Cultureguru's Weblog

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


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So many screens and not much to watch

We did all our Boxing Day shopping online. We wanted a new big-screen TV for the downstairs TV room; many were on sale for Boxing Day; and you can get the same prices online as at the store. And you can often put in your order even before December 26. And they’ll bring it to you! Talking about this, though, I learned:

  1. A number of people remain nervous about purchasing big-ticket items online.
  2. Said nervousness is now completely foreign to me, as “online” has become my main “store” of choice for so many things.

There is a downside to it, though, in the lack of complete instant gratification. Delivery is fast, but not instantaneous. And with the TV, there was some confusion over the credit card to use, and it took a little longer than usual to arrive. Meantime, the other pieces we realized we needed to make the new TV “go” showed up: The new receiver with its six HDMI ports (versus the zero HDMI on the old one); the HDMI cables themselves; the TV mounting rack. All sitting around rather useless without a TV to pull it all together.

But hey, now they’re one big happy family. And that HDMI thing really does simplify the connections: the receiver, TV, PVR, recordable DVD, international DVD, and computer, all linked to one another in pretty short order. Where the old way, it always seemed to turn into a full-day project. Now we just have to consolidate remotes, because we’re currently juggling six of them!

Our downstairs rooms is pretty big, so we went with a 55′ screen, and I think it looks gorgeous. I thought my old receiver was actually pretty good, lack of HDMI notwithstanding, but this new one is definitely bringing out the bass in a way I hadn’t heard before (from the exact same speakers). Both DVDs can now properly render DTS and other high-quality sound streams. (Neither is BluRay—we had to leave our BluRay upstairs, where it doubles as the receiver for that TV—but that’s minor.)

And finally, finally, it’s easy to project anything from the computer onto a TV screen.

So the only issue is—there just isn’t a lot of good stuff to watch, is there? Admittedly, on TV, there was the Christmas rerun break, and now things are starting again—Big Bang, Daily Show, The Mentalist, etc And I recently discovered I have FX Canada (when did Rogers give me that?), and Louis is a pretty good show. But I haven’t been passionate about a television program in quite some time. It seems like everything really good is on HBO, which I’m just not paying for. The only new network series we really got into, The Last Resort, has been cancelled (though does seem to have a new episode tonight, but not sure how many more).

And web viewing? It’s a bit of an exercise in frustration if you’re Canadian, isn’t it? The networks have stuff, but it’s pretty limited. The American and UK stuff is blocked in Canada, unless you do some VPN shenanigans. iTunes has stuff, but it’s kind of expensive. You can actually find a surprising amount of stuff on YouTube (whole movies and shows), but the picture quality is often not that great, and you get the period “freezing”. We will be trying Netflix, finally, but we all know the Canadian selection and picture quality is more limited.

And I also know I have some sort of data cap with Rogers. That hasn’t been issue up to now, but how much web content can I watch until it is?

I may just have to turn to my (if I do say so myself) excellent collection of personal DVDs. Buffy marathon, anyone?


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Pre-Christmas

My husband and I generally have our own little Christmas celebration the weekend before the actual day, when we join in the craziness of celebrating with the large extended family. This year my husband was on call that weekend, so we had to work around that, but that’s quite a bit easier when you’re only dealing with two people.

The exchanging of “stuff”

Aiming to give each other anything major as Christmas gifts seemed sort of ridiculous as we’re currently honing in new TV and sound system already. This not long after getting the new computer, some clothes… You get the idea. So we just did “stocking stuffer” kind of things, which, as Jean said, is way more fun! The amusement of each having bought each the same wine accessory… The silly but cute gadgets from those catalogs… Chocolates and wine (which needs to be replenished constantly, anyway)… The fact he actually listened when I said I needed a new closet thingie for storing my jewelry in…

Bra on jewelry holder

So, the black thing in this photo is a dress-shaped thingie with a hanger top that has loops in the back for hanging necklaces, and pouches in front for holding earrings and bracelets and such. It will be perfect, but it’s empty at the moment (since I just got it), and therefore seemed in need of some adornment. That takes the form of a VSC bra, which—though I ordered it myself, for myself—was still something of a Christmas surprise.

First, it arrived in record time, despite my not having paid for fast shipping. (Thanks, Canada Post.) Second, I bought it mainly because I thought my current strapless wasn’t pretty enough to wear under a dress. (Which basically makes no sense, since the point of a strapless is that no one sees it. But never mind that.) The pleasant surprise was that it was even prettier than I’d expected, with its little sparkles and lacing details. I almost felt it should be seen. So here it is! (I ignored Jean’s suggestion that I model it. This isn’t that kind of blog.)

Pre-Christmas dinn-ah

I went for pretty simple-to-prepare, traditional-ish food, in quantities suitable for two.

Rock cornish hen with cranberries and mixed vegetables

This was Rock Cornish hens, prepared by sticking a mustard/rosemary paste under the skin, then baking it at 425. This produced nice crisp skin (which the diet recipe said to discard, but I poo-pooed that suggestion) and tasty, moist meat. The “gravy” was a mix of the juice with red wine, chicken broth, and seasoning.

I served this with mixed roasted vegetables—red potatoes, sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, carrots—in olive oil, white wine, and seasoning, baked at the same temperature as the meat, and a homemade cranberry sauce (cranberries, apple cider, sugar). As Jean had to limit all alcohol while on duty, we served it with a nice but not spectacular Cotes du Rhone.

Dessert stayed on the homey theme: A cinnamon apple crisp, with raisins, served with vanilla yogurt and port.

Humble crumble


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Dress shopping

Though I am interested in the US election, there’s nothing I can do about it, and I really have nothing to add to the huge, huge cacophony of voices on it.

So this is a politics-free post. About dresses.

This year, I decided to shop for a new Christmas dress. I’ve avoided having to do this for a number of years now, thanks to dresses acquired for other occasions (weddings) or on a whim (vacation) or so long at the back of the closet they’ve come back into style (more or less).

But this year, a new option seemed in order. It had been so long since I’d deliberately gone out dress shopping that I wasn’t sure where to go, but it turns out the web is pretty handy source for that sort of information. Chateau style was just not me, Bay just had too many options, Cleo not enough, Fairweather’s website sucks… But Laura looked good. So that is where I went.

Only… It turned out to be a factory outlet, so not too many of the dress styles I’d noted were actually available. Still, there were a lot of dresses, all neatly organized by size.

I grabbed some, tried them on, and found a pattern emerging: The dresses fit (good), didn’t look terrible (good)… But none were that great, either. I wasn’t too excited about any, and certainly couldn’t settle down to one.

But I didn’t want to have to find another store to shop in either (did I mention that though I do quite like dresses, I’m not overly fond of shopping, per se)? So back to the racks I went, picking out a few more options. I nearly ignored the sparkly, poofy prom / bridesmaids dresses, except… One sort of called to me. So what the heck. It joined the pile.

Round 2 in the dressing room went a little better, confirming that only one dress from Round 1 was really worthwhile. It fit well, flattering the figure, and had a fun color scheme. But it just didn’t seem quite dressy enough for Christmas, you know? It looked like this:

Black, red, and pink dress

Round 2 also included this flapper-style dress in a striking royal blue, which the saleslady said was quite popular this season. It was probably the most comfortable dress I tried on. It of course has that straight style, but it didn’t look bad on me. On the hanger, it looks like this:

Blue flapper dress

And then, there was the confection dress. Mauve, short, poofy, a bit sparkly… And completely adorable. Fit perfectly. Very flattering, really, as it hugged my thinner parts and poofed out over my thicker ones. Ended just above the knee, covering thigh, showing calf, all good.

I kind of loved it. But I also kind of thought I was 20 years too old to wear it.

Did I mention I was shopping alone? So except for the very busy salesladies, I had no one who could give me a second opinion here.

And at factory outlets? All sales are final. And, there aren’t multiple copies of each dress. Mostly, it was one, maybe two left. If you leave it, you might lose it.

On the other hand… At a factory outlet? Prices are way lower!

So you know how this story ends. I went shopping for one dress, and I now have three. Hey, I ballroom dance, I go to fancy restaurants… I’ll have opportunity to wear them. (You hear my justification.) Plus, all three together were less than the price of many of the new ones I was considering.

That night, I modeled them all for Jean, to see which he thought I should wear to his company Christmas party. This was his pick:

Mauve dress

So I’m thinking… a black throw of some kind, black hose—maybe with the seam up the back, if I can find that—and a cool bracelet. Even though I find bracelets annoying.

And quite importantly: Fresh dye job on the hair. Because this is not a dress that will go well with gray roots.


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Getting it done

We’ve never been the fastest at completing home renovations, and the work on our downstairs TV room has been no different. We got the new fireplace put in some time ag0, but there’s no visible sign of progress since. Doesn’t mean no progress at all, actually, as some of the new cabinets have been built and painted. But they’re not in place yet. Because first, we have to change the flooring.

To finally kick that into gear, we decided, finally, that we would pay someone else to install it. Then the shopping part went surprisingly well and much faster than we expected; we really didn’t have much trouble agreeing on a style. (Frankly, it’s similar in look to the upstairs kitchen tile. Our tastes are consistent. Once we went shopping for couches, and without realizing it, ended up buying the same ones we already had, just in a different color and fabric.)

We toyed with the idea of installing vinyl tile before returning to tile laminate, on the thought that might make for a better exercise surface. (The TV room is to become a combo fitness/TV room, the former fitness room an office.) We got it all quoted, throwing in the installation of hardwood on the stairs and hallway upstairs (a project that has been languishing even longer than the downstairs work). It’s not cheap, but we do have sufficient funds set aside for it.

We’ll try to book it for the end of September. So now our troubles begin.

Just because someone else is installing the flooring does not mean we don’t have work to do. Au contraire. The room is pretty big, it’s full of stuff, and a lot of that stuff weighs a ton. And the flooring guys are not going to move it all for us. Frankly, pondering where the heck we’re going to temporarily store all that stuff is giving me slight palpitations. (Not to mention how the two of us are going to manage to lift certain things…)

And to add to the fun—though it’s not really related—we’re also looking to change our bank accounts. RBC bank fees have doubled and tripled on us lately (still not entirely sure why), and a visit to them brought only an offer of temporary, partial relief. BMO, though, has a no-fee bank account with no strings (no minimum balance, or anything). And, there’s a BMO bank machine at our next-door mall. The only thing we would have small fees for would be the rare instances when we actually have to get a teller to do something for us.

So, it makes sense to switch. But man, switching bank accounts is a pain. Even though BMO also has a service to help with the switchover, attempting to do it is still somewhat boggling my mind. How do you juggle the two accounts in the interim phase, keeping sufficient balances in each to make sure all the bills are paid—even keeping track of what bill is being paid from where? Gah. More palpitations.

September should be fun.


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Liking to cook

Watching her partner prepare dinner, an acquaintance of mine said, “I don’t know how you can find any aspect of cooking fun.” She, needless to say, did not particularly enjoy cooking.

This did get me to thinking, though—why do I like cooking?

Because there are definitely cooking tasks I’m not particularly fond of. I have a friend who adores all the meticulous aspects, like chopping things finely and removing meat from bones. Exactly the sort of fiddly or slightly disgusting tasks I don’t care for. I also don’t like the super-boring ones, like stirring something “constantly” for 10 minutes or more.

So when it comes to that sort of thing, I have a few tactics to cope:

  1. Don’t do it. Like, I don’t make risotto—it requires too much stirring—and I don’t peel and seed tomatoes, because hello? Who has that kind of time, and what’s wrong tomato peel and seeds anyway?
  2. Buy it already done. Your boneless chicken, your deveined shrimp, your peeled and chopped squash, your frozen chopped onions.
  3. Find a more efficient way to do it. The Cuisinart is one of my best friends for grating and chopping, and lot of things turn out to be easier to peel or skin after they’re cooked, so I wait and do it then.

But despite all these avoidance manoeuvre, I really do like cooking. I do all the cooking home, because I want to. I cook just for myself, too. (And I don’t mean a grilled cheese sandwich; I mean a proper full meal with all the food groups.) I just don’t relate to people who find it always tastes better “if someone else made it”.

I think I’ve nailed down why.

It’s all about control.

I am, possibly, a bit of a control freak. And cooking for myself is the very best way to ensure that I eat nothing but what I want to eat. And much as I love some forms of convenience, I don’t like that to go too far. I don’t like pre-seasoned, pre-assembled, pre-cooked stuff. I want to do that. My flavors, my combinations of ingredients, cooked as much as I think appropriate.

It’s relaxing.

Really, cooking is pretty zen—at least the way I do it. I crank up my tunes, I pull out the recipe or recipes of the day (all planned out in advance), I gather my ingredients (all purchased ahead), I make dinner. Sure, I may get the occasional stress bubble when the main course and both side dishes all need something done at the same time, or something isn’t quite working, but that isn’t typical.

It’s a mini-accomplishment every day.

I’m not curing cancer, but at least I’ve created something decent from scratch yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

I like to eat.

Back to only cooking what I want to eat: I’m usually looking forward to eating what I’m making. One of the many, many reasons I could not be a chef is that those guys (they are mostly guys) are cooking for others, and that would just not be motivating enough for me.

Finish it up, place everything nicely on a plate, pour a matching glass of wine… Eat. Instant gratification! How many other tasks that you do in day offer the same?


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Québec City!

I don’t really have that much to say about our recent, quick visit to Québec City as all we did—apart from the concert—is what we always do there: amble about, do a little shopping, look at art, enjoy the romantic “old city” feel of the place, and eat at great restaurants. We were not bored, but it’ not much to write home about. But Jean took such great pictures there, I have to say something!

Quebec City street

Accommodations

It did strike me, this time, how we never, ever seem to stay at the same place twice when we visit. We were spotting our past hotels all over. This time out, of course, was a new one, Hotel le Grande Allée, just outside the gates of Old Quebec. Having achieved cost reductions by using travel points, it was by far the biggest room we have ever had in Québec City: It featured not only a sitting room, but two full bedrooms. Interesting, but rather more than a couple requires.

Gates to Old Quebec

Gates to Old Quebec, just down from our hotel

It was on a super-busy street, teaming with bars, cafes, and restaurants that were going strong Saturday night. So can affirm the hotel had pretty good sound proofing. Steep to park there, though.

Weather

The weekend weather could not have been better for our visit: Sunny both days, with a high around 21.

Hotel Frontenac and field

The weather, she be perfect

Food

For meals, we went to the reliable Crémaillère for dinner before the concert, and found it still had excellent service and very fine food. I shall have to contact Where to Eat in Canada to see why they don’t list it.

Sunday lunch was at a randomly selected place where I had a great platter of antipasto’s like duck pate, house-smoked salmon, roasted red peppers, prociutto, and olives. Jean had the cheese platter (no surprise).

Quebec terasse

We had lunch on a térasse something like this. (And yes, this is a photo of Jean’s)

Sunday dinner was the coolest, though, as we went to restaurant Toast!, which was entirely enjoyable. We were able to dine in their recently “open for the season” covered patio, which has a very neat atmosphere. Service was great but not stuffy, as evidenced by the staff uniform of a red plaid shirt over black pants. And their menu is just appetizers—no main courses. Which was perfect, because we weren’t starved, but everything sounded so good.

So we were able to share four: An amazing mushroom crostini; very nice asparagus and crab; le foie gras, specialty of the house; and a lamb and gnochi creation. Each with a matching glass of wine. The small serving sizes left plenty of room for dessert, which was (big surprise) chocolate for me, cheese for Jean.

Shopping

We did look at art, seriously considering one painting (which we’re still considering), but made only small-ticket purchases while there, of items such as chocolate truffles. And shoe laces. (Really.)

Street art

This piece of street art was not for sale

Students

We had two near encounters with the student protestors: we heard their pots clanging away nearby while having lunch, then after visiting the Assemblée Nationale at night. We returned to our hotel room, turned on the TV, and saw a “live” shot of protestors at the Assemblée Nationale. Meaning they must have arrived five, ten minutes after we left.

Assemblee Nationale fountain

Assemblée Nationale shortly before being overrun by student protestors

I admire their tenacity, but jeez I wish they would put it toward something actually worth fighting for!

Entertainment

Our audiobook for the journey was Sacre Bleu: A Comedy d’Art by Christopher Moore. It was the first book of his either of us had read, and we both really liked it. Very interesting weaving of all these Impressionist painters with a fantastical element. It also allowed us to great enjoyment out of lines such as “Accident. Couldn’t be helped.” and “Not that Prussian shit!”, which no one understood but us. That’s always fun.

More photos in the gallery


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Visiting the Canyon lands

We’ve recently returned from a trip with the following itinerary:

  • 2 days in Zion, Utah
  • 2 days in Sedonah, Arizona
  • 2 days in Grand Canyon Village, Arizona
  • 2 days in Las Vegas Nevada

Map of area

(Not quite our itinerary, but gives you an idea)

Getting around: Why drive when you can walk?

We flew into Vegas, rented a car, and drove ourselves to the other locations. (And by that I mean, Jean did all the driving.) But it was still a pretty active vacation, because we managed to get some walking in on the driving days, and on the non-driving ones, we did a lot of hiking. And the thing about Canyon areas is, there a lot of uphills! So it wasn’t just ambling down paved lanes.

On Grand Canyon trail

Even in sprawling Vegas, since we abandoned the car as soon as we arrived, we got around mostly on foot.

We did use a bit of public transit, trying out the cool monorail in Vegas, and having to take the free park shuttle to get out of Springdale (the little town right outside Zion) into Zion park, and to get to the various trail heads. Grand Canyon Village also had a free shuttle, but it wasn’t as frequent or as late-running as the Zion. So we did some car-supplementing there, especially at night.

But still, pretty active. And I have to say, that does wonders for sleep. And gives you quite the appetite, too. (For food. What did you think I meant?)

We’ve discovered that quite a few people actually visit all these parks from a Las Vegas base, driving out and back in the same day. If you have limited mobility, such that hiking isn’t too feasible anyway, it’s probably a reasonable approach. The landscape is very interesting—sometimes, but not always, gorgeous—but so varied and different from here, it does make for good drives. And Las Vegas is cheaper to stay in than the other places.

Route 66 scene

Not our rental car! A view from Route 66, one of the interesting drives you can do around these parts

But our best days were definitely the hiking ones, not the car ones. So if healthy and wealthy enough to do so, I’d strongly recommend getting out of Vegas and spending non-driving time in the other places.

Trail in Zion

You can’t get here by car! (trail in Zion)

The weather outside is (not at all) frightful

The weather was perfect. It was sunny everyday. It was warm, but not too warm. Despite SP15, I even got a bit of a tan.

I’m not sure that was such great luck. It is desert area, after all; warm and sunny’s not so unusual. Still, we heard that the week before we were there, Grand Canyon had turned so frigid, they actually got some snow. And Vegas got a flash flood that left knee deep water in parts.

So maybe it wasn’t great luck, but at least some luck. (Hmm, maybe I should have tried the slots at Vegas. Oh well.)

And, we were even graced with a full moon, which apart from looking gorgeous, was helpful in those small towns which (unlike Vegas) are not very illuminated at night. Especially given that the sun set around 6:00.

Moon over Grand Canyon

Hotels: Living in the lap of luxury

This wasn’t an organized tour, so we booked all our hotels a little haphazardly, over a series of weeks. In Zion and Grand Canyon, it quickly became clear that things were selling out fast, so the main criteria became, which hotel has space? In Sedona and Las Vegas, we were able to deal-hunt more, and picked out places mostly based on value (most stars for the least money).

So we were repeatedly surprised at just how fancy the places we were staying at were. In Zion, we had a full suite with complete kitchen, a hot tub outside, and a beautiful view of the park. In Sedona, we got valet parking, porters, free yoga classes, another hot tub, and walk-in closet. It also had the most gorgeous dining area, with a view, and on the Monday night, a great guitar player performing. Really, super-romantic.

And Vegas—our cheapest accommodation—was the best room of all! Again a full suite with complete living room as well as bathroom, two flat-screen TVs, walk-in closet (of course! Too bad we were never bothering to unpack), enormous bathtub (Jean said you could get a full workout walking around in there while taking your morning shower), escort by golf cart… 9 pools (all heated)… Crazy.

The only “normal” room—a perfectly fine room of the type we normally stay in—was at Grand Canyon Village. That was the most expensive one of all.

Hell is other people: The crowds

Actually, it wasn’t that bad. But, we weren’t exactly the only people there. All accommodations in Zion/Springdale and Grand Canyon Village were fully booked. (In Utah, they post Sorry! instead of No Vacancies. Isn’t that cute?) But where Zion had some crowded buses and busy restaurants, it really wasn’t annoying. Like, we never made restaurant reservations, and that was never a problem.

But in Grand Canyon, there really were people everywhere, all the time. Really hard to get parking, most any of time of day. Really hard to get a seat at a restaurant, especially the better ones. (One we had to reserve weeks ahead, and still got only an 8:45 dining time; another we had to wait 45 minutes before being seated.) In Zion, on some trails, we hardly met anyone. Not so at Grand Canyon.

Crowd at sunset in Grand Canyon

Joining the crowd to watch the sunset at Grand Canyon

In Sedona, the trail we did was really quiet; hardly met anyone. I guess most people were visiting the little town, which was quite a bit busier. But manageable. And except for one very popular restaurant, no dining issues here, either.

Las Vegas is packed with people. Especially at night. On the streets, in the hotels, everywhere. But, great people watching, especially given the higher percentage of attractive people here (especially female, but some men as well). And of course, so many restaurants, they’re not all going to be booked.

But all in all, if this is sort of the low season, can’t imagine what it’s like in these places in the high season…

You didn’t come all this way for the food, did you?

Well, no, we didn’t. But, with the help of a few guide books, we mostly did pretty well in the dining department. It was not a big foodie focus (for once), but with about two exceptions (both in the Grand Canyon—who knew breakfast could be so dire?), all the meals ranged from decent to very good.

A real Mexican focus to the food options here, which unfortunately made us realize that we get tired of Mexican food faster than other types (despite it being better prepared there than anywhere around here). The El Tovar at Grand Canyon was touted as a five-star restaurant; I’d say that’s generous. It was good, but in local terms, I’d say it was Solé good rather than Verses good. But it was just a gorgeous place to be at; too bad it was too dark to see the view.

The beautiful restaurant at Sedona also had really good food, though with very disorganized service. Still, that benefited us one night, as they were so late bringing us the wine, we got it free! And pretty much every place we tried in Springdale was rather remarkably good.

In Las Vegas, we had supper in Paris, lunch in New York. (I just like saying that.) And back in Sedona, we did an Arizona wine tasting. I only learned on the flight over that they even made wine there. None of the restaurants seemed to serve it, but two of the whites and one of the reds were very enjoyable.

Dining in Vegas

Sorry; probably more of me than you want to see. But when in Vegas…

Leaving Las Vegas

And what did we think of Vegas, really? Worth visiting… for a day. Never seen anything like it before. But if you don’t gamble or drink your face off, it doesn’t take that long to get tired of the crowds, the noise, the smoky casinos (that all look and sound the same). And mainly what there is to do there (besides gambling and drinking your face off) is visiting big, lavish hotels and fancy designer stores. Which gets old.

But, they do have good shows. And we did get same-day discount tickets to one of those, the Cirque du Soleil Beatles Love. It was really excellent. It was compelling in itself, but I also felt it gave me new insight into the familiar Beatles music. Even at a discount, not cheap, but certainly my favorite part of Vegas.

Cirque Du Soleil at Mirage

For more photos, see http://jean-cathy.smugmug.com/Travel/Zion-Utah-Sedona-Arizona-Grand/19635036_qgqcMK#1539211510_N2cb2X3

(And Jean will be continuing to add and update that area in the coming days.)

And for a particularly detailed account of the trip: http://jean-cathy.com/cathy/photos/nevada-utah-arizona.htm


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What’s your point?

So I finally got my Scene card replaced.

I lost it quite some time ago, and I always found it irritating that I had to make a phone call—rather than fill in on some kind of online form—to get it replaced. So I didn’t bother. I don’t really go to Cineplex theatres all that often. I don’t like them. They’re tacky and crowded. Most of their movies play either too early, or too late. (6:45 or 10:00? These are my choices?) After charging me too much, they play too many commercials and movies. (The “pre-show”, they call it. Ha!)

But, if you want to see 3D or big-scale epics—and I sometimes do—they’re the only game in town.

And it would niggle at me that I’d have to say “No” to the “Do you have a Scene card?” prompt. So, having formed the plan to see The Social Network this weekend (review soon, but in short, it was good) I made the phone call and a new card is on its way. So someday, I may earn a free movie. At the theatre I hate going to.

Apparently Canadians are world leaders in having and using loyalty cards. Why just shop, when you can shop and earn points?

In fact, points accumulation is our cornerstone of our family budget. We have a joint MBNA TravelRewards card, and we use it as much as possible. Because we have family in Timmins, and it’s far to drive there, but expensive to fly. But with this card, a mere 15,000 points gets you there by air, for only the cost of the taxes on the ticket. Yes, it has an $85 annual fee, but trust me, we save quite a bit more than that on each ticket. And yes, the interest rate on it is appalling, so it’s absolutely critical to pay it off in full each month. But so far, that’s not been a problem. And the points have also taken us to Boston and San Francisco.

But why stop there, eh? (That would hardly be Canadian.) So despite the resulting bulging wallet, I also carry:

  • Air Miles card. Though I get the majority of my Air Miles by paying my Primus phone bill, and few more from shopping online through their portal, I still carry the actual card around in case of stops at LCBO. Of course, I don’t use these points to travel—they accumulate far too slowly for that. Mostly, I cash them in for gift cards to Chapters or iTunes. Which take three weeks to arrive, and then you have to go through the bother of redeeming before you have any actual free stuff in hand. Kind of an exercise in patience, this card.
  • Shopper’s Optimum card. Because I do go to Shopper’s semi-regularly. I don’t have much strategy here. I usually just wait until it gets to $10 off, then cash that in the next time I spend at least $60 there. I have no idea if that’s a wise approach.
  • Club Sobey’s, because it’s the nearest grocery story to my house, and actually, points accumulate pretty fast on this puppy, at least if you spend as much on food as we seem to. Strategy here is to redeem $15 once it reaches $30 off. (Because it’s faster to get from $15 to $30 off again than to start from $0.)
  • Beat Goes on card. A retro card, matching the retro products they carry (physical CD, LPs, and DVDs): Made of paper, you get a stamp with each purchase; when it’s full, you get a free CD or DVD.

Then there’s all those stores who track your points for you, at the store, sans plastic. Meaning that I’m currently also accumulating points at:

Is that a lot? Am I a points queen, completely typical, or just a lightweight?

Apparently, I don’t see much of a downside to these reward programs. I did hear that those who are savvy about using points credit card (meaning they always pay them off, but also accumulate enough points to get rewards) have a slightly inflationary effect for everyone else who doesn’t do that. That is, prices rise slightly for all to helping pay for my rewards. Umm, sorry about that, I guess.

And yes, there probably are times I’ve selected a particular product or even store because I get points there. But I don’t think it’s out of control yet.

Then, finally, the whole privacy issue. But really, given how much Google, for example, knows about me, what’s the big deal about Sobeys Inc. knowing that I buy food? Or Air Miles thinking I’m a wino with a modest phone bill and occasional online shopping habit? And Cineplex? They must think I haven’t been to a movie there in three years, when the Social Network caused me to break my fast.


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Je me souviens

Jean: What does the Je me souviens on the Quebec license plates refer to, again?

Me: I don’t know. I can’t remember.

As the last of our “we need to do something this summer” expeditions, we went to Québec City for Labour Day, taking a couple extra days off on each end, because we were driving. We’ve been to Québec City quite a few times before—hard to remember how many; at least 8—but even though we tend to do the same sorts of things each time (art galleries, walking, dining), no visit is quite the same.

Itinerary

We left Thursday after work (and dinner at home) and got as far as Trenton. Friday we made it into Québec City around 4:00 pm. Monday morning we left Québec City and ended up in Ottawa, again around 4:00 pm. Tuesday morning we drove home from there, arriving around 5:00 pm.

On the way there, we took the 401 (well, 407 through Toronto) and went through Montreal, both of which were unpleasant. (Though did lead to the discovery that the GPS can detect high traffic in TO in Montreal—I’m still not sure how.) So on the way back, we went the backroads. Took a little longer, but was worth it.

Accommodations

In Trenton we just stayed at a Comfort Inn, where we got a good CAA deal. In Ottawa, through Expedia, we got another good price on the Cartier Place Suite Hotel, which is older, but we did have a full kitchen, and living room separate from the bedroom and bathroom. And it had a pool and hot tub, which we used (once we finally found it).

In Québec City, I think for the first time, we stayed outside the old city, at a Bed and Breakfast. It was a nice place with friendly hosts, and where we got to meet other people, from Washington DC, Iles-de-la-Madeleine, and Wasaga Beach. We had our own room and bathroom, though the TV was shared (and we ended up not watching at all. And not really missing it, either.) And breakfast was great: cheese, fresh baking and a variety breads, fresh fruit, cereals, and yogurt.

So the main deal was the 20-minute walk to get to the old town, particularly that rain was predicted on the weekend. But what we learned was that Québec City has a decent bus system, at least for getting from this part of town to the old town. In the end, though, the weather turned out better than predicted—cloudy, but not that much rain—so we only partook of buses once, avoiding one of the uphill climbs by taking the electric écolobus up to outside the gates.

Otherwise, we just did a heck of a lot of walking. To and from the B&B at least twice each day (once in heeled shoes—only me), then walking to the various sites we wanted to see. And we were pretty proud that we didn’t suffer from sore muscles or other injuries from doing so. Anyway, we certainly needed the exercise, giving the…

Dining

Jean’s friend: So, what are you planning to go see in Québec City?

Jean: See? We don’t go there to see things. We go there to eat.

And we were pretty successful on that front. Obviously, the road meals were fairly mediocre—Tim’s; Saint Hubert (which has some nostalgia value, but the food is meh); absurdly bad service at the cafe attached to the Cartier Place Suite Hotel; and “Roland’s Fine Dining”, which really wasn’t, but was in fact a cut above all else in this category.

Our big dinner was supposed to be at the three-star Laurie Raphaël, a restaurant we’d been hearing about for years. But it turned out to be a little disappointing.

The restaurant was completely full, and the tables fairly close together, so it was somewhat noisy. And while the service wasn’t bad, by any means, it wasn’t quite three-star, with, for example, the wine sometimes arriving a little after the course it was supposed to accompany.

We both had the “menu surprise”, which is a three-course meal for $55, but you don’t have advance warning of what you’re getting. After a very nice amuse of gulf shrimp and seaweed, the first course was a duck paté with pistachios, onions, and fruit. And while it certainly tasted nice, it seemed a little bland, given that they were working with very flavorful duck.

The main course was beef. It was perfectly chosen and cooked, and therefore had perfect texture. The problem? Just that beef requires no creativity on the part of the chef. Anyone can make good beef. You just have to pay for the good meat, then not overcook it. Now the accompanying vegetables, covered in a delicious truffle-scented crips, were definitely wonderful and creative. But still.

They had suggested two possible wines to go with this, so we each took a different glass. My Cotes du Rhone was wonderful, all smooth fruitiness to stand up to the beef. Jean wasn’t quite as sure of his more rustic Cote du Provence wine.

They then offered to insert a cheese course here (extra charge, of course), which we decided to go for. That was really great. Six different cheeses, none of which we’d ever had before, each one with a separate accompaniment: tiny mushrooms, fruit glazes, and so on. I had a really nice 1-year-old port with that, while Jean had a late harvest.

Dessert was equally impressive, a four-part thingie not all of which I can remember, but everything was both delicious and somehow light. (And definitely chocolate was involved.)

Still, I’m not sure we’ll go back there, especially given how much we also enjoyed these other restaurants, all of which were cheaper:

  • La Crémaillère, an old favorite that has somehow never been listed in Where to Eat in Canada, but we’ve always found it really good. It’s another white linen place, but less busy, more space between the tables. Here we especially enjoyed the snow crab appetizer, the rosemary lamb shank main course (mine), the basil tuna main course (Jean’s).
  • Apsara, a Thai restaurant that was just crazy busy and noisy, but what a deal. A cocktail, soup, three appetizers, three main dishes, dessert, tea, and a full bottle of wine, for $40 each. And everything is very well prepared: fresh crispy vegetables, nothing greasy, nothing oversalted, all just tasty and nicely textured.
  • Portifino Bistro, recommended by the nice folks at La Crémaillère (who aren’t open for lunch on weekends) with creative and fresh pasta dishes, and a nice selection of wines by the glass.
  • Conti Cafe, which initially put Jean in a bad mood by giving us a not-so-great table, but we perked up considerably on tasting the food: spaghetti with duck for Jean, lemon cod for me, both very well done.

Should also mention the Murray Street Cafe in Ottawa, which aims to offer gourmet food in a casual atmosphere. It does look like a casual bar, and the food really is wonderful. Here I tried “poutine” for the first time (Jean’s dish), but I put it in quotes because it was made with spatzle instead of fries, and was very light on the gravy and cheese. And really quite good. I had the healthier tomato starter, then the duck as my main, while Jean went with pork hocks. They also had a big list of wines by the glass, and I was pretty proud of how well my selections went with what we ordered.

Shopping

One of the first things we did in Québec was head to St. Jean street to visit our favorite stores: the medieval clothes (where I got a belt to go with the dress I’d purchased here last time), the used record store (which I don’t recall being that crowded and confusing last time), the kama sutra, and we discovered a new gourmet food shop! Everything looked wonderful here, so the fact that we only bought the following actually shows some self-control:

  • Greek olive oil (half the price we pay for it here)
  • Cranberry-flavored maple butter (their maple is lighter colour than Ontarian)
  • Vanilla sugar (specially for this particular pie crust recipe; very hard to find)
  • Whole nutmeg (biggest I’d ever seen)
  • Granité of sauternes
  • Ciel de Charlevoix (a blue cheese)
  • Epoisse (a stinky cheese)
  • Dried cranberries in cranberry oil

And we went to various galleries, as always admiring the variety of artists on display, but being particularly taken this time with Guy Corneau, of gallery Korno, one of whose paintings is above (though the photos don’t do justice to the live works). There was one in particular (not the one above) that we were both really taken with, though the price was such that it would take a little planning before purchase.

I also spent considerable time looking at necklaces (still mourning the loss of two on our Indiana trip), finally buying one at another outlet of the medieval clothing shop. Doesn’t replace what I lost, but it’s quite nice.

Free street entertainment

Québec City offers a lot of cool live outdoor entertainment in the summer. The first night we walked out onto underneath the highway overpass to see a live performance by Cirque du Soleil. Unfortunately, such events aren’t ideal for the short who arrive too late to get spots near the front. We were fine with the trapeze artists, but it was hard to really see what people on the ground were doing.

The next night, we were just waiting around the waterfront area, and some sort of performance was going on. It involved whale music, people on stilts, and exchange of fire. Still not sure what that was about.

The final night turned out to be Gay Pride. So we went to see a male Céline Dion impersonator. He only used his own voice on the very lowest parts; otherwise, it was lip synching. Anyway, it was strangely kind of fun. Though I think he was somewhat more feminine than the actual woman. 🙂

Sights

What did see beyond that? Well, not a whole lot. We did walk the Plains of Abraham. We intended to go to the Titanic Exhibit, but got deterred from the lineup. Plus the fact that it’s coming here soon, anyway. We visited the Market there (yes, more food!) for the first time. Very nice selection of produce, but we did resist any purchasing. And we visited the Market in Ottawa, in the rain.

Literature

As planned, we listened to The Wife’s Tale by Lori Lansens in the car. And we both got right into it, carried along the journey of this 300 lb. woman whose husband suddenly leaves. And in actual book form, I finished Lawrence Hill’s Some Great Thing, which was really enjoyable. A lot of great characters coming together amidst the backdrop of French/English tensions in Winnipeg. And I started Your Call Is Important to Us: The Truth about Bullshit by Laura Penny, which is a little dated, but only in the sense that we’re even deeper in the pile now.


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The story of my stuff

You’ve seen The Story of Stuff, yes? The fairly enlightening, partly animated video about how we North Americans all have too much stuff, and why that’s a problem? It has made me think. (99% of what I acquire is discarded within 6 months? Really?) But so far, I don’t think it’s really made me change my behavior.

It’s just so ingrained. Just watch this beautiful justification for why two people having three television sets just isn’t enough….

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Many television series ran their course for the season back in May or so, but we’ve been getting by with season 1 of True Blood (never did develop the love, though), season 1 of Californication (whereas I really did get caught up with all these flawed people), and even finally finishing all my PVR’ed episodes of Flashforward. (And the TV critic who claimed the last episode was confusing and open-ended was an idiot. The last episode wasn’t in the least hard to follow, and the series tied itself up very nicely, leaving some areas open for the future, yes, but hardly to a frustrating extent. The whole thing is recommended for all who like sci-fi, physics, and philosophical questions of will vs. fate, as presented by pretty people.)

But now all those are done, too, so Jean and I have near run out of shows we both like to watch. This is a problem, because we both tend to like to settle down around 9:00 for a bit of TV. What to watch, what to watch, when all I want to do is catch up with So You Think You Can Dance (nestled there on the PVR) but he’s already engrossed in an action thriller on AMC?

What, you only have TV, you ask? Well, no. But the thing, we only have one TV in a location where it’s actually comfortable to sit down and watch it. The second one is in the kitchen, where your only seating option are the high stools at the breakfast bar. Fine for catching the news while preparing and eating dinner, but not so great for settling in for a long watch. (Plus, being that close to the food also leads to way too much snacking.)

And the third? If you can even call that a TV, given that it’s–and I’m serious–a Commodore 64 monitor. So it’s very old and therefore prone to some flickering, and also very small. And, it’s in the exercise room. Being an exercise room, there are no seats in there, unless you count the big weight machine chair. So it’s a great place to play exercise or other videos while exercising. But if you just want to watch TV, you’re kind of stuck with a yoga mat on the floor as “seating”.

This, combined with the grumpiness that comes with the heat and humidity of late, that has led to us arguing over our respective television preferences, and who is to be banished to the uncomfortable upstairs. Adding insult to injury, upstairs person also loses PVR access. Stuck with live TV, with its many, many long commercial breaks (all telling you that you suck and need to buy more stuff)…

So, clearly, we need to put a TV in the living room.

Much like TV in the bedroom, this is something I’ve always resisted, with some idea that the living room should be about “higher” culture like books and music and paintings and conversation.

But one has to be practical. Fact is, it is the only other room in the house with couches and chairs.

But we ain’t putting a TV cabinet in there. So, the thing will have to wall-mounted. And, it’s the living room; it’s going to have to look good. So there’s no question of moving one of the existing extra TVs into that room (and besides, we need them where they are!). Clearly, we need a new TV.

A lovely, sleek, new flatscreen television.

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See how that works? And the lovely new television will, in turn, lead to justifications for high-definition TV receivers and service and PVRs, not to mention BlueRay DVD players and discs. And won’t that mean some sort of sound system upgrade? …

And hence we demonstrate our value in this culture of consumerism.