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.

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.