12-27 December 2021. Our first flight in nearly two years. I thought I’d be excited but there’s wasn’t time.

Don didn’t allow enough time getting ready so I was helping however I could. We left a little late.

Meeting our friends. Storing our car in their underground parking. Getting to the airport. Still too focused on what needs to be done to be excited.

We arrive a bit later than planned; in the airport we see the long line with dismay. But first the vaccination check. Not the BC vaccination QR code, must have the federal one. Not organised; scrolling through pics on my phone trying to find it. The long line snakes behind us. I’m holding everyone up.

Finally I find it and we’re shuffled down to the automated machines to print our own luggage tags – everything is automated now. The machine shows a barcode, but we only have a QR code. Help! Get that sorted and tags attached to cases.

Now to the luggage conveyors. I put my case on and nothing happens. I wait. Nothing happens. I see a button. It’s unlabeled, but I think it’s to make the belt move. Wrong! I soon find out it’s an emergency button and it’s stopped the whole friggin’ system! Oops.

Help arrives. Why did you push that button? It takes about five minutes, which feels like forever. I’m aware of the crowd gathering behind me as people are piling up wanting to get their bags into the system.

Eventually it’s going again, we load our suitcases, wait until they’re swallowed into the flapping rubber maw, then head off to the next thing – security. Another long line. It’s Christmas. And Covid or not we can at least travel within Canada. So can everyone else. Air Canada must be thrilled to be getting off the ground again.

The long line weaves back and forth ahead of us. I’m thinking it will take at least ten minutes to get through. Finally at a security station. Boarding passes checked again. Coat and camera bag into a tray. Computer out of my backpack. Computer and computer case into a tray. Backpack into a tray. Don does the same. He remembers ahead of time to remove his belt so the buckle won’t trigger the metal detector, but forgets about liquids. He’d been in such a rush leaving home that he’d just shoved them into his pack and can’t remember which compartment he’s put them in. Can you tell it’s been a long time since we’ve done this?! Finally he mentions that they’re eyedrops and the guy lets him go.

We get through the metal detector and collect everything from the trays. It feels like a relief to have at least gotten this far. Before going to our boarding gate I need two things – a bathroom and coffee. I need coffee! The gate is close, and a Starbucks nearby. Don stays at the gate and I go get tea/coffee/treats and get back to the gate with five minutes to spare before boarding. Phew!

Air Canada has recommended arriving two hours before boarding. And we needed every bit of it. There’s been no time for excitement.

By now I’m starting to cook, so take off my coat that I’m wearing for a Montreal winter. Also I’m wondering how I’ll ever get on board with a full cup of coffee, a camera bag, backpack, and coat, and then manoeuvre myself into my seat. It’s about now that the first announcement comes. Flight delayed by an hour. Soon after, another announcement. Flight delayed by a further half hour.

Now I have time to be excited but instead I’m just . . . . . calm. It’s all so familiar. I slow down, enjoy my coffee which tastes like heaven, and catch up with some online reading. All is well. I have everything I need. Nothing to be done.

We finally take off two hours delayed. I think we’re lucky. Of all the literally hundreds of flights we’ve done this is only the second delayed flight. The first was years back flying from Buenos Aires to El Calafate. El Calafate is in Patagonia so of course the weather is going to be an issue. We left about four hours late I think, but still got there on the same day.

It’s on the plane that I remember that although I don’t hate flying, it’s not really all that much fun. So here I am. I’ve watched a crappy but entertaining-enough movie, and now I’ll turn to my book, and some photo editing.

Travelling with a mask is definitely not much fun.

On arrival we’re stuck on the plane because they can’t get the boarding bridge attached to the plane. Seriously? And then when we do finally get off the plane it takes forever for our bags to arrive. We walk out of the airport into the biting cold. Within minutes my sister and niece are there to meet us and we’re off on the last leg of our journey. We’re 3.5 hours later than expected. But we make it! We get to Montreal for Christmas with the family!

I have such strong memories of Première Moisson, of walking in the piercing cold to their store on Monkland Avenue and slipping into the golden warmth of this bakery and cafe, ordering coffee and a pastry, finding a seat, wriggling out of my coat and inhaling the ambience along with aroma of coffee and baking. So of course it’s the first thing Don and I do.

On the first day we walk to Première Moisson only to find everything is different. Covid changes everything. The ambience had gone along with more than half their seating, the pastry is not as good as I remember, and the server has trouble with my coffee order. I am disappointed. You can’t go back. Well not this time anyway.

Outside, Monkland is as busy as ever, full of bright possibility.

At this latitude the sun sets early in December, and it’s not even winter solstice yet. By four it’s dark, but the blanket of snow and the lights give it all a seductive brilliance. It’s so pretty!

Even in the cold, and the wind-driven sleet-snow

the Christmas lights,

and the golden glow from mysterious windows give it a warmth and allure that makes it all okay. It’s good to be here. Having missed last year – covid changes everything – it is wonderful to be back.

Towards sunset on a clear day

we take our traditional In Montreal for Christmas selfie.

I have a family member who is imuno-compromised. When we arrive the Omicron variant of Covid is a ripple coming towards us. Within days it feels like a tsunami. There are no more visits to cafes, or even the grocery store. Groceries are ordered online and delivered. There is no travelling by bus or metro to go exploring, no visits to museums, or to Carols by Candlelight, there is no going anywhere indoors at all. We gather around without hesitation forming a bubble to keep the most vulnerable safe.

So instead we go play outside, frequently to the park across the road,

where we walk the perimeter to get warmed up, and where my great-niece, like any normal ten-year-old, plays on the playground equipment, and makes snow angels.

Her clothing is pretty much standard winter outdoor gear – the boots are attached to the padded coveralls. Sitting on the floor she pulls on this one-piece garment that covers her to the shoulders, then a jacket on over top. So simple. So effective. With good reason Canada is regarded as one of the best in the world in the manufacture of practical winter clothing.

She brings me a shard of ice and I prop it up in the snow on a picnic table and catch the low light through it.

The houses shine brightly in the afternoon sun – the bare trees, the low light, the crisp air, the snow; this inner-city winter landscape informs the psyche of almost all Canadians; it is the reality for half the year. When spring, and then summer comes there is a kind of exuberant release, but it is winter that is the true voice of Canada.

Of course we go to Mount Royal, Montreal’s namesake and urban playground. In winter the mountain has snowshoeing and cross-country ski trails, groomed slopes for snow-tubing and tobogganing,

and skating on Beaver Lake. Plus miles of walking trails.

It’s a fine Sunday. The whole city has come out to play.

We had trouble finding parking and when we realized that it would be at least a half hour in a line to pay for it we abandoned the car, crossed our fingers, and headed up the mountain.

This is us: My sister, her daughter, her granddaughter, and me and Don. And Yoda. Let’s not forget Yoda, the disarmingly cute Bichon Frise who rules us all.

Photo by Suzanne Armstrong

We don’t get a parking ticket.

In the south-west of Montreal is Lachine Canal, a 14 kilometre route running from the Old Port to Lake Saint-Louis. It’s a navigable waterway with a linear urban park along its banks. In 2009 Time Magazine named it as the third most beautiful urban cycling circuit in the world.

On a quiet winter weekday there is no cycling, there is only us,

Photo by Suzanne Armstrong

Photo by Suzanne Armstrong

and the squirrels,

some interesting sculptures (and some ugly ones)

and a quiet spare beauty.

On another day I set out alone, desperate for some fresh air and some real exercise. For an hour or more I gallop along urban streets to a hill that I know of, and climb and climb, never letting up the pace, filling my lungs, my body loving the rhythmic movement. I’m not good at being idle; exercise is medicine for me. At one point during our stay, after being lethargic and mildly headachy for a few days I thought I was coming down with it, meaning IT, no doubt fuelled by fear of coming down with it and spreading it within the bubble. It’s amazing what fear can do to your body. I’m so glad they had some home PCR tests. As soon as it came up negative my headache disappeared and I took myself out for a long walk.

Anyway back to my hill climb. I don’t really know where I am, or what’s ahead, but I keep going until I get to the top of the hill, to a dead end and a bit of a view over the city.

On the way home I find a fairy by the sidewalk,

and a radiant sunset peeking between the houses.

The whole exhilarating outing leaves me sweaty and energized.

Most visits to Montreal we are out and about – cafes, meals out, museums, a little shopping. But not this time. Covid changes everything. And yet how wonderful it all was. How nourishing just to be able to be there, to see them all again, to have Christmas with family. Covid didn’t change that! Not in 2021 anyway!

Next post: A Christmas that went on for weeks – the lights at VanDusen Garden, the “Christmas Before Christmas” with friends in Vancouver, and, after everyone came up with negative PCR tests, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with family in Montreal. All that coming up.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2022.