H.M.P. Heathrow

Sunday, May 9, 2021

First thing first: I’m back. Back in London. Back on the boat. Back after 391 days. 

The boat. Still floating but… well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Yes, I’m back. But of course it’s not that simple because it never is. I’d intended to return around March 22 to make it an even year away, which seemed like a nice punctuation mark. However, things did not go to plan. It turned out that the long-postponed job I’d had on the Opening and Closing Ceremonies for the Dubai World Expo finally lurched back to life in the new year and they decided to have an in-person workshop in Dubai in mid-April. I was asked to attend in order to make cheap-and-cheerful prototypes of various actual physical objects to be carried, waved, flapped about and otherwise manipulated in the actual performance space by real people actually in each other’s presence. What a weird idea.

That left me with a choice - fly back to London as intended and quarantine for 10 days on the boat, then have a week of “freedom” before flying to Dubai for the workshops. Or, hang around freeloading off my sister for an extra few weeks and fly directly from Canada. Naturally I took option number two, because the Dubai business meant I’d have to quarantine on returning to London anyway, and I didn’t fancy ten days quarantine on the boat in March, and another ten days after Dubai in April.

Thus, 391 days. And my first days back were, of course, in quarantine. But instead of arriving from a “Amber List” country (Canada) I was arriving from a “Red List” country (UAE). Thus, instead of ten days in the cramped but familiar and much-missed confines of the boat, I’d have to spend ten days at Her Majesty’s pleasure in a managed quarantine hotel. Luckily, the production company paid the £1750 cost of the quarantine package, which included the hotel, three meals a day, and the two COVID tests I’d need before they’d let me out. In my naivety, I sort of thought that quarantining in a hotel might be simpler than quarantining on the boat. For instance, there’d be unlimited wifi. And unlimited hot water. And food would just show up without me having to figure out how to get groceries delivered. And I could raise my arms above my head.

Ha. I truly was naive. Then again, I’m no stranger to quarantine. Before I landed at Heathrow I’d already done 35 days in total, so I thought I knew what I was in for. Sure, it wouldn’t be the same luxurious environs of my first quarantine in Canada. I could accept that a hotel room wouldn’t offer the same space and facilities as a carefully chosen AirBnB, but my thinking was coloured by the comfortable and pleasant week of quarantine in Abu Dhabi.  That room was spacious and well-equipped with a small fridge, generous storage space, a separate couch-ish area, and a large window that faced the sunrise. The Holiday Inn Express at Terminal 4 had exactly none of those things.

Welcome to what I came to think of as Her Majesty’s Prison Heathrow.

But let’s back up a bit again. Because it was by no means a quick and simple process getting from the landing gate to my cell at H.M.P. Heathrow. And while I appreciate that the whole hotel quarantine thing is relatively new, they’ve had a bit of time to work out the kinks now and I was expecting a slightly smoother process.

Stupid Red List.

First, there’s a lot of paperwork required when travelling internationally during a pandemic. Of course I needed proof of a negative COVID PCR test, performed within the proscribed period (differing depending on destination and - word to the wise - sometimes even required when you’re only transiting through an airport not staying in the country. More on that another time…). I also needed a completed “Passenger Locator Form” and proof that I’d booked the managed quarantine package. And for some reason that documentation had to be checked at several stages by several people reached by standing in several long queues of passengers who seemed to have forgotten about trying to stand two metres apart.

And then there was an extended period spent in a small alcove near the baggage carousels while an ever-growing group of exhausted travellers waited for buses to the various hotels. This was especially frustrating, because there was no queueing system, and no sorting of people according to which hotel they’d been booked into, of which there are many. When I finally got on a bus it was full of people going six different places, meaning that the bus had to stop at a hotel, unload the unsorted luggage from the compartment under the bus, check and cross-check the people and the luggage with the information at the hotel, close up the luggage compartment, and then proceed to the next hotel to repeat the same process. Naturally I was in hotel number six and was the only person left on the bus when we finally arrived at my stop. From the time the plane landed to the time I got to the reception desk it was four hours later. 

Eventually I found myself in Room 508, and it was not good. My hotel room in Abu Dhabi had a huge window that even opened a tiny bit. Room 508 had a window of course, but it was a solid pane - no fresh air for me! Worse, though, was that the window faced INTO THE BUILDING. And I don’t mean it looked onto another building. I mean the window looked into the hotel itself. Whatever genius designed that place created a large covered atrium area surrounded on all sides by hotel, meaning that each guest had a 50-50 chance of getting a room facing out at the actual world, or one facing… other hotel rooms. 

A slightly distorted panorama, but you get the picture. Not even a hint of sky. And this light level was enhanced by the camera on my phone. 

This was the amount of natural light that reached the room at solar noon. Again, the phone camera makes it look better than it was. And the navy blue walls didn't exactly help.

Of course there was no min-bar fridge. No drawers to unpack into. No proper desk. And certainly no couch. A Holiday Inn Express is not designed for long term guests. It’s designed for overnight stays by people who have an early flight the next morning. Emphasis is on providing a comfy bed, a giant tv and a good shower. Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers will not be surprised to hear that my first day at H.M.P. Heathrow was not a happy one. 

Oh, and that first day? That’s not Day One of quarantine. That’s Day Zero. So even though I’d landed at 7:00am, that day didn’t count. Welcome home. I can understand why page 11 of my 28-page Welcome Pack included a list of eight different mental health services I could contact if it all got to be a bit too much. (Including one called C.A.L.M. - Campaign Against Living Miserably. And I am NOT making that up.)

Once I’d resigned myself to Room 508 and memorised the C.A.L.M. number, my next job was the menu. Along with the Welcome Pack, I’d also received full page menus for every day of my sentence. 

A typical day’s offering. Each meal came with some default settings and also had one or two options, including hot dishes. 

Charmingly, I was required to choose my options for every meal of my entire stay on the morning of Day Zero. So, for instance, I needed to report whether I wanted a cheese omelette or a vegan sausage roll with my breakfast the following Saturday. Now I’m generally a person who loves having a plan, but even I found this a bit much. Then again, it actually turned out to be fairly simple, because who in their right minds would want “Vegetable Nasi Goreng” for breakfast when they could have a Bacon and Egg Omelette Bap? All my choices were duly entered into a web-page and, I thought, properly recorded for my future dining pleasure.


On Day Zero I waited two hours for both lunch and dinner, and had to call to follow up in order to be fed. I put this down to that fact that I’d arrived too late for the computer system to record my choices and had to indicate my preferences on paper at check-in. No matter, because surely all would be fine for Day One breakfast, which arrived at 7:30 the next morning in a brown paper bag outside my door.

Not. My Cornish Sausage Roll was conspicuously absent, with a cup of porridge in its place. I managed to flag down the delivery guy, who changed out the porridge, and sat down to breakfast trusting that the mix-up was an isolated incident.

This is really a lot of food. Every breakfast came with milk and cereal, water, juice, fruit, pastry, some kind of snack and the hot option. The other meals were equally generous. Quarantining was definitely not a waistline-friendly situation.

Then Day One lunch was wrong. But this time the woman doing the delivery wouldn’t exchange things, because I’d touched the erroneous sandwich, therefore potentially slathering it with the plague. So she brought me the salad I’d asked for and I kept the sandwich too. Again, not diet-friendly. But surely supper would be correct. 

Not. This pattern repeated for most meals until on Day Four I was finally able to express my frustration adequately to the guest services people, who told me to request a security escort to the reception desk and fill out a paper form for the remaining meal choices. Because obviously the computer system was - and I’m going to use a technical term here - utterly fucked. I did that, and went to bed with a glimmer of hope that the next morning would deliver my Bacon and Egg Bap without drama.

Which it did. Sort of. In fact, it delivered TWO Bacon and Egg Baps, along with the rest of two complete breakfasts, in two brown paper bags. Well-played, Holiday Inn Express, for finding a new and interesting way to screw up. By this point I was beyond caring, and simply had a double Bacon and Egg Bap and put the extra cereal, juice and snacks to my growing hoard of uneaten non-perishables. Eventually you have to accept that you have no control at all and just take the double bacon when you get it.

Here’s what the hoard of uneaten food looked like on the morning I checked out, along with all the paper bags and plastic containers that I brought with me back to the boat.

The food situation certainly kept me on my toes. But the lack of natural light was a downer, and it was weird to have no sense of the outside world at all. Eventually I realised I could get YouTube onto the giant tv and found a nice live-streaming camera of a street in Oxford that I just kept on all day. Oddly, I couldn’t find a nice view from a London camera, but the Oxford one was a street I remembered from my visit during the Grand Tour, and was a close enough shot that I could see people moving around, which was nice.

Kind of like having a window. It also helped to play random cafe noises in the background during the day.

The most exciting development - other than the double bacon - was the arrival of my Day Two COVID test kit. This was a self-administered test of the stick-up-the-nose variety that came with a thick instruction book and a lot of little sticky barcode labels.

By the time this test kit was delivered, I estimate I’d had fifteen different PCR tests done. Still it was a novelty to be wielding the stick myself.

The reason this self-test was exciting is that once I could report a negative test result I could be allowed OUT OF THE ROOM. So when I finally got the all-clear late on Day 4 I quickly pulled on my running clothes and waited for my security escort. (Anyone leaving their room for any reason had to be accompanied by a security guard. I suppose to prevent them from making a break for freedom. Fair call, I guess.) And where did my guard lead me?

To the prison yard, of course. Where I and my fellow inmates did desultory laps, watched over by men in hi-vis vests. It really did feel like yard time. Still, it was glorious to see the sky and breath fresh air, even though I was doing 180 metre-long circuits of a dis-used carpark in the back end of Terminal 4.

And thus the days passed. I was doing remote work on the Dubai project, with the standard-issue ration of Zoom meetings and paperwork. And the wifi was good, and there was Netflix, and I found a routine that passed the time. Luckily, I was free to order in alternative food or other essentials if I’d wanted, though I’d stocked up on the flight back. There was a short layover in Bahrain where I made sure to pick up a few non-perishable snacks, a fresh book for Non-Fiction Hour, and - crucially - two bottles of duty-free red wine. I even made my peace with the ridiculously tiny and non-functional table in the room, which was clearly designed by the same misanthrope who did the window.

First, does it really have to have that many weird corners and angles? And second, when you’ve already made a table that small, why, in the name of all that is holy, would you put a big stupid hole in it? It’s pure form over function. Smarten up!

I've complained a lot here, but it's clear the people at the hotel were genuinely trying to make quarantine an ok experience. I think they were just overburdened and under-staffed and trying to implement a system on the fly. I'm sure most quarantine rooms actually have proper windows, for instance. (Occasionally I got a glimpse of the sky from the window of the guy across the hall, if he happened to open his door at the same time I did. Lucky Room 507!) And really, it was only ten days. 

On the morning of Day 11 I was free to go. In fact, I could have left at one minute past midnight, but I had a good night's sleep and enjoyed one last bacon bap and then treated myself to an Uber XL for the trip home, because I had a lot of luggage and I was in a celebratory mood. And this Uber did not disappoint.

It came with bottles of water, gum, hand sanitiser, blue twinkly stars in the ceiling, two separate video monitors, and diamant√©-encrusted tissue boxes. Because I’m fancy like that.

My return to the boat was not without issues, but that’s a story for another day. For now, I’ll just say I’m ok, and despite the issues, it’s good to be back. And I’ll close with these words to live by: 

Just take the double bacon.

Yamnuska Wolfdog Sanctuary

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers will have noticed a distinct dearth of blogging in 2021, which I can only say perfectly reflects the amount of bloggy things that I’ve done so far this year. That total being, obviously, zero. Yes, there was a post in January that I pulled out of thin, frigid air without leaving the house. But it was a pale effort. Not so any more! Today I’m pleased to bring you the tale of a day trip to an actual outside activity at an actual touristy destination with an actual friend I’m not related to by blood or marriage. Heady stuff. 

It all starts in Calgary, where I’m on what I like to think of as my Farewell Tour, which is basically just me hanging out at my sister’s place for a bit before finally heading back to London. Or at least that was the plan. Now it’s altered slightly to allow me to spend a week in Dubai on Expo-related work stuff first, after which I get the pleasure of spending my ten days of quarantine not in the loving and much-missed “comfort” of the Lucky Nickel, but in a random airport hotel not of my choosing. This is because the UAE is on Boris Johnson’s Red List of countries that require hotel quarantine, while if you’re coming from Canada they trust you to quarantine at home. (Don’t ask me to explain the UK’s semi-porous borders policy. All I know is that it’ll be ten more days before I’m properly home, but at least during those ten days I won’t have to worry about getting groceries, or monitor whether I’ve got enough water left to shower. And I’ll also have enough room to raise my arms above my head. So, you know, swings and roundabouts.)

But back to our exciting and bloggy destination: an outdoor, socially-distanced, fully masked visit to the Yamnuska Wolfdog Sanctuary. This thanks to my friend Patti, with whom I've been doing regular outdoor walks to catch up and get some sun and air. On our last walk Patti mentioned she’d been planning to visit the sanctuary, and considering the most exciting place I’d been in months is Costco, I happily agreed to join her there. (In my defence, Costco actually was kind of exciting, because I got a pair of the new AirPods that Apple started making once they finally admitted that all ears on the planet are not identical in size and shape, and maybe a bit of squishiness on the ends would be a good idea. And all I can say is... noise-cancelling? Life. Changing.)

So… The Yamnuska Wolfdog Sanctuary. It does exactly what it says on the tin. It’s a non-profit site that takes in wolfdogs who are surrendered by their owners or other organisations who can’t care for them, or are rescued from abuse, neglect, abandonment or euthanasia. 

And what is a wolfdog? That, too is exactly what it sounds like: a cross-bred animal that’s part wolf and part domesticated dog. 

The Yamnuska Wolfdog Sanctuary offers a few ways to experience the animals. You can simply do a self-guided walk around the site, observing the wolfdogs in their enclosures and reading the copious informative signage. You can also take the Intro Tour, a guided visit to a fenced viewing platform inside one of the enclosures. Or... you can do the Interactive Tour where you actually go into two different enclosures and get up close with the wolfdogs themselves. Of course that’s what we did. Because nobody goes to a wolfdog sanctuary without wanting to pet the wolfdogs. Yeah sure, we had to sign a waiver that clearly stated, in bold print, the risk of “serious injury and possible death”. Nevermind that, because… fluffy doggies! And regardless of how you decide to partake of the wolfdog experience, there are a couple of unusual rules that apply to all visitors: Take no bags or loose items into the enclosures. Do not wear any fur or fake fur. And whatever you do, do NOT bring your dog. I wisely decided to leave my mink stole and any extraneous labradoodles at home. 

Rocky and Loki, the two friendliest wolfdogs. These guys are much more dog than wolf.

And now, a wolfdog primer: Wolves and dogs don’t naturally cross-breed. Wolves are monogamous and highly territorial, therefore very unlikely to accept another canine for mating in the wild. They’re also fertile for a very short time each year. This means that wolfdogs are almost exclusively the result of intentional crossbreeding by humans to supply the exotic pet trade. So it’s important to point out that the folks at the Yamnuska Wolfdog Sanctuary are not breeding or encouraging the breeding of wolfdogs, they’re simply trying to care for existing animals who need a home, educate the public about the unique challenges of wolfdog ownership, and advocate for wolf conservation. 

Most wolfdogs are not simply half wolf and half dog; they’re more often the result of breeding two wolfdogs or a wolfdog and a domesticated dog. Wolves (Canis Lupus) and domesticated dogs (Canis Lupus Familiaris) are, of course, the same species. Domesticated dogs are simply the result of years of selective breeding, and though they’re a different sub-species they remain, on a biological level, the same animals. This is why the offspring of a wolf and a cocker spaniel can go on to have more little spaniolf puppies. 

Categorised by how much wolf is in them, wolfdogs divide roughly into high-content (85-99% wolf), medium content (50-85%) and low content (less than 50%). Interestingly, the sanctuary doesn’t determine a wolfdog’s inherent wolfiness by DNA testing, which you’d think would be the obvious way to do it. Apparently accurate testing is very expensive and involves taking a 30-second oral swab, about which the wolfdogs are naturally not overly cooperative. Instead they use phenotyping, which involves simply observing the physical and behavioural traits of each animal, and making an educated assessment. This doesn’t sound as cool as DNA testing, but probably results in fewer stitches and missing fingers.

The Yamnuska Wolfdog Sanctuary was founded in 2011 by Georgina de Caigny, who was drawn to wolfdogs from a young age. When she was nineteen Georgina got her first wolfdog, a high-content animal called Kuna, and quickly realised that she didn’t have the skills or resources to deal with her new "pet". Owning a wolfdog is exceptionally challenging. High-content wolfdogs lack the affinity for humans that we’re used to in domesticated dogs. They have no instinct to please us, instead being naturally fearful of humans. They tend to be destructive, have a strong prey drive, don’t enjoy being indoors, and usually can’t be walked on city streets or taken to dog parks to interact with other dogs. They’re really apex predators, not pets. On realising this, Georgina made the remarkable decision to re-design her life in order to provide the right environment for her wolfdog and eventually founded the sanctuary, which is dedicated to the rehabilitation and rehoming of these often misunderstood animals.

Our trip started in the visitor centre / gift shop (of course) where we met Skookum, the sanctuary greeter. Despite appearances he’s not a wolfdog, he’s a Giant Alaskan Malamute (emphasis on Giant). They also have a pack of three Irish Wolfhounds, though we didn’t get to meet them. I guess they like ‘em big at the sanctuary.

After a brief intro, we headed to the first enclosure, home to a pack of five high-content wolfdogs. Kuna, the animal that launched the journey that resulted in the Yamnuska sanctuary is the dominant female of the pack and still resident, though she was not there when we visited because she was recovering from a leg operation. We did, however, meet Zeus, the short, dark and handsome dominant male, and the rest of the pack. We were directed to sit in a semi-circle of socially distanced lawn chairs and NOT GET UP. Then we each got a handful of assorted treats to tempt the animals. Our guide explained that these high-content wolfdogs were unlikely to approach close enough to eat from our hands, but could be lured closer with treats tossed on the ground nearby. 

Here’s the pack, sniffing out their treats. The youngest female of the pack, Ylva, was boldest, though even she would come no closer that a few feet from the ring of chairs. And these are animals with years of experience of human interaction. Again… really not pets.

The enclosures themselves are generously sized - up to two acres each - and completely surrounded by high fences with dig guards, overhangs, electricity and double-doors (no escapees so far!). The sanctuary sits on 160 acres of land and has eleven enclosures. It's currently home to 35 wolfdogs, including several rescued from the infamous Milk River seizure of 200 malnourished dogs in 2015. Each enclosure houses its own pack - sometimes as few as two wolfdogs. There’s even one enclosure separated from the overall layout with no public viewing, for a pair that are exceptionally skittish. The enclosures are separated by pathways that run between them and the public are free to wander along the paths and see the animals going about their lives.

High, inward-facing fences and additional low barriers to keep curious human fingers from being sampled.

The whole place is also generously scattered with informative signage about its inhabitants and about wolves and wolfdogs in general. This, for instance, totally blew my mind.

Once we’d exhausted the attention of the high-content wolfdogs, we moved inside the enclosure of a low-content pack where things got more interesting. These animals were much doggier, very food-focused and clearly knew the routine. Of the three wolfdogs in that pack, Rocky and Loki were positively friendly.

They even have strong likes and dislikes about their treats and will snuffle in your hand to root out what they want.

Rocky, a venerable 18-year old, has bonded so strongly with one of the young keepers that he goes home with her at night. Clearly, there’s not a lot of wolf in Rocky. These low-content wolfdogs were much more approachable but once the treats ran out even they didn’t stick around for belly rubs and cuddles. And I’ll admit the force with which they did their snuffling was a bit unnerving.

Interacting so closely with the wolfdogs was definitely the highlight of the visit, but it's not the only thing to do. As I mentioned, visitors are free to wander the paths between the enclosures, and the sanctuary also has a few non-canine inhabitants, including chickens, goats and sheep. The guides were quick to point out that these other residents were absolutely, positively NOT there as food for the wolfdogs. They were themselves rescued and were simply living their best lives at Yamnuska. The goat enclosure even had a tiny trampoline, which was very cute, though I'm sure not as cute as it would have been to actually see baby goats bouncing on said tiny trampoline. Almost as good as baby goat yoga.

The goat enclosure, with goats barely visible in shade, top right.

The Sanctuary also schedules regular "enrichment activities" in the different enclosures each day. We caught the tail end of a feeding session designed to help more skittish animals get used to human contact with the keepers. And they also planned a special set of Easter activities, including an easter egg hunt for the wolves with actual eggs. (I guess the chickens earn their keep.) And of course there's a gift shop with all the usual items - stuffed toys, sweatshirts, mugs etc, but also with matching sets of fluffy wolf paw slippers and mitts (photos on Flickr). I resisted, though they probably would have gone really well with the mink stole. 

Eventually the hours of strong winds and chilly temperatures got the better of us and it was time to head home, heady with the excitement of an actual day out, and with that particularly satisfying sort of well-earned weariness that comes from being outside for long periods on a blustery day. Not to mention the excitement of interacting with other humans for hours on end. Nevermind the wolfdogs, it's we humans who need the enrichment activities these days. I wonder if they have any free enclosure space available?

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.

IMG_5869 3
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.

IMG_5868 2
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.)

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. 

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.)

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.

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.

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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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. 

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:

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.

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.

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.

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:

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:

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.

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. 

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

… 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.

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.

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.

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.

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). 

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.

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.

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.

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.)

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”.

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:

Name that 'Stache
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.

And it worked!

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.

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:

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

It opens up all the way flat.

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.

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.

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…