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.

Bucket, the Rescue Dog

Well, it seems that a new craze has taken hold in Canada – the muddled concept of the “rescue dog”.

This phrase first floated into my world some months back, when my sister wrote a startling message describing her encounter with elderly friends’ new family member, the Great Dane Rescue Dog.

From what I recall, the howling dog tore through the restraining door, and its rolling eyes accidentally met hers. After some skirmishes, she found herself pinned to the floor with the dog slashing its teeth, making a nasty throat-noise, and drooling above her.

I replied that the animal seemed quite spontaneous and undisciplined for a rescue dog. I know my dogs. We have had St Bernards in the family for decades, and though we’ve never been able to teach them anything, the concept of their plodding stalwartly through the snowdrifts in the Alps looking for people always made perfect sense to me.

And when not snoring and eating, they did always look out for children and guests in many gentle and thoughtful ways. Locking their teeth on a sweater sleeve when not wanting a person to leave the room, or a playful paw in the face to wake you up from an afternoon snooze on the couch come immediately to mind.

But no. These Canadian canines are not REAL rescue dogs. In the new politically correct language of double-think, the human is the rescuer and the dog is the rescuee.

These are the dogs you get from the pound. They are often young, energetic, and very big. Their reasons for being in the animal shelters are many, I am sure. They are advertised as being “pre-loved”. Many might have been “pre-hated”.

It is a moral status symbol to own such a dog. The onus is on the human to keep these dogs alive no matter what. As they age and their hips fail, you carry them up and down steps. As their kidneys fail, you inject them with liquids. As their hearing and sight fail, you walk them carefully on long strings and soft paths so they don’t get lost. You attach a bell to their collar.

It becomes a moral human failure to have a dog put down because of age and/or illness.

You have no responsibility for having dealt with dubious breeders and/or puppy mills.

You are pure, and as you are walking through a virgin forest and you spot a dastardly villain lowering a large-eyed puppy down into a bottomless well in a bucket. You shout out and save it. You name the dog Bucket to remind yourself of a momentary shining white knight part of your personality. You take lessons in “behoming”.

From then on, you are a happy martyr to your lucky lucky dog. And you tell everyone that you are the saviour of Bucket, the Rescue Dog.

 

 

 

 

The Baby Farm in the Sky

No one writes about business class travel except business people – Richard Quest (CNN) for example, considers it quite a grunt—speed, efficiency, and a secure computer connection being the main ingredients of a good flight.

Well, roll over business people, there is a more mature crowd moving in. Those of us who have paid top bucks for economy tickets all our working lives and have amassed an Everest of flier miles are taking over. We call ourselves the Hot Rolled Towel Generation.

And we deserve it. Bum knees, rotten eyesight, sore backs, occasional disorientation, and the imperative of sleeping lying flat all medically indicate that we are no longer fit for slum class. Who wants a rather rotund, occasionally drooling, rheumy-eyed old geezer sitting beside them? And the worst: he might even start telling stories about how things used to be—better/worse/different.

Shakespeare, as usual, was right. In his “All the world’s a stage” speech, the last stage of human development circles back to the first, and the old man becomes a baby again. Never has this been truer than on a good 10-hour business class flight.

You are cocooned like a papoose in a plastic cubicle. You are back in a roomy womb. (It is the same idea in coach class, but there it is more like being triplets.)  You are nurtured, cleaned, and looked after.

The impeccably groomed young lady comes and kneels in front of you (just like a kindergarten teacher), addresses you by name, and in a clear voice that you can actually hear assures you that she is your personal slave for the duration of the flight. You can eat and drink what you want, when you want. They give you chocolates and champagne and green tea and then ask if you would like more.

When you lower your mechanical seat into sleeping position you can snore, snort, drool, burp and fart to your heart’s content inside the comforting roar of the jets. Under the light-weight duvet, with your reading light adjusted just-so, you could even be forgiven for sucking your thumb.

Your clothes becomes crinkled, spotty and messy if you have chosen not to change into the complimentary pyjamas. Turbulence can result in a surprising little vomit in the handy vomit bag. You are not scolded, but comforted and protected. Macho is out. Maternal is in.

The washrooms are close-by, smell like roses, and usually empty. The toilet paper is constantly folded into peak ends for easy roll-offs. There is a button to call a cabin crew member in case of washroom emergencies.

Upon landing, you re-enter the cold cruel world. Your time of no-control, no-responsibility is over. You are heartlessly thrown back into the earthly morass of immigration line-ups, taxi swindles, and stultifying heat. You wonder where your next meal is coming from.

Again, you become a player in the Shakespeare monologue as you turn into the (tourist) soldier “full of strange oaths … sudden and quick in quarrel.”

The flight is over.

 

 

 

 

Donald Trump’s Inner Gandhi

I have just visited the Gandhi Museum in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, and have made the startling discovery that Mahatma (The Great Soul) Gandhi and Donald (Make America Great Again!) Trump are political soul-mates. I hope you are reading this, Mr President, as I doubt that many people will have noticed your inner Gandhi.

It came to me as I was standing in front of a black and white photo of Gandhi wearing a loincloth seated at a spinning wheel. A master of media imagery, his message was clear – Indians must spin and weave their own cloth in the traditional manner. Imported British cloth must be boycotted.

Foreigners Out! Foreign Products Out! Make India Great!

Imagine if, some 85 years later, there had been a video clip (was there?) of candidate Trump in his red cap and a pair of worker’s overalls on a Ford assembly line in Michigan helping a robot mount an engine in the latest model of a (red) Ford Mustang. Every guy in the whole of the US would have voted for him (did they?).

Gandhi, vastly popular, devoted the last 30 years of his life to achieving Indian Independence. His thoughts, his dreams, his aspirations, his daily life became a purposefully open book. He slept little, rose at 3:30 a.m. and then filled the rest of the night with letter writing. This was followed by days of interviews, meetings, hunger strikes, long marches, spells in jail, and speeches. He was always doing something to maintain and increase attention and contact.

The shining example of mediatic brilliance was Gandhi’s wearing his loin-cloth to visit England in 1931. This skinny, ugly, old guy with a towel wrapped around his privates was much-criticised for his lack of disrespect to the king. Bald and toothless, he must have been cold as he cheerfully commented: “The king wears enough clothes for both of us.”

Sound familiar? A popular reality TV show? The 3 a.m. Tweets? The odd hair? The shambolic suits and clown ties? The unnaturally white 70-year old teeth? Criticising the establishment? The pre-fuss about the possibility of the Ugly American meeting Her Majesty?

Just as Gandhi was a product of India, so Donald is a product of America. Gandhi was a cliché of poverty. Trump is a cliché of wealth. They are the two extremities of our pretend/wished-for/normal middle-class, middle-of-the-road world; and as such they both disturb.

Gandhi was outrageous taking on the British Empire; just as Trump is outrageous taking on the world. Gandhi’s dream that the untouchable/Dalit caste be abolished did not happen. Similarly, Trump’s promise that every American worker will have job in America making products for Americans will not be filled.

However, Gandhi’s wish for the independence of India did come about, and in the initial act—the 1947 partition—it is estimated that up to 2,000,000 people died in the religious genocide that followed and 14,000,000 people were displaced.

So, Mr President, living alone in your great white elephant ashram in Washington, be very careful what you wish for.

Buddha is my Airbag

Having arisen from my New Year’s sick bed and adjusted my drug combination accordingly, I now find myself in deepest darkest Tamil Nadu.

It is a relief to have missed the hysteria surrounding the new American president’s inauguration. Searching hard, I did find a small article on page 16 of The Hindu which reported that Mr Trump has replaced the red curtains of the Oval Office with some drapes of his favourite colour – gold. There was even a picture to prove it. VERY Great Gatsbyand we all know what happened to him.

However, here we do not rely on international news for second-hand frissons and thrills. It’s happening all around.

The days do have their gracious moments – strolling the windy sea-front, admiring the sparkling saris and the police in their red képis. And there are also exciting protests against the attempted banning of the temple sport of bull “taming”. These feature bands of shouting/chanting young men throwing beer and coke bottles up in the air to smash back down on the sidewalks. They look and sound fierce and are filmed by a moving wagon full of TV cameramen. Together they are making tonight’s news.

Strikes are called and all shops shut under the threat of official strike enforcers with badges and big sticks knocking out their windows. Broken glass seems to be a leitmotif.

A group of ladies – dressed in red and pink and orange – march along the seafront under the slogan “We Will Go Out” claiming their right to non-harassment in public places.

The nights are long sleepless affairs. The music that drifts along the Bay of Bengal, pushed by the north wind loses very few of its decibels and reaches our room in pristine tone and volume. In the very early morning Allah calls and the church bells ring.

The street dogs that sleep placidly in the sun all day awake when the sun goes down and howl the night away. Likewise the cars, tuk-tuks, and motorbikes honk ceaselessly as they ply the streets communicating to each other like a flock of Canada geese on speed.

The little baffed-out Tata car that is driving us to the great temples of the south has a Ganesh on the dashboard, lots of dents and scrapes on all doors, and a driver with the three good-luck ash lines of Shiva on his forehead. We wear our frayed seat-belts on as we bash our way through the villages skirting trucks, buses, dogs, cows, goats, and humans. The driver sticks, cannily, to the centre of the road. There are no air-bags.

The birds are flocking. The music is rising. Evening is falling. Time now to check out the toilet paper situation in the thunder-box; turn on the geyser for a spot of hot water; find some fresh innerwear; and pour myself a chhota-peg.

Forget the Mindfulness Massage

I hate massages, so one good thing about living in the Swiss countryside is that this is not considered a social or mental shortcoming. However, having recently been in a town where every second person on the street offers you a massage (the other half offers transport) I eventually got snared.

Now this wasn’t your normally nasty sandy beach massage, or your cheap and cheerful downtown flea-pit massage. It took place in a respectable spa on the top of a windy ridge in central Bali.

massagemindfulnessThe oils and lotions were smartly-packaged and you could choose your flavour. The delicate jasmine body oil was a far cry from an extremely unpleasant experience some years back involving a tar-like product from a bucket that was an indelible mixture of shoe polish and petroleum jelly.

The sarong on the massage table was clean, and the subtly-muscled staff was dressed in matching business-like polo shirts. Before beginning, you had to fill out an official form on a clip-board indicating the strength of massage desired, and pointing out any areas that needed special attention. You naturally slip into your “fooling the doctor” mode and give nothing away.

We chose the Intuitive Heart Massage during which you are encouraged to drift off into a slumber-like state of peaceful bliss for 90 minutes, and to awake refreshed and reinvigorated. (My sister has since pointed out that they only give heart massages to dead people such as Princess Diana in the Paris tunnel.)

It started badly. As the nice young lady was wiping invisible specks of dust off the soles of my feet, my tickle-reflex kicked in. Fortunately, no lasting damage was done, but the next 89 minutes were doomed.

She intuitively started with my bad knee finding all the most painful acupuncture points. The Swedish-style hammering did not help. Her intuition held, and she moved right along to my bad back and turned her arms into rolling pins.

A good massage certainly takes your mind off things outside your skin. You become a ball of anticipation worrying about what painful thing is going to happen next. You mull over the possibility of actually dying on the massage table. You try to think Zen thoughts as the thunder crashes and the rain pours down – such as why you didn’t bring an umbrella, or why you didn’t wear your lucky purple underpants, or which is worse—here or at the dentist’s? You try to breathe calmly and quietly without gasping.

Leaving the massage table in a state of euphoria and mental confusion, you have to teach yourself to walk again.

As you sip your post-massage organic ginger tea, you notice that the people around you seem bouncy and liberated. They have probably slept through their dreamy massages and remembered their umbrellas. Perhaps they have even had the post-massage Singing Bowl Healing Vibration 30-minute treatment which sooths and heals.

They probably even love massages.