The Secret Feast

Several important Canadian celebrations have been hijacked into Swiss public life over the past few decades. When I came to Switzerland in the late 1970s, for example, neither Valentine’s Day nor Hallowe’en existed.

Culturally craving a jack o’ lantern one year, I paid a fortune to buy an entire thick-shelled eating pumpkin. It weighed about 10 kg and was placed in the baby stroller to be wheeled home.  I do not recall what I did with the baby.

Curious about this unusual purchase, the farmer’s wife asked what I was going to do with the huge pumpkin.  When I described the necessity of carving an ugly face, placing a candle inside, and the banishing of evil spirits I’m sure word went around that a wasteful witch from the New World had taken up extremely dubious residence in the Geneva countryside.

Luckily, terrorism did not exist back then.

Similarly, if you wished for a spot of cheap-and-cheerful Valentine’s Day sentiment you had to cut your own pink hearts from construction paper as you had done as a child, and have found, somewhere, some unrelated chocolate hearts wrapped in red tin-foil to glue onto them.

Now both these events have been taken care of by a healthier more worldly-wise agricultural economic outlook, and these days the farmer’s barn (much expanded) has picturesque hay wagons full of different-sized “Jack-O-Lanterns” in the fall, and on February 14th is open for a full 12 hours of frenzied bouquet-selling.  The farmer’s wife has retired.

There are, however, a few small intimate events that have not yet been taken over by the entire global economy, and one of them has been celebrated in our house today – the great day of pancakes—Pancake Day!

Just as Pancake Day is not to be confused on any level with Mardi Gras (that they occur on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday is a startling coincidence), the Canadian pancake is not be confused on any level with the French “crêpe.”

A pancake is fat and robust not thin and ephemeral. It is short and stout and has miraculous little holes on one side that are to be filled with butter and maple syrup and a squeeze of lemon.

A pancake can never be eaten with leeks or ham. It cannot be folded, it has to be rolled. Like a golden bullet casing, it is more than itself. It is a concept.

When we were growing up, our mother made pancakes exclusively on Pancake Day. It was glorious. The great black cast-iron frying pan was cleared of its bacon dripping and heated. The pancakes I recall as delightfully slightly rubbery, and the melted margarine and golden corn syrup were runny and decadently delicious. The squeeze of an orange wedge turned it all into an event of grace and distinction—far above ordinary fare.

In our society of affluence and over-abundance it is not so easy to re-create the magic of a simple pancake. It is, however, important to try.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Robotic Underpants and other matters

A few weeks back, I read an article about how a third of accidents that happen to the over-60 crowd are due to falls brought on by lack of balance. To remedy this, Yoga and/or Tai Chi were highly recommended.

I have started Tai Chi. Well, I ordered the book (Classical Yang Style) and am working on the basic stance. The big fat tome is open to the correct page and placed in a Zen manner on the corner of the kitchen table. Every time I pass, I hold the Ma Bu (Horse Stance) pose for 20 seconds.

After just a few short days, I have quickly learned to not pass that particular corner of the table anymore and I am instead busy working on my inner yin and yang.

Lying flat on the living room sofa, breathing properly, I have just read three weeks’ worth of newspapers, and before dozing off, made the most remarkable discoveries.

For example, the “gig economy” was mentioned twice. I had somehow missed this expression. It means that no one has a proper job anymore. You just work short gigs (driving cars and making deliveries or videos seem to be the most popular choices) and then carry on with living. Legal clarity has resulted in the possibility that even zero-hour contract workers could have the right to vacation pay, daily work breaks, and redundancy payments.

This granted me a huge epiphany moment which solved the recent media flap about whether robots should pay taxes. Well, they’re going to HAVE to, as everyone else is going to be getting money for taking tea-breaks while not working.

Then there was the article about not showering as it seems that this daily ritual just wrecks your microbiome. It apparently takes about six months to completely give up this bad habit, but is well worth it as you save water and can avoid all those dastardly beauty products that are polluting the planet. Your bacteria proliferates and is extremely happy.

Obviously the man who is promoting this (a senior editor at The Atlantic) has not recently had to look after a one-year-old with a gastro. Anyone who has ever been covered with curdled milk vomit combined with liquid yellow poop will never, ever, turn their backs on a good hot shower with bubbles and perfume galore.

However, the very best item was the London Design Museum’s recent show which included a military invention to help soldiers carrying heavy loads in the battlefield: power underpants. Little sensor-packed pods and miniature motors pull strings in the fabric that give you extra support and help in sitting down or standing up. This makes so much sense, I’m sure it was a closely-guarded military secret for many decades before finally being leaked to the general public.

I am asking for a pair for my next birthday, and only then will move around to the deserted Tai Chi corner of my kitchen table and attempt stance two, Deng Shan Bu.

 

 

 

Donald Trump’s Inner Gandhi

I have just visited the Gandhi Museum in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, and have made the startling discovery that Mahatma (The Great Soul) Gandhi and Donald (Make America Great Again!) Trump are political soul-mates. I hope you are reading this, Mr President, as I doubt that many people will have noticed your inner Gandhi.

It came to me as I was standing in front of a black and white photo of Gandhi wearing a loincloth seated at a spinning wheel. A master of media imagery, his message was clear – Indians must spin and weave their own cloth in the traditional manner. Imported British cloth must be boycotted.

Foreigners Out! Foreign Products Out! Make India Great!

Imagine if, some 85 years later, there had been a video clip (was there?) of candidate Trump in his red cap and a pair of worker’s overalls on a Ford assembly line in Michigan helping a robot mount an engine in the latest model of a (red) Ford Mustang. Every guy in the whole of the US would have voted for him (did they?).

Gandhi, vastly popular, devoted the last 30 years of his life to achieving Indian Independence. His thoughts, his dreams, his aspirations, his daily life became a purposefully open book. He slept little, rose at 3:30 a.m. and then filled the rest of the night with letter writing. This was followed by days of interviews, meetings, hunger strikes, long marches, spells in jail, and speeches. He was always doing something to maintain and increase attention and contact.

The shining example of mediatic brilliance was Gandhi’s wearing his loin-cloth to visit England in 1931. This skinny, ugly, old guy with a towel wrapped around his privates was much-criticised for his lack of disrespect to the king. Bald and toothless, he must have been cold as he cheerfully commented: “The king wears enough clothes for both of us.”

Sound familiar? A popular reality TV show? The 3 a.m. Tweets? The odd hair? The shambolic suits and clown ties? The unnaturally white 70-year old teeth? Criticising the establishment? The pre-fuss about the possibility of the Ugly American meeting Her Majesty?

Just as Gandhi was a product of India, so Donald is a product of America. Gandhi was a cliché of poverty. Trump is a cliché of wealth. They are the two extremities of our pretend/wished-for/normal middle-class, middle-of-the-road world; and as such they both disturb.

Gandhi was outrageous taking on the British Empire; just as Trump is outrageous taking on the world. Gandhi’s dream that the untouchable/Dalit caste be abolished did not happen. Similarly, Trump’s promise that every American worker will have job in America making products for Americans will not be filled.

However, Gandhi’s wish for the independence of India did come about, and in the initial act—the 1947 partition—it is estimated that up to 2,000,000 people died in the religious genocide that followed and 14,000,000 people were displaced.

So, Mr President, living alone in your great white elephant ashram in Washington, be very careful what you wish for.

Buddha is my Airbag

Having arisen from my New Year’s sick bed and adjusted my drug combination accordingly, I now find myself in deepest darkest Tamil Nadu.

It is a relief to have missed the hysteria surrounding the new American president’s inauguration. Searching hard, I did find a small article on page 16 of The Hindu which reported that Mr Trump has replaced the red curtains of the Oval Office with some drapes of his favourite colour – gold. There was even a picture to prove it. VERY Great Gatsbyand we all know what happened to him.

However, here we do not rely on international news for second-hand frissons and thrills. It’s happening all around.

The days do have their gracious moments – strolling the windy sea-front, admiring the sparkling saris and the police in their red képis. And there are also exciting protests against the attempted banning of the temple sport of bull “taming”. These feature bands of shouting/chanting young men throwing beer and coke bottles up in the air to smash back down on the sidewalks. They look and sound fierce and are filmed by a moving wagon full of TV cameramen. Together they are making tonight’s news.

Strikes are called and all shops shut under the threat of official strike enforcers with badges and big sticks knocking out their windows. Broken glass seems to be a leitmotif.

A group of ladies – dressed in red and pink and orange – march along the seafront under the slogan “We Will Go Out” claiming their right to non-harassment in public places.

The nights are long sleepless affairs. The music that drifts along the Bay of Bengal, pushed by the north wind loses very few of its decibels and reaches our room in pristine tone and volume. In the very early morning Allah calls and the church bells ring.

The street dogs that sleep placidly in the sun all day awake when the sun goes down and howl the night away. Likewise the cars, tuk-tuks, and motorbikes honk ceaselessly as they ply the streets communicating to each other like a flock of Canada geese on speed.

The little baffed-out Tata car that is driving us to the great temples of the south has a Ganesh on the dashboard, lots of dents and scrapes on all doors, and a driver with the three good-luck ash lines of Shiva on his forehead. We wear our frayed seat-belts on as we bash our way through the villages skirting trucks, buses, dogs, cows, goats, and humans. The driver sticks, cannily, to the centre of the road. There are no air-bags.

The birds are flocking. The music is rising. Evening is falling. Time now to check out the toilet paper situation in the thunder-box; turn on the geyser for a spot of hot water; find some fresh innerwear; and pour myself a chhota-peg.

They Eat Thistles for Christmas

Well, shopping this morning was a complete nightmare. This was because I got there too early.

It was not my usual shopping crowd—the single women, sometimes men, whizzing around with their self-scanning devices, with a purposeful glint in their eye, placing items surely and steadily in the jaws of their organized shopping bags in preparation for an instant departure to other, better, places.

No these were seriously old people. Not normally old like us, but ancient.

It seems that most of them had forgotten they had ever been to a supermarket before. They also forgot their shopping trollies and much merriment was had by placing items in strangers’ baskets. They worked the store in couples and often lost each other in the aisles. Most of them had forgotten how the fruit and vegetable weighing machine worked and then stuck the ticket onto the wrong item. I saw one old gentleman take off his hat in the yoghurt section and leave it there.

As they were the vintage, traditional crowd, many of them were buying their Christmas cardoons—not the prepared-for-wimps sort in the glass jars, but the real sort full of strange dye and nasty prickles. All these old folks are now doing culinary battle with this most obstreperous of vegetables. Only the quince, I feel, is a plant that has a greater reluctance be eaten.

The cardoon is brother to the artichoke and it originates from the south of France. Its first seeds came north to Geneva in 1685 with the Protestants fleeing persecution at home.

Our Thorny Silver Cardoon of Plainpalais is difficult to handle. The idea of using a soft brush to remove the thorns and white outer skin is outrageous. You need gardening gloves, a good Japanese housewife’s kitchen knife and lots of verve. If you touch the stem with your bare hands, your skin turns black.

Here is the nec plus ultra recipe for Cardoons in Cream[1] by Mme Joseph Dumonthay of Geneva.

Tip! First find your gardening gloves.

  • Prepare your spiny cardoon by removing thorns and outer skin.
  • Cut into pieces that you immediately soak in 2l of cold water mixed with 2tbls of flour.
  • To cook, prepare the same as above, adding salt and 1dcl of milk.
  • Add cardoon pieces when the water boils and boil for 30-40 min. Drain.
  • In shallow oven-proof dish place your cooked cardoon pieces cut quite small. (Max 2 layers.)
  • Sprinkle generously with grated parmesan or gruyere cheese. Pour over lots of fresh cream and top with pats of butter.
  • Bake at the top of a very hot oven 10-20 min until golden. The cream must not boil.
  • Serve hot.

So, this one’s for you, my shopping companions of this morning. Thank you all for being the living memory of old Geneva. Who cares where your hat is, when you’re looking at a cardoon gratin for supper?

 

 [1] Revue du Vieux Genève, 1978. Pierre Blondin, Les fameux cardons genevois, pp 66-67.

Photo:  Yvonne Borloz

Solar Panel Politics

It is not easy to get solar panels onto your Geneva village house roof. In fact, so far it has been elusive and coincided perfectly with the family motto (“Pay More, Get Less!”): we have paid money and our roof is buck-naked.

It all began in the spring with a telemarketing phone call. A well-spoken person asked to speak to the man of the house, and as he pronounced the family name correctly and there were no conversations buzzing in the background, I was fooled into believing he was someone real. The next thing I knew, he was sitting at the kitchen table with binders full of illustrated solar information.

He was not quite the real McCoy, of course, and in serious solar panel buying, you should contact at least three people on the Official Swiss Solar Panel List. (Our telemarketing man’s company did not feature.)  Three more men came and explained their wares.

Surprisingly, it turned out that our village is “classified” – which means that it contains architectural jewels that have to be protected from ugly technology. I am not sure where they are located, except for the one old farmhouse whose roof is caving in and things are growing out of at the same time. This, I agree, is not solar panel material.

Anyway, for the rest of us, we need permission from the village mayor to have solar panels placed on our roofs. And for this quest to be successful care, precision and money are essential. First of all you have to give your solar panel company CHF 1’000.00 to open a file. Then you have to have your house (roof) resurveyed to make sure that it has not expanded or contracted since it was first built. This costs another CHF 1’500.00

And then you wait. This, more than half a year later, is our current stage.

Many new buildings (such as the apartment monstrosity across the road built in post-modern 21st-century Gulag-style) feature a small strip of solar panels on their roofs. This is little more than decoration to show the sustainable, durable, ecological nature of the building project. They do very little on a practical level.

What one needs is a correctly-exposed roof covered with photovoltaic panels that can produce enough electricity for all domestic needs. At the moment, excess energy is fed back into the Geneva electricity grid, but in the near future when Elon Musk’s huge batteries become affordable, all the energy will go into in these storage batteries and the system becomes integrated and independent.

Very simply, we will get all our electricity from light.

According to Leonardo DiCaprio, President Obama, and the Pope, (Before the Flood) if ALL buildings do this and ALL countries stop burning fossil fuels we MIGHT be able to draw back from the edge of the natural holocaust that has already begun.

We will all be judged by what we leave behind, and what I would really like to leave behind is a roof-full of solar panels.

The One-Star Restaurant Operatic Extravaganza

I’ve only been to three Michelin-starred restaurants in my life, and I didn’t pay for any of them.

The first one was in the south of France some 40 years ago. After having eaten one of everything, we placed the (possibly already full) credit card in a tastefully hollowed-out ancient book. To this day, the amount has never apeared on our credit card statement. The second one doesn’t really count, as I had booked the wrong restaurant and I don’t want to talk about it. And then there was last night in Geneva.

It was a gift, and in many ways it truly was. I saw and encountered several things that were entirely without precedent. It was sort of Cirque de Soleil on the table cloth.

The lights were dim, the pillows were plumped, the Christmas wooden soldier theme tastefully arranged and the spectacle was about to begin.

restaurant-dining-restaurant-bayview-by-michel-roth-hotel-president-wilson-a-luxury-collection-hotel-geneva-2We popped in the chou pastry tickle-your-mouths. We delved under the foam of the oceanic pre-starter to find fishy bits and chestnuts. I think.

The butter girl passed with three different flavours (regular, vanilla, and pepper) and then my main starter arrived. It was an artfully-created miniature village built with bits of fig on a round slice of foie gras. In the middle there was a fig-jam pond. The little houses had real golden roofs. There was a wall of paper-thin pink wafer that stood up, ineffectually protecting the little hamlet from the wicked fork and knife that were about to descend.

The nice young man came to brush up the crumbs from my freshly-baked brioche, and then the second starter arrived. It featured porcini mushrooms in all their possible forms. There are, perhaps, reasons why Mövenpick does not produce industrial mushroom ice-cream.

Before the main course the knife girl came around with a set of six knives. You had to choose your handle colour. I chose shocking pink to delicately cut my venison. But the real treat was the chef’s speciality—a hallucination-in-a-glass called cappuccino. It was a mixture of potatoes and white truffles with black truffle crumbs sprinkled on top.

The nice young man gently prised the empty cup out of my fist and promised more…

The first dessert (called “a moment of sweetness”) was rather a shock, as there was a slice of raw fruit involved. This was more than made up for, however, by the decomposed miniature lemon tarts. And the main dessert was a magnificent jellied puddle of orange tastefully holding together a slice of apple on a biscuit.

After the chocolates and the fruit jellies, we finally ended the evening back at home watching the Japanese sumo championships on TV—which seemed especially fascinating and relevant after having eaten an entire village on my plate.

The gargantuan worlds of ritual and magic are now behind us and we have landed softly back into our Geneva-countryside world of bread and jam, baked squash, and grilled cheese sandwiches.

I have, though, put gold foil on my shopping list.

Forget the Mindfulness Massage

I hate massages, so one good thing about living in the Swiss countryside is that this is not considered a social or mental shortcoming. However, having recently been in a town where every second person on the street offers you a massage (the other half offers transport) I eventually got snared.

Now this wasn’t your normally nasty sandy beach massage, or your cheap and cheerful downtown flea-pit massage. It took place in a respectable spa on the top of a windy ridge in central Bali.

massagemindfulnessThe oils and lotions were smartly-packaged and you could choose your flavour. The delicate jasmine body oil was a far cry from an extremely unpleasant experience some years back involving a tar-like product from a bucket that was an indelible mixture of shoe polish and petroleum jelly.

The sarong on the massage table was clean, and the subtly-muscled staff was dressed in matching business-like polo shirts. Before beginning, you had to fill out an official form on a clip-board indicating the strength of massage desired, and pointing out any areas that needed special attention. You naturally slip into your “fooling the doctor” mode and give nothing away.

We chose the Intuitive Heart Massage during which you are encouraged to drift off into a slumber-like state of peaceful bliss for 90 minutes, and to awake refreshed and reinvigorated. (My sister has since pointed out that they only give heart massages to dead people such as Princess Diana in the Paris tunnel.)

It started badly. As the nice young lady was wiping invisible specks of dust off the soles of my feet, my tickle-reflex kicked in. Fortunately, no lasting damage was done, but the next 89 minutes were doomed.

She intuitively started with my bad knee finding all the most painful acupuncture points. The Swedish-style hammering did not help. Her intuition held, and she moved right along to my bad back and turned her arms into rolling pins.

A good massage certainly takes your mind off things outside your skin. You become a ball of anticipation worrying about what painful thing is going to happen next. You mull over the possibility of actually dying on the massage table. You try to think Zen thoughts as the thunder crashes and the rain pours down – such as why you didn’t bring an umbrella, or why you didn’t wear your lucky purple underpants, or which is worse—here or at the dentist’s? You try to breathe calmly and quietly without gasping.

Leaving the massage table in a state of euphoria and mental confusion, you have to teach yourself to walk again.

As you sip your post-massage organic ginger tea, you notice that the people around you seem bouncy and liberated. They have probably slept through their dreamy massages and remembered their umbrellas. Perhaps they have even had the post-massage Singing Bowl Healing Vibration 30-minute treatment which sooths and heals.

They probably even love massages.

BIG Trouble

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Breaking Bad — Geneva Style

Yesterday morning, I found myself considering smashed flattened automobiles being hoisted high into the sky, swinging around a bit, then being dropped onto a huge heap of other rusty pancaked cars below.

Underneath this exciting live show was a huge TV screen with a colourful 9-minute video clip on a loop extolling the virtues of tires being mounted and wheels zippily screwed manfully into place.

To my left was a glass wall of windows that overlooked the peaceful bird-filled banks of the Rhone River. And straight ahead were the inner workings of Geneva’s biggest tire emporium, Pneus Claude.

car-demolitionYes. I had declared it a “service day”, and to complement an afternoon session in the dentist’s chair, chose 10:30 a.m. as the ideal moment to change summer tires for their winter siblings. It was the great bi-annual visit to Claude’s Tire Garage.

I used to dislike this chore, but over the years have begun to enjoy it. It is a bit like playing golf—you compete against yourself: the brevity of waiting time being the main goal. You succeed (as I did yesterday) by being out in under 30 minutes. Your car is the first in line. You have speedy friendly chaps—both at the check-in & pay desk and the rinsed-car return. Your tires are quickly deemed legally correct for at least another year. Your mechanic doesn’t stop for a smoke break after the first two tires.

And the waiting room has been greatly improved. Along with all the windows to keep a person entertained with the outside world, there is now heatingtables and chairs, a complete collection of all of Geneva’s free newspapers, a clean washroom, and, if you walk up to the fourth floor a fascinating showcase room of over 300 different models of wheel hubs.

Five vending machines hum importantly in the back corner. The queen is the panini machine which brings you hot flattened sandwiches 24 hours a day. This poetic choice exactly mirrors what’s happening at the demolition site next door as you wait excitedly for your number to be called out.

It is, primarily, a man’s world. A world of work boots, blue jeans, black t-shirts, and bellies-over-belts. It is invigorating and active with people and cars and taxis and trucks and vans and ambulances all busily coming and going.

Of course, there is no wicked crystal meth lab under the floor of Pneus Claude, but there COULD be as no one would ever notice. And Jesse Pinkman would look right at home in the red Pneus Claude jumpsuit driving their Mobile Tire Garage helpfully and hopefully through the Geneva countryside.