Grandparents of the World, Unite!

Those of you who are not grandparents really don’t have to read this. You have not had the crown of grandparenthood thrust upon you. You are free agents. When you invite your adult children for a meal, they come on time and are perky and refreshed-looking. They engage in adult-style conversation. They don’t crayon on the walls. They sit on their chairs through the entire meal and generally do not knock over their glasses. They leave the place without crying and needing their diapers changed.

They might, of course, bring a child-substitute. A puppy, perhaps, or a large barking shedding dog. Something that chews chair legs, slobbers over the table, steals half the cheese board, pees in the hall and poops in the corners. Such behaviour only goes a small way in illustrating what it’s like having real grandchildren around.

I personally love my grandchildren. The bigun (16) seems quite mature with her blue hair and black clothes. We will be going together to the Stratford Festival in Canada next week to see a somewhat kindred spirit, Hamlet.

The two littluns (6 and 2) also have literary references. Lord of the Flies comes immediately to mind. When they are not fighting, they work as a two-man demolition team, and, if your drug combination is right, and you are in an anti-materialist mood, can be considered delightfully active and life-enhancing.

We grandparents can’t play hop-scotch forever, however, and knees and backs are often screaming at us to sit down and WATCH the world rather than running along trying to keep up with it.  So it really wasn’t easy being 70 years old on Wednesday. The Geneva public transport system went on strike which meant walking miles and miles on hard concrete sidewalks to see an ear specialist in the morning (ref. Simplon Tunnel blog) and attending a Baluchistan concert in the evening.

While slogging along the pedestrian pavements with speeding silent electric bikes and scooters inches from my shoulder, I was reflecting on the pronouncement of grandson #1 the previous day. Sitting in his car seat, having been picked up for his weekly luncheon in the Geneva countryside (grandparents are the glue of most Geneva family life) the little ayatollah issued the decree that all cars were evil inventions.

This was vaguely agreed with, and then it was cheerfully explained that without a car there would be no cheeseburgers with the grandparents on Tuesdays: It was too far to walk from his school, the buses took too long, and our carpets don’t fly. Without a car, there would be no pyjama parties on the weekends, no visits to the Shack, no walks along the Rhone River. If he couldn’t ride in a car, then the grandparents would be permanently on strike.

He went quiet and was vaguely abashed. Hopefully, like the wedding guest in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, he arose the next day a sadder and a wiser man.

But I doubt it.




The Simplon Tunnel Exploding Head Syndrome

Well, it was probably just a coincidence that my head almost exploded and my ear piercingly popped while roaring on a train through the Simplon Tunnel last week.

Normally, we drive the car over the Simplon Pass (2006m) to Italy, following the old Neolithic trails that were widened by Roman Legions, firmly established by 17th-century merchants (Kaspar Jodok Stockalper famously running salt, iron, gold and mercenaries) and institutionalised by Napoleon in 1805. On the high roadside pull-offs you step into the chilly winds and take pictures of a stark treeless landscape and lugubrious granite buildings. Time slows. You buy a brick of cheese with mountain flower petals in it at Simplon Dorf and wish your pants were thicker.

Not so on the train. If anything, there is a certain air of feverishness as you pull out of Brig and turn the corner towards the cloudy mountains. The train blows its whistle as it roars into one side of the double-mouthed tunnel. It then speeds up; and I think I have discovered why: The train driver has heard the grizzly story of the tunnel’s construction and he wants out of there as soon as possible.

The tunnel is almost 20 kilometres long. It is pitch black and as hot as hell–about 56C when you get to the point where the mountain on top of you is more than two kilometres thick. Miners began digging the tunnel in 1898 and by 1906 when the first tube was opened, 106 of them had died.

During the tunnelling, which consisted of drilling holes with Brandt hydraulic drills and packing them with dynamite, there were all kinds of problems. There were the surprise hot springs that suddenly gushed out.  There was a huge leaky water reservoir ABOVE the tunnel. There was a soggy section made out of water-logged clay that bent the iron girders and snapped the massive oak beams. Men couldn’t work in the extreme heat and insulated cold water hoses had to be installed.

A second tube was finished in 1921 and the problems shifted. During WWII the tunnels were mined—ready for instant destruction if they fell into enemy hands. James Bond killed an enemy in there on the Orient Express in 1957. In 2011 there was a fire.

So, finally, it was of little importance that at one point mid-way through the Simplon Tunnel my head had a pressure-blow-out.

Intensive research has discovered all of the above true facts, along with a scientific paper which mentions this tunnel pressure phenomenon. The short paper is entitled Measurements of Train-Induced Pressure Variations in the Simplon Tunnel and, unfortunately, did not measure what happens inside passengers’ heads.

Arriving at the south end of the tunnel in shabby old Domodossola was a lovely relief. We dragged our bags to a concrete backless bench and under the clear blue sky happily ate our sandwiches on the graffitied train station platform. And waited for what was going to happen next.


And the Ladies Come and Go, Buying their Bloomers in the Veneto

Sometimes you just get lucky. It can be cold and wet on the northern side of the Alps and the sun shines in the south. Last week I found myself on the sunny side of the Alpine street.

Thank goodness. Due to a numerically traumatic birthday, I was taken away to pretend to be young  and rich. We took the train to Stresa on the Lago Maggiore – a town which strikes horror in the heart of a true juvenile. It is staid. It is calm. It is quiet and refined. It is full of old palazzos and old fogies. As one matures, one appreciates these very qualities. Plus, there is the bonus that you can always easily spot someone older than yourself.

The grand hotel is a splendid specimen of European opulence. Its new spa jetted us full of exciting bubbles and gave the illusion of exercise as we gazed mindlessly into the pink of the evening.  Dinner was as elegant as a cut diamond and so empty (the chocolate and pear dessert was a smear of chocolate on the plate, and a possibly homeopathic drop of pear essence on a miniscule cream rosette) we talked about ordering a pizza as we walked along the painting-lined corridor back to our room-with-a-view.

Things came down to earth the next day as we struggled to reach our final destination, the fishing town of Chioggia. We had to catch the bus from an obscure site in the urban chaos of Padova and squeeze our suitcases between teenage bodies that were spread and clinging like octopuses to the seats.

The next day, travelling along the Lido into Venice, bus seats were again at a premium. You were supposed to have a crutch or be about to give birth to merit one.  Fleet-footed passengers snapped them up and immediately studied their phones as though hypnotized, ignoring the white-haired hunched-over people groaning all around them.

When that particular bus unexpectedly rolled onto a ferry, we clutched our day ticket even tighter as the elements were suddenly mixed. At that moment a true holiday was achieved. Perhaps lost, we had the wealth of time and transport to find our way back home.

As the days slipped past, meals and walks and boat rides relaxed into the quotidian. We learned that John Cabot–bumping into Newfoundland in 1497, but thinking he was in Asia–had lived here. Then there was the Chinese-run restaurant down by the clam boats:  the way to the washroom was lined with slot machines and the players wished you “Buongiorno!” as you went past.

And the surprise of the Thursday market along the Corso Popolo was absolute—the mountains of leather, clothes, shells, bicycle horns, shoes, culminated in the ladies’ underwear section. No trying-on was necessary or attempted. The saleslady sized you up, held articles against the appropriate body part, and extolled the merits of a strong hefty article that was fit for purpose.

She brought golden optimism to her bras and bloomers and her customers all left smiling. They had been sold luck.