Wrecking the Rentals

It is never our fault when our rental car gets damaged. Often it has to do with the indigenous population who, through sheer ignorance, lack of education and cultural isolation, do not speak our language. Plus, they are often driving on the wrong side of the road.

The shocking local terrain is also to blame. Inviting dotted lines on maps should really be closed to normal traffic, and the little plastic tapes attached to flimsy poles to discourage road use should be replaced with something more substantial.

Years back, driving a rental over the Beartooth Mountain Pass into Yellowstone Park the tearing and scraping noises coming from underneath the car as we rode through the potholes were most disheartening.

Then there was the afternoon on a short-cut down from the top of a beautiful mountain lookout in Corfu. The road was simply too narrow and the razor-sharp gorse bushes scratched and etched huge cuts into rental’s originally glittering paintwork.  We passed the burned out shell of a car (a rental?) about half way down.

And I will only talk about the Hokkaido disaster with the utmost reluctance…

In Japan, they refuse to rent their rentals to foreigners. They are entirely right. However, a morning’s perseverance in Otaru got us a miniscule little car about the same size and with the same technical skills as a Japanese Toto Washlet toilet.

We squeezed ourselves in and with the engine making a high-pitched buzzing noise, drove a couple of hours to a tourist site where the earth’s crust was about half-an-inch thick. There were crooked buildings, broken roads, and bridges going nowhere. Fumaroles were going off left and right. Your shoes got hot and started melting. It was all very exhilarating.

We were so excited that we almost missed the turn off, and, pulling a sharp left, touched the curb. The tire, which was about the size and strength of an aluminium disposable pie plate, exploded.

There was a saucer-sized spare wheel, but no jack. As I was making my way back across a field with a rock to place under the car a nice man slowed down and offered us his “Jakko”. Blood, sweat, tears, and a visit to Doctor Drive got us out of that particularly hot and sticky situation.

Recently, rental companies are getting both smart and lazy. Why waste a perfectly good tire as a spare? In our last rental in Rhodes a couple of weeks back, there was just a can of foam goop to squirt into your flat tire (which we did).

And Canada has taken things to an entirely ethereal level. While adjusting the rear-view mirror in a Chevy rental in September, a miniscule red button inadvertently got pushed. Five minutes later, a disembodied voice invited us to share our problem.  I instinctively played dead, but my sister gamely piped up and informed the air inside the car that we were all just fine.

And so, we drove on.

 

 

 

Where has all the Butter Gone?

Well, at the local supermarket in France two days ago, there was no butter on the butter shelf. I even checked twice, as I could not make my brain believe in the big black butter hole.

Figuring that the delivery truck had had an accident (it HAS been unseasonably warm lately up in the mountains) we were reduced to buying the very last package—a thin sliver of salty (loser) butter.

Fortunately, we always travel with a brick of Swiss cooking butter in the trusty blue Cool Box, so made it through supper to the news where we were officially (French government TV) enlightened as to the butter crisis: It was explained that a new scientific paper had just been published and butter was being extolled as the latest health food. Cholesterol was suddenly GOOD for you! The French population had gone wild, and butter was flying off the shelves!

Now, our friends and neighbours in the Haute Savoy are no wimps. Their idea of a jolly good holiday is going bear hunting in Canada. Their summertime dream job is logging an entire mountainside and installing a new ski lift. Who had known that they had been so petrified of butter?

We happily settled down to digest this latest food fad and vowed to eat as much butter as possible before it was suddenly bad for us again.

Yesterday, though, there came a sad piece of breaking news on the butter front. The family arrived and they, too, had had a supermarket butter shock. Their Swiss-based research had led to the political/economic explanation that industrial butter had suddenly risen in price, and supermarket butter was now cheaper, and so every baker and cake-maker in France was now super-market shopping for the raw products for their buttery treats.

Every morning, they sweep the supermarket shelves empty at 8 a.m., and after that, there is nothing left for the rest of us except the occasional tub of omega-rich fish-oil spread.

Both stories were augmented by the fact that France now depends entirely upon its local dairy  production and the great international butter mountains of old have been melted by zillions of Chinese people who now want butter to put on their bread as they are no longer happy with their little iron bowls of boiled rice.

It certainly is true that there used to be cartons and cartons of very cheap and good New Zealand and Australian butter piled up in the supermarkets underselling the more exotic French regional butter brands.

Back at the shop this morning, and there was a new development. A typed sign flapping forlornly in front of the butter hole explained that there was a national butter shortage.

It did not explain the problem, but at least had the grace not to blame the scientists, the bakers or the Chinese.

 

 

The Mystery of the Money in the (Geneva) Toilet Bowls

Well, the story of an estimated 100,000 euros worth of 500-euro notes (real ones) found plugging up the toilets of some down-town restaurants (and a bank—who knew that banks had human toilets?) keeps floating to the surface.

The incident happened at the beginning of the summer tourist season. Traditionally the time of year when stinking-rich tourists come to town to enjoy the fabulous hotels on the lake shore and go diamond and watch-shopping, cash is the essential ingredient for these discreet transactions.

It is not a crime in Switzerland to destroy currency, and a moderate amount of appropriate paper is also suitable for toilet bowls.  However, the affair of the scissored-up euros found littering and blocking some public conveniences seems inexplicable.

The toilets had to be dismantled and the pulpy evidence is now in thick plastic bags under lock and key one assumes. Obviously, the police, lacking experience and imagination, need some help with their investigations.

First of all, everyone knows that a 500-euro note is just about worthless. You cannot change it anywhere. Pubs, ice-cream trucks, the chestnut man, supermarkets, bus drivers, flower ladies, banks (even if you have an account) will not change them into either lesser denominations or exchange them for francs.

Then there is the bad attitude of bank employees. In India, for example, during the winter’s cash crisis, I had taken, as advised, crisp new American $100-bills as back-up. After standing in a Pondicherry bank line-up for hours, I was told that these could not be changed into rupees as I did not have an account there, and I could never ever possibly get one.

The same scenario occurred last month in Canada when I tried to change a few of those very same bills into Canadian dollars. There I even got a moral lecture on how, as a traveller, one must arm oneself with the currency of the country (as she, the savvy teller, would). If not, then tough luck to you, lady-probably-American-tourist!

So, still smarting from these instances of financial humiliation, here is what I believe happened on that fateful day in Geneva in June.

Some nice lady took 100,000 euros out of her safety-deposit box to go buy her grand-daughter a little souvenir Swiss watch with small tasteful diamonds. On the way out of the bank she stopped at a teller to ask ever so politely to have the money in Swiss francs, please.

She was told no.

So, to improve her mood, she went to the ladies loo and chopped up enough euros with her nail scissors to block the toilet.

Feeling a little peckish, she then visited three small bistros close by and each one refused her 500-euro notes. In each one she asked for the washroom, got out the scissors and worked her mischief.

There is no point, after all, in being stinking rich if you can’t raise a stink when necessary.

 

 

 

 

Forget all your Troubles, Forget all your Cares, and go Downtown (Geneva)

Living in the Geneva countryside, it is possible to ignore the bright lights of Geneva for great swaths of time. With our village corner store, the farmer’s barn, the not-so-distant suburban malls, and the trusty postman everything is within comfortable reach. Even last Christmas I seem to recall ordering thoughtful gifts on-line and buying the in-laws pots of the local honey.

Anyway, yesterday afternoon I was surprised and delighted to find myself walking along the Rue du Rhone past the three old ports of Geneva—Longemalle,  Molard, and Fusterie. Back in the day, Geneva was commercially and defensively all a-bustle situated as it was at the end of its working / fighting lake.

Well, to tell the truth, I wasn’t really that delighted. The last time I had parked in Plainpalais, you could stamp your parking ticket and get a free TPG transport hour. I looked everywhere, but it seems that this courtesy has disappeared. Where the machine once stood, there is just a plastic map on the wall with chicken-scratchings too miniscule to decipher.

So I walked all the way to Rive.

I am pleased to report that many commercial establishments are hearteningly the same as ever—the stationery shop, the pharmacy from 1680, the great Molard butcher’s, the old family chocolate shops, the big toy store. Even the cigar shop (with you since 1911) is still managing to keep the flame alight and the ashes dropping.

The bankers, in their shiny suits and brilliantine hair, strolling briskly in the sunshine with their rolled umbrellas were also familiar. As they have mostly been replaced by CrontoSigns, they are, perhaps, a little flashier and more numerous than before.

I met a beggar with an outsized plastic bag who asked for my help to keep living on the street as, he explained, it’s very expensive in Geneva. Then there was a very short unmusical musician strumming a broken guitar and making a moaning sound.

And finally I was stopped at a charity stand where two very high-pressure young men wanted my bank account number, my signature and a donation pledge.

I was only once asked for my autograph (in sunglasses I am a dead ringer for Sharon Stone when she’s having a good day), and spotted none of the girls. (Just for the record, I have seen Petula Clark, Yoko Ono, and Sophia Loren in the streets of Geneva.)

I reached my clinic on time, was whisked through the usual routine, was declared impeccably healthy, and came out happily swaying to the gentle bossa nova.

I am now very much looking forward to next year’s trip downtown, and am planning to cross the city on foot again, and to listen carefully to the music of the traffic in the city.

Attitude (and a song in your head) is everything.

 

 

Striking Terror to the Heart

Well, there’s a moving van over the road. This, in itself, is not unusual as the building is a two-family house (much in the fashion of North and South Korea) and the gentle tenants in the South constantly move away to greener, quieter, and less threatening pastures.

Moving vans rattle me. I started moving before I was one year old, and am always hopeful that where I am now is the final destination. When I was two, I accompanied my parents into a freezing Canadian winter. My first clear memory is packing my books into a blue tin pram.

After my father became a foot soldier in the great Canadian Protestant army of the Lord we moved regularly every couple of years. I have changed continents and manses and apartments and houses dozens and dozens of times.

The extra-special Swiss moving trauma has to do with the cleanliness of the rented property that you leave behind. Windows have to be sparkling; the grout between the floor tiles scrubbed with a toothbrush; ceilings and doors washed. You have to boil the bathrooms in bleach. (Warning! An acquaintance did this with a wicked-strong product that took the enamel off the bathtub, and she had to buy a new one.)

Then you have to pass the real-estate agent test where a man with bad hair, bad attitude and a clip-board feels behind the back of taps to make sure there isn’t a bump of lime scale or a flake of soap.

If you fail the test, not only are you hygienically bankrupt, you also lose at least part of your blocked deposit (three months rent) as professional cleaners have to be called in to remove water spots from tiles, dust specks from the corner of drawers, invisible (to the naked eye) fingerprints from door handles. I’ve heard they work with microscopes.

Even if you have been asked to leave (due to a relative needing one of grandpa’s many, many houses) you have to scrub the kitchen raw (even though it is all going to be ripped out and replaced.) It’s more than depressing: it’s traumatic.

The moving van over the road has the English phrase “The Human Touch” written on its side. Due to wear and tear from my vantage point it seems to read “The Lunar Torch” – a much more whimsical and fitting concept.

I recall my old Uncle Harry being traumatised by his one big middle-aged move. He swore he would never ever do it again. He said it took him three weeks to find his tooth brush. His wish came true, and last I heard an urn containing his ashes is still in the back of the upstairs closet.

We are stardust, after all.

Chateau Nights

Well, if you ever get invited to a chateau, be sure to bring a sleeping bag along. Of course, there are drawers full of ancient embroidered linens locked away safely in Louis XVI cabinets, but nobody knows where the keys are anymore. As for the tattered remains of the duvets, they are on the very top floor where the flies and the mice have taken over, and NO ONE goes up there. Ever.

Chateau life is full of pleasant and unusual surprises. When, for example, did you last get your hand kissed coming to the breakfast table? Or blow a French hunting horn in the main hallway? Or see a gentle pastel sunset over endless still water?

My particular chateau is located in the Dombes—a fish-pond-filled plain half way to Lyon from Geneva. Originally purchased by our host’s great-great grandfather (a silk baron), it is perched on a slight rise in the flatness overseeing 1000 hectares (2471 acres) of water, canals and forest. You patrol the paths in a pair of old camouflage-green Citroen beach buggies which have a tendency towards flat tires and gear-box issues.

You note that the ponds are low, and some have even disappeared completely. You observe the egrets and swans and positively hate the big black cormorants that stress the fish in the muddy shallow ponds.

You sleep little as the hunting dogs bark all night.

You visit the Saturday-morning market and want to buy a huge domestic goose and some fluffy hens that are for sale. For lunch you eat frog legs and pike mousse and tartar of carp. Your host tries to sell the restaurant chef the 15 tons of carp that he fishes annually from him ponds. This is beyond embarrassing: it is aristocratic. You give the waitress an outrageous tip.

You visit the great Abbey of Bourg en Bresse and admire the stained glass and the tomb of poor Marguerite of Austria/Savoy. You are enthralled and stuffed (fish dumplings) at the same time.

At apéro hour, the neighbours come to pay a courtesy call. They have rescue horses and dogs, and market-bought poultry, and a flock of guardian geese. They discuss the upcoming hunting season with our chateau host who wears a flak jacket, smokes a pipe, and loves knives. They leave at 9, as they have to dress for dinner.

For our supper there is a huge hunk of chateau Limousin beef resting in the fridge. You compose a magnificent Yorkshire pudding that you have whipped up by hand—a totally English dish perhaps never tasted before in this 13th-centure French demeure.

I loved my three nights at the chateau (yes, a chateau weekend begins on Thursday evening, in case you were not au courant) but it is also quite a relief to be back in my own simple kitchen where there is not one single stuffed boar head on the wall; where the cobwebs are amazingly discreet, and where I keep my compost bins outside.

 

 

The Swiss Hedge Police Strike Again!

Well, the way things are going, I may well be writing my next blog from a jail cell. Actually, that is a grotesquely optimistic exaggeration, as in prison you only are given a tiny little stub of a pencil to write with, so if all goes badly there will be no more messages to the outside world.

I have just received an official letter from the head of the Geneva Cantonal Road Maintenance Department. Again. These are the same people who have come up with the startlingly original policy to NOT maintain road verges in order to let Mother Nature expand and explode. (See last summer’s rant: https://blogs.letemps.ch/joy-kundig/2016/08/08/warning-geneva-government-sponsored-aliens-could-be-hiding-in-plain-sight/.)

Anyway, the thick 7-page document included the usual rude covering letter, two official forms, and four colour photographs. Again.

One of the photos is a helicopter shot of my house and garden and the road out front. Studied under a magnifying glass, in it there is not one single criminal hedge branch outside the property line.

The other three photos show a few little hedge twigs outside an arbitrary artificial orange vertical slash. I once spotted the cameramen who take these pictures lurking in the village. They travel in pairs—one has a clipboard and the other a tripod camera. They look a bit like Mormons and spend time fluffing leaves and giggling before they take their incriminating shots.

They obviously target certain locations as they childishly know they will achieve instant gratification. As May went past without a nasty government letter I thought the new roadside vegetation freedom rules were giving us all a break. But no: the photographers obviously come back and back and back again until they catch the twig out of line.

On my specific photo-shot day (July 18th) perhaps it was windy? Or, even more probably, a car on its way home to France has sucked some branches behind it in its slip stream and they were energetically bouncing back.

I know that the way forward in these tricky legal situations is NOT a good idea to act as your own legal counsel, (a colourful family member did this a few years back and this is how I come to know about the prison pencil stub rules) but my defence is straightforward:

  • My name is incorrectly spelled.
  • I am addressed as Monsieur.
  • The street cited does not exist in my village.
  • The official property line is far out in the road, as the old cantonal road has been widened to accommodate speeding rush-hour traffic and my land has been stolen.
  • I agree with the greeny policy to let road verges completely take care of themselves.
  • There is no sidewalk involved, and so no pedestrians are disturbed by caterpillars in their hair.
  • The speed limit is 30 kph.

How can I possibly lose?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Fêtes Too Hot off the Blocks

Back in the day, the tourists of Geneva organized summertime fun for themselves. There were the young British rakes who took row boats out onto the lake, banged drums, and set off explosions. There was the visiting royalty who on full-moon nights sent up little new-fangled hot-air balloons, so their guests could swoon in wonder at seeing two, or even three, moons. Then there were those endless wet summers when people sat around waiting for the rain to stop and telling each other horror stories: things like Frankenstein were written.

It was all jolly good fun. Not quite as good as the royal entries (Beatrice of Portugal, for example) of the REALLY good old 15th-century days with jousting competitions, mystery plays in the streets, and wine running in the fountains.

Of course, Geneva has been a tourist city since forever, and the lake and warm summer days have always been a winning cocktail and has now become a 10-day officially organized party called Les Fêtes de Genève.  However, in the grim reality of the 21st century The Geneva Lake Festival seems to have spun completely out of control.

Last year, for example, the fêtes lost an astonishing 3.5 million francs. A new director has been put in place and this year’s budget is a strict 3.5 million francs with an extra ½-million just-in-case reserve. They are on their last warning. Any serious financial foolishness, then their future is not assured.

Two days in, there has already been a major goof-up. To the uninitiated, this local political spot of bother is called a Genevoiserie or a Genferei and is the source of much ongoing mirth to the indigenous inhabitants and the rest of the country.

The Festival was scheduled to run from August 3 – August 13. However, the carnies with their flying elephant rides came into town early, optimistically set up their stands, and opened for bustling business on August 1st. The new director was contacted, and shook a cotton-candy-coated finger at them, but agreed to their going-for-the-money “fait accompli.”

Now the first of August is the sacrosanct Swiss National Day—William Tell, flags, sausages, and fireworks. It is not to be tampered with. It stands alone, much like the Matterhorn and is not to be mixed with frivolity—except, perhaps, a round or two of Swiss wrestling.

You raise your thumb and first two fingers and take an oath. You put an apple on your son’s head rather than doff your hat to outside powers. You relish your Swissness.

Unfortunately, the Geneva town council did not give their permission for this early start of their Lake Festival, and are now full of righteous indignation, bombast and threats as they try to wiggle out of their flagrant breach of Geneva cantonal law. There is talk of fines of up to 60,000 francs for those dastardly spinning pink and blue elephants.

We’re all looking forward to see what is going to happen – especially the new director, one presumes. Hopefully an apple will not be involved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Coming of Uncle Buck

In the wider circle of family and friends one person stands out as an obvious solution to all of Donald Trump’s current problems. Our very own Uncle Buck could easily fill the various roles of U.S. Press Secretary, Chief of Staff, and, possibly, Defence Secretary all at the same time.

His erudition has again been brought to my attention in a recent public message containing 80th birthday wishes as he congratulates Harry on his 41st anniversary of his 39th birthday. His source for this witticism is his old friend, Ronald Ragun (known to the rest of us as Reagan.)

This already proves his Trumpian qualities, as Uncle Buck grooves to unconventional spelling and youth. His nationality, height, girth and date of birth are almost identical to Trump’s. He wears jackets that are shiny and too large and his thinning hair is a shambles.

Uncle Buck and Donald have many common attributes. For example, they both talk without listening and dote on much younger/thinner women. Despite his phrase that he is “fighting to stem the new tide of Narcissictic Apathy” Uncle Buck feels that he is a most attractive specimen of virility. His heart would go into fibrillation (which it does regularly) if he were placed next to Ivanka or even Melania.

He is picky about his food, and brings his favourite (beef steaks) with him to be stored in friends’ freezers in case he spontaneously arrives. Some of these slabs have been there for decades.

Like Donald, Uncle Buck’s relationship with the truth is artistic rather than factual. He feels very strongly that he  physically fought in the Vietnam War, and the current moment of history he describes as: “the Indians are no longer at the gates but on the walls and I’m out of Ammo and doing Hand to Hand combat.”  Uncle Buck is not a POW loser, he’s a Serving Soldier.

Uncle Buck is also secretive and protective. He has to be, otherwise others would steal his ideas and designs. As an artist (all mediums) of the Old America West bas-relief School (lots of eagles and feathered war bonnets) all his work and much of his writing is copyrighted and, he believes, legally protected against theft.

Uncle Buck is a shoe-in for an appointment or two on Donald’s ever-changing dream team. He would resonate with the American public as he speaks out for “a New world Renaissance”. He would dazzle and confabulate with ideas about “kicking out the UN”, forcing a “Creative Coalition” as he longs to “steady the drain in Creative Thinking.”

The illogical rhetoric is in place: the grand ideas that make no sense, the virulent verbosity, the conflicting concepts, and the bashing on about predicament of the present all uncannily twin Uncle Buck to Donald Trump.

Roll over, Mooch, you’ve had your week in the sun. The age of Uncle Buck has finally dawned.

 

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.