Cultureguru's Weblog

Of food, technology, movies, music, and travel—or whatever else strikes my fancy


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The Royal Tour, Part 1: Kingsville

“Where is Kingsville?” queried my sister, after realizing we’d arrived in Toronto from there, and not from Kingston, where we were headed next. (We’d dubbed this our Royal tour of Ontario—Kingsville, Kingston, and a stop in Toronto for a Queen concert.)

It was a fair questions, as Kingsville, population 21,000, is not exactly a tourist mecca. It doesn’t boast great museums or incredible natural wonders—only a rather charming downtown, a proximity to a number of Lake Erie wineries, and access to Point Pelee, Canada’s southernmost national park. A week there would likely be rather dull, but it’s a nice, relaxing place to spend a couple of days.

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We’d previously had some challenges with the hotels we’d stayed at in these parts, but we were quite happy with the Kingswood Inn this time. For $130 a night we had use of a living room, window dining, kitchen stocked with breakfast food, and upstairs bedroom and bathroom, all in a large, attractive historic home. The wifi was good and the TV even had a Chromecast, for ease of Netlix-ing. There was even a pool we could have used (but didn’t).

The Inn was also within easy walking distance of the lake and the downtown. We noticed that the area, being that much more south, had more and different fauna (like fireflies—so many in the evening) and flora than in our parts.

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Mind, we do have daylillies, but this photo does show the beauty of this little town on the lake

Our big activity was on Sunday, spending a morning and early afternoon in Point Pelee Park—free this year in honour of Canada’s 150th. It was a gorgeous day, and we hiked most every trail they had. All the trails on the short side, but combined it did add up to something like 12 km. Fauna-wise, we saw a mink carrying a fox snake in its mouth; a turtle; some small frogs; many kinds of birds (we don’t know birds; couldn’t identify most), including one spot where the babies were still in the nests; and what I assume were wild turkeys.

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Free as a bird—not destined to be Thanksgiving dinner

We also sat in on a park presentation on the fox snake, featuring a specimen that was born into captivity. It’s an endangered (because it looks and sounds like a rattler, though is harmless to humans), not every well-understood species of snake that they are studying in the park.

While out walking, we also saw some more exotic-looking flowers…

Park Flora

And a very interesting-looking swamp (no bugs here, by the way)…

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Discovered that cactus (!) grow in this part of Canada…

Cactii!

And also saw some signs of the previous inhabitants of this area, before it all became parkland.

Grave Stone

The southernmost point, past the 42nd parallel, is demarcated. Traffic is controlled into this area, to preserve it. Individual cars are not allowed; you have to walk in (as we did) or take a park shuttle. The waves are huge at the point. The Great Lakes always amaze me, as they look like an ocean, but it’s all fresh water.


Of course, we also visited a few wineries while in these parts. We had lunch at Cooper’s Hawk, but they were busy with a couple of tour groups, so we didn’t do any tasting beyond the glass we each had with lunch. Viewpoint Estates was also very busy, but we pushed ahead anyway, trying a number here. In the end, we were only really impressed with the Cabernet Franc 2008.

Viewpoint Winery

And with the view that gave the winery its name

North 42 [named after the parallel—which we realized only the next day, after visiting the park] was new one for us this time, and the one we were most impressed with. For one thing, despite a tour group arriving shortly after we did, we still got a lot of personal attention. (They had the group in a separate area.) For another, a lot of their wines were really nice. They made a sparkling out of Sauvignon Blanc, which is very unusual but very good. They had Cabernet Franc from 2013 and 2016, both of which we liked. And a well-balanced dry rosé made from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes.

The other new one we visited, largely due to its convenient location after our park visit (the other wineries, we visited Saturday) was Pelee Island winery. It’s a large operation, but not that busy when we were there. We focused on wines they don’t sell at LCBO, but weren’t bowled over by too many. We did get a Pinot Blanc and a Gerwurtz Reserve.

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Mettawas Station restaurant is housed in a former train station

For dining, Mettawas Station once again proved the best option in these parts (though the lunch at Cooper’s Hawk and the dinner we had at another Italian restaurant downtown were both decent—just not as good as Mettawas). We shared a lamb rib appetizer that had good texture and flavor, then I had a salad while Jean had zucchini soup, and my main was the local pickerel and perch while Jean went for the gnocchi.

Eyes NOT on the menu!

We also got into a conversation with another couple who were there for their anniversary (37 years, I think?). We told them that ours was also coming soon.


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Movie review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Yes, we were quite late to this one, but Canada Day weekend we finally took in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. We were both fans of the first one, and had heard generally positive reviews of the sequel, albeit with some debate as to which volume was better.

The first movie was a fun discovery. This one had to meet the expectations raised by that one. It tries to do so in a big hurry, with an amazing opening action sequence that is soon interspersed with a musical interlude featuring a dancing Baby Groot. Shameless, but I loved it anyway.

The whole movie continues along in similar fashion, with more action, more humour, more classic rock, more cute Baby Groot.

But its real strength are its full complement of flawed but lovable characters, who are dealing with various family issues in this one. Peter has a chance to reconnect with the father who abandoned him as a child. Gamora has taken her troublesome sister hostage. Rocket ponders on the consequences of his prickly approach to his teammates (other than Baby Groot). Drax mourns his lost wife and daughter while bonding with a new acquaintance, Mantis.

First one better? Sequel better? I don’t know. I just think the two would make a nice double bill.


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We need to talk about Omar

Omar Khadr, who spent 10 years at Guantanamo Bay after being captured by US soldiers as a 15 year old, has been in the Canadian news this week because the federal government has apologized to him and agreed to a payout of $10.5 million for violating his human rights.

Many Canadians, including a number of prominent Conservative politicians, are upset about this. It’s fine to debate the amount, the timing of, the manner in which the settlement was announced. But so many of the arguments seem to be based on an an emotional response that ignores or denies a number of inconvenient facts. Which is what upsets me.

For instance:

1. He is not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of throwing the grenade

See What if Omar Khadr isn’t guilty? in the National Observer for the full report (by a former prosecutor), but it points out a number of problems in the legal case, including:

  • Lack of any eye witness to the event
  • Inconsistent and inaccurate accounts by variou US military personnel about what happened immediately before and after the grenade was thrown
  • Photographic evidence that appears to exonerate Kadr

2. Whoever did throw that grenade wasn’t committing an act of terrorism

For details, see the “Is it a crime?” section of Unanswered questions in 8-year Omar Khadr saga, along with the Observer article previously referenced. But the point is, terrorism means attacking civilians going about their daily business. So, launching a grenade in a shopping mall or at a rock concert would most definitely be an act of terrorism.

But in this case, the grenade was thrown at an armed Special Forces soldier who was part of a team that had just spent four hours trying to kill everyone in the compound. (Note that I’m not accusing the US military of anything here, either: in attacking that compound, the US military was just doing their job, of rooting out al-Qaeda cells.)

But the response of survivors to that attack was just self-defense, wasn’t it? Or just… war? But, “murder in violation of the laws of war” is what Khadr was charged with. It is not part of the Geneva convention, but something that the George Bush administration brought in (and Obama upheld) after 9/11.

However, 1300 US service members have been killed in the war in Afghanistan. And Omar Khadr is the only person ever charged with “murder” for doing so. Suggesting considerable doubt, even by its drafters, about how valid a charge that is.

3. But killing a medic…

Could be a war crime, yes, but Speer wasn’t a medic. He was in training to become one. On that day, he was not acting as a medic, but as a combat soldier. (The media unfortunately often gets this one wrong, so no wonder many people think he was a medic.)

4. But Khadr confessed to the charge!

  1. Under torture, yes. Making the confession unreliable. We know that some of the other things Khadr told his interrogators, such as information about Maher Arar, were untrue. (Remember that the Central Park 5 also confessed, yet DNA evidence later proved that they were all innocent.)
  2. As part of a plea deal, fearing he’d face indefinite detention at Guantanamo otherwise. There was no trial. And Khadr is now appealing that conviction.

But at any rate… What Khadr did or didn’t do in Afghanistan is somewhat beside the point, because that’s not what the government compensated him for. It’s for what the Government of Canada did to him—or did not do for him—after he was captured.

Per Here’s what Canada is making amends for in the Omar Khadr case

Canada was complicit in the rights violations Omar Khadr experienced; most notoriously by allowing our intelligence officers to interview him knowing he had been softened up by his U.S. captors through their notorious “frequent flyer” sleep deprivation program, a particularly cruel form of mental and physical torture.

That was under the Chrétien Liberal government.

That was then exacerbated by the subsequent Harper Conservative’s government’s refusal to extradite him from Guantanamo. Canada was the only Western country to leave its citizen in place there for years, and the Conservative government fought his release to the bitter end.

And all worsened by the fact that Khadr was 15 was he arrested, after his conscription into al-Qaeda group by his father at age 11. (11!) Canada didn’t consider him old enough to drive, buy cigarettes, vote, get married, or join the army, yet somehow he’s not considered (still today) to have been a child soldier

The Supreme Court of Canada has therefore ruled that his rights were violated.

So, why the persistence in insisting he’s definitely guilty of terrorism and denying that his age at the time should be taken into account? Well, as might surmise from that whole “made him join al-Qaeda at 11” thing), his family really is terrible, as noted in this  great Colby Cosh column:

The intractable problem with Omar Khadr is simply his existence. The politicians who seem to crave (more of) his blood are, in an understandable way, trying to punish the behaviour of his father, and to retroactively abnegate the slack application of dual-citizenship principles that allowed Khadr Sr. to become Canadian while leading a double life as an international terrorist.

But the son is not the father.

In the interviews and documentaries I’ve seen of him, he seems like a remarkably decent man. (If you’re Canadian, or versed with VPNs, you can watch one yourself: http://www.cbc.ca/firsthand/episodes/omar-khadr-out-of-the-shadows). But that’s beside the point, too.

This is the point:


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A “smart” Dirty Dancing?

When I was describing weekend plans to go see the musical Strictly Ballroom in Toronto, a friend asked if it was like a smart Dirty Dancing.

Must say that I’ve never thought of Strictly Ballroom as such. Or spent much time comparing those two movies.

But it is true that they have the same basic plot line: Hunky male dance instructor teaches promising if slightly gawky young woman (from a different background) to dance, and they fall in love.

So how do they differ? I’m not so sure it’s on IQ points.

1. Point of view

Dirty Dancing is Baby’s story. It’s about her coming of age. It’s directed by a woman, and we see most everything from her perspective. Johnny is there to support her narrative.

Whereas Strictly Ballroom is about Scott. It’s about him breaking free of family expectations and becoming his own person. Fran helps on that journey. Yes, she does that blossoming thing, but that’s really just to make her attractive enough to become Scott’s love interest.

2. Setting

Dirty Dancing is a bit of nostalgia for a time that was and no longer is, when teenagers would happily go off with their parents to a summer vacation resort. Whereas Strictly Ballroom both salutes and mocks the world of ballroom dance competition, in which everyone is trying to preserve a form of dance that—let’s face it—is no longer current.

And as I write that, I’m thinking maybe that’s another similarity: That both movies are about the struggle to preserve a tradition against the forces of change. Hmm.

3. Style

Despite the romance at the centre of it and plenty of humourous moments, Dirty Dancing  is basically a drama, the story told in a “realistic” way. Whereas Strictly Ballroom is very much an over-the-top, exaggerated comedy, albeit with some touching moments.

Which is why Dirty Dancing opens itself up to criticism when some of the dialog is clunky or if a character seems more like a caricature. Strictly Ballroom is in-your-face with ridiculous dialog and absurd characters; that’s part of its charm.

And that also may be why, in my opinion, another difference between these two is that Strictly Ballroom made its transition to the stage much more effectively than Dirty Dancing did.


It’s been a while since I saw Dirty Dancing: The Musical, but I recall thinking that they shouldn’t have stuck so close to the movie. That this might have an opportunity to, for example, fix some of the sillier plot points.

Strictly Ballroom also stuck pretty close to the movie template. But in this case,  just the nature of the stage presentation improved the product.

A lot of it is ballroom dance competition, for example. In the movie, these scenes are largely funny and absurd. On stage, they still have that to a degree, but they also enchanting and beautiful. It just feels more “natural” to see that kind of dancing and those wild costumes on a theatre stage than a movie screen.

And then there’s what musicals do, which is allow the characters to give voice to their inner thoughts in song. And that really brought a lot of depth to the story, making many of the characters less cartoonish. They even bring in some of that Dirty Dancing nostalgia by including popular songs of the 1980s as part of the soundtrack. It really widens the range of emotion of the whole enterprise.

I love the movie Strictly Ballroom. But I think I loved the musical even more.


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Where to eat in Canada: The Berlin

The new Where to Eat in Canada is out, and The Berlin has made the cut for the first time, as a two-star restaurant. We happened to dine at The Berlin this weekend, and the reaction of the staff upon being told the restaurant was listed in the guide now, was basically:

We’re in the what now?

Which likely shows the diminishing influence of a publication that remains strictly print based (save this tiny website). There’s no app. Where To Eat recommendations aren’t included as part of Google searches. Heck, you can’t even get it as an ebook.

The author, Anne Hardy, literally still works on a typewriter, sending an occasional email to her contributors only with great reluctance (and some assistance from her editor).

So why would anyone under 30 know about it, even if working in the higher-end food industry?


Where to Eat in Canada is meant to be a kind of Michelin Guide for Canada—list only good restaurants, with ratings from no to 3 stars. Very hard to be a three-star restaurant—Cambridge’s Langdon Hall just made it back after a few years downgraded to two. But a difference with the Michelin (apart from them being quite web-enabled now) is that all reviews have the personal touch and style of Anne Hardy herself.

This makes it a fun look-over whenever the new edition arrives, and it can be handy when planning a visit to a particular Canadian city or town.

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Post-its for possible future travels

But it’s also always been organized a bit strangely, alphabetically by city name. There are maps, but only to indicate where each city / town is, not where the restaurants are in each locality (for how would that fit a in a physical book?). Each listing does include an address, but usually doesn’t say what part of town it’s in. I generally have to sit there book in one hand, Google Maps in the other, to figure out if a listing is anywhere near where my hotel is.

And as an intended traveler’s guide, it does lack some portability. Do you want to cart a 332-page paperback with you as you trek around town as a tourist? Or would you rather just check the TripAdvisor restaurant listings on your phone?


As for our Berlin dinner, they did quite a good job, despite it being a busy Saturday—A full restaurant plus a wedding party in the room upstairs—and having some key players away that day, including chef Jonathan Gushue.

Although the fixed four-course menu was pretty tempting, we went with assembling our own four-course dinner. Jean had the oysters in grapefruit dressing, I the roasted asparagus with lemon and pecorino. I had a really good gruner veltliner with that, Jean a very interesting sparkling.

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As an appetizer Jean went with a terrine of foie gras and pork while I had a tomato salad with fennel, avocado, and prawns.

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Then we both had the goose confit with a broccoli salad and white bean ragout.

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And we shared the strawberries and vanilla ice cream with fennel meringue, which was very interesting).

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The only hiccup in the service was a longer-than-ideal delay in getting our second glass of wine, a Tuscany rose for me, an intriguing muscat blend for Jean. Possibly because of that—or because I mentioned I’m a “food blogger”?—we were credited for some items on our bill.


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Summer vacation, abbreviated

We had planned to take a week’s vacation the first week of June, but Jean’s work obligations necessitated changing those plans on relatively short notice. Fortunately, we hadn’t made any grand travel plans—it was just going to be a driving trip to parts of Ontario and Québec. But we had to scale it back.

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We started with a weekend in Timmins, where Jean went off on fishing trip with his brothers. He expected, I think, that it would be a fairly leisurely couple of days. Instead, it was early mornings and late nights of fishing, cleaning, filleting, and vacuum packing. “I was not prepared for that!” he confessed on his return.

But, now we do have some very nice Northern Ontario pickerel.

I, on the other hand, really did have a leisurely time. I flew up and stayed with my Dad, visited with a Timmins friend, had a dinner with my brother’s family (hosted by Dad), watched some Netflix…

We traveled back on Monday and Jean had to work the rest of the week. I decided to take Thursday off to go see Guys and Dolls in Stratford. I picked it mainly because it was the matinee that day—I didn’t know anything about it, really. But it proved a good choice. Deservedly well-reviewed, it was a fun musical with beautiful costumes and some absolutely stunning dance sequences. The songs were great, and included two that I knew: “If I Were a Bell” and “Luck Be a Lady Tonight”.

30-second look at Guys and Dolls

I had taken the train to Stratford (thereby learning you can take a train to Stratford) on what was an absolutely gorgeous day, and after the play Jean drove in to join me for dinner. We went to Bar Fifty-One, which is a new part of the Prune restaurant, a Stratford institution we’d never eaten at. I stuck with the bar menu, and was quite happy with my grilled asparagus with Parmesan appetizer and seafood pie entree. Jean tried the restaurant menu and was very impressed with the chicken liver mousse appetizer, but somewhat less so with his smoked Muscovy duck breast main.

For the following weekend, we’d had an Ottawa hotel booked, so we decided to keep that and book some flights to get there and back. I flew up earlier, with plans to tour Parliament and meet some friends for dinner. Neither of those plans quite worked out. The tours were sold out for the day, and I messed up my communication with my friends so they had the wrong Friday in their calendar. Still, it was a nice day there, and the meal at Play Food and Wines was delicious.

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Incredible gnocchi with edamame, shiitake, sunflower seeds, and truffle oil

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Pastry with chocolate cream filling and dulce de leche. Yum.

And Jean did arrive at the expected time. We took a walk, and enjoyed our funky, European-style Alt hotel.

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Ottawa has a lot of interesting street art

I did get my Parliamentary tour the next day, and it was pretty interesting. (It’s also the last year you can do so before the place closes for renovation for 10 years!) We saw the House of Commons, the Parliamentary Library, the Senate…

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Statue of the Queen who selected Ottawa as Canada’s capital, inside Parliament’s Centre Block

Ottawa was in full prep mode for Canada 150 celebrations on July 1, meaning a lot of construction and sections of museums down for renovation. We visited the Museum of Canadian History, where they had a pretty interesting exhibit on hockey—even for people not deeply into hockey—and another small one on the Canadian immigration experience. But the main gallery was inaccessible, so it did make the whole visit seem a bit “slight”.

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A rather cool statue in the Museum of Canadian History

We thought we had reservations at Whalesbone that evening, but they have this annoying phone-only system, and our two calls to them weren’t sufficient to hold it. We would have had to have make a third. We were still able to dine at the bar, and I have to say that the food was just delicious: Really fresh seafood with lovely, tasty sauces and sides. But not sure we’ll be back, given the difficulty of making a reservation (not as if they ever answer the phone…).

Sunday we went to the Market, where they had an Ignite 150 exhibit area highlighting different parts of Canada. Buskers were also on deck that day. That was fun. I also purchased a couple tops from one of the market vendors. And we went back to Play for a late lunch. It was really good again!

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Fig and prociutto appetizer on the right, cheese selection on the left

Then we did some more walking, shopping, and (mainly Jean) photography-ing on this warm but beautiful day. And our joint flight back to Toronto and even the drive back to Waterloo all went very well.

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Performances tinged with nostalgia

About ten years ago around this time of year, I was scrambling to get myself to get myself to Centre in the Square. Jean was away—canoeing, I assume—and I’d made a last-minute decision to get tickets to the introductory concert of the KW Symphony’s new conductor, Edwin Outwater.

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It was busier than I expected—symphony concerts just hadn’t been very well-attended that year—so I had to park further away than expected and made it to my seat just moments before the show started. Which was all very awkward, because my seat was front row centre.

So my first look at the young, handsome conductor from California was a close-up one. He was very personable in talking to the audience. I believe they played Beethoven’s Fifth, and he dared us to be rebels and applaud between movements if we felt like it.

We originally didn’t have tickets to the final performance of Edwin Outwater as KW Symphony principal conductor last weekend, but it seems apropos that we did attend in the end. The symphony was not in a good place, artistically or financially, when he took over. It’s been great to watch the crowds grow over the past 10 years in response to his efforts to present classical music in innovative ways that still respect the tradition.

But if we hadn’t jumped on tickets for the final show immediately, it’s because it was definitely Outwater-ian: Not just a set of classical music’s greatest hits, but something that would challenge the ears.

We made it to (most of) the concert prelude that explained what we were about to hear, which is always helpful. The first piece was a very short number composed for (and about) Edwin Outwater by Richard Reed Parry of Arcade Fire. That was followed by a longer choral piece by John Adams called Harmonium, featuring two full choirs singing music inspired by poetry.

It was very strange-sounding. At intermission, one Jean’s friends we ran into commented that some of the harmonies hurt her eyes. But from the prelude, we had some appreciation of how hard it was to sing. And I just found it riveting to listen to (though I wouldn’t buy the CD).

We were kind of worried about retaining focus through a 53-minute Mahler Symphony in the second half, but we needn’t have. Mahler writes beautiful and lively music. We agreed with the prelude commentary that the third movement was the most interesting, a mournful one built around the melody of … “Frère Jacques”, and interrupted by other bursts of whimsical sound that undercut the tragedy with comedy. Then the fourth movement is full of grandiosity.

There was rather a resounding ovation at the end.


As a teenager, I was really taken with the story of Terry Fox, the young man who tried to run across the country on one leg to raise money for cancer research, only to be stopped when the cancer returned. I followed the story on the news. I kept a scrapbook . I read books about him. I saw The Terry Fox Movie.

So when I heard they wrote a musical based on his life, I wanted to go. I missed the initial run in Waterloo, but we managed to get to the shorter one in Cambridge.

It was quite well done. Admittedly, the songs aren’t the sort you’re going to be humming for days—this is no Hamilton or West Side Story. But the story is just so compelling, and they found an effective way to fit it into a two-hour stage narrative. I don’t feel that any other medium, really, as well gave the sense of just what it meant to do so much running daily under the physical challenges he faced.