Re-entry Hicccups

The full force of the rentrée is with us. The roads are filled with cars, the schools are filled with kids, tanned doctors are back in their offices, exam sessions are underway, the usual French fall strikes have begun, and parking places in town have become rarer than hens’ teeth.

On the political scene here in Geneva a major story has just broken concerning the brilliant invention of the green plastic garbage can. The person in charge (the guy who brought us the concept of letting nature go wild along our public roads) has come up with the startling idea of having a compost bin handily situated right in your very own kitchen. This is to avoid putting heavy things such as corn cobs and nasty inedible sweet potato muffins in your main garbage can. This will, in turn, save money at the cantonal incinerator.

Fortunately, I don’t need a new garbage can, as I still have one that was given out by the Geneva government some 30+ years ago. In those old days of generosity, every household was given 2 garbage cans—a small one of green plastic and a bigger brown brother.  They were meant to stand side by side under the sink.  My retro green James-Bond-era plastic garbage can is virginal as buying the cute little plastic bags that fit inside, and then storing rotting organic waste near a hot kitchen sink somehow struck me as a stinky waste of money.

Agonizing over the circularity, unoriginality, and expense (1.6 million Swiss francs) of green plastic cantonal thought; my politically incorrect garbage can habits; and Geneva’s ever-growing green plastic garbage can mountain, I was struck by a conversation coming from the backseat of the car. The two passengers were discussing the origins of hiccups.

drinking glass of water upside downIt was hypothesized that hiccups result from stress, the proof being that the hiccup victim got an exceptionally bad case right after a small scholastic exercise concerning the multiplication tables. She had completely forgotten some of the trickier calculations (8×7 was a real bummer) due to the summer holidays.

The conversation went on to conclude that either the summer holidays should be shortened to two weeks (so that such lapses and distressing medical episodes could be avoided) or that, like bears, we humans should be able to hibernate all winter and, thus, avoid school entirely.

The average age in the back seat was 9 ½.

Perhaps Canada has got it right.  I’ve not heard anything about free political garbage cans. And there primary school teachers are simply cancelling repetitive and useless activities.

For example, cursive writing is no longer taught. Students learn to print in block capitals – much like the Romans. The curlicues and flying fantasies of penmanship are no longer skills deemed necessary. Stringing things together, like pinning clothes on an outdoor line, is simply a tiresome and irrelevant task.






Warning! Geneva-Government-Sponsored Aliens Could be Hiding in Plain Sight

Well, I’ve finally got to the bottom of the matter. On a minding-my-own-business drive through the Geneva countryside recently, I noted many new signposts planted by the side of the road. Slowing down to see what was up, they all read:  Ici la nature s’épanouit grâce à moins d’entretien. Now, this can either be translated as: Here nature flourishes due to less care; or, perhaps, more to the point: Here nature will run amok if you let it.

panneau_bords_routeIt seems that a few weeks back Geneva’s Environment Minister (interestingly, he is also the Transport and Agriculture Minister) made the sustainable, durable, biodiverse decision to not cut the grass along the verges of some 257 kilometres of Geneva cantonal roads.

In these areas of High Ecological Value, the flora will be studied (by whom?) and will be treated in a bespoke, tender, individual manner. There are even some places where there will be no weed-whacking at all, so as to protect innocent animals living beside the road.

I don’t know about you, but this seems the epitome of heartlessness, as the poor little frogs will not even be able to look both ways to see clearly before they try to cross the road.

As a tax-payer, you will be pleased to learn that this non-cutting of the weeds beside the road will NOT result in an increased budget for the department.

This is all most confusing, as a few years back there were cantonal ordinances out against certain plants. There were urgent news alerts about rag-weed and thistles. I recall an inspector coming to visit my garden to make sure I wasn’t sheltering any leafy criminals. (He didn’t find them, as they hid down in the bomb shelter until he left.)

In Ontario there are still mandates out against many sorts of unwanted, invasive, exotic, adventurous, poisonous plants—Purple Loosestrife, Giant Hogweed, Garlic Mustard, the Great Scottish Thistle. If you encounter any of these monsters, you should drop everything and report the sighting to the Invading Species Hotline at an important 0-800 number.

My own little biodiverse world (my garden) is chock-a-block full of nasty invasive species: three kinds of bamboo, the box tree moth caterpillar (Glyphodes perspectalis), and many species of triffid-like strangling vines that look like they have come straight out of Ankor Wat.

Swiss universities list almost 900 non-native wild plants and animals living in Switzerland, and I’m sure they’re not ALL living at my place. So if any of these rammy foreigners try to take over the happy hippy Heidi weed campsites beside the long-haired gentle Geneva roads I do hope someone spots them and just calls Tom at: +41 (0)79 417 09 69.

He is officially there to answer all questions, and should know how to politically process a cluster of hooligan Japanese Knotweed or some perky euphorbia lathyris poking out through a cloud of fragile Swiss buttercups.

The Queen of Switzerland

There is a canton in Switzerland called the Valais. I once had a female colleague who came from there, and she went back to “her country” every single Friday afternoon. Having just spent a weekend in the Val d’Hérens, I am thinking of emigrating myself.

It’s all about attitude, of course. The real people of the Valais have perfected a potent mixture somewhere between a cowgirl and a Hummer: courage, independence, pride, strength, a grouchy exterior, an ironic interior and, often, a glass of génépi define a true Valaisan.

The landscape of the Valais is mixture of the Himalayas (now that there are yaks and this summer’s huge outdoor walking path photo exposition of Zanskar*) and The Sound of Music. You snuggle into the wild and the gentle, the rough and the soft and, amazingly, feel right at home.

You’re scared to leave a crumb on your plate of steak and cheese-rösti (with rinds), as the chignoned-madam-owner of the Vieux Mazot would be sure to openly disparage your finicky appetite and picky town ways. Packed tight into her Valaisan dress you’re greeted with a hauteur bordering on disgust. Having proved your appetite and your manners, you are given a handshake anCowDSC_0036d a half-smile on the way out.

You want to belong to the Valais. You want to be part of them. But you need credentials. Being a city slicker foreigner does not endear you to the crusty old men with morning wine-breath and sturdy cow-sticks.

You explain your presence at the foggy Inalp (the early-summer migration of the cows up to the high alpine pasturages) by telling the story that you once, some 35 years back, tended a herd of cows up in the Val de Réchy. It snowed in July. Food had to be helicoptered in. There were holes between the stones of the hut where you stayed. The cat caught and ate a mountain rabbit. It left the ears. The child had to be rescued from a mountain stream. Another ear (with identification tag) had to lopped off a cow who had fallen off the rocks to her death.

This cinches matters, of course, and once your Canadian identity is established you’re part of the gang of pipes and caps and canes. An ancient one pulls out his list of cow owners and points out #2 who is Queen of the fighting cows. Proud, and strong, and still, and black. Much like a Hummer with horns. You don’t want to look her in the eye.

In the evening from the hotel balcony you view the night-lit church steeple across the road. The doors are not locked, and the pub-girl waters the flowers. There is a single village shop which the hotel lady calls a souk. She says you can buy anything there: rumour has it, even a bride.

We bought a corkscrew and a bottle of Heida. Next time I’m going to buy a Valais passport because I want to live next door to the Queen of Switzerland and keep a baby yak in my garden.

*check it all out at  or


Tourist Tips for a Wet Week in Geneva

The upside (sometimes the downside) of living in Geneva is that you get many many visitors. These people are known as Temporary Tourists and are usually delighted by our little city.

Normally they pop off into the sunny streets, enjoying the lake (Bains des Paquis), the views (Mont Blanc), and the al fresco sophisticated city-sidewalk dining. They gather back in the countryside for an evening BBQ, stories, and reminiscences. It’s lovely.

However, this June in Geneva the swimming pools have been cold and depressing, Mont Blanc foggily lugubrious, and the sidewalk cafés damp and dismal. Alternative plans have had to be made; here are the results.

  1. First of all, find a hole in the clouds and go up the Salève. Delightful (perhaps fleeting) views of Geneva and the lake surprise and delight. Note: the Mont Blanc massif will be completely invisible, but you can ask your tourists to stand very still and see if they can hear the glaciers cracking. saleve
  2. Find a lakeside restaurant, and, in the pouring rain, ply them with perch fillets and white wine. This is a game-changer as they are so grateful to be inside rather than out, and dry rather than wet, they begin coo-ing at the subtle manifestations of the colour grey over the lake and the motionful multi-layered clouds.
  1. Go to a Sunday market and buy one of every sort of cheese and mountain sausage that you can find. If you take umbrellas with you, it usually does not rain during this activity. Come home and enjoy a cheesy lunch on the sheltered back porch with delicious unpasteurized products that they moan that they just cannot get “back home”.
  1. Drive over to Lavaux on the way to the Chateau de Chillon. At one point, the fog will possibly blow away and the sight over the grape fields in their little stone encasements tumbling down to the lake (a UNESCO world heritage site) will seduce them completely and they will immediately forget their Burger King Lunch with its complementary Whoop Swiss red cardboard crown.
  1. Next day is serious shopping day. In bad weather Manor is the ultimate one-stop place for this: watches, knives and chocolate all under one big solid dry roof. Note: don’t even mention the Geneva Fountain as it’s been turned off.
  1. Then comes Geneva History Day—Maison Tavel (the model of the city) and St Peter’s Cathedral (the tower climb and the Chapel of the Maccabees). This can include such delightful impromptu events as two Geneva policemen herding a mother duck with her four little ducklings down the Grand Rue towards the lake, or a trio of swarthy Spanish troubadours singing their hearts out on the tram.
  1. The last day is when the faulty watches have to be returned, last minute Swiss army knife purchases made, and the mountain chalet with its smashed walls (don’t ask) thoroughly examined and marvelled over.

My muddy-but-happy tourists have left with their wet shoes packed in plastic bags. They report to be safely back home in Canada, but, unfortunately, it’s far too hot and sunny for a cheese fondue.







Good News for Fat People Who Can’t Sleep

If you’re a skinny person who sleeps like a baby for a solid 8 hours every night, then don’t even bother to read this. You don’t need my handy health tips and medical reassurance. At least, not at the moment.

In this house, watching evening TV is a normally-pleasant communal activity. The ritual of the Swiss news, the French news, the international news, the weather, more weather, a movie, a series or two usually keeps us going until the sun has long gone down. The big friendly TV is our window on the world and all the lights are blazing. We are alive and active. Sort of.

Dragging our sorry asses up to bed at about 11:00 (I’ve usually already fallen asleep on the couch) I am told not to snore, and then sleep overwhelms me until about 2:30 a.m.

 And then comes then comes that terrible bit.

Unless seriously jet-lagged, I have always taken this next hour or two of wakefulness as a physical and psychological failure. Tossing and turning, trying to read, worrying about the state of my sock drawer, anxious about being awake, hoping I manage to nod off before the sun comes up—I had thought was unnatural and seriously unhealthy.

I have now learned that I am the victim of light bulbs. Prehistoric, and even preindustrial, humans went to bed shortly after the sun went down or the candles ran out (depending on your wealth), you then slept for a bit. Then you indulged in a spot of dorveille. During the “watch” praying, interpreting your dreams, sex, writing, singing, meditation, visiting neighbours and burglary were popular activities. You then crawled back under the feathers until the sun came up. This, it seems, was healthy and natural.


So, that’s my first spot of good news. Lying awake in the middle of the night is GOOD for you.

And then it just gets better and better. In today’s paper a very large, lengthy and serious Danish study published in the JAMA has shown that people who have a body mass index of 27 (which means pleasantly plump in laymen’s terms) live longer than everyone else. They actually die less from everything!

Now this is cheerful information indeed. My two helpings of potatoes I had for supper and the banana cream ice-cream I’m now considering suddenly seem like healthy life-style choices.

Dusk is settling. I will prepare my Alpine herbal infusion and hit the sack. I will revel in my dorveille, and awake refreshed and relaxed for a day filled with bread and butter, pickled herring, frikadeller (meat balls), and leverpostej (liver paste). I’ve even put akvavit on my shopping list.

We all know the next study is going to show that the BMI number is completely irrelevant and it is their Viking food that is keeping the Danes all going forever. I’m one step ahead of them on this.



Chickens Don’t Fart

I’m just reading my village newspaper and I’m not feeling very well. I have been shocked to find that my local Farmers’ Wives Group (Les Dames Paysannes) no longer exists. The reason given is that the population has increased, mentalities have changed, and modern people have different interests. Bah Humbug.

I had always dreamed of joining the farming ladies. Even though I’m not married to a farmer, I thought I could have somehow swung it due to my obvious love of nature and knowing the names of at least three sorts of birds that live in my garden.

I was looking forward to baking my famous lemon cake and banana bread for countryside fêtes, and tastefully wrapping Christmas presents in St Bernard dog wrapping paper for the schoolchildren.

All across Switzerland these groups of women were created towards the end of WWII, as the girls had been running the farming show while the menfolk were away defending the Swiss borders.

Instead of Rosie the Riveter, Switzerland had Heidi the Hay-Flipper. 

dames paysanneNow, of course, the new vocabulary surrounding this still-extant society has to do with sustainable agriculture, promoting countryside values, and offering local produce for sale.

All of this comes on the day that six little cows have been placed in the next-door field by the farmer from up the hill. They are cute. They are clean. They have friendly long tongues. They are also extremely smelly.  Cows in this world produce enough methane to be responsible for 14% of global warming. (This is a true fact).  Of course six little baby bulls do not constitute industrial farming and I’m sure that they only burp and fart when they really have to, but they do make a difference in the air quality at this end of the village.

Of course we should eat vegetables to save the planet as the carbon footprint of a carrot is zero, and chickens are recommended as a protein source as they do not have four stomachs all bubbling away simultaneously. They (and fish one presumes) are prone to much less anti-social gassiness than cows.

So, back to the village brochure after these agricultural ruminations, I study the photos of last year’s Hallowe’en festivities, followed closely by the Escalade party, all the monthly pot-luck brunches, and revel in the exciting news that Sunday dances are perhaps going to be organized. A small brewery has been opened, the village won second prize for its floral displays, and a week without television is being organized.

Well, let’s forget about the disbanded Farmer’s Wives Group. I’m modern. I’m progressive.  I’m moving into the future.

With a clothes pin on my nose I’m planting flowers, practising my dance moves, and not watching TV.

And when I’m finished, I’m going out to find that new brewery.



The Grandmother Warrior vs the Highway Robber

I almost didn’t make it to Japan. The Geneva countryside holds many surprises–not all of them pleasant.

If you ever are approached by a man suddenly running, then crouching, behind your car breathlessly explaining that he has seen flames shooting out the back of it, don’t believe him for a minute. He is a crook and wants to steal your car, your handbag, and your groceries. He has an evil friend hiding in the bushes. You and your car and your pork chops are all dead ducks.

However, last Saturday, I DID believe him. I grew up watching Cannonball, 12 O’Clock High, Combat! and Highway Patrol. Despite (or because of) extremely restricted TV-time I have retained much crucial information. Based on realistic action TV and Gerry movies in my formative years, I still seriously believe in spontaneously exploding cars, trucks, helicopters and airplanhelicopter explosiones.

I believe in fireballs.

When the man urged me to get back into my car and turn on the ignition while he fixed the problem of the alarming dangling wires, I point-blank refused.

When he insisted that I get some water for him to throw on the smouldering ashes of the car’s undersides, I knew that this was wrong. One needs foam, sand, perhaps a fire-blanket or a thick leather bomber jacket. Not water.

So, secure in my ancient knowledge of 1960s television I held firm. I got my purse, I locked the car, and told the near-hysterical man that I was phoning the Swiss Touring Club, and he’d better get away if he didn’t want to be melted into a red-hot puddle in the middle of the road.

Turns out, this was a well-known sting operation. Lone women pulling into countryside drives are targeted. Lone women in parking lots are targeted. A mechanical problem involving drama and confusion is created. Dangling wires are attached. If all goes well for the villain, the car key is placed in the ignition. The panic-stricken lady runs off to get some water from somewhere. A car and credit cards and a sack of groceries are lost forever.

But, girls, do not fear. Forewarned is forearmed. Snap a photo of the villain as he supposedly fiddles with your car. Lock yourself in and call the cops at 117. If he gets too close grab a finger and snap it back. Run in circles, scream and shout. Be brave. If worse comes to worse, slap him with a pork chop.

Be a red-hot grand-mother warrior.

(Con)fusion Food — Boudin (noir) and Whale Soup

I have just learned that Japanese people don’t really like to eat whale. I, personally, have always found it over-rated. The meat is fishy and chewy – exactly as one would expect.

It seems that whales were eaten as a last resort when the country was hungry after WWII, and the hunting of whales today is just a bureaucratic remnant of that trying time. For a generation of kids (of about my age), whale soup was a staple of school lunch.

Normally-constituted Japanese people today prefer beef or chicken or shrimp and there are only two whale meat sellers left in the Tokyo fish market. No one cooks whale at home; it would take months to get the deep dark smell of the sea out of the apartment.

whale-restaurantOf course, the good things you eat as a child are what you like and, thus, certain traditions are established and preserved until they die a generational death. My daughter is a pure cultural-fusion product and her food choices are totally outlandish and at first glance incomprehensible.

From the Swiss side of her family she has picked up an abiding love of boudin (noir). I used to serve this once a week in winter blood-sausage season. I, personally, ate only the boiled potatoes and apple sauce. One extremely embarrassing day, I was pulled over by the lady running the crèche as the morning’s diaper had revealed a product of the most alarming colour. I explained about it being Wednesday, and boudin day was Tuesday. I believe I was put on some sort of Crèche Culinary Watch List.

From my side of the family comes that old Canadian staple of wieners and beans on toast. This was eaten with my daughter exclusively when Swiss husband was absent – preferably out of the country and as far away as possible. Always a bit of a food snob, only Heinz beans were served and the best brand of wieners cut into perfect rounds. A little Swiss friend was brought home for lunch one day; she had never had such a wondrous meal. Departing for school she thanked me effusively for the nice soft meat.

Anyway, from where I come from whales, rabbits and horses are all left to roam around uncooked. Instead Sloppy Joes, shepherd’s pie, fish-fingers, macaroni & cheese, Yorkshire pudding, hamburgers and hotdogs and scrambled eggs with ketchup are grist for my version of the Canadian food mill. Coming originally from the north of England potatoes figure at least once a day; and the existence of Swiss rösti has contributed greatly to my perfect cultural integration and happiness.

Yes. We are what we eat—individual memories and comforting confusion. Whales included, one presumes.

The Real Twitter

Welcome to Twitter. Connect with your friends — and other fascinating people. Get in-the-moment updates on the things that interest you. And watch events unfold, in real time, from every angle.

It has finally snowed and I can feed the birds. The bird balls (seeds and suet packed into a net) and the bulk bag of bird food were purchased a month ago. The feeding houses have been hung from the apricot and the cherry trees. The old Christmas tree has been placed on the strawberry boxes. Let the banquet begin!

It has been too warm so far this winter to feed the birds. If the ground is not snow-covered or frozen you should let the birds fend for themselves. If you spoil them they become too fat to fly. As a member of the Swiss Ornithological Institute in Sempach (I buy their calendar every year) I know this to be a true scientific fact.

So, I put on my boots, found the bird balls on the kitchen windowsill, and trudged into the garden to begin the hanging of the balls. They had been waiting. No sooner had I started, than they rose up in a great twittering chorus. I don’t know if they all spoke the same language, but I clearly distinguished robin, chaffinch, sparrow, and goldfinch. On the ground the resident blackbird couple was silently, sulkily, looking for worms in the snow.

st francisbirds

St Francis preaching to the birds, Giotto, 1297

They flew in from all directions. My bird-balls had gone viral; they got millions of hits. Even the woodpecker on the walnut tree stopped bashing his head against the bark to see what was up.

Now, I’m not particularly sentimental about birds. I like to see them out and about: turquoise kingfishers flitting over the Rhone River and cormorants drying their wings in the weak winter sun; jays squawking from the trees; and I’ll even tolerate a redstart building her nest in the tool shed. But on a snowy morning to be greeted by a whole inter-racial bird crowd and thanked for a bird-ball feast I found to be most moving.

I now understand Saint Francis of Assisi preaching to the birds and Dr Doolittle talking to the animals. They must have had bird balls in their pockets.

The Ex-Xmas Tree

Everyone knows about Christmas left-overs. With the turkey, you make sandwiches, stews, and a final swan-song turkey-noodle soup. The rest gets given to the cat until not even he will touch it any more. The carcass is unsentimentally thrown out with the garbage.  Leftover champagne, on the other hand, becomes a delightfully refreshing breakfast beverage.

However, left-over Christmas trees are a different story. They have had a moment of true glory and domestic beauty. They have been bought, created, and imbued with those most powerful of emotions: delight, nostalgia, and wonder. They have become your friend.

When I first came to Switzerland, my Swiss-German mother-in-law had real candles and wicked sparklers on her Christmas tree. I was terrified, and in pitying tones was assured that the tree was so fresh that not even a blow torch could catch it alight.

burned treeThis was seriously confusing, as in Canada the tree is brought into the house any time after the first of November. There used to be coloured light bulbs that got hot enough to singe the branches. By Christmas Day, the thing was well on its way to being a piece of naked tinder with a few forlorn candy canes and bits of tinsel. There were needles everywhere.

Not wanting to be thought of as wimpy Canadian, I, too, took up this Swiss naked-flame tradition, and it was found so charming and delightful by English friends that they did manage to burn out their London living-room. After this event, I slowly and craftily changed to electrical lights and the big Christmas tree water bucket (a tasteful green) became redundant.

There are no community January Christmas tree-burning ceremonies here, instead the individual trees are dragged in the direction of the compost bin. They can be seen littering the sidewalks and poking out of garbage chutes. They have angel hair and golden ties from the chocolate ornaments that used to be on them. In this post-Christmas world it is a depressing and sorry sight.

Not in this house. We don’t abandon old dead things so easily. Dec 31st finds our Christmas tree stripped of its chintzy ornaments and gutless electrical lights and sporting real burning candles out in the garden. If it survives that, it is hung with bird balls and becomes a huge bird-feeder. The birds, the turkey-stuffed cat and our grand-daughter find this most interesting.

Eventually. Christmas magic melts away, and the tree becomes part of the springtime garden clean-up. The tree has been a virgin, a bride, an acrobat, a servant and finally a corpse. Spring comes and the dead tree goes. The circle is complete.