Culture Chasms in the Change Room

Swiss fitting room - this convenient viewing deck faces onto a bank of mirrors, adding to the viewing pleasure (or horror) of people standing outside.

Just when I think Switzerland has nothing left to surprise me with, someone tries to break into my fitting room.

The store clerk did rap on the change room door first, then quickly rattled the door lever a la Jurassic-Park-velociraptor style, then shoved her hand through the makeshift drape of t-shirts I had over the rectangular hole in the door that the store architect designed to make women nervous. This is in the same tradition that pre-2010 McDonalds architects designed uncomfortable seating to make people hurry out of the restaurant. Somewhere, there is a Cruel School of Architecture, I am sure of it.

The t-shirts hanging from the door still belonged to the store, although I was considering adopting them, but first they were serving as a makeshift curtain because I have a thing about disrobing in front of an audience.

The clerk prattled in Italian while peering inside the coffin-sized fitting room, then tried German.  I opened the door to see she was one of those model-lish retail clerks who could walk down the aisles in her underwear. It would not bother her a bit for with her cinched waist, it would be a catwalk audition, and so she might not understand that women who long ago lost “definition” in their armpits are a little more shy about fitting-room break-ins. She tested out a few other languages on me before explaining in English that

  • The viewing panel into the mirrored change room must always be kept open because
  • the sales staff protected the store from theft
  • by watching the customers inside the “cabines.”

And there you have it. One more reason why Canada looks better every week.

Bratislava bathroom: What the heck is that?

Watching customers undress is the sort of the thing that makes headlines in North America where despite the public’s horror at such a thing, fitting room surveillance is not necessarily illegal. A recreation centre in Calgary has surveillance cameras in their mens and boys change rooms, a fact that they unblushingly defended when a patron went to the media about it.

Retail theft is rampant, so store owners say they are just protecting their business, but it is still discomfiting to think of the minimum-wage  perv leering just outside the fitting room possibly with the iPhone camera at the ready to entertain his or her friends with later.

I put the tops back on the rack and left. Good-bye H & M clothing store. I am sorry to leave behind your lovely fashions and sweet sales, but there are some things I’d just as soon not share with you.

Note: Yes, I have complained about European changeroom culture before.

Second Note: I am positive I saw a video camera in a Bratislava restaurant’s bathroom. Ugh.

Okay, maybe this isn't a camera, but it sure looks like it could be one. Commencing bladder-freeze sequence.

Maid in Switzerland, or Jennifer Lopez makes it look all sparkly, but really it is not. And, our weird worries about maid-theft.

I sit here wrapped in a silk leopard print wrap, a stained white tank top, over-sized fleece shorts, a black guard on my overworked right wrist, and floor debris on the bottoms of my bare feet. My hair, strapped into a ponytail last night, has evolved into a tropical island assemblage complete with the dreaded ‘palm tree’ up top.

This is normally a private moment in my day when I take in my required caffeine dose (a quart before 10 a.m.) and align my cranial synapses, however, five minutes ago a woman tapped on my door. I am not normally in the habit of opening my door this early in the morning, but it is a hotel and I’ve heard the cleaning staff puttering down the hallway for the last 30 minutes. I was pretty sure if it was some freakoid, the maids would make short work of him.

It was not a freak at all, but a maid, speaking Spanish and French, which is a lot better than a maid speaking German and Italian. This way I have a 20 per cent chance of communicating, as opposed to the .03% chance with the latter. Armed with towels, she said something about the bathroom.

Housekeeping and maintenance is constant in the hotel – they change vent filters, tinker with the plumbing, install new smoke detectors,  upgrade the phones, and so forth. They’re busy people, and so I loathe to send them away. I let the woman in thinking she was going to replace the towels in the bathroom.

I was wrong about that. As I sit here like the Queen of Sheba, she is engaged in all-out housecleaning, scouring the bathrooms, doing the floors, the sheets and so forth.

I don’t speak enough French/German/Spanish/Italian to tell her we get maid service once a week on Saturdays, not daily, and to send her away might distress her, so I tidied up the kitchen in an effort to stay out of her way while giving the appearance that I am a contributing member of society. Now I am out of things to do, so I just sit here and tap away on my keyboard.

I am always a little uncomfortable with maid service. It is because I expect them to be something like the first maid all of us know: Our mothers. Maybe I am waiting for the scolding about leaving the sink full of soapy water soaking socks or failing to pick up after myself.

We have employed maids twice in our lives. In Spain, we hired a Filipino maid who spoke not a word of English, except to state her hourly rate, which was quite steep. We had a yellow labrador at the time who shed buckets in the Madrid heat (no air conditioning) and I could not keep pace, so we tried out the hired help route. It turned out that maid was worth every penny. I have never seen, or even aspired to the standards that she set.

Google the word "maids" and up will come a lot of images of sexy short-skirted women, but the truth is most maids look like this. We have a friend who for a time worked full-time as a maid, and she had muscle definition that would make Jillian Michaels' jaw drop. It's physical work.

She also gave me the weirdest and most delightful moment I have ever had in my housekeeping career – when she came in the house, I only had to point at something and she would set on it like a doberman on a rabbit. I had spent more than 18 years trying to get my own children to do house chores on command, so it was a singular experience to assign a task without having to apply a tremendous amount of argumentation, pressure and browbeating. I don’t even remember that woman’s name, but I adored her and recommended her widely to all.

We hired our second maid in Victoria when the boys were in university and Dave and I  both worked full-time at demanding careers. She had a house key and came during the day when we were away. That felt odd to us, but it was that or perish in a bacterial stew of our own making.

Then one of our sons came home early to find the maid’s five-year-old daughter and teenaged son hanging around while she worked. That did not feel good to me, although I could certainly understand the pressures a working mother feels. I wished she had asked me first. The five-year-old made me nervous because I have never trusted a child to not swallow bleach, or pull things down from the counter onto their heads with dreaded effect. Having heard emergency doctors exclaim, “Hi Jo, what’s he done now?” more than once, my apprehensions are valid. My house at the time was not childproof.

Jennifer Lopez, all starched and pretty, but if she saw what our hotel maids saw this morning, namely me in my sleepwear, she would have looked for other work.

The teenager made me nervous because who isn’t nervous around teenagers? What is to say he wouldn’t scope out the place and then return some night with his friends and a pick-up truck. I’m not saying all teenagers would do this, but I would like to have eyeballed the kid first to make my own appraisal.

We tolerated this for a while, but then some DVDs went missing. Too mortified to make accusations, we discharged the maid on the grounds that we just felt weird having a maid. She was very gracious and went on her way. She was a fabulous maid. We had two labrador retrievers at the time, so our house’s shed-fur content had reached factory-rated levels.

We fumed about the suspected theft, until some weeks later we found all the missing DVDs in a laptop bag. Our guess is that the five-year-old fiddled about while her mother worked, and just put them there, probably to be helpful. We were very glad we had kept our suspicions to ourselves.

The hotel maid is now done. Someone will probably tell her she did the room for nothing. I haven’t seen her before, so she must be new. I know all the maids here – they school me in French and Italian every time they catch me in the hall. It is a lot like having a dozen mothers, waiting to correct me, improve me and appraise me every time I leave my room. They are adorable, and they work hard. We should respect them, just like we should respect our mothers.

Post-note: The Head Housekeeper is now in my room. She has discovered the new maid’s mistake and is rattling on in French that curiously I understand. My mother is French. I’ve heard this tone many times before. She is put out that the new maid goofed. The Head Housekeeper, Isabella, runs this hotel with an efficiency that NASA administrators could appreciate.  Amid profuse apologies over the mistake, she has explained that the room will not be cleaned tomorrow.  Just as when my brothers were in trouble with my Mom, I am glad that I am not the one under fire.

Can we get out of here?

Thank you Wikipedia for this photo. This is an F-15 Eagle. This is not the bird anyone wants to see soaring overhead.

Our trip to the “police’s stranger population” office as it is word-for-word translated, passed without incident, except for the part where they took our residency cards away.

I am not normally alarmed by this, except that the last time I took a flight out of Switzerland, the border control officer scowled at me until I produced that same card. I understand Switzerland’s insistence on seeing my residency card on the way in, but why on the way out? Can I leave here without that cute little pink-and-powder-blue plastic-coated card?

I am genetically tuned to flight. While one side of my family engaged in a slow migration across Canada, taking over 400 years to get from the St. Lawrence Seaway to the prairies, the other side wears the motto, “Let’s get the heck out of here now!” or as my father once described it “Run!” He was a man of few words, but that was because he was saving his breath for the big sprint out of Eastern Europe.

But I digress a little. Exit visas are a little-known dirty secret of some countries. I do not believe this will really be a problem in Switzerland, although if it is I will happily skip across the border into France, even if I have to walk the Jura Mountains to do it.

We hope these guys aren't waiting for us.

A friend of ours discovered the importance of exit visas when he and his young family landed in one of those little-known Middle-Eastern nations that form a mere fingernail on the map. Unfortunately, in his wake came the U.S. Army and they were ticked.

Now that I think about it, I can’t remember if he and his wife had children yet. No matter.

So while Saddam was getting kicked around the block by his mom for inciting the infamous “mother of all battles,” (at least, I hope she was kicking him around), our friend, let’s call him Sam, decided there really was no place like home, especially as home did not have any  Combat F-15 Eagles soaring overhead.

That’s when Sam found out he had an entry  visa, but not an exit  visa. Even though both begin with the letter “e,” they are very different, especially in the minds of border agents.

How long would it take to get an exit visa? Well, all the bureaucrats were busy hiding under desks, so visa processing was somewhat slowed down.

Sam, who happens to be a published author, does not realize this is his best story ever, mostly because he is emotionally incapacitated while retelling it. How he escaped remains sketchy, although he does recall an embassy official chiding him for not bringing two passports with him so that he could use the one without an entry visa stamp to flee the country.

We do not see much of Sam any more. Our lives have gently diverted away from each other, but I still count him among my friends, because it is very cool to know someone who has once sincerely uttered these words: “I want the next flight out of here. I don’t care where it’s going.” *

Which leads us to the important question: How do we get two Canadian passports, and is it too late to ask?

On the other hand, if we are stuck in Switzerland, which I’m sure we’re not, at least we will have plenty of chocolate to calm our nerves.

*He ended up in Greece, which at the time of the Kuwait invasion was okay, but today would not be so much fun, so I hope we don’t run into similar problems.

 

Eeny, meeny, miny moe

Mitt Romney, going for the gusto.

A special beauty is attached to living overseas, and that beauty is the avoidance of regularly repeating national outrages, namely elections and occasionally referendums.

We were happy to abscond to the Deep South during Quebec’s separation referendum from the mother ship Canada. It was a riveting time, covered in-depth in the Atlanta Journal Constitution in a three-line story buried deep in the world news section. That was exactly enough coverage to suit us.

Harper knocks the Liberals right off their high chair.

America was not fussed about any Canadian fissures, partly because they were obsessed with Cochrane, Kardashian and Simpson, and I don’t mean the musician, the gown-sheathed Kardashian descendants or the hapless but lovable cartoon Simpsons.

Romney likes to point.

Being down south, where there was some secessionist flavor in the earlier century, led our American friends to puzzle over our nation’s leaders’ lax attitude toward the separatists. Why does Canada put up with it? they wondered.

Here is why: It is endlessly amusing, especially when the northern natives volunteered to lop off the top two-thirds of Quebec in their own separating-from-the-separatists bid. Quebec roared, but the rest of Canada sat back smugly, trying not to say, “So, how do you like it?”

And now that the U.S. is deep in primary season, the usual grumblings are burbling about leaving the country should (insert political candidate name here) get (re)elected.  I can assure them that it is fun to leave the country in a snit, but the problem is who will take them.

I did not know my own country's official opposition leader until I looked it up just now. Ignorance is bliss. This is not to diss the NDP. This woman, whoever she is, looks like a very nice person.

This is why it is good to not be around during election/primary season. TMZ posted this 'topless' photo of Newt Gingrich asserting it was reason enough to not vote for him. It is reason enough to not pay attention to TMZ, and its adolescent (albeit lucrative) version of election coverage. It is not the politicians that annoy us. It is the media. Okay - some politicians do annoy us, but not as much as TMZ and Sean Penn.

It surprises some people to learn this, but showing up at another country with the intention to stay past their regular tourist-trap allowance can attract the attention of bureaucrats, the world’s version of bullies-with-briefcases.

This comes up now, because tomorrow Dave and I head down to renew our visas, and if there should be any hiccup, we could end up with an escort to the airport, which would be kind of nice as I’m sure the helpful Swiss officers would lend a hand with the luggage.

That is okay with us. We have already missed Canada’s federal election and as far as I can tell, there won’t be another for four years.

*Note: I do not own the rights on any of these photos. Relax vigilant editors, I am not making any money off of them.

Not THIS Kardashian.

THIS Kardashian.

The Book is Our Friend

No one is lonely as long as books are around.

We are heading into a conundrum. During our time here, we have amassed a small library, one that I assumed would be absorbed into our hotel’s library upon our departure. I may have been wrong about that.

Dave has declared his intention to lug T.C. Boyle, J.D. Salinger, Jennifer Egan, Alice Munro and the rest of the gang to Canada when our time here is done.

That will be some fun, because our Swiss library is gaining weight at a pace that frightens even me. A forest of book stacks is growing on a corner chair as I write this, and paperbacks are forming a mossy sheath over our desk space. Were we to extend our stay here another year, there is no telling if the hotel cleaning staff would be able to find us amid our fecund library.

And yet, we cannot stop our cheesecake-for-the-brain indulgences.  The Swiss ‘buch haus’ community draws us in with not only their English shelves, but also the German and French.

Through some mystery of distribution rights that elude us, German titles of English books appear to predate releases of those same books in North America. By recent example, consider Steven Job’s death, which sent booksellers sprinting to deliver his biography to store shelves. I can report that the same biography was in our little Swiss town’s bookstores – in German – well before the Canadian and U.S. press issued their reviews of same.

And yet, it takes months for Europe to catch up to North American film releases. I cannot explain it except that it suggests Europeans are still avid readers.

But I drift from my point, which is that books are our friends, and come the end of our term here, we’re going to bring as many of them home as we can. “Leave no bound pages behind” will be our motto. I just hope it doesn’t cost more to ship the books than it would to buy replacements for them once back in Canada.

Where our European-bought books will be if Dave has his way.

Paris food – can you eat lamb’s kidney without having to sell your own?

Sweet treats and good rib-sticking eats all in one shopping spot at French bakeries and patisseries.

This post dating back to the Easter weekend 2011 repeatedly floats to the top of this blog’s hits (scroll down).

Staring at the text in the file listings, it made no sense to me, but now that I’ve opened the post and seen that it comes with a photo of a lovely pastry display case on top, the world has once again fallen into its correct order.

In the meantime, our little plateau in Switzerland is experiencing the spring-like joys of the Canadian prairies, that is to say the sidewalks are ankle-deep in grey ice and slush.

Yesterday, I met another writer for the literary version of a jam session, and uncharacteristically, the Swiss railway system failed, so she had to complete the last part of her journey by bus. That was okay, until she landed in our little slush-ville.

As it happens, both she and I are from Winnipeg, although we met here, not there.

This is another oddity of Winnipeggers – they/we are everywhere, and strangely, we all recognize one another. I think it’s because we smile so much.

Why do we smile? Because we’re not in Winnipeg, the hometown everyone loves to hate but will die defending.

And so, the two of us pretended the weather was just fine, even though we both had slipped into some decline by the time we connected at the train station with our moppy hair and weather-mashed countenances.

We entered into the Women of Winnipeg pact, which is that it was a ‘given’ that we both had started our day with fabulous hair and in the most beautiful of states, regardless of all the evidence to the contrary. She shared that while waiting for the bus she had met another Winnipegger. Neither of us is surprised by this.

Then we marched through the slushy streets, pushing against the wind and pelting snow, feeling the slush ride up our pant legs and ooze ice particles into our shoes. Actually, I’m speaking for myself here, but I have to assume she was experiencing similar discomfort, but, of course she did not complain because she is from … Winnipeg, and by all bio-bred Winnipeg-weather standards, this was still a fine day weather-wise, although a little too warm for cross-country skiing. Pity. If only the temperature had dropped another eight degrees, it would have been a perfect day.

By the time we arrived at Starbucks, my jeans were soaked up to my knees and I couldn’t feel my ankles.  We were both in high spirits, and not just because of our proximity to caffeinated products and cheesecake, but because there’s nothing like an ice-dousing to make a prairie gal feel alive, or at least so numb that the absence of pain makes us feel alive.

It took me about six  hours to bring my core body temperature back up to normal. I should point out that in Winnipeg, it would have taken me six days.

But enough of that. Here is one of Hobonotes’ top five postings – actually, it is usually in third spot, but I just can’t believe it.

Dining in Paris: Can you eat lamb’s kidney without having to sell your own?

The first question is why would you want to eat a lamb’s kidney anyway? Gross.  That aside, French food enjoys a reputation that tops all others, but do they deserve it?

It’s easy to trot into France’s finest restaurants and emerge satisfied that the nation’s cuisine is all that is claimed. But what about those of us who blanche at $75 lunches? What is French food like for the mid-to-low range diner? Does Paris even have a mid-to-low-range dining echelon?

We-the-cheap conducted an in-depth 48-hour study on this topic. Here is what we found.

Patisseries/boulangeries, that is, combination pastry and bakery shops, are great sources for not-so-expensive, but still delicious, day-time meals, and these shops are everywhere.

Aux Armes de Niel, the  boulangerie (photo above)  at the corner down from our hotel sold soup-bowl-sized take-out quiches and other sustaining  foods (mini-pizzas, although I don’t know if they called them that) for under $10 each.  The alternative was our hotel breakfast at 20 Euros, that is,  over $30 Cdn. each. No thanks.

400-year-old French cafe. No one was there. We're not saying this suggests that its age corresponded to the length of time customers waited for a meal, but you have to wonder.

It also sold fabulous overfilled cream pastries, if such can be said to be truly over-filled. After all, this is whipped cream. There’s never too much of it, so the French seem to think and, after sampling the goods, we agree.  The pastries themselves were heavenly- flakey, light, everything Pilsbury dough-boy claims, but is not. French pastry is a perfect jacket for French fillings and toppings.

If you’re deciding between French ice cream and French pastries as your guilt-food for the day, pick the pastries. The ice cream is good, but ice cream tops out at a certain point anywhere in the globe and I can prove it by producing homemade ice cream at my Ontario cottage that could stand up alongside the French’s. Note to cottage guests: But I won’t do that, because summer is the time to laze on the dock – not a good place for churning ice cream.  Note to those searching for the greatest scoop of ice cream: Head to Atlanta, Georgia. Break into any home-kitchen and demand the contents of their churn. Seriously. You will not be disappointed.

San Remo Pizzeria in Paris; artichoke, olive and pepper pizzaBut I digress.

We scoured the streets for under-$30/person fare and found a few places, such as the San Remo’s Pizzeria near the Place de Marechal Juin roundabout and Pereire metro station.  There, I had a delicious vegetarian pizza with artichokes that did not appear to have ever graced the insides of a jar.

Dave had the grilled salmon and spaghetti alla chitarra, a substantial thick spaghetti noodle cooked to just the right degree of resistance and subtly seasoned.

With a glass of the house wine and a beer, the total came to $36.90. Shocking, all the more so for having been so delicious.  The atmosphere on this Paris sidewalk cafe was great, too. The staff (probably Italians) were nowhere near as snooty as French servers’ reputation suggests.


Change room etiquette

This Frenchman, coming to a fitting room near you.

I heard the low rumble of the Frenchman’s voice seconds after I peeled off my shirt.

What the heck? I was in a woman’s fitting room. What was a man doing on the other side of the curtain?

The change room was the same size as an airplane washroom, putting me in very close proximity to this stranger, while also reaffirming that males still dominate the world of retail architecture.

I snapped my shirt back on and left, getting a friendly smile from the Frenchman on my way out.

In North America, a few women drag their guys into fitting rooms. What is wrong with these women? Can they not make a simple clothing purchase without a man in tow?

Maybe their guys are accessories and the women want to see if they color-coordinate properly before making a commitment to either the outfit or the man? I don’t know, but I do know the practice is more popular here in Switzerland.

I’m still learning the local standards of fitting room etiquette, which so far has appeared in a sideshow-like manner, with the women being the show and the guys cheering from the side.

Yesterday, a 60-ish woman in her underwear flitted in and out of her fitting room into the adjacent hallway, chatting with her husband. She had not yet tried on any new clothes. Puzzling.

The hallway ended before her fitting room and angled onto a window over a street, giving everyone in the store and on the sidewalk a fine view, so to speak, but no crowds massed.  As I said, she was over 60.

Some extol the relaxed attitude other cultures have toward women in various stages of undress, as though this is evidence that these cultures do not over-sexualize the female form.

Those people should have been in a clothing store one block over two weeks ago when a new shipment of swimwear came in. Wide-eyed men with tongues hanging out exchanged approving glances as women trekked into the fitting rooms with bikinis tucked under their arms. These particular change rooms have doors, but the doors happen to have windows that are set at such an angle that presents a wealth of ogling opportunity for any guy standing over five-feet six-inches tall.

Swiss fitting room - this convenient viewing deck faces onto a bank of mirrors, adding to the viewing pleasure (or horror) of people standing outside.

I settled in to watch the guys watching the girls. It was fascinating, like watching sharks circle. A few men were allowed into this inner sanctum with their girlfriends, grinning all the way.

Then, as another slender attractive young woman walked into the fitting room area with her man at heel, another man slipped into their jet-stream. Seconds later, there was a commotion and the second male scooted out of the area, red-faced, wide-eyed and very happy. The other oglers restrained themselves from high-fiving the offending interloper.

In other more innocent revelations in the next shop over, a four-year-old girl made her way down a bank of fitting rooms, ripping aside curtains as she went, announcing, “Hello, I’m Lily!” exposing a half-dozen clients, all while her mother cooed over her daughter’s adorability.  No one seemed terribly upset.

I don’t get it.

Postscript: Since writing the above, I visited a few women’s clothing stores in France where I discovered the number of men in the fitting rooms was equal to the number of women. One young woman left the curtain pulled aside so her young man, seated across the hall, could offer his opinions and record her dressing and disrobing on his iPhone. Their matter-of-factness, along with the lack of attention this drew from the other shoppers and their male companions suggests this is business-as-usual.

Postscript the second: This post is being re-published. It is one of my most often-hit posts. I would like to think it is because my writing is clever, but more likely it is because it includes women in various stages of undress.

Switzerland’s see-through public washroom + toilet tips for travelers

Lausanne see-through washroom - at least it appears clean, probably because no one will use it.

If there’s one thing I learned in my ten years as journalist, it is that there’s no telling which stories will capture the reading public’s interest.

That has been true in this blog. The posts that I found somewhat ordinary have turned out to garner the largest number of hits. As unexpected, see-through washrooms, changeroom etiquette and French cuisine topped the lists.

Here’s the glass-walled public washroom post. It is not, by the way, the only somewhat exposing washroom archetype in Europe. We’ve seen a few that have led to bladder-freeze. But enough about that.

________________

Switzerland’s See-Through Loos

 

I’m sure the Swiss have a perfectly good explanation for installing a see-through public washroom in Lausanne, but I cannot imagine what it is.

Don’t believe me? See the 17-second video here. 

I haven’t actually seen it in person, and if I do find it on one of our weekend jaunts,  it’s a good bet that I will not use it, because even though the crystal-glass walls can be made opaque with the touch of a button that allegedly sends an electric current through it, I don’t want to be in there should the city’s power grid fail at the wrong moment.

I don’t want to be walking by it either when someone else is using it, because apparently the opaque-function is optional. It seems like a voyeur’s dream, a voyager’s nightmare. Ugh.

A similar transparency idea was floated in the internationally acclaimed Basel Art Fair in 2004, when a one-way-glass public bathroom was installed outside of the gallery so that people could use the washroom without “missing a thing,” on the street said the Basel Art people, who we now suspect of living a seamy underworld life after-hours.  I can’t prove anything – I’m just saying. And what is going on in the streets of Basel that one can’t his eyes off the street for even a minute?

City of Victoria, British Columbia public urinal

The Swiss are not the first to come up with the idea that they are missing some great show when they are ensconced in the private walls of the lavatory. The City of Victoria in B.C. installed a door-less urinal to offer a less offensive option to its public-urinating night-time bar populace.

The idea here, one can suppose, is that this washroom is not likely to become a shooting-up zone for the city’s drug population, and users (bathroom-users, not drug-users) can keep a watchful eye for any would-be approaching muggers.

Cottagers have long had an affection for outhouses with a view – a troll through cottage-country will reveal a few outhouses with half “Dutch” doors or generous screen cut-outs.

I also own a cottage, but I enjoy the views when I am on the deck or looking out the living room window, boating, swimming, and so forth. I don’t see the need to expand the number of minutes-per-day I get to stare at trees, water and squirrels.

The problem with looking out is that others can look in, so I’m hoping the Lausanne see-through unit doesn’t catch on. I still dread visits to Australia where multi-stalled public washrooms are not always gender-specific – a situation that also exists in some parts of France, we recently discovered. No details will be provided here on how we found out.

Everyone needs public washrooms, but no one writes enough about them, much to the frustration of travelers trying to anticipate foreign bathroom customs.  I am about to change that, at least for those visiting Switzerland.

Look at that beautiful outhouse with a full-door and no windows! I'll bet it cost less than Lausanne's glass monstrosity.

Pay washrooms can be found on the streets, sometimes in shiny stainless steel stalls with a vending machine-style pay pad. Train stations frequently have them as well, and any bitterness a Canadian or American might feel about having to pony up a franc or two for a washroom quickly dissipates when inside the stall. They are kept spotless. In fact, the Bern train station has staff on hand, constantly rotating through the stalls in an never-ending sanitizing cycle.

I would not like that job, but I am happy to see someone else do it. I hope they are well-paid.

Washrooms on trains are free, but as trains are heavily used, they are not as clean as one would like, especially when trying to manage while the train rocks and sways, sometimes in unpredictable ways. I will elaborate no  further.

Tourists can get by without using a pay washroom – in fact, we’ve used them only a few times in our travels over the past few months. Many towns have free public washrooms in parks, along promenades and trails, which are kept to a high standard of cleanliness.

If these cannot be found, stop in for a break at a street cafe’ – for the price of a cup of coffee, you can use the restaurant’s washrooms, which we have also found to be unfailingly clean.

Sometimes only pay-washrooms will be located near cafeterias and malls, however, these provide a voucher for a ‘free’ coffee in the cafeteria.

Museums and art galleries generally have free washrooms.

So far, we haven’t found a pay-washroom charging over two francs, so carrying just a few one and two-franc coins should suffice.

A rumour circulates that it is forbidden to flush a toilet during certain night-time hours, out of courtesy for condo or apartment block neighbours. We haven’t heard anything about flushing restrictions yet, but have heard that running a bath late at night is frowned upon.

In the bathrooms-worth-visiting category, when at the Aescher cliff restaurant at Ebenalp, in Switzerland’s eastern Appenzell region, check out the washroom architecture. The mountainside wall of stone is exposed, allowing visitors both a view, and privacy.

Good to know if you go:

  • Carry one and two-franc coins for public washrooms.
  • To see the mountain-wall washroom, which is presumably not the only reason you would visit Switzerland, click here for hiking information about the area and mountain.

Spectacular ice show

Have a seat. It's ice outside.

Switzerland’s cold snap drags on, but a “deep freeze” that hovers around -15 C does not exactly excite terror in this former Winnipegonian to whom -15 C is a perfect temperature for all-day cross-country skiing. Seriously, Europe, wake up and build a better infrastructure for winter. It does come around every year.

There is one thing, however, that is hard to beat and it is ice-cladding, which frankly, scares the daylights out of me.  Not much to do about this but break out the blowdryers and chisels. Here’s a photo from a photo-fan website. Click here to see more. 

NOTE: I’m having trouble with the ice-links, however, here’s another go at it. Hope these come through. 

Switzerland's ice storm: Showing New York that a "boot" is not the worse thing that can happen to your car.

Lake Geneva transformed into frozen landscape, literally, by blustery winds and freezing temps.

Switzerland's deep freeze.

Snow and ice and everything nice is what Canadians are made of …

A fountain's spray freeze-frames the greenery around a park pond.

Europe is in a deep freeze, with temperatures dropping to minus 18, a number that our hotel staff speak of in hushed tones, and then only with a shudder of horror. Horror indeed. The average February low is -1.3 C. What is happening now is something along the lines of an advancing ice age.

Even when it is cold, Swiss swans maintain order (it had not snowed yet when this photo was taken, but aren't the swans pretty?)

We would huddle inside our little hotel room but now is the time for action. Canada’s national security depends on it. Everyday, we bundle up and head outside for a seemingly relaxing stroll. I say “seemingly,” to conceal the serious business that is afoot: The business of perpetuating our greatest national myth – That Canada is a barely inhabitable fortress of ice.

Canadians don’t walk; we skate, ski or snowshoe. We don’t have cars; we have snowmobiles and sled-teams. We don’t have central heating: We have bonfires that we dance around to keep ourselves warm. We don’t live in buildings, we live in igloos, although thanks to one Quebec hotel, some think we live in ice palaces. That is okay. They still look really cold and uncomfortable.

It is this myth of enduring winter that keeps Canada safe from invasion and foreign aggression.

If you disagree, consider this: The only country to make a real land grab from Canada lately is Denmark, a nation that doesn’t mind a little snow now and then.

This photo doesn't really have anything to do with Europe's cold snap. We just think this is Little Red Riding Hood, and look! She's made friends with the wolf, who also sports a red collar.

Even terrorists, the most unevenly tempered lot of the global bully bunch, work primarily outside of the arctic, subarctic and boreal climate zones.

Invade Canada? Who would want to?

And so, to keep the rumours alive, everyday we put on a big show of going outside to ‘enjoy’ the cold, brisk air. We return to the hotel exclaiming about the mild weather, and regale the Swiss with stories of horseback riding at minus-20 (true), jogging at minus-25 (also true) and cross-country skiing for hours in just about any temperature.

We keep it secret that we’re out for such long stretches because our brains have been rendered senseless by frostbite such that we can’t find our way back home.

Canadian ex-pats: Keeping Canada safe from afar.

Teddy Bears: The Swiss’s Secret Weapon in the Event of a Nuclear Disaster

That teddy bear will teach that nuclear monster a thing or two.

A somewhat shaky grasp on the management of natural gas leaks isn’t all that excites us about Switzerland. There’s also the threat of a nuclear disaster.

We get a good view of a nuclear silo on the train ride between Zürich and Biel, but I talked myself into believing it’s just a grain silo, a very wide and somewhat oddly shaped one, but still one that would be good place to store wheat, or perhaps, nuclear stuff.

That little personal myth melted away this week. In the mail, among all the usual sales brochures was a German, French and Italian  square blue and white packet from our Canton police, military, population protection and sports – yes sports – branches.

This Czech Republic nuclear plant is ready for disaster - see, it's next to a chapel, cause if it blows, there will be a prayer meeting like the Czechs have never seen before.

It was the sports part that got me nervous – were they suggesting only the athletic would survive whatever warnings were coming from the police, military and sports divisions?

A quick run through Google Translate revealed that we are within 20 km of a nuclear power plant. The opening line, intended to have a calming effect, declares that nuclear technology is very safe, but the authorities want to minimize any “risk of prejudice in an accident.” What does that mean? In the event of a nuclear meltdown, a little bit of prejudice might be a good thing, seeing as prejudice means to “pre-judge,” and if pre-judgment means I’ll be stocked up on food, water and iodine pills, well, I’m all for that.

The brochure details the rules of behavior in “an increase of radioactivity.” I don’t need the Swiss to tell me that. My rule of behavior will be to run madly in circles, screaming “Oh no, oh no oh no!!!” It may be ineffective, but it’s straightforward and simple to follow.

Swiss authorities to nuclear-fall-out residents: Grab your teddy bears. This is going to get a lot worse before it gets better!

According to the pamphlet, the first thing to do is to listen to the radio and follow the authority’s instructions. The second thing to do is – and I’m not kidding about this, it is in the brochure – is to continue to listen to the radio and continue to follow the authority’s instructions. 

This suggests that the authorities don’t really have any other bright ideas to follow up their first recommendation.

There’s also advice to not let pets outside and to head for your cave or abri. I’m not sure what an abri is, but the accompanying illustration suggests it is a reinforced subterranean bunker, as depicted by a very thick black line that is about 6 times the width of the black lines depicting the house or regular basement. Obviously, it should have no ventilation, but heck, who wants to breathe when the air is full of isotopes or other deadly nano-particles.

But it will be a fun time down in the bunker as the Swiss authorities mandate that we should all bring toys for children. It’s going to be a regular play-date. Yes, a teddy bear will get us through a nuclear meltdown.

Now we are in Switzerland, not Russia, so I don’t really worry about a nuclear disaster, but if I had been in Japan, I would have said exactly the same thing, and I would have been wrong. Cue nervous jitters.