Waiting Rooms

Waiting rooms are not nearly as much fun as they used to be. Back in pre-pandemic times they were places of energy and human interest. Doctors would over-book with abandon, and you’d find yourself cheek by jowl with organized / harassed women phoning in supermarket orders and making arrangements.

The ophthalmologist’s was a very thoughtful place, as most printed matter was banished. Glossy vacation and architectural magazines ruled.  It was there that the old lady from the Valais was heard loudly complaining about the shocking smell of papist fish in the air on a Friday.

At the dentist’s I was treated to the sight of my normally-terrifying high school principal reduced to a trembling wreck as the grandfather clock ticked. I was never scared of him again.

There used to be reading matter—tattered and torn magazines with the crosswords filled in and the recipes ripped out.  If you were lucky, a grubby copy of today’s paper. Sometimes a little heap of free samples—skin creams and tooth whitening brochures. Boxes of paper tissues.

At the emergency room of the nearest clinic, there was a small wall-mounted TV with hyenas chasing, catching and eating a wildebeest. This ran on a 20-minute loop. I think the title was Magnificent Mother Natureobviously some sort of medical in-joke.  We the sickies were always captivated and our problems were reduced.  I’m sure some people, ashamed of their insignificant severed finger(s), even left.

With one thing and another, I have visited quite a few waiting rooms over the past few months, and I shake my head with sadness.

There are the hospital business visits where you fill in forms, sit on every second white plastic chair, get tested or vaccinated, and pay on the spot. (This is very Japanese-style where the waiting-room is arranged with church-pews all facing the same direction. In case of death, this can suddenly turn into a highly emotional public wake.)

There are new, fancy state-of-the-art waiting rooms. At the dermatologist’s there is a huge screen which gives “before” and “after” shots of various skin and wellness procedures. This becomes confusing, as often you cannot tell which is which. The weights around your waist to reduce belly fat, and the dancing sewing-machine-like needles on the face have both resulted in lasting mental damage.

I can confidently report that dentist, gynecologist, and GP waiting rooms are now socially dead. You occupy the room alone due to the well-spaced appointment schedule. Nothing to read. Nothing to watch. No one to listen to. Nothing to be learned. No tubes to squeeze.

So I look back fondly to last month when I found myself in a second-level parking lot in the once-raucous Thai tourist town of Patong. There were crowds of tourists needing their COVID tests.  In the breezy open concrete space there were line-ups, jostling, mistakes, laughter, shouting and confusion. The lady doing the tests was in a hermetically-sealed box and her gloved hands stretched into the voids of our waiting nostrils.

It was magic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Really BAD Case of Cabin Fever

Winter in Canada is not for wimps. This year in Ontario the cold and snow have been particularly vicious.  I have received personal reports of unending digging out driveways, cars being completely snowed in, ingloriously having to walk to work, having to start the car half an hour before you want to go shopping, icy sidewalks, and killer squirrels.

Yesterday the adjective “balmy” modified the day’s high of -6C.

Historically, we all know this. Canadian childhoods were spent battling to schools through snowstorms and farm kids showing up whimpering with frozen-white ears. You were dared to put your tongue on the metal of the frozen water pump in the playground and the top layer of skin ripped right off when you pulled away. Everyone laughed. Grit in a barrel with a shovel to help you get your car up the hills on the country roads. Those seasonal sore red rings around your wrists where mittens stopped and before your coat sleeves began. Emptying clumps of hard-packed snow from inside your galoshes.

Of course, it could all be mitigated by a sunny blue-sky day and the rhinestone twinkle of the snowscape. A toboggan or a pair of skates. You built snow forts. There was always Christmas, Groundhog Day, Valentine’s Day, and finally the almost-release of Easter.

A lot of time was spent indoors and the days were short. At school you memorized the kings of England and the official flowers of the provinces. With scissors, mucilage, construction paper and doilies you made creations of great beauty. The never-ending patterns of snowflakes.

At home you coloured with wax crayons. You melted your plasticine on the hot air holes from the furnace. Sometimes it melted down the chute and the house smelled like the colour brown. You played blocks and dress-up with the little’uns. You caught measles and chickenpox. You broke your elbow sliding down the banister. You watched TV when allowed…there were Santa Claus Parades and Hockey Nights in Canada.

There used to be people. You went to church and sang in choirs and poured hot toffee onto snow in a bowl and had nosebleeds when you got hit on the face with an ice snowball.  You survived.

Fast forward sixty years to the truckers’ hullaballoo in Ottawa and the exciting wintertime mix of radical politics, sedition, nut-cases, anti-vaxxers, maple-leaf flag-capes, and the True North strong and free. It is wintertime, and Cabin Fever is rife. After two years of social isolation, deaths, and rules in general, skating to work along the Rideau Canal is not cutting it.

We are mesmerized and revolted, but we UNDERSTAND. Instead of walking out naked into a blizzard and dying 2 yards from your own front door (a classic symptom of Cabin Fever), blast your horns! You will be fed and watered. People will supply you with gas to keep your engines running.

We are Canadians, and we are wise to the thrills of winter.

 

 

 

 

 

The Magic Palm Tree

Recovering from a bad attack of “upset stomach” (a small Thai restaurant on the Andaman Sea has perhaps forgotten the recipe for bottled-water-ice-cubes over the past couple of tourist-free years), I was lying prone contemplating what I have come to regard as my personal palm tree.

My medical classification was “comfortable misery”. I was frustrated by losing time (to do what, exactly?) and knew it would be unwise to stroll on the endless empty shell-strewn beach away from my friendly little wooden commode. Too exhausted to read, my thoughts somehow drifted to the white snows of Switzerland, to the Schatzalp, to The Magic Mountain.

Thomas Mann’s novel, written almost exactly 100 years ago, features the genial (and healthy) Hans Castorp who goes to visit his cousin in the Berghof Sanatorium above Davos for three weeks. While there, he is found to have symptoms of TB and stays for the next seven years. During that time the patients and their visitors fill Hans in on the current political, cultural, and philosophical state of a muddled Europe.

Along with Hans, we the readers are educated, illuminated, bored and mesmerized by the countess, the Jew-Jesuit-Marxist, the scientists and dozens of other characters that people the 700+ pages. I read the novel about half a century ago and my memory of detail is somewhat fuzzy, but I believe that the gist remains firmly intact. The novel is a statement against bourgeois constipation. Escape can be found through illness (or war). In other words, death is a solution.

Time disappears at the Berghof … much like it should on any good vacation. Hans abandons his pocket watch, and at one point forgets his own age. Time become cyclical rather than linear and the day’s activities are the essential measure of temporal importance. There are the rest cures, the temperature-measuring sessions, and the lectures.  One learns how to swaddle oneself in camel hair blankets to be comfortable on the frigid balcony. The inhabitants carry around miniature copies of their lung x-rays in their wallets to show their colleagues. Hypochondria is rife.

The mountain inhabitants are different from the low-landers. Those living down in the valley are normal healthy people, preoccupied with the uncontrollable events of the quotidian. The Berghof population is “talented” and considered special in their contemplation of and insight into higher concepts. They see things in a bright way and do not follow the rules of the valley. They do not have to wear hats! They are allowed to slam doors! They are discouraged from amorous conquest! (as the expending of calories in sexual energy could be detrimental to their cure.)

And so it is under my palm tree. I arrived healthy and am now recovering with a “cure” of bananas and toast.  I am weary. I have discarded my swatch. I show my QR certificates for all matters of health. I swaddle myself in towels and take rest cures in the shade. I apply lotions. I pay attention to the sunset and the singing of cicadas at dawn and dusk.

Europe is still muddled

The hotel manager has brought an arrangement of flowers to the room with her “brightest wishes.” I think the cure is working.

 

 

 

 

 

A William Tell State of Mind

There are startling similarities between Alberta and Switzerland. There are the mountains—the new Rockies and the old Alps; the scenic vistas with turquoise lakes—Banff and Interlaken; unsettling wildlife—grizzlies (eating campers) and wolves (eating sheep); and, back in the day, trainloads of quiet and moneyed Japanese tourists paying big bucks to soak it all up

There is wealth—oil and gas in Alberta, watches and banks in Switzerland. There are dues to be paid—to Canada and to Europe. And there is an attitude against aristocratic rule, whether it be the 14th-century House of Habsburg or the 21st-century Houses of Parliament. A vocal slice of both populations (Alberta has exactly half of Switzerland’s 8.6 million people) are busy on weekends claiming their rights to individual freedom.

Of course, the William Tell legend raises its apple-coiffed head here. There is no pole with Albrecht Gessler’s hat on it to be bowed to in either Edmonton or Bern, but instead there are provincial and federal rules to be followed. Or not.

The question, of course, is covid19-related. Masks or no masks? Vaccines or no vaccines? Who do we listen to? Who do we believe? Who do we obey? Who do we trust? Who do we bow to?

In both places the vaccination rate has frozen. Today’s data tell me that in Alberta it is at 64.7% and in Switzerland it is 62.5%. In both places there have been financial incentives to persuade the hesitant to do the right thing. It seems that not even money is working.

Metaphoric crossbows abound, and quivers are filled with slotted arrows.

Stuck in this impasse, it is of immense interest that my trusty stringer in Calgary has asked that I aid and advise him in choosing his city’s next mayor. As the election is tomorrow, there’s no time to lose.

I have received the list of 27 candidates (5 have no campaign page) and the choice reflects the citizens current preoccupations – much of it anti-authoritarian and pro-small business. If we kick out the obvious nut-cases (covid shots are implanting microchips in your body as part of an international conspiracy led by Justin Trudeau) and crooks (assault charges, anti-mask agitation and hate crimes) we get to the very heart of doughty civic concerns.:

  • James who proposes to abolish the mayoral title of “Your Worship.”
  • Zaheed who wants to plant fruit trees in the city’s parks so the children can be “nourished while playing.”
  • Virginia whose political neutrality is rock solid: “ …neither left or right, or central for that matter.”
  • Will who wants quicker snow removal in the winter.
  • Ian who proposes that recent university graduates volunteer as inspectors to improve the safety of patios.

We see the Tell themes displayed to perfection … the abolition of authority, healthy food (apples) for the children, total tolerance, practical improvements, and unpaid jobs for university graduates.

The strong man of the mountains would have approved.

 

 

 

 

Shaken Not Stirred

The trip started well. We caught the bus to Geneva Airport and my ticket was magically delivered by SMS. It really helps if you know the number, and then the code for your ride and process them in the correct order.

This was excellent training for present-day Croatia. If you are lucky enough to stay in the Blue Studio in Pula, for example, you have to know the code to the Orange Door. Be careful, as it only opens one unique time over a 24-hour period. Then you have to know the code for the key box beside the Blue Door and the mechanical method of opening it.

If you then manage to extract your miniscule rental car that has been parked in by several other big local cars at the end of the dead-end street, you must know the code to the white-taped key box up at The Monastery where there is a parking lot available. The Monastery can be easily located as it is on the narrow road up the hill to the castle just past the Jupiter Pizzeria.

Once you get the hang of all this, you quickly see that the codes are all already entered as no one ever bothers changing or hiding them.  Most doors and gates are open most of the time, as only robbers and dizzy tourists would be trying to crack or master the friendly and trusting system.

There is a flourishing wine culture here (possibly the reason for all the codes never being erased) and no trip to Croatia is complete without visiting a Heritage Winery. Our most memorable one featured the Rubber Room, and the “heritage” bit was interior décor in 1960s “Italian Style”.  Carpets and wallpaper matched each other in florid geometric design. You couldn’t make out where the floor ended and the wall began. The bed was a four-poster composed of brown plastic chunks that looked like giant M&Ms. Its ceiling contained a curved mirror, so that the visual extravaganza could never be avoided.

It was sort of like being on a ship in the middle of the grape fields, and taking an anti-motion-sickness tablet before stepping into the room was highly recommended.

Their specialty was “very old” wine, which meant that their “burgundies” (the ones that were “ready”) were about 15 years old and had turned into brown sludge. Instead of trying to decant them, a waiter told us that the bottle must be shaken to attain full taste and body.  He was not taking no for an answer, and upon our expressing shock and horror we were shunned in the dining room as oenological philistines.

But, ah, Croatia is a lovely place. The dolphin boats go out at sunset and there is always a fresh fish for supper. There are cash machines and coffee shops and ice cream cones at every corner. The sun shines and the water sparkles.

A philosopher-waiter reminds you that COVID19 is bad, but not as bad as war.

Greetings from Opatija.

 

 

 

 

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 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.

 

The Tourist and the Gendarme

Being a successful tourist these days requires perseverance, courage, imagination, and quite a bit of luck. Adventures like getting permanently lost, being kidnapped, finding yourself stranded at an airport, being put in quarantine or ending up in jail do not count as success.

To be a successful tourist you have to make it back home.

Here in the western Geneva countryside we are geographically constrained. In these days of the COVID pandemic, there are both international boundaries and cantonal boundaries with different rules popping up like fall mushrooms. And they can be poisonous.

For example, we THINK you can go to France if you have an “attestation” printed out, signed and dated. You can only do the things that are mentioned on the form. Shopping for basic provisions, helping people, going to work, to the doctor’s, to get the kids from school are all allowed. Exercise can be taken within a kilometre of where you live. It’s not mentioned, but we think you’re supposed to be French. (Things that are NOT mentioned are NOT allowed.)

And then there are the different rules in Geneva and the next canton, Vaud. In Lausanne, for example, you can go to a hairdresser or barber. Here in Geneva the salons have all been shut. However, there is so much business in Vaud, that Geneva hairdressers are going there (with all their clients) to help out.

You cannot go to the IKEA in Geneva as it sells totally non-essential goods and so has been shut. However, you can drive about 50 km to the west and go to the one in Aubonne.

Christmas decorations are considered non-essential and so our local Migros has the centre of its floor-space (a mountain of Chinese Santas) sealed in plastic wrap while the shoppers bustle around the newly created impediment.

Even geographic placement becomes confusing. For instance, as a tourist (either Swiss or French, we think) you are allowed to drive around all you want in the Swiss Jura looking for a spot of sunshine above the clouds. Now who ever knew that the Swiss Vallée de Joux turns into the French Vallée de Joux? Where, suddenly, you are breaking the law driving your car and looking out of the window.

If you make the obvious next-step mistake of turning off the road into a Scenic View Parking Lot you can be nabbed by the French Gendarmes as the activity of stopping and looking is not mentioned on the “attestation”. Inadvertently driving past, we saw this take place and it resulted in major psychological trauma. We are not used to being criminals.

We did make it home on Friday. Coming over the border at CERN (not a customs man, or police SWAT team, or health inspector, or prison guard, or gendarme in sight) it was with the relief of arriving back from the far ends of earth.

So, be warned: tourism is taboo in France. But remember, being a tourist is mostly in your head