GRUB!: Butter Tarts

Sunday, May 24, 2020

It’s been two months since I left London, which seems simultaneously aeons and also the mere blink of an eye. I won’t bother trying to encapsulate the experience here, or try to express my thoughts on the pandemic, the lockdown and the state of the word in general in the form of interpretive sourdough sculpture or whatever because there is everything to say and yet also there is really nothing to say. So instead I’ll just report that weather is finally properly lovely and warm and things are green and there have been two orioles at the bird feeder recently. ORIOLES!

What have I accomplished in the two months I’ve been here? Well, I’ve drawn more that sixty tiny cartoon robots, and developed a card game revolving around them that is actually kind of playable.

IMG_3597
Prize for anyone who can figure out the gist of the game from this random array of cards...

I also drew some other stuff and made a couple actual physical postcards to send to friends. And my cryptic crosswording skills may just be at an all-time high. And I’m one film away from finishing watching the entire Marvel movie franchise, in order. Oh, and the downward dog is… better.

IMG_3594
Also I built a birdhouse. For the discerning wren, looking to get away from it all. No comment on whether this may be a model for my next plan, once the boat starts to feel just a bit too big and expensive. You know, what with the total collapse of the live performance industry and all.

Here are things I haven’t done in lockdown: wrap up the year-end business accounts, banish the email address from my last gig that keeps popping up annoying messages telling me it can’t log in, finish the “Boat Manual” I started ages ago, purge the photos on my computer so the hard drive isn’t bursting at the seams, clean up my online passwords, keep up with the Russian, or make banana bread.

I did, however, make something infinitely better than banana bread. I made buttertarts!

I'm Making
As I reported to Karen.

I’ve mentioned butter tarts before, but it bears repeating if only because I know I’ll struggle to get this post up to a normal word count. Butter tarts are individually sized sweet tarts made with short crust pastry and filled with a cooked mixture of butter, sugar, vanilla, egg and raisins. They occupy the same category as treacle tart, tarte au sucre, and shoofly pie, being a sugar/syrup-based filling in shortcrust pastry. Butter tarts are iconically Canadian and were recently celebrated by Canada Post in a set of truly excellent commemorative stamps that also included Saskatoon Berry Pie, Nanaimo bars, Tarts au Sucre and Blueberry Grunt.

215490_CanadaPost_SweetCanada_Souvenir_Front_PROD
What an outstanding collection. I’ve never had Blueberry Grunt but all the rest of those are absolute keepers.

215490_SweetCanada_Souvenir_Back_PROD
Though I must protest at the characterisation of butter tarts as “Ontario-based”. I mean sure, they had to give the prairies the Saskatoon Pie, but really?

So I decided to make butter tarts. They’re actually pretty simple, even more so if you shortcut and use pre-made frozen tart shells, which are obviously not as nice as homemade pastry but clearly still inifintely better than no butter tarts at all. I wanted to make the pastry too because it’s nicer, and I’m not exactly short of time, and because the butter tarts of my childhood have lovely folds in the sides where the round disc of pastry wrinkles to fit into the muffin tin in which they’re baked. And I think the foldy sides are important. As, apparently, does Canada Post, because you can see the type specimen butter tart they used for their stamp is exceptionally foldy.

IMG_3547
Thus the famed Robin Hood Prize Winning Recipes cookbook was unearthed.
(Published in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan in 1947.)

The locally-favoured pastry recipe I used featured Crisco vegetable shortening instead of butter, which apparently produces a flakier crust. I’m not a pastry expert by any means, and not about to get into the great debate over the right fat to use in pastry. I just went with it. Oh, and the pastry recipe called for in the Robin Hood cookbook is a sweetened one and I think these are actually better with regular unsweetened pastry, since they are not exactly lacking in the sweetness department and the plain pastry sets that off well.

IMG_3553
Though I must register my deep disappointment that the Beehive Syrup people have abandoned the iconic yellow beehive-shaped bottle of my childhood in favour of the insipid and utterly uninspired offering shown in the photo above. Shame on you! Shame!

IMG_3557
Pleasingly, the pastry did make somewhat foldy sides when it went into the tray.

With the pastry shells chilling in the freezer it was on to the filling, which is very simple to make, and even easier if you soften the butter in the microwave instead of bothering with a stovetop melting scenario outlined below.

IMG_3549
The Robin Hood butter tart recipe. Surprisingly little butter for a recipe that has butter right in the name. I don’t know why they’re called that so don’t bother asking. (Also note that the bit about using one egg or two lets you produce a more liquidy oozy filling with just one egg, or a more structural, set filling with two. I went for two and I have no regrets. The flavour is the same, and they’re just easier to eat.) (Also also note that UK-based Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers lacking the correct locally sourced Beehive Syrup could probably substitute golden syrup with acceptable results.)

Also also also note that you definitely want the full 2/3 cup of raisins in this. And don’t even think about coming in here with any of your raisin-hate because it’s my blog and this blog is a place of raisins. Raisins in pie. Raisins in brownies. Raisins in Chicken Salad. Raisins anywhere I damned well want. And especially, emphatically, raisins in butter tarts.

And when I googled around about raisin pie in general, and the prairies + raisin pie filling in particular I came across this post from Facebook that is so perfect I’m including it here. It’s from someone named Wanda (already awesome) to the E.D. Smith pie filling company:
"Hi, I’m wondering why we cannot get the raisin pie filling anymore? We used to buy in the big pails to make pies for our local curling rink kitchen and it’s no longer available in Saskatchewan, Canada. We can’t even get the tins.”
So so sooooooo prairie. She can’t get enormous vats of canned raisin pie filling to make pies for the local curling rink. Because, tragically, E.D. Smith no longer make raisin pie filling AT ALL. I feel your pain Wanda. Stay strong!

To summarise: Raisins rock. Raisin haters shut up. Moving on.

IMG_3561
The filling mixture. Note I didn’t bother with the “beaten just sufficiently to combine” business. I just dropped the eggs in and whomped the bejesus out of it and it was all fine.

IMG_3563
Spoon the whomped up filling into the unbaked tart shells, being careful to get the raisins relatively evenly distributed. Do not hesitate to add raisins where lacking.

These went into the hot oven on the bottom rack, as required by Robin Hood himself, normally not one to be trifled with. But here I have to report that Mr. Hood led me wrong and I would recommend the middle rack, because they were very cooked and started to brown excessively after less than ten minutes so I moved them up and cracked open the oven to cool it off some and kind of watched them and hovered, but you could probably avoid that drama by using the middle rack. (Edited to add that it turns out the oven was acting up and was probably 25 degrees too hot so perhaps all the drama was a particularly local phenomenon and maybe you should just pay attention to the King of Thieves after all.) Also note that the filling puffs up a lot when baking but settles right down once the tarts are out of the oven.

IMG_3568
Butter tarts cooling on the porch. As you might note, the pastry was perhaps excessively flaky, which is an unusual thing to complain about in pastry. However in a handheld individual tart I feel like a bit more structural integrity might be helpful.

IMG_3570
Flakiness aside, the butter tarts were a hit, and even better on the second day, and third. And lots of them had the requisite foldy sides. And it goes without saying that these are really really good with coffee.

Reviews were good too… "excellent raisin to filling ratio, good consistency. I like the sweetness level, good pastry, over all good bake.” Great British Bake Off, here I come.

And just to really stick it to any lingering raisin-haters still hanging about, as a special bonus I include the Robin Hood Prize Winning Recipes offering for Raisin Pie.

Raisin Pie
“Good pastry is an accomplishment that brings more happiness to the world than the ability to sing a high C or fell the Sheriff of Nottingham’s deputies with a single arrow loosed from a stout English longbow!” - Robin Hood.

Grid roads, prairie fables, and other tall tales

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers will know that Saskatchewan is undoubtedly the tourist hub of Canada. Forget Vancouver (too rainy), Toronto (too crowded), and Montreal (too historic). Right in the middle of everything, Saskatchewan offers an endless supply of delights for the average tourist, as evidenced by the rich offerings seen on a single 10k run down the grid roads of just one small corner of this diverse, varied and multifarious province.

Saskatchewan, like Alberta and Manitoba, was divided into square mile sections by the Dominion Land Survey, which began in 1871 and eventually became the world’s largest survey grid laid down in a singe integrated system. (Eat your heart out, Ordnance Survey!) This was to aid in settlement for agricultural purposes by making it simple to accurately describe the exact size and location of any piece of land. Each square mile section is known as a… section. Each block of 36 sections (a 6x6 square) make up a township, and each section is sub-divided into quarter sections of roughly 40 acres each. And to allow for equal access, a network of gravel roads was laid between sections, in a grid. Hence the term "grid road”. The whole system was especially important to the Dominion Land Act, which encouraged settlement and cultivation of the prairies by granting an immigrant the right to settle on a specific section of land for a $10 fee. If, after three years, at least a quarter of the section was cultivated and a permanent home was built (even if it was a simple sod hut) the settler was granted ownership of the land. Hence, we get the perfect checkerboard pattern of the prairies, and the perfect arrow-straightness of the roads.

IMG_3360
No extraneous turns for us! Just vanishing points and sky. Historically, Saskatchewan’s grid roads were used for the testing and calibrating of plumb lines and, more recently, laser pointers. It’s also a well known that Saskatchewan is so flat, if you look carefully enough into the distance, you can see the back of your own head.

After an exciting left turn, the first point of interest I encountered on my run was this innocuous little grey box.

IMG_3362
Often mistaken for power grid junctions or telephone exchanges these are actually what are known as Piffler Caches - emergency supply drops placed by the Royal Prairie Institute For Farm Labour Emergency Rescue.

The volunteer members of the Royal Prairie Institute For Farm Labour Emergency Rescue (R.P.I.F.F.L.E.R.) are often know by their nickname, the Pifflers. (The R was added by Royal grant in 1977 on the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, long after the 1933 founding of the organisation. I remember getting a special R.P.I.F.F.L.E.R. badge for my Brownie uniform that year.) Piffler Caches are aways placed a fixed distance apart, just off the road. The exact distance was originally calculated by testing how far an able-bodied farmhand could crawl through a snowdrift in temperatures below -30 degrees celsius (though of course the original calculation was done in Fahrenheit).

Piffler caches are supposed to be stocked with a seasonally-appropriate range of supplies and secured with a lock to minimise the chance of vandalism. The padlocks normally use a numerical combination and are currently keyed to the 6-digit day, month and year that the Saskatchewan Roughriders last won the Grey Cup, a date that only a true son or daughter of Saskatchewan could be expected to recall in a half-frozen or mosquito-addled state.

My run was a casual one, so I slowed down to check out this particular piffler. Sadly, the upkeep of piffler caches and the general health of small local R.P.I.F.F.L.E.R. branches has been on a steady decline for years so I was surprised to see this one very well-stocked. Late April is still very much a shoulder season so this one had winter, spring and summer supplies including mitts, a toque, a folding shovel, rubber boots, 90-factor sunscreen, Deep Woods Off, a thermos of black coffee, a re-used margarine container of home made butter tarts, a small flask of rye & coke, two coffee crisps and a bag of Old Dutch Ripple Chips. It was good to see that the local Piffler branch is still apparently alive and kicking. (UK readers can think of the R.P.I.F.F.L.E.R. as a kind of mashup between the RNLI and the Women’s Institute, but with fewer rowboats and Victoria sponges, and more dust and down-filled clothing.)

(And of course Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers will recognise that R.P.I.F.F.L.E.R. and the pifflers in general are the origin of the word “piffling”. The monumental task of building, stocking and maintaining the thousands of piffler caches across the entire province is obviously referred to as piffling, a word whose definition has, over time, been ironically subverted to mean its exact opposite - something small and insignificant.)

However, it’s not all butter tarts and blue skies on the prairie. We are subject to Nature’s whims, as evidenced by this catastrophic flooding.

IMG_3366
Graphic and terrifying spring floods.

Luckily, my run was a loop circumnavigating two complete sections in a perfect 6-mile rectangle, so I only had to brave this perilous crossing once. The piffler cache did not include a canoe or even a set of water wings but I still made it across safely and on to the next landmark of my run.

IMG_3371
Homestead of the legendary Big John - prairie tourist Mecca. Check out the reviews on Tripadvisor! (Note: the interpretive centre and gift shop are currently closed due to the coronavirus lockdown. Normally the place is heaving with visitors. It’s quite unusual to get a photo of Big John Rock without a crowd of selfie-seekers in the way.)

Big John is a well-known prairie icon whose existence may have inspired the lesser-known legend of Paul Bunyan. Big John is said to have been able to clear, plough and seed a full section of land on a single day (before lunch), and is usually depicted accompanied by Barb, the giant blue gopher. His normal breakfast was one hundred pieces of toast, half with Cheez Whiz and half with Saskatoon berry jam, accompanied by ten gallons of black coffee that had been left on the back burner of the stove for at least six hours. John could stride across the prairies at an incredible pace, covering the distance between Davidson and Girvin in just seven steps and Barb’s burrowing created tunnels wide enough for two freight trains to pass side by side.

IMG_3385
When he ran out of Cheez Whiz, Big John would have these giant shredded wheats for breakfast, in a bowl made out of a grain silo full of gopher milk.

Not long after I passed Big John Rock, I took the opportunity to snap this shot of:

IMG_3368
The Great Wall of Drews. Of course I won’t pretend that this edifice is anything like as impressive as its “visible from space” eastern cousin. But it is visible from… the road. And makes up for its modest proportions with very satisfying straightness.

After a second exciting 90-degree left turn, I soon found I’d unknowingly reached the literal high point of the run, the peak of Mount Valley View.

IMG_3377
This precipitous slope is popular with the large local downhill skiing community and is also used for summer altitude training by more serious athletes. (I didn't manage to get chair lift and chalet in frame… sorry).

Not long after there was another thrilling left turn, where I ran across this local signpost.

IMG_3381
"Watch out for board gamers left and right”

Local residents spend a lot of time over the winter cooped up inside with their Scrabble and Monopoly and checkers (draughts for UK-based AGSWPLRs). Consequently, they tend to get a bit loopy when the spring finally arrives (usually by mid-August) and spread out indiscriminately with their tokens and dice and game boards. This sign is meant to alert passing motorists to the possible/likely presence of board gamers almost anywhere, though most pressingly, in the middle of the road. I won’t quote the sad statistics here, but the Yahtzee figures alone are tragic and the spike in serious incidents that followed the Trivial Pursuit craze in the 80’s still throws off the province’s actuarial tables.

After that sobering reminder of the harshness of prairie life I encountered one more interesting tidbit, this odd device sticking up in the lefthand ditch.

IMG_3382
Pop-up monitor

Area 51 in Nevada may be the best known spot for run-of-the-mill alien-seekers, but those who are really in the know come north instead. Nevada may feature in the media hype and the pop-culture, but Saskatchewan, with its vast open areas (convenient for landing large or multi-dimensional craft), sparse population, and open Canadian immigration policy, has long been an attractive destination. We have welcomed not just successive waves of eastern European, Vietnamese, and Syrian refugees, but those from much, much further away. Some of these immigrants prefer to homestead below ground where they can more easily maintain alternative atmospheric and gravitational variables, and this pop-up allows them proper monitoring of the surrounding local population. This means they can keep good track of the local herd neighbours. (And at this point I hasten to add this: All hail Zlerg, Our Benevolent Galactic Overlord! Long may his tentacles ooze!)

After that it was a quick dash back to my last left turn of the day (four turns in one run!) for a well-deserved cool down. I hope loyal Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers have enjoyed this quick jaunt around the local neighbourhood, and can appreciate the rich culture and fantastically varied landscape in this corner of the prairies. And finally, as a stark reminder of the fickle nature of life on the prairies, I leave you with one last image, taken the morning of May 9th. Yes, MAY 9TH - a full two weeks AFTER the other photos in this post. Well played, Saskatchewan. Well played.

IMG_3464
More than 3" of heavy, wet snow. If only this, too were a joke.

Dorset Coast, Day Two (or: Ready, Aim, Fire!)

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Before we were so rudely interrupted by a global pandemic, your humble blogger was fed and showered and inhabiting an upper bunk at the Lulworth Cove Youth Hostel enjoying the righteous slumber of one who has hiked 20km in a wind tunnel and then downed half a bottle of very credible red wine. At least Sunday’s hike promised to be much shorter, though I was alarmed when the morning briefing included the warning that the day's route would be "quite exposed". ("What, compared to the cozy and sheltered outing yesterday?” I thought, and braced myself.) The weather forecast also wasn’t promising, with rain expected.

Nonetheless we dutifully packed our bags, tidied the hostel, and laced up muddy boots for a ramble to Old Harry Rocks, another of those wacky rock formations you find along the chalky south coast. First, though, we drove to the start of the hike in Swanage. One of the attractions of the group's itinerary that weekend was the chance of a ride on the steam train run by the Swanage Heritage Railway, though it was unclear during the previous evening’s planning whether the train was running that day.

IMG_2799
Empirical evidence later proved that the train was indeed in operation.

But the train rides would have to wait, for there was hiking to be done. Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers will have noted the clear blue sky the the photo above but rest assured it did not last. Not long after striking out to the east along the beach in Swanage the skies clouded over and we all paused to put on our waterproofs just as the rain arrived. It wasn’t torrential by any means, but it was enough to dampen my spirits. It also didn’t help that not much later we passed though a small cluster of urbanity and saw a sandwich board out on the road advertising the local pub. It promised real ale and hot food and I knew that if I hadn’t been with the group I would have peeled off without the slightest hesitation to wait things out.

IMG_2805
And yet I didn’t. I’m still not sure why. This photo doesn’t really show the rain but it was there.

Luckily, the skies did clear and we made it to Old Harry Rocks in the sunshine. The rocks themselves are the remains of a chalk causeway that once linked the Isle of Wight to the mainland. The causeway eroded over time and left towering stacks of rock, one of which includes another natural archway (like Durdle Door) that will eventually turn into two stacks.

IMG_2812
You can also just see the beginning of cave on the mainland in the bottom left of this photo. Eventually that will become and arch and then the opening under the arch will get taller and taller until that bit of the headland is cut off. And in case you think we’re talking about a geological time scale for this stuff, think again. Our guide Lee said that new cave wasn’t there when he did this hike a few months ago, which seems positively supersonic.

Naturally there were other people at the site taking in the view - you could just make out the Isle of Wight in the distance. But there were also signs warning people to stay away from the edge of the cliff, as there are along all those high chalk cliffs that edge the south coast. Equally naturally, there were also people blithely ignoring the signs, including one notable idiot who climbed down a particularly precarious path to a lower section of the headland. And just to make it that extra bit stupider, he did it with carrier bags tied over his shoes, so he had the least amount of grip possible. It was evolution in action, and we were all expecting to have to hang around and give statements to the air rescue pilots, so we quickly pressed on for the last leg of the walk back to Swanage.

By this time you can see that the skies had cleared a bit though it was still windy. However there were sheltered areas, and they were a welcome relief, until we encountered the last of the day’s obstacles.

IMG_2820
I’m not saying it was Passchendale out there, but for someone a bit fed up with the general environment and wearing shoes that had recently been discovered to have small holes in the waterproof lining, this was a LOT of mud. And this is just one of the long stretches of gumbo we traversed.

60536520019__068AAD3E-BEA7-4933-812E-3E2651C5E9A0
It’s time to retire these shoes.

The rain started up again once we reached Swanage and I was profoundly grateful that the promised group tea at the end of the walk had to be abandoned because the tea shop at the Steam Railway was closed. It was an easy excuse to quit the group, and Piran and I hurried back to the car to seek dry shoes and socks and to make our own plans for the rest of the day, which is when things got much, much better.

IMG_2825
Because we went to Corfe Castle!

Corfe Castle is a magnificent ruin set on a hill above the town that bears its name, located smack in the middle of the oddly named Isle of Purbeck, which is patently a peninsula and not an island at all. One would think that a nation that produces maps so superlative that they differentiate between lighthouses, disused lighthouses and beacons and have different symbols for gravel pits as opposed to sand pits could have got this one right, but apparently not. Corfe Castle was built by William the Conqueror in the 11th century, and was one of the first castles in England to use stone as opposed to wood and earth. It was also one of the last Royalist strongholds during the English Civil War, before it fell to siege in 1645. After being captured, the castle was slighted on the orders of Parliament. And lest you think that slighting, in this context, means that it was not invited to the annual summer garden party, think again. This sort of slighting is a trifle more forceful than that and is a term used for deliberate damage to important buildings - especially castles - to reduce both their practical and symbolic value. In the case of Corfe Castle, they went so far as to use explosives, which is why many of the castles interior walls sit at a jaunty angle today.

IMG_2843
Check out that jauntiness!

That weekend the castle staff were demonstrating several different medieval crafts, including a station where one woman was busily engaged in mixing up a bucket of daub near a small outbuilding that had been constructed inside the castle walls using traditional techniques. A precursor to lathe-and-plaster construction, wattle-and-daub walls are made from a lattice of thin woven sticks (the wattle) set in a structural frame and covered in a sticky mix called daub. It’s often whitewashed over, resulting in the familiar half-timbered look we usually associate with Tudor building and endless suburbs.

IMG_2834
Small amounts of daub are usually mixed by hand, though larger batches were often mixed by animals stomping around on it. This woman’s recipe included clay, aggregate, horse manure and slaked lime. She was preparing it to repair the wall behind her.

And if you think hand-mixing animal dung into plaster is painstaking, consider the other traditional craft that was being demonstrated - the process of shaving animal horn into tiny translucent panes to be installed in a window frame, thus allowing a thin bit of yellowy light into an otherwise dark room.

IMG_2840
This young woman, in her festive wooly cap, was using a sort of chisel to shave down the surface of a 1” x 2” bit of cow horn that had been boiled in the pot behind her. I know times were tough back then, but this seems slightly ridiculous. I know actual glass must have been rare and expensive, but who would possibly look at a bit of old cow horn and think, “You know, this stuff is ever so slightly translucent. I bet if I spent hours and hours of smelly, painstaking labour I could produce a minuscule piece of something slightly MORE translucent!"

Just visiting the castle and seeing the activities on display, especially on what turned into a lovely sunny day, would have been enough to lift my bedraggled spirits after the morning’s muddy tromp. But Corfe Castle ended up having much much more to offer because we’d arrived just in time to see the demonstration of the castle’s working trebuchet!

IMG_2827
This is a small scale version of the traditional siege engine. However, its size is modelled on an authentic “traveling trebuchet” that was actually built at the time. Trebuchets use a counterweighted arm to throw a projectile from a sling. Modern reproductions of the largest medieval ones stand up to 60’ high and can throw an 80 lb. projectile almost a thousand feet.

The Corfe Castle trebuchet uses 3/4 ton of counterweight, and is winched into position by volunteers from the crowd, which on that day included Piran and I. And perhaps because I might have hopped up and down chanting “pick me pick me”, we were the ones chosen to assist in the firing. Yay for unbridled enthusiasm! (Screw you disappointed children - only adults allowed for this activity!) Having spent last summer winding lock gates open and shut, Piran and I were both eminently qualified for winching activities.

Once the arm was in place the National Trust volunteer running the show carefully positioned the projectile - a plastic children’s ball filled with water weighing about 12kg - in the sling. And then, in an act of supreme generosity, Piran let me step forward when one of us was given the chance to actually FIRE the loaded trebuchet. (A thousand thank yous for that!) (Also, Piran is mounting a campaign to have his own tag on the blog. Perhaps that would be just reward for such a magnanimous gesture...). And that's how this happened:


When I posted this video I titled it “Ready, Aim, Fire!”, but in my head it’s always been called: “Does this trebuchet make my ass look big?” (Answer: Yes. Yes it does.)

The trebuchet was undoubtedly the highlight of my day (week, month, life…) but later I did also enjoy a very nice warm Cornish pasty and fortifying cup of hot tea from the award winning bakery in town. And we got to meet a lovely long-haired basset hound nearby, who had a charming name I neglected to write down. Let’s say he was called Chester. I also neglected to take a picture of Chester, but he was fantastic. (And: long-haired basset hound! Who knew?)

On the way back to London we took one last detour to experience the Sandbanks Ferry, a chain ferry that crosses the entrance to Poole Harbour between Sandbanks and Shell Bay. A chain ferry, of course, is a ferry that is guided back and forth by pulling itself along a chain that’s stretched between the two banks.

IMG_2857
Chain and ferry, with Sandbanks in the background.

Once we got to Sandbanks we took a brief spin around what, unexpectedly, turns out to be the most expensive coastal property in the world. Hard to believe, but buying a house on Sandbanks’ Panorama Road will set you back more than if you have your sights set on Monte Carlo or Miami Beach. Apparently it’s popular with footballers, though John Lennon also owned a house there. Whatever the reason, we didn’t linger and soon hit the highway back to London and real life. Despite the wind and rain and mud and group-i-ness of it all, looking back from just six weeks later it seems positively idyllic. Bunking up with total strangers crammed into a crowded hostel. Visiting public attractions. Popping in and out of shops with reckless abandon. Ah, the good old days!

Fourteen Days

Sunday, April 12, 2020

As I implied in my last blog, there’s more to say about my walking weekend in Dorset. But just like everyone else on the planet my life is upside down these days, so I'm publishing this earlier than my self-imposed loosely-followed bi-weekly schedule. For me, upside-down life manifested itself in a last-minute dash back to Canada to lock down closer to family, which meant I had to self-isolate for fourteen days after I arrived. Luckily, I was able to book a very comfortable AirBnB with a helpful and accommodating host where I hunkered down. (I hasten to add that said host was also fully informed of my potentially virulent status as a foreign traveller, and the possibility that I would be slathering every surface in the house with the plague.) And because there aren't enough lockdown diaries these days, here's mine. Just be thankful this is my outlet, as opposed to me contributing to the apparently infinitely-expanding body of YouTube videos of people re-writing songs from Broadway musicals with Covid-19-inspired lyrics and then performing them with family members and home made props. You're welcome.

IMG_3025
Monday

Arrived late in the evening on Sunday, so I’m calling Monday Day 1, as reflected in the thoughtfully-provided inspirational message from my AirBbB hosts. Spent most of the morning unpacking and getting set up. This place is remarkably well-equipped though I can’t figure out why there are two teapots but no kettle. There seems to be everything else, including the retro felt letter-board, a salad spinner, a stick blender and baking parchment paper. I boil water in a pot on the stove to make coffee. Text with Karen about the set-up and remark that it’s no different than showing up for a long-term gig somewhere new, “Except for the End of Days, of course”. Family have stocked the place up before my arrival, including a three litre box of what turns out to be dangerously tasty red wine, and 15 cans of beer. Do they think I’m planning a house party over here? Run 10k on the river trails and enjoy a long hot shower. This is definitely an upgrade from #boatlife.

IMG_3043
Tuesday

Woke up at 4am. Luckily I have coffee and, unlike life in the UK, I have proper cream to put in it. Also, I found the kettle! It was disguised - a blue ceramic teapot with white polka dots that has a built-in heating element. All set now. I’m also kind of working remotely on a future Dubai project and they’re all 10 hours ahead of me so being awake at this hour is actually productive. Go for a run later in the day and Karen helps remind me what to wear for winter running. I remark that I should have brought my old running tights, which are warmer. At least I’ll know for the next global pandemic.

IMG_3060
Wednesday

Last week seems a lifetime ago. I was still in London. I was still unsure if I’d be travelling. I was still stocking up the boat for possible isolation at the marina, stopping frequently at the small local shop where (unlike the big supermarkets) they actually had pasta and tinned tomatoes and, remarkably, toilet paper. Now Prince Charles has the virus, Patrick Stewart is reading a Shakespearian sonnet every day on Twitter and I’m doing remote tech support to get my Dad’s household set up on Skype. I revive “Russian Word of the Day” with my buddy in Azerbaijan, where they’re locked down so tight they’re not even allowing travel between cities. The word is нуждаться, the verb “to be in need of". It’s reflexive, so I take the time to learn the rules for conjugating reflexive verbs in Russian. Because why not? Get a drop of a few more groceries from local friends, including an all-important additional supply of coffee. They stand on the sidewalk and I stand on the front porch. I also Skype with a designer in Shanghai about the Dubai project, even though it’s blindingly obvious that it will have to be postponed; the organisers just haven’t got around to admitting it yet. Tonight would have been the opening night of the show I was working on in London before the Zombie Apocalypse arrived.

IMG_3073
Thursday

A buddy in Dubai proposes a rousing round of online Exploding Kittens, which turns out to be great. I download the app and spend several hours with her and colleagues in London and Baku. It’s the highlight of the day. Run 8k, and I’ve started doing YouTube Yoga with Adriene. As ever, I struggle with Downward Dog. How on earth is this considered a “rest pose”? My shoulders scream and my hamstrings tell me in no uncertain terms: “We can EITHER be tight enough to run 8k at the drop of a hat OR we can stretch enough for Downward Dog. Not both. Your choice.” Evening is spent on the couch with “Avengers: Infinity War”. I’ve been diligently working my way through the entire Marvel Movie canon over the last year or so, in preparation for watching “Endgame”. Infinity War is number 20 out of 23. The end is nigh. Please keep your spoilers to yourself.

IMG_3081
Friday

I’m particularly proud of today’s letter-board message. I think it should be a trending hashtag: #stayINalive. I have no interest in doing anything to make that happen but Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers could run with it. Otherwise, a strong start to the day. I do loads of niggly life admin computer stuff like updating software and business accounting and downloading bank statements and such. I’ve also got lots of time for the cryptic crossword these days and Karen gives me some advice on Downward Dog that helps. Boris Johnson has the virus. People home in London are clapping for the NHS.

IMG_3089
Saturday

A routine has formed. Get up, have breakfast, and read the Guardian cover to cover. Morning of ditzy busy work on the computer, then coffee break and crossword. Yoga with Adriene. Lunch and YouTube videos of tiny houses. Run late in the afternoon then shower and have a small glass of wine and a tightly controlled volume of snacks while reading a book, until it’s time to make supper. Supper. Videos. Bed. Rinse and repeat. Added activity today: I learn how to do lattice multiplication. Because, like conjugating reflexive Russian verbs, why not? Also, it’s cool and when we have to rebuild society those of us with a broad range of transferable skills will be in high demand. At the end of my run I go past mom’s place a block away and pick up a jar of real maple syrup that’s left for me on the front porch because tomorrow is...

IMG_3099
Sunday

Pancake Day! Normally I’m not a big lover of pancakes - more of a French Toast kind of gal. But the AirBnB included a partial box of pancake mix, and my mid-week grocery delivery included a small bag of frozen saskatoon berries. I’ve been very careful so far to keep food intake in check, but today I’m not bothering. Pancakes for breakfast. Generous treats, including a stropwafel, with morning coffee. Gooey grilled cheese sandwich for lunch. And for supper, the piece de resistance - steak and baked potato. My sister shares her Disney+ log in so I get to watch “The Mandalorian”. Baby Yoda! I also have a long WhatsApp voice call with Uganda Rob, who’s now living and isolating in Pretoria with his wife and kids. He’s done some research and says that Saskatchewan has far more ventilators per head than London, so that’s something. Run 6k. New York is a mess.

IMG_3112
Monday

Half done this isolation thing. I email a few more friends to check in. Winnipeg. London. Vancouver. I also add a few more time zones to my iPhone’s World Clock, which is now displaying Calgary, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Toronto, New York, Santiago, London, Gothenburg, Athens, Pretoria, Dubai, Baku, Chiang Mai, Jakarta, Beijing, Tokyo and Sydney. There are friends, family or colleagues in each of those places. Finally, finally, I get word that my Dubai gig is postponed, though it’s not official yet and we don’t know the length of the postponement. I immediately stop working on the few things I was doing and concentrate on more important stuff like joining in a virtual Hash get together with my old peeps from the Abu Dhabi Hash House Harriers. It’s a blast, though it’s 8pm in Abu Dhabi but only 10am in Saskatoon so I refrain from cracking a beer open. That’s a slippery slope I’m still clinging to the top of. Elves from the outside world deliver fresh home made cookies and two bags of Doritos.

IMG_3120
Tuesday

It’s practically April but there was heavy snow overnight, continuing into the morning. This is one of the things I really don’t miss about no longer living in Canada. Spend much of the day trying to set myself up with a Canadian SIM card for my phone, which I normally accomplish by walking into a store. Now I’m doing everything in chat windows and on Skype. Bell Mobility’s chat guy is so utterly useless that I end up swearing at the screen but eventually manage to set up an eSIM for local calls with another company, while maintaining my UK SIM in the same phone. Pleased that Apple has finally got on the dual-SIM bandwagon, however late. I donate some money to Yoga Adriene and download her 30 Days of Yoga videos. (Downward Dog, I WILL conquer you!) Despite the snow I manage a run outside and reward myself with sushi delivered to the airlock (A.K.A. front porch). Manitoba suspends Kindergarten to Grade 12 school indefinitely.

IMG_3129
Wednesday

When I wake up the temperature outside is -19º C, -28 with windchill. WTF? Is this an April Fool’s joke? I used to do four hour marathon training runs in these kind of conditions, but I’m no longer mentally or wardrobically equipped for that. Rely on 40 minutes with Adriene and a bruising couple of circuits of indoor interval training rather than facing a run outside. Spend a few hours going back through the photos stored on my computer and purging to free up disk space, another of the things that’s on my “Ditzy Stuff to Take Care of List”. This means a lot of time remembering my big trip day by day, including places and people and things that I’d forgotten, which is quite nice. I have Facetime supper with my sister’s family in Calgary. It's odd but also not. In London, the NHS is converting the ExCel exhibition Centre into a 4,000 bed hospital.

IMG_3139
Thursday

Get a resupply of coffee but it’s whole beans and I have no grinder. But no matter because it’s Quiz Night in Abu Dhabi! Spurred on by the success of Monday night’s virtual gathering, the Abu Dhabi gang have organised a virtual pub quiz, and I’ve signed up. My team spans 13 time zones - Saskatoon, Abu Dhabi and Chaing Mai. I open the Zoom link and also maintain a separate WhatsApp chat group with my team while we try to navigate a culturally UK-heavy set of questions with a team consisting of one Canadian, one Indian and one American. How many questions can there be about rugby and The Wombles?? Despite our disadvantages, we’re near the top going into the final round (music) when we flame out and have to settle for fourth place. Chiang Mai pleads sleep deprivation because it’s 1am there. Flimsy excuse. It’s still freaking cold outside so I do another round of nasty circuit training. Finished “The Mandalorian” so I start watching “Tiger King”, like everyone else on the planet. I’ve lost track of how many times a day my Apple Watch says, “Time to Stand!"

IMG_3153
Friday

Still. Here. I get another humanitarian aid package which includes a coffee grinder and an unexpected bonus supper of frozen chicken fingers and oven potato wedges, complete with tiny jars of ketchup, chili sauce and vinegar. Do a bit more ditzy life admin work and fetch some warmer running gear from a dead drop at my mom’s. My crosswording stills have sharpened considerably in the last week, and I even managed to finish one completely, though usually the day ends with one or two unsolvable clues left hanging. I pass these on to the crossword coach currently isolated in France. Even though it’s still cold, it’s very sunny so I head out for what turns out to be a great 8k run, getting some much-needed vitamin D and earning my potato wedges and a beer for supper. The Tiger King is running for President, proof that even before the apocalypse the world was not exactly running smoothly.

IMG_3159
Saturday

Finally get around to starting a blog called “Fourteen Days”. It’s snowing heavily, but I go for a run anyway. There’s a sense on invincibility you get after a run in really foul conditions which is exhilarating. Piran sends me a photo of himself relaxing in a hammock on his sunny balcony, wearing shorts. I send him a photo of the snow-covered street outside and I think he’s genuinely surprised that it’s still so emphatically winter here. Come to think of it, I’m also surprised at that. I finally cook up the box of Kraft Dinner that was part of my original supply drop - a momentous occasion, worthy of the letter-board. And I’ve started doodling a tiny cartoon robot every day, which is pleasingly diverting.

IMG_3171
Sunday

Last full day in this particular brand of captivity. The tiny cartoon robots are becoming more and more diverting, and I start to dream up a game revolving around them, leading to more tiny cartoons and taking up a lot of mental energy, which is excellent. Plus once we descend to “Lord of the Flies” level chaos we who can capably use hand tools, provide amusements like cartoon robot games, and also conjugate reflexive Russian verbs will surely rule over you all. I run another 7k and order in pizza for my last supper while the UK rolls out the biggest gun it’s got in times of crisis - a message from the Queen. They must have Her Majesty and Prince Philip suspended in individual sealed bubbles up there at Windsor Castle. Boris Johnson is taken to hospital.

IMG_3173
Monday

Free at last, free at last. Did a full fourteen days, plus the evening before and the morning and I wasn't felled by the virus, so I don’t think anyone can argue I didn’t do this isolation thing properly. My dad comes to pick me up and even though it's April 6, it's snowing heavily. Because it's April in Saskatchewan and winter is not giving up without a fight.

And that was my 14 days. No profound conclusions here, because none of this is concluded yet. I’m just bobbing along in a continuing state of limbo along with everyone else. Next time we’ll resume our regularly scheduled post from the Dorset coast with more hills, more wind, an inevitable drenching, and at least one Very Excellent Thing.