Swiss Packing Cube Blues

I had always thought I could pack a good stiff suitcase: Ironing, folding, smoothing, and caring. Toiletry and shoe bags were my only packing accessories. My skill, I thought, had reached its apogee and could not possibly be improved.

And then I heard about Packing Cubes.

These indispensable items are nifty sets of nylon and mesh zippered cases of various sizes and colours in which you place specific objects of the same genre, and place them in an aesthetically pleasing fashion in your big suitcase, your carry-on bag or your backpack.

By manipulating and rolling properly (yes, there are numerous on-line videos of how to do this) you can pack in a highly organized and satisfactorily dense manner. You are advised to keep a spare flattened cube empty for your dirty laundry. You can get so much into such a small space that you can barely heave your hand luggage into the overhead bin.

Nothing gets mixed up. Each exterior cube is a light-weight, strong, and waterproof xenophobic island of isolation. There is the sock cube, the shirt cube, the electrical objects cube, the chocolate cube. You see what you have and where it is at all times.  It is sort of like putting an identification bracelet on your clean underpants.

My packing cube obsession blossomed fully when I got home and opened my Greek vacation suitcase. I know we had encountered a double Med-i-cane, but I cannot blame these two typhoons entirely for the squalid suitcase soup I encountered.

I must admit, there is a certain element of childish delight in the rogue suitcase, as you discover items that you had forgotten about—the olive-wood salad servers or the Greek folk-lore CDs—or the thrill of finding a pair of perfectly fresh socks. But suffering from a very severe bout of PTVD (Post Traumatic Vacation Disorder) this time the charm was lost on me.

My online search for my very own set of packing cubes began with eagerness and optimism. A few years back I Marie-Kondoed my t-shirt drawer. I still only wear my three or four favourites, but now I can see all my non-favourite loser t-shirts standing perkily upright filled with false hope and daily disappointment. I figured cubes could lend this level of drama to my next suitcase adventure.

There are, of course, millions of packing cubes available from our universal suppliers of all goods and I trolled through them with glee. However, sadly and mysteriously, none of these ship to Switzerland. Well, not quite true. There was one supplier that would send me three cubes for just under 100 Swiss francs and guaranteed delivery in six weeks.  (Note: in normal countries a set of five ordinary packing cubes costs about $25, and ships the next day.)

I then tried some major Swiss department stores and specialized luggage shops. Searching for les ensembles de sacs de rangement brought up nothing relevant. The closest I got was a pair of clear plastic garment bags. You place your textiles in them and then attach the nozzle of your vacuum cleaner to the appropriate orifice and create your own vacuum-packed sheets and towels. This was obviously a piece of technological Swiss wizardry circa 1962.

Worrying about my mental health, a family member suggested that I try the Eastern world, as the Western markets were obviously not working well for me. Yet another moment of euphoria as I explored the millions of Chinese packing cubes. Having made my choice (prices a fraction of the rest of the world) I was devastated to discover that the minimum order was 8,000 sets.

It was exactly at this point that the packing cube bubble burst and I returned to a world of suitcase sanity and relegated packing cubes to the same category as grapefruit spoons, butter dishes, and avocado plates. Useless decadence.

For my next trip I am swearing to pack only one extra thing of each clothing category, thus eliminating the need for packing cubes. In the meanwhile, each receptacle I see, I estimate its packing cube potential.

I think I’m getting close to assembling an amateur set.

 

 

 

Speeding Electric Killer Cars–WATCH OUT!

Well, you do everything you can. You sort your garbage, you compost your old peanut butter sandwich crusts, you wash your windows with Swiss do-no-harm-vinegar, you drink the hot smelly summer water out of the tap, you fight legal battles to try to get solar panels on your roof, you shop at the local farmer’s barn, you walk the three miles to the post office as the one in your village has been closed, and you still get into trouble.

There I was with my miniature garbage bag containing perhaps one multiply-used paper towel that could not be flushed down the toilet, on my way over the road to the garbage container when a big, silent, speeding, entitled, disdainful, white electric car came within a hair’s breadth of flattening me. Didn’t even slow down.

Specimens of Robins and American Kestrels at the MSU Museum on Monday April 16, 2012. The birds were part of George Wallace’s study on the effects of DDT in the 1960’s.

You will be happy to hear that I am NOT singing duets with Aretha and/or Elvis, but it was a very close call. I know we’re all supposed imagine a dreamy future of quiet roads and pollution-free electric cars, but I am suddenly scared.

Follow the evolution of my village corner:

In the beginning the road had two lanes, a couple of modest speed bumps, and cars had purring engines.

In the field over the road there were black-faced curly-horned sheep that could be happily fed my hedge trimmings. We worked in perfect harmony. These were my very favourite summertime neighbours. No radios, no snarling dogs, no complaints.

The friendly, useful sheep have been replaced by layers of apartment buildings. The latest one—long, grey, and ugly—is situated right smack on the edge of the road.

Once installed, the people who moved in were quite surprised to find that there was a real road RIGHT THERE outside their bedroom windows! Part of the road has now been turned into a sidewalk (specifically for their “security” the town hall has said.) The tiny bit of the road that’s left (impossible for two cars to pass) has been paved with a magical product that sucks in car noise.

Now you combine all of this with silent cars that people are proud of owning and quite excited that such an ecological product can accelerate so magnificently and go very very fast indeed, then you have a silent problem. Add to the silent automobiles, the speeding silent electric bicycles, and the latest rage that is filling the world with silent electric scooters, then you have a very very big silent problem.

Silent Spring was published one day after my 10th birthday. In it Rachel Carson, in a very calm and competent way, exposes how the indiscriminate over-use of the pesticide, DDT, in North America wiped out birds and insects and the countryside fell silent.

Same thing still happening. We, the lowly pedestrians, have become the birds and the bees. The quiet electrical torpedoes will get us unless we’re very very careful.

Time for us to scream and shout.

 

 

A Day at the Hospital

Well, yesterday featured the dreaded MRI (IRM) check-up. Yes. The day they lock your head in a cage and blast it full of magnetic things, and somehow manage to put pictures on computers that other people look at.

The hour-long repetitive booming noise has a definite rock-concert edge to it. My head being full of Aretha Franklin tribute tunes, at one point I found myself humming R-E-S-P-E-C-T, but I don’t think anyone except the technician heard.

Anyway, I am pleased to report some startling changes at the main Geneva Hospital.

First of all, they don’t like patients coming early and sitting in waiting rooms anymore. This might be explained as an attempt to avoid getting ill by breathing killer hospital germs, but really it is because there is a lot of loose staff that don’t have chairs behind counters to sit on, so they like to sit in the little waiting rooms and chat.

The friendly receptionist sends you, the patient, up to the Hospital Garden on the first floor, extolling its pleasant atmosphere and shady, breezy spaces. You are warned not to fall asleep and to back on the dot of your allotted machine-tube torture time.

Well, there were some little trees in the garden, but there was also a definite California forest-fire edge to things: The entire hospital staff was out there smoking. There was no wind to blow off the thick, stinking, grey cigarette-smoke cloud.

Unfortunately, conversations carried razor-sharp through the tobacco fug, and my innocent, apprehensive ears heard about intubations, operations, and the hideous medical surprises that had enriched everyone’s morning.

When some rather poorly patients arrived in wheelchairs with oxygen bottles attached, and pulled out their cigarette packs, I felt it was really time to go.

Another great change is that you get to see your specialist on the exact same day as your examination. For this, you are allowed to sit in the waiting room, but only because HE is late and you are NOT early.

To keep you entertained and informed there are video images of nice, clean, young, happy people being put into MRI tubes by other nice clean, young, happy people. Even the lady who got not only a cage, but what looked like a mesh net over her head, was grinning like it was the biggest joke in the whole world.

Unfortunately, the neurologist arrived before I could finish watching the bit about how, these days, there are medical interventions (operations with real scalpels) while you are inside the machine. I did, though, catch the bit about there being no anaesthetic and their huge success rate.

These medical information videos replace the old nature documentaries where you could see lions jumping on wildebeest and eating them alive before the hyena and vultures came in to finish off their brains and eyeballs.

I hope to be able to report future hospital entertainment improvements in exactly five years’ time. All suggestions welcome.

Strictly NO Fireworks INSIDE the tent!

Well, today is August 2nd, and the glorious 1st of August has been survived yet again. No missing eyes, fingers or pockets. No one has been reported as dying from boredom during last night’s presidential speech. And although no birds have been seen flying in the garden yet today, I’m sure they’re just having an “off” day and will all be flitting about normally tomorrow.

Swiss National Day is defined by an evening communal meal, a children’s lantern parade, a firework display, and, finally, an enormous bonfire. Considering the hot, dry summer conditions this is a tricky business. Volunteer firemen stand importantly about. However, firework size and quality is the yardstick for measuring the amount of Swissness a community holds.

True fact: 3,000 tons of explosive material and 1,700 tons of fireworks are used in Switzerland every year.

The first of August morning always starts with a few isolated bangs. These are either children or fathers who have no willpower to wait for the darkness and just test-try one or two big crackers to make sure they will be fine for later. For the past month, all shops have been filled with August 1st paraphernalia—Swiss and cantonal flags; paper lanterns; bangers and packages of fireworks; glasses, plates, napkins, balloons and hard-boiled eggs with Swiss crosses on them.

Later in the day, it is like an eclipse of the sun, as the world goes quiet. All families lie down for a jolly good afternoon nap to make sure that eyes are bright and reflexes sharp for the upcoming pyro-show.

Towards the evening the smell of roasting wieners and cervelas fills the air, along with conversation and laughter. Little bangers go off. As the beer and wine flow, there is animation in the air.

At dusk distorted music floats over from the football field behind the town hall where the bonfire is stacked 3-metres high into the sky. Loud hailers shout unintelligible words.

Cars begin flocking in from over the border looking for non-existent parking places (they are at the other end of the village in a stubble field). Someone stops to pee on your hedge as he thinks no one is looking. The excitement builds.

Surrounding, higher, villages begin early, and from the upstairs window you see the two separate and glorious pyrotechnic displays. Then suddenly overhead there are the three sonic booms, and way high over the roof giant  multi-coloured showers rain down. There is a pause between the “phoof” of the missile, and the explosion of fire in the sky. Sparks sprinkle down, but dissolve before they catch your hair alight.

You watch until your neck hurts and with a louder than loud bang it is all over for another year.

This morning there was just the wisps of smoke from a huge heap of grey ashes and three lone cars left in the stubble field.

All is well in Switzerland.

 

 

Ten Tips for Surviving Summertime Guests

Well, it is only the middle of July, and already at least six parties of family and friends have come to spend at least one night here at the Shack. The view is terrific (Mont Blanc on a good day) the temperature is comfortable (as the heat waves squeeze the lowlands), cold drinking water comes from a mountain spring,  and the back stable is filled with delicious, naturally cooled, wine bottles.

However, to ensure smooth days and undisturbed nights there are some basic rules that must be rigorously enforced:

  1. Never, under any circumstances let the guests cook for you. Half-way through a complicated fish dish an honourable Japanese guest will demand distilled essence of sea slug. Without this essential ingredient all will be lost: the dish abandoned, the rice burnt, the precious gifted sake bottle drained in disappointment in the kitchen.
  2. Always make sure that the generator has produced enough hot water for at least two showers. If the first person overindulges there will be at least a little brackish water left to make the second showeree feel rustic, strong, invigorated, and in tune with the mountain environment.
  3. If there are any under-threes in the group, make sure you are stocked up on bubble-blowing kits. This way, they will sit on a flat spot, blow bubbles and not enter the lower basement emerging with a rusty sickle in one hand a sharpened hatchet in the other.
  4. Be prepared for a surprise vegetarian. This is especially relevant if you have visited your favourite butcher in the next village the day before and filled the gas fridge and the back shed with meat, salamis, and sausages.
  5. Provide each guest with a flashlight and show them (in the day time) the way to the outdoor toilet. This not only provides unusual adventure, a unique opportunity to observe the starry night sky, but avoids them bumbling around at night and ending up in your bedroom looking for the en-suite bathroom.
  6.  Plan a hike that leaves early morning. Visit the local bakery and regional specialty shops and buy one of everything even if you don’t know what it is. This adds culinary dash to the walk. Don’t forget Swiss army knives and Band-Aids.
  7. On the hike (see #6) always make the youngest member of the party carries the heavy food pack. This might not work if you have a smart-assed 11-year old who informs you (in French) that in these circumstances the adult accompagnants ALWAYS carry heavy backpacks, not the children.
  8. Have some soft balsa-wood type logs saved for any guests who wish to show off their lumber-jack skills. This way they do not hurt themselves and are not seriously embarrassed by their wood chopping inadequacies.
  9. Do not store plastic water bottles with added fertilizer (for the garden plants) anywhere a guest might come across them. They will inevitably find them, drink them, and then complain of feeling unwell.
  10. Enjoy all the fun.

 

Geneva Solar Panels (almost) Verboten!

Well, several thousands of francs in – deposit with the solar panel installer, paying to have the house re-appraised (surprisingly it’s the same size as when it was built), appealing the first (administrative) negative decision, appealing the second (tribunal) negative decision, we are now waiting for the decision of the final appeals court of the Canton of Geneva.

You see, Geneva does not readily agree with solar panels. You have to fight hard and pay. You must be morally deserving.

Every single village in the Canton of Geneva is protected as a historical site—from the entrance sign (often riddled with bullet holes) to the exit sign (often knocked out of kilter by speeding traffic). These Historical Site Villages can include rusty metal machinery hangars, pig pens, modern apartment buildings, waste lots filled with derelict buildings and vehicles. They are all strenuously protected by the Geneva Department of Monuments.

These civil servants take their jobs very seriously, and are adamant that solar panels are aesthetically evil. A pig pen with a rusty tin roof is considered much more pleasing to the eye than a pig pen with solar panels fitted to it. This is historically correct, as the Romans, when they made Geneva a civitas brought with them smelly fish paste, vines, and the know-how to make clay roof tiles. They introduced browny-coloured roofs, and, unfortunately, hadn’t thought of solar panels.

I exaggerate, of course. IF the solar panels cannot be seen by ANYONE, then they are allowed. The people who can be offended by solar-panel roofs include the frontaliers whizzing past from their French residences, living pedestrians and cyclists, and any neighbours—either real or future/potential.

If, for example, we had wanted to put solar panels on the north-east roof of the garage where there is about 5 minutes of weak sunshine on a good day, then that would have been just fine. Cows’ aesthetic rights are not taken into consideration at the moment.

Two different Geneva courts have made the trip from their well-heated cantonal offices in the Old Town of Geneva to our countryside village to judge our solar panel suitability. It’s a bit like adopting a child.

The first time there was a convoy of three cars on bitter cold day in January. Everyone quickly developed red dripping noses and bad attitudes. I got snapped at and asked why-the-heck I would actually WANT solar panels. The insinuation was of subjecting everyone to a greeny attention-grabbing caprice.

The second time was just last week. There were leaves on the walnut tree, and from the middle of the sidewalk-less road, with cars rushing to and fro, there was not a sliver of the roof in sight.

The appeals court – a different crowd – was more jovial in the summer sunshine as they moved from comfortable shade to sweaty sun. Perhaps they finally got it. Anyway, we have high hopes for our roof and the power of the sun.

Baking Pies while Vienna Fiddles

Well, the true luxury of having a season ticket to a classical concert series at Victoria Hall, is that if you are not in the mood you do not have to go. Those two hard little chairs with the fat lady’s knees wiggling into your back simply remain noble, empty and silent.

And we have learned that if you have the slightest of coughs or colds you really should not go. We were present some years back when Sir John Eliot Gardiner stopped his musicians, turned around, spotted the white-haired old dear who was hopelessly hacking into her handkerchief, and told her that, for the good of everyone involved, she should leave at once. The tapping of her solitary little shoes in a dead-silent concert hall still rings in my ears.

Of course, you have to deal with your own guilt and lack of moral purpose, but that is a deeper issue that possibly needs professional help.

However, yesterday evening, we were primed for the very last concert—an A+ production by the Vienna Philharmonic. Very last concerts are also extremely satisfactory, as you can wish everyone a nice summer and breathe a sigh of relief that you don’t have to deal with those clowns or Dvorak for the next few months.

The program looked not too exhausting (only 75 minutes) and Strauss was featured. Don Quixote was the first set and having seen the Stratford production of The Man of La Mancha recently, I was wondering if I could hum along with Richard’s Opus 35 variations. The second bit was A Hero’s Life which also sounded somewhat familiar after a weekend baby-sitting stint with a hale and healthy 2-year-old.

At 5pm I put a raspberry pie in the oven. It was a huge success when it came out at 5:40. Then there was the soaking of mushrooms and chopping of onions for a post-concert supper. Then there was the bath to remove mountain grass stains and dried blood (don’t ask). Then there was the donning of the fresh linen dress and the ploughman’s preconcert supper (you just add a pickle to bread and cheese) with a chilled glass of white wine. Then there was the blow drying of hair and lipstick was applied. Shortly after 7, we drove into town and witnessed the miracle of a convenient parking place.

As we were a little early, we sat on a park bench in front of a bronze reclining lady fountain at Planpalais. We noted the groups of people coming and going as the pigeons swooped over our heads. We commented on the diversity of the Geneva population and the lovely breeze swooping down on us from the Salève.

We got to Victoria Hall at 7:50, and there was no crowd bubbling in the foyer. The concert had, exceptionally, begun at 6 pm and was just finishing. The nice young man was very sorry.

Fighting windmills, we drove back home.

 

 

In Search of / The Curse of / The Solution to — Ten Thousand Steps a Day

An unseemly epidemic of healthiness seems to have broken out around me, and I am handling it badly.

Everyone seems to be in bike races, walking to Santiago de Compostela, climbing mountains, taking Aqua-Fit lessons, puffing on their exercise bikes, jogging miles with their dogs, and, much closer to home, trying to achieve 10,000 steps a day.

Interestingly, I have found that the best place to do this in a natural fashion is at airports. Frankfurt, for example, is very good; and by the time you’ve gone through the endless tunnels to the lounge and back to your gate, you have thousands of steps as you sit down on the plane and sip your restorative glass of champagne.

Taking a two-year-old grandson to the mall can also achieve the same, if not greater, level of physicality. Unfortunately, at the end, the clean, smiling, polite person offering you a glass of bubbly is usually missing.

Being a tourist in a strange city is also productive of many steps if the weather cooperates. You happily stride through the streets, climb clock towers, and stroll through endless churches and museums.

However, without these artificial settings, ten thousand steps can be dead boring: you get to know exactly how much time it takes (to the garage and back twice) and wonder if you can do it faster or if you can make your steps shorter. You try to get up early and get it over with. You try to fool your step-counter by waving your hand around while relaxing on the Chi Swing Machine….it doesn’t work and you fall asleep.

In other words, getting those daily steps under your belt can be a grind.

Art-in-the-woods walk, Vers, France

To alleviate this darkening mental cloud and to introduce a note of gaiety to the ten thousand steps, a new tactic has been introduced: The Geneva countryside is filled with villages; in the villages there are cafés: in the cafés there are affordable plat du jour lunchtime meals; clean and polite people ask what you would like to drink.

There is the Plain Walk. You park the car somewhere that is about 5,000 steps from the target restaurant. You walk there and back.

There is the Cultural Walk. You book a restaurant. You park the car somewhere and head to the ruin, or extraordinary site that you have located on the map, and do a discovery tour.  Exhausted but intellectually elated you saunter into the restaurant.

There is the Nature Walk. You reserve a table. You look at the dotted lines on the map, plan your route, battle through the untended paths, along rivers and over fences until you’ve completed your circle. Rather the worse for wear, you swagger into your café.

Preparation, execution, recuperation: ten thousand steps can fill your day. And with intense admiration of your own iron discipline you settle down on the couch with a pizza in the evening, already dreaming of what all the cooks are planning for your lunch tomorrow.

Baby Jesus in the Circus Train

Well, Christmas is always a fraught time in this house.  In the good old days (Geneva in the 1970s and 1980s) Christmas glitter only came to the shops and the streets after The Escalade (Geneva beating off the Savoyards with the main weapon being an iron soup pot) had been properly celebrated in mid-December.

The dark historical parade with horses, fife and drum bands, and musket marksmen marching through the sombre streets, soon, though, was overtaken by twinkle lights and tat and lost its mysterious ability to transport us all back to a scary, frosty, noisy night in 1602.

Then, for many decades, we travelled abroad specifically (pay more get less!) during the festive season in order to avoid its commercial hysteria.  This ended some years back with our hotel entrance in Cochin being blocked by a larger-than-life, menacingly moustachioed, blow-up Santa. We kept plugging away, but who needs the psychological trauma of Feliz Navidad ringing in your ears to this day from playing on a continuous loop on a 5-hour flight?

Christmas had won. We bowed out and retreated to the mountains with barely a Bah! or a Humbug!

However, in these days of grandparenthood, it seems churlish not to offer childish cultural entertainment to the little ‘uns and a traditional Christmas has been somewhat revived.

The tree was bought over the border in France and brought in last week (too late for a Canadian and too early for a Swiss) and decorated with lights (Canadian) not candles (Swiss). Glass ornaments (old ones from Czechoslovakia and new ones from China) have been hung. Chocolate figures (purely Swiss) have been tied onto all protruding tips.

The two-year-old who seems to have been running the place around here the last couple of days has definitively proved the second law of thermodynamics: entropy (movement and mess) is constantly increasing.

Chocolate, of course, has been a major inspiration and a solid source of energy in this. The pre-breakfast (6 a.m.) chocolate mouse (used as a bribe to get him to bed the night before) was a huge disappointment as it proved to have an unpleasant (marzipan) filling, and had to be compensated for with a solid chocolate Père Noel.

At this point, breakfast itself was redundant; however, a parking house was needed for the red car and the green tractor. Grandma cleverly thought of the stable of the old family-made Nativity Scene and proudly produced this from the bomb shelter and unwrapped all the hand-made figurines to reveal the True Meaning of Christmas.

The red car and the green tractor were parked and forgotten in the stable. Brittle oxen and asses quickly lost their legs and had to be repaired with bandages. Mother Mary was parachuted into a Strumpf/Smurf house to visit a while with Strumpfette.

And a carefully swaddled baby Jesus was last seen riding in the elephant wagon on a lego circus train.

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The Mystery of the Money in the (Geneva) Toilet Bowls

Well, the story of an estimated 100,000 euros worth of 500-euro notes (real ones) found plugging up the toilets of some down-town restaurants (and a bank—who knew that banks had human toilets?) keeps floating to the surface.

The incident happened at the beginning of the summer tourist season. Traditionally the time of year when stinking-rich tourists come to town to enjoy the fabulous hotels on the lake shore and go diamond and watch-shopping, cash is the essential ingredient for these discreet transactions.

It is not a crime in Switzerland to destroy currency, and a moderate amount of appropriate paper is also suitable for toilet bowls.  However, the affair of the scissored-up euros found littering and blocking some public conveniences seems inexplicable.

The toilets had to be dismantled and the pulpy evidence is now in thick plastic bags under lock and key one assumes. Obviously, the police, lacking experience and imagination, need some help with their investigations.

First of all, everyone knows that a 500-euro note is just about worthless. You cannot change it anywhere. Pubs, ice-cream trucks, the chestnut man, supermarkets, bus drivers, flower ladies, banks (even if you have an account) will not change them into either lesser denominations or exchange them for francs.

Then there is the bad attitude of bank employees. In India, for example, during the winter’s cash crisis, I had taken, as advised, crisp new American $100-bills as back-up. After standing in a Pondicherry bank line-up for hours, I was told that these could not be changed into rupees as I did not have an account there, and I could never ever possibly get one.

The same scenario occurred last month in Canada when I tried to change a few of those very same bills into Canadian dollars. There I even got a moral lecture on how, as a traveller, one must arm oneself with the currency of the country (as she, the savvy teller, would). If not, then tough luck to you, lady-probably-American-tourist!

So, still smarting from these instances of financial humiliation, here is what I believe happened on that fateful day in Geneva in June.

Some nice lady took 100,000 euros out of her safety-deposit box to go buy her grand-daughter a little souvenir Swiss watch with small tasteful diamonds. On the way out of the bank she stopped at a teller to ask ever so politely to have the money in Swiss francs, please.

She was told no.

So, to improve her mood, she went to the ladies loo and chopped up enough euros with her nail scissors to block the toilet.

Feeling a little peckish, she then visited three small bistros close by and each one refused her 500-euro notes. In each one she asked for the washroom, got out the scissors and worked her mischief.

There is no point, after all, in being stinking rich if you can’t raise a stink when necessary.