The Nec Plus Ultra Perpetual Tourist

Rob[1] puts me to shame as a tourist. Yesterday, deep in the Vallée du Giffre, over an English 4 o’clock high tea with cucumber sandwiches and scones and strawberry jam provided by his in-laws, he was preparing to start a run.

Not just any old run: a huge mammoth, 127-kilometer mountain trail run with a denivelation of 9,000 metres. He was hoping to do it in 24 hours, but 30 was a more realistic estimate, he thought. Departure time was at 7 pm. He was not eating, but did drink a little coffee.

Rob has bicycled around the world, has walked from the North Sea to the Mediterranean, and taken part in Iron Man competitions. An Iron Man Meeting (a triathlon of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.22-mile run) is to him what strolling to the corner store is for the rest of us. In his spare time he is a dentist and lives on the Fells in the Lake District, North England. He is without age.

He was wearing a shiny electric blue t-shirt and his number was 87 (out of 1,500).  His head was shaved and his legs were furry. We questioned whether he wouldn’t go faster with bald legs. He assured us that he had been wind-tunnel tested and there was no difference. The legs, along with the slight pot-belly, he said, were simply props to fool the competition into a false sense of security.

Rob LOVES races and ALWAYS wants to win. He looks upon having a urine test at the end (winners only) to be a glorious status symbol.

But back to the high tea. As we creamed our scones, he went through the events that had brought him to this point. He had paid the 140 euro entrance fee, plus an extra accident rescue fee plus a tracking fee. His pack was equipped with dry/clean underwear, band aids, horse tape (?), blister treatment, a water sac, and lots of other things. When closely questioned, it turned out he wasn’t taking a toothbrush. We inquired about pyjamas, but he was not planning to sleep

I took another cucumber sandwich.

And it gets even better. As his EasyJet flight had been cancelled in Manchester because of violent thunder storms, Rob had visited the Lowry Museum, the Gothic Victorian Library, and was in town for the return of the winning local football team. So he was a tourist while on his voyage to being a super-tourist.

The Manchester Airport Hotel where he had been put up for the night, had no transportation to the airport. So he walked to his plane.

As I write this, he is running, and will run for the rest of the day and into the night. We suggested that he finish the race by running up to the Shack and helping to scythe the high summer grass.

Strangely, he demurred.



[1] This is his real name

The Switzerland of Central America

Well, it is certainly expensive enough here in Costa Rica. An avocado costs twice as much as in Geneva. And like its Swiss cousin it is always half rotten when you cut it in half.

There are hot springs up around the Arenal volcano. Watery pools of steaming brown nutritious liquid. Much like Loeche-les-Bains or Yverdon, you sit up to your neck in the warm wet and look through the steam at the misty mountains. The air is cold at 1500m, but here broad-leaved vegetation blots out the grey scuttling sky. The occasional agouti, a sleek rodent with jacked-up back legs, rushes away when it sees that its own private pool is already occupied.

There are no trains here, so communal travel between towns—and even between hotels—is by little white shuttle buses. Within a system of mind-numbing complexity, they pick you up, transfer you, give you free delicious coffee at rest stops and drop you off. You are like a lunch-time tiffin box in the streets of Mumbai. Your shuttle driver is the dabbawala and gets you safely to your destination. Your fellow tiffin cans have usually been picked up before you, and so you find yourself in the worst possible tiffin position and arrive cramped, bent, and shaken.

There is also much animal spotting to be done. Unlike the rarefied Swiss high mountain eyries of the aigle royal, chamois or marmot, here we have the toucan, the sloth and the Capuchin monkey. Instead of the village rooster, the howler monkey greets the dawn as the first exhaustless motorcycle roars past.

You stumble across smaller things when you least expect it. A lizard blowing its throat into a yellow bubble-gum balloon, or a turquoise and black poison dart frog, or an orange iguana proudly showing off its colours in a tree.

There are expensive restaurants too! Not the utterly magnificent snobby-as-hell Swiss sort with the fancy internationally renowned chef, the handful of stars, white tablecloths, amuse-gueules  and pre-desserts; but a class up from the Costa Rican “soda” (the family-run joint with mom sweating it out in the kitchen with her empanadas and her pot full of beans and rice).

You have the noble pizzeria.

These attract the more moneyed customer. They drive up in their sparking monster pick-up trucks with oversized, jet-black, deeply-treaded tires. The man descends first: fortyish, iPhone in hand, brilliant blue wife-beater tucked into stretchy black shorts with racer stripes, flip-flops. The woman follows: thirtyish, iPhone in hand, golden chinking bracelets, see-through high heeled shoes, and a dress made of yellow ribbons. She, too, is fat, but mesmerized as you are by the intricacy of the golden bands, the rolls of flesh fascinate rather than revolt.

They sit at the wobbly wooden table and, without saying a word, cutlery, soft drinks and pizzas appear. The man puts his phone on loudspeaker and has animated Spanish conversations about deliveries and times. The woman sips her coke and looks at her screen. The uneaten cold pizzas are boxed up and taken with them into the now-dark early evening.

No money has changed hands.





Clothing Problems … Again

Well, it is summertime, and like many good Genevans, we find ourselves up in the mountains. We sit at altitude, smugly comment on the cool refreshing air, admire the view, and invite friends and relatives to come and share the good times. Some do. They help with small construction projects, eat fondue, fake injury (to get a ride up on the quad) and when they ask about the washing machine I show them the old Wyoming washboard and the zinc tub.

Our last guests came to help cut the grass in the lower meadow, but had to leave to attend a German Black Forest festival where they dress in elaborate traditional costume and parade through the village with a group of identically clad people.  And so here at the Shack where the clothes are decades old, often mended, but still holding up quite well, I ask myself why anyone would ever do such a thing.

If there is a costume here in the Vallée du Giffre, it would be the old agricultural workers’ blue jacket and loose pants than can be worn over top more normal clothing. A black beret formed into a cap to shield the eyes is optional.

Maybe it’s because I come from Canada that I dislike and distrust uniforms—except for hockey uniforms, of course.  The police (always on the prowl for lawless picnickers), the Mounties (just plain silly), Hell’s Angels (that came and tore apart our village on Hallowe’en every year), the church choir (the green-black gowns never washed and smelling of musty mildew): All of it repels.

We Old World immigrants came to North America in the 50s and tried to drop our old differences, our old arguments, our old customs, our old clothes and to get on with being part of a newer, bigger idea. We adopted a more general uniform of sneakers, jeans, baseball caps and t-shirts. We all wanted to be just like everyone else.

Of course, cracking out of my rural cocoon into the big city in the late 60s, clothing anomalies immediately appeared: the hippies trying to be outlandish, the Jewish boys—a row of yarmulkes—all sitting in the front row of the university lecture hall, the Sikhs wearing their turbans on the Toronto streetcars.  I found it fascinating and frightening in its unfamiliarity.

Returning to Europe in the 70s the clothing situation here on the French-Swiss border was overtly political with the question of the burka, the headscarf and the burkini all making trouble—these items being (unpleasant) symbols of perceived religious oppression and civil non-conformity. More than four decades later that particular clothing controversy is still alive and well.

The solution is elusive, but I do recall a sight that made me gasp with pleasure. It was a few years back at Eid al-Adha and Muslims in a nearby French town were celebrating the end of Ramadan. Walking through an ugly concrete urban landscape was a band of people wearing sparkling white robes, glittering pink and purple dresses and shimmering scarves blowing loose in the wind.

They were proud and happy, and I wanted to be just like them.






Upon Reopening the Construction Site Across the Road

It has been a peaceful month.

The army no longer drives past in convoy to its shooting practice in the bird sanctuary down by the Laire River. Wild flowers are growing on the bullet-riddled dirt mound backstops.

Airplanes no longer fill the approach path to the airport, instead birds fly the sky – the swallows and hawks; and gather in the garden – the sparrows and the redstarts. The cat sleeps with his paws over his ears.

The morning and evening commuters from France have been stopped in their careening work-late and home-eager tracks, as huge concrete blocks have been placed to reinforce the border barrier. Someone has stolen the Swiss federal government Keep Out! sign.

There have been no car horns or roars of rage. No near-misses on the way to the recycling bins over the road.

The grandchildren stay at home, and grandparent duties and pleasures have all been suspended. Pictures of growth and haircuts fill us with longing and wonder.

There have been many glorious walks, observing the new-born spring flowers sprouting cheek by jowl with empty energy drink tins and toilet paper mounds. Little nearly-dry rivers have been turned into Riviera-style bathing spas on hot days, with children and parents and parasols and water wings. There was one extremely exciting spotting of a well-tanned roly-poly fat man sporting nothing but a small sunhat. He was politely giving directions to a hiker lady with a map.

The garden has received extreme attention. Instead of the annual Swiss-imperative geraniums, wild flower seeds have been planted and have popped up hopefully into the clean and quiet air. Mother Nature has been relegated to a couple of nettle-filled, goldenrod-infested spots. Henrietta, the hedgehog, has not been seen so far. Perhaps she is sleeping in this year.

The village shop lets in only four hand-sanitized customers at a time, so you feel safe and comfortable as you eagerly search for what’s new in stock. They also bake bread and, amazingly, have maple syrup, peanut butter, and cranberry sauce. Meat comes and goes and the ice cream shelf is almost empty; but this morning a shipment of fresh asparagus had arrived from Italy.

You walk home with your basket full and feel as satisfied as a hunter coming home with a wild boar over your shoulders.

But a huge crack has just appeared in our noiseless new normal.

For the past few weeks, the construction site over the road (another apartment building in the Swiss countryside) has been shut down and the giant yellow crane has become our personal weather vane swinging silently and freely in the wind.

This morning’s racket began with the once-familiar roar of dump-truck emptying a load of gravel. Then there were more. Cement mixers have arrived on the scene. There was a scuffle at the bedroom window to get a glimpse of the action starting back up.

The crane now swings with purpose and precision as the crane man is back at work.


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.