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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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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The incredible shrinking vacation

Jean hadn’t had any time off since October, and the last week of April was appearing to be the first opportunity to take some. Clearly we weren’t going to be traveling to any distant shores, but this long enough ago that we at first thought we might be able to visit some family. When doing that started to seem unwise (even despite our vaccination status), it still looked as though we could take ourselves somewhere in Ontario.

And then, given increased restrictions amidst rising case counts, we thought maybe just staying over at a local inn (that has great food, to be served in our rooms) for 2 or 3 nights could be possible.

And then, there was the stay-at-homes order amidst still-rising cases, and the inn moved to offering takeout only, and we thought, well… Time off work would still be nice. We can do day trips to hike. We can get some interesting takeout.

And then…

But I’ll get to that.

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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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Christmas 2020

This year, like most other people, we weren’t able to do what we normally do at Christmas time. A chance to develop our new traditions, perhaps? Except… Will we really want to nostalgically recall anything from 2020?

So hey, best to focus on the now, and on the “what you can do” vs. what you can’t. In 2021 and subsequent, we’ll see if anything sticks.

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Fancy takeout

At the red level that Waterloo region is currently categorized as, indoor dining is still allowed, but with each table restricted to four people and the entire restaurant to ten. Those places that choose to stay open under these restrictions are generally offering takeout as well.

Loloan Lobby Bar has a really interesting approach to this, in offering 3-course dinner boxes of mostly prepared items that you heat up and assemble yourself at home. They have a new combination each day. We tried it earlier this month.

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The cats’ perspectives on 2020

For most humans, 2020 just hasn’t been the best-est ever. But for the pets of the new work-from-home cohort, I think it’s been a happy time. Cats might be more independent than dogs, but I believe they still enjoy having more opportunities to make demands of their humans.

March 2020, and no stress for these guys at all
Whereas I had to adjust to my new office-mates being a bit on the lazy side

Doesn’t necessarily mean that everything‘s coming up roses for them, however.

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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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