I returned to the UK in mid-August after spending just under three weeks in Canada. As I said in my last posting I did not think I would be able to travel, as I had Covid. Fortunately, I started testing negative a few days before the scheduled departure. It was an interesting trip. The first part was to attend the International AIDS Economics Network (IAEN) meeting ahead of the International AIDS Conference in Montreal. I then travelled down to Waterloo for 10 days. It was great to reconnect with many friends.
There were changes and sights that really shocked me though. In Montreal we saw a young woman attacked by a vagrant at 7.30 in the morning. She got away before we could intervene, and went to a nearby police car. When I arrived at the Kitchener station, there was a tent camp next to the railway line. The sight of tents and tarpaulins providing shelter to many people was totally unexpected. Worse was to come, I was told there was another informal settlement in, the rather special, Victoria Park, next to the first house I rented. The person who gave me this information warned that it might not be safe to go too close, a telling comment in and of itself! The formerly pristine park is home to another encampment. In South Africa it would be called a squatter camp!
The down and outs were very evident in the streets of Kitchener. I was told the police in Waterloo pick up any vagrant in that city and take them the five miles or so back to Kitchener. I don’t know if that is true, but there was frequently a very visible police presence. The number of people walking about having conversations with themselves, imaginary people, or just railing against the world was unsettling. In the 1980s Francis Wilson, an outstanding academic at the University of Cape Town, founded and directed the Southern African Labour Development and Research Unit (SALDRU). I believe ‘The Surplus People Project’ was a part of this. It was established in the 1980s to publicise and support communities in their struggles against the apartheid state’s forced removals. The concept of surplus people resonates in the face of these camps.
The second shock was the restaurants. Although I had a self-contained apartment, I ate out, with friends, a great deal. I had only one outstanding meal, at Langdon Hall. The food, wine and service were exceptional. My favourite restaurant in Waterloo served up an inedible meal and, except for Formosa, a pizza restaurant, and Proof in the Delta hotel which were acceptable, all the rest were mediocre. I think Canada has problems with staff and the food supply chain. I was warned that this might be the case, but I had been sceptical!
As I did not hire a car I walked, not pleasant in the heat, or made use of the light railway, the ION, a ten-minute walk from the apartment. This generally worked very well, with a train every 15 minutes. Of course, the one time I was in a hurry, the scheduled train did not appear. There were ticket staff on the next one and I asked what had happened. Apparently, there was some offensive graffiti in one of the carriages, so it was taken out of service! It makes sense to stifle any thing like this as quickly as possible if one subscribes to the zero-tolerance theory of policing. This website explains it, it is also a very Canadian response when faced with unpleasantness.
And on the subject of Canadian bureaucracy, I had my usual contretemps with the bank. I had an appointment with a personal banker to rationalise my accounts. We closed a number of redundant ones, and he then told me that if I was not resident in Canada, I could not have a Canadian credit card. At the time I accepted this, but afterwards as I thought about it, it struck me as absolute nonsense. On my next visit to the branch, I spoke to a person who had helped me in the past. She checked with the manager, and they confirmed that it was indeed incorrect. My comment: speak sternly to the chap.
I always talk to the taxi and Uber drivers. Two gave me the stories of their lives.1 The first, who drove me to the airport, a nearly two-hour trip, was a 56-year-old Iranian Kurd, who immigrated about 30 years ago. He came over with his wife and they had two sons who are now employed in Kitchener Waterloo. The marriage ended, he re-married, and has a four-month-old baby. He went to Iran to meet his second wife and bring her back to Canada. It was, he said, an arranged marriage, but ‘I did meet her before we got married’. The Uber driver was a young Indian gentleman from Gujarat who had not been in Canada for very long. He came over as a cabinet maker and then managed to damage his shoulder and so is unable to earn a living that way. He wants to bring his younger sisters over when they are old enough, and provided they can support themselves. Imagine losing your livelihood and not being eligible for workman’s compensation as he was in his probation period. Neither took up driving as a career!
The journey back to Norwich via Amsterdam was straightforward. The KLM flight left at 5pm, and since there were strong tailwinds the journey time was short, just over six hours flying time. That meant it got in just before 6am local time. I had a window seat, since I asked politely, and have a ‘Platinum Elite Lifetime’ frequent flyer card. The middle seat was kept open, so there was plenty of room. Of course, given the short flight there was not much point in trying to sleep. Instead, I watched two films, The Iron Duke and Marry Me. The first is the true story of a 60-year-old taxi driver, who in 1961 stole the just purchased Goya portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery. He tried to ransom it in exchange for the government investing more in care for the elderly. I won’t spoil the ending but will say it is well worth watching and the outcome is unexpected. The second is a romcom starring Jennifer Lopez, easy watching and sweet, definitely good plane watching.
As I had an eight-hour layover in Amsterdam I rented one of the bedrooms in the KLM lounge and slept for a few hours. While not cheap, it is worth it. Finally, fortified by some breakfast and coffee I hopped on the plane for the short flight to Norwich. It is really depressing to see how dry the country is. There has been no rain for weeks, and it is still very hot indeed. I never doubted global climate change is a real issue, and I hope this stark reality will convince any sceptics. I am aware of the irony of writing about flights in one sentence and climate change in the next!
There is little news now about Covid-19, our response is ‘baked in’ and muted. In Canada the Chief Medical Officer of Health has announced 4th doses (2nd boosters) will be available to all adults over 18. The caveat is that people may want to, and can, wait until autumn when a more targeted vaccine will be available. In the UK it has been announced that a vaccine, manufactured by Moderna and designed to target two different forms of Covid has been approved for booster jabs.
“The UK is the first country to approve the bivalent vaccine, known as “Spikevax bivalent Original/Omicron”2
The programme is expected to begin in September. On the other hand, the papers are full of the battle for leadership of the Conservative Party. Whoever is elected to this position will be the next Prime Minister and the choice is between Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak. Neither is inspiring in any way. It is really sad that they are so bland. However the more of a mess the Tories make the more hope there is for a change in government at the next election, which sadly will only be in 2024.
- Some details have been changed to make the individuals unidentifiable.