The Horse in the Livingroom

We were just drying out from the great European rains of July and all the doors were open and the zephyrs blowing through the old French farmhouse.  I had located a three-day old international newspaper (red-hot item here in the slow-moving mountains) and was deliciously settling down to sharpen my wits around nefarious world affairs concerning COVID19, the Taliban and people shooting themselves into space, when there was a truthful-sounding clarion call from the upstairs: “There’s a real horse in the house!”

Now, over the past decades, we have had many unwelcome things showing up in the Shack. There were the burglars (rechargeable batteries and cat food), the vandals (all glass shattered except mirrors), a 10-ton pine tree, lightning, an owl, dormice, hunting dogs, a religious nutcase and the Dame de Versailles. But a horse?

The one actually inside was white and brown and had three friends outside politely hiding behind the forsythia bush.

Now, to put it mildly, I am not a horsewoman. I am the opposite—a horse-sceptic—due to a series of childhood horse-traumas. The first I recall must have happened when I was about 3 or 4. My father, newly arrived from England, worked on farm with racing horses. According to my nightmares, I was put on the automatic feeder belt along with hay and other goodies and the adults thought I was a cutie-pie and I thought I was going to be gobbled up by the huge horse monsters.

I have feared them and their great yellow choppers ever since.

This was followed by southern Ontario birthday parties which, as an extraordinary treat, sometimes featured pony rides. I returned blinded and humiliated with allergies and usually had to go home without any cake.

Then there was the terrible story of Black Beauty that forced me to feel sentimental anguish for animals I loathed.

Fortunately, the Shack horses agreed to being treated like cows (with which we are familiar). A cow stick and strange Swiss cow-noises got them going down the mountainside towards civilisation.  They did look confused, knowing that horses should be lead with calm dignity, rather than being driven with air-flailing batons. Reluctantly, they trudged down, one putting a big fat pudding foot through a board in the lower bridge.

Hitting a spot of rich pastureland they stopped in their tracks and began to feast. They calmly rolled their big gloopy horse eyes at us and our silly sticks and didn’t move an inch. Chewing became the centre of their lives.

Absent owners were localized (milking goats up another mountain), neighbours in the hamlet had their suppers disturbed and the local fire department called out.

Obviously used to such incidents, they had a pair of bridles and a bucket of horse treats. We retired, older, but wiser, back up the mountain. Unlike the burglar, though, the horses had left us a treat. A big pile of rich horse poop has been shared between the apples trees.

 

 

A Daytrip from the Distant Past to the Incomprehensible Future

There have long been horses in the Vallée du Giffre[1]. They have been used to pull hay wagons, to plough fields, to clear forests, to transport wood. With fingers of time even reaching into our present lives, it was Roger Mullatier’s horse that dragged our cast-iron Godin heating stove, our beds, and tons of lumber up the mountainside on an old carved wooden sled.

The horse then turned into a Jeep, and now is a Quad. Neither of these machines needs horseshoes. Neither of these machines needs a farrier.

Remnants of the past live on in the Vallée du Giffre.  On a Monday morning in late June 2021, an itinerant farrier was parked in front of the old bell-topped schoolhouse at the bottom of our mountain road. His van door opened onto a shiny metal machine studded with dials. This was his heating oven—a propane driven forge furnace powerful enough to turn iron red-hot.

Various horses were waiting quietly. Donkeys were being tied to a railing along the road; a huge black feather-legged draft horse was looking on from a distance; and around the corner a couple of big chestnuts and a group of mottled ponies had all arrived.

The farrier’s trade is pre-industrial. The Romans protected their horses’ hooves with hipposandals – first made out of leather and then out of metal. The Gauls were probably the first to use metal horseshoes with nails (5th century). And since then all but the wildest mustangs have metal attached to the bottoms of their feet.

The farrier’s vocabulary is medieval and magical. There are leather aprons, hammers, nippers, clinchers, pullers, cutters, rasps, knives and hoof picks--all unique to the farrier’s trade.  I was charmed with the slice of antiquity suddenly presented.

An hour’s drive took us back to the real world of the Geneva countryside. End-of-the-month bills needed paying and my Crontosign app demanded an update. Netbanking was not letting me through. I was going to go to jail.

I finally had to phone the emergency hot-line-for-dummies number.  The nice young man spoke English and asked me for my contact number. And it went downhill from there. Passwords, Google play-store, scanning, capturing, the initial bank letter, receiving an SMS and transferring the number into the bank system. Three machines were needed simultaneously: computer, mobile phone, land line.

The nice young man grew tetchy, and at one point asked if I knew what an app was? I told him no. It was finally established that my mobile phone was too old to install the update. My initial bank letter was also too old. (They are both 4.)

He kept muttering “don’t panic”. I couldn’t figure out if he was talking to me or to himself. We finally managed to fix it, but his last warning to me was to NEVER uninstall the sucker as it was totally unrecoverable by mere humans.

Sigh. Give me an honest hipposandal any day.

 

 

[1] Haute Savoie, France

The Road Trip to Northern Italy

Well, it finally happened—a hotel reservation that didn’t have to be cancelled.

The booking had been made months earlier and not completely understanding the fluctuating colour-coded traffic lights of COVID19 in Italy, and floored by the impossibility of completing the 20-page Visitor’s Testament, we contacted Sylvio’s albergo directly.

He instantly replied “Thank Okay You” which we took to mean the coast was clear. We grabbed our newly-important old yellow International Vaccine Passports and headed off. Ah….driving above the grand Lake of Geneva,  the wide-open Rhone Valley, the chilly winds of the Simplon Pass, a ferry across the sparkly bright-blue Lago Maggiore and up the Holy Hill of Saint Mary in the province of Varese.

The travel plan was glorious in both its variety and simplicity.

Crossing the border above Domodossola was only slightly awkward as the customs men were busy searching inside suitcases of several cars. One asked where we thought we were going? As there were no more parking spaces for in-depth examination, we mentioned the possible destination of Brissago (a Swiss-transit trip). He seemed to be relieved that we were not trouble-makers and told us to carry on, but not to stop at any restaurants.

We had a picnic lunch so could assure him of our culinary propriety, and motored off. Cheering, we reached the ferry in Verbania and were overwhelmed by the seething humanity on the 2pm boat. It was packed full of teenagers taking their transport home from school. Lounging picturesquely on steps and two-tone hair-dos are immensely chic in this part of the world. Purple, red, and shiny black being the most popular colours.

A guy with a serious case of acne winked at me. Ah, Italy.

Our arrival in the small hotel with its little high-ceilinged pink room with the strawberry wallpaper was delightful. We were so happy that we didn’t care that they didn’t give us the promised welcome drink or that the car got a nasty dent in the parking lot. The skinny-wild-grey-haired woman had enough to do hauling bags around She couldn’t do everything. We laughed merrily at finding a dusty pair of socks and a half-empty water bottle and an open pack of Kleenex under the bed.

Sylvio’s cooking was a miracolo, and once we discovered that we shared the common language of French, the chef came to visit our table often. The fresh porcini. The hand-made mozzarella. The sweetbreads. The Sicilian lemon-zest at the bottom of the risotto.

Nothing could make us angry. Not the roaring motor-bikes. Not the Giro d’Italia plugging up the roads over the weekend. Not Ebony and Ivory on the music loop being played down by the lake on Saturday night. Not the complete lack of postage stamps or open Tabac kiosks. Not even the noisy low-flying planes hauling planers up over the top of our hill to let them soar free.

All was fine. All was Italy. All was right in the world.

 

 

 

 

The Great Swiss Underpants Experiment

In these pandemic days The Swiss Federal Government is trying hard to keep up the citizens’ morale, and give us something meaningful to do.  They are on a roll. Last month featured the Swiss Army Underwear Scheme, and this month they have invented the Great Swiss Underpants Experiment.

Yes, there is a certain lack of imagination in the theme involved, but, then again, this is Switzerland.

Anyway, they want everyone to bury underpants in their gardens or fields and see what happens. This country-wide scheme was initiated by Agroscope, a federal agricultural-based platform, in collaboration with an ecologist at the University of Zurich. They want to survey the richness of Swiss soil.

After extensive research, I have found out that this is a time honoured technique. Swiss farmers have always buried their underpants. I myself, have even seen evidence of this just over the border in Haute Savoy, France, where our old neighbours were mountain farmers. This practise explains all the dark grey splotchy underpants always hanging on the line along the side of their farmhouse. As the land was so poor in nutrients, their underpants never dissolved in the miasma of bacteria, woodlice, earthworms, fungus strands and microscopic spiders of the rich lowland fields. Henri and Roger obviously just rinsed off their undergarments after a couple of months underground and carried on.

For the first 1000 collaborators in the Great Swiss Underpants Experiment, there will be two pairs of underpants provided for free along with six tea bags (this is for the Tea Bag Index comparison.) If you miss out on this offer, then you must use your own underpants that have to be 100% cotton, white, and “bio” (organic) and your own tea bags (one black and one green in tetrahedral bags will do.)

Your white cotton culottes have to be planted vertically and you must dig the trench straight down with a spade without disturbing the soil layer. You can leave the elastic band at the top sticking out. After waiting for two months dig out what’s left of your underpants, and send a picture and a soil sample back to Marcel.

You are advised to do the experiment in the springtime (NOW!) when the soil is most active, and you must visit the burial site regularly and observe the odour of the soil and the presence of earthworms.

You are warned that it is possible, because of climatic conditions that your underpants might not rot. This would be a great disappointment, of course, but could be entirely due to drought, for example rather than a lack of healthy dirt. It does not mention whether or not you should water your underpants.

Everyone who participates in The Great Swiss Underpants Experiment will be listed as a scientific co-author when the results are published–a meaningful addition to your post-COVID19 CV.

 

 

 

No, It’s NOT an April Fool’s Day Joke

I have a young sharp-eyed stringer who lives by the Welland Canal that connects the Great Lakes of Erie and Ontario. The Regional Municipality of Niagara is situated in southern Ontario, Canada, right on the American border. This area is not to be confused with the Greater Niagara Region of New York. Not even close.

Probably due to such regional proximity – not to mention the long-standing rivalry of the American and Canadian bits of Niagara Falls–all things military are of vital interest.

Now, we might never know why he was obviously surfing women’s underwear sites, but let’s just say he came across the Swiss newsflash by accident.  Starting this month, female recruits in the Swiss Army will have their own (female-shaped) underwear. There will be two sets of underpants—no legs for summer duty, and long legs for winter. The upper-body garment seems to be a state secret.

Now I have it from rock-solid authority (Swiss ex-army man, Corporal, Artillery) that there is no rule that you HAVE to wear Swiss army-issue underpants. He, for example, never did. No one checks.

You could bring your own favourites from home and were even provided with a special little canvas bag that you mailed home once a week filled with army-ravaged socks and underpants.   One’s mother would then take over and do her bit: washing, starching, ironing and sending back to boot-camp (postage-free) the newly-fragrant items. Usually a Toblerone chocolate bar was added to keep up morale.

However, genuine army-issue underpants have always been available. What has previously been handed out was simply XXXL men’s underwear. From what I see of the skinny little recruits on patrol from time to time in the Geneva countryside, they could probably wear these clothing items, fashionably, on the outside of their uniforms.

But we move with the times here in Switzerland, and our Shakespearean Defence Minister, Viola, is a woman. On International Woman’s Day of this year, she announced her desire to see an increase in female army recruits from the less than 1% at present, to 10% within the next decade. To aid in her vision for the future she also announced the new Swiss Army Underwear Scheme. It has been specified that the new underwear will meet the specific needs of women and that the ergometrics of the female body will be taken under consideration.

Well, THAT should pull them in.

As all international news articles have been pointing out, men and women in the Swiss Army have had the same duties since 2004, and whether crawling in a muddy ditch with a 27kg pack on your back or sitting at a desk all day, bunched-up underwear could put you right off.

So, we’re hoping that positive reports are going to be available soon. We’ll keep our eyes peeled and our fingers crossed that the new gotchies are snug and comfortable.

We’ve come a long way, baby!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The DNA Test and the Frying Pan

Well, the fuss seems to have died down after Canadian family members have all given each other DNA testing kits (and home-grown cannabis) for Christmas. In one intransient case, the 99.99999999% proof has not been accepted, which is at least some sort of thread into the future. Blackmail, murder, guns and lawyers are all exciting possibilities.

Living through a pandemic makes us doubt even the obvious. My sister, for example, is talking about having all three of her adult kids tested, as she’s come to the recent conclusion that they’re not hers. This pseudo-medical procedure is obviously popular, for not only does it add a frisson of excitement to clogged and claustrophobic family life, but is a positive act of doing SOMETHING. It is a stand against the static frustration of watching, night after night on the evening news, everyone (except us) getting a jab in the arm.

As we can’t see the future, we are looking into the past. Last year at this time we were in south-eastern Sri Lanka. We rode in the bone-smashing back of jeeps with no suspension to see the deer, elephants and birds of the national parks. We ate freshly caught fish at the Lucky Star Villa. We were swirled through the blue smoke, the nasty monkeys, and the seething humanity of a Hindu festival. We stayed at the Cinnamon Villa where we longed for cold beer and dental floss. We revisited a time and place when the tsunami of December 26, 2004 wiped out the entire coast. We survived that one by the skin of our teeth.

In this particular bleak midwinter, we look at great offers of hotels with restaurants and swimming pools, and castles, and coastlines, trying to plan travels in a post-vaccine world. It stutters forward somewhat. There is doubt and powerlessness. Cancelled trips do not make great stories.

We eat curries and sushi and Mexican beans and sweet and sour pork. We remind ourselves of what we know and where we have been. We are, uncomfortably, living in the present. It is a silent and still place.

This was reflected yesterday in a cut-price supermarket that I don’t normally visit. It was empty except for a handful of staff cutting open cardboard boxes to display the contents. The little mall was dark and grim as the clothing stores, the pet food store, the shoe store, the café, the junk jewelry store, the nail salon, were all closed. I never go into these places, but I wanted them open. Tables and chairs, usually occupied by the old folks in the retirement home were all chained into ugly heaps. No sitting allowed.

I bought a new frying pan (that being the reason for my visit), being pleased and surprised that it was considered an “essential” item. I will fry up some Tupperware left-overs for lunch.

After that, I am thinking of getting a DNA kit to check out whether I am who I think I am.

 

COVID Conversations

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but out here in the Geneva countryside, people seem to be getting grouchier and grouchier.

Take the hedge police, for example. Back in the day they would come, look you in the eye, and explain that your relationship with your own personal flora was criminal (https://blogs.letemps.ch/joy-kundig/2016/05/17/busted/).

These days, a man phones in the middle of the night and over the noise of his snowplough, yells that your hedge is causing international chaos, possible road-closure, and that a specialized enterprise will have to be called in unless you deal with it, pronto!

We considered phoning the village COVID19-help hotline which offers services to at-risk retired people, but thought this just might make matters worse, as they would call HIM to come and help us, and he didn’t seem to be in the mood to appreciate the irony.

So we stepped out, intrepid, into the cold darkness, armed with flashlight and clippers. Minutes later, four long bamboo shoots (asylum seekers from the neighbour’s garden) lay dead beside the road.

The next morning, with mental health still somewhat fragile, there was a rare serendipitous meeting with an old acquaintance. He was searching for green tea at the local supermarket. Upon masked and distanced enquiry about health and general well-being, he replied, “Can it get worse?”

This called for the direct question of actual illness. No, he said, he was simply hanging on until January 26th. This being Geneva, one does NOT enquire further. Health problems are shrouded in secrecy. Not even I blundered into that one.  –Was it open-heart surgery, cancerous lump removal, a brain aneurysm that that needed to be coiled and stented, a colonoscopy???—

No, he went on, he was waiting for his COVID vaccination that had been arranged. Bitterly, he spoke of a friend who had had the blind luck to get a slot in front of him. He asked what we had done. I said we were just waiting for something to happen. A mild email had been sent to the family doctor. There had been no reply.

Mollified by our obvious negligence, and our not taking up coveted positions in front of him in the vaccination line-up, he explained his current personal search for elusive green tea. They only had bags here, and he would have to go to the shopping mall on the other side of the Rhone River to get the real thing.

I told him at least he had a mission—something to do. This was gasoline on the fire of frustration.  He stamped his foot and said he had MANY things to do.

Convinced that I had lost all human conversational skills due to months of talking only to the cat, a zoom call last night went a long way to restoring my mood and mental harmony.  An English friend announced he had applied to become an NHS Vaccination Marshall. It was hoped this position would include an anti-COVID shot.

We laughed and laughed and laughed.

Cabin Fever Part I

I have sworn off foie gras for the foreseeable future.

During yesterday’s afternoon walk through the muddy horse-pooped paths of the Geneva countryside, a vision came to me. Enough of the spaghetti bolognaise, the raclette, the Indonesian stir-fries, the pork chops and apple sauce. We were going to eat something unique and special; something I’d never tasted before; something of opulence and splendour.

We were going to sample that all-time French classic, Tournedos Rossini.

In my defence, I think the hallucination came from a touch of “cabin fever”–that well known Canadian wintertime medical event when prolonged isolation creates a feeling of claustrophobia, restlessness and paranoia. Anyway, the idea was not my fault.

To create a Tournedos Rossini, you first need a big fat chunk (800 grams) of beef fillet. The original recipe (created almost exactly 200 years ago by the famous French chef, Casmir Moissons, big friend of the foodie and opera-writer, Gioachino Rossini) called for a 8cm thick piece of tenderloin. Well, we had two rather thin slices of beef bought that morning from the supermarket over the French border. They would have to do.

Next ingredient was bread. No problem as there was a Grand Boule Campagnard resting in the breadbox. Then there was the 150 gm of foie gras. Also (Noël oblige) there was a perfect pack of two skinny rounds of duck liver only slightly out-of-date in the fridge.

Butter was required for all cooking stages (fortunately, there was an “action” at the Migros last week and I had four bricks.)  And to top it all off, 70 grams of thinly sliced Périgord black truffles were needed.  This final addition would have to wait until next time, as digging in the cold, dark, muddy garden was simply not an option. And it was agreed that the corner store probably didn’t carry them.

Unfortunately, there was the last-minute surprise discovery that a sauce espagnole demi-glace was required, as otherwise the whole concoction would be too “dry”. I don’t know how Casmir made his Madeira sauce, but I made mine with brandy and beef bouillon powder. (Tip: any good poutine gravy would work just fine.)

We started dinner with a simply boiled artichoke. This was to clean our livers and prepare them for what was going to happen to them next.

The cook retired to the kitchen and closed the door. Skillets and butter were distributed across the stove top, and the air turned blue.

As everything has to be warm and assembled at the last moment, there were a couple of glitches. One of the chunks of duck liver just disappeared, melting into mushy nothingness. The meat was a little tough (being only half a centimetre thick, rather than the recommended four.) But the bread and gravy were perfect.

For supper tonight I have a plastic box of vintage spaghetti sauce thawing out on the kitchen counter. It is a pre-cabin-fever creation dated October 30, 2020. There will be cheese on top.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Pros and Cons of Covid19

Because of Covid19 many golden opportunities will be lost forever. For example, I will never be able to show Valéry Giscard d’Estaing the way to the downstairs men’s toilet of the Uni II building ever again. This was a few decades back, and he was lost—wandering desperately in the concrete halls. Whimpering. I came to his rescue and I am sure he has thought of me fondly every day since then.

Well, until December 2nd, when he died of complications from the virus.

This is the problem: selfish desires and greedy minds. Not only have we lost those serendipitous encounters, but also simple pleasures:  missing lunches with colleagues and friends; not seeing the family both here and in Canada. Instead, we are immersed in a world of face masks and hand-spray, repetitive meal planning, furtive shopping, and a general Sleeping Beauty/Rip Van Winkle desire to sleep until it’s all over.

Determined to come up with some positive aspects for the new corona virus world, we’ve all been thinking hard. The New York Times, for example, has introduced a full page of recipes every week. They are often ethnic, complicated and esoteric. Strangely, what they all have in common is kosher salt.

Learning Chinese, taking up the clarinet, or finally reading War and Peace are all noble projects. Somehow, there’s not enough time, and certainly not an aerosol of morale or a droplet of concentration. We are scattered.

Computers help, of course. I have learned how to produce a bar-code for the post office for every single package I send out of Switzerland. That is the extent of my new skills. Rather, it is what I have done away with that I consider to be my most precious accomplishments.

For example, I reached an ironing epiphany a week or two back. Back in the old days, shirts and skirts got ironed. In a blinding flash it came to me that this is a total waste of time.  Who sees? Who judges? Who cares? I have since been casting a critical eye on the actual laundry pile. Perhaps it, too, is extraneous to purpose.

Cleaning and tidying the house also used to serve a social function: i.e., that your invited guests neither saw nor suspected your inner pig. I have found that if you have no guests, then your inner pig grows to wild boar proportions. The other day the postman cast a judgmental eye on my door mat which was covered with big, flat, dried mud flakes. I vacuumed it this morning.

And then there is hair. The colours! The highlights! The cuts! The styling! The expense! I last saw William back in January, between trips to Aqaba and Sri Lanka. He phoned me up the other day to ask if I had died of Covid.  I was ashamed I hadn’t, and promised to present myself to him in January.

I’m going back to lie on the couch. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

The Horrors of Christmas Shopping

Back in the day, a person would head out purposefully to go Christmas shopping.  Sometime at the beginning of December, either alone or with a friend, you would fill up your purse with real paper money and take the bus into town.

A pen-and-paper list would have been prepared, solid items envisaged, and the Geneva department stores, toy shops, and stationers would have been visited.  A corncob pipe from Davidoff’s. A Swiss art calendar from Brachard. A box of chocolate pavés from the Bonbonnière. And you would return home foot-sore and arm-weary with bags and boxes, and a true sense of possible future poverty and solid accomplishment.

For exotic items, you could visit the second hand book stores and the Saturday flea market and come up with almost-first editions, ancient engravings, or strange Japanese prints. Music stores had racks of song books and mountains of CD’s. People would help. You would buy piano-key socks.

If you had the stamina to make it all the way to Carouge, there were even more outlandish stores selling Indian ware, and small African sculptures. You could buy a wooden parrot or a bronze cow or hand-made jewelry–articles of great beauty and assured rarity.

Lacquered Chinese cabinets and old rattan baskets and Bohemian glass and Nepalese rabbit-fur shawls have all made their way into my house from the stalls of Geneva merchants.

One of my first adult Christmas-shopping days that I clearly remember was December 9, 1980. John Lennon had been assassinated the day before, and a buzz was in the air.

Since those days, trips away have usually replaced, and then delayed or advanced Christmas festivities. In some far-away corner of the earth you would buy a horse-hair Burmese bowl or a clay Colombian statue or a Chinese paint-brush. These would be gifts for others, and gifts for yourself. Things to take up space, gather dust, and sit still and silent around you. Things that you don’t even see anymore. Things that have become old invisible friends.

And today I’ve been at it again. Sadly no frivolous-frippery shops are open here in Geneva due to partial confinement, so I have had to resort to on-line services. It has been a solitary day of frustration and failure and mediocracy.

My favourite shop in England cannot deliver until mid-January due to having been moved to Tier 3 of covid19 lockdown. They explained that only 3 people can work in their warehouse due to new rules.

I contacted my bookstore in Paris, but it is closed as an international appeal has resulted in a tsunami of orders and they are drowning in success.

And I didn’t even bother seeing what has become of my Florentine art supplies shop. The man there has probably gone home and is hiding under his duvet.

However, I have managed local sourcing of many quite ordinary things and am moderately satisfied. Sadly, there have been no eureka moments.

Imagine no possessions. I wonder if you can.