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What Does Kindness Look Like In A Pandemic?

May 26, 2020


My husband and I have been 300 kilometres apart for the duration of this pandemic. Long story, but what matters is that after the first 8 weeks of living separately, we were more than ready to expand our germ pods to include each other. Plans were made, groceries were purchased, I even shaved my legs, and then came a tap-tap-tap on his office window.

Our family business is considered an essential service and my husband (hereafter known as HL for reasons best kept secret) could not in good conscience leave staff on their own to figure things out while he lived with me 300 kilometres away.

So he stayed put and together they set up shifts, accommodated physical distancing and arranged work-from-home options for those whose jobs could adapt.  The only constant in the office was HL, always there behind his desk, ready to answer questions or just listen to staff, customers,  suppliers, anyone who needed to talk in these strangest of times when nothing was sure and tensions grew daily.   

On the day before he was set to join my germ pod, spring was keeping her distance too. The sky was endless grey, rain fell steadily and temperatures hovered just above freezing. He  had decided to pack up his desk early and was getting ready to leave when the stranger tapped on his window.

“I’m in trouble,” a man called through the glass. “Can you help me?” He was older, our age group, well dressed, carrying a briefcase and clearly in distress.

Now, HL would be the first to admit that in the first weeks of the pandemic, he’d been a little cavalier about the protocols, arguing that it was perfectly safe to get into an airport shuttle with 5 other people because . . .  reasons.

In the weeks following, however, he came to understand the risks and became very good at following government recommendations. Not only did he wear a mask and gloves, his cleaning and disinfecting skills had become the stuff of legend.

His best pandemic response to the stranger at the window would have been to stay on his own side of the glass, make soothing gestures and offer to call police to assist him.  But none of that occurred to HL.

“Of course,” he called back then unlocked the front door and told the stranger to come in out of the rain.

The instinct to help is strong in this one.

The stranger thanked him and HL offered him a place to sit, a glass of water, a moment to breathe and a chance to tell his story,  from a distance, of course.

The stranger, let’s call him George, took off his wet coat, set his briefcase on the floor and did his best to shed light on his situation.

George  explained that he wasn’t local but had bought a condo in town and the deal was closing that day. He had to get to his lawyer’s office by five o’clock (it was now 3:30). Problem was, he didn’t know the name of the firm, only that it was on the Service Road. To make matters worse, not only had he lost his phone before setting out, his car had broken down along the way. He’d been walking on the Service Road for over an hour, hoping to see a sign, a name on a building, anything that might jog his memory.  

Unfortunately, every office and business along the Service Road was closed. HL’s pickup was the first vehicle he’d seen in a parking lot and the light in his office had been like a beacon in the storm.

“It probably sounds ridiculous that I don’t even know the lawyer’s name,  but my wife handles all those details.” He gestured to the briefcase at his feet.  “Everything I need is in her laptop which is in this bag. But she’s in the hospital and I don’t know her password.”

Someone else might have had a hard time understanding his dilemma. How could he not know the day-to-day business of the family?  But our household arrangement is identical. If you ask HL who holds our mortgage or life insurance or even who has been coming to clean the gutters for the last five years, he wouldn’t know because I handle all the details. If suddenly he couldn’t reach me and needed some important information, he would be as screwed as this stranger sitting at the reception desk.   

George went on to explain that his wife had broken her hip the night before and was in ICU, awaiting surgery. He couldn’t see her of course, but he couldn’t call her either because her phone was dead and no one at the hospital would ask her for the laptop password.  If he didn’t get to the lawyer’s office, if he didn’t close the deal on the condo, at the very least they would lose their one hundred thousand dollar deposit. Who knew what kind of legal action might follow?

In hindsight, his panic may have been unnecessary, but in that moment his fear was as real as the puddle gathering at his feet.

HL suggested he use the phone on the desk to contact the hospital one more time. For the next twenty minutes, George attempted to escalate the call, to speak to someone who might be able to get a message to his wife, always politely according to HL, but the person fielding incoming calls was unmoved. Staff had no time to carry messages back and forth. Sorry to disappoint. 

They were busy, HL understood that, but still. . .

“Why don’t you try accessing your email?” he suggested and went into his office for his own laptop. He set it down on the desk near George. “Go ahead and use that.  Perhaps you’ll find something useful. “

And everything could be disinfected later.

George did find some documents in his email, but not the name of the lawyer. All he knew was that the office was somewhere on the Service Road.

Taking out his phone, HL searched for a list of lawyers on the Service Road, and started reading out the names.

One of them rang a bell with George. “That’s it,” he shouted.  “That’s where I need to be.”

A phone call was placed, a message left on a machine and now all he had to do was get there.

Outside, the rain fell harder. With no Ubers or cabs to be had,  George would need to walk from our office to the lawyer’s office approximately 12 kilometres away.

“Thank you for everything,” George said, shrugging on his coat and picking up the briefcase.  “I don’t know what I’d have done without your help.”

He headed for the door. No handshakes, of course. They had successfully maintained the rules of physical distancing the whole time. Why mess it up now? 

George pushed open the door and HL looked out at the rain, wishing he had an umbrella to offer, a raincoat. Perhaps a garbage bag. He thought about me and germ pods and fabulous meals awaiting his arrival. Then he sighed and said, “Hang on. It’s too far to walk. I’ll drive you.”

George glanced back. “But we can’t distance.”

HL shrugged. “Are you sick?” he asked. George shook his head. “Neither am I,” HL said and grabbed his own coat. “Let’s go.”

They rode in silence, George in the back seat, ducking down when they passed a police car because no one was supposed to be driving around with people they didn’t live with and neither was sure the rules would bend for an old man with somewhere to be on a cold, rainy day.

When they reached the industrial mall where the lawyer should be, they drove slowly past the darkened offices of physiotherapists, dentists, a place that made signs and posters, eventually finding the lawyer’s unit. HL dropped George off in front of the door, watched him wave goodbye before heading inside, then he took out his phone and called me.

It would be another two weeks before we could see each other.

I understood completely. He could not have done otherwise. That’s why I love him.

But more importantly, his actions give me hope that no matter how long this global experiment we find ourselves in goes on, it won’t change who we are at heart.


Photographs and Illustrations:

ID 85642804 © Valeriy Kachaev | / ID 177231422 © Elena Preobrazhenskaya | ID 177239500 © Jonni Panggabean | ID 119347679 © Yuryz –




May 13, 2019

And finally, Paris. The reason the whole idea of a solo trip idea began.  The last time I was there with Sandi, we hit the Louvre, Versailles, the Orsay, all the hot spots. After six days, we’d barely scratched the surface of the City of Light, yet this time around I didn’t want to visit museums and galleries. This time, I wanted to stroll the streets, explore the Marais, get acquainted with Saint-Germain-Des-Pres. I wanted to peek behind doors, take the bateau bus along the Seine and sit at the cafes sipping wine or coffee, letting the journey take me where it may. Sounds idyllic doesn’t it?  A perfect plan to just ‘be’ in Paris. But I have always been easily distracted.

Who could resist Colmar?

A shiny object, a bar of music, anything can be the squirrel that has me wandering off in a new direction.  This time the squirrel with the fluffiest tail turned out to be Colmar. A medieval town in the Alsace region with cobblestone streets, houses dating back to the 14th century and a canal that gives it the nickname, Venice of France.   

The pictures alone had me at hello, but with only 5 days in Paris, a side trip was out of the question. I tried ignoring the siren song of those pictures to no avail. As I lingered over them yet again, the squirrel whispered, “Isn’t distraction the very essence of letting the journey take you where it will?” Who knew squirrels were so wise?

So I tossed my plan and booked a seat on a train to Colmar before I left Toronto. On a whim, I also threw in a one night stay in an Airbnb, only to discover later that I’d be heading to Colmar in the middle of May Day protests and celebrations. Proving once again that squirrels are not to be trusted!

The balcony in my room!

When I booked an apartment on the fourth floor of a grand old building near the Arc de Triomphe way back in early November, the location had seemed ideal. Close to the Champs Elysees, the metro, grocery store, bakeries. What more could I want? Then came the first Yellow Vest Protest on November 17 followed by another and another.

Being not only easily distracted but ridiculously optimistic, I assured myself that things would calm down by the time I arrived. And I kept repeating that mantra over and over even as shop windows were being smashed on a weekly basis. Macron was changing the laws, after all. The people were winning. Still the protests continued and based on the military presence in the city and the blockades already in place the day I arrived in Paris, May Day was going to be madness. What better time to get out of the city, the optimist hollered? Colmar, here we come!

I’d been warned in advance that Gare de Lyon train station can be daunting, which is why I wisely had an Uber pick me up an hour before I needed to be at the station. But even at 6:30 a.m., long before the protesters arrived, the closures and diversions meant that my 20 minute ride took close to an hour.  The driver was wonderful, hurrying as much as possible to get me to the station on time, but according to my GPS, with luck, we’d arrive 7 minutes before my train departed.

Interior of Gare de Lyon in Paris

Desperate for information, I did a search to see if the station posted Departure information online and Voila! Everything I needed to know was right there. My train to Colmar would leave on time from Hall C on track 11.

The driver was a hero, letting me off near an escalator that took me up to Hall C.  Once at the top, the track numbers were easy to spot. Naturally, Track 11 was at the very end. I made it to the turnstile with 1 minute to spare.

French trains are clean, fast, efficient and they’re heading wherever you’re going. Why don’t we have more trains?

My ticket showed what car I was in and the seat number, and since every car had a sign indicating what number it was, finding my spot was easy.  I hoisted my backpack into the overhead rack, took a breath and ordered coffee from the man pushing the hospitality cart down the aisle. Gotta’ love civilized train travel.

Arriving at Colmar two hours later, I dropped my pack at the Airbnb and headed down to the canal that connects the town to the Danube and gives rise to the title of Little Venice.  Built in 1864, the canal gave business owners and farmers a way to get their goods to market. Today, small boats or barques take tourists up and down the canal, past homes and shops and the market where vendors still bring fruits and vegetables, meats and cheeses and of course pastries, every day except Monday.

If you’re lucky, your driver will be the friendly Russian guy who will regale you with anecdotes of local history and lore in at least 4 languages. Thanks to him, I now know that in the Middle Ages, houses weren’t painted ice cream colours to be cute. Those colours were code for a population that couldn’t read. Blue meant fishmonger, green meant produce, yellow was for bakers and pink for public houses. I like to think there was a lot of pink back in the day.

The ride takes you under low bridges which means a lot of ducking and boat wobbling. I can’t imagine anywhere in North America taking this kind of insurance risk, especially without supplying life jackets as you climb aboard. But in Europe there’s a certain assumption that you take some responsibility for your own safety and if the guy says “duck,” you duck. More importantly, you don’t worry that you’re leaning on someone, and someone else is leaning on you. It’s a small boat, after all. If you fall out you must have leaned too far. You can’t swim? Then why did you get in? But don’t worry, help will come. Just hold onto the paddle. And watch out for the swans.

After the boat ride, I walked the narrow, cobbled streets where overhead signs and flower boxes abound, cafes offer prix fixe menus of two or three courses, and fairy tale shops tempt you with gelato, chocolates and pastries. The gelato won out twice that day, justified by all the walking I’d done, right?

I was told by a local that the villages in the area compete with each other for the title of Most Beautiful Town. Next morning the squirrel and I rented a car and drove twisting roads through hills lined with vineyards that have been around longer than I have and will likely be there long after I’m gone.

Everywhere I stopped, the spirit of that competition between towns was evident and I wished I could stay longer, drive farther. But my return ticket was already booked and later that day I was on the train again, heading back to Paris. Was the side trip worth sacrificing a day and a half in the city? Absolutely. The squirrel and I have already decided there will be a next time. 😊

Next up, Paris. For real.




Because I usually forget to take pictures, I sometimes use fabulous ones taken by others. In this post you’ll find Colmar: Adisa ; Train: Alexey Novikov ; Gare de Lyon: Jan Kranendonk ; Squirrel: Gale Verhague. All from