Every night, after Mark is tucked into bed, I take a walk in the neighbourhood. This tradition started when he was a baby and when it was Feng’s turn to parents because I needed to physically step out for a bit, drained from my futile attempts to put a drowsy but awake Mark to sleep. Now, this walk is a much-needed transition buffer between the “mommy hours” that revolve around Mark (daycare pickup, dinner, lunch box, playtime, bath) and the third and last part of my day, where I finally wind down and work on my own projects.
Hot or cold, windy or still, rain or snow, I dress for the weather and I head out in the dark. Without my bag, I feel lighter and I walk fast, lost in my thoughts—I look back at the day, mentally draft emails, and make a note to do this or that.
Our quiet neighbourhood, a residential area, is dead at night. There is very little traffic in the side streets, almost no one on the sidewalks. Once in a blue moon, a car slows down and a lost driver asks me for directions—I’m often useless because the streets are a maze of crescents and dead ends, and my advice is usually to “drive back to the main street and take it from here.”
Ottawa is a morning city and 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. is “nighttime,” not “evening”—the day is very much over for most residents. Canadians eat dinner when they come back from work, around 6 p.m. Then it’s TV time—or so I gather because in many homes, if the curtains are open, I can see bright lights flickering on the walls. I’m not a voyeur but I like catching these slices of private life spent at home. It makes me feel part of a community, of the world. We are all in this together, tired at the end of the day, wrapping up chores and relaxing.
I often cross the Tim Hortons parking lot, right in front of the Experimental Farm. This is the only business in the residential block and it’s a busy store. The cars queuing at the 24/7 drive-through mostly come from Merivale Road or Baseline Avenue, while foot traffic comes from the less affluent neighbourhood past Caldwell, a street with a very bad reputation in Ottawa (the top Google results associate it with several stabbing incidents). These few blocks North of our newer neighbourhood are a mix of older single houses, two large apartment buildings and flophouses. Both communities coexist just fine, though, this is Canada.
The Tim Hortons and its large parking lot is a gathering point. While the employee turnover rate seems high in the donut world, there is a large group of regular customers for whom I’m pretty sure the “no loitering” sign was invented—and promptly ignored. Among the regulars are several taxi drivers, a couple of cops and a group of… shall we say, “characters.” Picture a cross between Metallica roadies, Woodstock fans and Lynyrd Skynyrd band members, fifty-something dressed in biker clothing, with cowboy hats, facial hair and a “just got out of jail, remember where my drug dealer lives?” look. During summertime, they hang out in the parking lot, listening to music and barbecuing sausages. In the winter, they buy a cup of coffee and settle inside the Tim Hortons.
Like I said, characters.
Most nights, when I walk by the Tim Hortons, I’m eating a snack because I’m hungry and I eat dinner much later, at the end of the night. And most days, I opt for the perfect portable snack I can peel with my gloves on—a banana.
A few times, walking by the parking lot, I heard the group calling me and making jokes. I’ve always ignored them because, at the time of the day, I’m not quick and witty—I’m tired, cranky and I’m zoning out.
But one day, hearing the umpteenth dirty joke, I stopped and turned around.
“Dude,” I said calmly. “You wanna talk dirty? I’m French. I know every single woman-eating-a-banana innuendo you can make. We invented double-entendre.”
Against all expectations, the group burst out laughing. A friendly laugh.
We exchanged a few jokes.
The day after, we exchanged names.
Then we started commenting on the weather, Canadian for “harmless small talk.”
Turned out that despite their attitude and their bravado, they are very decent guys. They seem to care for each other and I saw them helping out other people too. Tonight, they were busy giving a stranger a hand to change a flat tire.
I never chatted for more than a minute with them but now, I offer a friendly smile and they smile back.
They never forgot my name or the fact I’m French.
And now, every night, when I walk by the Tim Hortons parking lot, I’m greeted by a loud and friendly and accented “bonsoir, Juliette.”
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