Quiet Desperation

“Live at home like a traveller.” I was not quite sure what Thoreau was on about in Walden until last week a big fat man came to our house in the Geneva countryside. His head was shaved up both sides and his heavily oiled black hair stood up straight. His shoes were pointed patent leather.

The gate was open and he walked right in. He surveyed the premises and declared that the wood trim of the house needed re-doing. Immediately. There were holes and cracks. Horrible things were obviously living there. We were neglectful and shameful owners. The value of the house was going down the toilet.

Fortunately for us, and most exceptionally, he was available for the next couple of weeks. And most coincidentally, he was a master painter with a gung-ho team. The job would be done quickly, neatly, and professionally. Yes. There would be a real paper bill for the tax man. They would use the best quality products. There was no down payment. What could possibly go wrong?

I think we were the victims of circumstance: Boredom, nice weather, the very shocking idea of standing high on a three-tiered ladder applying drippy, sticky product to cobwebby overhead lattes, magnanimously giving work to total strangers, trusting humanity. It all rolled together in a perfect storm of date-roll sweetness.

I mean, the very same thing happened to Eve in the Garden of Eden. At least I had all my clothes on. And the black-eyed man was truly golden-tongued. No amulet will be needed for him to speak to Osiris when he crosses to the afterlife.

He came back with a cousin the next day, and they worked a total of 4 hours. They sanded by hand. They applied a first coat. Unfortunately, the main wooden area—the ceiling over the porch—had not been included in the original estimate. The price would have to be doubled! And then there was the window trim that could not be left like that!

Sigh. Not of contentment. I bargained hard, and he bargained harder. A team of 3 came on the second and last day and finished in about 6 hours. I said hello to the fat man’s two little girls on his telephone. The workers spoke a language among themselves and when I asked what it was, they all stared at me. The fat man gave me a cryptic answer that generations previously, his family had migrated from Northern India. There was silence. No one breathed a word.

As lemonade was served later, he expanded his dialogue by telling me he was extremely religious. I didn’t fall into THAT trap and kept my big mouth shut. He added, “But, Madame, you know that even religious people can be bad.”

They left vowing that they would be back to paint the whole house as soon as possible, and wanted to come to the Shack in the mountains to fix that up as well. Our denial of all future business transactions rolled off their Romani backs like water off a duck.

Oh yes. We did go on a real trip recently – to Gran Canaria. It was windy and cool. The old Santa Catalina Hotel was newly refurbished and very charming. We visited the great volcanic craters and were on the last direct flight back to Geneva.

That week-long trip cost about half what we paid (cash, of course) to the fat man.

To live at home like a traveller is exciting and all, but we can’t afford to do it permanently.

Waiting Rooms

Waiting rooms are not nearly as much fun as they used to be. Back in pre-pandemic times they were places of energy and human interest. Doctors would over-book with abandon, and you’d find yourself cheek by jowl with organized / harassed women phoning in supermarket orders and making arrangements.

The ophthalmologist’s was a very thoughtful place, as most printed matter was banished. Glossy vacation and architectural magazines ruled.  It was there that the old lady from the Valais was heard loudly complaining about the shocking smell of papist fish in the air on a Friday.

At the dentist’s I was treated to the sight of my normally-terrifying high school principal reduced to a trembling wreck as the grandfather clock ticked. I was never scared of him again.

There used to be reading matter—tattered and torn magazines with the crosswords filled in and the recipes ripped out.  If you were lucky, a grubby copy of today’s paper. Sometimes a little heap of free samples—skin creams and tooth whitening brochures. Boxes of paper tissues.

At the emergency room of the nearest clinic, there was a small wall-mounted TV with hyenas chasing, catching and eating a wildebeest. This ran on a 20-minute loop. I think the title was Magnificent Mother Natureobviously some sort of medical in-joke.  We the sickies were always captivated and our problems were reduced.  I’m sure some people, ashamed of their insignificant severed finger(s), even left.

With one thing and another, I have visited quite a few waiting rooms over the past few months, and I shake my head with sadness.

There are the hospital business visits where you fill in forms, sit on every second white plastic chair, get tested or vaccinated, and pay on the spot. (This is very Japanese-style where the waiting-room is arranged with church-pews all facing the same direction. In case of death, this can suddenly turn into a highly emotional public wake.)

There are new, fancy state-of-the-art waiting rooms. At the dermatologist’s there is a huge screen which gives “before” and “after” shots of various skin and wellness procedures. This becomes confusing, as often you cannot tell which is which. The weights around your waist to reduce belly fat, and the dancing sewing-machine-like needles on the face have both resulted in lasting mental damage.

I can confidently report that dentist, gynecologist, and GP waiting rooms are now socially dead. You occupy the room alone due to the well-spaced appointment schedule. Nothing to read. Nothing to watch. No one to listen to. Nothing to be learned. No tubes to squeeze.

So I look back fondly to last month when I found myself in a second-level parking lot in the once-raucous Thai tourist town of Patong. There were crowds of tourists needing their COVID tests.  In the breezy open concrete space there were line-ups, jostling, mistakes, laughter, shouting and confusion. The lady doing the tests was in a hermetically-sealed box and her gloved hands stretched into the voids of our waiting nostrils.

It was magic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Really BAD Case of Cabin Fever

Winter in Canada is not for wimps. This year in Ontario the cold and snow have been particularly vicious.  I have received personal reports of unending digging out driveways, cars being completely snowed in, ingloriously having to walk to work, having to start the car half an hour before you want to go shopping, icy sidewalks, and killer squirrels.

Yesterday the adjective “balmy” modified the day’s high of -6C.

Historically, we all know this. Canadian childhoods were spent battling to schools through snowstorms and farm kids showing up whimpering with frozen-white ears. You were dared to put your tongue on the metal of the frozen water pump in the playground and the top layer of skin ripped right off when you pulled away. Everyone laughed. Grit in a barrel with a shovel to help you get your car up the hills on the country roads. Those seasonal sore red rings around your wrists where mittens stopped and before your coat sleeves began. Emptying clumps of hard-packed snow from inside your galoshes.

Of course, it could all be mitigated by a sunny blue-sky day and the rhinestone twinkle of the snowscape. A toboggan or a pair of skates. You built snow forts. There was always Christmas, Groundhog Day, Valentine’s Day, and finally the almost-release of Easter.

A lot of time was spent indoors and the days were short. At school you memorized the kings of England and the official flowers of the provinces. With scissors, mucilage, construction paper and doilies you made creations of great beauty. The never-ending patterns of snowflakes.

At home you coloured with wax crayons. You melted your plasticine on the hot air holes from the furnace. Sometimes it melted down the chute and the house smelled like the colour brown. You played blocks and dress-up with the little’uns. You caught measles and chickenpox. You broke your elbow sliding down the banister. You watched TV when allowed…there were Santa Claus Parades and Hockey Nights in Canada.

There used to be people. You went to church and sang in choirs and poured hot toffee onto snow in a bowl and had nosebleeds when you got hit on the face with an ice snowball.  You survived.

Fast forward sixty years to the truckers’ hullaballoo in Ottawa and the exciting wintertime mix of radical politics, sedition, nut-cases, anti-vaxxers, maple-leaf flag-capes, and the True North strong and free. It is wintertime, and Cabin Fever is rife. After two years of social isolation, deaths, and rules in general, skating to work along the Rideau Canal is not cutting it.

We are mesmerized and revolted, but we UNDERSTAND. Instead of walking out naked into a blizzard and dying 2 yards from your own front door (a classic symptom of Cabin Fever), blast your horns! You will be fed and watered. People will supply you with gas to keep your engines running.

We are Canadians, and we are wise to the thrills of winter.

 

 

 

 

 

The Magic Palm Tree

Recovering from a bad attack of “upset stomach” (a small Thai restaurant on the Andaman Sea has perhaps forgotten the recipe for bottled-water-ice-cubes over the past couple of tourist-free years), I was lying prone contemplating what I have come to regard as my personal palm tree.

My medical classification was “comfortable misery”. I was frustrated by losing time (to do what, exactly?) and knew it would be unwise to stroll on the endless empty shell-strewn beach away from my friendly little wooden commode. Too exhausted to read, my thoughts somehow drifted to the white snows of Switzerland, to the Schatzalp, to The Magic Mountain.

Thomas Mann’s novel, written almost exactly 100 years ago, features the genial (and healthy) Hans Castorp who goes to visit his cousin in the Berghof Sanatorium above Davos for three weeks. While there, he is found to have symptoms of TB and stays for the next seven years. During that time the patients and their visitors fill Hans in on the current political, cultural, and philosophical state of a muddled Europe.

Along with Hans, we the readers are educated, illuminated, bored and mesmerized by the countess, the Jew-Jesuit-Marxist, the scientists and dozens of other characters that people the 700+ pages. I read the novel about half a century ago and my memory of detail is somewhat fuzzy, but I believe that the gist remains firmly intact. The novel is a statement against bourgeois constipation. Escape can be found through illness (or war). In other words, death is a solution.

Time disappears at the Berghof … much like it should on any good vacation. Hans abandons his pocket watch, and at one point forgets his own age. Time become cyclical rather than linear and the day’s activities are the essential measure of temporal importance. There are the rest cures, the temperature-measuring sessions, and the lectures.  One learns how to swaddle oneself in camel hair blankets to be comfortable on the frigid balcony. The inhabitants carry around miniature copies of their lung x-rays in their wallets to show their colleagues. Hypochondria is rife.

The mountain inhabitants are different from the low-landers. Those living down in the valley are normal healthy people, preoccupied with the uncontrollable events of the quotidian. The Berghof population is “talented” and considered special in their contemplation of and insight into higher concepts. They see things in a bright way and do not follow the rules of the valley. They do not have to wear hats! They are allowed to slam doors! They are discouraged from amorous conquest! (as the expending of calories in sexual energy could be detrimental to their cure.)

And so it is under my palm tree. I arrived healthy and am now recovering with a “cure” of bananas and toast.  I am weary. I have discarded my swatch. I show my QR certificates for all matters of health. I swaddle myself in towels and take rest cures in the shade. I apply lotions. I pay attention to the sunset and the singing of cicadas at dawn and dusk.

Europe is still muddled

The hotel manager has brought an arrangement of flowers to the room with her “brightest wishes.” I think the cure is working.

 

 

 

 

 

A Pair of Christmas Socks

The Swiss relationship with socks is much like its relationship with the world. One of enduring, neutral, pragmatism.

Socks are what you put on your foot between your skin and your shoe. They are wool or cotton. They are black (work) or white (sports). A true Swiss sock is of medium quality and medium price. Of course, there are the packs of 6 pairs that suddenly come off a boat from some far-off place which crowd out your domestic sock drawer and make it impossible to close… but these are anomalies and generally regarded as a nuisance.

The great Swiss sock of old was the hiking sock or the ski sock. These had specific function and purpose as they covered your calf or filled your boot.  They were serious and stalwart socks with the chance of a toe-hole being zero. Much like the Swiss military sock, they would last you a lifetime.

Sadly, there is no sock-hanging tradition on Christmas Eve around here. No misshapen once-familiar sock stuffed with treasures to be discovered at first light on Christmas morning. Here, the candies and nuts are delivered on December 6th in a burlap bag by Saint Nicolas. And when it gets dark on Christmas Eve the magical little Christ Child pops around and puts presents under the Christmas trees. These days there is a confusion of characters and nationalities and names. But socks do not figure in any of this.

As a kid in Canada, socks and Christmas went together like wonder bread and jam. At Christmas you would choose your biggest one to be filled up with hard candies, peanuts, an artificial-looking store-bought apple and a navel orange in the toe. The anticipation almost killed you.

At some point in our childhood Christmas careers, we were supplied with felt cut-out Christmas stockings. They were festive as there were applied Christmassy objects such as candy canes, or candles or Christmas trees stuck to them. Sequins added a twinkling celebratory air. Our names were shear-cut at the top. As the greedy eldest, I remember considering the injustice of it all, as Kathleen, the littlest, had the same-sized sock as I.  These stood stiff and did not bend and bulge to reveal the filling. They were more beautiful, but also less exciting than their predecessors.

In my sock basket, today, I review my sock collection. I realize my favourites were Christmas presents. There are two pairs of library socks and one pair of Rosie the Riveter “We Can Do It” socks. There is a pair of socks with little non-slip buttons on the bottom. And another pair made with fluffy material impregnated with sandalwood for everlasting health. There are one-toed socks from Japan, too uncomfortable to wear, and too beautiful to throw away. I have even come across a forgotten pair of sneaker flamingo socks.

These socks are decades old and do not regularly adorn my feet. My small Swiss collection (cotton, black and white) gets me through most days perfectly well. However, there are some mornings when just a little something extra is required.

As Christmas approaches this year, I find myself wearing my Christmas socks more and more frequently. Nostalgia? Age? A second childhood? A wish to be light of foot and fancy free? A security blanket on each foot? Too much bad news all over the place?

I have already procured (with great expense and difficulty) some un-Swiss socks as Christmas presents – a pair of lime green and black-striped Mickey Mouse socks and two pairs of fake fur socks. I dream of them lighting up the eyes of the recipients and their keeping them safe in their sock drawer for years to come. I know they will remember who sent them, and hope they offer a minute of calm and courage and comfort as a new day begins.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The (Solar Panel) Fools rush in where Angels fear to tread

Sheer dogged determination and pure pig-headedness was the only thing that got us solar panels on our roof. And I am pleased to report they work. The energy that we don’t use on sunny days gets sold to the Geneva Industrial Services Department (the SIG) and they pay us what they can afford (the night-time electricity rate). This has now happened two or three times and I am soon going to have enough money to buy a new pair of shoes.

The installation cost us more than five years of time and about 40,000 Swiss francs. We happily paid more for French-made panels and, most deviously, Chinese ones were installed instead…but that’s another story. I do, by the way, apologize for leaving you all hanging with my blog of July 2, 2018 entitled Geneva Solar Panels (almost) Verboten!

The physical installation happened in the spring of 2019 and a team of nice young men fixed 42 panels on four different roof surfaces. To beautify our installation, the red tiles peeping out around the edges had to be painted with black tar (a condition of permission being granted.)

I realized the amplitude of the embarrassment involved in this story the other evening when long-lost friends were treated to the tale.  And here’s the whole shameful story in a nutshell:

We first applied for cantonal permission to install solar panels in 2015. The request was turned down as all villages in the Geneva countryside are “protected”. That means that inside the village boundaries ugly solar panels are considered an aesthetic eyesore and are simply forbidden unless they are hidden.

To enforce this rule, there is the Geneva Solar Panel Police. They are also called the Department of Monuments. One of the many other rules against solar panels, is that they must NOT be visible from a cantonal road. So we had two strikes against us from the very start—we are just inside the village limits and the busy road out front belongs to the canton.

Our chosen installation company was eager to help us get permission and promised assistance—a word in a local politician’s ear, for example—and waiting for “the time to be right” (i.e., the Swiss vote against any future nuclear power installations). This dragged on for almost two years.

Fed up with lethargy, we took the initiative to formally ask the first of the Geneva Tribunal (Appeals Court) to grant us an exception to the rule. The fee was 750 francs and our home-made “dossier” featured plans and diagrams and our eager production possibilities. Our humble non-historic house was proven to be in a totally discreet location and several pertinent precedents were cited.

On a cold January day, the Geneva Court (a group of eight including a judge) came to the village. They examined the site. They looked from the cantonal road to the roof and were almost all run over by the French frontaliers speeding home from work. They heard the army grenades exploding over in the bird sanctuary, they took note of the location under the approach to Geneva Airport. I was sarcastically asked why on earth I wanted solar panels anyway, as I was obviously a complete waste of time.

They turned down our request.

We sent the dossier out again to the second Geneva Tribunal. We paid another 750 francs. This was considered an act of idiotic throwing money away by almost everyone we knew. The second court traditionally backed up the first. After these two courts, the next step would be the Federal Swiss court which required real lawyers and more money than any honest person could possibly pay.

Not this time, baby. The judge wrote a scathing condemnation of the decision and its administrative errors and omissions. We were repaid our 1,500 francs. We were finally granted permission to install solar panels on our roof.

And so here we are. The 26th climate conference is now over, and deep climate depression is setting in.

Switzerland as a country can do much more about solar energy and should do it with civil grace and common sense. Even a little house in the Geneva countryside can help.

The Monument People should go back to figuring out what a real monument is, and then fighting to the death to defend it. And all the rest of us should become Angels who do NOT fear to tread in the mine-strewn world of Geneva’s solar energy.

 

 

 

 

The Bomb Shelter Revisited

We bought our house in the Geneva countryside sixteen years ago, and all our Swiss friends complimented us on our big and roomy bomb shelter. We use it to store little-used items such as Christmas decorations, antique computers, boxes of old slides, wooden tennis racquets, and decades of income tax returns. A freezer and a beer fridge both hum away happily, and there are still a couple of mystery boxes that haven’t been unpacked.

Starting at the height of the cold war in the 1960s, every private house built had to have its own officially-approved shelter – a thick-walled room with a mysterious contraption in one corner. This legal obligation was phased out about ten years ago.

However, back in October 2010 we were seriously alarmed when an official letter arrived, announcing The Official Bomb Shelter Visit. Suddenly faced with two pages of rules and diagrams (article 28 of the Civil Protection Ordinances) involving the verification and functionality of the air intake system, the anti-explosion valve, the pre-filter, the reducer, the blocking mechanism, the lead rings, the gas filter, and the condensed-water recipient we were flummoxed.

The crank was nowhere to be found. The dog was a prime suspect.

During those long years between inspections, all rubber bits were supposed to have been treated with silicon and the massive armoured door and window should have been kept rust-free. The motor should have been tried out (without filter attached) for at least five minutes every twelve months. The anti-explosion valve should have been cleaned and looked after. Attention should have been paid.

When the big day finally came, the inspectors tried to catch us out and arrived two hours before schedule. They were from the Swiss Civil Protection Force and wearing clean and sharply pressed brown and orange boiler suits. From a clipboard, they handed me a 10-page brochure on “Helpful Bomb Shelter Tips” and my heart sank.

Colleagues had told me that a drink, or even a bottle of wine, might be a friendly gesture to grease the inspection wheels. However, as my inspectors were of obviously non-Swiss cultural origin, this plan was relegated to a last resort.

Down the dusty, dog-haired steps to the basement, my inspectors trotted behind me and I heard a sigh—was it of contentment?—when we got to the massive door and they stepped inside and pulled it shut.

Miraculously, having done nothing, we passed the inspection. As they left the inspectors called out cheerily that they would be back in five years.

As the inspection day trauma gradually faded, retirement and travel and grandchildren happily filled in life’s cracks and the bomb shelter reverted to its friendly functions of storing swim fins and snorkels and mosquito nets and old toys. Until last week.

On November 10th, 2021 an official letter arrived. It cited Article 81 (sic) of the Civil Protection Ordinances and an inspection is imminent.  It stresses that the site has to be prepared, and the elements accessible and “manipulable”.  There are pages of cut-away drawings and a list of checks that should have been carried out every 12 months.

A new element has been introduced: the “emergency escape.”  It has to be functional and I have a horrible feeling that this involves the grill where a 10-ton flower pot is now standing with a huge tree growing inside it.

Off now down to the bomb shelter for a cold glass of “last resort”.  I will let you know how this all pans out.

Note: The original op-ed article, Inspection Day, was published October 22, 2010 in The New York Times (IHT). Le Jour de l’Inspection was published in Le Temps also in October 2010. The French translation by Emmanuel Gehrig.

 

 

A William Tell State of Mind

There are startling similarities between Alberta and Switzerland. There are the mountains—the new Rockies and the old Alps; the scenic vistas with turquoise lakes—Banff and Interlaken; unsettling wildlife—grizzlies (eating campers) and wolves (eating sheep); and, back in the day, trainloads of quiet and moneyed Japanese tourists paying big bucks to soak it all up

There is wealth—oil and gas in Alberta, watches and banks in Switzerland. There are dues to be paid—to Canada and to Europe. And there is an attitude against aristocratic rule, whether it be the 14th-century House of Habsburg or the 21st-century Houses of Parliament. A vocal slice of both populations (Alberta has exactly half of Switzerland’s 8.6 million people) are busy on weekends claiming their rights to individual freedom.

Of course, the William Tell legend raises its apple-coiffed head here. There is no pole with Albrecht Gessler’s hat on it to be bowed to in either Edmonton or Bern, but instead there are provincial and federal rules to be followed. Or not.

The question, of course, is covid19-related. Masks or no masks? Vaccines or no vaccines? Who do we listen to? Who do we believe? Who do we obey? Who do we trust? Who do we bow to?

In both places the vaccination rate has frozen. Today’s data tell me that in Alberta it is at 64.7% and in Switzerland it is 62.5%. In both places there have been financial incentives to persuade the hesitant to do the right thing. It seems that not even money is working.

Metaphoric crossbows abound, and quivers are filled with slotted arrows.

Stuck in this impasse, it is of immense interest that my trusty stringer in Calgary has asked that I aid and advise him in choosing his city’s next mayor. As the election is tomorrow, there’s no time to lose.

I have received the list of 27 candidates (5 have no campaign page) and the choice reflects the citizens current preoccupations – much of it anti-authoritarian and pro-small business. If we kick out the obvious nut-cases (covid shots are implanting microchips in your body as part of an international conspiracy led by Justin Trudeau) and crooks (assault charges, anti-mask agitation and hate crimes) we get to the very heart of doughty civic concerns.:

  • James who proposes to abolish the mayoral title of “Your Worship.”
  • Zaheed who wants to plant fruit trees in the city’s parks so the children can be “nourished while playing.”
  • Virginia whose political neutrality is rock solid: “ …neither left or right, or central for that matter.”
  • Will who wants quicker snow removal in the winter.
  • Ian who proposes that recent university graduates volunteer as inspectors to improve the safety of patios.

We see the Tell themes displayed to perfection … the abolition of authority, healthy food (apples) for the children, total tolerance, practical improvements, and unpaid jobs for university graduates.

The strong man of the mountains would have approved.

 

 

 

 

Shaken Not Stirred

The trip started well. We caught the bus to Geneva Airport and my ticket was magically delivered by SMS. It really helps if you know the number, and then the code for your ride and process them in the correct order.

This was excellent training for present-day Croatia. If you are lucky enough to stay in the Blue Studio in Pula, for example, you have to know the code to the Orange Door. Be careful, as it only opens one unique time over a 24-hour period. Then you have to know the code for the key box beside the Blue Door and the mechanical method of opening it.

If you then manage to extract your miniscule rental car that has been parked in by several other big local cars at the end of the dead-end street, you must know the code to the white-taped key box up at The Monastery where there is a parking lot available. The Monastery can be easily located as it is on the narrow road up the hill to the castle just past the Jupiter Pizzeria.

Once you get the hang of all this, you quickly see that the codes are all already entered as no one ever bothers changing or hiding them.  Most doors and gates are open most of the time, as only robbers and dizzy tourists would be trying to crack or master the friendly and trusting system.

There is a flourishing wine culture here (possibly the reason for all the codes never being erased) and no trip to Croatia is complete without visiting a Heritage Winery. Our most memorable one featured the Rubber Room, and the “heritage” bit was interior décor in 1960s “Italian Style”.  Carpets and wallpaper matched each other in florid geometric design. You couldn’t make out where the floor ended and the wall began. The bed was a four-poster composed of brown plastic chunks that looked like giant M&Ms. Its ceiling contained a curved mirror, so that the visual extravaganza could never be avoided.

It was sort of like being on a ship in the middle of the grape fields, and taking an anti-motion-sickness tablet before stepping into the room was highly recommended.

Their specialty was “very old” wine, which meant that their “burgundies” (the ones that were “ready”) were about 15 years old and had turned into brown sludge. Instead of trying to decant them, a waiter told us that the bottle must be shaken to attain full taste and body.  He was not taking no for an answer, and upon our expressing shock and horror we were shunned in the dining room as oenological philistines.

But, ah, Croatia is a lovely place. The dolphin boats go out at sunset and there is always a fresh fish for supper. There are cash machines and coffee shops and ice cream cones at every corner. The sun shines and the water sparkles.

A philosopher-waiter reminds you that COVID19 is bad, but not as bad as war.

Greetings from Opatija.

 

 

 

 

The Horse in the Livingroom

We were just drying out from the great European rains of July and all the doors were open and the zephyrs blowing through the old French farmhouse.  I had located a three-day old international newspaper (red-hot item here in the slow-moving mountains) and was deliciously settling down to sharpen my wits around nefarious world affairs concerning COVID19, the Taliban and people shooting themselves into space, when there was a truthful-sounding clarion call from the upstairs: “There’s a real horse in the house!”

Now, over the past decades, we have had many unwelcome things showing up in the Shack. There were the burglars (rechargeable batteries and cat food), the vandals (all glass shattered except mirrors), a 10-ton pine tree, lightning, an owl, dormice, hunting dogs, a religious nutcase and the Dame de Versailles. But a horse?

The one actually inside was white and brown and had three friends outside politely hiding behind the forsythia bush.

Now, to put it mildly, I am not a horsewoman. I am the opposite—a horse-sceptic—due to a series of childhood horse-traumas. The first I recall must have happened when I was about 3 or 4. My father, newly arrived from England, worked on farm with racing horses. According to my nightmares, I was put on the automatic feeder belt along with hay and other goodies and the adults thought I was a cutie-pie and I thought I was going to be gobbled up by the huge horse monsters.

I have feared them and their great yellow choppers ever since.

This was followed by southern Ontario birthday parties which, as an extraordinary treat, sometimes featured pony rides. I returned blinded and humiliated with allergies and usually had to go home without any cake.

Then there was the terrible story of Black Beauty that forced me to feel sentimental anguish for animals I loathed.

Fortunately, the Shack horses agreed to being treated like cows (with which we are familiar). A cow stick and strange Swiss cow-noises got them going down the mountainside towards civilisation.  They did look confused, knowing that horses should be lead with calm dignity, rather than being driven with air-flailing batons. Reluctantly, they trudged down, one putting a big fat pudding foot through a board in the lower bridge.

Hitting a spot of rich pastureland they stopped in their tracks and began to feast. They calmly rolled their big gloopy horse eyes at us and our silly sticks and didn’t move an inch. Chewing became the centre of their lives.

Absent owners were localized (milking goats up another mountain), neighbours in the hamlet had their suppers disturbed and the local fire department called out.

Obviously used to such incidents, they had a pair of bridles and a bucket of horse treats. We retired, older, but wiser, back up the mountain. Unlike the burglar, though, the horses had left us a treat. A big pile of rich horse poop has been shared between the apples trees.