Stories of My Grandfather, Part Three

There’s a German tradition known as Kaffeetrinken. Literally, that means drinking coffee. In a proper German household, people would gather at 4PM and drink coffee.  Many German immigrants to Canada continued this custom, including my grandparents. Every Sunday, we would drive over to the farm and visit my Opa and Oma, and the visit would conclude with the obligatory Kaffeetrinken. We would sit around the kitchen table, often with other German friends, and eat cakes, cookies, and pastries while drinking coffee or juice and engaging in conversation.

Hans Boldt and Anna Ludwigs ca. 1955

In 1953, my grandfather, Hans Wilhelm Joachim Boldt bought a farm just outside of Odessa, about 20 minutes west of Kingston. He worked hard on that farm, raising dairy cows. Up until the late 1960’s, they also had chickens and grew their own vegetables. I still remember digging up potatoes in that garden.

When I was old enough, I’d help out bringing in the hay. We would ride in a hay wagon out to the fields, and load it up with bales already sitting on the ground. It was hard work. Each bale typically weighed up to about 30kg, and we’d stack them five or six layers high on the wagon. They had to be stacked properly since the ride back to the barn was rough, and the load would sway back and forth as we drove over the bumps. Inside the barn, we’d stack the bales up high. They’d have to feed the cows for a whole year.

Usually, my Oma would walk out to the field bringing a pitcher of grapefruit juice, much appreciated on a hot Summer day.

Opa was a proud man, respected by all. At one point, though, he had to get a loan from the bank to upgrade his machinery. He expected approval to be a sure thing. My Dad wasn’t so sure, and before Opa went to the bank, Dad went there first. He wanted to make sure his Dad got the loan, and so agreed to co-sign the loan.

Once when visiting a neighbor down the road, Opa admired an antique curio cabinet. The neighbor offered to sell it, and Opa took him up on the offer. That cabinet now stands in my living room.

The first 50 years of his life was difficult, influenced by tumultuous events in Europe. For the next 30 years, he lived a quiet, relatively uneventful life in Canada. Apart from the farm work, he loved to read and listen to music. They had a large kitchen in their farmhouse. Beside the wood stove, there were two rocking chairs. Opa sat in the one closest to the stove.

I remember the last time I saw Opa alive. In April 1981, I was getting ready to move to Toronto. Before leaving, I visited the farm and chatted with my Opa. I had a sense that it would be the last time. The day I started my new job at IBM in Toronto, I got the call, and had to return home for the funeral. Opa was remembered fondly by everyone there.

Stories of My Grandfather, Part Two

In a previous post, I shared some stories about my grandfather, Hans Wilhelm Joachim Boldt. First, I mentioned before that he was tall. Here’s a photo showing how tall he was.

During the 1930’s my Opa played guitar. Now and then, he and a bunch of his friends would meet in a wooded area south of Hamburg to play music. I like to imagine them playing protest songs in the style of Woody Guthrie. But it was probably mainly traditional folk songs. Later, he loaned his guitar to a friend in the navy who was serving on a U-boat. When he got his guitar back, it was in pieces. Opa never played guitar again.

The war broke out in 1939. Shortly thereafter, Opa was arrested and imprisoned a second time. He never discussed the reasons why, but he clearly was a critic of the Nazi regime, and openly speculated that the Nazis would eventually invade Russia. We believe his sisters Bertha and Frieda ratted him out. (By this time, Minna was already living in Canada.) His brother-in-law was a member of the Nazi party, but he insisted he had nothing to do with his arrest.

While Opa was in prison camp, my Oma, Anna Ludwigs, had to work to support the family. At first, the authorities wouldn’t let her since the Nazi’s believed that a woman’s place was in the home. But since Opa was not available to support the family, they relented. She had a job as a railway crossing guard, a job she enjoyed a great deal. Whenever someone came by who she didn’t like, she would lower the gates and make him wait, even though there wasn’t a train coming. She would smile and say she was just following procedures. One time, she earned a commendation for her bravery in stopping a train when there was a cow on the tracks.

When Opa was released from prison, he wasn’t allowed to return to work in the shipyards since it was considered too vital for the war effort. But he got a job working for a company developing prestressed concrete technology. Go figure! Did the Nazis not see a military application for prestressed concrete? But at the time, the technology was new. At one point, the company built a concrete roof. When they brought in the building inspector, he took one look and said the roof had to come down. They then took him outside, and showed him a bunch of heavy trucks parked on the roof!

In July of 1943, allied bombers attacked the city of Hamburg. The resulting fire storm destroyed a significant part of the city, and killed more than 40,000 people. The Boldt family survived in a bomb shelter, but their home and all their belongings were destroyed. A distant cousin of my Oma was not so lucky. Here’s her death certificate. At the bottom, the cause of death is listed as “enemy action”.

By the end of the war, my Oma and Opa were in the town of Groß Görnow in the Russian zone. When the Russian troops were advancing, a lot of elected officials fled to the west. Opa agreed to take the position of Bürgermeister (mayor) of the town since he felt he could deal with the Russians. He held that position for six months from June to November of 1945. If they were to have any hope of reuniting with their son, they had to return home to Hamburg. (At the time, my Dad was in an American POW camp in France.) They did get permission to leave, but Opa had to bribe a Russian official with his leather jacket.

I’ll end this installment with one more anecdote: Because of his skills in the field of prestressed concrete, my Opa was offered a job in Canada. But before that could happen, some amount of paperwork was necessary. First, he had to get his criminal record cleaned up. Because his “crimes” were political in nature, that was no problem. Second, Canada wasn’t yet fully open to immigration from Germany, and so his immigration required federal cabinet approval. In 1949, he started working at the Fred Elgie Company in Belleville. His wife and son arrived in Canada shortly thereafter.


Stories of My Grandfather, Hans Wilhelm Joachim Boldt

For the first half of the 20th Century, life in Germany was not easy. A world war, hyper-inflation, depression, the rise of fascism, and finally another, even more destructive world war. This is what my grandfather, Hans Wilhelm Joachim Boldt faced. One could argue that my Opa was lucky, damn lucky to have survived all that. But that’s a form of “survivorship bias”. That is, it’s the survivors who get to tell their stories. Here are some his.

My Opa, Hans Boldt, was born almost on the eve of the 20th Century, September 1900, in a small village in the former Grand-Duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin. His father, Heinrich Boldt, worked as a day laborer, as did most other men in rural Mecklenburg. But when he figured out that the land-owners were cheating the workers out of their rightful pay, he could no longer find work, and so the family moved to the city of Hamburg.

During the First World War, Heinrich Boldt went off to serve in the army, and Opa went to work to support the family. Food was scarce. Heinrich was often able to send food packages home. But by the time Opa returned home from work, his sisters Bertha and Minna and half sister Frieda would have already finished off all the food. As soon as he was able, Opa joined the army, if only to be properly fed. He joined an elite unit whose members were over two meters tall, and he served as a motorcycle courier on the eastern front.

Fast-forward to one of the last “free” elections in Germany before the rise of the Nazi party. Hans brought his son Ernst (my Dad) with him to the polling station. While waiting in line to deposit his ballot, he suspected something amiss (probably from the presence of brown-shirts monitoring the process). He handed his ballot to his son, a typically rambunctious six year old, who promptly ran to the front of the long line, and dropped the ballot into the ballot box. Of course, kids will be kids. Once the ballot was in the box, that was that, and they left. We’ll see the relevance of this anecdote later.

Once the Nazi’s were in power, the first groups they went after were their political opponents: leftists, socialists, and communists. At the time, the shipyards in Hamburg were a hotbed for leftist groups. Although, my Opa was not officially a member of any left-wing group, he certainly sympathized, and he certainly knew people belonging to these groups. While the communists were being rounded up, Opa helped one of them escape, the editor of a communist newspaper. Opa took him to the top of one of the tall church steeples in the city, and he was able to hide there until it was safe to leave, and he then successfully escaped to Denmark.

While at the top of the steeple, Opa couldn’t resist taking a picture of the city. That photo, and other evidence left at the top of the steeple was enough for the police to arrest Opa for aiding a fugitive. During questioning, two factors worked in his favor. First, the Nazi’s had a lot of respect for veterans of the First World War. Second, they mistakenly thought he had voted Nazi in the previous election. How could they know who he voted for? Probably, someone was able to merge arrival information at the polling station with the ballots, still in arrival sequence, to figure out who voted for which party. When my dad dropped the ballot into the box prematurely, that put a number of ballots out of their proper sequence, and so some of the resulting data was incorrect.

The arrest resulted in my Opa’s first imprisonment. More stories later.



A Couple of Tough Years

We’re now at the end of 2019, at time to look back at the previous year. For us, the past couple of years have been tough on us.

It actually started in April of 2018. My Dad was seriously ill, and living in a nursing home. One day at the end of April, I was getting ready to head home after visiting him at Providence Manor. I told him I’d be back in a couple of days. By his reaction, I could tell he didn’t expect to be around then. Two days later, he passed away.

His illness started in January 2016. For all of that year, he was in and out of the hospital with serious bladder issues. My mother wanted to care for him at home, but her own physical condition made that impossible, and he moved into Providence Manor. By the Spring of 2018, the doctors finally found a cancer in his bladder, but it was too late.

Sylvana’s sister Anita was the next to leave us. She had been diagnosed with frontal-lobe dementia, and was living in the dementia ward of the Fairmount Home. For some time already, she was unable to speak or walk, and needed help feeding herself.  Unexpectedly, in June of 2018, the dementia reached a critical part of her brain, and she passed away.

Sylvana’s mother Maria was living at the Rosewood retirement home, but in 2019, her arthritis, dementia and diabetes worsened to the point where she too needed to go into a nursing home. A spot opened up just across the hall from Anita’s old room at Fairmount, and Maria moved there. She didn’t stay there long. By the end of May, she too left us.

Lastly, in the Winter of 2018, my mother was having trouble walking. She checked into the new Providence Care Hospital for three weeks of physical therapy. But her condition worsened, and she never left the hospital. She was eventually diagnosed with ALS, and was moved to a long-term care ward at he hospital. She was mentally alert, but she was unable to speak or walk.

She made it very clear that when her condition progressed to the point of being unable to swallow, she did not want any medical intervention. She got to that point at the end of June. That day, she was alert and talkative (using her various assistive devices). The next day, she was in bed, barely conscious. She held on for a little over a week. During that time, we expected the end to come at any time. But we still had to make a couple of day trips to Toronto, first for the celebration of life ceremony for Maria, and again a few days later for her interment.

My mother’s funeral was probably just the kind of service she would have wanted. But a funeral is also supposed to comfort the living, and we found little of that with her funeral. We know that she and the members of her church had strong beliefs about an after-life. But we were appalled at the minister’s sheer joy in describing how my mother was now at her eternal reward in heaven. It just seemed a bit too surreal.

Four deaths of close family members over 15 months. It was all starting to become too much for us. You want to stay strong, but grieving still takes its toll. Sometimes you don’t realize the effects of the grief. Sometimes it just hits in a wave of panic.

This Christmas hit us hard. All of our parents are now gone. Our immediate family now consists of Sylvana and I, our daughter and my sister. That’s it now.

So now we look forward to a new year, and a new decade. The grieving will continue, for at least a little while longer. But with a new year, it’s also time for a new beginning, to make resolutions, to take positive steps to recover and move on.


Skate The Lake

Every year, Portland Ontario hosts an event on the Big Rideau Lake, about an hour north of Kingston. They clear a one kilometer long track on the ice and host skating races. Here are some pictures from this year’s event:

Start of the 5K race
Skater approaching the finish line
Impressive back-lit scene during the 5K relay
Warming up on shore
Snert is a thick pea soup, popular with the skaters


Nothing defines Canada as much as Winter. Every December, the question everyone asks: Will it be a white Christmas? This year, there was no doubt. Considering the amount of rain we had during the rest of the year, the quantity of snow falling in December didn’t come as much of a surprise. We had a fair bit of snow in the weeks leading up to Christmas, and still more snow on Christmas Eve. Christmas morning was bright and sunny, with even more snow on the ground.

We had no choice. We planned on having lunch with my mother-in-law on Christmas day. At her retirement home, they had a special turkey dinner planned, and we promised to be there.

We started shoveling, but I had my doubts. It didn’t take long to clear half the driveway, enough to get the car out. But our street looked bad. Fortunately, a few cars had already carved out some furrows in the snow. When we set out, I once again appreciated the advantages of front-wheel drive as we made our way, slowly, along the snow-covered streets.

Fortunately, we didn’t have far to go since it’s only a 3km drive to my mother-in-law. The biggest challenge was crossing Taylor-Kidd Boulevard, where we saw one car that needed to be pushed through. But with patience and careful navigation through the snow, we managed. And the closer we got to our destination, the better the roads became.

These photos show our street on Boxing Day. The snow plow finally came by late on Christmas Day, which meant I had a bit more shoveling to do. Certainly, we’ll see more snow this Winter. But we’re only five days into the season, and the snow piles can’t get much higher.

Cheers! Hans

Customer Service and Dieting

For health reasons, Sylvana and I knew we needed to lose weight. And so back in September, we both joined Weight Watchers. Based on our previous experience, we knew this was the best way to meet our goals, and so far, it has been successful. We both still have a ways to go, but Weight Watchers gave us the tools to make it work. And hopefully stick this time.

So a couple of weeks ago, Sylvana went on-line to renew our memberships, but she noticed that WW already automatically renewed us both at the 1-month price. This isn’t what we wanted. We wanted to renew at the 3-month price, which is more economical. Sylvana went to the chat line on WW’s web site. The customer service rep was friendly, and connected her with someone in the billing department, Abdul. Abdul, however, didn’t respond. In spite of several prompts over 20 minutes, there was nothing from Abdul. Sylvana closed the connection, and tried again. Again, she was connected to Abdul. But this time, he closed the connection immediately.

Needless to say, Sylvana was furious. This is an absolutely unacceptable level of customer service. We discussed the issue, and decided it was time to terminate our membership. We decided to stay with the program until the middle of March, but not to go beyond that.

However, the lousy customer service is not the main theme of this blog posting, nor is it the main reason we’re quitting Weight Watchers. WW has changed. The biggest change is a new points program, called “SmartPoints”, replacing their PointsPlus plan.

(As an aside, years ago computer programmers used to have a saying: Whenever Microsoft uses the word “Smart”, be on the lookout for something dumb.)

Some time ago, they had a simple points regime, based on calories, grams of fat, and grams of fiber. The formula was easy to remember, and you could easily figure out the points just by looking at a nutrition label. But almost 20 years ago now, they introduced the PointsPlus program. Instead of counting calories, the formula now counted grams of carbohydrates and grams of protein, giving more points to carbs and fewer for protein. You pretty much needed the WW calculator to properly compute points, or you had to look up the points in their books.

Late last year, they introduced the SmartPoints system. When we joined WW, we knew (or at least should have known) that something new was coming since the books and points calculator for the old plan were available at discounted prices. In the new program, you punch in calories, grams of saturated fat, sugars, and protein into the calculator.

Of course, they claim that the new program is much better, claiming faster weight loss than ever before. However, we have issues with the new program. In the past, they encouraged a slow and steady approach to weight loss since there can be health issues associated with rapid weight loss. And they always advertised their programs as allowing you to eat anything you want. But under the new program, foods with lots of carbs come out with a lot more points. So many more points that many of your favorite foods are now effectively out of bounds. Looking at how heavily carbs are discouraged, I wonder what’s the difference between the SmartPoints program and the Atkin’s Diet?

Sure, limiting carbs is a good idea. But there always has to be balance in any diet. And while it’s a good idea to favor protein over carbs, in our opinion, it’s not reasonable to penalize carbs so much. By denying your favorite foods, you run more of a risk of falling off the wagon, with all the associated repercussions, including the possibility of binge eating.

That said, we will continue with our dieting. This is still too important for us not to continue. We just won’t do it anymore as Weight Watchers members. And we’ll continue following the PointsPlus system.

And just to be clear, we don’t want to discourage anyone from trying the Weight Watchers program. The new plan may well work for some people, just as the old program works well for others. Weight loss isn’t always easy, and you may have to make some effort to find a strategy that works for you.

Cheers! Hans

Voting, and Why You Should Work At a Poll

This morning, I was awoken an hour earlier than I wanted. You see, yesterday I had to be up by 7:00am to get to my polling station at 8:00am. But when it was all over, I forgot to reset my alarm back to its usual time.

I’ve participated in several elections, not just as a voter, but working on election day. I volunteered a couple of times for a candidate, working as scrutineer. But the last time I acted as scrutineer, I looked closely at the job done by the staff at the polling station, and I decided that I could do that. And unlike working for a candidate, I would get paid.

I won’t comment much on the outcome of yesterday’s provincial election. So far, among my Facebook friends, there has been precious little discussion about yesterday’s surprise result, of a Liberal majority. Clearly, most Ontarians didn’t much care for Tim Hudak’s brand of “Tea Party conservatism”. In my riding of Kingston and the Islands, although there was a noticeable lack of red lawn signs, 40% of the population still supported the Liberal candidate, with the Conservative candidate coming in third behind the NDP.

For those unfamiliar with the election process in Canada, here’s a short description. When you arrive at the polling station, you are met by a greeter who directs you to the appropriate table. If you have your voters card, the greeter will direct you to your poll, which is staffed by two people: a deputy returning officer (DRO) and a poll clerk (PC). The DRO sits with the ballot box and checks your identification. The PC finds your name on the voters list at crosses it off. The DRO instructs you on the process and tears off a your ballot. You take it behind a “voting screen” (actually little more than a cardboard box, but large enough to allow you to vote in privacy), and you mark your choice. You then show your folded ballot to the DRO and then you drop the ballot in the ballot box.

Yesterday, I worked as a DRO and Sylvana was my PC, the first time we did that as a team. This was my second time working as DRO, but the first time I worked through the entire 14 hour day. In the last provincial election, I signed up too late and on election day, I started off on the reserve list. However, at noon I was called to the polling station in Barriefield to replace a DRO whose car got totaled in an accident in the parking lot and was too distraught to continue.

It’s a long hard day for all the polling station workers. The greeter, in particular, is on her feet for the whole time. But I can tell you that sitting for 12 hours isn’t fun either. By 9:00pm, everyone is exhausted, but that’s when the most important job starts: Opening the ballot box, counting the ballots, and recording the results. But the instructions are clear and explicit, which makes the job easier. Fortunately, our totals balanced at the end of the evening. Savvy poll workers know they can ensure a clean count at the end by occasionally cross-checking the voters list with ballots remaining during the day. That way, problems can be identified early if they crop up.

Why should you consider working at a polling station? I’m sure there are lots of reasons people do it. For young people, it’s a way of gaining experience. And yesterday, there were a few of them at our polling station. One DRO was 18, in fact. For others, it’s a way to augment their income. For some, it’s a chance to get out and meet your neighbors, if you work a poll close to home.

But although it sounds hokey, I think many of us do it to serve the public, and participate in the democratic process in a very concrete manner. Along with the necessary training, you can see clearly how the process works. Although there are many steps to the process, you can see how things work close up. You get to understand the reasons behind the steps, and you can be certain that the process operates in a fair manner, with all the necessary checks and balances. Although I’m sure most people have their own opinions about which candidate should win, the vast majority of election workers are committed to following the rules in a totally unbiased manner to ensure a fair election.

To summarize, by all means, do go out and participate in the process, either by working at a polling station, or by volunteering as a scrutineer. You can see for yourself how the democratic process works in Canada.

As for me today, I’m going back to bed.

Cheers! Hans


What is life other than a continual series of transitions? Four years ago, we were preparing to move from Toronto to Kingston. When we thought of the possibility back then, the transition made a lot of sense. And to a great extent, we met the goals for that move. We did it to provide our daughter with a safer environment to grow up in. And seeing her develop in maturity, we know we did the right thing. The move was a no-brainer for us.

Moving Sylvana’s mother and sister to Kingston was also challenging, but again, made a lot of sense. As they age and face increased care needs, having Sylvana nearby to advocate on their behalf is vital to their well-being.

But other transitions are more difficult. Finding software development work in Kingston hasn’t been easy. I.T. is simply not a good career choice for those of us over fifty. I’m still an active computer geek, and all my skills could be put to use. But I just can’t bear having to report to someone thirty years younger than me. My last job in Kingston was intolerable due to the working conditions, and I quickly reached that “Take this job and shove it!” moment.

So now I’ve reached the point where I simply have to consider myself “retired”. This is not an easy transition for me, and it’s going to take me some time to wrap my mind around the idea. What will I do? What challenges await me?

One thing I need to do is make a break from my professional past. It’s been almost eleven years since the staffing shuffle that moved me out of the iSeries group at the IBM Toronto Lab, but I still follow some iSeries related groups on-line. There’s just no point to that anymore. I need to burn some bridges, and that’s a good place to start. In addition, I’ve already deleted my LinkedIn account. I need to look forward to the future, and not dwell on my past professional life.

What’s next? As a retirement gift to myself, I bought a new tenor ukulele, and once I get a new set of strings, I hope to explore the possibilities of low-G ukulele tuning. But that’s just a start!

Cheers! Hans

Working in a Sick Building?

Last year, I worked for a few months in an office in an old renovated woolen mill on the Cataraqui River in Kingston. There were a couple of factors that lead to my resignation, and perhaps I’ll discuss other reasons later. But for now, I’d like to focus on one.

Old buildings like this have a certain character lacking in more modern structures. In Toronto, I worked for a couple of years in a century old office building just off the Garment District. I liked the exposed brickwork and wooden beams inside the building, as well as the bare wooden floors. This old restored mill in Kingston had all that, plus a nice scenic location on the river.

However, this building is an area where much of the land and sediment in the river is still contaminated with significant amounts of toxic chemicals, such as lead, chromium, and mercury. I have no doubt that the building I worked in met current rules for workplace safety, but I still have to wonder if there’s something in the environment within that building.

For a long time, I’ve had to deal with anxiety symptoms. I’ve identified a couple of causes. First, I seem to have a sensitivity to MSG. Second, my symptoms seem related to seasonal allergies. The latter can be dealt with using one particular OTC allergy medication. The former can be addressed by careful reading of food labels and avoiding any foods containing MSG.

However, during my time on that particular job, I found my anxiety steadily increasing. And it seemed to do so in a way totally unrelated to the stresses of the job. Even after quitting that job, the symptoms stayed on for several months before fading away. I suspected something about the environment within the building. Sure, there were other aspects of the working conditions in that office that were less than ideal. For instance, the level of lighting was unacceptably low. There were spotlights aimed at the small desks, but the overall ambiance made me feel like sleeping instead of working. Also, the development staff was crowded into a small space, which made working uncomfortable. But what I found really suspicious was a greasy residue on the floor. Was that oily substance out-gassing some chemical into the air?

Sure, this may not be the worst of Kingston’s brown-fields. And I’m sure most people who work in this particular building do so without feeling any ill effects. But for me, I think I’ll stay away from that area.