Cultureguru's Weblog

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


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Started back doing those things we used to do

Ontario has reached that point in its slow reopening where almost everything is reopened, but with some restrictions, like distancing, capacity limits, and masks. Vaccination rates are some of the highest in the world, but the pace of increase is slowing. Case counts are fairly low, but slowly starting to rise again.

Mentally, I still switch between feeling fairly good / confident (I probably won’t get it! And if I do, it shouldn’t be that bad!) to still somewhat anxious (But the delta variant! What about long covid!).

And I have missed doing things. Some things, anyway.

One of the local restaurants we like, Swine and Vine, decided to move from its Kitchener location to uptown Waterloo. As part of the move, they rebranded, changing their name to S&V Uptown, and changing their menu focus away from charcuterie board to “upscale bistro”. I loved the look of their menu. I thought that they might not be so busy on Tuesday nights? So we decided to try it, as our belated anniversary dinner out.

Though they don’t have a dress code or anything, we decided to spruce up a bit for the event. I dug into the far reaches of my closet for shoes with heels—first time wearing such-like footwear in a year and half. (Wedge heels, though. Didn’t want to twist an ankle.) And though it was a nice enough day for their patio, we thought we’d try the indoor dining thing. First time we’d done that locally since—well, you know.

It was a quiet evening there, with no other dinners seated right beside us (distanced though that table be). And we were quite impressed with the whole experience:

  • The service was quite attentive and knowledgeable. They presented and described each dish as served. They were able to guide us to some good wine matching choices.
  • Everything was creative and delicious, with the octoplus a la planchette and lamb noisette as highlights.
  • The few service hiccups (they did just open in this space, with this new menu) were smoothly addressed. Our entrees were slightly delayed, so they gave us a pate taster to tied us over, and still compensated us on the bill.

Movie theatres have also reopened at half capacity (masks mandatory for entry and recommended when seated, except when eating or drinking). The last movie we’d seen in person in the before time at The Princess was Parasite, the Oscar winner. This week, in deciding to venture back, we went to see Nomadland, this year’s Oscar winner.

I didn’t pay much attention to the Oscars this year, so Nomadland wasn’t really on my radar until Jean mentioned that he’d read and quite enjoyed the book the film was based on. I then watched the trailer and thought it looked interesting.

It’s about people whose economic circumstances cause them to live in their trailers, or vans, and move around America in search of work. They converge on Amazon to help with the Christmas rush. They work in national parks during tourist seasons. They pick beets. Work in restaurants. It seems kind of bad—and in a number of ways, it is—but maybe not that bad? In terms of the freedom, the camaraderie that develops among the people who do this (the “nomads”), and the ability to see the beauty of the country.

An engaging film, even without a huge dramatic through-line. (And wearing a mask during a whole movie is moderately annoying, but quite doable.)

This long weekend we got tickets to see a production in Stratford. Unable to put on their usual large, elaborate, indoor productions of Shakespeare, musicals, and other plays, they have on offer instead some smaller plays and cabarets, presented outdoors, currently with a limit of 100 people in attendance (I believe with expectation that they can increase this later in the season). At those numbers, pretty much everything sells out, so it was thanks to advance ticket access that we were able to get tickets to the cabaret Play On! A Shakespearean Mixtape.

That took place on a rainy-ish day, with thunderstorm risk present. Still, it was sunny when we walked in under the canopy, about 10 minutes before the start.

But about 5 minutes after it started, the thunderstorm kicked up.

Now, everyone was under canopy, and we were pretty centrally seated, so we stayed dry—unlike the people nearer the opening, who had to raise up their umbrellas behind. And the wind, occasional thunderclap, and sight and sound of heavy rainfall were somewhat distracting to everyone for the storm duration.

But wow, the four singers—two young women, two young men—were terrific. (And one of the gents seriously looked like slightly portly Adam Lambert.) To introduce songs, they would perform some lines from the associated Shakespeare play, then launch into the song. It was quite a wide-ranging set: Taylor Swift, Radiohead, Rush, Mumford and Sons, Madonna, Prince… Well, here’s the playlist:

Some songs were played for laughs—Brush Up Your Shakespeare, Billy S., I Am the Walrus. Some performances were haunting—A Case of You, and especially, Exit Music (For a Film). And some were awesome, notably the take on Rush’s Limelight. Overall, great to hear live music for the first time since January, 2020.

We had selected The Bruce Restaurant for dinner. And we had hedged our bets by making two reservations: one for the patio, one for indoors. Of course, we didn’t want to tie up both tables, and the weather forecast made us think that indoors would be a safer bet. But by actual dinner time, it had pretty much cleared up again. Unfortunately, when asking about being seated outdoors, a large party had already filled the space.

Again, it wasn’t a full establishment, though it was a little busier than S&V Uptown. And just as good! I started with a lovely watermelon salad with a glass of Champagne, while Jean had a goat cheese and beet entree with Stratus White. He then had an amazing truffle pasta with a Languedoc Pinot Noir (new to us, Pinot Noir from that region) while I enjoyed a lobster BLT with the Stratus White. (The bread and bacon were the highlight of that sandwich.)

For dessert, I had berry assortment, with berry tea, while Jean had a cheese plate.

And now we have an email that some ballroom dance classes are restarting—refresher courses (literally). Hmm…


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Traveling to all the hot spots

Remember when a place being a hot spot was a good thing? Lively and exciting? (Or possibly a way to connect to wifi?) Now it’s describing villages with abnormally hot temperatures caused by global warming “heat domes”, and in COVID terms, regions with a large number of cases.

Ontario so far is having a relatively normal summer weather-wise, with a mix of hot, sticky days and cool, rainy ones—along with a few exciting thunderstorms, sometimes with hail. (Ontario is not the place for people who enjoy weather constancy.) And COVID-wise, Ontario—with definitely the slowest reopening plan in North America—is doing pretty well. Except for a few hot spots.

One of these was my original home town of Timmins, which until recently had weathered the pandemic really well. But the Delta variant just tore through the place—and more alarmingly, through the remote northern villages up there—in May / June time frame.

We nevertheless decided to visit. Their plight had led to an extensive local vaccination effort, and as a result, almost all our family ended up fully vaccinated sooner than expected. And we hadn’t been there in nearly a year. Felt like time.

Also felt like a bit of déjà vu of last summer’s July visit…

Big nickel city

To break up the trip there, we stopped in Sudbury (as we had on the way back last year). We stayed at the same Hilton we had then, once again booking a suite. We had made patio reservations at Verdicchio Ristorante and met up with Jean’s sister there—again, all a reprise. Patio dining didn’t seem quite as novel and exciting as it did then! But it was still very enjoyable. They had again set the place up quite nicely, and the food and wine were delicious.

But just to vary it up, this time we stayed a bit longer, and on Sunday, then again Monday, we did some walking in Lake Laurentian Conservation area. This was quite lovely! The landscape was a bit Killarney-like. The wild blueberries were already starting to ripen. And the mosquitoes weren’t bad.

View from Laurentian Conservation area hike

It had some nice fauna and flora:

We also enjoyed a pleasant walk around Ramsey Lake on Sunday, and another very good patio dinner at Bella Vita Cucina, one of the few restaurants open on Sunday. Even fewer were available Monday, but for lunch, we did enjoy a nice charcuterie plate and a wine flight at an establishment called La Fromagerie. They were downtown, with their patio set up along the street. Not the most charming location—our waitress nearly got run over by a bike at one point—but we’re still happy to have found this place.

That night, Jean’s sister rescued us from having to dine at Milestones by inviting us over for a barbecue.

Cat situation: Zoë, our senior cat who is afraid of most people who aren’t us, but had previously decided our catsitter was OK, had reverted to thinking our catsitter was a monster. Zoë was hiding in our closet when we left. She tentatively ventured out some on Sunday, and accepted some deliveries of food. Monday she started sneaking to her food dish periodically “when she thinks I’m not looking”, as the catsitter put it.

The city with the heart of gold

Due to its hot spot status, the Porcupine Health Unit that Timmins is part of had not moved to stage 1 reopening with the rest of the province, meaning that most stores were closed, and patio dining was not allowed. Fortunately, we don’t go to Timmins for shopping and restaurants.

It was just about seeing people. Almost all of Jean’s family had been fully vaccinated more than two weeks earlier, so we did a bit more visiting with them indoors than we had last July. Still holding off on hugs and kisses for greetings, though!

The most interesting interior we visited was of Jean’s niece’s house, a large property that is almost completely self-sufficient: off the grid (so generating electricity and heating through solar panels, windmills, wood, generators, and batteries) and drawing water from wells. (It does have internet and cell service.) It was interesting to see how that all worked.

My Dad was also in fully vaccinated status (just!), so we stayed with him, and got spoiled with his cooking. Most of my brother’s family hadn’t had quite the full two weeks since second dose, and my niece was still waiting for her second dose, so we met with them outdoors around the campfire. My nephew had just landed himself a full-time job in his field (environmental science), which is exciting. And my niece shared some of her brilliant digital art.

Dad has been doing some volunteering at the local vaccine clinic, so I joined him for one shift—though it was such a quiet day there, don’t think my presence was especially needed.

We also went to see some friends, hanging out in their gazebo with their two dogs and cats. They also have a heater in there, which was appreciated, as Timmins decided to be a bit on the cool side that week.

It was good to be back after nearly a year, falling back into the easy conversation with people you’ve known forever.

Since we didn’t seem to take any pictures of people in Timmins, here’s a picture of the Toronto crew we visited with a couple weeks prior

Cat update: Zoë stopped hiding but still refused to join the boys for meal time (my cats eat all can food), so was relying on food delivery service from the catsitter. (She can be very serious about her social distancing, our Zoë.) That is until Thursday, when she finally deigned to join everyone for breakfast, and even allowed herself to be pet a bit.

Orillia

Reversing last year itinerary, we stayed in Orillia on the way back this time. Then we’d discovered two restaurants we really liked, and we were pleased to see that both had survived the pandemic. We made a reservation at one for Friday night, and the other for Saturday.

We did get a little concerned about the Environment Canada Extreme rainfall warning for Orillia that pinged through on the phone on drive in. But, the Friday was more of a light rainfall. We scoped out Rustica Pizza Vino shortly after our arrival and concluded that they had large enough umbrellas that didn’t need to switch to takeout.

Indeed, we were pretty well protected from the elements during dinner—and the restaurant was thrilled that all who had reserved showed up despite the drizzle. And the food was delissio.

And Saturday wasn’t quite as rainy as originally feared; the warning got cancelled. We took a bit of drive out to a quaint town nearby, and attempted a little walk there—but it just wasn’t that interesting a trail. So then we headed into Orillia for a bit of shopping. (This despite the fact that Jean reacted with incredulity when I had suggested to our friends in Timmins that we might do some shopping in Orillia.) I managed to get a couple pairs of nice walking shoes—shoes being one item that I do find it difficult to shop online for.

And dinner was at The Common Stove, which had again set up dining in their alleyway, where we were most definitely protected from any rain.

Making do with the space you’ve got

The waitress barely seemed surprised that we’d visited during the last reopening, and were now back. (Is this a common thing?) They did a really nice job on the food:

The audiobook for the trip, by the way, was The Lost Man by Jane Harper, which I’d recommend.

Cat update: Gus became a bit of a brat, trying to steal Zoë’s food when she’d join (despite the fact he had his own, and it was the same food), resulting in her running off and having to get catsitter delivery service again. Still, all survived our time away. They were super friendly when we got back!


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Running ahead of the herd

Nothing much to do today
I think I’ll do my hair today
Can’t do a thing with it, look at it, this way and that..
Then we’re on the phone, hear the news
It’s all grief and gloom!
Yes, things are bad, really bad
We’re clearly immune
We lead charmed lives

Charmed Lives, Boomtown Rats (songwriter: Bob Geldof)

Been doing a bit of binge-listening to The Boomtown Rats lately. “Charmed Lives” was written in 1982, so is in no way is commenting on the world of 2020–21. But the lyrics certainly struck me in a differently than they had previously. Here we are, all empty social calendars and overgrown hair and terrible news, and yet…

Cathy with band aid and vaccinated bracelet
Post-vaccination photo (the bracelets were part of a hospital fundraiser)

… On our way to immunity, and all the charms that can bring.

I recently received my second dose of the Pfizer COVID19 vaccine. I won’t get into why this is so, but I did qualify for it, no lying or cheating. The timing of both my doses made me something of an outlier at the vaccine clinic. First visit, it was me and a bunch of 80 year olds. Second visit, I was a second dose person in a first dose world: Agreeing to complete a post-vaccine survey only to find I didn’t qualify for it, because my first dose was too long ago. Having to stop the person checking me out from booking me for yet another vaccine appointment, 16 weeks hence.

For what’s it’s worth, I do agree with the delayed second dose strategy, but also wish they’d get a bit more of a move on now in doling them out to those who qualify (like frontline healthcare workers) and in offering them sooner to more people, notably those over 80. Still, it really looks as though enough supply is on the way that few will actually have to wait a full 16 weeks for dose 2. Most will likely get it within 3 months—which studies are indicating is actually better than getting it after only 3 weeks.

In the meantime, what difference does being fully vaccinated make to me? Well, mentally it’s nice, knowing that I’m building even better immunity and becoming less likely to infect others. But otherwise, not much has changed. I still can’t go to a restaurant, salon, movie theatre, or concert hall, because none of those places are open yet. Travel’s not really a practical option, either. And any indoor spaces that are open, masks are still mandatory for all.

So, I’m not relating to all those American articles on the challenges of rejoining society. (Though for the record, when the time comes, I won’t have to adapt to brushing my teeth and taking showers again, or to wearing jeans and other zippered pants and shirts with buttons, because I never stopped doing those things, and can’t really comprehend why anyone else would have…?!? I even kept up with makeup most days—that one, I’ll admit is bizarre—but it’s fun for me, and I don’t care that it doesn’t impress my cats much. On the other hand, wearing shoes with heels, or wearing any sort of fancy dress at all, is something of a distant memory…)

Is this the new evening wear?

But you know, I agree with the slow reopening, because I want this one to stick. What’s true now is what’s been true all pandemic: no one can beat this thing alone. There’s little benefit to being vaccinated if everyone else around keeps getting ill. It’s a group effort. And fortunately, it’s going well.


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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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