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.

 

 

 

 

Ultimate Confusion

In these confusing times when true facts are as rare as hens’ teeth and everything seems to be going backwards, I am suddenly confronted with the blossoming of a new commercial celebration: International Women’s Day.

Begun as International Working Women’s Day in 1917 in Russia, it grew out of various brave demonstrations in many countries led by socialist labour movements striving to stop the degrading exploitation of female factory workers. This got broadened into the suffrage movement which (eventually) worked. Even in Switzerland.

In 1977 the U.N. voted March 8th as the International Day of Women’s Rights. It is still an official national holiday in several ex-communist countries. My favourites are Nepal and China where it is a women-only holiday.

The day has laudable historic credentials, but it is being side-swiped and undermined in many alarming ways.

Yesterday our Swiss daily, Le Temps, put out a special edition “dedicated to women”.  Women associated with the Geneva School of Art and Design put together the paper and posted 52 photos of themselves and other important Swiss ladies. There were laudable interviews and analyses of successful women taking themselves and their roles seriously.

There were accounts of films by women, soccer by women, and (on the recipe page) the astute observation that women really can appreciate the finesse and romanticism of red wines—especially the gentle Swiss pinot noir.

Apart from the date being shifted to the 6th (I cynically attribute this to the fact that Monday is traditionally a “light” news day and so less important than the real day, Wednesday, when something more interesting might actually be happening) the full-page ads give us some very stale—possible rancid—food for thought.

The first is for a top-end Swiss watch. It features the chest of a famous American model in a low black bathing suit foxily biting the thumb of a boxing glove. The watch is diamond-studded and is claimed to have been especially created for dominant women.

The second ad lures us to the tropical island of Mauritius and invites us to live timelessly by buying an exclusive luxurious golfing property. And the third (on the back page) is a spread of three pale and ethereal young women’s faces. It offers a Japanese anti-ageing cream that lifts and firms us into the future.

Prices are not mentioned in this lure of diamonds, paradise villas, and everlasting youth. Women’s wishes, one presumes, are far beyond the crass vulgarity of money.

For the more modest consumer, the local supermarket is offering vaguely funereal floral arrangements (does one buy them for oneself?) and the local drug store has 40% off a Swiss wrinkle reduction cream (would you dare buy some for your mother?)

Sigh. It’s so hard to know how to celebrate properly.

Oh yes. I almost forgot. There was one page of “real” news (the election in the Valais) in Monday’s feminine Le Temps. Both articles were written by a man.

BIG Trouble

The Geneva jail is hideously overcrowded, and I have a theory that this has to do with many poor innocent people who are unaware of Geneva’s strict Sunday rules. In our village, for example, we are periodically reminded of them via a perky newsletter.

As a public service/stay-out-of-jail announcement here is a brief summary of the most important forbidden things.

First of all, shops are shut on Sundays. In our village we have a small rogue corner store that opens on Sunday mornings and sells delicious fresh bread along with everything else. So far it hasn’t been busted, but I figure it’s only a matter of one rotten tomato and of time.

Then there is the great concept of public tranquillity. Sundays and public holidays are the most important moments, when a deep undisturbed peace is supposed to fall upon the land. No lawn cutting, no chain-sawing, no power tools. Flushing toilets and taking showers are decidedly grey areas. Hanging out laundry—even the quietest of discreetly-patterned textiles—is frowned upon. Washing your car is a no-no.

roosterLegal quiet time is ordained daily from 10 p.m. until 7 a.m. Also between 12 noon and 1:30 p.m. so the breadwinner can eat a nice home-cooked meal, listen to the Swiss radio news, and have a refreshing siesta before getting back to the office. Loud music and live music are also not allowed (i.e., the drummer or the alp-horn blower in the apartment next door are strictly verboten.)

Fires will ALWAYS get you into trouble. I once tested the wind and when I was sure the smoke would blow straight into the fields, lit a very modest garden stick & leaf fire. The mayor’s wife was at my side in a flash and offered the helpful political suggestion that I should take all the combustible matter inside the house and burn it in the fireplace instead of outside. Ah-ha: A secret fire.

In Geneva in the old days before cars and planes and vacuum cleaners tore through the city, there were serious rules concerning carpet beating and roosters in the Old Town.

All of this is again in the news, as our next popular vote is entitled “Don’t Touch my Sundays” and concerns the reversal of a ruling that shopping malls within hailing distance of international tourists’ requirements can, possibly, offer shopping hours on Sundays.  There is the much more reliable second option of shops being allowed to open three Sundays per year.

But none of this really matters, of course. Here in the Geneva countryside if we want to Sunday-shop we can go to the markets or the supermarkets in France. If the rooster crows we can turn it into coq-au-vin. We will not starve.

Quaint Geneva will prevail and I am quite sure that we will have at least 49 Sundays a year of total peace and quiet.

 

 

 

 

The Queen of Switzerland

There is a canton in Switzerland called the Valais. I once had a female colleague who came from there, and she went back to “her country” every single Friday afternoon. Having just spent a weekend in the Val d’Hérens, I am thinking of emigrating myself.

It’s all about attitude, of course. The real people of the Valais have perfected a potent mixture somewhere between a cowgirl and a Hummer: courage, independence, pride, strength, a grouchy exterior, an ironic interior and, often, a glass of génépi define a true Valaisan.

The landscape of the Valais is mixture of the Himalayas (now that there are yaks and this summer’s huge outdoor walking path photo exposition of Zanskar*) and The Sound of Music. You snuggle into the wild and the gentle, the rough and the soft and, amazingly, feel right at home.

You’re scared to leave a crumb on your plate of steak and cheese-rösti (with rinds), as the chignoned-madam-owner of the Vieux Mazot would be sure to openly disparage your finicky appetite and picky town ways. Packed tight into her Valaisan dress you’re greeted with a hauteur bordering on disgust. Having proved your appetite and your manners, you are given a handshake anCowDSC_0036d a half-smile on the way out.

You want to belong to the Valais. You want to be part of them. But you need credentials. Being a city slicker foreigner does not endear you to the crusty old men with morning wine-breath and sturdy cow-sticks.

You explain your presence at the foggy Inalp (the early-summer migration of the cows up to the high alpine pasturages) by telling the story that you once, some 35 years back, tended a herd of cows up in the Val de Réchy. It snowed in July. Food had to be helicoptered in. There were holes between the stones of the hut where you stayed. The cat caught and ate a mountain rabbit. It left the ears. The child had to be rescued from a mountain stream. Another ear (with identification tag) had to lopped off a cow who had fallen off the rocks to her death.

This cinches matters, of course, and once your Canadian identity is established you’re part of the gang of pipes and caps and canes. An ancient one pulls out his list of cow owners and points out #2 who is Queen of the fighting cows. Proud, and strong, and still, and black. Much like a Hummer with horns. You don’t want to look her in the eye.

In the evening from the hotel balcony you view the night-lit church steeple across the road. The doors are not locked, and the pub-girl waters the flowers. There is a single village shop which the hotel lady calls a souk. She says you can buy anything there: rumour has it, even a bride.

We bought a corkscrew and a bottle of Heida. Next time I’m going to buy a Valais passport because I want to live next door to the Queen of Switzerland and keep a baby yak in my garden.

*check it all out at www.rigzen-zanskar.org/  or  www.evolene-region.ch

 

Down in the Dumps

Well, you cannot trust anything anymore. The greatest fun in Geneva of a Sunday was always a trip to the cantonal dump. It’s a glorious place; full of action, excitement and true human drama.

After your bucolic drive through the Geneva countryside filled with colza blooms, dripping wisteria, and fields attesting to great human activity and endeavour, you must then pass through two important signposted gates (reminiscent of a penitentiary) and then negotiate your way up the ramp.

Much like an inverted Roman arena, this circular spot on top of the crown of a little artificial hill is the centre of the action. Various huge containers are spoked out below invitingly signposted as to desiring glass, wood, iron, building rubble, electrical things–and you actually get to pitch your worn-out objects down into the bins with glee, noise and panache.

garbage things

This exercise is entirely satisfactory. Much like throwing Christians to the lions, one would think.

Old beds, old computers, old lawn furniture, are all grist to the mill. The only forbidden item is entire cars. You must not simply drive your old banger into the appropriate bin. This is a bit of a pity, but to make up somewhat, tires, batteries, metal, oil, and bulky objects are all allowed. So, you just have to take your car apart.

There is even an audience. Not only are other citizens taking an active interest in your rubbish, and your hauling/dragging/swearing abilities, but the décharge employees also have their eye on you, as your antics backing up the ramp with your trailer full of oddities has captured their full attention.

However, today there has been a hideous surprise. This morning’s car full of interesting things—a compressor that has compressed its inner organs into jelly, garden chairs that have slowly turned into rust buckets, and an exercise bike that has been pedalled into oblivion—have all had a nice drive to the dump, but have also come back home.

A new sign has been placed on the second gate at the dump (the first entry gate was wide open) announcing new hours – afternoons only!

Rechecking the official web-site, the information is profuse and varied and like Alice in Wonderland invites the belief of at least six impossible things before breakfast: open mornings and afternoons; closed on the weekends and open on Saturdays and Sundays; open on afternoons and Saturdays; open all the time and only ever truly really completely shut on Christmas and New Year’s days.

This is a truly shocking and confusing development. So, in a saddened state of mind, we will try to capture an afternoon dump moment one day soon. The car must remain locked with the old treasures all safely inside.

These are the chosen ones and, like a smile-without-a-cat, their destiny is assured.

 

 

 

 

 

Wilhelmina Tell

I’ve just walked a bit of the Swiss Path and it almost killed me. Constructed jointly by the 26 cantons for the 700th birthday of Switzerland in 1991, it is a steeply glorious thing—35 kilometers of lovely Swiss tricks and treats.

First of all there is pure beauty. When the sun is shining, the backdrop is that of soaring mountains, blue skies, white summits and grey craggy drop-offs. However, the multiple pylon grids with their looping power lines probably look better in winter than in summer as snow would tend to camouflage them somewhat.

The belle-époque lake boats slide smoothly through the turquoise waters. Just the sight of their massive white magnificence coming to rest beside the Schiller stone can make tourists (well, the ones that did not grow up watching The Lone Ranger) start excitedly humming the William Tell Overture.

The flower-filled meadows tinkle merrily with cow bells. Much like electronic cars, the cows are perhaps moving forward into a silent future. Animal-rights activists have declared cow-bells disruptive to the animals’ inner peace and innate tranquility causing possible psychological damage, turned milk, and irritable cow syndrome.

TellDenkmal2The Swiss Army is subtly present. There are fewer screaming low-flying fighter jets than there used to be; however, the bunkers and mysteriously-numbered concrete constructions along the way are interestingly ominous. Swiss lore has it that whole mountains have been hollowed out and are filled with the Swiss Air Force planes (with pilots) ready to scramble straight south towards Italy or north towards Germany on the drop of a pin.

The juxtaposition of the old and the new is also breathtaking. One of the oldest wooden buildings in Europe (a farm house dated 1348) is just across the road from a carefully disguised (as another old farm building) space-age stainless steel toilet with rolls of sparkling white toilet paper. This is a god-send for anyone who has had too much pro-biotic Swiss yogurt for breakfast.

There are picnic tables, BBQ grills with already-split wood, crosses, shrines, grottos, chapels, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Ayurveda Health Centre, dangerous slippery icy spots, vitaparcours (to be strenuously avoided), red wood benches with fine views, and many many cheerful hikers all wishing you a hale and hearty “Gruezi-mitenand!”

Sitting waiting for the train to take us back to Brunnen, I was so delighted and exhausted that if someone had put an apple on my head and shot it off I don’t think I would even have noticed.

Chickens Don’t Fart

I’m just reading my village newspaper and I’m not feeling very well. I have been shocked to find that my local Farmers’ Wives Group (Les Dames Paysannes) no longer exists. The reason given is that the population has increased, mentalities have changed, and modern people have different interests. Bah Humbug.

I had always dreamed of joining the farming ladies. Even though I’m not married to a farmer, I thought I could have somehow swung it due to my obvious love of nature and knowing the names of at least three sorts of birds that live in my garden.

I was looking forward to baking my famous lemon cake and banana bread for countryside fêtes, and tastefully wrapping Christmas presents in St Bernard dog wrapping paper for the schoolchildren.

All across Switzerland these groups of women were created towards the end of WWII, as the girls had been running the farming show while the menfolk were away defending the Swiss borders.

Instead of Rosie the Riveter, Switzerland had Heidi the Hay-Flipper. 

dames paysanneNow, of course, the new vocabulary surrounding this still-extant society has to do with sustainable agriculture, promoting countryside values, and offering local produce for sale.

All of this comes on the day that six little cows have been placed in the next-door field by the farmer from up the hill. They are cute. They are clean. They have friendly long tongues. They are also extremely smelly.  Cows in this world produce enough methane to be responsible for 14% of global warming. (This is a true fact).  Of course six little baby bulls do not constitute industrial farming and I’m sure that they only burp and fart when they really have to, but they do make a difference in the air quality at this end of the village.

Of course we should eat vegetables to save the planet as the carbon footprint of a carrot is zero, and chickens are recommended as a protein source as they do not have four stomachs all bubbling away simultaneously. They (and fish one presumes) are prone to much less anti-social gassiness than cows.

So, back to the village brochure after these agricultural ruminations, I study the photos of last year’s Hallowe’en festivities, followed closely by the Escalade party, all the monthly pot-luck brunches, and revel in the exciting news that Sunday dances are perhaps going to be organized. A small brewery has been opened, the village won second prize for its floral displays, and a week without television is being organized.

Well, let’s forget about the disbanded Farmer’s Wives Group. I’m modern. I’m progressive.  I’m moving into the future.

With a clothes pin on my nose I’m planting flowers, practising my dance moves, and not watching TV.

And when I’m finished, I’m going out to find that new brewery.

 

 

Agreeable Consequences

Our grand-daughter has already made several serious career choices for when she grows up.

It began as being a painter / artist, as everyone praised her early Picasso-style drawings as being produced by a prodigy of extraordinary talent.

This quickly faded, and, liking cats and dogs, a vet became her second profession of choice. This has recently been dropped as she feels she could handle the warm furry outsides of animals, but the squishy liquid insides are a cause of concern.

When she discovered the self-scanning gizmo at the Migros she wanted to devote her life to shopping there, or, even better, becoming a scanning specialist.

Her latest stage brings with it the wish to become a little-kids primary school teacher so she can go back in time and have a school-free Wednesday.

This has resulted in several recent school-related conversations, with some surprising results.

When quizzed about her favorite day at school, Tuesday was craftily mentioned. This just happens to be the day that she comes here for lunch (of either macaroni and cheese or hamburgers) and is the envy of her entire school class who all march off to the faded lettuce and refried polenta of cuisine scolaire.

However, the absolute day of choice is Friday, due to Conséquences Agréeable. I had first thought this was some sort of a board game like Monopoly or Diplomacy or Labyrinth teaching the young blossoming minds the beauty of a morally-ordered world.

It turns out to be much more personal and devious. As each school week wears on, the thumb tack under your name moves from green, through yellow and orange into the red depending on your behavioural errors. If, by Friday afternoon, you are still in the green or yellow, you can spend your time doing nothing—laughing, giggling, whispering. This state of affairs is called “agreeable consequences.” If you have messed up in a possible multitude of ways (including faults of your parents forgetting to sign a report card, for instance) your thumb tack marches relentlessly at each error one step closer to the red.
dunce-cap

If you are in the red field by Friday, you do not enjoy “agreeable consequences” but their opposite – dire consequences – work: dastardly multiplication tables, writing out lines, French dictation and correction. This is, of course, an 8-year-old’s nightmare which can–among the very best students–lead to precocious parental signature forgery.

This little piece of elementary psychology is only introduced in the 5th year of primary school (the year when Wednesday morning classes are begun) by the very sharpest of teachers. I like to think that our grand-daughter longs for a purer and simpler time of the truly agreeable 4-day week of her earlier school years.

And I am sure that her smug, selfish, lazy happiness created through the misfortune of others is an entirely unforeseen by-product of Friday afternoon’s “agreeable consequences.”

The Ex-Xmas Tree

Everyone knows about Christmas left-overs. With the turkey, you make sandwiches, stews, and a final swan-song turkey-noodle soup. The rest gets given to the cat until not even he will touch it any more. The carcass is unsentimentally thrown out with the garbage.  Leftover champagne, on the other hand, becomes a delightfully refreshing breakfast beverage.

However, left-over Christmas trees are a different story. They have had a moment of true glory and domestic beauty. They have been bought, created, and imbued with those most powerful of emotions: delight, nostalgia, and wonder. They have become your friend.

When I first came to Switzerland, my Swiss-German mother-in-law had real candles and wicked sparklers on her Christmas tree. I was terrified, and in pitying tones was assured that the tree was so fresh that not even a blow torch could catch it alight.

burned treeThis was seriously confusing, as in Canada the tree is brought into the house any time after the first of November. There used to be coloured light bulbs that got hot enough to singe the branches. By Christmas Day, the thing was well on its way to being a piece of naked tinder with a few forlorn candy canes and bits of tinsel. There were needles everywhere.

Not wanting to be thought of as wimpy Canadian, I, too, took up this Swiss naked-flame tradition, and it was found so charming and delightful by English friends that they did manage to burn out their London living-room. After this event, I slowly and craftily changed to electrical lights and the big Christmas tree water bucket (a tasteful green) became redundant.

There are no community January Christmas tree-burning ceremonies here, instead the individual trees are dragged in the direction of the compost bin. They can be seen littering the sidewalks and poking out of garbage chutes. They have angel hair and golden ties from the chocolate ornaments that used to be on them. In this post-Christmas world it is a depressing and sorry sight.

Not in this house. We don’t abandon old dead things so easily. Dec 31st finds our Christmas tree stripped of its chintzy ornaments and gutless electrical lights and sporting real burning candles out in the garden. If it survives that, it is hung with bird balls and becomes a huge bird-feeder. The birds, the turkey-stuffed cat and our grand-daughter find this most interesting.

Eventually. Christmas magic melts away, and the tree becomes part of the springtime garden clean-up. The tree has been a virgin, a bride, an acrobat, a servant and finally a corpse. Spring comes and the dead tree goes. The circle is complete.

The Stollen

A few weeks back I bought a nifty little German Christmas cake: a stollen. It was made in Dresden and was completely authentic. It even had a seal and was signed by someone. It was expensive and wrapped in golden foil.

Unfortunately, it accidentally got eaten shortly after its arrival due to a social emergency that featured family members, little cups of espresso, Japanese roasted-rice tea and a Sunday afternoon. The cake wasn’t all that wonderful – in fact, it was dry as saw-dust and I seem to remember my grand-daughter licking up piles of crumbs from the table.

Where I come from, baking a Christmas cake is a spiritual experience. You need a spell of “fruitcake weather” and a Christmas cake happens. The cook, inspired by the cold and snow, has sudden visions of a good solid piece of heavy sticky fruitcake in her hand. This year’s weather has been too warm, the cook (in her shorts and sandals) was uninspired.

Feeling I could improve on the Dresden stollen, I consulted my husband’s family-heritage Koch Buch written in 1966 by Elisabeth Fülscher in Zürich. This door-stopper features 656 pages of delicious Swiss German food – geschnetzeltes Kalbfleisch, Haferauflauf flockensuppe, and Dampfkochtopf—but, sadly, is written in German, so a person has to invent bits of information from time to time.

I found Weihnachtsstollen (Recipe #1651) on page 560 – tucked away between the Hamburger Kloeben and the Streuselkuchen. Seemed like a piece of cake – a sort of fruit bread that needed to rise twice then be baked in a medium oven for about an hour then covered in powdered sugar.

Well, I don’t know what Elizabeth was smoking back in 1966, but in her recipe, after kneading for hours, you divide the dough in two, roll them to the size of plates, then take one, fold it over itself and let it rise again. It seems the other half is discarded.

I checked on tBakingdisaster_thumbhe web, and that side-tracked me even further, as other people add other things to make their stollens even more delicious. The most fascinating addition was the clump of marzipan that could be lodged in the middle and would make a wondrous surprise.

So I have made a super-stollen. It has everything in it – both halves of the dough, rum-soaked currants and raisins, three sorts of candied fruit, and a hunk of marzipan. The only thing I didn’t add was the drop of rose-water because I didn’t have any.

Well, the stollen rose reluctantly overnight down the basement. I then placed it on a chair in front of the oven so it could watch the Christmas cookies baking and get into the mood. It rose a tiny little bit.

I have just taken it out of the oven, and it’s not a pretty sight. While baking it has to be basted with butter (much like a turkey) several times so became quite a dark brown on top. One of the side walls split into a strange geode-type formation and quite a bit of fruit spilled out and burned. It has a mysterious crack through the middle on the diagonal.

The powdered sugar worked wonders, however, and the brown lump is looking quite a bit more festive. Now I just have to add the holly sprig and hope.