Home Town Tourism

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Hey. Me again. I’m here. Because I’m here because I’m here because I’m here. I made it back from Abu Dhabi without incident and had a very relaxing 14 days of quarantine in another Airbnb. That makes 56 days in quarantine so far for this pandemic, with at least another ten to come when I eventually make it back to the boat. The virus is worse than it’s ever been here in Saskatchewan, but it’s at least twice as bad in the UK, and there's no pressing need for me to travel to be back there any time soon so... I’m here. 

Christmas was a very small, very local event with intermittent FaceTime gift-opening and not much else. New Year’s was a non-event. January was unseasonably pleasant for a while, which made running on the prairie grid roads quite nice. Now it’s turned properly, truly cold, and even a short run is a serious undertaking.

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With windchills comfortably in the -40s, it’s hard to find enough layers of clothing for running.

Then again, the extreme cold weather does make for some pretty scenery, what with the hoarfrost and the piercing blue skies and all.

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Actual unretouched prairie loveliness.

Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers will have noticed a distinct lack of blogging, largely because there’s really nothing to say. This will come as a surprise to no one, but nothing new happens, and I’m just marking time. That said, there is a lingering guilt about not blogging, and it’s not like I’m struggling to fit everything in each day, so in a nod to the GSWPL tag “landmarks”, I’ve decided to have a look at a few hometown sites that might be vaguely interesting, and toss in a bit of Canadian history to bulk things up. (Homeschooling parents are welcome to use the blog for a small fee.) We’ll start with what’s probably Saskatoon’s most iconic landmark: the Bessborough Hotel. (Pronounced "BEZ-ber-oh”, but most often known locally simply as "The Bess”, to rhyme with fez.)

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Not bad, eh? (Thank you to the Delta Hotel Bessborough website for this photo. The GSWPL aerial photo crane gets cranky in temps below -30.)

The 10-storey hotel was completed on its verdant riverside location in 1935, and was the tallest building in the city until 1966. It was then surpassed by Marquis Towers, an utterly unremarkable apartment building a few blocks away. (And as long as we’re pronouncing things correctly, in Saskatoon “marquis” is “MAR-kwiss”, not “Mar-KEE”. Much in the same way that Portage Avenue in Winnipeg is “POR-duj", not “por-TAZH”. And don’t even get me started on Mozart, Saskatchewan.) The Bess was named for the 9th Earl of Bessborough, the fancifully named Vere Brabazon Ponsonby, who was Governor General of Canada at the time of the hotel’s construction. 

The Bessbrough may seem outlandishly grand for a small prairie city, but it’s actually the local variant of the famed Grand Railway Hotels which were built across the country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Canadian Railway Hotels are, with a few exceptions, utterly excellent. Canada may not be blessed with pyramids or Roman ruins or castles, but we do have the railway hotels.

The first railway to cross Canada was the Canadian Pacific, completed in November of 1885 with the driving of the “Last Spike” at Craigellachie, near the Eagle Pass in British Columbia. Though the construction of the trans Canada railway was driven by commercial interests, its completion is often regarded as the event that knit the country together both physically and symbolically. 

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The iconic image of CPR Director Donald Smith, hammering the last spike. (Great beard, Don, though Mr. Top Hat behind you is no slouch either.)

In fact Smith needed two attempts at the thing, because his first swing went off course and bent the first Last Spike. However, that bent one was actually the second Last Spike. (Try to stay with me here, this will get complicated). The first Last Spike was made of silver and commissioned by the then Governor General Lord Landsdowne. However, Landsdowne was called back to Ottawa on business before he could deliver the fancy spike, so Donald Smith was left to rustle up an ordinary iron spike for the ceremony. The bent (second) spike was given to Smith after the ceremony, who proceeded to have bits of it cut off and made into commemorative jewellery. What was left eventually made its way to the Canadian Science and Technology Museum in 1985. The silver first Last Spike is now at the Canadian Museum of History. The spike that Donald Smith actually drove - the third Last Spike - was extracted shortly after the ceremony to discourage souvenir hunters. It made its way back to the CPR offices in Montreal, where they managed to lose it sometime in the 1940s. The fourth Last Spike was the one that remained in place so that the rail would actually be attached to the tie. Comforting that in all the fuss they actually remembered to do that.

Having finally created this marvellous ribbon of steel, the railroad’s owners needed a way to get people to use it not merely for freight but for tourism. The railroad hotels were intended both to serve patrons of the railroad, and as an attraction in themselves. The president of the CPR at the time, William Cornelius Van Horne, famously said “If we can’t export the scenery, we’ll import the tourists”. The first great railroad hotel, the 1878 Hotel Windsor in Montreal, was not actually built by a railroad company, but it was located close to the Windsor Station and became the permanent headquarters of both the the Grand Trunk Railway and the Canadian Pacific Railway. (The Hotel Windsor is, therefore, where they managed to lose the third Last Spike. Has anyone looked in the basement? Just asking.)

The first hotel built by a railway company was the CPR’s Hotel Vancouver, opened in May of 1888, closely followed by the iconic Banff Springs Hotel, a mere two weeks later. (Though the familiar Banff Springs pictured below was actually built to replace the wooden 19th century original, which burned down in 1926.)

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I don’t actually have a Bucket List per se, but if I did, staying at the Banff Springs Hotel would definitely be on it. In the Chocolate Room. With Harrison Ford, please.  (Picture credit: By James Levy - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0)

The best of the railway hotels are built in what came to be known as Chateuaesque architectural style. As its name implies, Chateauesque architecture is a style drawing on the French chateaux of the 15th to 17th centuries, though it also includes elements of the Scottish Baronial style. It’s characterised by heavy ornamentation, abundant towers and turrets, oriel windows, quoins (good Scrabble word, that), steeply pitched roofs with dormers and other assorted excellent touches like machicolations, all of which are amply employed in the Bessborough, an excellent example of the style. (As, incidentally, is Cinderella Castle in Disneyland.)

Though the Canadian Pacific Railway came first, Canada’s other main rail company, the Canadian National Railway (CNR, or often just CN) was formed in 1919 from the assets of several defunct rail companies. CN built up its own trans-national rail network and naturally built a small string of seven railway hotels to go along with it. The Bessborough is a CN hotel, as is the Hotel Vancouver. However, CP definitely holds then record with 22 railway hotels to its name, half of which are still in operation as hotels today. Among the great CP hotels is the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City, Chateau Lake Louise, and the largest railway hotel in the country, the massive Royal York in downtown Toronto, which sits right across Front street from Union Station. With over a thousand rooms and standing at 28 storeys high, The Royal York was the briefly the tallest building in the British Empire when it was opened in 1929.

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You can see that the Royal York isn’t as excellently Chateuesque as the grandest of the railway hotels. Many of those that were built in the 20s and 30s didn’t push the boat out quite so much. 

That makes the Bessborough all the more remarkable, since it was built in that same period, and just up the road from the positively lumpish Hotel Saskatchewan in the provincial capital, Regina ("ruh-JIE-nuh", please). Indeed the construction of the Bess was spurred in part by the standard inter-city rivalry, so perhaps that’s why they decided to do things up right here in Saskatoon.

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The Hotel Saskatchewan. Yaaaaaaaawn. Sadly, of all the fantastic grand railway hotels in all the land, this is the only one I’ve ever actually stayed in. I recall the rooms being exceedingly small. And that’s coming from someone who lives on a boat. (By Drm310 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0)

The last railway hotel to be built was the exceedingly ordinary Queen Elizabeth in Montreal, opened in 1958. A pale echo of the sprawling magnificence of examples like the Chateau Frontenac, the Queen Elizabeth marked a whimpering end to a glorious tradition. In 1988 CP bought out CN Hotels and now manages eleven railway hotels as Fairmont Hotels and Resorts. In total, 24 Grand Railway Hotels are still in operation across the country, including a smattering of Marriotts and Deltas, and a number of independently run operations. They’re a lovely reminder of the golden age of rail travel. Or, indeed, simply the age of travel.

Sigh.

The Odyssey

Sunday, November 8, 2020

I knew that working on an international job during a surging global pandemic was not going to be business as usual. And when it came to the logistics of actually getting here… well thereby hangs a tale. Buckle up, kids, it's going to be a bumpy ride!

COVID rules in Abu Dhabi require incoming travellers have a negative COVID test within 96 hours of their departure. And though I knew what day they wanted me to fly, for a long time there was no flight booked. Frustrating though it may be, this is normal for these sort of jobs. Often the flights are booked by a third party and they tend to leave things to the last minute because changes are common. It’s usually not an issue, but when you’re trying to schedule a COVID test to leave the most possible time for test processing, but not so much time that a slight change in plans means the 96-hour window expires, then not having a confirmed flight and not knowing test processing times is a toxic combination. Add to that an extra layer of faff caused by the fact that I’m not actually a Canadian resident anymore, so I’m not covered by the Canadian health system. This means I can't log onto the government web portal to get a test appointment or receive results. Instead I have to pay a consultation fee to a doctor at a randomly-chosen local clinic to get referred for the test, then have the same random clinic get the results to me, sidestepping the unavailable web system. 

Luckily, the people at the local clinic were unfailingly friendly and helpful. This is the first time I’ve been back in Canada for any length of time since I relocated to the UK, and I must say that anyone I’ve dealt with here in a professional setting has just been really, really nice. Whether it’s the guys at the Bolt Supply House who special ordered 5/16” aluminium hex nuts for me, or the clinic doctors who renewed a prescription so fast that it was available at the pharmacy next door before I hung up the phone, or, well, kind of everybody. It really is true. Canadians are generally nice, friendly, and disposed to help if they can (or commiserate if they can’t). I probably notice it more because I’ve been away, but it’s clear. Sure we have our share of assholes. But I think the average Canadian is much more likely to jump-start your dead car battery than steal your hubcaps. Way to go, Canada!

The clinic referred me for a COVID test and the people at the testing centre phoned me back so quickly that I actually had to request they defer my appointment a bit to preserve more of the precious 96-hour window. Of course they were happy to reschedule because… Canada. I was also slightly concerned that the production company hiring me had asked for a very specific sort of documentation of the test results, largely based on the system in the UK, where most people were traveling from. Actually the fact I was coming from Canada threw everyone for a loop in general. For instance, the UAE airline's list of acceptable global test centres didn’t even have an entry for Canada. (Really?) Also, I was asked to suggest the best way to get from Saskatoon to a flight in Toronto, as if they expected that part of the journey would be by float plane or dogsled with a short portage between. (“Just use Google Flights,” I said. “And make sure you click the CANOE option.") 

Nonetheless I got the test booked and I alerted them it was for travel, which I hoped meant it would be flagged for especially timely processing (cue ominous background music). And on a Tuesday morning I went and got the stick shoved up my nose. In the interim, my flight was booked for the following Friday around noon. With nothing else to do but wait, I got to grips with packing, having decided I was going to bring the fabulous rolling toolbox workbench for its maiden voyage. 

Meanwhile, back in London, the helpful Piran volunteered to drive to the marina to visit the boat and root around in my drawers extracting things I didn’t bring with me to Canada in March, but are mission-critical for a job, like my steel-toed shoes, hard hat, hot weather work clothes and spare bourbon cream biscuits. He even arranged a rendezvous with the equally helpful Kieran to hand over the goods, which Kieran then schlepped to Abu Dhabi.

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And unasked, Kieran also brought me TWO giant jars of Marmite. For their good works, both he and Piran are officially awarded the Go Stay Work Play Live Honourary Canadian Maple Leaf Award for Excellence in the Field of Inherent Niceness. (GSWPLHCMLAEFIN for short.)

Back in Canada, I fretted. Wednesday passed with no test result. On Thursday I waited as long as I could stand it before calling the friendly random clinic (FRC), and they called the test processing lab to see if anything could be discovered. (I was, after all, scheduled to fly in less than 24 hours, so I don’t think I was being overly needy.) They clinic called back quickly with the less-than-heartening news that the lab had placed my test sample “in the wrong batch” and hadn’t even started processing it. At this point I may have started hyper-ventilating because the whole precarious house of cards was tumbling down around me. With no test result I couldn’t fly the next day. And I knew there were very other few flights from Toronto to UAE that fell inside my precious 96 hour window of time. This might mean cancelling the existing flight, scheduling another test, and then booking another flight. And there was the intervening weekend to throw off test-result timing. And and and… it was just awful.

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Gratuitous photo of grey October weather on the prairies, which matched my mood appropriately.

I spent a disconsolate Thursday evening texting with friends and trying to decide what to do. Eventually I determined the best option was to get up early and be ready to fly, on the ridiculously slim chance that a test result manifested itself in the tiny window of time between the clinic opening (9:00am) and the moment when the production company would have to cancel my flight (about 10:00am), which was also when I’d have to leave the house to get to the airport in time. Let’s just say it was not a restful night. 

The alarm rang at 6:00am and I packed half-heartedly, because it really felt like it was wasted effort. At 9:00:01am I called the FRC and the receptionist remembered me and promised to get right on it. So with the clock ticking I sat, unshowered and already exhausted, stared at my packed toolbox that wouldn’t quite close, and waited for a call back.

And then a miracle happened.

At 9:19am the clinic phoned and the I heard the words “I have your test results IN MY HAND.” Then there was a frantic 45 minutes in which I called the production company to tell them to please not cancel my flight, had a shower, finished packing and got everything into the car.

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I call this photo “Luggage and Snow”

We drove to the clinic on the way to the airport so I could pick up a hard copy of the coveted test results. (Negative, obviously. Phew.) Check in for the Saskatoon-Toronto part of the trip was smooth, and surprisingly, they marked the box to travel straight through, which I did not expect. And even at 60.4 pounds, it was within the luggage weight limit for my ticket, so no excess baggage fees! Things were definitely looking up.

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The Box, ready to fly the nest. Travel safely, little box! 

As expected, the airport was mostly deserted and it was quick getting through security. That emptiness made it all the more inexplicable when I finally got to the airside Tim Hortons and they were COMPLETELY OUT OF DONUTS. How is that even possible? It’s like McDonalds running out of fries or Donald Trump running out of stupid. Hadn’t I endured enough already? (Spoiler alert: Oh no, I certainly had not.) And how can they not have an emergency system in place for this kind thing? There should be Donut Special Forces shock troops that abseil in from a helicopter with a dozen each of old fashioned plain and maple dip. (Full disclosure: there were actually a few French Crullers left but they are basically just deep-fried air and do not count.) Luckily, I managed to secure the last six Timbits and a large coffee and finally got to draw my first deep breath in about 18 hours.

The flight to Toronto was uneventful, which is good because it turns out I was going to need what strength I had left for what came next. Back in Saskatoon the agent had tried to issue my Toronto-Abu Dhabi boarding pass, but couldn’t get it to work because they’d only resumed International flights into Abu Dhabi a day or two earlier, and there were apparently still some bugs to work out. I’d assumed this would be the case, because Kieran flew a day earlier from London and said there was a whole rigamarole at check-in that involved the agent having to email someone in Abu Dhabi, then follow up with a phone call. What could possibly go wrong?

I was braced for this when I landed in Toronto, but the first step was to get the shuttle to the international terminal. Simple, right? Bwahahahaha! Instead of a normal, uneventful shuttle trip, here are the steps I took, because apparently things weren’t stressful enough already:

  1. Wait on comfy bench between two train platforms. 
  2. Notice signs on the right indicate that’s where the next train will arrive.
  3. Realise there’s a bit of time to wait. Take some things out of carry-on bag to get at something on the bottom.
  4. Notice train arriving on left side of the platform.
  5. Realise at the last moment that left-hand train is actually going to the correct place before right-hand train will arrive.
  6. Dash for left-hand train, board, and congratulate self for getting to check-in a bit sooner.
  7. Realise that things taken out of bag are still sitting on bench on platform.
  8. Itemise things in head: brand new hand-made notebook, Kindle, iPad Pro with Apple Pencil.
  9. Immediately swear loudly and effusively.
  10. Disembark at new terminal, swear more, pace, sweat profusely.
  11. Wait ONE MILLION YEARS for train back to previous terminal.
  12. Get on train, continue swearing, desperately hope aforementioned niceness of Canadians means everything is still there when I arrive.
  13. Arrive.
  14. Become suffused with joy at goodness of my fellow man, recover abandoned items.
  15. Go back to Step 1.

It was an interlude I really did not need. Still drenched in sweat, and definitely in no state to pass a temperature check, I found the check-in desk and braced myself for whatever fresh hell awaited. The agent at the desk was friendly and helpful, and accepted my passport, my precious COVID test paperwork, and my visa, and then started tapping away on her computer. Minutes passed. There was more tapping. Photos were taken of the visa. More tapping. Phone calls were made. More minutes passed. Hope dimmed. There was a problem with the visa. “How could that be?” I asked. I had colleagues who’d flown from London the day before on the same type of visa! “Yes” she said, “But this visa is only valid for travel from the UK, not Canada." 

Of course.

Finally, the agent escorted me to a chair, murmuring apologies all the way, and promising that it would be sorted out, it would just take some time. Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers will of course realise that time was not something I had a lot of. If I didn’t make my scheduled flight, I only had until about 2pm the next day to get on a plane to Abu Dhabi, or my COVID test results would be invalid because of the magic 96-hour window. If I was still sitting in Toronto at 2pm Saturday I’d have to start the whole cycle again, but as an added bonus I’d be doing it from a hotel room in Toronto. Or possibly from back in Saskatoon where I’d retreat to lick my wounds. It was all a bit much, I don’t mind telling you.

Eventually, after a lot of waiting, and with growing certainty it was all doomed, the agent came back and reported that whatever “special permission” that was needed had been granted, and I was free to check in. Angels sang. Crowds gathered in the streets spontaneously to celebrate, heedless of social distancing rules. CNN news helicopters circled the airport reporting live, and I was finally, finally, issued my cherished Toronto-to-Abu Dhabi boarding pass. (You probably saw the live stream.) And as a parting gift the lovely agent put me in an exit row, on the aisle, with three whole seats to myself. 

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Soon after I secured this very large glass of wine and breathed again.

The exit row seat turned out to be a much-appreciated, because a flight from Toronto to Abu Dhabi is very long. Very, very long. Like, twelve hours long. I watched a few movies, and slept a bit, and hoped that my little toolbox was safe in the cargo hold. And then because I was bored and a bit fuzzy-headed and this is just how my brain works, I started anthropomorphising the box. It was kind of nice to feel like I wasn’t alone. That me and the box were in this together. So I sat in the darkened cabin with my recovered iPad and drew this guy:

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Introducing… J. S. Bachs. (Name courtesy of the one and only Anne Tanaka.)

Finally we landed in Abu Dhabi, and after getting the stick up my nose again and making it past passport control, I finally got to the baggage carousel with my heart in my throat, hoping J.S. wouldn’t arrive broken and bleeding out underwear and KD Snack Cups.

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J.S. Bachs’ triumphant arrival! Still in one piece, though now with one wonky wheel. Somehow it seems appropriate that we both came out of that journey with some scars.

And now I sit in quarantine in a pleasant hotel room, kind of over the jet lag after seven days, and just having had the stick up my nose again (third time lucky!). I’ve been working from here, spending hours conferring with Kieran on speaker phone, even though he’s just down the hall. Meals arrive packed in a thousand plastic containers, and the days are passing agreeably. I’m also proud to report that J.S. Bachs is performing exceptionally well, tucked away in the corner of the room. We’ll both get to relocate to the work site soon.

Let’s just hope that journey is a little bit smoother than our last one.

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The trusty J.S. hard at work.

A cabin in the woods

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Another long break between blogs. It’s the new normal, and that’s all there is to it. Let’s just move on, shall we? When last we left your humble blogger she had settled into a borrowed cabin in a national park. There were abundant groceries, a significant but manageable list of small home reno projects to complete, a lot of videos downloaded for evening viewing, and a host of places to run, hike and kayak in the cooling autumn weather. All of this centred around that lovely cabin that was occupied by me and me alone. It was, in short, perfect.

First I should clarify, especially for UK-based Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers, that I’m not talking about a log cabin hewn by hand from local timber and set on an outcrop of Canadian Shield surrounded by nothing but trees for miles, and with only beavers and the haunting cry of the loon for company. Despite any of your romantic notions of the vast Canadian forests, I was not trapping my own food, hauling water from the lake, or washing in an icy waterfall with a loaded rifle nearby to ward off curious brown bears. Apologies for bursting your bubble. Places like that exist here, sure. But most cabins (or cottages) cluster in neighbourhoods or long roads surrounding a lake, with power, plumbing and other useful amenities like ice cream and mini golf and gift shops selling anything/everything with a maple leaf on it.

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Here’s what my immediate surroundings looked like. 

It’s a cluster of about 500 tiny houses set onto five parallel streets running down to the lake. This used to be a campground filled with temporary structures that had to be hauled away each winter and replaced each spring, like glorified ice fishing huts. They’ve gradually become permanent, and now many are new, fully modern homes with granite counter tops and cathedral ceilings (which I think is not really in the spirit of things, but as usual no one asked me). Happily, there are still some original cabins that barely cover 200 square feet and don’t even have indoor plumbing. (“The Lucky Nickel” would be spacious and well-equipped in comparison.) Residents of those cabins simply use the many toilet blocks and shower facilities dotted around the neighbourhood.

I know it looks much like a typical residential street. But here’s here’s what’s at the end of that street:

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A wide clear lake, generously equipped with docks for diving from or for launching yourself in a canoe or kayak for an afternoon of adventure.

And here’s what’s a few minute’s walk from the other end of the street:

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A hiking trail through a marsh, with floating boardwalks and resident beavers.

That was my home for about five weeks. The cabin is owned by some of my oldest and closest friends, who five years ago had an extension put onto it to accommodate their growing kids and their desire for indoor plumbing. The extension is very sympathetic, and the cabin itself is just big enough, and has just enough of the mod cons you might need, but maintains a cozy feeling that is most definitely perfectly in tune with the surroundings, with not a granite countertop in sight. However, the builder who did the extension was not a mad fiend for finish work, so five years on there were still windows missing trim and tiny bedrooms without baseboard (skirting board) and a general sense of unfinished-ness that was starting to get a bit wearying for my lovely and generous friends.

Which is how a perfectly synchronous arrangement evolved wherein I got to live in the cabin and have some much needed alone time in an idyllic setting. And while there, I could spend a bit of time each day gradually finishing up all the little things that needed doing. I also hasten to add that my friends would not stop pointing out that I was very very welcome to stay in the cabin even if all I did was lounge around and eat bon bons while floating on the lake. But this is the kind of work I find genuinely enjoyable, and being able to do a favour for them while they were similarly doing me a big favour just made everything better.

So it was that I pitched up with a car full of tools and spent a day or so getting myself set up and making a big list of everything to be done.

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First I made this workbench to hang off the deck so I had somewhere right outside the door to put the saw. And I made those little sticky-up bits of 2x4 (4x2) clamped to the railing to support the ends of long stock while cutting. 

Days generally went like this: Wake up in the upstairs bedroom surrounded by giant windows and trees, do some yoga, have breakfast, and then get out the tools and start work on the day’s project. One day it might be adding framing and trim to a downstairs bedroom window. Or hanging a window blind. Or installing some baseboard. 

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Once it was transforming this sad little nook/shelf, set between the studs in a wall...

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… into this. Which was super satisfying.

Of course I also had a break mid-morning for coffee and a toasted cinnamon bun from the local bakery and a few minutes with the cryptic crossword. And I stopped for lunch too. And I was usually wrapping up in the late afternoon with plenty of time for a run through the woods before settling in for a little pandemic habit I’ve developed called “Non-Fiction Hour” which involves settling into a comfy chair after a run and a shower but before supper, with a small bowl of snacks, a cold drink, and a good book (generally non-fiction but exceptions can be allowed on a case-by-case basis). In a fit of Canadiana, I made it through Pierre Burton’s book on the Great Depression and then managed a solid start on “Merchants of Doubt”, which was a bit out of date and hard going but had some interesting stuff to say. 

Occasional alternate activities for non-fiction hour include: continuing to bash away at the crossword or drawing something either on the iPad or in my actual sketchbook.

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Like this, which I was absurdly pleased with. Enough so that I made a frame for it from scrap wood and left it as a gift for the cabin. I call it “The View From Upstairs”.

And of course sometimes I just took the day off. Especially on days when the lake was calm and the sun was out. One notable Tuesday in late September it was unseasonably warm and sunny and I made it all the way across the lake on what turned out to be an epic 8km paddle that lasted all afternoon, with a few stops to linger on various shorelines for a photo op.

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Warm, sun-browned and happy.

And even better, Karen managed to come visit for a few days and we hiked and kayaked and drank red wine and watched cheesy movies and roasted a chicken on the BBQ.

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We also took Non-Fiction Hour snacks to a whole new level with blood orange gin & tonic, assorted crackers and cheese, hummus, hot pepper jelly, chip dip, cherry tomatoes, smoked oysters, pretzel chunks and ripple chips. Because that’s how we roll.

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And we tried paddle boarding.

Paddle Boarding is an activity whose appeal I’d never understood. And now, having tried it, I still don’t. Why would you want to stand up on something that unstable? It’s just awkward and uncomfortable. I seemed to end up frozen in a hunched position, afraid to shift in the slightest. Also you’re constantly having to switch what side you’re paddling on to stay straight. I did find it interesting to try out some yoga moves on the paddle board, but only because that was challenging and on a hot day it was fun to end up in the water after a wobbly triangle pose went wrong. But paddle boarding as a pleasant means of propelling yourself across the water? No thank you.

Paddle boarding aside, living at the cabin was, without a doubt, the best month I’ve had since this whole disastrous pandemic thing started. Granted that’s an unprecedentedly low bar to clear, but it really was excellent. Then gradually the weather cooled off, and the real world started to intrude. And one morning I woke up to an email about a job. An actual job on a big show. I know I mentioned that the show I was working on in London in March was trying to start up again. This was not that. This was the Abu Dhabi National Day show, which Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers will recall from 2015. And 2018. And 2019. Pandemic or no, a show would go on. Smaller audience. Smaller cast. Smaller staff. Socially distanced and bubbled and sanitised to within an inch of its life. But it would go on. And they wanted me. So after consulting with family and friends and colleagues and hearing about how they proposed to do a large show in the middle of a surging pandemic, I took the job. Because as nice as the cabin was, I haven’t had a pay cheque since February and six weeks of work at international rates will go a long way to keeping me going until something else emerges.

So my last couple weeks at the cabin were marked by mornings spent on the phone with colleagues in London and Abu Dhabi, catching up on everything that happens when you’re several time zones behind the rest of the show. And since my internet access was via a hotspot on my phone, there was an awful lot of additional expensive Canadian mobile data used. And a lot of logistics to sort out. And there were still some things to finish on the cabin. 

By the time thanksgiving arrived, the list was done and my friends arrived for a last weekend at the cabin before closing it up for the winter. They were appropriately thrilled at the improvements, which was gratifying. And we made an excellent dinner for thanksgiving and played games and watched movies. And most importantly, I got to just hang out with my good friends in a way that hasn’t been possible for ages. And we even got a few last moments of kayaking in, though the wind whipped up the lake to such a froth that we had to abandon that plan on the last morning after the kayaks were swamped with waves before we could even leave the dock (or in my case, before I could even get in). 

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Not optimal kayaking conditions.

I stuck it out at the cabin for a couple more days after my friends left, but by that time my head and my heart just weren’t in it anymore. My brain was bubbling with work, the internet constraints at the cabin became untenable, and they moved my flight date up to allow for a longer quarantine time in Abu Dhabi. The writing was on the wall, so I gave in, packed everything up and shut down the cabin.

As I write this closing paragraph, I'm quarantined in a hotel room in Abu Dhabi after an international odyssey that definitely deserves a blog post all its own. It's bizarre to be back, and the giant steel mesh bracelet bolted to my arm monitoring my position at all times is heavy and disconcerting, but I'm grateful for the work and it's actually nice to have a bit of time to settle in and get used to this all again. I think the biggest immediate challenge is going to be the combination of not running added to three ridiculously generous room service meals a day. I already feel like I've consumed my bodyweight in pita bread and hummus. Luckily for you, there's an excellent chance you'll get at least one more post from me before work gets crazy. It's the little things, right?

How I Spent My Summer Pandemic

Monday, September 14, 2020

I’m still here. Here being Canada. Because the world is still broken, and I’m still unemployed and there is literally no reason for me to be back in the UK, other than that I miss having my own place, tiny and occasionally leaky though it may be, and I’m running out of Marmite. (Humanitarian aid packages from friends in the UK gratefully accepted. Please also include a pint of Doom Bar if you can swing it.) And yes, it’s been three months since I’ve blogged, but it really hasn’t felt like there’s anything to say. When last we left our humble blogger, there were fresh butter tarts and the weather was turning properly warm. Now the weather is swinging back the other way and I’m forcing myself to get back into it.

So… how did I spend my summer pandemic? It turns out I did manage to keep busy, mostly with odd jobs and small projects.

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For instance, I helped build a raised garden bed with my niece CB, who got pretty handy with the screw gun.

And I did a bunch of associated landscaping with patio stones to tidy up a corner of the yard. And made some additional planters from scrap lumber salvaged from an old deck. There were also three light fixtures installed, and three window blinds, and one new towel rack.

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Oh, and there was this homework project of CB’s that I might have helped with a bit too much. But it was cool! Very Rube Goldberg / Heath Robinson. You had to fire a water hose into the cups to spin the wheel to wind up the string to pull the watering can down enough to activate the watering process. Not overly complicated or pointless at all.

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And CB and I perfected a recipe from America’s Test Kitchen for Lemon Olive Oil Tart, which you should all go make right now because it is amazing. (Note you have to sign up with their website to see the full recipe but I am telling you it's very worth it.)

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I also revised my tiny robot card game many, many times and play tested it some more, including with the all-important Pomeranian demographic.

I even revived a different card game that I invented while on vacation from my Big Trip. This entailed re-drawing the existing 60 cards on the iPad (the original version was pencil crayon, but naturally I had the foresight to scan them all ages ago so I could reproduce them remotely without needing the original deck, which is still tucked away on the boat). Then I added and drew 40 new cards to expand the game. As an aside, all of that drawing with the heavy iPad held in my outstretched and twisted left hand managed to exacerbate an old pain in that wrist, which nudged further to the top of the list of bits of me that are breaking down. I think this process is known medically as “getting old”.

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Oh, and I made a few different versions of packaging for the various card games, and built some custom wooden card racks for the future deluxe edition, and packed them into the Hyper-Mega-Duo Fun Pack, containing both card games and the lovingly crafted racks.

Of course I also did Zoom pub quizzes, because I think at one point almost the whole population of the planet was doing Zoom pub quizzes. Mine was the one that started back when I was in quarantine and only finally fizzled out in late June. To that end I also set four different rounds of questions for the quiz: one on identifying various flags of the world from tiny close-up images, one on various audio logos, one “What do they Have in Common?”, and the round I’m most proud of:

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Name that ’Stache!

With the help of my brother-in-law Don (He of the Chelsea Pensioners Tour) I also tackled a reno project in my sister’s basement that involved gluing laminate flooring onto the wall. Apparently that’s a thing now - flooring on the wall. Normally, you can just nail it up but of course in this case it was covering an 8’ x 8’ section of glass mirror. This meant that the only thing holding up the fairly heavy laminate was construction adhesive. I tend to get a bit wigged out when I can’t put a few mechanical fasteners into things so this was mentally taxing, plus it had the lurking threat of accidentally breaking the mirror behind the stuff, which was exhilarating. But it did mean that I got to invent an 8’ wide spreader clamp with built-in wedges to hold each course in place as the glue set.

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And it worked!

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And it looked great in the end, though it does now lack that 70’s vibe.

I’ve also done some experimenting with sewn book-binding, which is much easier than you might think. And to supplement my iPad drawing and give my deteriorating joints a break, I’ve started sketching with actual pencil and paper. So retro!

Really, though, there was one big, cool project that I took from idea to completion that I’m particularly pleased with. I’ve been thinking for a while now that I’d like to start bringing a few tools with me on big International jobs. There always seems to be a moment in these gigs where we’re based in an office and any kind of workshop space is a distant dream, but I still get asked for early prototypes of things. This means I inevitably end up going out with a wad of pettycash to buy another batch of crappy matte knives and glue guns and rolls of tape from the nearest Junk-o-Mart and end up making stuff from bits of string and bubble gum and re-purposed cardboard scrounged from the office. This process has its charms, but would be much improved if I could simply arrive at a job with a basic set of tools, so I started thinking about a traveling toolbox. Of course the sensible thing would be to order a knock-off Pelican Case, which would be durable and, more importantly, lightweight - a key consideration for something that will end up going as excess baggage. But where’s the fun in that?

What if instead of that, you made a light(-ish) weight wooden box to pack things into, but then the box itself converted into a workbench when you arrived? How cool would that be? (Spolier alert: It would be really quite cool).

This turned out to be an excellent project, and consumed most of July, spent happily puttering away in one side of the garage while my dad and a gradually emerging Triumph hard-top occupied the other. And because there was no rush, I got to take my time and be much more careful and methodical than I usually am. And along the way I got to learn how to solder aluminium, which it turns out is not difficult and quite satisfying.

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Especially with expert assistance from the automotive division on the other side of the garage.

YouTube also taught me how to give my sheet aluminium work surface a brushed finish and how to weave paracord into an attractive custom handle for the box. And I got to know the guys at the local Bolt Supply House and Steelmet by name. I’m pretty sure I’m on their Christmas card lists now. And in the end, there’s this very pleasing thing:

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This rolling case. Pay attention to the angled aluminium on the corners... they become more important below.

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It opens up all the way flat.

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And converts into this - those long aluminium bits and wheels become the legs. It’s not a huge work surface, but actually quite comfortable. And I can also set it up at workbench height for standing work.

I'm super pleased with how the toolbox/bench turned out. (Tool Bench? Boxtable? Benchbox? Hmmm...) Then for an encore I dug out a folding director’s chair that my dad made for me for Christmas many years ago. Mice had shredded the canvas back and seat while it was in storage so I decided to remake those pieces and revive the chair, since it would go so nicely with my new desk. And because I could, I decided to do something a bit different.

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Note to self: Next time you decide to remake the seat of a director’s chair with denim, find a piece of denim that does NOT have a high percentage of lycra in it.

So that was the summer. All in all, I think I’ve filled my time usefully. I’m on my fourth different 30-day series of “Yoga with Adriene”, can sort of do real pushups and even touch my toes some days, and I’m still running four or five times a week. I guess I’m used to having long breaks between jobs, so occupying myself in a constructive way is second nature. Also because I’m used to having long breaks between paycheques, I keep a solid chunk of cash tucked away to keep me going, which has been super helpful and saved me from the stress that I know other people are dealing with.

I recently found out that the theatre show I was working on in London in March is starting up again, which has left me feeling conflicted. On the one hand, I’d like to go back and finish the job I started, even in whatever weirdo fashion that might take. But practically speaking that’s just not happening. Given that I definitely want to be in Canada for Christmas (as usual), it would mean I’d have to fly to London, quarantine on the boat for two weeks, then fly back to Canada for the holidays, quarantine again here, and then go back to London in the New Year and spend another two weeks in quarantine then. Instead, I’ve decided to stay here through to the New Year, because it just makes more sense, and because Canada seems to be doing a better job of dealing with this pandemic business than the UK (blessed as it is with vastly lower population density and a somewhat less shambolic government).

Also - and this was the clincher - I was offered the use of a summer cabin belonging to some old friends. It’s in a sublime location five minutes from a wide, clear lake and ten minutes from a bakery with excellent cinnamon buns, in a freaking National Park. It’s been about six months since I left London and I’ve spent all that time in the spare bedrooms of generous and tolerant family members. And while it has been LOVELY, I am a person who normally lives alone, so that’s kind of a long time to be with other people so, so, so much. This way my family get their spare rooms back for a bit, and I get to settle in by myself for a month or so. Happily, there are a host of small home reno jobs I can do while at the cabin, so my friends get their baseboards and windows trim installed and I get things to putter with, and some much-needed time on my own.

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I also get to do go kayaking, like on this early morning when I had the lake to myself.

So that’s where I sit now: happily ensconced in the cabin, where I arrived a few days ago with a rental car, a borrowed chop saw, and what seemed like enough groceries to withstand the siege of Leningrad (if Leningrad had been stocked mostly with Pop Tarts and gin). It is, to be blunt, fucking fantastic. I kind of can’t believe how perfect a situation it is, and I'll be forever grateful to my friends for their generosity in trusting me with their place for such a long time.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got work do do. I think they’re gonna love the new jacuzzi extension and home cinema. And the underground parking and helicopter pad should be finished before the snow flies…

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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.