Cultureguru's Weblog

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


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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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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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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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Not an open and shut case

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

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

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Pandemic vacation in Quebec

That it did wonders for my mental health, there’s no doubt. Despite the constant consideration of risk to physical health in everything we did.

Jean wanted a vacation that actually felt like a vacation, which to him, meant getting out of the province. We weren’t up for flying, though, and of course didn’t want to go to the country to the south even if we were allowed to, which we aren’t. In a week, the only “outside Ontario” destination that was possible was Quebec.

We did start in Ontario, with a couple days in Ganonoque. Then it was three days in Quebec City, and two in Montreal to finish. In the days leading up, I became obsessive about reading the daily covid case counts—which at that point, were actually pretty good. And while away, Ontario trended up a bit, but Quebec was still on a downswing.

It did feel like a vacation. Though one unlike any other. (Including the slightly uneasy feeling about blogging about having managed a pretty good vacation in these times… )

Restaurants

Food-focused travelers that we are, definitely the weirdest thing was taking into account whether the restaurant had an outdoor patio. Any that did—particularly if they had a covered one, which meant dinner couldn’t be rained out—immediately vaulted to the top of the consideration list, when previously that didn’t factor on the list at all!

We sat outside cafes. We dined at the tourist traps on Crescent Street and Place Jacques Cartier in Montreal. I finally ate on a roof-top terrace in Montreal (Jean had done it once before). We ate at Quebec’s Cafe du Monde for the first time, despite the warning that we might get rained on. (We did not.)

Cheese plate on patio
Cheese plate on Terrasse Nelligan in Montreal

We had one of the most memorable dinners ever, during a thunderstorm, on a covered patio attached to a food truck at one end, and a winery at the other, on Ile D’Orleans.

We did not go to some of favourite places, because they were not open, or had only limited opening days, or… had only indoor dining. Hence our best meal of the trip was probably in… Ganonoque, at Riva, on their lovely back patio.

Riva Restaurant in Gananoque, ON
Riva dessert

Obviously, nobody needs to feel bad for us about all this al fresco dining in August. But it was a really weird thing, this focus on the open air. (And also, how early we were eating, with the thought it would just be less crowded then. Which was generally true.)

… Also, it has to be said, we did have one dinner inside. That was not the plan! The place had a patio, we had requested that as part of reservation, and it was not raining. But they just informed us, when we arrived, that the patio was not open that evening. Oh, and did I mention that, had we turned and left, they would still have charged us $50? (This “no show” charge, we had been warned about. The possibility of not getting our preferred seating, we had not.)

My thrifty side kicked in and we stayed, though I spent a lot of the evening feeling uncomfortable, huddled inside the sheets of plexiglass on either side of me. Jean would start anytime someone walked behind him. (Mind, he would do that pre-pandemic, too.)

Food was good. Very creative. But if we were going to eat one place inside, maybe it wouldn’t have been this one, you know? (I mean, we didn’t go to the St Amour!)

Restaurant roll call

In Gananoque, we ate at Riva twice: dinner the first night, then lunch the next day. As already noted, these were likely the best meals of the trip. Lovely weather both days. They were careful about screening and getting contact information, as well.

Riva Restaurant in Gananoque, ON
Riva entree

Dinner the next night was takeout from Sushi Sun, as they had no patio and were not offering indoor dining. We ate it on the beach, sitting at an absurdly small picnic table.

On the drive to Quebec City, we stopped at Rose Cafe in Drummondville, which turned out to be lovely. They had a patio, but it was heavily raining at this point, so we were directed to their greenhouse instead. A bit of warm lunch, but quite nice!

Our first dinner in Quebec City was at Le Lapin Saute, who had warned us that in case of rain, they would not be able to move us inside. But that they did have umbrella coverage. At any rate, the rain had stopped by dinner time. It was a neat location and we enjoyed their sampler platter of duck and rabbit specialties.

Duck and rabbit sampler plate

On Ile d’Orleans we did more snacking than proper lunching, but particularly enjoyed our stop at Cassis Monna & Filles. The weather forecast had called for rain all day, but it didn’t rain much, and was very sunny by the time we reached the lovely Cassis Monna & Filles property. Things would change for our afore-mentioned dinner at Panache Mobile au Vignoble de Sainte-Petronille, which was just a hoot.

Water on patio with view
Before the storm, at Panache Mobile

We had a great view of the falls from there, and the service was really excellent. For wine, we went into the winery and purchased a bottle, which obviously meant a better price. Food was quite good–chicken pate, pulled pork taco…

Chocolate pana cotta
And chocolate pana cotta for dessert

Lunch the next day was at the deservedly popular Cafe du Monde, in the Old Port area.

Cafe du Monde

Then our “scary” indoor dinner at Bistro l’Orygine. They offered five-course chef’s menus which likely would have been interesting–I would actually have gone for the vegetarian (other options were vegan and non-vegetarian)–but I wasn’t sure I was hungry enough, and also thought that we might end up being there too long. But we didn’t have trouble selecting the recommended four sharing dishes from the regular menu. And as noted, they were quite inventive and tasty.

Tomato dish and wine inside restaurant
Took a while to get a spoon for this dish, but the broth was worth the wait. That BC Pinot Grigio was also terrific. (Also note the plexiglass divider.)

First lunch in Montreal was at a decent but somewhat overpriced patio restaurant in Old Montreal, near our hotel. We had our first dinner at the Labo Culinaire Foodlab, on their rootop terrace. Given the name, I was expecting some sort of molecular gastronomy thing, which we didn’t get. But it was creative, well-prepared food, and good service (except for suggesting their tea options were listed on their online menu, which they were not. Lots of online menus this trip! Bring your phone or you can’t order!)

Three plates on picnic table
Grilled oyster mushrooms, shrimp roll, and tomato / buffalo mozarella grill

We skipped dessert here in favor of getting some ice cream later, in Old Montreal.

Lunch the next day was at on OK Italian place on Crescent Street. We talked to a couple a table over, who were from London (Ontario, not UK), and here on their Honeymoon–the originally planned honeymoon destination being out of reach. In their case, Quebec City was the next stop.

Wine on Crescent Street patio
“Fantastique, tout le weekend”

Then dinner was on Terrasse Nelligan, a very popular rooftop restaurant that didn’t take reservations. We arrived early to get a seat, then bought some time (to get hungry enough for a meal) by starting with a cocktail (virgin one, in my case). We then shared a cheese plate, and Jean had a half-chicken dinner (which he really needed only a quarter of). I had some well-prepared salmon tartar.

Terrasse Nelligan
This “terrasse” would become more busy as the evening went on

Activities

For the hours we had to kill in between meals 💁, we didn’t make too many plans in advance. In Gananoque our main accomplishment was a three-hour hike on a humid Sunday at the Marble Rock Conservation area. We hadn’t expected it would take that long, but we survived! It was a pretty interesting walk, but didn’t make for the most compelling photos.

In Old Quebec, we just walked around, and visited a number of shops. Masks were mandatory in all indoor spaces in Quebec (you were allowed to take them off to eat inside restaurants, of course, but had to put them back on once circulating) and I have to say, I don’t think I saw a single adult inside not wearing one, the whole time. Most kids were too, though the law said they didn’t have to. And, stores were very insistent on you using hand sanitizer upon entry. This started to seem excessive when visiting one shop after another for just a few minutes each, but… I’m not really complaining. Overall I was impressed.

View of Quebec City, with Chateau Frontenac
Quebec be pretty!

We spent one day driving around Ile d’Orleans, stopping at places of interest, which somehow included three wineries (apart from the one we had dinner at)… I discovered that I was quite the fan of Quebec rose. But we also found a few whites and reds we enjoyed. And one dry pear wine.

Six wine glasses with cheese
Vignoble Ile de Bacchus did their wine tasting outside

I felt we had to stop at a jam place called Tigidou because I just loved the name, but it turned out that their jams were pretty great, also. We sat outside to enjoy some with scones, which attracted the attention of local residents…

Chicken seeking scone
Don’t think I’ve ever been this close to a chicken (who wasn’t food)

Museums

We had hoped to see the Boat Museum in Gananoque, but it was not open this year. We did visit the Parc Maritime du Saint-Laurent on Ile d’Orleans, where we were a bit stymied by the screening question of whether we had traveled outside Quebec in the last month. I guess the honest answer would be no, since we had only traveled to Quebec. But we responded that, well, we hadn’t traveled outside Canada, and that seemed to do. (Guess they aren’t getting that many out of province visitors?)

It was a nice waterfront spot. (Jean’s one complaint that day was that, for an Island tour, we didn’t see the water that much.)

In Quebec City, we noticed signs for the Imagine Van Gogh Immersive Exhibit, and thought that sounded interesting, so we got tickets. It wasn’t showing original Van Gogh paintings, but large projections of some of his works (or close-ups of parts of them), set to music. There were some interesting sequences, though it doesn’t quite match seeing actual Van Gogh’s.

In Montreal, we visited the Museum of Fine Arts. The permanent collection was still closed, but you could get tickets for a special exhibit on Paris in the Days of Post Impressionim. This was just a beautiful collection, with pieces by some big names (Picasso, Matisse, Degas), but mostly featuring lesser-known but also supremely talented “independent” artists.

The only problem was that, despite the controlled number of entries at timed intervals, the first couple rooms felt uncomfortably crowded to me. It was like one of my covid bad dreams–except that everybody was wearing a mask. But just as I starting to wonder if I should leave, I moved on to the next room and found fewer people in it. And it remained less crowded for the rest of the visit. Too many people spending too much time at the start of the exhibit, maybe…?

Hotel life

Unlike our July vacation, we didn’t upgrade our rooms this time. In Gananoque we stayed at Comfort Inn, which was pretty much what you’d expect from a Comfort Inn. (Good location, though.) In Quebec City, the room at the Hotel Palace Royal had more charm, but not much more space. The Marriott in Old Montreal was the best experience. They had just reopened and seemed happy for the business. We got upgraded to a suite, which was really nice.

Chateau Frontenac
A more picturesque hotel in Quebec City than the one we stayed at

No hotels were doing room cleaning during the stay, which was fine, except for having to go to the front desk to get more toilet paper. (At the Comfort Inn, this request took a surprising amount of time to fulfill.) The Comfort Inn and the Montreal Marriott had brown bag breakfasts, which did the trick. In Quebec, we were very close to many cafes and other restaurants, so finding breakfast wasn’t a problem.

Remembering to wear a mask in the hotel common areas was tricky at first. Not when walking in from outside, but when leaving your room, where you of course weren’t wearing one. But by the end we were used to it, to the point where it seemed slightly odd to get home and not have to put on a mask to go in.

Elevators were the main problem, and only at the Quebec hotel. At the Comfort Inn, we were just on second floor anyway, and the Montreal hotel wasn’t that busy, so it was easy to get an elevator to ourselves. But the Quebec one was more hopping, and we were on the fifth floor, so trying to not crowd in there was a daily challenge.

Yes, sometimes we resolved it by taking the stairs. One day, all the lights were out in the stairwells, so that was fun! But when luggage-bound, we just waited and waited until one came by that had room. Something to consider when hotel booking…

Book, TV, movie

I, Tonya poster

The earlier dinners and less stuff being open led to more time than usual lounging at the hotel in the evening. We made our way through Netflix’s The Messiah series, which was really interesting! Also on Netflix, we watched the movie I, Tonya, which was much better than either of us had expected. Watch I, Tonya! You do not have to be a figure skating fan. Just ask Jean.

On the drive, we listened to the audiobook of The Alice Network by Kate Quinn. Very engrossing novel; a recommended read.


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Local patio

Loloan Lobby Bar was not one of those restaurants that offered takeout during the shutdown, so we did prick up our ears when we heard that it would reopen once patios were allowed. In this, they were aided by City of Waterloo deciding to block off Princess Street for pedestrian use.

Our experience with Loloan in the past has been a bit of mixed bag. We’ve never had a bad meal there, but have had a number where the food didn’t seem quite outstanding enough for the price. On the other hand, we were fairly blown away by their New Year’s Eve dinner. As that was a fixed menu, Jean suggested that maybe we weren’t good at picking the right things at Loloan.

Their online patio menu had a fairly minimal number of items, but they looked good. They were not taking reservations, so we decided to just head there right after work on a not-rainy Wednesday.

The first surprise was their notice that they weren’t taking any credit cards, just debit or cash. Interesting choice.

The second was that the cutlery we received, once seated, was distinctly… plastic (and wooden, for the chopsticks). The glasses, however, were glass.

And the menus were literally hot off the presses: we had to wait for them to be printed (not excessively long, or anything). We didn’t have trouble choosing items of interest from the short array. We went with pork satay and pork / vegetable dumpling appetizers, lemongrass cod with rice and cucumber salad as the main, and the only dessert, which combined a variety of tropical ingredients. We shared everything.

The list of wines by the glass was modest, and Jean asked which one might work best with the variety of food we’d selected. The waiter returned with a Chenin Blanc that wasn’t even on the menu, but was fantastic. Later, when I’d finished a kir, they returned with an off-dry Semillon/Sauvignon blend that we also really enjoyed, and that was also not on the list. Nice touch.

The two appetizers were very delicious, though also served in more “disposable” containers. The waiter at one point commented that a lot of their dishes were still in storage… The mains and dessert came on actual plates, though, which we were very excited about. Even better, they were also delicious! This time, we did feel we got value for the money.

The side dish part of the main course (with my main dish, Jean)
Dessert included coconut sorbet, mango gel, and lychee gelee

I’d had the impression that Princess Street was supposed to shared by several restaurants, but Loloan seemed to be the only one operating this day, and they had quite a few tables available. I noticed they did some of the cooking outside the restaurant, on a barbecue, and that all the staff were wearing masks.


Speaking of masks, I had recently tweeted this tidbit:

I know it could just be correlation, and not causation, but it was still great to have three days of 0 new cases locally this past week.

I haven’t done a ton of shopping, but for what I have, I am finding that almost all customers are respecting the mask bylaw. What confounds me a bit are places where the salespeople are not. For me that’s only been two places, but others report…

What do you do about that? Because I feel like something should be done. I’m good with not confronting another customer who’s not wearing a mask. But the staff? I realize they could claim the same “medical exemptions” that customers do, but hey, how about wearing a face shield then (as I saw one grocery worker do, and I’m cool with that).

And, I also appreciate that it’s a lot harder to for them to wear a mask for a whole work shift than it is for me on my short shopping trip. Some masks are more comfortable than others, and would be nice if employers (or the government?) supplied those.

But before we can come up with solutions, we have to draw attention to the fact that there’s a problem. And I don’t know how to do that.


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Moving through the stages

It was rather heartening that as Ontario moved more and more regions to stage 2 of reopening, that cases continued to trend downward. In stage 2, restaurants could serve food and drinks on outdoor patios; one could get haircuts, manicures, and tattoos (but not facials); and malls could open their doors.

Now areas are moving into stage 3: indoor dining (with spaced tables and occupancy limits); bars (!!!)—though only seated, no dancing, live music only behind plexiglass; gyms; and facials (for those who care, which isn’t me). Indoor limits increased to 50, not counting staff. And the case trend? Has become a bit of a roller-coaster.

No doubt this is all rather trickier than the earliest stage of, basically, hiding in your basement.

The mood

I called last summer my “lost summer”, as I spent so much of it battling anxiety and depression, and therefore struggling to really enjoy anything—or even leave the house. This summer, of course, there are so many external reasons it’s hard (or at least unwise) to leave the house.

But weirdly, my mood is so much better this summer. (Mind you, the cat conflicts were really stressing me out last summer, and now my cats are super happy to be getting so much attention. Maybe all I really need is contented pets.)

Not that I’m super cheery all the time. And of course, early on, I was definitely battling anxiety. Like anyone else, I was scared of getting the disease, and virus seemed to lurk everywhere. Now I’m not thinking about it as much–though I still have the occasional, vivid, coronavirus-related bad dream about finding myself in crowds of maskless people.

And I certainly have cranky days on a semi-regular basis. The difficulty in acquiring goods–slow and unreliable Canada Post delivery, shortages, the need to preorder everything, limited store hours–definitely put me in a bad mood at time. And at some points, I was getting super irritated with the government response: that for too long not enough tests were being done, that the testing criteria was too restricted, that contact tracing wasn’t happening fast enough, that the province wasn’t taking a regional approach to reopening.

But on both counts (goods and governance) thing have improving. I still get the crankies, just not quite as often or for as long.

Gratitude can help with these things. Thank God I’m not going through these troubled times while in a dark pit of despair and fear.

Travel

And, getting away can help too. After a few stay-cations, we hoped to go somewhere for our July vacation, albeit within this province. At least it’s a big province!

But planning it was tricky. The final regions of the province had just moved into stage 2, with no indication when stage 3 would happen. We’d think of places, like Manitoulin Island, then find they didn’t particular want visitors or, like Tobermory, that their hotels were priced such that well, maybe they didn’t want visitors, either. Restaurant-wise, we’d be limited to patios and takeout.

So it became mostly a family-visiting trip, but as the drive to Timmins is long, we added a stop in Orillia on the way up, and a stop in Sudbury via Muskoka on the way back.

Hotels

Jean’s Mom was quite suspicious of hotels, doubting they could possibly be kept clean enough. I was considerably less worried. As we’re learning, it’s not so much surfaces that are the issue, but people (and their moist breath). Hotels aren’t particularly crowded these days, and of course, you get a room of your own.

Thinking we might be eating takeout in them, we decided to upscale our rooms a bit and get a suite. This proved a bit disappointing in Orillia, where we stayed at the Stone Gate Inn. Certainly the room was big enough, with the extra kitchen and living room we wanted. But it also seemed a bit old and shaby. And covid protocols there meant no coffee maker, no dishes at all (not even wrapped plastic cup), no complimentary newspaper. While I believe these items were available upon request, it was kind of odd.

The complimentary breakfast was handled by having us call in the night before with what we wanted and what time. The next morning, they’d call when it was ready, and we’d go to the lobby and pick it up to bring back to our room to eat. That, we actually liked–preferable to the usual buffet breakfast!

But in general, we were happier with the Sudbury Homewood Suites by Hilton. The suite there was basically the same size and layout, but just a bit newer and shinier. (They made a point of noting that the TV remotes had been sanitized.) And, it included a coffee maker, dishes, and newspaper. Whether that was because we were there on the first day of stage 3 or just a difference with that hotel chain, I dunno.

There we could have eaten breakfast in the dining room (turned out to be the first day of stage 3), but we decided to just bring it to our room anyway. It was a pick up your own food deal, but with everything cold individually wrapped, and hot options served by staff wearing gloves and mask, and not via a common utensil.

Restaurants

We had been thinking of just doing takeout in Orillia, but the uninspiring hotel room, combined with the fact that patio menus looked more interesting than takeout ones (for the same restaurant, I mean) led us to eat at a restaurant for the first time since March.

Oh my God, it was so great.

We had fine weather for our two suppers there, so that made outdoor patios appealing. We ate early the first night, and thus were able to grab the last available table at Rustica Pizza Vino. (Then they had to get our contact information, just in case.) I did feel that the tables were nicely spaced, and the breeze was comforting. We had to look at the menu online, on our phones. All the waitstaff wore masks.

So we weren’t feeling especially stressed as we were served wine, and very fresh salad, and tasty pasta, then dessert (affogato!). It was glorious.

The next night, at The Common Stove, was even better. (We made a reservation the day prior.) They used an alley between buildings as their “patio”, putting a covering over it with lights, that actually gave it a really nice atmosphere! They had quite a creative menu that was delicious, from starter to dessert.

Eating out for the first time since March. Table service, I’ve missed you so.

In Sudbury, we made patio reservations at another Italian place, Verdicchio Ristorante. Our Timmins friends were wondering what said patio would be like, given that the restaurant was located in more of an industrial mall. But they had also done a lovely job of fencing off a patio area, adorning it with vines and grapes. We enjoyed the food and wine here as well.

A lovely patio in a parking lot

We’re now inspired to finally try a local patio as well. (Think we’ll still hold off on indoor dining for now.)

Answering the call

The pandemic also spotlighted the fact that when all restaurants close, it becomes really tricky to meet certain biological needs while traveling. On this trip, things had opened up enough that it wasn’t too much of an issue, but I still wanted highlight:

  • The truly lovely facilities available at the Scout Valley Loop Trail site in Orillia. (Pretty nice walking there, as well.)
  • The remarkably good facilities at a little restaurant in White River, just outside Sudbury. This stop allowed us to enjoy our hike on the AY Jackson trail.
Falls at the AY Jackson trail

Shopping

In Orillia, we did another thing we hadn’t really done since March: Casually browse through some stores for fun. It was a Monday, and none of the stores were busy—in fact, we were generally the only customers. As well, Orillia’s new mask bylaw had just come into effect. So it felt pretty comfortable. I got a nice new pair of walking shoes, and some earrings from a really cool art store.

A social circle

Timmins, we had to conclude, was looking kind of sad, and we weren’t particularly enticed to either shop nor dine out. But of course, that stop was mostly about seeing people.

Ontario has this guideline about creating a “social circle” of up to 10 people that you agree to be close contacts with. No one’s to belong to more than one social circle. Well-intentioned, but kind of complicated, and also impractical for large, geographically distributed families. So we have not formed any formal “social circle”, but are just winging it.

We did visit indoors with my Dad and Jean’s Mom, but avoided hugging–though I don’t know how much sense that made. We visited with the brothers (mine and Jean’s) mostly outdoors. We visited with friends in their outdoor gazebo–though they thought it was absurd (and hilarious) that we brought own beverages. We did visit the interior of Jean’s sister’s house in Sudbury (but still no hugging!). And on the way home, we stopped in to see my sister and family at their rented cottage in Muskoka, mostly hanging outdoors.

Rented cottage living…

It’s going on two weeks now, and everyone seems to have survived these encounters.

Of masks and men

As we were traveling, masks were becoming mandatory in more and more communities in Ontario—even in northern ones, where I had figured the low case incidence and less crowding would cause them to give it a pass. But as in Orillia, we arrived in Sudbury just in time for their mask bylaw, and in Timmins it was to go into effect the following week.

Sign in Orillia (with its own sense of justice)

The provincial government’s approach of being all in favor of face masks but requiring every city and town in the province to decide for themselves whether to make them mandatory is bizarre. Super inefficient, for one thing. And obviously leading to each place in the province having their own little twist on the mask mandate, even if they’re only five minutes apart. Some examples off the top of my head:

  • Toronto has no enforcement. Waterloo Region has fines up to $1000.
  • In Sudbury, you only need masks if moving inside a restaurant. In Waterloo, you need to wear them on restaurant patios as well, until seated.
  • In Toronto, until recently, you had to wear masks on the municipal subway and buses, but not on the provincial Go trains and buses they connect to.
  • A number of work places are not covered by the Waterloo bylaw, including day cares (for the workers, not the children).
  • In Guelph, stores and restaurants themselves have to enforce the mask mandate. In Waterloo, it’s enforced by the municipality.

It’s just all muddled and stupid and confusing. But, at least most places seem to be getting there, and best I can tell, compliance is reasonably good.

Reading list

Libraries reopened, sort of, a few weeks before we left, and I decided to acquire physical material (book books) before leaving. You have to reserve what you want online, then go pick it up. At my local library, for some reason, it’s a drive-through pickup. I’m not a fan. It was quite a line-up of cars, making it slow, and all that idling is not environmental. At the pick-up spot, you called to give your library card number. The loan was then brought out and placed in the trunk, in a paper bag, with a note assuring that the book had been “quarantined” for at least 72 hours prior.

A bit excessive, maybe? And I’m still left wondering how someone without a car (or a cell phone) is supposed to borrow books. (Normally, I walk there myself.)

I also borrowed a few items from the Kitchener Public Library, and that pickup process was much better. Go in on foot (limits on the numbers, but there was only other person there when I arrived), wearing a mask, hand over your card to the employee behind the plexiglass, and your books are brought out to a table. Faster and less carbon emission-y.

With both libraries, items are now checked out for six weeks rather than three–very good for me.

But I’m making good progress on all of them. From Kitchener, I got a series of Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 10 comics. I’d been rewatching a lot of Buffy lo these many weeks, but as it was moving along into Season 5, I stopped, feeling that I just didn’t want to get into [Spoiler alert!] Joyce dying, then Buffy dying…

But in Season 10 Buffy comics (I learned via Google alert), Buffy and Spike finally have the mature, loving, healthy romantic relationship they never quite around to on the actual series. I then learned (via Google searching) that these comics are out of print and rather impossible to purchase anywhere at a reasonable price. So I was rather pleased the library came to my rescue!

Spuffy smoochies!

From Waterloo I acquired Jan Wong’s Out of the Blue. I’ve been meaning to read it for some time, but I’m finding it especially interesting now–likely more than I would have before last summer. Because it’s about how she uncharacteristically responded to some work stressors with a severe bout of anxiety and depression. In between describing what was happening with her fairly public career as a Globe and Mail columnist, she provides research into the nature, cause, treatment of, and prevalence of depression. Some really good stuff on a topic I didn’t know as well as I thought I did.


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About that new normal

Things are tentatively reopening in Ontario—parks (not for camping yet), stores (but not the ones in malls), some medical and veterinary procedures (excluding dentists and optometrists).

But Ontario simply hasn’t been testing enough. So we just don’t know what the real levels of community spread are. The only certain thing, at least in my part of Ontario, is that there is some.

So you really have to do your own risk assessment to determine what newly possible activities you want to take advantage of. The blog post The Risks – Know Them – Avoid Them has been really influential, with a lot of newspaper articles covering similar points. What’s the gist?

Successful infection = Exposure * Time.

The worst cases occur with a group of people close together indoors in a building with poor ventilation who are speaking loudly (or singing) and sharing food. So it’s safer to be outdoors, and when indoors, best to be able to keep some distance from others, and not stay too long.

This means that some activities that many of us have been worried about—because it’s the only ones we privileged types have been going out to do—aren’t actually that much of a risk. Walking (or riding or jogging) past people outside, even if it’s a bit less than six feet away—is not that risky because the interaction is so brief and the virus doesn’t transmit that well in open air.

Going to the grocery store? Also not that bad, because you’re not there that long, the number of people is restricted such that it’s not crowded, and you’re moving around fairly quickly past different people. Plus with the lone shopping, not so much talking going on. Wearing a mask is a nice gesture also, mostly to protect the store workers from you.

So it will be with other stores that can now open but with restricted occupancy. Plan what you want to buy there, get it efficiently while keeping space, then get out. Wash your hands, and wash them again after unpackaging whatever you bought. (And wash your mask if you wore one.)

Odds are you’re going to be all right.

Working 9 to 5

But what about working in our own offices for 8 to 9 hours a day?

I would note that I have not been asked to do this, so this is merely hypothetical musing.

Atul Gawande, in the New Yorker, notes that hospitals have done a pretty good job of preventing spread among healthcare workers there, and wonders if some of there approaches can be adapted to other workplaces: Amid the Coronavirus Crisis, a Regimen for Reentry. The four-point plan is basically:

  1. Employee screening, with orders to stay home if you’re sick

Gawande notes the issue with relying on temperature checks only: Apart from the fact that some with the disease never do develop a high fever, for those that do, the onset is typically later than with other, milder symptoms. So you really want people with scratchy throats or body aches staying away, even if they’re fever-free. That would need to be made clear.

2. Frequent hand washing

Great, as long as there is copious hand sanitizer about. Otherwise, there would be serious sink lineups happening.

3. Keep distance between employees as much as possible

Definitely a challenge in my office, which (like many) has gone for cramming more cubicles into less space, and even some “banquet table” style seating (side by side and facing, with no separation at all). Many of us having standing desks that put us above divider height (as lower dividers were installed to encourage collaboration). Is it possible to rearrange everything to actually seat everyone six feet apart, with higher dividers? Dunno.

4. Wear masks

Yeah, it’s one thing to wear a mask for a brief shopping trip or transit ride, but quite another to wear one for most of an 8-hour work day. Yes, healthcare workers do, and thank you to them: I’ve seen the photos of how uncomfortable that is. But surgical masks, at least, are better masks than the ones we can get (per the Gawande article); less hot, more breathable.

Furthermore, what about my drinking habit? Seriously, at work, I drink all day long. First coffee…

Then water, then maybe a tea, a decaf, some more water… I think it somewhat defeats the purpose if you’re constantly taking the mask off and on (and so is everyone else). But working dehydrated and with a caffeine headache, with a sweaty face and foggy glasses, does not sound like a recipe for great productivity. (And what about lunch? My afternoon snack?)

So I think some thought needs to be given as to the purpose of actually returning to work at the office.

Environmental factors

For me, though I’m slowly working on it, it’s still true that my office setup is more ergonomic than my home one; my desk there is just better For some people, home might not be a particular good workspace due to noise, pets, lighting, other family members, etc. For those purposes, it could make sense to allow a certain percentage to work at the office each day, as potentially the numbers could be kept low enough that spacing is fairly easy and masks less necessary.

Social factors

Seeing people, and the ease of talking to them. Team building. Building culture. All being missed, but how easy to get back?

You can’t be cramming people into small meeting rooms to have discussions like we used to. We can’t have fitness classes with the previous numbers of attendees. The communal kitchen is a bit of a hazard. Coffee machines might be have to be disabled, so more chats there. Going over to talk to someone might be less welcomed. We can’t open windows. Outside meetings could be nice in July, less so in January. The elevator could become a scary space. Also, the bathroom.

Basically, it’s hard to build warm and fuzzy feelings toward your coworkers when they seem like disease vectors.

And what about leisure activities

The Saturday Globe and Mail featured a list of 46 changes they predicted for the post-pandemic world. (Most of these items are not available online, I’m finding—so no links for you.) I didn’t find it too depressing til I got to the Arts section. (Whereas, the point that flying might not be that fun—or cheap? Not exactly new, right? And at least we might finally get more space.)

But it wasn’t the one about rock concerts likely moving toward smaller venues with sky-high ticket prices. For one thing, there aren’t that many bands still on my “must-see” list. For another, if I did feel I could indulge in such an experience, it could be kind of cool. The article also postulated a cheaper streaming option might be available—which doesn’t sound bad.

And the one claiming that movie theatres would only play blockbusters seemed doubtful. Wouldn’t your little art movies, attracting only the smaller crowds you want, be more feasible?

No, it was the one about theatres moving more to one-act plays, because:

a) They’re cheaper, so the crowd can be smaller

b) Makes it way easier for the actors to keep distance than in a big musical

But not because of plays themselves, which I don’t go to that often anyway.

It’s that it made me think about symphonies.

By their nature, that’s a whole lot of musicians crowded together, some of them playing wind instruments. (Which sometimes need to be cleared of spittle mid-concert, as I recall.) Let alone when it’s a special show with singers or dancers or trapeze artists, or what have you.

And how close the audience seats are? And the crowded lobbies before? And the bathroom lineups? How do you get this to work?

This might not be feasible

Is it viable for a symphony to play with the musicians spaced apart on the stage, to a 25% capacity house, if that’s what’s needed?

I’m doubtful. And it makes me really sad.


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No escape from reality

Ooh, Buffy‘s on. Could be a nice distraction.

Xander: She fell.
Willow: The flu.
Cordelia: She fainted.
Xander: The flu, fainted and fell. She’s sick, make it better!

Giles: Death and disease are, are things, possibly the *only* things that, that Buffy cannot fight.

Killed by Death

Huh. Well, how about some tunes.

I can’t stay on your life support
There’s a shortage in the switch

I think I’ll get outta here, where I can
Run just as fast as I can
To the middle of nowhere
To the middle of my frustrated fears
And I swear you’re just like a pill
‘Stead of makin’ me better
You keep makin’ me ill

Pink, Just Like a Pill

Jesus.


But hey, y’all, we’re doing all right. Feeling healthy, first of all, which is the main thing. Both still employed full-time, which is certainly something to be grateful for. Managed to get toilet paper this week, which is good, especially since they were all out of Kleenex.

And yes, they had no bananas.

Which leaves me with my final words of wisdom for now: Plantains are not at all the same thing as bananas. Do not put raw plantains in the chocolate cream pie!