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


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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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So instead, I’m writing about “Little Women”

I haven’t blogged in ages because I keep thinking that I should write something personal and insightful. But when I start trying to do that, I just get bogged down. I don’t want to seem preachy, I don’t know how much I want to reveal–I just don’t enjoy it.

So chuck it. Let’s talk about Greta Gerwig’s Little Women.


I work at a tech company, and before the Christmas break, the chatter was all about Star Wars. Who would see it when, how many times, in what format, and at which theatre. So much excitement.

… Which I couldn’t share, ’cause I didn’t care. I did see the first two in this new Skywalker set. I thought the first one was too much of a rehash of the original Star Wars. I found the second better, more interesting. But this one, somehow, really seemed primarily aimed at the super-fans (who are legion). I’m sure it’s an entertaining enough movie. But I’m in no hurry to see it.

When I first saw the trailer for the new Little Women, I wasn’t sure it was necessary, given that the 1994 version was so good. I was intrigued, though, by the near suggestion that maybe Jo… Doesn’t get married?

And then all the amazing reviews started coming out, so I started really anticipating its release. I had visions of seeing it at the VIP theatre–lounging in my comfy chair, being served appetizers and wine–but then realized that while it was playing at that theatre, it wasn’t in the VIP room. (Not with stupid Star Wars hogging a bunch of those screens.) So instead we trundled off to see it at on a regular screen at a regular theatre, with regular seats and not even any popcorn, because the lineup to get that was too long. (Stupid Star Wars.)

Jean’s been watching a bunch of women-centred shows with me lately: TV series Fleabag (which he loved), the movie Girls Trip (which he did not; must agree it was pretty stupid), and the movie Booksmart (I liked this one more as it progressed; he remained unmoved by the main characters).

With Little Women, he loved the cinematography and found the characters interesting, if not always likable. He’s never read the book and doesn’t remember the 1994 Little Women (which we saw together), so the story was all new to him. He declared he wished there was more plot. (Does Fleabag really have any more plot, though?) And he kept mixing up the actors playing Beth and Amy (declaring they looked too much alike), which made for a certain amount of story confusion, as you might imagine.

Me, I read the book multiple times in my youth, so it was all about seeing how the famous scenes were interpreted this time. And the unique approach here is that much of the story is told in flash-back form, as the movie begins with Jo in New York, meeting Professor Bhaer. As events occur in that time line, she thinks back on moments from her youth.

It’s kind of an exhilarating way of presenting it, as those of us who are familiar with the story are also, basically, looking back on those scenes with nostalgia. Giving away Christmas dinner to the Hummels. Getting in trouble over pickled limes. Oh right, the ice skating accident. Beth and her piano. The burnt dress. The burnt dress. The burnt stories! (So much burning!)

The movie just skitters along at a contemporary pace, moving across scenes before we can get bored with them, but without seeming rushed.

The actors are all terrific. Among the famous are Saiorse Ronan as Jo, Emma Watson as Meg, Timothy Chalumet as Laurie, Laura Dern as Marmee, and Meryl Streep as Aunt March. Not previously known to me were Florence Pugh as Amy and Eliza Scanlen as Beth, which I assume contributed to Jean’s confusing the two of them. They stood up among this cast, with Pugh doing an especially great job with Amu. And I would note that both actors had startlingly rich, deep voices, which was really striking (to me; Jean claimed to not have noticed).

But does Jo marry? (Spoiler alert, I guess?) That’s the thing: it’s not clear. By that point in the story, Jo is working on a novel called Little Women, based on her life. She is discussing the fate of the fictional Jo with her editor, he of the opinion that women characters must end up either married or dead. There is a scene of Jo and Professor Bhaer kissing in the rain. But did that really happen or is it just written into the novel…?

Brilliant.

This Vox article–The power of Greta Gerwig’s Little Women is that it doesn’t pretend its marriages are romantic–gives a great take on Little Women‘s “marriage problem”: that it’s hopelessly unsatisfying that Jo ends up with Professor Bhaer (especially the way he’s described in the novel) while Amy gets Laurie. Apart from making Jo’s marital status ambiguous, Gerwin makes the Laurie / Amy partnership much more palatable partly by, as the article says, spelling the economic reality for women at that time.

Sorry, Star Wars fan, for dumping on your movie, which I haven’t even seen. Just a joke. I do hope you enjoyed it. Because I do understand loving something in your childhood / teenagehood and wanting to see it re-created on-screen. Only for me, that something is a novel about four young women in the time period of the American Civil War.


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Good shows

Having finished the latest seasons of Glow and Mindhunter on Netflix, and the six episodes of Chernobyl on HBO (those are all recommended series, by the way, as is the new Stumptown), Jean and I needed a new show to stream. I short-listed four:

  1. Killing Eve
  2. The Expanse
  3. Good Omens
  4. When They See Us

Jean declared interest in all but the last (about the Central Park Five), which he thought he’d find too depressing.

We decided to start with the six-episode Good Omens, from Amazon Prime.

The premise here is that history as told in the Bible is actually true, and all that dinosaur evidence to the contrary is just God’s idea of a joke. Also, the apocalypse is nearing. An angel (Aziraphale) and a demon (Crowley), who have both been on Earth for quite some time, and have grown rather fond of the place, secretly team up to try and thwart it.

Four episodes in, we’re quite enjoying it. It’s quirky and funny. The cast, led by Michael Sheen and David Tennant–but also featuring John Hamm, Michael McKean, and the voice of Frances Macdormand–is terrific. The episodes don’t waste any time in speeding along toward the end of days. As an added bonus, it also happens to feature a great deal of Queen music.

Good Omens trailer

If there’s anything the show reminds of me of, that would be my favourite network show, NBC’s The Good Place.

Currently in season four, with past seasons available on Netflix, The Good Place is a half-hour comedy starring Kristen Bell and Ted Dansen. It begins when Eleanor Shellstrop dies and finds herself in “the good place” (as opposed to “the bad place”). Only, given the wonderfully charitable lives the other inhabits of “the good place” have led, Eleanor fears that she has mistakenly been assigned there. And has to figure out how to avoid being found out and sent to the bad place.

Good Place season 1 trailer

But that’s just the initial setup. This series goes places in its four seasons, with twists you don’t see coming, unexpected alliances, and utterly bold time jumps and compression. The series is really better watched unspoiled, so I don’t want to give much away. But it does share with Good Omens the off-kilter look at religious themes, the representation of the forces of good and evil as largely banal bureaucracies, and a cartoon-like comedy approach to dealing with deep subjects. Like the best of fantasy series (hi, Buffy) both use the fantastical to comment on modern human realities.

Still, you can’t push it too far. Good Omens is a six-part series of one-hour episodes, based on a beloved (albeit not read by me) Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett novel. It’s largely about poking fun at the absurdity of literal religious beliefs. (I think. I mean, I still have two episodes to go.)

(But, one of my favourite parts of Good Omens so far is the look back at the time of Noah’s Ark.

[The following are not exact quotes, but…] “What’s going on, then?” asks Crowley. “God’s feeling tetchy. She’s decided to drown everyone. Big storm,” replies Aziraphale. “What? Everyone? Even the children?” The angel nods, mutely. Then adds, “Well, just the locals. I don’t think she’s mad at the Chinese. Or the Native Americans…”)

Whereas The Good Place is a completely original, four-season (all short seasons) sitcom. It does not take on traditional religion and its beliefs, but really digs into morality and philosophy: can people change? What does it mean to be good? It’s stunning that there is a half-hour American sitcom about that, isn’t it? (And yes, it’s hilarious!)

So, in summary, Good Omens and The Good Place are both good shows that are somewhat similar but also not really, except that both are deserving of your time and attention.


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Finding fiction

A tip on reading more books that I’ve found useful is to just embrace having more than one on the go at a time. Prevents any one book from feeling like a slog that is stopping you from moving on to your new, shiny books.

Personally I aim to have at least one fiction and one non-fiction book in progress. Non-fiction isn’t so hard to line up—just go with subjects I’m interested in. Fiction is tougher. I now see why so many people love genres of fiction: makes it easier if your aim is to have a bunch of mysteries, romances, or sci fi novels at the ready.

But if your genre is, basically, General Fiction? Quite a bit tougher to narrow that down. I seek inspiration everywhere.

The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce

Source: Spotted it in a book store (but later bought the ebook)

A love story, of sorts, between an eccentric owner of record store—as in LPs, at the time when everybody was buying CDs (and maybe cassettes)—and a mysterious young woman who swooned outside the shop one day. She claims to know nothing about music. He agrees to teach her about it.

That’s the best part of this book, to me—the in-depth discussions of great exemplars of different types of music: jazz, rock, classical, R&B… Makes you want to rush out and listen to what’s being discussed. Fortunately, the book comes with a Spotify playlist:

I do not know what the book’s main character would have thought of Spotify…

An American Marriage by Tayah Jones

Source: Barack Obama recommendation

A novel about a recently married couple in which the husband is wrongfully convicted of sexual assault. The wife has no doubt of her husband’s innocence; nonetheless, he faces a long incarceration away from her. How do you manage that?

Much of the novel is told as a series of letters. The story does not proceed on a predictable path, but it is plausible one. Thanks, Obama.

Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin

Source: Kobo (ebook seller) recommendation

A work of fiction built around the story of a young woman who has an affair with the older, married, male Senator she’s an intern for. Shades of Monica Lewinski, yes, though that affair is mentioned in the novel as the news that drives her own story out of the headlines.

What’s interesting is that the story is told exclusively from the point of view of the women involved: the intern, her mother, her daughter (the story covers many years), and the Senator’s wife. And you’re not always sure who is who, at least not right away. I loved the approach and really got caught up in this novel.

Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday

Source: New York Times best books of 2018

This one didn’t work out!

The novel is in three parts. The first two seem unrelated. The third is supposed to bring them together. I read the first part, about a love affair between a young woman and much older man (a writer). They were interesting characters, but they didn’t really do much. There wasn’t much plot happening.

Before proceeding, I look into other reviews. They said that the second part was less interesting than the first, and that the supposed connection you find out about in the third is tenuous, maybe unfathomable. So, I gave up on this one.

The Flight Attendant by Chris Bohjalian

Source: Recommendation from The Washington Post

Cassandra Bowden, a flight attendant and a binge drinker, wakes from drunken stupor to find that the man she spent the night in Dubai with has been murdered. What to do?

If there’s one genre I do tend to return to, it’s the thriller, and this one is somewhat reminiscent of The Girl on the Train. Unlike that novel, however, it’s clear early on in this story that Cassandra did not murder her lover. But her lack of memory about what happened complicates her situation. And her frequently poor judgment often makes things worse.

This was a pretty fun read. I got it as a library ebook and had to binge read through the last parts because someone else had put a hold on it and I wanted to know how it ended.

Non-fiction

I’ve been in a bit of a rut here, of musician bios.

Thanks a Lot, Mr. Kibblewhite is Roger Daltrey’s breezy, easy-reading autobiography. You can tell that it was built from Roger telling his story to the writer he worked with, who assembled the pieces into a coherent narrative.

It is an interesting story, starting in the deprivations of post-war London and continuing up to closing out the Olympic Games, making a triumphant return to Hyde Park, and nearly dying of viral meningitis. With many entertaining anecdotes on the way, from Keith Moon’s antics to the many women in his life (and a number of surprise children) to The Who’s financial challenges and musical triumphs.

I can recommend this one as being appealing even to more casual fans of The Who, as Jean and I listened to the audiobook version (read by Roger Daltrey) and Jean was approving. He had a much higher opinion of Mr. Daltrey by the end of reading this than he had going in.

Unlike with Roger Daltrey’s book, which I preordered and read pretty promptly, this one has been sitting on the bookshelf for a while. I ended up quite enjoying it, though.

This Ray Davies’ second autobiography. Though it does some moving back and forth in time, it’s told in a much more straightforward fashion than his first, which employed a faux, third-party narrator. Here, Ray just writes his own story, focusing on The Kinks relationship with America, and therefore covering the period starting in the early 1970s when the band’s work ban was lifted. It includes the whole 1980s “arena rock” period during which I discovered The Kinks and became a fan, so was of particular interest.

Ray discusses some of his relationships he was in during this time, but with considerable discretion, so if you’re hoping for dirt on his volatile relationship with Chrissie Hynde, you’ll be disappointed. It’s mostly about the music, the band, and his uneasy relationship with the US itself—culminating in his shooting by a mugger in New Orleans. Getting shot is no joke, it turns out…

Another book with a soundtrack (yes, there’s also a Part 1; I just prefer Part 2)