The Switzerland of Central America

Well, it is certainly expensive enough here in Costa Rica. An avocado costs twice as much as in Geneva. And like its Swiss cousin it is always half rotten when you cut it in half.

There are hot springs up around the Arenal volcano. Watery pools of steaming brown nutritious liquid. Much like Loeche-les-Bains or Yverdon, you sit up to your neck in the warm wet and look through the steam at the misty mountains. The air is cold at 1500m, but here broad-leaved vegetation blots out the grey scuttling sky. The occasional agouti, a sleek rodent with jacked-up back legs, rushes away when it sees that its own private pool is already occupied.

There are no trains here, so communal travel between towns—and even between hotels—is by little white shuttle buses. Within a system of mind-numbing complexity, they pick you up, transfer you, give you free delicious coffee at rest stops and drop you off. You are like a lunch-time tiffin box in the streets of Mumbai. Your shuttle driver is the dabbawala and gets you safely to your destination. Your fellow tiffin cans have usually been picked up before you, and so you find yourself in the worst possible tiffin position and arrive cramped, bent, and shaken.

There is also much animal spotting to be done. Unlike the rarefied Swiss high mountain eyries of the aigle royal, chamois or marmot, here we have the toucan, the sloth and the Capuchin monkey. Instead of the village rooster, the howler monkey greets the dawn as the first exhaustless motorcycle roars past.

You stumble across smaller things when you least expect it. A lizard blowing its throat into a yellow bubble-gum balloon, or a turquoise and black poison dart frog, or an orange iguana proudly showing off its colours in a tree.

There are expensive restaurants too! Not the utterly magnificent snobby-as-hell Swiss sort with the fancy internationally renowned chef, the handful of stars, white tablecloths, amuse-gueules  and pre-desserts; but a class up from the Costa Rican “soda” (the family-run joint with mom sweating it out in the kitchen with her empanadas and her pot full of beans and rice).

You have the noble pizzeria.

These attract the more moneyed customer. They drive up in their sparking monster pick-up trucks with oversized, jet-black, deeply-treaded tires. The man descends first: fortyish, iPhone in hand, brilliant blue wife-beater tucked into stretchy black shorts with racer stripes, flip-flops. The woman follows: thirtyish, iPhone in hand, golden chinking bracelets, see-through high heeled shoes, and a dress made of yellow ribbons. She, too, is fat, but mesmerized as you are by the intricacy of the golden bands, the rolls of flesh fascinate rather than revolt.

They sit at the wobbly wooden table and, without saying a word, cutlery, soft drinks and pizzas appear. The man puts his phone on loudspeaker and has animated Spanish conversations about deliveries and times. The woman sips her coke and looks at her screen. The uneaten cold pizzas are boxed up and taken with them into the now-dark early evening.

No money has changed hands.

 

 

 

 

Bring Your Own Spoon

Here in the Swiss countryside in this empty time between Christmas and New Year’s, many of our usual restaurants are closed. The (often reduced and overworked) staffs are having a break from the pre-Christmas storms of unruly family gatherings and office dos. Normal life is suspended, and eating is now being done at home in front of the TV or at altitude in the ski station fast-food cafés as the skiers wait for snow.

In the Canton of Zug (where most of the Swiss millionaires live as tax rates are lowest) there are scandalous reports of being charged 2.50 francs if you ask for a second spoon to share a dessert, and paying a 3-franc surcharge if your bill is less than 80 francs.

Nasty rumours are also floating of being charged 3 francs for a clean plate to put a baby’s French fries on, and of having to pay 5 francs extra if two people share a pizza.

When asked to explain these shocking revelations, the restaurants retort that people are not being forced to eat there. Go elsewhere! Obviously, managers and owners are hollowed out and angry.

Now I’ve had some bad times in restaurants what with one thing and another. The worst is when they just don’t feed you (Czechoslovakia circa 1990) and all the wait staff is sitting around a table staring at you. Or when they get really angry because you bring a product they claim they cannot get in their country (breakfast jam, Russia circa 1992) and punish you with no coffee or tea. Or when you just plain get kicked out (Italy circa 1980).

Most memories have been repressed (certainly the ones having to do with various St Bernard dogs under the table), but from the incidents I recall, most unpleasantness has had to do with kids – crying kids, spilling-things kids, not liking the look-of-the-food kids, hurting themselves in the bathrooms kids, getting their food taken away when they were saving the best-bit-for-last kids.

In fact, restaurants hate kids. They have neither money nor manners. Kids are the very antithesis of a seemly restaurant.

So, my advice to you, fellow diners, in this out-of-joint world would be to suck up the extra charges if you have to. In North America there are extra service charges, exorbitant corkage charges, and you have to tip hefty 20%. In Italy there is the famous “coperto” which I quite like as you pay your way in – like a night club. It is not expensive, and you get bread sticks. In Switzerland there are now extra energy charges in some establishments, and a small tip has become standard.

And as a wily customer in this brave new world, bring an extra spoon in your pocket if you want to be a real cheapskate; order two pizzas and take one home for breakfast; and, believe me, the baby doesn’t need a clean porcelain plate.

Of course, if you don’t want to do any of this, you can just stay at home and eat Christmas cookies. Forever and ever.

 

 

 

 

A Surfeit of Fun

I found an abandoned fairy yesterday across the road. In a highly unfairylike fashion, she was hollering at the top of her lungs for her Mom and Dad. Her costume included red lipstick, blue eyeshadow and translucent wings attached to the back of a sleeveless gossamer dress. Shivering in the freezing cold, I gave her my gardening jacket and we settled down to a sobbing conversation.

My five-year-old fairy was locked outside alone. Everyone else was having great fun at a costume Escalade party in an upstairs apartment. No one had realized there was a fairy missing.

There is a frantic craving for fun at the moment — not just here in the Geneva countryside, but all over the place. A recent trip to Madeira found us in the middle of a packed early-morning November flight out of Zurich. The passengers were excited and eager.

The flight into Funchal, the world’s most dangerous airport, went well (no turning back to Porto this time), and no medical incidents on board either.  But the fully-booked Edelweiss/Swiss flight must have got tangled up in so much fun, and I was electronically eliminated from having taken the flight.

They then, secretly, cancelled my flight back.

In the tourist world, ignorance is not exactly bliss, but it can help. For six days the weather was perfect in Madeira–sunny and just warm enough to leave the window open at night (necessary to avoid dust-related asthma attacks.)

The hotel had a tropical garden and a glorious view, and once upon a time must have merited its five stars. However, parallel to the world of fun-seekers, there has to be a world of fun-providers.  Sinks, toilets, towels, beds, and carpets do not clean themselves. Supper does not cook itself.  Drinks do not pour themselves.

There was almost no staff, BUT there was a grocery store nearby and a working television. Lunch was often the local specialty – swordfish with a fried banana on top.

However, the great pleasure of Madeira are the famous levadas which are man-made water courses coming gradually down the volcanic mountain sides. You do great circuits through the laurel forests, and if your walk is long enough there will be no tour bus crowds.

Yes, the thousands of cruise ship passengers coming into Funchal daily now have changed the atmosphere of the island. Flip-flopped people come ashore and board big black buses to take a tour of the island. They clog up the narrow steep roads and scenic view spots.

I have a theory that all of the people who once worked in the tourist industry of Madeira now work on the cruise ships.  They, too, have taken up the concept of fun. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. You’ve got a job, food and a bed. The tips are better and you’re going somewhere.

Concerning my flight back, I was much like my little fairy from over the road: out in the cold with gossamer wings.  

 

 

 

 

A Victim of my Family and Other Animals

They are all on my case. They are all filthily smug about my short trip to Canada last week. It is a case of Schadenfreude at its very worst. They want the world to see my shame and feel GOOD. They think I normally lack sufficiently exciting blog material.

For the record, I love going to Canada and staying at my sister’s place in Stratford. I am spoiled and cuddled and no one gets mad at me. It is bliss as I sink back into a dreamy fantasy childhood of hot breakfasts and constant entertainment.

We go to visit Barb at the liquor store, Whitey in his little shop of horrors, see some of the best theatre in the world at the Stratford Festival, visit family members and eat yellow perch on the shores of Lake Erie. We go to the Antiques Warehouse (before it burned down), and stroll the streets of Justin Bieber’s childhood (my sister has fed him cookies…she claims.) Mr Kim makes us the best sushi in the world outside of Japan.

This time it was the same but different.

Instead of being wrapped in clean crisp sheets in a cosy historic house, we found ourselves in the tired sheets of the Festival Inn. Instead of short exciting walks to the theatre, we were located on the “strip” — miles out of town on Hwy 8, a major freeway. Taxi drivers looked after us.

The original trip was booked for October, 2020 when I would take my grand-daughter to see Canada. We would go during the Potato Holidays in October! We would see plays! We might even hit Hallowe’en if we were lucky! But the whole thing was doomed…some Greek god was playing with us.

COVID came, and the trip was postponed until October 2022. My grand-daughter was no longer in junior high school with long brown hair, but in “college” with short blue hair.  But, COVID had not finished with us, and the evening before our flight I received word that my sister’s house was COVID-infested. They had all tested positive and were as sick as dogs.

There was exactly one room left in all of Stratford, Ontario (last theatre week of the season.) No room at the inn… except, the Festival Inn!

This turned out to be an establishment more suited to a mining town north of Lake Superior. There was a complimentary fly strip hanging in the corner. The net curtains were torn and the windows filthy. The beds were spongey and lush. There was free parking! Hot water! And toilet paper and towels (on demand)! A neighbouring establishment offered an early 2-hour breakfast window and it was a 3 km walk into town. We had to prepay the six nights and sign a legal document that the hotel was not responsible for stolen items.

Our motel neighbours lived out of the back of their pick-up trucks and kept their hotel room doors open for friendly exchanges.

It was sad and glorious at the same time. We depended on the kindness of family: the niece, the nephew, the other sister. You were all great! I bow to you and applaud you all.  Encore!!!!

 

 

 

Grandparents of the World, Unite!

Those of you who are not grandparents really don’t have to read this. You have not had the crown of grandparenthood thrust upon you. You are free agents. When you invite your adult children for a meal, they come on time and are perky and refreshed-looking. They engage in adult-style conversation. They don’t crayon on the walls. They sit on their chairs through the entire meal and generally do not knock over their glasses. They leave the place without crying and needing their diapers changed.

They might, of course, bring a child-substitute. A puppy, perhaps, or a large barking shedding dog. Something that chews chair legs, slobbers over the table, steals half the cheese board, pees in the hall and poops in the corners. Such behaviour only goes a small way in illustrating what it’s like having real grandchildren around.

I personally love my grandchildren. The bigun (16) seems quite mature with her blue hair and black clothes. We will be going together to the Stratford Festival in Canada next week to see a somewhat kindred spirit, Hamlet.

The two littluns (6 and 2) also have literary references. Lord of the Flies comes immediately to mind. When they are not fighting, they work as a two-man demolition team, and, if your drug combination is right, and you are in an anti-materialist mood, can be considered delightfully active and life-enhancing.

We grandparents can’t play hop-scotch forever, however, and knees and backs are often screaming at us to sit down and WATCH the world rather than running along trying to keep up with it.  So it really wasn’t easy being 70 years old on Wednesday. The Geneva public transport system went on strike which meant walking miles and miles on hard concrete sidewalks to see an ear specialist in the morning (ref. Simplon Tunnel blog) and attending a Baluchistan concert in the evening.

While slogging along the pedestrian pavements with speeding silent electric bikes and scooters inches from my shoulder, I was reflecting on the pronouncement of grandson #1 the previous day. Sitting in his car seat, having been picked up for his weekly luncheon in the Geneva countryside (grandparents are the glue of most Geneva family life) the little ayatollah issued the decree that all cars were evil inventions.

This was vaguely agreed with, and then it was cheerfully explained that without a car there would be no cheeseburgers with the grandparents on Tuesdays: It was too far to walk from his school, the buses took too long, and our carpets don’t fly. Without a car, there would be no pyjama parties on the weekends, no visits to the Shack, no walks along the Rhone River. If he couldn’t ride in a car, then the grandparents would be permanently on strike.

He went quiet and was vaguely abashed. Hopefully, like the wedding guest in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, he arose the next day a sadder and a wiser man.

But I doubt it.

 

 

 

The Simplon Tunnel Exploding Head Syndrome

Well, it was probably just a coincidence that my head almost exploded and my ear piercingly popped while roaring on a train through the Simplon Tunnel last week.

Normally, we drive the car over the Simplon Pass (2006m) to Italy, following the old Neolithic trails that were widened by Roman Legions, firmly established by 17th-century merchants (Kaspar Jodok Stockalper famously running salt, iron, gold and mercenaries) and institutionalised by Napoleon in 1805. On the high roadside pull-offs you step into the chilly winds and take pictures of a stark treeless landscape and lugubrious granite buildings. Time slows. You buy a brick of cheese with mountain flower petals in it at Simplon Dorf and wish your pants were thicker.

Not so on the train. If anything, there is a certain air of feverishness as you pull out of Brig and turn the corner towards the cloudy mountains. The train blows its whistle as it roars into one side of the double-mouthed tunnel. It then speeds up; and I think I have discovered why: The train driver has heard the grizzly story of the tunnel’s construction and he wants out of there as soon as possible.

The tunnel is almost 20 kilometres long. It is pitch black and as hot as hell–about 56C when you get to the point where the mountain on top of you is more than two kilometres thick. Miners began digging the tunnel in 1898 and by 1906 when the first tube was opened, 106 of them had died.

During the tunnelling, which consisted of drilling holes with Brandt hydraulic drills and packing them with dynamite, there were all kinds of problems. There were the surprise hot springs that suddenly gushed out.  There was a huge leaky water reservoir ABOVE the tunnel. There was a soggy section made out of water-logged clay that bent the iron girders and snapped the massive oak beams. Men couldn’t work in the extreme heat and insulated cold water hoses had to be installed.

A second tube was finished in 1921 and the problems shifted. During WWII the tunnels were mined—ready for instant destruction if they fell into enemy hands. James Bond killed an enemy in there on the Orient Express in 1957. In 2011 there was a fire.

So, finally, it was of little importance that at one point mid-way through the Simplon Tunnel my head had a pressure-blow-out.

Intensive research has discovered all of the above true facts, along with a scientific paper which mentions this tunnel pressure phenomenon. The short paper is entitled Measurements of Train-Induced Pressure Variations in the Simplon Tunnel and, unfortunately, did not measure what happens inside passengers’ heads.

Arriving at the south end of the tunnel in shabby old Domodossola was a lovely relief. We dragged our bags to a concrete backless bench and under the clear blue sky happily ate our sandwiches on the graffitied train station platform. And waited for what was going to happen next.

 

And the Ladies Come and Go, Buying their Bloomers in the Veneto

Sometimes you just get lucky. It can be cold and wet on the northern side of the Alps and the sun shines in the south. Last week I found myself on the sunny side of the Alpine street.

Thank goodness. Due to a numerically traumatic birthday, I was taken away to pretend to be young  and rich. We took the train to Stresa on the Lago Maggiore – a town which strikes horror in the heart of a true juvenile. It is staid. It is calm. It is quiet and refined. It is full of old palazzos and old fogies. As one matures, one appreciates these very qualities. Plus, there is the bonus that you can always easily spot someone older than yourself.

The grand hotel is a splendid specimen of European opulence. Its new spa jetted us full of exciting bubbles and gave the illusion of exercise as we gazed mindlessly into the pink of the evening.  Dinner was as elegant as a cut diamond and so empty (the chocolate and pear dessert was a smear of chocolate on the plate, and a possibly homeopathic drop of pear essence on a miniscule cream rosette) we talked about ordering a pizza as we walked along the painting-lined corridor back to our room-with-a-view.

Things came down to earth the next day as we struggled to reach our final destination, the fishing town of Chioggia. We had to catch the bus from an obscure site in the urban chaos of Padova and squeeze our suitcases between teenage bodies that were spread and clinging like octopuses to the seats.

The next day, travelling along the Lido into Venice, bus seats were again at a premium. You were supposed to have a crutch or be about to give birth to merit one.  Fleet-footed passengers snapped them up and immediately studied their phones as though hypnotized, ignoring the white-haired hunched-over people groaning all around them.

When that particular bus unexpectedly rolled onto a ferry, we clutched our day ticket even tighter as the elements were suddenly mixed. At that moment a true holiday was achieved. Perhaps lost, we had the wealth of time and transport to find our way back home.

As the days slipped past, meals and walks and boat rides relaxed into the quotidian. We learned that John Cabot–bumping into Newfoundland in 1497, but thinking he was in Asia–had lived here. Then there was the Chinese-run restaurant down by the clam boats:  the way to the washroom was lined with slot machines and the players wished you “Buongiorno!” as you went past.

And the surprise of the Thursday market along the Corso Popolo was absolute—the mountains of leather, clothes, shells, bicycle horns, shoes, culminated in the ladies’ underwear section. No trying-on was necessary or attempted. The saleslady sized you up, held articles against the appropriate body part, and extolled the merits of a strong hefty article that was fit for purpose.

She brought golden optimism to her bras and bloomers and her customers all left smiling. They had been sold luck.

Coffee Balls

Well, the response was loud and clear and almost instantaneous. I simply had to whisper about a serious competitive coffee capsule situation, and the problem was solved!  Yesterday Migros announced that it has invented the coffee ball!

They look like those round Lindor chocolates the melt in the mouth. But instead of hard chocolate surrounding soft, they are made of an invisible compostable material that surrounds ground coffee beans.

Of course, you have to buy a special machine to squish the balls and extract the coffee flavour, but then you just scrape the little sacks of coffee grounds out of the machine and put them directly in the compost. No drippy trips to the post office or the recycling bin.

No prices are available yet, but this exciting new product is coming to a store near you SOON! Just in time for Christmas!

Back in the day in our manses in the Canadian countryside, we didn’t know there was any kind of coffee except instant. Tea, stewed in a glass pot, was the drink of choice.

Black and white cowboy movies brought us into the world of cowboy coffee where water and strong and gritty coffee were boiled over a campfire. A Stetson, a guitar and a tin cup were additional props in this exciting and adventurous world.

Childhood forays into other houses, revealed divergent coffee universes. There was percolated coffee where the machine stood on its own little heating pad and stayed warm the whole day. Those kitchens smelled strong and specific.

A Dutch friend’s mother (beside her meat mincer attached with a vice to the kitchen counter) had a coffee pot with a plunger she pressed and the water magically changed colour. She had huge strong arms and her dangerous kitchen was my absolute favourite.

Later on into the adult world of coffee production, there were the paper filters holding the ground coffee that you poured hot water over, and the timeless Italian Moka coffee pots.  Then came the fiddly coffee capsules and their specific machines. The world was full of narrowing possibilities.

Anyway, the new coffee ball method has been brewing for the past five years, and Migros claims to have the competition shaking in their aluminum coffee-capsule boots.

The official Migros crystal ball contains images of future tea balls, cappuccino balls, soup balls, and many many other things. I am already dreaming of the coming cold winter and making hot toddies with a canny mixture of rum and water in the reservoir, and a sugar and cinnamon spice ball.

Unfortunately, most coffee methods require electricity, which might also be in short supply in the months ahead, so I am getting prepared.

The fireplace or the barbeque can be used for cowboy coffee. Note to self: find a couple of tin cups and a guitar. The fondue burner is just perfect for the Moka machine.  And now, with this most recent invention of the coffee ball, if worse comes to worst, like Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, we can just chew on cold yet sustainable coffee balls.

 

The Ongoing Trauma of Returning Defective Products: Sunscreen and Coffee Capsules

You would think that one of the largest domestic merchandising outlets in Switzerland (Migros) would be smooth and cool about taking back and refunding small faulty items.

Actual exchanges (always for a larger size, for some reason) usually work efficiently; and when presented with stinking, dripping perishable goods there is also swift action.

However, if you have no ticket, no bag, and something that doesn’t offend the senses of the lady at the customer services desk, you are dealing with a bigger issue. They have been trained, possibly with refresher courses, how to avoid parting with cash.

This summer, it began with a small tube of #50 sunscreen. Guaranteed no wrinkles. Guaranteed youthful progress into the past. Guaranteed beauty and protection.

The problem was mechanical. The lid didn’t click closed properly and so the precious liquid would escape inside bags and purses. After a week or two battling soggy innards and my futile attempt to secure the lid with black electrical tape, I girded up my loins and went to see the lady at the desk.

She smirked and called her colleagues over.  The three of them squirted my precious rejuvenating liquid over their hands and asked (did I detect sarcasm?) if I really thought such a product worked? What did I want them to do?

The small tube was soon empty and I was dumbfounded and humiliated.  They told me to go buy another tube and they would check the lid for me on the way out.  Guffaws were heard as I walked away.

So, when the faulty coffee capsule episode arose this week, I knew the highest level of preparation was necessary.

The box stated clearly that these capsules were compatible with the internationally famous coffee capsule brand, “Nespresso”. I put an M-capsule into my N-machine. A bit of water reluctantly spit out, there was a grinding sound and all the lights started blinking. Upon extraction and close forensic examination, the capsule showed it had been pierced at the front, but not at the back.

I closed the newly-opened box and placed the bad capsule and a used Nespresso capsule in an evidence bag. The prosecution was armed.

The lady at the desk the next morning was good. Flying in the face of black and white evidence, she tried to throw the case out on a technicality. She said that on their product, “Nespresso” was spelled with only one “s”. Over-ruled.

She then said that no one had ever complained before and so my complaint was invalid. She went to find a man who was a coffee capsule expert. He denied specific expertise in this case, as he always used another variant. Did I have a receipt? Why not take the box home, and try all the rest of the capsules? Maybe it was just a rogue individual?

I held firm.

A quarter of an hour of recalcitrance, and finally my palm was crossed with silver: A breathtaking hard-won victory of seven francs.

Making Ice Cubes from the Sun

Just in case you’ve had the misfortune to have spent your summer holidays kite-surfing in Costa Rica, parachuting in La Reunion, at the cottage on the shores of Lake Huron or glamping in San Tropez, here in the mountains we have been fully, and even startlingly, entertained.

As it has been a hot and dry summer, there has not been the usual daily (and nightly) occupation of catching mice. All traps have remained disturbingly empty despite the miniature peanut butter sandwiches that have been lovingly prepared and placed in the little bait-holes. It turns out that is because of Sandy, the viper-in-residence who lives in the wood pile over by the compost heap. Our rational mind quite likes Sandy. The rest, and much bigger, part of our mind is horrified.

Sandy, however, has given us a lot of free time to read, to build a Walden-type cabin in the woods and to learn how to play Wordle, which, by the way, works much better if you read (and understand) the rules before you take it up. For example, the difference between the green and the yellow letters is crucial.

The new solar lithium batteries also mean that we now produce ice-cubes from the sun in the little ice cube tray in the fridge, so cocktail hour has become an elaborate, ecologically sustainable ritual.  As the sun slips behind the larch trees to the west, we can be heard tinkling up the path to the top look-out to admire Mont Blanc and the Vallée du Giffre.

I have also discovered that some activities work better if there is an audience. Take painting, for example. I was called out one recent morning to put stain on the cabin’s roof lattes before they became the roof. I dressed in my blue workers overalls and found stain, paint brushes, saw-horses, Swiss army knife and gloves. By the time all this had been gathered together, Dawn’s rose-red fingers had popped up over the pine trees to the east. The luxuriously easy job suddenly took on a whole new dimension in the searing heat.

Tom Sawyer’s punishment of whitewashing Aunt Polly’s picket fence came to mind. I had a sore back, and I wasn’t feeling too hot due to a five-course, 3-hour lunch in a fancy French restaurant the day before (okay, yes, there are a few downsides to mountain holidays). Placing the lattes on the saw horses, slathering one side, turning them over, slathering again, taking the sticky things off, leaning them against the fence, the bushes, the trees, all became a hot hideous chore.

There were 58 of them.

Just before 10 am, the first tourist family arrived, toiling up the steep path to the Chapelle Jacquicourt– sweaty, panting and red-faced. Instantly my back straightened and my attitude sharpened. I stopped moaning. My latte painting became an activity of interest and industry. We chatted a few minutes and off they went—the kids looking back wistfully as I gracefully wielded my brush.

They would have given anything to stay and help.