Sky-High Dining

April 16 – the eve of our 29th wedding anniversary seemed like a good time to spend $25.50 a plate on pasta that we could buy at Wal-Mart for $1.19 a can.

Hotel Alpenruhs patio eatery. Not so bad.

I may have said that out loud as we surveyed the menu  board at Hotel Alpenruh, the first restaurant/outdoor cafe to meet us as we staggered off the Lauterbrunnen gondola that swings up a 1,600-foot mountainside cliff in only five minutes.  This is the problem with living/travelling in Europe – I assume no one else understands English, but judging by our waitress’ demeanor, it seems I may have been wrong about that.

I was also wrong about the canned ravioli remark – unless Chef Boyardee has issued a cashew & wild garlic ravioli since we left North America.

We took an outdoor seat at Alpenruh’s open cafe, although a biting mountain wind was edging out the warm afternoon sun, a cold that was soon to be eclipsed by our waitress, who, as I mentioned earlier, may have heard my snarky remarks. We ordered the cashew/garlic ravioli (only $18!), but she put an end to that, saying that it would take a special request to the chef, which we found odd, considering that it was on their billboard.

The view from the cafe.

The other view from the cafe. As you can see, the neighbourhood is a little rough.

She pointed us to the table menu that strictly observed certain serving hours for certain meals, so she said, but we couldn’t find anything to that effect in print. We were on a cliff, though, and in no position to make a fuss, so we ordered the $25.50 truffle ravioli. We were not overly upset about this, having long wanted to taste Europe’s legendary truffle, which is really just a clump of fungus, exactly what we’ve come to expect from the continent that turned snail-eating into an art.

Truffle ravioli at Alpenruh Hotel, Murren, Switzerland.

Later, much much later, two plates of ravioli arrived, tossed in olive oil, sprinkled with wrinkly dried french beans and apple wedges that appear to have been lightly sautéed.

It was worth the wait, the snotty waitress and the high-altitude price. The pasta was cooked to that delicate point where it had just passed al dente, and the truffle filling’s flavour was restrained but savoury enough to lead to indelicate shoveling motions at the table.

The food and the view were the only highlights. The service was, as already mentioned, substandard, and hygiene did not appear high on the restaurant’s list.

The cafe tables were covered in orange “Griptex” kitchen shelf liner (found at all fine Wal-Mart stores for about $8 a roll), which was apparently left to compost as is, ie. it had not been cleaned or changed that week, judging by several unidentified black objects that we hoped were not the remnants of bird droppings or mouse scat (presumably, the mice get to dine on the tables after the human patrons have vacated the premises).

The cutlery, however, was weighty, sparkly and very posh, except that the waitress put it down on that orange table covering. Ugh.

The dessert menu was primarily made up of ice cream and sorbet, some served with rum and other liquors, however, we didn’t test any as we couldn’t be sure it would be served before the last train out (four hours later).

Note: Yes, I’m cheating. This entry should be on the recipe/restaurant review page. This is what happens when a journalist gets free of editors. She’s inclined to do as she pleases, even if it breaks the rules regarding placing certain topics in their corresponding sections.

Second note: Murren, a village almost wholly made up of dark-wooded chalets, hotels and a few ski shops, has plenty of eateries, so on our return trip, we won’t have to put up with Alpenruh, but we just might. It has almost the best views in town. The other restaurant we checked out listed horse cuts, a meat I am not going to risk eating again, not to mention its lunch menu prices ranged at around $35 per plate. Ouch.

Two weeks, more or less

Two weeks in Switzerland: Two weeks of discovering new cheese, new chocolates, new shoe stores (and shoe prices!). Here’s what we’ve learned so far:

They have homeless people, but not in near as many numbers as North American cities. As in all things to do with homeless populations, numbers are extremely difficult to count. One 1980 U.N. survey put the number of Swiss homeless at 2,400, but that figure is 30 years old. Switzerland’s overall population in 2009 was  7.7 million: 

Biel homeless man has worn garbage-bag shoes for the past two weeks, even in the blistering heat.

They love Justin Bieber (who, by the way, has a strong Winnipeg connection): 

Justin Bieber images are everywhere, such as on this junior sheet set at a local department store. His visage outnumbers that of Obama, Clinton (either one), Michael Jackson, the Beatles and anyone running in Canadas current federal election.

They are cane-enabled (get it: Cain’n Abel  – sorry, couldn’t stop myself). : 

Elders favour canes over walkers. Even young people sport these arm-brace-style canes, making us wonder if polio races through the Swiss.

They view sidewalks and roadways as near-equals: 

They park, and occasionally drive, on sidewalks.... not as often as the Spanish, but a lot more than North Americans.

They smoke, a lot:

One in four smoke, according to Switzerlands Federal Health Office. In both Canada and the U.S., one in five smoke. Despite the 25 per cent rate given by the Swiss government, the number of smokers looks higher on the street where the Swiss smoke as they walk, juggle babies, lounge in street cafes. Smoke is blowing into our suite as I write this as my Italian neighbour takes to the balcony for her morning fix.

Their public art holds some surprises: 

Despite their reputation for attention to detail, their take on public art would make North American insurers and art/park commission managers gasp. These wrought-iron statues could inflict fatal wounds if someone tripped into one. Note: Dave does not let me twirl anywhere near these.

Just in case you dont quite see it: The arms on this prone statue are about two inches thick and maybe two feet long - would plunge through a chest wall or eye socket quite easily. Eeeew.

The Swiss, blowing stuff up “real good.”

We watched a snowman’s head explode last night, while horsemen galloped around it in circles, the horses apparently bored with the whole thing.

The Swiss kick old-man winter's behind.

We actually watched it on television, the event having taken place in Zürich, a 90-minute train ride away. Every spring the Swiss build a huge monument of sticks, doused in some kind of fuel (judging by the orange tint of the flames), topped with a fake snowman packed with explosives to herald the end of winter and the start of spring.

It comes with a parade and all the pomp associated with a royal procession – costumes, marching bands, horses, streets jammed with onlookers, politicians lining up at the microphone.

This strikes us as something the Spanish would do – they love incendiary events over there – but seemed out-of-keeping with the orderly Swiss.  You can see the 2008 burning by clicking  here.

Last night’s exploding-snowman-head didn’t look safe at all as giant chunks of the snowman flew off in random directions. It was very much like my boys playing with firecrackers, lighting up their little plastic soldiers, only on a grander scale. One expected a pack of Swiss Mommas to shout from the balconies, “Stop that! Don’t make me come down there!”

It’s an odd thing to watch – on the one hand, you have to hand it to the Swiss for celebrating getting through another winter. On the other hand, it’s just a little too close to burning people at the stake, a practice  Europeans are known to have excelled at and that migrated to North American (Salem witch trials, anyone?). Sorry to have brought up some unpleasant history.

But Switzerland winters are nothing like that on the Canadian prairies, where similar snowman burning would be a good idea, although, to be a reliable marker of the end of winter, it would have to be held in June.


A few things I’ve noticed in Biel


A secondary canal in Biel. Locals here think this town is trash, but I don't see anything wrong with it.

It is our first Monday in Switzerland and Dave’s first full day at work, and so now we settle into whatever normal looks like for our time here.


Of course, there is no “normal” yet – there’s too much we don’t know about this country, mostly because we are arrogant Anglophones and not very good with the local languages, although, I am improving.

I managed to tell a shopkeeper her wares were too expensive (tres cher), but only for today  (seulement pour aujourd’hui) because I had topped out my shopping budget and I would be back (retourner moi – although, I’m not sure about this particular phrase, maybe it is retournez moi).

No one has slapped me or thrown out onto the street, so I suppose my French is not so bad.

Shoes, shoes, shoes and more shoes.

I’ve also discovered that  European arrogance about fashion is well-deserved. Ordinary shops here carry fascinating clothes – some too fascinating for me, and others that are very forgiving for my middle-aged figure.

And for reasons I cannot yet unearth, shoe stores are everywhere, even in the farmers market.

Farmers market shoe sales. Go figure.

Within a few blocks of our home are three large grocery stores, making downtown living very easy. To put that in perspective for Victorians, imagine seeing a Safeway at Broughton, Fort and Pandora, or for Winnipeggers, grocery stores at Portage, Donald and Hargrave.

The police here are invisible. Where Victoria Police can be seen biking down Wharf  Street, Saanich Police cruising down Tillicum, and the RCMP just about anywhere at any time, we’ve only seen the Swiss police on the streets twice – at the Tamil demonstration in Bern and a few blocks away corralling an intoxicated man outside a grocery store.*

I don’t know what this means – if Switzerland has low crime rates or underfunded police departments, but I am not going to think about that. I am going to think about how to explain how we got lost on the train ride to Murten, which I plan to write about tomorrow.

* It may look odd that I list three police departments when describing Victoria, B.C.’s policing, but that is what there is. Victoria-regional law enforcement is made up of multiple municipal forces.

Blisters and Biel

Wearing new sandals on a day that we would walk 16,538 steps was not really such a great idea, but it is too late to talk about it now. All I can do is soak my feet in saltwater, wrap them up and head out for another hike.

Farmer's market in Biel. Endless volumes of fresh produce, happy farmers, hordes of shoppers all packed into a medieval town setting. Not so bad.

I am in Switzerland. It is required I see new things everyday, even if there are blisters on top of my feet. This is true, by the way. I am afflicted with 360-degrees of blisters.

But enough about that. We  began our day by visiting Biel’s allegedly famous Nidaugasse farmer’s market. Nidaugasse may be the name for Biel’s old town, but I am not sure about that, just as I am unsure about everything owing to my cramped German/French language skills.

About 70 farmers and vendors transform Nidaugasse’s sloping grey cobbled streets into avenues of colour, while the air is filled with the aroma of apples and flowers. Maybe living in Switzerland will not be so bad. We stocked up.

Prices were relatively in line with North American farmer market prices, that is to say: They were high. The pain of the pay-up, however, is mitigated by the freshness and flavor of the produce. Real fresh vegetables are pretty much the same anywhere, but every region seems to have something that brings its own something to the table.

Banks of tulips fill the cobblestone streets of Biel's old-town.

In Manitoba, it is the acidic sweetness of giant beefsteak tomatoes, in Northwest Ontario wild blueberries are the jewels, in Victoria it’s Michell’s sweet strawberries and Silver Rill corn, and everything in Georgia. It’s true, Georgia, U.S.A. farmers markets kill in every produce category. Yum. But we’re not in Georgia now. We’re in Switzerland.

I have not determined the stand-out vegetable here, but it may be their giant red-leaf lettuce that is bowling-ball shaped with an apple-crisp base tipped with gossamer burgundy leaves. It tasted as though I had pulled it from the earth only moments before.

We avoided the line-up at the cheese wagon, however, learned later that was a mistake. As Regula, a local Swiss woman told us, “There’s a reason for the line-up,” and that reason is apparently “Corgemont Special” cheese. The market was packed with locals, probably the best indicator of the quality of the offerings. We decided to make the market a Saturday tradition.

After unloading our stuff at our apartment, we hoofed out to the train station for a 30-minute ride to Switzerland’s capital, Bern.  I’ll write more about that later. For now, I have to figure out how to bandage up my feet before today’s trip to Murten, a small medieval town about a 45-minute train ride southwest of Biel.

No phone, no help

We woke up around 2 a.m. Saturday morning to the sound of a man snoring in our apartment.

This was not alarming until my jet-lagged brain realized that Dave was awake. We lay there in the dark, trying to imagine the breathing was coming from anywhere but inside our apartment. It was a weird snore – kind of airy like a woman’s, but too voluminous to be anything but male.

We tiptoed around and decided someone was sleeping up against our apartment door out in the hallway.

Our somewhat austere but very sunny flat.

What ensued was a quiet conversation on who to call about this – Switzerland doesn’t have 9-1-1 – they have some other number that we could not remember, but it didn’t matter because we don’t have a phone line, which raises the little-known fact that foreigners have some difficulty in getting local services – a timely blog topic.

The trouble lies in that a person’s credit rating does not necessarily travel with them, so to the Swiss we are like two unreliable 18-year-olds without any credit history. Utility and rental companies also don’t enter into contracts with foreigners until they have a residency permit, which we are still in the process of obtaining (it will take about 10 more days).

And so we do things differently where we can – for example, Dave’s employer is actually the lease-holder on our apartment. They also send a staffer with us on all official business to translate, negotiate and berate wherever necessary.

In this we are lucky – anyone relocating without the benefit of corporate support is really out on a limb, both linguistically and bureaucratically.

But none of that was helpful as we tried to get back to sleep while a potential drifter snoozed only a few yards away. Finally, I got out my mag-lite flashlight, but not the right one. I left the big prison-guard type one back in Canada. This was my mini-mag – roughly the size of three BIC pens taped together.

Dave on a 16th-Century street in Biel

Not that we had plans to assault anyone, even someone who was sound asleep. Despite the fact the government and utilities treat us like teenagers, we know we are over 50 and there are some things we just won’t do. Also, my mother is still alive and it would worry her to see headlines, “Middle-age Canadians in Melee with Swiss Homeless Man,” or the more likely headlines (because we are the outsiders here) “Hapless homeless man famous for saving cat from tree is attacked by unregistered foreigners.”

I worked in news;  I know this could very easily happen.

Like something out of a sitcom, only without the laughter, we leaned up against the door, brandishing our mini-flashlight and quickly opened the door to find … nothing. And yet, we could still hear the snoring as though someone were standing right next to us.

Further investigation led us to believe it was either the refrigerator venting (fridges here are different – as we learned when living in Spain, they have some strange gas-imbedded coolant system, the details of which I do not understand and therefore readers will be spared any further explanation).

And now it is Saturday morning and we are on our way to the open-air street market, and later to Bern where Dave thinks we will do some sightseeing, but I will, in fact, search for an IKEA.

Easter eggs a la Suisse. They're real eggs - we did not buy any to investigate whether the dye seeps through into the albumen.

In other not-so-exciting-as thinking-a-homeless-man-has-moved-into-the-hallway news:

  • Our luggage arrived Thursday night, the green case looking a little worse for wear. I don’t want to say that anyone stomped on it, but it came back with black scuff marks that look like the bottom of a size 9 boot.  Nevertheless, even though it had obviously been opened, nothing was missing.
  • Dave’s company rep made an appointment with the Swiss Police for us to take our photos and fingerprints. Anyone who has undergone a residency application process will know how shocking that last sentence was – that foreigners would actually be granted the courtesy of an appointment? Seemed too good to be true, but when we showed up about 15 minutes early, we were waved inside immediately. The clerk was polite, efficient and we were out of there without having to register DNA samples in no time, leading me to think pleasant thoughts about the Swiss.

Day Two in Switzerland

I studied French for three months to get ready for living in Switzerland. Apparently, I made a mistake.

Things are looking up. Early this morning as we enjoyed a wonderful breakfast in the Hotel Elite’s posh dining room, a waiter with a heavy accent asked if we would like him to take our photograph together.

I said yes, thinking that he had asked if I wanted a whole pot of coffee at our table. As I said, his accent was heavy. I was pretty enthusiastic about the pot of coffee, which did not materialize. Not so enthusiastic about the picture, which accurately records the previous day’s trauma on my face.

And then I lost the digital photos – some how. Some way. It was wonderful.

After breakfast we trundled down to the Hotel Mercure to meet a representative who would walk us through our setting-up day. We waited around for an apartment rental agent who showed up fashionably attired and fashionably late. As per usual, she forgot to bring the right key to show us the apartment, but then we lucked out and discovered the cleaning staff were inside and the door was open.

Having seen  plans that took months to build fail at a rate of one-per-hour over the course of a single day, we took a run at the apartment as though we were hipsters. We didn’t ask all the important questions, paid almost no attention to any details because hanging over our heads was the biggest question of all: Why bother? If we learned anything this week, it is to be reckless.

Evidence of a parallel universe: Coke Light instead of Diet Coke.

Next came our visit to the police station for our residency papers where a genetically linked version of Attila the Hun in menopausal-woman-form handled our file. I’m not insulting her when I say “menopausal,” because I’m in that state myself, but she looked really bitter about her hormone depletion. Me, I’m too sleep-deprived to be bitter.

As one would expect, she grimly informed us that there were not enough signatures on our apartment lease. She said this in French but I understood her perfectly owing to our parallel menopausal status. I almost congratulated her on the way out. You have to respect a woman who can glance at a bundle of officious documents and pick a needle out of that haystack to make our introduction to Biel just a little more cumbersome.

We walked to the rental office where everyone told us in French that the signature was unattainable because the

Strange little garden-shed villages line the rails between Zurich and Biel.

manager was away. Again, I understood every word. There is something about rejection that I am growing to recognize.

After some verbal rough-housing with our representative, the papers were signed and we went back to the police station where we had a non-menopausal young woman process our application, and things went much better. Nevertheless, while we were told we’d get our permits today, turns out it could take another week or two. Naturally.

On a more personal note, without the benefit of my hair “toolkit,” my hairstyle grows more exciting everyday. Pictures will not be posted.

31-hour day

I have had less than five hours sleep over the past 48 hours – or is it 60 hours? Who knows? Overseas travel has addled my brain, so please excuse any craziness in this post.

Yesterday, almost everything went wrong, just as expected. This is “travel” after all, a word very much like travail.

We saw early clues that things would not go as planned: A delayed flight caused us to miss our connection; then more ominously, when the Air Canada agent called down to baggage to pull our suitcases, no one answered.  Wherever the baggage handlers were, they must have stayed there for six hours – the length of time they had to reroute our baggage, which as I’ve already pointed out – they did not.

Finally, instead of giving us an electronic ticket for the new flight path, the agent handed us an old-fashioned paper ticket, at which point my over-planning, hyper-compulsive organizational neuroses snorted awake and kicked my adrenalin into gear, but I told it to go back to sleep. Stupid me.

That one little failure-to-react-to-administrative-bungling led to ruin,  and by ruin I mean ruined appearance. Our baggage stayed in Vancouver, and so for the moment, I’ve lost my make-up kit, my hair-styling toolbox, 98% of the clothing I packed for over here – the whole shebang.

Thusly, unsupported by all the implements that make me reasonably presentable, I am wandering around Switzerland in a troll-like state.  It’s okay. This is Europe, the land that brought the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale troll to the world, and so I fit right in. All that’s missing is a bridge to crawl under.

The real fun happened, however, when we arrived at the Swiss Air gate at Heathrow where a boarding agent refused to accept our Air Canada paper-issue ticket and boarding pass.

Dave went into speechless gasp mode; I went into ‘not-gonna-take-this’ mode, and launched into a “You may not care about us, but you’re violating your code-share contract with Air Canada and Star Alliance” argument. This must be done carefully, because it is a London airport and disgruntled passengers’ attitudes can be readjusted with the light application of a Taser.

I don’t actually know this. I just suspect it.

But to get back to the agent who was dismissive as only people who deliver devastating news can be: We held our ground until a manager came over and menacingly informed us that they had our credit card information and were prepared to use it.

What did he mean by that? We are nervously watching our credit card balance to see if he went out and bought a car at our expense, but really we are at the point where we don’t care – just as long as they let us on the plane, which they did eventually.

It makes one wonder if we were mere moments away from starting new lives as homeless people in London. Is this how it begins – a little bump off  aircraft in a foreign country, credit cards and all financial resources abducted by surly airline staff, followed inevitably by sleeping on cold pavement, eating in soup kitchens, wandering Hyde Park, that sort of thing.

In Zürich, Dave sailed through the passport check, as is normal. He has on-sight likability so even when his papers are not exactly correct or he fumbles, people smile warmly and wave him through.

Charming Biel/Bienne, which our hotel clerk says is a "dump," but we think it looks fine.

I, however, do not have this innate charm.  People glance over me once and know right away that I’m related to people who were shipped off to Siberia. Europeans in particular can sense this, and so the border official grilled me to well-done before stamping my passport.

Moments later we discovered our luggage was missing. It made sense and we felt a certain calm in the universal consistency that nothing was going according to plan.

Bereft of our earthly travel possessions (aforementioned make-up, hair styling implements, etc.) we made our way to customs, taking a wrong turn at the last moment and finding ourselves un-inspected and in Switzerland. This is a moment when everything goes right for Dave and he moseys along to his train. It is usually a moment where I get arrested/apprehended/turned-back/sent-to-Siberia for 25 years.

For once, that did not happen. We found the train, a few good shoe stores (to settle my nerves) and then our hotel.

Leg One Okay, Leg Two, not so good

Leg One: Neighbour Dan arrives in his posh Ford Flex hybrid to drive us to airport.  Traffic congestion – moderate. Arrival at airport – on time.  On-ride conversation: Politics and general grousing about stupid decision to put McKenzie overpass at McTavish (yes, that is the McKenzie overpass, just put in the wrong place – sorry only Victorians will know what I’m talking about here).

Why I carry a lime-green suitcase - here is the last place we saw it at Victoria Airport. Poor little suitcase. Will we ever see it again?

Leg Two: First flight to Vancouver delayed; we may not make our connection to Toronto.

Leg Two the second: One flight from Victoria to Vancouver cancelled to mechanical issues. Crowd at Gate 6 searches under seats for pitchforks, farming implements. Finding none, they shrug and line up like Canadians, wearing their sternest frowns of disapproval.

Leg Two the third: Arrive in Vancouver and as per instruction, race to Air Canada service desk to join fray of angry/annoyed/resigned passengers whose trips have taken unexpected turns/delays. Not us. We’re happy that a. no planes have crashed (so far) and that b. I decided to wear athletic gear instead of 3″ heels and dress clothes.  Feeling exhilarated from sprinting up staircase.

Leg Two the fourth: Rerouted to Heathrow. Stuck in Vancouver Airport for six hours. Not so bad. Air Canada is buying us lunch and we’re sitting at Monk’s restaurant where a greasy guy with too many beer bottles at his table is staring at me.  Has he mistaken me for 24-year-old blond.  Not likely. Creepy.

On the plus side: Air Canada staff were delighted to hear my suitcase is lime green – making it much easier for them to find and redirect.

Latest development: We had to switch tables so Dave could plug in his laptop. Am now seated next to creepy staring guy.  Stay tuned.

Check out our restaurant review on Monks Grill @ YVR at

Fly away

What goes through my mind when I am on a plane.

Some days are meant for Prozac, and this is one of them.  After three flights and 14 hours plus one 90-minute train ride, we arrive in Biel/Bienne, Switzerland where we will be whisked away to a police station.

This is true. Before we can  rent a place, start work, order hamburgers, make our first attempts at yodeling, we have to get our residency permit from the local municipality, as represented by their police force.

The last time I had to visit a foreign police station, it was off a gritty Madrid alleyway. There, migrants waited for hours before getting inside the station where tense, gun-swinging officers patrolled a small waiting room that was  jammed with  people from nations where underarm deodorant  had not yet been introduced, which was a bad thing because it was over 35 C and we were packed in tight.

As one uniformed officer-or-soldier roughly herded a burqa-wearing woman and her startled kids through the crowd I tried to look like I had mistaken the station for the coffee shop next door. I was prepared to blurt out an order for coffee at the first sign of impending arrest or shooting, but my Spanish was poor, so I could just as easily have said, “Take me to your leader,” or “I have a gun.”

I’ve been under threat of arrest before, although I didn’t really believe it until afterwards when I inquired from a  police-friend and Crown prosecutor buddy, both of whom said, “Yup, he could have arrested you for (indecipherable legalese mumbo-jumbo).”

But that was when I was a reporter. So while the officer glared, I laughed brazenly, partly because he had once explained how he used glaring to maintain a  “command presence” at a crime/investigation scene, but mostly because I had seen him cower when his 12-year-old daughter walked in on an interview and put him in his place for forgetting to let her know he was working overtime. No cop can recover a “command presence” after that.

But I drift. The point is that just when I am at my worst (14-hours of white-knuckle flight-time plus more than 24-hours without sleep), I am going to try to be at my best so that the friendly Swiss police will lift the gate and let me in to their perfect country.

On one hand, I want it to go well, but on the other hand, if it doesn’t, I will have something interesting to write about – for once.

Suitcase Security

In my previous life as a staff reporter at a serious daily newspaper,  my editors would sometimes obliquely mock our readers by forcing reporters, myself included, to write stories that revealed the editorial staff’s estimation of the readers’ intelligence.

The story would expound the gritty minutae of a task so universally understood that the reporter would know instantly that its publication would tar him/her forever as the designated village-idiot. There is nothing the reporter could do about this.

What follows is what one such story might look like, a story about how to fit a strap around your suitcase.

You may have seen similar stories in fine publications like The Globe and Mail and The National Post, one of which actually published a Page A3 story on how to hold a kitchen knife. Page A3 is usually reserved for top local news, crime, politics or events/people of note.

No doubt, the reporter had her own unwritten thoughts on uses for knives.

Face-to-face with a government bureaucrat

Have just finished reading up on friends’ travels through places tropic populated with elephants and water buffaloes and have to say: Glad I’m not there.

Her hubby had to run back to Canada to deal with errant tenants, leaving the wife in a village hut with a sheet for a door. She was recovering from Dengue fever, which made her feel as though her bones were broken.

I suppose it’s part of the adventure, but if Dave left me in a remote village with cantankerous ungulates and a fabric lock-less door, heck would follow.

But she is having fun, if catching tropical diseases can be called that, and good for her.

Me, I’m still comfy in my home with plenty of solid doors, but not for long.

The trip to the Swiss Consulate was a disappointment.

The traffic into Vancouver was non-existent and we virtually whisked our way down to Canada Place on the shores of the Burrard Inlet. We found the Consulate with only a little fuss, were admitted immediately and met with a polite and exceedingly helpful bureaucrat who in under 15 minutes gave Dave his visa and said I could get through the border without trouble and finish up my visa application while in Switzerland.

“It will take about a week,” she said.

This ruins everything.

I’ve set my expectation-o-meter to “appalled” and having reality smack my worldview around requires that I get a new attitude. Matters worsened on the ferry ride home when we ran into friends returning from holiday and passed the 90-minute journey over coffee discussing how their car got broken into while on their week away. I loved this story. It was proof that travel is annoying.

The car-break-in, however, was interrupted by security and so the car was undamaged and nothing was stolen. More proof that I am wrong that travel is just asking for trouble.

This has put me in a dour mood, but things are looking up: It appears that the amount of stuff I need to pack will exceed the space available in our suitcases, thanks to the airline’s recent baggage allowance changes.

Ah, something to be miserable about … that’s the stuff.

Visa day

Today we make the 45-minute-drive, 45-minute-ferry-wait, 90-minute-ferry-ride, 40-minute-drive to the Consulate to get Dave’s visa.  It’s a cumbersome trip that starts with a 4  a.m. wake-up, but it’s necessary because the only alternative is to mail Dave’s  passport to them.

In other words, the passport, a document issued by a federal bureaucracy, would travel  via Canada Post, a second federally overseen bureaucracy, to a foreign federal bureaucracy for approval.  You may notice I used the terms “federal” and “bureaucracy three times.” Yes, mailing a passport would trigger the Bermuda Triangle Law of Bureaucracies, in other words, doom would inevitably follow.

Note: For this excursion, I get up at 4 a.m. Dave gets up at 4:45. This is one of the usual gender inequities of nature, that wherever a couple needs to go, the man can get ready in under five minutes. A woman, through no fault of her own, needs 90 minutes prep-time at a minimum. Am I wrong about this?

Let’s not discuss it now. It’s 5 a.m. as I write, and I’m a little growly, owing to the early hour and the fact that my own visa is nowhere in sight.

Starbucks in Bern.


Starbucks in Bern, Switzerland – signs of civilization.

How I got this way

“You’re living the dream,” is what people say when they learn we’re heading to Europe for an extended stay, but I don’t always feel that way.  Hotel-living, travel, sight-seeing, modest cardiac-safe levels of adventure – what’s not to like?

Bureaucrats, that’s what’s not to like.

Yesterday’s discovery that our designated bureaucrat forgot to process my visa application  is a classic twist in the overseas-working-holiday picture.  In short, whatever you expect the bureaucrat to do, whatever he/she says they’re doing – it is not so.

And the fact that they hold your passport and identity information, plus wield the awesome powers of “the state,” forces you to be your better self when dealing with them, when really you want to be your five-year-old, tantrum-throwing self.

Our friends Al & Nina (not their real names – must shield their identities from foreign bureaucrats who might wreak horrible vengeance on them for sharing this story) danced this dark waltz with Spanish visa authorities who insisted she stay in Canada during her application while sending him willy nilly around the globe fetching documents to feed into their paper shredders (I’m sure this is true).

After sending Al to Japan on a boomerang mission to fetch security clearance from a northern district’s police department, because they had lived there once, and then return immediately to British Columbia, and then back to Toronto to pick up their visas, a Spanish official handed Al his visa, with a dark comment about Al stealing jobs from decent, hard-working Spaniards (Al’s company was creating 400 jobs for those Spaniards, but visa bureaucrats are weak on math).

And then, the official turned to Nina and informed her that her visa had been denied.  Nina – who had endured a forced year-long  separation from her beloved because of this bureaucrat – is ordinarily a suave, well-dressed, dignified, intelligent and articulate woman.

As she threw herself against the embassy’s safety glass, she reminded the official that while inside the embassy she “may technically be on Spanish territory, but you have to come out sometime, and when you do, you’ll be in MY country and I”LL be WAITING.” Nina  managed to say a few more things as her husband physically dragged her out of the building, but I don’t want this blog to get blocked for inappropriate content, so you will have to imagine the rest.

We are waiting for the day that embassy’s security tapes get hacked and put up on Youtube. It’s going to be a doozy of a show.

In the meantime, I’m coping with my own visa-stress by applying generous dollops of Breyers Black Forest ice cream to my thighs,via my digestive system, of course.

Just about the right amount of ice cream required to soothe bureaucrat-burn.


Visa-watch Day 3: Nothing.  Just as expected.

Our dog, certified for global travel by Canada, Spain, the U.S. and Australia. Thank you, Spanish immigration services, who by the way, never asked to see his documentation when we arrived in Madrid.

In 1998, Dave was offered work in Madrid, Spain. With assurances that a visa would take only four months to process, perhaps quicker because Dave’s employers hired “international transfer professionals” to hurry things along, we started packing, said good-bye to everyone in a flurry of farewell dinners, sent Boy-the-first over to school in Germany so we’d be on the same continent (he was university-age by then), and notified Boy-the-second’s school to prepare his transcripts for transfer.

And then waited another year before the visa was approved, raising suspicions that we harboured a seamy criminal past that was so unsavory even the Spanish couldn’t abide it.

And so as the year-long wait waxed on, exchanges of this sort grew: At the grocery store, a cashier asked, “Aren’t you supposed to be in Spain?” causing the other cashiers and a mob of shoppers to freeze, turn their eyes on me, waiting (hoping) for a public confession (small towns really operate on this “choral” level – live in one and you will know).

This happened when I filled up the car with gas, picked up Boy-the-second at school, showed up at committee meetings, ordered prescriptions, browsed books at the library, mowed the lawn, gathered my mail … you get the picture.

Meanwhile, Spanish bureaucrats had their fun with us, making us race around getting our dog certified by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency for transport (the word “food” in the certification process raising our suspicions about the Spaniards’ intentions), getting police clearances from everywhere we had lived before, even for our sons who were minors on all our past relocations, getting our fingerprints at the RCMP station, and letters from our doctor swearing we didn’t suffer from psychosis, parasites or dreaded diseases (true – I just found those letters while clearing out some old files last week).

But what did we expect from a country famous for the Spanish Inquisition?

The first place

From Dave's "check-it-out" visit in January 2011

All trips begin long before arrival at the airport, packing the trunk and buying health insurance. They begin when someone wakes up one morning, looks out the window and thinks, “I’ve seen this before. In fact,  everyday.”

That is the beginning. The thought hangs in the air for only a brief moment, until the next thought, which is usually, “Time for coffee,” or if one is married or similarly espoused, “I wonder if my beloved will bring me coffee in bed. Maybe a little nudge will help.”

Travel ideas germinate and these days, they are growing like crazy, if the “interwebs” is any measure. Travel blogs are everywhere and they’re full of great information, most of which goes un-noticed.

I know this, and yet I’ve chosen to blog at the behest of only a few people. Maybe three. It doesn’t take many readers for me to put fingers to keyboard.

But I drift. The point I’m trying to arrive at is that we’ve passed the germination stage of this journey and are still at the static stage, which is that every morning Dave gets up and checks his email to see if our visas have been approved.

You won’t see many pictures of the anticipating traveler hovering over his keyboard every morning. It’s just not glamorous enough, but the truth is that these days, every trip starts this way. If not for waiting on a visa, then for making travel-arrangements, browsing hotels, destinations and the like.

I’m not complaining. This is an improvement over travel circa 1990 when all trip-planning was preceded by 38 minutes of muzak as one waited “on hold” on the phone, stuck to the house by the phone cord, the then-modern-day umbilicus to the travel-mothership, ie. travel agents and or travel-related businesses (airlines, usually).

Those were dreadful days. Let’s not speak of them.

That is where we are today March 21, 2011. Still checking our email, still hovering over the laptop waiting.  It’s not exciting, but it is part of the trip.