Fuhrich on the Second Go

This is Fuhrich's upper dining room where we ate the first time we visited there. Grizelda would not allow us back upstairs on our second visit.

My former Times Colonist newspaper colleague, food-writer Pam Grant, gives restaurants a second chance when things go wrong on her first visit there. But, sometimes the ones who get it right on the first go need a second visit as well, just in case that first visit was a fluke. That’s what we learned the second time we stopped in at Vienna’s Fuhrich restaurant.

Two days after our first divine dinner there, we returned to find the restaurant jam-packed, as was expected. The food is exceedingly good, after all.

A waiter pointed us toward a table along the wall on the main floor. If I was having doubts that I could squeeze between the other patrons in that row, I wasn’t alone as I could see from the aghast expressions on the faces of those very patrons.  I said no thanks and pointed to another empty table by the front of the restaurant, overlooking the street.

And that is when I fell in the path of the maitre d’ pit-of-doom. As the waiter hesitated, a woman of about 45-55 swept in, her black pixie* all hard-edged with her dark eyes flashing angrily. She indicated another table in the centre of the room that looked to be sized to suit pre-schoolers.

So I said no again. I had this crazy notion that as a customer, I should enjoy a reasonable degree of comfort, and not be forced to relive the cramped wooden-desk epoch that was my Grade 4 school year.

Of course, this was a mistake. She put us at a third table that did not bank along with other tables, so we were away from the crowd, but it was straight in the line of wind gusts from the front door (which was kept open as they were dealing with a delivery).

At this point, I still assumed the professional decorum of wait staff was in effect, but seconds later, I realized my error. The woman, let’s call her Grizelda, came to our table and dropped two menus down before us.

It was the kiss of dining death.

Allow me to explain: The custom at this restaurant is for the waiter to open the menu and present it to the patrons. The closed menus on our table telegraphed that their good graces were closed to us as well.

Good food at Fuhrich - Weinerschnitzel.

In the meantime, later diners came in and took the coveted window table. They spoke German. Not that this had anything to do with it, but I have noticed that sometimes people take out their xenophobia on non-German-speaking foreigners, such as at a bakeshop two blocks from our Swiss hotel where the server grabbed a croissant with her bare muggy fist and dropped it down the bag as though it were dog excrement, instead of using tongs or wearing gloves.

Where was I?

Oh yes, Grizelda. Another waiter appeared to take our order.

That is the second sign of dining disaster – the relay. The relay is what happens when things have got off on such a bad foot, they transform your table into a baton that gets passed from one server to another. It is, pardon the pun, a recipe for disaster. In theory, however, it does present an opportunity for the incoming waiter to help the customers forget the ineptitude (or hostility) of the outgoing waiter. There’s no reason why this should not work, but Grizelda’s ugly mood cast a pall over the other waiters who all looked jittery and frightened.

When this server brought our bread, I asked where the spread was. Two days earlier, our bread came with a tasty spread of butter, creamed cheese, parsley, garlic and some un-named but heavenly spice (I am taking a guess at the ingredients). He said he would look for some.

Having worked in a restaurant, I know that spreads and such are prepared earlier in the day when the restaurant is quiet, and then usually sit in a fridge waiting to be dealt out to diners with as much speed as can be seen at a Las Vegas blackjack table. I’m not saying this is how this restaurant works, but fetching a condiment is not exactly a massive undertaking. If it were, how could they ever manage the volume of complexities in running the deep-fryer?

After a decent interval, I headed toward the kitchen, just outside of which I found our waiter standing next to Grizelda. When I asked about the spread, they flustered and then he said, ‘night time only.’ He gave a long convoluted explanation on why serving this condiment would be on par with demanding everyone eat from upside-down tables. I asked him to find some anyway.

I knew I would never see it. Grizelda’s mouth was pursed, her nose upturned, her lids lowered. She was furious.

I returned to our table. A third waiter brought us our food, signifying we were now in the third leg of the race and barreling quickly toward the finish line.

I am happy to report that the food was again absolutely fabulous. Obviously, no one had taken the time to inform the cook that we were miscreant patrons.

We finished our food and when the bill arrived, it had a 4-Euro charge for the absent spread. This is a neat trick. When we actually received the spread two days earlier, we didn’t have to pay any extra for it, but when the spread does not come, it costs more. Possibly because it was invisible spread.

Happily, we did not have to argue over this as Waiter #2 came over and explained the error, then produced a correct bill. Even though he was Waiter #2, this latest handover signalled that we had entered the fourth leg of the relay, and it was time to go, which we did.

Later, Dave and I mused over what we might have done to avoid such an uncomfortable situation, when we suddenly remembered we were the customers. It’s not our job to worry about Grizelda. It was her job to worry about us. In short, the only cure for such a train wreck of a meal would have been to leave as soon as Grizelda’s disapproval showed itself. But we couldn’t do that. Remember, the food is fantastic.

Rating (ranked twice, with the first number for the first visit, the second for the second, you get the drift.  1 is low, 10 is high)

Location: 8 and 8 – Just a hop off Vienna’s lovely pedestrian shopping thoroughfare.

Setting: 8 and 8 – The restaurant is clean, and decorated in rich woods, reminiscent of a well-to-do English pub.

Food: 10 and 10 – There is nothing disappointing in the food here. The portions are sizeable and everything is delicious.

Service: 10 and 0 – If you avoid Grizelda, you should have a fine time.

*It’s possible that she had her hair done in an updo, but I think it was a pixie cut. I cannot say with certainty because I had to keep my eyes averted most of the time to protect them from getting lasered out by Grizelda’s glare.

 

One Restaurant, Two Meals

Hands up if you’ve ever gone to a restaurant after hearing a glowing report from a friend, only to experience a dining disaster?

Did it lead you to question your friend’s gastronomical judgement? We sometimes wonder about our friends, too, but Vienna has taught us to wonder no more.  It is has nothing to do with your friend, my friend, any friend. It’s the restaurant or more specifically, the restaurant staff.

We rarely go on dining guidebooks when choosing a restaurant in a strange city – we prefer to wander the streets, scrutinize the posted menus, and then peer inside the windows to check out:

  1. The age of the diners – a crowd of mostly under-25s are not likely to share our restaurant-experience goals. They are probably there to see the other under-25s of the opposite gender. We are somewhat over-25. We are just there for the food.
  2. The facial expressions and postures of the patrons: Do they look ticked? Bored? Do they wear the cavernous visages of the starving-to-death-while-inside-a-food-establishment? All of the above is very bad.
  3. Cleanliness: If we see a smidgen of filth, we stay away. We do not go on travel-holidays just to spend time getting fluids pumped into us intravenously in a hospital ER.

To get to the point, we employed this rigorous selection-method in Vienna, landing here, at this restaurant pictured above – the charming “Fuhrich” eatery.

The place was packed, but the waiter directed us upstairs where we found an

With European cuisine, the secret is always in the sauce. Even remembering Fuhrich's creamy wine sauce from a "reduction" still makes my mouth water.

empty dining room with windows overlooking the street. Perfect. We love eating in an empty dining room, which is almost impossible to attain because of our deep suspicion of empty restaurants.

Our waiter, a charming fellow with a perfect sense of timing, proceeded to usher us through a wonderful dinner. Dave dined on Wienerschnitzel, which I protest out of pity for the poor calf, while I had a tender steak, not feeling quite so sorry for the fully grown cow. The food at this establishment is fabulous. The setting is dreamy at the end of Führichgasse, a quiet lane off Kamtner Strasse, one of Vienna’s main pedestrian avenues.

We left happy, confident that we could heartily recommend this restaurant that was a delight on all levels.

Two days later, we went back. That turned out to be more of an adventure dining-wise than we expected. I’ll write about it tomorrow and the importance of watching out for the overworked and testy maitre’d.

The Travails of Travel

We’re just back from a short skip eastward to Vienna and Bratislava, a study in contrasts if ever there was one. The former is a well-monied and polished cultural centre; the second is a national capital still getting up on its knees from the Second World War and Soviet occupation or communist rule (take your pick). That’s even though the communists were elbowed out in the 1980s. Ouch.

We’ve got our feet up, the laundry drying, and the fridge restocked, but I’m not up to speed yet.  I’ll write more when my circulation hits my toes – three days of standing/walking has taken a toll.

 

Christmas without the clutter

The Christmas Eve congregation at Biel/Bienne's Alstadt Reformed Church, Dec. 24, 2011

Christmas Eve, we walked up narrow cobblestone alleys to a church dating to the early Middle Ages, our minds anchored to the remembrance of all the generations that made this same trip on this same night through centuries past.

The church is set in the uneven footings of the Jura Mountains, an impressive Gothic building with high ornamented vaults, a massive pipe organ, polished stone floors and faded murals high on its clerestory walls.

It tests the nerves to sit through a service in a language we have yet to grasp, with customs to which we are clueless. Would the congregation do cartwheels? Sing a Las Vegas show-tune? Expect us to stand up and explain ourselves? Test our mettle by demanding we sing Handel’s Hallejulah chorus? Make a public confession of some sort?

The people were quiet – in a building fashioned from stone and stained glass, one expects to hear echo, but it was hard to pick up even a scratch. The service started precisely at 11 p.m. – we are, after all, in Switzerland, the land that guards time. The only decoration was an evergreen tree, adorned only with electric candles, a small wreathe on a flat-cut stone altar and a single burning candle.

A white-haired man in a black suit stepped slowly from the front of the church, not in an air of pomp or down the centre aisle, but in a subdued manner, off to the side, unfurling a beckoning solo from a woodwind instrument. The pipe organ chimed in and this went on until a small man in a black clerical robe with a white bow took the podium.

Mural on the clerestory walls at Biel/Bienne's Alstadt Reformed Church

He started reading, and although it was in German we recognized it as the Gospel narrative. He read of Mary’s visitation from the angel, Bethlehem with its paucity of hotels, Jesus’s birth in the grit of a Middle-Eastern stall. The reader paused  now and again, at which the pipe organ filled the church with sounds very much like a steady wind moving through a forest.

And so the service went, woven between a single human voice,  answered by the pipe organ’s choral timbres.

In the silent moments, there was not a sound to be heard, making us wonder about the difference between North American and Swiss Christians. North American churches are alive with noise, shuffle, chatter, even the more stoic ones. This is the first time I’ve sat in a church where there was literally not a sound, a cough, a swish of fabric or the scrape of shoe against the floor. It was as silent as though we were not there.

We sang four songs from the hymn book, beginning with A Mighty Fortress is Our God. As midnight approached, the minister came into the congregation with a candle with which he lit the candles that we had been given at the door. There was no music or reading, just the sound of people tilting their candles one to the other, so that the drops of light slowly spread back into the dark.

When all were lit, the churches lights were turned off altogether and we sang Silent Night.

The pipe organ sang one more piece and then without benediction or comment, the congregation rose and drifted outside, some still carrying their candles into the tranquil night, painting amber pools against the grey cobblestone.

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Where are we?

We may be entering an electronic cone-of-silence over the next few days as we travel east by train to check out Viennese pastries and Bratislava’s …. well, whatever it is that makes Bratislava what it is. Auf wiedersehen.

Bratislava Old Town

Vienna: Because we haven't seen enough cathedrals, castles and cobblestone ....

When Chinese Food is not Chinese

This is not Fondue Chinoise. It is just a stock photo from the web that I am using because I don't yet have a photo of the fondue in question.

The words “fondue chinoise” have appeared in numerous restaurant windows, causing us to ruminate on the multiculturalism of the Swiss.

Not only do they have four official languages, they also embrace Chinese cuisine in the form of some kind of fondue.

Turns out we were wrong about that: Daniela, our ever-helpful and apparently omniscient* front desk gal, explained that these signs appear to advertise Chinese fondue, but it is in fact a Christmas fondue of thinly sliced meats. There’s nothing Chinese about it.

This will surprise the Québécois who use exactly this term for Chinese fondue, but then they’re not here, so maybe it doesn’t matter.

This fondue is the grand culinary showcase at the Swiss’ Christmas dinner. Daniela says it is preferable to a giant turkey, because diners have to spend a lot of time cooking their meat at the table, forcing them to converse with other guests and relatives.

She did not use the word “forcing.” I did.

The prospect of staring at one’s relatives over an open flame and pot of boiling oil, each guest armed with their own 12″ two-pronged stabbing implement, seems to be exactly the type of scenario that could lead to serious injury, death and perhaps a visit from a SWAT team.

Better to have a 25-lb. turkey on the table. It’s very hard to achieve lift when trying to chuck one of those at my brothers, not that I’ve ever tried that.

______________________________________________________

* I don’t actually think Daniela is omniscient, but her manager suspects she might be owing to a recent exchange we had in his presence.

I was passing the front desk and said, “Oh Daniela, that ….” then  I ‘drew’ a little square in the air with my fingers.

Daniela said, “Of course,” and immediately made a note. Her manager demanded to know how Daniela could possibly decipher my meaning from such scant information.  We laughed him off, because he is a man and therefore not privy to the Secret Code of Women, and even lesser privy to the Secret Code of Blonds Who Everyone Else Thinks are Stupid, But Really We Communicate in Another Dimension.

Could this be a Swiss recipe?

This tastes better than it looks.

A few have asked if I’ve discovered any unique Swiss cuisine in my wanderings across this lovely country.

That is hard to say, because Switzerland has so excelled at exporting its food culture all through my life, that many things I thought were Canadian have turned out to be Swiss. I will spare you the list.

I am working on some recipes while here, however, and so maybe they are genuine Swiss recipes by virtue of geographic origins. But then, maybe not. Here’s the latest:

Swiss Curry Mango Cashew Chicken

Ingredients:

  • 2-4 chicken breasts, skinned and boned
  • Heinz curry mango sauce (yes, I’m cheating)
  • 1 red pepper
  • 1 zucchini
  • 1-1.5 cups pineapple chunks, canned (sorry, this does not work as well with fresh pineapple, which tends to be dry over here)
  • cashews – as many as you like
  • butter
  • salt

This is a basic stir-fry with two tiny twists to add more flavour. It’s also all cooked in one pot, keeping the clean-up time to a minimum.  Here’s how it goes:

  1. Heat wok or large cookpot (at high setting).
  2. Melt butter and add chicken breasts whole. Pan-fry til done. Remove breasts and cool. Do not be afraid to undercook a little, because these will go back into the pan for a longer simmer later.
  3. With the pot still at high heat, add cashews to the same hot pot and brown. While this is going on, chop zucchini and pepper into bite-size pieces.
  4. Dice cooked chicken breasts.
  5. Return all of the above to the hot pot with the cashews.
  6. Drain can of pineapple, and add pineapple to the hot pot. Stir.
  7. Add curry mango sauce. How much depends on what brand you’re using. If you’re employing Heinz’s sauce, use about 1/2 cup.
  8. Add salt to taste.
  9. Cook at high heat for about 5 minutes, stirring often, then turn down to a simmer. Cover. Simmer until liquids have steamed off (cooking time depends on the ingredient’s moisture content and the temperature of your stove elements. I can’t give precise advice for a North American kitchen because I am working with a state-of-the-art Euro-cooktop that is also possessed by the devil and makes no sense).
  10. When vegetables have softened and chicken is tender, turn up heat and stir around to brown ingredients.
  11. Here’s the twist. Just before serving, stir in another half-cup or more of mango-curry sauce (to taste). It will amp up the flavour beautifully.
  12. Twist #2: Do not be tempted to chop the chicken before cooking it. This works well in some instances, but the chicken in Switzerland leans towards toughness, so it will cook to a more tender texture if cooked whole beforehand.

 

 

 

 

So I walked into a Swiss bank with a fistful of cash …

I hope the money doesn’t get soaked.

Winter has slid off the mountains and into our valley. Snow falls in mean pellets. Slush rides up pant-legs, soaking the calves. Shoppers move along at a crabbish gait, picking their steps carefully over the ice-slicks.

At the lake, the water is chalk-green from the silt washed down from the Jura’s limestone slopes.

Mysteriously, the swans have lined up alongside the shore,  parked horizontally in rough waves only a few feet from the sharp rocks and cement bulwark, paddling madly to keep themselves from smashing aground.

Seagulls hang suspended in the air by a walking bridge, dropping down to try for the snug spots beneath, but the mallards will not allow them in.

And in the midst of all this froth, I walked to our Swiss bank with a fistful of cash, more than I think I’ve carried down a public road before. I feel like I’m in Mission Impossible, surrounded by suave German and French-speaking clients, striding across marble floors, hoping that the teller does not ask where I got all this money.

Changing money doesn’t have any real tension to it, but we’re in a foreign country where we don’t have a clue what the laws are regarding moving money around – and there are rules. We  have only the vaguest recollection of them, however, so I dive into the bank and take my chances that I won’t be arrested for some monetary misdemeanor.

Of course, no one raises a brow. This is Switzerland. They think nothing of changing large Swiss bills into a stuffed envelope full of U.S. cash.

What fun. And that’s all there is for today.

Drunk Grabs Girl, Dave Grabs Drunk

Ludwig: The town's leading drunk ramps up his abrasiveness.

Dave saw the drunk first as he careened about shouting belligerently on a downtown steet.

The drunk – let’s call him Ludwig – staggered over the curb, and fell to the pavement.  We eyed him for signs of distress, as if there weren’t enough signs already of a protracted, continual, non-stop distress.

It may be due to Christmas, a season that can be rough for even the sober, but Ludwig’s pitch has risen this month. He’s gone from public nuisance to a one-man fright-night show. He clears city streets wherever he goes – an entire block of shoppers in our downtown district vacate when he shows up.

None of this is illegal. Public drinking is tolerated here, as is public intoxication.

Ludwig started rolling around, so medical assistance was not required, and we wavered on our course, deciding first to head back and take a long circuitous route, but then, seeing how the crowds responded nonchalantly to Ludwig, we guessed it was safe to pass, but with a wide berth. We were right next to him when three things happened in rapid succession.

Thing one: A bus stopped and a girl of about eight-years of age stepped out.

Thing two: Ludwig came to.

Thing three: Ludwig lunged at the girl, grabbing her full-on by the shoulders.

He pressed his squashed mug right into her face, leaving only the slenderest of air margins between him and her. These things really do happen in a flash. Dave, my evenly tempered, unassuming computer-wizard husband shouted, “Hey!” and darted in, grabbed Ludwig’s sleeve and gave him a quick shake.

These are moments I live to avoid. I was a crime reporter, and know too well how such interactions can quickly spiral into a life-changing stabbing, but at the same time I feared for Dave, I knew there only one thing to do and he did it.

Ludwig released the child who, as the cliché goes, ‘beat a hasty retreat,’ and fixed his waxen eyes on David.  Then he staggered on to the bus, to what fate we do not know, but we can certainly guess that the passengers were in for a Christmas shopping day like none they had seen before.

That was Saturday. Sunday, Ludwig was not to be seen anywhere. We imagine his bus ride ended in arrest. We hope so, anyway. Christmas in the slammer is not a bad thing compared to what was going on on the street.

Unlauded Swiss Chocolatier Gives the Germans a Run for the Title

Looking down from the ride up in the funicular at Biel.

Inside of the span of 24 hours, we weathered a windstorm that pushed over giant trees, rain that fed the canal waters to the point where we mused about what would happen if the water spilled its banks, and then snowfall.

We almost felt as though we were back on the Canadian prairies.

All this lousy weather meant that we were honour-bound to head outside (really, we were – click here to see why).  We hit the Jura Mountains for a hike, powered by the greatest food combination known to the modern Euro-world: Knoblauchbrot. It is a half-loaf of French bread (or, should we say Swiss bread?) saturated with butter, garlic and herbs. We’re not sure of the recipe, but my guess is a half-pound of butter goes into every serving.

Then we took a funicular ride up the mountains north of our town. Yes, I said we were going hiking, but it’s steep up them thar hills, so we ride up and hike down. It was at the steeply pitched village of Evilard where we discovered a chocolate maker who just may have bumped Germany off its pedestal as best-chocolatier.

We found the chocolates at Lanz Baclerei Konditorei  (a pastry and bakery establishment) in an unassuming corner of what appeared to be a white plaster apartment building, its chief decorative element being a rolled-up orange and brown awning.  The shop gal assured us the chocolates in their display case were all made in the shop. Having discovered a true family/boutique chocolaterie, I was not about to miss out on an impromptu taste-test.

Note to the wise: When the Swiss label their liquor chocolates, they mean it. It’s not just liquor-flavoured, it’s a quarter-shot of booze in every bite. Adjust consumption levels accordingly.

We bypassed the serious liquor chocolates and had truffles instead. Their ranking: Fabulous. Maybe even better than the German chocolates but in the interest of judicial impartiality and rigour, I would have to go back to Germany for further testing. It would only be right.

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Going Around the Bend

You can never have too many antler decorations.

Being an obsessive planner, I already have a foot in the door on 2012. In just a few days, the earth tilts to that lovely point where the days will grow longer, Christmas will come and then boom, the New Year begins and we enter the last trimester of our time here.

With all that in mind, I’ve tightened up the blog page a bit – I noticed it was getting too wordy. I blame the fact that my employment of English is stifled here, so I just let’er rip at any opportunity to play with my language of choice.

In the meantime, Dave and I trolled through two nearby tiny villages, Le Landeron and Le Neuville. The latter has taken Christmas decorating to a point not often seen on a municipal level. Obviously operating within a budget, the town’s numerous collection of Christmas trees are decorated with funky handmade ornaments made from soup cans, CDs, stuff like that. Very nice. Very unique. Very Swiss.

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Whistling Winds

Santa's in trouble!

Santa hangs over our town’s canal, atop a white reindeer, and he is in trouble.

When he was first strung across the Suze (not Suez) Canal that runs through the centre of our town, he was a good 20 feet above the water.

The only safe place for an umbrella in Storm Joachim.

Not any more. Wind gusts of up to 150 km/h, the marker of Storm Joachim, arrived last night, bringing with it a good gulp of rain. The canal waters are up, Santa’s reindeer is tilting nose down toward the rising water and any kids who believe in Santa would have their nerves rattled to see both him, and their gifts, in such peril.

In a rare move, the Swiss have cancelled boat travel on Lake Geneva. Meanwhile, a train struck a fallen tree, injuring 12 passengers, but not too bad. It raises the question of why trains don’t have seat belts.

No other reports of devastation have come in, but Joachim reminds the Swiss of the 1999 Boxing Day storm, Lothar, which uprooted mature trees and chucked them in the air, as much as 80 metres high, forester Forester Jakob Zaugg told a local news site.

It's a storm? Let me at it!

10 years later, he says the storm was good for Switzerland’s forests, which were becoming, gasp, too old, rendering them unstable. The storm weeded out the dangerous trees and now Switzerland has an abundance of new growth. Zaugg should not visit Canada’s west coast where asserting there is such a thing as a tree being “too old” is like advocating euthanasia at a conference of Catholic Bishops. It would not fly.

But lots is flying around here – branches, signs, umbrellas. Being a Canadian, I was out enjoying the storm. The Swiss think I am crazy, but I do it for Canada’s national security.  One of the primary reasons no one bothers to invade Canada is our legendary weather, which they believe has our ground in a suspended state of permafrost.

This is okay with me. It’s cheaper than ramping up our armaments, but it comes with a solemn duty on the part of all ex-pat Canadians, and that is to go out in the worst weather possible, greet people with a happy smile and exclamations over what a beautiful day it is. They can only conclude that if hurricane-force winds are a refreshing breeze to  Canadians, then they don’t want to see what our weather is like on a bad day.

As the saying goes: There’s no better national defense than a good offensive weather report. Or something like that. We can keep Canada all to ourselves.

Mugging for Coffee

Life is better with an insulated coffee mug.

In exciting Swiss news, a Canadian almost paid the equivalent of $35 Cdn for an insulated coffee mug yesterday. That Canadian was me.

I desperately miss my travel coffee mugs. Yes, desperately – coffee-drinkers will understand the all-encompassing importance of the coffee experience, including the vessel in which the coffee is cradled. That desperation drove me to spend yesterday afternoon searching for a suitable mug that would not call our financial future into question.

Such a mug was not found, driving me to our town’s new Starbuck’s coffee shop. Do I need to explain that Starbucks is a coffee shop? There I found a darling mug, but for the aforementioned $35. For a few moments, it looked like I would become the kind of person who pays that much for a cup.

Happily, my DNA kicked in and would not allow me to go through with it. Today, I went back onto the streets and shops, suddenly struck with a brilliant idea to look for coffee mugs in book stores and paper/art sections of the local department stores.

This makes no sense, of course, but that is the world of product-placement and to prove that i was not out of my mind, I found an insulated travel mug complete with twist top and handle for about $10.

It was next to some stuffed animals. I cannot explain this, but wait until I finish my first cup of coffee. Then maybe it will make sense.

Christmas Market in Our Little Town

 

This is a cauldron of gluhwein (mulled wine) over an open fire, sitting in a bed of wood chips and evergreen boughs, surrounded by around 200 people drinking the gluhwein, under large canopies. What could possibly go wrong?

A few blogs back, I suggested that small-town Christmas markets tend to have better offerings than big-city markets. I still stand by that – for Canada. Not so much for Switzerland, at least not so far.

Our little town’s Christmas Market booths are very much like those in Zürich. The downside of both is that aside from gluhwein, the emphasis was light on local handmade goods. On the up-side: Zürich had lively street performances going on, so the Big City wins this time around.

That is, unless one of the features of our town’s street market goes awry. A pedestrian corridor has been layered in wood chips, adorned with logs and evergreen boughs, in the midst of which the Swiss keep two hot fires burning beneath two large cauldrons of steaming wine. This is surrounded by about 200 people drinking the mulled wine, with most of the space protected under large canopies.

This is the kind of thing that would make Vancouver Island fire chiefs sit up, take notice, then pass out from horror.

Some day, this photo will appear on some "ghost" website, alleging ghosts walk the streets of Biel/Bienne. Note: Not ghosts. Just a slow shutter on moving targets on a dark street. Still, pretty cool photo.

 

Not ghosts, not at all.

 

 

 

 

Stand-off in Zurich Street: How the Swiss Argue – Quietly, with Dignity and Patience

Zürich is a lovely city in the day time, and it’s just as pretty at night. Here are a few shots from our visit there last weekend, plus a little parking drama.

Drama on Zürich streets: Two drivers squabble over a parking space. The man standing outside the car has left his SUV in the middle of the road to confront the driver in the car who darted in front of him to "steal" the spot. They both appeared willing to wait it out indefinitely, but then a spot opened up nearby and the man standing took it. Just to be clear, the driver seated in the car in this photo is the jerk. Moral justice: When he got his car into his spot, he and his wife were unable to get out because the spot was too tight for their vehicle. We didn't stick around to see what he did next because I took photos throughout the exchange and did not want to get punched out by the driver when and if he did ever get out of this car.

A view across the Limmat River, looking on St. Peter Church clock tower, built in 1534 that at 8.7 metres across is said to be the largest church clock tower.

 

Looking across the bridge (in shadow) toward Grosse Munster in Zurich.

Naughty or Nice on Zurich’s Streets

Watch out, little girl, you might get a SMACK!

It’s not everyday that an old guy spanks me with a broom and walks away without a bruised solar plexus.

But we’re in Switzerland, and when in Switzerland, do as the Swiss do, which is to tolerate stranger-on-stranger slaps. The stranger in question was Schmutzli, a dark-natured counterpart to a Santa Claus-like figure whom the Swiss assure me is not at all a Santa Claus, but a Swiss Father Christmas. Santa Claus, it is said, is a North American creation. I’m sure someone will argue with that, but that is how the Swiss see this.

Wherever Father Christmas strolls the streets in his characteristic red costume, Schmutzli is not far away in a hooded brown monkish robe, brandishing a twig whisk with which he punishes bad children, or if there are no children around, a middle-aged woman who mistakenly comes within reach.

The Swiss are a fun, friendly people, even when they roam the streets beating people with sticks.

Schmutzli later informed me that he was paid by the municipality to play his role, and that Zürich has plenty of Father Christmas and Schmutzli pairs roaming the streets. Nice work, if you can get it.

Smacking strangers in a tourist-district, however, calls for a certain amount of diplomacy. First, Schmutzli is in costume, which makes him appear less threatening. Second, as he delivers the spank, he smiles benignly and applies only a light, judicious touch, cause who knows, maybe someone has grabbed him by the neck and pushed him into the ground before, such as a woman fresh off the plane from New York or perhaps he has met my Aunty Rosie.

And finally, Schmutzli carries a large sack full of goodies, which he offers after the ceremonial “beating” of the bad child.

Santa has an evil twin!

While our own brush with Schmutzli and his twig-broom was uneventful, the tradition does have its nasty side. It is reported that a boy in Lucerne was chased and beaten by a band of teenage self-appointed Schmutzli. Yikes.

In some traditions, Schmutzli abducts children, which explains why this tradition fails to gain traction in North America. The season would be thick with lawsuits. That would certainly make a Merry Christmas for lawyers.

You can learn more about Schmutzli by clicking here. 

Tidbit: I once interviewed a priest named Father Christmas. I got his name through the New York Dioceses who assured me there were several real Father Christmases in Canada and the U.S. He was very jolly. 

Big city lights

Light's appear to float above a Zürich old-town lane. The lights are hung pendant-style on lines that dangle from cables strung between buildings on either side of the street. They look like giant fireflies when they move in the breeze.

Unbeknownst to the rest of the world, Zürich’s Christmas lights have been clutched in controversy. It began when the Swiss, forward-thinking people that they are, decided their light display gobbled down too many watts, and so they put themselves on an electric diet, replacing the incandescent light bulbs with LED.

That led to a dismal showing the following year when the Christmas lights did not so much shine as that they glowed like dying embers. The city was cast into shame. This year, the city promised a return to glory with even better LED lights.

Depending on who you believe, LED lights consume about 1/10th the energy of their incandescent cousins, but only if you only use 1/10th the lights. I don’t know the math on the number of LEDs now strung along Zürich’s beautiful streets, but my guess is that the numbers and therefore, the power consumption has gone up. I can’t wait for the day that Zürich puts up ten times the LEDs it did in its inaugural LED year, thus nullifying their ‘progress.’

For reasons not known by me, LED lights also do not photograph well.

A posh outdoor cafe in Zurich.

There is some discussion among film professionals about images photographed in LED light as being flat and lacking texture. I don’t know about that, but a glance at my photos from our tour of Zürich suggest this is true.

At home, I am an LED nut, using these lights to add a lovely glow to my Christmas lighting decor, but the truth is, there are a lot more light strings running through my yard than there used to be, making me wonder if LED is the aspartame of the electric world. It’s meant to help us reduce kilowatts/calories, but in the end, we just consume more, but without the guilty conscience.

LED aficionados also praise LED lights for their longevity, claiming they last eight to 10 times longer than incandescents. I’m sorry to report that this has not been my experience. I have already had to replace LED light strings that were only five years old. This does not beat out my old incandescent twinkle-lights’ lifespan.

Nevertheless, Zürich’s display did look lovely, although a little dim. It will appear dimmer still in these photos, and that’s too bad.

Reporter’s Secret About Christmas Markets: Get Out of Town

We trolled through Zürich’s Christmas Market last weekend, taking in the heady aromas of gluhwein (mulled wine) and rotting cheese.

The Swiss don’t consider it rotting cheese, but whatever they call this bacterial mould thing, it reeks so badly that I have not been able to get near enough to learn its name.

Despite my aversion for puke-stinking cheese, this concoction must have something going for it, because people line up in large numbers wherever it is served. Dave has tried to convince me to take a bite, but the tidal gag reflex kicks in and I can not.

Christmas decorations at the Zürich market.

In my former life as a staff reporter, I was called upon to cover festivals, community art shows, markets and the like. This does not make me an expert on their qualities, but it does put me into “observer” status, and so here’s the scoop on street markets. You don’t have to go to the big city to get the best stuff.

It is true.

On British Columbia’s Vancouver Island, Victoria has a grand Christmas market, that I will not name here, that is posh, well-promoted and high-profile. On the other hand, the country-cousin markets in Metchosin, Sooke and Sydney are cobbled together in an earthy fashion with goods laid plainly out on tables, their actual makers (or a stand-in relative) posted behind the wares. The decor amps up a little sometimes, but mostly that is what it is.

They may not have as elaborate a set-up, but the goods have a genuine homegrown quality.

Life-size Christmas models top a children's carousel at Zürich's Christmas Market.

Take for example Sooke’s leading jam and preserve artist, Mary Holland*. Her goods are made from her own garden produce, and she comes up with flavor combinations that are so delicious, even I, the fussiest eater in the world, cannot resist them, slathering them not only on fresh bread, but on hamburgers, chicken, hotdogs, everything. Yum.

Nothing at the glorious urban market comes even close to Mary’s preserves. Just so everyone knows, I don’t use the term “jam and preserve” with the word “artist” all that often. My vernacular is not constructed to adopt passing fancies of language. A jam-maker is a jam-maker in my dialect, however, Mary has elevated the practice into artistry. There, I said it.

What does this have to do with the Zürich Christmas Market? Maybe nothing, but at this moment our town’s downtown streets are crammed with little sheds being decorated for its market. It will not have a glamorous Swarovski-crystal bejewelled Christmas tree towering over it, as does Zürich’s market, but maybe it will have homegrown goods that match the scale of Sooke’s, and possibly exceed that of Zürich’s market.

I don’t know yet whether it will, but I know from experience that it is possible.

And there’s nothing wrong with Zürich’s market. Just saying.

*She and her husband Steve run Little Farm – Mary’s Medleys in Sooke.

Fruity fruit

In the fascinating world of international travel, I bring you the story of fruit.

Foreign food is different, not just because each culture and country has its own way of seasoning, cooking and serving food, but because the food itself will be different. It is the same principle as in wine, which is said to absorb its  unique flavours from the region in which the grapes grow.

And so, B.C. blueberries differ from Ontario’s (Ontario wild blueberries are better, sorry B.C.), Manitoba eggs taste nothing like those in Madrid, and so on.

Flavour matters to me. I love food. Who would have known it? But, I’m also very particular and so feel some trauma at leaving behind Canada with its fabulous wild blueberries, incredible sweet Silver Rill corn, unbeatable Alberta beef tenderloin and affordable salmon.

Here, everything tastes different. It’s not all bad. Despite my love for the flavours I grew up with in Canada, I have to admit that Switzerland’s store-bought strawberries leave North American franchise grocery offerings in the dust.

When it comes to Canada’s Bartlett pears, I am in heaven, but guess what. There are no Barletts in Switzerland, which has set me on a path of discovery.

I’ll just cut to the chase. Bartlett-lovers should head for Harrow Birnen Sweet, which comes from the same family as Bartlett and has almost exactly the same sugary texture and flavour. Buy it. You will be happy. Happier still, it is a late-season pear, so it was available in our stores until last week. Today, I ate the last one. Sadness descends.

In searching for a replacement, I also tested Italy’s one-pound “Abate” pear and Portugal’s 6 oz. “Rocha” pear. The Rocha is an acceptable Harrow/Bartlett replacement, but it is only 1/7th the pear in flavour, so adjust your standards accordingly. Italy, who has romanced the world with its fabulous eats, falls down on its face with Abate. It is literally a pound in weight, as my new digital scale confirms, and tastes something like an apple, but without the flavour. It costs about $2 a pear, hardly worth it.

How do I know? Despite the $2 investment, I chucked it in the garbage. I am really cheap. Chucking fruit after a single bite is the ultimate insult. Pear-growers in Italy probably felt a disturbance in the force.

Christmas markets here and there

Zürich Christmas Market - like any other market, but with boughs and lights.

Do one million Swiss Francs of crystals a Christmas tree make?

That is the question posed by the Swarovski tree, a crystal-encrusted tree in Zürich (with similar trees posted across the world).*

It stands in Zürich’s train station, towering over rows of huddled tiny evergreen-topped sheds that altogether make up Zürich’s famed Christmas Market.

Swarovski-jewelled Christmas tree. Who is the star in this display?

At 95 buckeroos per ornament, that is some tree. Bloggers and Youtube-posters report the twinkle costs one million Swiss Francs (the amount cannot be found on the Swarovski website).

It begs the questions about whether this is Christmas. My knee-jerk reaction is that it is not.

It is far removed from the first Christmas when a teenage gal inhaled the aroma of manure as she gave birth to her illegitimate son, after suffering the sting of rejection from the town’s innkeepers (who probably would have found a room for her had she been a centurion’s wife). If you’ve ever been turfed out of an emergency room while in massive pain, you might have an idea of how rough a night it was for Mary and Joseph.

But that illegitimate baby’s message, as anyone who has read the Gospels will know, is that neither poverty, stink, politics, or oppression matter so much. While his followers hoped for an overthrow of Roman rule, Jesus discarded the topic, pointing out that his kingdom was not mired in such earthly trivialities.

His point, if I read it right, is that these outward things need not affect one’s inner life or value. It is the heart that matters, not the hearth. As far we know, he never waged a petition campaign to force innkeepers to take in labouring mothers, although through the centuries that came after, his followers built hospitals in the spirit of his message. Doubt me? From where do you think the word “Saint” in front of so many hospitals came from?

But this is not to diss Swarovski who to their credit subscribe to a historically correct moniker for their display. They call the tree what it is: A Christmas tree. Not a holiday homage, festive festooning or anything silly like that.

As a writer steeped in the conviction that everything means something, I could say the shine of the crystals points to heaven, a place not yet found on any map, but which another writer called “the enduring myth.” How can you explain it when so many people sense its presence?

The crystals are one thing, but it is the tree that catches my eye, a creation harvested not from a factory, but a forest. It points to another creator, who is the subject of great debate, especially at this time of year. From whatever side you argue this, the tree is brilliant workmanship.

So here’s to Swarovski for the shiny bits, and here’s to God for the tree, Christmas and all that it means.

*Click on this link to see tree locations across the globe.

Swiss parliament legalizes illegal downloading

Crazy Stupid Love from the Hollywood Reporter

At this moment, I am downloading the movie Crazy, Stupid Love via my iTunes account,  in defiance of the Swiss parliament that recently refused to outlaw illegal downloading.

Yes, you read that right. Illegally downloading music, games, movies or otherwise is, well, legal in Switzerland.

The decision was made this week after the parliament determined that those who download illegally are the same people who purchase downloads, that is, they are customers. Switzerland reckons this means the creative owners of the goods suffer no financial harm from electronic piracy.

I am very excited about this. Not because I engage in this practice myself (I prefer to pay for the stuff – call me old-fashioned), but because I am a big-time IKEA shopper and if this legalizing-theft trend continues, pretty soon I will be able to walk out of any IKEA store with unpaid goods.

I’ve been eying the IKEA free-standing kitchen units for some time. I’m going to save thousands of dollars this way.

But first, I’ll wait for the Swiss parliament to catch up to my plan and legalize in-store retail theft.

*I don’t own the copyright to the above photo of Steve Carell. It came from the Hollywood Reporter website. I doubt they own it either. It is a promo-photo, so we have to expect the producers want it to be reproduced to spread “buzz” on their product. If, however, their lawyers send me a note with grim warnings, I shall remove it, even though I am in Switzerland.

Adele, a fabulous singer.

Post-script: In all fairness to the complexity of this issue, I have no real opinion on whether Switzerland is being smart or stupid. For example, I watched a lot of Adele videos on YouTube before buying a pile of her music through iTunes. The YouTube broadcast is legal, but what if it wasn’t? Didn’t checking out her vocal qualities turn me into a bona-fide customer?

Post-script 2: For those who want to know more about Switzerland’s downloading decision, here’s a link to an article that discusses this topic at length.

It’s Saturday, Saturday …

Rain fell overnight, much to the delight of the Swiss who are enduring a drought that has not only parched its creeks and waterways but also left its famous skiing regions bereft of snow.

Meanwhile, in our little town the streets are filling up with wooden cabins of varying styles, going from slapped-together plywood shacks to fanciful cottages of beadboard walls and gingerbread trim, and then to the grand stuff: A heavily-timbered log cabin. Yes, a real log cabin. All this is in preparation for Biel/Bienne’s Christmas Market, which promises to be a fabulous one, but it does not open until next weekend and so later today we’ll head to Zürich where there are not one but two Christmas Markets, plus what has been promised to be a fabulous light display. I’ll post those pictures later.

In the meantime, here are some photos of last weekend’s wanderings:

This was our second time strolling through the village of Murren. It was almost December and we expected snow, but saw none but that which topped the mountains. The ski hills are reported to be dry, choking the Swiss economy which is already battling the woes of having a strong currency in a weak market.

You can access Murren on either side by gondola and a cute little train ride, but you can also walk between either access points. This is the trail between Murren and the Lauterbrunnen gondola station. It is an easy walk with only mild grades and goes through some forest that looks a lot like Vancouver Island's Galloping Goose. A motorized wheelchair could make this trip with just a little help over some rough patches.

The mountain-clinging village of Murren is full of sturdy-timbered chalets that look exactly as you would expect them to, but this one. This one is a little sloppy compared to the rest.

 

Murren: We think this is a charming way to decorate a ski cabin.

 

 

Here is a Swiss mountain. As Bernese Mountain Dogs are my witness, I do not know its name.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We are like the Bushes, but not

The Bush family might be Canadians - they are cottage-crazy like so many Canucks.

Former U.S. presidential couple George and Barbara Bush famously lived in a Texas hotel after leaving office. We, also, live in a hotel after leaving our “offices,” that is places of work*. I wonder if our experiences in hotel-living had any similarities.

If I recall President Bush 41’s televised interview on the topic of hotel-living, he liked it very much.

As an aside: He is called 41 by his family to distinguish him from his son, the 43rd U.S. President – a detail garnered from a friend who was invited to Walker’s Point – the Walker-Bush Kennebunkport** ancestral home, making this one fact I knew long before some of the news staff at NBC. I could not divulge it – I was sworn to secrecy about the visit, a promise I would never break because the owner of the secret is a neighbour who has a clear view of my favorite swimming route, and I don’t want to give him any reason to ignore me should I run into trouble on one of my swims. Also, his mother makes great cookies and my children would stop talking to me if I did anything to staunch that supply. It does not matter that my kids are adults. They still covet and fight over those cookies.

But I drift from my topic…

Aside from the fact that our hotel “suite” is 400-square feet and only one room, while the Bush suite was probably more spacious, we also enjoy some of the fun of hotel living.

One highlight of a protracted hotel stay is that the hotel staff discard some of their professional reserve, which adds a certain hilarity to the day. For example, not long ago the staff sweated out endless bugs and dead-ends during a computer “migration” to an ‘improved’ system. The transition was scheduled for what has historically been the hotel’s slowest season, but disaster-devils are always sniffing out opportunity and so the hotel was flooded with unexpected guests on the day of the system transfer.

When I strolled past the front desk and asked the staff how the transition was going, a hotel manager delivered a lively German-English outburst of exasperation that I regret not having video-taped, because it certainly would have made for highly entertaining reality television.

“Every room was filled,” said the manager.

I cannot provide a longer quote, because the rest of it was in German swear-words. At least they sounded like swear-words. It is hard to tell with German.

I wonder if George and Barb ever enjoyed such behind-the-scenes drama as they strolled past the front desk at their hotel. Maybe not. Maybe the Secret Service shielded them from the hotel staff. It would have been too bad for them.

* The Bush family are also crazed cottagers, like us and so many other Canadians, although their cottage is fancier. The drawback is that it has Secret Service staff around, and to a cottager, a Secret Service agent is just a guest who won’t leave. Poor Bushes. 

**Kennebunkport is not as easy to spell as it looks. Here are some other ways I spelled it before checking:

  • Kennethbunkport
  • Kennetbunkport
  • Kenebunnkport
  • Kenbunkport
  • Kenbunksport
You would think the Bushes would have done something about this while they were in office.

Import joys

O beloved affordable shoes, where art thou?

Shopping in Switzerland is not as much fun as one might think. For one thing, my favorite shoe brands here cost two to three times as much as they do in North America. A pair of Clarks loafers runs over $180, my treasured Merrell hikers are in the same range and higher.

No problem, I thought.  I’ll just order on-line.

This has not worked out as happily as I had hoped. While I scored the lovely North American prices, shipping costs tipped near the $40 mark, plus a few extra dollars for the import fees. Ouch. But it was still cheaper than buying locally.

That was until Switzerland’s diligent import bureaucracy caught up with me and plastered another import fee in the neighbourhood of 32 to 45 Swiss Francs on to my cute little purchases.

I am not going to reveal how expensive this has become, because just saying it produces a scorching sensation in my skull. This has not actually helped the Swiss import bureacracy as much as they would like, because I will just stop buying shoes until I find a more fiscal-friendly store, and very likely that will only occur when I’m back in Canada.

Nevertheless, I still love Switzerland. It has so many chocolateries, how could I not?

In other retail news: Here’s a photo of a typical “sale” price sticker in Swiss stores that reads “top price.” I’m sure they mean “best price,” but the first thing our North American brains read is that the store is charging the top/ highest price anywhere. Maybe that is what they mean. After all, this is Switzerland.