Baking Pies while Vienna Fiddles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fighting windmills, we drove back home.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baby Jesus in the Circus Train

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was told no.

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Forget all your Troubles, Forget all your Cares, and go Downtown (Geneva)

Living in the Geneva countryside, it is possible to ignore the bright lights of Geneva for great swaths of time. With our village corner store, the farmer’s barn, the not-so-distant suburban malls, and the trusty postman everything is within comfortable reach. Even last Christmas I seem to recall ordering thoughtful gifts on-line and buying the in-laws pots of the local honey.

Anyway, yesterday afternoon I was surprised and delighted to find myself walking along the Rue du Rhone past the three old ports of Geneva—Longemalle,  Molard, and Fusterie. Back in the day, Geneva was commercially and defensively all a-bustle situated as it was at the end of its working / fighting lake.

Well, to tell the truth, I wasn’t really that delighted. The last time I had parked in Plainpalais, you could stamp your parking ticket and get a free TPG transport hour. I looked everywhere, but it seems that this courtesy has disappeared. Where the machine once stood, there is just a plastic map on the wall with chicken-scratchings too miniscule to decipher.

So I walked all the way to Rive.

I am pleased to report that many commercial establishments are hearteningly the same as ever—the stationery shop, the pharmacy from 1680, the great Molard butcher’s, the old family chocolate shops, the big toy store. Even the cigar shop (with you since 1911) is still managing to keep the flame alight and the ashes dropping.

The bankers, in their shiny suits and brilliantine hair, strolling briskly in the sunshine with their rolled umbrellas were also familiar. As they have mostly been replaced by CrontoSigns, they are, perhaps, a little flashier and more numerous than before.

I met a beggar with an outsized plastic bag who asked for my help to keep living on the street as, he explained, it’s very expensive in Geneva. Then there was a very short unmusical musician strumming a broken guitar and making a moaning sound.

And finally I was stopped at a charity stand where two very high-pressure young men wanted my bank account number, my signature and a donation pledge.

I was only once asked for my autograph (in sunglasses I am a dead ringer for Sharon Stone when she’s having a good day), and spotted none of the girls. (Just for the record, I have seen Petula Clark, Yoko Ono, and Sophia Loren in the streets of Geneva.)

I reached my clinic on time, was whisked through the usual routine, was declared impeccably healthy, and came out happily swaying to the gentle bossa nova.

I am now very much looking forward to next year’s trip downtown, and am planning to cross the city on foot again, and to listen carefully to the music of the traffic in the city.

Attitude (and a song in your head) is everything.

 

 

Bucket, the Rescue Dog

Well, it seems that a new craze has taken hold in Canada – the muddled concept of the “rescue dog”.

This phrase first floated into my world some months back, when my sister wrote a startling message describing her encounter with elderly friends’ new family member, the Great Dane Rescue Dog.

From what I recall, the howling dog tore through the restraining door, and its rolling eyes accidentally met hers. After some skirmishes, she found herself pinned to the floor with the dog slashing its teeth, making a nasty throat-noise, and drooling above her.

I replied that the animal seemed quite spontaneous and undisciplined for a rescue dog. I know my dogs. We have had St Bernards in the family for decades, and though we’ve never been able to teach them anything, the concept of their plodding stalwartly through the snowdrifts in the Alps looking for people always made perfect sense to me.

And when not snoring and eating, they did always look out for children and guests in many gentle and thoughtful ways. Locking their teeth on a sweater sleeve when not wanting a person to leave the room, or a playful paw in the face to wake you up from an afternoon snooze on the couch come immediately to mind.

But no. These Canadian canines are not REAL rescue dogs. In the new politically correct language of double-think, the human is the rescuer and the dog is the rescuee.

These are the dogs you get from the pound. They are often young, energetic, and very big. Their reasons for being in the animal shelters are many, I am sure. They are advertised as being “pre-loved”. Many might have been “pre-hated”.

It is a moral status symbol to own such a dog. The onus is on the human to keep these dogs alive no matter what. As they age and their hips fail, you carry them up and down steps. As their kidneys fail, you inject them with liquids. As their hearing and sight fail, you walk them carefully on long strings and soft paths so they don’t get lost. You attach a bell to their collar.

It becomes a moral human failure to have a dog put down because of age and/or illness.

You have no responsibility for having dealt with dubious breeders and/or puppy mills.

You are pure, and as you are walking through a virgin forest and you spot a dastardly villain lowering a large-eyed puppy down into a bottomless well in a bucket. You shout out and save it. You name the dog Bucket to remind yourself of a momentary shining white knight part of your personality. You take lessons in “behoming”.

From then on, you are a happy martyr to your lucky lucky dog. And you tell everyone that you are the saviour of Bucket, the Rescue Dog.

 

 

 

 

The Pâté Pot

A blade needed sharpening, and a few weeks back I found myself in a good old-fashioned French hardware shop.

While waiting for the skinny guy in overalls with morning-cognac breath to take the gory chain-saw details, a simple earthenware pâté pot caught my eye and I had a sudden fantasy of myself in a flowing floral dress.  There were no cobwebs in my hair or green aphids crawling on my skin.

I was surrounded by a lovingly well-behaved and appreciative family in the dappled sunny shade under the linden trees eating a neat little home-made pâté served with a cool and crisply acidic Cumberland jelly. There was heavy condensation on the crystal glasses filled with ice-cold sauterne. They all toasted my health.

The image was so perfect and powerful I bought the pot, and have been in a state of agitation ever since.

I know two actually-alive people who have made pâtés in their own kitchens (or so they claim) for me. Both (one rabbit and one foie gras) were delightful and delicious. Both were made in the winter months. Served with pickles and gooseberries, both were the centres of astonishing social events.

My trusty Larousse cookbook was a bit of a disappointment. The Country Foie Gras Pâté recipe is simplicity itself and calls for a huge (750g) goose liver which you chop up together with fresh fat belly of pork, pork suet and a piece of larding bacon. Truffles are optional—to be tossed in at will if you’re in the mood.

Apart from finding all the fatty ingredients, this seemed too straightforward, so I delved further into the dark and complex web world of liver pâtés.

I discovered to my horror that livers have veins that must be taken out. Somehow you have to butterfly-open the liver with your fingertips to present it with your herbs and spices. At some point you should soak it in salted water for a few hours to remove “impurities”. It is better to buy frozen rather than fresh foie gras, as it is “fresher”. After cooking you must press the concoction into a firm block using a precisely-cut piece of wood or cardboard and place weights on top. You must cool it for a day or two.

The “torchon method” is even more impressive and involves lengths of cheese cloth, twine, and several fridge hangings and alternative hot water / ice water dunkings.

The Larousse cookbook mentions strictly none of the above information. As the French Bible of cookery it is assumed that you have a genetic knowledge of the nitty-gritty underworld of pâté production.

My summertime pâté-idyll is fading fast in the actual sweltering heat. The family comes and goes–happily eating left-overs and drinking pop.

The pâté pot sits on the kitchen table gathering dust as I suck on an orange popsicle and consider it. I think there might be just the place for it in an upper kitchen cupboard somewhere north of the pasta machine.

 

 

Salt: Worth its Weight in Gold

Well, the conversation took place over the regular Tuesday lunch of macaroni and (cheddar) cheese. As we put a grind of pretty pink rock salt on top, the question of salt came up (again).

In our house there is an on-going polemic about the reality of salt. The scientific contingent is adamant that salt is simply NaCl—preferably from the Swiss salt mines of Bex. And that is that.

The rest of us disagree. We know that licking the Himalayan rock-salt lamp in the living room is a completely different experience from dipping your wet finger into the kitchen salt pot.

And now I have proof. A recent cookbook defines the developed world’s three types of salt—common table, kosher, and sea—and proclaims them to be very different in taste, texture and use.

Conversation then turned to the iodine content of normal table salt.

The mention of iodine brought up the subject of hypothyroidism and goiters and my dining companion (10 years old) asked if I had ever seen pictures of people with goiters. I said, of course! I have a lovely one of Geneva market ladies in the 19th century in my book.

The mention of “my” book, brought about dessert amnesia, and we headed upstairs in search of the living proof that grandma wasn’t the big fat liar that she is usually (unfairly) made out to be, but is, instead, a real living rock and roll “écrivaine”.

The chapter on medicine was found, as was the picture. It was observed that the ladies looked quite rich so should have been able to afford salt. It was pointed out that iodine, not salt, was the problem. It was then gigglingly observed that the ladies looked like they had two sets of breasts.

One of my few remaining copies of Ils ont découvert Genève was dedicated to my new fan and she took it with her. In the car back to school she abandoned her usual heap of Lucky Luke and Yoko Tsuno reading material and concentrated on Chapter 1 – Le Lac. Out loud, I was regaled with my very own true facts about the origins of the names Geneva and Leman.  After the 20-minute drive, I was heartily congratulated on my newly-discovered brilliance and expertise.

The book itself was a huge failure and a roaring success. It is a segment of a much larger (unpublished) work and was brought out as a commercial anniversary present for the “big M” and distributed throughout the canton of Geneva. You just might have it on your bookshelf. It took years of work, and ended in disappointment and frustration.

Under-rated and none-paid, Travellers to Geneva[1] has been more or less forgotten. But today it was excitingly revived, hailed and admired.

Nothing you do is worth nothing. Not even a pinch of salt.

 

 

 

 

[1] Published by Editions Tricorne, Genève 2009. (In English: Travellers to Geneva. Part 1 Sensations and Reflections.)

Ultimate Confusion

In these confusing times when true facts are as rare as hens’ teeth and everything seems to be going backwards, I am suddenly confronted with the blossoming of a new commercial celebration: International Women’s Day.

Begun as International Working Women’s Day in 1917 in Russia, it grew out of various brave demonstrations in many countries led by socialist labour movements striving to stop the degrading exploitation of female factory workers. This got broadened into the suffrage movement which (eventually) worked. Even in Switzerland.

In 1977 the U.N. voted March 8th as the International Day of Women’s Rights. It is still an official national holiday in several ex-communist countries. My favourites are Nepal and China where it is a women-only holiday.

The day has laudable historic credentials, but it is being side-swiped and undermined in many alarming ways.

Yesterday our Swiss daily, Le Temps, put out a special edition “dedicated to women”.  Women associated with the Geneva School of Art and Design put together the paper and posted 52 photos of themselves and other important Swiss ladies. There were laudable interviews and analyses of successful women taking themselves and their roles seriously.

There were accounts of films by women, soccer by women, and (on the recipe page) the astute observation that women really can appreciate the finesse and romanticism of red wines—especially the gentle Swiss pinot noir.

Apart from the date being shifted to the 6th (I cynically attribute this to the fact that Monday is traditionally a “light” news day and so less important than the real day, Wednesday, when something more interesting might actually be happening) the full-page ads give us some very stale—possible rancid—food for thought.

The first is for a top-end Swiss watch. It features the chest of a famous American model in a low black bathing suit foxily biting the thumb of a boxing glove. The watch is diamond-studded and is claimed to have been especially created for dominant women.

The second ad lures us to the tropical island of Mauritius and invites us to live timelessly by buying an exclusive luxurious golfing property. And the third (on the back page) is a spread of three pale and ethereal young women’s faces. It offers a Japanese anti-ageing cream that lifts and firms us into the future.

Prices are not mentioned in this lure of diamonds, paradise villas, and everlasting youth. Women’s wishes, one presumes, are far beyond the crass vulgarity of money.

For the more modest consumer, the local supermarket is offering vaguely funereal floral arrangements (does one buy them for oneself?) and the local drug store has 40% off a Swiss wrinkle reduction cream (would you dare buy some for your mother?)

Sigh. It’s so hard to know how to celebrate properly.

Oh yes. I almost forgot. There was one page of “real” news (the election in the Valais) in Monday’s feminine Le Temps. Both articles were written by a man.

The Secret Feast

Several important Canadian celebrations have been hijacked into Swiss public life over the past few decades. When I came to Switzerland in the late 1970s, for example, neither Valentine’s Day nor Hallowe’en existed.

Culturally craving a jack o’ lantern one year, I paid a fortune to buy an entire thick-shelled eating pumpkin. It weighed about 10 kg and was placed in the baby stroller to be wheeled home.  I do not recall what I did with the baby.

Curious about this unusual purchase, the farmer’s wife asked what I was going to do with the huge pumpkin.  When I described the necessity of carving an ugly face, placing a candle inside, and the banishing of evil spirits I’m sure word went around that a wasteful witch from the New World had taken up extremely dubious residence in the Geneva countryside.

Luckily, terrorism did not exist back then.

Similarly, if you wished for a spot of cheap-and-cheerful Valentine’s Day sentiment you had to cut your own pink hearts from construction paper as you had done as a child, and have found, somewhere, some unrelated chocolate hearts wrapped in red tin-foil to glue onto them.

Now both these events have been taken care of by a healthier more worldly-wise agricultural economic outlook, and these days the farmer’s barn (much expanded) has picturesque hay wagons full of different-sized “Jack-O-Lanterns” in the fall, and on February 14th is open for a full 12 hours of frenzied bouquet-selling.  The farmer’s wife has retired.

There are, however, a few small intimate events that have not yet been taken over by the entire global economy, and one of them has been celebrated in our house today – the great day of pancakes—Pancake Day!

Just as Pancake Day is not to be confused on any level with Mardi Gras (that they occur on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday is a startling coincidence), the Canadian pancake is not be confused on any level with the French “crêpe.”

A pancake is fat and robust not thin and ephemeral. It is short and stout and has miraculous little holes on one side that are to be filled with butter and maple syrup and a squeeze of lemon.

A pancake can never be eaten with leeks or ham. It cannot be folded, it has to be rolled. Like a golden bullet casing, it is more than itself. It is a concept.

When we were growing up, our mother made pancakes exclusively on Pancake Day. It was glorious. The great black cast-iron frying pan was cleared of its bacon dripping and heated. The pancakes I recall as delightfully slightly rubbery, and the melted margarine and golden corn syrup were runny and decadently delicious. The squeeze of an orange wedge turned it all into an event of grace and distinction—far above ordinary fare.

In our society of affluence and over-abundance it is not so easy to re-create the magic of a simple pancake. It is, however, important to try.