The Swiss have got some things figured out perfectly, like how to have fun with what they’ve got, as we were reminded on our weekend stroll. The photograph above is the beginning stages of Biel/Bienne’s summer tropical pavilion, brought to Switzerland courtesy of some backhoes, truckloads of white sand and potted palm trees, all kissing up to the shore of Lac Biel.
This happens every year here. It’s funded by the municipality, it is a wonderful slice of Caribbean-living, and why not? The summer season is starting to cook, the temperatures will ride up to the high 30s and the humidity brings into question whether Switzerland really is an alpine country.
I cannot imagine something similar going over back in our home of Victoria, British Columbia. There, such a drastic environmental alteration would produce a band of swooning protesters and broiler-hot five-hour town hall meetings, where apple pie and “I didn’t fight in the Second World War to see my country come to this” motherhood statements would be flung around the room. I shrug. It is Victoria and it is what it is, but I wish they could see how it is done here.
The Swiss muck around with their environment repeatedly, but as for degradation and damage, no worries. The same equipment that creates this tropicana will be back in the fall to sweep it all up, replant and renew the area. They hold massive festivals here in our little town, chucking things around that would bring Victoria bylaw officers to their knees in horror (imagine drifts of confetti over a foot deep on Douglas Street), but quick as flash as soon as the festival is over, in comes the Swiss backhoe brigade to set everything right again. The morning after every festival, there is not a clue it ever happened.
In the meantime, I’m looking forward to lazing on a cushioned wicker lounger, munching on hotdogs and sipping on iced tea under the shade of a palm tree on a white sand beach, all only a 15 minute walk from my hotel.
I will miss the grandeur of old stone churches both stark unadorned Protestant and elaborate ornate Catholic ones. I will also miss how the Europeans re-imagine old architecture in new ways, such as the light show they throw on Vienna’s massive St. Stephen’s Cathedral at night. Unforgettable, too, are the rivers of tourists clicking digital cameras at the sculptures of saints inside while milling around people at prayer. There is something time-warpish about seeing stone figures of long-ago Christians juxtaposed with today’s Christians in the pews surrounding them.
No one has asked yet what I will miss about Switzerland, possibly because it is obvious that I will miss chocolate, cheese and canals full of swans, but another thing I will miss is strolling outside to the sound of Fiddler on the Roof, the Ride of the Valkyries or other classical music being played by the small street bands and accordion players who appear almost everywhere in this country. It is as though Swiss streets come with a soundtrack.
People do crazy things when they live in foreign places, like test out fashions they would never do back at home for fear of getting laughed out of the coffee shop. The fashion craze here is a mix of medieval court jester and peasant attire, which means lots of repeating-triangular hems, puffy skirts on coats and tops, multiple layers, tattered fringes.
Europeans are slaves to fashion so if the stores sell it, they must wear it, and they do. They make it look good. I don’t, but I still bought a black version of this coat anyway. I wear it when I walk through our town’s medieval quarter.
A new vernacular on boho-chic abounds here as well, but unlike Canada’s bohemian set that goes for sharp colour clashes and funny socks, the Europeans modify the look. Wild on colour? They tilt toward a more conservative cut. Crazy cuts and lots of layers? They go to faded earthy hues so that the structure of the outfit stands out.
Age-stratification isn’t as sharp here either. While the younger set are the more daring in fashion, it is not uncommon to see middle-aged and even elderly women emulating their style.
I don’t try to blend too much with the local look. For one thing it is very expensive. Tattered t-shirts go for $129, when on sale. Ouch.
Due to an accounting error, I have been counting one day extra over our actual arrival date in Canada. As of today, May 25, we are 36 days away, not 37. I blame the public school system circa 1960/70s for this. And now here’s a picture of swans having a rough day on our town’s lake. Usually, choppy waters send the swans up the canal where the water is calmer, but on this day the lake must have pushed in some treats, because the swans braved the shoreline, sometimes getting thrown back against the rocks, all the while bobbing their heads down in the water nibbling away at something.
Switzerland has 18 years to figure out how to make up almost half of the country’s electrical supply that will be lost when it closes its nuclear reactors.
Who can argue with the shutdown? A nuclear meltdown in Switzerland would not have the dissipating effects of an ocean to float over for a year before making landfall. Instead, the DNA-altering radiation would funnel down in the valley between the Jura Mountains and the Swiss Alps, making Provence and its lovely vineyards but a memory. Good-bye Geneva, the United Nations, the Red Cross and Shania Twain’s home in Montreux.
The Swiss are looking to hydro-electric and fossil fuels to make up the 40 per cent power shortfall expected when the reactors go quiet, which might make environmentalists scream in agony, but there it is. The fact is people get testy when they turn on the light switch and nothing happens, and if this is true anywhere, it would be 10 times truer in Switzerland, the land where a train running two minutes late produces scowls and 15 minutes late is a national scandal. This is probably a good time to point out that Switzerland’s lauded rail system is powered by hydro-produced electricity, making it a non-emission producing transportation system. That’s how important electricity is here.
That does not mean the Swiss or the Europeans have waved the white flag on alternate energy. Europe as a whole is tinkering with it, although while the word “tinkering” might apply to the results produced, it is not the right word for the amount of money they’re putting into it. A better word would be “flooding.”
In 2010 and 2011 combined, Europeans chucked 25 billion Euros into wind power development, according to a report from the European Wind Energy Association. And for it, wind-sourced power in 2011 comes in at 9,600 MW, while hydro-electric systems have delivered 179,000 MW. You can see that wind power has a long way to go, but one wonders how far it actually can go. It’s currently at around 6%, with expert forecasting optimal outputs at 20% of electrical energy requirements in about another 20 years. That’s still a long way from home.
It would be helpful at this point to learn how much money is going into the hydro-electric infrastructure system, but that is a harder one to peg. With wind, the numbers relate to new installations. With hydro-electric, it includes upgrades, maintenance and installations. It’s not an apple-to-oranges measure, although one could argue the merits of either system can be weighed based on money spent to MW-production. That seems like a good idea. But it is sunny outside, so I am not going to do the math on that. This is but a tiny little blog.
Here is where I stop quoting investment and output figures, because the numbers vary depending on who is writing the report. For example, the European Commission says only 19 billion Euros have been invested in wind power over 30 years, while the EWEA offers much higher figures. Frans Van Hulle, technical director at the EWEA says that wind is poised to become a mainstream energy supply, but then says it is only a nibble of the Euro-energy diet at three per cent.
I’m not an engineer, but when I see authoritative sources dueling over their stats and then making grandiose statements like Van Hulle’s, I suspect there might be more sales pitch and less science in their report.
On the way to Saint-Ursanne, you can make a one-hour stop at Delemont, but why would you? It has an old-town, but it takes an uphill hike through a non-descript ‘modern’ zone to get there, and on the small-town scale it cannot match Twan, Thun or Neuchatel (Neuchatel also has a hike from the station to the medieval quarter and lakeshore, but it is a much more lovely cobblestone and rock-walled walkway.
Saint-Ursanne is reportedly home to the sarcophagus of St. Ursicinus, a 7th-Century Irish monk exiled from France’s Burgundy region, although it is not clear if Ursicinus himself was exiled, or if he was merely following St. Columbanus who was most probably exiled, but may have just left the area due to continuing annoyances with the Frankish bishops.
Apparently, when the French called St. Columbanus to court to defend his observation of the Celtic dates for Easter, he simply failed to appear, but gave them the courtesy of a letter in which he reportedly said the bishops might include other important topics among their priorities besides the ancient Celtic religious calendar, all of which goes to show that Europeans have been rubbing each other the wrong way long before the Eurozone was introduced.
St. Columbanus is, by the way, the patron saint for motorcyclists, although how that happened I do not know because it would be 1,100 years after Columbanus’s death that motorcycles would be invented.
No matter. Intriguingly enough, Saint-Ursanne was packed with motorcycles the day we were there. I did not photograph any because motorcycles seem visually incongruous with 12th Century architecture. Not everyone will agree with me about this.
Despite this town’s close proximity to the French and German borders, there was no mention in the brochure of how it weathered either World War, particularly WWII when the Swiss were readying to head for the hills in response to a threatened German invasion. There is an engraved marker in the cliff by the train station that lists WWI dates, so we might assume that Saint-Ursanne was among the Swiss observation points during that conflict.
Saint-Ursanne will be honoured this year (2012) by the Tour de France, which will pass through it around July 7th.
Tripadvisor only lists two inns in Saint-Ursanne. A Google search shows a little more than that. A nearby company rents kayaks and canoes for a paddle in the River Doubs.
Saint-Ursanne is a lovely place to visit if no reason other than that they are kind enough to print their tourism brochures in English, as well as the usual German, French and Italian. It is refreshing to look on an historical monument and not have to make up stories about it from our rough interpretations of non-anglicized leaflets.
Saint-Ursanne has preserved its medievalness by holding on to a non-franchise business model – this means, there is not a McDonalds in sight. The downside of a no-franchise model is that it immediately ups the cost of visiting here. Lunch for $40 a person, anyone? The upside is that the town retains its lovely charm. The lack of neon billboards is very likely the reason the place has such a serene ambiance.
There is, however, one food-related franchise allowed in – a Swiss franchise grocery store called Coop (pronounced koh-op), that sells lovely sandwiches for under seven francs, although it is closed on Sunday. A little convenience store opens on ‘Spanish business hours’ (closes for a two-hour lunch break), where tourists can bump up their blood sugar levels with chocolate and ice cream bars. For the more cultured, a wine and cheese shop is also open on Sunday.
Best to pack a lunch. We long ago tired of funneling endless dollars into the Swiss restaurant industry, delightful as the restaurants are here, but still enjoy Swiss dining ambiance by whiling away some time over coffee and ice cream at street cafes. This town has a particularly charming outdoor cafe with the restaurant on one side of the street and the tables on the other, shaded by a large white awning tethered to twin rows of trees. The service was good, although the servers refuse to speak any English, and prattled on at us in French and German. We didn’t mind. When it comes to ordering coffee and ice cream, we are fluent in many languages.
When people think of little Swiss villages, the picture floating about in their minds is probably very much like Saint-Ursanne, a tiny 12th Century village we tramped through this weekend. Saint-Ursanne’s warped clay-topped buildings back into the Jura Mountains white limestone cliffs, and overlook the River Doubs and beyond to picturesque grazing pastures.
The atmosphere here is lazy, with an almost Spanish sensibility, although we were mindful that this is still the shoulder season in the tourist calendar, and the town’s proliferation of antique shops and cafes suggest the place is packed with travellers at the peak of the season.
It is a lovely place to while away an afternoon.
For those interested in church history, it is home to the Maison de la Dime, the area’s bishop-prince’s house where the church’s tithe was held. A tithe today is understood as one-tenth of a person’s income that is given to God, or because God does not trouble himself with banking, what with owning all the real estate there is, and being able to make more should the need arise, the money is given to the church. Some churches today accept tithing through debit machines and I am sure automatic withdrawals can be arranged, but back in the 1500s, tithing was a somewhat messier business as it represented one-tenth of all livestock and crops. This necessitated the prince-bishop’s storehouse.
Non-church-goers back home in Canada/U.S.: Keep your goats, sheep and other livestock at home should you decide to visit a church. Most churches consider visitors akin to houseguests and do not ask for your tithe, be it in money, cheque, plastic or livestock.
Visiting an historic church in Europe: We’ve never been asked to pay admission, although a few churches keep out a donation box.
Switzerland derives 40 per cent of its electric power from six nuclear reactors* – all of which are slated for shutdown by 2030 as decided in a recent plebiscite. That gives the Swiss 18 years to figure out where to make up that considerable energy shortfall, and so they are looking into amping up their hydro-electric options.
We tend to think of the frugal Swiss as energy-efficient what with their affection for public transport, train travel and these confounded greyish lightbulbs, but they’re not. On a global scale, they are 21st out of 217 countries in electricity consumption on a per capita basis. Canada is #4. Yes, we beat the Swiss in the hockey world championships this year and now they must deal with this added humiliation.
Before environmentalists jump on Canada for this, the reference point is for electrical consumption only, and that Canada is such a high consumer is related to its world-class hydro-electric infrastructure. Energy consumption correlates to national development, stability, industrialization and affluence, with the world’s saddest nations consuming the least power. I am waiting for David Suzuki to stand up and applaud Somalia for its “green” economy.
In the meantime, expect the Swiss to come up with something inventive to cope with their energy diet. They know how to make the most out of very little. They turned a landlocked, mountainous scrap of land into a world economic leader by selling things that can fit in your pocket: Drugs, watches and chocolate. ***
* Swiss media sources sometimes report the number of reactors at seven. The European Nuclear Society reports only five.
** Pharmaceuticals, not illegal drugs. This isn’t Mexico.
*** There is more to it than these three, of course. There’s also Swiss banking, cheese, ski resorts and the Red Cross. For such a small place, this country has a huge cultural footprint.
It’s the ordinary things that offer the best information about a culture, such as a homeless man’s cardboard domicile in Tokyo that Dave saw on a business trip there. Despite its humbleness, “It was the cleanest little box,” Dave recalls. When the lowest socio-economic strata of a society observes a certain custom – such as order and cleanliness – to such a high degree, that is a sign pointing to what colors the rest of its culture.
Americans have a “fix it” attitude, Spaniards have a “leave it” one, Aussies somehow occupy the duality of both colonial and republican mindsets, and Canadians – well, that’s for another blog post.
A stroll through an unassuming neighborhood along the canal banks near here suggest the Swiss are all about getting along with one another. In a condensed pack of row houses, the only dividers between gardens are low chain-link fences. We suppose that the exposed fencing is a strata requirement, but if that were the case and the neighbours found each other irritating, they would start planting tall hedges, but we didn’t see much of that.
Things change once inside the city core where we live, however, with plenty of screens and hedges between properties, but then everyone within a few blocks of here is tightly packed in.
We consider ourselves pretty friendly people, but when we bought our current house in Canada, one of the first things we did was plant tall-growing bushes shielding our backyard from our neighbors, even though they are all lovely people. That could suggest we are unfriendly, but more likely it points to a love of wearing pajamas while sipping on my morning coffee in the garden. That is what keeps Canadian culture clicking along: A love of caffeine and comfy clothing.
If the Swiss know how to do anything, it is how to do a thing many times. They are obsessed with it. As an example, a perfectly sound stretch of pavement in front of our favorite bookstore on Nidaugasse has been resurfaced three times in the past year.
The first time made sense – there was underground work being done in the neighbourhood. The second time was a mystery, with the same asphalt topping being peeled off and then applied fresh. Last week, the workers were at it again, only now the new coating of asphalt has a distinct permanent shine to it along with some white flecks that make it look like polished cut granite. It is as though they are moving furniture, trying out one thing, eyeballing it, finding something just a little bit off, and then trying something else.
In my opinion, their aesthetic sensibilities are telling them to spend the big bucks and put down cobblestone, but their economic sensibilities say it is too expensive, so they are incrementally upgrading their asphalt. It’s one thing to do this when shuffling a sofa around a living room, but another thing when it involves heavy machinery.
Nonetheless, that is the Swiss way. It would never go over in North America. For one thing, Canada is too big to treat road surfacing as window dressing, the United States is too broke and in Mexico (yes, I do know Mexico is part of North America), road crews are too busy cleaning off the latest grisly drug-war kills to get around to repaving anything.
We are still here for another 44 days. My money is that it is 50/50 that they’ll redo the surface before we book out.
Yesterday, after elbowing my way through three grocery stores packed with shoppers on the verge of taking up sniper posts atop the shelves, it seemed a good idea to inquire what was going on, just in case the Swiss were stocking up in light of a pending nuclear meltdown.
The hotel staff informed me today is a holiday “bigger than Christmas.” They were uncertain whether this is the day of Ascension or Pentecost, but they were sure it was a day off. Nice to see the Swiss, a secular bunch, so scrupulously devoted to the religious calendar and any vacation days it might afford.
So we have been outside in the sun, strolling along the canals, not sure if we are marking the coming of Holy Spirit or the day Jesus hightailed it for heaven, but enjoying God’s goodness either way. The swans are nesting in giant wickerish mounds and the fishers are out with their extended poles, standing on metal platforms the size of diving boards. It’s lovely and yet the Swiss have said they have enough, no more vacation days for us, thanks.
In this season of mass protests against austerity measures, the Swiss voted down a proposal to expand their minimum annual paid vacation from four to six weeks. The Swiss can vote for crazy things like prostitute garages and keeping women from voting (until the 1980s), but sometimes their poll results reveal an intelligent electorate mature in its understanding of economics.
In the meantime, back home in Canada, Quebec’s premier Jean Charest cratered to protesters who stormed university classrooms this week and used belligerence to empty the rooms. Quebec is the only province where a masked man bursting into a room and shouting is usually the overture to gunfire, so it was an odd choice by the protesters, but then they have not been in school in weeks, so maybe they missed the history class covering the slayings at L’Ecole Polytechnique (1989), Concordia University (1992) and Dawson College (2006).
The premier shut down the spring sessions. I don’t get it, although in his defense Quebec’s opposition party is gleefully taking advantage of the unrest and throwing more fuel on the fire.
None of that for Geneva where voters approved tougher penalties for pushy protesters. Quebeckers are fond of referendums. Maybe they’ll take a tip from the Swiss and use one to restore order to their streets and campuses. If they don’t do it, it doesn’t look like anyone will, least of all their leaders.
My son’s mother’s day card arrived yesterday, conveniently pre-opened for me courtesy of Switzerland’s postal service. In Europe, one need not worry about opening a letter-bomb because it is a sure thing the authorities have already had a run through your mail.
This often is the case with international mail. Happily, they appear disinterested in our local mail, perhaps because they are too horrified by the slenderness of the account statements our Swiss banker sends us. Nothing repulses the Swiss more than the idea of underfed bank accounts. They cannot look at them.
In a non-scientific survey conducted by me, out of five nations not named here, Switzerland’s post service turned out to be the snoopiest. They even beat the Australians who may not even open their own mail, much less someone else’s. Meanwhile the Swiss have opened almost everything of ours incoming and outgoing alike, and occasionally they have ‘seized’ some goods, such as a squishy gel-pighead that flattens when flung against a hard surface, then slowly unsticks as it resumes its shape. That was for my 33-year-old lawyer son, you Swiss nogoodniks, and he wants it back.
Last week, Swiss Post announced a quarterly profit of 299 million Swiss Francs. I am not saying this is related to the pilfering that has occurred among the souvenirs I’ve sent home, but how does a post office post such profit? The answer is, when it is not a post office. Swiss Post is also a banking institution, which makes us shake our heads in amazement. Is there no venture that escapes the notice of Swiss bankers?
It might explain how Switzerland has 45,000 “postal” employees to serve 8 million Swiss, while Canada’s 35 million citizens squeak by on only 60,000. But then, maybe one postal worker for 177 residents is needed when postal service includes opening customers’ mail.
For my American friends: U.S. Postal Services has 546,000 “career” postal workers, and I cannot say why they inject the word “career” there except that it suggests they are “lifers,” just as there are “career” criminals. That means there is one postal worker for every 572 Americans, which seems a desirable ratio given that U.S. postal workers are the ones who created the term “going postal” by occasionally unloading their firearms at inappropriate moments. As a postscript: No U.S. Postal Service workers opened our mail when we lived in the U.S. None need come looking for us.
The house slippers went out yesterday: Rubbery black crocs with crushed faux-lamb lining discarded in my campaign to lighten my luggage. I almost felt sorry for them, little Euro-crocs whose hopes for a better life in America were dashed on the empty egg cartons in our kitchen trash.
Skinnying down my suitcase is not in my nature, however, it is a happier prospect than wrenching a shoulder dragging luggage from the hotel to the train station, up the train steps, off again through another station, into the yaw of Zürich’s Airport where I will be pressed upon to walk for 85 minutes with the thing. This is Switzerland’s mandatory travellers’ fitness test. If you can do the forced march through their airport security maze, they will let you in the country, and later they may even let you out.
And so everyday I stare at my dwindling possessions to figure out what else I can live without. Considering that I travelled with four full hockey bags, two large suitcases plus carry-on luggage on a round-the-world ticket over a 5 month period, what is happening now is on par with the miraculous. I expect a letter from Vatican investigators to arrive any day.
This is the grandiose manner in which I look at this project, but on hearing of the ughy-crocs’ demise, Dave asserted he could get all of his goods in one carry-on suitcase. In a recent practice pack, his goods took up a full suitcase and a carry-on. He’d have to shave off two-thirds of his possessions to make good on his boast.
Conveniently, this Thursday is a holiday, so instead of visiting Lucerne, Bern or some other delightful Swiss city, we are going to be holed up in our hotel room, trying to best one another at lightening our luggage.
- Keep it short. 150 words is good. When Stuff White People Like hit its stride, earning its authors a book deal and moolah, its average post was very short, often around 300 words. Click here for a great example.
- Stay on topic. This may sound tough, but it is harder to open the gates and write about anything. If your blog has a theme, enrich it. Dig into some minute detail. It might surprise you.
- Who is your audience? Are you writing for your friends and family back home? Write anything you like as though you are chatting over coffee, all while keeping a prudent eye on your script, because if you write something nasty about Aunt Agatha, it could be in the copy-and-paste evidence folder for years to come. Are you writing a public blog for anyone? Think about whether they need to know what you’re about to tap out.
- Surf news sites. If you’re writing a guide on travel, carpentry, faith, politics, home decor, gardening, dog-training, keep up-to-date on your topic.
- Blog site lite. There are many high-quality blogs out there, but who wants to eat off someone else’s plate? Don’t spend too much time on blog sites. Generate your own goods.
- Go for a walk. There’s a lot of good raw data out on the street. About 90 per cent of my blog topics come from what I see around me in Switzerland, the rest come from checking out Swiss news and government websites.
- Write garbage. If you’re stuck, just start writing. Don’t worry about the quality, just get at it. What you’ll find is that after ejecting the first few paragraphs of nonsense, the real stuff you want to write about will float to the top.
- Edit. Read The Elements of Style by E.B. White and William Strunk. Do not be intimidated. This thin little volume dating back to 1918 is the professional writer’s Bible. If you write and edit with this book as a guide, you cannot go wrong. Read it, then go look at some of your old blog posts and see where you could do better. And yes, you can always do better.
- Chill. Nothing kills creativity like stress. Do something else for a while to let your brain unknot.
- Stress. Chill and Stress are not polar opposites. They are two halves of a perfect whole. After you have let your brain relax, pummel it back into shape with a good workout. Many a fine piece of writing was wrung out under deadline pressure.
Note: The above applies best to public blogs. Private blogs that are letters to friends and family have few rules. In these, you are writing to people who already adore you, already think you’re clever and want to know how your day is going. Private blogs I have hooked on to include
- Personal News Blogs: A friend chronicling her and her husband’s journey through his health crisis. By clicking on that, I could keep track of how they were doing without pestering her with my notes of concern. When a person is sick, sometimes the spouse/close-relative/caregiver can be swamped with answering phone calls and emails from concerned friends and family. This blog spared her that.
- Wedding Blogs: Weddings generate lots of chatter as well, and the bridal couple has enough to do. My kids’ wedding blogs served as great communication tools. They provide practical information (such as listing hotels close to the wedding venue) and stuff that families just like to know, like mini-biographies of the wedding party or family members.
- Travel/life-experience Blogs: Friends who went on a mission trip that turned somewhat catastrophic wrote a gripping blog about their misadventures. It was reading that could not be missed, all the more so for knowing it was taking place on the other side of the globe and no one knew the eventual outcome. Scary stuff, but it was good to know what our friends were going through.
One of our sons wed last summer and the other is wedding this, and so my time in Europe has been a training exercise in pastry-avoidance so as to not appear as a chiffon-draped water buffalo at either event.
Now, staring down my failed campaign (not in the avoiding of pastries, that I have done admirably well, but in the avoidance of the said ungulate’s dimensions), and with only 51 days left to go, it seems time to lift the pastry moratorium and give Switzerland’s bakers a run.
I started today by tasting a meringue, on the recommendation of a local Swiss who tells me this country is famous for its meringues. Not in North America, they are not, I wanted to tell her, but as a guest in her lovely country, who am I to mess with its meringue mythology?
Meringues come in a variety of shapes and sizes, from the apple-sized powder puff to the pop-in-your-mouth cookie. They are sometimes bowl-shaped to allow for fruit and whipping cream in its cavity – a laudable idea, but one that could blanket the meringue’s real merits, so I opted for the plain cookie version (this is not the soft foamy meringue that tops North America’s lemon meringue pies).
They are a two-ingredient concoction – sugar and powdered egg – but not just any egg, a European egg. What is the difference between a European and a North American egg? Not a thing, as far as I can tell, except that European eggs are unrefrigerated, which may be why my husband is still in bed reeling from the Mother of All Food Poisonings.
Meringues are low in calories – only 100 calories in 25 grams or four pieces in the bag I picked up at the local store. They taste exactly as you might expect from a sugar and egg white combination whipped into a froth and hardened in a slow oven (90 minutes or more at 200 F), that is, they taste like an airy teaspoon of sugar. Inside the exterior sheath that is a white thin crispy layer, their bisque-hued innards have the texture of stiff foam with a slightly yielding spongy centre.
Here’s a recipe and video-guide on baking meringues. This recipe includes cream of tartar and vanilla, but the Swiss version only has the egg whites and fine sugar. It is a fine addition to a dessert dish, but its unlikely it will ever overshadow chocolate as the Swiss export of glory.
Were I to die in my hotel room, the coroner’s office would not find any illegal drugs in my luggage or my system, but they would still find enough meds to make them think I have a Tylenol addiction.
People who live perpetually ‘on the road,’ have to pack a lot of meds because
- They can never be sure of a 24-hour pharmacy and
- They can never be sure of a 24-hour pharmacist that speaks their language and
- They can never be sure of a 24-hour pharmacy that stocks the same brands or dosage levels familiar to them.
In this light, the drug stash inside suddenly deceased celebrity’s hotel rooms (Whitney Houston, Heath Ledger) don’t look so bad.
Shockingly, despite the fact that drug companies have global reaches, we have seen some variation in meds not to mention how to acquire them. Dave very nearly lost the use of his airway in Spain in 1999 when a Spanish doctor insisted the antibiotics he was prescribing for Dave were super-duper and required only one pill a day for three days. As mother to a chronic-strep-sufferer, this violated everything I knew about antibiotic dosing, so as the week moved on and Dave’s swollen gland gained new real estate in his neck, I called in another doctor and we proceeded to drench Dave in antibiotics until it no longer appeared he was trying to swallow a baseball. I am not exaggerating.
I am thinking of all this because Dave ate some bad lasagna and spent a good part of the night volunteering up his bodily fluids and vital organs. As it happens, I have about 180 little pink anti-nausea pills, so not only was I armed for last night, I was ready to deal with either 60 other nights like it, or to provide assistance to our entire hotel’s guest roster, should it be required.
I am not a pill-popper, although a look into my luggage might suggest otherwise, however, I will leave Switzerland with very nearly the same amount of drugs as I brought into it. If you are travelling for an extended period, it is a good idea to pack your own mini-drugstore for common non-doctorly ailments.
Important tip: Prescription drugs are excluded from airline liquid limits, however, they must be transported in the same bottle with prescription labeling in order to qualify. Otherwise, some snotty security staffer will seize and dispense of them as one Canadian airport security official did to an elderly woman’s heart medication as she was boarding a 70-minute flight from Victoria (or was it Vancouver) to Calgary, necessitating a tremendous panic in her family that by itself could have been heartstopping. Never underestimate the stupidity of power-obsessed bureaucrats, even in airport security uniforms.
But I drift from my topic. Before you hit the road, visit your doctor and ask for a top-up on prescriptions, then fill enough of them to cover your absence (in my case, 18-months of absence from the comforts of Canadian pharmacies means I have 18 months worth of everything – it’s expensive, but better than dealing with a non-English-speaking doctor).
Add to that over-the-counter meds to cope with pain, fever, inflammations, nausea, diarrhea, stomach upset, cold, flu and allergies. It may seem like a lot, but if you are stricken at 3 a.m., when these cursed things seem to peak, you will have renewed appreciation of the Boy Scout motto: Be prepared.
*Yes, I have written about stocking your own drugstore for overseas trips, but it is worth a repeat, especially in light of last night’s horrors.
Look at this happy couple smiling for the camera that records their folly. The woman is balancing on a rolled railing, her center of gravity perilously supported by this young man who does not look malicious in anyway, but his joy suggests he is not truly aware that his lady love is a mere 2-lb. push away from a 15-foot drop down a sheer cement wall to the canal floor, a fall that will be cushioned by 10-inches of water and a bed of baseball-sized stones.
I almost write: What idiots! But then I remember all the stupid things I did as a youth, things that were just as dangerous and yet did not appear so at the time to my inexperienced mind.
Even now, decades later, some memories float back to me recast in the light of a whole whack of information on innocent missteps gone horribly wrong – memories that make me gasp, slow down, think twice, turn back.*
I’ve seen this young couple since, embracing on a bench where the greatest danger is an 18″ fall on a floor of weeds, cigarette butts and dog poo. It is a yukkier prospect, fecal-matter-wise, but one from which they could race back home on their non-spinal-injured responsive legs.
*The truth is I still do stupid things sometimes, although none that involve perching over a steep drop.
There are so many oddities in the world and without question one of them is what defines the desirability of a location. Take our little town, for example. Mention Biel/Bienne to a Swiss national and they curl up their noses as though even the name creates a stench. And yet, it has sweeping pristinely maintained parklands, a large lake, open canals, boat rentals, theatre, galleries, opera, swans, canyon trails and forested walks through the Jura Mountains that fence our town’s northern edge. It has a medieval quarter,
ample outdoor pedestrian malls, festivals without end, a large recreation facility, ribbons of bike trails, wonderful weather, fabulous restaurants – the list goes on and on.
And yet, when a Swiss person admits they were born and raised in Biel, the admission always comes with the comment, “It’s not so bad.” Dave reckons this is just because the rest of Switzerland is so outstanding that even a beautiful place like Biel cannot compete. Nonetheless, if this town were located anywhere in North America, tourists would flock to it and it would routinely be named in the Top 10 places to visit.
When a mother pushing a stroller challenges a bus on a Swiss street, you have to wonder if she’s hit the nadir of a post-partum-induced depression, because street-crossing in Switzerland has rigidly observed rules, one of which is, don’t mess with bus drivers. They see a pedestrian on the pavement as a challenge to their might and will push down on the pedal to make their point.
Nonetheless, the mother won, because just as rock crushes scissors, mother-and-baby beats buses. Street-crossing is, in my view, a sociological and psychological indicator of many things. Every time you cross the street, you are saying something about yourself, your culture and your country.
For example, a former work colleague hailing from Canada’s easterly region routinely plunged into downtown traffic as though she were made of impermeable titanium, not squishy skin-sheathed fluids. At first, I assumed this was part of her eastern provincial culture.
Then I observed she was very much the same off the road, plunging into rants that shredded her colleagues into confetti, not giving a thought for the reputations she raked over. Once, a colleague challenged her and she delivered a soliloquy so far removed from the truth that it can be said that she regarded people the same way she regarded cars – mere objects that were destined to get out of her way.
This is not to say that street-crossing methodology is an indication of sociopathic tendencies, but maybe it is a warning sign.
In Canada, jaywalkers crossing the street at any point might peeve a few, but overall society takes a benign view of the practice and drivers will veer away should a pedestrian stride inside their trajectory. Still, something seethes under the surface: When city police in Victoria, British Columbia hold a ticketing-binge on jaywalkers it attracts heated and furious debate in the local media. But a ticket and maybe a tongue-scalding is the worst a Canadian will get for taking a shortcut.
No such luck in Australia. There, street-crossing can be suicidal, because the streets belong to bus-drivers who slingshot their multi-tonne vehicles as though they are warheads. Death could very quickly follow every time one crosses the curb. This is why Aussies drink so much. They know every hour could be their last.
I cannot speak for the dangers of street-crossing the world over, but I know that Spanish crosswalks are not to be trusted. While the Swiss abide by the rules, Spanish drivers are a hurried and opportunistic bunch, possibly because they are probably on their way home for a siesta, which might explain their current economic woes. I wish I was joking about this. Many a time at a Madrid crosswalk, I’ve seen the first car stop only to see cars two, three and even four pull up behind the first car, then pop out into the opposing lane and speed through the crosswalk. The first time I saw this, I nearly got hit. Having seen an x-ray of some Spanish orthopedic bone-mending with what looked like twist-ties, I vowed to never trust the Spanish medical establishment with my life, so I learned to never cross a crosswalk until all cars had passed.
Here in Switzerland, street-crossing is a sign of social order. Crosswalks are everywhere, and even though Swiss drivers could likely outpace those Australian bus-drivers, they show a lot of respect for people inside the crosswalk, but not so much for jaywalkers who venture beyond the yellow-striped lines.
More than once, I’ve seen vehicles speed up at the sight of a pedestrian attempting to strike out against the state-sanctioned road-crossings. Last week, a very swank looking gentleman driving a very expensive vehicle almost tapped a young man who dared cross the street against the light, and the motorist did not look one bit worried about grinding the man under his treads. The Swiss are ardent capitalists when it comes to money, but where street-crossing is concerned, they will push individualistic expression under the water every time.
As is the case in almost all areas of life, the exception to all rules across the board belongs to females between the ages of 16 to 30. These stiletto-heeled women in their tight jeans, leather jackets and flowing manes do not even look before crossing the street. They just go without a hiccup in their pace because they know the world will stop for them. It looks like a wonderful world to be in, except for the day of reckoning that will occur sometime after they turn 30 when their toe the curb, and a car whips past without a glance at the gal. Then she will know she has passed her apex and is staring down into the nadir of middle-age. True, that is still a long ways off, but having to look before crossing a street is a sign that it will come.
It appears the Swiss festival planners’ gas tank of festival ideas ran low this week, judging by the curious menage of celebrations going on in our town square on Saturday. It appeared to be a combination midwife, car sale, marching band, sunglass fashion show complete with ear-blasting music, red carpet and velvet ropes, plus a picnic event, but hey, who am I to criticize?
The Swiss are as big on open-air events as the Spanish, which is to say: A lot. The tone is slightly different with the Spanish going for huge religious festivities that always involve marching through town carrying a massive float of a statue of a saint – often on the shoulders of men.
For the less Bible-literate, this harkens back to the Judaic Ark of the Covenant, a gold-plated acacia wood chest topped with angel figures said to contain the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, which had to always be carried by men, never pulled by a beast of burden or heaven forbid, put on a flatbed truck (no one knows where it is now, so it is safe from the flatbed truck indignity). Not all Spanish parades are carried on the backs of men, of course, but enough are that it keeps the Moroccans from invading because who wants to go to battle against guys who carry half-tonne gold-plated saints on their backs as a leisure activity?
But I drift from my topic. As we passed through the square, we saw a woman giving a rather solemn presentation on how to assist in childbirth to a man who did not look like he was up to a career in medicine. We hoped going through this presentation did not certify the student for anything, but we can not be sure of this, because if the Swiss love anything, it is to make sure everyone is certified in any activity, however mundane it may be.
Everyone complains about McDonalds food, but does anyone appreciate its value as an economic indicator?
Believe it or not, the price of a Big Mac tops the list of economic indicators at an international statistics website, which makes perfect sense to us because at some point, we all have to rely on a Big MacAttack to raise our blood sugar levels when overseas and surrounded by local cuisine aka unidentifiable food.
NationMaster.com reports that in Canada a Big Mac costs $3.01 while in Switzerland it costs $4.93. I don’t want to cast aspersions on NationMaster.com, but hamburgers here cost more than that. Dave estimates we pay $6 (Cdn) for a Big Mac, or $12.50 if we decide to live it up and order the Big Mac Meal. To be fair, NationMaster sources this particular piece of data back to 2006.
Nonetheless, Canadians will be thrilled to know that according to IMB International, while the Swiss are renowned for their fidelity to modelling to the world how to stay on-time and fiscally sound, Canada still ranks higher for business efficiency at 5th place. Switzerland was 8th. This data is seven years old, but it makes my homeland look good so I’m not going to search for more recent figures.
Our GDP per capita is six per cent higher, too. That’s another figure I’m not going to update. And our gross national income is a whopping 146% higher – take that Switzerland! Canada rules.
On a more personal financial note: Dave’s Swiss salary is on par with his Canadian salary, but our cost-of-living is significantly higher here. I should emphasize significantly (the triple-threat of emphasis – bolded, italicized and underlined!), all the more so because we are living a very green, pared-back lifestyle here compared to our lives in Canada.
In Canada, we have a 2400-square-foot four-bedroom house; here we have a 400-square-foot single room bachelor suite. There, we have two cars in our garage. Here, we walk everywhere we go and rely on trains for out-of-town trips. There, we eat restaurant food probably once a week, more when we were both working. Here, we dine out about once every three months (this excludes sandwich and hamburger joints where we fill up while touring). By all counts, we should be spending less money here, but we actually spend more. A lot more.
And now for less painful statistics …
This week on Hobonotes stats page:
- Top three countries: Canada, U.S. and Switzerland. Oddly for some reason, Canada pounds out everyone else with over 200 hits while the U.S. logged only 60. I know Americans will not take this sitting down.
- Bottom three countries: Greece, Denmark and Austria
- Readers from Japan: Two.
- Oddest search term: “Loads of people riding elephants in India.” As this blog covers neither crowd issues, pachyderms or India, I am at a loss to explain how Google brought this reader to this site.
- Blogoddity: This week is the first when the topic of Paris food did not make it to the top ten of most read posts. I know the French will not take this sitting down.
I hate to get serious in a blog, but it’s time someone introduced a Stranger Danger course for adults.
I acquired two stalkers this week on my afternoon stroll. I wrote the bare-bones of it with a detached viewpoint yesterday (click here to read it).
With that experience in mind, and with a few tips I’ve gleaned over the years, here’s something you can do if you sense you’ve picked up unwanted attention:
- Never walk alone: What’s good for grade-schoolers is good for grown-ups, but sometimes you will walk alone, even for just a block or two, in which case, be aware of your surroundings.
- Don’t be a talker with your stalker: When someone chats you up for no obvious reason, do not acknowledge them and do not stop. It gives bystanders the impression you are acquaintances and they will then be less inclined to intervene. No one wants to get in the middle of a private or a domestic squabble.
- Keep your wallet/purse closed: It’s obvious that you don’t want to reveal the location of your valuables, but many people are robbed right at the moment they are fumbling around in their purse because thieves know that is when you are least likely to notice their approach.
- It’s only money, honey: If someone demands your stuff; give it to him.
- Don’t follow the leader: If someone demands you go with him, he plans to take you somewhere that no one can hear your cries for help. Don’t go with him. Where you stand right now could be your last chance to get away. Take it.
- Talk the talk: Learn how to ask for help in the language of the country you are in. I was in a particularly bad spot because my stalker spoke German, French and English, giving him a decided advantage over me. If, for example, I had seen a bystander and asked for help, there’s no sure bet the bystander would have understood English, and there’s every chance my stalker could still control the situation by “translating” for me.
- Break from the script: In sociology, we learn that even criminals expect matters to unfold in a certain way. If you break from that script, you might unsettle them enough to make them ‘break their stride.’ My stalker peppered me with personal questions to keep my eyes on him and away from his partner. I broke his script by firing questions at him, not going in the direction he was herding me, and not hiding the fact that I was surveying the area (although, I still couldn’t see his friend, which made me very uneasy).
- If you are being followed, that makes you the leader: Take your stalker to a busy store. They’ll stop at the door. If you have to walk into someone’s yard or house to evade your shadow, just do it.
- Stay out of the strike zone: Standing well back of a stranger makes it harder for them to lunge out and grab you while giving you a better chance at escape. It isn’t possible in every country to maintain a safe distance because cultural interpretations of personal space vary, but give it a try.
- Are you just being paranoid or is that guy watching you? I’ve heard police say again and again that if you think something might be wrong, something is wrong. Act on your intuition. It’s probably right, and if it is wrong, the worst thing to happen to you will be that you are mildly embarrassed in front of a stranger. So what?
I wish I could say this week’s stalker incident was my first, but it is the fourth time in Switzerland that I have had freaky men get way too close. That is a lot in the course of one year of day-time walking. I somehow managed to go the half-century before this with only about six or seven scary encounters.
Be careful out there.
Someone watching the woman closely could see that she favored her left leg as she sauntered along the canal and into the town square. She drew a plumb-line through the crush of office workers hurrying home, and as she passed the cafe at the far end, she lifted her head at the cigarette smoke drifting up from the tables.
The square fell away behind her so that she was alone again. To her left stood wrought-iron fences guarding deep canal walls that plunged down to rumbling waters. To her right were more cement walls, low and topped with ornate iron stakes that rose protectively around the small coiffed gardens of the town’s grand stone apartments. Heavy fists of lilac leaned over the garden walls and drenched the air in perfume, pushing back the tobacco odour.
Ahead, two men came into view, ambling in the same direction as her; their heads slightly turned in her direction. One man paused to examine a shoebox left by the curb. Almost imperceptibly, the woman hesitated, then stepped off the sidewalk and onto the street, picking up her pace as she drew a large crescent-shaped berth around the men. Her eyes followed the tall spiked gates of the small gardens and down the empty road ahead.
The shoebox man stayed on the sidewalk, but his companion, young and lean, skipped onto the road until he was beside the woman. He spoke a few words in German, and when she only glanced at him, he tested French, moving in closer all the while, right to the point where another inch in and she would have had to stop to keep from walking into him, but he held back just that one inch. Without altering her stride, the woman looked the man full in the face for the first time. She said something.
They reached a road crossing and she stopped. The man continued to prattle at her as she looked down the canal, then past the man where a block away people herded through a retail district. Where the man and woman stood, however, there was only the scent of the lilacs and the sound of the canal. The shoebox man could no longer be seen.
She turned left, almost bumping into the man who stepped back just in time to avoid her, but then he continued on at her side, his face rearranged to convey bewilderment. He hunched his shoulders forward and turned at the waist, forming an umbrella over her. He smiled as he talked, to reveal large white teeth against plum-coloured gums. She moved away from him, stepping off the curb and crossing the street without checking for cars. As though their ankles were cuffed, he held his position beside her. To an onlooker, they walked so close and he talked so intently, they looked like friends.
At the store doors, she turned as though to go in but paused as he begged intently for her phone number. When that did not succeed, he begged for her to take his number. She scraped a foot backward, the store door’s motion sensor blinked, the glass doors parted, and voices from inside wafted around her. She should go in inside. Why doesn’t she go inside, but the man has her fixed in his stare, his dark skin smooth and glinting in copper where it catches the late-afternoon light.
He reaches his hand out and for a moment his intention is unclear, but as if by reflex, she grabs his hand, shakes it and then disappears into the store.
This is more true story than fiction, my account of a quiet, polite and terrifying encounter on the quiet seemingly safe streets of a small Swiss town.
Yesterday was the dreaded shoe-shucking day when I bagged my little collection of footwear for a new life at the local Salvation Army bins. It pains me to dispose of shoes that I still love, but the consolation is that soon I will be back in Canada, the country of affordable Clarks.
All this decluttering raises the question of how much stuff do we need to get through the day. Here, my clothes fit into one suitcase (I said clothes, not shoes). Back home, my walk-in closet was jammed tight.
I blame my Canadian-ness for this. Canadians live in the land of severe storms or as my Wisconsin friends calls it “big weather,” and so one of our defining traits is that we tend to be siege-shoppers. While homestyle mavens urge us to declutter, our government’s Emergency Services tack in the opposite direction, issuing lists of all the goods we’ll need on hand should a tornado/snowstorm/blizzard/flash-flood/earthquake/tsunami/power-outage/infrastructure-collapse occur. Not only do they make it sound like these events are imminent, they repeatedly warn us that in the event of a disaster, it could take five days for any aid to appear.
In other words, when things are at their worst, you are on your own. Maybe this is why Canadians tend to be a cooperative bunch. We know that we have to count on each other because it is not a sure bet anyone else is going to help. I don’t want to be smarmy about this, but there is an efficiency in the population that is impressive. When our prairie city was ringed with floodwaters, long before the army showed up, high school students were allowed to skip classes to help sandbag. The sheer muscle power and impromptu organization that mustered every morning at the dykes was fast, furious and made homeowners cry with joy at the sight. There was no centralized authority, we just showed up, climbed into boats or the buckets of heavy machinery to get through the floodwaters and jumped off wherever we saw a pile of sandbags at the ready.
The army appeared later in the week. I don’t want to cast aspersions on the good soldiers, because they operated under a different paradigm than did we scalawag crews, but their first order of business was to sit down and wait for orders. It seemed to us the orders were obvious: Form a line, pass sandbags, build a wall against the water. To their credit, the soldiers seemed as frustrated as us at having to wait.
Is it any wonder our shopping carts are vast, our freezers are rectangular mammoths, and our need for storage space is without end?
Nevertheless, this probably is still not a good excuse for the amount of stuff I keep.
Today is Labour Day, making it a public holiday in 10 of Switzerland’s 26 cantons. My husband’s work is in a canton that does not designate this a holiday, while some of his coworkers live in cantons that do, and so the question is: Do you take a holiday based on the address of your workplace or your home?
Even the Swiss seem uncertain. When asked if staff should come in to work, a Swiss executive referred the question to the Human Resources Department, but based on past experience, my guess is that the head of HR is on holiday. One fellow lives and works in different cantons that both call today a regular work day, but he comes from a former communist-ruled country where Labour Day was practically a holy day so based on that criteria, he is staying home. No one seems fussed about this.
If you live in the right canton, such as Zürich, you will enjoy 15 paid public holidays. If you live in the wrong one, like Appenzell, you only get eight.
Coming from Canada, a land of 13 provinces and territories combined, we often see the nation is somewhat uneven in its application of rights, responsibilities and privileges. For example, in Ontario, medically necessary travel is funded through the government, while in British Columbia, residents have to go to a registered charity for help.
And while the federal government appears to be overseeing a national health care system, the fact is that British Columbia demands monthly fees from its citizens (just like a private insurance company, gasp), while Manitoba only asks that you live inside its borders to qualify. How B.C. politicians get away with this and why voters put up with it is beyond me.
But to get back to public holidays, some Canadians get more, others not so much. Nationally, workers get nine paid days off; provinces add to that, but not at the same rate. British Columbians only get one extra day while at the other end of the country, Newfoundland/Labradorites enjoy as many as seven provincial holidays.
The rest of Canada says nothing about this because it seems reasonable compensation for having to live in Newfoundland/Labrador.
But to get back to the question about whether my hubby should go to work today, the answer is yes. He is contractor. He only gets paid if he shows up.