The 2,363 Kilometre Road Trip

The elephant family looked like walking boulders: grey, round, and almost still as they slowly made their way to the Dolomite Point water-hole. There had been no rain in Etosha Park for more than 150 days. This is not climate change; this is normal Namibia.

In our cabin on the rocky outcrop, we strung our freshly washed underpants on a string across the doorway. They flapped a bit and were instantly dry. The red-dust spools of sand wind hoses blew into the room and the elephant group stopped as the little one needed a nap. In the middle of the flat leafless plane mom stood firm, her shadow her baby’s tent.

The teenage elephant was bored and chewed on some dried twigs. If she had had a comic book, she would have been reading it. The kid elephant looked like he wanted to lie down too—sibling rivalry flapped its ears. And the huge matriarch stood apart, keeping her eye out for trouble brewing on the horizon. Our small group of five, made infinitesimal water-hole progress.

We chased the resident mouse out of room #18 and inspected nibbled bags of nuts and raisins, ripped-apart tissues and shredded shirt collars. Sadder but wiser, with all suitcases firmly closed, we hiked to the observation point through the white-hot late afternoon sun. The friendly python was nowhere to be seen.

The giraffes and springboks skittered off as the elephant group approached. The baby had to be pushed into his new medium, water, as mom hosed him down and gave him some drinking lessons. He was just starting to get his aim straight when grandma signalled that time was up and the family backed out of the water-hole–all except for the little one who wanted to stay. Mom gave him the old heave-ho with her massive forehead.

As the sun set, our elephant family started its long hot amble back into the bushes for the night to get a couple of hours sleep.

This is my favourite memory. Of course there were other encounters with rhinos (one fell in love with our little white car), giraffes and their calves standing tall and chewing on trees, wart hogs kneeling at the roadsides, impalas frozen in the middle of the sandy path, hippos hogging the water hole, and even a honey badger who was on an important mission so did not have time to stop and spray us.

In the park, it is the humans who are in the cages. You are warned never to get out of your car. You must not walk about outside at night. At a (rare) toilet stop on the park road you have to enter through a locked wire fence and close the gate after you. Once inside, a huge grey rock just by the entrance turned into a lone bull elephant who stood still as a statue for a time before wandering off.

There was no water in the toilets or taps. The sinks were full of sand.

 

 

 

 

I Never Thought I’d Sink so Low

It must be the canicule–either that, or all the fuss surrounding the anniversary of the moon landing–but I find myself regressing.

Home alone for almost a week with no one around to criticize my eating preferences (most of which have been squashed either by Swiss family pressure or new international health-food regulations) my brain has melted and I have been hit by a wave of nostalgia—back to those hot Canadian summers of my youth where we made pancakes down by the river, had liquorice twists for dessert and smoked dried burdock stems.

It started in my local supermarket the other day when I spotted a package of passion-fruit jelly powder. As it was in the section with the sophisticated mousse au chocolate and the panna cotta, I figured it must be superior. The result was a pleasant pink colour but the flavour was a mixture of compost and rotting carrot. After eating one bowl, I sadly melted the rest down the sink and had to add a splash of javex to clear the air.

In my kitchen cupboard I have popcorn, marshmallows, cheezy doodles, and peanut butter. In the fridge there are hot dogs and processed cheese slices. Reasonable donuts, bagels and acceptable corn on the cob are to be had just a short drive away. However, it’s what I do not have that is eating me up. And what I need is hot dog relish.

Now, I have known short rations in my time. In Canada there were week-long Algonquin Park canoe adventures where we survived on space food. The northern Ontario lakes had turned acid and there were no fish to be fished. The dehydrated scrambled eggs I still recall with a shudder. Just like the astronauts, we drank Tang using the leaf-tasting lake water.

I am not a complete wimp. In Japan I have eaten miniature jellyfish that have been placed on sizzling hot rocks. They are ready when their internal organs explode. In Turkey I have chosen a sheep head from dozens on display on towering shelves. I think I passed out before I ate the eyeballs. In Korea I have eaten fermented cabbage that tasted like sewage.

To complement a good wiener mustard, ketchup, and relish are all essential. For decades I have lived without the third ingredient, but have missed it with each and every hot dog.

Today, in desperation, I looked up relish recipes and much work is required—chopping vegetables, marinating, macerating, cooking, canning, and waiting.  You cannot make one jar. You must make about five gallons.

As the obsession reached a peak this afternoon (along with the temperature) I found a couple of American food stores in the area. They have relish. They deliver.

Just knowing it is there helps. As the evening cools, the urge is fading. I sure hope it doesn’t get any hotter tomorrow; I will have to put in an order.

 

 

 

Drinking Smoothies with Leonardo

We do not really have smoothies here in the Geneva countryside. We have yogurt and we have compost bins. We have juice extractors, lemon presses, and blenders. We also have neat and efficient Nespresso coffee machines and George Clooney’s face on airport walls. What else could we possibly need?

Suddenly, though, the smoothie bullet machine has become ubiquitous. In the January post-foie-gras struggle to regain levity and youth, the stores are heaped high with these never-before-seen, health-war, bomb-shaped machines. The clear plastic globe carries the charge and is shown stuffed with a mixture of fresh fruit and vegetables—plump, perfect, and pristine—all ready to be whizzed into your daily dose of wellbeing.

You add exotics such as barberries, Goji berries, chia seeds, wheat germ, hemp, linen, almonds, dates and cranberries. To smooth it out, you add an avocado and/or a banana. Apparently, removing the peel is optional.

The cutting/slicing/dangerous blades tear up the outer structures of the seeds and nuts and release their essential nutrients that would otherwise just slide right through you. You are warned not to include avocado or apricot stones to your mixture. You are rejuvenated as you suck down the pap.

You no longer need teeth.

As our cuisine dissolves, so do our minds. In my village in the Geneva countryside, there is no cable TV.  Until recently, we relied on an antenna on the roof and a receiver dish, wobbling in the wind, strapped to the chimney, pointing toward a possible satellite. However, a recent automatic upgrade on our telephone system means that Netflix has raised its head of seductive nothingness.

Inside this smooth advertisement-free world, you suck down mindless made-for-TV-series of brilliant non-qualified lawyers, zombies, fictionalized royal history, movie-star sex-criminals who suddenly disappear, and future princesses. We sit under quilts and approach death at an alarming rate.

You no longer need thought.

To counter this mushy decadence and inspired by a recent Venice visit to a cold church filled with Leonardo’s incomprehensible machines, I have blown off the dust and taken up volume one (out of three) of The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. This attempt to claw myself back into the world of gravitas has definitely not worked as the 500-year old observations are startlingly relevant and depressing as he worries about overpopulation, pandemics, climate disasters, political wandering wits, and the importance of truth.

Seriously stuck in the slough of despond, I have not moved past page 102 and the tome is now being used as a pillow for the Chi energy machine which is gathering dust under the couch.

I like to think that if Leonardo were around today, he would be busy building a rocket to Mars to save mankind. But, perhaps, he would have given up like the rest of us, and wearing a pair of pink pyjamas, be cuddled up to his boyfriend, mindlessly sucking on a millet and strawberry smoothie while watching Da Vinci’s Demons.

 

 

 

 

A Fire and Fury Weekend

Well, it wasn’t really my fault that I read the book. It was just an experiment.

My Kindle is my very favourite object. It is literally the only gadget that I have ever truly coveted and ordered for myself. A colleague, stuck in hospital for a spell, actually let me hold hers and “turn” the pages some years back and I was captivated.

So the day before yesterday, I just had a peek to see if I could buy the famous sold-out book by the journalist, Michael Wolff. It was available, so I made a snap intellectual decision to read it as quickly as possible before it could be withdrawn and disappear into the ether (this has happened to me before.)

I am ordinarily not a chaser of ambulances and dislike political exposés, but this one struck me as important considering the size-of-the-button situation. A child growing up in Canada during the Cuban Missile Crisis, having nightmares about having to hide in the village culvert not to be blown up, I am oddly scared to death of nuclear bombs.

Anyway, I now possess the complete mental low-down on the White House (and I am not talking about the Shell garage up the hill.)  I know everything about D.C.

To those of us who have been following, unbelieving and mesmerized, the goings on of the American political scene over the past year, there is little that is startling or new. So, if you are not a committed reader, you would die of boredom quite soon. The names of the ex-staffers and presidential “friends” just go on and on.

There is very little juicy material (except a couple of cheeseburgers) to get your teeth into. As a teacher, I was saddened to learn that Donald does not know how to read which is why he has three tv screens in his (separate) bedroom.

Another interesting snippet is that Donald is frightened of being poisoned, and so, like a Roman emperor, has a cheeseburger taster—or, preferentially, orders take-out from McDonalds.

Then there’s the fact that for Donald, the White House is a definite accommodation downgrade. His luxury triplex in Trump Towers in New York, makes the Washington presidential mansion seem like a shack in the woods. The perks of bowling alley, cinema, and plane are not interesting or overwhelming (as they would be almost any other person) as he already has any of this stuff he wants.

But what really caught my fancy is that even his height is fake. He has added inches to himself to squeeze in beneath the “obese” scale of the BMI. He claims to be something like 8 feet tall.

Of course, all the routine stuff about the FBI, the Russians, young women, the concept of Trumpism, the definition of an idiot, the Kushners, Bannon, the generals, money laundering, fluffs out the story and gives it a bit of a political slant.

On second thought, perhaps it’s a good thing that Donald can’t read.

 

 

 

 

Useful and Uplifting Tips for the Holiday Season

If you are not extremely careful, these grey, cloudy, short Geneva days can chip away at even the chirpiest of Christmas spirts. So, once your tree is up, your presents wrapped, your cards and parcels sent, the fridge stuffed to exploding with food and drink here are some extra mood-enhancing activities to consider.

  • When invited out to group luncheon events, always remember to choose from the more expensive end of the menu. In the final tally and division, no one is going to remember that you had the green salad and the single Malakoff (deep fried cheese ball) with tap water while everyone else ate suprème de pintade fumée avec foie gras, the risotto aux langoustines, had cheese AND dessert, and drank several bottles of a cracking ‘89 Chassagne Montrachet.
  • If you’re feeling any domestic culinary pressure (either real or imagined) bake a batch or two of the easiest of all festive cookies – the coconut macaroon. Whipped egg white, sugar and desiccated coconut decorated with a perky candied cherry fulfils the cookie-imperative nicely. They are fat-free, cholesterol-free, and might even be vegan and gluten-free depending on where the egg whites have come from. Store them in sealed tins and smugly serve when appropriate.
  • Congratulate yourself for not having been a control-freak fall-tidy-up gardener and consider the brown, straggly, and wizened plants outside your windows. After careful study, you will notice that small friendly birds are picking at their miniscule seeds. Normal-sized seeds from the commercial suet-and-seed bird balls would undoubtedly choke these little golf-ball-sized-birds to death. Consider yourself as a St. Francis /Mother Theresa hybrid.
  • Before the big day (evening of the 24th/Swiss, morning of the 25th/ Canadian) vacuum under the couch. You will find several nasty things, but also lost objects that can be turned into thoughtful Christmas gifts. Why, just this morning I have found a brand new blue toy pick-up truck unknowingly lost since last Christmas, and a watch that I have been looking for for years.
  • Try to drag yourself away from your various entertainment and information screens at least once. Go to a book shop and browse the shelves. Take along an elusive title and feel thrilled if you find it, and justified in your Kindle Life if you don’t.
  • Examine and reorganize your mouse-catching activities. For example, oil your mouse-traps and renew your jar of peanut butter. I see that the jar that I have been (unsuccessfully) using has a best-before date of 2009 which might account for the rather rancid smell that is obviously NOT attracting either the mouse in the kitchen or its new colleague in the basement. Have a serious talk with the cat.

When all of the above fail to deliver, then it is time to either head for the hills, the snow and the sunshine. Or, close the drapes and settle down with the macaroon tin and a new Netflix series.

In any case, Merry Christmas one and all.

Boutique Hotels — the Inside Scoop

Tour groups make me sick. There you are, finally arrived at your hotel, sitting quietly contemplating your murky welcome drink and recovering from one malady or another, when a remarkably-healthy loudly-shouting gang suddenly shows up and takes over the whole joint. Elevator, swimming pool, corridors and restaurant are suddenly rocking with the tour.

I recall a noisy and gaseous time in Morocco when a covey of grey-haired Frenchmen wearing ascots roared in with old cars with numbers on their sides. Then there was the loud bunch on New Year’s Eve in Aswan that called the waiter over and told him to go to the kitchen tell the cook that the food wasn’t good.

And just recently, in Burma/Myanmar not only were there countless tour groups about, but even the Pope was there running with a gang.

In an attempt to avoid these heaving organic masses, a smaller more discreet hotel can be the answer for the discriminating traveller: the boutique hotel.

Boutique hotels have very few, very expensive, rooms. They revel in mindfulness and existential peace. Their philosophy is that less is better.

For example, there is no TV in a true boutique hotel room: one is not to be shaken by political events or stirred by strenuous movies. There is not even a TV in the lobby, as there is no lobby—just a few atmospheric candles.

There is no mini-bar or fridge in a boutique hotel. Clanking motors are anathema to essential peace and inner tranquillity and chosing a beverage can be a strenuous effort. Extremes are erased. Your complimentary bottle of drinking water is served at room-temperature.

Lighting is very discreet. In fact, it is a bit like being back in the womb, so you will not be disturbed by brightness or glare. You walk into walls, doors and bed rims. You will not, though, walk into cupboards, shelves, drawers or pictures as there are none.

Bathrooms are at the heart of a boutique hotel experience. There is a massive rain head shower and green plants growing all around. Toilet paper is to be found hidden in a lidded hand-woven basket. Oils and creams are displayed in hand-thrown clay pots. There are no towels as they have been origamied into swans and are reposing on the bed. Soap is handmade and wrapped in newspaper and tied with a piece of hemp. There are flower petals on top and a smooth stone underneath. The bath-mat is folded into a peace sign.

The mosquito net above the bed is artfully arranged into a sort of lotus shape high in the middle of the cathedral-ceilinged room. You are told not to touch it. There is a spare room without a roof, but containing two wooden chairs. A back-to-nature room, perhaps.

Breakfast is unabashedly vegan. The closest thing to a bit of bacon is a blueberry. You are served calmly and serenely. In the smooth quiet, no one has to tell the cook that it isn’t good.

 

The Taxi Driver Blues

Well, I guess that just about everybody hates taxi drivers and as the ones in Geneva are the most expensive in the whole world, they are, perhaps, the most hated.

I must admit that you do occasionally meet some interesting cases on the 20-minute/85-franc ride from the airport to my village in the Geneva countryside.

There was the old cabby (they are often retired folk) who slowed to a crawl and started banging on his steering wheel as he told me the story of his wife being hospitalized due to the leeching poisonous blue dye in her China-made new navy pantaloons. (They can be very racist.) And then there was the one, who, hearing my accent, told me about his previous career of picking apples in Québec. (He drove a very old rattling car with no inside door or window handles.) And then there was the eastern European lady who refused my tip and helped with my cases as she said she had already robbed me of enough money. (She was my very favourite.)

Geneva taxi drivers are straightforward highway robbers, and lack the variety and spice of their international brotherhood. In Japan my driver laughed at me when I offered a tip and shoed it away with his white-gloved hand. In Russia you have to know to pre-tip the driver (US dollars work a dream) unless you want to be kidnapped to deepest darkest Siberia. In central China, we communicated via the driver’s phone app. In Korea (where taxis are very very cheap) you must know not to leave the cab when the driver gets irritated and wants to be rid of you because he cannot find your destination. Obviously, there we couldn’t communicate at all.

However, I am discovering that the Geneva Uber drivers are a different breed. They are much more interested in speed limits, hidden cameras, not wasting time, and fast electric cars. They have out-of-state plates and have the whiff of the bandit about them. They drop you off at the Kiss and Fly stand at the airport and pick you up at the diplomatic compound. They are swift, shady, and a more than a bit sly.

They follow giant GPS screens mounted on their dashboards and speak little. They are young and possibly don’t have wife, never mind pantaloon, problems. They are half-price.

They, of course, go against all I hold dear—proper pay, pension plans, paid holidays, etc. Plus, they are in strict opposition to the family motto “Pay More, Get Less!”

Our last Uber ride was a friendly go-getter of North African origin. I slipped him a tip. He slipped me his personal card, kissed my cheek, and reflected that we might have a profitable off-grid taxi relationship in the future.

Roll over, Ayn Rand, and forget heartless capitalism. Ali (not his real name) and I are friends and neighbours now. He’ll drive me anywhere for Uber prices. All I have to do is pay him in cash.

 

 

 

 

 

Rage Over a Lost Franc

Well, there I was—happily home from a place where supermarkets have not yet been invented—and I was buying one of everything.

My shopping bags were filled with delicious Swiss specialities that I had been missing—soft squishy buns, cervelas, tubes of Cenovis, mustard and mayonnaise. There were delicious fera rissoles, just-ripe avocados, and fresh herbs sprouting perkily from little pots.

I had my store card and my scanner and merrily fought (and won) a mental culinary battle back to the normality of self-selective eating.

There were no smoked pig lungs, no canned crickets, no sheep heads, no 100-year-old eggs. It was glorious.

My bags full of inventive, delicious, unrelated items – I was too freshly home to think in terms of actual meals – I was humming to myself and inserting my card into the check-out machine when an orange-bloused lady hauled me off for a “random check”.

Food reveries turned to mental compost. Guilt and fear bloomed like the blue on the Roquefort cheese chunk. Had I remembered to scan that bottle of truffle oil? Or that huge bag of dried morels?

Anxiety and blood-pressure mounted as the two employees chatted happily and rescanned my now-dangerous almost-possessions. Was I about to become one of those poor innocent people forever banned from Swiss supermarkets?

No. I passed with flying colours (I had scanned the oil bottle twice), and strode haughtily off with my treasures and retail freedom righteously intact.

That was when I discovered that I had the wrong caddy. The franc deposit was no longer in the slot. They had pulled the old bait-and-switch.

Back up to the check-out arena, I found the employee suspects and explained the loss of my franc-primed trolley.  They didn’t have it, and told me calmly (condescendingly?) what had happened: I had been robbed by “gypsies”.  (In the Vallée du Giffre we call them “Bohemians” which seems much more dashing.)

Apparently, at crowded times they come to the supermarkets and, being gypsies, are attracted by gold. Well, silver in this case. And while a  person is pondering (possibly with eyes closed) whether to choose the lemon or strawberry tarts they place your bags of scanned, packed groceries into a moneyless trolley and make a speedy get-away with the cash.

I don’t know if any forensic connection has been made between the theft of my franc and the Big Maple Leaf coin robbery, but they bear curious similarities. The Berlin robbers took the 100-kg pure gold Canadian coin (53 cm diameter and 3 cm thick and worth about $4,000,000) from a museum showcase last month. They used a sledgehammer, then put the coin into a wheelbarrow to make their get-away.

This is obviously a serial-robbery situation. A copy-cat crime is also a possibility. In any case, the point of the matter is, you cannot lend anything to anybody. You take your eyes off it for one second and it’s gone.

 

How the Drone Killed the Postcard

Down in the bomb shelter there is a rusty tin biscuit box that is full of postcards. They were collected and saved when I was a child living in small Ontario villages. They were sent from around the world – well, mainly from holiday corners of Britain and “The Continent.” Every move I’ve made, that tin box has moved with me.

Our own parson-poor holidays were always taken for four weeks in the searing summer heat. They were mile-full rides across the country from coast to coast. Cloth diapers were jammed into the little triangular side windows to dry in the car-speed. We camped in a huge and heavy canvas tent. There was porridge for breakfast and our wine was grape kool-aid.

We did, though, send postcards.

Still today, I occasionally buy old postcards at the Geneva flea-market and unravel the spidery handwriting with pleasure: formal invitations, formal thank-yous, formal salutations. They are little pastel-coloured hands waving from the past.

Suddenly, though, postcard quests are not being met with success.

In Tranquebar, the cards were so cracked, curled and dirty that not even the mercurial manager could take rupees for them and gave me a few for free.

In Ubud, the former postcard capital of the world, postcards had to be mined like precious gems at twee stationery shops.

In Xi’an, at the main airport post-office, there was a selection of cards featuring hybrids of fat babies and Micky Mouse. Not a terracotta warrior or plump horse in sight.

At Wat Pho, the postcard racks were empty. And here on the Andaman Sea, the hotel offers postcard views of itself. Here we step into serious postcard total-loser territory.

Where are the great images – the sunrises, silhouettes on a crescent moon-lit beach, the branches of fuchsia bougainvillea draping impossibly over a wine-dark sea? All those exciting things that we never see with our own amateur eyes?

The clientele here at this eco-lodge are a new breed of adventurers; they possibly have never licked a stamp. They are all tattooed to prove their individuality. They spend their time thumbing their little screens. They sport pairs of outsized non-jiggly breasts with heads and skinny legs attached. They do not sketch, paint, or write. Very few read.

Yesterday, a cool American dude blew in with his chick and his drone. Inside the veranda filled with real people on lounge chairs he ordered a double gin and tonic and launched his millennial man-toy.

Not wanting my eyes poked out, I was gathering up my affairs to leave as I watched the girl lower herself into the infinity pool and gaze through bug-eyed sunglasses over the sea as the drone circled her, filming her, before returning to its master.

The postcard is definitely out, but once drones completely take over the world I do hope they do not take pictures of themselves, but nostalgically reinvent the paper postcard, take lovely and unusual pictures, and send them to each other. By drone, of course.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The One-Star Restaurant Operatic Extravaganza

I’ve only been to three Michelin-starred restaurants in my life, and I didn’t pay for any of them.

The first one was in the south of France some 40 years ago. After having eaten one of everything, we placed the (possibly already full) credit card in a tastefully hollowed-out ancient book. To this day, the amount has never apeared on our credit card statement. The second one doesn’t really count, as I had booked the wrong restaurant and I don’t want to talk about it. And then there was last night in Geneva.

It was a gift, and in many ways it truly was. I saw and encountered several things that were entirely without precedent. It was sort of Cirque de Soleil on the table cloth.

The lights were dim, the pillows were plumped, the Christmas wooden soldier theme tastefully arranged and the spectacle was about to begin.

restaurant-dining-restaurant-bayview-by-michel-roth-hotel-president-wilson-a-luxury-collection-hotel-geneva-2We popped in the chou pastry tickle-your-mouths. We delved under the foam of the oceanic pre-starter to find fishy bits and chestnuts. I think.

The butter girl passed with three different flavours (regular, vanilla, and pepper) and then my main starter arrived. It was an artfully-created miniature village built with bits of fig on a round slice of foie gras. In the middle there was a fig-jam pond. The little houses had real golden roofs. There was a wall of paper-thin pink wafer that stood up, ineffectually protecting the little hamlet from the wicked fork and knife that were about to descend.

The nice young man came to brush up the crumbs from my freshly-baked brioche, and then the second starter arrived. It featured porcini mushrooms in all their possible forms. There are, perhaps, reasons why Mövenpick does not produce industrial mushroom ice-cream.

Before the main course the knife girl came around with a set of six knives. You had to choose your handle colour. I chose shocking pink to delicately cut my venison. But the real treat was the chef’s speciality—a hallucination-in-a-glass called cappuccino. It was a mixture of potatoes and white truffles with black truffle crumbs sprinkled on top.

The nice young man gently prised the empty cup out of my fist and promised more…

The first dessert (called “a moment of sweetness”) was rather a shock, as there was a slice of raw fruit involved. This was more than made up for, however, by the decomposed miniature lemon tarts. And the main dessert was a magnificent jellied puddle of orange tastefully holding together a slice of apple on a biscuit.

After the chocolates and the fruit jellies, we finally ended the evening back at home watching the Japanese sumo championships on TV—which seemed especially fascinating and relevant after having eaten an entire village on my plate.

The gargantuan worlds of ritual and magic are now behind us and we have landed softly back into our Geneva-countryside world of bread and jam, baked squash, and grilled cheese sandwiches.

I have, though, put gold foil on my shopping list.