The last thing Orit Shimoni planned on doing when she arrived in Winnipeg last March was to put down roots.
The travelling musician had been on the road for 11 years — "I have no fixed address and I don’t drive," she says — and had been invited for a couple of house concerts. Winnipeg seemed an ideal stopping-off point from her regular gig of performing aboard Via Rail’s cross-Canada service when she scheduled it.
Little did the 42-year-old know that the itinerant lifestyle she had grown to enjoy would come to a screeching halt in a city she knew little about.
"When the train arrives, there’s an hour-long break, so I’ve seen The Forks 50 times. I’ve did that cross-Canada train 50 times and I never got past The Forks," Shimoni says. "I was excited to meet the community because it’s got a great reputation for being a music-loving city."
The COVID-19 pandemic began shortly after she arrived in Winnipeg. The fear factor for her musical adventure had been cranked to 11.
"Usually I come for a few days and move on to another show. I was really quite flummoxed and very devastated that my shows I had been booking for a year were getting cancelled," Shimoni remembers.
"It was really overwhelming. None of this was, ‘Whee, fun!’ It was, ‘Holy s---! What the hell is going on?’ I was just devastated and terrified. Every aspect of my life disappeared."
The world has spent a year getting used to pandemic routines, from wearing masks, washing hands and staying home. But how does somebody stay at home when their home is on the road?
Shimoni found Facebook friends in Winnipeg can also be real friends, and let her stay in a spare room for the first couple of weeks. She was grateful, but knew it wasn’t a long-term solution.
"I was really worried because I’d been staying in people’s homes and who’s going to want me?" she says. "If everyone is afraid of this virus and I’m arriving from a flight, I don’t want to put anybody at risk and arrive at their home as a guest, and nor do I have any sense of how long will I need a place to stay.
"I’ve been on the road for 11 years. It wasn’t like I had a home or a family to hang out with."
Five things Orit Shimoni likes about Winnipeg
1. Genuinely friendly seeming people everywhere I go
2. A lot of blue sky
3. A whole bunch of talented musicians call this place home
4. Diversity of people everywhere you go
5. Skating on the river
So Winnipeg has become Shimoni’s new family and she eventually found her own place that was initially an Airbnb that she could afford while receiving money from the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit to pay for rent.
"A huge part of the road for me was a sense of newness all the time, and adventures and new encounters and new shops to look at and stuff like that," she says. "So I figured if I wanted to hang onto anything familiar the best thing I should do is hang onto my love of the unfamiliar."
It had been more than a decade since Shimoni had her own place. She grew up in Calgary and Jerusalem and has lived in Montreal and Berlin for a few years each. She was a teacher prior to grabbing her guitar and hitting the rails.
So how has Shimoni adjusted to her new home base in Winnipeg? After the initial shock that her lifestyle and career had abruptly changed — "There was a lot of sitting around and crying and stressing" — she’s getting used to finding surprises in even the most banal household chores.
"I had to fill up the salt shaker a month ago because I had run out. I haven’t filled up a salt shaker in over 10 years," she says with a chuckle. "I used to do these things before I moved on the road, but here we are."
Time spent in isolation gave Shimoni a chance to write some new songs, and an opportunity to record them emerged in a chance encounter outside the Park Theatre on June 25 with Glenn Radley, the drummer for the local band Apollo Suns.
It’s a moment that is so Winnipeg.
"He came around the corner and recognized me — our paths had crossed on some tour a couple of years ago — and he came right up to me and asked ‘Are you Orit Shimoni?’ and I thought, ‘Who the hell knows me here?’"
Radley says he could relate to the pandemic predicament Shimoni was in. He was on tour in the United States with the Apollo Suns last March and understood the uncertainty and fear the pandemic created in the world and among musicians.
"It’s a friendship built on the mourning of the loss of touring," he says.
Radley’s friend Bryn Herperger had set up a recording session, and Shimoni was invited. The singer-songwriter was able to put down some of her "blues-country-jazz-folk songs" for a future album, her 10th. She’s also streamed a couple of the songs on her Facebook page.
Like everyone else, the pandemic will determine Shimoni’s next step.
"I’m trying to look at it as a sabbatical or maybe a two-year sabbatical where I can catch up on stuff that I wasn’t able to do on the road," she says. "I already know from 10 years on the road, if anything, it’s made me very well-equipped because I’m so used to rolling with the punches and kind of having faith that things will be OK. It’s not dire."
She’s been grateful for the generosity Winnipeggers have shown her in the last year, and cherishes her Winnipeg Winter Achievement Badge a new friend gave her after one year in the city.
"I was really impressed with how they handle the winter and outdoor beauty, and skating areas. I did skate a fair bit," Shimoni says.
"The irony was I know this is a great music city but I couldn’t get together and hang out with people. You might have a great bar scene or restaurant scene but I wouldn’t know it."
Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.