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Meet the cats

I’ve actually had them since May. Normally I would have written about them earlier, but it hasn’t been a normal year (emotionally, anyway). A lot of my excessive anxiety and depression centered around them.

The integration wasn’t really smooth. Zoe accepted Mac pretty quickly, but took an instant dislike to Gus, and proceeded to bully him for months. (The fact that she’s half his size didn’t particularly matter.) It wasn’t the funnest experience to go through.

But, things have improved.

Gus

Gus, 2 years old at adoption time, was a cat I inquired about when looking at those available from Pet Patrol (the same rescue organization we got Zoe from 13.5 years ago). But we were warned that he was a very anxious cat, and thought maybe it wouldn’t be the best choice.

Shy he may be, but Gus knew how to sell himself. We went into his room at the shelter to see another cat, but she had no interest in us whatsoever. Gus, however, did. He purred and encouraged us to pet him. Whenever we tried to move away, he pulled out a paw to try to get us to stay. It was terribly endearing.

Shy but so sweet

Once at our house, he initially crowded himself into a cat tree cubby and came out so rarely we were worried. His progress was quite slow, aided not at all, of course, by having a cranky old cat run at him whenever he dared to explore new territory.

But, he did expand his world from the cat tree, to the rest of that room, to the room next door, to the whole upstairs–a long phase, that one–but finally on to the main floor, which is where he now spends most of his time. Only in the past few weeks has he been regularly visiting the family room downstairs, and only this week (8.5 months later) become comfortable enough to plunk himself down and snooze in front of the fireplace there.

From the first, though, he had a fondness for getting pet, and at some point–while still mostly living upstairs–he decided that I was great and became incredibly affectionate toward me, with full-body cuddles and loud purring. Jean took longer (Jean is not the feeder), but now Gus will walk up to him for pets also.

Nah, not going to pose for you, non-feeder

He’s the most gorgeous thing, but it seems he had to learn everything about how to be a pet. (Well, not everything. He’s always been great with the litter and a good eater.) How to play. (All the toys scared him at first.) That he is allowed on furniture. (Still working on that, really, but he much more regularly goes on chairs now.) How to get a human’s attention (and that you might actually want a human to pay attention to you!). How to “stand your ground” against cranky old cats half your size.

Well, we said we wanted him to go on furniture…

We don’t know much about his background. He’d been running around a neighbourhood for some months, outside in winter, before the cat rescue people were able to trap him and bring him to the shelter. And he was there 4 months before we adopted him. I suspect his home before that wasn’t the best-est ever.

Gus has come far, but has more to go. I look forward to seeing the cat he becomes.

Mac

While pondering Gus at the cat shelter (while I was smitten, Jean was dubious), Mac–who had been sleeping–jumped up to greet us with a “Hey, how about me?” attitude.

How could we resist?

Mac was a one-year-old sprite, mostly white with a few black patches. He’d been found stuck in a tree, and when rescued, the volunteer was able to carry him all the way to the shelter; he just stayed calmly in her arms. Mac was a Gus opposite, not only in colour but temperament: bold, unafraid, friendly, adventurous, chatty.

A one-year-old cat is still quite active, making him not really the ideal match for a 15-year-old cat. But as a compromise (?), we ended up with him, too. Despite Gus and Mac’s opposite personalities, they’ve always gotten along with each other. (They were in different rooms at the cat shelter, and only met at our house.)

But Mac was happy to teach Gus all he knew

Naturally, Mac adapted quickly. As already noted, Zoe accepted more quickly and easily than we’d expected–I think she found him kind of entertaining at first. While we were distracted for months trying to get Zoe and Gus to tolerate one another (as they do now), we probably didn’t give Mac quite enough attention. We’re trying to make up for it. (Particularly as Mac will pester Zoe when he’s bored, which she does not find in the least entertaining!)

Ready for action. Always!

Because given his age and temperament, Mac flourishes with a lot of attention. He taught us to play fetch with him (only the second cat I’ve ever had who will bring a ball back). When errant chipmunks came in the house, he proved himself a great hunter. Since winter, he’s had to make do with “hunting” Da Bird wand toys and some nifty animated toys like Hexabugs. I’ve also been training him to get used to going in the carrier, traveling in the car, and being on a leash. He’s proven a quick study on all counts, so he should be able to get outside in the nicer weather in a controlled fashion. (I don’t want him running off, getting stuck up another tree, and winding up somebody else’s pet.)

Mac has caught the Hexabug!

(Yes, he is micro-chipped. Still.)

He’s not as cuddly as you might think, but he is the easiest cat imaginable to pick up, he does sleep with us each night (very politely, down by our feet and not up on our heads), and he loves to rub his white fur all over our clothes, especially if they are dressy. And every once a while he will plunk himself down on your lap for a short sleep.

Showing off his battle scar (it’s really hard to clip Gus’ claws…)

Mac has a fully formed character, but some maturing to do. He’s a very nice boy now; I expect he’ll become a lovely older cat. Maybe even develop some cuddles.


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McSteamy 2005–2019

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Goodbye, beautiful boy.

We miss your cuddles, the head-butting so powerful it could almost knock you over, the purring that you learned to do, the insistent meowing for attention that you also learned to do, those deep kitten sleeps of yours, your determined hunting of toy mice, your favorite spot in the middle of everything, your appreciation of sunlight and a warm fire, and even your habit of batting anything in your way onto the floor. Zoë is not so sure that she misses you stealing her food.

But we’re all glad that you’re not suffering anymore.

— Cathy, Jean, and Zoë

Doing what one does best!


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Advantages to spending Christmas in Timmins

Not everyone comes from an exciting home town, but home it is, and that’s where we typically head for Christmas. Of course, the biggest bonus is getting together with family, since we are now disbursed and rarely all in the same room. (“I really enjoy these leisurely McNair breakfasts, with conversation,” Jean commented, on about day 3. “Doesn’t really happen with my family.” Of course, other good things do happen with his family, I feel I should add!)

My brother and niece unwrapping gifts Christmas

Overall, it was a lovely Christmas, with most everyone up, no travel problems, delicious food, and no one with serious ill issues.

But I also realized there are other benefits to Christmas in Timmins.

Snow

Sometimes it’s only a little snow, sometimes it’s a ridiculous amount of snow, but there’s always snow in Timmins in December! If you live in some beautiful, sunny, and warm part of the world, not having snow at Christmas is not much of a tragedy, despite its traditional association with the season. But in southern Ontario, where we now live, no snow typically means gray, coo, dreary, drizzly weather. It’s just depressing. (And thanks to climate change, it’s what we can expect for one of two Christmases from now on.)

Me in a snowy landscape, full of natural Christmas trees

Taking care of (government) business

This one applies only to those living in Ontario, but… Are the lineups to take your driver’s test just too long in Toronto? Have you been putting off replacing your old red and white health card? If you said yes, then you’re probably related to me.

Having been discouraged by the Toronto crowds, on December 24, my nephew went to the Ministry of Transportation office in Timmins, and passed his driver’s test! Same day, his father went to Services Ontario and got himself a proper photo ID health card. In about five minutes.

Same province, fewer people, faster service!

Shopping!

Of course Southern Ontario has more stores, but is more always better? No running around to different LCBOs to get the wine you want; you just go to the only one there is and make do with what they have. And at the only men’s clothing store downtown, you might just discover, as Jean did, that custom-made shirts are much cheaper there, and that they’ll ship them to your house.

Grosbeaks

The blue jays, cardinals, and eagles we have around here are cool, but dig these red and yellow grosbeaks. (The pileated woodpecker also made an appearance.)

Wherever you were for Christmas, hope you made the best of it. In Timmins this year, that wasn’t hard.

 


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Annual expedition to Lake Erie area

We seem to have made it a habit to visit the Lake Erie wine region about once a year. We’ve been liking it partly because it’s less crowded than the Niagara and Prince Edward County areas. But, seems that it, too, has been increasing in popularity recently. Though we didn’t wait til the last minute, we basically couldn’t find anywhere to stay in Kingsville. We ended up at a fine but uninspiring motel in the uninspiring nearby town of Leamington. We slept there but spent our days elsewhere.

Activities

The initially rainy forecast fortunately changed, and we had mostly sun on Friday and Saturday (though an incredible thunderstorm overnight Saturday) and just intermittent rain Sunday. Kingsville was having a Folk Festival, with Alan Doyle as the headliner. (That might have explained the difficulty finding a place to stay.) We decided not to get tickets for that, but did walk the grounds around there Friday night.

On Saturday, we did some hiking at Point Pelee park again. There were signs up that the stable flies were out (see: Be aware of the Stable Flies on Trip Advisor), so we stayed away from the tip, and we didn’t particularly notice them in other parts of the park.

We did see some less annoying wild life.

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On Sunday we spent some time in Amherstburg, particularly at Fort Malden. We hadn’t been before, and it was an interesting visit. The fort was placed there by the British to defend against the Americans—not always successfully, as it was also the site of the “longest American occupation on British soil.”

We were there in time to a see (and, especially, hear and feel) a canon firing by the staff. And as you see, there were also certain interesting canon-related statues.

Wineries

We did “official” tastings at three—Aleksander Estate, Muscedere, and North 42—and had lunch at Oxley Estate. The winning grapes across several wineries seemed to be the Pinot Gris, Rose (from either Cabernet Sauvignon or Franc grapes), and Cabernet Sauvignon. Aleksander had a Chambourcin, which is unusual—and a nice light red. North 42 were sadly out of their delicious Sauvignon Blanc sparkling, but did have a really interesting dry Gerwurtz. Muscedere had some very cute goats helping to tend the grounds; the Vidal named in their honour was nice and apple-y.

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We previously weren’t that impressed with Oxley’s wines (unlike their food), so weren’t going to bother doing a wine tasting there, but they did offer “wine flights” with lunch. That meant you got 2 oz. of any three wines of your choices. I did that, and along with Jean’s one glass, we found that their wines had quite improved. We especially liked their Pinot Gris and Auxerrois, both more complex fruity whites.

Restaurants

The guy doing the wine tasting at Aleksander suggested Merlis to us for dinner. We decided to try it. The owner was super chatty and loved to explain how he sourced all his ingredients as locally as possible and changed the menu up regularly. To help us decide what to eat he first for a hunger assessment on a scale of 1 to 10. As I was more of a 3 or 4 I was guided to the eggplant Parmesan—it was actually pretty light and quite tasty. Jean was hungrier had the meatloaf special (along with helping me with my side gnocchi).

We also discovered an incredible chocolate shop in Kingsville, by the simple name of Old Dutch Guys Chocolate. Some of the best truffles I’ve had in ages.

North 42 had opened a bistro restaurant that we looked forward to trying on Saturday. Unfortunately, the service was kind of choppy, and while the food wasn’t bad, it didn’t really blow us away. Nice room, though.

Overall best this time (as we didn’t make it Mettawas Station) was probably Oxley Estates. We arrived right a big rain storm had sent them scrambling (much of the seating is outdoors), but they were able to accommodate us promptly nonetheless. And our meal of a cheese platter for me and pickerel for Jean was quite nice.


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How McSteamy is doing

Some people have been wondering how McSteamy has been doing since we lost Mocha a few weeks ago. Surely he must miss her?

He must in some way, but not any that is particularly visible to us. This is just as well, as the only visible signs I can imagine would be those of depression: not grooming (or over-grooming), not eating, withdrawal. None of which he is doing, which means we don’t have to jump right into worrying about him.

The only thing I have noticed is that McSteamy and Zoë seem to be hanging out together more. They have play sessions together, and if they’re not quite cuddling together to sleep, they are at least in closer proximity these days.

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McSteamy on the rebound

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Whadaya mean, make the bed?

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They’ll be lazing on a Sunday afternoon


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Walking in the Basque Country: Part 1

Jean had this trip in mind for a while. I was less certain about it, as I knew nothing about these places—San Sebastian, Bilbao, Biarritz—which meant I had no particular desire to go there. But when I read the description of the trip on the Exodus website, it sounded pretty good. So we went ahead with booking it.

We were headed to this part of France and Spain:

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These are the main cities (or towns) there:

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Friday / Saturday

It’s tricky booking travel to these smaller European destinations from Canada. We decided to try to fly into Bilbao around the same time as the rest of the tour group (flying in from London—Exodus is a British tour company). That meant flying to Montreal initially (on Westjet) to catch an earlier evening Air France flight to Paris, from where we got another flight to Bilbao.

So it was a bit of milk run, but everything went well, basically. The “long” flight was only about six hours. Then we had to go through security again (why?) and very slow passport control (unusual for Europe), but basically everything was on time and our luggage made it through. We arrived a bit ahead of the rest of the group, but eventually met up with our tour guide, Stéphane, then the rest of the group. We totalled 11.

We were then bused to our hotel in Ascain, France, which is too small to be on the map above, but isn’t far from Biarritz. Hotel room was small but fine, and the place had a nice patio out front and the staff were all quite friendly.  They also offered a quite delicious and sustaining daily breakfast (as we knew the “typical” French breakfast of coffee and croissant would not suffice for hiking).

Dinners were not included in the tour package, but for most nights, the tour guide did a group booking for us at a local restaurant, which generally worked out well. The only ongoing issue was that the concept of “splitting the cheque” seemed foreign in these parts (in both France and Spain), so each evening ended with us all having to do math to figure out who owed what.

The highlights of our first French dinner were the really great fish soup (mussels, scampi, white fish) to start, the fries that came with our duck à l’orange, my iced nougat dessert, and that Jean’s cheese dessert was offered in the form of: Here are several slabs of delicious French cheese. Slice off as much as you want.

Sunday

Now’s the time to mention that we were really lucky with weather: Though the Basque region can be pretty rainy, we had nothing but sun all week. Particularly in the beginning, it would start out cool then warm up nicely, followed by a cool evening. Later in the week the temperature trended up, almost (but not quite) to too warm.

The first hike was described as a “gentle walk perfect for stretching out our legs”. This was a ruse, as it actually had more elevation than most of the hikes (470m), and involved climbing and descending two mountains (small mountains, but still) and a hill. Plus, it was listed as 9 km but everyone’s mileage counter (including mine, on my phone) reported it as more like 12 km.

But it was nice.

St Jean de Luz and the Bay of Biscay

Overlooking St Jean de Luz and the Bay of Biscay

We saw some animals here, in the form of wild horses named pottocks. They are small and tough and were previously used in mines. More recently, they were problems with them mating with larger horses, such that they couldn’t get enough food in the mountains to survive the winter. Now, to preserve them—and though they are still considered wild—they have “owners” who ensure they get vaccinated (and presumably try to keep the larger horses away from them).

Wild horse in the Pyrennes Mountain's of Spain

A pottock in its natural habitat

They also do some free-range farming in these mountains, notably of the Basque pigs, who do seem to be living the good life.

It’s a pig’s life

With the first walk, we found we were able to keep up with the group and didn’t have too many sore muscles the next day.

Back in Escain, they were having an annual festival. (Nice of them to time it with our visit.) Part of the involved shepherds guiding some of the pottocks down to a pasture in town, so the tourists could see them without hiking in the mountains. A bit odd, but the horses didn’t look too unhappy being on view, eating their hay. There were also farm animals display, a competition of sheep herding by those amazing border collies, and market booths set up selling food and crafts. We got some lunch items here.

Group dinner was at a place that specialized in fish and seafood. Jean and I shared a very nice cold foie gras starter, with a glass of local sweet wine reminiscent of sauternes. I then had grilled hake, a local fish on many menus, while Jean tried the Basque specialty of squid cooked in squid ink. Very nice texture on that. We shared a crème brulée for dessert. This place was also the only one to help us split the bill: the waitress emerged with a calculator.

Monday

The Monday hike started with a ride to the most popular tourist destination of the area, the train station that brings you up the Rhune mountains. We also took the train up to what was probably the most spectacular hike of the trip. It was a cooler morning, and the clouds were low-lying at that point—it was very neat to be walking above them.

On top of the World

On top of the world

Pittoks (Wild Pyrenees horses) in the Moutain

More pottocks, less impressed than we were by the view

The idea was then to walk down La Rhune, and back up to the train station, take the train down, and walk back to Ascain.

This is the border between France and Spain

On the border between Spain and France, as marked by the stone

But after lunch (for lunch, by the way, we each to buy our own provisions from the local store before heading out), before starting our ascent back to the train station, someone asked about just walking all the way back from where we were. The guide agreed that it was a reasonable option, and that it saved us from having to wait around for the train. The group agreed on that approach, and we did see some interesting things on that stretch of trail.

Sheep grazing n the Pyrenees Mountains

Grazing sheep

A former hunting lodge (vulture hunting) now used by some hikers

Feral Pittok in the Basque Pyrenees

A pottock who isn’t too worried about us

At one point the group got split up, on a rocky path that were more of challenge for some (Jean and I were kind of in the middle) and ended up taking different paths down. But the guide managed to gather us all eventually.

La Rhune: group split on path down to Ascain panorama (Andrew's)

You take the high road, and I’ll take…

Our final French dinner was also nice, at Etorri. I had salad followed by squid with tomatoes and garlic, when Jean had duck and duck: foie gras then roast duck with cherries. And creme brulee for dessert (again).

Tuesday

Today was the day we moved from France to Spain, so we started with a private bus ride to Col de Sainte Ignace. The bus then carried our luggage on to our hotel in Getaria while we took a short boat ride, then walked into San Sebastian, where we caught a public bus to Getaria.

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Where we took a boat to start the walk

The trail head start included the exciting site of a public toilet (rare on this trip), so four of the women decided to take advantage. It had a system of lights we didn’t quite understand, but the door wasn’t locked, so the first one went in.

We outside then noticed that the light changed to yellow, then red, which seemed a bit ominous in itself, and then we heard this sound of whooshing water. Followed by some screaming, then B. emerging, pants unbuttoned.

“I haven’t had time to go yet!” she said. It started squirting water out all over, pointing to her speckled pant legs.

So, this was a self-cleaning system that activated after each person. Light green, you go in and do your thing, you emerge, light turns yellow, then red, and it sprays water onto the floor and seat to clean it, then green and ready for the next person. Kind of a nice system, really, for the rest of us in line. 🙂

This was one of the easier walks, which is good because the intermittent sore throat I’d noticed the past two days had evolved into nasal congestion, which meant hiking with a copious supply of TP (European hotels don’t supply Kleenex, period) for nose blowing. It did start with a quite a few stairs going up, but then was largely flat until we later descended into San Sebastian. Here we were walking on part of the famous El Camino trail, albeit its less popular (because harder—more elevation) northern end.

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Approaching San Sebastian

San Sebastian was a bigger place than most of us were expecting. We had about an hour here before needing to take the bus, so we prioritized finding a place with coffee and washroom. We followed that up with ice cream before getting the inter-city bus to Getaria.

Our hotel there, Hotel Saiaz, was one of the nicest we’ve ever stayed at in Europe: Quite spacious and interesting architecture and room design. (Including a glass door to the bathroom which looked cool, but will lead to a funny story later.) It also had a fridge, which was handy.

We walked around Getaria a bit, getting cold supplies at a pharmacy where the pharmacist spoke excellent English (not always a given in these parts) and locating the Michelin-starred restaurant Jean had read about (El Kano). Unfortunately, with the combination of a food expo in San Sebastian and the national holiday Thursday, they were all booked up for the week.

Our dinner this night, as it would be the case each night, was booked for 8:30, as the Spanish don’t think anyone should eat their final meal of the day any earlier than that. I started with white asparagus, since Spanish main courses don’t include any sides—just whatever protein you order. (Jean nevertheless had foie gras again.) The asparagus was very good—fresh and flavored with olive oil. We then both had the sea bass, which was nice. I ordered a peach dessert which turned out to be… canned peaches. (Seriously?) Jean did better with the rice pudding.

Spanish menus also don’t routinely include wines by the glass so we got a bottle of Rioja. (At least the wine is fairly cheap.) It was good, but we weren’t able to finish it.