Toothless Heroes

I subscribe to an important international American newspaper. I have even written for them. However, in the past couple of weeks they have run some questionable articles on the triste affaire of not one single Canadian team being in the Stanley Cup playoffs this year.

We’re talking hockey here, of course, and it’s a scandal.

The seven Canada-based teams in the National Hockey League are (in alphabetical order): Toronto Maple Leafs, Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Vancouver Canucks, and the Winnipeg Jets.

It’s not my fault that I’m a Maple Leafs fan. I came of hockey-awareness age in the 1960s in southern Ontario, and Hockey Night in Canada was a Saturday evening ritual of intense physical and emotional pleasure.

Those winter evenings are firmly and forever engraved in my mind. Our father, the village minister, having finished his sermon preparations customarily went over to Simpkins General Store and brought home a 6-bottle cardboard case of soda pop. One tiny little glass bottle each.

After Saturday supper, we then bathed, arranged our hair in rollers or pin curls, put on our flannel pyjamas, and opened the doors of the arborite-encased black and white TV.

We followed our favourite team with fervour. Our father’s repeated expression “The ref must be blind!” was incomprehensible, but we all shouted it with gusto whenever one of our team got sent to the penalty box.

We learned to spot an off-side; knew all about icing, tripping, boarding and checking; and suffered nail-biting agonies during a power-play by the enemy.

The players were mostly helmetless, and had no front teeth.  The goalies had faces full of scars. We loved them all.

Toronto Leafs 1964The great challenge was to try to make your soda pop last through the whole game. Or at least the first period. This was almost impossible, and with the thick green glass clinking against our front teeth the lukewarm dredges at the bottom usually disappeared before the first goal.

During the school-week hockey was kept alive with hockey coins (in packages of chips) and hockey cards (in bubble gum envelopes). There was Red Kelly, a Toronto MP when not on the ice and, thus, forgiven for being a wimp and wearing a helmet; Tim Horton, of doughnut fame; and the goal-rich Frank Mahovlich.

Indoor recesses (when the weather was too cold and icy to go out) revolved around tossing hockey coins against the wall.  I once possessed a most coveted and the very rare goalie coin (Johnny Bower) and enjoyed great popularity with the boys for a brief period of time until the inevitable happened.

My inner hockey-player was conceived during those exciting times and was born when the Leafs won their third successive Stanley Cup in 1964.

And, so, important international American paper, just shove that mouth protector back in and go sit in the penalty box for a few months.

I’ve got much better things to do than read your snarky hockey articles or waste my time watching trivial games played by unimportant teams.  I’m going to Niagara Falls.





Chickens Don’t Fart

I’m just reading my village newspaper and I’m not feeling very well. I have been shocked to find that my local Farmers’ Wives Group (Les Dames Paysannes) no longer exists. The reason given is that the population has increased, mentalities have changed, and modern people have different interests. Bah Humbug.

I had always dreamed of joining the farming ladies. Even though I’m not married to a farmer, I thought I could have somehow swung it due to my obvious love of nature and knowing the names of at least three sorts of birds that live in my garden.

I was looking forward to baking my famous lemon cake and banana bread for countryside fêtes, and tastefully wrapping Christmas presents in St Bernard dog wrapping paper for the schoolchildren.

All across Switzerland these groups of women were created towards the end of WWII, as the girls had been running the farming show while the menfolk were away defending the Swiss borders.

Instead of Rosie the Riveter, Switzerland had Heidi the Hay-Flipper. 

dames paysanneNow, of course, the new vocabulary surrounding this still-extant society has to do with sustainable agriculture, promoting countryside values, and offering local produce for sale.

All of this comes on the day that six little cows have been placed in the next-door field by the farmer from up the hill. They are cute. They are clean. They have friendly long tongues. They are also extremely smelly.  Cows in this world produce enough methane to be responsible for 14% of global warming. (This is a true fact).  Of course six little baby bulls do not constitute industrial farming and I’m sure that they only burp and fart when they really have to, but they do make a difference in the air quality at this end of the village.

Of course we should eat vegetables to save the planet as the carbon footprint of a carrot is zero, and chickens are recommended as a protein source as they do not have four stomachs all bubbling away simultaneously. They (and fish one presumes) are prone to much less anti-social gassiness than cows.

So, back to the village brochure after these agricultural ruminations, I study the photos of last year’s Hallowe’en festivities, followed closely by the Escalade party, all the monthly pot-luck brunches, and revel in the exciting news that Sunday dances are perhaps going to be organized. A small brewery has been opened, the village won second prize for its floral displays, and a week without television is being organized.

Well, let’s forget about the disbanded Farmer’s Wives Group. I’m modern. I’m progressive.  I’m moving into the future.

With a clothes pin on my nose I’m planting flowers, practising my dance moves, and not watching TV.

And when I’m finished, I’m going out to find that new brewery.



Swiss Kisses & Handshakes


In the classroom students and teachers can neither be equals nor friends. The relationship is infinitely more complex than that. However, with fragile adolescent lives suddenly being ruled by hormones, homework, and insecurities, any physical gesture can be used as a tool of manipulation and misinterpretation. Their hands should not be shaken.

Just as corporal punishment has been banished from schools, I seriously think that handshaking should also be stopped. I taught for decades in high schools in the canton of Geneva and never shook my students’ hands. Neither did my colleagues as far I know. Any act that can be construed as personally judgemental, sexual, political or religious has no place in the classroom. A handshake can be all of these things.

At its best, a jolly good handshake is a formal exchange of good faith and possible friendship. However, the germs of social hypocrisy are well-embedded.  I’m always impressed by two football teams lined up on the pitch to shake the opposing team’s hands before they begin kicking, tripping, and head-butting the crap out of each other.

Handshakes are also bursting with real germs and bacteria. Both the high five and the fist bump have been medically proposed as replacement activities (especially when there are pandemics about) as most people do not wash their hands as often as they should.

hand-kissing-grangerHere in Switzerland doctors always shake your hand as their first medical gesture. Strength, grip, temperature, perspiration are all indicators of the patient’s health in both body and mind. A handshake sends complex social and chemical signals that a busy-body doctor can pick up on. (Tip: I always sit on my hands in the doctor’s waiting room making sure they are warm and dry which indicates perfect physical and mental health.)

In the social context of the educational world, physical contact is not entirely absent, of course. Sporting events, funerals, and graduation ceremonies come to mind. However, this usually involves the more complicated Swiss bise (the kiss not the wind) rather than a handshake.

So I don’t know if the two teenage brothers from a Swiss German town who have refused to shake their (female) teacher’s hand are dangerous Muslim fundamentalists or not. However, I do know that in this country where minarets have been prohibited and crucifixes removed from schoolroom walls these two adolescents have brilliantly poked at the soft underbelly of an unnecessary, totally arbitrary, and potentially divisive institutional practice.


Floating in from the Floating World

Re-entry from the floating world of Japan into the realities of Switzerland is historically bumpy.

The long airplane ride provides a moment of psychological preparation for the inevitable slings and arrows of domestic distress that are soon to occur. Normally well-balanced, I cry my eyes out at airplane movies—even the comedies and documentaries. When I land, I am emotionally worn out and completely ready for anything.

This return was quite successful, however. The heating was still working, there wasn’t a dead cat under the motorcycle cover, the bottom had not fallen out of the hot water boiler in the basement, and there seem to be no mouse families living in the kitchen.

floating worldOf course Henri-the-cat and all his friends and enemies have been having peeing competitions and hairball spitting competitions in the front corridor as the cat flap was open. But now that the neighbour’s cat has been evicted from its squat in the bomb-shelter, we are all feeling much better and the quality of the air is much improved.

One excellent thing about being away is that there is that you receive no mail. Not quite true. There was the occasional cheery flyer coming in through the front door concerning a deal for Authentic Japanese Curry over at Ookayama’s Nepal curry shop.

Here the accumulated heaps of bills, newspapers, and advertising tower on the hall table and demand attention by occasionally toppling onto the floor.

Bogged down in the morass of post-trip laundry I miss my little Japanese washing machine (short cycle 30 minutes, medium cycle 31 minutes, long cycle 32 minutes) that played a little jingle–a sort of housewifely hymn–when the time was up. Here, down in the serious Swiss washing room, the ageless Teutonic machine grinds on for hours and hours and has absolutely no sense of whimsy.

And the Japanese baby iron, shielded from dust and damage in its pink plastic carry-case was a much tamer version of the huge hissing and spitting monster that lives, works and breathes here.

I’ve just put my thumb through a rotted peel of a lemon I bought fresh and shiny yesterday.  In Japan the flowers and fruit and vegetables last for weeks and weeks. They are objects of geometric perfection, and though I know we should all be embracing imperfect and rotting things, you can’t help but love a perfectly clean and proportioned carrot or miniature aubergine sold individually and preciously.

So, as I lay awake in my jet-lagged nights, gossamer strands of sushi trains and geisha bars float through my brain. They are starting to be joined by mountains, shepherd’s pie, lawnmowers and grandchildren.

I’m finally floating home.










Disaster Survival Manual

I’m thinking of getting a fish. Browsing through the complex set of rules that define life here at the International House in Tokyo, I see that the only pet that we are allowed to keep is one that does not soil the room or disturb neighbours. A fish in an aquarium is suggested. This plan also matches both the food and the weather.

However, underneath this heavy rule-filled binder I’ve come across a 50-page brochure entitled Disaster Survival Manual. It was printed in 2009, and is in pristine condition.

It is an entirely altruistic document with a foreword by the Mayor of Meguro and written in perfect English. Following an earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear reactor scare of 2008, its aim is to support the elderly, disabled, infants and foreign residents to evacuate. Like Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire, in case of catastrophe we will all be depending greatly on the kindness of strangers.

There are four Tokyo earthquakes that demand attention.

  • The first is the Tokyo Inland Earthquake. This is called “unsettling” as no prediction is possible.
  • The second is the Tokai trench-type earthquake and will only reach a magnitude of 5 in Tokyo, so is unimportant.
  • The third is the Kanagawa Quake which is of great concern.
  • And the fourth is the Kanto Earthquake which destroyed the city in 1923, so is presumably over and done with.

But I am now seriously worried, as I see that I am not prepared at all.

japan_rescue_team_pgbAccording to instructions, the bathtub should be filled with water at all times. A crowbar, shovel, saw and automobile jack should all be to hand. Food (alfa rice and sea biscuits) and bottled water for three days should be prepared. First aid kit, helmets, cotton work gloves, flashlights and candles should be at the ready. And a portable toilet and a stock of toilet paper, heating stove, portable gas stove are all essential.

On a more whimsical note a sewing kit, waterless shampoo and writing materials should also be in the backpack at the door and ready to go. Well, not exactly go. If there is a serious tremor, you should stay inside under a table with a cushion on your head. (Note: there are no cushions.)

To take away the shock factor of an earthquake arriving out of the blue, there exists a Mobile Earthquake Simulation Truck (called GRUUTT) which visits the locality.  This, I imagine, is similar to the simulator for space travel.  You enter perky, keen, and cracking jokes. You exit confused, nauseous, and possibly injured. There is also a local smoke simulation house which you can also visit. These two earthquake-related events should probably not be undertaken on the same day.

You must help everyone around you in case of disaster and also prepare your pet for possible catastrophe.

I’m off to the 100-Yen shop to see what I can pick up—perhaps a pencil, a candle, a toilet roll and a small package of sea biscuits. I’ve crossed the fish off the list.