The Thanksgiving Turkey Blow-Out

I should have immediately realized that all Geneva shops running out of canned pumpkin was a sign. And then there was my sister’s message proclaiming that not even SHE (the festive queen) roasts turkeys anymore due to the last one being raw, overcooked, and inedible all at the same time. She clearly mentioned a turkey jinx, and I should have dropped all turkey plans immediately and firmly turned my mind towards salmon mousse and osso bucco.

But no. Once a girl gets a turkey dancing in her head, there is a fowl imperative.

(Historical Note:  Yesterday was the second Monday in October and, thus, the real (Canadian) Thanksgiving. The one that the freezing British explorer, John Frobisher, celebrated with his men in 1578, followed by the French settlers of Quebec in 1604 forming the Order of Good Cheer and having a jolly good pot-luck supper with their native neighbours.)

So, on Saturday evening, a distinguished group of French and Japanese friends were invited to our house for supper. The menu was not announced as the surprise factor and the photo opportunities were a brilliant foil for any culinary disasters.

A 6-kg fresh French turkey had been ordered. When it was picked up, it weighed a startling 10 kg – the reason being “they only had big ones”.

I consulted my 1960s cookbook, and was informed that, when stuffed, it would need 9 hours in a slow oven. In the old days, this would have been sufficient information. But having squeezed the huge naked thing with shaking wrists onto a baking sheet and into the lukewarm oven, I started checking.

I now have serious issues with the World Wiglazed-and-lacquered-roast-turkey-840x486de Web. The amount of information there was entirely mesmerizing and contradictory. By the time I had read through it all and realized that (probably) the turkey needed to be started in a hot oven, it had already been in a cold over for over an hour.

Covered in aluminium foil (due to lack of a turkey pan) it sat there doing NOTHING for half the day. As the sun tipped over the mountaintops I began to panic. I had found my turkey baster, but there was nothing to baste. There were emergency consultations. The upshot was that the stuffing should, perhaps, be outside, not inside, the bird. My American friend recommended one hour per pound (i.e., 22 hours) and added the fact that in her family home they had a rocket that shot out of the turkey when it was done. (She might have been making this up.)

It was a long and anxious afternoon as I slowly increased the oven temperature. Emotionally exhausted, at the end of the nine hours I gave up and removed the turkey. Wrists (and all the rest of me) were shaky.

It was perfect, but this was just dumb luck.  Next year, I swear, I’m going to forget all about this feast, and celebrate the Geneva Fast (Jeune Genevois which observes the St. Barthomomew’s Day Massacre, 1572).

All you need to cook is a dead-simple plum pie.

 

Depending on the Kindness of Strangers

As a tourist you are perpetually dependent on the competence and the kindness of strangers—the drivers, the restaurant and hotel staff, your fellow passengers—all become part of a public puddle of general cooperation.

Usually, if your attitude is correct, and your luck holds, you swim about in a pond of congenial getting-by. Tips play a big part in this. In New York my sister taught me the fine art of pre-tipping the house-keeping staff, for example.  And writing bad reviews on an appropriate website also used to be an incentive for a reasonable standard of goods and service.

When the kindness puddle gets too polluted, though, it’s important to get to dry land as soon as possible. Everyone knows you can drown in an inch of muddy water.

Take the recent case of the Wild Boar Goulash Soup.

In one of Budapest’s best restaurants this local speciality featured as a course between the warm goose liver and the meat and dumplings. It was not even your ordinary goulash soup, but a special variety made with wild boar. (Query: is there such a thing as domestic boar?)

goulashsoupfeaAnyway, it consisted of tinned cubed vegetables and meat. I know this as a true fact, as I grew up eating tinned soup and loved it. Like a gourmet who can separate a single pearl of Beluga Caviar from a crystal bowl full of lesser eggs, I can distinguish a rubbery cube of tinned beef from any carefully-boiled home-made product. And tinned vegetables have their own texture that simply cannot be reproduced no matter how long you boil a carrot.

By my reckoning, a spoonful of canned meat and veg had been ladled into each bowl, a spoonful of paprika had been added, and it was all topped up with hot water. I wolfed down as much as I could of the solid bits before stopping to reflect, and then left the rest. My more fastidious dining-companion left all of his.

The waiter refused to take our almost-full bowls away, and a rather large lady came to enquire what our problem was. She was not exactly confrontational, but the musician playing the zither definitely stepped on the damper pedal so he could follow the interesting conversation that was about to take place.

It was not to our taste perhaps? We were not used to the paprika? Ah, but, exceptionally, her husband-the-chef had not made the delicious soup today and a sous-chef had made it. She would check with the kitchen ….

She never returned to our table. Much like the Lobster Newburg in Aswan (no lobster and the shells smelled of bleach) or the fennel soup in Istanbul (fennel had been replaced by chopped grass) yet another tourist restaurant had cut the final corner.

When this happens, it is our duty to gird up our tourist loins and send the simple, yet brave, message to the kitchen to tell the chef that it’s not good.

The puddle of cooperation (and the soup) might be better tomorrow.

PS  We left a big tip for the zither man.

Colo-Cola

Well, it seems just like yesterday when I had my last colonoscopy. I remember all the gory details oh-so-well: the shoe-box-sized package of product wittily named “Moviprep”, spending a cold lonely evening stuck on the commode, and apprehensively waiting in the murky bowels of the clinic where technicians stroll around with what look like rolled-up black garden hoses.

And now, five short years later, I’ve been nailed again.

I tried, as usual, to talk my way out of it. There must be a mathematical error. She had promised only every 10 years. No history of colon cancer in my family. My favourite food is muesli. She was having none of it, and retaliated with her own stories concerning family members fainting because of the needle in the back of the hand.

When asked point-blank whether she had actually had one herself, the reply was negative of course.

Intensive international research (a phone call to my sister) has revealed serious cultural discrepancies in the prevention of colon cancer. In Canada you just have to avoid Vitamin C and aspirins and send three-days-worth-of-poo samples off in the mail from the comfort of your own home. After that, no news is good news. Scurvy is a possible side-effect if one procrastinates too long.

If some medical emergency rudely requires a real “colo” then you go on a delicious popsicle, jelly, liquid diet for three days. Here, on the other hand, you are not allowed to eat any fibre food (fruit and vegetables strictly dave-barry-colonoscopy-certforbidden) for five whole days.

Then there is the trauma of the evening before your procedure. You fix your first litre of Moviprep (“colo-cola” in local flash medical parlance), drink (with a straw), and wait. Canadian instructions focus on creating a calming environment with soothing music, scented candles, feather-soft toilet paper, and humorous and diverting reading material. My instructions from the Swiss clinic were to avoid social entertaining on that particular evening as I would be otherwise engaged; and to call an ambulance if nothing happened within two hours.

Anyway, I have a few months in front of me to prepare as the colo doctor has not bought her 2017 agenda yet. I will find the softest eiderdown toilet paper, the loudest Wagnerian thunder-box music, and the most beautiful candles.

Colo-cola cocktails will be served with small paper parasols and black straws. But what I’m really looking forward to is the day after when I will be basking in the sure and certain knowledge of a lovely, healthy, Swiss-clean colo.

 

 

 

Re-entry Hicccups

The full force of the rentrée is with us. The roads are filled with cars, the schools are filled with kids, tanned doctors are back in their offices, exam sessions are underway, the usual French fall strikes have begun, and parking places in town have become rarer than hens’ teeth.

On the political scene here in Geneva a major story has just broken concerning the brilliant invention of the green plastic garbage can. The person in charge (the guy who brought us the concept of letting nature go wild along our public roads) has come up with the startling idea of having a compost bin handily situated right in your very own kitchen. This is to avoid putting heavy things such as corn cobs and nasty inedible sweet potato muffins in your main garbage can. This will, in turn, save money at the cantonal incinerator.

Fortunately, I don’t need a new garbage can, as I still have one that was given out by the Geneva government some 30+ years ago. In those old days of generosity, every household was given 2 garbage cans—a small one of green plastic and a bigger brown brother.  They were meant to stand side by side under the sink.  My retro green James-Bond-era plastic garbage can is virginal as buying the cute little plastic bags that fit inside, and then storing rotting organic waste near a hot kitchen sink somehow struck me as a stinky waste of money.

Agonizing over the circularity, unoriginality, and expense (1.6 million Swiss francs) of green plastic cantonal thought; my politically incorrect garbage can habits; and Geneva’s ever-growing green plastic garbage can mountain, I was struck by a conversation coming from the backseat of the car. The two passengers were discussing the origins of hiccups.

drinking glass of water upside downIt was hypothesized that hiccups result from stress, the proof being that the hiccup victim got an exceptionally bad case right after a small scholastic exercise concerning the multiplication tables. She had completely forgotten some of the trickier calculations (8×7 was a real bummer) due to the summer holidays.

The conversation went on to conclude that either the summer holidays should be shortened to two weeks (so that such lapses and distressing medical episodes could be avoided) or that, like bears, we humans should be able to hibernate all winter and, thus, avoid school entirely.

The average age in the back seat was 9 ½.

Perhaps Canada has got it right.  I’ve not heard anything about free political garbage cans. And there primary school teachers are simply cancelling repetitive and useless activities.

For example, cursive writing is no longer taught. Students learn to print in block capitals – much like the Romans. The curlicues and flying fantasies of penmanship are no longer skills deemed necessary. Stringing things together, like pinning clothes on an outdoor line, is simply a tiresome and irrelevant task.

MAYBENOONEINCANADACANSIGNTHEIRNAMEANYMOREBUTPROBABLYNOONEGETSTHEHICCUPSEITHER.

 

 

 

 

The Bell of Torment

Well, I’ve just got back from a few days of wellbeing (the Long Life formula for guaranteed benessere) at the Italian spa of Castrocaro Terme. Completely shattered.

The problem wasn’t really with the mud mask treatment. I had thought that after it was over the girl would have come back to get me and show me the way out. Fortunately, the doors are only locked very late at night.

And it also wasn’t the dagger glares that we received as we slid gracefully into the spa’s hot mineral pool. No one had handed us the obligatory shower cap, and, anyway, you would never dream of putting your head anywhere near the green sulphur water with its icing of brown froth.

And it certainly wasn’t the reserved breakfast tables in the most convenient and beautiful spots. We were fine down the corridor behind the pillars.

No. It was the clock tower bell.

clocktower2During the daytime, I swear, it was silent as a tomb. However, there were a few hints around town that things were not quite right. For example, there were ashtrays on all flat surfaces.

There was also a suspiciously well-attended thé-dancant in the hotel gardens. Couples danced their afternoons away to Italian versions of gentle nostalgic songs.

And the fruit and vegetable lady shut her shop firmly for the day at 9:30 a.m.

What happens, is that starting at about 11 in the evening, the clock bell begins to chime. It chimes the hour, and then it also informs you of every 15 minutes that pass.

For example, at 12:45 there are a grand total of 15 loud resonating gongs and you have exactly 14 ½ minutes to firmly doze off before the single chime at 1 a.m.

The stress is enormous. If you can get enough of the Long Life rosso under your belt, then you might have a chance of some refreshing slumber. However, if you accidentally wake up any time in the night you’ve had it. Willing myself into deep sleep within 15 minutes was beyond me.

You think of the pleasant things that have filled your day: the cobbler who has repaired your unstuck sandal for 1 euro; the delicious meal of fresh greens and porcini mushrooms up in the hills; your excellent purchase of a big blue glass Murano bowl. And then you start to think about smoking (for your nerves) dancing (to tire yourself out) or a double espresso (to sharpen up).

Leaning out the window at first light (6:15 a.m.) you see the fruit and vegetable lady open her doors, and her customers immediately start to flock in. The bar in the corner of the square opens with instantaneous clientele. All these people are not up early, they have been up all night.

Purchases made, coffee drunk, and dolce eaten, the town inhabitants will sleep the day away, until it’s time for the dance in the park and the night starts again.

 

 

The Coming of the Chip

Here in Switzerland there is no socialised medical coverage. No NHS, no OHIP, no Obama Care, no nothing. We pay a small fortune every month to the private health insurance company of our choice. Basic coverage is obligatory. If you want extras (such as an ambulance or a pair of glasses from time to time) you need a second “complementary” insurance. Don’t even think about dentists.

Your paperwork must be impeccable as each insurance company employs a team of mean and picky people who find all your mistakes so they don’t have to pay.

Right now is the insurance world’s exciting pre-season. In a few weeks, the companies will announce their increased rates for next year, and you have a small window of time when you can actually change companies. This takes knowledge, organisation, motivation and luck. Musical medical chairs and loads of unpleasant telemarketing. Most of us don’t bother.

I consider myself the picture of health. Of course, I take cheap generic pills for one thing and another, but this is simply to keep my hooligan doctor happy and (as I am hugely competitive) to get good scores on my annual medical exams.

I occasionally drink water and eat fruit and vegetables and strenuously vacuum at least once a month. However, the largest medical insurance company is offering an annual rebate of 146 Swiss francs if I walk 10,000 steps every single day. To qualify and prove my devoted athleticism, I must buy a device for my wrist and send the daily results to them via my smart phone.

chip implantYou also have to buy their complementary health insurance package, and I have calculated the cost of saving 146 francs to be the following:

  • 150 francs (cost of wrist step-measuring device)
  • 146 francs (cost of sending 365 sms’s)
  • 840 francs (cost of complementary insurance coverage)

TOTAL:  1,136.00 francs and this does not even count the cost of getting your device by taxi to your grand-daughter so she can do your 10,000 steps on those days when you are actually sick.

Obviously, the next logical step is a chip implant. Straight into the jugular. That way the insurance people can see it all: the smoke, the drink, the drugs, the laziness, the grease, the sugar.

Believe me, crime (cheese fondue) and punishment (ever increasing monthly medical premiums) are just around the corner.

Warning! Geneva-Government-Sponsored Aliens Could be Hiding in Plain Sight

Well, I’ve finally got to the bottom of the matter. On a minding-my-own-business drive through the Geneva countryside recently, I noted many new signposts planted by the side of the road. Slowing down to see what was up, they all read:  Ici la nature s’épanouit grâce à moins d’entretien. Now, this can either be translated as: Here nature flourishes due to less care; or, perhaps, more to the point: Here nature will run amok if you let it.

panneau_bords_routeIt seems that a few weeks back Geneva’s Environment Minister (interestingly, he is also the Transport and Agriculture Minister) made the sustainable, durable, biodiverse decision to not cut the grass along the verges of some 257 kilometres of Geneva cantonal roads.

In these areas of High Ecological Value, the flora will be studied (by whom?) and will be treated in a bespoke, tender, individual manner. There are even some places where there will be no weed-whacking at all, so as to protect innocent animals living beside the road.

I don’t know about you, but this seems the epitome of heartlessness, as the poor little frogs will not even be able to look both ways to see clearly before they try to cross the road.

As a tax-payer, you will be pleased to learn that this non-cutting of the weeds beside the road will NOT result in an increased budget for the department.

This is all most confusing, as a few years back there were cantonal ordinances out against certain plants. There were urgent news alerts about rag-weed and thistles. I recall an inspector coming to visit my garden to make sure I wasn’t sheltering any leafy criminals. (He didn’t find them, as they hid down in the bomb shelter until he left.)

In Ontario there are still mandates out against many sorts of unwanted, invasive, exotic, adventurous, poisonous plants—Purple Loosestrife, Giant Hogweed, Garlic Mustard, the Great Scottish Thistle. If you encounter any of these monsters, you should drop everything and report the sighting to the Invading Species Hotline at an important 0-800 number.

My own little biodiverse world (my garden) is chock-a-block full of nasty invasive species: three kinds of bamboo, the box tree moth caterpillar (Glyphodes perspectalis), and many species of triffid-like strangling vines that look like they have come straight out of Ankor Wat.

Swiss universities list almost 900 non-native wild plants and animals living in Switzerland, and I’m sure they’re not ALL living at my place. So if any of these rammy foreigners try to take over the happy hippy Heidi weed campsites beside the long-haired gentle Geneva roads I do hope someone spots them and just calls Tom at: +41 (0)79 417 09 69.

He is officially there to answer all questions, and should know how to politically process a cluster of hooligan Japanese Knotweed or some perky euphorbia lathyris poking out through a cloud of fragile Swiss buttercups.

Hectic Holidays in the Alps

It used to be that a summer in the French Alps in your old farmhouse was a time of mythic tranquillity: very Pagnol with shades of Manon des Sources. Oh yes. In the old days there were really fights about water—but that’s another story.

Only the seriously un-cool used to come here to this dead-end valley on vacation: the pudgy summer-camp kids from the suburbs of Paris, the national workers spending their two-week holiday in their government-built apartments, the tall Dutchmen swinging a gallon jug of rosé from one hand and rouge from the other strolling contentedly back to their campsites.

These days, though, the place is popping and the excitement of the valley is squeezing up the mountain sides. Down at the bottom to provide evening entertainment there are many exciting choices. The Zavatta Circus is in town for three days and this year features Tarzan (the real one).  You can buy tickets at the bakery but it is, sadly, already sold out.

zavatta tarzanThere is also the Hell Drivers Show—Le Festival des Cascadeurs—with their Road Monsters – truck cabins mounted on wheels as high as the ceiling. The poster pictures show them squishing normal cars flat. As this is all taking place down in the ski-lift parking lot, I suppose the most prudent of spectators walk to the show.

During the day the mountains have become a huge open-air fitness centre. Paths are filled with members of the millennium-generation—now approaching their 40’s—that we made the mistake of raising on orange juice rather than water.

They indulge in power-walking, trailing, racing, rock-climbing, parapenting, horse riding, canyoning, and mountain biking. They carry maps in special water-proof cases, wield high-technology walking sticks, sport athletic outfits that breathe, and wear expensive shoes filled with air. They are full of beans and power-drinks and vitamins and carry water on their backs like camels. In deep-sea diver-mode they actually suck on plastic tubes while asking directions. This is extremely disconcerting as one’s mind goes back to dusty hookahs in old Istanbul cafés.

They are determined to bend the mountains to their individual will. They pass their holidays in a whirl of self-centred physical exertion and emerge at the end stronger, better, fitter–more of themselves than they were before.

They have become holiday consumers and Brave New World-like have lost the idea of the holiday as a time of looking outwards and considering a completely different world. A holiday, at its best, makes you forget yourself along with your quotidian concerns and activities. It can make huge chunks of time and organization simply disappear. It is refreshing rather than exhausting.

I did, though, see one young man, walking up alone in rather ordinary clothes with only his smart phone in his hand. He kept stopping and looking at things strangely. I realized that he might have been wandering around inside Pokémon Go. If so, he had at least found a parallel world.

Beef Cheek Stew — a Light Lunch in France

In France, a sandwich for lunch is a sign of both culinary and moral failure. Of course, living in the Geneva countryside you can sometimes sneak in a peanut-butter-and-strawberry-jam-and-bacon-sandwich and no one will ever be the wiser—except, perhaps, your tattle-tale ever-expanding waistline.

So, attention must be paid, and proper French lunches addressed as often as possible. In fact, you can eat almost nothing, and it can be delicious.

Once upon a time, in the south of France the old mother of a friend used to cook for us. Protesting at her bustling morning activities—up early to the market for fresh products, working in the cool kitchen for an hour or two—she explained that what she produced was entirely ephemeral.  The soup was just water. The spinach soufflé was just air. The gigot was just the thinnest of slices. The fromage frais was medical (calcium). As was the fruit (vitamins).  There was a big basket of fresh bread on the table, just in case anyone was hungry.

Sitting down to eat is healthy, as are starched tablecloths and napkins. A serious lunch is eaten indoors where you are protected from the sun, insects, and deadly draughts. Only tourists, children, and bohemians eat outside. Knives and forks keep reflexes sharp and wrists and fingers strong. Bubbles in the water promote digestion and a glass of red wine successfully fights many many diseases.

12_Course_Table_SettingMenus are highly coded and there are a few basic traps.  For example, both façon grandmère and à l’anglaise means boiled in water which is often not so good.  We once had pork chops and vegetables cooked in this manner and the slop on our plates was exactly what we had ordered. You learn quickly.

Of course, there are occasional hideous surprises. A lunch in a small rather shabby mountain-village restaurant recently offered beef cheek stew as their plat du jour.  The cook (who hitchhikes to work) hadn’t been offered a ride early enough, and his cheeks had not spent a sufficient amount of time in the pot. They were extremely chewy and we spent some time trying to swallow them whole.

I was working on flattening them out and hiding them under my mountain of rapidly-cooling pasta spirals when a lady at the next table called over the owner/waiter/manager, and explained, pleasantly, that her knife could not cut the meat.  He dropped everything and tried to saw apart a big rubbery chunk. He failed, and then, along with the whole table, burst into laughter. The meal was officially inedible which was jovially accepted as an accident of life.

Relieved, and then restored and fortified with a café gourmand (a strong black French espresso surrounded by three little delicious deserts) we left happy and sincerely promised to return.

A French lunch out is a meal of hope and possibility. It takes time, and, occasionally, tolerance. And you must always keep in mind that if your beef cheek stew is tough today, it will probably be much better tomorrow.

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