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.

Power Child

Inexplicably, I’ve never been invited to the World Economic Forum in Davos. But last week, I was there, in spirit, eating canapés with the rock stars and the bankers.

I was there alongside Justin Trudeau as, you see, I knew the Prime Minister of Canada’s parents, Pierre and Margaret, intimately.

All Canadians of my generation did. Pierre Trudeau rose from the political ashes of the old turgid boring times. He was sparkly, urbane, much-travelled, witty, wise, and sexy. He wore a flower in his buttonhole. His politics were progressive as he sloughed off all things conservative and reactionary. He was interested in the new – as we all were in the late 60’s. Arrogant and dismissive of what he saw as nonsense, he struck a celestial chord in my teen-aged brain.

Thirty years her senior, Pierre married 22-year old Margaret. The philosopher prince wed the garden fey (she sewed her own wedding costume; it had a hood.) She had babies, and then became a highly successful Rolling Stones groupie. In his autobiography, Keith Richards says he was shocked. She then spilled all the beans in a book. The Canadian media had a dazzling time and Pierre got custody of the kids. An old University of Toronto comrade gleefully announced that after Justin Trudeau’s recent election, Justin’s mom contacted his wife, Sophie, and offered to give her some tips on being Canada’s first lady.

Anyway, the Trudeaus’ first-born was called Justin. “A Just Society” was the political slogan of the Liberal political campaign in 1968. Pierre Trudeau had also been Justice Minister before his election as Prime Minister. I dislike dynasties, but his father’s career was not only Justin’s name but also his destiny.

trudeau-davos-20160121Justin Trudeau (age 44) wants to be kind to everyone. He came to Davos to promote a trade agreement between Canada and Europe. With falling oil prices, the high price of cauliflowers, and the state of the Canadian dollar, the country needs all the help it can get. He also wants 25,000 Syrians refugees in Canada as soon as the weather allows. Winter coats are a must. He wants women, children, and family groups. The odd man can come too, but he has to be gay.

I just heard Justin, in Davos, saying that he’s “a feminist” which complicates things even further. He wants to legalise marijuana which is a popular move among a certain segment of the Canadian population, but I guess won’t be much comfort to the dozen Swiss Army soldiers who got busted smoking pot while on guard duty at the Davos Forum.

Anyway, the children have come of age. May the force be with you, Justin, I wish you and your lucky socks all the very best in our modern world filled with mayhem and misery.

A Pair of Pink Flamingos

To chase away the January blues, I’ve just bought a pair of tall pink flamingo standing lamps. I think the plan is working. They have been tastefully placed in the dining room and give off a serene womb-like glow.

It’s not easy to find such beautiful pieces of kitsch in Geneva shops, and ordering things on-line just takes the fun out of the game. I once was fatally attracted to a life-size Grey Heron in a little under-stocked shop in Carouge and was told it was window dressing and not for sale. Deep shopping disappointment has been trailing me since that day.

Anyway, forget the Canada Geese and the first giant robin of spring, it is flamingos that come straight and sharp from my Canadian childhood memories. My very first best friend, Brenda, belonged to a clan of neighbours living over the road in a rural southern Ontario village. They were two generations of Georgian planters (three with Brenda) and had built themselves massive white houses to be near the elderly matriarch of the extended family.

Coming from the deep American south they were exotic with birdbaths and peanuts growing in their garden. My friend’s grandfather fashioned objects in his basement out of metal bottle caps – baskets, rabbits, jalopies. Brenda and I watched him work and listened to his stories of diving into Lake Ontario, inadvertently swallowing a tape worm egg, and having a tape worm in his stomach for decades and decades. We loved him.

pink flamingo lampTheir prized possession was a pair of life-sized pink flamingos, and when a chosen warm summer day was coming to an end these would be placed at the bottom of the huge immaculately-tended garden. Two white lawn chairs would be placed behind them, a cooler filled with ice and soda bottles was put in place, and we were all ready for the evening hobby of car-spotting. Cars would drive slowly past, slow down, and driver and passenger (out for the evening motorized promenade) would stop to chat for a while. Strangers would wave. It was a glorious time.

It wasn’t my fault I bought the pink flamingo lamps yesterday. We passed them in the shop as we were on our way to see our just-born grandson. The shop was shut. Today, again, I took the same path to the Maternity ward, and they were still there. What was I to do? Abandon them to their cruel fate of having some strangers buy them, and perhaps even split them up?

Never. After top-level consultation with my grand-daughter, the pair now glow warmly together. One day in a few years time, my grandchildren and I will take the flamingo couple to the end of the drive way at the end of a warm summer day and plug them in. I will tell tall tales about my long-lost Lake Geneva tape worm. We will pop open the old-fashioned glass coke bottles that can still be purchased just over the border in France. Cars and bicyclers will slow down in awe and admiration and we will wave.

It’s not the same, but it’s not different, either. It’s a fine January dream of a July pink flamingo evening in Canada.

Rising Above It

In these grey, wet, cold, foggy, soggy days you do not have to fly to Bali or Mauritius to find warm happy sunshine and friendly people. You need a car (or, in extremis, a bus or a bike or a cable car) and off you go – up up and away into the local hills.

Here at Foggy Bottom where I live down beside the Rhone River, there are days when the sun never shines. So you go up the Salève, the Jura, or even up the top of the next hill, and you are in a different world—a world of clear vision and light and smiles.

And, once there, you go for a little walk to pick up some energy to take back to the lowlands. On these walks you meet people like yourself who are out taking the air and enjoying the view—for once above the sea of fog, you instantly forget that there are human beings down there breathing the insalubrious vapours and busy being grouchy. You are on a disconnected higher plane of existence.

Firmly ensconced in this world, you mention to casual fellow-walkers that at your place it’s a horrible grey pea-soup fog. They either agree (they live there too) or express surprise, claiming they’d never have thought it (these are the ones who live a little higher). You cheerily hail people working in their gardens in a spring-like manner. They either say nothing (as they consider that you are a lunatic who has been let out of the asylum for the day) or they fall in with your happy fantasy.

Caspar_David_Friedrich_-_Wanderer_above_the_sea_of_fog
Wanderer above the Sea of Fog 1818 by Caspar David Friedrich

A perfect conversation goes something like this:
–Bonjour! We’re just standing here admiring your view.–
–That costs two Euros.–
–But it was only 1.50 E last year!—

Guffaws all around and you’re off. You ask the obvious question to elicit easy answers. I suggest starting with –Are we in France or in Switzerland?– As your new casual friend will then feel a vague sort of pity for your innocence and immediately realize the non-threatening nature of your existence.

The state of the walking path can also be minutely discussed, as can the proximity of hunters and their dogs—who these days have a sort of radio wrapped around their necks. Noisy, smelly teenage dirt-bike hooligans are a common enemy. You give people directions to Santa’s Village and to the next cross on various bits of the St James Way to Santiago de Compostela (follow the shells) in the region.

So the horrid fog’s silver lining is to lead us up into the land of the glorious walks and, as my old neighbour up in the mountains used to say, to “causer bien”—to practice the fine art of conversation with perfect strangers.

A Really Dirty (English) Trick

I have made a huge mistake. Having been an English teacher with a close relationship to modal verbs for decades, I was curious about the mix-up concerning the climate change document that was produced at the Paris Conference a week ago. So I read the 31-page Paris Climate Change Agreement December 12, 2015. http://unfccc.int/resource/docs/2015/cop21/eng/l09.pdf

As my sister has wisely observed in this fraught pre-Christmas period, one is either sucking on lollypops humming Christmas tunes or one is spitting with rage. Stultified to the point of falling off my chair, I wanted to see if I could find the bit that is causing the linguistic controvery—the bit that takes the teeth out of the developed world’s legal commitment to saving the world. The bit where “shall” got changed to “should”.

No normally-constituted person should read this document. It is a repetitive masterwork of cajoling happy-energy. It emphasizes, notes, invites, requests, urges, strives, recommends, recognizes, takes note, calls upon, aims to, and encourages. It is a maze of time-lines and dates.

Despite this, I easily spotted the passage that shifts responsibility away from the developed countries. It is really there on page 22, Article 4, Section 4:

Developed country Parties should continue taking the lead by undertaking economy-wide absolute emission reduction targets. Developing country Parties should continue enhancing their mitigation efforts, and are encouraged to move over time towards economy-wide emission reduction or limitation targets in the light of different national circumstances.

Of course, the first “should” should have been a “shall”.

Now, everybody loves the wantvsshouldword “should”. It’s an agreeable concept, filled with awareness of the problematic, but simultaneously considering potential improvement. “Shall” is a crisper word which expresses firm intent, decision, imminent action. We all know that we really should do something about our filthy, polluted, deluded world. We really should do something about the polar bears and the Adélie penguins hanging onto their tiny little ice floes and starving to death. Poor loves! And that Golden Toad that hasn’t been spotted since 1989, well, something really should have been done before it became extinct.

So, after two weeks of intense diplomacy, the final document was a day-and-half overdue. On Sunday, the American delegation saw the “shall” (signifying their responsibility and accountability) in Article 4 and threatened not to sign. The French government, needing a landmark climate accord, wiggled out of the impasse by claiming the drafting team had made a typographical error and everyone quickly agreed to sign the “should” (signifying a potential pleasant possibility) document.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. So, I shall see you all there sooner rather than later. I’ll be the one over in the coolish corner feeding the polar bears and humming Christmas songs. Hopefully, I should have stopped spitting by then.

 

Christmas Mail

I’m being bombarded with seemingly innocuous, but highly guilt-inducing little presents—name stickers, agendas, calendars, post-it pads, cards and envelopes, recipe booklets, wrapping paper, pencils, notebooks, and even the occasional ornament. I haven’t yet received the package of chicken noodle soup which was such a delicious surprise last year.

These presents are accompanied by an informative letter, some relevant visual aid and at least one payment form. They each wish me a wonderful Advent season and a very Merry Christmas.
Yes. It is charity / NGO fund-raising season yet again.

Now, I have nothing against sick children, sadly displaced people, polar bears, unemployed people, blind people, mentally ill people, leprosy camps, people living in the mountains, people living in religious villages in the Philippines, people who paint with their feet or hungry St. Bernard dogs. In fact, I would like to help all of them.

And I quite like the idea of giving my Canadian brother-in-law a little piglet that will be presented to someone in Haiti which will, in turn, allow schooling for the children; or 20 chickens (for only 40 francs) that will peck around somewhere in Bangladesh and create eggs and cash for an entire family.

He seems to enjoy receiving these no-frills, no-nonsense, non-presents. I gave him a ½ metre of Swiss steam-train track for his last birthday. I think he’s really enjoying it.

I also fondly remember the goat that my Swiss son-in-law presented us with a few years back. He had signed the card with his name—which I had unfortunately thought was the name of the goat for many many months.
140926094353-apopo-rat-test-mine-field-banana-horizontal-galleryAdopting a de-mining rat is also another really good idea, but so far no one has send me the relevant information. Fortunately, I have my own private sources.

Each of the above makes much more sense than the usual slippers, socks, and soap selections. But then, Christmas was never about sense, it was about miracles; and now, even worse, it’s all about stuff. And once you have your basic stuff – which boils down to a couple of smart little machines – all the rest is entirely arbitrary.

So, buy a solar lamp, a sewing machine, a duck, a latrine, a fishing net, or a blanket and proudly present the gift certificate to your person-of-choice. They will love it – but be sure not to forget the bonbons, the bottle, or the book that goes along with it.

Curling Broom Controversy

Curling is a very very old game and was invented by bored Scottish weavers throwing their loom stones down frozen lochs in the 16th century. One can only assume alcohol was involved.

Today it is a serious sport with important championships, a place at the Olympics, and a miasma of rules and regulations. Not as sexy as hockey, it is its laconic little brother. As I write, the World Curling Federation ranks Canada first in both teams. Not to worry: Switzerland holds a totally respectable 2nd place (women) and 5th place (men). This is entirely due to the lack of Scottish roots in Switzerland.

One memorable winter I was skip of my high school curling team. I wore my stretchy nylon ski-pants, snow boots with lots of socks, and a thick woolen sweater knit by my grandmother back in the Old Country. It even had a maple-leaf motif. Training took place at the local skating rink. The ice was smooth–chipped here and there from a previous hockey match or free-skating session.
Men_curling_-_1909_-_Ontario_Canada
Men Curling in Toronto 1909
The broom back then was not the straw broom of pioneer days, but a special curling broom made with a bunch of long stiff hairs. For me, it was entirely a fashion accessory, as everyone knew that it did absolutely nothing except get bits of powdered ice or the occasional cigarette butt or bottle cap out of the way of the majestically moving unstoppable stone.

Years later the broom was replaced by the legendary Rink Rat, and then a sort of floor scrubber, and now, as I’m sure you are aware, high technology has invaded the pitch, and controversy is swirling in the curling world.

This concerns the new-fangled specialized IcePad broom being made by two Canadian companies. It contains directional fabric, and really helps control the path of the stone. The players who dislike it (or are jealous of it) say that it takes away from the skill of the thrower and the athletic brushing techniques of the conventional sweepers.

As the winter 2016 curling season begins, the World Curling Federation has been asked to take a stand and has recently brought in a few tough new rules concerning championship curling brooms: They cannot be waterproof, they cannot contain stiffening inserts, and you have to be able to buy them at your local hardware store.

At the moment it’s Rocket Science 0 / The Luddites 1.

Grime and Punishment–a note from the future

On Friday November 13th a few hours before the Paris massacre a more innocent me wrote the text that follows. Then, I had thought Singapore’s social fears and archaic laws to be both naïve and ludicrous.
As the world weeps for Paris, a shift has occurred, and this little island’s formula for order – extreme cultural and religious tolerance combined with outlandishly draconian laws – now strikes me as considerably less foolish than it did two days ago.

Diwali began a few days back in Singapore. What a lovely surprise. Who would have thought that the Indian Festival of Lights would be a national holiday here? I’ve checked and Buddha’s birthday, Christmas, Good Friday, the end of Ramadan and the end of the Hajj are also official days off work. Chinese New Year gets two days off, normal New Year one, and there is Labour Day, National Day, Election Day and any other days the President wants. How lovely that a panoply of gods is appeased.

However, on such loose and unshaped days other rules apply, and one must be very very careful out and about in public places.

False urban legends abound. For example, it is commonly thought that the act of chewing gum is prohibited in Singapore. This is not true. Smuggling gum into the country gets you a year in jail and a $5,500 fine. If you can fashion your own gum in situ, then, in theory, you can chew away.

Vandalism is another no-no. And thank goodness. No graffiti, no litter, no cigarette butts, no unsightly signs on public property. However, if your cat wanders off and in sentimental shock you post his photo, an explanation, and your telephone number in your local park, you are looking at a potential $2,000-fine, 3-8 strokes of the cane and three years in prison. Fortunately, those of us over-50s are exempt from the flogging bit.

And then there’s the public transportation system with its no-drinking, no-eating, no breast-feeding rules. This is so no one slips and hurts themselves on spilled victuals. Probably best to keep the very young and the very old at home as spitting, vomiting, and forgetting to flush the toilet are also punishable public blunders.

n-CAKE-largeIn a popular restaurant at the tail-end of the Diwali holiday I overheard a conversation somehow connecting Singapore and North Korea. At that specific moment the man had in front of him a giant Häagen Dazs concoction—a tower of crêpes, ice-cream balls, whipped cream, sticky sauces, and sprinkles.

What a silly pudding! Everyone knows that they don’t have fancy ice cream parlours in North Korea. And if the Treason Police had overheard him he could have been detained without trial indefinitely.

I really do love this brave new world that is Singapore. With nary a cop in sight, I have a feeling that the dramatic laws are there to keep any potential tourist louts in line and to add a frisson of excitement for the rest of us. My Swiss half is in thrall at the litter-less streets, the spic-and-span sidewalks, and the graffiti-free walls. It was truly shocked when a very small dog on a rhinestone leash publicly peed in the botanical garden under the canna leaves.

My Canadian half, on the other hand, has a bit of a hankering after a spot of j-walking over to the 7/11 with a chewing tobacco chunk in my cheek. In this orderly, prosperous, utopic city state I have a small theory that John Savage might be lurking somewhere in the lilies.

The Canadianisation of Switzerland

Things are definitely looking up. I’ve just received an invitation to go to a Hallowe’en party. Well, not exactly a personal invitation; it is taped onto the garbage container over the road and invites the whole entire village. Not only will there be an exciting costumed ball, but also a Canadian buffet.

Hallowe’en is a new invention in Switzerland. When I arrived in 1977 there was not a Candy Kiss in sight, and hollow Jack o’ Lantern pumpkins were not available. I had to buy an entire solid cooking pumpkin that weighed about 15 kilos and scrape it out. There were no witches, goblins, or ghosts roaming the streets. We had to do it all in-house with a select Japanese friend from the local primary school and some bed sheets. The pumpkin was carved with great care and difficulty and the candle lit to keep the spooks away for another year.

I rather enjoyed the exclusivity of my own cultural identity. I made the connection to All Saints Day of November 1st and the chrysanthemums on family tombstones—which I considered a much more sober and mature soothing of the spirits. However, I perked up with Escalade just a few weeks later, which fulfilled the Hallowe’en ritual entirely – a child’s event celebrated with disguise, ringing the neighbours’ doorbells, a song, and candy treats.

jellosaladNow the second element of the tempting village Hallowe’en party invitation, the “buffet Canadien,” is quite another matter. When I first encountered this in Switzerland, I thought it was some sort of delightful smorgasbord of Canadian foods – pancakes with maple syrup, moose-burgers, and boxes of fresh Tim Horton doughnuts. Well, this is not the case. It’s the old dreaded pot-luck supper which is traditionally a wicked thing.

Back in Canada, my father’s church would run a “pot-luck social” every now and then to cheer everyone up in the wintertime, and hungry as I always was, you had to be very very careful. My mother had an ingrained fear of casseroles (you never knew what was in them) and a pot-luck supper was Casserole City: spam, tuna, corned beef, cabbage, and potato were all there featuring confusingly differing colours and textures. Vegetables were salads with peas hanging suspended in lime-green jelly. Pies were raisin and apple and lemon meringue. The adults drank weak coffee and the children drank milk.

I met my first olive at a pot-luck social and was horrified at the unfriendly unknown taste. I thought my mother’s predictions were going to come true and death was imminent.

If I go to the village Hallowe’en party, I sure know what I’m going to take. And it won’t be olives.

Living Proof

I’ve just been asked to prove that I am alive. I have until the end of the month.

I thought I had done this at the beginning of the summer by signing a form with my very own signature swearing I was alive, dating the document, putting my return address on the back of the envelope, and mailing it back. Any run-of-the-mill forensics expert could have checked the DNA and fingerprints. Don’t these people watch NCIS? Anyway, spit and handwriting were not good enough; they need official civic proof—a witnessed signature, a passport, and the village/community stamp.

My husband (who is much much older than I) was smugly satisfied with this nasty turn of events. He has NEVER been asked to prove that he was alive. He says it is to prevent dishonest relatives of dead people from collecting their pensions.

Well, I don’t know who would want my tiny little miniscule early-retirement pension (I am nowhere near old enough for the proper state pension), but it has caught someone’s administrative eye, and I feel a bit like Tom Sawyer attending his own funeral though I don’t quite know why.

tom-sawyerHowever, upon checking, I see that there are some grizzly shenanigans going on all around us—hundreds of thousands of ghost pensioners have been dug up, so to speak, in southern Europe, Uganda, and Pakistan. I wonder where they put all the bodies? There are only so many closets to be sealed off, walls to be doubled, freezers to be filled, or compost heaps to be plumped up. Don’t doctors miss their elderly patients? I found myself in a medical waiting room yesterday and everyone seemed to be about 120 years old, wearing hand-knit sweaters, fumbling with canes, glasses, and elevator buttons.

So, anyway, wishing to remain in the land of the officially living for a while yet, I went round to the village hall and got an official Life Certificate. I asked the secretary if she wanted to touch my arm to make sure I wasn’t a Whitney Houston-type hologram. She didn’t think I was funny and gave me an elaborate hand-written receipt for my 5 francs.

A small price to pay for living proof.