The DNA Test and the Frying Pan

Well, the fuss seems to have died down after Canadian family members have all given each other DNA testing kits (and home-grown cannabis) for Christmas. In one intransient case, the 99.99999999% proof has not been accepted, which is at least some sort of thread into the future. Blackmail, murder, guns and lawyers are all exciting possibilities.

Living through a pandemic makes us doubt even the obvious. My sister, for example, is talking about having all three of her adult kids tested, as she’s come to the recent conclusion that they’re not hers. This pseudo-medical procedure is obviously popular, for not only does it add a frisson of excitement to clogged and claustrophobic family life, but is a positive act of doing SOMETHING. It is a stand against the static frustration of watching, night after night on the evening news, everyone (except us) getting a jab in the arm.

As we can’t see the future, we are looking into the past. Last year at this time we were in south-eastern Sri Lanka. We rode in the bone-smashing back of jeeps with no suspension to see the deer, elephants and birds of the national parks. We ate freshly caught fish at the Lucky Star Villa. We were swirled through the blue smoke, the nasty monkeys, and the seething humanity of a Hindu festival. We stayed at the Cinnamon Villa where we longed for cold beer and dental floss. We revisited a time and place when the tsunami of December 26, 2004 wiped out the entire coast. We survived that one by the skin of our teeth.

In this particular bleak midwinter, we look at great offers of hotels with restaurants and swimming pools, and castles, and coastlines, trying to plan travels in a post-vaccine world. It stutters forward somewhat. There is doubt and powerlessness. Cancelled trips do not make great stories.

We eat curries and sushi and Mexican beans and sweet and sour pork. We remind ourselves of what we know and where we have been. We are, uncomfortably, living in the present. It is a silent and still place.

This was reflected yesterday in a cut-price supermarket that I don’t normally visit. It was empty except for a handful of staff cutting open cardboard boxes to display the contents. The little mall was dark and grim as the clothing stores, the pet food store, the shoe store, the café, the junk jewelry store, the nail salon, were all closed. I never go into these places, but I wanted them open. Tables and chairs, usually occupied by the old folks in the retirement home were all chained into ugly heaps. No sitting allowed.

I bought a new frying pan (that being the reason for my visit), being pleased and surprised that it was considered an “essential” item. I will fry up some Tupperware left-overs for lunch.

After that, I am thinking of getting a DNA kit to check out whether I am who I think I am.

 

COVID Conversations

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but out here in the Geneva countryside, people seem to be getting grouchier and grouchier.

Take the hedge police, for example. Back in the day they would come, look you in the eye, and explain that your relationship with your own personal flora was criminal (https://blogs.letemps.ch/joy-kundig/2016/05/17/busted/).

These days, a man phones in the middle of the night and over the noise of his snowplough, yells that your hedge is causing international chaos, possible road-closure, and that a specialized enterprise will have to be called in unless you deal with it, pronto!

We considered phoning the village COVID19-help hotline which offers services to at-risk retired people, but thought this just might make matters worse, as they would call HIM to come and help us, and he didn’t seem to be in the mood to appreciate the irony.

So we stepped out, intrepid, into the cold darkness, armed with flashlight and clippers. Minutes later, four long bamboo shoots (asylum seekers from the neighbour’s garden) lay dead beside the road.

The next morning, with mental health still somewhat fragile, there was a rare serendipitous meeting with an old acquaintance. He was searching for green tea at the local supermarket. Upon masked and distanced enquiry about health and general well-being, he replied, “Can it get worse?”

This called for the direct question of actual illness. No, he said, he was simply hanging on until January 26th. This being Geneva, one does NOT enquire further. Health problems are shrouded in secrecy. Not even I blundered into that one.  –Was it open-heart surgery, cancerous lump removal, a brain aneurysm that that needed to be coiled and stented, a colonoscopy???—

No, he went on, he was waiting for his COVID vaccination that had been arranged. Bitterly, he spoke of a friend who had had the blind luck to get a slot in front of him. He asked what we had done. I said we were just waiting for something to happen. A mild email had been sent to the family doctor. There had been no reply.

Mollified by our obvious negligence, and our not taking up coveted positions in front of him in the vaccination line-up, he explained his current personal search for elusive green tea. They only had bags here, and he would have to go to the shopping mall on the other side of the Rhone River to get the real thing.

I told him at least he had a mission—something to do. This was gasoline on the fire of frustration.  He stamped his foot and said he had MANY things to do.

Convinced that I had lost all human conversational skills due to months of talking only to the cat, a zoom call last night went a long way to restoring my mood and mental harmony.  An English friend announced he had applied to become an NHS Vaccination Marshall. It was hoped this position would include an anti-COVID shot.

We laughed and laughed and laughed.

Cabin Fever Part I

I have sworn off foie gras for the foreseeable future.

During yesterday’s afternoon walk through the muddy horse-pooped paths of the Geneva countryside, a vision came to me. Enough of the spaghetti bolognaise, the raclette, the Indonesian stir-fries, the pork chops and apple sauce. We were going to eat something unique and special; something I’d never tasted before; something of opulence and splendour.

We were going to sample that all-time French classic, Tournedos Rossini.

In my defence, I think the hallucination came from a touch of “cabin fever”–that well known Canadian wintertime medical event when prolonged isolation creates a feeling of claustrophobia, restlessness and paranoia. Anyway, the idea was not my fault.

To create a Tournedos Rossini, you first need a big fat chunk (800 grams) of beef fillet. The original recipe (created almost exactly 200 years ago by the famous French chef, Casmir Moissons, big friend of the foodie and opera-writer, Gioachino Rossini) called for a 8cm thick piece of tenderloin. Well, we had two rather thin slices of beef bought that morning from the supermarket over the French border. They would have to do.

Next ingredient was bread. No problem as there was a Grand Boule Campagnard resting in the breadbox. Then there was the 150 gm of foie gras. Also (Noël oblige) there was a perfect pack of two skinny rounds of duck liver only slightly out-of-date in the fridge.

Butter was required for all cooking stages (fortunately, there was an “action” at the Migros last week and I had four bricks.)  And to top it all off, 70 grams of thinly sliced Périgord black truffles were needed.  This final addition would have to wait until next time, as digging in the cold, dark, muddy garden was simply not an option. And it was agreed that the corner store probably didn’t carry them.

Unfortunately, there was the last-minute surprise discovery that a sauce espagnole demi-glace was required, as otherwise the whole concoction would be too “dry”. I don’t know how Casmir made his Madeira sauce, but I made mine with brandy and beef bouillon powder. (Tip: any good poutine gravy would work just fine.)

We started dinner with a simply boiled artichoke. This was to clean our livers and prepare them for what was going to happen to them next.

The cook retired to the kitchen and closed the door. Skillets and butter were distributed across the stove top, and the air turned blue.

As everything has to be warm and assembled at the last moment, there were a couple of glitches. One of the chunks of duck liver just disappeared, melting into mushy nothingness. The meat was a little tough (being only half a centimetre thick, rather than the recommended four.) But the bread and gravy were perfect.

For supper tonight I have a plastic box of vintage spaghetti sauce thawing out on the kitchen counter. It is a pre-cabin-fever creation dated October 30, 2020. There will be cheese on top.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Pros and Cons of Covid19

Because of Covid19 many golden opportunities will be lost forever. For example, I will never be able to show Valéry Giscard d’Estaing the way to the downstairs men’s toilet of the Uni II building ever again. This was a few decades back, and he was lost—wandering desperately in the concrete halls. Whimpering. I came to his rescue and I am sure he has thought of me fondly every day since then.

Well, until December 2nd, when he died of complications from the virus.

This is the problem: selfish desires and greedy minds. Not only have we lost those serendipitous encounters, but also simple pleasures:  missing lunches with colleagues and friends; not seeing the family both here and in Canada. Instead, we are immersed in a world of face masks and hand-spray, repetitive meal planning, furtive shopping, and a general Sleeping Beauty/Rip Van Winkle desire to sleep until it’s all over.

Determined to come up with some positive aspects for the new corona virus world, we’ve all been thinking hard. The New York Times, for example, has introduced a full page of recipes every week. They are often ethnic, complicated and esoteric. Strangely, what they all have in common is kosher salt.

Learning Chinese, taking up the clarinet, or finally reading War and Peace are all noble projects. Somehow, there’s not enough time, and certainly not an aerosol of morale or a droplet of concentration. We are scattered.

Computers help, of course. I have learned how to produce a bar-code for the post office for every single package I send out of Switzerland. That is the extent of my new skills. Rather, it is what I have done away with that I consider to be my most precious accomplishments.

For example, I reached an ironing epiphany a week or two back. Back in the old days, shirts and skirts got ironed. In a blinding flash it came to me that this is a total waste of time.  Who sees? Who judges? Who cares? I have since been casting a critical eye on the actual laundry pile. Perhaps it, too, is extraneous to purpose.

Cleaning and tidying the house also used to serve a social function: i.e., that your invited guests neither saw nor suspected your inner pig. I have found that if you have no guests, then your inner pig grows to wild boar proportions. The other day the postman cast a judgmental eye on my door mat which was covered with big, flat, dried mud flakes. I vacuumed it this morning.

And then there is hair. The colours! The highlights! The cuts! The styling! The expense! I last saw William back in January, between trips to Aqaba and Sri Lanka. He phoned me up the other day to ask if I had died of Covid.  I was ashamed I hadn’t, and promised to present myself to him in January.

I’m going back to lie on the couch. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

The Horrors of Christmas Shopping

Back in the day, a person would head out purposefully to go Christmas shopping.  Sometime at the beginning of December, either alone or with a friend, you would fill up your purse with real paper money and take the bus into town.

A pen-and-paper list would have been prepared, solid items envisaged, and the Geneva department stores, toy shops, and stationers would have been visited.  A corncob pipe from Davidoff’s. A Swiss art calendar from Brachard. A box of chocolate pavés from the Bonbonnière. And you would return home foot-sore and arm-weary with bags and boxes, and a true sense of possible future poverty and solid accomplishment.

For exotic items, you could visit the second hand book stores and the Saturday flea market and come up with almost-first editions, ancient engravings, or strange Japanese prints. Music stores had racks of song books and mountains of CD’s. People would help. You would buy piano-key socks.

If you had the stamina to make it all the way to Carouge, there were even more outlandish stores selling Indian ware, and small African sculptures. You could buy a wooden parrot or a bronze cow or hand-made jewelry–articles of great beauty and assured rarity.

Lacquered Chinese cabinets and old rattan baskets and Bohemian glass and Nepalese rabbit-fur shawls have all made their way into my house from the stalls of Geneva merchants.

One of my first adult Christmas-shopping days that I clearly remember was December 9, 1980. John Lennon had been assassinated the day before, and a buzz was in the air.

Since those days, trips away have usually replaced, and then delayed or advanced Christmas festivities. In some far-away corner of the earth you would buy a horse-hair Burmese bowl or a clay Colombian statue or a Chinese paint-brush. These would be gifts for others, and gifts for yourself. Things to take up space, gather dust, and sit still and silent around you. Things that you don’t even see anymore. Things that have become old invisible friends.

And today I’ve been at it again. Sadly no frivolous-frippery shops are open here in Geneva due to partial confinement, so I have had to resort to on-line services. It has been a solitary day of frustration and failure and mediocracy.

My favourite shop in England cannot deliver until mid-January due to having been moved to Tier 3 of covid19 lockdown. They explained that only 3 people can work in their warehouse due to new rules.

I contacted my bookstore in Paris, but it is closed as an international appeal has resulted in a tsunami of orders and they are drowning in success.

And I didn’t even bother seeing what has become of my Florentine art supplies shop. The man there has probably gone home and is hiding under his duvet.

However, I have managed local sourcing of many quite ordinary things and am moderately satisfied. Sadly, there have been no eureka moments.

Imagine no possessions. I wonder if you can.

The Tourist and the Gendarme

Being a successful tourist these days requires perseverance, courage, imagination, and quite a bit of luck. Adventures like getting permanently lost, being kidnapped, finding yourself stranded at an airport, being put in quarantine or ending up in jail do not count as success.

To be a successful tourist you have to make it back home.

Here in the western Geneva countryside we are geographically constrained. In these days of the COVID pandemic, there are both international boundaries and cantonal boundaries with different rules popping up like fall mushrooms. And they can be poisonous.

For example, we THINK you can go to France if you have an “attestation” printed out, signed and dated. You can only do the things that are mentioned on the form. Shopping for basic provisions, helping people, going to work, to the doctor’s, to get the kids from school are all allowed. Exercise can be taken within a kilometre of where you live. It’s not mentioned, but we think you’re supposed to be French. (Things that are NOT mentioned are NOT allowed.)

And then there are the different rules in Geneva and the next canton, Vaud. In Lausanne, for example, you can go to a hairdresser or barber. Here in Geneva the salons have all been shut. However, there is so much business in Vaud, that Geneva hairdressers are going there (with all their clients) to help out.

You cannot go to the IKEA in Geneva as it sells totally non-essential goods and so has been shut. However, you can drive about 50 km to the west and go to the one in Aubonne.

Christmas decorations are considered non-essential and so our local Migros has the centre of its floor-space (a mountain of Chinese Santas) sealed in plastic wrap while the shoppers bustle around the newly created impediment.

Even geographic placement becomes confusing. For instance, as a tourist (either Swiss or French, we think) you are allowed to drive around all you want in the Swiss Jura looking for a spot of sunshine above the clouds. Now who ever knew that the Swiss Vallée de Joux turns into the French Vallée de Joux? Where, suddenly, you are breaking the law driving your car and looking out of the window.

If you make the obvious next-step mistake of turning off the road into a Scenic View Parking Lot you can be nabbed by the French Gendarmes as the activity of stopping and looking is not mentioned on the “attestation”. Inadvertently driving past, we saw this take place and it resulted in major psychological trauma. We are not used to being criminals.

We did make it home on Friday. Coming over the border at CERN (not a customs man, or police SWAT team, or health inspector, or prison guard, or gendarme in sight) it was with the relief of arriving back from the far ends of earth.

So, be warned: tourism is taboo in France. But remember, being a tourist is mostly in your head

The Inspection Lady

The ghost of last week’s electrical inspection lady is still lingering, and I feel guilty every time I want to turn on my set of plastic pink flamingo dining room lights to give a certain cheerful ambiance in these dark and dreary days.

She came to help us save energy, as we are now proud suppliers to the cantonal hydro and water company – the SIG.  We produce energy from the sun using our new solar panels–for example, the device you’re reading this on might be partially powered by me—and anything we don’t use is bought by them (very cheap). Whenever we need energy (flamingo lights) and the sun is not shining (today) we buy some energy back (very expensive).  She came to help us in this process.

She changed tap filters with flair, adding “brise jet” bubbles to the water so we use less. Frequent toilet flushing is a no-no. All electronic household machines should be immediately changed to the new AAAA++++ category. She suggested gluing insulating panels to the ceiling of the basement. She didn’t say anything about the bomb shelter and flabbergasted silence met the dirt-floored wine cellar. She suggested hanging an anti-cold curtain going down the basement steps. She suggested buying an electric car to be able to charge its battery. She suggested replacing all doors and windows and blinds, and mentioned that adding an extra layer of insulation to the walls of the entire house would also help.

She finally suggested changing the whole front north-east wall and sent a 22-page report.

She also really didn’t like the reading light in the living room, and so this problem is what we have focused on. A new lightbulb has been ordered from Amazon which does not deliver most of its items to Switzerland. This sort of purchase involves going to ”tabac” kiosk in a French village north of the Swiss border to send back mistaken-goods packages, and going to a post office in a French town south of the border to retrieve possibly correct-goods packages. As you can only do this if you have a French return address, an unsuspecting ex-colleague is also involved in all the to-ing and fro-ing.

Yesterday was a return parcel day (chain saw blades to be exact) and tomorrow is pick-up day (new bulb) and so small touristic side-excursions are sometimes involved.

Yesterday there was a visit to the source of the Allondon River which comes out of a hole at the foot of the Jura and runs down into the Rhone River in the Geneva countryside. There were picnic tables in delightful clearings, and picturesque moss-covered ruins of old mills that used to produce hemp rope. Disused water channels and stone walls all attested to the use of water energy centuries ago.

The inspection lady gave us presents as she left – some dubious light bulbs and two thermometers. They are all safely stored in the kitchen drawer.

 

In Praise of See-Through Bags

Driving along in an automobile at the Swiss-French border where the cable-car comes down from the Salève (the mountain backdrop to Geneva) I was treated to a blink-of-an-eye vision that transported me back to pre-COVID19, pre-grandchildren, pre-job, pre-motherhood, almost pre-adult days.

Trudging from the Swiss border bus stop was a young couple, a man and a woman, who each pulled a small wheeled suitcase. Bags and other accoutrements were slung around their necks. They wore light summer clothes, hats, sunglasses and sandals. Their attitude was of pleasant purpose as they strode towards the “teleferique”.

In her free hand, the woman carried a big transparent bag full of fat carmine-red tomatoes.  They were off to have a picnic to the top of the Salève. They were going to fill their minds and spirits with the twin bird’s-eye views of the Lake of Geneva on one side and Mont Blanc on the other. They were going to eat the tomatoes!

And it was those tomatoes that punched me backwards into summers past: Catching the ferry out of Piraeus to the Greek island of Samos; hiking through the parched landscape of Göreme in Turkey; climbing up the jungle-draped ruins of Guatemala; canoeing to One Bear Island in Algonquin Park.

The lady had a food bag.

Most of my travelling career has involved food bags of one sort of another. On Geneva train trips down to southern Italy there was the exciting combination of equally-important daughter, dog, husband and food bag. There were tins and openers and wine bottles. There were Cornish pasties and meat balls and cucumbers. There was the can of coke that accidentally drenched a nun in a train compartment while pulling out of Rome (No. She did not turn the other cheek, but left in a drippy, sticky huff.)

There were Swiss army knives and rolls of toilet paper and bread and chocolate bars. There were matches and raw potatoes and tortillas and squished fruit. There was a grapefruit that lasted an entire trip.  There was cheese, kirsch in a baby-food jar, and an earthenware pot and a fondue in the snow. There was a 30-franc apple and a bag of seaweed crackers.

Having a food bag is almost as good as having a camper van. It represents independence and commercial freedom. A food bag gives your life gravitas; you are dependent on no one. As you eat your sandwich beside the hiking trail or the ski run, you are wished “bon appetit”. You have risen beyond the world of tacky restaurants and mundane tables and chairs. You are lightened and liberated and filled with untold potential.

So, grab a food bag and head off. Pick a clear day and view-rich destination. Take some buns and sausages with chocolate cookies for dessert. If possible communicate your intent to others by packing it all in a transparent bag.

And don’t forget the mustard

 

 

Helpful Hints on How to Lock Down Your House

The mistake most people make is thinking that the house needs you there to look after it. This is not the case. A normally-constituted house or apartment can more or less look after itself–except for those rare events such as being hit by lightning,  the pipes freezing and bursting, or having a tree go through it or fall on top of it. For these extreme, dramatic events, it is important that you are there. Or not.

As weather and seismic activity are entirely beyond your control, you must never ever worry about them. Burglaries are also an ever-present mental danger and occasionally come true. They can be reduced by normal precautions such as locking all doors and windows.

Leaving is always hard to do, but there are a few simple, subtle tricks that can help to sooth your anguish, reduce your anxiety, and fool the burglar.

  1. To clean or not to clean. I personally feel that a house feels better if it is not too clean. If you are to be away for a while, you will be surprised at all the help that spiders can bring. They kill a huge assortment of flies, bugs and other spiders, so there is no point in vacuuming for at least 3 weeks before your intended trip.
  2. Never wash your windows just before leaving. This can lead to unpleasant surprises upon return which include smelly dead birds lying around that have flown into the sudden emptiness, or even broken panes of glass where someone has seen something inside worth stealing. Nor should windows be too filthy as this makes the place look abandoned and derelict. I would suggest washing windows about 6 months before your planned departure.
  3. A kitchen, especially, should look lived-in. Remember to take out the garbage, and to get rid of all potatoes, but leave dishes on the draining board, and a couple of coffee cups on the counter. Put the kitchen light and the radio on and place half a bottle of wine on the table.
  4. Leave certain things lying around outside. Along with a parked car (with licence plates) I find old plastic children’s’ toys lying around on the driveway give an impression of un-Swiss un-tidiness and possible household impoverishment. Muddy old boots in front of the door and a collection of animal skulls found in the woods also provide a superstitious, lugubrious air. Top this up with a half-filled dog bowl and leash and collar chains hanging beside the front door and the illusion of red-necked squalor is quite complete and utterly unappealing to any self-respecting Swiss burglar.

Yes, I know. There is the mail and the thousands of fliers that get pushed through the letter box, and to keep this mess to a minimum, you need a trustworthy and accommodating neighbour.

So grab your masks and your hand sanitizer and take a little trip to Away. Try not to worry, and Bon Voyage!

 

 

 

You Don’t Light a Candle from the Bottom

One good thing about the COVID19 situation is that the world comes to you if you wait long enough here in the Geneva countryside. Well, some of it does. There are a few things recently that have come all the way from China, only to have been delivered to the wrong people, but that’s a whole other story.

For example, there are the birds: Black kites, to be exact. They come from Senegal and are normally migratory. However, a canny butcher in a neighbouring village scatters his lawn with meat scraps every morning. Word has got out, and the lazy birds no longer continue their migration to the beaches and garbage dumps of the North Sea, but stop right here for their tasty-treat summer vacation. They can be seen wheeling about the sky in a huge flock after their daily brunch. They all fly back to Africa in October, fat and happy, and spend their winter dreaming of next year’s Swiss holidays.

Then there was the surprise visit of the roof painter. He was an integral element in the solar panel installation saga, as the Geneva Department of Monuments insisted that every square inch of our roof be completely covered by the panels to avoid unsightly orange tile areas sticking out around the edges. (They had obviously been talking to the kites, as no one else could possibly be disturbed by what is necessarily an eagle-eyed view.) He had brought a picnic with him, and spent the day both on and off the ladder. We talked of grandchildren and chased away the wasps.

The roof is now a homogeneous shiny black and looks sharply Japanese.

I have been at home for all annual services – the water softening man (from Java) was a particular pleasure. He was charmingly polite and masked and shoe-covered. He admired a piece of ikat weaving and asked its provenance. His grandmother used to weave.

And the very best was the normally elusive chimney sweep. He started as usual, putting a note in the letter box stating a date and a day that did not match. This was followed by his showing up a week early. I expressed surprise and Swiss wifely concern that the fireplace was not cleaned out ready for him.

At the end of his visit I was presented with a box of matches and fire starters, and a small lecture.  He asked if I light fires from the bottom, and when I answered in the affirmative, was told that this was wrong and there was a new method: You place your big logs at the bottom, and on top of them you place the little hand-made fire starter bundles. One match and your fire magically starts and somehow the logs underneath catch and the fire is smokeless and we save the planet.

I asked if there were going to be random police checks on this new technique, and he said he didn’t think so.