Bring Your Own Spoon

Here in the Swiss countryside in this empty time between Christmas and New Year’s, many of our usual restaurants are closed. The (often reduced and overworked) staffs are having a break from the pre-Christmas storms of unruly family gatherings and office dos. Normal life is suspended, and eating is now being done at home in front of the TV or at altitude in the ski station fast-food cafés as the skiers wait for snow.

In the Canton of Zug (where most of the Swiss millionaires live as tax rates are lowest) there are scandalous reports of being charged 2.50 francs if you ask for a second spoon to share a dessert, and paying a 3-franc surcharge if your bill is less than 80 francs.

Nasty rumours are also floating of being charged 3 francs for a clean plate to put a baby’s French fries on, and of having to pay 5 francs extra if two people share a pizza.

When asked to explain these shocking revelations, the restaurants retort that people are not being forced to eat there. Go elsewhere! Obviously, managers and owners are hollowed out and angry.

Now I’ve had some bad times in restaurants what with one thing and another. The worst is when they just don’t feed you (Czechoslovakia circa 1990) and all the wait staff is sitting around a table staring at you. Or when they get really angry because you bring a product they claim they cannot get in their country (breakfast jam, Russia circa 1992) and punish you with no coffee or tea. Or when you just plain get kicked out (Italy circa 1980).

Most memories have been repressed (certainly the ones having to do with various St Bernard dogs under the table), but from the incidents I recall, most unpleasantness has had to do with kids – crying kids, spilling-things kids, not liking the look-of-the-food kids, hurting themselves in the bathrooms kids, getting their food taken away when they were saving the best-bit-for-last kids.

In fact, restaurants hate kids. They have neither money nor manners. Kids are the very antithesis of a seemly restaurant.

So, my advice to you, fellow diners, in this out-of-joint world would be to suck up the extra charges if you have to. In North America there are extra service charges, exorbitant corkage charges, and you have to tip hefty 20%. In Italy there is the famous “coperto” which I quite like as you pay your way in – like a night club. It is not expensive, and you get bread sticks. In Switzerland there are now extra energy charges in some establishments, and a small tip has become standard.

And as a wily customer in this brave new world, bring an extra spoon in your pocket if you want to be a real cheapskate; order two pizzas and take one home for breakfast; and, believe me, the baby doesn’t need a clean porcelain plate.

Of course, if you don’t want to do any of this, you can just stay at home and eat Christmas cookies. Forever and ever.





A Surfeit of Fun

I found an abandoned fairy yesterday across the road. In a highly unfairylike fashion, she was hollering at the top of her lungs for her Mom and Dad. Her costume included red lipstick, blue eyeshadow and translucent wings attached to the back of a sleeveless gossamer dress. Shivering in the freezing cold, I gave her my gardening jacket and we settled down to a sobbing conversation.

My five-year-old fairy was locked outside alone. Everyone else was having great fun at a costume Escalade party in an upstairs apartment. No one had realized there was a fairy missing.

There is a frantic craving for fun at the moment — not just here in the Geneva countryside, but all over the place. A recent trip to Madeira found us in the middle of a packed early-morning November flight out of Zurich. The passengers were excited and eager.

The flight into Funchal, the world’s most dangerous airport, went well (no turning back to Porto this time), and no medical incidents on board either.  But the fully-booked Edelweiss/Swiss flight must have got tangled up in so much fun, and I was electronically eliminated from having taken the flight.

They then, secretly, cancelled my flight back.

In the tourist world, ignorance is not exactly bliss, but it can help. For six days the weather was perfect in Madeira–sunny and just warm enough to leave the window open at night (necessary to avoid dust-related asthma attacks.)

The hotel had a tropical garden and a glorious view, and once upon a time must have merited its five stars. However, parallel to the world of fun-seekers, there has to be a world of fun-providers.  Sinks, toilets, towels, beds, and carpets do not clean themselves. Supper does not cook itself.  Drinks do not pour themselves.

There was almost no staff, BUT there was a grocery store nearby and a working television. Lunch was often the local specialty – swordfish with a fried banana on top.

However, the great pleasure of Madeira are the famous levadas which are man-made water courses coming gradually down the volcanic mountain sides. You do great circuits through the laurel forests, and if your walk is long enough there will be no tour bus crowds.

Yes, the thousands of cruise ship passengers coming into Funchal daily now have changed the atmosphere of the island. Flip-flopped people come ashore and board big black buses to take a tour of the island. They clog up the narrow steep roads and scenic view spots.

I have a theory that all of the people who once worked in the tourist industry of Madeira now work on the cruise ships.  They, too, have taken up the concept of fun. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. You’ve got a job, food and a bed. The tips are better and you’re going somewhere.

Concerning my flight back, I was much like my little fairy from over the road: out in the cold with gossamer wings.