Rising Above It

In these grey, wet, cold, foggy, soggy days you do not have to fly to Bali or Mauritius to find warm happy sunshine and friendly people. You need a car (or, in extremis, a bus or a bike or a cable car) and off you go – up up and away into the local hills.

Here at Foggy Bottom where I live down beside the Rhone River, there are days when the sun never shines. So you go up the Salève, the Jura, or even up the top of the next hill, and you are in a different world—a world of clear vision and light and smiles.

And, once there, you go for a little walk to pick up some energy to take back to the lowlands. On these walks you meet people like yourself who are out taking the air and enjoying the view—for once above the sea of fog, you instantly forget that there are human beings down there breathing the insalubrious vapours and busy being grouchy. You are on a disconnected higher plane of existence.

Firmly ensconced in this world, you mention to casual fellow-walkers that at your place it’s a horrible grey pea-soup fog. They either agree (they live there too) or express surprise, claiming they’d never have thought it (these are the ones who live a little higher). You cheerily hail people working in their gardens in a spring-like manner. They either say nothing (as they consider that you are a lunatic who has been let out of the asylum for the day) or they fall in with your happy fantasy.

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog 1818 by Caspar David Friedrich

A perfect conversation goes something like this:
–Bonjour! We’re just standing here admiring your view.–
–That costs two Euros.–
–But it was only 1.50 E last year!—

Guffaws all around and you’re off. You ask the obvious question to elicit easy answers. I suggest starting with –Are we in France or in Switzerland?– As your new casual friend will then feel a vague sort of pity for your innocence and immediately realize the non-threatening nature of your existence.

The state of the walking path can also be minutely discussed, as can the proximity of hunters and their dogs—who these days have a sort of radio wrapped around their necks. Noisy, smelly teenage dirt-bike hooligans are a common enemy. You give people directions to Santa’s Village and to the next cross on various bits of the St James Way to Santiago de Compostela (follow the shells) in the region.

So the horrid fog’s silver lining is to lead us up into the land of the glorious walks and, as my old neighbour up in the mountains used to say, to “causer bien”—to practice the fine art of conversation with perfect strangers.

The Stollen

A few weeks back I bought a nifty little German Christmas cake: a stollen. It was made in Dresden and was completely authentic. It even had a seal and was signed by someone. It was expensive and wrapped in golden foil.

Unfortunately, it accidentally got eaten shortly after its arrival due to a social emergency that featured family members, little cups of espresso, Japanese roasted-rice tea and a Sunday afternoon. The cake wasn’t all that wonderful – in fact, it was dry as saw-dust and I seem to remember my grand-daughter licking up piles of crumbs from the table.

Where I come from, baking a Christmas cake is a spiritual experience. You need a spell of “fruitcake weather” and a Christmas cake happens. The cook, inspired by the cold and snow, has sudden visions of a good solid piece of heavy sticky fruitcake in her hand. This year’s weather has been too warm, the cook (in her shorts and sandals) was uninspired.

Feeling I could improve on the Dresden stollen, I consulted my husband’s family-heritage Koch Buch written in 1966 by Elisabeth Fülscher in Zürich. This door-stopper features 656 pages of delicious Swiss German food – geschnetzeltes Kalbfleisch, Haferauflauf flockensuppe, and Dampfkochtopf—but, sadly, is written in German, so a person has to invent bits of information from time to time.

I found Weihnachtsstollen (Recipe #1651) on page 560 – tucked away between the Hamburger Kloeben and the Streuselkuchen. Seemed like a piece of cake – a sort of fruit bread that needed to rise twice then be baked in a medium oven for about an hour then covered in powdered sugar.

Well, I don’t know what Elizabeth was smoking back in 1966, but in her recipe, after kneading for hours, you divide the dough in two, roll them to the size of plates, then take one, fold it over itself and let it rise again. It seems the other half is discarded.

I checked on tBakingdisaster_thumbhe web, and that side-tracked me even further, as other people add other things to make their stollens even more delicious. The most fascinating addition was the clump of marzipan that could be lodged in the middle and would make a wondrous surprise.

So I have made a super-stollen. It has everything in it – both halves of the dough, rum-soaked currants and raisins, three sorts of candied fruit, and a hunk of marzipan. The only thing I didn’t add was the drop of rose-water because I didn’t have any.

Well, the stollen rose reluctantly overnight down the basement. I then placed it on a chair in front of the oven so it could watch the Christmas cookies baking and get into the mood. It rose a tiny little bit.

I have just taken it out of the oven, and it’s not a pretty sight. While baking it has to be basted with butter (much like a turkey) several times so became quite a dark brown on top. One of the side walls split into a strange geode-type formation and quite a bit of fruit spilled out and burned. It has a mysterious crack through the middle on the diagonal.

The powdered sugar worked wonders, however, and the brown lump is looking quite a bit more festive. Now I just have to add the holly sprig and hope.

A Really Dirty (English) Trick

I have made a huge mistake. Having been an English teacher with a close relationship to modal verbs for decades, I was curious about the mix-up concerning the climate change document that was produced at the Paris Conference a week ago. So I read the 31-page Paris Climate Change Agreement December 12, 2015. http://unfccc.int/resource/docs/2015/cop21/eng/l09.pdf

As my sister has wisely observed in this fraught pre-Christmas period, one is either sucking on lollypops humming Christmas tunes or one is spitting with rage. Stultified to the point of falling off my chair, I wanted to see if I could find the bit that is causing the linguistic controvery—the bit that takes the teeth out of the developed world’s legal commitment to saving the world. The bit where “shall” got changed to “should”.

No normally-constituted person should read this document. It is a repetitive masterwork of cajoling happy-energy. It emphasizes, notes, invites, requests, urges, strives, recommends, recognizes, takes note, calls upon, aims to, and encourages. It is a maze of time-lines and dates.

Despite this, I easily spotted the passage that shifts responsibility away from the developed countries. It is really there on page 22, Article 4, Section 4:

Developed country Parties should continue taking the lead by undertaking economy-wide absolute emission reduction targets. Developing country Parties should continue enhancing their mitigation efforts, and are encouraged to move over time towards economy-wide emission reduction or limitation targets in the light of different national circumstances.

Of course, the first “should” should have been a “shall”.

Now, everybody loves the wantvsshouldword “should”. It’s an agreeable concept, filled with awareness of the problematic, but simultaneously considering potential improvement. “Shall” is a crisper word which expresses firm intent, decision, imminent action. We all know that we really should do something about our filthy, polluted, deluded world. We really should do something about the polar bears and the Adélie penguins hanging onto their tiny little ice floes and starving to death. Poor loves! And that Golden Toad that hasn’t been spotted since 1989, well, something really should have been done before it became extinct.

So, after two weeks of intense diplomacy, the final document was a day-and-half overdue. On Sunday, the American delegation saw the “shall” (signifying their responsibility and accountability) in Article 4 and threatened not to sign. The French government, needing a landmark climate accord, wiggled out of the impasse by claiming the drafting team had made a typographical error and everyone quickly agreed to sign the “should” (signifying a potential pleasant possibility) document.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. So, I shall see you all there sooner rather than later. I’ll be the one over in the coolish corner feeding the polar bears and humming Christmas songs. Hopefully, I should have stopped spitting by then.


Garbage Guilt

My garbage can phobia began exactly 10 years ago. We had just moved to the village, and recycling was still a concept struggling to be born.

In the old days, the large metal community garbage bins were out by the smelly water treatment plant. Situated above ground they were clearly labeled—glass, paper, everything else. Of course, a few fussy people rigorously separated aluminum, tin, plastic and food scraps, but it was with gay abandon that the rest of us pitched a tuna can, a banana peel, a yoghurt bucket and an old jam jar into a big, solid, green plastic garbage bag and threw it all neatly away.

Twice a week you would roll out your private galvanized garbage can full of your personal trash and garbage men in trucks rolled around the countryside and picked it up. Once every couple of weeks you would bundle up your newspapers and put out the bottles. It was a private and orderly world.

Then came the advent of the plastic community trash bins located in garbage hot-spots. This inevitably bred a certain sort of citizen: the self-appointed Garbage Policewoman—in my case she was profoundly Swiss, of a certain age, and lived in a sniper-vantage-point third-storey apartment. She had excellent eyesight, mobility and wind-proof hair.

Yes, so I got busted throwing an old apple crate and a little short piece of garden hose into the general container. Filled with an acute sense of civic duty, this particular person defended the integrity of her trash-bags-only garbage bin. Severe and lasting trauma was the result.

Oscar_the_Grouch_a_Palisades_action_figureSince then, garbage sorting has been streamlined. In the village recycling headquarters over by the volunteer fire-truck shed and the community defibrillator, there are: above-ground containers for old clothes, garden trimmings, oil, coffee capsules and batteries; and underground ones for metal, plastic, glass, paper, and kitchen miscellaneous.

To make matters even more emotionally challenging, some party-pooper has plastered the glass deposit chutes with the Alcohol Help Line telephone number.

The municipal council has supplied each household with a personal compartmentalized heavy-duty plastic carry-bag to walk your garbage to the recycling station. It is illustrated with a cross-eyed friendly-looking wild boar that walks on his back legs and wears red running shoes. He cheerfully balances an empty wine bottle on his snout, carries a heap of newspapers on his head, jumps on a plastic bottle to flatten it, drives a snail pulling a compost bucket, flips batteries into a little box and juggles metal cans. There is also a helpful list of things that cannot be put into the garbage, and a map to get you to the cantonal dump.

So, if you need to pitch your old apple crate or a bit of garden hose or all those pre-Christmas cardboard delivery boxes that are starting to accumulate, I would suggest you do it quietly at night and make sure that no one is looking.

Christmas Mail

I’m being bombarded with seemingly innocuous, but highly guilt-inducing little presents—name stickers, agendas, calendars, post-it pads, cards and envelopes, recipe booklets, wrapping paper, pencils, notebooks, and even the occasional ornament. I haven’t yet received the package of chicken noodle soup which was such a delicious surprise last year.

These presents are accompanied by an informative letter, some relevant visual aid and at least one payment form. They each wish me a wonderful Advent season and a very Merry Christmas.
Yes. It is charity / NGO fund-raising season yet again.

Now, I have nothing against sick children, sadly displaced people, polar bears, unemployed people, blind people, mentally ill people, leprosy camps, people living in the mountains, people living in religious villages in the Philippines, people who paint with their feet or hungry St. Bernard dogs. In fact, I would like to help all of them.

And I quite like the idea of giving my Canadian brother-in-law a little piglet that will be presented to someone in Haiti which will, in turn, allow schooling for the children; or 20 chickens (for only 40 francs) that will peck around somewhere in Bangladesh and create eggs and cash for an entire family.

He seems to enjoy receiving these no-frills, no-nonsense, non-presents. I gave him a ½ metre of Swiss steam-train track for his last birthday. I think he’s really enjoying it.

I also fondly remember the goat that my Swiss son-in-law presented us with a few years back. He had signed the card with his name—which I had unfortunately thought was the name of the goat for many many months.
140926094353-apopo-rat-test-mine-field-banana-horizontal-galleryAdopting a de-mining rat is also another really good idea, but so far no one has send me the relevant information. Fortunately, I have my own private sources.

Each of the above makes much more sense than the usual slippers, socks, and soap selections. But then, Christmas was never about sense, it was about miracles; and now, even worse, it’s all about stuff. And once you have your basic stuff – which boils down to a couple of smart little machines – all the rest is entirely arbitrary.

So, buy a solar lamp, a sewing machine, a duck, a latrine, a fishing net, or a blanket and proudly present the gift certificate to your person-of-choice. They will love it – but be sure not to forget the bonbons, the bottle, or the book that goes along with it.