The Great Swiss Underpants Experiment

In these pandemic days The Swiss Federal Government is trying hard to keep up the citizens’ morale, and give us something meaningful to do.  They are on a roll. Last month featured the Swiss Army Underwear Scheme, and this month they have invented the Great Swiss Underpants Experiment.

Yes, there is a certain lack of imagination in the theme involved, but, then again, this is Switzerland.

Anyway, they want everyone to bury underpants in their gardens or fields and see what happens. This country-wide scheme was initiated by Agroscope, a federal agricultural-based platform, in collaboration with an ecologist at the University of Zurich. They want to survey the richness of Swiss soil.

After extensive research, I have found out that this is a time honoured technique. Swiss farmers have always buried their underpants. I myself, have even seen evidence of this just over the border in Haute Savoy, France, where our old neighbours were mountain farmers. This practise explains all the dark grey splotchy underpants always hanging on the line along the side of their farmhouse. As the land was so poor in nutrients, their underpants never dissolved in the miasma of bacteria, woodlice, earthworms, fungus strands and microscopic spiders of the rich lowland fields. Henri and Roger obviously just rinsed off their undergarments after a couple of months underground and carried on.

For the first 1000 collaborators in the Great Swiss Underpants Experiment, there will be two pairs of underpants provided for free along with six tea bags (this is for the Tea Bag Index comparison.) If you miss out on this offer, then you must use your own underpants that have to be 100% cotton, white, and “bio” (organic) and your own tea bags (one black and one green in tetrahedral bags will do.)

Your white cotton culottes have to be planted vertically and you must dig the trench straight down with a spade without disturbing the soil layer. You can leave the elastic band at the top sticking out. After waiting for two months dig out what’s left of your underpants, and send a picture and a soil sample back to Marcel.

You are advised to do the experiment in the springtime (NOW!) when the soil is most active, and you must visit the burial site regularly and observe the odour of the soil and the presence of earthworms.

You are warned that it is possible, because of climatic conditions that your underpants might not rot. This would be a great disappointment, of course, but could be entirely due to drought, for example rather than a lack of healthy dirt. It does not mention whether or not you should water your underpants.

Everyone who participates in The Great Swiss Underpants Experiment will be listed as a scientific co-author when the results are published–a meaningful addition to your post-COVID19 CV.

 

 

 

No, It’s NOT an April Fool’s Day Joke

I have a young sharp-eyed stringer who lives by the Welland Canal that connects the Great Lakes of Erie and Ontario. The Regional Municipality of Niagara is situated in southern Ontario, Canada, right on the American border. This area is not to be confused with the Greater Niagara Region of New York. Not even close.

Probably due to such regional proximity – not to mention the long-standing rivalry of the American and Canadian bits of Niagara Falls–all things military are of vital interest.

Now, we might never know why he was obviously surfing women’s underwear sites, but let’s just say he came across the Swiss newsflash by accident.  Starting this month, female recruits in the Swiss Army will have their own (female-shaped) underwear. There will be two sets of underpants—no legs for summer duty, and long legs for winter. The upper-body garment seems to be a state secret.

Now I have it from rock-solid authority (Swiss ex-army man, Corporal, Artillery) that there is no rule that you HAVE to wear Swiss army-issue underpants. He, for example, never did. No one checks.

You could bring your own favourites from home and were even provided with a special little canvas bag that you mailed home once a week filled with army-ravaged socks and underpants.   One’s mother would then take over and do her bit: washing, starching, ironing and sending back to boot-camp (postage-free) the newly-fragrant items. Usually a Toblerone chocolate bar was added to keep up morale.

However, genuine army-issue underpants have always been available. What has previously been handed out was simply XXXL men’s underwear. From what I see of the skinny little recruits on patrol from time to time in the Geneva countryside, they could probably wear these clothing items, fashionably, on the outside of their uniforms.

But we move with the times here in Switzerland, and our Shakespearean Defence Minister, Viola, is a woman. On International Woman’s Day of this year, she announced her desire to see an increase in female army recruits from the less than 1% at present, to 10% within the next decade. To aid in her vision for the future she also announced the new Swiss Army Underwear Scheme. It has been specified that the new underwear will meet the specific needs of women and that the ergometrics of the female body will be taken under consideration.

Well, THAT should pull them in.

As all international news articles have been pointing out, men and women in the Swiss Army have had the same duties since 2004, and whether crawling in a muddy ditch with a 27kg pack on your back or sitting at a desk all day, bunched-up underwear could put you right off.

So, we’re hoping that positive reports are going to be available soon. We’ll keep our eyes peeled and our fingers crossed that the new gotchies are snug and comfortable.

We’ve come a long way, baby!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

COVID Conversations

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but out here in the Geneva countryside, people seem to be getting grouchier and grouchier.

Take the hedge police, for example. Back in the day they would come, look you in the eye, and explain that your relationship with your own personal flora was criminal (https://blogs.letemps.ch/joy-kundig/2016/05/17/busted/).

These days, a man phones in the middle of the night and over the noise of his snowplough, yells that your hedge is causing international chaos, possible road-closure, and that a specialized enterprise will have to be called in unless you deal with it, pronto!

We considered phoning the village COVID19-help hotline which offers services to at-risk retired people, but thought this just might make matters worse, as they would call HIM to come and help us, and he didn’t seem to be in the mood to appreciate the irony.

So we stepped out, intrepid, into the cold darkness, armed with flashlight and clippers. Minutes later, four long bamboo shoots (asylum seekers from the neighbour’s garden) lay dead beside the road.

The next morning, with mental health still somewhat fragile, there was a rare serendipitous meeting with an old acquaintance. He was searching for green tea at the local supermarket. Upon masked and distanced enquiry about health and general well-being, he replied, “Can it get worse?”

This called for the direct question of actual illness. No, he said, he was simply hanging on until January 26th. This being Geneva, one does NOT enquire further. Health problems are shrouded in secrecy. Not even I blundered into that one.  –Was it open-heart surgery, cancerous lump removal, a brain aneurysm that that needed to be coiled and stented, a colonoscopy???—

No, he went on, he was waiting for his COVID vaccination that had been arranged. Bitterly, he spoke of a friend who had had the blind luck to get a slot in front of him. He asked what we had done. I said we were just waiting for something to happen. A mild email had been sent to the family doctor. There had been no reply.

Mollified by our obvious negligence, and our not taking up coveted positions in front of him in the vaccination line-up, he explained his current personal search for elusive green tea. They only had bags here, and he would have to go to the shopping mall on the other side of the Rhone River to get the real thing.

I told him at least he had a mission—something to do. This was gasoline on the fire of frustration.  He stamped his foot and said he had MANY things to do.

Convinced that I had lost all human conversational skills due to months of talking only to the cat, a zoom call last night went a long way to restoring my mood and mental harmony.  An English friend announced he had applied to become an NHS Vaccination Marshall. It was hoped this position would include an anti-COVID shot.

We laughed and laughed and laughed.

You Don’t Light a Candle from the Bottom

One good thing about the COVID19 situation is that the world comes to you if you wait long enough here in the Geneva countryside. Well, some of it does. There are a few things recently that have come all the way from China, only to have been delivered to the wrong people, but that’s a whole other story.

For example, there are the birds: Black kites, to be exact. They come from Senegal and are normally migratory. However, a canny butcher in a neighbouring village scatters his lawn with meat scraps every morning. Word has got out, and the lazy birds no longer continue their migration to the beaches and garbage dumps of the North Sea, but stop right here for their tasty-treat summer vacation. They can be seen wheeling about the sky in a huge flock after their daily brunch. They all fly back to Africa in October, fat and happy, and spend their winter dreaming of next year’s Swiss holidays.

Then there was the surprise visit of the roof painter. He was an integral element in the solar panel installation saga, as the Geneva Department of Monuments insisted that every square inch of our roof be completely covered by the panels to avoid unsightly orange tile areas sticking out around the edges. (They had obviously been talking to the kites, as no one else could possibly be disturbed by what is necessarily an eagle-eyed view.) He had brought a picnic with him, and spent the day both on and off the ladder. We talked of grandchildren and chased away the wasps.

The roof is now a homogeneous shiny black and looks sharply Japanese.

I have been at home for all annual services – the water softening man (from Java) was a particular pleasure. He was charmingly polite and masked and shoe-covered. He admired a piece of ikat weaving and asked its provenance. His grandmother used to weave.

And the very best was the normally elusive chimney sweep. He started as usual, putting a note in the letter box stating a date and a day that did not match. This was followed by his showing up a week early. I expressed surprise and Swiss wifely concern that the fireplace was not cleaned out ready for him.

At the end of his visit I was presented with a box of matches and fire starters, and a small lecture.  He asked if I light fires from the bottom, and when I answered in the affirmative, was told that this was wrong and there was a new method: You place your big logs at the bottom, and on top of them you place the little hand-made fire starter bundles. One match and your fire magically starts and somehow the logs underneath catch and the fire is smokeless and we save the planet.

I asked if there were going to be random police checks on this new technique, and he said he didn’t think so.

 

 

The Swiss Village Post Office Solution

Apart from being dead, the mouse looked extremely healthy. Miniature (bad news) soft grey fur, it was flushed down the upstairs toilet. There was no ceremony.

Then things got worse. There are some days that you might as well be hiking up Kilimanjaro worrying about altitude sickness and the melting glaciers than staying at home in your village in the Geneva countryside.

A morning trip to the post office was essential—voting forms, a parcel, and a letter. This now entails either a dangerous bike ride through the music-pounding commuter cars, or you brush the wet leaves off your automobile and race along with them. Unfortunately, our own convenient village post office closed down some years back, and we now have to travel about five kilometres up the hill to the next one.

There, my friendly post-lady was in a flap, as I enquired about recent transactions on my post office account and was told to go to a post machine in town. To try to cheer her up, I began our yearly bonding ritual centred on dates and weights for sending parcels to Canada for Christmas. At this point she lost the plot completely and told me I had to order stamps on-line as she was shutting down in a couple of weeks.

I understood she was having a bad day or that I was still delirious after the mouse episode and I returned home to take stock.

When the morning mail was delivered, all became clear. A flyer, featuring a carefully-coiffed, grey-haired, pear-earringed, pleasantly smiling, smartly-jacketed, leather shoulder-bagged, fingernail-painted Swiss white woman (she is holding a bundle of exciting-looking letters and voting forms) explained NOT that the post office was shutting down, but that it was relocating to a grocery store right beside the Chinese pizza restaurant.

This was all our fault, as we were no longer using the post office as much as we should. And as a “service” to all the old fools who have not mastered the art of sending packages and letters and voting forms via their smart phones, the village had found this nifty solution.

It is presented as a very radical improvement as the grocery store opens at 7 am seven days a week.  The spin is that WE, the ancient ones, are the lucky ducks. Not only can we still pay our bills, get some cash, and send thoughtful gifts, in the dark of morning but we can do our shopping as well! If we plan this right, by 8 am we can be back at home and have the whole day in front of us.

Along with the flyer, there was also a very nasty speeding ticket. How this could have occurred in a construction site is a complete mystery to me. So, I am looking forward to the opening of the new grocery-enhanced post office. I will drive to it slowly and carefully and never have to race into town again.

 

 

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.