Power Child

Inexplicably, I’ve never been invited to the World Economic Forum in Davos. But last week, I was there, in spirit, eating canapés with the rock stars and the bankers.

I was there alongside Justin Trudeau as, you see, I knew the Prime Minister of Canada’s parents, Pierre and Margaret, intimately.

All Canadians of my generation did. Pierre Trudeau rose from the political ashes of the old turgid boring times. He was sparkly, urbane, much-travelled, witty, wise, and sexy. He wore a flower in his buttonhole. His politics were progressive as he sloughed off all things conservative and reactionary. He was interested in the new – as we all were in the late 60’s. Arrogant and dismissive of what he saw as nonsense, he struck a celestial chord in my teen-aged brain.

Thirty years her senior, Pierre married 22-year old Margaret. The philosopher prince wed the garden fey (she sewed her own wedding costume; it had a hood.) She had babies, and then became a highly successful Rolling Stones groupie. In his autobiography, Keith Richards says he was shocked. She then spilled all the beans in a book. The Canadian media had a dazzling time and Pierre got custody of the kids. An old University of Toronto comrade gleefully announced that after Justin Trudeau’s recent election, Justin’s mom contacted his wife, Sophie, and offered to give her some tips on being Canada’s first lady.

Anyway, the Trudeaus’ first-born was called Justin. “A Just Society” was the political slogan of the Liberal political campaign in 1968. Pierre Trudeau had also been Justice Minister before his election as Prime Minister. I dislike dynasties, but his father’s career was not only Justin’s name but also his destiny.

trudeau-davos-20160121Justin Trudeau (age 44) wants to be kind to everyone. He came to Davos to promote a trade agreement between Canada and Europe. With falling oil prices, the high price of cauliflowers, and the state of the Canadian dollar, the country needs all the help it can get. He also wants 25,000 Syrians refugees in Canada as soon as the weather allows. Winter coats are a must. He wants women, children, and family groups. The odd man can come too, but he has to be gay.

I just heard Justin, in Davos, saying that he’s “a feminist” which complicates things even further. He wants to legalise marijuana which is a popular move among a certain segment of the Canadian population, but I guess won’t be much comfort to the dozen Swiss Army soldiers who got busted smoking pot while on guard duty at the Davos Forum.

Anyway, the children have come of age. May the force be with you, Justin, I wish you and your lucky socks all the very best in our modern world filled with mayhem and misery.

Agreeable Consequences

Our grand-daughter has already made several serious career choices for when she grows up.

It began as being a painter / artist, as everyone praised her early Picasso-style drawings as being produced by a prodigy of extraordinary talent.

This quickly faded, and, liking cats and dogs, a vet became her second profession of choice. This has recently been dropped as she feels she could handle the warm furry outsides of animals, but the squishy liquid insides are a cause of concern.

When she discovered the self-scanning gizmo at the Migros she wanted to devote her life to shopping there, or, even better, becoming a scanning specialist.

Her latest stage brings with it the wish to become a little-kids primary school teacher so she can go back in time and have a school-free Wednesday.

This has resulted in several recent school-related conversations, with some surprising results.

When quizzed about her favorite day at school, Tuesday was craftily mentioned. This just happens to be the day that she comes here for lunch (of either macaroni and cheese or hamburgers) and is the envy of her entire school class who all march off to the faded lettuce and refried polenta of cuisine scolaire.

However, the absolute day of choice is Friday, due to Conséquences Agréeable. I had first thought this was some sort of a board game like Monopoly or Diplomacy or Labyrinth teaching the young blossoming minds the beauty of a morally-ordered world.

It turns out to be much more personal and devious. As each school week wears on, the thumb tack under your name moves from green, through yellow and orange into the red depending on your behavioural errors. If, by Friday afternoon, you are still in the green or yellow, you can spend your time doing nothing—laughing, giggling, whispering. This state of affairs is called “agreeable consequences.” If you have messed up in a possible multitude of ways (including faults of your parents forgetting to sign a report card, for instance) your thumb tack marches relentlessly at each error one step closer to the red.

If you are in the red field by Friday, you do not enjoy “agreeable consequences” but their opposite – dire consequences – work: dastardly multiplication tables, writing out lines, French dictation and correction. This is, of course, an 8-year-old’s nightmare which can–among the very best students–lead to precocious parental signature forgery.

This little piece of elementary psychology is only introduced in the 5th year of primary school (the year when Wednesday morning classes are begun) by the very sharpest of teachers. I like to think that our grand-daughter longs for a purer and simpler time of the truly agreeable 4-day week of her earlier school years.

And I am sure that her smug, selfish, lazy happiness created through the misfortune of others is an entirely unforeseen by-product of Friday afternoon’s “agreeable consequences.”

The Real Twitter

Welcome to Twitter. Connect with your friends — and other fascinating people. Get in-the-moment updates on the things that interest you. And watch events unfold, in real time, from every angle.

It has finally snowed and I can feed the birds. The bird balls (seeds and suet packed into a net) and the bulk bag of bird food were purchased a month ago. The feeding houses have been hung from the apricot and the cherry trees. The old Christmas tree has been placed on the strawberry boxes. Let the banquet begin!

It has been too warm so far this winter to feed the birds. If the ground is not snow-covered or frozen you should let the birds fend for themselves. If you spoil them they become too fat to fly. As a member of the Swiss Ornithological Institute in Sempach (I buy their calendar every year) I know this to be a true scientific fact.

So, I put on my boots, found the bird balls on the kitchen windowsill, and trudged into the garden to begin the hanging of the balls. They had been waiting. No sooner had I started, than they rose up in a great twittering chorus. I don’t know if they all spoke the same language, but I clearly distinguished robin, chaffinch, sparrow, and goldfinch. On the ground the resident blackbird couple was silently, sulkily, looking for worms in the snow.

st francisbirds

St Francis preaching to the birds, Giotto, 1297

They flew in from all directions. My bird-balls had gone viral; they got millions of hits. Even the woodpecker on the walnut tree stopped bashing his head against the bark to see what was up.

Now, I’m not particularly sentimental about birds. I like to see them out and about: turquoise kingfishers flitting over the Rhone River and cormorants drying their wings in the weak winter sun; jays squawking from the trees; and I’ll even tolerate a redstart building her nest in the tool shed. But on a snowy morning to be greeted by a whole inter-racial bird crowd and thanked for a bird-ball feast I found to be most moving.

I now understand Saint Francis of Assisi preaching to the birds and Dr Doolittle talking to the animals. They must have had bird balls in their pockets.

A Pair of Pink Flamingos

To chase away the January blues, I’ve just bought a pair of tall pink flamingo standing lamps. I think the plan is working. They have been tastefully placed in the dining room and give off a serene womb-like glow.

It’s not easy to find such beautiful pieces of kitsch in Geneva shops, and ordering things on-line just takes the fun out of the game. I once was fatally attracted to a life-size Grey Heron in a little under-stocked shop in Carouge and was told it was window dressing and not for sale. Deep shopping disappointment has been trailing me since that day.

Anyway, forget the Canada Geese and the first giant robin of spring, it is flamingos that come straight and sharp from my Canadian childhood memories. My very first best friend, Brenda, belonged to a clan of neighbours living over the road in a rural southern Ontario village. They were two generations of Georgian planters (three with Brenda) and had built themselves massive white houses to be near the elderly matriarch of the extended family.

Coming from the deep American south they were exotic with birdbaths and peanuts growing in their garden. My friend’s grandfather fashioned objects in his basement out of metal bottle caps – baskets, rabbits, jalopies. Brenda and I watched him work and listened to his stories of diving into Lake Ontario, inadvertently swallowing a tape worm egg, and having a tape worm in his stomach for decades and decades. We loved him.

pink flamingo lampTheir prized possession was a pair of life-sized pink flamingos, and when a chosen warm summer day was coming to an end these would be placed at the bottom of the huge immaculately-tended garden. Two white lawn chairs would be placed behind them, a cooler filled with ice and soda bottles was put in place, and we were all ready for the evening hobby of car-spotting. Cars would drive slowly past, slow down, and driver and passenger (out for the evening motorized promenade) would stop to chat for a while. Strangers would wave. It was a glorious time.

It wasn’t my fault I bought the pink flamingo lamps yesterday. We passed them in the shop as we were on our way to see our just-born grandson. The shop was shut. Today, again, I took the same path to the Maternity ward, and they were still there. What was I to do? Abandon them to their cruel fate of having some strangers buy them, and perhaps even split them up?

Never. After top-level consultation with my grand-daughter, the pair now glow warmly together. One day in a few years time, my grandchildren and I will take the flamingo couple to the end of the drive way at the end of a warm summer day and plug them in. I will tell tall tales about my long-lost Lake Geneva tape worm. We will pop open the old-fashioned glass coke bottles that can still be purchased just over the border in France. Cars and bicyclers will slow down in awe and admiration and we will wave.

It’s not the same, but it’s not different, either. It’s a fine January dream of a July pink flamingo evening in Canada.

The Ex-Xmas Tree

Everyone knows about Christmas left-overs. With the turkey, you make sandwiches, stews, and a final swan-song turkey-noodle soup. The rest gets given to the cat until not even he will touch it any more. The carcass is unsentimentally thrown out with the garbage.  Leftover champagne, on the other hand, becomes a delightfully refreshing breakfast beverage.

However, left-over Christmas trees are a different story. They have had a moment of true glory and domestic beauty. They have been bought, created, and imbued with those most powerful of emotions: delight, nostalgia, and wonder. They have become your friend.

When I first came to Switzerland, my Swiss-German mother-in-law had real candles and wicked sparklers on her Christmas tree. I was terrified, and in pitying tones was assured that the tree was so fresh that not even a blow torch could catch it alight.

burned treeThis was seriously confusing, as in Canada the tree is brought into the house any time after the first of November. There used to be coloured light bulbs that got hot enough to singe the branches. By Christmas Day, the thing was well on its way to being a piece of naked tinder with a few forlorn candy canes and bits of tinsel. There were needles everywhere.

Not wanting to be thought of as wimpy Canadian, I, too, took up this Swiss naked-flame tradition, and it was found so charming and delightful by English friends that they did manage to burn out their London living-room. After this event, I slowly and craftily changed to electrical lights and the big Christmas tree water bucket (a tasteful green) became redundant.

There are no community January Christmas tree-burning ceremonies here, instead the individual trees are dragged in the direction of the compost bin. They can be seen littering the sidewalks and poking out of garbage chutes. They have angel hair and golden ties from the chocolate ornaments that used to be on them. In this post-Christmas world it is a depressing and sorry sight.

Not in this house. We don’t abandon old dead things so easily. Dec 31st finds our Christmas tree stripped of its chintzy ornaments and gutless electrical lights and sporting real burning candles out in the garden. If it survives that, it is hung with bird balls and becomes a huge bird-feeder. The birds, the turkey-stuffed cat and our grand-daughter find this most interesting.

Eventually. Christmas magic melts away, and the tree becomes part of the springtime garden clean-up. The tree has been a virgin, a bride, an acrobat, a servant and finally a corpse. Spring comes and the dead tree goes. The circle is complete.