As Alberta and most of Canada continue to navigate a third wave of COVID-19 under restrictions, the proliferation of vaccines has allowed life in some countries to begin creeping toward normalcy.
Across the Atlantic Ocean, for example, the pubs are open again in England, which was once devastated by the pandemic.
And south of the border, New York City was once a global COVID-19 epicentre — but as of last Wednesday, masks are no longer mandatory for people who've received both doses of the vaccine.
But how normal does going "back to normal" feel?
Two former Calgarians now living abroad told the Calgary Eyeopener this week about the loosening restrictions in the U.S. and the U.K., and both described the process as wonderful — and strange.
"It does feel weird," said Ophira Eisenberg, who does stand-up comedy and hosts NPR's Ask Me Another in New York City.
"After this year, taking off your mask and being inside, it does take a moment where you look around and go, 'Is this OK?' because you've been so hardwired in the other direction."
'People are out, and they're celebrating'
Over 30,000 people have died of COVID-19 in New York City since March 2020, and the city that never sleeps was quieted for months by one of the strictest lockdowns in the U.S.
"We didn't have a lot of relief over the last year," Eisenberg said.
"There was a short time where things seemed to be opening up a little bit, and then it was really just shut down again. And that was in the early winter, so it's been a long time."
Now, according to Eisenberg — who has been vaccinated since April, along with most people she knows — New York is experiencing what she called a full-blown summer.
She is back to performing stand-up comedy with Plexiglass in place, while most businesses have had limits removed on capacity, and indoor seating has returned to bars and restaurants at 75 per cent capacity.
Fully vaccinated adults can sit next to each other at events and forego wearing a mask — but Eisenberg said that after all the city has been through, many have continued wearing one anyway.
"A lot of people here, after surviving this last year, are still wearing their mask," she said.
"But venues are open, restaurants will seat you inside … people are out, and they are celebrating."
A shift that Eisenberg feels more personally is the absence of anxiety. Instead, she expressed hopefulness.
"It feels like maybe we're on the other side — it does feel like life is starting again."
Exciting but surreal
Meanwhile in the U.K., cinemas, theatres, concert halls and museums are allowed to reopen with safety regulations in place.
People can attend indoor and outdoor events like live sports games, performances and conferences, though attendance is limited based on the venue.
The U.K. has delivered one of the world's fastest inoculation campaigns, which helped to reduce infection rates and deaths.
"It's been a mixture of exciting but surreal, all at the same time," said Elisicia Moore, a one-time Calgarian who now runs a charity called Petite Miracles in London.
It's a stark departure from last winter, when the country clocked nearly 70,000 new cases of COVID-19 in a single day, and imposed strict lockdowns to curb the spread.
Plans to lift all restrictions by June could be delayed by the emergence of the B1617 variant — but for now its pubs have reopened, though Moore said the atmosphere has been changed by the COVID regulations that are still in place.
"It's much more civilized, it's much quieter. There's table service, which there never was before — you don't have to jostle or jockey at the bar."
Moore has also noticed a broader cultural shift that she hopes will linger after the pandemic has ended.
"I think most people would agree that perhaps London isn't a 'friendly' city like most Canadian cities," Moore said.
"[But] people are much more open to talking with strangers and sharing their stories, so that's been really nice. I've really enjoyed that. I hope that stays."