Swiss Cow Horn Protectors

Who says national referendums are boring? The people of Switzerland, after parliamentary discussion at the beginning of the summer that I had thought was just a joke, are voting in a few weeks on the wildly famous Cow Horn Initiative.

This popular initiative (it received 119,626 valid signatures) is for the encouragement of farmers to let their dairy cows grow natural horns. This, in turn, necessarily leads to roomier stables (as swinging your horns around in close proximity to others can cause obvious damage) and much more bovine naturalness, well-being, self-esteem and freedom.

Most Swiss cows are de-horned when they are very young for the common good and out of social politeness. Of course, it does not exactly tickle, but then neither does getting your wisdom teeth pulled out or your dodgy moles and warts removed.

There will be a financial incentives, of course. If a farmer lets his cows grow horns, then there is 190 francs in it for him/her every year for every cow. And for every goat with horns, you get 38 francs a year.

It is calculated that this new constitutional amendment, if accepted, will cost Switzerland up to 30 million Swiss francs annually. However, to get this agricultural subsidy the farmer also has to prove that each horned cow is let out of its stable into roomy and bucolic pastureland 26 times a month between May and October.

Strangely, the government does not really want this law to pass.

Just imagine. You would need cow-horn police (testing that the horns are real, not just plastic imitation horns); you would need cow-herd police (counting the numbers of cows that are out and about shaking their horns and ringing their bells on every Alpine patch of spare grass; you would need cow-psychologists testing and judging that these new horns are making the cows happier (it can be jolly cold at altitude in September.)

Out of 600,000 milk-cows in Switzerland, only about a quarter of them at the moment have horns. These ones must be putting on their safety goggles in preparation for the clumsy onslaught of amateur horn-wearers tonight.  For as it’s Hallowe’en, I’m sure all Swiss cows are busy dressing up with their fake horns. Much like Mickey Mouse ears, these come out once a year to disguise, amuse and confuse.

There is also a business opportunity here. With all the danger of farmers and other cows getting their eyes poked out with new, flashy, ubiquitous cow horns, the cow-horn protector must be invented. A pair of signed Roger Federer used tennis balls, for example, could be the nec-plus-ultra in cow horn safety essentials.

A perfect example of Swiss skill, compromise and ingenuity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Strictly NO Fireworks INSIDE the tent!

Well, today is August 2nd, and the glorious 1st of August has been survived yet again. No missing eyes, fingers or pockets. No one has been reported as dying from boredom during last night’s presidential speech. And although no birds have been seen flying in the garden yet today, I’m sure they’re just having an “off” day and will all be flitting about normally tomorrow.

Swiss National Day is defined by an evening communal meal, a children’s lantern parade, a firework display, and, finally, an enormous bonfire. Considering the hot, dry summer conditions this is a tricky business. Volunteer firemen stand importantly about. However, firework size and quality is the yardstick for measuring the amount of Swissness a community holds.

True fact: 3,000 tons of explosive material and 1,700 tons of fireworks are used in Switzerland every year.

The first of August morning always starts with a few isolated bangs. These are either children or fathers who have no willpower to wait for the darkness and just test-try one or two big crackers to make sure they will be fine for later. For the past month, all shops have been filled with August 1st paraphernalia—Swiss and cantonal flags; paper lanterns; bangers and packages of fireworks; glasses, plates, napkins, balloons and hard-boiled eggs with Swiss crosses on them.

Later in the day, it is like an eclipse of the sun, as the world goes quiet. All families lie down for a jolly good afternoon nap to make sure that eyes are bright and reflexes sharp for the upcoming pyro-show.

Towards the evening the smell of roasting wieners and cervelas fills the air, along with conversation and laughter. Little bangers go off. As the beer and wine flow, there is animation in the air.

At dusk distorted music floats over from the football field behind the town hall where the bonfire is stacked 3-metres high into the sky. Loud hailers shout unintelligible words.

Cars begin flocking in from over the border looking for non-existent parking places (they are at the other end of the village in a stubble field). Someone stops to pee on your hedge as he thinks no one is looking. The excitement builds.

Surrounding, higher, villages begin early, and from the upstairs window you see the two separate and glorious pyrotechnic displays. Then suddenly overhead there are the three sonic booms, and way high over the roof giant  multi-coloured showers rain down. There is a pause between the “phoof” of the missile, and the explosion of fire in the sky. Sparks sprinkle down, but dissolve before they catch your hair alight.

You watch until your neck hurts and with a louder than loud bang it is all over for another year.

This morning there was just the wisps of smoke from a huge heap of grey ashes and three lone cars left in the stubble field.

All is well in Switzerland.

 

 

Little Switzerlands: Don’t Bother

Any country that can possibly get away with it (and several that can’t) have created their own little versions of Switzerland. Essential ingredients include trees (any sort except palm), fields (ploughed, fenced and tended), altitude (the higher the better) and a fresh-water lake (preferably turquoise in colour.)

If you happen to know the real, big Switzerland, avoid these places at all cost.

I have been to little Switzerlands more times than I like to admit: India, Korea, Japan, Sri Lanka, Burma, and China all have their “Swiss” landscape dreams. They are often strange forlorn places of heat and odd architecture.

Switchback roads are the essential opening ingredient to get you to an authentic little Switzerland. If you’re really lucky, you will spot a rusty wreck stuck in the bushes below a particularly sharp bend. You conclude that puzzling aerial wires going nowhere must be for ski lifts in case the earth’s weather patterns change. Sometimes there is even a dodgy mechanical device that takes the cheering pedestrians from one viewing platform to another.

Having sworn off little Switzerlands, I was surprised to myself in yet another one. This one was sneakily hiding in Calabria, the toe of Italy.

It really wasn’t my fault. In that region, the only three-star attraction (apart from the Riace Bronzes in Reggio Calabria which are believed to be two (buck-naked) brothers about to kill each other in front of their mother….but here I digress) is the Sila mountain plateau. At almost 2,000m altitude, sure enough, it is officially designated Calabria’s “Little Switzerland.”

It is also a national park and has ploughed fields, painted wooden houses perched in alpine mixed forests, flowery meadows, one herd of cows, and endless unmarked roads. There are no people, restaurants or gas stations. It is quiet and serene, and as you drive, lost on the SP31 (that is not to be found on any map and goes from nowhere to nowhere) you become exquisitely bored.

As the gas tank empties and the bladder fills, you long to be in good old Italy and back to the trip you had planned. You wish for the thrill of the autostradas, the delights of bergamot ice cream, a double espresso, an Aperol-spritz.  You worry where your next meal is coming from, and miss the peculiar characters in the kiosks that sell you popsicles and scratch-off parking permits.

You feel the need for a good dusty duomo and a museo filled with gangs of school kids crashing from exhibit to exhibit photographing each thing with their shiny-new smart phones and retaining their complete, noisy ignorance.

The SP31 finally meets the SS179 and you are out…free to drive into the future and come back to Italy and the crowded friendly chaos of the rose festival of Santa Rita. All thoughts of Switzerland—both big and little—have dropped far below the waves of the wine-dark sea.

 

The Sound of (Simplon) Silence

There is something disarmingly wrong when there are earplugs instead of chocolates on your hotel pillows. This was not the case in the cosy little family hotel at the top of the Simplon Pass last week. The regulation miniature Toblerones were perkily propped on their feathery mounds.

We were on our way to Italy, fleeing the cold flat grey winter of the Geneva countryside. We had images of 15th-century frescos, baroque churches, duomos, termas and the Mediterranean dancing in our heads, and to have properly deserved their Latinate luxury, the leaving of Switzerland over the grim Simplon seemed dramatically appropriate.

The Simplon Pass (2006m) is open all year round, but in the winter you can see almost nothing from the road due to the huge mounds of ploughed snow and ice piled high at the edges. You have to be very clever and brave and turn off into unmarked cleared areas to see Kaspar Stockalper’s monumental buildings that he used to stock his merchandise—mostly salt—being transported over the pass. He was a sort of 17th-century Donald Trump—an extraordinarily rich bully with a castle in Brig and big plans to make money from the rest of the world. He got so annoying, that he was even kicked out for a time.

What is visible, thought, at the top of the Simplon is the gloomy giant granite eagle, built by the Swiss troops during their stay there during WWII to (successfully) scare both the Germans and the Italians away.  History is in the air.

The evening started well, and local generosity included wines from the Upper Valais and a chicken cordon bleu about the size, thickness and colour of a bible.

Then there was night.

In a proper Swiss hotel room, the duvet is the most crucially meaningful feature. At a mountain hotel, the duvet is king. It is very thick, very light, and could possibly protect you from the rigours of the South Pole or outer space. You must position your limbs so that they are half-in, half-out and hope that your body and brain figure it out.

This didn’t happen, and so after the heating was experimentally turned off, it was agreed that the window should be opened. The cold mountain air slipped in.

However, so did other things. In the village there is a humble stone bell-tower. In the day time, I swear, it sits silent. At night, it chimes every quarter hour, and then changes to a bell-tone down an octave to sound the hour. I must admit, I missed both the 1 and 2 o’clock bells, but enjoyed them all after that until the 6 a.m. frenzy of frantic bell-ringing in the alpine darkness. This, it turns out, is not a village fire alarm, but a signal for you to get up to pray.

I had never before quite understood Napoleon’s rather negative attitude towards churches. Simplon might have been my epiphany.

 

The Republic of Geneva Mounted Police

The Canton of Geneva is a source of constant hilarity to the other 25 cantons of the Swiss Confederation. Various local politicians go out on shaky limbs, plan unending projects, pull repetitive bloopers. These absurdities (Genevoiserie in French and genferei in German) are well-documented and there is an official web-site (http://www.genferei.org/) that is guaranteed to make you laugh out loud in these cold wet windy January days.

Some of the simpler genfereis include planning to build apartment buildings inside highway cloverleaves, planting the wrong (not growing) sort of (expensive) grass in the football stadium, hiring artists to paint designs under the trams at the tram stops, or modernizing the public transport system so that no one can figure out how to get to where they used to go.

Creativity, foresightedness and complexity are essential ingredients in a jolly good genferei, as is spending lots and lots of money. The joke is even bigger if the federal government has been persuaded to join in.

To my knowledge, no one is ever really punished for a genferei; rather, there is an annual prize for the very best one.  In extreme and conflicting cases there could be a bit of finger-wagging, but as no one did anything bad on purpose, then these follies are written off as simply being part of the great human comedy of life.  

Now, last night’s national news (perhaps to become redundant as we are all voting in a few weeks about abandoning the federal TV and radio tax but that’s another story) had a small report that Geneva is currently forming its very own Mounted Police force. Nine police people are currently in Belgium on a week-long training course.

The news presenter’s smirk was a dead give-away: the story has the makings of a perfect genferei.

Coming from Canada, the idea of tall strong men on horses bounces off my spirit and images of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police rise up: the red jackets, the flat-brimmed hats, the stiff upper lip, the impeccable black horses, the Musical Ride, Dudley Do-Right.

Of course, the Canadian Mounties no longer use horses operationally and from what I have seen a horse’s role in law enforcement in the 21st century has to do with urban patrolling and crowd control. Getting blown on by a big, smelly, uncouth horse would make just about anyone drop whatever they were doing and go home.

But no. Geneva’s Mounties are predestined to patrol rural and suburban zones. They will saunter bucolic bridle paths and gallop the frontiers. They will drink coffee at the garage up the hill. They will enforce finicky dog-poo laws and check on candy-wrapper litter.

They will be regularly sent on international training courses to acquire more equestrian skills. They will eat sparingly, I’m sure. Just a sprinkle of federal funding (transportation, perhaps?) and a most beautiful genferei is in the makings.

 

 

 

Don’t Piss Off Grandma, or, The Fine Art of Returning Defective Products

In those old hectic days of work, deadlines, and worry when the hours in a day were just too few to deal properly with shoddy merchandise, you might have been forgiven for tipping that bottle of sour wine down the sink or throwing away some freshly-bought completely-rotten product.

However, one of the many advantages of being part of the post-work-for-money world, is that justice can, finally, be served. We—the retired ones with our marbles still in place and our glasses sparkling clean—are the new commercial warriors out there making the shops a safer and a better place for you.

For example, there was yesterday evening’s incident concerning the duck terrine in the metal-clip glass jar. Served as a festive treat, those salt crystals turned out to be bits of glass. Experience helps here. Having broken a tooth on sandy leeks stuffed into a Brittany crèpe a few years back, I recognized the sound and texture of imminent danger and raised the alarm at the supper table.

Once you have a culprit, it is important to return the faulty product as soon as possible. If not, you could easily forget all about it, destroy evidence, or present a mumbling, half-remembered, unbelievable account of the incident.

If your story is fresh, (much like the duck fat in which the glass shards are still embedded) you do not even need a receipt. The lady gives you money and expresses her sincere hope and belief that such an incident is a freak of nature and will never happen again.

She then calls the manager.

I have returned many horrible things. There was the rotten chicken where I found myself in a Monday-morning line-up with other elderly innocents who had been expecting a roast fowl for their Sunday dinner. The stench was overwhelming and the customer services personnel could not process us fast enough.

Then there was the incident of the fat white worm in the can of corn. There the service après-vente lady made the mistake of asking me whether I had placed the worm there as some sort of prank.

Exchanging a bottle of bad wine is never a problem in a supermarket, but at my local farmer’s barn I once took back a very nasty bottle. Wine snobbery is little tolerated here in the far west, I was told not to return anything ever again. Real men drink corked wine out here in the Geneva countryside.

My perfect return was a thick piece of chocolate with a hair sticking right through it. I ate all around the offensive bit, and actually sent the nibbled disc to the address on back of the chocolate wrapping.  A few weeks later I received a carton of chocolate bars in the mail along with a personal letter explaining how a hygienic bristle from a nut-sweeping brush had got itself stuck and they were ever so sorry.

A fairy-tale Charlie and the Chocolate Factory possibility.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Striking Terror to the Heart

Well, there’s a moving van over the road. This, in itself, is not unusual as the building is a two-family house (much in the fashion of North and South Korea) and the gentle tenants in the South constantly move away to greener, quieter, and less threatening pastures.

Moving vans rattle me. I started moving before I was one year old, and am always hopeful that where I am now is the final destination. When I was two, I accompanied my parents into a freezing Canadian winter. My first clear memory is packing my books into a blue tin pram.

After my father became a foot soldier in the great Canadian Protestant army of the Lord we moved regularly every couple of years. I have changed continents and manses and apartments and houses dozens and dozens of times.

The extra-special Swiss moving trauma has to do with the cleanliness of the rented property that you leave behind. Windows have to be sparkling; the grout between the floor tiles scrubbed with a toothbrush; ceilings and doors washed. You have to boil the bathrooms in bleach. (Warning! An acquaintance did this with a wicked-strong product that took the enamel off the bathtub, and she had to buy a new one.)

Then you have to pass the real-estate agent test where a man with bad hair, bad attitude and a clip-board feels behind the back of taps to make sure there isn’t a bump of lime scale or a flake of soap.

If you fail the test, not only are you hygienically bankrupt, you also lose at least part of your blocked deposit (three months rent) as professional cleaners have to be called in to remove water spots from tiles, dust specks from the corner of drawers, invisible (to the naked eye) fingerprints from door handles. I’ve heard they work with microscopes.

Even if you have been asked to leave (due to a relative needing one of grandpa’s many, many houses) you have to scrub the kitchen raw (even though it is all going to be ripped out and replaced.) It’s more than depressing: it’s traumatic.

The moving van over the road has the English phrase “The Human Touch” written on its side. Due to wear and tear from my vantage point it seems to read “The Lunar Torch” – a much more whimsical and fitting concept.

I recall my old Uncle Harry being traumatised by his one big middle-aged move. He swore he would never ever do it again. He said it took him three weeks to find his tooth brush. His wish came true, and last I heard an urn containing his ashes is still in the back of the upstairs closet.

We are stardust, after all.

The Swiss Hedge Police Strike Again!

Well, the way things are going, I may well be writing my next blog from a jail cell. Actually, that is a grotesquely optimistic exaggeration, as in prison you only are given a tiny little stub of a pencil to write with, so if all goes badly there will be no more messages to the outside world.

I have just received an official letter from the head of the Geneva Cantonal Road Maintenance Department. Again. These are the same people who have come up with the startlingly original policy to NOT maintain road verges in order to let Mother Nature expand and explode. (See last summer’s rant: https://blogs.letemps.ch/joy-kundig/2016/08/08/warning-geneva-government-sponsored-aliens-could-be-hiding-in-plain-sight/.)

Anyway, the thick 7-page document included the usual rude covering letter, two official forms, and four colour photographs. Again.

One of the photos is a helicopter shot of my house and garden and the road out front. Studied under a magnifying glass, in it there is not one single criminal hedge branch outside the property line.

The other three photos show a few little hedge twigs outside an arbitrary artificial orange vertical slash. I once spotted the cameramen who take these pictures lurking in the village. They travel in pairs—one has a clipboard and the other a tripod camera. They look a bit like Mormons and spend time fluffing leaves and giggling before they take their incriminating shots.

They obviously target certain locations as they childishly know they will achieve instant gratification. As May went past without a nasty government letter I thought the new roadside vegetation freedom rules were giving us all a break. But no: the photographers obviously come back and back and back again until they catch the twig out of line.

On my specific photo-shot day (July 18th) perhaps it was windy? Or, even more probably, a car on its way home to France has sucked some branches behind it in its slip stream and they were energetically bouncing back.

I know that the way forward in these tricky legal situations is NOT a good idea to act as your own legal counsel, (a colourful family member did this a few years back and this is how I come to know about the prison pencil stub rules) but my defence is straightforward:

  • My name is incorrectly spelled.
  • I am addressed as Monsieur.
  • The street cited does not exist in my village.
  • The official property line is far out in the road, as the old cantonal road has been widened to accommodate speeding rush-hour traffic and my land has been stolen.
  • I agree with the greeny policy to let road verges completely take care of themselves.
  • There is no sidewalk involved, and so no pedestrians are disturbed by caterpillars in their hair.
  • The speed limit is 30 kph.

How can I possibly lose?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Fêtes Too Hot off the Blocks

Back in the day, the tourists of Geneva organized summertime fun for themselves. There were the young British rakes who took row boats out onto the lake, banged drums, and set off explosions. There was the visiting royalty who on full-moon nights sent up little new-fangled hot-air balloons, so their guests could swoon in wonder at seeing two, or even three, moons. Then there were those endless wet summers when people sat around waiting for the rain to stop and telling each other horror stories: things like Frankenstein were written.

It was all jolly good fun. Not quite as good as the royal entries (Beatrice of Portugal, for example) of the REALLY good old 15th-century days with jousting competitions, mystery plays in the streets, and wine running in the fountains.

Of course, Geneva has been a tourist city since forever, and the lake and warm summer days have always been a winning cocktail and has now become a 10-day officially organized party called Les Fêtes de Genève.  However, in the grim reality of the 21st century The Geneva Lake Festival seems to have spun completely out of control.

Last year, for example, the fêtes lost an astonishing 3.5 million francs. A new director has been put in place and this year’s budget is a strict 3.5 million francs with an extra ½-million just-in-case reserve. They are on their last warning. Any serious financial foolishness, then their future is not assured.

Two days in, there has already been a major goof-up. To the uninitiated, this local political spot of bother is called a Genevoiserie or a Genferei and is the source of much ongoing mirth to the indigenous inhabitants and the rest of the country.

The Festival was scheduled to run from August 3 – August 13. However, the carnies with their flying elephant rides came into town early, optimistically set up their stands, and opened for bustling business on August 1st. The new director was contacted, and shook a cotton-candy-coated finger at them, but agreed to their going-for-the-money “fait accompli.”

Now the first of August is the sacrosanct Swiss National Day—William Tell, flags, sausages, and fireworks. It is not to be tampered with. It stands alone, much like the Matterhorn and is not to be mixed with frivolity—except, perhaps, a round or two of Swiss wrestling.

You raise your thumb and first two fingers and take an oath. You put an apple on your son’s head rather than doff your hat to outside powers. You relish your Swissness.

Unfortunately, the Geneva town council did not give their permission for this early start of their Lake Festival, and are now full of righteous indignation, bombast and threats as they try to wiggle out of their flagrant breach of Geneva cantonal law. There is talk of fines of up to 60,000 francs for those dastardly spinning pink and blue elephants.

We’re all looking forward to see what is going to happen – especially the new director, one presumes. Hopefully an apple will not be involved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Through the Rösti Looking Glass

Just as the French-speaking Swiss and the German-speaking Swiss have their differing languages, priorities, and cultures so, too, do their mountains.

A few days back, before leaving for a long-planned family wedding in Davos, I paid a rare visit to William, my hairdresser.  He gave me a new hair-style, cut me some bangs, and I was all set.

The Davos church was Roman Catholic with tastefully-placed saints and statues; the pipe organ music flew out of the loft and bounced off the walls; the priest reminded us of the miracle of turning water into wine—the point being that one mustn’t drink alone. I think. The crowd was mostly young, freshly coiffed, clean, and hip.

The bride choked up with emotion as she approached her grinning groom and everyone had a specially-wrapped tissue in which to shed their tears of happiness. I dropped a tear or two, but then came to my senses and realized that bride was far too young, beautiful, and thin to cry over.

The entire wedding party boarded a little funicular up to a charming Art Nouveau hotel and drank champagne and ate canapés to while away the late afternoon.  There was dancing and family films and speeches and too-loud music and a lovely old nonna (grandmother of the bride) who held my hand and showed me her hearing-aid. I lost an earring.

We had a lovely time, and all around us the magic mountains of Davos stood guard—the Jakobshorn, the Pischa, the Strela—cold, quiet, still, sedate and steady.

Returning home mountain-struck, we set out immediately to seek comfort on our local mountain just over the border in France.

Now there are many similarities between the two places.  For example, Shack and Schatzalp both begin with an “s”.  Both the alpine farmhouse and the famous sanatorium were built in exactly the same year. Both face full south and have grand views of the Alps.

The Shack is slightly superior, perhaps, as there is a small television in the chimney corner.

But after that it all goes downhill. A terrible tempest a few days back topped, uprooted, snapped off hundreds of trees in the valley. Crawling through and around two huge pines on the way up to the Shack, we arrived, pants be-holed, arms bloody, tear tracks through the face dirt, to find a perky pine with a bad attitude resting on the roof.

Cables and ropes and winches and chains and chainsaws combined with extraordinary skill, strength, and pithy Swiss-German vocabulary to solve the problem. My wedding hair-do lost its bounce, my new bangs were poking me in the eyeballs, and there was not an earring in sight.

No white wine to be found in the evening, the pink fondue was invented.

Mont Blanc looked down on all of this and smiled. This morning she put on her hat as she always does when bad weather is coming.

But then, she is a different sort of mountain.