The Third Space

We call "dibs" on this tree in our town square. It's our biggest yet!

We don’t have a Christmas tree this year, unless we count the 50-foot one in our third space.

Never heard of a third space? It is a jargon-piece belonging to architects and city planners. The first two spaces are the private and public rooms inside the home.

The third space is the exterior public space, such as restaurants, town squares, parks, bus stops. Okay, I added bus stops on my own, but they seem like third-spaces to me.*

"Our" Christmas decorations this year are bigger than basketballs!

Here’s why. The third space is a sort of living room for the population. Anybody can be there. Third-spaces are everywhere in Europe, especially in densely populated areas where private living spaces are too small to adequately serve the social and emotional needs of their occupants. And so, the occupants head out elsewhere, as a preventive measure against roommate or family homicide. In North America, Starbucks fills this role nicely.  Playgrounds are another example of third-spaces. But I ramble …

Stand still for longer than two seconds and you run the risk of being grabbed and festooned. This is actually a mild form of dog-decorating. We used to outfit our yellow lab in a complete harness of bells, antlers, etc.

With this in mind, I’ve decided to look upon the magnificent Christmas tree in our town square as my own. It’s the only tree I will have this year, which is going to be something of an experience.

Even our neighbour's dogs are not safe from my decorating mania. Deck the dogs in wraps of woolens, fa la la la la, la la la la.

Why? Because, I am a Christmas-decorating nut. Every year, my house turns into a red, tinsel and bauble warehouse with trees of all sizes appearing in every corner and on every countertop.  It is out-of-control. It takes weeks to pull together and weeks to take apart.

I don’t see anything wrong with this.

This year, however, I am restricted to two little white-poinsettia plants on our dining room table on the strength of the reasoning that there is no point in buying decorations I cannot bring home.

How sad, but not too sad because the time I used to devote to decking the halls is now spent in endless browsing through Christmas decorations in local stores, a pastime that is feeding my imagination for when I decorate next year (my husband will not be happy to read this).

For those wondering: The current craze in Swiss Christmas decorations leans towards a style that would fit in nicely with Canadian cottages. They are very earthy, roughshod and fuzzily charming.

Lights of Life Christmas display at Marietta, Georgia, Chiropractic College

In the meantime, there’s all these third-space decorations to enjoy.

*As explained to me by a Montreal architect whose name I forget, calling into question whether I remember his “third-space” monologue well enough. Would it not be interesting if I was fascinated enough in my topic to actually fact-check it?

Timid traveller at the halfway point, sort of

Steve: We're on a mountainside. What could go wrong?

Oh not much, except maybe falling off a cliff.

____________________________________________________________________

We are reaching the halfway point of our stay here in Switzerland. I started this blog to give some insight on the realities of overseas life, which from the outside has a glam shine to it, but on the inside, is more like listening the grinding sound of our lives coming to a halt. It is akin to being stuck in traffic, except the scenery is always changing.

I admit the scenery is pretty spectacular.

Being away means that we lose pockets of widely known information, such as who was premier in British Columbia. I was totally unaware of David Miller’s term in that office, owing to a protracted stay in Spain during his short tenure. At this moment, I cannot name most of Canada’s provincial premiers, even those that I have lived in.

On a more personal level, we lose touch with the dramas and comedies running in the lives of our friends and families, although this is not as parched an informational season as it was on past work terms, thanks to Facebook, email and Skype.

The truth is that living overseas is not the same as touring overseas. It is laced with unsympathetic administrators, and the occasional xenophobe who holds a grudge against all foreign workers and their families.

More mountains. Ugh.

The bureaucratic presence, however, has subsided for the time-being, and despite Switzerland having recently voted in what is regarded as its most insular xenophobic party, the number of actual xenophobes on the street are few. And so without an undercurrent of worry about being kicked out of the country, this blog has turned into something of a travel-blog, replacing the old travelogues – remember those? If you’re do, you are very old.

The problem is that travel blogs are supposed to include adventure and, of course, lots of travel. I am afraid of travel, so any element of adventure in these notes is totally unanticipated by me.

When I worked at a city paper, the editors realized my cowardice and my sheltered risk-adverse lifestyle, and so took it upon themselves to send me wherever the opportunity for crushing injury was most likely to occur. They knew it would generate a lively article typed out by my terrified fingertips, should I still have them on my return to the office.

This week, we did have the potential for a small brush with adventure (aside from the blast and smoke at the train station) with the arrival of Steve, one of our son’s old friends who is working in Switzerland over the winter. Steve is famous for having adventures of all sorts. He’s the type that attracts them, so if ever we were going to plunge off a cliff edge, this would be the day.

The steep cliffs in Lauterbrunnen.

Note of personal interest: Steve actually almost led to our son plunging off a cliff edge on Vancouver Island, when he convinced our boy the climb was not really a pure vertical. Also, Dave will not go golfing with Steve ever again, although Steve says, “You have to get over that.” I will describe what “that” is another time, but it happened almost a decade ago.

As we exited the train at Lauterbrunnen, I commented on how everything was going so well, despite Steve’s presence. He said, “Who would think that in ten minutes, we’ll be clinging to a cliff edge.”

He was wrong about that, but it was not entirely outside of the realm of possibility.

Later that day, when we heard that bang in the Bern train station and saw a column of black smoke rising up to the roof, I was not really surprised. I always expect the worst, so it made sense that we would arrive at the precise moment some terrorist organization should decide to detonate a crowded rail station.

Imagine my surprise that it turned out to be nothing, which leads us to the upside of being a pessimist: Happiness and wonder. Joy is what comes of expecting everything to go wrong, and finding that not everything does.

Optimists miss out on so much.

In the meantime, we have seven or eight more months here. Let’s see if we can get into any trouble in that time. And for those looking for more adrenalin in their lives, check out Jeb Corliss sailing off a Swiss cliff by clicking here. 

Bern is not all about bombs

The Swiss parliament building in Bern, just before the laser light show begins.

Emerging with renewed energy from the blast at Bern’s train station, we hit Bern’s streets heading past the parliament buildings where we heard loud noises and saw a huge crowd gathering.

At this point, we had no clue that the blast at the train station was merely a harmless mechanical/electrical malfunction, so the gathering masses were of some interest to us. The last time we had stepped onto the cobblestone square in front of the parliament building, it was surrounded by police and full of Tamils lobbying against any deportation of their numbers back to Sri Lanka where they might have an unpleasant experience, such as facing execution.  I have no comment on their political situation, but along with the requisite smouldering angry young men, the crowd was full of children and elderly people, so that seemed safe enough to me and I dove in see what was the matter.

My sons later observed that this was unwise.

“When you see police surrounding black people, do not go in there. It never ends well,” said one. That is true in some instances, but in this one there was no violence, and because the Tamils have jobs and families to attend to, they did not camp out in the square, as has now become the fashion with protest movements.

But that was then.

We joined the crowd and were treated to a delightful laser light show that played over the parliament building. It was awesome. Click here to see a short version of the show (click to the one-minute mark for the coolest part), and here for a longer 15-minute version. 

How you view terrorist activity is sometimes a matter of proximity

Bahnhof Bern: Services in the neighbourhood of 150,000 passengers a day, centered in a national capital. Yup, this could be a terrorist target.

BERN, SWITZERLAND It sounded like a gun blast at first or a tire-burst. A big one. Then a column of black-grey smoke rose above the passenger train at the Bern train station. The crowd on the platform started and lurched instinctively away from the blast, but no one ran.

The explosion appeared to come from the train the second-track over from the train we had just exited and as is always the case with deciding what to do in an environment where we don’t speak the local language, we watched the crowd to see their reaction.

BBC image of 2004 bombing at Madrid's Atocha train station.

The escalator to an overhead walkway was jammed with people, who all turned to survey the explosion site. On the walkway, people stood and pointed, but no one appeared to panic.

Hmmm, column of black smoke, loud bang – probably nothing wrong. That’s what the crowd reaction told us. We waited for a second explosion, the big one, but it did not come. Thank God.

Bern is Switzerland’s capital city and the train station is massive and densely populated. That makes it a target similar in scale to a London or Japanese subway or Madrid’s Atocha train station. This is what goes through one’s mind when gauging how to react to a loud bang, that and whether searchers will find enough body parts to identify us by DNA and so inform our families of our scattered whereabouts.

Nothing happened afterward, and there was no news of it in the local media, so we can only assume it was some kind of mechanical or electrical gaff, although we didn’t see any mechanics or train staff running toward the site of the blast. The Swiss, they are a calm bunch.

It brought to mind Noam Chomsky and his famous comment in the wake of 9/11 about how Americans should not be so fussed about terrorist attacks, and that the U.S. is big enough to take a hit. It seemed he was unaware the U.S. had already taken a hit with a kill-rate of over 3,000, more lives lost in a few hours than the Irish Republican Army had achieved in over three decades. I would have mailed him a copy of the New York Times dated Sept. 12, 2001 if I had his address.

I also wanted to call Mr. Chomsky and suggest he provide the addresses of his parents or children to the terrorists as an acceptable target, to see if he would then think a “hit” not such a big deal.

When living in an American/British/Canadian enclave in Madrid, we were occasionally treated to warnings that Spain’s Basque terrorists (ETA) were going to target the local malls during the Christmas season to send a message to the Americans. Our U.S. friends were somewhat taken aback, having never heard of the Basque or even been aware that their government had anything to do with the Basque complaints. It did not, but that was not of interest to the terrorists. All they were looking for was a victim that would attract big headlines and American victims fit the bill.

That’s the thing with terrorists – they don’t have to worry about re-election and so they can pick their victims at random without having to defend their decisions at the next polling of the electorate. And while the Spanish turned tail and voted to

run for cover when they did suffer their most significant terrorist attack at the Atocha station in 2004, which occurred just before a national election where they turfed the party that supported sending troops to Afghanistan (however token in number), they were not always so accommodating to bullies.

Interestingly, Spain is the one country that had earlier seen a reduction in terrorist activity when the Spaniards wearied of the ETA blasting children and civilians, and the population took to the streets in a protest not against their government for ‘not controlling the terrorist situation,’ but against the terrorists themselves. It was a refreshingly intellectual move on the part of the Spaniards and one we wish more protesters would emulate.

The ETA took note and announced a ceasefire that turned out to be its longest one (which sadly ended when we were there in 1999/2000).

But that drifts from my point that how one views terrorist activity can be governed by proximity. Living in zones that are potential or declared targets imbues the threat with vigour. Living safely in the confines of wherever Chomsky dwells or others who like to blame the victim or the government of the day for threats authored by madmen is another thing.

It is something to think about while gauging whether to run, drop to the ground or just wait for that final fatal bomb to go off while going about what is an otherwise ordinary day.

After-note: We described the Bern train station sound and smoke to our hotel staff friends and they said it was likely a problem in the electrical system. See, nothing wrong. 

Tapping out a novel in under a month and the joys of rewriting

Books, books, books, books.

FRIDAY, PART ONE – WRITE A NOVEL IN A MONTH? SURE, WHY NOT? I spent half of my day in restaurants yesterday, three hours of which was at our town’s new Starbucks for a writers meeting. The stated goal was to get as much writing done as possible while quaffing towering latte’s and downing cheesecake and other baked yummies, but I wrote exactly one word and spent the rest of the time chatting over one of the other writer’s novels.

The gal is a genius and doesn’t even know it. She has crafted a mystery thriller that was good enough to hold my attention for 40 minutes, which, because she doesn’t know me well, she does not realize she has achieved something in the order of a miracle.

I have a very short attention span. The point of this is to say that she was a little downcast at the prospect of rewriting. She has laid down the story in the sweep of Nanomo, a one-month challenge to write a 50,000-word novel in November.

At other writer meetings, I’ve heard a Manitoba gal read off a stream of her novel’s narrative that came across in a rapid-fire distinctive voice. Here is more talent that may not be aware of her own merits.

I lived in the world of hyperactive-rewrites for almost 10 years as a journalist and hope both these gals do not shelve their roughshod drafts, and keep rewriting, even if it takes a year or two, and in the meantime to look for an agent or publisher. As they say in writing classes, we’re not writers, we’re re-writers. Everything needs polishing and re-polishing. Too many writers wait for some magical moment to start looking for a publisher, missing what could be amazing formative years in a writing career.

Hold on to that day-job while doing all this rewriting, though. The publishing world is a cruel and competitive one.

I reached my 50,000-word count early on (see hyperactive-writing-comment above) and finished my novel at 72,000 words, which I will now spend at least six months editing and then we shall see where that goes.

Friday’s dining, part two.

Toni's Ristorante in Biel/Bienne - a winner!

THREE HOURS IN ONE RESTAURANT WAS NOT ENOUGH – FRIDAY IN BIEL/BIENNE CONTINUED …..But back to the restaurant stuff. Three hours inside a restaurant was not enough for one Friday so at about 7 p.m., Dave and I walked two blocks to Toni’s Restaurant, which sits in a white-washed ancient building on the border of Biel/Bienne’s cobblestone-laid medieval town.  We have not always had the best luck with restaurants lately, so my expectations were set to “gag.”

When we entered, we found a cocktail party on the main floor in full bore. The staff had to search for someone with some English who explained that yes, the restaurant was open (the wine-tasting event downstairs made us suspect it was booked up for a party). They led us upstairs to an empty, but utterly charming restaurant made up of a warren of small rooms (although there was one large room that could accommodate a party of 20 or more).

Empty dining rooms make us nervous that the locals know something we do not, but we pressed on. The waitress showed us into a room where she indicated we take the table of our choice, which, by the way, is what we saw her do later when other patrons arrived. Is this a Swiss custom? I do not know, but it is a nice one. We took the table overlooking the empty outdoor cafe (it was cold outside) and some nasty new construction that is sure to ruin the ambience of the old town’s borders.

But never mind about that. The menu only comes in Italian, German and French, and with the waitress’ limited command of English and our even more paltry assortment of French words, we managed to steer Dave away from ordering horse steak for dinner. When he exclaimed no to the horse, the waitress said, “It’s okay, we have bunnies to eat, too.”

I have no objection to others eating horse or bunnies (ugh), but as a childhood vegetarian, it took me something to just come around to eating beef (pork and chicken came later, fish even later in my 30s after moving to Canada’s west coast, the Mecca of seafood).

We safely ordered beef tenderloin at 43 Swiss Francs a plate. That’s about 50 bucks Canadian. Ouch. The meal came with a savoury carrot soup delivered in a tiny demi-tasse bowl and sumptuous olive bread. When the steak arrived, we were surprised to see it sitting solo on a large plate, surrounded by sautéed arugula and topped with paper-slices of parmesan, but we dug in and  my-o-my, it was the best beef we’ve had here yet.

It was a little odd that it came without the usual potato or vegetable accoutrements, however, it was a generous portion and in fact, it felt good to just enjoy the beef. It is pan-fried, not grilled or broiled, and the seasoning was subtle.

We later enjoyed a 12.75 Franc dessert of mango sorbet and hot chocolate cake with chocolate-cream filling. Words cannot do justice to the mango sorbet. It was richly laced with what must have been fresh mango, because the weight of the fruit chunks gave no indication they had ever seen the inside of a freezer. The chocolate cake was delicious, too.

We ordered just the one dessert for the two of us to share, but it turns out we could have ordered two. The portion was small, but just right for topping off a substantial steak. The restaurant gets a five-star rating in my books. Fabulous food, wonderful wait-staff, top-notch relaxed atmosphere, great layout for quiet dining, and yes, by the time we left the restaurant, it was packed. It seems the Swiss dine at a later hour that we North Americans.

If you want to read more about this restaurant, or find its locale so you can test my appraisal of its merits, click here. 

Things you learn on the street

Thursday night, as we strolled Nidaugasse, our town’s pedestrian thoroughfare through its retail district, a young balloon-festooned gal approached us, speaking in French. We weren’t afraid. We’re from Canada. We’ve seen people dressed weirder.

We happily explained that we do not speak French, did not understand a word she said, so we could not give money to her cause/protest/campaign or accept any pamphlets which would be indecipherable to we unilingual clodheads.

It turned we were wrong on all counts. She is getting married today, and so her girlfriends, dressed in little black bunny ears, were taking her out on the streets where she sold little waxen candies in honour of her impending marriage. I’m not sure what this is really about in terms of whether it is a tradition or just something goofy her buddies thought up, but her happiness was infectious. She offered us a candy for any amount of money and we regrettably had to inform her we carried as much money as the Queen of England, which is to say not a penny.  I had not even brought my wallet.

She gave us a candy anyway, and we wished her a beautiful wedding day and happiness in her marriage.

On the same street earlier in the day, one of our town drunks wandered bellowing belligerently such that he actually cleared an entire block of pedestrians. I did not have my camera to show this, but it was fascinating to the see the one guy in the street, while the blocks on either side of him were filled with shoppers. A picture like that would terrify Victoria’s Ken Kelly, an affable chap who runs the Downtown Victoria Business Association in British Columbia, Canada. They are a group of retailers who can be found hand wringing over the commercial degradation of Victoria’s downtown due to its sad street population.

And speaking of town drunks, our leading town drunk was seen up in our neighbourhood this week, walking straight and tall, dressed jauntily like an old sea-captain and looking incredibly sober. We’ve seen him thus several times, and doubt this is a twin, because he has a distinctive mashed up nose that can only be the result of some serious injury or accident, not something likely to be repeated by nature.

And that’s the news from our town’s streets. A happy bride and a screeching alcoholic, each affecting the street atmosphere in their own way.

Sledding in Switzerland

Swiss sleds

I offer this photo of toboggans as further proof that the Swiss national character is imbued with risk-taking in the extreme.

Old-fashioned wood sleds* complete with slope-slickening metal runners to make what could be a tooth-smashing venture into a skull-crushing one are filling the stores. Ah, the Swiss. They know how to make an insurance agent take to the drink.

I have not lately spent a lot of time in North American store’s children’s departments, so it is possible that the sale of wooden sleds in Canada has escaped my notice, but I believe these are no longer available there.

Note the extra height of the sled, raising the centre of gravity so as to create added lift when this thing goes airborne and flips.

It is said that you learn about your own culture when you are removed from it and this is true. For example, it was during our tenure in Spain that we realized Canadians and Americans are a smiley bunch. We smile at anything, anyone, anywhere at any time. To the Spanish, this made us look suspect, as though we were about to go through their pockets or perhaps ask them for directions back to the insane asylum.

In Switzerland, we have learned that Canadians are crazy about safety. We block off roads when heavy-duty construction is underway. Here in our Swiss village, I’ve been able to walk a narrow path down an alley while cranes swung large department store windows a few stories above my head and backhoes dug around who knows what kinds of pipes in the ground below, only a spit away from my feet. Close a road? The Swiss wouldn’t hear of it.

A Biel/Bienne bike.

A block away, they have erected a heavy timbered frame over a major pedestrian thoroughfare. The frame is held in place by wedges lodged between the large posts and the concrete block’s hole.

No guy wires or supportive beams are holding this thing up, and from where I stand, a stiff wind could turn this into something resembling a set on a horror movie. But there it is, unsupported, still standing and waiting for some kind of Christmas decorations to be added to it. Either that or this monstrosity is in the first construction stages of what will be a public gallows. I will keep you informed as work progresses.

In the meantime, I am trying to figure out how a local apparition of a bike (see above) actually works. The handlebars are extremely high up and the only visible support for the seat is that it’s tethered between the post and fore-frame by a woven strap. That can’t be safe.

*The price tags on the wooden sleds run up into the hundreds of dollars. Possibly, this prevents the very young or foolhardy from purchasing them, although I doubt it. There are a disproportionate number of people walking our streets with leg casts, crutches and the like.

3: Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow or Tschues

Happy to be headed home, but a little sad to leave the land of castle ramparts and lovely, friendly people.

We are going through our social ‘exit process,’ which is much more pleasant than the bureaucratic one.

We said good-bye to our beloved Starbucks buddies who presented us with a Starbucks Switzerland mug.

Tomorrow we’ll say good-bye to the Lollipop girl who runs our favorite candy shop and who recently exposed her midriff to us to show a sweeping tattoo marking some Swiss legend that we could not understand. We also could not understand why a gal with such fabulous abs would want to colour over them, but that is the youth of today. Now if someone like me opted for a tattoo to visually sculpt my midriff into looking more concave and much less convex, that would make perfect sense. Calm down, Mom. I’m not going to do it.

Switzerland the lovable.

I said farewell to the most embittered glaring grocery store cashier who admitted I really wasn’t that much of a problem. I said so long over coffee and Swiss pastries to a Swiss/Afghani/Indian/American friend with communist sympathies and an adorable calico kitten, as well as her hockey-playing Swiss husband who mistakenly thinks the best team in the NHL is the Detroit Red Wings.

Venner Well: A Swiss warrior statue in Biel’s old town that embarrassed its makers by breaking off at both legs when being set up and then suffering follow-up breakages during stormy weather. The well dates back to the 1400s; the stone statue may date back to the mid-1500s, but the translated records were not clear on that point. It could be older.

Our hotel staff have been saying good-bye to us for weeks, but the intensity is now ratcheting up. They are threatening to lock the doors in a bid to thwart our ‘escape.’ They regularly offer a detailed comparative analysis on the merits of living in Switzerland versus Canada, always arriving at the same conclusion, which is that we will be back by autumn. We’ve been actively campaigning for the ones more familiar to us to come visit in Canada, with the caveat that room service at our house will not measure up to the hotel’s standards. *

Tomorrow we will meet with a young Indian couple and their two daughters who have become like our “Swiss grandchildren.” I preferred to think of them along the lines of nieces, but the parents keep referring to us in grandparent terms, forcing us to accept the fact that we are definitely well into our 50s. Yuk on that. We’re going to miss them, but again we hope they will stop in for a visit some time, although that is less likely as they appear Singapore-bound after their term here.

I have not said farewell to my Winnipeg friend and dame of roller derby fame named Jam Buster, because if our paths can cross at a random writers meeting at an all-by-chance Starbucks 7,000 km away from home, you gotta know no planning is required for us to run into each other again.

*There is no room service in our house. Never has been. Ask our kids. They may still be bitter about this. 

Second stops in the small spots of Switzerland.

Just another quiet church music rehearsal.

Switzerland has any number of sites worth seeing a second time, and one of those is Solothurn, where for the second time we stumbled into the Jesuit Church (Jesuitkirche) on the main drag and for the second time, happened into a music rehearsal. Do I detect an echo? (click here to hear what we heard and to see the camera pan over the ceiling frescoes)

Architectural detail in frescoe-jewelled High Baroque architecture found in Solothurn's Jesuitkirch, built in the late 1600s. We had showed up in the Spring and walked in on a colourful folk-gospel rehearsal featuring a female soloist whose voice matched the High Baroque building’s rising arches and columns. This time, we got a “horse of a different colour” with a choral and classical music performance, just for us and a few others drafted in off the street to enjoy the moment. It’s times like these that we have to suspect God loves to show off the good stuff.

Switzerland has a little of everything, including Christian martyrs that the Romans beheaded in the 3rd century, and who are remembered in statuary at St. Ursen Kathdrale. As is usually the case, the Romans did not mind the Christians worshipping God, they were just peeved the Christians refused to acknowledge Rome's deities, demonstrating that what ticked off people then, ticks them off still.

I grew up in a university district with some fairly interesting friends who came from families of broad talents and skills, among them, a few professional symphony musicians.  Maybe my music tastes were crafted during those impromptu violin and piano concertinas that served as intermissions from discussions on international politics, biochemistry and the mental dysfunctions of our track coach. Ever since, my ear has preferred the roughshod uncut take on a musical piece, something like Susan Boyle’s first run at “I dreamed a dream” on Britain’s Got Talent in 2009. The heart and giftedness in her uncoached version of that song tops any of her later polished productions.

Which is to say, if you go to Solothurn, or any Swiss town for that matter, be sure to step into the churches and see what’s going on there. Odds are, there will be nothing but grand architecture and maybe the sale of souvenirs, but it seems that in Solothurn, the odds might be excellent that you will see something that you will never forget. Church music, living room jam sessions, rehearsals in unexpected places, these are the things that make memories that will go with us for years to come.

Oh yes, and chocolate. Chocolate makes memories, too. Speaking of which, Solothurn is home to a number of chocolateries, where visitors can idle the afternoon away comparing, cooing and slipping into chocolate comas. Not a bad way to pass the hours.

Other things to see:

    • St. Ur or St. Urses or St. Ursen Kathdrale on a sunnier day

      Kunstmuseum – A small art gallery with big art history, including work by Picasso, Cezanne and other masters. This vibrant museum also hosts modern art exhibits that are as good as anything to be seen in major cities.

    • St. Ursen Kathdrale – This church has been closed to the public, we believe due to renovations (remember our language limitations), but you can still enjoy its exterior, as well as a 250-stair climb up its bell tower for fabulous views. Note: Do not attempt this if you have a family history of heart disease. Click here for a description of the vertical march and to see our sunny-day visit to Solothurn in the Spring.
    • Altes Zeughaus – Weapons museum that we are sure is lovely, but we were too cheap to pay admission, so we offer no appraisal on its merits.
    • Rathaus – An appropriately named office building for the municipal government. In keeping with the foot-dragging policies of municipal governments everywhere, this building was constructed over a period of 235 years. Think of that next time you go to your town hall asking for street lights on your block.
    • Fortified walls, towers and gates – Stroll through the old-town to see remnants of these structures left over from the 1600s.

Rappelling Swiss Canals

BIEL/BIENNE, SWITZERLAND You see more of the world when you get out of your car and walk around. You may not go as many miles, but you cover much more ground, so to speak.

Swiss workers know how to have fun on the job. This man is one of a team of city workers who rappelled down a canal wall when there was a perfectly good staircase nearby. The bike was retrieved from the canal, a favorite chucking-out point for bike thieves (or maybe the bike owners themselves discard their rides in this way, perhaps fed up with the European cycling stereotype).

Today provides a good example. A deep stone-walled canal runs through our town. In the late afternoon, two city workers in a low-bed truck pulled up in the walkway by the canal (there is a roadway on one side and a walkway on the other).  Dressed in reflective orange coveralls,they unrolled a line over the canal’s 3.5-foot wrought-iron fencing, which, by the way, prevents no one over the age of three from climbing over and plunging down to an uncomfortable landing. The canal is roughly 15 to 20 feet deep at this point, so unless you took a header, you would probably survive the fall, although with some nasty deforming injuries.

They had tethered the rope to something, so that while one managed the rope, the other swung over the railing and rappelled down the canal. At least I hoped they fastened the rope to something, but in fact, it looked as if they had just looped it around the railing and the topside worker was hanging on to it while his buddy made his descent. I cannot be completely sure about this.

It should be noted that less than 30 feet away was a gate opening to a narrow set of concrete steps that the workers could have easily used. Let’s face it, rappelling is more fun than stairclimbing.

The worker reached the bottom whereupon he started plucking debris from the canal floor and chucking it in the general direction of his crew partner. The first few tosses were random and so boots, empty cans and unidentifiable flying objects landed among the strollers, which happened to include an elderly lady in a long grey coat who nearly got beaned with a shoe.

Such egregious disregard for work and public safety would get somebody in Canada fired, but this is Switzerland where if you can not dodge a few shoes now and then, you are not long for this world anyway.

I’m adding this to my list of proofs that the Swiss are a daring no-nonsense bunch whose primary goal is to get the job done on time, even if this means not getting the job done safely. Yesterday, bucket trucks and ladders lined Nidau Street (Nidaugasse) where workers strung framed Christmas lights overhead, all without benefit of redirecting the pedestrian traffic below. One slip and it would have been Christmas bulbs imbedded in skulls. That did not happen, however, and last night the streets were aglow with Christmas lights.

I would not have noticed any of this had I been speeding by in a car, but then, I also would not have been within range of flying boots and plummeting Christmas lights.

Heartbreaking timepieces

We are surrounded by watches, this being Switzerland, and this being the Canton of Bern, it is also the home of many recognizable Swiss watch brands, including Swatch, Rolex, Longines and so forth.

Not much of this means anything to me. I have a utilitarian attitude toward watches. They need to be on time, they need to be waterproof and they need to be cheap enough that when I lose or break one, it will not rend my soul into pieces.

Watches watches everywhere and not a digital face to buy.

 

I used to have an expensive Seiko watch, a brand that in Switzerland is despised as a basement-bargain inferior product. I lost that watch back in the 1980s and I look for it still. It was perfect in design and went with any outfit. When I realized it had gone AWOL, I searched every pocket, every closet, every drawer, every nook, every proverbial cranny and it all came to nothing. Even years later, every time we moved, I kept an eye open for that watch to float to the top of the boxes, but no. Nothing.

The habit birthed out of this was to only buy watches that I would not miss, and that watch brand happens to be Timex. If Seiko is despised in Switzerland, Timex is non-existent.

I know this, because my trusty waterproof, $45 Timex sports watch has lost a piece of its strap. There are no replacement straps to be found here in the heart-and-soul of watch-land. There are no Timex watches or even anything that looks like them. More than that, there does not appear to be any digital watches and worse even, every watch I have eyed comes with a heart-stopping price tag. That is to say, heart-stopping for me. I am incredibly cheap.

I have searched our downtown core and have come upon banks and banks of old-fashioned hour, minute and second-handed watches. It is as though 1970 did not exist (the year when Wikipedia says the first digital watches came into being, although I doubt Wikipedia. Nevertheless, I am too lazy to look further than that, so please do not quote me as a reliable source on this point).

And so I walk around with my not-so-secure strap, fearful of losing of my lovely Timex watch that has been with me through so many wonderful lake swims, so many jogs and walks, a stain-proof, reliable device that has a timer, stopwatch, alarm, pulse-taker, a watch I bought only because I knew it would mean nothing to me if I lost it.

It turns out I was wrong about that.

Of course, I bought it before I moved here where it is the rarest of timepieces. If it drops off my wrist, I am going to be looking for it everywhere, just like that blasted Seiko.

 

 

My beloved niece and random travels

Now this is a proper Swiss "river," running straight and orderly as all Swiss waterways should. Note: An untamed creek/river ran alongside it. The Swiss are not to be outdone, they will have every kind of waterway.

TAUBENLOCH, BIEL/BIENNE, SWITZERLAND  I received a note from one of my darling nieces this week (I have 11, no wait, that’s 12 nieces, plus one genius-Goddaughter), asking for my advice on where to travel as she’s planning to trot across Europe next spring.

The thing is, there are so many places to go that she could play pin-the-tail on the European map and land just about anywhere interesting, except for Olten, which we have already established is not worth visiting.

The Taubenloch gorge trail criss-crosses the Suze River as it falls from the Jura Mountains down into Lac Biel/Bienne.

But, Olten aside, we have done some random drop-in touring and been pleasantly surprised, as we saw on our trip to Thun, the not-so-well-known Swiss settlement north of the Bernese Mountains. Although it receives as little attention as Olten when it comes to tour guides and online searches, it turned out to be a fabulous place. Click here and here to see past posts and pics on Thun.

Europe is full of such lovely finds and not just in medieval villages, cathedrals, castles and pastries. We discovered a treasure in a canyon trail just north of our town of Biel/Bienne.

It swoops down into a steep limestone carved gorge that bellies out in a fast-moving river, or maybe creek. It’s not clear to me what qualifies as a river, as I’ve seen “rivers” in Spain that had all the panache of the ditch that ran in front of our small-town-BC home back in the 1990s. Yet the Spaniards called this worm of a waterway a “river.” Fascinating people, the Spanish.

You can understand that when someone describes something as “fantastic” to me, I reserve judgment until laying my own eyes on the thing. This is what happens to people who have lived in Spain. They are forever sceptical about everything.

Check out the metal railing, bowed by falling rock. The Swiss know how to add excitement to a cliff-side trail.

But the Taubenloch trail is nothing to be sceptical about – it turns out that it is a charming, although sometimes alarming stroll. The alarming part is the ample evidence of landslides as can be seen by security tape and warning signs around badly deformed metal railings where the falling boulders have messed with the trail. As late as 2009, the trail was cut off due to a number of landslides. This makes walking it a very exciting venture, indeed.

A southerly portion of the trail scoops out of the limestone walls of the gorge, such that walkers are directly underneath massive overhangs of rock, overhangs that have visible stress fractures in them. It quickens the pulse as well as the pace.

There are gorges and waterfalls more grand to be found south of us in the Swiss Alps, but I am a scaredy-cat, so this was just the right start for me. I’ll try the big stuff later.

To get to the Taubenloch trail,take the train to Frinvillier (less than 10 minutes from Biel/Bienne or 30-40 minutes from Bern, or with train switches, about 90 minutes from Zürich). When you get off the train turn right, heading down to the underpass where you will make another right, going under the underpass that now is an overpass to you, until you come to directional signs in a small Swiss village. Take the sign pointing left (downhill) called Gorges du Taubenloch. It will look like you’re heading off to nowhere, but eventually the road leads to a skinny trail alongside a raised walled canal. This is the northern end. The trail meanders at a

The prospect of this stone ceiling caving in on us did not bother Dave's coworker, Mike.

gentle downhill in a southerly direction, crossing the Suze River several times via walking bridges. At a slow pace, you can cover the trail in 45 to 60 minutes. It is reported to be only two-kilometres long, although with all the winding and such, my pedometer showed it to be much longer.

Cost: We didn’t pay a cent, although as we exited the trail on its south end, we went through a gate, along with some signs in German or French, so it is possible there’s a donation box. The trail is said to be maintained by a non-profit society.

Taubenloch is full of tunnels and caves, some natural, some carved. Locals tell us caves were/are used as potential sniping points in case of invasion, and are also used to stockpile weapons all over Switzerland, which does not have an army per se as the entire male population is required to take military training and serve 3 weeks a year until age 34, although some are required to go til 50 - I would imagine they are 'special-ops.'

One other thing: The southern end of the trail comes out right into a Biel/Bienne suburb, and you can walk all the way back to the train station or look for a bus. I can’t give any advice on the bus, because we walked back home, which took less than an hour, although we did have a leisurely browse through an outlet store along the way. No nature hike is complete without at least one stop in a shop.

Xenophobe’s note: I mock the Spanish for their idea of what constitutes a river, but in all fairness, the Swiss would probably mock me or my fellow Canucks for finding Taubenloch to be awe-inspiring. This is because the Swiss own Switzerland, a pretty fabulous place in every way. 

Autumn is a lovely time to walk Taubenloch.

Olten

Olten painted house - when graffiti could legitimately be called art.

OLTEN About half the hits on hobonotes.com come from our friends and the other half from random Google searches, Facebook links, and other weird Internet searches.

For the half that are personally acquainted with us, this blog is a way of saying: Look! We are still alive! For the other half, it offers a peek into the pluses and sometimes-minuses of European travel, as well as a rigorous ongoing quality check on European chocolates and cheeses.

This blog-reader split is what crossed my mind as we strolled through Olten, a little Swiss town of about 17,000 where for every 100 Swiss babies born, there are about 80 births of non-Swiss babies. I mention the birthrate only because it is such an outstanding demographic figure and because it is Olten’s most interesting fact. This is true, as far as I can tell.

When a town's public art is mostly flat concrete-cast figures, it is time to start again.Ugh.

Olten does not figure large in travel guide books and two hours there told us why. Its old-town has the requisite narrow cobblestone avenues flanked with three-to-five-story apartment buildings complete with the usual colourful shutters and attic garrets, but lacks the “punch” that other Swiss villages deliver with their castles, ramparts and medieval churches. It is not a bad place to go, but it’s questionable whether it is worth the stop.

Olten is not without its charms.

This is what made me think about how to write about it for the website. If you are a personal acquaintance asking whether to make a tourist stop in Olten, I would say do not bother.

If you are a casual Google-search-initiated reader, I might be tempted to be more diplomatic and politely steer you toward other locales, but I’ve already outed Olten as a non-destination. Poor Olten.

I could be wrong about this. If any Olten-adoring reader cares to challenge me, I am willing to go back for a second look.

Sick Saturday

A cold bug has struck our little household, but we have to flee our premises anyway because it is the day the hotel housecleaning staff scour out our flat, so we’re off to Solothurn to hack, wheeze and spread some germs around. Photos to come, sometime, who knows when.

Breaking news: Dave says we’re also visiting Olten. Maybe we’re not that sick.

Want more stuff? Scroll down. 

A few more photos from Thun, Switzerland’s overlooked city & a note on crime

Sailing at Lac Thun on a beautiful November day.

Thun was so pretty that it is worth one more look. Here are some photos from that charming place.

A note on crime: We strolled the old-city without any sense that pickpockets were nearby, and even Thun’s train station lacked the menace that other European train stations have with their notoriety for thieves (see Paris blog about the Gare d’Lyon in that fair city by clicking here).

Many Swiss cities have urban injection sites for drug addicts, which reportedly are having some success in helping people out of that lifestyle, but their presence also leads to a whole lot of unpleasantness around many train stations (for some reason the sites are situated near the train stations, probably because the stations are in the city’s core, naturally).

Our little town of Biel/Bienne has an injection site near the train station, making it the most unsavory part of town. It’s too bad because it’s also the first place tourists see when visiting here. Thun didn’t seem to have that drug/drinking population, although we were there on a Saturday. Maybe they took the day off. We have seen our town’s preeminent drunk on the train – perhaps he was on holiday, or merely scouting for new franchise locations.

Covered walkway over a river dam at Thun, at the River Aar.

The Swiss even make car parks look pretty. They are a wonderful people.

The Swiss idea for a garage along a river. This was off a little creek just a few metres from the River Aar - it was full of wood boats. Lovely.

Switzerland is like Victoria, B.C., Canada for its large trees. Holy dynamite, Batman! That's a big one.

Thun, beautiful but often ignored

If this were Winnipeg, the residents would be sandbagging like mad. But it's not. It's Europe and so having water right up to the building's foundations is just fine.

Thun sits within sight of Switzerland’s spectacular Bernese Alps, which means that it is much-ignored as people speed on past to get to the mountains. It’s name is no help: Pronounced ‘toon,’ it struggles to be taken seriously, and fails to inspire curiosity the way that a name like Zermatt, Zürich or Neuchatel might. Poor Thunites.

But their town is lovely, with the River Aar running through it, the classical cobblestone streets, covered bridges, a castle, and scores of outdoor riverside cafes.

Once you make it up the steep stairs leading to the castle, you're rewarded with a maze of these lovely cozy walled cobblestone lanes.

Our first clue the town is somewhat overlooked came when we stopped in at the visitor information centre. These are often found in train stations and usually attract a lot of traffic as tourists flood up from the station platforms, but when we arrived we increased the office’s tourist population by 100%. The agent was so happy to see us that she came around from the booth to greet us, bidding us welcome in such a way that it was clear our presence was her only hope for job security.

The truth is, Thun would not rank high on any tourist guide’s “must-see” list, but that is because it has such fierce competition. As Dave has noted, while B.C. has one Victoria, Switzerland has about 500, or one every 10 minutes. How can a place stand out with competition like that?

Thun. Ugh. What a horrible place.

If you go, make sure to take the walk up to the castle. The stair-climbing will just about kill anyone – and as proof, not long after we arrived at the top gasping and clutching our chests, a woman not 30-years-old came up behind us, panting and red-faced. So it wasn’t just us. You will be rewarded with a stroll down some stone-walled, cobblestoned lanes that afford a lovely rooftop view over Thun and onto the Bernese Mountains, which everyone else has rushed off to see, leaving you with Thun all to yourself.

Thun has spectacular views of the Bernese mountains, including Jungfrau.

Music that needs to be explained along with the wreckless abandon of the Swiss

What is this swan thinking? Swans usually paddle languidly through calm waters, but this one must have been a teenager thrilling to the dangers of Thun's fast-moving waters.

The castle in Thun against a lovely blue sky.

Thun may not be the name that comes to mind when one thinks of wandering Swiss towns, but if you have the time, it is a lovely place with covered wooden bridges, and a sparkling clear river – the River Aar in fact, which runs through so many villages that we are suspicious that instead of one river, it is actually about 10 with the same name. It is possible the Swiss were tired of naming things. They have a lot of mountains to name, so why not just paste the same moniker on a bunch of waterways? Am I joking? See below. ***

The town has at least two dams on it, and we watched swans bobble through in the churning waters of one, not really sure they would make it. The current is seriously scary and so, of course, it attracts the human young as seen in this video clip (click here). As is customary with the Swiss, the surfers seen in this clip have no protective gear – no helmets, no life jackets.

This is the oddity with the Swiss – although they apparently strap on endless harnesses when scaling cliffs, they are otherwise unconcerned with drowning, head injuries, plummeting tremendous distances down mountainsides, ramming their bicycles into cars, and so forth.

They are a wonderful people, but I’m sure their mothers are all exceedingly nervous.

This explains the Red Cross, the Swiss organization that provides emergency response across the globe. They have developed a heightened emergency-response infrastructure, methinks, because they are a little weak on disaster-avoidance while also being  strong on adventure-seeking. No wonder they’re good at bandaging wounds.

In the meantime, I made a promise to post a video clip of Swiss street musicians that may be good, or not. I am at a loss to explain it. We came upon these men in yeti-costumes on the streets of Thun, singing in pained voices and playing wind instruments that made my ears hurt. If any Swiss person can tell us what this is (click here for a short video clip), please do

*** I make joke about many rivers being named Aar or Aare. It is actually one heck of a long river that begins and ends in Switzerland, running about 295 km (183 miles), and is the funnel through which all the water of Central Switzerland drains (17,779 square kilometres or 6,865 square miles).

Tomorrow: More Thun along with more photos

More street talent

Rob van Wely and his travelling audience.

Biel is a small place in the grand scheme of all things Swiss. It’s not Lausanne, Bern, Zürich, Lucerne, Geneva – all of which have the air of international cities.

It certainly lacks the grandeur of Zermatt or the Alps, which are further south, but it is charming nonetheless, and has so many festivals that any North American city of a similar size appears comatose.

It also attracts a fair number of street performers. It is hard to qualify the value of these musicians. We’ve seen some in Victoria that were raspish to the point where listening to fingernails screeching along a chalkboard seem like a pleasant alternative.  In Switzerland, thus far, the street music has been very good. Maybe the old stone buildings add a particular acoustic value, but every weekend we are amazed at the performances so much that we-the-cheap regularly drop money in their upturned caps.

Here in Biel, we ran into a James-Taylor-ish street performer, Rob van Wely, a modern-day troubadour with a silky voice. In his limited English he told us he’s from Holland, and didn’t seem believe his voice was so nice. Decide for yourself. Check out his performance in Biel by clicking here.

“I whistle better,” he said. He was told 25 years ago that his voice is bad, and he admitted that to be heard over a crowd, he tended to yell. It stole away the gentle nuances of his voice meandering up and down the scale, and so he worked on his guitar-playing and whistling, but then discovered the magic of amplification and brought his vocals back to his performance.

Tomorrow, I’ll post another video of a street performer in Thun that could change my mind about the quality of street music. I just haven’t decided yet.

New links:

  1. Look here at AngloINFO, a Geneva-based website with some handy data for foreigners living in Switzerland.
  2. Look to your right to see a new weather box on HoboNotes. It’s a graphic that depicts the local weather reports (as they come from Bern, we’re too small here in Biel for our own weather reports). It is very cool, thank you to my friend C.A. for pointing it out to me. 
  3. For those who prefer the real thing, go to the Blogroll box to the right and click on “See it now” to go to a webcam showing you a view over Lake Biel, updated every 15 minutes. 

Sinking to new lows in the kitchen

We are sliding down the chute into culinary mediocrity, one forkful at a time.

The after-school cookie-muffin-and-scone-baking mom, that was me. No trans- fatty acids or cyclamates in my kids home-made snacks, just good old-fashioned butter and sugar.

How things have changed. Cooking in Switzerland has been challenging, mostly because six months in and I still haven’t figured out how to work our newfangled state-of-the-art oven. That and the combined horrors of shopping for food without taking out a mortgage has had an effect on our dining.

It began over the summer when I was in Canada and Dave took it upon himself to try out some prepared packaged meals from the grocery story. To his surprise, and later mine, it turned out they weren’t so bad, and with pricing between 5 and 7 Swiss Francs each, these meals have become staples in our weekly diet.

That is pretty low in my books, but today we sunk lower. I purchased pre-seasoned chicken breasts, reasoning that with pre-packaged food on the table four days out of seven, we were probably headed for heck anyway. How lame does a cook have to be to buy meat seasoned by a store? As lame as I am, as it turns out. A little pan-frying in butter and the pre-seasoned chicken turned out to be pretty good.

The price of vegetables makes me flinch (6 Francs a kilo for broccoli), but we have discovered packaged produce, such as bananas is much cheaper than the loose stuff in the bins. We had avoided the packaged produce precisely because it smacked of shoddy goods  – why package something if it wasn’t to conceal over-ripeness or bruising? It turns out that’s not the case in Switzerland, so we now buy our banans at 1.80 Francs for a big plastic bag instead of 3 Francs for a kilo.

We’ve also started shopping for cheeses, milk and other goods, mostly non-perishable, at a local convenience store called “Denners.” We earlier bought ground beef there and were suitably punished for that crime at dinner time. It tasted of something not quite beef. I don’t want to think about it. So, steering clear of beef, we have found other items there to be “okay” and weirdly cheaper than in the regular grocery store. This is the opposite of convenience stores in Canada where food is always priced way higher than in supermarkets.

I don’t know how much I’ve pared off our monthly 2,000 Francs grocery budget, but if we settle into this new “method,” I’ll try another week of collecting receipts and report back.

Still trying to figure out this country, the sweet and the sour

 

It’s funny what thoughts the town drunk will inspire.

For a teensy weensy little nation, Switzerland occasionally shows up in the top 10 richest countries in the world, which is something when you consider that it is competing against Qatar and the U.S.  In fact, according to Business Insider, it even topped the U.S., coming in at #6 over the U.S. at #7, based on GDP per capita.

Of course, where a country ranks depends on how the ranking is measured. For example, if a country’s riches were determined by the quantity of chocolates it produces, you would think Switzerland is #1, but guess what, it is not.

The top chocolate confectionary producer title goes to a U.S. company, Kraft Foods Inc. As a top consumer of chocolate products, I am stunned by this revelation from the International Cocoa Organization, a very real entity that I would love to work for.

Biel the beautiful.

Switzerland is the third-largest chocolate producer with the Swiss Nestle’ corporation placing it there, just behind “Mars,” a U.S. company. The U.S. is home to three of the world’s top-ten chocolate-makers.That is pretty impressive, but consider that Switzerland has two companies in the top ten, then compare the two  nations’ population and geography (the U.S. is gumpteenzillion times bigger, for one), and Switzerland is all the more outstanding. You have to think that if the U.S. applied the same degree of diligence that the Swiss do, we would be swimming in chocolate. This would be okay with me.

When the GDP alone is tabulated, Switzerland sadly gets bumped off the Top Ten list (the U.S. wins that one, even beating the legendary industry of the Japanese and the population-giant China who come in second and third respectively (according to 2008 GDP figures).

Switzerland still makes #21 on GDP alone, a real feat for a country that is one-tenth the size of Montana.

Thoughts of Switzerland’s relative wealth came to mind as I walked past Biel’s preeminent town drunk, a roguish, handsome white-haired man with an unfortunately crushed nose.

He is the fellow of whom I wrote early into our stay here, the same man who urinates openly in the square in front of the train station. He usually keeps to himself, and everyone gives him a wide berth, what with the urination thing, but lately he’s started lurching at passersby. It unnerves everyone, but he remains a fixture at the train station. He is the same fellow, by the way, who made loud freaky sounds as he walked behind me on one of the canal walkways.

Back in Canada, I’ve interviewed lots of homeless people, drunks, mentally ill, and so forth. People always talk about how harmless they are, but that is the same kind of wisdom that says bears are more afraid of us than we are of them, in other words, it’s bunk.

I’ve never felt completely safe in the presence of those who hand over their sensibilities to a bottle of booze or the drug-confection-of-the-day. These are ridiculously unpredictable people. As a reporter, where my job was to face up to them and engage in conversation, I found them somewhat fascinating, mostly because they weave such great fictions.

I know it’s politically incorrect to say so, but the volume of lies told to me by street people is amazing in its pure bulk, and mostly I discovered those lies by standing around long enough for the drug addict/drunk/street person to forget their original story and start into a second one.

On one occasion, I interviewed a man who alleged he had been roughed up by the police. I asked for his name. He gave it. Then he waved some kind of summons or ticket in my face to prove he had interacted with Victoria’s finest. I asked to see it and saw the name on the summons differed from that which he gave me. When I asked about this, he grabbed the summons and quickly fled on his bike. At least it may have been his bike. Give the high rate of bike theft in Victoria, I would guess he had “borrowed” it. This was not an unusual exchange.

Where this all goes is this: Switzerland is rich, and with a lauded social safety net, and yet we still have citizens veering on the streets with open beer cans in hand.

Yesterday, outside of a grocery store, I watched a few of the town drunk regulars (who have not risen to preeminent status) heckle a white-haired woman, her back a badly disfigured mountain range curved over so that she was a virtual comma when in her best upright position. She pulled her grocery cart past them, stumping along with her cane and unable to effect any getaway should one be needed. She kept her gaze fixed resolutely ahead while they shouted at her. I am not much in the way of personal protection, but I rushed up to walk just slightly behind and alongside her, signalling to the vagrants that perhaps she was my aged relative and my glare silenced the drunks who turned their attention in the opposite direction, as though perhaps they had been yelling at the crows.

Smarter people than me have puzzled over the problems of deviant behavior, drug addiction and such, but it seems that a crippled senior should be able to fetch some milk and eggs without having to run a gauntlet of yahoos.

We haven’t fixed this social ill  in Canada, but we shouldn’t feel too bad about this. If the Swiss with their smarts, industry and attention to detail haven’t figured it out yet, how could we?

Leaving Leipzig

Leipzig Nikolaikirche, the birthplace of the teardown of the Berlin Wall.

Some bad things have happened to my family in Germany, like European airlines extorting money from us in $500 chunks to let our dog or a bike pass through Frankfurt airport, and then my Dad was arrested there for refusing to be an informer for the Soviets. Tough luck, that.

The Berlin "Wall" as it appeared around the time my father tried to cross into West Berlin.

But none of those things occurred on this trip to Leipzig, so hopefully our bad run with Germany is over, which is a good thing because, gosh, their food is much better than expected, and certainly better than what they fed my Dad in that jail.

Leipzig has some sadly decomposed old grand buildings, such as the Astoria, which are almost as interesting to look at as the medieval quarter of town. The city’s northern outskirts are somewhat depressing, stretching out in decayed old industrial zones perhaps still lagging behind due to Communist rule even 30 years after the Germans gave the Soviets the boot. Nevertheless, the city centre outside of the historic quarter is lined with beautiful old architecture.

Leipzig's Astoria hotel, a grand old dam now in serious disrepair.

Less well-known to North Americans (but very well-known to Germans, I imagine) is that Leipzig was a beachhead of sorts during the Second World War. The Brits and Americans were busying themselves with bombing Berlin, when one night the Germans launched a significant concentrated counterattack, punching a big hole in the Allied Forces air fleet. The next night, the Nazis readied their forces for a repeat performance only to have the Allied fighter planes skirt around Berlin and hit Leipzig hard. It was a shock to the Germans, as the Allied Forces had never gone that far into Germany, and in fact, it was thought at the time that such a distance was out-of-range and safe from airstrikes.

Leipzig also housed a concentration camp. As the Allied Forces moved in, 12 Nazi guards torched a bunker with 500 prisoners in it, many of them Russians and Czechs. As some prisoners escaped the flames, they were gunned down by the 12, and those that escaped the bullets died in the electric fencing. Very few lived to relate the story. It’s the sad and shocking history of Germany, and another testament to the fact that there is no army so savage as a defeated one.

Hard to believe the culture that nurtured those 12 guards is the same one that was home to Bach, Mendelssohn, Goethe, as well as being the birthplace for Schuman. Leipzig still has a vibrant arts community, a university and parks, although I only walked into one park and immediately turned around as it seemed to have a derelict population. Probably nothing wrong, but why take a chance?

Bach statue outside of Thomaskirche where he is buried.

Bach's burial site in the austere Thomaskirche. We hung around outside the building one night, listening to an organ playing. Most of the lights were out, and the church was dark. It was beautiful and haunting.

If I had learned German instead of French, I would know what this inset statuary is all about at Thomaskirche. As it is, I don't know a thing.

Leipzig, a past that is dark and light. An amazing place, and worth the trip.

Still playing with the blog settings

This is not my laptop, but it looks cute.

Some of you may have noticed this blog is squirming around a bit. I’ve been playing with the theme options, sometimes to my detriment, because I am blog-ophobic as far as understanding what little buttons will affect the blog in what way, hence, sometimes you see two columns on one side, sometimes one, or three columns.

I have no idea what I’m doing, what’s even worse is that I don’t even know how I made the changes that I have, and so it takes some navigation to get back to the control panel to re-configure the blog. I doubt anyone has noticed any of this, but just in case – it’s not you, it’s not your computer, it’s me. All me.

Lovely affordable Leipzig

I was a little harried after a few hours on Germany's warp-speed highways, but my nerves would soon be settled by fabulous German/Italian cuisine.

European travel tends to have an eviscerating effect on the wallet – it can be very pricy, however, our limited journeys thus far have taught us that getting off the beaten track changes that.

In France, we choked on Paris’s restaurant prices, but in Besançon, a small French village near the Swiss border, we found the architecture stunning and the food just as good at only a smidgen of the Parisian cost. We have not seen enough of Germany to draw the same conclusion, but our three days in Leipzig suggests the trend might continue there.

Along Leipzig’s lovely cobblestoned avenues are scores of open-air cafes. It is possible that some of them served substandard food but we did not find any such establishment.My restaurant advice to anyone visiting Leipzig is this: Dive in. The food will be lovely. If you find a lousy restaurant, let me know. I don’t think you will, though.

San Remos vegetarian ravioli

I dined in the San Remo street pavilion under a towering heater and square umbrellas during a brisk windy day and didn’t feel the bite of the cold at all, so enchanting was the meal, the second-best ravioli I’ve had over the past 40 years (the best was at a Winnipeg Folklorama festival pavilion in a Grant Park arena, where scores of Italian mammas slung out homemade ravioli to die for, this was back in the mid-1970s – since then, I’ve not found any pasta that rivals it).

At San Remo (why are so many good restaurants named San Remo?) at Nikolaistrasse 1, (www.sanremo-leipzig.de), for the meagre price of 8-Euros, you get a fetching plate of vegetarian ravioli with a butter-cream sauce. The pasta’s filling suggests squash, a hint of garlic, and some kind of lentil, although the waiter informed me with his limited English that it was probably chopped carrots that offered the slight crunch.

This restaurant boasts that it won Germany’s best ice cream in 2010, although it is not clear to me what contest gave them this title. Nevertheless, more convincing was the endless line-up that formed at this restaurant’s outdoor ice cream kiosk all day long, no matter the weather. I walked past the restaurant kiosk numerous times in the days that we were there and never saw it wane. And so naturally, I tried out their ice cream for dessert, even though the generous plate of ravioli had left little room. The ice cream had a soft homemade texture and supported the “best of” boast. It was delicious.

We dropped in twice at Bitt-burger, which I think is also on Nikolaistrasse, but might be one block west. It’s famous for its beer and has a distinct Germanic look and name, but has fabulous Italian food. Give it a go. You’ll love it.

Night dining in the rain at "Barf Street" - my translation of this Germanesque-tagged avenue. It is absolutely fabulous. Do not miss this spot if you're in Leipzig.

The entire lane that is regrettably named Barfußgäßchen is packed with restaurants of many types. We had a lovely evening meal there at a place I cannot name, but you could probably safely land at any table and come away gastronomically content.

As always, watch the other patrons to see whether they have any food in front of them, or if they wear peeved expressions – we did see at least one restaurant over which the clientele were casting a foul mood, so we assumed the service would be slow there and kept our distance.

This brings me to a piece of Dave-advice on selecting a restaurant. Besides the above (checking for the demeanor of patrons, as well as making sure there are patrons to start with), he favors going to restaurants populated with middle-class middle-age-and-older clients. He said they’re old enough to not try to impress anyone, they know good food and they’re not inclined to overspend just to say that they did.  It’s a method that has worked for him so far.

Crossing the Rhine at Basel

Jumping back to our rain-soaked trip to Basel of a few weeks ago, here’s a photo of a water-going vessel that takes nothing to work: No fuel, no wind, and no substantive human effort, although it does require a good current in the water.

From inside the fahri - passengers sit on wooden benches around the edge of the boat - a few are inside a cabin, but most are outside, so if it's raining, prepare to get wet.

Four of these boats (called fahri) bring passengers across the Rhine for 1.60 Euros a head. The heavy timbered boats are tethered to a line strung across the Rhine (they are spread out across the river, so there’s only one boat to a line). The captain shifts a large lever at the bow of the boat which sets it off into the current that pushes it along the line, gradually drawing the boat to the opposite shore.

The captain explained that it’s the direction of the lever that determines which way the boat will go. The boat travels at this oblique angle, which is a little weird to think of a boat that doesn’t ever go straight. The ride only takes a few minutes. Is it worth 1.60 Euros to drift across the Rhine? Sure. Why not?

Rhine ferry-crossing.