Cultureguru's Weblog

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


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Taking the vax pass for a spin

After categorically stating (and repeating) that there was no way, no how that Ontario would require proof of vaccination to access certain public spaces, Premier Doug Ford announced that Ontarians would be required to show proof of vaccination to access certain public spaces. The change of heart itself was no surprise to most Ontarians, who’d by now witnessed many similar policy pivots, but its timing was: early September. That is, before the COVID case count was terrible and inevitably about to get worse before it could get better.

Ontarians were then surprised again to find that from roughly that point on—before the policy actually took effect, and despite the start of school—case numbers have improved. Just slightly improved, and still not as good as last summer, but definitely on a downward. Something that it not happening everywhere in Canada.

The avg. of daily COVID-19 cases has fallen from early September
And locally, the numbers have been a little better than the provincial average (after our “fun” Delta spike in June).

So Jean and I have been getting out there. A little.

I wanted to see the new Marvel movie, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings—mainly because I was a fan of the lead actor, Simu Liu, from Kim’s Convenience. But I also liked that it was an origin story, so it wouldn’t matter that I wasn’t versed in all the intricate details of the Marvel universe. That it was both a critical and box office hit also seemed promising.

I figured that seeing it at the Cineplex VIP theatre would be good, because then we could get an actual meal. Made it quite manageable to go there after work for the early evening showing, even though the VIP theatre is kind of across town from where we live.

COVID protocols in place when we went: They checked for vaccination proof (and mask wearing) at the entrance to the building. Then at the entrance to the VIP theatre, they did contact tracing. Each theatre was limited to 50% capacity; when we bought our tickets in advance, we selected our seats, and the system then blocked off the ones to either side of us so we knew no one would be sitting there.

Mind, the movie had been out for about four weeks by then, and it was week day, so though the 50% capacity of that rooms was 35 people, I think there were only about 10 there? And nobody else in our row.

So we felt pretty OK about unmasking to eat our dinner. We don’t get to the VIP theatre often. I still love the novelty of ordering food and wine (!) at my extra-comfortable, reclining seat. My edamame, fish taco, and Kim Crawford Sauvignon were all quite fine. Jean also liked the edamame and his Malbec, but was a little less impressed with the pulled pork.

As for the movie, I found it really fun. Jean complained about how many fight scenes it had. He’s right—so many fight scenes! Normally, this would bore me. But I thought these were quite well-choreographed fight scenes that did move the plot along. It was too bad Simu Liu didn’t get more funny lines—Awkwafina (who was great!) got most of those. But he looked good. I was diverted. Nice night out.

The following Monday, we went to see a different sort of film at a different sort of theatre (but with basically the same COVID protocols to follow): I’m Your Man, at the local art cinema, The Princess. The premise of that one is a woman scientist tasked with testing a humanoid robot designed to be the perfect partner for her.

Tom, the robot, is endowed with artificial intelligence that causes him to adapt to whatever his “partner” wants, though in case he has a partner who’s skeptical of the whole idea and trying to maintain objectivity. As he dials down the romantic gestures and ramps up the practical assistance he can provide, she gives him more mind, and then more heart…. It was quite engaging and thought-provoking and—though Jean thought they could have done even more with the premise—we both enjoyed it.

Then later in the week, we decided to try some more indoor dining, back at S&V Uptown. It’s our third time there since they moved to uptown Waterloo, and again we were really impressed. In terms of consistent food quality, I think it’s the closest we’ve come to Verses—the only issue is the tendency to sometimes over-salt the sauce, at least to our taste. But even that never ruins a dish, because nothing is ever drowning in sauce.

They had just launched their Fall five-course menu, and that’s what we had, again with shared paired wines (1.5 oz each per serving). Fried oysters, halibut with mushrooms, beef cheek, sponge cake…

(I also finally got to wear my new pantsuit.)

Meanwhile, in another bout of optimism, I’ve acquired tickets to a number of events at Centre in the Square for the coming months:

  • Blue Rodeo (in December)
  • Letterkenny Live (in February)
  • Billy Joel’s The Stranger by Classic Albums Live (in April)

These all depend on lifted capacity restrictions—which the government has just announced (albeit not yet for restaurants and gyms). So we’ll see how that goes.

What’s next?

I will mention that the rapid testing program that I blogged about previously has been shut down by the Ontario government. Not entirely—it can still be used by the small businesses it was originally intended for. But Communitech’s extension to community groups and individuals was making the province look bad, I guess, so they put a halt to it.

Meanwhile, there is some opinion that wider deployment of rapid tests are key to ending the pandemic. Until the Ontario government comes to agree with that, here are a few options for getting them:

  • The tests are available free to businesses, who can then make them available to their employees. So talk to your company about it. (If you own a business, get some on that basis.)
  • The Canadian Shield now sells them. About $10 each, so not exactly cheap, but better than the $40 each at Shoppers Drug Mart.
  • Travel to a place like the UK or Nova Scotia, where they’re widely available and cheap (though I have no idea if it’s just as easy for tourists to acquire them)?
Play safe going out (rapid tests) and going in (condoms)
Nova Scotia public health campaign

Now for a bit of trivia: What would you guess is the most highly vaccinated age group in Waterloo region? The over 80s, perhaps?

Nope. It’s the 18 to 29s. Followed not far by the 30 to 39s. (Frankly, my age group are a bit slackers here, at possibly the lowest rate of “at least one dose”?)

Percent vaccination coverage for WR Residents by Age Group
Source: Waterloo Region COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution Task Force

The kids are all right—and they’ve earned their way into bars, restaurants, gyms, and concert halls.


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Killarney Mountain Lodge

Originally we’d been thinking about flying to Nova Scotia in August, but then noted that there wasn’t a single car available for rent in the entire province that month. (This is due to the pandemic-caused chip shortage.) Then, we considering going there in early September, but we ran into the issue that our catsitter had a similar thought, and was flying to New Brunswick. Scary Covid projections for Fall were also starting to fly about then as well, and we got a little weirded out about being reliant on airlines to get us back home.

So switched it all up and decided to just drive to Killarney Mountain Lodge for four nights.

Killarney Mountain Lodge at night
Killarney Mountain Lodge at night
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Day in Beamsville

We took last Monday off and spent it visiting the Beamsville area. We started at a winery called Good Earth Food and Wine Co., which earned the honour by being the only place we could find there that was open for lunch on Mondays. It still proved an excellent choice, though. Their patio overlooks their lovely grounds, and their bistro menu is small-ish but clearly focused on their strengths. We quite enjoyed the whipped chicken liver parfait appetizer we shared, and my main course wood-oven pizza du jour, featuring bechamel, wild mushrooms, and truffle oil, was also lovely. (I don’t recall what Jean’s main was, but he was happy with it.)

I enjoyed my lunch with a glass of their orange Pinot Grigio, while Jean had the sparkling rose (80% Pinot Noir, 20% Chardonnay). We liked both of those enough to buy a bottle of each (Pinot was $18, the sparkling $29), then went for an (also outdoor) wine tasting. With that effort, we came away with a bottle each of the oaked 2017 Chardonnay ($27), and the off-dry Betty’s Blend white (not listed on their website, so I guess you can only buy it in person). We decided against the Viognier.

Good Earth Food and Wine company
Photo from https://winesinniagara.com/2019/07/good-vibrations-at-the-good-earth-food-and-wine-co/

Our next stop was at The Organized Crime Winery—selected partly because I liked the name! (I should note that, based our current wine stocks, we’d decided in advance to only try whites and roses, and the outdoor tastings in the heat of the day only strengthened that resolve. So apologies to red wine fans, I guess.) At Organized Crime, we picked out three 2020 wines to try: the Pinot Gris, an orange wine blend called Sacrilege, and a Sauvignon Blanc. Though we didn’t know it when making the selections, apparently 2020 was an excellent year for Beamsville Bench wines, so keep that in mind.

And we indeed found all three wines complex and interesting, but the Pinot Gris—which interestingly was more orange in color than the orange wine—was far and away our favourite. In purchasing a couple bottles, we found it’s a common opinion, and they sell out of Pinot Gris quickly every year. It’s $21 a bottle.

Next up: We’d made a reservation for tasting at Kew Vineyard Estate Winery, another “new to use” winery. They seated us at a lovely, treed outdoor setting and provided a little menu of wines, albeit with no tasting notes. But our server was quite willing and able to provide them for any we were interested in, and we also used our phone to look things up on the website.

Kew Winery outdoor tasting area
Speaking of their website, this is where I got this image, showing part of the tasting area.

We knew this would be our last wine stop of the day, so we did two rounds of three tastings. As a result, I don’t recall everything we tried! But I do know what we liked enough to buy:

  • 2015 Old Vines Riesling, a real classic, delicious, dry-style Niagara Riesling, $16 a bottle (we got two)
  • 2018 Rosalie, a rose of 100% Pinot Noir, a lovely drink for $30
  • 2015 Fumé Blanc, which is an oaked Sauvignon Blanc—it does have a real smokey taste. Quite an interesting wine to learn about! The name was coined in California back in the day when the Sauvignon Blanc grape wasn’t much of a draw. One tip: No controls over the term Fumé Blanc, so hard to be sure just what kind of wine you’re getting. $20
  • North Cider Brut—a dry apple-based sparkling, which they call “Normandy style”, which I think would be just fine with food (like chicken). $13.

Despite it being somewhat warm and sticky, we finished off the day with a little hike at Ball’s Falls. It was good to get some walking in, though the falls themselves weren’t at their most impressive.

Ball's Falls
Though the Falls do look pretty nice in this Jean photo!


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Started back doing those things we used to do

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Traveling to all the hot spots

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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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Second wave sojourn

Whereas our last vacation took place in the comfort of declining case numbers and the ease of doing activities outdoors, this time, case numbers were steadily increasing, and it was Fall. The need to use vacation days remained, however, and the idea of just staying home for a week wasn’t that appealing. Road trips remained the only feasible option, but to where?

At one point we were to head north for a wedding, but that all changed when the private gathering rules changed to a drastically reduced number, such that we were no longer invited.

We instead settled on Ottawa, followed by the Kingston area. Ottawa had became something of provincial hotspot for cases (Code red: Ottawa reaches highest level on pandemic scale), but we stuck with it anyway, using the following chart as a guide to what activities to do (hike, stay at a hotel, visit museums), and not (meet with friends, go into a bar).

Source: https://informationisbeautiful.net/visualizations/covid-19-coronavirus-infographic-datapack/#activities
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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 wouldn’t have wanted to go to the country to the south even if we were allowed to, which we weren’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… )

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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.

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