How Quarantining in a Montreal Basement Taught Me What I Care About in a House
Welcome to You Lived Where?—a series about compromise, creativity, and the places people have called home.
I’ve always loathed basements. For me, the subterranean spaces conjure up images of dark, damp, and generally creepy places, no matter how extensively they’ve been renovated. So when my then partner and I spent two months living in a basement suite in Montreal earlier in the pandemic, the decision wasn’t entirely voluntary; it was mostly based on desperation.
In the last months of 2020, my partner—who is Canadian and had been living in Vancouver for the year and change prior to be closer to me in Seattle—decided to move back home to Montreal after months of ongoing border closures that made our geographic proximity irrelevant. Soon after, the Canadian government announced travel exemptions for extended family members and binational, cross-border couples like us, unmarried without proof of a shared address to qualify for common-law status. We agreed that he’d move first and complete my exemption paperwork, after which I would hopefully follow. However, in order for our grand plan to work, we needed a place to call home, both to carry out the mandatory 14-day quarantine and use as a semi-permanent Canadian address for the paperwork that would facilitate my entry.
My partner jumped on Kijiji, Canada’s answer to buy, sell, or trade websites like eBay or Craigslist, to look for a short-term rental. He assured me that, even if we found a less-than-ideal living situation, we could just relocate after both of us arrived safely and completed quarantine. Our choices were limited given the tight timeline, but he found what he called a "promising" basement suite on the residential South Shore where he’d grown up, just across the river from the Island of Montreal. I took a quick scan of the listing and analyzed the photos and video the landlord sent. The unit looked fine, if dark and cramped—characteristics I’ve always loathed about basements. My partner, however, was adamant this place was our best bet, so, despite my reservations, I trusted his decision, as many of us had to do with loved ones in 2020.
My huge mistake became obvious about a week into our quarantine. At that point in the pandemic, we, like so many others, had begun to feel increasingly claustrophobic about our shrinking lives and the bleak global outlook. Spending day after day in our confined underground unit with low ceilings, lack of natural light, and limited space to move around only increased this feeling.
I began to regret not fully appreciating places I’d lived before. I really missed the small backyard of my Seattle guesthouse, where I used to sit with my morning coffee.
I stared with envy through the ground-level window in our bedroom at the house across the street, where the light gloriously streamed in every afternoon. I imagined how wonderful it would be to have the sun illuminate our bedroom every morning, or even to catch glimpses of sherbet-colored skies through our window before sundown. I was grateful to have a living room (however limited) that was separate from the bedroom, something we’d never had before. But because the unit came furnished, we inherited a bizarre assortment of pieces that never really quite fit the space. My partner rearranged the couch, table, TV, and chairs on what seemed like a weekly basis. We eventually found a better setup, but no layout ever felt fully functional.
It wasn’t long before one of my biggest basement fears—mold—became an actual reality. As one of his DIY quarantine distractions, my partner decided to brew homemade beer with wheat and barley. After soaking the grains, he placed them to dry near every window in the apartment (one in the bedroom and two in the living area), further blocking what little daylight did enter the dark, subterranean unit. His project quickly molded over; it smelled even worse than I would’ve imagined. There we were, living in a basement, with the remnants of an attempted hobby inescapable, bringing to life one of the biggest concerns I’d had before moving into the unit. Luckily, taking out the trash and opening the windows for a few days (despite the frigid Montreal winter temperatures) seemed to eliminate the odor, but the memory lingered.
The laundry situation also quickly grated my nerves, and triple-downed on that underground-lair feeling. We were lucky to have access to a washer/dryer, but the latter was rather old and harsh on our clothes. With no private outdoor space at our disposal, the only other place to hang-dry our delicates (including our much-needed wool winter clothing) was in the shower, which meant we had to move still-wet laundry to elsewhere in the unit anytime we needed to bathe. This added to the overall moisture in the basement, which meant it took forever for our clothes to dry and created a vicious cycle of dampness in an already cold, wet location.
I began to regret not fully appreciating places I’d lived before. I really missed the small backyard of my Seattle guesthouse, where I used to sit with my morning coffee on nice days, occasionally with my laptop to work. The one park within walking distance of our Montreal rental became our home away from home for the two months we lived there—once we were allowed to emerge from quarantine. In the way that previously small things became big during this time, I distinctly remember our first day of freedom. It was what I would learn was a typical winter bluebird day in Quebec. There were a few feet of snow (that I’d later find out would stick around for months) and the temperature was colder than anything I’d experienced, but the sun shined brilliantly and I felt pure relief to have daylight on my face for the first time in weeks.
As obvious as it might seem now, I now know that any home I’ll comfortably live in needs a lot of natural light and outdoor space, no matter how small—things that I always valued, but never truly appreciated until renting that Montreal basement suite. The brief time in that unit made me cherish the small terrace and shared backyard in the aboveground apartment where we excitedly moved after—and the lack of molded beer as well.
Top illustration by Andrea Bojkovska.
More from this series:
In My First Apartment as a Single Mother, I Found a Community of Women Parenting Alone