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.

 

 

The Looming Swiss Cheese Crisis

My bones grew strong on Canadian Cheddar cheese. Growing up in southern Ontario, I don’t recall there being any other kind. Sure, there was Cheez Whiz – a fluorescent-orange goo in a jar, and even new-fangled rubbery processed cheese plastic slices for delicious grilled cheese sandwiches in the electric frying pan; but for “real” cheese, Cheddar was it. One winter, a rather large lump, about the size and shape of a shoe-box, somehow made its way into the house. It was kept down the basement with the mice and only addressed in cases of extreme hunger. I recall it fondly.

Here in the Geneva countryside these days, the cheese drawer in the kitchen fridge is importantly filled with Gruyère, Emmental, Roquefort, and La Vache qui Rit. A Reblochon, Tête de Moine or a Mont d’Or also make cameo appearances from time to time.  Any Cheddar placed in there is not touched by common human hands. Cheddar is venerated as part of the kitchen covenant and is uniquely reserved for a weekly lunch-time ritual shared with addicted grandchildren.

Proper English Cheddar cheese has to be made within a 30-mile radius of Wells Cathedral in Somerset in the south-west of England; and the nec-plus-ultra version should sit for many months in the damp dark caves of the Cheddar Gorge. The heavy yellow square I buy every week even has a picture of a church on the front of the package and is called Cathedral City Cheddar, which, without a doubt, proves its total authenticity.

Now, my Tuesday luncheon special is deceptively known simply as “Macaroni and Cheese”. This is not your boxed processed dinner, or your flour and water version of dried-out common-style dish of the same name. This is more like the splendid centrepiece described in Guiseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard which was served cold at a summertime banquet at the crumbling old Palermo palace in Sicily.

My macaroni and cheese is equally magnificent. The whole huge hunk of Cheddar is grated on an old-fashioned circular grater with a turning handle and three little legs. It is then folded lovingly into the steamy creamy béchamel sauce. It is rich and unctuous. It is then gently mixed into Swiss Alpine macaroni, sprinkled with parmesan and baked to a golden brown. People fall silent as they eat. It is my sure currency of pure love.

So, with an uncertain future and Brexit looming, stockpiling has started. I already have two fat slabs of pure Cheddar hidden away and I plan to unobtrusively get many many more. Unopened, the due date gets me nine months into the future, so there is no panic at the moment, and, if anything, my mature cheddar will simply get even more mature.

So, Britain, do cheer up! With me, your present and future Cheddar cheese sales are assured.  (You, though, might think about stocking up on macaroni des Alpes … Just sayin’.)

 

The 2,363 Kilometre Road Trip

The elephant family looked like walking boulders: grey, round, and almost still as they slowly made their way to the Dolomite Point water-hole. There had been no rain in Etosha Park for more than 150 days. This is not climate change; this is normal Namibia.

In our cabin on the rocky outcrop, we strung our freshly washed underpants on a string across the doorway. They flapped a bit and were instantly dry. The red-dust spools of sand wind hoses blew into the room and the elephant group stopped as the little one needed a nap. In the middle of the flat leafless plane mom stood firm, her shadow her baby’s tent.

The teenage elephant was bored and chewed on some dried twigs. If she had had a comic book, she would have been reading it. The kid elephant looked like he wanted to lie down too—sibling rivalry flapped its ears. And the huge matriarch stood apart, keeping her eye out for trouble brewing on the horizon. Our small group of five, made infinitesimal water-hole progress.

We chased the resident mouse out of room #18 and inspected nibbled bags of nuts and raisins, ripped-apart tissues and shredded shirt collars. Sadder but wiser, with all suitcases firmly closed, we hiked to the observation point through the white-hot late afternoon sun. The friendly python was nowhere to be seen.

The giraffes and springboks skittered off as the elephant group approached. The baby had to be pushed into his new medium, water, as mom hosed him down and gave him some drinking lessons. He was just starting to get his aim straight when grandma signalled that time was up and the family backed out of the water-hole–all except for the little one who wanted to stay. Mom gave him the old heave-ho with her massive forehead.

As the sun set, our elephant family started its long hot amble back into the bushes for the night to get a couple of hours sleep.

This is my favourite memory. Of course there were other encounters with rhinos (one fell in love with our little white car), giraffes and their calves standing tall and chewing on trees, wart hogs kneeling at the roadsides, impalas frozen in the middle of the sandy path, hippos hogging the water hole, and even a honey badger who was on an important mission so did not have time to stop and spray us.

In the park, it is the humans who are in the cages. You are warned never to get out of your car. You must not walk about outside at night. At a (rare) toilet stop on the park road you have to enter through a locked wire fence and close the gate after you. Once inside, a huge grey rock just by the entrance turned into a lone bull elephant who stood still as a statue for a time before wandering off.

There was no water in the toilets or taps. The sinks were full of sand.

 

 

 

 

Namibia Nerves

When the nightmares came to get me last night, I was being chased by a giraffe.

Now, this just might have to do with reading an article about food in Namibia. It seems the braaivleis is very popular, and ostrich, springbok and crocodile are all delicious delicacies that can feature in this mixed-grill BBQ. In the traditional three-legged hot-pot bubbling over the open fire (the potjiekos), you can find just about anything. There doesn’t seem to be much of a vegetarian option except in May and June when Kalahari truffles MIGHT appear.

There is a diverse range of opinion concerning our upcoming Namibia trip. As usual, it is home-planned. There is no group, no guide, no guru. There is a map, a tube of Cenovis and a bag of caramels. I got binoculars for my birthday.

The children, of course, think we are mad.  The grandchildren think we are lucky ducks and have asked for a manatee to be brought home.

Friends have offered various pieces of advice and practical information. Yvonne gave us the tip to smear peppermint oil up our noses to deal with the stink of the seals in Skeleton Coast. Helen said to take tons of warm clothes as she almost froze to death at night. Nick said to beware of slippery, dusty, blind corners. And Charles just took out his phone and reeled through hours of videos of galloping herds and flocks of birds.

We will rent a car and drive. And drive. And drive. All lodges are booked and people keep sending cheerful messages that they are waiting in great anticipation for our imminent arrival. They seem friendly and concerned.

The usual Namibian desert disaster is getting a punctured tire due to the gravel roads. We must check the rental for the spare, and make sure there is a jack. In Namibia there are almost no people and gas stations are as rare as hens’ teeth, so you must change the flat yourself while the zebras, elephants and antelopes look on in wonder and admiration.

But we are old hands at this. Some years back, they reluctantly rented us a minuscule car in Hokkaido, northern Japan. It was not much bigger than those toy cars you see rich children driving around in Doha airport. The tires were the size of dinner plates, and sure enough, the inadvertent sudden presence of a misplaced curb, resulted in a busted tire.

Yes, there was a spare (it was the size of a saucer) but no jack. As one of us held up the little car and the other went scavenging for rocks to hold it up, we were saved by a nice man in a pickup calling out “Jack-o? Jack-0?”

We dropped the rocks and the car and smiled warmly.

So let the adventure begin! Heat, dust, and punctures will be offset by quiver trees and wildebeests and lilac-breasted rollers. They also say that the Brötchens and the beer are delicious.

 

 

 

 

The Cottage Chronicles

Nestled in the soft bellybutton lint of the southern Ontario summer holiday fantasy, is the primordial concept of “the cottage.”  It is a crisp-aired yet dreamy place, where you escape for a week or two. It is always “up north.” Much more than a building, it is a dose of mental medicine that untangles your knotted mind from quotidian urban preoccupations and draws you back to the cry of the loon.

The cottage is built on the tranquil shores of a mussel-fresh lake. It is made of wood and surrounded by trees. There is no lawn, but rather a deep carpet of pine needles with the occasional trillium or jack-in-the-pulpit poking through. There is a stony path leading down to the boat house where there is a crumbling dock and an old canoe. The shore is pebbly. There are braided rugs and painted wooden chairs.

I vividly recall my first childhood cottage: it had no refrigerator. Instead, the iceman came with a block of sawdust-crusted ice that with a great forceps-type instrument he placed in a drawer underneath a smelly cabinet.  It took a week for the block to swelter slowly away. It was magic.

So, with great interest and excitement, I have lived the cottage life vicariously this past week, as my sister took an assortment of family members “up to the lake”.  It seems things have progressed in my absence.

A cottage now needs to have a lake in the vicinity, and, sure enough, Lake Huron was a short walk away from the bungalow that was part of a cottage development neighbourhood. However, municipal by-law rules on the beach can be a real party-pooper: no drinking, no smoking, no glass, no pets, no noise, no picnics, no games, no drones, no fishing. So, after finally getting to the wave-lashed beach with the kids, it can be quite challenging to have a good time.

In my sister’s party, no one was actually arrested or imprisoned, but it was a close call as an unmarked police car stopped the small family group on their way back home to inquire if alcohol was being consumed ON THE SIDEWALK by the adult male. Fortunately, the beer bottle had been emptied and discarded prior to the question, so it was moot. That the youngest child was being carried, screaming and kicking away from the water, was also a useful distraction.

Of course, there was the initial family squabble about who had to sleep in the laundry room. Then there was the visiting monster child who bashed through the rented cottage screen door threatening to kill people with the kitchen knives. This was followed by the teenager hogging the bathroom while a 6-year old had to go #2, and the inevitable rainy day monopoly game with smoked turkey thigh in a shrimp sauce for supper.

The cottage holiday is almost over now, and my sister assures me she, as ever, will be most refreshed and reinvigorated when she gets back home.

And so, the myth lives on.

 

 

I Never Thought I’d Sink so Low

It must be the canicule–either that, or all the fuss surrounding the anniversary of the moon landing–but I find myself regressing.

Home alone for almost a week with no one around to criticize my eating preferences (most of which have been squashed either by Swiss family pressure or new international health-food regulations) my brain has melted and I have been hit by a wave of nostalgia—back to those hot Canadian summers of my youth where we made pancakes down by the river, had liquorice twists for dessert and smoked dried burdock stems.

It started in my local supermarket the other day when I spotted a package of passion-fruit jelly powder. As it was in the section with the sophisticated mousse au chocolate and the panna cotta, I figured it must be superior. The result was a pleasant pink colour but the flavour was a mixture of compost and rotting carrot. After eating one bowl, I sadly melted the rest down the sink and had to add a splash of javex to clear the air.

In my kitchen cupboard I have popcorn, marshmallows, cheezy doodles, and peanut butter. In the fridge there are hot dogs and processed cheese slices. Reasonable donuts, bagels and acceptable corn on the cob are to be had just a short drive away. However, it’s what I do not have that is eating me up. And what I need is hot dog relish.

Now, I have known short rations in my time. In Canada there were week-long Algonquin Park canoe adventures where we survived on space food. The northern Ontario lakes had turned acid and there were no fish to be fished. The dehydrated scrambled eggs I still recall with a shudder. Just like the astronauts, we drank Tang using the leaf-tasting lake water.

I am not a complete wimp. In Japan I have eaten miniature jellyfish that have been placed on sizzling hot rocks. They are ready when their internal organs explode. In Turkey I have chosen a sheep head from dozens on display on towering shelves. I think I passed out before I ate the eyeballs. In Korea I have eaten fermented cabbage that tasted like sewage.

To complement a good wiener mustard, ketchup, and relish are all essential. For decades I have lived without the third ingredient, but have missed it with each and every hot dog.

Today, in desperation, I looked up relish recipes and much work is required—chopping vegetables, marinating, macerating, cooking, canning, and waiting.  You cannot make one jar. You must make about five gallons.

As the obsession reached a peak this afternoon (along with the temperature) I found a couple of American food stores in the area. They have relish. They deliver.

Just knowing it is there helps. As the evening cools, the urge is fading. I sure hope it doesn’t get any hotter tomorrow; I will have to put in an order.