62: O Shopping Cart, O Shopping Cart

Zebra-striped and pastel-hued pasta in a display window of a Swiss specialty shop.

We are nine weeks away from the return of shopping carts in our lives. North Americans do not think much about shopping carts, where they come from or the specs on their wheels, or how it is that store executives think making customers plug a loonie (Canadian one-dollar coin) into them will prevent anyone from stealing a $146 cart from the store parking lot.

I think of carts. I do. European stores have shopping carts, but none that I get to use, because filling up a shopping cart is a luxury reserved for vehicle-owners, which we are not, at least not any vehicles on this side of the Atlantic. Anything I would put into a shopping cart I would soon have to pull or carry back to our hotel room under my own middle-aging power.

And so, I shop in small pieces, every day, sometimes several times a day, which people remind me is the quaint European way, but there is nothing quaint about it. It is an annoying march into the land of inconvenience.

This shopping-gripe begins with the fact that all the stores in our district have their produce sections at the store entrance, and all the canned or heavier goods near the exit. For the cartless walk-a-mile shopper like myself, this means I spend my shopping time juggling the goods in my shopping basket so as to protect the strawberries from the milk bottles. This is easy at the beginning of the shop, but by the end when my basket weighs in at 15 lbs., it is a hazard to my wrists. On the upside:  I have pectoral definition now that I could only dream of back in Canada.

There is a myth in North America that daily shopping means the food here is fresher, but this is not the case. The Europeans view in-store refrigeration in a more lax manner than do we, and so milk purchased on Thursday can be sour by Saturday, sending us to the store to begin the cycle all over again. Strawberries must be eaten the day of purchase and veggies left in the fridge for two days acquire a mossy sheen then quickly descend into fungal blackness, except for Bell peppers which inexplicably last for weeks, making me think I may have accidentally picked up plastic display peppers.

We are only two people, and I have the luxury of being able to pick my shopping times, but it must be misery-multiplied for double-income couples who not only have to contend with all that I do, but also with the fact that stores here close at 7 p.m. and all-day Sunday, forcing them to rush to the grocer immediately after work, every single day, in a misery-go-round of check-out line-ups. This explains the famously tolerant Swiss’s aggression at the cash till where they are not past physically elbowing their way into any minute gap we North Americans might innocently leave open.

And so, I dream of the day when I can go back to once-a-week shopping excursions where I pack up all 30,000 cubic inches of a standard-sized cart, load it into the trunk of my car and return home where I will not have to ice-pack my wrists and study yoga videos for ways to restraighten my spine.

Reality check: There are European grocery stores that are very much on the same scale as those in Canada/U.S. If we had opted to buy a car here and live in an outlying area, our food-supply system would be simpler. So yes, we asked for this.

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64: Castle remnant

Biel/Bienne turret.

Our town's castle has a moat.

Switzerland’s castles are very much like The Friendly Giant television program of the 1960s – quaint, stone-cobbled and cozy. Our little town of Biel has remnants of its fortified wall, towers and turrets, but as far as we can tell, no intact castle remains. It is possible that it never existed.

Nidau, the adjoining town has a castle about a 20-minute walk from our place, but it is somewhat stunted compared to Europe’s grander castles. There is something fitting about this – the Swiss atmosphere tilts more towards that of a conglomeration of villages.

The castle in Nidau looks big here, but it really is not. I'd put it on par with 1960-1990 era North American churches. Note: The green vine was recently pruned to resemble a heart.

65: Fabulous restaurant under our noses

BIEL/BIENNE, SWITZERLAND: Tour de Romandie travels with their own on-board laundry equipment plus two semi trucks full of bikes, staffed with bike mechanics, massage therapists, travel managers, the works. Had I known this is what it takes to get a washing machine in Switzerland, I would have paid more attention to my bike-riding skills. Photo: Joanne Hatherly

We discovered two things yesterday:

  1. The best steak in town has been under our noses all along. The hotel treated us to a free day of dining as a generous thank you for some help out of a little fix, hence we braved the priciest item on the menu. If you are travelling through Biel, and you have a passion for a truly great beef tenderloin, foie gras and sauce, stop at La Barrique in the Mercure Hotel.
  2. Tour de Romandie racers (including Lance Armstrong’s former team) travel with their own laundry equipment. Given my troubles locating laundry facilities, this does not surprise me a bit. How do I know this? The racers have taken over our hotel. They are a very quiet bunch – must be something to do with biking like mad over Switzerland’s terrain that knocks the stuffing out of them.

Our hotel staff treat us like royalty - first by puffing me up with delicious pastries, second by feeding us fabulous beef, and then letting us take over any part of the hotel we like. How could we not love it here?

66: Foreign fears

You can never have too much Nutella. Note: Dave is only admiring, not thieving, this bin of Nutella we found at Zurich's airport shops.

When overseas, I live in fear of several things. One of them is being arrested for shoplifting. I don’t shoplift, not since I pinched a package of gum  from a Pembina Highway drugstore in Winnipeg circa 1966. My father caught me and that was my last foray into criminal life.

But I have a guilty visage. Maybe it comes from being raised Catholic, or from belonging to a genetic group fair of hair and skin with a highly responsive endocrine system that means I blush deeply and quickly. This bites more than one would think.

I count it as the cause for many troubles. For example, when Jim Chambers spent our eighth grade year at Acadia Junior High whacking me on the head whenever teachers were not looking, if my surprised cry at being blitzed drew the teacher’s attention, it was me who was sent to the principal’s office. There I was subjected to lengthy waits and grueling interrogation sessions with principal Mr. R.D. Biggs slapping the proverbial strap threateningly against his palm while trying to get me to confess that I had hit Jim, and not the other way around.

As a side note: Having an authority figure trying to force a false confession out of me was worse than the slugs I took to the cranium.

It was all because I broke out into a crimson blush while Jim looked away as though he did not notice me nearly passing out from the latest blow. The teacher, taking in this evidence, assumed I was the abuser. Yes, their names are Jim Chambers and R.D. Biggs, and if they by the slimmest of chances read this, my message to them is: Yes, I remember your names.

Oddly, I had similar experiences in adult workplaces. Perhaps public school really does prepare a person for the rigours of the job market.

So, I look guilty, almost always. This is inconvenient in Canada or other English-speaking countries, but downright discomforting in a place where I don’t speak the language, so when I notice a store undercover patrol tailing me as I troll through the local shops, I get nervous, and when I get nervous, I blush, and then, because I am also a menopausal woman in the season of hot flashes, I start to sweat.

If they cuffed me and dragged me into a tiny backroom, I would not be the least surprised. I still would not confess though. Good luck with that, I say to store security personnel.

There is nothing like the fear of false accusation or imprisonment to spark new solutions to old problems, and I have discovered one. This week, as a female security staffer in plainclothes followed me over two floors at Biel’s Loeb store, I did something I have noticed also sent Victoria and Saanich Police’s undercover cops* hightailing away from me. I started following the security patrol. Nothing upsets the universe’s natural balance like tailing a tailer.

The officer quickly moved to another part of the store, but still within sight. I followed, and soon was flipping through the same rack of dresses as her. Her discomfort increased and she shuffled away. I drifted after her, as if I were the store patrol. Her cheeks reddened and did I detect sweat on her brow? She looked guilty as heck. I would have arrested her, but then, I was playing, she was not, so I let her off with a warning glare.

* The Victoria Police and Saanich Police undercover incidents occurred while I was working as a reporter. They were not following me, but they were following/surveying people I was following/interviewing.

** Jim’s reign of terror ended when I finally figured out that I was going to get sent to the principal’s office no matter what, so the last time he hit me in the back of head with a textbook, I punched him in the face until his braces flew out. Appeasement, reason, avoidance, bargaining – nothing worked with that bully like a solid hook to the jaw. I’m sorry peace-advocates, but sometimes that is the only way.

67: Swiss dangerous dog-breed bans and restrictions on using a gun to discipline a dog

Most dog bites reported in the U.S are from retriever breeds, however, their bites are less likely to require stitches or surgery than some other breeds.

Winnipeg is one of the few North American cities to enact a pitbull ban, partly in reaction to a particularly savage attack in the 1980s. After 1987, when the ban came into the effect, the number of severe dog bites (necessitating treatment at a hospital emergency) dropped dramatically.*

While a staff-reporter at the Times Colonist, I mentioned this in an article, particularly because the statistics on dog bites suggested that there may be something to the concept of dangerous breeds after all. If you were a Times Colonist reader, you never saw this data.

It was edited out of the story, and thus I was personally introduced to one of the fascinating rules of sociology which is this: Society has many invisible rules that only become visible when they are broken. Suggesting a particular type of dog might be behind severe attacks just because that breed was the one most often identified by the victim, victim’s family, police, witnesses and the animal control office, was a bit too much for my respected editor.

Canadians fuss that they don’t really have their own culture, but they do, and one element of that culture is to refuse any direct line between cause and effect. Sometimes, refusing the data is challenging, but Canadians prove they up to the task time and time again.

Swiss police with an adorable black labrador. I once interviewed a U.S. police dog handler who in response to the question about why they don't use pitbulls said that while pitbulls are intelligent and athletic dogs, they fail to make the standard because once they start an attack, they do not respond readily to commands to stop. This is another quote that never made it to print.

This is how a committee studying the high costs of a university education, came up with a recommendation to extend university studies from four years to five years (true). Because they did not actually say, “let’s buck up the price by 20 per cent while depriving students of a year of job-earnings,”  the committee felt they had fulfilled their mandate. It appears counter-intuitive, but there it is. That is my beloved homeland.

I think of this today because while I wander about noticing the quirks of the Swiss, I can’t help but wonder what Canadians look like to outsiders.

But to get back to the dogs: The Swiss have lovable quirks of their own, but fussing over a way to deal with muscle-mawed breeds is not one of them. Restrictions over breeds are decided on a Canton by Canton basis. One district lists 15 restricted breeds, along with any mongrel descendants of said breeds. The government veterinary office, to which foreigners must report with their dogs, will also examine dogs for any signs that they are related to the restricted breeds and subject them to behavioral tests.

Dog owners must complete a theoretical and a practice course, showing how the Swiss believe a person must be trained and certified in all aspects of life, including golfing – this is a true fact – golfers must take classes and be certified before they step on a golf course.**

We do, however, see pitbulls on the streets of our little town, because we happen to live inside the Canton of Bern, where there are no breed restrictions. None of them appear vicious, but curiously, their owners appear to be so. We always give them a wide berth.

In other news you might not know about Switzerland’s laws governing dog-ownership: It is prohibited to use a gun to train a dog. I am trying to imagine how a logical person might use a firearm, but the Swiss law suggests people use it to fire “warning shots.” We had a labrador retriever who slept through fireworks, even when living in Spain where fireworks sound more like bombs  It’s unlikely a Glock would have impressed him much.

*While pitbull breeds were the culprits in the most damaging attacks, they are not the most prolific biters. The United States reports most bites comes from retriever breeds – particularly labrador and goldens. This is not because these dogs are more inclined to bite, but because they are the most popular breeds. There are just more of them around.

** Dog owners who can prove they owned a dog prior to 2008 are exempt.  

Dog import rules:  If you are going to import a dog to Switzerland, click here for the rules.  Here are more rules you need to know (click here).

Note: I do not hate pitbulls. I have known many who are very sweet. 

68: Swiss Fish

This fish must be depressed.

If there is something the Swiss like more than rules, it is making sure that everyone adheres to them, and this is why our hotel staff dare not put a fish in the large glass bowl that adorns the hotel’s front desk.

Pet fish can only be kept in aquariums with corners as it is deemed cruel to consign fish to a life of endless circles with no beginning and no end. I suppose corners might prevent the fish from falling into some kind of existentialist funk, but really? No fishbowls allowed at all? It seems a bit extreme, so I suggested to the staff that they put a fish in the bowl anyway (with water, of course).

It turns out that little rebellion against authority is a no-go. Someone could call the Fish Help-Line (I made that name up) and there would be officers at the desk to the rescue the fish and apply penalties.

Ah, there is nothing so refreshing as living in a society of efficient informers. It reminds me of  Victoria, British Columbia where neighbours are encouraged to tattle on one another to the local government for the slightest thing (using the wrong pesticide or any pesticide at all, watering the lawn outside of the regulated hours or with a non-approved nozzle) and feel quite self-righteous about it.

It is a show of bureaucracy gone overboard, which is one of Europe’s biggest drawbacks. A German friend, for example, migrated to Canada partly because she tired of applying for permits for the simplest activities, such as painting her front door. Apparently, she would have to get her chosen colour approved beforehand. Here in Switzerland, foreigners bringing in pets have to present them to a veterinarian for inspection and register them in the country’s pet database within 10 days.

It’s a little odd for a landlocked country full of farmland where loose dogs could roam over the border in massive rabid packs before anyone would take notice. It is not as if this is Australia or England.

I could be wrong about this, but when local government concerns itself with the shape of aquariums or regulates twist versus spring-lever nozzles, it is a sign of municipal mental meltdown.

69: Laundry list

My current laundry dryer.

Tatiana Warkentin, another home-bred Canadian prairie writer living in Switzerland, is pushing her way through a blog-challenge to post a blog every single day of this month. She’s doing it with the aid of the alphabet and she’s doing great, although, she appears to be sledding through a tough virus at the moment that threatens to knock off her resolve. You can check out her funny, wrenchingly honest blog at The Dubious Hausfrau. 

One of her recent posts sought to uncover the veil on this glamorous jet-setting lifestyle by admitting she watches a lot of television. I applaud this: Wasting time is how the most important creative work gets done.

Her idea seems like a good one, and so I’m copying it so that I don’t accidentally fool anyone into thinking our lives here are spent swimming in cheese fondues, conversing in foreign languages and dining on chocolate in many forms. Here are the highlights from my normal weekday. You can skip over what follows without fear. I call it “highlights,” but if you read it, you might call them lowlights.

  1. Check emails, Facebook, read news on the web.
  2. Write/edit for two or three hours.
  3. Exercise for 30 minutes. I can’t do this any longer without lapsing into a comatose state. I get through it by watching a television serial such as Downton Abbey or The Big Bang Theory. A friend can testify how bored I am because she happened on me during a circuit weight session at my cottage where she discovered I talk to myself, counting out repetitions and cheering myself to keep going.
  4. Hang out the morning laundry, sometimes go high-tech by pointing fans at it (see above).
  5. Breakfast.
  6. Clean up the hotel room.
  7. Check the mail, which happens to be where the hotel staff go for their cigarette breaks, so I spend some time chatting with them. They are dedicated to schooling me in the ways of the Swiss; a testament to the tenacity of these people, but then, they have rebuffed the French, Germans, Austrians, Hungarians and Italians from taking over their country, so what else could we expect from them?
  8. Head out for the midday shop which almost always entails some mortifying communication problem where someone tries to speak to me in German or French. This is a daily reminder to be nice to immigrants when I return to Canada. I have, by the way, always been nice to immigrants, but once you have been an immigrant you realize that what looked like nice to you was not as nice as you could have been. Immigrants need every bit of encouragement they can get.
  9. Engage in a choppy French conversation with an eccentric old woman who likes people to admire her rum-coloured poodle named Candy.
  10. Return to hotel room. Read blog draft, remember that it has a few pre-teens reading it, gasp in horror, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, then post it.
  11. Walk down to lake and stare at swans. Take note of daily routine of town drunks and drug addicts.
  12. Surf the local stores for sales: A necessary survival skill in Switzerland where most things are priced beyond the worst nightmares of most Canadians and Americans.
  13. Go on another walk along the canal where I stare at the ducks.
  14. Take down laundry.
  15. Phone home or online chat with friends in North America who are just waking up.
  16. Write some more.
  17. Greet Dave, realize I have not made dinner again, watch him cook a prepackaged meal (I will explain this another day).
  18. Go for another walk with Dave who is very good at steering me away from drunks and drug addicts, which makes me wonder whether I pay enough attention to my surroundings. Just yesterday he pulled me away from a trajectory that would have put me too close to a man who was attempting a personal relationship with a woman featured on an advertising poster in our town’s main square.
  19. Back to the hotel where we read emails, surf the web and sometimes sneak up to the hotel fitness room to scarf more towels. We are supposed to get by on only two bath towels a week, a starvation-level allotment if ever I saw one, so we bulk  up our supply. The hotel staff know we do this, take away our extra used towels without comment, and look the other way. Bless their hearts.
  20. If I am in an obsessive writing state, I will do some more of it.

And that is our exciting life in Switzerland.

 

 

 

 

70: Swiss couples marry twice – who knew?

One undocumented Swiss wedding tradition no one warns you about: Brides and their friends take to the streets dressed in colourful costumes, 'selling' trinkets and candies, and allowing their customers to give them a peck on the cheek, with their entourage taking photos that will later be tallied. Apparently, the more kisses, the luckier the bride. It is a little like watching a travelling party; the joy and hilarity is infectious. There is no fixed price on the trinkets - people can give as much or as little as they like.

Only married couples can hold a wedding in Switzerland.

No, I am not having a stroke. On doing a thing, the Swiss like to make sure it is done right, so sometimes this means doing it twice, as is the case with weddings.

Swiss bureaucracy demands it: All couples are required to marry at a government registry office before holding a wedding ceremony.

This adds a unique air of terror to North Americans living in Switzerland for three reasons:

1. In North America, a marriage permit is not a marriage certificate. It is a non-binding document that expires without any effect should the couple opt to go their separate ways.

2. In Switzerland, a marriage permit is a marriage certificate.

3. The Swiss do not print any official documents in English. They are not concerned with multiculturalism here. If you’re going to live in Switzerland, buck up and learn one of the four official languages. If you find yourself accidentally married as a result of a 10-minute visit to a registrar’s office where you thought you were applying for a bicycle license and could not read the marriage application in German/French/Italian/Romansch, then that is your problem, not Switzerland’s.

Imagine the interesting scenarios these ingredients could cook up, not to mention the goldmine it could create for Swiss lawyers.

A Swiss couple can just marry the one time at the registry office and call the job done. Some couples might want to do that to avoid some other wedding day traditions such as kidnapping the bride and making her knit a scarf while her groom searches for her.

Sometimes, instead of the search, the groom is sent to cut firewood, which shows the Swiss prize work so highly that they will seize any opportunity to get some done.

71: The Savagery of Swans + Statsurday

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

ABC News: Killer Swan Cited in Chicago Man’s Drowning Death

I’m not surprised a bit to learn a bird took an active part in a man’s death. In the late 1990s I spent some time in a cast, thanks to a ferocious rooster pursuit – the rooster was after me, not the other way around. I’ll say no more about this embarrassing episode except that he started it.*

Swans: Don't mess with them. Source: Wikipedia, Japan.

Friday was windy, sending Lac Biel swans up the town’s canals in search of calmer waters. They move almost in formation, pushing up against the current sometimes in a straight line, then ride the current back to the canal mouth into Lac Biel where they turn around and start the loop all over again.

In Canada, we read much about staying away from waterfowl lest we disturb them to the point where they fail to reproduce or thrive, but I’ve always suspected that loons, ducks, geese and all the like are more resilient than that. Switzerland’s swans bear out my hypothesis.

As I made my wind-whipped walk by the canal, the only pedestrian in sight, the swans took note of me walking high above on the canal’s banks, broke off their formation and proceeded to swim alongside me, poking their bills in my direction in the same manner my labrador retrievers used to nose my hand for treats.

Orderly Republican swans to the right, more Democrat "Frank Sinatra 'I Did It My Way" swans to the left.

Had I already learned of the U.S. man’s swan-induced drowning, the theme track to the movie “Jaws” would have run in my head, but I was blithely unaware of the dangerous flock that followed me. In that way, it as though I am living in a Hitchcock horror movie.

When I lingered over a canal bridge, they gathered round as though readying for choir. I had no food and while swan’s faces do not appear configured to convey disapproval, I couldn’t help but get the feeling that I had let them down.

I’ve never seen swans up close until we came here. I always thought they were graceful elegant creatures, but up-close they are a lot like people. There’s always one in a crowd who bullies his way about, stabbing and tearing at other swans to get to the front of the flock.  Occasionally, we’ll spy one who for some reason the flock just do not like. That sad swan lingers at the fringes, pecked and pursued every time she tries to drift in to the heart of the flock. Others hang around in the thick, but they still guard their little circle of surf with an air of menace.

Nonetheless, they are lovely to look at, fun to watch as they try to take off in flight (it takes a long time, they are heavy birds) and despite the dreaded news of the man’s drowning, gather around people like puppies here in our little town.

* I was once sent flying out of my lounge chair when a loon spiked up out of the water right next to my head, triggering me to make noises that Dave said was what he imagined a person might make while being attacked by a bear.

BlogBits

Top country hits:  Canada, U.S., and Switzerland

Bottom country hits:  Qatar, Israel and Bulgaria

Readers from Japan:  Three

Weirdest search termNabadaba dingdong

Most read post:  Paris Food – Can you eat lambs kidney without having to sell your own has once again climbed to the top after being briefly usurped by Luscious Lucernewhich has dropped to third place, nudged out by Switzerland’s Toronto. I cannot explain any of this, except that perhaps I under-rated the world’s interest in Parisian food.

Most active time of day on this blog: 3 p.m.

Yes, he got close and his feathers were up. I have no idea what that means.

Swans are beautiful no matter how you look at them.

Fascinating only to me, possibly, but this is how much churn one swan kicked up on his start to avoid a bully-swan.


72: Pack-Attack + Coming to Grips with Reality

These wood skiis in a Biel/Bienne secondhand store were made in Nidau - a town within walking distance of our hotel.

Souvenir bells, spoons, caps, key chains: They remind us more of factories than they do of any place we’ve visited and so we’ve always kept an eye out for the slightly offbeat homegrown item when we’ve been on these 1-2-year work excursions, beginning in 1985.

Then we returned from an 18-month posting in Thunder Bay with a baby boy. This makes him an anchor of sorts to our memory of when we were there. Any time we forget the year, we have only to ask him his age. Not everyone will agree this makes him a souvenir, especially not his wife, but there it is.

We tend to favor geological souvenirs – stones of all sorts and sizes. We packed back a didgeridoo or diggery doo from Australia, a stone-flint-pocked threshing sledge from Spain that we converted into a coffee table, and from Atlanta, we brought back an enduring addiction to Honey Baked Hams, Krispy Kreme donuts and homemade ice cream. The addiction is as palpable as the threshing sledge and the diggery doo.

Some months ago, we discovered a pair of ancient wood cross-country skis that were made in Nidau – the town that adjoins Biel/Bienne.

Skis seem the perfect thing to bring back from the land known for its Alps and rugged mountaineering traits, but the hiccup is that without a car, we would have to carry the things on the train, not to mention through Zürich’s vast airport.

The weight of these skis is shocking to us – and they also explain how it is the Swiss are so robust that they think nothing of clambering up cliffs and traversing endless miles by foot or bike. Ten minutes a day on these skis over a period of six weeks would give anyone Herculean strength.

But the question is whether we the withering have the power to carry them several city blocks along with the rest of our luggage. In the meantime, we visit them on weekends to seesaw our way through the debate to buy them or not.

Spanish threshing sled turned coffee table at our Victoria house.

73: Pack-Attack plus Can Luggage Get You Arrested?

Pack-attack: A subset of a traveller’s obsessive-compulsive disorder that leads to repetitive packing-planning sessions.

The second pack-attack of the season struck this week, 73 days out from our trip, which means I got to this task just in the nick of time.

I don’t want to say that I am a packing expert, although I  moved through two hemispheres, five countries, three continents and three provinces. I lose count after that. I’ve packed with an 80-lb. dog in tow, assorted numbers of offspring, and in the range from transporting full households including the kitchen garbage (packed by the moving company without my noticing – they were paid by the pound), to all the way down to what Dave and I could drag while running to catch a train (two suitcases and two carry-ons).

A fraction of our collected goods.

After excavating all our Swiss-worldly goods from our closet, I discovered our possessions have multiplied, possibly while we slept, more likely while I shopped.  I have also made the miserable discovery that our 33 books weighing 15.2 pounds will cost $500 to ship back to Canada, so there will be some serious editing going on over the coming weeks that will enrich our hotel’s library, but cause us some mourning. We love our books, but when it is cheaper to replace them than to post them, well, the typeset is on the wall.

When all was accounted for, it was decided that we need to purchase another suitcase. As if on cue, during Dave’s daily lunch walk, he happened upon a posh black suitcase among a pile of items left at the curb for pick-up. He assures me he did not dumpster-dive. And so he picked it up. It was in fairly good condition and would definitely have weathered one more oceanic crossing, however, this morning it is back at the curb.

Luggage of undetermined origins carries unlimited hazards. My first fear was lice, fleas or other minor lifeforms, but then the larger problem presented itself: What if the thing had ever been used to transport any type of narcotic? A drug dog could easily pick up trace amounts and then where would we be, but in some jail, paying a German-speaking lawyer a huge bulk of money, and all of this through the summer, which, frankly, is the worst time to be incarcerated. Not that I know anything personally about this, but why take the chance?

74: Living with language indignities plus can cold sores make you go blind?

The streets of Biel/Bienne, where I am working on a career as a social pariah.

There’s not much more refreshing than having ones personal medical information shouted from the pharmacy desk to the enjoyment of other shoppers.

First a little back-story: I have nearly all of my life carried the virus that produces cold sores – also known as Herpes Simplex Virus 1. This is not the more nasty Herpes Simplex 2 sexually transmitted disease. I emphasize: Not.

Rather, this is the one that produces the little fever blisters on the lip.

I got the virus the same way many did: By growing up poor. It is a true fact that more people in the lower classes have cold sores than in the more economically elite strata, even in supposedly egalitarian Canada. We the poor were more afflicted because we tended to share toothbrushes (yes, I shared a toothbrush with my four brothers – there is no amount of therapy that will reconcile me to this), our linens were laundered less often, and so forth, making the spread of contagion all the more swift.

This is, by the way, the same reason in past eras that poor people succumbed to deadly contagion long before the rich – the poor or orphaned often shared beds, hacking and wheezing on each other through the night. For those who protest, take it up with the lecturers of first-year Sociology and historians of epidemiology.*

But I drift from my topic.**

I went through life looking on the occasional cold-sore eruption as a minor inconvenience until 1985. That was the year that my friend’s son developed a cold sore lesion in his eye. Cue: Ewwwww and Gadzooks!

This is a rare affliction that usually clears up, however, it does put the cornea at risk of scarring, not to mention the conjunctiva and rarely and most dangerously the retina. This is, also, produced by Herpes Simplex Virus 1, which suddenly did not look so benign.

Thus was born The Great Contagion Containment Campaign that continues on even today. We do not pick off each others plates,*** share glasses, straws, forks, spoons, towels, and so forth in my household. I’ve disciplined myself to keep my fingers away from my mouth, especially when a cold sore has erupted. When I prepare food, my hands are washed repeatedly through the process and I only taste-test using a spoon that is then immediately thrown into the dishwasher. I even use surgical gloves when kneading or handling dough. I would no sooner double-dip on any food than I would slice off my baby finger. The prospect of licking batter off my fingers is as abhorrent as eating food off the floor.

I’ve occasionally been accused of taking this too far; that is until I point out that shutting down the disease-highway is a two-way street that benefits everyone, especially as I’m a carrier.

It is, of course, impossible to completely seal off contagion, but in 30 years of marriage, my husband remains in the clear and I’ve raised two boys to adulthood and neither of them has the virus. My doctor is in awe of my accomplishment.

Which brings us to the present: At the moment, I have a cold sore in the corner of my lip. Yesterday, I steeled my nerves and plunged into the pharmacy where by Swiss convention I must speak with a pharmacist before purchasing products that in North America are right out in the open on the shelves where we untrained laypersons just chuck them into our shopping carts with barely a thought. How I miss that shopping experience. But I drift again.

To ease my way into the conversation, I first asked the pharmacist for a cold cough syrup, sending her on the cold-virus track. After she had delivered it, I made a sad attempt to list the brand names of all the cold-sore cremes I know, none of which she recognized. The words cold and sore paired together mean nothing in German or French (or Italian, but I wasn’t going to try that language, I have enough trouble with the others).

I pointed to the cold sore on my lip and said it was a cold-virus-produced blister. A light of understanding crossed her face.

“You have herpes!” she announced.

“No, I do not have herpes. Not really. It’s just a cold sore,” I countered.

The word “no” threw her right off track, but I managed to steer her back in the right direction, at which point she announced even louder, “You have herpes! Herpes!”

And so she continued at increasing volume until I glumly agreed, “I have herpes. Yes. I do.” After all my denials, she gave me that look pharmacists reserve for clients suffering from mental conditions, a mix of pity, judgment and distrust.

She handed me a tube that cost roughly eight times what I would pay in Canada. I did not flinch. I paid, and then I crawled out of there as fast as I could.

Dave thinks this is not so bad. “You’ll never see those people again, and the odds are that no one else in the store understood English,” he said.

Easy for him to say. He works in an English environment all day long. Meanwhile, I’m busy in the community building my reputation as a social pariah.

* If you want to know more about cold sores from a reliable site, check it out at Web MD.

** I am always drifting from my topic. But on another note: You don’t have to be poor to get a cold sore. I wasn’t suggesting this at all. I was just recalling a lecture I heard at university. I do believe, however, that it was poverty that spread cold sores in my family. How else can one explain one toothbrush for five kids. Just typing this triggered my gag reflex. Excuse me.

*** That’s not entirely true. No one picks off my plate, because I am the disease vector. See, there is a positive side to having cold sores. I, however, have been known to pick off my husband’s or kids’ plates, but only with a clean fork.

75: Urban Innerscapes or a Tale of Two Continents

Little lanes web through Swiss town's downtown.

Canadian humorist and economics professor Stephen Leacock once wrote that after the Second World War, Europeans were left to grapple with these two facts:

  1. Their cities had been bombed to smithereens
  2. This improved them.

Rooftop courtyard and green space imbedded in Manor, Biel's largest department store where the top two stories are of condo-apartments. The town has many rooftop gardens.

He wasn’t making light of war’s devastating effects, but pointing out that architectural opportunity was out there in that cities could be re-imagined into something better. Did it happen? Who knows for sure? Evidence does exist, however, that suggests Europeans have a handle on urban living.

Take a Google Maps birds-eye view of  a city’s downtown such as Victoria, British Columbia and you will see whole city blocks engulfed in monolithic structures (the street view is more charming, but bear with me for a moment). Then, take a Google Maps birds-eye view of Biel/Bienne or even a larger city such as Bern, Switzerland’s capital, and you will see green punching through the heart of the city’s downtown blocks.

This house, grand by Swiss standards, is tucked between apartment blocks and townhouses.

The greenery sprouts from courtyards (both rooftop and ground-level) and rivers of lanes, sometimes so narrow so as to appear to be sidewalks. Often, behind those curb-hugging buildings, one can find hidden villages of smaller townhouses, coachhouses, cottages and even grand homes.

I don’t want to damn North American cities with faint praise, but they sometimes seem to be thin on outdoor nooks and crannies. Here, when we bumber about cities of varying sizes, we find any number of them in the form of squares, courtyards, pocket gardens, and parks. It as if the Europeans found urban life so exhausting they were compelled to build plenty of resting spots to get them through their day.

This may not be fair. Europe and America may be apples and oranges in such things. Europeans may have more public spaces, but they are more apartment-dwellers so they need them. We North Americans tilt toward spacious suburban life that allows generous private gardens (or trample zones, as our yard was when the kids were growing up).

Here’s a peek at a few hidden corners and lanes in Switzerland.

Pedestrian-only lanes are lovely.

Gardens grow between apartment buildings - some elegantly coiffed, some left to spill over with vines and greenery.

Courtyards are common in our Swiss town.

A charming flagstone courtyard that we snuck into while near Lausanne, Switzerland. One of the apartment dwellers caught us poking around, but she was friendly about it. How can you not expect uninvited guests when your front door opens to this?

76: Made in (insert country name here)

Lambswool coats in Biel/Bienne's secondhand shop, made of lambs wool from Africa, but stitched together right here in our little town.

On the second floor of a nearby secondhand shop is a combination book and clothing section. It smells like all secondhand clothing shops do – reeking of the musty battle between laundry soap and human perspiration.

The first time we visited this shop, a traditional Swiss woman’s costume hung against the wall. It is gone now. I halfway wish I had bought it, but what life would it have had? It would be boxed in Canada, taken out by my kids after my demise and sent to – where else, but another secondhand shop. I spared it that indignity.

This is the walk we take to the second-hand shop in our town's charming medieval quarter.

I still like to rummage through secondhand shops. They are pocket-museums of retail, showing the gradual shift of industry from one nation to another as evidenced by the “Made in Biel/Bienne” tags on a rack of  heavy lambs-wool coats in this particular shop. Twenty years from now, the place might be filled with Made in China garments, but that is not as sure a thing as it seems in North America.

Switzerland has an industrious bent, and a more bred-in sense of loyalty to local producers. This mindset is on display in stores everywhere. If there are Spanish strawberries on the shelf, there are also Swiss. Chinese-feather-packed pillows lay next to Swiss-down pillows and you can count on the Swiss retail clerks to enthusiastically explain why only an idiot would buy Chinese when a superior Swiss brand is within reach.

Made right here in our town.

Granted that my cultural moorings are loosened so that my interpretations might be all off, but the Swiss don’t do this with the same politicized notes that one hears in North America. They buy Swiss because they genuinely believe no one can do or make anything better than the Swiss.

It may be hard to imagine, but there was a time that Made in Winnipeg tags were abundant. Winnipeg is the Canadian prairie town where we were born and raised, and it had a thriving industrial sector at one time. We find evidence of this occasionally. At our cottage, we decided to dispose of an old sand-filled sofa by cutting it to pieces and burning it. When we peeled back the upholstery and pried apart the frame, I was somewhat dismayed to see it had Winnipeg stamps on its solid wood boards. We were too committed to our decluttering craze to put the thing back together. I’m a little sorry about that.

 

77: Street-walking

Sequins & stilettos.

Last month, the Swiss elected to build a prostitute garage in Zürich, proving that the Swiss think of things no one else does, like linking the words “garage” and “prostitute.” No man can again safely say “I’m taking the car down to the garage,” without risking life and limb.

It turns out the ‘garage’ is not in support of prostitution per se (which has been legal here since 1942), but more a neighbourhood clean-up initiative: The prostitutes are polluting a residential district with sex-trade debris, not to mention making evening dog-walks somewhat more educational than families prefer, and the locals have had enough of it. They hope the garage will migrate the problem elsewhere.

There’s no guarantee it will work. Similar sites in Germany have produced mixed results according to reports from the AFP news service. It also seems that Swiss prostitutes have fallen on hard times lately due to the Euro-zone’s open labour borders that allow in cheaper former Soviet bloc prostitutes. With profits in free-fall, prostitutes are scrounging to get by on $2,000 a month, not to mention they are taxed here whether they file an income or not.

All of which is to say this evolving economic architecture points to two possibilities. One is that prostitutes looking to protect their profits will take ever-increasing risks. The other is they will do some basic math and realize they can make more working in Swiss retail. I know which result their mothers hope for.

But this is too serious a topic for a little blog. In the meantime, on our Saturday stroll through Biel’s medieval district, Dave and I may have unwittingly walked into what looked like a streetwalker-secondhand shop, complete with sequined attire, weird garments and sky-high stilettos. We were afraid to touch anything for fear of catching something. Who would think that an historic district could have its own “wrong side of the tracks.”

 

78: Stats-urday or What the Heck does Цюрих архитектура Mean?

This is why Dave is not allowed to shop alone.

It’s Saturday, or as I have decided to call it Staturday. In this week’s exciting world of blog stats:

  • Most page views came from Canada.
  • Least page views came from Sweden.
  • I have at least one faithful reader in Japan. Thank you, faithful reader.
  • The weirdest and fourth-highest search term that landed a reader at this site was Цюрих архитектура. I have no idea what that means.
  • At least two web searches were for Fuhlrich Restaurant in Vienna on which I wrote two reviews of two visits, one that was sublime, the other catastrophic. My reviews reflect both. I am nothing if not fair. If either of those two readers want to know whether to try out this restaurant, I say do. The food is always good, even if the service is somewhat uneven.
  • “What to say to hobo” was one search term that I can answer: Say hello, and keep walking. Hobos can be sketchy.
  • Second weird search term: Does Angelina Jolie have asthma? This site will not definitively answer that question but I will hazard a guess that she does not.
  • Whereas Paris food is usually the most popular search term of the year, it has just this week been edged out by Lucerne.
  • Hobonotes.com has 12,358 hits.
  • I like to think that I just whip these posts out in a flash, but the truth is a I am a serial-self-editor. WordPress lets me see how many times I’ve tweaked a post, and those lists show some get tinkered with as many as 20 times before I hit the publish button.
  • Even with that, I often see a gaff after publication, so I end up republishing some after corrections one to three times.
  • No one is perfect.

79: Travel Turbulence for Tresses

This is how my hair looks immediately after styling. This look will last less than 10 minutes.

The life on the road looks so glamorous until you consider: How shall I pack my hairdresser.

You can’t pack your hairdresser, or her incredible wisdoms regarding your mane, so for the time that you are away from home, you are away from all that props up your personal appearance.

Before we left for Europe, my daughter-in-law, a fantastic professional make-up artist whose recent work appeared on Ryan Seacrest’s website, schooled me in the magic of make-up for the middle-aged. I swear, I did not force my son to marry her just for my benefit, but that would have been a smart move, had it been necessary. She is the reason I can walk the streets of Switzerland without terrifying the locals with my withering visage.

Sometimes a hat is the only answer to hairscare.

But I drift: I can be schooled in make-up, I can pack a box of MAC products that will see me through the year, but my hairdresser is not quite so portable. Last summer, all she could do as she gave my mop a last reshaping was advise pulling it back into a ponytail when it reached that inevitable point of unpresentable-in-public. I reached that point about six weeks after that. It’s been a serious year of ponytail-itis.

How bad can it get? When I showed up in a Sydney, Australia hair salon in 2000, the stylists were so horrified that they all stopped what they were doing to gather around. They quoted something like $400 to repair the damage, but I am morally opposed to spending that much money on my mane, so I passed, spending the rest of our time overseas in a state of shame.

This is how my hair normally looks 10 minutes after styling.

In Spain, I took a recommendation from a friend and had a hairstylist come to my home. The result was an orangey-Ringo-Starrish crown from which I am still in emotional recovery. I would post a photo, but mercifully there are none.

And so this time around, I swore off hairdressers until we get back to Canada. I’m getting by with microscopic self-trims plus Rusk haircare products recommended to me by a friend who is a theatre/film wardrobe pro (I only point this out to show that it takes more than the fashion-hobbyist to keep me presentable).

It seems extreme, but I am not alone. I know a Victoria-based editor who only gets her haircut when she’s visiting family in Italy, another woman in Victoria who only gets her hair trimmed in Vancouver and the list goes on. My own hairdresser says I am not her only overseas client who eschews salons until she hits Victoria.

A good hairdresser is hard to find, but a great hairdresser is worth the wait.

80: The De-Civilization Devolution

This is not Dave.

This is Dave.

Leaving home as a young adult leads to all kinds of daring adventures, such as drinking straight out of the milk carton.

By this measure, Dave is reliving his second early-adulthood. Yes, he is drinking from the milk carton. I am not. I have some standards.

This development would be disgusting, but we have not entertained a single guest during our 370-day occupation of this hotel suite and I don’t drink milk, so Dave is making a rational choice that also happens to reduce the pieces of dirtied dinnerware we produce. I have a hard time arguing with that, nonetheless, the minute we land on Canadian soil, I am going to keep a wood ruler in the kitchen. Dave makes a wrong move toward a milk carton and there will be consequences.

Youth-associated poverty also leads to certain economic measures, such as forgoing the traditional ironing board and using the mattress for pressing clothes. Our suite happens to have an ironing board, but somewhere along the way we started ironing clothes on our bed. I can’t remember exactly when or why this domestic devolution occurred, but it is actually a great thing. No more sliding clothes around on a too-narrow board. Just lay the whole thing out and ironing is suddenly easy. As if on cue, we’ve noticed Swiss shops are selling over-sized ironing boards – yes, ironing boards so wide you can lay your trousers out on them without having any portion lap over the edge. Sweet.

How could this not be a great idea?

 

Where to next?

Whenever we’re contemplating a destination, we look for advice from friends, but then I realized – some of  you out there might be where-to-wizards, and so here goes: We’re looking for a destination near the French/Swiss border – at the moment we’re contemplating Lyon, France. Any suggestions for what to do there or if there’s another spot we ought to head towards? If yes, hit the comment button and let’er rip.

81: Cobble Gobble: Is China invading Europe one cobblestone at a time?

This cobblestone in Geneva may have been relaid (sett) in modern times, but it is a good example of the use of water-polished eclectic riverstone.

Our little town of Biel has a medieval district laced in cobblestone lanes that slope into the foot of the Jura Mountains.

This gap-toothed cobblestoned street in Bratislava is pretty old and dilapidated, but you can see by the squared edges that these are still quarried stones and are therefore relatively modern.

Not all is as it seems. The cobblestones are not genuine from the Middle Ages as is the village. They are in fact the same black-basalt-coloured cobblestone granite pavers you can have laid in your driveway.

We’ve seen these types of pavers throughout Switzerland, France, Italy, Slovakia, Germany and Austria. They are a menace, in that in some places they are creeping in over ancient cobblestone streets because they provide a smoother surface. Nonetheless, they are still preferred over asphalt, which is what you will find in the charming cultural centre of Basel’s old-town. Shame.

Authentic cobblestone streets can still be found: Bratislava has the most beautiful uneven cobblestone surfaces, which unfortunately I cannot find in my photo-files, dang!  The only photo I can find is of a 1800s “sett” street. Setts hail from the era when squared and quarried stone became more available and towns started replacing local riverbed stone with the flatter setts.

Even impoverished Bratislava is upgrading, so the old rounded riverbed stones that are of varying sizes and colours are on the way out. They are understandably not the easiest to traverse, rendered as they are into miniature hillocks by the pressures of time, the substrata and, of course, the weight of traffic.

Cobblestone in Biel/Bienne's historic quarter. The lack of uniformity in each stone's size suggests these are not from China.

It is perhaps a testament to Europe that its historic districts are far from static museum pieces. They are well-traversed, so its roadways are best if upgraded so that people don’t trip on every other step.

Solothurn, Switzerland is also home to genuine cobblestone, as are any number of tiny Swiss villages. The cobblestones date back to the 15th Century, and were usually taken from local riverbeds, hence each area’s stone roads are a stamp of the region’s individuality. I love the more recently added black paving stones, but they are the same anywhere you go in Europe or North America. I would have imagined they all come from Northern Ontario where black granite is in abundance, but more likely these streets are from China. Check out this supplier.

According to Wikipedia – a not necessarily reliable source of information by the way – some cobblestone roads have heritage-designation and are protected, but I could not get a single government office to verify that.

European cobblestone is not necessarily in danger. It can be purchased where else but the U.S. Here is one California, supplier who will happily ship it to you anywhere you like – maybe even back to Europe.

The grey 'path' along this Solothurn, Switzerland street is relatively new. If you look at the raw umber-toned stones in the courtyard and roadway, you will see they are of an older vintage The absence of uniformity in the street stone's sizes, colours and their rounded edges suggest they are much older and possibly drawn from nearby riverbeds (River Aar).

Here's a closer look. Given the flatness of this cobblestone surface, it appears that it could be a relaid "sett" from the 1800s, but it also could be the original locally drawn riverstones.

82: Wrought iron and tulips

Switzerland is more a country of rugged mountains and unfurling bicycle paths along dreamy farm pastures and steep-set vineyards, but it is also a country of gardens. Albeit, so far we have not seen any as beautifully arranged as those found in England or Spain, but lovely all the same.

Here are a few examples of the springtime awakening of Biel/Bienne’s urban gardens. Mostly tiny little postage-stamp green spaces, some are all about function with pebble-bases and bicycle lock-ups, while others show a little more affection for the greener things in life.

If by chance you have landed on this site because you are a gardening fanatic, the best place we have seen for gardens is Victoria, British Columbia. I don’t just say that because it is my home, but because as a reporter I once covered a good part of the region testing out bicycle routes to the downtown core, during which I came upon unheralded residential streets of floral bounty – home-gardens that would never hit a magazine’s page or attract comment in the media, which is what makes their discovery all the more sweet.

Here are the ordinary and yet still adorable urban patches of Biel/Bienne as seen over the Easter weekend.

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83: Language lagunas – A topic about which we never tire

When we learned we would move to Switzerland, Dave and I approached the impending language lapses in different ways.

I bought a “French for Dummies” book, logged onto a fabulous Youtube French language tutorial, pasted post-it notes of useful French words and phrases all over the house (such as “Why are you being so mean to me?” and “Your country is not as great as my country.”) and spent hours everyday expanding my French vocabulary and working toward mastering at least a four-year-old’s level of grammatical expertise.*

Dave, in the meantime, went out and bought a pocket Franklin language gadget.

While my process seems more laborious, it turns out it is much better than the gadget. I cannot speak French well at all, but arguably, I don’t speak English well either – nevertheless, I have an instantaneous grasp of what the French-speaking Swiss are saying to me as long as they stick to a preschooler patois. It’s a helpful skill that enables me to discern whether to stand in place or run like heck. While I am absorbing the message, Dave has not even whipped the pocket translator out of his pocket.

All of which shows that even though my French pronunciation is an offense to French-speakers everywhere, the hours of studying were not wasted. I highly recommend it because a fractured understanding of a language is better than a big black hole of incomprehension.

But we have no linguistic illusions. We cannot speak the language and that confines our social world along very tight borders, not to mention that the Swiss are a pretty reserved lot.

And yet, yesterday we seem to have passed a threshold.

Our neighbourhood has a “dog lady;” you know the type: A slightly batty dishevelled older woman who talks loudly to her dog, and then about her dog to anyone who will stop long enough to listen. I see this woman numerous times everyday, but she never gives me the slightest acknowledgement. That is okay. I have enough batty people in my life already. I’m full up.

But yesterday, as Dave and I were about to pass her, I pointed out to Dave how I am non-persona to this woman, whereupon she turned on us and delivered a truckload of French liberally spiced with the word “chien.” One could suppose she had not made her canine-convo-quota and decided to try to top up with us, but more likely it was because her poodle leapt up at Dave and demanded an ear scratch.

Have passed muster with Fifi, the woman turned exceedingly friendly and gave us the lowdown on her seven-year-old dog who is mostly deaf and prefers men to women, although in this instance the dog did seem to like me, but her owner could not figure out why, all of this in French that to my ear sounded quite garbled, but I’m not one to stand in judgement on this point.

All I could do was tell her what a charming, lovely dog she has, but as it turned out that was enough to earn a pat on the arm and a warm farewell. Now I’m afraid of our next impromptu meeting, and what I will say to her to move the conversation along, but maybe I am lucky in that as long as her dog likes me, whatever I say will be just fine.

In the meantime, our hotel’s wonderful cleaning staff have completely given up on schooling me in French, something they’ve done whenever we’ve passed in the hallway over the past 12 months. This week, they’ve switched over to Portuguese/Spanish, but already I am failing them. At least they will only be disappointed for 83 more days.

* I failed. My Gaulish grammatical grasp is somewhere in the 12-to-20-month-old range.

Blog Bits

As of this moment: 

  1. Most visitors to this page come from India. 
  2. Least number of visitors come from Australia.
  3. Six people from Japan visited this site. 
  4. Weirdest search term that landed someone at this site was “modern antler decor.”
  5. As always, the blog post about see-through public washrooms and traveler toilet tips appears in the weekly top 10 of most-read blog posts. 

84: Unesco heritage status for Swiss Fondue?

Fondue served at waterfront cafe on Lac Neuchatel, Switzerland. Yummy.

In Swilderland news of 2011 it was announced that Unesco is looking into conferring special heritage status on Switzerland’s cheese fondues.

I like to think I keep on top of important world news, so I’m banging my head against the wall at having missed this. Switzerland’s keepers of culture at the Federal Culture Office are worried about disappearing traditions, rituals and practices, hence the hoped-for special designation for this cheese dish.

Fondue is not a shoe-in for the Unesco list. Switzerland’s cantons produced something like 380 proposed items for status, which oddly, they are keeping secret, except for two cantons who went public with their lists. The culture doctors have spent the last year winnowing through the items and are expected to announce their abbreviated document of 150 items very soon, that will then go through another paring-down to an unidentified number that will be forwarded onto Unesco for consideration.

The puzzlement over cheese fondue making the list is this. On a 300-metre stroll through town, I pass almost as many restaurant signs boasting fondue as I do street lamps, which is to say: A lot. Chocolate made the list as well, and again, there is so much chocolate here that it is all I can do to keep myself from sliding into a chocolate coma.

Perhaps there is more to Unesco-designation than culture.  An online Swiss news publication, Swiss Info, quoted Pius Knüsel, director of the Swiss Arts Council as saying, “They are seeking recognition first and only secondly financial support.” Aha. Money. Is it possible Unesco will subsidize fondue-consumption?

About the time fondue got onto the proposed-protection list last spring, we were dining on this endangered dish at a cafe on the shores of Lac Neuchatel and that is when fondue’s peril became evident. For a humble pot of melted Corgemont cheese, a plate of bread cubes, two forks, a pot and a flame that had to be relit several times, we paid about 60 Swiss Francs. That was, notably, the last time we chowed down on cheese-and-bread chunks. Maybe fondue is endangered after all.

And so, if fondue does make the list, and if Unesco wants to cut us a check so we can dine out more on this tasty treat, we are prepared to accept their offer.

On an unrelated note: It snowed today. We pretended the flakes were seedlings from the trees, but we fooled no one.


85: Swiss Saturday Shopping

Biel's thriving Saturday farmers market is a good place to shop.

It is Saturday on the Easter four-day weekend, which in Switzerland means it is time to jam the shops to load up on food.

Tulips on the steps of the Biel old-town Church (we think it is Catholic-turned-Dutch-Reformed). This congregation was listed in Lausanne's register in 1228. The current church building dates back to the late 1300s.

Not that we can load up on much, what with our miniscule camping-cooler-sized fridge, but we will do what we can, because the shops were all closed yesterday and will be closed for the next two days.  Today is the retail oasis in the sandy desert of commerce in our little town.

People also leave garbage on the church steps. It must be a pick-up zone.

It takes some effort to adapt to Switzerland’s restrictive shopping hours. Back home, the horror of two non-shopping days would be soothed by a full-freezer, amply stocked kitchen shelves and a refrigerator happily humming as it cools buckets of produce, deli meats and other foodstuffs.

There in North America, on any given day, 20 people could drop in unannounced and we would be ready to put on a spread that based on the usual contents of our larder could include: Barbecue meatballs, meatloaf, mesquite chicken, spaghetti, pizza, lasagna, quiche, chili dogs, Kraft Dinner, homemade soup, hot rolls, and ice cream.

The Swiss carry their flower bouquets upside down. Also, Swiss men carry pink plaid shopping bags and seem wholly unaware that in a North American school ground, this would get them beat up.

Here in Europe, they would get three Ritz crackers and a thin slice of Brie.

Once, when our Canadian mountainside home was cut off from civilization by a sudden and deep snowfall, locking us in with our adult son and his three friends – young men with corresponding elephantine appetites, we were able to keep everyone fed for three days and still have slabs of frozen pizza in the freezer should the snowfall extend their stay even longer.

Were that to happen here with our tiny food stores, the result might a lesson in how swiftly companions can turn to cannibalism. The horror.

On one of Biel's main thoroughfares, edging onto the medieval town district.

Biel's medieval village is relatively small but we still got lost in it while trying to find a particular clothing/coffee shop. Getting lost is good: It brings us to charming little vignettes like this tumble-down hidden courtyard.

The Swiss love shutters.

86: Purgatory Found.

This sign is on a small unassuming stone church building that faces a pub, a lingerie store called "Agent Provocateur" and a chocolate shop. The place ripples with temptation for a wide range of weakness (mine being the chocolate shop).

We found purgatory. It’s in Geneva and wouldn’t you know it, it has a chocolate shop, a bar and a lingerie store.

Switzerland is the first place I’ve walked down Purgatory, but the place-name occurs in the U.S. as well. According to Google Maps there is a Purgatory Falls (New Hampshire), Purgatory Chasm (Rhode Island) and at least five Purgatory Roads, none of which are near the West Coast, which is as expected because everyone  knows that is Paradise.

Canada appears to have only one Purgatory Road on the Bruce Peninsula in southern Ontario, but there is a Purgatory Trail on British Columbia’s Hornby Island and another in Vancouver Island’s Strathcona Park.  Both are in the middle of cougar-and-wolf-infested forests, and therefore not likely to ever be visited by me as I am worried that some of my friends may be right to believe I am a wildlife attractant. One observed that she has canoed in the North West Territories, strung herself across canyons in the wilds of the U.S. Southwest and hiked coast-to-coast without glimpsing a bear, but when she is anywhere near me, the things just pop out of the forest. We had a bear hang around my car at the cottage to the point where we thought we should just name the thing, strap on a leash and take it in to the vet for shots.

In this case, however, familiarity breeds caution: Bears are omnivores and therefore only 50% likely to view me as lunch, whereas cougars and wolves lean toward a steady meat diet, which means I am a walking prime rib roast. No sense taking chances. I had two cougar sightings on my roster within five years of moving to Vancouver Island and a third in our 12th year, whereas acquaintances who had lived there for 30+ years had never come close – that tells me all I need to know.

But to get back to Purgatory: There is no purgatory in England, which is as expected what with their bitter Anglican/Catholic history where both sides appeared to tell the other to go to Hell. “Go to Purgatory,” just doesn’t carry the same oomph.

As far as my Google Maps search is concerned, Geneva’s rue de Purgatoire may be the only one in Europe. Belgium has a “purgatory” at 4860 Pepinster, but it appears to be an unassuming two-story brown-brick building. We don’t know what to make of that.

Caveat: I don’t know why Google turns up so few Purgatory place names – it may be part of their algorithm – so there could be more of them.

The view down rue de Purgatoire includes a lingerie shop. Hmm, that seems out-of-place.

87: Dum dee dum dum dumb at the drugstore

Switzerland: Land where Nyquil & Melatonin users viewed with suspicion. Heroin-addicts and alcoholics are okay.

“Hola! Buenos dias! No! Er, hello. No, bonjour! Gruetzi! Dang! What country am I in?!”

This is what happens to me when I spend a protracted amount of time in a linguistic stew. I stumble over four languages in a nanosecond, which is what happened when I greeted the pharmacist at the local apotheke (pharmacy) yesterday.

“Why did you start in a language you can’t even speak,” my beloved asked. Why indeed. The pharmacist had Iberian skin tones and black hair, a visual cue that sprung the floodgates on the little reservoir of Spanish my brain has boxed up since our days in Madrid. The pharmacist’s responding look of incomprehension then caused the linguistic data to disperse at the synaptic cleft between my neurons, form into a ball and ping pong around my brain, hitting as many languages as possible. Given enough time, I might have recalled the Japanese that Mrs. Kirbyson tried to teach me in 1975.

I wonder if time-zone-trader Angelina Jolie has trouble sleeping.

It turns out the gentleman spoke English, but by then I had forgotten how to manage even that and so I persisted in my usual muddled melange. Dave just stood back and watched the show.

I am always in a slightly peeved mood when I go to a pharmacy in Europe, which is something like visiting a North American drug store in 1952 when everything was kept behind the counter and a conversation with the druggist was mandatory. I’m actually not sure about that being the case in 1952, but Hollywood tells me this is so and I’m too linguistically hungover to investigate further.

In Switzerland, something as mundane as NyQuil (called Medinait here, for those who need to know) can only be purchased after assuring a pharmacist that the buyer does not have asthma, glaucoma, a family history of glaucoma, neurofibromatosis, halitosis, a tendency to crack knuckles, arthritis, phlebitis, elephantitis or a cough that has lingered for over a week. Who would think a cold medication would come under such strict controls?

Costco's Melatonin: There's the good stuff.

But there’s more. Even the non-drug Metamucil (a non-medicinal soluble fibre product that does wonders for cholesterol counts, by the way) requires conversational counter-time with the drug-store staff.

Last week, I learned that melatonin* – a rather innocuous hormone that flits about in the pineal gland governing our sleep cycles – is only available in Switzerland by prescription. Melatonin has been an on-the-shelf product in the U.S. since the 1990s and in Canada it can be bought in comforting large containers at Costco stores, yet when I asked for it, the Swiss druggist gave me the studious stare associated with searching for signs of drug addiction – that is, my drug addiction. But then, considering how I opened our conversation in  a multiplicity of languages that I don’t actually speak, who can blame him?

I find this fascinating in a country where heroin and other narcotics are legal, and if I wanted such I could probably just drop in at the local injection clinic and load up my veins.

Alternatively, if I’m having trouble sleeping and can’t access my usual supply of melatonin, a cheap and ready source of alcohol of all sorts can be purchased at any food store. I looked down my nose at the men lining up at a nearby convenience store with their beer and booze during the supper hour, but now I realize they may just be fellow-insomniacs whose melatonin-prescriptions have run out.

Blogbits

On Hobonotes’ most recent daily report:

  • Most hits come from the U.S.
  • Least hits come from the Russian Federation
  • Weirdest search term that landed a reader at this site was “Paris restaurant Winnipeg”
  • Readers from Japan did not even register in my country list. I cannot break into that readership. Dang. 

DO NOT USE THIS WEBSITE FOR MEDICAL INFORMATION: To learn more about melatonin, go to legitimate medical websites, such as mayoclinic.com. 

88: Life, Literature & Laundry

Tiny bubbles.

You would think that living in a hotel is all luxury. After all, such luminaries as Mark Twain, Jack Kerouac, Ernest Hemingway and Simone de Beauvoir are among the dozens of writers who made hotels their homes at some point.

Famed authors whose writing dragged along often booked in, locked up and grinded out their manuscripts. Tennessee Williams finished A House Not Meant to Stand at the Hotel Elysee (unpublished until after his death, which appears to be the publication path for my latest book). William Faulkner scribbled out As I Lay Dying in only six weeks during a stay at Manhattan’s Algonquin. After six years of research and intense writerly angst, Truman Capote is said to have completed In Cold Blood at New York’s Plaza Hotel.

So, it is a life of glory, ink, typewriters and laptops, but it is not all keyboards and Jack Daniels. Dylan Thomas died of alcohol poisoning in 1953 at The Chelsea in New York, where it happens that Charles R. Jackson, author of The Lost Weekend, killed himself in 1968.

Our fancy dryer. Dave worries readers will think that is his underwear on the left side of the rack, but if you look closely you will see it is an upside-down blue t-shirt with white trim.

I would not be surprised one bit if these tragedies were connected to laundry.

Anyone who has had laundry done in a hotel knows that the prices are geared towards people who don’t really care what they’re paying, because they’re not paying at all. Their employer is. And so, some business travelers report a single laundry load can cost $68 US, or a week’s worth at $300. One month of this and it is a wonder travelers don’t just pack a washer and dryer around with them. It would cost about the same. There is no “per load” bargain to be had either. Every item of laundry is listed and tagged and laundered at a per-piece rate. It is cheaper to treat socks as disposable items and just keep chucking the old and buying new pairs rather than send them to the hotel laundry.

And so, we the ever-cheap, refuse to wash anything through the hotel laundry. We don’t have a sugar-daddy corporate boss to sign the check. Instead, we handwash our clothes in the sinks (our suite has four sinks – imagine that), and in the winter dry them over the heater and in the warmer months outside on a rack on our post-stamp-sized deck. It is a little like living as a young impoverished student, but with better wi-fi service. I did try to find a laundromat, but the town only has two full-service laundry shops that charge the same as the hotel, although a desperate mother of two recently was given a laundry pass at one of them after the most persistent of campaigns. I could go and try that shop, but I did once and the Germans laughed me right out of the establishment. I’m not going back.

Hand-laundering is not as hard as it seems. The hotel changes the bedding every week and provides towels. Without children, our laundry load is surprisingly light. This gentlest of washing methods means that our clothes hardly look worn out at all, except for our socks. I’ve learned a few tricks, such as that sports-clothing dries very quickly; heavy sweaters and jeans very slowly, so my wardrobe is dominated by sportswear. I can speed up drying by pointing fans set to maximum at the drying rack. I have yet to resort to Seinfeldish oven-drying, but given the right circumstances, I would give it a try, if only I could figure out the settings on our state-of-the-art wall oven.

89: Genial Geneva: Not So Bad

Cathedral Saint-Pierre, Geneva, Switzerland. A Romanesque-Gothic structure dating back to 1150 A.D., which took 150 years to build. A church has stood here since the 4th Century and before it, a Roman temple. There is an archaeological dig and crypts beneath it. The church went from Catholic to Protestant in 1536, when it was stripped of its icons and other adornments that Protestants view as a form of idol worship, but that Catholics look upon as markers of the faith and examples from the lives of early saints. See notation below.

Daniella, one of our favorite Swiss friends, crinkled up her nose at learning we spent a day in Geneva.

“Why ever would you go there?” she asked, staring at me for signs of mental instability.

“It’s a ‘world city,'” I said. “It has the U.N., the Red Cross, the Geneva Convention, it’s the seat of the Protestant Reformation.”

“Yes, but whyyyyyy would you go there?” she repeated.

Why indeed.

John Calvin's preaching chair.

But many do go to Geneva, possibly on mandatory business travel, and those people still want to know what to do once they’ve checked into their hotel room. One suggestion would be to get on a train to visit Gruyeres or Montreux, in other words, to get out of town as fast as possible, but it is not necessary.

Geneva does have many charming niches, high-end shopping, and as noted, the “seat of the Protestant Reformation.”

This is a literal statement. John Calvin (1509 to 1564), arguably the most influential thinker and theologian in the Reformation, and also a humanist lawyer – yes, a lawyer – preferred to give his sermons sitting down, which leads to suspicions that his sermons might have been a tad too long. On investigation, however, we discovered the chair in which he sat was/is a straight-backed wooden thing with no cushioning whatsoever. I could probably deliver a seven-minute sermon in it, tops.

Ooooo, dredging equipment. This photo shows that this blog values engineers and those inclined toward technology.

Tourists with an engineering bent can enjoy the dredging equipment currently parked in at the mouth of the Rhone – which is surprisingly shallow for a waterway feeding off massive Lake Geneva.

The city has many parks which will be beautiful once the trees are in leaf (in Geneva’s defense, we did get there at the turn of Spring when greening-up was just starting). One-quarter of Geneva is parkland – that’s something to think about.

Bastions Park has a charming open-air cafe for lounging away a sunny day, large chess boards enjoyed by many, and shady promenades, as well as the historic statues marking the city’s fulcrum point in world history – that is, statues of the fathers of the Reformation. I say “fathers,” but I’m sure there were “mothers,” too, but they didn’t make it into the statuary.

This accordion/violin/vocals duo from France gave Geneva's old-town a wonderful musical air. They were truly amazing. They would not give us their names, however, they said they were called "Children of the World." They also accused their countrymen, the French, as being unappreciative of the musical arts and so they came to Switzerland to perform where the people are more cultured. Take that, France, from your own cultural citizenry.

Nearby, is the city’s old town, along with Cathedral Saint-Pierre where Calvin preached, and to which many French reformers fled religious persecution in France. It’s all sweet and fluffy now when Catholics and Protestants jost about on theological points, but back then it was a matter of life and death where disagreements could end in rather nasty bloodshed, the intensity of which is best illustrated by the Catholic Church digging up the bones of 14th-Century Bible translator John Wycliffe 40 years after his death, just so they could burn what was left of him (some say his bones were just crushed and scattered). Suffice it to say, emotions ran high.*

Bastions Park, Geneva

It may seem to not matter so much to some, but these were the seeds of the freedom of expression and worship  that the Western World now prizes. It was when a bunch of Christians sought to weed from the then Catholic Church it’s powerful political core and return it to what nowadays would be called its grassroots origins, that is, the Gospel of Jesus Christ who had never held any worldly position of power or even aspired to such.

So, historically, a visit to Geneva is a little like a visit to Leipzig, Germany which triggered the fall of Communism and the Berlin Wall. The cobblestone lanes are charming now, but it doesn’t take much imagination to envision the intensity of emotion and peril that the city streets once hosted.

Notation on blog accuracy: The dates given on historical events, such as when churches were built, protests staged, and so forth, are taken from the best source I can find. Often, however, we see different dates expressed in travel books, academic websites and reliable legitimate media sources, as well information given in the site’s brochures and signage. This is a conundrum. I list the dates that are agreed upon by the most reliable sources, leaning heavily toward the local sources who would have most familiarity with the subject. If it’s a draw as to which date is more reliable, I list the range of dates given.

Also of note: Ancient structures usually have multiple “additions,” and so this blog lists the earliest date for a still-in-existence portion of the structure. This probably explains part of the confusion over dating.

*Another note: To be fair on the question of the first English translation of the Bible, Catholic apologists point out that when the Bible was printed in Latin, it was not as exclusive as it seems, because Latin was the language of the educated classes. I am not a theologian or a church historian, so this is as far as I will go on this topic. Please post angry letters through this blog’s contact page. 

 

Blog Bits

On Hobonotes at this very moment:

  • Most hits come from: Australia.
  • Least hits come from: United Kingdom
  • “Change Room Etiquette” post again shows up in top three hits.

90: Junking Geneva + Random Numbers

A Genevan bridge with the towering fountain in the background. Geneva can do better.


Junking Geneva

Stepping off the train in Geneva, one is met with the forked road conundrum. Turn left and go to Switzerland. Turn right and go to France.

I was sorely tempted to go to France, only so I could say I went to France two weekends in a row. That sounds so much more glamorous than if I were living in a Canadian provincial border town in say … Alberta, and I could say “I’m going to Saskatchewan for the day,” and do it just by crossing the road. I’ll bet there are French people in Alberta who right now are thinking about skipping over the border to Saskatchewan and bragging about it later. I’ll bet they have French relatives in France who do not know what a non-event provincial border-jumping can be in Canada.

And while I’m rambling, in my reporting days, Saskatchewan was the provincial name that earned the most derision when mentioned in interviews with non-Canadians. They doubted it existed and when confronted with the realities of the geographical gap that its absence would create, they doubted anyone would burden any place with such a long and convoluted moniker. I think it is a cool name just for that reason. But I drift from my topic which is: Is Geneva really all that bad?

The only bridge adornment we could find in Geneva was an open-air statue and "museum" about the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) who left Geneva at the age of 16, and who irritated the city leaders to such an extent that they burned his books here, but later capitalized on his fame by erecting a statue. A small detail: Rousseau spent two months at St. Peter's Island in Biel/Bienne and counted it as the happiest time of his life.

No it is not. But it does have a few problems,  beginning with a snooty waiter who forgot he was in Switzerland where the cultural practice is to extract as much money as possible from tourists by being polite to them. I’ll come back to him later.

We rolled through the train station and ran into Geneva’s first tourist foible. The train station is nowhere near the tourist district-proper. One has to walk through the city’s ordinary downtown, which is not extremely ugly, but it certainly lacks the quaint accordion-player charms of other Swiss locales. When we came upon the River Rhone, it was strapped with bridges that were all function and no fashion. This is a huge drawback for a Swiss tourist spot. Every town seems to have cute bridges here – even Olten, Switzerland’s not-so-great small town, has a lovely covered bridge.

We can probably blame Julius Caesar for the lack of charming bridges. After all, he is reported to have blown up or burned a bridge in Geneva, and maybe the city planners were forever-more discouraged from investing in bridges. After all, if a titan is going to roll into town and burn the thing, why even bother?

We found our way to the city’s historic district, which is surprisingly small for  such a globally renown city, but once inside it, we enjoyed wandering its winding narrow streets and old stone buildings – and yet, there was something missing. We cannot say what. It eludes us.

What Dave looks like when he sees steak on the menu for the same price as we would pay for an entire strip of prime beef tenderloin back in Canada. Math on this statement: 1 steak/$70 in Switzerland, or 15 steaks/$70 in Canada. Or maybe it was $60? No matter - it is really high up there as far as our restaurant pricing sensibilities go.

We found our way to a small half-filled open-air cafe’ where we asked to sit at a table that was half-sun/half-shade – perfect for Dave and I whose preferences for sunlight differ. The maitre’d, on hearing our request, raised his shoulders in that classic Frenchman shrug and protested, saying the table arrangement was for four, not for two.

Cafe-Creperie Saint-Pierre, Geneva

We didn’t see a line-up of diners waiting behind us, so we politely persisted, but he instead put us at a table right next to the shade/sun one, also a table for four, that was completely in the sun (he pulled the table arrangement apart so we were then technically at a table for two). We overlooked this mildly peevish behavior until we opened the lunch menu and saw $35 poulet and $70 bouef. If customers are going to fork over that much money for a plate of food, they should be able to sit anywhere they like, even the kitchen, or perhaps while standing on the maitre’d’s toes. We left.

Next to St. Peter’s Cathedral where John Calvin delivered his inspiring sermons during the Protestant Reformation, we found a quaint creperie where we dined on buckwheat crepes filled with cheese, mushrooms, spinach and chicken. They were delicious and the service staff were delightful.

Over the last week:

For the curious – blog stats report:

  • the country with the highest number of readers for this little blog was Canada
  • the country with the lowest number of readers was the United Arab Emirates
  • the most popular search engine term used that landed readers was “jungle design.” I cannot explain that.
  • the weirdest search engine term that landed readers was “Ringo Starr McDonalds.” I cannot explain that either.
Tomorrow: Geneva’s genial side. 


91: Geneva: Get Up + Go, Or Not?

Wiki-excerpt on Geneva's fountain: Five hundred litres (132 gallons) of water per second are jetted to an altitude of 140 metres (459 feet) by two 500 kW pumps, operating at 2,400 V, consuming over one megawatt of electricity.

New York, London, Geneva – there are some city names that everyone knows, yet there is just one in this mini-list that travel-guru Rick Steves ignores altogether: Geneva.

That fascinates us. After all, who doesn’t recognize the Geneva Convention, which undergirds international humanitarian law. I have even read the thing, not to better myself but just so I could get smarmy with a friend whose favorite phrase was “in violation of the Geneva Convention,” which it turned out he had not read, just as I suspected. Nevertheless, it is a fun weighty document to throw around in a debate, so I don’t really hold this against him.

Geneva’s tourist bureau is pretty mad at Rick Steves for overlooking them, but they should think again. What do they have that would draw Rick Steves, who pares his travel advice down to typical North American vacation spans (“best in 22 days,” “best in 14 days”) and tourist mini-breaks of a few days?

Rick Steves is not Geneva’s biggest problem. Bern, Lucerne and Zürich are, not to mention the dozen teensy Swiss villages that are so charming they easily beat out Geneva as a great day-stop (Thun, Neuchatel, Appenzell, Solothurn …).

On paper, Geneva has it all: A lake, a river, a promenade, an old-town, a storied and gloried past and the French Alps for a backdrop. For the well-heeled, there is Cartier (as plentiful in Switzerland as Wal-Mart in America), Louis Vuitton and Chanel. And yet, there is a problem, best symbolized with Geneva’s 110+ year-old fountain.

The thing is one straight spout jetting up from Lac Leman (also known as Lake Geneva). It sends five hundred litres (132 gallons) of water per second up to around 460 feet at 124 mph. This height leads to the boast that it is the tallest in the world. Geneva should be nervous about this: As soon as this claim comes to the attention of engineers in Dubai, they will build a 1,000-metre fountain.  But to get back to Geneva: A plaque at the base of the stone jetty by which visitors can stroll out to the fountain jet explains that the water’s white appearance is due to a special nozzle that injects tiny air bubbles into the water.

Would that be like the same nozzle hardware stores sell for $1.29 that can be fitted over kitchen taps? Seriously, Geneva, the city who gives the world the Red Cross, you can do better. If in over 100 years it has not occurred to you to do something else with your fountain besides inject air into it (Old Faithful does that without any special nozzle) and cast a light on it at night, then you need to convene a new committee to travel the world to see what else has been going on in fountain technology lately. San Diego’s Sea World would be a good starting place.

This is one of two stones brought down by glaciers during the Ice Age. Known as Pierres du Niton (Neptune's Stones), this stone was once used as the reference point by which the Swiss measured altitude, says the writers of Eyewitness Travel: Switzerland.

If that does not suit, they could also hire a grouchy old man to randomly point the spray at passersby – as unpleasant as that might be for tourists it would at least add an element of excitement and unpredictability to the site.

The fountain says that Geneva thinks going big is enough, but it is not. There is, in fact, a sense of bigness in Geneva’s downtown, a sense that this is truly a working city with practical matters on its mind. That is not a bad thing, but the town leaders are goofy to then get snooty when a leading travel guru rightly identifies it as such and gives it a pass.

But all this is not to say that Geneva is not worth the visit. It is, provided you have already seen Lucerne, Zürich, Bern, Neuchatel, Thun and Solothurn.

Tomorrow: More on Geneva and what to see/do there.