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.

 

 

Treasure Hunting at Home

Well, as the Parisians run away to the Côte d’Azur, the Milanese take off to Tuscany, Norwegians scramble to their lake-side cottages (and then home again), and even the Queen of England has decamped to Windsor, all the rest of us are staying put.

In Switzerland, federal reasonableness prevails, and the lock-down against COVID-19 is filled with contradictions and complications – much like a Swiss watch. It is neither simple nor straightforward. Holding our breath, and not touching anything, we can go for a quick shop, visit a doctor (if we can find one), buy gas, go for a drive, or take a walk in the woods.

We are encouraged to wash our hands with soap while singing “Happy Birthday” in our heads (it takes 20 seconds.) The trains and buses are running, and hotels are open. I think we are discouraged from using both facilities. The postman delivers the papers and bills as usual.

However, we must not congregate or socialise. Restaurants are closed. The occasional halloo over the bamboo thicket that separates us from the neighbours is about as gregarious as we can get.

Deprived of our chalets and shacks in the French Alps, we survive from meal to meal, wash our hands and clothes more often than usual, and eagerly answer the telephone as it seems that all the annoying call-centres have been abandoned. This means that the people at the other end of the line are medical secretaries cheerily announcing that they are closed and are eager to postpone the arranged colonoscopy or dental interventions.

We graciously agree.

The younger family members keep in touch, pleasantly offering shocking stories of friends stuck in Nepal or in quarantine in Ecuador. We hear from Canadian snow-birds in Mexico drinking “quarantinis” by the ocean and waiting for the last flight out. There are relatives who swear by watching non-stop TV, and friends who bemoan the pitfalls of distance teaching.

I, myself, have put on my new Sri Lanka lucky earrings, and taken up foraging in the safety of my own home.  I have barely scratched the surface, and already see that it is offering a bounteous harvest of useful items.

Hand sanitizer has been bought before most trips over the decades, not used, and brought back–Naples during a garbage strike, or Namibia where there is no water. All over the house I have come across little blue bottles, most of which are satisfactorily full.

Then there is the bar of super soap from Rhodes. It was bought a few years back at a sad roadside market at the top of a scraggy piney-forest mountain. The soap is brown and totally unappealing. Made of pine tar, it has both anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties. Perfect.

The jackpot so far is a jumbo box of surgical face masks bought some years back for a cold-riddled trip to Japan.

So stay at home and take a look in the kitchen drawer—you know THAT one—and find a domestic diamond or two of your own.

 

 

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.