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.

 

 

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.