The World’s Belly-Button

This morning, it seems, Switzerland is at the very centre of things. BBC World Service radio news has featured three Swiss stories: the triumphal inauguration of the Gothard base tunnel (two tubes of 57 km—longest, deepest and best in the world), the lady who walked 900 kilometres to Geneva collecting peace-in-Syria messages, and the Swiss-German village that has voted to pay rather than take in nine refugees.

The tunnel success story I regard as my own personal triumph. My federal taxes over the past 17 years have paid for the technology, the machines, the workers, and even the ribbon-cutting politicians.

gothardSo, Europe, you’re welcome! May you put your Gouda cheese on the train in Rotterdam, and send it straight as a non-polluting arrow down to Genoa. There may it be unloaded, and replaced with Parmesan cheese to be sent right back to Holland. This is the Europe that we have come to know and love.

The second story was about a lady called Katherine Davies who has just completed a walk from London to Geneva to tell diplomats at the UN to stop the war in Syria.  To help her in this quest, she has collected messages—both real and electronic—from people she has met along the way to tell the diplomats to stop the war in Syria. She feels that if enough people do this, then the diplomats will stop the war in Syria. She was interviewed, and she feels very optimistic.

I wish her the very best of luck.

So far, so good. However, every belly-button, no matter how well-kept, has a bit of lint at the bottom. And so it was with story number three.

This concerns an unpleasant situation in a small pleasant village called Oberwil-Lieli which is near Zurich.  The unfortunate set of circumstances includes: a right-wing mayor, a homogeneous population (only 10% foreigners), wealth (10% of the inhabitants are millionaires), and a crime-free population of 2,200 people.

Last year the mayor refused to take in a handful of refugees (“Le Village Suisse qui Choque l’Europe”le Matin 25.09.2015) and a recent village vote has given the no-refugee crowd a very small majority.

The BBC interviewed a reasonable-sounding young woman from the village, and she explained that it was the “old people” who were responsible for the “bad vote” as they didn’t want crime, rape, bedlam, or having non-German speakers about. Taxpayers and individuals are ready to cough up the 290,000 Swiss franc fine instead.

So, Katherine, you’ve come to the right place.  I don’t think you should stop in Geneva (we have lots of refugees and asylum seekers here) but keep on walking over Oberwil-Lieli way. It’s not that far (248 km / 52 hours) and it sure sounds like they need all the help they can get.




I have a hedge. It has a monstrous life of its own filled with birds and cats and caterpillars and cobwebs, and stands fat and strong between my jungle-garden and the race-course road where people travel at top speed towards town in the mornings. The trajet home is even faster as who wants to miss their apero?  They are going so fast that it seems they have never noticed the speed limit which is a clearly-posted, sedate 30 kph through the village.

And now it seems that one of these drivers has complained about my hedge impeding their vitesse while sailing over the speed bumps around the corner. There is also a neighbour who is also a possible suspect. Anyway. I’ve been busted, yet again, by the hedge police.

This time they’ve even sent coloured photos: a set of four. In them the hedge looks quite perky and healthy. In the background, over the road is the ugly house that was built in the nature reserve. Needless to say, they do not have a hedge, so are possibly jealous of mine.

largest-yew-treeAnyway, we are routinely busted by the hedge police as both height and width of roadside verdure are strictly regulated and seriously enforced. A young city-slicker usually arrives with a clipboard and an attitude. Long conversations with cantonal officials have resulted in civil engineers surveying our property, the hedge, and the road. We keep winning (Geneva has stolen a bit of our land to widen their road) and the hedge keeps growing. Nothing else happens.

One of my summertime jobs in Canada was pruning baby Christmas trees, so I consider myself something of a pro when it comes to pruning. Needless to say, I never get to stand on the ladder or use the electric trimmers except as a special treat. I’m the orange leaf-rake and green compost-bag girl. I push the communal garden refuse container into place. I snip the odd branch with the old-fashioned, dull, wooden-handled shears.

So, I will pay my annual respects to my hedge. I will clip the fragrant wet cedar, spruce, laurel and other hedge-bushes that I don’t know the names of. I will work diligently for an hour or two and fill the compost bin and revel in a feeling of deep satisfaction. I will have a bath in water that will become like the insides of a China tea pot – flecked with green leaves and mysterious brown bits.

I will obey the Geneva Ordinance of the Roads dated April 28, 1967, L1 10, article 70 et al. and will (temporarily) be back in from my walk on the wild side of the law.


How to Live Forever

If you don’t get bitten by one of the millions of poisonous snakes on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa you will live a long, long life.  Centenarians abound.

This has been attributed to the food: purple sweet potatoes, canola oil, tofu, ginko nuts, vegetables, konbu seaweed, squid and octopus. Fish and Vitamin D from the sunshine also help. Add to this their famous healthy black sugar and a little bit of Okinawa pork belly which is quite good for you.

Old-Lady-Drinking-WineJasmin tea, turmeric supplements, and hitami lemon all help tremendously.

Their philosophy for eating stipulates that you do not eat to bursting point, but stop when you feel 80% full. This is called hara hachi-bu. And in Okinawa, there is no word for retirement. You continue working until you stop permanently. The population is not stressed by time, and Okinawans live in a perpetual state of sun-kissed contentment.

But what really keeps you going for a century is the Okinawan salt. It is sea water salt extracted by using a natural temperature instant evaporation technique. It is full of potassium, zinc, iron, copper, and manganese. There’s even a plan for taking the sodium chloride out of it to make it the first super-healthy non-salt salt. It actually lowers the blood pressure, and as the island is unendingly battered by storms the magic sea-salt is in the air at all times. Baby Okinawans absorb its goodness from the day they are born.

Now, living in the Geneva countryside we are going to have to mix and mingle some of these exotic products and techniques into our new improved health regime. It’s a bit like moving the furniture around in the house. I will change my tea to Jasmin and see if the vegetable barn lady has purple potatoes. The fragrant clouds of grilling squid and octopus are bound to surprise and delight my neighbours this summer.

I will go for a troll on the internet to see about procuring black sugar, konbu seaweed and Okinawa health-salt. And I will eat as much tofu and turmeric as I can until some new study shows them to be poisonous.

I really feel that by adding these new health-foods to my daily rigorous regime (a walk for the legs in my rice-paddy shoes, a dose of right-handed pro-biotic yoghurt for the gut, a glass of Geneva red wine for its antioxidants, and lots of black chocolate to fight stress) I might be on the verge of a brand-new new life-changing live-forever epiphany.

In all the excitement, though, I really mustn’t forget to take my pills.



Swiss Kisses & Handshakes


In the classroom students and teachers can neither be equals nor friends. The relationship is infinitely more complex than that. However, with fragile adolescent lives suddenly being ruled by hormones, homework, and insecurities, any physical gesture can be used as a tool of manipulation and misinterpretation. Their hands should not be shaken.

Just as corporal punishment has been banished from schools, I seriously think that handshaking should also be stopped. I taught for decades in high schools in the canton of Geneva and never shook my students’ hands. Neither did my colleagues as far I know. Any act that can be construed as personally judgemental, sexual, political or religious has no place in the classroom. A handshake can be all of these things.

At its best, a jolly good handshake is a formal exchange of good faith and possible friendship. However, the germs of social hypocrisy are well-embedded.  I’m always impressed by two football teams lined up on the pitch to shake the opposing team’s hands before they begin kicking, tripping, and head-butting the crap out of each other.

Handshakes are also bursting with real germs and bacteria. Both the high five and the fist bump have been medically proposed as replacement activities (especially when there are pandemics about) as most people do not wash their hands as often as they should.

hand-kissing-grangerHere in Switzerland doctors always shake your hand as their first medical gesture. Strength, grip, temperature, perspiration are all indicators of the patient’s health in both body and mind. A handshake sends complex social and chemical signals that a busy-body doctor can pick up on. (Tip: I always sit on my hands in the doctor’s waiting room making sure they are warm and dry which indicates perfect physical and mental health.)

In the social context of the educational world, physical contact is not entirely absent, of course. Sporting events, funerals, and graduation ceremonies come to mind. However, this usually involves the more complicated Swiss bise (the kiss not the wind) rather than a handshake.

So I don’t know if the two teenage brothers from a Swiss German town who have refused to shake their (female) teacher’s hand are dangerous Muslim fundamentalists or not. However, I do know that in this country where minarets have been prohibited and crucifixes removed from schoolroom walls these two adolescents have brilliantly poked at the soft underbelly of an unnecessary, totally arbitrary, and potentially divisive institutional practice.


Floating in from the Floating World

Re-entry from the floating world of Japan into the realities of Switzerland is historically bumpy.

The long airplane ride provides a moment of psychological preparation for the inevitable slings and arrows of domestic distress that are soon to occur. Normally well-balanced, I cry my eyes out at airplane movies—even the comedies and documentaries. When I land, I am emotionally worn out and completely ready for anything.

This return was quite successful, however. The heating was still working, there wasn’t a dead cat under the motorcycle cover, the bottom had not fallen out of the hot water boiler in the basement, and there seem to be no mouse families living in the kitchen.

floating worldOf course Henri-the-cat and all his friends and enemies have been having peeing competitions and hairball spitting competitions in the front corridor as the cat flap was open. But now that the neighbour’s cat has been evicted from its squat in the bomb-shelter, we are all feeling much better and the quality of the air is much improved.

One excellent thing about being away is that there is that you receive no mail. Not quite true. There was the occasional cheery flyer coming in through the front door concerning a deal for Authentic Japanese Curry over at Ookayama’s Nepal curry shop.

Here the accumulated heaps of bills, newspapers, and advertising tower on the hall table and demand attention by occasionally toppling onto the floor.

Bogged down in the morass of post-trip laundry I miss my little Japanese washing machine (short cycle 30 minutes, medium cycle 31 minutes, long cycle 32 minutes) that played a little jingle–a sort of housewifely hymn–when the time was up. Here, down in the serious Swiss washing room, the ageless Teutonic machine grinds on for hours and hours and has absolutely no sense of whimsy.

And the Japanese baby iron, shielded from dust and damage in its pink plastic carry-case was a much tamer version of the huge hissing and spitting monster that lives, works and breathes here.

I’ve just put my thumb through a rotted peel of a lemon I bought fresh and shiny yesterday.  In Japan the flowers and fruit and vegetables last for weeks and weeks. They are objects of geometric perfection, and though I know we should all be embracing imperfect and rotting things, you can’t help but love a perfectly clean and proportioned carrot or miniature aubergine sold individually and preciously.

So, as I lay awake in my jet-lagged nights, gossamer strands of sushi trains and geisha bars float through my brain. They are starting to be joined by mountains, shepherd’s pie, lawnmowers and grandchildren.

I’m finally floating home.










Bliss in the Sock Drawer

I quite like books with the word “joy” in the title, so how could I ignore the Japanese author Marie Kondo’s latest book, Spark Joy? A bit disappointingly, it is not about a female pyromaniac or a woman wrestler, but about a method of having an uncluttered living-space and mind.

For some strange reason, I had completely missed her earlier book (The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up) which was a super-hit world-wide a couple of years back. It tells you how to arrange your possessions. Each thing must be held (preferably close to the heart), and if you do not feel a deep orgasmic thrill (i.e., it does not “spark joy”) you must throw it away. You are then left with only cherished possessions and both your outer and inner worlds are greatly enhanced.

Your happiness is a combination of how many garbage bags you can fill and your folding skills. It can actually even reach a level of bliss, as once your house is tidied properly, you can see what is really bothering you, and husbands have been known to be been tidied away by this method.

The philosophy tells you how to fold your underwear into neat rectangles (her new book has illustrations of a little rabbit doing this) and then place them standing up in compartments in your drawer. You do the same with t-shirts and socks. Your drawers become works of art and you dream about them. You can suddenly see everything at once.

sock-storage-ftrA friend came over and I showed her my drawer which I had used the KonMari method to tidy. She gasped and a glint lit her eye. She has since sent me photos of her newly-arranged pyjama drawer.

It is a creeping, possibly addictive, illness.

One problem than I can see emerging is a profound reluctance to change your socks, underwear or t-shirt as the alignment in the drawer compartment is disturbed. Another aspect that is troubling, but of great interest, is that in her first book Marie Kondo does not seem to wash or clean. This is rectified in her sequel, and dirt is classified as “natural”. A special wipe-down towel is necessary for both bathroom and kitchen. (Different one in each place.)

Her latest book also lets up a bit and allows you to keep, for example, the much-loved material of an old never-worn dress. This fabric can be used to wrap ugly electrical wires or drape a plastic water bottle holding flowers (as you have thrown out your real vase). She also suggests taking the garish labels off laundry soap and decorating the bottle with a ribbon. A frying pan can easily be used to pound in nails, so you can discard a little-used hammer. Family photographs can be joyfully used to decorate your clear plastic closet-arrangement-boxes, and all reading material, once read (or left unread) is redundant.

So, urgent message to my poor, dusty much-loved, read, unread, half-read books almost 10,000 km away: do not worry. I am throwing out Marie Kondo’s two books, and I am soon coming back to you all.

Packing for Japan

As a general packing rule, a few weeks before departure you designate a surface where you arrange all possible portable objects that you might need – edible, wearable, electronic, recreational. As departure time approaches, you discard what will not fit in your suitcase, and make rational choices.

For example, I have learned that the little Tokyo apartment I will be living in does not have central heating. This fact, combined with the current (wavering) cold snap in the Far East, means that serious slippers are a must. Warm air is blown into each room from little vents up at ceiling height which results in the well-known hot-head-cold-feet Japanese Syndrome.

japanheatingSo, at the moment, I have two pairs of slippers on the packing bed – one a delightfully multi-coloured floozy pair, called “snoozies” with martini glasses printed on them, and a more refined second pair of white leather, lined with rabbit skin, and decorated with Native American bead work. A choice must be made.

Then there is the current (wavering) butter crisis in Japan so I’ll have to take a Swiss block or two. Due to “el Nino” the usual supply of New Zealand butter has dried up a bit. Japan’s own butter comes from its northern island, Hokkaido. Miniscule little delicately-wrapped pads of butter are arranged in tiny little hand-crafted trays of six. I think they might be numbered and signed by the individual cows. Despite their high price, they disappear off the shelves immediately, and I’ve only once succeeded in purchasing my own butter set.

Then there are the Swiss tube-staples that can be used for all emergencies – Cenovis (marmite/breakfast), Le Parfait (liver paste/lunch), Euceta, and Vita-Merfen. I was extremely shocked to find out that these last two items (medical rather than edible) no longer exist and replacements must be found.

The phrase book, Japanese at a Glance, is a psychological crutch, and can never actually be used, as people tend to run away (often moaning) when directly approached. It has been explained to me that this is because people don’t want to be embarrassed by 1) not speaking English 2) not understanding 3) and anyway don’t want their day ruined by an unpleasant event. I keep the little book with me at all times in case I ever want to phone an unknown number to tell the emergency services that I’ve just had a car accident and think I’m having a heart attack and would like to send a telegram.

Then there are the presents. Fortunately, most of these (calendars, chocolates, prints, pens, and pencils) have gone on ahead. All I have to take at the moment is a little box of spices for the Swiss winter-time specialty “vin chaud”. This perks up no end a glass of ordinary (affordable) Peacock Department Store wine and is much appreciated by knowledgeable Tokyo wine experts.

So that’s already quite a good start an I’m feeling quite exhausted. Time now for a little rest and, hopefully, some serene cherry blossom dreams.

The French Quéstiôn

The circumflex accent in French is my favorite. I try to use it with aplomb and abandon. Much friendlier than the accent aigu or the accent grave—to a person who cannot tell their left from their right—it is just a little friendly hat that sits, preferably, over an “ô”.

Therefore, I am horrified that the Académie Français is finally, truly, abandoning it—fortunately just over the “i” and the “u”. For example, the old coût becomes the new cout. I, personally, would have liked it to become côut or, even better, côôt.

There are other exciting changes that also being seriously implemented some twenty-six years after the new rules were written. Numbers are being hyphenated, other words are being unhyphenated, and the two little dots over the occasional vowel (called a tréma in French and very close to my ü-heart) is being added or shifted to aid pronunciation—for example, the old gageure becomes the new gageüre--whatever it means.

As a Canadian, I am officially bilingual, but only write in English due to my timorous, yet perfectionist, nature. The arbitrary mysteries of the French language—the le and the la, the silent endings that contain many letters, the declensions, the conjugations, the agreements, the vexed question of tu vs vous, and many other social and grammatical points that I don’t even want to think about, put French into its own celestial cultural sphere of near incomprehensibility when written at its very finest.

Even paying the strictest attention, recalling all schoolroom language tricks, using spell and grammar checks, and the best brains of family and friends, I make mistakes. The missing “e” or “s”; the incomprehensible thought; the embarrassing blooper that I simply cannot see with my direct-vision Anglophone eye.

sbf20090701c005I blame it on my education. My high school French teacher was a haughty middle-aged English woman called Mrs Robinson. She had three Chanel-type suits that she wore on rotation with different scarves. She had a chignon and a nose that quivered. She made a great fuss about pronouncing the word plume perfectly.

These were the days of Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, and Mrs Robinson took her role seriously. She loved the garçons in the class, and the filles were just a necessary encumbrance. She handed out les cigarettes to the (male) smokers at recess time. I guess this was because plume rhymed with fume. Her first name was Irene. When the song Walk Away Renée became a Herman’s Hermits hit in 1968 she theatrically changed her name to Renée. Needless to say, all the girls hated her.

Sigh. I had a hard time in Mrs Robinson’s French class, and it didn’t really matter what you did with your accents. That the old événement has become the new évènement is my unexpected revenge.

In 1755 in an extraordinary one-man show, Samuel Johnson published the then definitive A Dictionary of the English Language. He is attributed to having said: “It is indeed a dull man who can think of but one way to spell a word.”


Retirement Rules or The Kirsch Bottle on the Ironing Board

As family members and friends gradually retire from their traditional workplaces they either disappear completely or pop up cheerfully from time to time with morsels of coping advice.

This generally has to do with not letting yourself slip—which is presumably what has happened to those disappeared people. There are several categories which must be addressed: nutrition, time-planning, health, presentability.

Life is made up of those intervals of time that must be filled between meals. Never is this more apt than with the retired community. Seriously healthy eating is a major activity involving visits to the vegetable lady’s barn, and much consultation of almost-pristine cookbooks.

retired_1710533cInappropriate foods should be avoided: for example, a delicious, huge kebab I wolfed down a few weeks back had lasting and nefarious consequences. And a reliable source has recently mentioned green eggs and ham in an entirely negative way.

My oldest school friend from Canada has just retired and thoughtfully shared a stunning Sunday lunch tip: she and her husband are not allowed to drink alcohol with that particular meal if they are still wearing their pajamas. This reflects, of course, their stubbornly ingrained Protestant work-ethic and I don’t think applies here in the Swiss countryside. She did report that they did it once and didn’t get caught, so perhaps the slippery slope has been established.

Yes, the alcohol question must be addressed. Everyone knows that liqueur chocolates and white wine do not count, and I have a file folder full of clippings about the undeniable health benefits of red wine (there’s a particular Danish report which I find most uplifting.)

I also allow myself unlimited quantities of beer while ironing. A time-consuming activity, the very idea of turning mellow and singing along with the radio while pressing creases out of shirts and trousers in a cloud of steam is undeniably attractive. This works very well on warm summer evenings. Unfortunately, I don’t have much time to spare and so iron very rarely.

My sister has a lovely rule: you must not get out of bed before 8 a.m. Last weekend, for example, she said her husband only rose at 3:30 in the afternoon. Of course, you must check that people are still breathing, but sleeping, naps, and siestas must all be encouraged.

My old doctor (now retired, of course) once told me about his very oldest patient who was worried about going senile. She enquired what was the most important thing not to forget, and he told her lots of old folks forget to wash. The next time she visited him, she calmly informed him that she had solved that particular problem. She showered every morning, but in the evenings often couldn’t remember if she had, so always took another one.

So, in summary, enjoy yourself. Take a walk if the weather’s fine. Try to make a spinach soufflé every now and then. Change out of your pajamas late Sunday morning. Visit the junior family members from time to time wearing a smile and bearing gifts.

And, most important: try to stay under 80 for as long as possible.

February Festivities

You really have to search for fun during the January doldrums. Canadian friends, for example, have reported buying new martini glasses and changing their mattress. But now, in February, there are so many exciting things happening I don’t know where to begin.

Today, for example, is Groundhog Day. Traditionally, this is the day that the groundhog (a species of marmot—much hated by all farmers) wakes up from hibernation and pokes his head out of his hole to see what’s up. If it’s sunny and he sees his shadow he then goes back down to sleep for another 6 weeks and winter will continue. If, on the other hand, it’s a cloudy day and he doesn’t see his shadow, then winter is about to give up the ghost, and spring is just around the corner.

Here, in my village, the postman has reported that the hedgehogs are out running around and about busy getting run over. This is the same idea.

Happy-Groundhog-Day-Images-5Next Monday is Chinese New Year, and luckily, we have a Chinese restaurant in the next village. Often quite empty, it is extremely authentic. In winter, for example, you usually have to keep your coat on to eat as it’s so cold. They have integrated well into the Swiss world and serve pizzas on the weekends. However, I’m sure that their Peking Duck will be most delicious.

Then, the day after, is Pancake Day. Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent begins, was the greatest day for lunch at our house of the whole year, as we ate our annual pancakes – orange slices, butter, and golden corn syrup–maple syrup was a luxury beyond our means. [For authentic Canadian pancakes beat 2 eggs, add 2 tbls sugar, 1 cup milk, 1/2 tsp salt, 3/4 tsp baking powder, and 1 cup flour. Beat everything for a couple of minutes and cook in a non-stick pan. Douse with butter, squeezed orange, maple syrup. Roll up and eat.]

Moving right along, there is Valentine’s Day on the 14th. This, of course, features chocolate and flowers which I have found one often has to buy for oneself in order to avoid disappointment. And this is followed by a relatively new holiday in Ontario, called Family Day. This is one of those odd half-holidays (i.e., not a national one), so there are some complaints that the kids are all off school and the parents have to go to work.

This is the same week as the Winter Break in the Geneva school system. Here there are 5 days off school and in the old days when there was snow, kids would be shipped off to ski camps. I don’t know where they will be shipped off to this year. Perhaps it will be a week-long Family Day at home.

So, altogether, there’s hardly a day free to work and worry about the usual mundane winter problems. The groundhog’s shadow, pancakes of different flavors and nationalities, flowers from shops and garden, the kids home from school. February is my favorite month.