Sing, Goddamnit, Sing!

Any visit to Stratford (the REAL one in Ontario, Canada) and you are constantly star-struck.

It already begins on the Toronto flight with the hockey players. They used to be the nice young men sitting in the slum-class seats with their knees up around their shiny ears. They were giant, keyed-up and chattily practising their Swedish-English before hopefully hitting the lucky interview and a place in the NHL.

Now they are the former hockey players and coaches—still keyed-up and searching for North American talent to bring back to Europe. The last one I met was the general manager for the Ingolstadt Hockey Club. He seemed to be interested when I told him that Ingolstadt was where Victor Frankenstein, of Geneva, fashioned his now-famous creature. He said he would check it out, but gave me the tip that big bruiser players were no longer fashionable and miniature mosquito-type midgets were currently in vogue.

After landing, there is the exciting drive in the Parcel Bus that delivers you to your door. Actually, it delivers you to many, many doors before the one you want. The drivers are usually spry octogenarians and with their lack of hearing and canny survival instincts they are the true masters of the jam-packed 40l highway.

Arriving at my sister’s house—famous for its old and wicked beauty—you still cannot escape the clutches of fame. For example, she has fed Justin Bieber cookies which he has eaten with his own true teeth and swallowed down his very own Justin Bieber gullet.

Yes. This is a true fact. Stratford is Justin’s home town, and whenever his mother comes to visit, she jams with my nephew.  My niece’s daughter is lobbying hard for Justin to animate her next birthday party when she will turn 7.  Obviously, we are practically related to Justin Bieber.

Then there are the actors, the writers, the singers. The Stratford Festival theatre season runs for about 6 months, and after seeing the magnificent world-class plays, you can often catch a glimpse of Hamlet buying cornflakes at the supermarket, or My Fair Lady playing with her kid in the sandpit at the playground.

Summertime also includes outdoor cultural activities with art, music, and animation on the Avon Lake which, Mariposa Belle-style, is only a few inches deep. Picnicking on the edge one summer a rather rambunctious member of our party screamed at a packed raft floating past “Sing! Goddamnit sing!” Turns out they were members of an old folks home (or, perhaps, Parcel Bus drivers) being taken on an airing.

Even the local church is quite notorious. Last summer there was quite a scandal when thieves stole plants from their mixed border.  And at their jumble sale just a few weeks ago, I purchased a set of famous grapefruit spoons from the estate of a deceased famous person.  Upon enquiry, it seems the person is still alive.

Identity—mistaken and otherwise—is the very soul of Stratford’s star-struck life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

In Search of / The Curse of / The Solution to — Ten Thousand Steps a Day

An unseemly epidemic of healthiness seems to have broken out around me, and I am handling it badly.

Everyone seems to be in bike races, walking to Santiago de Compostela, climbing mountains, taking Aqua-Fit lessons, puffing on their exercise bikes, jogging miles with their dogs, and, much closer to home, trying to achieve 10,000 steps a day.

Interestingly, I have found that the best place to do this in a natural fashion is at airports. Frankfurt, for example, is very good; and by the time you’ve gone through the endless tunnels to the lounge and back to your gate, you have thousands of steps as you sit down on the plane and sip your restorative glass of champagne.

Taking a two-year-old grandson to the mall can also achieve the same, if not greater, level of physicality. Unfortunately, at the end, the clean, smiling, polite person offering you a glass of bubbly is usually missing.

Being a tourist in a strange city is also productive of many steps if the weather cooperates. You happily stride through the streets, climb clock towers, and stroll through endless churches and museums.

However, without these artificial settings, ten thousand steps can be dead boring: you get to know exactly how much time it takes (to the garage and back twice) and wonder if you can do it faster or if you can make your steps shorter. You try to get up early and get it over with. You try to fool your step-counter by waving your hand around while relaxing on the Chi Swing Machine….it doesn’t work and you fall asleep.

In other words, getting those daily steps under your belt can be a grind.

Art-in-the-woods walk, Vers, France

To alleviate this darkening mental cloud and to introduce a note of gaiety to the ten thousand steps, a new tactic has been introduced: The Geneva countryside is filled with villages; in the villages there are cafés: in the cafés there are affordable plat du jour lunchtime meals; clean and polite people ask what you would like to drink.

There is the Plain Walk. You park the car somewhere that is about 5,000 steps from the target restaurant. You walk there and back.

There is the Cultural Walk. You book a restaurant. You park the car somewhere and head to the ruin, or extraordinary site that you have located on the map, and do a discovery tour.  Exhausted but intellectually elated you saunter into the restaurant.

There is the Nature Walk. You reserve a table. You look at the dotted lines on the map, plan your route, battle through the untended paths, along rivers and over fences until you’ve completed your circle. Rather the worse for wear, you swagger into your café.

Preparation, execution, recuperation: ten thousand steps can fill your day. And with intense admiration of your own iron discipline you settle down on the couch with a pizza in the evening, already dreaming of what all the cooks are planning for your lunch tomorrow.

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.

 

Political Dynasty Disorder

It has been brought to my attention from the highest of confidential sources that the whole of Canada is cringing with embarrassment.

Justin Trudeau, it seems, has been publically making a complete ass of himself.

No. It’s not his silly socks or his political correctness for all of peoplekind, but, rather, turning his week-long holiday to India into his own personal Bollywood movie. Supporting cast features his wife and three kids. The villain of the piece is a Sikh extremist/criminal who should have come to an official dinner but had to be uninvited. And the wardrobe department has outdone itself with trunks full of fancy wedding kurtas, sherwani and pointy-toed embroidered slippers.

For the first three days, Justin visited the tourist sites and spun cloth Ghandi-style while dressed as a traditional Indian bridegroom. It started funny, and got quickly annoying.

It would be as if he had arrived in Switzerland dressed in Swiss folk costume, with the kids as little Heidi and Peters and Sophie in a bust-popping Germanic dirndl. A goat might have been part of the entourage.

Several reasons have been offered for his misplaced display of cultural appropriation. Those with a soft-spot for him have suggested his first trip to India with his dad, Pierre Eliott Trudeau (who was Canadian Prime Minister from the 1960s into the 1980s) had something to do with it. The cynics say he was trying to play to the huge Indian population in Canada—especially the Sikh contingent. The jokers say he was purposefully attracting attention away from (and thereby annoying) Donald Trump.

I say that he is suffering from a serious case of dynasty disorder. Kids, wives and siblings should not try to follow the old man down the chutes of political power. There are bound to be mishaps. Looks at the Kennedys, the Nehru-Ghandis, the Bhuttos, the Clintons, the Castros, the Kims, the lePens. Nothing good ever comes of it.

(Timely Warning! Be very careful what you wish for, Caroline Mulroney (daughter of Brian).)

There is an up-side to all of these shenanigans, however, as our Little Potato’s political antics are bringing us all together again. It has been a long hard winter in Canada this year and the resulting cabin fever has produced serious outbreaks of family testiness and winter squabbles. All of this is blowing nicely away, as we follow Justin’s totally mortifying holiday from hell.

We wrap ourselves in our blankets of Canadian common sense and decency and know what it is to be a good tourist: You dress quietly and discreetly; you stay calm and clean; you indulge in self-depreciation and good humour; you stand patiently in line; you try to pay more and get less; and you tip as much as possible whenever you can.

Everybody knows that you never ever “go native” or bring your own chef with you to cook the local food.

And we thank goodness that Justin is back in Ottawa again and that spring is just around the corner.

 

Europe’s Most Dangerous Airport

Nobody ever actually tells you that you’re going to be flying into one of the world’s most dangerous airports. However, if your local low-cost carrier sells you a ticket for a seven-hour round trip out of Geneva for 43.50 francs, be prepared for anything.

It started, as all good things do, with an idea—that old post-Christmas, chase-away-the-blues, ocean ozone week away. And, of course, it was not our fault that the flight to Funchal, Madeira—a rugged Atlantic island featuring fado, sword fish, water mills, poncha, irrigation canals, landslides, and viewpoints—was so surprisingly cheap.  So many kilometres for so little money. What a deal!

On our departure day we ended up (after six hours in the air) back on the Portuguese mainland in Porto. We even got a 7-euro supper coupon, and our flight was re-scheduled for the following morning.

Oh yes. We should have been in Madeira, but having flown out to the island, and examined the seething cauldron of rain and cloud and tempestuous winds below, the pilot chirpily informed us that we were not allowed to land.

Day Two meant getting up at 4 a.m. (again) but this time, we managed to successfully touch down at the little Funchal Airport. This was accompanied with much cheering and clapping–pilot and crew included.

The airport runway extends out over top of the motorway at the edge of the sea. It actually tilts up a bit at the end which I guess is a serious clue to the pilot as to which way he should be heading. It is more or less like landing on an air-craft carrier, except that there is no elastic bungee to catch your wheels and stop you going over the edge and into the drink.

There is no flatness in Madeira (except in the middle where the wind turbines are all continuously blasting at full-speed and no one in their right mind would ever want to land there). Plus, Madeira is a volcano and seriously close to the earth’s core (information gathered from the Lava Tunnels Volcanic Visitor’s Centre) so dramatic danger can be just around the corner at any place or time.

Our big fight with the lying and cheating car rental company is now fading into oblivion. Our walks in the laurel forests with the view of the wine-dark sea far below are anchored firmly in our memories. The poncha and passion fruit drink at the warm and sunny harbour is recalled with longing. The flour from the old mill has been baked into bread.

We even got our full week’s holiday, as our departure was delayed for 30 hours due to the windy rainy airport being closed yet again.

A winter trip to an Atlantic island can, eventually, be crowned with success. Money is not so important: just take lots of time with you.

 

 

 

Drinking Smoothies with Leonardo

We do not really have smoothies here in the Geneva countryside. We have yogurt and we have compost bins. We have juice extractors, lemon presses, and blenders. We also have neat and efficient Nespresso coffee machines and George Clooney’s face on airport walls. What else could we possibly need?

Suddenly, though, the smoothie bullet machine has become ubiquitous. In the January post-foie-gras struggle to regain levity and youth, the stores are heaped high with these never-before-seen, health-war, bomb-shaped machines. The clear plastic globe carries the charge and is shown stuffed with a mixture of fresh fruit and vegetables—plump, perfect, and pristine—all ready to be whizzed into your daily dose of wellbeing.

You add exotics such as barberries, Goji berries, chia seeds, wheat germ, hemp, linen, almonds, dates and cranberries. To smooth it out, you add an avocado and/or a banana. Apparently, removing the peel is optional.

The cutting/slicing/dangerous blades tear up the outer structures of the seeds and nuts and release their essential nutrients that would otherwise just slide right through you. You are warned not to include avocado or apricot stones to your mixture. You are rejuvenated as you suck down the pap.

You no longer need teeth.

As our cuisine dissolves, so do our minds. In my village in the Geneva countryside, there is no cable TV.  Until recently, we relied on an antenna on the roof and a receiver dish, wobbling in the wind, strapped to the chimney, pointing toward a possible satellite. However, a recent automatic upgrade on our telephone system means that Netflix has raised its head of seductive nothingness.

Inside this smooth advertisement-free world, you suck down mindless made-for-TV-series of brilliant non-qualified lawyers, zombies, fictionalized royal history, movie-star sex-criminals who suddenly disappear, and future princesses. We sit under quilts and approach death at an alarming rate.

You no longer need thought.

To counter this mushy decadence and inspired by a recent Venice visit to a cold church filled with Leonardo’s incomprehensible machines, I have blown off the dust and taken up volume one (out of three) of The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. This attempt to claw myself back into the world of gravitas has definitely not worked as the 500-year old observations are startlingly relevant and depressing as he worries about overpopulation, pandemics, climate disasters, political wandering wits, and the importance of truth.

Seriously stuck in the slough of despond, I have not moved past page 102 and the tome is now being used as a pillow for the Chi energy machine which is gathering dust under the couch.

I like to think that if Leonardo were around today, he would be busy building a rocket to Mars to save mankind. But, perhaps, he would have given up like the rest of us, and wearing a pair of pink pyjamas, be cuddled up to his boyfriend, mindlessly sucking on a millet and strawberry smoothie while watching Da Vinci’s Demons.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

A Fire and Fury Weekend

Well, it wasn’t really my fault that I read the book. It was just an experiment.

My Kindle is my very favourite object. It is literally the only gadget that I have ever truly coveted and ordered for myself. A colleague, stuck in hospital for a spell, actually let me hold hers and “turn” the pages some years back and I was captivated.

So the day before yesterday, I just had a peek to see if I could buy the famous sold-out book by the journalist, Michael Wolff. It was available, so I made a snap intellectual decision to read it as quickly as possible before it could be withdrawn and disappear into the ether (this has happened to me before.)

I am ordinarily not a chaser of ambulances and dislike political exposés, but this one struck me as important considering the size-of-the-button situation. A child growing up in Canada during the Cuban Missile Crisis, having nightmares about having to hide in the village culvert not to be blown up, I am oddly scared to death of nuclear bombs.

Anyway, I now possess the complete mental low-down on the White House (and I am not talking about the Shell garage up the hill.)  I know everything about D.C.

To those of us who have been following, unbelieving and mesmerized, the goings on of the American political scene over the past year, there is little that is startling or new. So, if you are not a committed reader, you would die of boredom quite soon. The names of the ex-staffers and presidential “friends” just go on and on.

There is very little juicy material (except a couple of cheeseburgers) to get your teeth into. As a teacher, I was saddened to learn that Donald does not know how to read which is why he has three tv screens in his (separate) bedroom.

Another interesting snippet is that Donald is frightened of being poisoned, and so, like a Roman emperor, has a cheeseburger taster—or, preferentially, orders take-out from McDonalds.

Then there’s the fact that for Donald, the White House is a definite accommodation downgrade. His luxury triplex in Trump Towers in New York, makes the Washington presidential mansion seem like a shack in the woods. The perks of bowling alley, cinema, and plane are not interesting or overwhelming (as they would be almost any other person) as he already has any of this stuff he wants.

But what really caught my fancy is that even his height is fake. He has added inches to himself to squeeze in beneath the “obese” scale of the BMI. He claims to be something like 8 feet tall.

Of course, all the routine stuff about the FBI, the Russians, young women, the concept of Trumpism, the definition of an idiot, the Kushners, Bannon, the generals, money laundering, fluffs out the story and gives it a bit of a political slant.

On second thought, perhaps it’s a good thing that Donald can’t read.

 

 

 

 

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.