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

On the Party Plane to Greece

There is nothing sexy about the flight from Geneva to Zakynthos. Rather the opposite, as a matter of fact, as the screaming, sneezing, snuffling toddlers at the back of the plane are enough to put one right off.

After the shock of the almost completely empty Geneva airport (where only the smoking areas were jammed chock-a-block full), it is a wondrous scenic ride as you majestically pass over the Alps into the flat Po valley of Italy and down the coast of Croatia to the Ionian Sea.

The passengers are youngsters with buzzed hair (men) and casual top-knots (women).  Everyone sports bare limbs and tattoos. To pass the time, you count the moles on the head in front of you. His companion lifted her mask frequently in order to bite her fingernails. Nerves are on edge as the pilot tells you NOT to turn on the over-head air-blower and that masks must be worn at all times EXCEPT when the emergency oxygen masks pop out.

Most passengers sport ear buds and with blank eyes make small vibrational movements. They are already dancing in their heads.

At least with the 150-minute ride, you do reach a real destination, unlike the planes that are flying in circles these days. (The Quantas “flights to nowhere” are selling like hotcakes.)

Going to Zakynthos is going back in time. Back to the ‘50’s perhaps …. and simple excitement abounds.

Our hosts warn us immediately about the shooting around the house every morning. These are the fall hunters whose sport is to dress in camouflage gear and blast shot in the direction of small birds. Hosts are quite sure that they never hit any of them (as no bodies have been found), but it is quite dangerous and going for a swim or to collect figs from the fig tree is best left until they have run out of ammunition.

There were old-fashioned visit-the-kitchen restaurants, a swim on a turtle-nesting beach, delightful retsina, ruby-red tomatoes, bricks of feta, an ice cream parlour, and souvenir shopping.

Then there was the boxy airplane that flew low over us on the road and disappeared into the sea. This it turned out, was Canadair fire-fighter as there was a blaze in the dry country to the north.

The bush fire was definitely doused by Cyclone Ianos that landed and stuck for a few wind-whipped days. There was no electricity, no water, and, most importantly, no coffee. It was quite a relief for the birds, however, as the hunters all disappeared and dozens of swallows came to our balcony to discuss affairs and dry off.

The airport re-opened and we regained our seats amongst the weary strong-lunged toddlers. My prized souvenir had been confiscated of course, as the customs man, obviously a hunter in his spare time, had taken away my little olive-wood rolling pin.

I suspect marital problems; or, more optimistically, perhaps it was the wife’s birthday?

 

 

In Praise of See-Through Bags

Driving along in an automobile at the Swiss-French border where the cable-car comes down from the Salève (the mountain backdrop to Geneva) I was treated to a blink-of-an-eye vision that transported me back to pre-COVID19, pre-grandchildren, pre-job, pre-motherhood, almost pre-adult days.

Trudging from the Swiss border bus stop was a young couple, a man and a woman, who each pulled a small wheeled suitcase. Bags and other accoutrements were slung around their necks. They wore light summer clothes, hats, sunglasses and sandals. Their attitude was of pleasant purpose as they strode towards the “teleferique”.

In her free hand, the woman carried a big transparent bag full of fat carmine-red tomatoes.  They were off to have a picnic to the top of the Salève. They were going to fill their minds and spirits with the twin bird’s-eye views of the Lake of Geneva on one side and Mont Blanc on the other. They were going to eat the tomatoes!

And it was those tomatoes that punched me backwards into summers past: Catching the ferry out of Piraeus to the Greek island of Samos; hiking through the parched landscape of Göreme in Turkey; climbing up the jungle-draped ruins of Guatemala; canoeing to One Bear Island in Algonquin Park.

The lady had a food bag.

Most of my travelling career has involved food bags of one sort of another. On Geneva train trips down to southern Italy there was the exciting combination of equally-important daughter, dog, husband and food bag. There were tins and openers and wine bottles. There were Cornish pasties and meat balls and cucumbers. There was the can of coke that accidentally drenched a nun in a train compartment while pulling out of Rome (No. She did not turn the other cheek, but left in a drippy, sticky huff.)

There were Swiss army knives and rolls of toilet paper and bread and chocolate bars. There were matches and raw potatoes and tortillas and squished fruit. There was a grapefruit that lasted an entire trip.  There was cheese, kirsch in a baby-food jar, and an earthenware pot and a fondue in the snow. There was a 30-franc apple and a bag of seaweed crackers.

Having a food bag is almost as good as having a camper van. It represents independence and commercial freedom. A food bag gives your life gravitas; you are dependent on no one. As you eat your sandwich beside the hiking trail or the ski run, you are wished “bon appetit”. You have risen beyond the world of tacky restaurants and mundane tables and chairs. You are lightened and liberated and filled with untold potential.

So, grab a food bag and head off. Pick a clear day and view-rich destination. Take some buns and sausages with chocolate cookies for dessert. If possible communicate your intent to others by packing it all in a transparent bag.

And don’t forget the mustard

 

 

A Short Trip to Burgundy — Time Going Backwards

Back in the recent past, a trip used to mean choosing a destination anywhere in the world. The fat UNESCO “bible” was consulted so none of Earth’s best sites would be inadvertently overlooked.

Airlines were smoothly contacted to buy tickets using pretend money called “Miles”. Hotels of charm, grace or geographic expedience were booked simply and easily through booking sites with best prices guaranteed. Afterwards, perhaps an on-line photo-book was made to fix memories as one palm tree does resemble another.

The major dilemmas were hand luggage or hold? Rent a car? or trust to public transport?  Is there an Iron Man competition somewhere to be avoided?

All that has come to a COVID19 end.

Growing up in 1960s Canada, vacations in our house were momentous, Rockwellian events:

  • the black Ford Comet
  • the handmade wooden car top carrier (with a handy hole for the tent poles to protrude)
  • the green canvas tent (with porch)
  • the Coleman stove
  • the melted-ice-cube cooler, nylon sleeping bags and rubber air mattresses.

The parents were in the front, often with a baby on the lap of my mother who did not drive. Instead, she spent her days drying cotton diapers out of the little corner triangle window.

On the back vinyl bench, hot and slippery, were the unseatbelted three or four of us. Parents’ good Sunday clothes were hung in plastic bags on hangers on a hook above the windows. Our back-seat vision was limited.

We drove to the west coast: the Rockies, Jesus Saves (green stamps!). We drove to the east coast: the high tides of the Bay of Fundy and the Magnetic Hill. We drove to Quebec to spend the summer at a colleague minister’s house in a paper-mill town that was by the sea.

We sat in sticky unairconditioned cars for hours on end as our father covered hundreds of miles a day. In the evenings we pitched the heavy, damp tent at a camp-site with smelly quicklime toilets and went for a swim in a freezing cold lake. We rarely stayed more than one night, and there was usually hot cream-of-wheat for breakfast. It was tedious, uncomfortable and exciting all at the same time.

Our recent weekend trip to Burgundy was not of the same epic magnitude, of course, but it did set the same tone. There was the natural wonder of the stupendous underground caverns of Vallorbe and the Cistercian cultural wonder of the Abbey and Forge of Fontenay.

We did not camp, but booked rooms at a small chateau and an old water mill. Breakfasts were croissants and cheese and fruit. There were no kids in the back seat, but there was a 60s feel to the trip: Long stretches of small rural roads with endless cows and rolls of hay; eating half a sandwich for lunch at a roadside picnic table.

It was quite lovely to go forward to the past. Not a plane, not a taxi, not a line-up in sight.

 

 

The Problem with Flags and Statues

I know exactly where there is a Confederate flag on public display just over the border in France. It is nailed to the wall of a seedy bar/restaurant that changes ownership regularly. The establishment is at a crossroads of two mountain valleys and the site was once of vital important to the Dukes of Savoy in the 15th century.

It is now important to almost no one. The pub sports a perpetually “open” sign and is usually closed.

The flag is a relatively recent addition. Decades ago, before they got the flag, the place was a rowdy truck stop where you could get a not-bad 3-course hot meal and a jug of red wine for 25 French francs.  You sat with your back against the wall, and it was the closest thing I’ve seen in Europe to a Montana Saturday-night fist-fighting bar.

These days, there is a huge Harley-Davidson motorcycle gathering in the valley every summer, and the large Confederate flag seems to serve as an enticing element to try to attract the wild spirits of the grey-pony-tailed French motards to come in and drink a can of pop.

I suppose it’s a really bad thing, but I’m also pretty sure that everyone around here thinks it’s just another piece of foreign (American) junk cluttering up the countryside and of little real relevance. I mean, we have much more important things to worry about, such as getting the speed limit permanently back up to 90 kph on those steep and windy mountain roads.

And I don’t think anyone has Facebooked it and turned it into a galvanizing political issue as has happened in my sister’s town in southern Ontario.

In case you’ve missed all the drama, Stratford, Ontario, home of the Shakespeare Festival, has been called out for having red-necked racist elements lurking in it, as an actor (they’re not busy working as usual because of COVID19 this season) photographed and posted on social media a Confederate flag on display in someone’s front window.

Displaying flags or symbols is not against the law in Canada, but can be rather outrageous, to say the least. Canadians, by the way, LOVE their national flag, and it is displayed loudly and proudly all over the place. I can only conclude that it must be an American who lives behind the offending Confederate window display. He/she might even have a Harley—or at least wish for one–and aspire to attending the next H.O.G. Rally in the French Alps.

Of course, the overwhelmingly liberal and culturally-intellectual population of Stratford is appalled at being painted racist pigs for the whole world to see, and the last I heard my sister was organizing a demonstration to push over the head of Shakespeare in the Shakespeare Gardens in protest.

Without the magical distraction of the theatre this year, everyone has time on their hands to get into trouble. Falstaff would love it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aqaba and Beyond

Upon arrival there was an international incident concerning the binoculars. A little known fact is that in Jordan binoculars are right up there with machine guns and grenades as instruments of war. Security was called, and under intense questioning and promises of never ever to take my binoculars out of my suitcase no matter how many interesting birds were flying past, and much swiping for powder traces, and much examination of the stamps and visas in my suspicious Swiss passport, I was finally allowed into the kingdom.

Aqaba town is small and in a state of arrested development. There are mom-and-pop shops selling blown up plastic buoys and sea-horses. These are known as “swimming tools.”  There are relaxing terraces under mimosa trees where men lounge around with their bubbling hookahs. There is a faint smell of petroleum in the air.

Restaurants are quite friendly even though there are no alcoholic refreshments to be had. Sometimes there are no toilets or hot drinks to be had either. The filled falafels and flat breads were delicious.

And then came the highlight of our short sojourn—our one day road trip to Petra. The rental was picked up the evening before; a boxed breakfast was arranged; and we set out in the deep dark before dawn for the 2-hour drive north.

Now, I really should have been paying more attention to the Aqaba population stocking up on Chinese quilts, blankets, ski jackets, hats, mittens and Bedouin fleece-lined capes the day before. Something was definitely up.

As it turns out, I guess I must be about the only tourist in the whole wide world (except perhaps for Lawrence of Arabia who was busy waving a switch and riding a camel side-saddle) who has travelled long and hard to Petra and has not had her picture taken in front of ANYTHING. Not the Treasury, not the Monastery, not the Theatre, not even a donkey.

I didn’t even really SEE the towering sandstone carvings as my glasses were so wet and fogged-up due to the driving sleet and rain. The mists were hanging low over the biblical wilderness. You couldn’t actually look UP as drowning was a hideous possibility.

Before the camera got totally water-logged and gave up the ghost, there is one scowling snap of me wearing a too-small “one-size-fits -all” blue plastic raincoat bought from the souvenir stand for about $600. (US) (The umbrellas were double that.) It stopped well above my knees.

My pants were frozen, sodden and sticking to my legs; my fingers were like carrots wrapped around my walking sticks; I am standing ankle-deep in the river running down the Siq to the wonder-of-the-world Nabataean necropolis. The temperature is hovering just below zero degrees. The High Place of Sacrifice was snow-dusted.  

Arriving at the centre of the site we were met with filthy-tempered drenched camels and unmanned souvenir stalls. The colourful painted bowls were overflowing with ice-water and the head-scarfs hung sodden and dripping.

I have surprisingly fond memories of Jordan in January. We might even go back.