Say Cheeeese

The source of so much goodness: Cheese, fondue, ice cream, taco fillings ...

I’ve been rough on Swiss cuisine, writing some very nasty things about their chocolate, their cheeses, their ice creams, their relaxed attitude toward refrigeration. Today, Switzerland fought back.

Well, at least one block of cheese bought at a Swiss store fought back by stumbling out of the refrigerator while I was going in for the strawberries, nearly striking my leg, but it was a soft cheese, so not much harm could have been done. Seeing as it volunteered, I decided to take a slice, and steeled myself for the usual olfactory horrors to unfold when the plastic wrapping came off.

This did not occur. The cheese was almost odor-free, and even as I cut into it, I could tell this was going to be different. It did not embrace the blade as would a gooey Brie; neither did it fight back in the way of a stiff cheddar. It was in the middle, resisting a little, with the edges crumbling away in niblets, but still cutting rather clean.

The taste was mindful of butter and cream, which turned out to be correct as the cheese is 75 per cent fat, a content earned by the addition of extra-heavy cream during processing. You might be able to find a chunk in North America – it’s called St. Andre’s and it is made in France.

Which means that I just wrote something nice about French cheese, as opposed to Swiss cuisine, the latter of which being where I was going in the first place. But to be fair, it was purchased in a Swiss store, so that has to count for something.

The Swiss are big on beef, cheese, chocolate, fondue, muesli, quiche and tarts. I love all of these. They also steal a lot of ideas from Italy and France, whose foods I love, and from Germany, whose foods, their sausages in particular, I do not love so much. Actually, I really dislike those fat-chocked sausages. And yet, I know so many great Mennonite cooks – they must be of Russian extraction.

But to get back to the Swiss: Their strawberries are now in full season, which means the prices are dropping while the quality is rising. They are fabulous. Fabulous Swiss strawberries. See,  I can say nice things about Swiss food.

And I did say nice things about Movenpick ice cream, although that was before I sampled their cashew cinnamon ice cream, which had a lot of cinnamon and not so much cashew. It didn’t help that the cinnamon was augmented by some unknown spice, possibly curry, that made the whole experience a deeply moving one of disappointment; this especially after trying their chocolate ice cream, which was divine.

You may remember I had nothing nice to say about Polarfuchs ice cream, but I’m still looking to try their fresh strawberry flavour, which may have redemptive qualities. Nevertheless,  I can’t find it anywhere, even though there are strawberries everywhere at the moment.

Clearly, I have mixed feelings about Swiss food. This is where many food writers would make a joke about having to keep testing more food so as to more fully comprehend the breadth of the national cuisine.

I can’t joke about it, because I can’t promise it. I approach every plate with trepidation.

We had an unpleasant experience with Swiss ground beef early on, and it took me seven weeks to brave it again. The good news is that the second attempt was greatly improved, leading me to believe that the first clump of ground beef I cooked was on the edge of spoiling, which returns us to my first paragraph and my biggest beef with Europeans, and that is their lack of regard for refrigeration.

In the meantime, I just learned the St. Andre’s cheese in my refrigerator is highly perishable, so should be eaten as soon as possible. That, I am going to do.

Mom told me not to talk to strangers

Every day from 1960 to 1976, my mother warned me against talking to strangers, sometimes upping the warnings to four-times a day. She knew I wasn’t listening. Then between the years 2003 and 2010, on more than a few occasions I saw Times Colonist columnist Jack Knox exclaim, “Stranger danger!” before fading chameleon-like into the walls, making himself invisible to newsroom visitors. I suspect he was on my Mom’s payroll.

Despite these admonitions,  I keep talking to strangers, but now, I’m thinking of quitting.

In a downtown grocery store, I was minding my own business when cold chalky fingers snaked around my forearm. It would appear there was no one there, but when I looked down I saw a withered white-haired woman with large brown eyes standing next to me. I want to point out: I was looking down.  The number of times I have looked down to see another adult is embarrassingly low, and in fact, it only happened twice in North America. The other three times were here in Europe, where women smoke a lot, leading to stunted growth.

The woman rattled off something in French, shaking her cane menacingly at me, then, with her hand still cuffed around my forearm, she led me to another aisle where she used her cane to point out items from the top three shelves that she wanted. It’s a rare experience to be the “tall” person in the crowd, so I didn’t protest. I retrieved the items, she released me, and I went on my way.

Only, I was flummoxed. I left my grocery basket in the aisle where she had abducted me, along with my senses, forgetting what I was at the store for in the first place. I picked up some yoghurt, just to look like I was there on legitimate business and headed to the line-up where I found the old woman in front of me. Again, she took charge, demanding in French that I go in line in front of her with my paltry purchase, but I, in a bid for self-determination, steadfastly refused.

“Je suis un idiot,” I said, “Je ne comprends pas.”

She was somewhat crippled, frail-looking but obviously used to being in command. I’ll bet she had 15 children and they are all still terrified of her.

A tall, lean couple shuffled into the line-up and I thought I heard them speak English. I turned to them, indicating the old woman and said, “She’s a feisty one,” so they would understand that I was a total stranger to her and not her mentally deficient grand-daughter.

The couple glared at me, and I realized they did not speak English, but that might not have made a difference anyway.

The woman, her long hair dull and scraggly, motioned toward one arm as though injecting a phantom syringe, let her tongue loll out, wagged her head back and forth with her eyes careening about in their sockets. It was the international sign for, “I am a heroin addict, I’m out of my mind, and I don’t know what you’re saying.” The man, tattoos covering his arms, grunted in agreement.

Okay, Mom. You win. No more talking to strangers. At least, not for today.

Living a double-life

What kind of resident was American Jack Donaghy when his wife delivered their baby in a Canadian hospital? I will say: Deemed non-resident. That is, bureuacrats would not look at him, having deemed him to not be where he physically was. I wish I was a bureaucrat.

I live on two continents. Not physically, that would be impossible, unless my ice cream taste-testing spurs new horizons of bodily expansion.

That has not happened. Not yet. But I am going to give it a try. In the meantime, while I am physically here in Switzerland, I am still a resident of Canada, according to the government. I’ll say it another way: So far as the pencil-pushers in my nation’s capital city of Ottawa are concerned, I am there, even when I am here.

The government offers four kinds of residency: Factual, deemed, non-resident or “deemed non-resident.”

I would like to see what it is like to be a “deemed non-resident.” I bet it means I can stand at the corner of Portage and Main in Winnipeg and spit at passersby without getting arrested for it, because I am “deemed,” to not be there. That is, the actual physical fact of my location will not in any way correspond to my government’s view on my whereabouts.

This is why it appears politicians lie – they are living inside a “deemed” reality, constructed by bureaucrats hidden deep within the bowels of Ottawa, and I mean it when I say bowels. Bureaucrats certainly give off that bowel-ish odour.

I would shy away from making such a sweeping pejorative statement about an entire group of humanity, but who will attack me for saying it? Nobody. Does this not support my point?

I meet the requirements of the first residency status, that is, I am a “factual” resident, when in fact, I am not there. How do the bureaucrats do this? It is a marvel. They are building their own virtual world as far as Canada’s citizenry is concerned.

Why does the government want to say I am there when I am here? Here’s why: So they can tax me.

It gets more complicated. While I am factually in Canada under its tax definitions (I half expect my Victoria neighbour Dan to look out his window right now to see if I am doing anything about the weed growth in my front yard), I am also a resident in Switzerland under its tax treaty.

This means Switzerland gets to tax me as well.

See all the fun the bureaucrats are having, picking me apart, tax-wise.

Oooooh Canada, where am I?

While bureaucrats blur the lines around reality by penning amazingly long and complex guidelines, they are eloquently articulate about getting money from me. They say “we tax your income.” A wonderful statement in its brevity and clarity.

Things have improved somewhat since we last lived outside of the country (not factually, just physically). At that time, the government was equally clear that they would tax us, however, we were not allowed access to any government-funded programs.

We don’t use a lot, so it didn’t bother us much until we returned and discovered that we would have no health care for four months.

It created a bit of a fuss at the Canadian doctor’s office when I tried to pay cash. I felt like the fictional Jack Donaghy of  NBC’s sitcom 30Rock when his wife delivered a baby in Canada and the staff told him the health services were free, only in this case, the situation was reversed.

I was still paying for the health services; I just wouldn’t get any.

That has changed apparently, and we will be able to get healthcare when we return to Canada, but then that is what the bureaucrats say today. We won’t know factually for sure until we get back home.

The 100-Mile Diet and why it stinks

Ice cream, oh wonderful ice cream that sustains us through our worst hormonally induced mood swings!

To listen to food mavens the world over, the best food is that grown or made close to home.

How we got to this place where geography supplants sugar and butter-content in relation to food quality is beyond me,  and  I would do some serious journalistic work to track this progression if I was not so lazy.

It is this kind of thinking that led me to risk $10 on a 1,000 ml carton of local chocolate ice cream.

I am risk-averse in the extreme. For years I ordered the same kind of food in the same kind of restaurants until my friends, thinking that chicken fingers might be forming crusts in my extremities, took me to an international dining establishment and forced me to eat food that even today I cannot name, such was the trauma of ingesting foreign cuisine. The restaurant might have been a Taco Bells.

But to get back to the 1,000 ml of local-to-Switzerland chocolate ice cream: Why do they say “1,000 ml” on the tub instead of one-litre? Here’s why: $10 for 1,000 units of anything looks like a good deal, while $10 for one unit of anything seems to be not so much. This was my first clue that the ice cream may be more about “brand” and marketing than it about the serious work of arterial clogging.

The Schokoladen/Chocolate ice cream “Polarfuchs” (I didn’t name it, I just bought it), is made of milk, sugar, cream, egg yolk, chocolate, “Mars,” binding and carob bean.

Until it hits the word “Mars,” for which I can find no German translation, the recipe is the same as mine, except that I would never put milk in ice cream.  Ice cream should carry an air of danger that invigorates the consumer with the breathtaking possibilities of keeling over from a heart-attack or stroke before making it to the bottom of the dish. Milk alone will never accomplish this. Cream is needed, Devonshire cream if it is handy.

Moving further down the list, “binding” triggers suspicion. I’ve never had any problem getting ice cream to bind to my thighs. Why add more? Am I not thick enough? And carob bean – pah, who puts carob bean in a quality chocolate product?

Nevertheless, it is “local,” made about a 20-minute bike ride from my home.  It even comes in a cute non-sophisticated white container and has a homespun website that, despite its simplicity, I can tell they must have paid good money for because homespun does not necessarily come cheap in the electronic world.

I don’t want to pick on an upstart ice cream manufacturer based on one sampling of its product line, but this ice cream stinks, with so little chocolate in it as to render it almost tasteless.

And yet, according to food magazine writers, this should be the best ice cream I’ve ever tasted. It’s dairy comes from Swiss cows. I’m in Switzerland. It’s chocolate comes from Swiss chocolatiers. Again, I am in Switzerland. The manufacturer even names the families who supply their ingredients. I’m close enough. I’ll bet I could find those families. Wouldn’t they be surprised?

On the upside: It’s consistency is quite pleasant and might be just the thing for people who find North American brands’ flavorings a little overwhelming. Also, it beats the last local sorbet I tasted in 2003. That was in Sooke and the sorbet was made from locally harvested seaweed. I did not spit out the spoonful of this stuff at the time because I was painfully aware of my own palate’s limitations, but in hindsight, it was another frozen dessert travesty.

I don’t blame the little Swiss company for all of this. I blame food gurus who fooled me into thinking this might be better than the Ben & Jerry’s that was just six inches away from this bucket.

Next: I will give Polarfuchs (remember, I didn’t name it) another chance and try out their local-strawberry ice cream.

English 101 + Thursday night shopping

Will carefully attired T-shirt man ever turn around and notice designer-handbag girl seated behind him?

English 101 in a foreign land consists of watching your mouth, as I was reminded last night on our evening stroll.

At a store something like The Bay or Macy’s, a young otherwise-normal-looking man dressed up in a boyish sailor outfit topped off with a white sailor cap a la “Popeye” stood in the women’s cosmetics department, where he was engaged in the competing tasks of  trying to attract customers to his kiosk without drawing attention to himself or more specifically his ‘uniform.’

Manhunting is best done in packs. Note stilettos: They both attract a potential mate, and serve as a significant sharp-edged weapon should the woman wish to repel him. See the guys in the background who have snagged a few gals - is that Jersey Shore's "The Situation" in the ball cap?

Quite smug in the conviction he did not speak English, I commented as I sauntered past him,  “Do they pay you extra for wearing the hat?”

“As a matter of fact, they don’t, but they should,” he replied in very good English.

He seemed relieved to commiserate with someone about his grave misfortune. I say this on the grounds that he followed me a few steps whinging about his lousy job. I don’t think he was looking for the right moment to smack me in the back of the head.

At least, that is what I tell myself in order to assuage my guilt for openly mocking him when I thought I was safe in the confines of a linguistic silo.

But that is not what I am writing about. I’m writing about the Thursday night “meat market.”

Thursdays are special in Biel, and for all I know, in all of Switzerland. It is the night that stores stay open until 9 p.m.

Every other night, they are closed before seven. It is inconvenient for shoppers, but on the whole it is a good idea in that retail staff don’t have to give up their evenings for their low-wage jobs.

Also, it saves sailor-boy from having to spend a few extra evening hours in costume when his college buddies might show up with their girlfriends, ensuring that he would never have a girlfriend himself.

This young woman has snagged a few males, but she knows she can do better. She's still shopping the crowd.

The later store hours give the town’s young single population an excuse to take over the streets for another type of wares-browsing: Boyfriend/girlfriend shopping.

The girls/women dress up way above the grade required for a casual shopping excursion. They stride past the males clustered at the street corners, none of whom, by the way, I think are worth the effort.

“Go to school,” I want to tell them. “Don’t settle for the kind of guy who aspires to Jersey Shore fashion levels and street-corner posturing.

Here are the photos from last night. Am I wrong?

Note: Apologies for the photo quality. I took these on the sly, not wanting to have someone challenge me, grab my camera, demand answers, although that would have led to a much more interesting blog post.

Gender fashion inequities apparent on the street: She worked hard in front of the mirror for hours to achieve this look. The guy in the background carrying a gray sweater has only seen his reflection in passing glances in storefront windows since 2007. He does not own a mirror.

This is definitely a catch-and-release fishing pond.

This woman is back looking to refund the guy she picked up here years ago.

Women hunt in pairs so as to appear to not be looking at the loitering males. Do you think these two are looking at one another? They are not. Their eyes are gazing past each other, surveying the prospects. This prevents them from being branded with the dreaded "desperate for a date" syndrome" - a death knell for females no matter how good-looking they may be.

Trolling must sometimes be concealed by feigning interest in shoes.

Montreux

The wet walk between Chateau de Chillon and Montreux, along Lake Geneva.

Bus or boat will take visitors from Chateau Chillon to Montreux, but why bother when a world-famous “Swiss Riviera” promenade waits just outside the castle drawbridge?

Whether we actually voiced such a lucid question is a mystery even to us, as a cleaving wind and pelting rainfall drowned out our conversation. Despite the storm, we decided to walk. The word “decided” is loosely applied here.

A mansion overlooking Lake Geneva on the riviera promenade toward Montreux. Why do the Swiss call this is a "riviera" when it is on a lake?

Part of the problem lies in the “Well, we’re here, why not do it?” syndrome that besets Dave and I in all our ventures.  It eclipses all cognitive thought, which means that we rarely decide anything. Dave knows this, and he uses it to his advantage as was seen when he got me onto the Gondola-Ride-From-Hades up a mountainside. I put my foot down, declaring that said foot was staying within reach of the ground no matter what, but Dave slyly coaxed me into walking near the gondola, hence I ended up on it, because of the dreaded “Well, we’re here …” travel tic.  I wish there was a cure for this.

A sign outside the château claimed the walk to Montreux was 45 minutes, which might be correct, if you’re going at a good clip and not leaning into gale-force winds while keeping a watchful eye on Lake Geneva for signs of rogue waves that might sweep you away to the French side of this massive body of water, all while keeping your ear tuned to the tree branches above for the sound of cracking limbs that might break off and grind your body into the quaint promenade pavement where the Swiss might mistakenly leave you on the assumption that you are some form of modern art. The Swiss do love statues.

Even in the storm, the promenade is worth the walk – it starts out narrow with an uneven surface and rather ordinary hedging, but quickly opens up to a wide mall flanked with mansions on one side and a trim botanical garden on the water side. My guess is that this walk is packed on a sunny day, but with the storm in full voice, Dave and I found ourselves alone but for the occasional daring youth biking past and one very wealthy looking man walking his golden retriever, who gave us a friendly (by Swiss standards) hello, probably on the thinking he might see us at “the club” later, because who else would volunteer for this walk but a well-heeled and eccentric local?

Even the public bathrooms have a stately look in Montreux.

By the time we found ourselves alongside the wharf from which we had started our day’s journey, we had walked a total of 5.5 miles weighted down with rain-soaked clothing (the distance includes tramping through Chillon castle) and were ready for some real food. We stepped up to the restaurant La Metropole, also oddly signed “Caesars” by the wharf, where we had earlier seen a rather elite-looking crowd noshing away at tantalizing dishes. If the rich eat here, we thought, the food must be reasonably good.

As we folded our badly abused umbrellas, a very French-looking waiter rushed out from the restaurant and motioned us towards one of the outdoor cafe tables, even though the weather was still rather exciting. A glance through the windows told the story – the interior showed off elaborately set tables, sparkling wine glasses, perfectly starched tablecloths, while the reflection in the glass informed us of how poorly equipped we were for such surroundings, my hair whipped into a Medusa fright, Dave’s tanned face now bearing the weather-worn visage of a salty sea-captain. We humbly took our place outdoors, just like the dogs we appeared to be.

We counted out our children’s inheritance and figured there was just enough to pay off one’s law school debt and enjoy a steak lunch at this establishment, so we braved it. I am not exaggerating when I say “braved it.” We had an earlier unpleasant encounter with Swiss beef, an experience that surprised us both as the Swiss enjoy a cultural association to beef that is perhaps unparalleled worldwide, except in those countries where the cow is looked on as a deity. Consider the widely known Swiss cheese and Swiss chocolate, and the less-famous Swiss fighting cows (a true phenomenon according to guide books), and so forth.

The delicious "Steak de boueffe" grilled to "medium" at Montreux's "La Metropole" restaurant, which also has the sign "Caesar's" above it. We think the dual-name is a byproduct of multilingualism.

I passed up the $45 filet mignon, on the grounds that no one can grill a tenderloin better than my husband and it was unlikely the chefs would let him into the kitchen, and opted for the $35 steak lunch. Dave, still mindful of  our children’s inheritance, wisely ordered a sandwich. We then settled in with our lattes to wait the requisite four hours for the meal to show up. Imagine our surprise when our waiter swept up with our dishes before I had worked a quarter-way down the cup.

The waiter had taken matters in hand and ordered the steak doneness to medium, which meant that it still quivered on the plate, and chose as its companion, a Cafe de Paris sauce. There are waiters whose instincts are unfathomably correct. This man was one of them.

The meat was perfect, tender, and seasoned just so. The Cafe de Paris, which appeared in a dollop of green aspic in a gravy boat carried the steak’s seasoning from wonderful to beyond-heavenly. Our waiter waved away any notion the sauce was extraordinary. “Just parsley, garlic, butter and (indecipherable spice name),” he said. The grilled vegetables were cooked to perfection, lightly buttered, the red-leaf salad was crisp, and the roasted potatoes, which came in a separate bowl, were as good as potatoes can get, which is just to say that no one recognizes a truly great potato dish, yet one only makes note when it is done wrong. This was done right.

A pricy meal, but very enjoyable with excellent professional service overlooking Lake Geneva. It was a perfect end to our blustery walk, and restored our sensibilities and bravado so that we were able to march up Montreux’s steep slopes to enjoy its 16th-century quarter.

What do you think? Does our waiter look French? I think he does and he had a decidedly French accent.

The requisite pose with Freddie Mercury statue.

Just a few videos

This may fascinate no one but me, but I couldn’t believe the Simplon paddlewheel deck was open to their engine room. Falling in would undoubtedly be fatal, or at least, could reassemble one’s limbs in an unpleasant fashion. Click here to see it.

We also watched a dance troupe perform for a music video at the Biel train station. I think the smaller girl may have dislocated her hips. Click here to watch.

Chillin at Chillon

Chateau de Chillon

As cottage owners, and therefore owners of an old-fashioned outhouse, we were fascinated to learn of 700-year-old toilets inside a Swiss castle near Montreux. What design, what wood choices, what the heck …. how did the French/German/Swiss make a toilet last this long when all over Canada, wooden outhouses are sagging at the floorboards?

And so we went to Chateau de Chillon, built on a rocky island on the shores of Lake Geneva (locally known as Lac Leman) over the centuries. The site was held by the French Savoys since the 13th century until 1536, when they skittered away in the night after the Germans shot two rounds at them.

Dave checks out secret exit through which French escaped. They had to have run right by their torture chamber prisoners to do it, among whom was Francois Bonivard (1493-1570)who was jailed for being a political upstart. He was made famous by English poet Lord Byron in the poem "The Prisoner of Chillon."

The French, some how forgetting their position’s military advantage (the castle was considered impenetrable), decided they needed to be elsewhere and snuck out through a secret passageway during the night, effectively  handing the keys over to the Germans who must have been a little disappointed to have dragged their cannons all that way when they could have simply showed up and shouted up the castle ramparts.

The castle is the melding together of a conglomeration of structures, and it shows as it weaves and bobs around the island. Despite it’s four grand staterooms, it lacks the palatial air of Spanish castles. Nevertheless, it was more fun to troll through because it had the air of a real working fortress, although that unfortunately included a torture chamber, complete with original etchings of biblical figures on the wall, scratched in by the hapless victims imprisoned there.

Pretty sober stuff that struck home as we toured the castle during a smashing thunder and lightning storm, with waves crashing outside against the island.

Rugged, beautiful, cruel.

But definitely worth seeing. Admission is only $12 an adult, a very decent fare.  It took us two hours to tour the entire castle, which appeared small, but it curves up and down, to the point that visitors quickly lose their orientation, and the only way to be certain of your location is to keep checking the numbered rooms, all 46 of them, which are handily described in a brochure that comes with admission.  According to my pedometer, we walked about 2.5 miles, which doesn’t seem possible, but my pedometer hasn’t lied to me yet.

Yes, I photographed the 700-year-old toilet. I have no class.

The toilets, by the way, were indoors, and simple wood planks set into the stone walls. The “refuse” would tumble down a large stone chasm that curved and eventually opened to daylight, by which we can only assume the refuse ended up in the lake.

Indoor plumbing was tricky back then, because the opening into the wall could be used by an attacking army as a way to crawl inside.

Maybe it was the thought of soiled Germans emerging from the latrines that made the French think they would just as soon not fight, which some might say, has become intrinsically entwined in France’s military history.

If you go, a happy little sign outside of the castle says it’s a 45-minute walk to Montreux along the waterfront promenade. It took us 60-minutes in a pouring rain and cutting wind, however, it was invigorating. For one thing, we were the only tourists on the promenade, which meant we didn’t have to do a two-step to navigate through a crowd. Secondly, it’s a lovely walk that starts out through some nondescript

Charming little courtyard. Must not have been so charming though, when the torture sessions were on downstairs.

hedges and eventually opens to a wide path flanked with mansions on one side and botanical gardens fronting the water on the other.

You will pass a casino made famous by Deep Purple’s song Smoke on the Water, which refers to the time it burned down in the 1970s when a patron lit it up with a flare gun. You can go in there to eat, but they will want to take your belongings, your coat, and seemingly your identification while you’re inside. Dave and I measured the wisdom of leaving our valuables with the sort of people who run casinos and decided we’d rather brave the storm outside. It was only a 5 or 10 minute walk from there to a McDonalds, which we did not stop at, although we thought of it because it is the only affordable “Swiss” restaurant we have found so far. Instead, we went onto a pleasant lakefront cafe, which  I will write about tomorrow.

Click on photos for close-ups! 

To the castle – getting there is half the fun.

The Simplon's aft-deck: Lovely, even in the rain.

Chateau de Chillon (francy French name for Castle Chillon) is a 10-minute boat ride or 60-minute walk from Montreux, which might make it sound like a can-be-missed side-trip to this luscious region that was the trade nexus for France, Switzerland and Italy. That would be a mistake.

We decided to take the castle tour before walking around Montreux’s old town because  we could imagine coming to the end of the day and shrugging it off. We’re backwards that way. Do the least appealing thing first. This is because we were both born on the prairies and so are accustomed to the bad coming before the good, like winter before spring. That is who we are.

From the train station, we wove down Montreux’s streets until we found ourselves at the promenade skirting Lac Geneva (locally known as Lac Leman). I say “found” ourselves because we definitely got lost in this short hike, due to differing opinions on the directions we received at the train ticket desk (which we pretended was a tourist office  – that might have been the beginning of our problem).

Noisy, crowded, panicked crew - all part of the fun.

Dave said the agent said to go one direction, but I was certain she had pointed in the other. So we rambled around a little bit. It added to our aching legs and sore feet at the end of the day, but as I said, we are prairie people at heart. Too much inconvenience and physical discomfort is just about right.

We decided to take the boat to Chillon, and purchased two first class tickets – we felt rather rich about it, but they were only $2 more than regular fare, and even at that we only paid $8 a pop. The clerk laughed along with us as we joked over our minor extravagance. In hindsight, she was not so much laughing with us, as at us. It is really hard to tell the difference until later.

The boat arrived, a genuine paddlewheel named “Simplon,” horns blaring such that my eardrums are still fixed in a concave position. It swept  up to the wharf a in a hurried fashion, a little behind schedule, which may explain why the crew did not so much guide the deboarding passengers off as evacuate them, then pull us in as though the wharf were ablaze.

The crew shouted something about first class going upstairs, and it was our arrival there that made us understand the ticket gal’s happy demeanor. We had been suckered. First-class meant you could go upstairs and as upstairs only cost $2 more than downstairs, everybody jumped at it. It was packed and decidedly more uncomfortable than the life being enjoyed by the second-class cheapos lounging around on the lower decks. We rejoined the not-so-huddled masses, where we really belong.

Approaching Castle Chillon.

But not before taking in the athleticism of the top-deck wait-staff. Most of the boat, up and down, is a restaurant, packed to the gunwales with crowded tables that the waiters raced to and from the kitchen that was set amidships. The waiters lined up like Olympic sprinters, rocking on their feet nervously, shaking out their legs. When their dishes were called, they plunged into the steaming kitchen and emerged at full speed, defying the laws of physics as they darted among the throng of strolling passengers, the waiters’ arms concealed beneath a half-dozen teetering plates. It was worth the two bucks just to see  this.

From across the lake, we could see a white mist approaching. It was not a mist, it was a monsoon that chased the outer decks indoors, giving the boat the air of an over-packed refugee ship. I half-expected to see the fog unfurl the shores of Vancouver Island before us, with a Canada Armed Forces escort leading the way.

And so we arrived at Chateau de Chillon, somewhat wet, amused and already ripped off. We sighed in satisfaction.

Tomorrow: The castle

Tourist burn-out in Montreux

A classic Montreux old-quarter building. How it disgusted us.

It may have been the hosing-down rain, the blasts of wind intensifying as it whistled in through the castle’s torture chamber keyhole openings or the fact we have been in Europe for six weeks now, but at about 5:23 p.m. May 14th, we reached saturation point.

Walking the deserted narrow cobblestone streets that braid their way down the steep-pitched Montreux mountainside, we looked on fairytale clusters of stone buildings, accented with aubergine and cherry shutters, inviting shop windows with unique teacup and hen pottery figures.

It was then that we reached the conclusion we were not suitably amused by the famous enclave that has been home to Shania Twain, her notorious ex Mutt Lange, Freddie Mercury, Bill Gates, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Ernest Hemingway and other luminaries. What did they see in this place that is called the “Swiss Riviera.”

When tangerine-coloured buildings no longer appeal to you, it's time to take a break.

Looking at the photos this morning, I realize it was all fatigue and no-common-sense that put us in that dour mood. The place is lovely.

We got off the train at Montreux during the lunch hour and made the steep walk down to the water for the requisite visit to the tourist office, which I am pleased to report was actually open. We have found a surprising number of tourist offices that are closed on weekends. The one in the Paris train station read it was “exceptionally” closed the Saturday we were there – by exceptionally they may have meant it was unusual to be closed that day of the week, but we think the French just like to polish up their every move, hence their tourist office closing stands out from all other tourist-office closings by being “exceptional.” In retaliation, we were “exceptionally” put out.

But to get back to this weekend’s wanderings:  Montreux has two “old towns,” a 19th-century quarter and further up the steep slopes, the 16th century village where our appreciation for old-architecture topped up. Looking at the bell tower of a stone church, I felt that my ancestors were absolutely right to leave this  continent at about the same time this place was laying its foundations. Who builds up this high, I wondered?

Of course, building among the clouds was likely part of why this settlement succeeded. They could see trouble coming from a far-off distance and plan their defense accordingly.

It was around 6 p.m. when we trolled these streets, which were empty due to torrential rainfall. Either that, or they knew we were coming. Why did this not enchant us? Tourist-burn-out.

Montreux is on the waterways that connect England and France to Italy, hence it has always been an important trade route and is home to a castle that has been part of that history for a thousand years.

I will write more about that tomorrow, but for now will leave off with photos that demonstrate the little-recognized phenomenon of tourist-burn-out, a condition that can only be treated by gazing on 1970s architecture, horrifying a remedy as that may be, it is the only thing that will recapture our appreciation for ancient European architecture.

Real travel tip: Montreux’s slopes are not only heart-stoppingly beautiful, they are also capable of stopping your heart. A 12-week cardio-and-strength-training regimen is recommended as preparation to walk these cobblestones. I wish I was joking about this.

We will have to stare at this modern monstrosity in order to regain our appreciation for 16th-century architecture. Ugh.

Hopefully this child never has to know the horrors of living in a modern apartment block, where the word "block" truly applies. See right.

Refrigeration: A North American concept

This photo was taken with some risk. Store clerks massed around me saying in Italian, French and German that I wasn't allowed to take photos in the store. Good thing I only speak English.

I’ve always been a fan of refrigeration, which is why living in Europe puts me into a perpetual  gag of food-safe horror.

In Spain, refrigeration is looked on as optional, as evidenced by the reek that emanates from the grocer’s meat section.  Room-temperature hogs heads, goat legs, and eggs stacked up in random aisles, these are the things that float to the surface when recalling Spanish-style food-storage.

I expected something different here in Switzerland, what with their awareness of the passing of time, which in the case of uncooled meat corresponds to decay, but I was wrong about that. Mercifully, the Swiss do not hang massive hog-heads to boast their meat supply (I almost posted a photo of a typical Spanish meat department’s hog head display, but decided against it. I am not Stephen King).

They do, however, have the hairy, hoofed goat leg on a spit display, along with a deck of fat hamhocks hanging from the ceiling, giving their meat department the aroma of death… although not as much as the Spanish meat department which we ventured into only with the greatest of speed in order to escape the inevitable projectile-vomiting phenomenon that would follow should we linger.

Store clerks were also unhappy about this photo. I take this as evidence they are ashamed of their unrefrigerated meat practices.

This leaving-meat-out-to-decay could be a matter of economics – refrigeration saps a lot of energy, but more likely it is the backwash of tradition, the sort that in earlier centuries made the weak-stomached look over the ocean toward America and decide a better life and fresher meat waited over there, even if that meant contending with a vigorous population of fanged carnivores, which could lead to becoming meat oneself.

In the meantime, I’m contending with a refrigerator the size of a camping cooler, so I’ve taken to shopping daily for our dinner.

It sounds so quaint to take my little shopping cart, and stroll through cobble-stoned alleys to get our supper, but it’s a real pain. Food-gurus in North America make it sound like this practice ensures the freshest possible supply of food, but it really only applies to bread. The reason Europeans shop daily is because the food-transportation system here ensures that produce will spoil within 24 hours of purchase. I’ve yet to have a pack of strawberries stay overnight in the fridge without waking up to find a few wearing fuzzy white coats, probably because they are unaccustomed to the chill.

In the spirit of fairness, however, it has to be said that so far, Europe’s out-of-season strawberries lack the cardboard texture associated with their North American cousins.

Our Swiss refrigerator - Costco Coleman coolers are larger. The freezer compartment could hold an Oxford dictionary and that is not saying much.

This is, of course, good news for the competing farmers street markets, which are an absolute delight here. I cannot complain about them, although I’ve made several attempts in this direction. I can’t do it. It’s very frustrating.

Nevertheless, this tidbit-shopping-regimen goes against my North American prairie-bred siege-shopping mentality. I was trained to consider my family  to be teetering on the edge of starvation if my house held anything less than a 16-cubic-foot freezer packed to the rim and a basement pantry of shelves sagging under the weight of canned goods. In winter, we added to our food stores by using the barbecue to store frozen turkeys and large roasts. In a pinch, we stowed banks of frozen bread loaves in our car trunks.

No doubt, somewhere a European-living-in-North-America is right now writing a blog about Canadian and American’s ridiculous food-hoarding and refrigeration habits.

A note to that European: We do it because a sudden snowstorm can render us shut-ins for days, floods transform our yards into moats around our homes overnight, and earthquakes can chew up our infrastructure in minutes.

And now I must go eat a bucket of strawberries that haven’t spoiled yet.

Caught in the act

I’ve been sneaking around Switzerland feigning interest in adopting a second language, but I got caught yesterday, not once but twice.

Back to the books!

I studied French in the months leading up to our move here on the grounds that our Swiss town is formally bilingual in German and French, suggesting that all things are equal between these two languages.

And then my French vocabulary outnumbers my German: Bonjour, je voudrais, et, j’ai, nous somme, vous etes and adieu and the always handy “sacre bleue!” (which I have since learned is mostly a product of Hollywood stereotyping – the French here don’t use it, at least not around me). This is not to mention a few phrases I picked up from my French Canadian relatives when they were really upset, but I will spare you that.

The only words I know in German are “Achtung!” and “Ober-fuhrer.” The latter is the name by which my long-ago German manager Alf Buelow addressed me, his then-secretary. Yes, I was pushy even in the 80’s.

Since arriving here, I realized that I chose poorly: There is much more German spoken than French, and then came the revelation that most people here speak some English, with many being quite fluent. And finally, every time I try to speak French, some Spanish shakes loose (an after-effect of living in Madrid), rendering me unintelligible in a freaky triangle-shaped dialect understandable only to me. That formally makes whatever I say gibberish.

My motivation hit rock-bottom, and so I’ve taken on the practice of greeting people with “Bonjour, hello,” to signal that I’m not a complete cretin and I am trying to learn their language while simultaneously indicating that I am an Anglophone. After this, I say in French “J’apprendre le francais, mais je ne parle pas bien,” which means “I’m learning French, but I don’t speak it well.” Having thus satisfied the requirements of attempted multilingualism, I then switch to English.

This has worked beautifully, up til yesterday when I made the mistake of shopping at 1:30 p.m. when the store traffic hit a lull, giving the clerks some free time. Ordinarily, they are in a hurry. They smile, they say something in English, take my money and get me out of their way.

That did not happen yesterday. Instead, the helpful Swiss took me on.

Beware the helpful counter staff.

First up was the lady at the cosmetics counter who smiled sweetly when I gave her my line about learning French. She then gave me a vocabulary/grammar lesson that left me reeling, pulling me into a protracted French conversation that I still am not sure I completely understood, but it is possible that $895 of Estee Lauder goods are going to be delivered to our hotel room sometime later this week. She was being helpful. What could I do but succumb?

Mentally fatigued from this exercise, I went upstairs to purchase a soap dish (live large when in Europe), and found myself face-to-face with a semi-snotty Swiss Francophone 20-year-old male cashier who had no one in line behind me, and so took great pains to explain French sentence structure and did not give me my goods/change back until I had properly learned how to say that I did not have the store card because the application is in French, which I am only just learning.

I returned home and collapsed, my brain frayed from the amount of new language tracks laid in only the space of 30 minutes.

And now I must stop writing and turn to studying French verb charts, lest I run into those clerks again and don’t show any progress in my language skills. There just might be a test.

On the cusp of villainy … or at least drunkeness

The neighbourhood where we normally walk ... fa la la la ...

We have only four channels on our television, and this paucity of choices has knocked us right off our evening television habit.

Happy streets, shining homes.

Happy Swiss walking to work.

We can’t just sit in the suite and stare at one another, or even out the window where the view is other windows like ours. Might as well paste a mirror up there.  And so, we’ve fallen into the practice of taking an after-supper stroll. Normally we head west, not because we are following an innate migratory desire to head back home to Canada, although that would be okay, but because it is the direction of the lake, not to mention a number of lovely waterfront cafes.

The trees along the way are huge with oddly rumpled trunks, and the canopy is thick owing to the town’s vigorous amputative pruning program that chops off branches so burly that the sight of it would trigger environmentalists into action, raining press releases down on the media, chaining themselves to shrubs, complaining about the effect on fish habitat and marmot reproduction rates.

Where was I? Oh yes:  The wide walkways west of our place follow a network of open canals that lead down to the lake, making it a happy walk, but last night we decided to venture east.

What harm could come of that?

Early clue that we weren't in Kansas anymore (North American cultural reference to being really lost)

Not a third of a block in, we noticed an open produce market. How delightful. But we did not check on it, owing to a number of loitering males. We avoid loitering males, especially in the evening hours. We always suspect they are up to no good, especially if their hygiene regimen appears substandard.

A few feet later, three chums – two men flanking a corpulent woman –  spanned the breadth of the sidewalk. It is difficult to describe them now because we averted our eyes so as to not call attention to ourselves, but it didn’t work. They did not so much walk as lurch, beer cans in hand (very likely as a balancing mechanism), eyes glaring wherever they landed, which was on us.

I’ve noticed this about the town drunks – they look right at passersby menacingly, as if to dare them/us to point out their inebriation.

It’s a little different than Canada’s street drunks, a vigorous lot who spend daylight hours in the courthouse challenging city hall for looking down their noses at addicts and alcoholics pitching tents in parks (I know this seems like a pejorative statement, but I’ve gone and checked, and haven’t seen anyone in those tents who looked much different than what we saw on the seamy side of the street last night).

Nevertheless, at least our Canadian drunks have some gumption. And lawyers.

We passed the wild-eyed, teetering trio, then turned a corner, thinking a one-block walk was sufficient exercise, when we spied another staggering fellow. Apartment buildings took on a blemished look, their balconies curtained in makeshift bamboo screens, and in the narrow walkways and alleys, waves of debris piled up against the buildings.

I went back the next day - this is the seedy mafioso-looking cafe, although really, it probably isn't that. Just looked like it after treading Intoxication Promenade.

We rounded the corner and came upon a scene that looked right out of the Godfather – the early New York ghetto scenes, not the later rich-crook scenes: An assembly of dog-eared cafe tables filled with somber middle-aged men with greasy combed-back hair, shaking hands formally in introductions. It could have been the Knights of Columbus planning its spring fishing expedition, or it could have been the Mafia, plotting what to do with all these foreigners wandering into their turf.

A few metres later, we were back on our street where pedestrians walked in straight lines without the balancing benefit of beer cans in their hands, the alleys were clear, the streets charming enough for a movie set, and the trees appropriately park-like and trimmed. What a difference a simple left or right turn can make.

It is fair to say that we are not ordinarily so jumpy, and in my work I engaged street people in conversation many a time, but there’s a new dimension at play when the street-folk speak another language altogether.

It can be socially awkward. For one thing, you have no idea if they’re asking for the time, or your wallet.

One wrong turn, and the scenery changes. Even Swiss towns have a wrong side of the tracks, although, technically, this is on the same side of the tracks as our neighbourhood, just one block over.

Shoes & the Swiss

These shoes were clearly designed by an architect-school reject.

Shoes. Before 2001, I never thought much of them.

That year, I met Carolyn, a Times Colonist editor who did not so much talk about shoes as that she floated about on a wide variety of them, most of which that were hard to miss. Everyday was a new tutorial in the subtle art of foot fashion. Shoes that I once scoffed at, suddenly seemed possible.

For her, that is. Not for me. I don’t have ankles, and showy shoes would only draw attention to that fact.

I bring this up now because in the days leading up to our move to Switzerland, I read that the Swiss gauge strangers by their footwear. I scoffed, of course, because that is how I treat all new information.

Being derisive of new things/trends is tough in the short-haul, but has its pay-offs.

For example: I  eschewed the bottled-water phenomenon and greeted with delight the turn of public opinion (on May 17, 2008), deriding bottled water as environmentally unsound and not any different from tap water, which is what I, the bottled-water-Luddite, said all along.

It was satisfying to find myself swimming not only with the tide but even slightly ahead of it, although I had to wait about eight years for this to occur. My satisfaction was short-lived when I realized that I could not  point out my foresight to anyone without looking like a know-it-all twerp.

That is why I’m so happy to mention it now, as if it has anything to do with shoes. See how the two really have no relation, but I manage to worm it in anyway.

I ramble. Back to shoes …

I came to Switzerland with a pair of Clark’s sandals that I ordered online from the U.S. and that I haven’t seen here yet. Clark’s, by the way, cost a heck of a lot more here than they do in Canada/U.S.  I got these babies for $70; whereas in Zürich similar fare starts at $156. I could go on about shoe-price comparisons – I’ve done a lot of research in this area over the past month, but I sense that would only draw me away from my point, which is pretty weak anyway, but here goes.

I’ve been watching people watching me as I stumble about the cobblestone in my unique, although not fashion-forward, sandals. My conclusion: The Swiss-shoe thing appears to be true. I can’t be sure, because I can’t exactly collar people on the street, and demand answers of them, shouting, “Hey! You! You looked at my shoes! What do you think of me now?”  What I can say is that women here do glance downwards first, and then hold their gaze on my shoes until we have passed.

My shoes are not that worthy of attention, ie. they are not freak-shoes – I don’t have the balance to contend with anything that elevates me to normal-height, or is remotely stilleto-esque.

It is possible the Swiss stare because they’re wondering how I get around on stump-legs bereft of ankles, or maybe they’re just glaring in retaliation, because I can’t stop watching what they’re wearing. I’ve made mention of it before, but Swiss women strap on adventure when they put on their footwear.

At a sidewalk cafe on Sunday, a woman the next table over was wearing four-inch heels with platforms that appeared to be made of frozen bubbles. How they could support an adult’s weight was something I wanted to see, but they outstayed us, so I never got to see her stand in them. I suspect she sat there all day, looking fashionable, waiting for evening, so her boyfriend could carry her home under cover of darkness.

And now I will stop thinking of and writing about shoes.

Switzerland’s “Toronto”

Zürich police station. You know that if the police station, usually the most functional of buildings, looks like this, the city is going to be spectacular.We said we wouldn't go to Zürich, in light of the recent terror-threat a la bin Laden's demise, but woke up Saturday morning with the day stretched out in front, shrugged our shoulders and said, "Why not?

We said we wouldn’t go to Zürich, owing to the terrorist-threat associated with the demise of Osama bin Laden, but then we shrugged and said, “Why not?”

These two words might be the famous last words of many, but not us, at least not this weekend.

We were partly intrigued by the number of Swiss who almost, but not quite, spit upon the mention of Zürich. They hate it.

Marcel, a well-traveled Swiss geography teacher, told Dave if there’s any part of Switzerland that can be missed, it is Zürich. Our concierge shudders at the mention of it.  Our most helpful front desk clerk, Daniela who scales glaciers and thinks cliff-climbs are a leisurely way to get from one point to another, crinkles her nose and rolls her eyes when she hears its name.

“The place is full of bankers running around,” she said.

And that is the clue to Zurich’s low-standing in the eyes of the Swiss. It is to the Swiss what Toronto is to Canadians, what New York is to Americans and what London is to everyone. An expensive, over-rated, self-absorbed metropolis.

Grossmunster Church profile,which I originally posted incorrectly as Fraumunster. Thank you to alert blog-reader for the correction!

But we didn’t think so. First of all, we showed up on a Saturday and no bankers were in evidence. They were likely resting in Monaco from their week of racing  from one financial institution to another, clutching fistfuls of lucre as they went.

It was an amazingly beautiful city with a train station that rivals Paris, but much less smelly. It fronts onto Lac Zürich, that on Saturday was dotted with white sails and swans so big that they have to gate the boat launch lest the things pad their way up onto the streets and take over the city.

The river that flows from the lake is a clear jewel-green. Its cobblestone streets roll up and downhill, meeting, then fanning out in random directions, none of which that can be said to be “right” or “left,” making following the guidebooks suggestions somewhat difficult, except that it turns out there is no wrong way to go. Every lane is charming.

The fabulous Fraumunster Church.

I couldn't resist photographing this street-side kiosk - is it the adult Lucy's "The Psychiatrist is In" booth, a la Charlie Brown?

It’s older “tourist” district is so large that it is something like seeing eight heritage districts at once. It goes on and on.

We visited massive stone churches, one with 1970s stained glass windows (Fraumunster), which might sound like a mistake, but these windows are perhaps the only artistic/architectural feature hailing from that decade that are worth saving. They are vibrant and unique.

We dined at a street cafe, trolled through shops, some so well-laid-out with such fascinating goods  that to buy something would throw the whole decorative ambience into disarray. It was just perfect as it was.

Fraumunster Church, which still has its mid-13th century presbytery, along with these 1970s stained glass windows by Marc Chagall. It's a wonderful trans-centurial marriage.

Dave checks out a three-wheeled car. What is the point of that?

Zürich's river front, not far from where it opens to Lac Zürich.

Europe's ugliest bridge, according to travel guru Rick Steves. And yes, it is.

Unusual ornate architecture in Zürich, Switzerland. Stood out among Zürich's Gothic and Baroque architecture.

Zürich police station. It is possible this is a torture scene, or a possible warning about how one's lawyers are about to excise one's property to fund a defense, but it sure is different.

Riverside park in Zürich's tourist district. Plenty of quaint, expensive shops that are worth browsing just for fun.

Wandering puppies

Puppies!

We’ve been reduced to wandering the streets like lost puppies.

Our Swiss town shuts down on Sundays, so after a morning of lazing around doing nothing (reading books, surfing the internet in a brainless manner, organizing our single clothing armoire), we headed out to check the town’s movie theatres for listings.

We could just look them up on the web, but roaming the streets without some sort of purpose feels weird to we who are accustomed to striding hurriedly to our next destination, so we seized upon our task, pointless as it may have been.

All the theatres in our town seem to be owned by the same company, so each one’s front door is pasted in white pages that list its own movies, as well as all the other movie-houses’ showings.  There’s no need to check every individual theatre’s listings, but that’s what we do anyway.

If anyone had a bird’s-eye view of our Sunday morning roamings, they would assume we are idiots, going from theatre-to-theatre, checking the identical postings as though it mattered that we’re at the Lido, the Apollo, the Rex or the Beluga (its real name, don’t ask us to explain, we don’t know the answer).

If anyone could eavesdrop on us at every stop, they would hear us re-enact the exact same conversation at each one, puzzling over whether the movies are in English, German, Italian or French, or what manner of subtitle they have. I tell Dave every single time that “Alleman” means German, not “all-languages.”

That we can repeat the same conversation without breaking into hives is evidence of marital fog, a condition that allows us to forget what was said one to another only minutes earlier. This amnesic state preserves marital stability and social order. We would get checked for early signs of Alzheimers, but to this day, neither of us has thought to bring it up during doctor visits.

What was I saying?

Oh yes, we were wandering like panhandlers, minus the begging, when we happened upon two churches in a neighbourhood of old apartments fronted by wrought-iron fences and elaborate tiny gardens with unreliable-looking wood patio chairs. As we stood outside one church debating whether it was English, French or German and I reminded Dave again that “Alleman” does not mean “all-languages,” a couple emerged from the church, smiled at us and let loose a stream of what I can only assume was German.

“See, that’s ‘Alleman,'” I said, never missing a beat on my campaign to achieve ultimate know-it-allness.

As it happens, I was correct, but now we were on the street chatting with people who didn’t really speak our language and neither did we speak theirs. It could have been socially awkward, but we relaxed, comfortable in the knowledge we would forget about the exchange in a few minutes anyway.

That did not happen. Within seconds they retrieved a fluent English-speaking man from within, who invited us in for coffee and sweets. His name is Daniel, a multi-lingual Swiss missionary. Mercifully he did not introduce us to the 100 or so smiling German-Swiss inside, because it would be pretty tiring to explain repeatedly that we didn’t have a clue what they were saying and that we just hoped this wasn’t some kind of cult that would club us senseless before drugging us into shaving our heads, wearing robes and loitering about airports.

We left a little later, emails and phone numbers exchanged, along with a few plans for expanding our small little English enclave.

One could suppose that with a paucity of homeless people in Switzerland, churches have taken to combing the streets for foreigners, but in truth we had happened upon a particular hybrid – Swiss Christians – two very friendly groups mixed into one. It was inevitable that we would be drawn inside, caffeinated, fed with appropriate doses of sugary/buttery goods and then dusted off and returned to the wild. These are the people who brought the Red Cross to the world, so why not rescue a few Canadians?

Say Cheese

How do the Swiss get those holes in their cheese?

Woke up to a smelly apartment this morning. Cheese must have snuck out of the fridge while we were asleep.

Swiss cheese here is not very much like Swiss cheese anywhere outside of Switzerland. In North America, it has a polite nip in its flavour. Over here, it stinks so bad that we are forced to limit the number of times we open the fridge door, just to preserve the air quality in our place. This is a true fact.

It seems heretical to say, but I am having trouble believing in Swiss cheese per se, just as I am deeply suspicious of my mother’s pre-1961 claims about Santa Claus.

For one thing, I have yet to locate a single block of cheese in any of the local stores with the name “Swiss” on it. The only names I recognize are Brie, Camembert, Feta and Emmental.

Note to editors: Yes, I capitalize all cheese names out of respect for any food made up of 70 per cent or more fat. Canadian Press Style Guide be darned.

Instead, the labels on cheeses here change every three days and read in long Franco-Germanic hieroglyphics like Kaltbach Holengereift  affine en grotte Kraftig-Wurzig intensement corse, which I believe translates into:  Right off the Cow’s Back while it hollered and it’s a fine although gross cheese nothing like Kraft, with an intense coarseness.

I’m suspicious of any grocer who claims to carry 983 varieties of cheese, as Swiss grocers make it appear with their vast dairy aisles. Now, having sampled their wares for over a month, I am ready to make the expert assertion that they only have one cheese, but sell it in various states of decay, and what appear to be name brands are actually warning stickers reading: Essenauf Eigene Gefahr and Acht Monate Vorbei Sein Verfallsdatum. *

This is the wonderful thing about the German language: It makes even the simplest things sound complex. It is how they came to master engineering and technology the world over.

In the meantime, I staggered toward the fridge this morning, facecloth pressed firmly over my nose and mouth to prevent inhaling more deadly cheese spores, declaring my intent to save us by disposing of the cheese.

Dave, Scottish by blood, would not hear of throwing out something we paid an exorbitant amount of money for, and declared he would eat the remainder – a sizeable pie-sized piece. Good man. Fell on his sword. **

*Translation: “Eat at your own risk,” and “Eight months past expiry.”

** I meant to write about the absence of Cheddar from Swiss shops, but got side-tracked. This is what cheese-spore-laden air will do to a person.

Terrorism trashes tourism

Bomb sniffer puppy!

We’ve just learned that a train headed for Switzerland was evacuated because of possible terrorist action. Associated Press reports the high-speed train was in Frieberg, Germany and scheduled to go to the Interlaken Region in Switzerland, which is south of us.

The train was searched; no explosives were found. Nevertheless, that puts a damper on our train-travel plans this weekend.

Stupid Al Qaeda.

We wake up to realization we might be nomads

Apartment for rent

In almost three decades of marriage, we have owned only three houses (and a cottage).  That’s not much moving, so we don’t think of ourselves as the nomadic type, until we count the number of times we have shuttered those houses to take up residency elsewhere – and that would be four, or five, depending on how you count it.

At one point, we had keys to four homes on three different continents, and I could have told you where the can opener was in every kitchen but the one that I happened to be standing in.

This comes to mind now because I woke up this morning with the urge to surf apartment rental websites. I don’t know why I want to do this. Our hotel is quiet, close to everything and compared to tying ourselves to a lease, very flexible.

And yet, here I am, looking at apartments.

When things go right

Solothurn's St. Ur's cathedral roofline. We climbed up 250 poorly lit, uneven wood and stone steps to the top (see people there on the right tower - they look like ants. 15 minutes later, that's where we were). Because this was the trip where nothing went wrong, we did not plunge to our deaths. Nice.

My albatrossness began in early childhood, when my Uncle Guy gave me my first lesson in the fine art of fishing.

At 4 a.m. we hiked out to a sparkling clean river with rock waterfalls. At 5 a.m. we returned to the camper. Uncle Guy sported a hole in his ear lobe … this in the day before men got their ears pierced except in fishing accidents … his favorite childhood lucky fishhook was somewhere at the bottom of the river and my right leg was scraped up and down from plunging into a hidden rock crevice as we crossed the waterfalls, bringing the water right up to my chin.

Uncle Guy fished me out – the only catch of the day and one he restrained himself from saying he’d like to throw back.

A year or two later, my Aunt Rosie listened to Uncle Guy’s account and determined that the flaw was in the teacher, not the student. She took me fishing at Rainbow Falls in the Whiteshell. It was the first time she had ever seen anyone hook a seagull.

Fast-forward a few decades and my older brother brought his boat out to our cottage for a fishing excursion. It was the first time he had seen someone hook a loon.

The common thread in these accounts is not fishing, although that might seem reasonable. It is travel. In every instance, bags were packed, gas tanks filled and coolers jammed with sandwiches. It makes my one-city-four-hotels story of Paris appear in a new light.

Solothurn's main promenade.

It’s also why I’m a nervous traveler. I don’t think things are going to go wrong. I know they will.

This is what makes the last weekend so amazing. We hopped the train for a short 15-minute ride to Solothurn, a village so un-noteworthy that even Rick Steeves (our travel guru) gives it no mention in his guidebooks.

It turned out to be the best day-trip yet. And nothing went wrong, ergo I have nothing to write about it except to say that Solothurn, despite it’s somewhat weird name, is outstanding for its baroque architecture, narrow cobblestone streets, Italianesque styling and museums where entrance is by donation (we figure $10 is about right).

Click here to see a 54-second video of Solothurn’s marching band – sorry that my videography skills are substandard. I’m working on it. As Dave says, much would improve if I would just stand up while videotaping. I was standing up.

Solothurn's clock tower.

Dave's ancestor? We don't know. Solothurn art museum held an original Van Gogh, Cezanne and Picasso - not bad for a village of 15,000 and canton (state) of about 245,000..

Are you British?

Swiss village.

We shuffled out of our little English-speaking community of two last week to look further afield for other Anglophones.

Not that we’ve been in total linguistic isolation –  many of the hotel staff here speak English very well and use it to good effect to pump information out of us about Canadian tourist destinations, either that or they are spies.

Normally we seek out an English-speaking church, but the town where we live has none – the very first locale we’ve been where this is the case.

In the past, all we’ve had to do to make friends was show up at a church and let divine intervention take place. Our faithful brethren would size up our  ineptitudes immediately and take us under their wings.

Americans are especially quick to do this, instantly recognizing bumpy roads ahead as they wearily assume a degree of responsibility for acclimatizing me to my host country, knowing full-well I would get pegged as “another obnoxious American.” They are sick of getting grief for the stream of faux pas I commit wherever I go.

Dogs welcome. We kept tripping over someone's little dachshund who roamed the bar/restaurant freely with his leash in tow, felling customers with hardly a wink.

They are not wrong about this. I have a lingering southern accent, the roots of which lie in the fact that for most of my life I have spent a lot of time with Americans from Massachusetts all the way down to Florida. I also was a big fan of the American sitcom Green Acres, but for some reason I did not pick up Zsa Zsa Gabor’s curly Hungarian accent.

All this leads up to our recent appearance at a meeting of a 100-year-old English club. We arrived at Les Caves restaurant where they were gathering to mark the nuptials of Prince Will and Kate. The group looked shocked to see strangers waltz in, even though they invite newcomers on the website.

One of the senior members recovered; eyed us up and down and demanded to know, “Are you British?”

She looked crestfallen when we identified ourselves as Canadians. Just the colonials, that’s all. She turned away in disappointment, mumbling that we might want to speak to an American they kept over in the corner.

Nevertheless, we hung around and soon the wine began to take effect on the club members, who grew more welcoming. By the time we left, they were dragging assurances out of us that we would return.

See. This is the unheralded danger of over-imbibing on spirits… it makes me look socially graceful (I don’t include Dave in this – he is unfailingly polite wherever we go – I’m the one who has foot-in-mouth disease).

We’re going back to the next meeting, which is tonight. We’ll see how that goes.

Dining on the Champs

Our exceedingly snotty French waiter at the Cafe de Musee, who may have been right to hold the butter on my croissant order.

Paris’s Champs Elysees, home of Louis Vuitton, Sepphora and Swarovski flagship stores, is an avenue that prides itself on excising as much capital from tourists as possible.

Fiscally speaking, we are diametrically opposed to this, so we would not have been surprised if when we first stepped onto the Champs, a black hole had torn open and swallowed up the whole of France. Seriously, we are that cheap.

But even the cheap have to eat, especially after the grueling march down the Champs that is filled with one amazing scene after another – and all of these being of towering women teetering on five-inch stilettos, their upright state only ensured by keeping their designer shopping bags equally weighted.

We stumbled from one sidewalk cafe to another, holding back our gasps at the posted menu prices of 50-Euro ($70 Cdn.) prices.

Fois gras? Or Klik?

We settled on the L’Alsace restaurant, which boasted a steal-of-a-deal tourist special at about $20/person. It seemed too good to be true and we braced ourselves to be fed horse or goat meat. Inside, the waiters waved their menus and delivered subtle scowls at any suggestion we were of such low-class as to dine on so humble a meal as their lunch special, but we happily took our place at the bottom of Pari’s culinary totem pole and ordered the special anyway.

Dave had the mashed duck liver, more appealingly tagged Pate’ de Foie Gras, which arrived looking like it had been sliced right out of a can of Klik. Were the French punishing us for our fiscal frugality? Mais non! It turned out the pate’ was quite good.
I had the sautéed goat cheese, which was a meal in itself. It came folded in phyllo, lightly turned in a pan of butter with a splash of sweet sauce – delicious. The main course – roast chicken breast on rice was plain in appearance, but tender and nicely seasoned. For the poor-man’s dinner on the sidewalks of the Champs Elysees, it was pretty good.

Goat cheese, along with an understated green salad.

On or off the Champs, Parisian cafes are a delight, although sometimes the scene of cultural clashes. 

This is because European waiters are not only the bringers-of-food; they are also the guardians of cuisine culture.

At lunch outside Napoleon’s tomb, I ordered a croissant “avec buerre,” causing our waiter’s nostrils to flare and his brow to furrow.  He corrected my faux pas by bringing only the croissant. Having dueled with European waiters on points of dining etiquette before (eg. never order coffee at the beginning of a meal in Spain), I shrugged and ate the croissant sans butter.

It was just as well. It was gossamer-light, free of the slippery butter texture of its North American cousins, not that there’s anything wrong with buttery croissants.

At another cafe, a compliment on the quiche earned an introduction to the chef who painstakingly described how to repeat the feat.
I am now armed with his secret recipe, but it’s in French, and only scribbled into my memory, so our guests will have to be satisfied with the quiche recipe we got from our neighbour Dan (the insurance man who wore a suit while he built our garden shed, but that is another story).
The frugal can find food in Paris without hitting a McDonalds (yes, McDonalds is in Paris – but not on the Champs – and I regret we didn’t give it a go, because we’ve seen curiously culturally altered McDonalds at other places).
Average expenditure per person per day: $80-$100. Could we go cheaper? Yes, we always can.
Apologies: WordPress is exhibiting some formatting problems. My apologies for the paragraph-jams. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tomorrow: Dining on the Champs Elysees – Can it be done for under $70 a person? 

The poor you will always have with you

Jesus’s words about the ever-present poor hover about wherever we go, although each country seems to have its own particular type of impoverished.

This panhandler near the Georges V hotel in Paris remained motionless with her hand and cup outstretched. Completely cloaked, we couldn't be certain of her age, if she was conscious, or even a she. The still prostrate posture was common among Parisian beggars.

In Madrid, we saw them lean, their ragged clothes drifting over their hollow rib-cages, camped in low-lying creek valleys and ditches, living in makeshift box and sheet-metal ghettos invisible to the eye until the passerby almost stumbles in to them.

In Atlanta, a woman and her eight-year old son lingered at a downtown parkade’s exit, looking for some change. Dave drove them to a Burger King. On the way, he offered the child a piece of gum. Instead of chewing it, the boy gobbled it down – a sobering vision of hunger in America.

In Victoria, B.C., the poor lack the hollowed-out visage common to the poor of other countries. On Douglas Street at a poverty protest, a group of “homeless” panhandlers assured me that they had food aplenty. What they really wanted were cigarettes.

And in Paris the poor sometimes lay prostrate on the pavement only a few feet from where people lined up outside designer stores where women’s summer pumps sell for $1,500.

The most well-fed beggar we saw had a corner on the Royal Pereire Cafe near the metro entrance. You can even catch a glimpse of him on Google Maps here.  (the link will not take you directly to him, but if you check the pavement in front of the cafe, you can see him – he’s obviously a fixture).  Locals stopped to chat with him, and except for the upturned cap on the pavement, his calm demeanor would have been just about right had he been seated a few feet away at a cafe table.

Security manages the line at the Louis Vuitton store on Paris's Champs Elysees - the couple at the front stood patiently, their faces befuddled and frustrated while he let other customers walk right in ahead of them. Nevertheless, when he waved them in they were all smiles. I think they're called "marks."

Many beggars in Paris were women dressed in burqas. We don’t know what to make of that. We didn’t see any of the drug-induced lurching and mentally ill erratic manifestations of Victoria’s street population.

Nevertheless, in Paris’s underground, there were signs of possibly drug-related poverty: On the metro, a man appeared in one of the cars, mumbling, his head swaying rhythmically while passengers studiously looked the other way. When he turned to leave, his shoulder blades jutted in sharp profile against his beige sweater that was tucked into loose slacks, revealing his skeletal form.

Out on the broad promenade at the Champs Elysees, people were practically begging to get into the exclusive designer house stores. At Louis Vuitton, two security guards kept the line-up roped in a New York club-style. The line inched slowly along while the occasional “well-heeled” customer walked right up to the security guard and was let in without even so much as a glance at the waiting masses, much to the disgruntled expressions of those  in the queue. It was a statement of class, money and power.

I made my own statement by not trying to get into the store, although I doubt that Louis and his cohorts missed me much.

Those familiar with the title of this post as coming from the New Testament, the seventh verse of the 14th chapter of the Book of Mark might know what comes after – that Jesus goes on to say we  “can help them (the poor) anytime you like.” We can. We’re just not sure how.

Here are more images of Paris’s down-and-out population – and for something a little more upbeat – here’s my not-very-good vid of a Paris busker who was fabulous. His singing starts at the 39-second mark.

A man sleeping the doorway of a commerce building facing the Seine River.

A panhandling woman looks around, seemingly bored with her line of work.

Not technically a beggar, but a street-performer. It was the worst show on earth - for a coin or two, she would nod, then go back to this position. Nevertheless, as a hot-flash-enduring middle-aged woman who cannot keep make-up on my face, I want to know her secret. It was scorching outside, yet her gold patina was flawless.

Another beggar, keeping her face down, kneeling motionless and silent on the Champs Elysees.

One panhandler was nowhere to be seen - must have run off for a cafe' au lait, although he still left his post open for donations.

Amazing that he was comfortable leaving his stuff unattended on Paris streets while nervous tourists clutch onto their bags in fear of robbery (quite rightly).

Sleeping on the job., but with the cup still in full view.

May Day Riots – No thank you

Switzerland, the land of peace and order? Yup. Rioting on same day every year.

The Swiss are known for precision-timing and this is true even for aberrant behavior.

Once a year, the Swiss get together in large cities – Zürich and Bern – where they burn cars, attack police, and generally wreak havoc, and that once-a-year is this weekend. It is how they celebrate May Day.

I remember Canadian May Days differently. They were made up of pole wrapping events where elementary school students dressed in spring pastel colours (boys, too, poor chumps) danced around a pole, each holding a broad colourful ribbon that they corporately braided around the pole.

Not me though. I was never chosen for the May Day dance. Even then, my teachers could see I shouldn’t be let alone with a long piece of rope in any form.

It was social death for a boy to be selected. I remember the year Martin Watts (his real name) got tapped for the St. Avila Elementary School May Day dance. Martin was only in the fourth grade, but he was old enough to know his life of manliness was flashing before him in a fiery ball of death. I wouldn’t say that Martin was a tough or a bully, but he was definitely someone to be avoided by those of us averse to bruising.

The things we do to kids.

To his credit, he did not cry. While the chosen girls exulted over their triumph, he had a tantrum the likes of which remains impressive even today, some 40-odd years later, much to the confusion of the proud teacher who delivered the happy news that he had made the cut. She likely possessed some neurological defect that prevented her from realizing the horror that would descend on any male forced to wear yellow and pink lederhosen while skipping around a pole singing fa la la.

In the end, poor Martin lost out, and he skipped along with the other students, red-faced, fuming and deliberately out-of-step. The lederhosen did nothing for his figure either.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the social outfall of this event led Martin to migrate to Europe where he inevitably launched an amazing career as the chief protagonist in May Day riots.

All this is to say, we’re not taking any big excursions this weekend, which may seem like chickening out, but Dave’s Swiss colleagues strongly advised against it. Of course, in my old reporter-life, the news of scheduled mayhem would have me walking right into the centre of it, the closer to the maniacs running the protest the better.

When I think about it now, I wonder how I escaped injury, except that anarchists were probably too surprised to see a middle-aged, middle-class woman with a badly knotted silk scarf show up in their midst, demanding answers. Probably thought I was a misguided teacher about to force them into a May Day dance.

Paris food, score one; Home food, score zero

Things are not going so well in the home-cooking department, a fact more notable after spending a weekend in Paris.

It’s not entirely my fault. I’m handicapped with a state-of-the-art $3,000 wall oven and a matching ceramic cook top that works on one setting: Inferno.

Anyone who understands this panel, please write to me.

The oven is a convection/microwave/conventional contraption with a panel of buttons that look like this (see right):

Can you point out the microwave button? No, it is not “M,” although that would seem about right. Almost four weeks in and we are still not sure what the M button does, except that pressing it causes a red light to glow and a rotating fan symbol to appear. It may a “blending” function.

The instructions aren’t very helpful either –  they’re in French, Italian and German, a hurdle that did not dissuade me much until I ran them through Google-Translate. It now appears the instructions were written by NASA scientists who spent a lot of time in the lab, and not much in writing class.

Tonight,  I decided to roast garlic. A few minutes in, something did not smell right and I opened the oven to find garlic shards blackened on the outside, rock-hard through the centre. I threw them into a frying pan, thinking that any heat is good heat so a little time with some butter would do the trick. It did not, possibly owing the inferno setting.

My humble attempt at supper.

Next, I unpeeled the wild coho salmon packaging to find that most of the contents were some kind of styro-cardboard backing over which a few bologna-style slices of fish lay in state. I tried to not think of the giant slabs of salmon I could have bought at home in Victoria for the price I paid for bologna-salmon.

Terrified into submission by the elitist oven, I didn’t dare attempt to bake or grill the fish. I put it in a pot to fry (yes, a pot for frying – I can’t fit the wider-bottomed frying pans on my small cooktop).  Now I have hardened salmon shards to match the garlic.

The one thing that our kitchen turns out with great success is carrots. We are having them every night. Already, we are seeing orange everywhere.

In the meantime, Dave just came home, looked in the pot of salmon and said, “We’re having carrots again?”

Paris thieves – prettier than you would expect

Gare de Lyon Paris train station on a slow day.

The girl was wide-eyed, frantic. About 20 years old, fresh complexion, dressed in clean, crisp spring colours, with her hair pulled back into a girlish pony tail; her words spilled over themselves as she rolled a smart-looking suitcase up to the cafe table just behind us.

We were at Paris’s Gare de Lyon train station, which sees something like a 10 million passengers a year. I could have made that figure up, but actually, I read it somewhere, but cannot remember where at the moment, so cannot vouch for its accuracy.

She hoisted an expensive-looking camel-and-turquoise-beaded leather handbag over to the man seated at the table behind us. She spoke French but it was clear she was asking him to watch her baggage, while she accomplished some errand. At that moment, it did not occur to us the errand was to escape capture.

Gare de Lyon train station, Paris. The launch site of many exciting travels as well as thefts.

He said no as he passed the handbag back at her. It was then that her purpose became clear. She punted the suitcase to the next table, but instead of beseeching anyone else’s help, she took flight, the handbag under her arm, and the suitcase abandoned.

Even then, we were too baffled to shout “Stop thief,” although I’ve wanted to do that all my life. The man she had approached got up and rolled the suitcase away, presumably to security. Later, we realized how dangerous this situation could have been – a girl fleeing luggage – the case could have held a bomb.

As it was, we lamented some poor woman who would likely get her suitcase back, but not her purse and whatever possessions or passport were inside it.

European thieves – who knew that in addition to being conniving and criminal, they’d also be cute.

And now for a few well-worn travel tips:

  1. The money belt is your friend, even if it makes you look like you’ve put on a pound or two: Could a pickpocket worm his/her way through your shirt, belt, pant-waistband to get at your money belt (which is where you should keep your passport)? I don’t know, but it would be interesting to see them try.
  2. Spread the cards around: Carry credit/identity cards in different spots, so that if you do get robbed, you will still have some resources.
  3. Do not carry valuables in a knapsack on your back. Those are just open store shelves to thieves.
  4. For those who are live in a world dominated by Murphy’s Law: If you’re travelling as a couple/group, both/all should wear money belts (there’s no reason why only one person should look plump). While one of us carries the passports, the other carries photocopies of the passports, just to make life easier when we show up at the embassy, in the event we do get robbed.
  5. Be cautious of any attention-grabbing event, however innocuous it may seem. Dave’s work-colleagues put their luggage up on an overhead compartment on a Swiss train from Geneva. A person came down the aisle and “accidentally” sprayed coins all over the floor. Dave’s colleagues, nice guys both of them, obligingly helped the person retrieve the coins. Later they discovered their baggage had been pilfered. In another more gripping incident, a woman faked throwing a baby off a bridge, after which she disappeared and so did the wallets and valuables of the onlookers/rescuers. The “baby” was a bundle of rags.
  6. Don’t stand on the street when opening a map: Find a seat in a cafe or a bench.
  7. This is not the time to exhibit your hugginess. Anyone coming close to you is suspect, but it is almost impossible to avoid physical contact while getting on or off a train/subway, which is why those are prime pick-pocketing times, so the best you can do then is be aware of your surroundings and make sure your valuables are not in easy-to-access spots.

A Paris riot – or just random running?

 

As we crossed the Pont d’lena bridge on the northwest side of the Eiffel Tower, we heard a loud jingling noise. Was it Christmas?

The noise grew.  Young men with Middle-Eastern complexions were racing around us in what looked like the start of a riot. Oh good. Something to write home about.

It was actually Dave the Alert who noticed that only dark-skinned men were running, their rings of souvenirs filling the air with their musical jingling. It was a very contrary scene.  On the one hand, we felt the pressure of herd-behavior and wanted to run. On the other, the jingling made me reach for my wallet and look around for a Salvation Army kettle.

I did not notice the runners’ ethnicity right away, but I was cognizant of the fact that France’s controversial new prohibitions on face-concealing burqas had just come into effect.

Joanne, perspiring from recurrent hot flashes, not from near-almost-mob-trampling. Seriously, hot flashes are more scary.

Yes, I’m writing it just like that. It’s politically incorrect to notice anyone’s race/ethnic-origin these days, but as a retired reporter, I just say it like it is, and it is like this: Recent ethnic-group-targeted-law + Middle-Eastern males in flight = Get the Heck Out of There.

I could take the oblique route and say no blond middle-aged women were seen fleeing the scene, but that’s only because I (blond middle-aged woman) have 1. a bad Achilles tendon, and 2. am too dense to realize when something is happening, even if something is Middle-Eastern males running at high speeds through a city famous for Muslim-youth riots only a few years ago.

Soldiers, arms at the ready, patrol Paris's streets.

Within seconds, we found ourselves standing alone on a broad swath of pavement that moments earlier had been packed with people. This could not be good, and then we saw the reason for the running. His strut drew attention even from across the street – a Paris police officer. We quickly ascertained that those fleeing from him were unlicensed vendors, and maybe even illegal aliens. Who knows?

The police made no attempt to chase down the vendors, who actually raced through a line of armed soldiers, who also made no move to apprehend. It was clear this was just business as usual, although for the remainder of the time we were at the Eiffel Tower, the vendors kept a watchful and anxious eye out on the crowds.

Sadly, the police officer and soldiers refused my request to take their photo. I did not argue. This will surprise police officers in Victoria who know me, but it may have been because of the assault rifles and Glocks in full view, and the fact that I was a guest in a foreign country, and so on my best behavior.

Tomorrow: Thieves in Paris – cute, adorable, efficient.

A French garden and an Italian squabble

A giant circular pond of green brackish water in Tuileries Garden attracts sunbathers.

As I sit here in our Swiss flat with the patio door open, an Italian domestic spat is going on downstairs.  It’s what we call a “breaking story,” so I’ll report on it in italics (how suitable) as I enter today’s scribblings on our trip to Paris.

It is a testament to spin doctors of all generations that the word “garden” is imbedded in the name Tuileries Garden, which are the grounds outside the Louvre.

I use the word “grounds” deliberately, because it suggests a flat, uninterrupted horizontal space, which is what we found, instead of the expected cultured urban forest.

The woman’s voice climbs upward into an elegant aria, accented by a few words here and there from the man. I have no idea what they’re saying, but it sounds like an argument over him spending too much time on the phone with his mother. 

A 19th-century sculpture, or a modern-day visitor in Paris's midday sun?

Who would have thought the French would lay a belly of gravel as a garden centerpiece?

The garden (term loosely applied) is almost 500 years old, so we looked forward to strolling beneath broad sweeps of mature shade trees. It was not to be.

Paris must have a very hostile climate, because in its few scattered groves, the trees that it did have were about the size of the cherry trees we planted in our backyard in 2004.

The woman lectures at machine-gun speed, the man responds in short resigned sentences.

A later generation of Tuileries’ garden planners circa 19th-century, probably seeing the trees were not doing so well,  trimmed the gravel flats with stone sculptures of human figures in various stages of angst, foreshadowing the postures of modern-day visitors withering under the sun.

The Louvre, the mobs and some guy on a horse trying to get through it all.

A door slams! The woman has left! 

How did the sculptors know? We were fascinated by their foresight. Either that, or the heat stroke brought on by standing in the furnace of a stone-and-gravel chamber has rattled our senses.

We now understand the French Revolution in a new light, which had some of its most poignant events occur in the summer heat. Of course the French were cranky. What else could they be?

As for the Italian revolution downstairs, the woman is back. I knew she would be. She tells the man she loves him. He tells her the same. She says something else. He grunts. Her voice goes up – yes, they’re back at it again. 

The "garden" outside the Louvre.

Someone comes into the room – the mother-in-law perhaps? She has a more mature voice. The couple’s tone softens. The woman takes a few cloaked stabs at the man, then, the sound of cutlery, and the older woman’s voice.

Ah, she is solving their argument with food, the force that has sustained Italian culture over the centuries. 


 

Tomorrow: More Paris – the homeless, the fake riot and train-station thievery. 

And now,  in the spirit of fairness, despite my whining over their parks-board decisions, Paris is beautiful. Here’s the proof:

Charming little cafe near the Notre Dame Cathedrale. According to its signage, the cafe has been in operation since 1594, ie. shortly before my ancestors decided they had enough of this place and bolted for Canada. This in no way should be taken to reflect my family's opinions on French food.

Pont Alexandre III: Beautifully embellished bridge, and like so many Paris sites, built for the 1900 World Fair. Cannot imagine what a dull place Paris was, architecturally speaking, before the World Fair.

Grand Palais des Beaux Arts: Art nouveau iron and glass structure erected for the 1900 World Fair.

A rental bike post outside of our hotel (Waldorf Arc d'Triomphe on rue Pierre Demours). These stands were all over Paris. We didn't rent any bikes, owing to our terror of French roadways and the drivers that populate them, but saw quite a few being ridden by tourist-types.

I have no idea what this is.

Cathedrale Notre Dame de Paris: Christian site since 250 AD, church building started of one sort or another existed on or near here since the 4th century. This building's construction began in 1163.

The cemetery at Montparnasse, burial-place of many notables including Emile Durkheim (pioneering sociologist), Simone de Beauvoir (French philosopher, author), and the Roy family, of which we may or may not be related through my maternal great-grandmother.

Paris, the small stuff

Paris, city of love and of lights. Also, city of people, lots of them.

First impressions are important, and never more so than when arriving in a foreign city packed with pick pockets and con artists, so as soon as possible after stepping onto Paris soil, I fell fall flat on it.

It could be that I stumbled, but it could also be that I wanted to assume a somewhat intimidating appearance – scuffed clothes, bloodied hands and knees, along with an imbedded sour facial expression.  It couldn’t hurt: We had just come from Gare de Lyon, Paris’s train station that has an estimated 10 million passengers per year, 86 per cent of which appear to have showed up at the same time we did.

Stepping off the train into a sweltering heat, we were pulled into a river of human flesh, which may sound like fun, but not so much if you’re five-feet in height (using some liberties by applying the word “height” here) and the view is of blue sky above, shoulder blades and face-mashing knapsacks below.  As we spilled along, I exclaimed to Dave that I had no idea where I was going, whereupon a fellow-traveller, who looked suspiciously French, pointed us into the correct stream of flesh.

The huddled masses at the Eiffel Tower where thousands waited in line for the privilege of riding an elevator to the top (or worse, climbing the staircase).

I say “suspiciously,” because the French are famous for being snotty. It is reputed to be a matter of national pride, but it turns out that the world is wrong about that. We encountered many French over our 48-hours in Paris and can only report two who met the elevated standards of snottiness we have come to expect in France’s population, and they both were waiters, and so were professionally required to adopt an aloof and even hostile posture.

Here is important serious travel-tip number one for arriving in Paris (or any foreign destination): Do not be first off the train. It turns out we could have waited five or ten minutes for the crowd to disperse, and then walked out without feeling we had become overly intimate with 97,813 strangers.

Here is important serious travel-tip number two: When moving along in a crowd of immense numbers, if you spy someone in your national dress who bears physical features suggesting a fellow-countryman/woman just as  you are at the top of a concrete staircase do not stop to inquire about the news at home. 

This actually happened. A beautiful black Nigerian-looking woman in front of us stopped at the top of the subway staircase when she saw a beautiful black Nigerian-looking man coming up in her direction. He, bless his heart, kept moving during their exchange, but she assumed the attitude of one waiting for a menu to appear, ie. stopped dead in her tracks and put her considerable assortment of luggage down. At this moment, about 80,719 people were still behind me and the danger of being pushed down the staircase was very real.

On the one hand, I could have been hurt. On the other hand, we would have covered a lot of ground very quickly, so it may not have been so bad.

That is not where I fell, by the way. That happened about an hour later at the Arc d’Triomphe where I pitched over face-first on an almost invisible curb in the uneven cobblestone surface at the Arc. No one was even near me. I fell on my own steam, which is pretty much what I have been doing all my life, so it was good to know that some things do not change, even in Paris.

Tomorrow: More about Paris.

Paris: One city, four hotels

The travel gargoyles are against us!

We have not set foot in Paris yet, and already we are on to our fourth hotel there.

It began with a little online excursion into a popular European travel website where the online travel-shopper enters in the dates they are travelling, whereupon the site spits out a bunch of hotel deals with different dates.

Why would anyone program a website in this way, unless they have malevolent intent on my bank account?

I, unwittingly, picked the Hotel de Vendome, not realizing I was booking into a room that very night.  And so we backed out of that one. You can check my posting here if you’re in the mood to read a travel-rant.

Not staying here at the Hotel de Vendome, although that would have been nice.

Then we learned that the hotel chain where we are currently guests in Switzerland also owns a pile of hotels in Paris, so we visited with our concierge who booked a room for us at a sister-hotel. We relaxed. Too soon.

The hotel contacted us later saying that our booking was made in error, there were no rooms available at any of their Paris hotels, but they recommended another hotel chain. They blamed a glitch in their internal computer system, but we suspect the hotel chain’s cleaning staff’s grapevine has it in for us. Maybe we don’t tip enough?

Next we went to http://www.expedia.com, which found a great deal for us at the Waldorf  Madeleine, near the heart of Paris.

When I wrote to confirm our reservations at the Madeleine, the concierge wrote back to say our rooms were under renovation and not ready, therefore they have booked rooms for us in another Waldorf hotel, the Arc d’Triomphe.

The Hotel Waldorf Madeleine - we are not staying here either.

At this point, I’m afraid to send a confirmation note to the Arc d’Triomphe for fear it will draw their attention to us, whereupon they will hit the eject button, a serious danger because we’ve noticed that our hotels started out very close to the centre of Paris, but every move takes us further outward. We haven’t passed the city limits yet, but that is the way we appear to be going.

The Waldorf Arc de Triomphe - Will we stay here? Will we triumph over Paris elusive hotels?

But how bad can it get? We’re leaving tomorrow – it’s not as if there are two more weeks to go, providing hotels 14 days to progressively bump us further and further away from Paris until we find ourselves staying in a Super 8 in Moscow.

Cop Shop

As a reporter,  I maintained a no-sweat policy at police stations. I refused to race into them, because it seemed unwise to arrive in a sweat, possibly raising suspicions that I was fresh from a bank heist, thereby triggering the police’s “arrest-and-detain” instincts. ***

A police station in Lauterbrunnen, not the police station that I had to visit to get our residency cards. I took this photo because its unassuming appearance suggests Switzerland's low crime rate.

But I did break into a sweat when my husband suggested that I go all on my own to the police station here in Switzerland to pick up our residency cards.

The last time I went there I was accompanied by a tri-lingual corporate agent and Dave, my hubby who everyone likes “on sight.”

Dave is the guy who strolled through Heathrow’s security detail without earning even a second-glance from the guards, meanwhile, I had to remove my shoes, which I admit that when the border official said, “your shoes” to me in that stern voice, I mistook her intention and replied, “Oh, do you like them? I got them in Canada – they’re Skechers. They’re great, although I really should have worn my Merrills cause they’re better for long hikes through airports.” Apparently, she was not interested in their retail history.

But I drift from my point, which is that I do not possess “on-sight likability,” making all ventures into police or foreign-government premises tricky business.

It is a serious handicap.

To prevent the dreaded sweat-syndrome, I dressed in extremely light summer clothing, such that by the time I made the walk to the police station in the brisk morning air, I could no longer feel my hands. Excellent.

However, I arrived 15 minutes before opening so I settled down on an inside staircase with a book, not realizing that sunlight was pouring in through a window above me. Within minutes, the sun’s amplified warmth, coupled with an anxiety-related hot-flash did its work. I was mopping my brow when the police station door opened.

I mumbled my way through in French, whereupon the clerk informed me I belonged in the office one-flight-up. Upstairs, the second clerk looked at me with a deadpan-bordering-on-openly-hostile expression.  I knew my unlikability-ness was oozing into the room, but there was nothing I could do about it. She sent me to the back of the line to wait for the only English-speaking clerk.

I panicked and phoned Dave, in the hopes that I could absorb some of his charm via the wireless. It worked! When I saw the third clerk, she recognized our names and handed over our residency cards.

Witness the awesome power of Dave’s likability – he doesn’t even have to be in the room to make it work.

This ends our bureaucratic visa-scramble until next year, when we have to re-apply.

***The no-sweat policy, however, did not apply to Central Saanich’s police station, because I have gotten lost several times in that outlying municipality of farmlands. Many times, Central Saanich’s media officer had to “talk me down” over the cell phone, giving me step-by-step directions to get to the station. It is to her credit that she never directed me to Sooke, which she easily could have done. I would never have known.

What’s wrong with Switzerland

This is not me. Judging by the dozens of paragliders floating over the valley, the Interlaken is an excellent place to catch an updraft. Dave spotted one glider just jump up on a mountain side and take off. Not jump "off," just jump "up." The laws of physics and gravity appear to be suspended in Switzerland.

What’s wrong with Switzerland is that it has mountain peaks that stand on tiptoe at over 13,000 feet above sea level. I’m only five feet above sea level. You can see how scary the Alps can be for someone like me.

We decided to check out (not go up) some of those mountain heights in Switzerland’s famous Interlaken region. After two hours of travel via Swiss Rail for the return-ticket price of $80 for two of us, we arrived at the valley floor of Lauterbrunnen, a quaint Swiss village surrounded by quaint Swiss farmyards that looked very much like Vancouver Island’s Saanich Peninsula, except where the peninsula is surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, the Lauterbrunnen valley is surrounded by mountains.

Dave calls this a “material” difference.

Lauterbrunnen cemetery - placed suspiciously close to Lauterbrunnen gondola

We began what appeared to be an aimless stroll by admiring the Lauterbrunnen cemetery, without argument the tidiest, least-scary graveyard I’ve ever seen, except that only six kilometres away is what I call the Gotten Himmel gondola ride, a five-minute 1,600-foot sweep up from the valley-floor to the mountain-clinging village of Gimmelwald (4,593-feet).

Gotten Himmel means “God in Heaven” and certainly my mind was on spiritual matters, being so close to the resting place of the dead and the gondola, an efficient agent of death if ever I saw one.

The enchanting stroll along the Lauterbrunnen valley, that ends at Recipe for Death gondola ride.

I started to climb the wrought iron fence into the cemetery, reasoning that I might as well just lie down and take root, rather than go through the heart-stopping gondola ride, but Dave convinced me we would just walk the valley and see its famous 10 waterfalls. That the gondola was at the end of the valley and we were walking in its direction did not mean we had to get on it.

The sun was hot, the views hypnotic and the walk long, so that by the time we arrived at the gondola site, I had temporarily lost my mind, which is the only explanation for how I found myself standing in line with a gondola ticket in hand.

I made the ride, without screaming, which proves that living-in-denial is the roadway to achievement, even a modest achievement such as getting through five-minutes of this (click to see 54-second clip of end of ride).

More to follow, including a mountain-side restaurant review.

Murrenbach waterfall plunges 417 feet to valley floor. Lauterbrunnen is a classic glacial valley with near vertical cliffs on both sides.

Travel travails continued


Arc de Triomphe, commissioned by Napoleon in 1806, and new symbol of our goal to get to Paris. Will we triumph? In a side note: We have several Spanish coins dated to 1802 with a Napoleonic visage on them. Must remember to get them appraised.

As I made my way through throngs of commuter passengers at Biel’s train station, a middle-aged man in a tan jacket and faded denims unzipped in the train square and let’er rip.

I’ve lived in Spain, so I’ve seen public urination before – usually on the side of the highway where the Spanish men do not give passersby the courtesy of turning their backs to the road as they empty their bladders.

A location for public urination? According to one fellow, it is. Yuk.

This fellow, who stared straight ahead and otherwise appeared sober, had opted for what must be Biel’s  most public venue for such a private act. It was only 6:30 p.m., still broad daylight and the square was jammed.

Maybe he had just come off a day of dealing with a cantankerous travel website, or perhaps he had just discovered his train ticket cost double what he expected.

So I walked on by, noticing that no one else seemed to notice or care much about Mr. Public Urination.

A few minutes later, after meeting Dave inside, we/I learned our train costs will be over $500, according to a different booking agent than the one who earlier in the week had quoted $260. The agents had a good belly laugh when we mentioned the $260 quote.

Because we are Canadians, we did not shout or make any display. We simply groaned inwardly as we felt our stomach ulcers dig in deeper.

At that point, we were still in recovery from the lastminute.com fiasco and it seemed that as Tuscany was for Seinfeld, so Paris would be for us (click here to find out what I’m talking about). It has become our “white whale.” We must get there, and so we ponied up the cash, realizing that we are already at over $1,000 for two days in that famed city.

It goes a little over budget for we frugal types, but we are rapidly losing the ability to care … at least about that. I’d still rather men chose more discreet locations to relieve themselves.  After all, this isn’t Spain.

Postscript: And now a well-traveled friend warns us to stay away from Paris over Easter.  Cue the Jaws theme music.

Lastminute.com – A frugal traveler’s Best Friend, or the Devil Incarnate?

Is there an experience more invigorating than realizing you’ve just spent $350 on something that will give you nothing?

I just want to see the Eiffel Tower - why does it have to be so difficult?

I don’t think so. I’m fresh off 30 minutes with lastminute.com, a United Kingdom-based travel-booking website and I’m sure my blood pressure is up, my heart rate climbing into the upper reaches of the aerobic zone and all the vessels in my head are ballooning into aneurism-blowing dimensions.

We’ve run into trouble getting  a hotel in Paris for the Easter weekend. It appeared we had one booked, but that booking was made in error and has been snapped back from us with the same pinching sensation of getting clipped with an elastic band.

I moved on to check out hotels at lastminute.com – I put in our dates – April 22 and 23 and up came a list of hotels including “secret hotels.” I should know better than to play with something so dubiously titled, but after checking the cancellation policy, decided to take a risk. It looked like the worse that would happen is I’d lose about $40 Cdn.

The idea behind the “secret hotel”  is that the hotel is so high-end that it doesn’t want anyone to know it engages in this last-minute whack-down-of-prices. You only get the name and address after you’ve paid up.

Surprisingly, this is not the part of my exchange with lastminute.com to go wrong. The hotel, the Westin Hotel de Vendome (no secrets here on hobonotes.com), is indeed an upscale establishment with bottom prices at $430 a night. I would have paid $175 – not bad.

The problem was that  I assumed entering the dates April 22 and 23 ensured that only hotels with those dates available would come up. Not so.

Lastminute.com spit out hotels with different dates – dates that I did not look at because of my assumption, and so at the very last phase of the purchase, the website informed me that I had just booked April 13 to 15 at the Hotel de Vendome.

I checked my watch. Today is April 13. What the what!?

I tried to get through to lastminute.com’s customer service – the privilege of calling them is charged to the customer, ie. me, at 10p -the “p” standing for pence or maybe 10 pounds per minute, which is really frustrating, because I don’t even know how much 10 pence actually is. Am I signing away my vital organs? Or just paying a penny or two?

When I finally got through lastminute.com’s multiple-layered phone system (press 1 for new bookings, 2 for existing bookings – even though I had dialed a number that was listed as specifically for existing books – remember I’m paying for every minute of the recorded system), I finally get through to a nice woman with an East Indian accent, who for all I know is in Mumbai.

Not to complain about that – it’s the way of the world these days. I’m just making the observation. I will complain about it later.

She goes into what is obviously a scripted patter about lastminute.com’s policies, about 80-pence-or-pounds into it, I say, “I’m paying for the privilege of being bamboozled, just tell me straight up: Can I cancel? Can I change dates, yes or no?”

She went to Script page no. 2, at which I interrupted her again and said, I just need to know, can I cancel or switch?”

Flip to Script page no. 3, and I said, “I get it. I can’t cancel, but you’d rather I pay more of this per-minute rate to hear it.”

She put me on hold while she called the hotel. 40-pence-or-pounds later, she came back to tell me they had agreed to cancel the booking without any charges. Apparently, the refund will show up on my credit card account in 7 to 10 days, which brings me to another complaint.

Why can they take my money in a nano-second, but take more than a week to hand it back?

So in the end, lastminute.com did the right thing, so I can’t say for sure they are the Devil Incarnate, but  I can say that providing different booking dates than those entered in the search is definitely misleading.

Postscript: I’ve had an hour and two chocolate yogurts to calm down, and so in the final analysis, I have to give lastminute.com the thumbs up for cancelling the reservation. I also received an email confirmation of this from another customer service rep within that hour, which was reassuring.

Making friends fast

As in so many places in the world, it is in Switzerland: It’s easy to make friends when it appears you’re carrying a 24-pack of beer.

This isn’t to say the quality of friends is that which your mother would approve whole-heartedly, but friends all the same.

It started when I gave  into my very North-American vice and picked up a 24-case of Coke Zero for about $13 – quite a bit more than in Canada, but as I said, it’s a vice and today I am missing a few of those.  With the case propped atop my right shoulder, I made the short walk back to our hotel.

Swiss soldier on the look-out for beer.

I didn’t get there before I heard two men shouting at me in German from a car waiting at a red light. The two, dressed in army fatigues  were waving me over enthusiastically, asking me to spare a beer or two for a soldier.  I look German, so I got away with laughing derisively at them before they drove away, all smiles, but no beer (or Coke).

The hotel manager, Reiner, and our helpful front desk clerk Daniela were on their break by the side of our hotel, and as I approached, their wide smiles and exultations expressed their mistaken belief that I was carrying some brewskies. Their faces melted in dismay when I came near enough they could identify the Coke Zero.

The dismay turned into shock when I told them that a. I’ve never carried a 24 of beer and b. generally, speaking I avoid alcohol.

“How can you live this way, how can you be happy?” they demanded to know.

“In wine is a cure for all things,” Daniela said, ” You don’t need vitamins, just wine.”

I can’t say that I agree  – too many tragedies, traffic fatalities, high levels of stupidity start with the bottle, but I’ve got nothing against the occasional glass so I promised to test Swiss wine at the coming autumn festivals.

In the meantime, Dave is spending his evenings reading to me from our favorite travel guru Rick Steves’ guide book, suggesting that this weekend we head up to one of Switzerland’s mountain-peak chalets where sixty beds are jammed into a four-bedroom house with shared baths, but the views are spectacular.

“Just pretend I’m Leslie,” I say.

Leslie is an Atlanta friend of ours who emancipated me from all socially induced pretense back in 1996 when she said to me, “Let’s not pretend that I will ever cook anything,” and “Camping? Never.”

Switzerland's famous Interlake region

Up to that point, I was under the delusion that a love of camping held some mystical virtue and cooking was a necessity, but happily Leslie showed me another way, and that way started with a firm  “No” to crazy ideas that would have me doing either, or anything even remotely resembling such. That includes booking into hostel-style accommodation.

So, no. We are not heading up to any mountain peaks this weekend, but instead will enjoy a train ride through the mountain range’s valleys. Much more civilized.

Luscious Lucerne

Saturday we took the 90-minute train ride east to Lucerne, past lush, meticulously kept pastures, rolling hills, quaint farms with cows lolling about, a trip made sweeter because we now have our Swiss Rail resident half-price cards.

It looks like a great deal, bringing the price for  two return tickets down to $78. We were pretty pleased with that until we realized that we were travelling only 48 miles – what the heck? That’s like a $1.50 a mile.

Swiss comedians? Or the Swiss version of a chain gang (ie. not breaking rocks, just colouring on them).

We arrived in Lucerne to discover the city in the throes of an international comedy festival called “Fumetto” – at least, that was the explanation we got for the men in orange suits studiously scratching a chalk path into one of the cobblestone squares, which didn’t look funny at all, but I’m sure something hilarious was about to happen. We had our doubts, because orange suits are prison gear back in the U.S., so we were suspicious this was the Swiss version of a prison-work program.

We checked out a kitchen store where laundry bags sold for $99 and shoe stores, at one of which I found a pair of  loafers priced at $269… others were priced higher, but my brain could not compute such numbers well enough to recall them now.

Lucerne is, after all, Switzerland’s Monaco, and the well-heeled were in ostentatious abundance from stylish couples strolling the lakeside promenade to high-end sports cars inching through narrow cobblestone streets that until their arrival, we thought were pedestrian-only. Maybe the rules are different for those driving Bugattis and Lamborghinis.

Even the McDonalds restaurant was high-end with vintage ceiling tiles, orange cube leather seating and a McCafe pastry bar. Ooo la la! It was a beautiful city. I’ll let the photos speak for it. Click on photos to get a larger version.

At a swank chocolate shop called Merkor - I think it translates into "No chocolate under $40"

About half of the chocolate in Merkor's main showcase, and I do mean "showcase." The word "display" just doesn't quite make it.

Lucerne's waterfront. Not so bad.

The inside of Lucerne's Jesuit Church. Very white. Very bright.

Lucerne. Very pretty.

Lunch for the uber-rich - also, where they are on display for gawkers like us.

 

Many of Lucerne's Old Town buildings sport frescos (murals) - this one depicts the city's Mardi Gras celebrations.

A wall mural depicting the building's former street level cafe-owners in Mardi Gras celebrations.

Lucerne has two homeless men. We found them both. It's noteworthy that this man's wardrobe included a colour (red/orange pepper) that matched many park benches, and that is also favored among the rich (see other photos). Even Lucerne's homeless fall under the dictates of fashion.

The photo quality is not very good, but this stylish 8-10-year-old girl's pic is worth posting - we saw fashion-conscious kiddies everywhere. What is this? France?

A woman parading her control over her husband on Lucerne's Promenade - his attire matches hers right down to his shoes. Somebody help this guy.

View over Lucerne Lake with the Alps in the background. This body of water is also called Vierwaldstattersee. Yes, it is.

Cafeteria Lunch

This photo may not be able to capture how steep this ride was, but it was REALLY steep and you can tell that by how I used all-caps for the word "really."

A funicar is the acrophobe’s answer to mountain-scooting gondolas – a ground-hugging on-the-rails ride up the steep limestone Jura mountains that border Biel/Bienne.

I’ve already mocked the funicar, also called funicular, once, saying that it is as impressive as a stroll up the mountainside at our Vancouver Island home, that is to say, not impressive at all. Turns out I was wrong about that. It is a lot steeper and probably a lot higher.

As with all endeavors, we had to leap over the language hurdle when purchasing our ticket at the automated kiosk, which to our delight had a button that said “English,” but when Dave pressed it,  a display came up that read  “English is not enabled on this unit.”  We hope the funicular engineers had a good belly laugh at us from the safety of a remote control booth.  Eventually, we sorted it out and boarded the funicar.

The cafeteria decor that fooled us into thinking we were about to get an affordable lunch. Not a FREE lunch, just an affordable one.

The Lac Biel valley opened beneath us as the car made its silent climb up the mountainside, a spectacular view if you’re not afraid of heights and are able to look down without having the urge to vomit.

At the top, we found what appeared to be a campus cafeteria. At last, a cheap lunch, we thought – and looked forward to a respite from Switzerland’s exorbitantly expensive restaurants that charge about twice that back home.

We loaded up our trays with a vegetarian lunch that included what appeared to be a fried half-pound of white cheese.  I have waited all my life for just such a meal where a glob of cheese is unencumbered by a beef patty, bun, or egg.

It would be nice to say it was everything I hoped, but halfway through I had to stop eating – the sound of my arteries squeaking as they congealed was too much for me.

But I get ahead of myself: At the till, the cashier gave Dave the price, that I hopefully repeated back “Vingt-sept?”  She tapped the cash display. $37. Dave suspects cash registers are equipped with an “English price” button, something special for we tourists.

We took our lunch trays to the tables outside overlooking Biel/Bienne and figured it may be the most expensive cafeteria meal ever, but if one takes the view into account, the price may not be so bad.

Fine cafeteria dining a la Suisse!

Tomorrow: Lucerne

Walking

When a strange man tells a 52-year-old woman her beauty shines with the warmth of the sun, it’s time to cross the street and head for home.

He might have spotted me when I pulled out the tourist map at the canal bridge, the spot where I completely lost my bearings. Reading a map on the street is about as stupid a thing as a woman walking alone can do, especially when it’s one of those brightly coloured tourist maps. I might as well have fastened a sign to my head with “Good Canadian Passport & Credit Cards Here.”

He came alongside at the red light where Dr. Schneiderstrasse and Aarbergstreasse meet, making his compliment there. The light changed and shoulder-to-shoulder, he stayed with me as he jabbered on, his eyes roving up and down and then to  my knapsack. He swiveled his head around: Checking for traffic? Or for witnesses?

There were people across the street waiting for the light, but I realized that they were it – as soon as they crossed and went past me and this unwelcome shadow, we would be alone.

I’m like an Alzheimer’s patient when I go out for a stroll, wandering until I’m in the wrong neighbourhood, like when two fish-netted hookers in Vancouver’s notorious Downtown Eastside had to show me the way out.

As the stranger and I met up with the gaggle, I turned in my tracks and joined them. I glanced back and saw the man, his scalp visible through the stripes of his slicked-back hair, walking quickly up the road, his face turned toward me, his teeth showing in a broad grin.

Watch your language

French for Dummies, which I am.

Just when I think I’m making headway on this French language thing, I run into a stream of Spanish, ripping my brain right back to Madrid 1999.

We lived in Madrid for about 18 months, over which I acquired a basic level of Spanish. Now that I’m living in Switzerland and trying to adopt French, Spanish words and phrases fling off my tongue with frightening ease.

This could fool me into believing I’ve achieved new heights of fluency in Spanish, but only because there are no Spaniards or Spanish-speakers around to offer their opinions/horrified glares.

Until this morning, that is. As I passed a housekeeper in the hotel hallway, I said hello in French, and then discovered she’s Portuguese. We tripped into a Spanish/Portuguese conversation from which I am still recovering.  I have no idea what I really told her, but I’m pretty sure she gave me a detailed analysis on the hotel’s cleaning schedule.

At the Coop (pronounced cop) grocery store this morning, the cashier asked if I preferred to speak in German or French. I said nine-sprechzeny doich und je ne say pas parl francay (I’ll spell it how I like, thank you), whereupon she surmised that Italian was my language of choice and let fly with a wonderful opera of words that were as discernible to me as Arabic, but it sounded lovely.

I don’t know if I’m ever going to get this multilingual thing wrestled to the ground, although I do love elbowing my way through crowds saying “Scuzay,” which is what the Italians around here spit out as though they are saying “scram.”

And, as I walk through Biel’s streets and shops eavesdropping on French conversations so as to pick up the local accent, I’m also absorbing some German – and worse yet, my English is starting to decay.

All that aside, the Swiss have an admirable tolerance for the tongue-tied. They smile, they coach, they do their best to leave no one behind in conversation. I have yet to see any language-related temper tantrums or snubs.

In the meantime, I am in terror of running into the Portuguese housekeeper again. For all I know, I invited her to be our guest at our Ontario cottage this summer.

Why is moving so exhausting?

Whether packing up two giant suitcases and shuffling them a matter of a 100 metres of so falls under the classication of “moving,” I do not know, but I know I am getting tired of moving, even if they are micro-moves.

How did we get this way? Here is how:

Before arriving in Switzerland, we had emailed back-and-forth with the hotel about their long-stay suites  that had been recently renovated and did not require a lease. Leases are an issue when one arrives without a residency card, but one cannot get a residency card without a lease/permanent address. This Catch-22 is a modern form of torture that leaves no outward bruising.

Our previous apartment.

Our new apartment.

But when we arrived, the suites the agent showed us  were nothing like the ones on the website.

We shrugged.  We’ve been overseas before and cheating, fooling and/or overcharging North Americans is standard, so we were just glad to get a place with hot water.

The city-street view outside our previous apartment. It is a popular ambulance/emergency route.

Several nights sleeping by the corner of a downtown intersection, however, wore on us, so I returned to the hotel desk to ask if there were any other suites. Daniela, the front desk clerk, said yes, and then showed me two absolutely fabulous suites that matched up with the website photos we had seen from Canada.

How can this discrepancy be explained?

The two suites – the noisy one we were in and the courtyard one I quickly snapped up yesterday are in the same building, owned by the same company, however, the ugly ones are sub-leased to a rental company. Our corporate rep mixed up the two.

Our employer had already signed a long-stay lease with the ugly-apartment agency – were we trapped?

Happily not. Our corporate rep, who is redeeming the reputation of bureaucrats everywhere, quickly negotiated a solution and in the space of 45 minutes we moved to the new suite.

Our snazzy little kitchenette with some high-end appliances I do not understand, but I love them all the same.

Daniela, the front desk clerk, is a wonder. She came over after her shift, dressed in her street clothes and ready to head home, but insisted on helping me move, then refused to take a tip.

I am beginning to think the Swiss are practically perfect in every way.

This weekend we head for Lucerne. Or Lausanne. I’m not sure which.

How friendly are the Swiss?

When the woman took a seat across from us on the train ride back from Murten, she looked normal.

She had come on with a pack of senior citizens, all rattling in lively conversation. She hovered over some people who we thought must be old friends, clutching about half-dozen twigs in her hand. They were only about two feet long – too short for basket-weaving.

Snug alleyway in Murten.

She then eyed our cluster of seats, flopped down with an exaggerated gasp of exhaustion, and appraised us silently with her enormous brown eyes. Her chin-length hair was auburn brown and her posture suggested she was fit, but she had bags under her eyes and what looked like a patch of skin cancer on her cheek – she could have been 55 or 80.

She addressed us in German, then raised her eyebrows at our fumbling response: “No German,” not meaning that there are no Germans, or that we refuse to associate with Germans, much less attempt the language.  She leaned closer, waved at the bundle of twigs and said in English,  “I put sticks  in and get wine. You know, sticks, water.”

No, we didn’t know, but we were sitting knee-to-knee within grabbing distance so we nodded politely and mentally calculated how long to the next train stop.

Was she insane? Would she pinch one of us by the arm and force more alcohol-related recipes on us?

As she pressed us into conversation with her not-totally-broken, but not quite all-there-English, we tried to not look like we were thinking about the distance to the next train station, but it didn’t work. She somehow deduced that our estimation of her mental faculties was not as it should be, even though neither of us gave into the rising urge to claw madly at the stop-buttons and demand the train doors open (we had already done that earlier on the ride into Murten).

She returned to the wine-twig topic and elaborated until her meaning became clear: That she would stick the twigs (dried vines) in the ground, water them, and eventually they would take root, produce grapes and then wine. She was not expecting to get wine from them that evening.

Swiss trains are spotless, their schedules and routes relatively easy to understand, but be ready for a sociable time as the Swiss love to chat.

Her mental stability established, we relaxed.

We have seen signs of such friendliness before. The day earlier,  in a grocery store line-up  a woman discerned our foreign-ness and invited us on a boat trip over Lake Biel. Suspicious North Americans that we are, we politely evaded the question, but we can’t help noticing that overall the Swiss are extraordinarily friendly.

Either that, or they are all stalkers-in-waiting. We shall see.

What’s in a name? Murten or Morat?

The view from Murten/Morat's castle ramparts where on June 22, 1476, 2,000 Murtonians/Moratians beat 20,000 invading French back into the lake, causing many of the armor-clad French to drown. The townspeople were aided by about 10,000 neighbours. This battle is considered seminal to the creation of the Swiss Union. Note: The French were hungover from partying the night before. True story. Also of note: The Swiss are famous for their mercenary soldiers. By this we conclude that it is not the legendary Swiss neutrality that protects against foreign invasion, but Swiss ferocity.

It began with us sprinting through the train much to the horror of our fellow passengers, but it wasn’t really our fault. We blame multiculturalism and its child, multilingualism.

In Canada, multilingualism earns high respect, but here in Europe it leads to high-annoyance. My international readers will correct me if I’m wrong, but even the multilingual Swiss can have trouble clearing language hurdles.***

As an example, the lease negotiations between Dave’s corporate rep and our apartment’s leasing agent were conducted in English, although they both spoke French and German. So why English? Because it was their strongest common language and to use the descriptor “strongest” is stretching it.

We, the mute, listened as they waffled back and forth in three not-very-good languages, hearing one question spawn the response “yes” at one moment and “no” in the next. Consequently, the terms of our lease are a mystery to us.

It brought back memories of my multilingual European father who back in the early 1960s decided we would speak English only, saying that it was better to be eloquent in one language than an idiot in many.

Before you write your angry letters, let me say I know there are people out there who are masters in many languages. I just have not run into many yet.

But I drift from my topic, which is Murten/Morat and how we got lost trying to get there. I don’t drift too far, though, as language formed the foundation for our trouble.

Medieval castle ramparts in Murten/Morat.

We got on the right train, heading in the right direction. As Biel fell behind us and the Swiss countryside opened up, we paid attention to town signs and watched the villages for castle ramparts and ancient churches – the attractions that were bringing us to Murten.

After what seemed a reasonable interval, we began to worry that we had missed our stop.

I recalled hearing the train’s recorded announcement heralding “Morat,” which was not on the map or in the train schedule. As it turns out, Morat is the French name for Murten.

We learned this later – that Swiss villages/towns frequently have both German and French names, but for some reason hidden in Swiss Rail’s corporate headquarters, they switch languages in a sporadic manner. Maybe it prevents invasion from foreign armies, or too many tourists amassing at any single point.

In any case, that is how we missed our stop.

Looking out from Cressier's rail station, Switzerland. April 2011. Clearly, we were in trouble.

We got out at Cressier, which by Swiss standards is absolute Heck as you can see by this photo (right), and then feared that this being a Sunday, there might not be a train for hours. Stuck in Cressier! Switzerland’s “Brugge.”

We were wrong about that and with some help, soon boarded a train returning to Murten.

But our travel-nerves were jangled, so we watched anxiously for signs of Murten – or Morat, call it what you want cause that’s what the Swiss do –  and the minute we saw something that remotely resembled the pictures in our guidebook, we got on our feet. The train came to a stop, but the doors wouldn’t open. We don’t know how trains work here, so we sprinted in a frantic manner through the cars looking for an open door, like rats stuck in a  trap.

One of us may have shouted, “Stop the train! Let us out, let us out, we want to go to Murten,” but I’m not saying who. At that point, a passenger said, “We’re not there yet.”

It is comforting to know that we gave our fellow passengers something to laugh about on that otherwise quiet ride. It is also comforting to know that we will never see any of those people again.

As it happened, the doors did not open because we weren’t actually at a station yet. If we had gotten out, we would have plunged down a steep incline. So sorry to have missed that.

By the way, we have also learned that the buttons we thought were for opening doors were actually emergency-stop buttons.

Eventually, we found our way to Murten-Morat, a charming medieval village by any name at all.

***This is a rant, and so is not bound by logic. If my Dad had decided to school us in European languages, our little sprint could have been averted. But where would be the fun in that?