My New Unhappy Career

Well, when I first came to Geneva in the late seventies, grocery shopping was an awkward, embarrassing, socially and emotionally dense business.

We lived in a village on the lake and the general store was on the corner just below the church and the old castle tower. It closed at mid-day of course, so you had all morning to prepare your list and practise pronouncing the slippery French words. By the time 3 o’clock afternoon opening rolled around, you were a bundle of nerves, shaky and blotchy. Your list had turned into a scummy ball of grey mush. You were going to blow it. Again.

It was a one-woman show, and the lady behind the counter and in front of her meat-slicing machine and her out-sized basket of baked goods and her tins of tuna and bags of pasta had the understanding and the grace of a dragon in a cave guarding its hoard of gold. There was self-service nothing, and the array behind the carefully-coiffed head was so intricate and tightly-packed that you could not get away with pointing and mumbling.

She spoke not a word of English, and I recall the worst thing being her constant use of “ça va?” Not understanding what THAT meant, the question was more than moot. It became a linguistic and intellectual red-hot poker of shame.

If things got complicated and she started playing with my mind by asking about the thickness of the ham slices or the weight of the butter package I wanted, a quiet line of villagers, armed with wicker baskets, would materialize behind me.

Leaving was also traumatic as she often insisted on the correct change. Fifteen was my worst number and I still don’t like to use it or think about it much.

Today, some forty years later, I visited my suburban supermarket where the shopping experience has become a sad and empty affair. This morning there was only one human cashier (with a huge queue snaking up to her through the shampoo aisle). She looked frazzled.

There were, though, eight automatic scanning machines. They looked plastic and hygienic.

At one cramped, beeping machine, I methodically scanned each of my precious items and was watched carefully by an ex-cashier now turned shopping trolley cop.  Not a word was spoken as I searched for the barcodes and filled my two shopping bags. I was doing her job. Slowly and badly.

When the process was finished, she wandered away from her observation post and I received a screen message that a store person had to verify my purchases.

Called back, wordlessly with not even a grunt, she flicked her magic tag in front of the machine. Not a single murmur of praise about my masterful shopping or the clever choice of German asparagus or the lovely bit of fish. No questions about the Chinese 5-spice jar or the chopped pistachios.

Not a single “ça va?”

The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Following in the old family tradition of hiking with the friendly help of buses, trains, and one-armed car-drivers, this Easter holiday we set off from the south-west corner of Switzerland to revisit the apple blossoms of the north.

It started well with dawn’s rose-red fingers lighting our way to the village bus. This connects conveniently to the commuter train into Geneva’s main station. Schadenfreude overwhelmed us, as a commuter, dressed in his banking clothes, raced madly down the hill past the vines to catch our train.

Five hours later, and restored by a light lunch at the Trauben Inn of soup, salad, liver, bärlauch gravy, sausages, rösti, and a child-sized bottle of pinot noir, we set off north, over the Ottoberg Mountain to the shores of  Lake Constance.

We were a small group of three, but our intent was clear: backpacks, cameras, binoculars and spare socks defined our touristic ambitions as we toiled up the steep slope, breathlessly admiring gardens and trees, past the Schloss, through the forest, to the little bench at the top of the hill where you could sit and admire the Appenzell Alps and the Säntis to the south.

Unfortunately, to the north, the expected Lake Constance was nowhere to be seen. Instead there were hills rolling off into the far distance, church spires and clean cows munching alfalfa.

At this point our tour leader came in for some rather sharp questioning and it turned out that when this route had been previously travelled, at the age of 14 with a bicycle, the distances were much shorter. The youngest member of the group lay down on the asphalt road, said she couldn’t walk anymore and demanded a caramel.

We set off for the closest church spire speculating that there would be a village bus that could get us to a train that could get us to the lake. We admired the huge tractors were parked at the front doors of houses. A farmer, digging post holes, chatted in his sing-song guttural language about the April heat and lack of rain and how he could only get one cut out of the grass he was growing on his north slope.

Winding and digressing lanes took us down to Hugelshofen–a village of many cars but few people.

And this is how we ended up sitting, quite happily, in the Thurgau countryside across from a closed restaurant with apple blossoms swirling around our heads, breathing the heavily manure-perfumed air of the landwirtschaft. Cars slowed down to stare at us. We drank the possibly-poisonous but cooly-delicious water from the fountain. We admired the inventive children who had built a ladder of kitchen chairs to climb a tree.

For me, that hour at the bus stop was the highlight of the trip. A stranger in my own country, muscle-sore and weary, waiting to be rescued by a bus.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cuba #3: The Operatic Walk

There are no signposts in Cuba and you should always take a local guide with you on even the simplest of walks; otherwise, you could become lost in the fields and end up chopping sugar cane and living in a rural commune for the rest of your life.

The overture of the walk meant finding a muddy spur road at the top of the hill. The air was clean and the sun was comforting. We stepped into our first orange puddles with a feeling of calm, brave stalwartness. As the path became a lake, mild adventure took over and barbed wire fences were crossed as the path disappeared. We were mildly lost and got fearless soakers.

We were saved by a group of riders as they bumped and splashed along on their rented horses, losing objects from their pockets and grimacing in terror. We followed them and broke out onto the upper plateau: Butterflies, birds, vistas. I sang an aria that expressed my exuberance in the midst of such great natural beauty.

After the first intermission (where beer was served) the trails then converged and, suddenly, there was a plethora of horse-tourists. All politeness had vanished, and a cowboy brushed too close and kicked me in the backpack.

A word was spoken to express annoyance and the Cuban horse-tour primo uomo became deeply, darkly angry. His solo from the saddle expressed Wagnerian rage, hatred, and macho supremacy. His gesticulations became so wild (as he demonstrated the size of his own personal private parts) that he dropped his horse whip.

We continued, sadder but wiser, on our way.

We followed the deep hoof prints along the rolling river and up a steep muddy bank to find a farmer smashing beans beside his hut. We asked the way back and he gesticulated towards a far-off hill. Calm slowly returned as we slogged through the heat and the dust towards the Mirador—a shed with stools that offered us a vista, shelter, and drinks.

Nice young men (horseless) pointed out, with pride, an apartment tower rising from the tobacco fields. It had been built by Chile’s Allende back in the day in support of the Cuban social system. They found maps on their cell phones and pointed us in the right direction (6 km) through the underbrush. I gave them Swiss chocolate. They gave me plant-stem straws.

Half way down the hill, we were caught by the glittering eye of Viñales’ very own Ancient Mariner, and he showed and explained his collection of fossils, meteorites, medicinal plants, tobacco, honey and home-made liquor. He told us his tale of being a professor in Africa for the Revolution. It was poco difficile. I fell asleep.

Trudging the last few miles along the paved road, the finale was filled with testy fatigue and boredom and we sang a duet of sore feet and dissonance.

In retrospect, though, it was a most enriching, endearing and entertaining walk. Bravo!!! Encore!!!

 

 

 

 

Cuba #2: Shopping for Nothing

As a tourist, one of your obligations is to shop. You do this for yourself and for others. A delightful scarf here, a lucky temple bracelet there, and sculpted frogs wherever you find them. You quietly shop and you collect and you forget. This is tourism at its very best.

Japan is probably my favourite tourist-shopping destination. You head off to your local suburban Peacock Department Store and you are sure to find curious and unusual treasures—a dried pack of seaweed, a porcelain bowl with painted fish, a vacuum-packed octopus, an elegant ink brush or knife—all delightful and inexpensive.

In Thailand you look out for bamboo placemats and silk underpants with green elephants. In India you find intricate metal cows and beads from the Nagaland. In Egypt you buy parchment, dusty antique jewellery and camel-bone miniatures.

In Cuba you buy nothing, as there is nothing to buy. Their best cigars and finest rum are all exported, so you are left with banana-leaf cigars and run-of-the-mill, bargain-basement Havana Club.

In certain towns where the tourist groups are bused, there are millions of identical Ché Guevara t-shirts, hats, licence plates and posters. In front of bakeries and drug stores there are constant line-ups as Cubans wait patiently to see what can suddenly be purchased.

In front of supermarkets, however, this is not the case.

Our first supermarket was in Viñales—an idyllic countryside town set in the middle of tobacco plantations and picturesque rock formations. Tourists come here to relax and do a bit of horse-riding along the unmarked trails. Everyone stays in the casa particulars (bed and breakfasts) for about two nights before heading back to their beach or boat worlds.

The supermarket there was picture-perfect: shelves were filled with bottles of rum, beer and wine which sold merrily at good strong Swiss prices. There were packs of chips, cookies, and cheese and the ubiquitous (expensive) bottled tourist water.

The second grocery store was outside the city of Cienfuegos and we were quite excited when we encountered a uniformed security lady at the door who made us remove our packs and put them in a locker. This was obviously a first-class, though sadly undiscovered, store and theft was rampant.

As it turned out, all the shelves in the whole shop held the same item: miniature cartons of pineapple juice. These towered up to the ceiling along all the aisles. It was a stroll through a pineapple juice castle.

At the back of the shop was the fresh meat section. This consisted of two pigs that had been butchered, boiled, and packaged into two oblong plastic sausage cases about the size and shape of a real live pig. The colour was bubble-gum pink and there were foreign objects added for interest. This is Cuban ham.

Anticipation, exultation, disappointment, epiphany: Cuba in a nutshell. We bought enough pineapple juice to keep us in piña coladas for the rest of the trip.

 

 

Cuba: Back to the Future

In every country, a tourist has to energetically perform specific tasks within a relatively short time-frame. This is the tourist imperative. There is surprisingly little Hobbesian free will in a good tourist’s world.

For example, visiting Switzerland you have to see the Matterhorn, buy a watch, and eat a cheese fondue. In Canada you have to dine on Nova Scotia lobster, see Niagara Falls, buy a bear-bell and go walking in the Rockies. In Bali you have to run away from the monkeys, buy ikat weavings and go to a gamelan orchestra evening show. Your actions are prescribed. You spend your money and stay focused on your touristic endeavours until it’s time to get back to where you came from. It is, frankly, quite exhausting.

In Cuba this is not the case, because there are no tourists. Anyone who manages to escape from their all-inclusive resort, gets separated from their cruise-ship crowd, or is just out and about on their own is NOT a tourist. She is a “punto”.

The punto is cash-rich with wads of Euros and Francs falling out of her pocket. Most of Cuba is dirt poor but many of these people are working in the fields, living in rural communes and never have the good luck to come into contact with a full-blooded punto.  The Cuban game is to try to separate the punto from her lolly. This is not done on a criminal level so is not dangerous. It is simply a national pastime and hugely entertaining.

The punto is hauling around so much cash because there are no cash machines in Cuba and when you come across an open cambio, you have to change some of your international currency into CUC’s – the tourist pesos (worth a dollar). This must not be confused with the local currency, which is also a peso (but is only worth five cents). For example a coffee costs 5 pesos. Does this mean 25 cents or does this mean 5 dollars?

Having recently paid 8 euros for a coffee at St Mark’s Square in Venice, I know that $5 is a POSSIBLE coffee price. But sitting in the squalor of the Malecon in Havana with buildings reduced to rubble all around you, it is a highly questionable situation.

A good tourist will pay the $5, and quietly ruminate that Cuba is a very expensive place. A wicked tourist will calmly put 25 cents of local money on the table, and then start laughing when the waiter says he wants 5 tourist dollars. The waiter will not be able to resist the magnificent joke and roll around the floor laughing that a good tourist has just paid $5 (about the price of a rotten old Cuban car) for a little cup of coffee.

This is the grease of Cuba tourist life—puntos, salsa, and mojitos—a simple world free from the modern nuisances of plastic, time, and fattening foods.  And most stimulating for the wicked tourist.

Paella by the Rhône

The second of January is an odd and unsettling day. The celebrations are over, but the old routines not yet re-established. The fridge is full of left-overs but the stomach is still ominously rolling after days of various excesses and strange combinations. (The evening of the fish-eggs and meatballs comes immediately to mind.)

The soul is not at peace as procrastination, a lowering sun and downright laziness have resulted in unsightly windows, sticky floors, and a heap of ironing.

Both the spirit and the flesh, slowed by chocolate, champagne and Christmas newsletters, are weak.

This morning’s walk was not planned. Shoes were wrong and coats were thin. There were neither gloves nor hats. There had been no hearty breakfast, and there wasn’t a caramel to be found in any pocket. It was the Rhone River’s sirens who beckoned us down to walk its shores.

Downriver from Jonction, past the drug dealers, the graffiti, and the garbage to where the washerwomen used to moor their laundry barges.  Past the cliffs of St. Jean, the river birds, and the fields rolling up to the pretty 18th-century Villa Cayla. Then the climb to the viaduct over the river with its classic view of the meeting of the Arve and Rhone rivers with the Salève and Alps as the backdrop. Up and up, into the park of the Bois de Batie with its howling dogs and cackling geese, and then down again to the urbanized river path.

And then we met him. The Geneva Tourist.

The wind was blowing directly down from Siberia, through the tunnel of apartment buildings and along the river. The closed café terraces were stark and empty. The first public barbeque grill was filled with abandoned half-burned logs, but at the second one there was a man and a boy, and they were busy.

The man had an old-world Botero aspect. Well-dressed against the wind with muffler and parka. Thick tie-up shoes. Impeccably groomed. The boy was chipper and bright.

They had tentatively lit some big black coals and were trying to protect their little fire from the wind.  The boy was gathering twigs. We hailed them in French, as they were obviously not tourists. No silly hats or shoes or behaviour. But no. They could only speak Spanish or English, he explained, as they were on holiday at his sister’s place. He introduced himself as a bonafide tourist from Paraguay who had been sent out of the house to make a paella.

In the bags at his feet were the makings of an elaborate family meal. His fire was pathetic and the cold wind relentless. He was, however, cheerful and resolute. He had a plan and all its ingredients to hand. Things could only get better.

And so, in these out-of-joint days when it seems that everyone else is doing something else, take heart! Somewhere out there, there is a tourist busy doing something completely impossible.

 

 

Living the Five-Star Life

There is a truck-stop on the Pan-American Highway in Ecuador. If the winds blow right, you have a clear and solid view of the Cotopaxi volcano from the smeary picture windows. And in the other direction there is a sweeping vista down the length of the valley.

This is a place of lost dreams and present-day hopes.

You are beckoned in from the highway by a skinny guy standing in the road frantically waving a red piece of cloth on a stick. You must slow to a dead stop to take the 90 degree turn over the culvert. There is a bus stopped just a bit further on with its driver lying underneath.

There are lots of parking spaces in the rocky wasteland around the brick building, and a young pony-tailed woman wearing blue plastic gloves is manning the smoky barbeque pit. There are five hand-made metal stars fixed to the front wall. The banos are around the back.

The waiter is dressed in a home-made uniform and looks like a cross between a bellboy and a policeman. Short and stocky, he is tightly buttoned in and stands straight and attentive. His black oiled hair shines impeccably. He offers deliciously tender meats served with local vegetables. The plastic water bottle is placed over his left paper-napkin-draped arm as he offers the label for inspection. He lights a candle on the table.

We later see that these attentions possibly are the result of his having successfully accomplished a Diner’s Club course for becoming a refined server. The diploma is above the till.

The meal was served. There were big green beans as appetizers, and then main dish of roasted meat was undefined and jaw-breaking. The vegetables were slippery mush except for the starchy white corn cob. There was a recognizable boiled potato. We tried to hide things on our plates to avoid disappointing our refined waiter.

A visit to the exterior bathrooms revealed that the sink and toilet were ecologically friendly as they were water-free. A barrel of limpid liquid was at your disposal with a red plastic bucket floating on top. You made your own-sized flush.

Anxious to be on our way, we rudely broke all refined restaurant protocol and went to pay at the till. Our ruffled waiter immediately disappeared into the back room and returned five minutes later with a hand-written bill, a bow and a flourish. He might have tapped his heels together.

While waiting, we had perused the Serving Diploma, seen a startlingly professional show-biz photo of our waiter with the barbeque girl in another glittering life when they had been musical entertainers. Their dusty CDs were for sale.

The bright lights of the city had been abandoned, and replaced with another kind of show at the El Mirador de los Volcanes Restaurant.

On the Pan-American Highway in Ecuador there is a refined five-star restaurant. It has a view and a dream.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Swiss Packing Cube Blues

I had always thought I could pack a good stiff suitcase: Ironing, folding, smoothing, and caring. Toiletry and shoe bags were my only packing accessories. My skill, I thought, had reached its apogee and could not possibly be improved.

And then I heard about Packing Cubes.

These indispensable items are nifty sets of nylon and mesh zippered cases of various sizes and colours in which you place specific objects of the same genre, and place them in an aesthetically pleasing fashion in your big suitcase, your carry-on bag or your backpack.

By manipulating and rolling properly (yes, there are numerous on-line videos of how to do this) you can pack in a highly organized and satisfactorily dense manner. You are advised to keep a spare flattened cube empty for your dirty laundry. You can get so much into such a small space that you can barely heave your hand luggage into the overhead bin.

Nothing gets mixed up. Each exterior cube is a light-weight, strong, and waterproof xenophobic island of isolation. There is the sock cube, the shirt cube, the electrical objects cube, the chocolate cube. You see what you have and where it is at all times.  It is sort of like putting an identification bracelet on your clean underpants.

My packing cube obsession blossomed fully when I got home and opened my Greek vacation suitcase. I know we had encountered a double Med-i-cane, but I cannot blame these two typhoons entirely for the squalid suitcase soup I encountered.

I must admit, there is a certain element of childish delight in the rogue suitcase, as you discover items that you had forgotten about—the olive-wood salad servers or the Greek folk-lore CDs—or the thrill of finding a pair of perfectly fresh socks. But suffering from a very severe bout of PTVD (Post Traumatic Vacation Disorder) this time the charm was lost on me.

My online search for my very own set of packing cubes began with eagerness and optimism. A few years back I Marie-Kondoed my t-shirt drawer. I still only wear my three or four favourites, but now I can see all my non-favourite loser t-shirts standing perkily upright filled with false hope and daily disappointment. I figured cubes could lend this level of drama to my next suitcase adventure.

There are, of course, millions of packing cubes available from our universal suppliers of all goods and I trolled through them with glee. However, sadly and mysteriously, none of these ship to Switzerland. Well, not quite true. There was one supplier that would send me three cubes for just under 100 Swiss francs and guaranteed delivery in six weeks.  (Note: in normal countries a set of five ordinary packing cubes costs about $25, and ships the next day.)

I then tried some major Swiss department stores and specialized luggage shops. Searching for les ensembles de sacs de rangement brought up nothing relevant. The closest I got was a pair of clear plastic garment bags. You place your textiles in them and then attach the nozzle of your vacuum cleaner to the appropriate orifice and create your own vacuum-packed sheets and towels. This was obviously a piece of technological Swiss wizardry circa 1962.

Worrying about my mental health, a family member suggested that I try the Eastern world, as the Western markets were obviously not working well for me. Yet another moment of euphoria as I explored the millions of Chinese packing cubes. Having made my choice (prices a fraction of the rest of the world) I was devastated to discover that the minimum order was 8,000 sets.

It was exactly at this point that the packing cube bubble burst and I returned to a world of suitcase sanity and relegated packing cubes to the same category as grapefruit spoons, butter dishes, and avocado plates. Useless decadence.

For my next trip I am swearing to pack only one extra thing of each clothing category, thus eliminating the need for packing cubes. In the meanwhile, each receptacle I see, I estimate its packing cube potential.

I think I’m getting close to assembling an amateur set.

 

 

 

Speeding Electric Killer Cars–WATCH OUT!

Well, you do everything you can. You sort your garbage, you compost your old peanut butter sandwich crusts, you wash your windows with Swiss do-no-harm-vinegar, you drink the hot smelly summer water out of the tap, you fight legal battles to try to get solar panels on your roof, you shop at the local farmer’s barn, you walk the three miles to the post office as the one in your village has been closed, and you still get into trouble.

There I was with my miniature garbage bag containing perhaps one multiply-used paper towel that could not be flushed down the toilet, on my way over the road to the garbage container when a big, silent, speeding, entitled, disdainful, white electric car came within a hair’s breadth of flattening me. Didn’t even slow down.

Specimens of Robins and American Kestrels at the MSU Museum on Monday April 16, 2012. The birds were part of George Wallace’s study on the effects of DDT in the 1960’s.

You will be happy to hear that I am NOT singing duets with Aretha and/or Elvis, but it was a very close call. I know we’re all supposed imagine a dreamy future of quiet roads and pollution-free electric cars, but I am suddenly scared.

Follow the evolution of my village corner:

In the beginning the road had two lanes, a couple of modest speed bumps, and cars had purring engines.

In the field over the road there were black-faced curly-horned sheep that could be happily fed my hedge trimmings. We worked in perfect harmony. These were my very favourite summertime neighbours. No radios, no snarling dogs, no complaints.

The friendly, useful sheep have been replaced by layers of apartment buildings. The latest one—long, grey, and ugly—is situated right smack on the edge of the road.

Once installed, the people who moved in were quite surprised to find that there was a real road RIGHT THERE outside their bedroom windows! Part of the road has now been turned into a sidewalk (specifically for their “security” the town hall has said.) The tiny bit of the road that’s left (impossible for two cars to pass) has been paved with a magical product that sucks in car noise.

Now you combine all of this with silent cars that people are proud of owning and quite excited that such an ecological product can accelerate so magnificently and go very very fast indeed, then you have a silent problem. Add to the silent automobiles, the speeding silent electric bicycles, and the latest rage that is filling the world with silent electric scooters, then you have a very very big silent problem.

Silent Spring was published one day after my 10th birthday. In it Rachel Carson, in a very calm and competent way, exposes how the indiscriminate over-use of the pesticide, DDT, in North America wiped out birds and insects and the countryside fell silent.

Same thing still happening. We, the lowly pedestrians, have become the birds and the bees. The quiet electrical torpedoes will get us unless we’re very very careful.

Time for us to scream and shout.