The Canadianisation of Switzerland

Things are definitely looking up. I’ve just received an invitation to go to a Hallowe’en party. Well, not exactly a personal invitation; it is taped onto the garbage container over the road and invites the whole entire village. Not only will there be an exciting costumed ball, but also a Canadian buffet.

Hallowe’en is a new invention in Switzerland. When I arrived in 1977 there was not a Candy Kiss in sight, and hollow Jack o’ Lantern pumpkins were not available. I had to buy an entire solid cooking pumpkin that weighed about 15 kilos and scrape it out. There were no witches, goblins, or ghosts roaming the streets. We had to do it all in-house with a select Japanese friend from the local primary school and some bed sheets. The pumpkin was carved with great care and difficulty and the candle lit to keep the spooks away for another year.

I rather enjoyed the exclusivity of my own cultural identity. I made the connection to All Saints Day of November 1st and the chrysanthemums on family tombstones—which I considered a much more sober and mature soothing of the spirits. However, I perked up with Escalade just a few weeks later, which fulfilled the Hallowe’en ritual entirely – a child’s event celebrated with disguise, ringing the neighbours’ doorbells, a song, and candy treats.

jellosaladNow the second element of the tempting village Hallowe’en party invitation, the “buffet Canadien,” is quite another matter. When I first encountered this in Switzerland, I thought it was some sort of delightful smorgasbord of Canadian foods – pancakes with maple syrup, moose-burgers, and boxes of fresh Tim Horton doughnuts. Well, this is not the case. It’s the old dreaded pot-luck supper which is traditionally a wicked thing.

Back in Canada, my father’s church would run a “pot-luck social” every now and then to cheer everyone up in the wintertime, and hungry as I always was, you had to be very very careful. My mother had an ingrained fear of casseroles (you never knew what was in them) and a pot-luck supper was Casserole City: spam, tuna, corned beef, cabbage, and potato were all there featuring confusingly differing colours and textures. Vegetables were salads with peas hanging suspended in lime-green jelly. Pies were raisin and apple and lemon meringue. The adults drank weak coffee and the children drank milk.

I met my first olive at a pot-luck social and was horrified at the unfriendly unknown taste. I thought my mother’s predictions were going to come true and death was imminent.

If I go to the village Hallowe’en party, I sure know what I’m going to take. And it won’t be olives.

Living Proof

I’ve just been asked to prove that I am alive. I have until the end of the month.

I thought I had done this at the beginning of the summer by signing a form with my very own signature swearing I was alive, dating the document, putting my return address on the back of the envelope, and mailing it back. Any run-of-the-mill forensics expert could have checked the DNA and fingerprints. Don’t these people watch NCIS? Anyway, spit and handwriting were not good enough; they need official civic proof—a witnessed signature, a passport, and the village/community stamp.

My husband (who is much much older than I) was smugly satisfied with this nasty turn of events. He has NEVER been asked to prove that he was alive. He says it is to prevent dishonest relatives of dead people from collecting their pensions.

Well, I don’t know who would want my tiny little miniscule early-retirement pension (I am nowhere near old enough for the proper state pension), but it has caught someone’s administrative eye, and I feel a bit like Tom Sawyer attending his own funeral though I don’t quite know why.

tom-sawyerHowever, upon checking, I see that there are some grizzly shenanigans going on all around us—hundreds of thousands of ghost pensioners have been dug up, so to speak, in southern Europe, Uganda, and Pakistan. I wonder where they put all the bodies? There are only so many closets to be sealed off, walls to be doubled, freezers to be filled, or compost heaps to be plumped up. Don’t doctors miss their elderly patients? I found myself in a medical waiting room yesterday and everyone seemed to be about 120 years old, wearing hand-knit sweaters, fumbling with canes, glasses, and elevator buttons.

So, anyway, wishing to remain in the land of the officially living for a while yet, I went round to the village hall and got an official Life Certificate. I asked the secretary if she wanted to touch my arm to make sure I wasn’t a Whitney Houston-type hologram. She didn’t think I was funny and gave me an elaborate hand-written receipt for my 5 francs.

A small price to pay for living proof.

Going Postal

Well, if it had been April 1st, I would have thought that it was the joke news story (this is a cunning Swiss farce played out annually to keep us on our toes.) But it’s not; I’ve checked. So it seems to be true that the Swiss post office (fondly known as the Yellow Giant) is getting set to deliver parcels to people on Sundays via taxi. The postal spokesperson was interviewed and she said that they had to move with the times.

I have had a close financial and emotional relationship with Swiss Post for the past 38 years. Being from Away, means that birthdays, Christmas, books, and clothes have all been serviced for me by them. There was the famous cracked tin of Canada No 1 maple syrup that had leaked right through the cardboard box and had bits of other peoples’ letters and Christmas cards sticking to it. There was the 5- gram over-the-limit parcel that I opened, ate a chocolate, and repacked right at the wicket. I have argued about the sanity of sudden new rules, and have made militant post office buddies.


The post office in my village closed a few years back. Then the one in the next village closed. The one in village #3 is probably hanging on by a thread of envelope spit.  We drive closer and closer towards the city looking for real live people to help us fulfill our postal possibilities.

The stoned postman (who was an extremely cool part of the long-lost village postal team; he used to hide my mail in the garage) has given way to a brisk young man, who seems to be hurried, harried, and always running late. He delivers parcels if we’re at home; throws them over the fence if we are not. I asked him about the Sunday taxi delivery service and he said he knew absolutely nothing about it. I mean, they don’t even deliver parcels on Saturdays, so how can Sunday be a sudden delivery-day imperative? Everything in the canton of Geneva is shut on Sundays–well, except for the cantonal garbage dump, but that’s another story.

Anyway, I’m looking forward to my theoretical Sunday parcel deliveries. I wonder where I will have to go to collect my parcels if I’m not at home? I wonder if they will use illegal Uber taxi drivers as they are cheaper?

I wonder what they will think of next.

The Bucolic Haven of Tranquility Myth

I live in a village in the Geneva countryside. It is a bucolic haven of tranquility. It has a school, church, gas station, corner grocery shop, a hair dresser, two restaurants, and an ill-defined gathering place down by the river.

From my house I see the Jura out one window and the Salève out another. The Rhone River tinkles merrily at night. The owls hoot. The bats flit.

We don’t need alarm clocks in our village. The barrier at the French border is unlocked every morning just before 6 a.m. If the first volley of cars and motorbikes without exhaust pipes doesn’t get you out of bed, then the first flight into Geneva Airport (today it was the 6:10 from Ankara) will.

A FARMER has spent an estimated £55,000 to import a flock of the world’s cutest sheep to the Scottish Highlands. Valais Blacknose sheep are only found in Switzerland where they are “worshipped” by locals for their “black hole” faces, shaggy coats and spiral horns. Raymond Irvine paid around £5,000 a time for 11 sheep - 10 ewes and show-winning ram King kong - making it the first herd north of the border. The sheep are so valuable he has installed CCTV and brought in guard dogs to stop them being stolen from his farm near Tomintoul, Moray. Raymond and girlfriend Jenni (corr) McAllister got a surprise when it turned out one of the ewes was already pregnant, giving birth to Scotland’s first baby Valais Blacknose.

You have time for a coffee and shower before the army troop transporters roll in at about 8 a.m. The recruits have days of shooting, days of explosions, and quieter days when they come with rolls of orange tubing used to pump water from the Rhone into a parking lot in the woods. This is probably a top-secret maneuver, and as we all know that loose lips sink ships, this must only be spoken of in hushed whispers.

The army training area is conveniently located inside the bird sanctuary, and some human houses have also recently been built where the more traditional nests once were.

The field over the road with the curly-horned black-faced sheep is being developed into a long grey bunker-building containing 24 apartments. In this way even more people can enjoy village life. Construction work usually begins at about 7 a.m., shortly after the garbage has been collected from the various underground metal containers.

no sheep anymore 4-new

Don’t get me wrong. I am not complaining. Living in our village, one feels connected and alive. A few years back Icelandic volcanic ash grounded many planes. This coincided with bridge repairs so the road was closed. Rip van Winkle-like the village slept solidly for two whole weeks and we awoke refreshed and longing for some action.

Fortunately, the church bells are at the other end of the village; the monster agricultural machines and the techno-raves in the woods are entirely seasonal; and the air-raid sirens are only tested once a year.

And yes. In the little field out back cows with bells occasionally still come to snack on my hedge.

Photo de tête: Rip van Winkle, héros bucolique de l’écrivain américain Washington Irving. (© 2007 Publications International, Ltd.)


The Voting Kit

It has arrived—big and fat and grey. As a Swiss citizen and a woman, I feel an imperative to vote, no matter how badly. This particular October 18th vote elects our members of parliament and our cantonal representatives.

I carefully peel off the back flap and consider the contents: two voting envelopes, one voting card, one ballot paper, one ballot book (which contains 26 lists of candidates), and two instruction booklets (45 pages total).


Already feeling tired, I do a quick flick through the lists. Geneva’s not too bad as our quota is a skimpy 11 MPs. The poor Zurich people have to choose 35.

This time around, there seems to be no one I know—no neighbours, no former students, no hockey players. Careful consideration reveals a brick-layer, several militants, an astrologer, a feminist, a taxi driver, a naturalist, a TV technician, a dentist, a janitor, a lady-of-the-house, and a couple of wine-makers. The vast majority seem to be existing MPs, or people in more modest, boring, local political positions.

So, on with the vote. I choose my favorite political parties and I limit myself to the lists that give candidates’ ages. I then ask anyone who’s sitting at the kitchen table in my 5-minute voting window whether then have any pertinent information…something they’ve heard or read somewhere, a picture or a tone of voice they didn’t like; a good idea.

This line of enquiry is quickly exhausted and so you must take the plunge. Choose a list, cross out the names or the professions you dislike, double up with someone you feel might be good, write in the name of a wine-maker as you happen to be drinking a glass of wine.

This moves things along quite well, but, finally there are one or two names that you sort of have to guess at.

Finally, with a flourish and a strong sense of citizenry, you carefully sign your voting card, put your ballots into the colour-coded voting envelopes and lick them sealed, repack and stick down your untorn outer envelope making sure that you don’t accidentally send the whole she-bang back to yourself, and place the hefty unused information brochures in the paper recycling basket. Mission accomplished.

This intense political activity takes me back to a local radio interview that quizzed people in the streets of Geneva whether they thought long-term non-Swiss residents should be able to vote. One perky articulate woman said definitely not, as they might vote the wrong way.

I’m sure glad that we real Swiss know how to vote the right way.