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


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Garbage election day

Monday, October 22 was the municipal election day in Ontario. Much as I rely on electronic calendars like anyone else, I still like to rock it old-school with the paper calendar,  on which I note items such when garbage day (that is, the biweekly date on which the region picks up trash along with the recycling and compost they pick up weekly) and municipal elections occur. Those fell on the same day this year, so the calendar read: Garbage Election day.

Only it wasn’t.

Nor was the historic US midterm election that took place on November 6. It wasn’t immediately apparent how historic it was, because the counting and recounting, it turns out, goes on long past that date—it just finished last week or so. And the Democrats got the largest margin of victory in history, thanks in large part to that election having had the largest turnout for a non-Presidential election in a century.

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Way to go, Americans.

Our municipal elections, of course, were far less consequential, and featured the usual poor voter turnout: 34% for the City of Waterloo (though 48% in the uptown Waterloo ward, so kudos to them). I don’t see this ever changing much unless we bring political parties into municipal politics, allowing people to forget about the individuals running and just focus on party platforms. Which I don’t want, as the partisanship would be a terrible side effect that we get enough of at every other level of government.

Municipalities try to increase voter turnout. This year, several cities and townships in Waterloo Region—not including the City of Waterloo—offered electronic voting from home. Though this greatly increased the days on which you could vote, a lot of people left it til election day. And then the system crashed under the load. Forcing extensions to the voting time, in some cases by an extra day.

Hence we didn’t get all the results—including who the new Regional Chair would be—until a full day later. Whereas cities who used the old paper ballots had results counted in a few hours.

Also, it didn’t really increase voter turnout.

Apart from the potential computer snafus, the most compelling argument against electronic voting is that some dominant person in the household could do the voting for everyone else. I’m sure that would be a very small problem, but there’s no way to eliminate it. Whereas when you have to go vote in person, everybody gets a chance to mark their own x’s in private.

Obviously, compared to the US wait, one day longer wasn’t a big deal, but it was odd and I was curious about the results. If you are going to vote in these local elections semi-responsibly, you do have to do a fair amount of reading and research. And at least in these parts, there’s no polling to give you any idea who might win!

There were some pleasing and somewhat surprising results.

In the absence of parties, incumbents always have a big advantage, with many getting re-elected for years. But in Cambridge, long-time mayor Doug Craig lost out to Kathryn McGarry (who had her own name recognition due to having recently been the city’s MPP). To me, Doug Craig’s political philosophy could be summed up as Cambridge First, characterized as an unwillingness to compromise and a large propensity to complain. I was happy that the people of Cambridge were also getting tired of that approach. (And now Craig is planning to run for the federal Conservatives.)

And Michael Harris, who had been unfairly (in my opinion) cast out of provincial politics by Doug Ford shenanigans, won a seat on regional council. He always seemed one of the brighter lights in the Progressive Conservative party, so I was glad to see him get another chance to serve (in a less partisan environment).

In general (and as in the US), a lot more women got elected. The new regional chair is Karen Redman; Kitchener City Council and two of the townships achieved gender parity. On both Waterloo and Kitchener City Councils, women candidates managed to defeat incumbents.

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She defeated these three guys

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She defeated this guy (the incumbent)

On the other hand, the two women I voted for (there are two seats) as Waterloo regional councilors both lost to men. But, at least the two men in question weren’t unqualified, boorish, populists, so one can take some comfort in that.

In my city ward, the incumbent chose not to run again. One candidate captured the support of most of my immediate neighbours by expressing dismay about the planned residential high-rise building nearby. I considered joining that bandwagon, but ultimately voted for Royce Bodaly, who seemed to have a really good grasp of the local issues and a real online presence, and who made an effort to visit every household in the ward during the campaign. I must have talked to him for 20 minutes myself! He ended up winning the seat… By a margin of 11 votes. (And yet, there was no recount.)

By the way, I am not critiquing how long the US results take—or that they have recounts. Those are elections on a much bigger scale, of course, and conducted very differently (in ways I won’t pretend to understand). Giving people various ways to vote and taking the time to count all the votes is good, even though that means you can’t trust the narrative on voting day. It’s not a blue wave! Unless, wait for it, wait for it, yes it is…

One of the challenges raised in the US midterms (in Maine) was over the use of ranked ballots, as the leader after the first round of ranked ballot voting lost his lead in the second. (The results were upheld.) Ranked ballots were also tried in one Ontario city this year: London. They had to do something like 14 rounds of counting, but in the end, the same person who was in the lead after the first round became mayor. People said that demonstrated that ranked ballots are pointless, but I’m not so sure. There were a lot of people running (hence the number of rounds of counting), and at least the winner now knows he’s not a polarizing figure, and that the majority who voted are basically OK with him being their mayor.

I think it might be worth trying elsewhere. (Cambridge and Kingston voted to do so in the next election, though the results aren’t binding in Cambridge.) When you do this local election research, you do generally end up with not only your #1 choice, but an idea of the other people you think would also be OK, and those you really don’t want elected under any circumstances. So marking your ballot accordingly wouldn’t really be so much more work.

Finally, municipally there was a period after the election where the previous council continued to sit and govern, til the new crew were oriented and took over about a month. There was no drama or scandal surrounding this that I know of—except perhaps Cambridge council voting themselves a raise without accepting the offsetting reduction in benefits. But they did that for selfish reasons that they wanted their cake and eat it too (many were re-elected), and not to hamstrung the newbies.

The US has a longer “lame duck” period during which some states, like Wisconsin, well:

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Details: https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/entry/in-stunning-power-grab-wisconsin-republicans-pass-bill-weakening-new-governor_us_5c06e268e4b0680a7ec9a289

Democracy, man. It’s fragile. But worth fighting for.


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Everybody Dance Now

Jean had so much business travel this fall that it was pointless to sign up for ballroom dance classes—we would have missed too many. I decided to scan the city recreational guide for alternatives.

Have fun and work up a sweat with songs from the 80s, 90s, and 00s. Start with a warm up to get footloose and ready to bust a move, and enjoy a new routine each week. Styles of dance include hip hop, jazz funk, and chair dance. Beginners are always welcome. Let’s dance!

Sounded intriguing.

Week 1

After the warm-up, we were to get in touch with our inner Britney… Spears, that is, circa “Oops I Did It Again.” With each round of running through the choreograhy, we were instructed to try to up the sass level. “This move is straight from the video,” noted instructor Julie, at one point.

Huh, I thought, I don’t think I’ve ever seen this video. Still, I felt pleased that I didn’t get hopelessly lost. And I realized that the idea of the class was that each week we’d learn video-inspired steps to a not-so-current song.

Some weeks later, I finally watched this

Week 2

Missed class because I was in Portugal.

Week 3

Slightly jet-lagged on the first day back from Portugal. The song was “That’s What I Like About You.”. The choreography was very lively and quite aerobic but, fortunately, not overly complex. I realize that while I know this song, of course, I have no idea who sings it or even what era it’s from, quite.

Turns out it’s The Romantics, in the 1980s, and they don’t really dance in this video…

But coming up is Halloween, and we have a decision to make. Which song should we do on Halloween week versus the week before: Michael Jackson “Thriller” or Backstreet Boys? I vote for “Thriller”, having no idea Backstreet Boys even had a Halloween song.

Week 4

Week before Halloween, and we warm up to “The Time Warp”. I feel like I know this choreography already, but she throws in some twists to keep me on my toes.

Then it’s Backstreet Boys Halloween song (?). Which turns out to be that one Backstreet Boys song I do know, “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)”? Whose lyrics don’t seem very Halloween-y to me. “Who’s never seen this video?” Julie asks, and I’m the only one who raises my hand. (So, apparently, I’m the oldest in the class, but at least I’m keeping up with the whipper-snappers.) (Also, in ballroom class, I’m usually one of the youngest.)

The choreography’s fun, with the bunny hands and what-not, though I have to ignore all the “This is the part that everybody knows!” comments.

Basically, it’s the video that’s Halloween-y, not the song

Week 5

Day after Halloween, and it’s Thriller-time! (After another round of “Time Warp” warm-up.)

This is the first time I’m actually familiar with the video in question. Julie’s had to simplify it somewhat so that we get through more than a stanza. (But it’s a long song, so we still only get up to the first round of the chorus, basically.) Crotch-grabbing is a key feature. Yay to this class not being videotaped.

Instead of maximum sass, we’re aiming for maximum zombie decay.

Week 6

Been a stressful day, but it’s good to go be distracted by having to focus on learning dance steps. This week’s is “Hips Don’t Lie” by Shakira. I’ve seen the video before, but I finally got the sense to re-watch it before the class. Major hip isolations required. First time something here might be useful for ballroom dance (at least the Latin dances).

Next week, we’re doing Usher “Yeah.” Oh great, I think, a song I don’t even know.

Week 7

I look up Usher “Yeah” ahead of time, and I totally do know that song, I just didn’t know that it was by Usher or that it was called “Yeah.” (Details.)

It’s the first hip hop, and that’s a bit of a mind-bender for a middle-aged white lady like me. I’m so focused on trying to remember all the fiddly steps (we’re learning the men’s steps, since the girls are mainly just twerking) my timing is all off. It finally occurs to me that it might work better to follow the beat of the music! Hey! Secrets of dance success!

At Jean’s company Christmas party, I keep threatening to break out my hip-hop moves. Fortunately for Jean (and probably me), they never do play “Yeah”.

Week 8 and 9

Have not happened yet, but I know they will feature “Jump for my Love” by the Pointer Sisters (know that song, not that video; must look up video) and “Bootylicious” by Destiny’s Child (ditto, except I don’t know that song as well).

In the winter, we might be able to sign up for ballroom dance again. Which is good, but I think I will miss working out to some crazy video-inspired choreography each week.


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Bohemian Rhapsody: The movie, the critics

220px-bohemian_rhapsody_posterWhat I wanted to do, really, was see Bohemian Rhapsody, the new Freddie Mercury biopic, on its first day out, so that I could make up my own mind about it without the critiques or praises of others clogging my brain. However, a combination of it being released in Europe a week before North America (theoretically, I could have flown to London for the premiere, but that seemed a bit much) and a lack of willpower on my part meant that I did read some early reviews.

Which were not exactly sterling, let’s put it that way (Bohemian Rhapsody review – Queen biopic will not rock you).

But I at least managed to keep my UK reading to a minimum and get to the North American preview performance.

My friends, I loved the movie.

Now, my husband’s said that it was Queen, so of course I’d like it. So I would just like to point out that I do not, in fact, like every Queen-adjacent product. I have this Queen Symphonic Tribute CD that I can’t stand, because the musical arrangements are crap. I’ve slogged through horribly written Queen bios. I did not enjoy the combination of Brian May, Roger Taylor, and Paul Rodgers performing Queen songs.

But this movie? It felt that it was made for me. I enjoyed seeing how they compressed events and use allusions to cover a decade and a half of Freddie’s life in 2 hours 15 minutes. I reveled in all the little in-jokes and references that only real Queen fans would catch: Jim Beach mucking with the sound board at Live Aid. Adam Lambert playing a trucker who catches Freddie’s eye. And I was totally captivated by Rami Malek’s performance as Freddie, which at times nearly brought me to tears.

All the music performance scenes are outstanding. And that whole final scene at Live Aid. Man. That’s every bit as good as you hope it will be. (And I love Live Aid almost as much as I love Queen.)

Being somewhat masochistic, and having seen it now, I can’t help reading the North American reviews. Now, some of them were positive (like the Toronto Star‘s), even if grudgingly (my favourite of these being the Washington Post’s: Bohemian Rhapsody is bad. Go see it anyway). But more were negative, some scathing (Globe and Mail: 1 star! New York Times: Mud on your face! Big disgrace! [that’s at least a clever diss.]). All adding up to a mere 55% (now 60%) positive critical rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

But a 92% (now 95%) positive audience score.

The most common complaint from the critics is that the movie is not that creative or edgy. And I’m going to grant that this is true. It’s pretty conventionally told, with a script that can’t seem to help but have its characters spell out its themes, however awkward the resulting dialog (The band is family. Freddie invents himself. Queen are a band of misfits.), rather than develop them through more natural interactions.

It’s just that I didn’t care. Cliches are cliches for a reason; they can be quite satisfying! The movie entertained me. But I guess when your job is to see all the movies, you need more from them to give them a good review. Fair enough.

But some other critiques? Deserve their own critique.

1. That the depiction of Freddie Mercury was disrespectful and inaccurate

The Globe and Mail review has that complaint, as does this Uproxx one. Interesting to me that these critics are so confident they know the essence of who Freddie Mercury was better than the people who actually knew and loved him, and who contributed to the film.

Yes, the movie depicts Freddie as, at one point, living a drug- and sex-fueled lifestyle while the rest of the band are settled with their wives and children. And this is a simplification—Roger’s marriages were rather turbulent, Brian fell in love with an actress he ultimately left his wife for, John used to drink vodka on stage, which doesn’t seem a good sign. But it’s a fact that the band was worried about Freddie’s behavior at this time, and that it did cause tension between them.

Overall, Malek plays Freddie as an essentially decent human being, one who struggled with loneliness, and who had a confidence in his talent that led to moments of arrogance. I’m OK with that depiction, and it squares with some of the stories I’ve read about him. I don’t get why it’s making some people so angry.

2. The movie skipped / condensed / reordered / simplified / added event x, y, or z

That it surely did, since otherwise the movie would have to be literally 15 years long. And admittedly, I had the advantage of knowing what was left out or added in, and just filling that in or correcting it mentally. And especially interesting are the bits they just assumed everyone knew and therefore didn’t bother depicting, like how enormously successful “Bohemian Rhapsody” (the song) was.

But OK, you can argue they didn’t make the best choices in how they selected or simplified events.

One common complaint was that it made Queen’s rise to fame look quick and easy, when in fact it was more of a struggle. That could have been interesting to show. But it probably wouldn’t have been as fun. Did you really want to see Freddie just hanging around with Smile for months, making suggestions, until Tim Staffell finally left? Or that one cute scene of him auditioning for Brian and Roger in the parking lot? Would it really be that interesting to watch the entire process of building a song like “We Will Rock You”? Versus just seeing it just go “whoosh” from studio stomping to stadium singalong?

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Then there are the things missing entirely: “How about his childhood in Zanzibar?” “What about all the drama with their first manager?” I could add my own: “What about Brian May contracting hepatitis and kiboshing their first US tour?” “What about Barbara Valentine, the other woman Freddie had a love affair with, in Munich? Wouldn’t that have added an interesting complication in this story?”

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The first cut of this movie was about 3 hours—maybe some of that is in there. If they ever release an extended version on DVD, that would be great. But I don’t think a theatre rock bio should be that long. And I’m not sure what I would drop from this version to add some of those other bits—though I would have scripted Freddie’s party scene differently. The band-mate fight they invented for the movie made them all look like asses; I think the other three getting alarmed at Freddie’s behavior and discussing that amongst themselves would have worked better. But some songs being out of order, the invented breakup… I can accept for the sake of drama.

Certainly the most controversial change was Freddie telling the band about his AIDS diagnosis shortly before the Live Aid concert. But in reality, that happened two years later. Some said that was unnecessarily manipulative.

But I don’t think it would have felt right if they had omitted AIDS from the movie entirely, to keep it in their selected time span. And, it’s an amazing scene in the film.

3. The movie isn’t gay enough

Likely fueled by Sasha Baron Cohen’s comments when he was dropped as the lead, has been the concern that Freddie would be “straight-washed”. Literally, before they even started filming, I read a whole ranty blog post rant by someone who was positive that would be the case. And then when the first trailer came out, and it showed Freddie with Mary Austin but not so much with dudes, same complaints.

But the movie very clearly (though not explicitly) covers the fact that Freddie had sex with men. Lots of men. And if it risks showing his being gay as a tragedy in his life (though that wasn’t, in fact, the easiest time to be gay), it certainly mitigates that by including the start of his loving relationship with Jim Hutton.

I’m too heterosexual to comment on whether the esthetic of this film is gay enough, but nobody’s going to come out of it thinking that Freddie was straight.

Conclusion

Freddie Mercury was a fascinating man. You could approach his life story from a lot of angles. I hope there are other movies, in the future, that have a different take, that focus on different parts of his life.

But for a first go, I’m satisfied. You might be, too.


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Hey, ho and away we go! Donkey riding in the Douro

The original choice for our Fall vacation was the Exodus trip Walking the Prosecco Hills, but when we went to book it, they had only one spot left. So we switched to Portugal: Walking and Wine. This was classed as a Premium trip, meaning 4- and 5-star hotels, and was rated a walking level 1, suggesting easier walking than our previous level 2 Exodus trips. We were a bit concerned that October in the Douro region could be somewhat rainy, but we figured we’d just prepare for that possibility and hope for the best.

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The area we’d be visiting

Day 1: The Canadian invasion

A definite plus for this trip was the direct flights from Toronto to Porto, even though the choices were two budget airlines: Air Transat or Air Canada Rouge. We went with Rouge, as it had a better itinerary.

Though it was (Canadian) Thanksgiving weekend, things went really smoothly at Pearson: Baggage drop, check-in, boarding… We even had time (before boarding) for an unusually good airport meal at Lee’s (as in Chef Susur Lee). The flight itself took off on time and actually arrived early. Rouge does have older planes without back-of-seat screens (there’s an app you can use to watch movies on your tablet), but at least we were in a row of just two seats, on the side, which was nice.

We had a bit of wait until our Exodus transport would show up (timed for the British flight scheduled for a couple hours later), so we had some lunch and picked up a local SIM card: $30 for 5 GB of data, baby! Great service at the Vodaphone booth, as well.

The British flight ended up delayed by an extra hour, but by then the Exodus people were there anyway and agreed to drive us and one other person who’d already arrived to the hotel at the original time. We faced a long, slow lineup to check in at the hotel, but once we got to our room, we found that it was fine.

The group meeting was at 5:00. We met our two guides, Ricardo and Luis, and the rest of the group. We’d been expecting mostly Brits, as on previous tours, but of the other 14, only three were British (one of them currently residing in California, which left her with wicked jet lag). There was an Australian couple. And everybody else was Canadian! 11 strong. Other than the Brits and us, everyone else had been doing other touring around Portugal before joining the walking trip. (We did have an extra two days tacked onto the end.)

No organized dinner this evening, so we walked Porto’s twisty streets and found a small (literally, the width of an aisle) tapas restaurant to eat in. We tried a few different dishes that were all good, especially the goat cheese melt, and each had a glass of white vino verde. Jean also had a bit of port with dessert.

Church in Porto (photos by Jean, unless otherwise noted)

Day 2: Walking in the valley

In the morning after breakfast (breakfast was included with the hotel each day, all of them offering a very nice buffet), we left our hotel for the Meso Frio region, a couple of hours’ drive away. Our first stop was a coffee shop, and then we embarked upon one of the more strenuous hikes of the trip, in terms of elevation change. (In length it was 7 km.) It was still easier than many on the other Exodus trips we’d been on, but a vigorous start to this trip. The day was gorgeous.

The scenery wasn’t super spectacular on this one, but we saw a lot of agriculture products growing (walnuts, kale, lemons, grapes…), and some sheep.

We had a bag lunch on the trail, then after the hike (which was a definite challenge for some in the group), we were driven to our new hotel. It was in a vineyard, and was very fine.

Not exactly roughing it in Portugal

Dinner was at the hotel. The food was palatable but not outstanding. It was becoming clear this would be a fun group, though.

Day 3: Going to market to learn about port

This day’s walk was only about 4 km, and all on winery grounds. It was another beautiful day, and we got some great views of the just astonishing terraces of the Douro region. They are just everywhere, and so elaborate!

Terraces in the background

And terraces in the foreground (photo by Helen)

Mid-point through the hike, Ricardo said that those who wanted could go off on an extra little jog to see something special. Many on the trip thought he was saying that it was a market we were going to—though that was a bit confusing, as it was in kind of an isolated, rural place that required some climbing: How were people going to get their wares up there?

Then we arrived a rectangular rock. What Ricardo had been actually saying, in his Portuguese accent, was that we were going to see a marker. Basically, a stone signpost demarcating the official Douro wine region. The placement of these–there are some 300 in total–were an important phase in the development of this wine industry. But a lot of the group was in giggles at their thought that we were going to market.

Ricardo and the marker of the Douru region (photo by Helen)

Our lunch at the end of the hike was at a winery called Quinta do Tedo. It was a buffet with cheese, quiche, cod cakes, chutney, and of course, wine.

We then got a tour and a bit of a primer on the port-making process. At this particular, relatively small, winery, they still used foot crushing for the port-destined grapes. (At least, I don’t think he was kidding about that—our guide here definitely was a kidder.) Though it should be noted that they use the same grapes for port as they do for red wine—just process them differently. Tawny port is aged in much smaller barrels than ruby, imparting more of the wood taste into the drink. Vintage ports are made only in exceptional years. They keep aging in the bottle, but must be drunk pretty quickly once opened. The non-vintage do not age after bottling, but once opened, can be kept for up to year without deterioration.

We then tasted the port: A rose (a type I’d never had before), a tawny, and a ruby. All of them were good and smooth, but the rose was the sweetest, and the tawny was my favorite overall.

Our next stop was the Douro museum, dedicated to the history of wine-making in the region. We got an interesting guided tour of it. Wine-making in the past was extremely labour-intensive!

Back at our hotel, we found a bunch of MG’s in the parking lot. Sadly, they weren’t for us. An MG hobby group were holding a meeting here.

Just a few of the MGs in the parking lot

For dinner that night, we drove into the nearby (15 minutes) town. Big group dinners are always a challenge, but this restaurant managed it pretty well. Ricardo warned us that the entrees were quite large and best shared. Jean was insistent on having veal stew, while I tend not to eat veal, so I shared a salmon dinner with one of the singles on the trip. It was prepared very nicely, and served with good potatoes and cabbage/carrot mix. Jean did a masterful job on his generous serving of veal stew.

Day 4: Vertigo on a rail line, and death at a funeral

We were moving on again, but a full day of activities before arriving at the new hotel. Today’s hike was the longest of the trip, at 10 km, but was mostly flat: a former rail line. The day was once again gorgeous.

Turns out we needn’t have worried about October weather in Portugal

There wasn’t too much drama on this trail, except that to save time, we were encouraged to cross a bridge with openings looking down on a fairly big drop. There was a railing and all, so I thought it would be OK, but once I got on it, the vertigo set in and the heart started racing. I couldn’t get across it fast enough, so every time the group stopped (probably just twice) was kind of torturous. But we all survived it without any obvious panic attacks. (One group member, Carolyn, did so by taking an alternate route down and around the bridge instead, with the second guide.)

The scary bridge (photo by Helen)

After the walk, we were driven to Casa de Mateus, a beautiful property belonging to a member of Portugal’s royal family. Its association with the Mateus bubbly rose wine from Portugal is tenuous: that winery just got permission to use the image of the estate in its branding.

We got a tour of the chapel and the lovely rooms full of art, including the very impressive library, then had some time to wander on our own through the beautiful gardens.

One of the more stunning pieces in the Mateus collection

The goal here was to make a mini Versaille

Our next stop was at the waterfalls in Alvao Natural Park, but they really aren’t that impressive this time of year. Not much water falling.

A more interesting view than the waterfall

Dinner that night was at our new hotel, which was also lovely, and, it turned out, served some of the best food we had on the trip (goat cheese on croute, sea bass or lamb main, creme brulee… All very well prepared). Making it easier to forgive the sometimes choppy service. One thing we learned on this trip was that vinho verde comes in red and rose as well as white. We shared a bottle of the red with the Australian couple. It’s definitely unusual—tastes kind of like a fresh white, but with extra tannin—but when else are you going to be able to drink it? [Red green wine: very Canadian!]

The group was in great spirits, and one point everyone within proximity was in hysterical laughter over Cheryl’s descriptions of scenes from the movie Death at a Funeral—even though most of us had never seen it. It was just contagious laughter. That only accelerated when her acting out of one scene had her backing into another table. Fortunately, the couple sitting there were good sports about it. (I guess I need to watch Death at Funeral now. It is on Netflix. I was warned to watch the British version, not the American.)

Day 5: Winery, oui oui oui! Octopus, non non non!

Today’s walk was through another winery, Quinta das Escomoeiras, which offered longer and more challenging terrain than our previous winery walk. And it was lovely weather again.

We then got a tour by the winery owner, who purchased the vineyard 24 years ago, after a career as an economist. It required a lot of rehabilitation before becoming a going concern. He explained where the name vinho verdo (green wine) came from. In the early years, they planted the grape vines too close together, and therefore didn’t produce a very good quality product. It was low alcohol and actually had a bit of a green tinge. They improved the process and the product later on, but the name stuck.

As vinho verde is a food wine, instead of a tasting it on its own, we had the opportunity to try the white, rose, and red with a delicious buffet lunch. It was a leisurely meal on the patio, with a distinct feeling amongst the group that we could just stay here all day.

Roughing it in the bush

Our favourite wine was the rose, which I considered purchasing, given that I don’t know that we can get anything but white vinho verde back home? (A Google search says that yes, I can.) But ultimately I decided against carting a bottle of wine around for the rest of the trip, and instead bought a small bottle of dried stevia. (Fernando also grew a number of herbs on his property.)

We were eventually convinced to get back into the vans for a ride back to the hotel, with a little stop at a grocery store on the way. We agreed to go into town for dinner this evening. It was a small, family-run restaurant (not a big town, so not sure what else they’d have there), with a somewhat limited menu, but fine for us (and not so much for those who aren’t into fish, seafood, or pork). Jean, I, and Cheryl, sitting next to us all decided to try one of the specialties: octopus in olive oil. It arrived in the form of a large tentacle on the plate (with veggies on the side).

Helen, sitting opposite us, could hardly stand it. She was totally turned off by the look of this food, and was facing three plates of it! (It was actually quite tasty and tender.) Unfortunate, but kind of funny, from our perspective.

I believe that it’s about this point in the trip that we started doing singalongs in the van. (Wine might have played a role in all this.) One song that kept making everyone laugh was “Donkey Riding” (which I think of as a Great Big Sea tune, but it’s actually an old sea shanty). Apparently some people in Alberta used to sing that song in school. “It’s so stupid!” said Cheryl. “Was you ever in Quebec, riding on a donkey? What…? Why did they teach us that?”

Some questions have no answers.

Another one, courtesy Jean, was “Chevalier de la table ronde”, with everyone joining in on the “Oui, oui, oui!” / “Non, non, non!” parts. Kind of an appropos song for this wine-soaked journey.

Day 6: A little rain and a near-death experience in California

The first rain of the trip occurred overnight, but mostly petered out by the time we started the day’s 8 km walk, along a waterway. There are a few tricky bits through some water-covered parts, but nothing we couldn’t manage (though a couple of group members did opt to skip this one, and Helen got a minor injury from slipping on a rock).

The waterway walk

Afterward, we drove up to a chapel on a (small) mountain that we’d been able to see from our hotel. Driving up there, on twisty roads near the edge, Caroline rather casually told us about how she’d been on similar roads in California when the bus driver had a massive heart attack and died, causing the bus to lurch over the edge. Thanks to fast action from one passenger, greater disaster was averted, and everyone ultimately managed to evacuate with only minor injuries.

But I can see why Carolyn isn’t so fond of heights and was rather tense during this drive.

In less death-defying news, the clouds had cleared enough by this time so we were able to take in the views from there. (Those who skipped the hike also joined us here.)

The chapel

The views

Given a choice between the hotel and the octopus restaurant, the group almost unanimously selected the hotel. Jean and I both had a duck with rice dish called arroz de pato that I’d like to find a recipe for. (And also of the caldo verde we had a few times—a kale-based soup that is really nice.)

Day 7: “An air of melancholy has settled over the group”

The morning before leaving, Jean took some lovely photos at our hotel. People were a bit more subdued this day, as the trip was drawing to a close. “An air of melancholy has settled over the group,” Carolyn observed.

We headed back to Porto, and the original hotel. On arrival, we put our luggage in storage, and Ricardo gave us a bit of a city tour: the train station, Cafe Majestic, Se de Porto, Dom Luis bridge… We crossed the bridge and ended up in Vila Nova de Gaia, the sister city.

This is where all the famous port is made: Taylor’s, Graham’s, Offley, Fonseca, Sandeman… Here we got another tour of one of them (not the biggest name), which provided a somewhat clearer explanation of the whole process than we’d received in Quinta do Tedo. (One more tidbit: late vintage ports are those they had thought might become vintage, but then decide aren’t quite good enough, so they stop the aging process by adding alcohol. So they become another that last a good while after opening. And are generally pretty nice ports.) Here they made white port as well as the other types. We warned that extra dry white port—still isn’t what most people would consider a dry wine.

We tasted a white and a tawny here. In this case we preferred the white.

We then had free time til dinner, so Jean and I wandered off in search of lunch. It was very busy in that area, but we did eventually find a recommended place to eat—a bit tricky to locate using Google because it was upstairs. Almost as soon as we sat down, we were offered white port. Sure, why not. The food was also good, a few tapas followed by a dish called Bacalhau à Brás (I think) that is quite popular in these parts—a mix of cod, potato, and egg.

We did some random ambling before checking in to the hotel and meeting the group for dinner, which was at a restaurant across the street. And was kind of a shambles! Orders mixed up. Bills incorrect. Timing way off. We ended up with two mini-bottles of wine after ordering one, and I believe we were over-charged for appetizers. But at least the food tasted OK.

We said our good-byes to everyone at the end, and then we had two days on our own.

Day 8: History, architecture, and a zombie hurricane

To start, we changed hotels, to one that was a little cheaper than the one included in our tour. It turned out very well. The room was a little smaller, but the location somewhat more convenient, and it had bathrobes! (I’m a sucker for getting a free bathrobe.)

We took a little stop at the local McDonald’s, which seems wrong, but this was very attractive one. (Also, the coffee there is pretty good, and I needed the restroom.)

Not your average McDonald’s

But the Ribeira / Vila Nova de Gaia is a very crowded area of town, so this day we decided to head to the Malagaia area.

Porto's tiled Church

Jean took a few photos on the way. This tiling is very characteristic of Porto

We visited the free Museum of Photography which, apart from exhibiting some photographs, also showed photographic equipment from years past, which was quite interesting!

Photography Museum

Photos in one minute! It’s easy! (That was a bit of an exaggeration, if you read the fine print…)

For lunch, we happened upon a Michelin-recommended restaurant that gave us one of the best meals of the trip. Highlights were Jean’s sea bass and my strawberry soup with basil ice cream for dessert.

Carpaccio of Pinnaple was terrific!

This pineapple dessert with port ice cream was also nice

Jean then agreed to go on a tour of the Casa de Musica, or music hall, that is a fairly recent addition to Porto. No photos, but it’s an architecturally interesting building with all sorts of nooks and crannies to tour—VIP rooms, babysitting area, floating bars in the window, acoustically perfect concert halls… Definitely worth the 8 euros and 1 hour to learn about it.

Rain was predicted for the evening, as Portugal was expecting its first-ever “zombie hurricane” (Hurricane Michael, rising from the dead). The epicentre of high winds wasn’t Porto, but certainly it got heavy rainfall. So we didn’t go too far for dinner. We found a slightly pricey but quite decent restaurant nearby to suit our needs.

Day 9: Potted Potter

In Porto, people line up to get into a bookstore called Lello. One reason they do this is that it’s a gorgeous building. The other is that JK Rowling was inspired by Porto to write Harry Potter. And I expect it’s the latter that really explains the crowds, as Porto has a lot of nice buildings.

We decided to do it. We got there at soon as it opened, at 9:30. There was already a line. You have to buy tickets to get in (credited against any book purchase), so we did that. After about 20 minutes in line, maybe, we were let in.

But it’s crazy in there. It is gorgeous, but so packed with people, it’s hard to appreciate. And forget about calmly perusing for something to read. They tell people not to be too loud in there, to not disrupt people trying to think (or whatever). As if anyone could get lost in thought in here! But at least, now we know.

After that, we decamped to the Museum of Art. It’s not a very big one, but did have some nice works, particularly sculptures. And it wasn’t crowded at all.

One of the gorgeous statues on display

After lunch at our new favourite restaurant in Porto, we did a little shopping. I got a purse made of cork (yes!) and a cute top. Jean bought a bag. Then it was a bit more walking, and a final dinner at a restaurant with a Madeira focus, that was quite pleasant.

The Catholic Glow!

Last day photo, and one of the best

The flight home, in contrast to our smooth departure one, was rather chaotic, with people lining up all over the place and impossible to hear announcements. And once on, we ended up having to wait an hour while they located and removed the bags of six people who didn’t make it onto the flight, for some reason. But then the flight generally went as well as can be expected, until my luggage didn’t show up.

The Air Canada attendant explained that my suitcase had ended up with the “connecting flight” ones—likely moved during that search for the bags to remove, one supposes. After 2 hours of waiting, it hadn’t make it onto the carousel, so they agreed to have it delivered to me. It did arrive on my doorstep by 6:00 AM the next day. (And that way we did beat the worst of rush hour traffic driving home from the airport, as Jean pointed out.)

A final song to finish, in salute to Carolyn, who seems to have played a rather prominent role in this blog post!


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Juliet, Naked

Before the film Juliet, Naked, the following trailers were shown:

  • Colette, starring Keira Knightly, about writer Colette’s struggles to express herself as a writer in her own name, after her husband achieves success with the novels she ghost writes for him.
  • Mary Shelley, starring Elle Fanning, about what inspired Shelley to write Frankenstein, including a battle against the men who tried to take credit for it.
  • The Wife, starting Glenn Close, about a woman who gave up on her own ambitions to support her husband’s literary efforts, and what that cost her.

Wow. Can’t imagine why there are so many movies about women’s anger and their fight for self-expression right now.

#BelieveWomen #MeToo #StopKavanaugh

Juliet, Naked is a lighter film—but still the story of a woman. Annie (played by Rose Byrne) is dissatisfied with her life: the job she settled into in the town she grew up in, and especially, her long-term relationship with live-in boyfriend Duncan (played by Chris O’Dowd). Duncan has an obsession with an 1990s singer who released a single album: Tucker Crowe. Even before he has an actual affair, Annie feels she’s lost him to someone else.

Juliet, Naked refers to a demo CD that Duncan gets his hands on, featuring early versions of the songs on Tucker Crowe’s album. Annie writes a dissenting review of the album that attracts Crowe’s attention, and they begin an online correspondence. They finally meet when Crowe has business in London…

This was a perfectly delightful movie, largely because of the cast. Tucker Crowe’s kind of a wreck of man, but Ethan Hawke plays him with just the right amount of messy charm. He has very good chemistry with Rose Byrne. And Chris O’Dowd can’t help but be funny and somewhat likable as Duncan, which is important—you can understand why Annie might have fallen for him in the first place.

And the synopsis might make it sound as though Annie is “saved” by Tucker, but that’s not really how this goes. The impediments to their living happily ever after, often so contrived in romantic comedies, are pretty straightforward in this one: the continent between them, the very different places they are at in their lives. Really, Annie saves herself.

This is hardly a vital film you must see to understand the current state of our culture. It’s an enjoyable escape that you don’t need to feel guilty about. And it has a pretty good soundtrack.

 


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Renovation

Our master bedroom / main bathroom renovation, originally estimated as a 4- to 5-week job, actually took about 11 weeks. But now, it’s (basically) done!

And we are happy with the results. This was the starting point for the bathroom:

And this is how it ended up:

Reno_Bathroom

And, OK, we aren’t completely sure about that blue shade for the wall colour, but that’s easy enough to change later. But to take in what happened here:

  • Complete tear-down and replacement of walls and flooring
  • Room made smaller, to accommodate a closet in the bedroom
  • Entrance from the bedroom closed off
  • Separate shower and bathtub combined into one new unit
  • (Toilet is not shown, but it is beside the bathtub)
  • One sink replaced with two
  • New sink cabinet with seven drawers
  • Mirrors above the sink with shelving behind them
  • New countertop, flooring, lighting, tile, and ceiling fan

So generally, despite less square footage, we have more storage space, and all new stuff. The new flooring feels nice under the feet.

As for the bedroom, this where it started (except it normally had furniture in it):

And this is how it ended up:

20180902-untitled-010of010-HDR

Here we are pleased with the paint colours! And with getting the yucky carpet replaced with cork flooring; having a bigger closet; the extra space in general; the cool barn door; and the overhead new light (not pictured but it is installed).

Work by Schweitzer’s Plumbing. Though it did take longer than estimated, they did seem to do a good job on each phase of the project.


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Democracy then and now

Saturday we went to a fundraiser for the Cambridge Fashion History Museum. They were holding a Tango Tea, and type of event popular in the 1910s. This was a high tea at which people would do the popular dances of the day—including, but hardly limited to, the tango. They encouraged us to dress in outfits reminiscent of that time. I didn’t have exactly that, but wore a tango dress with a fashion hat—I looked at pictures, and everyone wore hats then.

Me with a Givenchy that was part of the exhibits

Jean wore a fetching pinstripe suit and his Dad’s fedora; unfortunately, the person we got to take Jean’s picture didn’t press the camera button all the way down, so his outfit is lost to the mist.

Another friend took a picture!

They brought in a Stanford professor who specializes in dance history. He did a few classes in the morning that we didn’t attend, but during the tea also did some demos and shorter lessons on the basics of the one-step, the grizzly dance, and other popular dances of the time. Our ballroom dance instructor wouldn’t have approved of the techniques (or lack thereof), but it was fun learning and seeing these dances that did evolve into today’s waltz, tango, quickstep, foxtrot, and samba.

The Sufragettes were active in the 1910s, and through some educational (but fun!) games, we learned more about them. We were also invited to join the movement.

The two ladies in the centre made these dresses themselves

In Canada, most women earned the right to vote in federal and Ontario elections in 1917. Asian women were excluded until after the Second World War, and Native women earned the right only in 1960.

In 2018, Canada has a feminist Prime Minister who insists on a gender-balanced cabinet (though parliament remains far from balanced). In Ontario, we have a ridiculous, unqualified Premier who beat several far more qualified women on the way to power.

So, the fight’s not really over.

Premier Ford is currently pretty busy throwing Toronto’s municipal election into chaos for no reason while trying take away their right to free speech as quickly as possible, so when Greenpeace added to his pile of lawsuits for not doing the legally mandated consulting before cancelling cap and trade, he capitulated (to some degree) and opened a one-month opportunity to comment online. You can find it here: https://ero.ontario.ca/notice/013-3738. Just click Submit a comment.

Not sure what to say? Well, in case it helps, this is what I submitted. (And no, I don’t think it will make a difference, but at least I’ll be able to say I tried.)

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