A Fire and Fury Weekend

Well, it wasn’t really my fault that I read the book. It was just an experiment.

My Kindle is my very favourite object. It is literally the only gadget that I have ever truly coveted and ordered for myself. A colleague, stuck in hospital for a spell, actually let me hold hers and “turn” the pages some years back and I was captivated.

So the day before yesterday, I just had a peek to see if I could buy the famous sold-out book by the journalist, Michael Wolff. It was available, so I made a snap intellectual decision to read it as quickly as possible before it could be withdrawn and disappear into the ether (this has happened to me before.)

I am ordinarily not a chaser of ambulances and dislike political exposés, but this one struck me as important considering the size-of-the-button situation. A child growing up in Canada during the Cuban Missile Crisis, having nightmares about having to hide in the village culvert not to be blown up, I am oddly scared to death of nuclear bombs.

Anyway, I now possess the complete mental low-down on the White House (and I am not talking about the Shell garage up the hill.)  I know everything about D.C.

To those of us who have been following, unbelieving and mesmerized, the goings on of the American political scene over the past year, there is little that is startling or new. So, if you are not a committed reader, you would die of boredom quite soon. The names of the ex-staffers and presidential “friends” just go on and on.

There is very little juicy material (except a couple of cheeseburgers) to get your teeth into. As a teacher, I was saddened to learn that Donald does not know how to read which is why he has three tv screens in his (separate) bedroom.

Another interesting snippet is that Donald is frightened of being poisoned, and so, like a Roman emperor, has a cheeseburger taster—or, preferentially, orders take-out from McDonalds.

Then there’s the fact that for Donald, the White House is a definite accommodation downgrade. His luxury triplex in Trump Towers in New York, makes the Washington presidential mansion seem like a shack in the woods. The perks of bowling alley, cinema, and plane are not interesting or overwhelming (as they would be almost any other person) as he already has any of this stuff he wants.

But what really caught my fancy is that even his height is fake. He has added inches to himself to squeeze in beneath the “obese” scale of the BMI. He claims to be something like 8 feet tall.

Of course, all the routine stuff about the FBI, the Russians, young women, the concept of Trumpism, the definition of an idiot, the Kushners, Bannon, the generals, money laundering, fluffs out the story and gives it a bit of a political slant.

On second thought, perhaps it’s a good thing that Donald can’t read.

 

 

 

 

Don’t Piss Off Grandma, or, The Fine Art of Returning Defective Products

In those old hectic days of work, deadlines, and worry when the hours in a day were just too few to deal properly with shoddy merchandise, you might have been forgiven for tipping that bottle of sour wine down the sink or throwing away some freshly-bought completely-rotten product.

However, one of the many advantages of being part of the post-work-for-money world, is that justice can, finally, be served. We—the retired ones with our marbles still in place and our glasses sparkling clean—are the new commercial warriors out there making the shops a safer and a better place for you.

For example, there was yesterday evening’s incident concerning the duck terrine in the metal-clip glass jar. Served as a festive treat, those salt crystals turned out to be bits of glass. Experience helps here. Having broken a tooth on sandy leeks stuffed into a Brittany crèpe a few years back, I recognized the sound and texture of imminent danger and raised the alarm at the supper table.

Once you have a culprit, it is important to return the faulty product as soon as possible. If not, you could easily forget all about it, destroy evidence, or present a mumbling, half-remembered, unbelievable account of the incident.

If your story is fresh, (much like the duck fat in which the glass shards are still embedded) you do not even need a receipt. The lady gives you money and expresses her sincere hope and belief that such an incident is a freak of nature and will never happen again.

She then calls the manager.

I have returned many horrible things. There was the rotten chicken where I found myself in a Monday-morning line-up with other elderly innocents who had been expecting a roast fowl for their Sunday dinner. The stench was overwhelming and the customer services personnel could not process us fast enough.

Then there was the incident of the fat white worm in the can of corn. There the service après-vente lady made the mistake of asking me whether I had placed the worm there as some sort of prank.

Exchanging a bottle of bad wine is never a problem in a supermarket, but at my local farmer’s barn I once took back a very nasty bottle. Wine snobbery is little tolerated here in the far west, I was told not to return anything ever again. Real men drink corked wine out here in the Geneva countryside.

My perfect return was a thick piece of chocolate with a hair sticking right through it. I ate all around the offensive bit, and actually sent the nibbled disc to the address on back of the chocolate wrapping.  A few weeks later I received a carton of chocolate bars in the mail along with a personal letter explaining how a hygienic bristle from a nut-sweeping brush had got itself stuck and they were ever so sorry.

A fairy-tale Charlie and the Chocolate Factory possibility.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Useful and Uplifting Tips for the Holiday Season

If you are not extremely careful, these grey, cloudy, short Geneva days can chip away at even the chirpiest of Christmas spirts. So, once your tree is up, your presents wrapped, your cards and parcels sent, the fridge stuffed to exploding with food and drink here are some extra mood-enhancing activities to consider.

  • When invited out to group luncheon events, always remember to choose from the more expensive end of the menu. In the final tally and division, no one is going to remember that you had the green salad and the single Malakoff (deep fried cheese ball) with tap water while everyone else ate suprème de pintade fumée avec foie gras, the risotto aux langoustines, had cheese AND dessert, and drank several bottles of a cracking ‘89 Chassagne Montrachet.
  • If you’re feeling any domestic culinary pressure (either real or imagined) bake a batch or two of the easiest of all festive cookies – the coconut macaroon. Whipped egg white, sugar and desiccated coconut decorated with a perky candied cherry fulfils the cookie-imperative nicely. They are fat-free, cholesterol-free, and might even be vegan and gluten-free depending on where the egg whites have come from. Store them in sealed tins and smugly serve when appropriate.
  • Congratulate yourself for not having been a control-freak fall-tidy-up gardener and consider the brown, straggly, and wizened plants outside your windows. After careful study, you will notice that small friendly birds are picking at their miniscule seeds. Normal-sized seeds from the commercial suet-and-seed bird balls would undoubtedly choke these little golf-ball-sized-birds to death. Consider yourself as a St. Francis /Mother Theresa hybrid.
  • Before the big day (evening of the 24th/Swiss, morning of the 25th/ Canadian) vacuum under the couch. You will find several nasty things, but also lost objects that can be turned into thoughtful Christmas gifts. Why, just this morning I have found a brand new blue toy pick-up truck unknowingly lost since last Christmas, and a watch that I have been looking for for years.
  • Try to drag yourself away from your various entertainment and information screens at least once. Go to a book shop and browse the shelves. Take along an elusive title and feel thrilled if you find it, and justified in your Kindle Life if you don’t.
  • Examine and reorganize your mouse-catching activities. For example, oil your mouse-traps and renew your jar of peanut butter. I see that the jar that I have been (unsuccessfully) using has a best-before date of 2009 which might account for the rather rancid smell that is obviously NOT attracting either the mouse in the kitchen or its new colleague in the basement. Have a serious talk with the cat.

When all of the above fail to deliver, then it is time to either head for the hills, the snow and the sunshine. Or, close the drapes and settle down with the macaroon tin and a new Netflix series.

In any case, Merry Christmas one and all.

Baby Jesus in the Circus Train

Well, Christmas is always a fraught time in this house.  In the good old days (Geneva in the 1970s and 1980s) Christmas glitter only came to the shops and the streets after The Escalade (Geneva beating off the Savoyards with the main weapon being an iron soup pot) had been properly celebrated in mid-December.

The dark historical parade with horses, fife and drum bands, and musket marksmen marching through the sombre streets, soon, though, was overtaken by twinkle lights and tat and lost its mysterious ability to transport us all back to a scary, frosty, noisy night in 1602.

Then, for many decades, we travelled abroad specifically (pay more get less!) during the festive season in order to avoid its commercial hysteria.  This ended some years back with our hotel entrance in Cochin being blocked by a larger-than-life, menacingly moustachioed, blow-up Santa. We kept plugging away, but who needs the psychological trauma of Feliz Navidad ringing in your ears to this day from playing on a continuous loop on a 5-hour flight?

Christmas had won. We bowed out and retreated to the mountains with barely a Bah! or a Humbug!

However, in these days of grandparenthood, it seems churlish not to offer childish cultural entertainment to the little ‘uns and a traditional Christmas has been somewhat revived.

The tree was bought over the border in France and brought in last week (too late for a Canadian and too early for a Swiss) and decorated with lights (Canadian) not candles (Swiss). Glass ornaments (old ones from Czechoslovakia and new ones from China) have been hung. Chocolate figures (purely Swiss) have been tied onto all protruding tips.

The two-year-old who seems to have been running the place around here the last couple of days has definitively proved the second law of thermodynamics: entropy (movement and mess) is constantly increasing.

Chocolate, of course, has been a major inspiration and a solid source of energy in this. The pre-breakfast (6 a.m.) chocolate mouse (used as a bribe to get him to bed the night before) was a huge disappointment as it proved to have an unpleasant (marzipan) filling, and had to be compensated for with a solid chocolate Père Noel.

At this point, breakfast itself was redundant; however, a parking house was needed for the red car and the green tractor. Grandma cleverly thought of the stable of the old family-made Nativity Scene and proudly produced this from the bomb shelter and unwrapped all the hand-made figurines to reveal the True Meaning of Christmas.

The red car and the green tractor were parked and forgotten in the stable. Brittle oxen and asses quickly lost their legs and had to be repaired with bandages. Mother Mary was parachuted into a Strumpf/Smurf house to visit a while with Strumpfette.

And a carefully swaddled baby Jesus was last seen riding in the elephant wagon on a lego circus train.

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Boutique Hotels — the Inside Scoop

Tour groups make me sick. There you are, finally arrived at your hotel, sitting quietly contemplating your murky welcome drink and recovering from one malady or another, when a remarkably-healthy loudly-shouting gang suddenly shows up and takes over the whole joint. Elevator, swimming pool, corridors and restaurant are suddenly rocking with the tour.

I recall a noisy and gaseous time in Morocco when a covey of grey-haired Frenchmen wearing ascots roared in with old cars with numbers on their sides. Then there was the loud bunch on New Year’s Eve in Aswan that called the waiter over and told him to go to the kitchen tell the cook that the food wasn’t good.

And just recently, in Burma/Myanmar not only were there countless tour groups about, but even the Pope was there running with a gang.

In an attempt to avoid these heaving organic masses, a smaller more discreet hotel can be the answer for the discriminating traveller: the boutique hotel.

Boutique hotels have very few, very expensive, rooms. They revel in mindfulness and existential peace. Their philosophy is that less is better.

For example, there is no TV in a true boutique hotel room: one is not to be shaken by political events or stirred by strenuous movies. There is not even a TV in the lobby, as there is no lobby—just a few atmospheric candles.

There is no mini-bar or fridge in a boutique hotel. Clanking motors are anathema to essential peace and inner tranquillity and chosing a beverage can be a strenuous effort. Extremes are erased. Your complimentary bottle of drinking water is served at room-temperature.

Lighting is very discreet. In fact, it is a bit like being back in the womb, so you will not be disturbed by brightness or glare. You walk into walls, doors and bed rims. You will not, though, walk into cupboards, shelves, drawers or pictures as there are none.

Bathrooms are at the heart of a boutique hotel experience. There is a massive rain head shower and green plants growing all around. Toilet paper is to be found hidden in a lidded hand-woven basket. Oils and creams are displayed in hand-thrown clay pots. There are no towels as they have been origamied into swans and are reposing on the bed. Soap is handmade and wrapped in newspaper and tied with a piece of hemp. There are flower petals on top and a smooth stone underneath. The bath-mat is folded into a peace sign.

The mosquito net above the bed is artfully arranged into a sort of lotus shape high in the middle of the cathedral-ceilinged room. You are told not to touch it. There is a spare room without a roof, but containing two wooden chairs. A back-to-nature room, perhaps.

Breakfast is unabashedly vegan. The closest thing to a bit of bacon is a blueberry. You are served calmly and serenely. In the smooth quiet, no one has to tell the cook that it isn’t good.

 

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.