This photo has nothing to do with the subject of this blog post.

In a few hours, hundreds of thousands of North American children will wake to the thrill of anticipation: Halloween, and its accompanying sugar flood is almost upon them.

Here, in Switzerland, Halloween is not so apparent. In fact, it could be forgotten altogether but for one display at a local department store that has some ghoulish latex monster gloves with claws for fingernails and a few masks. It is possible that children here concern themselves with Halloween, but not that I’ve seen so far.

In Spain, the children in our neighbourhood knocked on our doors on Halloween, with nary a costume in sight, not even a bit of face paint. They demanded money, in their best English. I asked, in my not so great Spanish, why they expected money from me, to discover they operated under the delusion that a North American Halloween was free license to children to extract funds from their neighbours.

They were clear this was not the practice in Spain, however, we were North Americans, they were children and this was enough for them to try some door-to-door begging. Having just had my car recently painted by some anonymous artists, whom I suspected were these very same children, it was easy to turn them away with a warning that I did not want any more pintar on my Fiat and that I could go loco on their madre y padre if I caught the slightest whiff of spray paint.

But on to another topic …

I’m posting to this blog less frequently as I prepare to participate in an exercise of absolute insanity called Nanowrimo – an annual international write-50,000-words-over-the-30-days-of-November challenge. To kick-off this event, I met with some fellow writers at a Bern Starbucks yesterday, one of whom, as it turns out, is from Winnipeg.

Tatiana, as is her name, and I had fun talking about Confusion Corner, bargain-shopping, Mennonite names and Winnipeg boroughs to the point where the other writers’ brain waves flattened in boredom, but we did not care. We went on with our prairie references, and then quickly formed a voting bloc with the other North American writer in our midst, who happens to be from Minnesota, which makes her practically Canadian. We were still outnumbered by the Swiss, but this did not bother us as we were prepared to bring our spouses in to boost our voting numbers (I had brought mine, she had left hers elsewhere, but I’m sure in an emergency she could have summoned him).

As it happened, it’s not the kind of group that takes votes, but we were ready.

So through November I will aim to post twice a week to this blog, or maybe more often. We shall see. One thing is for sure, with the writing crunch upon me, I may write some crazy stuff here, just out of pure fatigue. It could be fun.

In the meantime, while I am not a big fan of Halloween, for those who want to mark the occasion, here is a video that you might find interesting. Click here. Make sure to read the intro first. (thank you to my friend JJ for alerting me to this video)

Leipzig Zoo, better than you’d think

Two giraffes vie for a choice mouthful of greenery within a few feet of the viewing deck. Zebras and other ungulate species as well as ostriches shared the sweeping pastures..

I’ve been to the San Diego Zoo, the Sydney Zoo, too many aquariums to mention, and all kinds of fun places, none of which makes me an expert on how to rank a zoo, but if I were an expert, I’d rank the Leipzig Zoo way up there.

It is the first zoo I’ve visited that was as intriguing for its landscape and architectural design as it was for the critters that live there. To begin with, taking a quick glance up and down the pathways, you wouldn’t be sure that animals do live there.

That’s because all the enclosures are shielded from the walkways with bamboo and forest greenery. To see the animals, you have to step off the trail and into an auxiliary path, or an enclosed hut that features a soft bed of bark mulch to quiet your footsteps. In many instances, the humans seem more enclosed than the animals, as they view the animals through glass windows, which further dampens the sound of human traffic.

The thoughtful set-up of the enclosures doesn’t end at the viewing platforms. The enclosures themselves are well-treed, and often you see the animals peeking around the greenery, and I’m sure they like it that way.

The giraffe and African plains enclosure differs, and reasonably so. Here the giraffe feeding troughs are placed at elevated heights, putting the giraffe’s heads just a little below a wide viewing platform and restaurant, giving everyone a great close-up of these lovely graceful creatures. The giraffes didn’t seem to mind the gawkers at all and moved about lazily, occasionally “fencing” with their necks over the meal which appeared to be large bunches of parsley. I could be wrong about that, but it sure smelled like parsley.

The Leipzig zoo is worth a visit, even if its pricey. It has endless structures for children to climb, plenty of coffee and food kiosks, lots of benches, shade, and abundant parking one block over.

Adult price: 17 Euros, ouch. That said, by the time I finished walking through the zoo (by the way, I got lost and had trouble finding the exit, so make time for that when you’re planning your day) I did not feel ripped off. It is worth every penny.

Children price: 10 Euros.

Food prices inside the gates: Reasonable. No need to pack a lunch.

Washroom facilities: Plentiful, clean and some are done in funky hut styles.

Time to walk through whole site and see almost everything if it’s just adults going through: 1.5-2 hours.

At an all-out sprint: 35 minutes

With children under the age of 8: Three days (okay, seriously, it is an all-day zoo trip. Plan to be there for 3-5 hours).

Special tip for elephant fans: Line up at the zoo gates before its 10 a.m. opening and sprint for the elephant enclosure once you get through. Do not stop to look at the weird bearded bears. The elephants bathe/swim at about 10:15 a.m. You can watch them either above water or below. It is very cool. They might bathe more often in the summer, but in October, when I was there, they skipped their afternoon bath.

How do I get there? Click here for the map, and scroll to the bottom.

A word to the wise: The zoo features a huge jungle greenhouse called Gondwanaland. Do not go inside unless you don’t mind walking in a slow river of humanity for upwards of 45 minutes through jungle heat and humidity.

Do not turn your camera on, the humidity will mess with its lenses. The path winds through the forest where monkeys swing loose, and if they land on you, don’t make a fuss, just wait for the monkey to move along. There are plenty of signs warning against feeding or trying to interact with them.

Also, beware of dropping bird poop.

The path eventually winds up to the rooftops. It is very cool, but also very hot so I put on my reporter-face and zoomed through the crowd to get the heck out of there. It also features a river boat ride, which looked good if you wanted to melt off about 17 lbs. in 30 minutes.

It all looked amazing, but the only drawback is that it’s difficult to find a shortcut out, although I eventually did do just that. If I had not, my estimate is it would have taken 1.5 to 2 hours to make it through the building.

My only criticism: There should have been more staff in Gondwanaland to direct the crowds. Sometimes it wasn’t clear which way they should go, and certainly it was nigh unto impossible to find an early exit.

You can learn a lot more about the zoo by clicking here. Get your Google page to translate it if it turns up in German or Ukrainian.

Click on a gallery photo to get an enlarged view. 

Trains, Planes and Automobiles to Leipzig

This cannabis drink was in the vending machine at the Zürich airport. We are at a loss to explain this. No. We did not buy any. I have enough trouble keeping things straight without wandering away from sobriety.

Getting to Germany from Switzerland can be an easy thing if one is travelling between major cities, but a slight jostling off the beaten path changes everything. We had two choices on our trip to Leipzig from Biel.

Choice 1: Take the seven-hour train ride.

Choice 2:

  1. A.Take a 90-minute train ride to Zürich airport
  2. Find unhelpful airport attendant who looks like she speaks fluent English, but turns out to only know how to direct people to one of two lines, which would have been fine except that neither of those two lines would have brought us closer to our gate
  3. Storm airport in semi-frantic manner while trying to not look like terrorists with time bomb until appropriate gate is located. This is harder than it sounds.
  4. Get through security where they ask Dave if he has any liquids in his carry-on luggage to which he says no, because he doesn’t know I stashed a bunch of liquids in there just before leaving for the train (see #2.1 above). This creates consternation on part of security staff until Dave rolls his eyes and blames his wife. “I’m not taking the fall for you,” he says.
  5. Security staff chuckle and wave us through. I am a middle-aged potentially menopausal woman and they are not about to risk messing with me.
  6. Wait in terminal where only food kiosk charges 4.90 Swiss Francs for a banana and an unprintable amount for a cup of coffee.
  7. Line up with 200 eager Swiss/German travellers all of whom jump up when the gate staff announce they are boarding Rows 23 through 28. In Switzerland, this means nothing. It’s a race to see which passenger can travel most efficiently by boarding the plane earliest so he can arrive at Berlin at the same time as the rest of the passengers.
  8. Crowbar our way into compactly arranged SwissAir flight where even I at only five-feet in height have to crunch my knees up against the seat in front of me.
  9. One hour later, arrive in Berlin where we join in passengers enthusiastically elbowing their way off plane so as to be first to step into Berlin.
  10. Wander airport in daze trying to find rental car agency, which is indicated only by small sign with a picture of a car key and car on it. It could mean “this way to parking lot,” or “car rental desks.” We don’t care. Either way, we’re leaving with a car.
  11. Drive through crazed Berlin roadways, then German highways to Leipzig, risking life and limb as German motorists zoom past us at speeds of 160 km/h and higher.
  12. Arrive in dark town, convinced we are about to get mugged. I remind Dave to try to not look so Jewish, and “Remember, don’t mention the war!”
  13. The entire span of this “quick” flight to Germany is seven hours (see Choice #1 above).
Of course, we took Choice 2. Why just take a train when we can gain a new sense of the fragility of life and perhaps acquire a fresh set of values by travelling German highways?
Needless to say, if another trip to Leipzig comes up, we’ll just take the seven-hour train ride.

Swimming in the Rhine

Swim here if you like/dare.

This will fascinate no one but those who enjoy swimming in natural waters, as opposed to chlorinated, salt or ozone pools: We discovered that the Rhine is open for public swimming.

Being that it is such a major river, traversing more than 1,200 kilometres or 766 miles from Switzerland through Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, France, Belgium and the Netherlands all the way to the North Sea, it might be thought natural that some of it is swimmable, however, it is precisely the Rhine’s enormous lengths that makes me averse to taking a dip, owing to the tremendous chance that the river’s current might just take me to places I had not intended to go, the worst being the bottom of the river, the second-worst being Liechtenstein, mostly because I have to repeatedly refer to other sources to spell it correctly.

Some signs you ignore at your own peril. This is one of them.

Other more bold swimmers than I might be a little put off by the swimming advisory signs to be found near the Swiss/German/French border city of Basel that show two broad lanes for swimmers, while the rest are for big boats. You don’t want to cross the invisible line into the boat lane. Just think of the propellers. On the positive side, the chances are almost nil that you will be overwhelmed by the flailing arms of other swimmers as happens so often in city swimming pools.*(see addendum)

Every August, at some horrifically badly concocted event, however, about 3,000 swimmers brave the Rhine, protected by boat-escorts.

Swimmers are advised to go with the current, a piece of useless advice if ever there was any, as from our vantage point along the shoreline, the strength of the current was such that it could not be challenged by any swimmer save those capable of strapping a 15-hp outboard to their backs. Ocean swimmers/divers might disagree with me.

Testing the Rhine’s waters is recommended only for “good swimmers,” for which I qualify, but for three near-drowning incidents that I do not tell my mother about. Nevertheless, it’s unlikely I’ll take a dip in this hallowed river, which, by the way, is reported to not be “too polluted.” I believe the Swiss on this count. They pride themselves on keeping their waterways clear, and the water sure looks clean.

If you go:

  • Only good swimmers should attempt the Rhine
  • Water temperatures are reported to be bearable only at the height of summer.
  • Numerous entry and exit points are recommended, but none by me. Visit the Tourist Office in Basel for advice. Never swim alone.
*Addendum: Despite my scepticism over the Rhine as a swimming hole, it turns out that I was wrong about that. Locals say it is a popular spot with swimmers. Go figure. 
Later this week: More on last week’s trip to Germany. 

Chocolate Champions

German chocolatier working at his craft.

Mercy is called for when judging chocolates, because all chocolate is good, aside from some hideous holiday-related confections that seem to be made primarily of wax and some brown food colouring poured into bunny and poultry moulds.

If you grew up in the United States or Canada, you will know of which chocolate brand I speak, but because I am a trained journalist and therefore familiar with the laws and statutes under which I could be sued, although unsuccessfully, because I know I’m dead right about this, I am not going to reveal the manufacturer who may or may not be based in Mississauga, Ontario.

So, to all the chocolate manufacturers of all nationalities who did not win my The World, Nay The Universe Best Chocolate Ever competition, don’t feel bad, and if you do feel bad, eat chocolate. It ups your serotonin levels, leading to a feeling of well-being. And while you’re feeling so good about yourself, maybe you can concoct a better chocolate recipe for the next time I’m in your country.

And the winner is: Leysieffer of Germany, with Canada a close second.

Leysieffer’s every chocolate is a revelational experience  from their champagne white chocolates to their mocha truffles and onward. It’s the sort of chocolate that can make a person rethink their life goals. They have even redeemed orange-cream chocolates, a flavour to which many chocolate-makers add too much sugar.

Leysieffer had some tough competition in the form of Canada’s Chocolat de Chocolaterie’s caramel-filled chocolates, which by themselves are better than anything Leysieffer has to offer, but when taking each chocolatier’s ‘menu’ as a whole, Leysieffer has the broadest selection, all of which are very good indeed. At Chocolat de Chocolaterie, anyone not a big fan of caramel will still come away happy with the other offerings, but not quite as much as if they had jumped on a plane and headed to Germany, or maybe just gone online and ordered some at Leysieffer’s website.

The French, whose Paris and Besançon chocolates were sampled, will also be very ticked off to learn that not only are the Germans amazing with chocolate, they also make the best croissants on the continent. Possibly, they stole a few French secrets during the Second World War, showing that the real reason Germany invaded France was not in a bid for global domination, but to grab their recipes. But let’s not mention The War.

Judging criteria included texture, taste, body and flavour mixes.

The runner-up is Canada, with Chocolat de Chocolaterie* at 703 Fort Street in Victoria, British Columbia serving the best chocolate in that nation, with their buttery caramel chocolates melting so blissfully in the mouth that it is not safe to operate a vehicle while enjoying them. Even people who do not like me become fast friends when I feed them Chocolat’s caramel-filled chocolates.

Sorry Quebec, but Chocolat de Chocolaterie is Canada’s best, after a three-decade-long, coast-to-coast taste-testing tour. Quebec can take consolation that they had the best cheesecake in Canada, found at Dunn’s Famous restaurant in Montreal. To be truthful, though, that part of the taste-testing tour took place at the beginning of the tour in 1981, so things might have changed since then. **

Switzerland is a natural home to fabulous chocolates, but testing the products of numerous independent chocolate shops in countless Swiss villages, as well as giving their top name brands a fair test (Merkur, Cailler, Lindt), nothing could be found to carry the same fine balance of sweet against cocoa on a bed of creamy fats.

Further testing of Swiss product is ongoing.

It should be said that even though Switzerland did not obliterate the Germans in this contest, Swiss chocolate is still mighty fine, and there is no question that the widening distribution of their homegrown brand, Lindt, has upped the chocolate experience of North Americans who up to recent times were making do with some rather diluted product.

I won’t name names. Remember, I am avoiding a lawsuit.***

*Canada owes its second-place finishing solely to Chocolat de Chocolaterie. Its chocolate are better than any we’ve found in Switzerland, however, Swiss chocolatiers beat all other Canadian chocolates.

**France and Quebec can still claim a moral victory, because I suspect the owner/operator of Chocolate de Chocolaterie is actually French. I don’t know this for sure.

*** In my last post, I promised to reveal a never-before realized source of unbelievable chocolate. Here it is: The Church of Jesus Christ – Latter Day Saints in the little town of Kenora, Ontario, Canada. Yes, the Mormons. They’re not just good at choral singing. This church at one time had a women’s fundraising group that produced boxes of homemade chocolates that could make a Baptist rethink their views on Mormon theology.

German versus Swiss versus French versus Canadian Chocolate – Who wins?

Chocolate - what the world needs more of.

That is the question on the minds of all chocolate-lovers, which means that it is on everyone’s mind, because who doesn’t love chocolate? Despite the fact that at least one friend thinks I am on perpetual holiday, I have been using our travel time to undertake extensive research on the varying qualities of chocolates.

This does not refer to the average check-out shelf chocolate bar, but to handmade, in-shop chocolates in quaint little chocolateries in three locations in Canada, one previously unknown source of exquisite chocolates, two locations in France, two shops in Germany (and maybe more – I haven’t left Germany yet) and an ever-expanding number in Switzerland. This is the kind of research that just can’t stop. After all, chocolate shops in Italy, Austria and Belgium are still waiting our arrival.

I will be off-line tomorrow for travel (another exciting day on German highways!), but will report back on the chocolate question when I return to Switzerland.

Morning in Leipzig

When prayer meetings go viral .....

When prayer meetings go viral ...

I’m just back from a two-hour stroll through Leipzig, now seated in our rather functional and tiny hotel room at the Ibis on Bruhl, munching on fresh strawberries purchased at the local open-air market for the amazing price of 1 Euro – about 1/5th of what I pay in Switzerland for strawberries of a similar quality. They are delicious.

A Syrian sold them to me. He runs what looks like a very profitable produce stand, his name may be Mr. Lofo, but I’m not sure about that. He was a friendly chap. Told me he had been in Germany for 15 years, and that Syria is in a bad way. That’s an understatement.

Does he miss home?

Yes, he said.

Would he go back if he could?

Not even a heartbeat passed and he said yes.

Although, he looked very healthy, very well-fed and by the line-up of customers, I would say he’s doing brisk business. His produce was the best stock I’ve seen anywhere. There wasn’t a bruise in the bunch.

I visited St. Nicholas Church – a place famous several times over, first for its association to Johann Sebastian Bach, whose work played and premiered there, and then more recently in 1989 and 1990 when it hosted Monday night prayer vigils at 5 p.m. An innocuous sounding hour and day of the week, but they prayed and prayed about freedom and East Germany’s political oppression.

More people gathered every week, until the authorities did not know what to do, the numbers were so large – reaching as high as 320,000 with some reports saying 500,000, from a city of 600,000. It happened shortly after Tiananmen Square and the possibility of a wide-scale slaughter of the citizens loomed, but the military held back, with there now being some debate on who ordered the troops to withdraw and just watch.

Churches all over reportedly started Monday night pray meetings and the crowds were huge, eventually leading to a spectacular goof-up where a reporter asked an Eastern Bloc bureaucrat when movement restrictions would be loosened and the bureaucrat mistakenly said, “Immediately.”

Next thing you know, Tom Brokaw, U.S. television journalist gets a message that the Berlin Wall is opening, and he broadcasts that erroneous message, which was picked up by the Eastern German population who then flooded and overwhelmed the checkpoints. The soldiers, unsure of their orders did not shoot.

At least, that’s what I’ve gleaned from various sources (media, etc.).

Standing in the alabaster pews of St. Nicholas Church where it began with a prayer meeting, I was struck by a song I heard a long time ago with words that went something like this,

“Not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit says the Lord.”

Indeed, not a bullet shot and the wall fell, freedom was achieved. An amazing testament to the power of God.

Christopher Hitchens, my favorite atheist curmudgeon who claims that the world is the worse for having religion in it, can put that in his pipe and smoke it.

Photos to come later in the week. Leipzig is lovely.

High-stakes games on the roads of Berlin & East Germany

We’re in Leipzig, Germany, after a somewhat dramatic day of travel yesterday getting through Berlin traffic.

While we waited in our rental car to make a left turn at the remaining piece of the Berlin Wall, a lime-green motorcycle sped around us, using a marked bicycle lane to get into the intersection where he plowed straight into a car that was also waiting to make a left turn in the opposing lane from us. The motorcyclist flipped high up into the air and landed on the pavement past the car. The woman driver in the car’s face was one, not of surprise, but of annoyance.

As far as we could tell, the motorcyclist had not touched his brakes (there were no telltale tire streak marks on the pavement), so he impacted at full speed. We got our car out-of-the-way and raced back to check the motorcyclist who lay unmoving on the pavement, with a crowd of people around him and cars still speeding past. He lay facedown across the lane, in a posture as though he had just fallen asleep there, one knee tucked up toward his stomach, in faded-black loose pants and, if I remember right, a green motorcycle jacket that matched his bike.

Two Chinese men were knelt down at the inert man who mercifully was wearing a helmet. His mangled bike, front end spun off sideways from the body, was still where it crashed about 10 feet from where he lay, but in a few minutes someone would drag it off the road and onto the sidewalk. A German woman, speaking English, was standing over the men who were trying to move the unconscious motorcyclist. She said, “Do you know what you are doing?”

It turned out they did. They were Chinese doctors on vacation, and they were moving him so they could make sure he was breathing, although moving anyone, however, gingerly after such a landing, had to be very risky business indeed.

The man remained motionless the whole time we stood there, but it seemed that he was breathing. People were on cell phones calling for help, and when it was clear that we could be of no assistance, we left. Dave was shaken. I was concerned for the man, thinking of his family who would be getting a very sad visit from the police that evening, and of the terrible gamble he made and lost rushing into that intersection.

The police and ambulance took a long time to get to the scene, which surprised us even more later when we drove away and saw how close to a hospital the crash took place.  The ambulance did not hurry away afterwards, but was there for almost 30 minutes. In Canada, that would be a worrisome sign, but we understand that in Europe, there’s more critical care equipment in ambulances, so it may be that they were working on the man and didn’t want to move him too quickly.

It seemed odd to Dave, but I photographed the motorcycle – my old newspaper instincts kicking in, I suppose. The lingering feeling is the wish that there was some way to go back to that instant before the crash, to tell the man, slow down. The chance you’re taking is not worth it.

Intersections and left turns – they are the most dangerous places you might find yourself on the road. Be careful out there.


Dave working on our trip to Germany.

Traveling always sounds like fun, but the truth is that it begins with work, the work of figuring out where to go, how to get there and what side of the road everyone drives on. In our little household, this task falls to Dave. We’re heading to Berlin and then Leipzig this week, and so while I fiddled about on the InterWebz, Dave spent hours studying maps, reading up on the Berlin Wall and how a church in Leipzig was the nucleus of activity that tore it down.

Should be fun.

Getting lost in 20,000 easy steps

I get lost almost everyday, so poor is my sense of direction, but Dave is of another breed, a type that innately knows where he is all the time. This is one of the reasons I married him. He works better than a compass and comes with the added bonus of holding my hand when leading me around. Compasses are not so compassionate. Also, I keep losing my compass. Dave is a foot taller than me, so I can usually find him.

In a rare moment this weekend, however, Dave was as lost as I, and I blame Basel for this. Look at this map:

Which way is north and south is hard to say when you're in this maze.

We ended up turned around somewhere near Bartusserplatz, a name that to the English ear sounds like a bit of a joke, and that is what we thought the tourist office was playing on us. We roamed the streets in the rainfall, in something of a daze trying to find the city gates, which really are worth finding. They are classical medieval gates that bring to mind Europe’s castle-storming history.

Basel Spalen city gate dating back to sometime between 1080 and 1398.

The city was once surrounded in walls and splendid gates, but in 1859 a city council decided to demolish the whole works but for a few gates, which goes to show that the stupidity of city/municipal councils is a time-honoured tradition that carries on in a lively manner even today, especially in Victoria, B.C., where the regional overseers allowed a crazy-8 traffic circle configuration on an uncluttered highway that serves the airport and ferry terminal, giving tourists heart stoppages in unknown numbers. But I digress…

We often walk about 12,000 to 14,000 steps on a single day of touring, but in Basel we went over 20,000, marching almost 9.5 miles, of which at least six miles were spent completely mystified over our location.

We have come back from this fog with advice for those aspiring to visit Basel. Here it is:

  1. Find the river and make it your reference point. There is no help in making an intersection or any roadway a reference point because they are as thick as the wool in a tight-knit scarf, not to mention that the Swiss are quite lax about street signage (this is probably in case Germany decides to invade, in which case the German army would have to ask for directions; quite an embarrassment for an invading army).
  2. The tourist office will tell you to take a bus from the train station to the historic quarter. Ignore this advice. The walk is less than 10 minutes and goes through a charming park and some pretty streets.
  3. Do not ask a local to place you on the map. We tried. They don’t know where they are either.
  4. When lost, just keep walking. The saving grace of all old-town districts is that they are not that large and eventually you will come out on either a freeway, at the train station or possibly in Spain, all easily identifiable on a map.

Bi-polar Basel

Looking north from a bridge over the River Rhine.

Despite the many beautiful medieval sites to be seen in Switzerland, it is a modern country loaded with modern industry including two of the world’s five largest pharmaceutical companies – Novartis and Roche, which happen to have their headquarters in Basel, a split-personality city that is perhaps best seen from this bridge where a look northwards shows a modern city, and a look south reveals a medieval metropolis complete with the red sandstone Basel Munster.

Looking south from the same bridge and it's like being in a different century, as well as a different city.

Instead of launching into my usual diatribe about the horrors of modern architecture, even though my point is so well-illustrated in these photos,  let’s discuss the church.

The Basel Munster was originally built between 1019 and 1500, and  if you’ve ever served on a church building committee, you are now reeling back in horror at the thought of how long the Baselite building committee meetings must have lasted. There must have been some argument over the colour theme in the stain-glass windows.

It didn’t matter anyway, because it all came down in a massive earthquake in 1356, which may have been an Act of God of which the Swiss took note because they hurried up the rebuild and consecrated the church’s new altar by 1363, with much of the building proper completed by 1500, which is still more than a 100 years in the making, but a darn sight faster than the first 337 years of construction.

Shard from the pre-earthquake church that stood on this site. We don't know what that inscription is beneath it - possibly it marks a crypt. If you speak German or Latin, please enlighten us.

For those surprised to learn of a 6.2-richter earthquake capable of taking down a stone church as well as reportedly every castle in the area, occurring right in the middle of Europe – me, too. I was stunned. Hence, Switzerland has a Seismological Service, because if the Swiss are capable of anything, it is being prepared for the next natural disaster. They don’t have enough of their own, which is how they come to export their disaster teams/philosophy in the form of the Red Cross.

There have been 10,000 earthquakes here over the last 800 years, say the Swiss seismologists, that’s about 12 a year or one a month. We have not felt any as yet, although of those 10,000 only six have registered over 6.0 on the Richter scale.

Jesus with a shovel. Someone please explain this to me.

Speaking of stain glass windows, we found one depicting Jesus holding a shovel, and while Dave and I are not Bible scholars, we have both read the Bible making us something of a rarity in some social circles, and we cannot bring to mind any scriptural reference to Jesus shovelling, gardening or ditch-digging. And yet, here in a medieval church that started out as Catholic and eventually moved on to become Dutch Reformed is Jesus with a shovel. I can’t explain it. If you can, please comment.

Street talent

The Kuziem Singers in Basel, Oct. 2011

Switzerland has no shortage of street talent, a fact proven again on our trip to Basel where we ran into the Kuziem Singers, a family gospel band performing under the shelter of the city hall arcade during a rainy Saturday. My camera battery was running low so I captured only this small clip (click here), but you can see, hear and read more about them at their website here.

Between songs, Beryl Kuzi told me that they are from Angola and they sing on the streets most days. They speak French, with only a smattering of English, although their repertoire does include a lot of English songs. Beryl and Meki (daughter and mother) Kuzi’s beautiful voices reverberated inside the brick and stone arcade with an orchestra of rainfall and street noise in the background, something that my humble digital recorder did not pick up well enough to do justice to their performance.

Not too far away stood a lone accordion player. Accordionists are everywhere and they make walking into a Swiss square feel like walking onto a movie set. It’s enchanting.

Street performers here fall in the whole musical range from a roaming cowboy gig to violinists. They are all amazingly good. I’d like to be more critical, but I can’t.

I’ve been pretty shy about approaching street performers to ask the questions we really want to know: How much do they make? Is it a decent living? Do they do other work? Why are they here? What drove them from their home country?

That last question is one triggered by the sight of the Kuziem’s traditional African garb – it doesn’t often come to mind when watching Canadian street performers, although perhaps they have stories, too.

Maybe I will get bolder. I used to be bold. I asked street performers all of the above questions when I was a reporter.


Alarming art in Basel

Dave trying out Rodin-inspired man-yoga move.

Growing up in Canada afforded me a culture-enriched education filled with lots of art, music and museums.  So many museums that just typing the word flattens my brain waves, introducing the early stages of what I am sure is a coma.

The problem is that we were not allowed to roam in museums owing to our generations large numbers. We were part of the baby boom, which meant there were a whole lot of us and not many adults, ergo, the adults in our lives, ie. teachers, kept us tightly reined in, especially when on field trips where they feared a few of us might wander away. Thus, we were forced to sit in the bus while they counted us, then stand outside the bus in line while they counted us, following which we would then stand in the museum lobby for as much as 90 minutes for the teachers to count us and then recount when they discovered that Pierre Vaisy was missing, as he often was, then do another count after Pierre was retrieved from the coat room where he had busied himself with inserting chewed gum into the coat pockets of miscellaneous classmates who had called him names. Pierre is not his real name.  It is ToadWart.

Eventually we would be escorted into the first display where we listened to a very old person, someone who was at least 45 years old, drone on about the American bison and why it was not a buffalo, and so on. This was wonderful for those interested in wild bovine creatures, but not so great for those eager to get on to the railroad history section. Sometimes the old person would have us stand near a display that looked very interesting, like the one of Native Americans bearing very cool-looking weapons, but instead the old person would want to talk about a single arrowhead discovered along the banks of the Red River. The arrowhead held our interest for a nano-second, only because we were sure it was an introduction to the battling aboriginals in the next display. Alas, our guide found the arrowhead topic inexhaustible, which meant that he talked until we were tired to death of the thing, and if one of us, perhaps ToadWart, had wrenched the arrowhead from the display to plant it into the carotid artery of the museum guide, not one of us would have stepped forward as a witness to condemn him.

Dave, pretending to paint a Salvador Dali painting.

Which explains why in Basel, an international Swiss city famed for its galleries and museums – numbering at least 30 of note – we only visited one, although to be fair, we did stand outside of a second one and admire its moving-art water display. I simply can’t stand museums, and neither can my husband, which probably explains our very happy marriage where we have spent most of the last 30 years skirting around museums but rarely entering one. When we cannot avoid a museum, we sprint through it. We once went through the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid in less than 20 minutes. If you have seen some of the Goya paintings in the Prado, you will appreciate that 20 minutes is about the right amount of time anyone should linger there.

As appalling as sprinting through a world-class museum may seem, it should be noted that the Prado recently stole our idea and introduced time-based tours for those trying to get out as fast as they can. The tours are one, two and three hours long, which is not quite as efficient as our 20-minute tour, but then these are the Spanish and it is likely that they have inserted a siesta into their tour schedule.

Basel’s Kunstmuseum (literally translated means art museum) is one not to miss. Not because of its exceptional collection of Rodin, Cezanne, Monet, Picasso, Dali, Renoir and van Gogh works, but because all of those are protected with an alarm system so that stepping up too close to a painting (we think four inches is the mark) causes a series of loud beeps to play out over a sound system, attracting brow-furrowed, annoyed art-appreciating Swiss guides and security staff. They invariably raced past us, because we are middle-aged and therefore somewhat beyond reproach, especially in a museum as these are known to be the natural gathering-places of middle-aged art connoisseurs except for the middle-aged who grew up in Canada as part of the baby-boom, but I’ve already mentioned that.

It took us about seven alarm soundings before we realized that we were the source of the noise, leading us to experiment with the alarm system. In addition to warning patrons to keep their distance, it also sounds when a camera flash is fired. Fascinating. How do the Swiss do it?

After an hour of wanderings, we left the building, apprehensive they might seize my camera or make us stand in line to count our heads and make sure no one was missing, but that did not happen.

On Thanksgiving, Nazis and Political Campaigns

Campaign poster in Basel, Switzerland, October 2011

It’s the Canadian Thanksgiving weekend, and here we are in Switzerland with not a turkey in sight but for a few meagre slices of deli turkey – not quite the same as the usual mountain of slow-roasted turkey, stuffing and gravy. Please take note of our suffering and deprivation.

Meanwhile, here in Switzerland the current obsession is the upcoming federal election. We haven’t seen any political lawn signs – perhaps they are illegal, or maybe just not part of the common practice. Instead signs are all over the train stations, and in commercial billboards.

It may shock some of you to know that I was once in charge of designing political signs for a friend of mine who did some math on an upcoming election, realized the vote was neatly split, leaving the takings open for her.

This is not to say that I am heavily politically inclined one way or another, but it is to say that if my friend takes it upon herself to invite personal abuse in the form of holding public office, I will be there to assist her in this endeavour, however foolhardy it may be. It was foolhardy. She won, and  for the next three years I had a front row seat on the public pounding she took from all quarters. Anyway, this tendency to help a friend even for a sometimes-irksome political party suggests my character has a few flaws, but loyalty to my friends is not one of them. Or maybe it is. You decide.

But the point is that ever since then I’ve taken an interest in campaign signs and the unspoken messages they deliver, which is the only way I can read them here in Switzerland as all the signs are in French, German or Italian and I haven’t got a clue what they’re saying. I’m going on visual cues alone.

One party groups its candidates on posters to resemble a family portrait, for example, placing a middle-age woman with two younger candidates who could be her adult children. Their smiling faces say “We get along with everyone. Join our family!”

Other signs seek to invoke the trustworthiness of authority, showing men who look like bankers in suits and ties. They are all vying for a post in the “Nationalrat,” which means parliament or national office – I do not have to make up this name  (see above for the proof).

Very few signs are defaced, (back in B.C. our signs had an impressively short lifespan), but of even more interest is what form campaign graffiti takes here on this side of the Atlantic. Several signs have been defaced with dabs of Hitler moustaches and the word “Nazis.” It is the only type of campaign graffiti we have seen thus far.

Nazis are an odd fringe group  in North America. I once interviewed a Washington State Nazi party leader that plans to take over Vancouver and turn it into an all-white state, prompting me to ask him, “Have you been to Vancouver lately? You really have your work cut out for you.” Later, I informed an Indo-Canadian friend of mine of the white-supremacist intentions for that city. She laughed and said, “We already own Vancouver!” Neither of us took the man seriously, but over here, the mention of Nazis is a different thing altogether, carrying ominous tones. Elderly Swiss citizens remember standing guard at the border, readying for a possible German invasion. And so this must be the ultimate insult to Swiss candidates – to be likened to Nazis.

How much truth is there in rhetoric? Right-wing parties are typically referred to as Nazis while left-wing parties are Stalinists. Even my friend who won political office was accused of being a Nazi – a tag that was both at once repugnant, and hilarious for the fact that it could not have been further from the truth.

We’re still several weeks away from the election. This is Switzerland, the land of the orderly and neat, so I don’t expect much in the way of excitement, but then who knows? This continent’s history is palpable even today.

Addendum: A turkey part was located at a nearby grocery store. In keeping with Canadian custom, it has been consumed.

Swiss air quality not as pure as the government says

A lovely day in Switzerland

Air pollution: real time data

The National Air Pollution Monitoring Network (NABEL) and cantonal and urban monitoring networks provide information on current concentrations of the principal pollutants.

We returned safely from a wet day of touring in Basel, France and Germany. That sounds like a lot of touring, and it was, but truth be told we only took a step or two into France and Germany, having made it to the point where the three borders meet.

I’ll post pictures later, but in the meantime, enjoy this lovely clip-out from the Swiss meteorology office measuring air pollutants in Switzerland. As you can see, the colour is primarily blue showing a minimal amount of air pollution over the entire nation, but for a few points of green (more pollution) near the Italian border. Ah, those pesky Italians pumping their pollutants into Switzerland’s pure alpine climate. Those rascals.

This map fascinates me, only because of its inaccuracy. Very likely, the measurement was taken of air well above the surface level, or perhaps on some uninhabited alpine slope, but in the cities, connoisseurs of untainted oxygen will differ with the official version presented on the national weather website, for in Switzerland wherever there are people, there is a haze of nicotine-laced smoke.

For all their mountain-climbing, marathon-hiking vigour, the Swiss have a fair number of chain-smokers in their midst. In addition to the fact that we spend almost all our outdoor time exposed to second-hand smoke, these smokers introduce other hazards.

On a crowded escalator at the Basel train station, a woman pushed her way through the crowd with a cigar dangling from her lip, precariously close to the heads and therefore highly flammable hair of other escalator-riders.

On Friday, as I entered a mall, I had to dodge a lit cigarette that a man had flicked outside the door. He hadn’t looked to see if anyone was in the way of his cigarette’s trajectory. I might have protested, but he had a surly expression and an open beer can in his hand, so I let it pass (public drinking of alcohol is legal everywhere, so it seems, even where cigarette-smoking is not, such as in malls).

Even in parks, the aroma of tobacco is never far away.

Switzerland is still in the throes of introducing public smoking bans, and even though some plebiscites on the question have produced landslide support for bans (80 per cent in favor in Geneva in a 2008 vote), smoking persists.

Interestingly, this is one area where Canada leads Switzerland, although smokers will not agree that this is a step forward.  In the meantime, asthmatic visitors to Switzerland are advised to bring an ample supply of inhalers.

Swiss train crash gives us the heeby-jeebies

Two trains sideswipe each other between Olten and Basel.

Nothing invigorates plans for a weekend jaunt much better than the headline Basel Commuter Train Operating Again After Crash.   This is especially true because our plan is to go to Basel, and to get there by train.

It’s as though Swiss Rail is sending us a message. We are, however, too dense to discern exactly what that message is and so we’re still planning to go to Basel tomorrow, along with an addendum trip to Mulhouse, France, which suspiciously holds a huge race car museum, although Dave has said nothing about that yet. He may be planning to surprise me.

The trains in this most recent wreck reportedly side-swiped each other, which should surprise no one. Swiss planning engineers have laid track with precision and economy of space so that trains flash past each other in such close proximity and eye-jarring speed that unseasoned passengers (me) gasp in fear at the sight.

Swiss news sources point out in their headline that the trains are running again. This is of paramount importance to the Swiss who prize punctuality, derailment or not. Other news sources headline the fact that three were injured in the crash, and thus we are introduced to a little piece of cultural sway in news-writing. It’s not that the Swiss do not care about the injured – they are the ones who brought the world the Red Cross, after all. It is just that somehow to Swiss editors the trains running is more important than the injured, but at least the injured were probably swept away to hospital in a timely fashion.

So we head out tomorrow to one of Switzerland’s oldest cities, which happens to hold something like 30 museums. Wouldn’t it be fun if we could see them all, but more likely we will tramp through the 13th-Century Alstadt and try to find the obelisk that marks where the Swiss, German and French borders meet.

Breaking into pieces

Don't blame Europeans for their gap-toothed ways.

I broke a tooth on my first weekend in Switzerland, way back in April. I didn’t write about it, because it would draw the question: What were you eating that would break a tooth?

The answer is gum. Mint-flavoured.

The molar is not that interesting, except that it crumbled in Switzerland, not at home in Canada where I would have booked in for a dental appointment post-haste, while in Switzerland, I spent five months with a molar in some state of disrepair, chewing only on the left side of my mouth, and turning away all foods that might cause further erosion. It added some excitement to our stay here, knowing that at any moment a nerve could be exposed, sending me lurching into the streets in search of dental care.

I’m not alone in avoiding Swiss dental care, although my reasons differ from most who take a pass because Swiss dentistry is pricey.  I dodged Swiss dentistry solely because its tricky business to engage a syringe-armed non-English-speaking-dentist, as illustrated in Madrid where I sent my son in to the orthodontist to get his braces fitted, only to have him return to the waiting room with rolls of cotton batting stuffed in his mouth and minus four teeth. This was followed by a heated discussion with the orthodontist in Spanish and French about how our communication could have slid so far sideways as for me to not notice the word “extraccion.”

No way was I going to give another European dentist such an opportunity.  I suspect a lot of gap-toothed people in Europe are like myself, foreigners who did not see the dentist’s evil designs in time to escape. I offer this photo of Amy Winehouse as evidence in favor of my argument.

Which brings us to a Swiss phenomenon: Dental spa vacations. The high cost of Swiss dentistry has created a thriving business in out-of-country dental tourism. One acquaintance holidayed in Croatia where she spent mornings on the beach and afternoons in the dental chair. A similar phenomenon exists in Canada where some book into Mexican dental clinics, which is cheaper, but only until the patient returns to their Canadian dentist with a complaint that turns to be expensive to fix. It seems the adage that a deal that is too good to be true probably is too good to be true.

At least that’s what the staff at my Canadian dental office told me as they patched up my tooth when I was back in Canada this summer. The molar turned out to not be a very big deal after all, but I’d rather hear that from my own dentist, than from a German-speaking Swiss dentist who reminds me of Sir Laurence Olivier’s performance in  Marathon Man. 

Normal neighbourhoods in Switzerland – Nidau

We’re gradually broadening our geographical horizons here in Biel, starting this weekend with a walk to Nidau, which could be either an entire other town that happens to have grown into Biel’s border, or a suburb of Biel. Owing to our language limitations, this will remain another one of the universe’s unsolved mysteries.

What is stunning about Europe in general is how much it looks like North America, and that is true for Switzerland as well. True, there are unique areas, but as an example, we find much of the south-central part of France looks a lot like Western Saskatchewan, which coincidentally looks like East North Dakota. But you won’t see many photos of that on travel sites because only the quaint photos get posted. Mea culpa – I, too, tend to post photos of Europe as tourists see it, because who wants to see more of Saskatchewan or North Dakota?

But to get back to Switzerland, as we strolled out of Biel, a very blah yellow-brick apartment building of nondescript character flanked our left. I thought about photographing it, just to demonstrate how every country has its ugliness, but I could not muster the strength to unstrap my camera, so overwhelmed with boredom was I as I gazed on this structure, looking so much as it did like the 1950s and 60s-era apartment salt-boxes on Pembina Highway in Winnipeg. That era’s architects have much to answer for, what with destroying the landscape the way they did back then.

Paths run along both sides of this canal.

But enough grousing. On to Nidau, where we followed a charming gravel path alongside a canal choked with boats parallel-docked along the shore, until it met the River Aar, a main waterway here notable for the fact that it is the country’s longest river that happens to both originate and end inside Swiss borders. It’s a tributary of the Rhine, and one that changes colour from a dusky green to teal to a sparkling emerald, depending on where you find it.

Nidau has a fairly brief entry in Wikipedia (which reveals that it is a municipality of Biel), and that is because it lacks the turnstile tourist attractions that bring people to

Classic Swiss home.
New home construction.

Switzerland, such as a genuine cobblestone-avenue’d Alstadt, that is 16th-century-or-earlier old town, mountain ranges or entrancing town squares, but what it does have is some fairly expensive real estate, including riverfront homes that go for one million francs and upwards.

The houses ranged in size from about 2,500 to 6,000 square feet, bringing to mind the many Swiss I’ve met who take pains to assure me they live in spacious homes with large yards, a puzzling self-revelation as I can’t remember any Canadian or American making a similar introductory statement. The Swiss are not ostentatious by any means, but maybe they feel that Canadians look upon all European domiciles as closet-like flats, and they’re eager to correct such misapprehensions.

Gated properties everywhere.

Nidau’s retail centre is lined with shutter-bedecked old buildings and charming shops, including one displaying hand painted birdhouses where the shopkeeper assured me the neighbourhood was very safe for walking. I ask this because some of my solo meanderings in the earlier spring attracted unwanted attention in the form of swarthy-looking unkempt gap-toothed men speaking to me in strange languages.

Nidau retail district.

Nidau retail district.

A shopkeeper is not necessarily the best source of information on a street’s crime rates – retailers are loath to frighten away customers, but the streets did feel safe, although somewhat under-populated for a Saturday afternoon.

Unlike Biel’s town centre that is jammed with franchises both local and foreign (a Starbucks just opened a block from our hotel), Nidau’s retail centre was full of Mom & Pop shops, giving it a somewhat unique air, suggesting a Switzerland before American and British franchises descended upon it.

It’s unlikely Nidau will ever become a tourist mecca, but it’s a pleasant place for a bike ride, jog or walk. Unlike more tourist-centric areas, it lacked public washroom facilities, and we didn’t spy a single coffee shop along the river walk, something of an oddity that suggested that we really had stumbled upon an ordinary suburb, albeit a rather wealthy one.

Pilcrow theme

In keeping with the week of wandering through the many blog themes offered by WordPress, here’s yet another one. Yesterday’s was Viva Chateau, which got a thumb’s down for grey typeset that was harder to see, and yet, it was so pretty. Today’s is Pilcrow. Anyone prefer one over the other?

Note: Yesterday’s photo of people on a bench by a lake was taken at Lac Biel. Today’s photo is of the River Aar at the locks near a canal that seems to be called Zihi, but we’re not sure about that name.

Packing drugs across borders for the middle-age set

A sign of the times - Over 50, will travel with meds.

The joy of travelling to Switzerland twice in one year is that I get a do-over on packing. During my first three-month term here, there was time to consider what was missing from my life, what I wish I had shoehorned into my suitcase.

So last June, as I winged back home to Canada, I made a mental list of all the things I would haul to Switzerland on my return this fall, among which was going to be more Crystal Lite iced tea packets than Swiss customs agents had ever seen before.

What did I bring back? Not a single sleeve of Crystal Lite.

Instead, my suitcase rattled with bottles of Tylenol, Advil, Aspirin, Nyquil, all manner of stomach remedies, prescriptions, extra eyeglasses, medical records and the like.

Living overseas for an extended time is something like shooting up to the moon. You know you will have to do without, and there won’t be much there that’s recognizable. Medications overseas typically have different names, even those produced by the same manufacturer. I have no clue what painkillers are called here in Switzerland, although when living in Spain we found a painkiller that does not grace North American shelves. It worked wonders, leading me to suspect it was some kind of over-counter codeine/heroin derivative.

It’s not just the different names and languages that produce hurdles; sometimes dosing levels differ, which has been known to cause some serious health crises.

All of this leads Dave to think about his young-adult trips to Europe in which he purchased no emergency health insurance, brought no medications and somehow still made it home in the same condition in which he left. Of course, back then he didn’t have any assets that a foreign hospital or Health Canada could seize.

Those were the days.

And so in the spirit of providing real information in this blog, something I don’t do very often, I advise travellers pack some pharmaceuticals, unless you want to chance finding yourself at a drugstore late at night where the pharmacist speaks French, Latvian and Parsee but no English, and offers you diarrhea remedies when you need something for a fever, that is if he really is a pharmacist. You could be talking to a teenage part-time cashier for all you know. And this is if you’re lucky enough to find a drugstore open late. I have yet to see a 24-hour pharmacy in Europe. I’m not saying they don’t exist; just that they are not readily evident.

Know before you go:

  • Let  your doctor know how long you will be away and ask for prescriptions to cover that period. Doctors will usually prescribe up to a year’s worth of medications. Note: Only do this if you need prescriptions. If you are over 50 and on no meds at all, good for you. Skip this step.
  • Prepare to pay. Those with extra prescription coverage through Blue Cross or other Canadian insurance carriers should check their policy. Many policies will only apply to a three-month supply, so if you need a year’s worth of that cholesterol med, the remainder of that year’s supply will come out of your pocket.
  • Transport Canada and Canadian air carriers exclude prescriptions from luggage restrictions, and so prescriptions do not need to fit inside that one-litre plastic bag of toiletries you have to wave in front of the airport security staff.
  • Keep your prescriptions in the original packaging, otherwise, you might have some explaining to do when border agents open your luggage.
  • Read your emergency health coverage policy (assuming you buy a policy)(if you don’t buy a policy, you just might be in for a surprise liquidation of your assets). Check for exclusions. For example, many insurers will not cover you if you don’t have health coverage in your home country. Many will not cover pre-existing conditions unless the condition has been stable for three months.
  • Check with your provincial health office for limitations and exclusions on coverage when you are absent from Canada. Find out how long you can be away from Canada before your government-funded health care lapses. Some emergency-care policies do not cover people whose government or home-country insurance is void.

The Cute Kitchen

This blog needs more recipes, says my journalista friend Vivian Moreau. I could ignore her, but she has a master’s degree from one of Canada’s premier journalism schools, so on that count, I will heed her advice.

Cooking in a foreign country, even one as friendly as Switzerland, has its challenges. For one thing, Montreal Steak Spice is nowhere to be found. Same for Shake’n Bake. There is no salted butter on the store shelves or low-fat cooking sprays. And then there’s my cute little kitchen with its state-of-the-art equipment that outsmarts me still.

Top that with the German/French/Italian and no-English spice, sauce and food labels and you can see that achieving any degree of success is something of a shot in the dark.

Despite all this, Julia Child says I am a fabulous cook. Not that she was speaking of me personally, but of cooks like me generally. Child asserted that great failures marked a great chef, because it proved he/she was trying new things. I grew up with a fantastic chef-Dad who looked down his nose at measuring cups and spoons, and it is he who I emulate in the kitchen, which may explain why my failure-to-success ratio is somewhere around 60-40. By Child’s standards, I’m practically a culinary genius. Never mind that the 40% of my successes have to do with egg dishes and a secret apple crisp recipe known only to my sons and their wives.

But to get back to Vivian, who I hope is still talking to me after I made some perhaps rash remarks about a Canadian political hero of hers, I have decided to play with a few made-up recipes, which I will record here whether they are delicious or disastrous. Here’s the first that I concocted tonight:

Honeyed Pineapple Chicken

Honeyed Pineapple Chicken

You’ll need:

  • boneless skinless chicken breasts
  • honey – creamy or clear, doesn’t matter
  • butter
  • Worcestershire sauce
  • fresh pineapple cut into one-inch chunks
  • salt
  • fresh parsley, chopped
What to do:
  1. Get the sharpest knife in your kitchen. Lay the chicken breast out flat on a cutting board. Place a palm on top of the chicken, press down and slice the blade horizontally through the chicken breast, so as to make two thin fillets. Cut away from yourself, although to be honest, I forget this safety rule and cut towards myself. Someday, something will go terribly wrong.
  2. In a frying pan, non-stick preferably, melt butter and salt. There’s no salted butter here, so I shake in a good dose, but if you’re using salted butter, you might need almost no salt. Use as much or as little butter as you like.
  3. The cooking temperature will depend on your cooktop. I need to jack our European cooktop nearly to its highest setting to get any results, but in a North American stove top I would aim for somewhere between 50-60% heat (a little above medium). In a gas range, go below medium heat.
  4. When the butter has melted and the pan is hot, sear the chicken breasts.
  5. Drizzle 1-2 tsp. honey over each piece.
  6. Add a similar amount of Worcestershire sauce.
  7. Turn chicken when edges whiten.

    The chicken should be about this colour when you turn it, but really, it doesn't matter. Life will go on no matter when you flip it.

  8. Add pineapple chunks. If the pineapple is fresh and a good one, this will add more juice/moisture to the mix. Excellent. The pineapple I purchased here was not so good, so it added hardly any moisture at all. Boo. Next time, I may use canned pineapple chunks, although this is a heretical move.
  9. Turn fillets occasionally until the butter/honey/pineapple juice starts reducing (ie. moisture steams away leaving a dark brown base). As the base darkens, turn more often, coating chicken and pineapple chunks in the base.
  10. Now is a good time to add the chopped parsley.
  11. When there is a touch of black on the chicken and pineapple, and the chicken is a golden brown, remove from heat.
  12. Serve with steamed veggies. Add flavour to the veggies (after steaming) by tossing in the frying pan for a minute and coating with reduced sauce.
  13. Eat. Tell me what you think if you try this recipe.
  14. Tell me if you think I should not include recipes in this blog. Remember my 60-40 ratio.
The numbers on the chicken: Varies, depending on how much honey and butter you use, but if you’re frugal (1 tsp. each of honey and butter per breast) it should come in around
115 calories (remember, this is per fillet, which is only half the breast)
4 grams fat
44 mg cholesterol
93.5 mg sodium
5.8 g sugars
6 g carbs
12 g protein
0 g fibre (if you pile the plate up with fresh green beans – about 2 cups worth – you will add 9 grams of fibre to this meal, with only 75 more calories).

Looking for your thoughts

Jet-lagged, sleep-deprived and totally time-zoned out, I got to wondering whether I should change the “theme” on this blog, mostly because my brain can’t yet stretch itself to comprehend anything beyond our hotel room, such as Switzerland, or perhaps even Europe.

Generally speaking, a big switch is considered a no-no in blog-world, but then what’s the point of having all the options out there if we don’t try a few on for size? If layout, colours, photos and typeset matter to you,  cast your vote in the comments section as I fiddle with the look of the blog this week. Come next weekend, I may just put it back to the way it was, but for now, let’s play.