The Taxi Driver Blues

Well, I guess that just about everybody hates taxi drivers and as the ones in Geneva are the most expensive in the whole world, they are, perhaps, the most hated.

I must admit that you do occasionally meet some interesting cases on the 20-minute/85-franc ride from the airport to my village in the Geneva countryside.

There was the old cabby (they are often retired folk) who slowed to a crawl and started banging on his steering wheel as he told me the story of his wife being hospitalized due to the leeching poisonous blue dye in her China-made new navy pantaloons. (They can be very racist.) And then there was the one, who, hearing my accent, told me about his previous career of picking apples in Québec. (He drove a very old rattling car with no inside door or window handles.) And then there was the eastern European lady who refused my tip and helped with my cases as she said she had already robbed me of enough money. (She was my very favourite.)

Geneva taxi drivers are straightforward highway robbers, and lack the variety and spice of their international brotherhood. In Japan my driver laughed at me when I offered a tip and shoed it away with his white-gloved hand. In Russia you have to know to pre-tip the driver (US dollars work a dream) unless you want to be kidnapped to deepest darkest Siberia. In central China, we communicated via the driver’s phone app. In Korea (where taxis are very very cheap) you must know not to leave the cab when the driver gets irritated and wants to be rid of you because he cannot find your destination. Obviously, there we couldn’t communicate at all.

However, I am discovering that the Geneva Uber drivers are a different breed. They are much more interested in speed limits, hidden cameras, not wasting time, and fast electric cars. They have out-of-state plates and have the whiff of the bandit about them. They drop you off at the Kiss and Fly stand at the airport and pick you up at the diplomatic compound. They are swift, shady, and a more than a bit sly.

They follow giant GPS screens mounted on their dashboards and speak little. They are young and possibly don’t have wife, never mind pantaloon, problems. They are half-price.

They, of course, go against all I hold dear—proper pay, pension plans, paid holidays, etc. Plus, they are in strict opposition to the family motto “Pay More, Get Less!”

Our last Uber ride was a friendly go-getter of North African origin. I slipped him a tip. He slipped me his personal card, kissed my cheek, and reflected that we might have a profitable off-grid taxi relationship in the future.

Roll over, Ayn Rand, and forget heartless capitalism. Ali (not his real name) and I are friends and neighbours now. He’ll drive me anywhere for Uber prices. All I have to do is pay him in cash.

 

 

 

 

 

Tips for the Ladies

The other evening, I happened to see Mrs Trump and Mrs Macron stepping off a Seine tourist boat in Paris. They were immediately recognizable as killing time on an “accompanying persons” tour. While their husbands attended to vitally important world matters, the girls had put on clean clothes and gone off to see the sights before their Eye-Full Tower dinner.

Now, I’ve been doing this for decades, and am most surprised no one has called asking for my professional advice. These two are obviously wet-behind-the-ears rookies.

Just in from Jeju Island off the south coast of South Korea, I must say that I judge myself to have reached the pinnacle of my accompanying person skills. At a major international scientific conference of over 600 people, we were 5½ ladies who took it upon ourselves to improve our minds and explore our new neighbourhood.

None of us spoke Korean (however, Shigeko’s Japanese English was the most acceptable to Korean eyes and ears.) Most of us were retired school-teachers, so enjoyed talking in loud voices and were not particularly attentive to what others had to say: this meant we didn’t get on each other’s nerves. Lulu knew how to read the map and Eva had remembered to bring along some Korean wons. Helen wore a sunhat and Ute kept us focused.

Our first entertainment choice was the thrice-daily Korean acrobatic display in Asia’s largest circus tent. Unfortunately, the acrobats had all run away, and the huge orange globe was abandoned and wind-swept (due to a sudden lack of Chinese tourists brought about by missiles and anti-missiles). We cheerfully made do with the Peace Museum and wax figures of famous peaceful people such as Bill Clinton, Mikhail Gorbachev and pop stars.

One of us had already seen the Hello Kitty Museum and said it was only interesting for the first five minutes and she wasn’t sure if there were any Hello Kitty earrings. And after the Botanical Gardens and the Goof-Train ride we were too exhausted to visit the Teddy Bear Museum or the Ripley’s Believe-it-or-Not Museum. The organized half-day outing was composed of strenuous ravine and cliff walks in the 40-degree humidity. It almost killed us.

Anyway, Melania and Brigitte would have been welcome to join us on our improvised ladies’ program, but from what I’ve seen, wouldn’t have lasted five minutes.

First of all, when travelling, NEVER wear a white dress: it makes you look like a nurse or an ambulance driver, and, of course, the tiniest little brush with the black slime of a cliff-wall, and it’s a gonner. Dark or murky-coloured baggy trousers are the best bet for scrambling around in an unknown environment.

But proper footwear is the most crucial factor. You are not going to make it on the crater paths or the ravine board-walks in six-inch heels. You’re going to keep the bus waiting. Put on your diamond-encrusted sneakers instead, and come along with us next time.

Bucket, the Rescue Dog

Well, it seems that a new craze has taken hold in Canada – the muddled concept of the “rescue dog”.

This phrase first floated into my world some months back, when my sister wrote a startling message describing her encounter with elderly friends’ new family member, the Great Dane Rescue Dog.

From what I recall, the howling dog tore through the restraining door, and its rolling eyes accidentally met hers. After some skirmishes, she found herself pinned to the floor with the dog slashing its teeth, making a nasty throat-noise, and drooling above her.

I replied that the animal seemed quite spontaneous and undisciplined for a rescue dog. I know my dogs. We have had St Bernards in the family for decades, and though we’ve never been able to teach them anything, the concept of their plodding stalwartly through the snowdrifts in the Alps looking for people always made perfect sense to me.

And when not snoring and eating, they did always look out for children and guests in many gentle and thoughtful ways. Locking their teeth on a sweater sleeve when not wanting a person to leave the room, or a playful paw in the face to wake you up from an afternoon snooze on the couch come immediately to mind.

But no. These Canadian canines are not REAL rescue dogs. In the new politically correct language of double-think, the human is the rescuer and the dog is the rescuee.

These are the dogs you get from the pound. They are often young, energetic, and very big. Their reasons for being in the animal shelters are many, I am sure. They are advertised as being “pre-loved”. Many might have been “pre-hated”.

It is a moral status symbol to own such a dog. The onus is on the human to keep these dogs alive no matter what. As they age and their hips fail, you carry them up and down steps. As their kidneys fail, you inject them with liquids. As their hearing and sight fail, you walk them carefully on long strings and soft paths so they don’t get lost. You attach a bell to their collar.

It becomes a moral human failure to have a dog put down because of age and/or illness.

You have no responsibility for having dealt with dubious breeders and/or puppy mills.

You are pure, and as you are walking through a virgin forest and you spot a dastardly villain lowering a large-eyed puppy down into a bottomless well in a bucket. You shout out and save it. You name the dog Bucket to remind yourself of a momentary shining white knight part of your personality. You take lessons in “behoming”.

From then on, you are a happy martyr to your lucky lucky dog. And you tell everyone that you are the saviour of Bucket, the Rescue Dog.

 

 

 

 

The Pâté Pot

A blade needed sharpening, and a few weeks back I found myself in a good old-fashioned French hardware shop.

While waiting for the skinny guy in overalls with morning-cognac breath to take the gory chain-saw details, a simple earthenware pâté pot caught my eye and I had a sudden fantasy of myself in a flowing floral dress.  There were no cobwebs in my hair or green aphids crawling on my skin.

I was surrounded by a lovingly well-behaved and appreciative family in the dappled sunny shade under the linden trees eating a neat little home-made pâté served with a cool and crisply acidic Cumberland jelly. There was heavy condensation on the crystal glasses filled with ice-cold sauterne. They all toasted my health.

The image was so perfect and powerful I bought the pot, and have been in a state of agitation ever since.

I know two actually-alive people who have made pâtés in their own kitchens (or so they claim) for me. Both (one rabbit and one foie gras) were delightful and delicious. Both were made in the winter months. Served with pickles and gooseberries, both were the centres of astonishing social events.

My trusty Larousse cookbook was a bit of a disappointment. The Country Foie Gras Pâté recipe is simplicity itself and calls for a huge (750g) goose liver which you chop up together with fresh fat belly of pork, pork suet and a piece of larding bacon. Truffles are optional—to be tossed in at will if you’re in the mood.

Apart from finding all the fatty ingredients, this seemed too straightforward, so I delved further into the dark and complex web world of liver pâtés.

I discovered to my horror that livers have veins that must be taken out. Somehow you have to butterfly-open the liver with your fingertips to present it with your herbs and spices. At some point you should soak it in salted water for a few hours to remove “impurities”. It is better to buy frozen rather than fresh foie gras, as it is “fresher”. After cooking you must press the concoction into a firm block using a precisely-cut piece of wood or cardboard and place weights on top. You must cool it for a day or two.

The “torchon method” is even more impressive and involves lengths of cheese cloth, twine, and several fridge hangings and alternative hot water / ice water dunkings.

The Larousse cookbook mentions strictly none of the above information. As the French Bible of cookery it is assumed that you have a genetic knowledge of the nitty-gritty underworld of pâté production.

My summertime pâté-idyll is fading fast in the actual sweltering heat. The family comes and goes–happily eating left-overs and drinking pop.

The pâté pot sits on the kitchen table gathering dust as I suck on an orange popsicle and consider it. I think there might be just the place for it in an upper kitchen cupboard somewhere north of the pasta machine.

 

 

Rage Over a Lost Franc

Well, there I was—happily home from a place where supermarkets have not yet been invented—and I was buying one of everything.

My shopping bags were filled with delicious Swiss specialities that I had been missing—soft squishy buns, cervelas, tubes of Cenovis, mustard and mayonnaise. There were delicious fera rissoles, just-ripe avocados, and fresh herbs sprouting perkily from little pots.

I had my store card and my scanner and merrily fought (and won) a mental culinary battle back to the normality of self-selective eating.

There were no smoked pig lungs, no canned crickets, no sheep heads, no 100-year-old eggs. It was glorious.

My bags full of inventive, delicious, unrelated items – I was too freshly home to think in terms of actual meals – I was humming to myself and inserting my card into the check-out machine when an orange-bloused lady hauled me off for a “random check”.

Food reveries turned to mental compost. Guilt and fear bloomed like the blue on the Roquefort cheese chunk. Had I remembered to scan that bottle of truffle oil? Or that huge bag of dried morels?

Anxiety and blood-pressure mounted as the two employees chatted happily and rescanned my now-dangerous almost-possessions. Was I about to become one of those poor innocent people forever banned from Swiss supermarkets?

No. I passed with flying colours (I had scanned the oil bottle twice), and strode haughtily off with my treasures and retail freedom righteously intact.

That was when I discovered that I had the wrong caddy. The franc deposit was no longer in the slot. They had pulled the old bait-and-switch.

Back up to the check-out arena, I found the employee suspects and explained the loss of my franc-primed trolley.  They didn’t have it, and told me calmly (condescendingly?) what had happened: I had been robbed by “gypsies”.  (In the Vallée du Giffre we call them “Bohemians” which seems much more dashing.)

Apparently, at crowded times they come to the supermarkets and, being gypsies, are attracted by gold. Well, silver in this case. And while a  person is pondering (possibly with eyes closed) whether to choose the lemon or strawberry tarts they place your bags of scanned, packed groceries into a moneyless trolley and make a speedy get-away with the cash.

I don’t know if any forensic connection has been made between the theft of my franc and the Big Maple Leaf coin robbery, but they bear curious similarities. The Berlin robbers took the 100-kg pure gold Canadian coin (53 cm diameter and 3 cm thick and worth about $4,000,000) from a museum showcase last month. They used a sledgehammer, then put the coin into a wheelbarrow to make their get-away.

This is obviously a serial-robbery situation. A copy-cat crime is also a possibility. In any case, the point of the matter is, you cannot lend anything to anybody. You take your eyes off it for one second and it’s gone.

 

Salt: Worth its Weight in Gold

Well, the conversation took place over the regular Tuesday lunch of macaroni and (cheddar) cheese. As we put a grind of pretty pink rock salt on top, the question of salt came up (again).

In our house there is an on-going polemic about the reality of salt. The scientific contingent is adamant that salt is simply NaCl—preferably from the Swiss salt mines of Bex. And that is that.

The rest of us disagree. We know that licking the Himalayan rock-salt lamp in the living room is a completely different experience from dipping your wet finger into the kitchen salt pot.

And now I have proof. A recent cookbook defines the developed world’s three types of salt—common table, kosher, and sea—and proclaims them to be very different in taste, texture and use.

Conversation then turned to the iodine content of normal table salt.

The mention of iodine brought up the subject of hypothyroidism and goiters and my dining companion (10 years old) asked if I had ever seen pictures of people with goiters. I said, of course! I have a lovely one of Geneva market ladies in the 19th century in my book.

The mention of “my” book, brought about dessert amnesia, and we headed upstairs in search of the living proof that grandma wasn’t the big fat liar that she is usually (unfairly) made out to be, but is, instead, a real living rock and roll “écrivaine”.

The chapter on medicine was found, as was the picture. It was observed that the ladies looked quite rich so should have been able to afford salt. It was pointed out that iodine, not salt, was the problem. It was then gigglingly observed that the ladies looked like they had two sets of breasts.

One of my few remaining copies of Ils ont découvert Genève was dedicated to my new fan and she took it with her. In the car back to school she abandoned her usual heap of Lucky Luke and Yoko Tsuno reading material and concentrated on Chapter 1 – Le Lac. Out loud, I was regaled with my very own true facts about the origins of the names Geneva and Leman.  After the 20-minute drive, I was heartily congratulated on my newly-discovered brilliance and expertise.

The book itself was a huge failure and a roaring success. It is a segment of a much larger (unpublished) work and was brought out as a commercial anniversary present for the “big M” and distributed throughout the canton of Geneva. You just might have it on your bookshelf. It took years of work, and ended in disappointment and frustration.

Under-rated and none-paid, Travellers to Geneva[1] has been more or less forgotten. But today it was excitingly revived, hailed and admired.

Nothing you do is worth nothing. Not even a pinch of salt.

 

 

 

 

[1] Published by Editions Tricorne, Genève 2009. (In English: Travellers to Geneva. Part 1 Sensations and Reflections.)

How the Drone Killed the Postcard

Down in the bomb shelter there is a rusty tin biscuit box that is full of postcards. They were collected and saved when I was a child living in small Ontario villages. They were sent from around the world – well, mainly from holiday corners of Britain and “The Continent.” Every move I’ve made, that tin box has moved with me.

Our own parson-poor holidays were always taken for four weeks in the searing summer heat. They were mile-full rides across the country from coast to coast. Cloth diapers were jammed into the little triangular side windows to dry in the car-speed. We camped in a huge and heavy canvas tent. There was porridge for breakfast and our wine was grape kool-aid.

We did, though, send postcards.

Still today, I occasionally buy old postcards at the Geneva flea-market and unravel the spidery handwriting with pleasure: formal invitations, formal thank-yous, formal salutations. They are little pastel-coloured hands waving from the past.

Suddenly, though, postcard quests are not being met with success.

In Tranquebar, the cards were so cracked, curled and dirty that not even the mercurial manager could take rupees for them and gave me a few for free.

In Ubud, the former postcard capital of the world, postcards had to be mined like precious gems at twee stationery shops.

In Xi’an, at the main airport post-office, there was a selection of cards featuring hybrids of fat babies and Micky Mouse. Not a terracotta warrior or plump horse in sight.

At Wat Pho, the postcard racks were empty. And here on the Andaman Sea, the hotel offers postcard views of itself. Here we step into serious postcard total-loser territory.

Where are the great images – the sunrises, silhouettes on a crescent moon-lit beach, the branches of fuchsia bougainvillea draping impossibly over a wine-dark sea? All those exciting things that we never see with our own amateur eyes?

The clientele here at this eco-lodge are a new breed of adventurers; they possibly have never licked a stamp. They are all tattooed to prove their individuality. They spend their time thumbing their little screens. They sport pairs of outsized non-jiggly breasts with heads and skinny legs attached. They do not sketch, paint, or write. Very few read.

Yesterday, a cool American dude blew in with his chick and his drone. Inside the veranda filled with real people on lounge chairs he ordered a double gin and tonic and launched his millennial man-toy.

Not wanting my eyes poked out, I was gathering up my affairs to leave as I watched the girl lower herself into the infinity pool and gaze through bug-eyed sunglasses over the sea as the drone circled her, filming her, before returning to its master.

The postcard is definitely out, but once drones completely take over the world I do hope they do not take pictures of themselves, but nostalgically reinvent the paper postcard, take lovely and unusual pictures, and send them to each other. By drone, of course.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Baby Farm in the Sky

No one writes about business class travel except business people – Richard Quest (CNN) for example, considers it quite a grunt—speed, efficiency, and a secure computer connection being the main ingredients of a good flight.

Well, roll over business people, there is a more mature crowd moving in. Those of us who have paid top bucks for economy tickets all our working lives and have amassed an Everest of flier miles are taking over. We call ourselves the Hot Rolled Towel Generation.

And we deserve it. Bum knees, rotten eyesight, sore backs, occasional disorientation, and the imperative of sleeping lying flat all medically indicate that we are no longer fit for slum class. Who wants a rather rotund, occasionally drooling, rheumy-eyed old geezer sitting beside them? And the worst: he might even start telling stories about how things used to be—better/worse/different.

Shakespeare, as usual, was right. In his “All the world’s a stage” speech, the last stage of human development circles back to the first, and the old man becomes a baby again. Never has this been truer than on a good 10-hour business class flight.

You are cocooned like a papoose in a plastic cubicle. You are back in a roomy womb. (It is the same idea in coach class, but there it is more like being triplets.)  You are nurtured, cleaned, and looked after.

The impeccably groomed young lady comes and kneels in front of you (just like a kindergarten teacher), addresses you by name, and in a clear voice that you can actually hear assures you that she is your personal slave for the duration of the flight. You can eat and drink what you want, when you want. They give you chocolates and champagne and green tea and then ask if you would like more.

When you lower your mechanical seat into sleeping position you can snore, snort, drool, burp and fart to your heart’s content inside the comforting roar of the jets. Under the light-weight duvet, with your reading light adjusted just-so, you could even be forgiven for sucking your thumb.

Your clothes becomes crinkled, spotty and messy if you have chosen not to change into the complimentary pyjamas. Turbulence can result in a surprising little vomit in the handy vomit bag. You are not scolded, but comforted and protected. Macho is out. Maternal is in.

The washrooms are close-by, smell like roses, and usually empty. The toilet paper is constantly folded into peak ends for easy roll-offs. There is a button to call a cabin crew member in case of washroom emergencies.

Upon landing, you re-enter the cold cruel world. Your time of no-control, no-responsibility is over. You are heartlessly thrown back into the earthly morass of immigration line-ups, taxi swindles, and stultifying heat. You wonder where your next meal is coming from.

Again, you become a player in the Shakespeare monologue as you turn into the (tourist) soldier “full of strange oaths … sudden and quick in quarrel.”

The flight is over.

 

 

 

 

Through the Rösti Looking Glass

Just as the French-speaking Swiss and the German-speaking Swiss have their differing languages, priorities, and cultures so, too, do their mountains.

A few days back, before leaving for a long-planned family wedding in Davos, I paid a rare visit to William, my hairdresser.  He gave me a new hair-style, cut me some bangs, and I was all set.

The Davos church was Roman Catholic with tastefully-placed saints and statues; the pipe organ music flew out of the loft and bounced off the walls; the priest reminded us of the miracle of turning water into wine—the point being that one mustn’t drink alone. I think. The crowd was mostly young, freshly coiffed, clean, and hip.

The bride choked up with emotion as she approached her grinning groom and everyone had a specially-wrapped tissue in which to shed their tears of happiness. I dropped a tear or two, but then came to my senses and realized that bride was far too young, beautiful, and thin to cry over.

The entire wedding party boarded a little funicular up to a charming Art Nouveau hotel and drank champagne and ate canapés to while away the late afternoon.  There was dancing and family films and speeches and too-loud music and a lovely old nonna (grandmother of the bride) who held my hand and showed me her hearing-aid. I lost an earring.

We had a lovely time, and all around us the magic mountains of Davos stood guard—the Jakobshorn, the Pischa, the Strela—cold, quiet, still, sedate and steady.

Returning home mountain-struck, we set out immediately to seek comfort on our local mountain just over the border in France.

Now there are many similarities between the two places.  For example, Shack and Schatzalp both begin with an “s”.  Both the alpine farmhouse and the famous sanatorium were built in exactly the same year. Both face full south and have grand views of the Alps.

The Shack is slightly superior, perhaps, as there is a small television in the chimney corner.

But after that it all goes downhill. A terrible tempest a few days back topped, uprooted, snapped off hundreds of trees in the valley. Crawling through and around two huge pines on the way up to the Shack, we arrived, pants be-holed, arms bloody, tear tracks through the face dirt, to find a perky pine with a bad attitude resting on the roof.

Cables and ropes and winches and chains and chainsaws combined with extraordinary skill, strength, and pithy Swiss-German vocabulary to solve the problem. My wedding hair-do lost its bounce, my new bangs were poking me in the eyeballs, and there was not an earring in sight.

No white wine to be found in the evening, the pink fondue was invented.

Mont Blanc looked down on all of this and smiled. This morning she put on her hat as she always does when bad weather is coming.

But then, she is a different sort of mountain.

 

 

 

 

Ultimate Confusion

In these confusing times when true facts are as rare as hens’ teeth and everything seems to be going backwards, I am suddenly confronted with the blossoming of a new commercial celebration: International Women’s Day.

Begun as International Working Women’s Day in 1917 in Russia, it grew out of various brave demonstrations in many countries led by socialist labour movements striving to stop the degrading exploitation of female factory workers. This got broadened into the suffrage movement which (eventually) worked. Even in Switzerland.

In 1977 the U.N. voted March 8th as the International Day of Women’s Rights. It is still an official national holiday in several ex-communist countries. My favourites are Nepal and China where it is a women-only holiday.

The day has laudable historic credentials, but it is being side-swiped and undermined in many alarming ways.

Yesterday our Swiss daily, Le Temps, put out a special edition “dedicated to women”.  Women associated with the Geneva School of Art and Design put together the paper and posted 52 photos of themselves and other important Swiss ladies. There were laudable interviews and analyses of successful women taking themselves and their roles seriously.

There were accounts of films by women, soccer by women, and (on the recipe page) the astute observation that women really can appreciate the finesse and romanticism of red wines—especially the gentle Swiss pinot noir.

Apart from the date being shifted to the 6th (I cynically attribute this to the fact that Monday is traditionally a “light” news day and so less important than the real day, Wednesday, when something more interesting might actually be happening) the full-page ads give us some very stale—possible rancid—food for thought.

The first is for a top-end Swiss watch. It features the chest of a famous American model in a low black bathing suit foxily biting the thumb of a boxing glove. The watch is diamond-studded and is claimed to have been especially created for dominant women.

The second ad lures us to the tropical island of Mauritius and invites us to live timelessly by buying an exclusive luxurious golfing property. And the third (on the back page) is a spread of three pale and ethereal young women’s faces. It offers a Japanese anti-ageing cream that lifts and firms us into the future.

Prices are not mentioned in this lure of diamonds, paradise villas, and everlasting youth. Women’s wishes, one presumes, are far beyond the crass vulgarity of money.

For the more modest consumer, the local supermarket is offering vaguely funereal floral arrangements (does one buy them for oneself?) and the local drug store has 40% off a Swiss wrinkle reduction cream (would you dare buy some for your mother?)

Sigh. It’s so hard to know how to celebrate properly.

Oh yes. I almost forgot. There was one page of “real” news (the election in the Valais) in Monday’s feminine Le Temps. Both articles were written by a man.