Cultureguru's Weblog

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


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The incredible shrinking vacation

Jean hadn’t had any time off since October, and the last week of April was appearing to be the first opportunity to take some. Clearly we weren’t going to be traveling to any distant shores, but this long enough ago that we at first thought we might be able to visit some family. When doing that started to seem unwise (even despite our vaccination status), it still looked as though we could take ourselves somewhere in Ontario.

And then, given increased restrictions amidst rising case counts, we thought maybe just staying over at a local inn (that has great food, to be served in our rooms) for 2 or 3 nights could be possible.

And then, there was the stay-at-homes order amidst still-rising cases, and the inn moved to offering takeout only, and we thought, well… Time off work would still be nice. We can do day trips to hike. We can get some interesting takeout.

And then…

But I’ll get to that.

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Covid conundrums

I had started this post a while back, on the difference between the people who will do everything the COVID rules you say you can do (dine indoors, drink at bars, get a tattoo, hang out at the mall, attend a large indoor wedding), and those who mostly try to follow the guidelines—which are to avoid gathering with people from outside your household, and to stay home as much as possible.

And that the guideline people can get kind of irritated with the rule-following people.

Shannon Proudfoot tweets about people in restaurants
From journalist @sproudfoot

And then I was getting into the fact that it didn’t help that the rules themselves were so illogical:

  • Outdoor weddings are capped at 100 participants, while more dangerous indoor ones can have over 200 (being based on a percentage of total capacity).
  • Movie theatres cannot project movies to any number of masked, distanced patrons, but can serve alcohol at their venues to unmasked patrons, up to 50% capacity.
  • Theatre companies cannot film plays at their venues, under any protocols, but can rent out those venues to companies to film movies or TV shows.

Not to mention the fact that different parts of Ontario kept shifting into different “color code” areas, and that the meaning of those color codes kept changing, so who could keep track anymore anyway?

And that while I feel that I’m mostly in the guideline camp, it is weird to find myself with the rule people on one issue: wearing masks outside. Because I generally don’t do this. I do if I’m standing in line, having a longer talk with someone outside my household, and on more crowded streets. But otherwise, no. I do try keep moving and always give other people space. I figure, outdoors, that should be enough to keep us safe.

But this annoys some guideline people, as to wit: Even when you’re outside you should still be masked, which I’ll quote part of:

It was a very busy weekend for walkers in downtown Waterloo this past weekend and most walkers had no masks. Perhaps there should be more enforcement by bylaw officers.

Carolyne Wagner, Kitchener

The first thing I want to say to this person? 

“There’s no rule that you have to wear a mask outside!”


But since then, my attempt at light-heartedness seems a bit off, because things are really terrible now and about to get worse. And now the rule muddle has simplified, somewhat, in that all of Ontario is moving to “gray color code” for at least four weeks.

A lot experts think… These latest measures just aren’t going to work. For the worst parts of Ontario, Toronto and Peel, nothing much changes—they’ve basically been in this state of closure since October or so. How changing nothing going to make case numbers go down instead of continually up? Are those areas going to benefit that much from people not being able to go to other parts of Ontario for lunch or a haircut?

While the Christmas lockdown was effective, this one isn’t as restrictive (notably, schools aren’t moving back to remote, despite evidence of a lot of spread there), and that one wasn’t maintained nearly long enough. So we’re starting this one at a worse state than we did that one. So too little, and starting too late.

It’s all… super depressing. I will not get into extensive political critique myself, but I do encourage you to read Bruce Arthur’s summary (a 5-minute read):

Remember the choices Doug Ford made when ICU doctors are making theirs

(And just say, next time: Vote different! Well unless you voted NDP, Liberal, or Green. Then maybe vote the same.)

The only thing that makes me feel any better these days is reading about vaccination. Yes, it’s been too slow, it’s clunky, it’s uneven, there have been mistakes, but nevertheless, it’s the only thing going semi-well, and where the numbers actually improve daily.

Chart from John Michael McGrath, TVO—this is one case where rising numbers is good!

Chart of vaccination rates, Ontario
And since there’s been so much fretting about Canada’s relative performance, Jean pointed me to this chart, from Information is beautiful:
% of population vaccinated, Canada in 8th spot

14% (and rising) with at least one dose isn’t going to get us out of the current crisis, but at least it puts us on the path.


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Food delivery and takeout services, unmasked

Though the provincial medical advisory panel advised against it (literally predicting that will be a “disaster”), most of Ontario has been allowed to reopen to some extent, including Waterloo region. As we near a year of this “hiding in our basement” thing, and vaccines are finally rolling out in higher numbers, it would just be annoying to get infected now. So I’m trying to stay cautious. I’m finding the lure of haircut harder to resist with each day of increasingly shaggy hair. But I’m good with sticking with takeout over indoor dining (now allowed, with up to 10 patrons).

This Friday’s takeout target was Public Kitchen & Bar, where they do a very nice pot de foie and delicious fruit crepes, among other things. A difference in reopening is that we waited just inside their doors for our order to be assembled, instead of for them to deliver it to our car. They have an open view of the kitchen, and peering in to that, I couldn’t help but notice that none of the four or five cooks in there were wearing a mask.

And that seemed… odd. But I’ll get back to that later.


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Coping with 2021

Feeling that I should blog about something, although it’s difficult with so much going on in the world, and so little going on in my life. I could certainly give my opinion of events, but science says that there’s actually no mental health benefit in ranting about an issue that is frustrating you, but that you have no control over. 

So guess I’ll try writing about the little things in my world that do make me feel better, at least for a while.

Writing about stuff I can’t do right now

Travelling to Europe. Attending concerts in person. Going to the movies, in theatres.

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Christmas 2020

This year, like most other people, we weren’t able to do what we normally do at Christmas time. A chance to develop our new traditions, perhaps? Except… Will we really want to nostalgically recall anything from 2020?

So hey, best to focus on the now, and on the “what you can do” vs. what you can’t. In 2021 and subsequent, we’ll see if anything sticks.

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Fancy takeout

At the red level that Waterloo region is currently categorized as, indoor dining is still allowed, but with each table restricted to four people and the entire restaurant to ten. Those places that choose to stay open under these restrictions are generally offering takeout as well.

Loloan Lobby Bar has a really interesting approach to this, in offering 3-course dinner boxes of mostly prepared items that you heat up and assemble yourself at home. They have a new combination each day. We tried it earlier this month.

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The cats’ perspectives on 2020

For most humans, 2020 just hasn’t been the best-est ever. But for the pets of the new work-from-home cohort, I think it’s been a happy time. Cats might be more independent than dogs, but I believe they still enjoy having more opportunities to make demands of their humans.

March 2020, and no stress for these guys at all
Whereas I had to adjust to my new office-mates being a bit on the lazy side

Doesn’t necessarily mean that everything‘s coming up roses for them, however.

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Winners and losers: What a week!

I did not expend a lot of mental energy worrying about the US election, but not because I felt confident that the Joe Biden and the Democrats would easily win it. It’s simply because, after therapy, I have gotten better about not spending a lot of time worrying about things I have no control over. And as a Canadian, it’s really no control. I couldn’t vote, couldn’t donate, couldn’t campaign. Just watch it happen.

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Not an open and shut case

Both Ontario and Toronto hit record numbers of COVID-19 cases this week, yet Doug Ford, it seems, wants the shuttered restaurants, bars, gyms, and cinemas to reopen. Is that really wise?

Nobody much cares what I think about it, but I can’t help thinking about it anyway. So now I’m inflicting my thoughts on you.

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Second wave sojourn

Whereas our last vacation took place in the comfort of declining case numbers and the ease of doing activities outdoors, this time, case numbers were steadily increasing, and it was Fall. The need to use vacation days remained, however, and the idea of just staying home for a week wasn’t that appealing. Road trips remained the only feasible option, but to where?

At one point we were to head north for a wedding, but that all changed when the private gathering rules changed to a drastically reduced number, such that we were no longer invited.

We instead settled on Ottawa, followed by the Kingston area. Ottawa had became something of provincial hotspot for cases (Code red: Ottawa reaches highest level on pandemic scale), but we stuck with it anyway, using the following chart as a guide to what activities to do (hike, stay at a hotel, visit museums), and not (meet with friends, go into a bar).

Source: https://informationisbeautiful.net/visualizations/covid-19-coronavirus-infographic-datapack/#activities

Activities

We started in Ottawa on a Sunday evening and were there through Thursday morning, figuring it would be less crowded earlier in the week. Sunday we arrived late afternoon, and just did a little walking around town in the drizzle… But it was still kind of lovely. (And largely felt as though we had the streets to ourselves.)

Jean commented that the leaves were so brightly coloured, they looked fake in the photos. This is not Photoshop! They were that red!
Pretty Ottawa in the Fall, even on a cloudy night

Monday we made our way to Gatineau Park. I had done a little research on it, and picked out a hiking trail to attempt first. But we kept getting frustrated in our attempts to get there by road closures.

It took a while and a fair amount of driving to realize that some main arteries in the park were closed to cars to encourage “active transportation” (and perhaps to reduce to crowding? Though the arteries were opened part of the day on weekends, so… I dunno. Nor why said closures weren’t emphasized more on their website.)

Anyway… We did eventually come upon another trail that we could park at and walk on. A little challenging, but nothing we couldn’t handle, and it really nice! The colours were just magnificent this year. The only notable covid change on it was that everyone was encouraged to walk in the same direction on the loop. We didn’t run into too many others on it.

On the Luskville Falls trail in Gatineau Park
The titular falls
Views while on the trail
And more views

Tuesday we did a long walk in Ottawa proper, along the river, that was also quite enjoyable. And we visited the Market area in the afternoon, picking up some cheese and a few other edibles.

While quite nice in the morning, Tuesday clouded over later on

Wednesday was rainy, so we made it a museum day. We had been hoping to visit the National Gallery, but it was closed Wednesdays—open only Thursday to Sunday. All museums required advance booking of tickets to limit crowds, so after some debate, we decided on the War Museum in the morning at 10:30 (as we hadn’t been there in a decade), then the Nature Museum at 2:45 pm, when tickets were free (but still required pre-booking).

When time came to go the War Museum, we decided to walk. We figured that with rain jackets, hats, and an umbrella, we’d be OK.

We were wrong.

What had been a light sprinkling in the morning turned into a downpour, with wind. And the War Museum was not that close to our hotel. Our upper bodies stayed dry, but the pants—not so much. And that resulted in leaking into the boots as well. Yuch.

But it’s a big enough place (and not that crowded) that we managed to stay long enough to mostly dry off. Most notable addition from last time: The Holocaust memorial, outside, which reminded me of the one in Berlin.

After lunch, we went back to the hotel to change, then had to scurry to the Nature Museum. Here they had created a guided path through the museum exhibits to reduce the amount of contact. That worked quite well. The museum closed at 4:00 (the reason the 2:45 tickets were free), so we had to hurry our way through a bit. But Jean still got some pictures.

Knowledge (street sculpture)

Our destination upon leaving Ottawa Thursday was Prince Edward County. We visited Wapoos Winery first (as we often do when visiting the County) for lunch and a wine tasting, which they did outside, under a tarp. We got a nice overview of all five wines we would be tasting, then we had to take the glasses to a nearby table to actually do the trying.

They seemed to have fewer wines this year than in the past (possibly due to the times), but we really liked the grapefruit-y Gensenheim and their appassimento Cabernet Franc. We’d also quite enjoyed the Gamay Noir we’d had with lunch, but the only one in the store was a $47 reserve version which didn’t seem like it would be the same one we’d had (as it wasn’t that expensive) and if so, we didn’t like $47 much, so we just bought bottles of the other two.

Next stop was at Del Gatto, which Jean thought we had been to once before, but I didn’t. Regardless, it was a good stop. They did their tastings inside, at a good distance from the only other couple also visiting. We left with some Riesling, a sparkling, a Frontenac Noir, and a wine called Quattro that was blend of Baco, Chambourcin, and Foch (not sure why it’s called Quattro when it’s three grapes, but whatever).

Finally we got ourselves to Black Prince Winery, who did tastings outside. They had both wines and vinegar on offer, and it was a fun experience going through the options—on vinegar in particular, he was good about steering us toward the more promising options. But also with wines—he was right that we enjoyed the oaked Chardonnay, which used local rather than French oak. We bought a couple bottles of that, along with some Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc reserve.

On the vinegar front, we went with peach, maple balsamic, and a red wine vinegar called Holy Jumpin’.

Friday was nice, so we did more hiking, this time at the Landon Bay section of Thousand Island park, near Gananoque. We quite enjoyed our morning here on a sunny day, adding on loops and repeating parts to get a longer walk in.

A rather magnificent tree we spotted on our journey

Saturday was somewhat rainy in afternoon (after a nice morning), so instead of going to Wolfe Island, we just took a drive on the Thousand Island parkway. And did a bit of walking around Kingston on our return.

Restaurants

We had noted that both takeout food and outdoor dining were on the low risk spectrum, whereas dine-in was at the further edge of the medium risk. So, we thought, best avoided. (Dining in has since been prohibited in Ottawa, but we were visiting before that happened. Just before.)

Of course, patio dining was trickier in October than it had been in August. There was not only rain to worry about, but cold. Trying to figure out which places had not only covered, but ideally heated, patio space wasn’t always easy. But we did spot some just from walking around. And the Ottawa Citizen did have one helpful article: The future of outdoor dining: Ottawa restaurants brace for the cold.

Breakfast was sometimes so big we didn’t need lunch. Then for dinner, we more or less alternated between patio and takeout—including from some pretty fine places (that probably didn’t used to offer takeout at all…).

Restaurant roll call

The first dinner was takeout from Whalesbone, a restaurant we had given up dining in long before covid, simply because their reservation system was too convoluted to deal with (and they were too popular to get in without one). It was lovely to be eat their food again—so good! And it went well with the white wine we had brought from home. (When picking up, we were a little shocked how loudly they were playing music in the restaurant, though. Didn’t seem wise.)

Cooper’s Gastro Pub, attached to the Embassy Hotel we were staying at, had a heated patio, so that’s where we had our first two breakfasts. Our sense of safety was enhanced by having the whole patio to ourselves. The meals were good but large; we opted for takeout from nearby cafes for the next two breakfasts. We especially enjoyed The Ministry of Coffee.

The first dinner out was at Rivera on Sparks Street, which we tried mainly because we had seen that they had a big enclosed patio (in a tent), with heaters. It was very cozy, and while not a cheap place, it was very good! Burrata with tomatoes, ricotta gnudi, lamb cavatelli…

We were next planning to get takeout from Beckta, an old favourite that had only indoor dining, until we realized we’d have to pick the food up mid-day and later cook it ourselves at the hotel, which didn’t seem very vacation-y. So instead we got food from their sister restaurant, Play (who had closed their patio at the end of September). Their “small plates” were all quite tasty, even after the relatively long walk back to the hotel with them. And the Exultet winery Pinot Noir rose we had brought from home was flexible enough to match the variety of dishes.

On that rainy Wednesday, though, our finally honed plans for safer dining got foiled. Leaving the War Museum, it started to pour again. We were still far from both our hotel and any restaurants with fully covered patios. And we’d had a smaller breakfast and didn’t particularly want to skip lunch.

So… We did have one indoor meal, at the Mill St. Pub. It wasn’t very full, and the tables were definitely distanced. But to play it safer, we kept our masks (KN95’s) on most of the time. (Mask off, take a drink, mask on.) And we ordered only one course, which we were able to eat fairly quickly, and which limited overall time spent there. It was quite decent pub food—they had matching beer recommendations for each dish (I had a curry).

Dinner that night was at Back to Brooklyn, because the Ottawa Citizen had focused on how much they had invested in weather-proofing their patio, and their menu looked decent. The patio was gi-normous, covered in sheeting, and had heaters. I’m not sure how much air was actually moving through it (though it did have a big opening), but we weren’t worried, as we were the only ones dining in it on this cool and drizzly night.

Back to Brooklyn’s elaborate and large patio, that we had all to ourselves

We were actually pretty impressed with the quality of the food, and would consider this place again (if they survive), even though, for whatever reason (this wasn’t a tapas place) they brought our appetizers and entrees at almost the same time. And had almost no dessert menu.

Our first meal after leaving Ottawa was at Wapoos Winery, who were fine with serving us on their patio, even though everyone else was eating inside. Menu was smaller than previous times, but still good.

In Kingston we dined twice at Jean’s favourite, Tango Nuevo, which had taken over much the sidewalk for two large, covered patio areas (which were quite popular). We were a little under-dressed for it the first time and got a bit chilled, but we knew better the second. They were still offering quite a large menu, and we had a completely different set of tapas dishes each time. All excellent.

We got ourselves to Riva, in Gananoque, for lunch on the Friday. It was brisk on the patio, but we managed, and the food was excellent as usual.

Scallops a la Riva

And we also frequented Kingston’s famous Chez Piggy. The first time we got their terrific charcuterie board as dinner takeout. We had enough left for breakfast the next day. Then Saturday, which was pretty nice in the morning, we sat on their patio for brunch.

Fancy takeout from Chez Piggy

Hotel life

We were pleased with both hotels we stayed at: Embassy Hotel Suites in Ottawa, and the Four Points Marriott in Kingston. In both cases we got suites, which gave us the extra space of a kitchen and living room area for the extra time we spent there eating takeout and watching TV.

The Ottawa hotel really wasn’t busy, so we never had trouble getting the elevator to ourselves for our trips to and from the seventh floor. The Kingston hotel got a bit busier as the weekend approached, but still no real elevator issues. (We were again on the seventh floor. Guess that’s where the suites are.) The TV at the Marriott had Netflix, YouTube, and Prime integrated with the cable (as I have at home), which I enjoyed. At Embassy Suites, we used an HDMI cable connected to a Chromebook to watch Netflix on the TV.

Book, TV, movie

The audiobook for the drive was a recent release by Nick Hornsby, Just Like You. It tells the story of the budding romance between the recently divorced Lucy and the younger Joseph, who also happens to be Black. The narration alternates between the point of view of each character. Though on the surface they have little in common—separated by age, class, race, and education—somehow, it works. But not without some bumps along the way.

It was quite an enjoyable read, very funny at times. The sections discussing the pending Brexit vote made me a bit anxious, knowing how that turned out… But well illustrated the ridiculous-ness of asking the populace to vote on such a complex issue.

At one point Lucy and Joseph muse about going to see the movie Florence Foster Jenkins, starring Meryl Streep. They don’t quite make it, but it did inspire me to watch that one night. It’s hardly a must-see, but it’s an enjoyable film, quite good-natured.

We (along with much of the world at that time, it seemed) tore our way through Emily in Paris that week.

Sure, it traffics pretty heavily in French stereotypes, but it was still lovely to see glimpses of Paris. Jean thought Emily was cute, and I enjoyed her wardrobe. And appreciated her crush on Gabriel—though Camille deserves better from both of them. It was like candy—not great as a steady diet, but fine in the small doses (10 half-hour episodes) available.

As counterpart, we did try watching Ozark, but that was seeming just too dark. So, we switched to The Crown. Less dark than Ozark, less candy than Emily, and Jean, to his amazement, is quite enjoying it.