, we had not learned them yet and were oblivious to the fact that a family of raccoons lived above our heads. One night I had a socially distanced walk and chat with a friend, we laughed at the audacity of two raccoons skulking down the street, illuminated by the street light, in no hurry at all. I later realized that those stinkers were likely my roommates playing it cool as I was blocking the entrance to their “home.” One night my partner was drilling hooks into the wall when we heard a multitude of high pitched chirpy crying coming from directly above our heads. We thought, birds? Mice? Squirrels? We went outside in the dark to investigate. A truly gigantic raccoon swung out in front of us from the tree beside our house and then disappeared on to our dark snowy roof. I don’t know who was more scared, the raccoon or us, it was probably us. The only reason we mustered the strength to go back into the house was that our babies were inside. A quick google search taught us that we were also housing trash panda babies.
The next day a kind older gentleman knocked on my door and told me that there was “a hole in my roof.” He said that he noticed it yesterday, and decided he should come by and tell me. I stepped outside with him, he showed me where the hole was in our upper siding, then he looked into my eyes and said something I will never forget, “you’ve got raccoons.” Obviously, we knew at this point but now we were clear on their point of entry. I thanked him and went inside to finish homeschool with the boys.
My partner and I briefly entertained the idea of removing the raccoons ourselves. My partner was going to climb into the attic with a pillow case, put all the baby raccoons into the pillowcase, hopefully avoid being attacked by the mother, take the pillowcase outside without the mother raccoon following him into our house, put the babies on the snowbank or something outside and she would come and get them and vacate immediately?? This is what the internet told us to do. It was quickly apparent that we would need professional help and so we gave all our dishwasher money to the raccoon removal specialists. By the time they could come see our house (apparently they are very busy), they found a multitude of nests, and poop I mean proof that raccoons had been there. There was evidence to suggest that the male racoon had returned and eaten the babies and then tried to mate with the mother again- apparently this is common in the raccoon lifestyle. So we gave these people our dishwasher fund to do some detective work and spray some stuff? I don’t even know. They left a trap on our roof for a few weeks. Many neighbours walking by when the pest removal van was parked on our driveway simply said, “raccoons or squirrels? Welcome to the neighbourhood.” Risks of buying a house in an older neighbourhood, in the winter, without seeing it are real.
Before we officially moved into the house there was a period when we were constantly moving between the empty house and the Airbnb. This time was especially difficult for my autistic ten year old. He cried for days. Days. There had been so much upheaval and he had slept in too many locations with no clear indication of having a permanent home and it was all too much for him. We had so much snow that we really couldn’t even get into the backyard at our new house and also, there were safety issues as we did not know what was under all the snow. We had no idea what our yard was like and I think Mr. K thought our new house did not have one, this would have been the great tragedy of his life were it true. The thaw has been exciting this year! We found a pool in our yard, well we knew it was there but we found it and my ten year old is thrilled. He fell through the ice once and cut and bruised his body on the ice like a sort of terrifying stigmata and still he is in love. Add to that a trampoline gifted by the same kind friend who gave us the snowsuits and I think he is now the happiest he has ever been. He lives outside now (again).
Our banking continued to be an issue. Eventually we were frozen out of our British account. My partner spent EIGHT HOURS total on the phone and on hold with HSBC UK, and drove forty minutes to an HSBC location near Ottawa about five hours into the phone time to be able to access the account again. I am still frozen because I just do not have that kind of time. The bank has since apologized to us and sent us fifty pounds hush money. We took it.
Reinstating our health cards and drivers licenses has been an adventure. We had to drag our kids to Ottawa City Hall, which has very strict Covid measures, and then after waiting we were turned away due to having the wrong documents, after having read the requirements over a multitude of times I still disagree with this assessment. The second time we dragged our kids to city hall early in the morning we were successful, we brought every piece of paper we have with us. We then quickly bought a van so that we can live the full suburbs lifestyle right away. Literally everything we do seems to be met with a hiccup or more. Emergency dental work, colds and allergies prompting additional Covid tests, worrying about far away family members with serious health issues, twins throwing junk into our neighbour's pool. One step forward, two steps back is our settling back into Ottawa motto.
On advice of a friend, my partner and I put ourselves on waiting lists for pharmacy vaccination quite a few weeks ago. My partner received a text last weekend that he could go ahead and book an appointment. He did so and received many confirmation and follow up emails. We were SO EXCITED! The boys decided that we should not have school last Monday as it was Vaccination Day! I appreciated the sentiment but, nice try boys. My partner drove himself to the appointment and got face to face with the pharmacist only to be turned away because he was not over the age of fifty-five. He was so upset that he came home and broke his toe and has been limping ever since. I still have hope that someday we will all be vaccinated and able to see people in person again. My entire family and my partner’s entire family are now vaccinated and it is the first time we have wished that we still lived in Alberta in nineteen years.
We are once again in lockdown as the third wave hits Ontario like a tsunami. The boys asked me which wave this is and how many lockdowns we have experienced and I don’t even know the answer. I know that this time has not been easy for anyone and that despite the stress, we are the lucky ones. My partner is employed. I am able to teach the boys. We have our health. We love each other. And we managed to pull off an epic adventure and change of scenery at a time when many people might be craving just this thing.
One night in early February, as the sweaty reality of the Montreal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport was becoming a distant memory, I was driving between the Airbnb and our so far empty house. “Bobcaygeon” by the Tragically Hip came on the radio and I was struck with a wave of love for Canada and all the beauty and opportunity and creativity that exists here. The song was like a warm hug and I actually missed my exit as I was so distracted. In that moment, I knew that although things were complicated, it would be alright. I loved my time in England and I will love my time in Canada. I am so lucky to have two such beautiful places in my heart. I don’t regret anything, although I never ever ever want to move again.