Speeding Electric Killer Cars–WATCH OUT!

Well, you do everything you can. You sort your garbage, you compost your old peanut butter sandwich crusts, you wash your windows with Swiss do-no-harm-vinegar, you drink the hot smelly summer water out of the tap, you fight legal battles to try to get solar panels on your roof, you shop at the local farmer’s barn, you walk the three miles to the post office as the one in your village has been closed, and you still get into trouble.

There I was with my miniature garbage bag containing perhaps one multiply-used paper towel that could not be flushed down the toilet, on my way over the road to the garbage container when a big, silent, speeding, entitled, disdainful, white electric car came within a hair’s breadth of flattening me. Didn’t even slow down.

Specimens of Robins and American Kestrels at the MSU Museum on Monday April 16, 2012. The birds were part of George Wallace’s study on the effects of DDT in the 1960’s.

You will be happy to hear that I am NOT singing duets with Aretha and/or Elvis, but it was a very close call. I know we’re all supposed imagine a dreamy future of quiet roads and pollution-free electric cars, but I am suddenly scared.

Follow the evolution of my village corner:

In the beginning the road had two lanes, a couple of modest speed bumps, and cars had purring engines.

In the field over the road there were black-faced curly-horned sheep that could be happily fed my hedge trimmings. We worked in perfect harmony. These were my very favourite summertime neighbours. No radios, no snarling dogs, no complaints.

The friendly, useful sheep have been replaced by layers of apartment buildings. The latest one—long, grey, and ugly—is situated right smack on the edge of the road.

Once installed, the people who moved in were quite surprised to find that there was a real road RIGHT THERE outside their bedroom windows! Part of the road has now been turned into a sidewalk (specifically for their “security” the town hall has said.) The tiny bit of the road that’s left (impossible for two cars to pass) has been paved with a magical product that sucks in car noise.

Now you combine all of this with silent cars that people are proud of owning and quite excited that such an ecological product can accelerate so magnificently and go very very fast indeed, then you have a silent problem. Add to the silent automobiles, the speeding silent electric bicycles, and the latest rage that is filling the world with silent electric scooters, then you have a very very big silent problem.

Silent Spring was published one day after my 10th birthday. In it Rachel Carson, in a very calm and competent way, exposes how the indiscriminate over-use of the pesticide, DDT, in North America wiped out birds and insects and the countryside fell silent.

Same thing still happening. We, the lowly pedestrians, have become the birds and the bees. The quiet electrical torpedoes will get us unless we’re very very careful.

Time for us to scream and shout.

 

 

A Day at the Hospital

Well, yesterday featured the dreaded MRI (IRM) check-up. Yes. The day they lock your head in a cage and blast it full of magnetic things, and somehow manage to put pictures on computers that other people look at.

The hour-long repetitive booming noise has a definite rock-concert edge to it. My head being full of Aretha Franklin tribute tunes, at one point I found myself humming R-E-S-P-E-C-T, but I don’t think anyone except the technician heard.

Anyway, I am pleased to report some startling changes at the main Geneva Hospital.

First of all, they don’t like patients coming early and sitting in waiting rooms anymore. This might be explained as an attempt to avoid getting ill by breathing killer hospital germs, but really it is because there is a lot of loose staff that don’t have chairs behind counters to sit on, so they like to sit in the little waiting rooms and chat.

The friendly receptionist sends you, the patient, up to the Hospital Garden on the first floor, extolling its pleasant atmosphere and shady, breezy spaces. You are warned not to fall asleep and to back on the dot of your allotted machine-tube torture time.

Well, there were some little trees in the garden, but there was also a definite California forest-fire edge to things: The entire hospital staff was out there smoking. There was no wind to blow off the thick, stinking, grey cigarette-smoke cloud.

Unfortunately, conversations carried razor-sharp through the tobacco fug, and my innocent, apprehensive ears heard about intubations, operations, and the hideous medical surprises that had enriched everyone’s morning.

When some rather poorly patients arrived in wheelchairs with oxygen bottles attached, and pulled out their cigarette packs, I felt it was really time to go.

Another great change is that you get to see your specialist on the exact same day as your examination. For this, you are allowed to sit in the waiting room, but only because HE is late and you are NOT early.

To keep you entertained and informed there are video images of nice, clean, young, happy people being put into MRI tubes by other nice clean, young, happy people. Even the lady who got not only a cage, but what looked like a mesh net over her head, was grinning like it was the biggest joke in the whole world.

Unfortunately, the neurologist arrived before I could finish watching the bit about how, these days, there are medical interventions (operations with real scalpels) while you are inside the machine. I did, though, catch the bit about there being no anaesthetic and their huge success rate.

These medical information videos replace the old nature documentaries where you could see lions jumping on wildebeest and eating them alive before the hyena and vultures came in to finish off their brains and eyeballs.

I hope to be able to report future hospital entertainment improvements in exactly five years’ time. All suggestions welcome.

Strictly NO Fireworks INSIDE the tent!

Well, today is August 2nd, and the glorious 1st of August has been survived yet again. No missing eyes, fingers or pockets. No one has been reported as dying from boredom during last night’s presidential speech. And although no birds have been seen flying in the garden yet today, I’m sure they’re just having an “off” day and will all be flitting about normally tomorrow.

Swiss National Day is defined by an evening communal meal, a children’s lantern parade, a firework display, and, finally, an enormous bonfire. Considering the hot, dry summer conditions this is a tricky business. Volunteer firemen stand importantly about. However, firework size and quality is the yardstick for measuring the amount of Swissness a community holds.

True fact: 3,000 tons of explosive material and 1,700 tons of fireworks are used in Switzerland every year.

The first of August morning always starts with a few isolated bangs. These are either children or fathers who have no willpower to wait for the darkness and just test-try one or two big crackers to make sure they will be fine for later. For the past month, all shops have been filled with August 1st paraphernalia—Swiss and cantonal flags; paper lanterns; bangers and packages of fireworks; glasses, plates, napkins, balloons and hard-boiled eggs with Swiss crosses on them.

Later in the day, it is like an eclipse of the sun, as the world goes quiet. All families lie down for a jolly good afternoon nap to make sure that eyes are bright and reflexes sharp for the upcoming pyro-show.

Towards the evening the smell of roasting wieners and cervelas fills the air, along with conversation and laughter. Little bangers go off. As the beer and wine flow, there is animation in the air.

At dusk distorted music floats over from the football field behind the town hall where the bonfire is stacked 3-metres high into the sky. Loud hailers shout unintelligible words.

Cars begin flocking in from over the border looking for non-existent parking places (they are at the other end of the village in a stubble field). Someone stops to pee on your hedge as he thinks no one is looking. The excitement builds.

Surrounding, higher, villages begin early, and from the upstairs window you see the two separate and glorious pyrotechnic displays. Then suddenly overhead there are the three sonic booms, and way high over the roof giant  multi-coloured showers rain down. There is a pause between the “phoof” of the missile, and the explosion of fire in the sky. Sparks sprinkle down, but dissolve before they catch your hair alight.

You watch until your neck hurts and with a louder than loud bang it is all over for another year.

This morning there was just the wisps of smoke from a huge heap of grey ashes and three lone cars left in the stubble field.

All is well in Switzerland.

 

 

Ten Tips for Surviving Summertime Guests

Well, it is only the middle of July, and already at least six parties of family and friends have come to spend at least one night here at the Shack. The view is terrific (Mont Blanc on a good day) the temperature is comfortable (as the heat waves squeeze the lowlands), cold drinking water comes from a mountain spring,  and the back stable is filled with delicious, naturally cooled, wine bottles.

However, to ensure smooth days and undisturbed nights there are some basic rules that must be rigorously enforced:

  1. Never, under any circumstances let the guests cook for you. Half-way through a complicated fish dish an honourable Japanese guest will demand distilled essence of sea slug. Without this essential ingredient all will be lost: the dish abandoned, the rice burnt, the precious gifted sake bottle drained in disappointment in the kitchen.
  2. Always make sure that the generator has produced enough hot water for at least two showers. If the first person overindulges there will be at least a little brackish water left to make the second showeree feel rustic, strong, invigorated, and in tune with the mountain environment.
  3. If there are any under-threes in the group, make sure you are stocked up on bubble-blowing kits. This way, they will sit on a flat spot, blow bubbles and not enter the lower basement emerging with a rusty sickle in one hand a sharpened hatchet in the other.
  4. Be prepared for a surprise vegetarian. This is especially relevant if you have visited your favourite butcher in the next village the day before and filled the gas fridge and the back shed with meat, salamis, and sausages.
  5. Provide each guest with a flashlight and show them (in the day time) the way to the outdoor toilet. This not only provides unusual adventure, a unique opportunity to observe the starry night sky, but avoids them bumbling around at night and ending up in your bedroom looking for the en-suite bathroom.
  6.  Plan a hike that leaves early morning. Visit the local bakery and regional specialty shops and buy one of everything even if you don’t know what it is. This adds culinary dash to the walk. Don’t forget Swiss army knives and Band-Aids.
  7. On the hike (see #6) always make the youngest member of the party carries the heavy food pack. This might not work if you have a smart-assed 11-year old who informs you (in French) that in these circumstances the adult accompagnants ALWAYS carry heavy backpacks, not the children.
  8. Have some soft balsa-wood type logs saved for any guests who wish to show off their lumber-jack skills. This way they do not hurt themselves and are not seriously embarrassed by their wood chopping inadequacies.
  9. Do not store plastic water bottles with added fertilizer (for the garden plants) anywhere a guest might come across them. They will inevitably find them, drink them, and then complain of feeling unwell.
  10. Enjoy all the fun.

 

Geneva Solar Panels (almost) Verboten!

Well, several thousands of francs in – deposit with the solar panel installer, paying to have the house re-appraised (surprisingly it’s the same size as when it was built), appealing the first (administrative) negative decision, appealing the second (tribunal) negative decision, we are now waiting for the decision of the final appeals court of the Canton of Geneva.

You see, Geneva does not readily agree with solar panels. You have to fight hard and pay. You must be morally deserving.

Every single village in the Canton of Geneva is protected as a historical site—from the entrance sign (often riddled with bullet holes) to the exit sign (often knocked out of kilter by speeding traffic). These Historical Site Villages can include rusty metal machinery hangars, pig pens, modern apartment buildings, waste lots filled with derelict buildings and vehicles. They are all strenuously protected by the Geneva Department of Monuments.

These civil servants take their jobs very seriously, and are adamant that solar panels are aesthetically evil. A pig pen with a rusty tin roof is considered much more pleasing to the eye than a pig pen with solar panels fitted to it. This is historically correct, as the Romans, when they made Geneva a civitas brought with them smelly fish paste, vines, and the know-how to make clay roof tiles. They introduced browny-coloured roofs, and, unfortunately, hadn’t thought of solar panels.

I exaggerate, of course. IF the solar panels cannot be seen by ANYONE, then they are allowed. The people who can be offended by solar-panel roofs include the frontaliers whizzing past from their French residences, living pedestrians and cyclists, and any neighbours—either real or future/potential.

If, for example, we had wanted to put solar panels on the north-east roof of the garage where there is about 5 minutes of weak sunshine on a good day, then that would have been just fine. Cows’ aesthetic rights are not taken into consideration at the moment.

Two different Geneva courts have made the trip from their well-heated cantonal offices in the Old Town of Geneva to our countryside village to judge our solar panel suitability. It’s a bit like adopting a child.

The first time there was a convoy of three cars on bitter cold day in January. Everyone quickly developed red dripping noses and bad attitudes. I got snapped at and asked why-the-heck I would actually WANT solar panels. The insinuation was of subjecting everyone to a greeny attention-grabbing caprice.

The second time was just last week. There were leaves on the walnut tree, and from the middle of the sidewalk-less road, with cars rushing to and fro, there was not a sliver of the roof in sight.

The appeals court – a different crowd – was more jovial in the summer sunshine as they moved from comfortable shade to sweaty sun. Perhaps they finally got it. Anyway, we have high hopes for our roof and the power of the sun.

Remember this Word, You Might Need it: Systembolaget!

I hate the first day of summer. It means that Christmas is just around the corner as the days rudely begin to tick themselves shorter and shorter and time goes faster and faster.

In the academic working world you don’t much notice the 21st of June as you’re so busy with end-of-school exams, the behaviour of highly questionable colleagues and students, and general nervous break-downs. Hectic summer holiday plans are also raising concerns as you have no trace of a 2-week car rental that you’re sure you booked back in February.

The most traumatic summer solstice was in Sweden: Göteborg, to be exact.  The hotel was situated on a scenic canal across from a power station to the left and a casino to the right. In the middle was a Mongolian meat restaurant. The view from the slanting roof windows was of the sky with a smokestack in the corner.

The June day started badly as everything was shut. This turned out to be not, exactly, a holiday, but just a normal Swedish working day.  Shops seem to open late in the morning and close at early in the afternoon. Obviously, during these brief business hours, shopping is hectic and robust.

Trying to find a bottle of wine to celebrate the summer solstice was a double challenge. You wander out into the searing heat of a Swedish summer looking for something that mentions alcohol. (The Swedish word for alcohol is alkohol. The Swedish word for wine is vin. Really, you would think they could do something with those two that would make sense to an interested, thirsty, tourist over 20 years of age, with money in her pocket.)

But no. The government liquor-monopoly stores are called systembolagets (the System Company). But if you happen to find one and get there in the summer-popsicle-thin window of opening hours (11 am – 1 pm on Saturdays, for example), the choice is vast.

After enjoying the solstice festive atmosphere among the young, bronzed, tall, skinny, beautiful, white-teethed people, you inevitably start to fade and retire back to your hotel in no-man’s land. You drink a final glass and hit the sack. The sun is still shining. The roof-windows are luminous. There is no blind. There are no curtains.

You start with the bathroom towel tucked in around the edges with the window-trap shut. The light shines through. You add the duvet to try to bung up the roof hole. There is no air in the room. You long for duct tape.

You work on it all night: eye masks, pillows, toilet paper, and I think that the shower curtain was even involved. But there were no nights. We visited the systembolaget more and more (it was always crowded) and after six days we finally got home deeply disturbed and disoriented.

Be careful what you wish for, but I am longing already for the 21 of December when the days start getting longer again and I can lean forward to the beginning of summer.

Baking Pies while Vienna Fiddles

Well, the true luxury of having a season ticket to a classical concert series at Victoria Hall, is that if you are not in the mood you do not have to go. Those two hard little chairs with the fat lady’s knees wiggling into your back simply remain noble, empty and silent.

And we have learned that if you have the slightest of coughs or colds you really should not go. We were present some years back when Sir John Eliot Gardiner stopped his musicians, turned around, spotted the white-haired old dear who was hopelessly hacking into her handkerchief, and told her that, for the good of everyone involved, she should leave at once. The tapping of her solitary little shoes in a dead-silent concert hall still rings in my ears.

Of course, you have to deal with your own guilt and lack of moral purpose, but that is a deeper issue that possibly needs professional help.

However, yesterday evening, we were primed for the very last concert—an A+ production by the Vienna Philharmonic. Very last concerts are also extremely satisfactory, as you can wish everyone a nice summer and breathe a sigh of relief that you don’t have to deal with those clowns or Dvorak for the next few months.

The program looked not too exhausting (only 75 minutes) and Strauss was featured. Don Quixote was the first set and having seen the Stratford production of The Man of La Mancha recently, I was wondering if I could hum along with Richard’s Opus 35 variations. The second bit was A Hero’s Life which also sounded somewhat familiar after a weekend baby-sitting stint with a hale and healthy 2-year-old.

At 5pm I put a raspberry pie in the oven. It was a huge success when it came out at 5:40. Then there was the soaking of mushrooms and chopping of onions for a post-concert supper. Then there was the bath to remove mountain grass stains and dried blood (don’t ask). Then there was the donning of the fresh linen dress and the ploughman’s preconcert supper (you just add a pickle to bread and cheese) with a chilled glass of white wine. Then there was the blow drying of hair and lipstick was applied. Shortly after 7, we drove into town and witnessed the miracle of a convenient parking place.

As we were a little early, we sat on a park bench in front of a bronze reclining lady fountain at Planpalais. We noted the groups of people coming and going as the pigeons swooped over our heads. We commented on the diversity of the Geneva population and the lovely breeze swooping down on us from the Salève.

We got to Victoria Hall at 7:50, and there was no crowd bubbling in the foyer. The concert had, exceptionally, begun at 6 pm and was just finishing. The nice young man was very sorry.

Fighting windmills, we drove back home.

 

 

Sing, Goddamnit, Sing!

Any visit to Stratford (the REAL one in Ontario, Canada) and you are constantly star-struck.

It already begins on the Toronto flight with the hockey players. They used to be the nice young men sitting in the slum-class seats with their knees up around their shiny ears. They were giant, keyed-up and chattily practising their Swedish-English before hopefully hitting the lucky interview and a place in the NHL.

Now they are the former hockey players and coaches—still keyed-up and searching for North American talent to bring back to Europe. The last one I met was the general manager for the Ingolstadt Hockey Club. He seemed to be interested when I told him that Ingolstadt was where Victor Frankenstein, of Geneva, fashioned his now-famous creature. He said he would check it out, but gave me the tip that big bruiser players were no longer fashionable and miniature mosquito-type midgets were currently in vogue.

After landing, there is the exciting drive in the Parcel Bus that delivers you to your door. Actually, it delivers you to many, many doors before the one you want. The drivers are usually spry octogenarians and with their lack of hearing and canny survival instincts they are the true masters of the jam-packed 40l highway.

Arriving at my sister’s house—famous for its old and wicked beauty—you still cannot escape the clutches of fame. For example, she has fed Justin Bieber cookies which he has eaten with his own true teeth and swallowed down his very own Justin Bieber gullet.

Yes. This is a true fact. Stratford is Justin’s home town, and whenever his mother comes to visit, she jams with my nephew.  My niece’s daughter is lobbying hard for Justin to animate her next birthday party when she will turn 7.  Obviously, we are practically related to Justin Bieber.

Then there are the actors, the writers, the singers. The Stratford Festival theatre season runs for about 6 months, and after seeing the magnificent world-class plays, you can often catch a glimpse of Hamlet buying cornflakes at the supermarket, or My Fair Lady playing with her kid in the sandpit at the playground.

Summertime also includes outdoor cultural activities with art, music, and animation on the Avon Lake which, Mariposa Belle-style, is only a few inches deep. Picnicking on the edge one summer a rather rambunctious member of our party screamed at a packed raft floating past “Sing! Goddamnit sing!” Turns out they were members of an old folks home (or, perhaps, Parcel Bus drivers) being taken on an airing.

Even the local church is quite notorious. Last summer there was quite a scandal when thieves stole plants from their mixed border.  And at their jumble sale just a few weeks ago, I purchased a set of famous grapefruit spoons from the estate of a deceased famous person.  Upon enquiry, it seems the person is still alive.

Identity—mistaken and otherwise—is the very soul of Stratford’s star-struck life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Little Switzerlands: Don’t Bother

Any country that can possibly get away with it (and several that can’t) have created their own little versions of Switzerland. Essential ingredients include trees (any sort except palm), fields (ploughed, fenced and tended), altitude (the higher the better) and a fresh-water lake (preferably turquoise in colour.)

If you happen to know the real, big Switzerland, avoid these places at all cost.

I have been to little Switzerlands more times than I like to admit: India, Korea, Japan, Sri Lanka, Burma, and China all have their “Swiss” landscape dreams. They are often strange forlorn places of heat and odd architecture.

Switchback roads are the essential opening ingredient to get you to an authentic little Switzerland. If you’re really lucky, you will spot a rusty wreck stuck in the bushes below a particularly sharp bend. You conclude that puzzling aerial wires going nowhere must be for ski lifts in case the earth’s weather patterns change. Sometimes there is even a dodgy mechanical device that takes the cheering pedestrians from one viewing platform to another.

Having sworn off little Switzerlands, I was surprised to myself in yet another one. This one was sneakily hiding in Calabria, the toe of Italy.

It really wasn’t my fault. In that region, the only three-star attraction (apart from the Riace Bronzes in Reggio Calabria which are believed to be two (buck-naked) brothers about to kill each other in front of their mother….but here I digress) is the Sila mountain plateau. At almost 2,000m altitude, sure enough, it is officially designated Calabria’s “Little Switzerland.”

It is also a national park and has ploughed fields, painted wooden houses perched in alpine mixed forests, flowery meadows, one herd of cows, and endless unmarked roads. There are no people, restaurants or gas stations. It is quiet and serene, and as you drive, lost on the SP31 (that is not to be found on any map and goes from nowhere to nowhere) you become exquisitely bored.

As the gas tank empties and the bladder fills, you long to be in good old Italy and back to the trip you had planned. You wish for the thrill of the autostradas, the delights of bergamot ice cream, a double espresso, an Aperol-spritz.  You worry where your next meal is coming from, and miss the peculiar characters in the kiosks that sell you popsicles and scratch-off parking permits.

You feel the need for a good dusty duomo and a museo filled with gangs of school kids crashing from exhibit to exhibit photographing each thing with their shiny-new smart phones and retaining their complete, noisy ignorance.

The SP31 finally meets the SS179 and you are out…free to drive into the future and come back to Italy and the crowded friendly chaos of the rose festival of Santa Rita. All thoughts of Switzerland—both big and little—have dropped far below the waves of the wine-dark sea.

 

In Search of / The Curse of / The Solution to — Ten Thousand Steps a Day

An unseemly epidemic of healthiness seems to have broken out around me, and I am handling it badly.

Everyone seems to be in bike races, walking to Santiago de Compostela, climbing mountains, taking Aqua-Fit lessons, puffing on their exercise bikes, jogging miles with their dogs, and, much closer to home, trying to achieve 10,000 steps a day.

Interestingly, I have found that the best place to do this in a natural fashion is at airports. Frankfurt, for example, is very good; and by the time you’ve gone through the endless tunnels to the lounge and back to your gate, you have thousands of steps as you sit down on the plane and sip your restorative glass of champagne.

Taking a two-year-old grandson to the mall can also achieve the same, if not greater, level of physicality. Unfortunately, at the end, the clean, smiling, polite person offering you a glass of bubbly is usually missing.

Being a tourist in a strange city is also productive of many steps if the weather cooperates. You happily stride through the streets, climb clock towers, and stroll through endless churches and museums.

However, without these artificial settings, ten thousand steps can be dead boring: you get to know exactly how much time it takes (to the garage and back twice) and wonder if you can do it faster or if you can make your steps shorter. You try to get up early and get it over with. You try to fool your step-counter by waving your hand around while relaxing on the Chi Swing Machine….it doesn’t work and you fall asleep.

In other words, getting those daily steps under your belt can be a grind.

Art-in-the-woods walk, Vers, France

To alleviate this darkening mental cloud and to introduce a note of gaiety to the ten thousand steps, a new tactic has been introduced: The Geneva countryside is filled with villages; in the villages there are cafés: in the cafés there are affordable plat du jour lunchtime meals; clean and polite people ask what you would like to drink.

There is the Plain Walk. You park the car somewhere that is about 5,000 steps from the target restaurant. You walk there and back.

There is the Cultural Walk. You book a restaurant. You park the car somewhere and head to the ruin, or extraordinary site that you have located on the map, and do a discovery tour.  Exhausted but intellectually elated you saunter into the restaurant.

There is the Nature Walk. You reserve a table. You look at the dotted lines on the map, plan your route, battle through the untended paths, along rivers and over fences until you’ve completed your circle. Rather the worse for wear, you swagger into your café.

Preparation, execution, recuperation: ten thousand steps can fill your day. And with intense admiration of your own iron discipline you settle down on the couch with a pizza in the evening, already dreaming of what all the cooks are planning for your lunch tomorrow.