The Tourist and the Gendarme

Being a successful tourist these days requires perseverance, courage, imagination, and quite a bit of luck. Adventures like getting permanently lost, being kidnapped, finding yourself stranded at an airport, being put in quarantine or ending up in jail do not count as success.

To be a successful tourist you have to make it back home.

Here in the western Geneva countryside we are geographically constrained. In these days of the COVID pandemic, there are both international boundaries and cantonal boundaries with different rules popping up like fall mushrooms. And they can be poisonous.

For example, we THINK you can go to France if you have an “attestation” printed out, signed and dated. You can only do the things that are mentioned on the form. Shopping for basic provisions, helping people, going to work, to the doctor’s, to get the kids from school are all allowed. Exercise can be taken within a kilometre of where you live. It’s not mentioned, but we think you’re supposed to be French. (Things that are NOT mentioned are NOT allowed.)

And then there are the different rules in Geneva and the next canton, Vaud. In Lausanne, for example, you can go to a hairdresser or barber. Here in Geneva the salons have all been shut. However, there is so much business in Vaud, that Geneva hairdressers are going there (with all their clients) to help out.

You cannot go to the IKEA in Geneva as it sells totally non-essential goods and so has been shut. However, you can drive about 50 km to the west and go to the one in Aubonne.

Christmas decorations are considered non-essential and so our local Migros has the centre of its floor-space (a mountain of Chinese Santas) sealed in plastic wrap while the shoppers bustle around the newly created impediment.

Even geographic placement becomes confusing. For instance, as a tourist (either Swiss or French, we think) you are allowed to drive around all you want in the Swiss Jura looking for a spot of sunshine above the clouds. Now who ever knew that the Swiss Vallée de Joux turns into the French Vallée de Joux? Where, suddenly, you are breaking the law driving your car and looking out of the window.

If you make the obvious next-step mistake of turning off the road into a Scenic View Parking Lot you can be nabbed by the French Gendarmes as the activity of stopping and looking is not mentioned on the “attestation”. Inadvertently driving past, we saw this take place and it resulted in major psychological trauma. We are not used to being criminals.

We did make it home on Friday. Coming over the border at CERN (not a customs man, or police SWAT team, or health inspector, or prison guard, or gendarme in sight) it was with the relief of arriving back from the far ends of earth.

So, be warned: tourism is taboo in France. But remember, being a tourist is mostly in your head

The Inspection Lady

The ghost of last week’s electrical inspection lady is still lingering, and I feel guilty every time I want to turn on my set of plastic pink flamingo dining room lights to give a certain cheerful ambiance in these dark and dreary days.

She came to help us save energy, as we are now proud suppliers to the cantonal hydro and water company – the SIG.  We produce energy from the sun using our new solar panels–for example, the device you’re reading this on might be partially powered by me—and anything we don’t use is bought by them (very cheap). Whenever we need energy (flamingo lights) and the sun is not shining (today) we buy some energy back (very expensive).  She came to help us in this process.

She changed tap filters with flair, adding “brise jet” bubbles to the water so we use less. Frequent toilet flushing is a no-no. All electronic household machines should be immediately changed to the new AAAA++++ category. She suggested gluing insulating panels to the ceiling of the basement. She didn’t say anything about the bomb shelter and flabbergasted silence met the dirt-floored wine cellar. She suggested hanging an anti-cold curtain going down the basement steps. She suggested buying an electric car to be able to charge its battery. She suggested replacing all doors and windows and blinds, and mentioned that adding an extra layer of insulation to the walls of the entire house would also help.

She finally suggested changing the whole front north-east wall and sent a 22-page report.

She also really didn’t like the reading light in the living room, and so this problem is what we have focused on. A new lightbulb has been ordered from Amazon which does not deliver most of its items to Switzerland. This sort of purchase involves going to ”tabac” kiosk in a French village north of the Swiss border to send back mistaken-goods packages, and going to a post office in a French town south of the border to retrieve possibly correct-goods packages. As you can only do this if you have a French return address, an unsuspecting ex-colleague is also involved in all the to-ing and fro-ing.

Yesterday was a return parcel day (chain saw blades to be exact) and tomorrow is pick-up day (new bulb) and so small touristic side-excursions are sometimes involved.

Yesterday there was a visit to the source of the Allondon River which comes out of a hole at the foot of the Jura and runs down into the Rhone River in the Geneva countryside. There were picnic tables in delightful clearings, and picturesque moss-covered ruins of old mills that used to produce hemp rope. Disused water channels and stone walls all attested to the use of water energy centuries ago.

The inspection lady gave us presents as she left – some dubious light bulbs and two thermometers. They are all safely stored in the kitchen drawer.

 

On the Party Plane to Greece

There is nothing sexy about the flight from Geneva to Zakynthos. Rather the opposite, as a matter of fact, as the screaming, sneezing, snuffling toddlers at the back of the plane are enough to put one right off.

After the shock of the almost completely empty Geneva airport (where only the smoking areas were jammed chock-a-block full), it is a wondrous scenic ride as you majestically pass over the Alps into the flat Po valley of Italy and down the coast of Croatia to the Ionian Sea.

The passengers are youngsters with buzzed hair (men) and casual top-knots (women).  Everyone sports bare limbs and tattoos. To pass the time, you count the moles on the head in front of you. His companion lifted her mask frequently in order to bite her fingernails. Nerves are on edge as the pilot tells you NOT to turn on the over-head air-blower and that masks must be worn at all times EXCEPT when the emergency oxygen masks pop out.

Most passengers sport ear buds and with blank eyes make small vibrational movements. They are already dancing in their heads.

At least with the 150-minute ride, you do reach a real destination, unlike the planes that are flying in circles these days. (The Quantas “flights to nowhere” are selling like hotcakes.)

Going to Zakynthos is going back in time. Back to the ‘50’s perhaps …. and simple excitement abounds.

Our hosts warn us immediately about the shooting around the house every morning. These are the fall hunters whose sport is to dress in camouflage gear and blast shot in the direction of small birds. Hosts are quite sure that they never hit any of them (as no bodies have been found), but it is quite dangerous and going for a swim or to collect figs from the fig tree is best left until they have run out of ammunition.

There were old-fashioned visit-the-kitchen restaurants, a swim on a turtle-nesting beach, delightful retsina, ruby-red tomatoes, bricks of feta, an ice cream parlour, and souvenir shopping.

Then there was the boxy airplane that flew low over us on the road and disappeared into the sea. This it turned out, was Canadair fire-fighter as there was a blaze in the dry country to the north.

The bush fire was definitely doused by Cyclone Ianos that landed and stuck for a few wind-whipped days. There was no electricity, no water, and, most importantly, no coffee. It was quite a relief for the birds, however, as the hunters all disappeared and dozens of swallows came to our balcony to discuss affairs and dry off.

The airport re-opened and we regained our seats amongst the weary strong-lunged toddlers. My prized souvenir had been confiscated of course, as the customs man, obviously a hunter in his spare time, had taken away my little olive-wood rolling pin.

I suspect marital problems; or, more optimistically, perhaps it was the wife’s birthday?

 

 

In Praise of See-Through Bags

Driving along in an automobile at the Swiss-French border where the cable-car comes down from the Salève (the mountain backdrop to Geneva) I was treated to a blink-of-an-eye vision that transported me back to pre-COVID19, pre-grandchildren, pre-job, pre-motherhood, almost pre-adult days.

Trudging from the Swiss border bus stop was a young couple, a man and a woman, who each pulled a small wheeled suitcase. Bags and other accoutrements were slung around their necks. They wore light summer clothes, hats, sunglasses and sandals. Their attitude was of pleasant purpose as they strode towards the “teleferique”.

In her free hand, the woman carried a big transparent bag full of fat carmine-red tomatoes.  They were off to have a picnic to the top of the Salève. They were going to fill their minds and spirits with the twin bird’s-eye views of the Lake of Geneva on one side and Mont Blanc on the other. They were going to eat the tomatoes!

And it was those tomatoes that punched me backwards into summers past: Catching the ferry out of Piraeus to the Greek island of Samos; hiking through the parched landscape of Göreme in Turkey; climbing up the jungle-draped ruins of Guatemala; canoeing to One Bear Island in Algonquin Park.

The lady had a food bag.

Most of my travelling career has involved food bags of one sort of another. On Geneva train trips down to southern Italy there was the exciting combination of equally-important daughter, dog, husband and food bag. There were tins and openers and wine bottles. There were Cornish pasties and meat balls and cucumbers. There was the can of coke that accidentally drenched a nun in a train compartment while pulling out of Rome (No. She did not turn the other cheek, but left in a drippy, sticky huff.)

There were Swiss army knives and rolls of toilet paper and bread and chocolate bars. There were matches and raw potatoes and tortillas and squished fruit. There was a grapefruit that lasted an entire trip.  There was cheese, kirsch in a baby-food jar, and an earthenware pot and a fondue in the snow. There was a 30-franc apple and a bag of seaweed crackers.

Having a food bag is almost as good as having a camper van. It represents independence and commercial freedom. A food bag gives your life gravitas; you are dependent on no one. As you eat your sandwich beside the hiking trail or the ski run, you are wished “bon appetit”. You have risen beyond the world of tacky restaurants and mundane tables and chairs. You are lightened and liberated and filled with untold potential.

So, grab a food bag and head off. Pick a clear day and view-rich destination. Take some buns and sausages with chocolate cookies for dessert. If possible communicate your intent to others by packing it all in a transparent bag.

And don’t forget the mustard

 

 

Helpful Hints on How to Lock Down Your House

The mistake most people make is thinking that the house needs you there to look after it. This is not the case. A normally-constituted house or apartment can more or less look after itself–except for those rare events such as being hit by lightning,  the pipes freezing and bursting, or having a tree go through it or fall on top of it. For these extreme, dramatic events, it is important that you are there. Or not.

As weather and seismic activity are entirely beyond your control, you must never ever worry about them. Burglaries are also an ever-present mental danger and occasionally come true. They can be reduced by normal precautions such as locking all doors and windows.

Leaving is always hard to do, but there are a few simple, subtle tricks that can help to sooth your anguish, reduce your anxiety, and fool the burglar.

  1. To clean or not to clean. I personally feel that a house feels better if it is not too clean. If you are to be away for a while, you will be surprised at all the help that spiders can bring. They kill a huge assortment of flies, bugs and other spiders, so there is no point in vacuuming for at least 3 weeks before your intended trip.
  2. Never wash your windows just before leaving. This can lead to unpleasant surprises upon return which include smelly dead birds lying around that have flown into the sudden emptiness, or even broken panes of glass where someone has seen something inside worth stealing. Nor should windows be too filthy as this makes the place look abandoned and derelict. I would suggest washing windows about 6 months before your planned departure.
  3. A kitchen, especially, should look lived-in. Remember to take out the garbage, and to get rid of all potatoes, but leave dishes on the draining board, and a couple of coffee cups on the counter. Put the kitchen light and the radio on and place half a bottle of wine on the table.
  4. Leave certain things lying around outside. Along with a parked car (with licence plates) I find old plastic children’s’ toys lying around on the driveway give an impression of un-Swiss un-tidiness and possible household impoverishment. Muddy old boots in front of the door and a collection of animal skulls found in the woods also provide a superstitious, lugubrious air. Top this up with a half-filled dog bowl and leash and collar chains hanging beside the front door and the illusion of red-necked squalor is quite complete and utterly unappealing to any self-respecting Swiss burglar.

Yes, I know. There is the mail and the thousands of fliers that get pushed through the letter box, and to keep this mess to a minimum, you need a trustworthy and accommodating neighbour.

So grab your masks and your hand sanitizer and take a little trip to Away. Try not to worry, and Bon Voyage!

 

 

 

A Short Trip to Burgundy — Time Going Backwards

Back in the recent past, a trip used to mean choosing a destination anywhere in the world. The fat UNESCO “bible” was consulted so none of Earth’s best sites would be inadvertently overlooked.

Airlines were smoothly contacted to buy tickets using pretend money called “Miles”. Hotels of charm, grace or geographic expedience were booked simply and easily through booking sites with best prices guaranteed. Afterwards, perhaps an on-line photo-book was made to fix memories as one palm tree does resemble another.

The major dilemmas were hand luggage or hold? Rent a car? or trust to public transport?  Is there an Iron Man competition somewhere to be avoided?

All that has come to a COVID19 end.

Growing up in 1960s Canada, vacations in our house were momentous, Rockwellian events:

  • the black Ford Comet
  • the handmade wooden car top carrier (with a handy hole for the tent poles to protrude)
  • the green canvas tent (with porch)
  • the Coleman stove
  • the melted-ice-cube cooler, nylon sleeping bags and rubber air mattresses.

The parents were in the front, often with a baby on the lap of my mother who did not drive. Instead, she spent her days drying cotton diapers out of the little corner triangle window.

On the back vinyl bench, hot and slippery, were the unseatbelted three or four of us. Parents’ good Sunday clothes were hung in plastic bags on hangers on a hook above the windows. Our back-seat vision was limited.

We drove to the west coast: the Rockies, Jesus Saves (green stamps!). We drove to the east coast: the high tides of the Bay of Fundy and the Magnetic Hill. We drove to Quebec to spend the summer at a colleague minister’s house in a paper-mill town that was by the sea.

We sat in sticky unairconditioned cars for hours on end as our father covered hundreds of miles a day. In the evenings we pitched the heavy, damp tent at a camp-site with smelly quicklime toilets and went for a swim in a freezing cold lake. We rarely stayed more than one night, and there was usually hot cream-of-wheat for breakfast. It was tedious, uncomfortable and exciting all at the same time.

Our recent weekend trip to Burgundy was not of the same epic magnitude, of course, but it did set the same tone. There was the natural wonder of the stupendous underground caverns of Vallorbe and the Cistercian cultural wonder of the Abbey and Forge of Fontenay.

We did not camp, but booked rooms at a small chateau and an old water mill. Breakfasts were croissants and cheese and fruit. There were no kids in the back seat, but there was a 60s feel to the trip: Long stretches of small rural roads with endless cows and rolls of hay; eating half a sandwich for lunch at a roadside picnic table.

It was quite lovely to go forward to the past. Not a plane, not a taxi, not a line-up in sight.

 

 

The Problem with Flags and Statues

I know exactly where there is a Confederate flag on public display just over the border in France. It is nailed to the wall of a seedy bar/restaurant that changes ownership regularly. The establishment is at a crossroads of two mountain valleys and the site was once of vital important to the Dukes of Savoy in the 15th century.

It is now important to almost no one. The pub sports a perpetually “open” sign and is usually closed.

The flag is a relatively recent addition. Decades ago, before they got the flag, the place was a rowdy truck stop where you could get a not-bad 3-course hot meal and a jug of red wine for 25 French francs.  You sat with your back against the wall, and it was the closest thing I’ve seen in Europe to a Montana Saturday-night fist-fighting bar.

These days, there is a huge Harley-Davidson motorcycle gathering in the valley every summer, and the large Confederate flag seems to serve as an enticing element to try to attract the wild spirits of the grey-pony-tailed French motards to come in and drink a can of pop.

I suppose it’s a really bad thing, but I’m also pretty sure that everyone around here thinks it’s just another piece of foreign (American) junk cluttering up the countryside and of little real relevance. I mean, we have much more important things to worry about, such as getting the speed limit permanently back up to 90 kph on those steep and windy mountain roads.

And I don’t think anyone has Facebooked it and turned it into a galvanizing political issue as has happened in my sister’s town in southern Ontario.

In case you’ve missed all the drama, Stratford, Ontario, home of the Shakespeare Festival, has been called out for having red-necked racist elements lurking in it, as an actor (they’re not busy working as usual because of COVID19 this season) photographed and posted on social media a Confederate flag on display in someone’s front window.

Displaying flags or symbols is not against the law in Canada, but can be rather outrageous, to say the least. Canadians, by the way, LOVE their national flag, and it is displayed loudly and proudly all over the place. I can only conclude that it must be an American who lives behind the offending Confederate window display. He/she might even have a Harley—or at least wish for one–and aspire to attending the next H.O.G. Rally in the French Alps.

Of course, the overwhelmingly liberal and culturally-intellectual population of Stratford is appalled at being painted racist pigs for the whole world to see, and the last I heard my sister was organizing a demonstration to push over the head of Shakespeare in the Shakespeare Gardens in protest.

Without the magical distraction of the theatre this year, everyone has time on their hands to get into trouble. Falstaff would love it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

You Don’t Light a Candle from the Bottom

One good thing about the COVID19 situation is that the world comes to you if you wait long enough here in the Geneva countryside. Well, some of it does. There are a few things recently that have come all the way from China, only to have been delivered to the wrong people, but that’s a whole other story.

For example, there are the birds: Black kites, to be exact. They come from Senegal and are normally migratory. However, a canny butcher in a neighbouring village scatters his lawn with meat scraps every morning. Word has got out, and the lazy birds no longer continue their migration to the beaches and garbage dumps of the North Sea, but stop right here for their tasty-treat summer vacation. They can be seen wheeling about the sky in a huge flock after their daily brunch. They all fly back to Africa in October, fat and happy, and spend their winter dreaming of next year’s Swiss holidays.

Then there was the surprise visit of the roof painter. He was an integral element in the solar panel installation saga, as the Geneva Department of Monuments insisted that every square inch of our roof be completely covered by the panels to avoid unsightly orange tile areas sticking out around the edges. (They had obviously been talking to the kites, as no one else could possibly be disturbed by what is necessarily an eagle-eyed view.) He had brought a picnic with him, and spent the day both on and off the ladder. We talked of grandchildren and chased away the wasps.

The roof is now a homogeneous shiny black and looks sharply Japanese.

I have been at home for all annual services – the water softening man (from Java) was a particular pleasure. He was charmingly polite and masked and shoe-covered. He admired a piece of ikat weaving and asked its provenance. His grandmother used to weave.

And the very best was the normally elusive chimney sweep. He started as usual, putting a note in the letter box stating a date and a day that did not match. This was followed by his showing up a week early. I expressed surprise and Swiss wifely concern that the fireplace was not cleaned out ready for him.

At the end of his visit I was presented with a box of matches and fire starters, and a small lecture.  He asked if I light fires from the bottom, and when I answered in the affirmative, was told that this was wrong and there was a new method: You place your big logs at the bottom, and on top of them you place the little hand-made fire starter bundles. One match and your fire magically starts and somehow the logs underneath catch and the fire is smokeless and we save the planet.

I asked if there were going to be random police checks on this new technique, and he said he didn’t think so.

 

 

Upon Reopening the Construction Site Across the Road

It has been a peaceful month.

The army no longer drives past in convoy to its shooting practice in the bird sanctuary down by the Laire River. Wild flowers are growing on the bullet-riddled dirt mound backstops.

Airplanes no longer fill the approach path to the airport, instead birds fly the sky – the swallows and hawks; and gather in the garden – the sparrows and the redstarts. The cat sleeps with his paws over his ears.

The morning and evening commuters from France have been stopped in their careening work-late and home-eager tracks, as huge concrete blocks have been placed to reinforce the border barrier. Someone has stolen the Swiss federal government Keep Out! sign.

There have been no car horns or roars of rage. No near-misses on the way to the recycling bins over the road.

The grandchildren stay at home, and grandparent duties and pleasures have all been suspended. Pictures of growth and haircuts fill us with longing and wonder.

There have been many glorious walks, observing the new-born spring flowers sprouting cheek by jowl with empty energy drink tins and toilet paper mounds. Little nearly-dry rivers have been turned into Riviera-style bathing spas on hot days, with children and parents and parasols and water wings. There was one extremely exciting spotting of a well-tanned roly-poly fat man sporting nothing but a small sunhat. He was politely giving directions to a hiker lady with a map.

The garden has received extreme attention. Instead of the annual Swiss-imperative geraniums, wild flower seeds have been planted and have popped up hopefully into the clean and quiet air. Mother Nature has been relegated to a couple of nettle-filled, goldenrod-infested spots. Henrietta, the hedgehog, has not been seen so far. Perhaps she is sleeping in this year.

The village shop lets in only four hand-sanitized customers at a time, so you feel safe and comfortable as you eagerly search for what’s new in stock. They also bake bread and, amazingly, have maple syrup, peanut butter, and cranberry sauce. Meat comes and goes and the ice cream shelf is almost empty; but this morning a shipment of fresh asparagus had arrived from Italy.

You walk home with your basket full and feel as satisfied as a hunter coming home with a wild boar over your shoulders.

But a huge crack has just appeared in our noiseless new normal.

For the past few weeks, the construction site over the road (another apartment building in the Swiss countryside) has been shut down and the giant yellow crane has become our personal weather vane swinging silently and freely in the wind.

This morning’s racket began with the once-familiar roar of dump-truck emptying a load of gravel. Then there were more. Cement mixers have arrived on the scene. There was a scuffle at the bedroom window to get a glimpse of the action starting back up.

The crane now swings with purpose and precision as the crane man is back at work.

 

Treasure Hunting at Home

Well, as the Parisians run away to the Côte d’Azur, the Milanese take off to Tuscany, Norwegians scramble to their lake-side cottages (and then home again), and even the Queen of England has decamped to Windsor, all the rest of us are staying put.

In Switzerland, federal reasonableness prevails, and the lock-down against COVID-19 is filled with contradictions and complications – much like a Swiss watch. It is neither simple nor straightforward. Holding our breath, and not touching anything, we can go for a quick shop, visit a doctor (if we can find one), buy gas, go for a drive, or take a walk in the woods.

We are encouraged to wash our hands with soap while singing “Happy Birthday” in our heads (it takes 20 seconds.) The trains and buses are running, and hotels are open. I think we are discouraged from using both facilities. The postman delivers the papers and bills as usual.

However, we must not congregate or socialise. Restaurants are closed. The occasional halloo over the bamboo thicket that separates us from the neighbours is about as gregarious as we can get.

Deprived of our chalets and shacks in the French Alps, we survive from meal to meal, wash our hands and clothes more often than usual, and eagerly answer the telephone as it seems that all the annoying call-centres have been abandoned. This means that the people at the other end of the line are medical secretaries cheerily announcing that they are closed and are eager to postpone the arranged colonoscopy or dental interventions.

We graciously agree.

The younger family members keep in touch, pleasantly offering shocking stories of friends stuck in Nepal or in quarantine in Ecuador. We hear from Canadian snow-birds in Mexico drinking “quarantinis” by the ocean and waiting for the last flight out. There are relatives who swear by watching non-stop TV, and friends who bemoan the pitfalls of distance teaching.

I, myself, have put on my new Sri Lanka lucky earrings, and taken up foraging in the safety of my own home.  I have barely scratched the surface, and already see that it is offering a bounteous harvest of useful items.

Hand sanitizer has been bought before most trips over the decades, not used, and brought back–Naples during a garbage strike, or Namibia where there is no water. All over the house I have come across little blue bottles, most of which are satisfactorily full.

Then there is the bar of super soap from Rhodes. It was bought a few years back at a sad roadside market at the top of a scraggy piney-forest mountain. The soap is brown and totally unappealing. Made of pine tar, it has both anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties. Perfect.

The jackpot so far is a jumbo box of surgical face masks bought some years back for a cold-riddled trip to Japan.

So stay at home and take a look in the kitchen drawer—you know THAT one—and find a domestic diamond or two of your own.