The beginning of April saw the winter term drawing to a close. My last day of teaching was Monday 10th, which as it turned out was also the last day of term. I had not realised that. A pity, because I had a panel of colleagues from the community to talk about wellbeing. The class was not all there, some having started travelling on their spring breaks. Indeed not all those that attended were mentally there either – they were thinking about deadlines, assignments and perhaps even holidays. When, the previous week, the second course I taught ended, and the class went to the pub, I was very touched that they invited me to join them. I should have gone.
The weather has finally begun warming up here in Waterloo. It is now possible to walk around without a winter coat on, although a jersey is still necessary. The squirrels are increasingly active and migratory birds are returning. We are all looking forward to spring and summer, and it really does feel as though it is imminent. What happens is that the temperature fluctuates widely. It has been as high as 18ᵒc one day and as low as -10ᵒ the next night. I wonder how the animals cope; the trees on the other hand, seem, rightly, rather reticent to bud.
I have had a very busy few weeks. On 7 March we had Stephen Lewis come and sit on a panel with a number of students and faculty members. He is extremely well known in Canada, and more broadly as an exceptional humanitarian. The auditorium was packed and a number of organisations placed tables outside to advertise their activities to the assembled company. It is good to be able to facilitate these events; it is part of building a community here in Waterloo.
In the middle of February I greatly enjoyed sitting in my office or my apartment and watching the snow fall. It was quite magical. In total we probably had about 10 cm, enough to cover the ground and make everything into a winter wonderland. Normally here there is a period when the ground is covered by grey snow as it slowly melts. In the corner of the parking lots there are piles of the white stuff, bulldozed there by the clearance teams. This year it warmed up from about the 18th of February and most of the snow disappeared very rapidly. I woke one morning to see a digger loading the snow into large trucks in our apartment parking lot. It is taken away and dumped somewhere. There must have been at least six or seven loads. It was probably necessary to do this, because the piles take a very long time to melt, and the snow was heaped in the guest parking. It provided an insight into the workings of Canada in the winter, and perhaps even into the cost, as I’m sure this service will appear on the bill.
It is most unusual for the first of the month of the year to have come and gone without my having prepared a new blog. I’m not quite certain what happened. I can only think it was a combination of the pressure of teaching and preparation which distracted me. There is quite a lot to report, both events of the past month and ones for the next few months. I have been, and will continue to be, busy.
Normally when I post on the website I comment, at the end, on films I have seen or books I have read. This month’s post unusually begins with the two films I watched on the flight from Amsterdam to Johannesburg in early November. The first was the new Ken Loach film I, Daniel Blake. It was excellent, thought provoking and depressing. The story is of a 59 year old scaffolder who is unable to work because of a heart problem. He is caught in a bureaucratic nightmare of not getting the state benefits he should, because he is deemed fit enough to look for work. It is a searing indictment of the failure of the welfare state, increasingly the case in the UK. This is the result of global trends to elect people who don’t care, at least not in the way I was brought up. It made me ask what I would do if I had power, probably a basic income grant for all.
In Durban I am sharing the car with Rowan, who has travelled over to spend five months in South Africa. She has two days’ work a week in Umhlanga, so on those days I walk. There was a youngish white man, on crutches, begging on the street a few hundred metres from the flat. I asked him over to tell me his story and, in exchange, gave him a decent amount of money. He said he was a welder by trade. He lost the lower part of his left leg in a motor accident a few years ago. He said he was trying to scrape together enough money to replace his identity document in order to get work. He is living with his wife and child in one room in the town centre. How much of that was true? I don’t know. South Africa is a harsh society for people who don’t have resources.
My main event in September was the Global Fund for AIDS, TB and Malaria (GF) replenishment meeting in Montreal. This took place on a Friday and Saturday in the middle of the month. To get there, I took the train from Kitchener to Toronto and changed for Montreal. The journey took from 9 am to about 5 pm and was incredibly productive; I got through a mountain of reading. The rail service in Canada is a great way to travel. It is not fast but the trains are comfortable, there is an ‘at seat service’ for tea, coffee or meals, and it is a good place to read, work and generally chill.
Travelling from Waterloo in Ontario to Norwich in Norfolk at the end of April was like moving a month forward in nature’s calendar. In Waterloo the snow piled high in the car park at Seagram Lofts finally melted. On the day I left there was just one small patch of moisture left on the paving. It had been so large it spread across five visitor’s parking spots and was probably five meters in height. The temperature had risen significantly and it was possible to leave my coat in the apartment, at least for the 70 second walk across the car park to the back door of the office building. However there were no leaves or blossom and just a few spring flowers dotted in the gardens and parks around the city.
Last month marked a significant event in my life. On the 18th of March I turned 60. I must admit to being quite shocked by the fact this birthday finally arrived. It had to be noticed and marked in some way. We talked about Ailsa coming over to Canada, but as I am teaching, marking, and busy with the end of term, we decided she would come over a little later. She, Douglas and I have all been granted permanent residence, and all have to be here and visit the appropriate agency before the 7th June. If we don’t do that then we enter a bureaucratic limbo land. Douglas visits in early April and Ailsa in May.
This winter in Waterloo has been quite different from the previous two years. Then the temperature plummeted and remained in the minus figures for months. It was absolutely freezing for ages. Today at the end of January the temperature is projected to reach at least 3°, rain is forecast, and some, at least, of the snow will be melted by Monday. Given that we are also experiencing brilliantly sunlit days it means the winter months have been considerably more enjoyable. I am able to venture out without any gloves, although given the challenge of not having hair; a hat remains a crucial piece of equipment. Indeed, at lunch time, I am able to make the 70 second walk from the back door of the office to the side door of the apartment without taking my coat or putting on my snow boots.
I went to the UK for Christmas, and returned to Waterloo on New Year’s Eve. I don’t mind air travel, but the time change is tough, especially going to Europe, since effectively one ends up with a night of no sleep. It is however an opportunity to catch up on films. On the way to Amsterdam I watched “A Walk in the Woods”, which is based on Bill Bryson’s book of the same name. It tells the story of him and a boyhood friend attempting to walk the Appalachian Way. Perhaps the most impressive part of this is that they knew when they had had enough and agreed to stop. No false bravery in this tale. I saw half of the “The Little Prince”, the most famous work of the French aristocrat and pioneering aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. It is a book I think is significant, and everyone ought to read it. I am going to develop a reading list of important books for students. This will be one of them. Other suggestions are welcome.