Making Ice Cubes from the Sun

Just in case you’ve had the misfortune to have spent your summer holidays kite-surfing in Costa Rica, parachuting in La Reunion, at the cottage on the shores of Lake Huron or glamping in San Tropez, here in the mountains we have been fully, and even startlingly, entertained.

As it has been a hot and dry summer, there has not been the usual daily (and nightly) occupation of catching mice. All traps have remained disturbingly empty despite the miniature peanut butter sandwiches that have been lovingly prepared and placed in the little bait-holes. It turns out that is because of Sandy, the viper-in-residence who lives in the wood pile over by the compost heap. Our rational mind quite likes Sandy. The rest, and much bigger, part of our mind is horrified.

Sandy, however, has given us a lot of free time to read, to build a Walden-type cabin in the woods and to learn how to play Wordle, which, by the way, works much better if you read (and understand) the rules before you take it up. For example, the difference between the green and the yellow letters is crucial.

The new solar lithium batteries also mean that we now produce ice-cubes from the sun in the little ice cube tray in the fridge, so cocktail hour has become an elaborate, ecologically sustainable ritual.  As the sun slips behind the larch trees to the west, we can be heard tinkling up the path to the top look-out to admire Mont Blanc and the Vallée du Giffre.

I have also discovered that some activities work better if there is an audience. Take painting, for example. I was called out one recent morning to put stain on the cabin’s roof lattes before they became the roof. I dressed in my blue workers overalls and found stain, paint brushes, saw-horses, Swiss army knife and gloves. By the time all this had been gathered together, Dawn’s rose-red fingers had popped up over the pine trees to the east. The luxuriously easy job suddenly took on a whole new dimension in the searing heat.

Tom Sawyer’s punishment of whitewashing Aunt Polly’s picket fence came to mind. I had a sore back, and I wasn’t feeling too hot due to a five-course, 3-hour lunch in a fancy French restaurant the day before (okay, yes, there are a few downsides to mountain holidays). Placing the lattes on the saw horses, slathering one side, turning them over, slathering again, taking the sticky things off, leaning them against the fence, the bushes, the trees, all became a hot hideous chore.

There were 58 of them.

Just before 10 am, the first tourist family arrived, toiling up the steep path to the Chapelle Jacquicourt– sweaty, panting and red-faced. Instantly my back straightened and my attitude sharpened. I stopped moaning. My latte painting became an activity of interest and industry. We chatted a few minutes and off they went—the kids looking back wistfully as I gracefully wielded my brush.

They would have given anything to stay and help.

 

The Five-Star Excesses of Estepona

The best hotel reviews are the worst reviews. Who needs to know about the deep delightful calm, the friendly helpful staff, the gorgeous breakfast buffet, the unbelievable sleep-filled mattress, or the view to die for?

No one.

We arrived in Estepona on June 4th, an auspicious date, by following the rental’s trusty hen through the spaghetti ring roads of the Costa del Sol. We had stopped at the world’s biggest supermarket on the outskirts of this once Phoenician/Roman/Christian/Moorish fishing village. A pedestrian foot-bridge spanned the motorway from the hotel to a Lidl and a Burger King.

Rooms with a sea view on an upper floor had been requested, and this is sort-of what we got. The room was slightly warmer than the outside (heat wave) air temperature, and the coldest water from the tap was more than tepid. Neither soap nor drinking water was supplied.

Upon enquiry as to whether a room with a more straightforward view of the sea was to be had (Fawlty Towers came to mind), the Manager (who had a disturbing penchant for openly groping his female employees’ tightly pantaloned bottoms) said such affairs were entirely out of his hands.

Yes, he was busy. It was first-come, first-served. Mala suerte for you, loser! His hotel was FULL.

Lunch did not materialise as the snack bar worked on a QR code-reader-only policy and we didn’t have our phones. The staff did not know what sort of food they served. We were told to go downstairs and ask at the kitchen if someone knew.

The only other guests at the snack bar were a small family group. They had come across from the pool area and their various gigantic water floats were too big to fit through the door. Fortunately, they did not require any restauration as they proceeded on with their mattresses and crocodiles and sea monsters.

In one of the two gardens of the hotel, a blow-up plastic castle had been installed as a Saturday afternoon Confirmation was being celebrated. This meant that the adults disappeared for hours into the dark dining area while screaming children bounced themselves silly. Affairs reached a climax when about half the kids split off, regrouped on an upper walkway and threw their shoes at the bouncers.

Hectic live music followed, amplified to the point of distortion. It was loudly Latin in tone and rhythm. Hotel guests (previously hiding in their rooms to avoid the children) started to appear on their balconies looking tired and headachy. A couple of fellows who might have been at the naturalist beach earlier and suffering from heat stroke, wandered out starkers to see what the racket was about. That was the highlight of the afternoon.

Dinner followed as the Confirmation fiesta wound down. Birds were busy at the buffet, and fresh, multi-coloured, liquidy sparrow poop adorned the 5-star table cloths and napkins.

Our Andalusia road trip lasted two glorious weeks and the sloppy 5-star hotel served a real purpose in that, by contrast, its noisy, careless, dirty mess turned much humbler abodes into places of great wonder, beauty and stately tranquillity.

 

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.