The Strange Affair of the Geneva Pollution Stickers

Well, it started in November when the annual automobile tax bills rudely landed in the letterbox here in the Geneva countryside. The two cars, the vintage motorbike, and the trailer each got nailed, as usual…but this time there was a new additional twist. These four objects also needed individual pollution stickers to show the level of their physical filthiness and moral reprehensibility.

Each sticker is supposed to be purchased (5 Swiss francs), and they are colour-coded to show polluting emissions. The green sticker is the best and reserved for electric and hydrogen cars. Next in line is the purple ones for gas or hybrid cars. After that things descend into normal petrol or smelly diesel (yellow, orange, red and grey – much like judo belts) and it gets very very murky indeed in the world of Old Bangers.

All this extraneous and amusing paperwork was consigned to the end-of-the-year recycling basket and the affair was mentally classed as completely caduc–null and void. I mean, the trailer doesn’t even have an ENGINE and, frankly, I can’t see the reason for anyone pushing it into downtown Geneva on a smoggy day.

In all of Switzerland there is a long tradition of identifying the amusing Geneva political blooper called a Genferei. (http://www.genferei.org).  It is complex and multi-faceted concept concerning a Geneva government act or proposal that does not work out. The best ones have certain admirable qualities.

According to the official website, there are four sorts of Genferei:

  • A plan that is accepted by all, but which falls apart on its own. This kind is very expensive.
  • A plan that is blocked by sterile conflict.
  • A plan that is never operational, but never goes away.
  • A plan that is heavy with unforeseen consequences and extinguishes itself with either elegance or resentment. The artistic touch is crucial here.

From what I can see, sitting in front of my Geneva Car Circulation Permit and my explanatory letter from the Geneva government concerning the new pollution stickers, this anti-pollution plan meets ALL of the above criteria.

  • The fine for either not buying the sticker or disobeying motoring restrictions on smoggy days will be 500 Swiss francs…but then if you haven’t bought one, you will have saved 5 francs, so it will be only 495 CHF.
  • The plan is already at least temporarily blocked by the Swiss Touring Club.
  • Legal experts (le Temps 31 January 2020) explain that there are already anti-pollution measures in place acceptable to the Swiss federal government, and Geneva does not need its own private personal ones.
  • As to unforeseen consequences, maybe there will be a solidarity movement and we will all buy the green sticker as that one seems to offer the most freedom. This would also take the pressure off the pollution police.

Just as a matter of fact, the Geneva police department won the Genferei Prize in 2018.

The competition out there is crippling.

 

 

 

Take the Christmas Spirit Quizz!

In these turbulent and emotionally-charged pre-Christmas days, it is of utmost importance to remember to breathe, to take time out to relax, and to pay attention to your mental and physical welfare.

It is a well-known fact that just one Christmas cookie, one Christmas Newsletter or one eggnog too many can tip you seriously over the edge into a seasonal malady that we mental health professionals call Sage-Stuffing-Brain. To try to prevent this, take a minute to answer the following questions, and see just exactly where you stand in your relationship to the festive season.

So find a pen and try not to cheat. (Two points for every enthusiastic affirmative. One point for every reluctant affirmative. Zero points for a resounding negative.)

  • Do you find yourself cooking or baking unwanted, unloved, festive items (such as gingerbread houses, Brussel sprouts, Christmas pudding, sweetbreads, Badener Kräbeli, or a big raw 15kg turkey)? (Give yourself a bonus point if you have baked at least FIVE different sorts of Christmas cookies.)

  • Has a mother, mother-in-law, spinster aunt (or any other unusual person) recently taken up residence in your house? (Bonus point if you and the Christmas guest do not share a common language.)
  • Has perfumed Christmas toilet paper become a feature in your bathroom? (Bonus point if it is printed in brown (reindeers) and red (reindeers’ noses.))
  • Do you think you have already gained several pre-Christmas kilos due to lack of exercise because of the continuing rainy weather and/or consuming too many Christmas cookies, chocolates, cheese fondues, etc. (Bonus point if you believe this not to have been your fault.)
  • Are you, or is someone in your household sick? This can include flu, colds, sore throats, stomach bug, general malaise etc. (Take a point off if you have NOT had your flu shot.)
  • Have the children or grandchildren been acting up? Signs here include attention-getting devices such as leaving partners, leaving jobs, losing earrings, refusing the leave the house. (A two-point bonus if a child has punched his best friend on the nose in the last couple of days.)
  • Have you run away from home, and does this message find you on a cruise in the Caribbean celebrating Christmas with 6,000 perfect strangers? (Minus a point if you are tipsy as you read this.)
  • When the low sun occasionally shines does it reveal shockingly filthy windows? (A bonus point each for a muddy paw-mark or sneeze spray.)
  • Are you struggling with gift-induced mental health issues such as guilt, remorse, fear, etc.? Have you collected too many gifts, too few gifts, all the wrong gifts for your loved ones? (Give yourself a bonus point if you have bought, wrapped, and labelled a gift to yourself.)
  • Do you have a Christmas tree? (Give yourself a bonus point if you still have chocolate decorations hanging on it.)

Good Luck with all of this, and Merry Christmas!

Away in a Manger

The old wooden cattle shed has been hauled up from the bomb shelter yet again. The Fimo figurines, the originals fashioned thirty-some years back, unrolled from their newspaper wrappings. The horse is missing a leg, and the pig an ear. The dog had to be discarded after his head got knocked off last year. Baby Jesus was baked right into his basket, so is gloriously intact. His parents look proud of the meek and mild one-eyed infant that is about the same size as they are.

Over time, there have been energetic modelled additions—teddy bears, ducks, and palm trees—all adding to the gaiety of the occasion. There are nicked and scarred porcelain geese and farmyard cats. An elephant on wheels. Yonder Star and a blond angel are suspended in the silent night.

This is the family Christmas crèche and the grandson played with it recently on a cold dark advent day.

It started with the roof. After having ascertained that here in the Geneva countryside our roof would make a perfect landing spot for Santa and his sled full of gifts, he explained that back home in town they would have to lower a rope ladder down from their apartment balcony for Père Noel to climb up. The reindeer team would wait patiently in the parking lot.

He is three, and the logistics of potential presents is important.

After forcefully evicting the traditional tenants and their animals from the nativity scene, he declared that the structure was to be turned into a dinosaur house.

A negativity scene ensued.

The Tyrannosaurus, Brachiosaurus, and Raptors were all placed on the roof of the shed and roared before they gobbled up approaching Lego children, innocent zebras, circus clowns and even Bambi. Dinosaur battles and massacres and feasts all raged in a tourbillon of primal energy. Dinosaurs became birds before their time. Donder and Blitzen were shaking in their boots and Rudolf was nowhere to be seen.

…Here there was an intermission and macaroni and cheese was served. Conversation consisted of the fairly well-worn theme of the difference between an “accident” and an act of downright evil mischief. Philosophic harmony was temporarily re-established…

As the day rolled on, the dinosaurs were spontaneously banished to the ends of the earth (under the pillows of the couch). Baby Jesus was reinstalled and farm animals collected and placed on the roof. The baby’s parents showed up and cows gathered around. The little elephant rolled in underneath its mom.

The rug was rolled into a tunnel and the now peaceful dinosaurs paraded through to arrive at the edge of the all-is-calm / all-is-bright world. Jingle Bells was sung with an appalling French accent.

The day finished with the placement of the dinosaurs. It was declared that the dinosaurs were there to protect the Christmas house and placed around the edges in a pattern of stalwart defense and brave patrol.

May all your dinosaurs be bright!

 

The Looming Swiss Cheese Crisis

My bones grew strong on Canadian Cheddar cheese. Growing up in southern Ontario, I don’t recall there being any other kind. Sure, there was Cheez Whiz – a fluorescent-orange goo in a jar, and even new-fangled rubbery processed cheese plastic slices for delicious grilled cheese sandwiches in the electric frying pan; but for “real” cheese, Cheddar was it. One winter, a rather large lump, about the size and shape of a shoe-box, somehow made its way into the house. It was kept down the basement with the mice and only addressed in cases of extreme hunger. I recall it fondly.

Here in the Geneva countryside these days, the cheese drawer in the kitchen fridge is importantly filled with Gruyère, Emmental, Roquefort, and La Vache qui Rit. A Reblochon, Tête de Moine or a Mont d’Or also make cameo appearances from time to time.  Any Cheddar placed in there is not touched by common human hands. Cheddar is venerated as part of the kitchen covenant and is uniquely reserved for a weekly lunch-time ritual shared with addicted grandchildren.

Proper English Cheddar cheese has to be made within a 30-mile radius of Wells Cathedral in Somerset in the south-west of England; and the nec-plus-ultra version should sit for many months in the damp dark caves of the Cheddar Gorge. The heavy yellow square I buy every week even has a picture of a church on the front of the package and is called Cathedral City Cheddar, which, without a doubt, proves its total authenticity.

Now, my Tuesday luncheon special is deceptively known simply as “Macaroni and Cheese”. This is not your boxed processed dinner, or your flour and water version of dried-out common-style dish of the same name. This is more like the splendid centrepiece described in Guiseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard which was served cold at a summertime banquet at the crumbling old Palermo palace in Sicily.

My macaroni and cheese is equally magnificent. The whole huge hunk of Cheddar is grated on an old-fashioned circular grater with a turning handle and three little legs. It is then folded lovingly into the steamy creamy béchamel sauce. It is rich and unctuous. It is then gently mixed into Swiss Alpine macaroni, sprinkled with parmesan and baked to a golden brown. People fall silent as they eat. It is my sure currency of pure love.

So, with an uncertain future and Brexit looming, stockpiling has started. I already have two fat slabs of pure Cheddar hidden away and I plan to unobtrusively get many many more. Unopened, the due date gets me nine months into the future, so there is no panic at the moment, and, if anything, my mature cheddar will simply get even more mature.

So, Britain, do cheer up! With me, your present and future Cheddar cheese sales are assured.  (You, though, might think about stocking up on macaroni des Alpes … Just sayin’.)

 

Hit by Lightning

Well, it was the night of Canada Day (July 1st) and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse (or an Elk on a golf cart, but you have to actually be in Canada for that.)

We were settled down in the chimney corner in the Shack (old Haute Savoie farm house) and happy to be back at altitude (1100 m), on holiday, and away from the sizzlingly humid summer day we had spent in the heat-wave of the lowlands.

We had beat the black clouds of the approaching storm driving back in the evening at the tail end of the commuters who work in Geneva and live in the French Alps. Bursting with moral satisfaction after a day in charge of a highly-active, closely-related 3-year-old, we were equally exhausted and exhilarated.

As night fell, the storm broke in the valley and I was called away from the repetitively riveting French news that featured the “canicule” which kept telling viewers to drink four litres of water every day and wrap wet towels around their pets.

There was no rain, and the valley was ablaze with sheet lightning, fork lighting, blue jets, sprites, bolts, cloud-to-clouds, streamers, spiders and elves.  I didn’t see any balls, but I’m sure they were out there bouncing merrily around.

It was just as we were stepping back into the safety of indoors, that the solid, deep WOOP! of a lightning strike hit the top of the chimney and the clean cozy fireplace corner became an instant mountain of chimney stones and greasy black goop.

Just to make sure we knew who was in charge, the tornado-wind then blew off part of the roof and the rain poured in.

In case you ever need to know what to do if this happens to you, do not panic. You must immediately call the fire department (#18) and not approach the strike zone. There could be serious structural damage and a loose chimney stone could fall on your head.

We, on the other hand, grabbed flashlights and fire extinguishers and ran up two flights of stairs. The super-deluxe paddling pool with its two basins and slide bought earlier in the day would sure have been useful to collect the cascading water; sadly, the evening’s events and demands had not been foreseen.

Finally, the bed was pushed into the middle of the room, and much like the Bucket grandparents in Charlie and Chocolate Factory, we spent the long dark night waiting and hoping.

We are now back in alpine holiday repair mode. We have renewed contact with the valley’s finest stone mason and carpenter who dropped everything to help. The insurance lady remembered us from the tree-through-the-house Incident three years back and gave us her condolences. The French news is no longer covering the heat wave, but is devoting itself to the drought.

And so it goes … summer holidays in France.

 

 

My New Unhappy Career

Well, when I first came to Geneva in the late seventies, grocery shopping was an awkward, embarrassing, socially and emotionally dense business.

We lived in a village on the lake and the general store was on the corner just below the church and the old castle tower. It closed at mid-day of course, so you had all morning to prepare your list and practise pronouncing the slippery French words. By the time 3 o’clock afternoon opening rolled around, you were a bundle of nerves, shaky and blotchy. Your list had turned into a scummy ball of grey mush. You were going to blow it. Again.

It was a one-woman show, and the lady behind the counter and in front of her meat-slicing machine and her out-sized basket of baked goods and her tins of tuna and bags of pasta had the understanding and the grace of a dragon in a cave guarding its hoard of gold. There was self-service nothing, and the array behind the carefully-coiffed head was so intricate and tightly-packed that you could not get away with pointing and mumbling.

She spoke not a word of English, and I recall the worst thing being her constant use of “ça va?” Not understanding what THAT meant, the question was more than moot. It became a linguistic and intellectual red-hot poker of shame.

If things got complicated and she started playing with my mind by asking about the thickness of the ham slices or the weight of the butter package I wanted, a quiet line of villagers, armed with wicker baskets, would materialize behind me.

Leaving was also traumatic as she often insisted on the correct change. Fifteen was my worst number and I still don’t like to use it or think about it much.

Today, some forty years later, I visited my suburban supermarket where the shopping experience has become a sad and empty affair. This morning there was only one human cashier (with a huge queue snaking up to her through the shampoo aisle). She looked frazzled.

There were, though, eight automatic scanning machines. They looked plastic and hygienic.

At one cramped, beeping machine, I methodically scanned each of my precious items and was watched carefully by an ex-cashier now turned shopping trolley cop.  Not a word was spoken as I searched for the barcodes and filled my two shopping bags. I was doing her job. Slowly and badly.

When the process was finished, she wandered away from her observation post and I received a screen message that a store person had to verify my purchases.

Called back, wordlessly with not even a grunt, she flicked her magic tag in front of the machine. Not a single murmur of praise about my masterful shopping or the clever choice of German asparagus or the lovely bit of fish. No questions about the Chinese 5-spice jar or the chopped pistachios.

Not a single “ça va?”

The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Following in the old family tradition of hiking with the friendly help of buses, trains, and one-armed car-drivers, this Easter holiday we set off from the south-west corner of Switzerland to revisit the apple blossoms of the north.

It started well with dawn’s rose-red fingers lighting our way to the village bus. This connects conveniently to the commuter train into Geneva’s main station. Schadenfreude overwhelmed us, as a commuter, dressed in his banking clothes, raced madly down the hill past the vines to catch our train.

Five hours later, and restored by a light lunch at the Trauben Inn of soup, salad, liver, bärlauch gravy, sausages, rösti, and a child-sized bottle of pinot noir, we set off north, over the Ottoberg Mountain to the shores of  Lake Constance.

We were a small group of three, but our intent was clear: backpacks, cameras, binoculars and spare socks defined our touristic ambitions as we toiled up the steep slope, breathlessly admiring gardens and trees, past the Schloss, through the forest, to the little bench at the top of the hill where you could sit and admire the Appenzell Alps and the Säntis to the south.

Unfortunately, to the north, the expected Lake Constance was nowhere to be seen. Instead there were hills rolling off into the far distance, church spires and clean cows munching alfalfa.

At this point our tour leader came in for some rather sharp questioning and it turned out that when this route had been previously travelled, at the age of 14 with a bicycle, the distances were much shorter. The youngest member of the group lay down on the asphalt road, said she couldn’t walk anymore and demanded a caramel.

We set off for the closest church spire speculating that there would be a village bus that could get us to a train that could get us to the lake. We admired the huge tractors were parked at the front doors of houses. A farmer, digging post holes, chatted in his sing-song guttural language about the April heat and lack of rain and how he could only get one cut out of the grass he was growing on his north slope.

Winding and digressing lanes took us down to Hugelshofen–a village of many cars but few people.

And this is how we ended up sitting, quite happily, in the Thurgau countryside across from a closed restaurant with apple blossoms swirling around our heads, breathing the heavily manure-perfumed air of the landwirtschaft. Cars slowed down to stare at us. We drank the possibly-poisonous but cooly-delicious water from the fountain. We admired the inventive children who had built a ladder of kitchen chairs to climb a tree.

For me, that hour at the bus stop was the highlight of the trip. A stranger in my own country, muscle-sore and weary, waiting to be rescued by a bus.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paella by the Rhône

The second of January is an odd and unsettling day. The celebrations are over, but the old routines not yet re-established. The fridge is full of left-overs but the stomach is still ominously rolling after days of various excesses and strange combinations. (The evening of the fish-eggs and meatballs comes immediately to mind.)

The soul is not at peace as procrastination, a lowering sun and downright laziness have resulted in unsightly windows, sticky floors, and a heap of ironing.

Both the spirit and the flesh, slowed by chocolate, champagne and Christmas newsletters, are weak.

This morning’s walk was not planned. Shoes were wrong and coats were thin. There were neither gloves nor hats. There had been no hearty breakfast, and there wasn’t a caramel to be found in any pocket. It was the Rhone River’s sirens who beckoned us down to walk its shores.

Downriver from Jonction, past the drug dealers, the graffiti, and the garbage to where the washerwomen used to moor their laundry barges.  Past the cliffs of St. Jean, the river birds, and the fields rolling up to the pretty 18th-century Villa Cayla. Then the climb to the viaduct over the river with its classic view of the meeting of the Arve and Rhone rivers with the Salève and Alps as the backdrop. Up and up, into the park of the Bois de Batie with its howling dogs and cackling geese, and then down again to the urbanized river path.

And then we met him. The Geneva Tourist.

The wind was blowing directly down from Siberia, through the tunnel of apartment buildings and along the river. The closed café terraces were stark and empty. The first public barbeque grill was filled with abandoned half-burned logs, but at the second one there was a man and a boy, and they were busy.

The man had an old-world Botero aspect. Well-dressed against the wind with muffler and parka. Thick tie-up shoes. Impeccably groomed. The boy was chipper and bright.

They had tentatively lit some big black coals and were trying to protect their little fire from the wind.  The boy was gathering twigs. We hailed them in French, as they were obviously not tourists. No silly hats or shoes or behaviour. But no. They could only speak Spanish or English, he explained, as they were on holiday at his sister’s place. He introduced himself as a bonafide tourist from Paraguay who had been sent out of the house to make a paella.

In the bags at his feet were the makings of an elaborate family meal. His fire was pathetic and the cold wind relentless. He was, however, cheerful and resolute. He had a plan and all its ingredients to hand. Things could only get better.

And so, in these out-of-joint days when it seems that everyone else is doing something else, take heart! Somewhere out there, there is a tourist busy doing something completely impossible.

 

 

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.