A Short Trip to Burgundy — Time Going Backwards

Back in the recent past, a trip used to mean choosing a destination anywhere in the world. The fat UNESCO “bible” was consulted so none of Earth’s best sites would be inadvertently overlooked.

Airlines were smoothly contacted to buy tickets using pretend money called “Miles”. Hotels of charm, grace or geographic expedience were booked simply and easily through booking sites with best prices guaranteed. Afterwards, perhaps an on-line photo-book was made to fix memories as one palm tree does resemble another.

The major dilemmas were hand luggage or hold? Rent a car? or trust to public transport?  Is there an Iron Man competition somewhere to be avoided?

All that has come to a COVID19 end.

Growing up in 1960s Canada, vacations in our house were momentous, Rockwellian events:

  • the black Ford Comet
  • the handmade wooden car top carrier (with a handy hole for the tent poles to protrude)
  • the green canvas tent (with porch)
  • the Coleman stove
  • the melted-ice-cube cooler, nylon sleeping bags and rubber air mattresses.

The parents were in the front, often with a baby on the lap of my mother who did not drive. Instead, she spent her days drying cotton diapers out of the little corner triangle window.

On the back vinyl bench, hot and slippery, were the unseatbelted three or four of us. Parents’ good Sunday clothes were hung in plastic bags on hangers on a hook above the windows. Our back-seat vision was limited.

We drove to the west coast: the Rockies, Jesus Saves (green stamps!). We drove to the east coast: the high tides of the Bay of Fundy and the Magnetic Hill. We drove to Quebec to spend the summer at a colleague minister’s house in a paper-mill town that was by the sea.

We sat in sticky unairconditioned cars for hours on end as our father covered hundreds of miles a day. In the evenings we pitched the heavy, damp tent at a camp-site with smelly quicklime toilets and went for a swim in a freezing cold lake. We rarely stayed more than one night, and there was usually hot cream-of-wheat for breakfast. It was tedious, uncomfortable and exciting all at the same time.

Our recent weekend trip to Burgundy was not of the same epic magnitude, of course, but it did set the same tone. There was the natural wonder of the stupendous underground caverns of Vallorbe and the Cistercian cultural wonder of the Abbey and Forge of Fontenay.

We did not camp, but booked rooms at a small chateau and an old water mill. Breakfasts were croissants and cheese and fruit. There were no kids in the back seat, but there was a 60s feel to the trip: Long stretches of small rural roads with endless cows and rolls of hay; eating half a sandwich for lunch at a roadside picnic table.

It was quite lovely to go forward to the past. Not a plane, not a taxi, not a line-up in sight.

 

 

The Problem with Flags and Statues

I know exactly where there is a Confederate flag on public display just over the border in France. It is nailed to the wall of a seedy bar/restaurant that changes ownership regularly. The establishment is at a crossroads of two mountain valleys and the site was once of vital important to the Dukes of Savoy in the 15th century.

It is now important to almost no one. The pub sports a perpetually “open” sign and is usually closed.

The flag is a relatively recent addition. Decades ago, before they got the flag, the place was a rowdy truck stop where you could get a not-bad 3-course hot meal and a jug of red wine for 25 French francs.  You sat with your back against the wall, and it was the closest thing I’ve seen in Europe to a Montana Saturday-night fist-fighting bar.

These days, there is a huge Harley-Davidson motorcycle gathering in the valley every summer, and the large Confederate flag seems to serve as an enticing element to try to attract the wild spirits of the grey-pony-tailed French motards to come in and drink a can of pop.

I suppose it’s a really bad thing, but I’m also pretty sure that everyone around here thinks it’s just another piece of foreign (American) junk cluttering up the countryside and of little real relevance. I mean, we have much more important things to worry about, such as getting the speed limit permanently back up to 90 kph on those steep and windy mountain roads.

And I don’t think anyone has Facebooked it and turned it into a galvanizing political issue as has happened in my sister’s town in southern Ontario.

In case you’ve missed all the drama, Stratford, Ontario, home of the Shakespeare Festival, has been called out for having red-necked racist elements lurking in it, as an actor (they’re not busy working as usual because of COVID19 this season) photographed and posted on social media a Confederate flag on display in someone’s front window.

Displaying flags or symbols is not against the law in Canada, but can be rather outrageous, to say the least. Canadians, by the way, LOVE their national flag, and it is displayed loudly and proudly all over the place. I can only conclude that it must be an American who lives behind the offending Confederate window display. He/she might even have a Harley—or at least wish for one–and aspire to attending the next H.O.G. Rally in the French Alps.

Of course, the overwhelmingly liberal and culturally-intellectual population of Stratford is appalled at being painted racist pigs for the whole world to see, and the last I heard my sister was organizing a demonstration to push over the head of Shakespeare in the Shakespeare Gardens in protest.

Without the magical distraction of the theatre this year, everyone has time on their hands to get into trouble. Falstaff would love it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

You Don’t Light a Candle from the Bottom

One good thing about the COVID19 situation is that the world comes to you if you wait long enough here in the Geneva countryside. Well, some of it does. There are a few things recently that have come all the way from China, only to have been delivered to the wrong people, but that’s a whole other story.

For example, there are the birds: Black kites, to be exact. They come from Senegal and are normally migratory. However, a canny butcher in a neighbouring village scatters his lawn with meat scraps every morning. Word has got out, and the lazy birds no longer continue their migration to the beaches and garbage dumps of the North Sea, but stop right here for their tasty-treat summer vacation. They can be seen wheeling about the sky in a huge flock after their daily brunch. They all fly back to Africa in October, fat and happy, and spend their winter dreaming of next year’s Swiss holidays.

Then there was the surprise visit of the roof painter. He was an integral element in the solar panel installation saga, as the Geneva Department of Monuments insisted that every square inch of our roof be completely covered by the panels to avoid unsightly orange tile areas sticking out around the edges. (They had obviously been talking to the kites, as no one else could possibly be disturbed by what is necessarily an eagle-eyed view.) He had brought a picnic with him, and spent the day both on and off the ladder. We talked of grandchildren and chased away the wasps.

The roof is now a homogeneous shiny black and looks sharply Japanese.

I have been at home for all annual services – the water softening man (from Java) was a particular pleasure. He was charmingly polite and masked and shoe-covered. He admired a piece of ikat weaving and asked its provenance. His grandmother used to weave.

And the very best was the normally elusive chimney sweep. He started as usual, putting a note in the letter box stating a date and a day that did not match. This was followed by his showing up a week early. I expressed surprise and Swiss wifely concern that the fireplace was not cleaned out ready for him.

At the end of his visit I was presented with a box of matches and fire starters, and a small lecture.  He asked if I light fires from the bottom, and when I answered in the affirmative, was told that this was wrong and there was a new method: You place your big logs at the bottom, and on top of them you place the little hand-made fire starter bundles. One match and your fire magically starts and somehow the logs underneath catch and the fire is smokeless and we save the planet.

I asked if there were going to be random police checks on this new technique, and he said he didn’t think so.

 

 

Upon Reopening the Construction Site Across the Road

It has been a peaceful month.

The army no longer drives past in convoy to its shooting practice in the bird sanctuary down by the Laire River. Wild flowers are growing on the bullet-riddled dirt mound backstops.

Airplanes no longer fill the approach path to the airport, instead birds fly the sky – the swallows and hawks; and gather in the garden – the sparrows and the redstarts. The cat sleeps with his paws over his ears.

The morning and evening commuters from France have been stopped in their careening work-late and home-eager tracks, as huge concrete blocks have been placed to reinforce the border barrier. Someone has stolen the Swiss federal government Keep Out! sign.

There have been no car horns or roars of rage. No near-misses on the way to the recycling bins over the road.

The grandchildren stay at home, and grandparent duties and pleasures have all been suspended. Pictures of growth and haircuts fill us with longing and wonder.

There have been many glorious walks, observing the new-born spring flowers sprouting cheek by jowl with empty energy drink tins and toilet paper mounds. Little nearly-dry rivers have been turned into Riviera-style bathing spas on hot days, with children and parents and parasols and water wings. There was one extremely exciting spotting of a well-tanned roly-poly fat man sporting nothing but a small sunhat. He was politely giving directions to a hiker lady with a map.

The garden has received extreme attention. Instead of the annual Swiss-imperative geraniums, wild flower seeds have been planted and have popped up hopefully into the clean and quiet air. Mother Nature has been relegated to a couple of nettle-filled, goldenrod-infested spots. Henrietta, the hedgehog, has not been seen so far. Perhaps she is sleeping in this year.

The village shop lets in only four hand-sanitized customers at a time, so you feel safe and comfortable as you eagerly search for what’s new in stock. They also bake bread and, amazingly, have maple syrup, peanut butter, and cranberry sauce. Meat comes and goes and the ice cream shelf is almost empty; but this morning a shipment of fresh asparagus had arrived from Italy.

You walk home with your basket full and feel as satisfied as a hunter coming home with a wild boar over your shoulders.

But a huge crack has just appeared in our noiseless new normal.

For the past few weeks, the construction site over the road (another apartment building in the Swiss countryside) has been shut down and the giant yellow crane has become our personal weather vane swinging silently and freely in the wind.

This morning’s racket began with the once-familiar roar of dump-truck emptying a load of gravel. Then there were more. Cement mixers have arrived on the scene. There was a scuffle at the bedroom window to get a glimpse of the action starting back up.

The crane now swings with purpose and precision as the crane man is back at work.

 

Treasure Hunting at Home

Well, as the Parisians run away to the Côte d’Azur, the Milanese take off to Tuscany, Norwegians scramble to their lake-side cottages (and then home again), and even the Queen of England has decamped to Windsor, all the rest of us are staying put.

In Switzerland, federal reasonableness prevails, and the lock-down against COVID-19 is filled with contradictions and complications – much like a Swiss watch. It is neither simple nor straightforward. Holding our breath, and not touching anything, we can go for a quick shop, visit a doctor (if we can find one), buy gas, go for a drive, or take a walk in the woods.

We are encouraged to wash our hands with soap while singing “Happy Birthday” in our heads (it takes 20 seconds.) The trains and buses are running, and hotels are open. I think we are discouraged from using both facilities. The postman delivers the papers and bills as usual.

However, we must not congregate or socialise. Restaurants are closed. The occasional halloo over the bamboo thicket that separates us from the neighbours is about as gregarious as we can get.

Deprived of our chalets and shacks in the French Alps, we survive from meal to meal, wash our hands and clothes more often than usual, and eagerly answer the telephone as it seems that all the annoying call-centres have been abandoned. This means that the people at the other end of the line are medical secretaries cheerily announcing that they are closed and are eager to postpone the arranged colonoscopy or dental interventions.

We graciously agree.

The younger family members keep in touch, pleasantly offering shocking stories of friends stuck in Nepal or in quarantine in Ecuador. We hear from Canadian snow-birds in Mexico drinking “quarantinis” by the ocean and waiting for the last flight out. There are relatives who swear by watching non-stop TV, and friends who bemoan the pitfalls of distance teaching.

I, myself, have put on my new Sri Lanka lucky earrings, and taken up foraging in the safety of my own home.  I have barely scratched the surface, and already see that it is offering a bounteous harvest of useful items.

Hand sanitizer has been bought before most trips over the decades, not used, and brought back–Naples during a garbage strike, or Namibia where there is no water. All over the house I have come across little blue bottles, most of which are satisfactorily full.

Then there is the bar of super soap from Rhodes. It was bought a few years back at a sad roadside market at the top of a scraggy piney-forest mountain. The soap is brown and totally unappealing. Made of pine tar, it has both anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties. Perfect.

The jackpot so far is a jumbo box of surgical face masks bought some years back for a cold-riddled trip to Japan.

So stay at home and take a look in the kitchen drawer—you know THAT one—and find a domestic diamond or two of your own.

 

 

The Strange Affair of the Geneva Pollution Stickers

Well, it started in November when the annual automobile tax bills rudely landed in the letterbox here in the Geneva countryside. The two cars, the vintage motorbike, and the trailer each got nailed, as usual…but this time there was a new additional twist. These four objects also needed individual pollution stickers to show the level of their physical filthiness and moral reprehensibility.

Each sticker is supposed to be purchased (5 Swiss francs), and they are colour-coded to show polluting emissions. The green sticker is the best and reserved for electric and hydrogen cars. Next in line is the purple ones for gas or hybrid cars. After that things descend into normal petrol or smelly diesel (yellow, orange, red and grey – much like judo belts) and it gets very very murky indeed in the world of Old Bangers.

All this extraneous and amusing paperwork was consigned to the end-of-the-year recycling basket and the affair was mentally classed as completely caduc–null and void. I mean, the trailer doesn’t even have an ENGINE and, frankly, I can’t see the reason for anyone pushing it into downtown Geneva on a smoggy day.

In all of Switzerland there is a long tradition of identifying the amusing Geneva political blooper called a Genferei. (http://www.genferei.org).  It is complex and multi-faceted concept concerning a Geneva government act or proposal that does not work out. The best ones have certain admirable qualities.

According to the official website, there are four sorts of Genferei:

  • A plan that is accepted by all, but which falls apart on its own. This kind is very expensive.
  • A plan that is blocked by sterile conflict.
  • A plan that is never operational, but never goes away.
  • A plan that is heavy with unforeseen consequences and extinguishes itself with either elegance or resentment. The artistic touch is crucial here.

From what I can see, sitting in front of my Geneva Car Circulation Permit and my explanatory letter from the Geneva government concerning the new pollution stickers, this anti-pollution plan meets ALL of the above criteria.

  • The fine for either not buying the sticker or disobeying motoring restrictions on smoggy days will be 500 Swiss francs…but then if you haven’t bought one, you will have saved 5 francs, so it will be only 495 CHF.
  • The plan is already at least temporarily blocked by the Swiss Touring Club.
  • Legal experts (le Temps 31 January 2020) explain that there are already anti-pollution measures in place acceptable to the Swiss federal government, and Geneva does not need its own private personal ones.
  • As to unforeseen consequences, maybe there will be a solidarity movement and we will all buy the green sticker as that one seems to offer the most freedom. This would also take the pressure off the pollution police.

Just as a matter of fact, the Geneva police department won the Genferei Prize in 2018.

The competition out there is crippling.

 

 

 

Aqaba and Beyond

Upon arrival there was an international incident concerning the binoculars. A little known fact is that in Jordan binoculars are right up there with machine guns and grenades as instruments of war. Security was called, and under intense questioning and promises of never ever to take my binoculars out of my suitcase no matter how many interesting birds were flying past, and much swiping for powder traces, and much examination of the stamps and visas in my suspicious Swiss passport, I was finally allowed into the kingdom.

Aqaba town is small and in a state of arrested development. There are mom-and-pop shops selling blown up plastic buoys and sea-horses. These are known as “swimming tools.”  There are relaxing terraces under mimosa trees where men lounge around with their bubbling hookahs. There is a faint smell of petroleum in the air.

Restaurants are quite friendly even though there are no alcoholic refreshments to be had. Sometimes there are no toilets or hot drinks to be had either. The filled falafels and flat breads were delicious.

And then came the highlight of our short sojourn—our one day road trip to Petra. The rental was picked up the evening before; a boxed breakfast was arranged; and we set out in the deep dark before dawn for the 2-hour drive north.

Now, I really should have been paying more attention to the Aqaba population stocking up on Chinese quilts, blankets, ski jackets, hats, mittens and Bedouin fleece-lined capes the day before. Something was definitely up.

As it turns out, I guess I must be about the only tourist in the whole wide world (except perhaps for Lawrence of Arabia who was busy waving a switch and riding a camel side-saddle) who has travelled long and hard to Petra and has not had her picture taken in front of ANYTHING. Not the Treasury, not the Monastery, not the Theatre, not even a donkey.

I didn’t even really SEE the towering sandstone carvings as my glasses were so wet and fogged-up due to the driving sleet and rain. The mists were hanging low over the biblical wilderness. You couldn’t actually look UP as drowning was a hideous possibility.

Before the camera got totally water-logged and gave up the ghost, there is one scowling snap of me wearing a too-small “one-size-fits -all” blue plastic raincoat bought from the souvenir stand for about $600. (US) (The umbrellas were double that.) It stopped well above my knees.

My pants were frozen, sodden and sticking to my legs; my fingers were like carrots wrapped around my walking sticks; I am standing ankle-deep in the river running down the Siq to the wonder-of-the-world Nabataean necropolis. The temperature is hovering just below zero degrees. The High Place of Sacrifice was snow-dusted.  

Arriving at the centre of the site we were met with filthy-tempered drenched camels and unmanned souvenir stalls. The colourful painted bowls were overflowing with ice-water and the head-scarfs hung sodden and dripping.

I have surprisingly fond memories of Jordan in January. We might even go back.

 

 

Take the Christmas Spirit Quizz!

In these turbulent and emotionally-charged pre-Christmas days, it is of utmost importance to remember to breathe, to take time out to relax, and to pay attention to your mental and physical welfare.

It is a well-known fact that just one Christmas cookie, one Christmas Newsletter or one eggnog too many can tip you seriously over the edge into a seasonal malady that we mental health professionals call Sage-Stuffing-Brain. To try to prevent this, take a minute to answer the following questions, and see just exactly where you stand in your relationship to the festive season.

So find a pen and try not to cheat. (Two points for every enthusiastic affirmative. One point for every reluctant affirmative. Zero points for a resounding negative.)

  • Do you find yourself cooking or baking unwanted, unloved, festive items (such as gingerbread houses, Brussel sprouts, Christmas pudding, sweetbreads, Badener Kräbeli, or a big raw 15kg turkey)? (Give yourself a bonus point if you have baked at least FIVE different sorts of Christmas cookies.)

  • Has a mother, mother-in-law, spinster aunt (or any other unusual person) recently taken up residence in your house? (Bonus point if you and the Christmas guest do not share a common language.)
  • Has perfumed Christmas toilet paper become a feature in your bathroom? (Bonus point if it is printed in brown (reindeers) and red (reindeers’ noses.))
  • Do you think you have already gained several pre-Christmas kilos due to lack of exercise because of the continuing rainy weather and/or consuming too many Christmas cookies, chocolates, cheese fondues, etc. (Bonus point if you believe this not to have been your fault.)
  • Are you, or is someone in your household sick? This can include flu, colds, sore throats, stomach bug, general malaise etc. (Take a point off if you have NOT had your flu shot.)
  • Have the children or grandchildren been acting up? Signs here include attention-getting devices such as leaving partners, leaving jobs, losing earrings, refusing the leave the house. (A two-point bonus if a child has punched his best friend on the nose in the last couple of days.)
  • Have you run away from home, and does this message find you on a cruise in the Caribbean celebrating Christmas with 6,000 perfect strangers? (Minus a point if you are tipsy as you read this.)
  • When the low sun occasionally shines does it reveal shockingly filthy windows? (A bonus point each for a muddy paw-mark or sneeze spray.)
  • Are you struggling with gift-induced mental health issues such as guilt, remorse, fear, etc.? Have you collected too many gifts, too few gifts, all the wrong gifts for your loved ones? (Give yourself a bonus point if you have bought, wrapped, and labelled a gift to yourself.)
  • Do you have a Christmas tree? (Give yourself a bonus point if you still have chocolate decorations hanging on it.)

Good Luck with all of this, and Merry Christmas!

Away in a Manger

The old wooden cattle shed has been hauled up from the bomb shelter yet again. The Fimo figurines, the originals fashioned thirty-some years back, unrolled from their newspaper wrappings. The horse is missing a leg, and the pig an ear. The dog had to be discarded after his head got knocked off last year. Baby Jesus was baked right into his basket, so is gloriously intact. His parents look proud of the meek and mild one-eyed infant that is about the same size as they are.

Over time, there have been energetic modelled additions—teddy bears, ducks, and palm trees—all adding to the gaiety of the occasion. There are nicked and scarred porcelain geese and farmyard cats. An elephant on wheels. Yonder Star and a blond angel are suspended in the silent night.

This is the family Christmas crèche and the grandson played with it recently on a cold dark advent day.

It started with the roof. After having ascertained that here in the Geneva countryside our roof would make a perfect landing spot for Santa and his sled full of gifts, he explained that back home in town they would have to lower a rope ladder down from their apartment balcony for Père Noel to climb up. The reindeer team would wait patiently in the parking lot.

He is three, and the logistics of potential presents is important.

After forcefully evicting the traditional tenants and their animals from the nativity scene, he declared that the structure was to be turned into a dinosaur house.

A negativity scene ensued.

The Tyrannosaurus, Brachiosaurus, and Raptors were all placed on the roof of the shed and roared before they gobbled up approaching Lego children, innocent zebras, circus clowns and even Bambi. Dinosaur battles and massacres and feasts all raged in a tourbillon of primal energy. Dinosaurs became birds before their time. Donder and Blitzen were shaking in their boots and Rudolf was nowhere to be seen.

…Here there was an intermission and macaroni and cheese was served. Conversation consisted of the fairly well-worn theme of the difference between an “accident” and an act of downright evil mischief. Philosophic harmony was temporarily re-established…

As the day rolled on, the dinosaurs were spontaneously banished to the ends of the earth (under the pillows of the couch). Baby Jesus was reinstalled and farm animals collected and placed on the roof. The baby’s parents showed up and cows gathered around. The little elephant rolled in underneath its mom.

The rug was rolled into a tunnel and the now peaceful dinosaurs paraded through to arrive at the edge of the all-is-calm / all-is-bright world. Jingle Bells was sung with an appalling French accent.

The day finished with the placement of the dinosaurs. It was declared that the dinosaurs were there to protect the Christmas house and placed around the edges in a pattern of stalwart defense and brave patrol.

May all your dinosaurs be bright!

 

The Swiss Village Post Office Solution

Apart from being dead, the mouse looked extremely healthy. Miniature (bad news) soft grey fur, it was flushed down the upstairs toilet. There was no ceremony.

Then things got worse. There are some days that you might as well be hiking up Kilimanjaro worrying about altitude sickness and the melting glaciers than staying at home in your village in the Geneva countryside.

A morning trip to the post office was essential—voting forms, a parcel, and a letter. This now entails either a dangerous bike ride through the music-pounding commuter cars, or you brush the wet leaves off your automobile and race along with them. Unfortunately, our own convenient village post office closed down some years back, and we now have to travel about five kilometres up the hill to the next one.

There, my friendly post-lady was in a flap, as I enquired about recent transactions on my post office account and was told to go to a post machine in town. To try to cheer her up, I began our yearly bonding ritual centred on dates and weights for sending parcels to Canada for Christmas. At this point she lost the plot completely and told me I had to order stamps on-line as she was shutting down in a couple of weeks.

I understood she was having a bad day or that I was still delirious after the mouse episode and I returned home to take stock.

When the morning mail was delivered, all became clear. A flyer, featuring a carefully-coiffed, grey-haired, pear-earringed, pleasantly smiling, smartly-jacketed, leather shoulder-bagged, fingernail-painted Swiss white woman (she is holding a bundle of exciting-looking letters and voting forms) explained NOT that the post office was shutting down, but that it was relocating to a grocery store right beside the Chinese pizza restaurant.

This was all our fault, as we were no longer using the post office as much as we should. And as a “service” to all the old fools who have not mastered the art of sending packages and letters and voting forms via their smart phones, the village had found this nifty solution.

It is presented as a very radical improvement as the grocery store opens at 7 am seven days a week.  The spin is that WE, the ancient ones, are the lucky ducks. Not only can we still pay our bills, get some cash, and send thoughtful gifts, in the dark of morning but we can do our shopping as well! If we plan this right, by 8 am we can be back at home and have the whole day in front of us.

Along with the flyer, there was also a very nasty speeding ticket. How this could have occurred in a construction site is a complete mystery to me. So, I am looking forward to the opening of the new grocery-enhanced post office. I will drive to it slowly and carefully and never have to race into town again.