Remember this Word, You Might Need it: Systembolaget!

I hate the first day of summer. It means that Christmas is just around the corner as the days rudely begin to tick themselves shorter and shorter and time goes faster and faster.

In the academic working world you don’t much notice the 21st of June as you’re so busy with end-of-school exams, the behaviour of highly questionable colleagues and students, and general nervous break-downs. Hectic summer holiday plans are also raising concerns as you have no trace of a 2-week car rental that you’re sure you booked back in February.

The most traumatic summer solstice was in Sweden: Göteborg, to be exact.  The hotel was situated on a scenic canal across from a power station to the left and a casino to the right. In the middle was a Mongolian meat restaurant. The view from the slanting roof windows was of the sky with a smokestack in the corner.

The June day started badly as everything was shut. This turned out to be not, exactly, a holiday, but just a normal Swedish working day.  Shops seem to open late in the morning and close at early in the afternoon. Obviously, during these brief business hours, shopping is hectic and robust.

Trying to find a bottle of wine to celebrate the summer solstice was a double challenge. You wander out into the searing heat of a Swedish summer looking for something that mentions alcohol. (The Swedish word for alcohol is alkohol. The Swedish word for wine is vin. Really, you would think they could do something with those two that would make sense to an interested, thirsty, tourist over 20 years of age, with money in her pocket.)

But no. The government liquor-monopoly stores are called systembolagets (the System Company). But if you happen to find one and get there in the summer-popsicle-thin window of opening hours (11 am – 1 pm on Saturdays, for example), the choice is vast.

After enjoying the solstice festive atmosphere among the young, bronzed, tall, skinny, beautiful, white-teethed people, you inevitably start to fade and retire back to your hotel in no-man’s land. You drink a final glass and hit the sack. The sun is still shining. The roof-windows are luminous. There is no blind. There are no curtains.

You start with the bathroom towel tucked in around the edges with the window-trap shut. The light shines through. You add the duvet to try to bung up the roof hole. There is no air in the room. You long for duct tape.

You work on it all night: eye masks, pillows, toilet paper, and I think that the shower curtain was even involved. But there were no nights. We visited the systembolaget more and more (it was always crowded) and after six days we finally got home deeply disturbed and disoriented.

Be careful what you wish for, but I am longing already for the 21 of December when the days start getting longer again and I can lean forward to the beginning of summer.

Sing, Goddamnit, Sing!

Any visit to Stratford (the REAL one in Ontario, Canada) and you are constantly star-struck.

It already begins on the Toronto flight with the hockey players. They used to be the nice young men sitting in the slum-class seats with their knees up around their shiny ears. They were giant, keyed-up and chattily practising their Swedish-English before hopefully hitting the lucky interview and a place in the NHL.

Now they are the former hockey players and coaches—still keyed-up and searching for North American talent to bring back to Europe. The last one I met was the general manager for the Ingolstadt Hockey Club. He seemed to be interested when I told him that Ingolstadt was where Victor Frankenstein, of Geneva, fashioned his now-famous creature. He said he would check it out, but gave me the tip that big bruiser players were no longer fashionable and miniature mosquito-type midgets were currently in vogue.

After landing, there is the exciting drive in the Parcel Bus that delivers you to your door. Actually, it delivers you to many, many doors before the one you want. The drivers are usually spry octogenarians and with their lack of hearing and canny survival instincts they are the true masters of the jam-packed 40l highway.

Arriving at my sister’s house—famous for its old and wicked beauty—you still cannot escape the clutches of fame. For example, she has fed Justin Bieber cookies which he has eaten with his own true teeth and swallowed down his very own Justin Bieber gullet.

Yes. This is a true fact. Stratford is Justin’s home town, and whenever his mother comes to visit, she jams with my nephew.  My niece’s daughter is lobbying hard for Justin to animate her next birthday party when she will turn 7.  Obviously, we are practically related to Justin Bieber.

Then there are the actors, the writers, the singers. The Stratford Festival theatre season runs for about 6 months, and after seeing the magnificent world-class plays, you can often catch a glimpse of Hamlet buying cornflakes at the supermarket, or My Fair Lady playing with her kid in the sandpit at the playground.

Summertime also includes outdoor cultural activities with art, music, and animation on the Avon Lake which, Mariposa Belle-style, is only a few inches deep. Picnicking on the edge one summer a rather rambunctious member of our party screamed at a packed raft floating past “Sing! Goddamnit sing!” Turns out they were members of an old folks home (or, perhaps, Parcel Bus drivers) being taken on an airing.

Even the local church is quite notorious. Last summer there was quite a scandal when thieves stole plants from their mixed border.  And at their jumble sale just a few weeks ago, I purchased a set of famous grapefruit spoons from the estate of a deceased famous person.  Upon enquiry, it seems the person is still alive.

Identity—mistaken and otherwise—is the very soul of Stratford’s star-struck life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Little Switzerlands: Don’t Bother

Any country that can possibly get away with it (and several that can’t) have created their own little versions of Switzerland. Essential ingredients include trees (any sort except palm), fields (ploughed, fenced and tended), altitude (the higher the better) and a fresh-water lake (preferably turquoise in colour.)

If you happen to know the real, big Switzerland, avoid these places at all cost.

I have been to little Switzerlands more times than I like to admit: India, Korea, Japan, Sri Lanka, Burma, and China all have their “Swiss” landscape dreams. They are often strange forlorn places of heat and odd architecture.

Switchback roads are the essential opening ingredient to get you to an authentic little Switzerland. If you’re really lucky, you will spot a rusty wreck stuck in the bushes below a particularly sharp bend. You conclude that puzzling aerial wires going nowhere must be for ski lifts in case the earth’s weather patterns change. Sometimes there is even a dodgy mechanical device that takes the cheering pedestrians from one viewing platform to another.

Having sworn off little Switzerlands, I was surprised to myself in yet another one. This one was sneakily hiding in Calabria, the toe of Italy.

It really wasn’t my fault. In that region, the only three-star attraction (apart from the Riace Bronzes in Reggio Calabria which are believed to be two (buck-naked) brothers about to kill each other in front of their mother….but here I digress) is the Sila mountain plateau. At almost 2,000m altitude, sure enough, it is officially designated Calabria’s “Little Switzerland.”

It is also a national park and has ploughed fields, painted wooden houses perched in alpine mixed forests, flowery meadows, one herd of cows, and endless unmarked roads. There are no people, restaurants or gas stations. It is quiet and serene, and as you drive, lost on the SP31 (that is not to be found on any map and goes from nowhere to nowhere) you become exquisitely bored.

As the gas tank empties and the bladder fills, you long to be in good old Italy and back to the trip you had planned. You wish for the thrill of the autostradas, the delights of bergamot ice cream, a double espresso, an Aperol-spritz.  You worry where your next meal is coming from, and miss the peculiar characters in the kiosks that sell you popsicles and scratch-off parking permits.

You feel the need for a good dusty duomo and a museo filled with gangs of school kids crashing from exhibit to exhibit photographing each thing with their shiny-new smart phones and retaining their complete, noisy ignorance.

The SP31 finally meets the SS179 and you are out…free to drive into the future and come back to Italy and the crowded friendly chaos of the rose festival of Santa Rita. All thoughts of Switzerland—both big and little—have dropped far below the waves of the wine-dark sea.

 

Political Dynasty Disorder

It has been brought to my attention from the highest of confidential sources that the whole of Canada is cringing with embarrassment.

Justin Trudeau, it seems, has been publically making a complete ass of himself.

No. It’s not his silly socks or his political correctness for all of peoplekind, but, rather, turning his week-long holiday to India into his own personal Bollywood movie. Supporting cast features his wife and three kids. The villain of the piece is a Sikh extremist/criminal who should have come to an official dinner but had to be uninvited. And the wardrobe department has outdone itself with trunks full of fancy wedding kurtas, sherwani and pointy-toed embroidered slippers.

For the first three days, Justin visited the tourist sites and spun cloth Ghandi-style while dressed as a traditional Indian bridegroom. It started funny, and got quickly annoying.

It would be as if he had arrived in Switzerland dressed in Swiss folk costume, with the kids as little Heidi and Peters and Sophie in a bust-popping Germanic dirndl. A goat might have been part of the entourage.

Several reasons have been offered for his misplaced display of cultural appropriation. Those with a soft-spot for him have suggested his first trip to India with his dad, Pierre Eliott Trudeau (who was Canadian Prime Minister from the 1960s into the 1980s) had something to do with it. The cynics say he was trying to play to the huge Indian population in Canada—especially the Sikh contingent. The jokers say he was purposefully attracting attention away from (and thereby annoying) Donald Trump.

I say that he is suffering from a serious case of dynasty disorder. Kids, wives and siblings should not try to follow the old man down the chutes of political power. There are bound to be mishaps. Looks at the Kennedys, the Nehru-Ghandis, the Bhuttos, the Clintons, the Castros, the Kims, the lePens. Nothing good ever comes of it.

(Timely Warning! Be very careful what you wish for, Caroline Mulroney (daughter of Brian).)

There is an up-side to all of these shenanigans, however, as our Little Potato’s political antics are bringing us all together again. It has been a long hard winter in Canada this year and the resulting cabin fever has produced serious outbreaks of family testiness and winter squabbles. All of this is blowing nicely away, as we follow Justin’s totally mortifying holiday from hell.

We wrap ourselves in our blankets of Canadian common sense and decency and know what it is to be a good tourist: You dress quietly and discreetly; you stay calm and clean; you indulge in self-depreciation and good humour; you stand patiently in line; you try to pay more and get less; and you tip as much as possible whenever you can.

Everybody knows that you never ever “go native” or bring your own chef with you to cook the local food.

And we thank goodness that Justin is back in Ottawa again and that spring is just around the corner.

 

Europe’s Most Dangerous Airport

Nobody ever actually tells you that you’re going to be flying into one of the world’s most dangerous airports. However, if your local low-cost carrier sells you a ticket for a seven-hour round trip out of Geneva for 43.50 francs, be prepared for anything.

It started, as all good things do, with an idea—that old post-Christmas, chase-away-the-blues, ocean ozone week away. And, of course, it was not our fault that the flight to Funchal, Madeira—a rugged Atlantic island featuring fado, sword fish, water mills, poncha, irrigation canals, landslides, and viewpoints—was so surprisingly cheap.  So many kilometres for so little money. What a deal!

On our departure day we ended up (after six hours in the air) back on the Portuguese mainland in Porto. We even got a 7-euro supper coupon, and our flight was re-scheduled for the following morning.

Oh yes. We should have been in Madeira, but having flown out to the island, and examined the seething cauldron of rain and cloud and tempestuous winds below, the pilot chirpily informed us that we were not allowed to land.

Day Two meant getting up at 4 a.m. (again) but this time, we managed to successfully touch down at the little Funchal Airport. This was accompanied with much cheering and clapping–pilot and crew included.

The airport runway extends out over top of the motorway at the edge of the sea. It actually tilts up a bit at the end which I guess is a serious clue to the pilot as to which way he should be heading. It is more or less like landing on an air-craft carrier, except that there is no elastic bungee to catch your wheels and stop you going over the edge and into the drink.

There is no flatness in Madeira (except in the middle where the wind turbines are all continuously blasting at full-speed and no one in their right mind would ever want to land there). Plus, Madeira is a volcano and seriously close to the earth’s core (information gathered from the Lava Tunnels Volcanic Visitor’s Centre) so dramatic danger can be just around the corner at any place or time.

Our big fight with the lying and cheating car rental company is now fading into oblivion. Our walks in the laurel forests with the view of the wine-dark sea far below are anchored firmly in our memories. The poncha and passion fruit drink at the warm and sunny harbour is recalled with longing. The flour from the old mill has been baked into bread.

We even got our full week’s holiday, as our departure was delayed for 30 hours due to the windy rainy airport being closed yet again.

A winter trip to an Atlantic island can, eventually, be crowned with success. Money is not so important: just take lots of time with you.

 

 

 

Wrecking the Rentals

It is never our fault when our rental car gets damaged. Often it has to do with the indigenous population who, through sheer ignorance, lack of education and cultural isolation, do not speak our language. Plus, they are often driving on the wrong side of the road.

The shocking local terrain is also to blame. Inviting dotted lines on maps should really be closed to normal traffic, and the little plastic tapes attached to flimsy poles to discourage road use should be replaced with something more substantial.

Years back, driving a rental over the Beartooth Mountain Pass into Yellowstone Park the tearing and scraping noises coming from underneath the car as we rode through the potholes were most disheartening.

Then there was the afternoon on a short-cut down from the top of a beautiful mountain lookout in Corfu. The road was simply too narrow and the razor-sharp gorse bushes scratched and etched huge cuts into rental’s originally glittering paintwork.  We passed the burned out shell of a car (a rental?) about half way down.

And I will only talk about the Hokkaido disaster with the utmost reluctance…

In Japan, they refuse to rent their rentals to foreigners. They are entirely right. However, a morning’s perseverance in Otaru got us a miniscule little car about the same size and with the same technical skills as a Japanese Toto Washlet toilet.

We squeezed ourselves in and with the engine making a high-pitched buzzing noise, drove a couple of hours to a tourist site where the earth’s crust was about half-an-inch thick. There were crooked buildings, broken roads, and bridges going nowhere. Fumaroles were going off left and right. Your shoes got hot and started melting. It was all very exhilarating.

We were so excited that we almost missed the turn off, and, pulling a sharp left, touched the curb. The tire, which was about the size and strength of an aluminium disposable pie plate, exploded.

There was a saucer-sized spare wheel, but no jack. As I was making my way back across a field with a rock to place under the car a nice man slowed down and offered us his “Jakko”. Blood, sweat, tears, and a visit to Doctor Drive got us out of that particularly hot and sticky situation.

Recently, rental companies are getting both smart and lazy. Why waste a perfectly good tire as a spare? In our last rental in Rhodes a couple of weeks back, there was just a can of foam goop to squirt into your flat tire (which we did).

And Canada has taken things to an entirely ethereal level. While adjusting the rear-view mirror in a Chevy rental in September, a miniscule red button inadvertently got pushed. Five minutes later, a disembodied voice invited us to share our problem.  I instinctively played dead, but my sister gamely piped up and informed the air inside the car that we were all just fine.

And so, we drove on.

 

 

 

Where has all the Butter Gone?

Well, at the local supermarket in France two days ago, there was no butter on the butter shelf. I even checked twice, as I could not make my brain believe in the big black butter hole.

Figuring that the delivery truck had had an accident (it HAS been unseasonably warm lately up in the mountains) we were reduced to buying the very last package—a thin sliver of salty (loser) butter.

Fortunately, we always travel with a brick of Swiss cooking butter in the trusty blue Cool Box, so made it through supper to the news where we were officially (French government TV) enlightened as to the butter crisis: It was explained that a new scientific paper had just been published and butter was being extolled as the latest health food. Cholesterol was suddenly GOOD for you! The French population had gone wild, and butter was flying off the shelves!

Now, our friends and neighbours in the Haute Savoy are no wimps. Their idea of a jolly good holiday is going bear hunting in Canada. Their summertime dream job is logging an entire mountainside and installing a new ski lift. Who had known that they had been so petrified of butter?

We happily settled down to digest this latest food fad and vowed to eat as much butter as possible before it was suddenly bad for us again.

Yesterday, though, there came a sad piece of breaking news on the butter front. The family arrived and they, too, had had a supermarket butter shock. Their Swiss-based research had led to the political/economic explanation that industrial butter had suddenly risen in price, and supermarket butter was now cheaper, and so every baker and cake-maker in France was now super-market shopping for the raw products for their buttery treats.

Every morning, they sweep the supermarket shelves empty at 8 a.m., and after that, there is nothing left for the rest of us except the occasional tub of omega-rich fish-oil spread.

Both stories were augmented by the fact that France now depends entirely upon its local dairy  production and the great international butter mountains of old have been melted by zillions of Chinese people who now want butter to put on their bread as they are no longer happy with their little iron bowls of boiled rice.

It certainly is true that there used to be cartons and cartons of very cheap and good New Zealand and Australian butter piled up in the supermarkets underselling the more exotic French regional butter brands.

Back at the shop this morning, and there was a new development. A typed sign flapping forlornly in front of the butter hole explained that there was a national butter shortage.

It did not explain the problem, but at least had the grace not to blame the scientists, the bakers or the Chinese.

 

 

Chateau Nights

Well, if you ever get invited to a chateau, be sure to bring a sleeping bag along. Of course, there are drawers full of ancient embroidered linens locked away safely in Louis XVI cabinets, but nobody knows where the keys are anymore. As for the tattered remains of the duvets, they are on the very top floor where the flies and the mice have taken over, and NO ONE goes up there. Ever.

Chateau life is full of pleasant and unusual surprises. When, for example, did you last get your hand kissed coming to the breakfast table? Or blow a French hunting horn in the main hallway? Or see a gentle pastel sunset over endless still water?

My particular chateau is located in the Dombes—a fish-pond-filled plain half way to Lyon from Geneva. Originally purchased by our host’s great-great grandfather (a silk baron), it is perched on a slight rise in the flatness overseeing 1000 hectares (2471 acres) of water, canals and forest. You patrol the paths in a pair of old camouflage-green Citroen beach buggies which have a tendency towards flat tires and gear-box issues.

You note that the ponds are low, and some have even disappeared completely. You observe the egrets and swans and positively hate the big black cormorants that stress the fish in the muddy shallow ponds.

You sleep little as the hunting dogs bark all night.

You visit the Saturday-morning market and want to buy a huge domestic goose and some fluffy hens that are for sale. For lunch you eat frog legs and pike mousse and tartar of carp. Your host tries to sell the restaurant chef the 15 tons of carp that he fishes annually from him ponds. This is beyond embarrassing: it is aristocratic. You give the waitress an outrageous tip.

You visit the great Abbey of Bourg en Bresse and admire the stained glass and the tomb of poor Marguerite of Austria/Savoy. You are enthralled and stuffed (fish dumplings) at the same time.

At apéro hour, the neighbours come to pay a courtesy call. They have rescue horses and dogs, and market-bought poultry, and a flock of guardian geese. They discuss the upcoming hunting season with our chateau host who wears a flak jacket, smokes a pipe, and loves knives. They leave at 9, as they have to dress for dinner.

For our supper there is a huge hunk of chateau Limousin beef resting in the fridge. You compose a magnificent Yorkshire pudding that you have whipped up by hand—a totally English dish perhaps never tasted before in this 13th-centure French demeure.

I loved my three nights at the chateau (yes, a chateau weekend begins on Thursday evening, in case you were not au courant) but it is also quite a relief to be back in my own simple kitchen where there is not one single stuffed boar head on the wall; where the cobwebs are amazingly discreet, and where I keep my compost bins outside.

 

 

The Coming of Uncle Buck

In the wider circle of family and friends one person stands out as an obvious solution to all of Donald Trump’s current problems. Our very own Uncle Buck could easily fill the various roles of U.S. Press Secretary, Chief of Staff, and, possibly, Defence Secretary all at the same time.

His erudition has again been brought to my attention in a recent public message containing 80th birthday wishes as he congratulates Harry on his 41st anniversary of his 39th birthday. His source for this witticism is his old friend, Ronald Ragun (known to the rest of us as Reagan.)

This already proves his Trumpian qualities, as Uncle Buck grooves to unconventional spelling and youth. His nationality, height, girth and date of birth are almost identical to Trump’s. He wears jackets that are shiny and too large and his thinning hair is a shambles.

Uncle Buck and Donald have many common attributes. For example, they both talk without listening and dote on much younger/thinner women. Despite his phrase that he is “fighting to stem the new tide of Narcissictic Apathy” Uncle Buck feels that he is a most attractive specimen of virility. His heart would go into fibrillation (which it does regularly) if he were placed next to Ivanka or even Melania.

He is picky about his food, and brings his favourite (beef steaks) with him to be stored in friends’ freezers in case he spontaneously arrives. Some of these slabs have been there for decades.

Like Donald, Uncle Buck’s relationship with the truth is artistic rather than factual. He feels very strongly that he  physically fought in the Vietnam War, and the current moment of history he describes as: “the Indians are no longer at the gates but on the walls and I’m out of Ammo and doing Hand to Hand combat.”  Uncle Buck is not a POW loser, he’s a Serving Soldier.

Uncle Buck is also secretive and protective. He has to be, otherwise others would steal his ideas and designs. As an artist (all mediums) of the Old America West bas-relief School (lots of eagles and feathered war bonnets) all his work and much of his writing is copyrighted and, he believes, legally protected against theft.

Uncle Buck is a shoe-in for an appointment or two on Donald’s ever-changing dream team. He would resonate with the American public as he speaks out for “a New world Renaissance”. He would dazzle and confabulate with ideas about “kicking out the UN”, forcing a “Creative Coalition” as he longs to “steady the drain in Creative Thinking.”

The illogical rhetoric is in place: the grand ideas that make no sense, the virulent verbosity, the conflicting concepts, and the bashing on about predicament of the present all uncannily twin Uncle Buck to Donald Trump.

Roll over, Mooch, you’ve had your week in the sun. The age of Uncle Buck has finally dawned.

 

Tips for the Ladies

The other evening, I happened to see Mrs Trump and Mrs Macron stepping off a Seine tourist boat in Paris. They were immediately recognizable as killing time on an “accompanying persons” tour. While their husbands attended to vitally important world matters, the girls had put on clean clothes and gone off to see the sights before their Eye-Full Tower dinner.

Now, I’ve been doing this for decades, and am most surprised no one has called asking for my professional advice. These two are obviously wet-behind-the-ears rookies.

Just in from Jeju Island off the south coast of South Korea, I must say that I judge myself to have reached the pinnacle of my accompanying person skills. At a major international scientific conference of over 600 people, we were 5½ ladies who took it upon ourselves to improve our minds and explore our new neighbourhood.

None of us spoke Korean (however, Shigeko’s Japanese English was the most acceptable to Korean eyes and ears.) Most of us were retired school-teachers, so enjoyed talking in loud voices and were not particularly attentive to what others had to say: this meant we didn’t get on each other’s nerves. Lulu knew how to read the map and Eva had remembered to bring along some Korean wons. Helen wore a sunhat and Ute kept us focused.

Our first entertainment choice was the thrice-daily Korean acrobatic display in Asia’s largest circus tent. Unfortunately, the acrobats had all run away, and the huge orange globe was abandoned and wind-swept (due to a sudden lack of Chinese tourists brought about by missiles and anti-missiles). We cheerfully made do with the Peace Museum and wax figures of famous peaceful people such as Bill Clinton, Mikhail Gorbachev and pop stars.

One of us had already seen the Hello Kitty Museum and said it was only interesting for the first five minutes and she wasn’t sure if there were any Hello Kitty earrings. And after the Botanical Gardens and the Goof-Train ride we were too exhausted to visit the Teddy Bear Museum or the Ripley’s Believe-it-or-Not Museum. The organized half-day outing was composed of strenuous ravine and cliff walks in the 40-degree humidity. It almost killed us.

Anyway, Melania and Brigitte would have been welcome to join us on our improvised ladies’ program, but from what I’ve seen, wouldn’t have lasted five minutes.

First of all, when travelling, NEVER wear a white dress: it makes you look like a nurse or an ambulance driver, and, of course, the tiniest little brush with the black slime of a cliff-wall, and it’s a gonner. Dark or murky-coloured baggy trousers are the best bet for scrambling around in an unknown environment.

But proper footwear is the most crucial factor. You are not going to make it on the crater paths or the ravine board-walks in six-inch heels. You’re going to keep the bus waiting. Put on your diamond-encrusted sneakers instead, and come along with us next time.