Food Insecurity

Sadly, there is food insecurity even in a rich country like Canada. In 1983, a charitable institution called the Food Bank opened its doors in order to make food available for those who are in need, their motto being that food is a human right and that no one should go hungry. I fully agree which is why I have been volunteering my time in the main location in Toronto which supplies other food banks in the city as well as member agencies such as The Salvation Army, The Red Cross, churches that provide food for the needy, and other such bodies. That’s me above standing by the industrial type vats that are used for making soups and stews.

The demand has increased since the start of the pandemic and last year, the Food Bank distributed close to 17 million pounds of food through 189 food and meal programs in Toronto. In the main branch where I work, there are several areas of operation. There is the sorting area where the donations of food by individuals and supermarkets is carried out. Like items are packed into boxes and stored in a warehouse for subsequent delivery to smaller food banks according to their needs. I worked here for a few shifts but then moved to working in the kitchen.

Here, meals are prepared for sending out either in large containers, or individually packaged for distribution to individuals who might be ill or unable to come to a location where the food is distributed. So far, my job has been to chop vegetables or help to package the food. Typically, the food is frozen in appropriate containers, labelled with detailed information listing the ingredients, calorie content and so on and stored in a freezer room in the warehouse until delivery can be carried out. There are seven trucks which deliver food from the main location to smaller Food Banks and other agencies, so there is a lot of organizing and coordinating to be done. In 2021, close to 102,000 meals were prepared and distributed.

For people who can’t afford to buy groceries, there is a store onsite where they can come and pick up what they need. Here there are vegetables and fruit as well as eggs, milk, cheese and other fresh items. In order to be fair and stop people taking more than they need, there is a point system. A single person or family is allotted points according to their situation. Each item in the store is worth a certain number of points and people choose how they want to use up their points.

In the location where I work, there used to be a meal served in the dining room once a week for anyone in the community who wished to partake. Unfortunately, communal dining had to be stopped on account of pandemic restrictions but people can still come and pick up a packed meal to take away.

A large number of volunteers work at the Food Bank but obviously such a large organization cannot function without permanent staff. The kitchen has fulltime chefs and there are administrative staff who coordinate operations. The major part of funding for the Food Bank comes from private and corporate donors and indeed, I myself have been donating to the food bank for many years. There are also donations of food items by private and corporate donors. I really enjoy working here especially in the kitchen. My knife skills are getting very good as there are kilos of vegetables to be peeled and chopped. Just watching the speed at which the chef chops is a pleasure in itself!

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Pandemic Pursuits

‘Equilibrium’ a mural by Okuda San Miguel

Thank you to all the readers who wrote me personal notes encouraging me to continue with my blog. It was heart warming reading your comments and made me realize that in these times, people appreciate glimpses into other lives and welcome distractions.

I had hoped for a more social time this January but my life is no different than it was a year ago. I have coffee in bed while catching up on the day’s news on my phone and then do a brief session of meditation followed by my exercise routine based on a variety of exercises picked up over the years. It includes stretching, a few yoga postures, lifting light weights and some cardio exercises. It’s not very strenuous I must say but it keeps me reasonably fit. I’ve been keeping up with my Italian by taking some online courses and one of the concepts presented to me was the use of ‘dead time’ to improve one’s language skills. That is to say, listening to the language while engaged in something else that doesn’t require much thought so while doing my exercises, I listen to the news and podcasts in Italian. Of course, having already read the news in English, it’s not hard to follow in Italian and it’s a great way to improve one’s vocabulary. So if any of you are trying to learn a language, I advocate it.

I live in a small apt. on the 40th floor of a building and though I have a large balcony with a wonderful view, I feel a need to go out for a walk everyday regardless of the weather to prevent myself feeling trapped indoors. One of my routes takes me past the building at the top on the south west corner of College and Jarvis Streets. It is a 24 storey student residence and the mural is by a Spanish street artist, Okuda San Miguel, the tallest mural he has ever done. At the very top is a Pride flag as the building is close to the gay village of Toronto. Immediately below is a winged figure with a bird and flowers in reference to the Allen Gardens which it overlooks. The gray faces in the trio of faces, represent wisdom and history while the brightly coloured central indigenous face represents research and innovation. The multi-patterned figures holding a globe represent cultural diversity and at the very bottom is an exploding star, Kaos which is Okuda’s signature geometric shape . It is a glorious piece of work even on a dull gray day like the one on which I took the photo. StreetARToronto (StART) is an innovative program started about 10 years ago in the city in an attempt to reduce graffitti and vandalism replacing it with vibrant and colourful community-engaged street art. The mural above was partly funded through this project.

My daily walks have introduced me to several beautiful murals which I never would have come across otherwise. The one of the woman holding the staff of Aesculapius, the god of healing in Greek and Roman mythology, was done last year by a group called The Dreamers on the side of the Pembroke Inn as an ode to Healthcare workers at the height of the pandemic, who sadly are still exhausted and run off their feet. Unfortunately, the artists are not always mentioned so I can’t tell you anything about the mural in the middle. However, it makes me happy when I see it! Another of my pursuits is some volunteer work I have taken on but more about that in my next.

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Happy New Year 2022

Sunrise from my Balcony

I doubt that I have any readers left and indeed my intention had been to fade into the sunset and be done with this blog but two things happened that changed my mind. The first was that I mentioned to a good friend of mine yesterday that I wasn’t going to continue and she urged me to rethink my decision. Her feeling was that it might be interesting in these times for people to have some diversion if only based on my opinions about this seemingly never ending pandemic. The second was that my credit card got automatically debited today for the fee for this website. I figured that if I was paying to keep this site anyway, I may as well post something.

Anybody in Ontario who reads this knows that our Premier announced new measures today for slowing down the spread of the Omicron variant which is spreading like wildfire. So we are back to schools, indoor dining, gyms and so on being closed and reduced capacity in shops, malls etc. Those who can work remotely have been told to do so. As far as I can determine, many double vaccinated people are coming down with symptoms though in general these tend to be mild and don’t require a hospital visit. In fact our testing centres are unable to cope so people with symptoms or possible exposure have been told to do a rapid test at home if possible, and quarantine for 5 days. The problem is that there aren’t enough workers to keep services running including hospital staff. Furthermore, people who go into hospital for interventions other than Covid are catching Covid in hospital which not only makes them more ill but they then have to be isolated creating more complicated management. I gather that the idea in closing various venues is to get as many people as possible to receive a booster shot which should increase their immunity and slow down the spread of the virus.

I really did not expect this Omicron variant to appear and strike us with such a vengeance. Here I was, a month ago, thinking that we would likely have another small wave in early January following Christmas festivities. I had even thoughts of returning to Rome for February and March but here we are. According to the Director of Ontario’s Covid Science Advisory Committee, Dr. Peter Juni, things should be better by early spring. So until then, we will just have to find things to divert ourselves with.

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Toronto’s Wildlife

Image: Lucie Sparham

Our lockdown in Toronto became a little less restrictive a week ago in that outdoor sports such as tennis and golf are now allowed. Two days ago, the stay-at-home order was lifted and up to five people can gather outdoors. Shops and restaurants are still closed as are hairdressers and beauticians. The good news is that our cases numbers are dropping and the pace of vaccinations is proceeding rapidly. I get my second vaccine dose in a little over a week so I’m looking forward to a bit more freedom in July.

We are on the cusp of summer though the weather is still variable. Last week we hit close to 30C followed a few days later by a drop to around 3C. I thought the plants on my balcony would be destroyed but they survived for the most part. I have been continuing my walks around the city and as I live in the city centre, which is densely populated, I was surprised to see two Canada geese in the gardens of the Legislative Building, about two blocks from me, a couple of weeks ago . When I first saw them, they had a single, little gosling in tow but sadly when I returned to take pictures the following day, the gosling had disappeared. I hate to think what happened to it and I doubt that it was run over by a car, as when I saw it the day before, cars were stopping to let the geese cross the road. They have since disappeared so I guess they flew back to the lake.

Image: Lucie Sparham

My friend Lucie Sparham who contributed a piece on the wildlife she came across on the Lakeshore last year sent me photos of the wildlife she came across this year, a fox and cubs. Who would have thought that foxes would breed so close to the city centre? The cub in the photo above looks almost tame.

Strangely, it seems to me that parks and conservation areas have more people in them during lockdown than in normal times so I’m not sure why we’re seeing more wildlife. Could it be because of less noise and reduced traffic pollution? If anyone has any theories on this, do let me know.

We have always had lots of squirrels in Toronto, both in the parks as well as in people’s gardens. However, this one was in my niece’s garden and surprised me by it’s size. Apparently, in the wild squirrels eat caterpillars and insects but in urban areas, they eat bird food, cat and dog food and scraps. Perhaps since people are at home, they’re putting out more bird food. This one is obviously eating well during the pandemic just like many of us. I’m glad that I enjoy cooking and eating despite living on my own. It’s among the few pleasures left to us but hopefully just a few more weeks to go before life opens up a bit more again!

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Random Sights

Spring has well and truly sprung. The flowering trees are spectacular and there are spring flowers in bloom in all the parks and gardens. The weather has also gotten warmer and it is truly a pleasure walking around and in my case being able to bike.

There isn’t much to regale you with so I’ll just show you a few things that caught my eye on my daily walks. We have a museum of ceramic art, the Gardner Museum, in the front of which there is a monumental, glazed ceramic head. A sculpture by an American artist of Japanese background called Jun Kaneko. He is noted for his large scale dango (Japanese for rounded form) sculptures which are mean’t to spark interaction with their immediate space as well as their architectural environment. I must say it certainly does that.

Opposite the Gardner museum is The Royal Ontario Museum and outside one of the entrances there is a row of bike racks. The racks are cleverly designed to represent pieces of the Chinese collection in the museum. I wish there had been some explanation of which pieces they represented and I couldn’t go into the museum to seek more information as it is closed right now but they are beautiful, works of art really!.

Our restaurants are faring very badly during this lockdown as they are all closed. A few are trying hard to keep going by offering take out meals. As I approached a small restaurant, I though for a moment that they were illegally open as I saw two people sitting at a table outside. On closer view, they were two dummies just placed there to make the place look less forlorn and it actually does give a bit of life to the patio. It is very sad to think of the economic and emotional damage that this pandemic has brought upon us but people are carrying on as best as they can and the better weather has brought us all more joy. Last week I unexpectedly came upon a couple of musicians playing music in the park and it was truly delightful so I will leave you with a snippet of that in the video below.

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Languishing in Lockdown

Magnolia Tree

Living life in lockdown seems to have become the norm as there is no talk of when it might end. Our Covid numbers are decreasing slowly and the government has initiated faster vaccinations in highly affected areas but given that our hospitals are at capacity, nothing will change until the numbers decrease significantly.

My days have a similarity to them as there is nothing to mark my week like going somewhere at the weekend or meeting friends for coffee or dinner. I can’t say that I’m bored as I have enough to keep me busy. I’m particularly enjoying my walks at the moment as the spring flowers are in bloom and the trees are bursting into leaf. However, I can’t say that there is much excitement to my days either! Adam Grant, an organational psychologist, wrote an article in the New York Times recently in which he describes what a lot of people are likely feeling in these times, not hopeless or depressed but a bit joyless and aimless, a sense of stagnation. He describes it as “muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield”. Apparently this state of being is referred to as ‘languishing’ which is the opposite of ‘flourishing’!

His antidote to it is to find something that provides a meaningful challenge that absorbs you so let me tell you about my latest challenge to myself. I have been trying to improve my Italian by taking an online course ‘Italiano Per la Vita’ run by Italiano Automatico (www.italianoautomatico.com) so called because the founder, Alberto Arrighini, believes that a language can be learned naturally by listening and absorbing rather than by studying grammar. I’m not sure about that but it’s an interesting course as we have videos, audio files, zoom lessons and also a ‘salotto’ where we can go and chat to other students. The majority of students are fairly good or at least the ones who come to the salotto are and we have entertaining conversations. Anyway, one of our course exercises is to activate our speech. We are given a short paragraph to practise and say out loud to the group by way of an audio recording or video. There are people in our group from all over the world and many, who are not at all camera shy like myself, take the opportunity to say and show something about their city or have no problem at all doing selfies of their presentation. My challenge was to do the same but doing a selfie would be a nightmare for me even speaking English so I made a video of some street art that I like. I downloaded a video editing App onto my phone and did a voiceover describing the art and including my exercise. It was a success as it turns out that many people like this type of art. I have attached a shortened version here with the audio removed so now all you hear is the noise of traffic. It was fun, though time consuming, learning to edit a video and do voiceovers but there’s not much to do so I look forward to doing some more. This should keep me from languishing too much for now!

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A Brief Respite From Lockdown

Since last Saturday, the whole province of Ontario has been put into a more strict lockdown. A third pandemic wave has hit us and case numbers are going up everyday with Toronto being the worst affected. Around 50% of cases are attributed to the British variant which is highly transmissable.

Luckily, the weekend before this came about, we were celebrating a postponed Easter lunch at my sister’s Florinda’s country abode. Her daughter and family had been in quarantine for two weeks and us older adults had been vaccinated a few weeks ago so we felt that it was safe to gather together for lunch. It was the most exciting thing I have done since I returned from Rome! The weather was glorious, around 20C and we ate lunch in the garden. The Forsythia was in full bloom and the garden was full of daffodils.Florinda and her husband Mirek went all out with the food and we had roast chicken with chestnut stuffing, barbecued lamb, an array of vegetables, followed by cherry pie.

It was wonderful to be out in the country and see the fields being prepared for planting and the trees just coming into leaf. A few cherry trees and magnolias were in full bloom. We went for a walk to Big Creek National Wildlife marsh area in Long Point provincial park where I saw this sign for maintaining social distancing. I think only people in the country would really know what it means to be 2 loons apart! We saw lots of Canada geese as well as a couple of herons. We also went for walks in the forest which was a welcome change from my usual walks tramping around city streets.

Too soon it was time to return to the city and a few days later, we were faced with new lockdown restrictions. I’m so glad we managed to get a brief respite as we have been told to stay at home except to buy food, medicines and for exercise. The reason I’m writing this post is so that those of you who have not been able to venture too far from your homes can at least enjoy the pictures.

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New Beginnings and Happy Easter

Happy Easter

My sincerest apologies to my readers for this long hiatus. So long in fact that I’m not sure I have any readers left! I could use the excuse of lockdown and nothing much happening in my life which would be true to some extent. However, there’s no excuse for not bringing you all up to date with where I am and what’s going on. I can only say that I went through a difficult period since my last post and lost all interest in writing until now.

I would be lying if I said that it wasn’t stressful period trying to empty my apt in Rome a few months ago. I tried selling my furniture by posting it on an online site but given the pandemic, there was no interest and charity organizations were not accepting anything at that time. I finally sent photos of my stuff to all my friends asking them to pass them around to people they knew. All that anyone would have to do was to come and pick up the items they wanted. A friend of mine who has a connection with a library came and took all the Art and Design books, of which there were many, as a library she knew of had agreed to take them when they re-opened. Meanwhile, she was going to store them. Incredibly, I actually managed to donate everything I had including the plant pots on my balcony. All of this took a fair amount of planning, footwork and phone calls and was quite stressful. My sweet and dear neighbour, a young fellow called Lorenzo, came and helped me post things online and answer calls for which I will be eternally grateful. The things I wanted to keep were shipped to my apt in Toronto. This was the smoothest part as the shipper’s came, packed everything and took it away.

My last weekend was spent in a completely empty apt except for a camp bed lent to me by a neighbour and a small folding table which I was giving to yet another neighbour the day I left. My flight was at 9 am on December 1st and Loris’ brother Roberto kindly insisted on taking me to the airport which was quite a big deal as he lives outside of Rome. I never would have managed without the kindness of all my friends. It was sad seeing the apt completely empty but also a relief knowing that I no longer had any responsibility for maintaining an apt in Rome while being in Toronto for an extended period. My journey back involved three flights and is worth a post in itself. Suffice to say that I have absolutely no desire to travel anywhere by air anytime soon!

So here I am back in Toronto which has been in lockdown since I returned. I was quite happy to spend two weeks in quarantine with nothing to do and nowhere to go. There is still nowhere to go but I have managed to keep myself busy. A Happy Easter to you all given whatever lockdown conditions you may have wherever you are.

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A Curious Incident

School Playground (red fenced off area marks where the boars were shot)

Cases of Covid are on the increase in Rome but not quite to the same extent as in other provinces. We are not yet a zona rossa but it could happen at any moment. All restaurants and bars have to close at 6pm and gyms, museums and cinemas are closed.

A few weeks ago when more people were out and about, I noticed that the playground at the bottom of the hill was closed which was strange as it had been full of children just a day or two before. On closer approach, I noticed that there were pictures and notices stuck to the fence. Apparently, during the night a wild boar had wandered in with six baby boars.

The police came and closed off the playground immediately which is not difficult as it is small and is surrounded by a fairly tall chain link fence. The children in the primary school next door were excited to see the baby boars when they came to school the next morning. I guess, nobody knew what to do about the boars or perhaps the Police came up with their own solution for that night at about 10pm, when there was nobody around, the mother and her brood were shot dead. Why they couldn’t have been anesthesized and taken into the country and released is not clear.

The children as well as the local community were horrified and saddened the next day and proceeded to set up a commemorative space in front of the gate by way of flowers, candles and cards.

7 Innocents Executed
Justice for the Boars…..Protest for Awareness

Needless to say, the incident was reported in the local daily newspapers and caused outrage among animal rights activists who immediately came and put up posters on the fence castigating the massacre of the boars.

There was an animal rights march and protest in Piazza del Popolo on the following Saturday.

There used to be a daily outdoor market close to the school but it’s closed and undergoing renovation so one can’t speculate that the mother came looking for vegetable scraps to feed her young.

The garbage problem in our neighbourhood continues and the bins are often overflowing which is possibly the reason for attracting wildlife but one thinks of mice and rats not wild boars! The playground remains closed and I’m not even sure if the school is still open with the latest Covid lockdown measures. With the market closed and very few people walking around, the neighbourhood is quiet and feels deserted. It’s likely the lack of humans that’s made wild animals less afraid to come into urban areas.

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Visit to a Winery in Frascati

Vinyard Cantina Imperatori

The weather is still sunny and warm here and in between trying to organize and get rid of stuff, I’ve been able to enjoy an outing or two. I belong to the Canadian Club of Rome (CCR) which holds various events. A difficult thing to do in the present circumstances where lockdown measures are in place and social distancing has to be followed, but a visit to a winery in Frascati was organized. Frascati is a beautiful little town southeast of Rome in the Alban Hills. I wrote about it some years ago when we went there for lunch one Sunday.

This time, we went straight to the winery, the Cantina Imperatori, on the outskirts of the town from where we had a wonderful view of the vinyards with Rome in the distance. The terrace had been arranged for the tasting such that we could keep within our ‘bubbles’ and we had to state beforehand who we would be sitting with, be it alone, with one other person, or with a group .

Frascati is noted for its white wine from the Trebbiano Verde grape which is generally plentiful and cheap, as well as red wine from Cesanese grapes. However, in more recent years, Vignonier and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are also being grown in Lazio and the wines of Frascati and surrounding areas are now more sophisticated. Cantina Imperatori grows the traditional vines as well as Viognier and Cabernet. We started out with a tour of the facility in small groups. It is not a large production, grapes from the vineyards are harvested in summer, crushed and the juice transferred to fermenters. Once fermentation is completed, certain wines are stored in casks before being bottled. The large casks you see in the picture below are made from Slavonian oak and impart a less ‘oaky’ flavour to the wine relative to the wine stored in the smaller traditional French oak casks.

A volcanic tufo cave is present in the vinyard. Tufa is a variety of limestone that is formed from water containing calcium carbonate. In the tufa cave here, wine is made in the traditional way with grapes transferred straight into clay amphorae. The grapes are left in the amphorae for at least six months before being removed and the amphorae are hermetically sealed once fermentation has finished to allow the wine to mature.

This was one of the most interesting and atmospheric parts of the winery for me. In Lazio, tufa caves date back to around 100 BC. The first inhabitants were the Etruscans who made wine in clay amphorae even back then. I had a feeling of going back in time seeing the amphorae in the cave as I stood there with drips of water falling on my head.

At the Cantina Imperatori, spumante wines are also stored in the cave. The wine continues to ferment inside bottles and we could see little bubbles rising within.

Back on the terrace, it was time to taste the wines. Our first wine was a 2019 Viognier which we were advised to taste before consuming any food other than bread. It was fresh and slightly fruity, apparently good with soft cheeses and sea food. Next was a 2019 Trebbiano Verde fermented in a steel container. This had a fuller flavour than the Viognier, again fruity but more aromatic.

Image: Anna Ambrosini (CCR)

At this point, we were served a plate of salumi and cheeses which was a good thing as both the wines we had tasted were 13.5% alcohol and if we had carried on tasting on empty stomachs I might have found myself under the table. I was very interested in tasting the next wine as it was a 2019 Trebbiano Verde fermented in an amphora. The taste was much more complex than the one fermented in the steel container, full bodied and very smooth, not a wine for idle sipping but would be great with food. Finally we tasted the red wines a Cesanese and a Cabernet Sauvignon both from 2017. Both were good but by now my taste buds were saturated as I was also focused on the tastes of the food. Good thing I didn’t set my heart on a career as a wine taster as I wouldn’t have gotten very far! I was tempted to buy some of the Trebbiano produced in an amphora but I had to remind myself that my focus should be on getting things out of my apt not bringing anything in.

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