1: So Long

Packing is a science.

It was Vivian Moreau’s idea that I blog about our year in Switzerland. As a journalist with an entrepreneurial bend of mind, she suggested this would have the makings of a good travel book, which goes to show that I have hidden my aversion to travel from her quite well.

Everyone is a better traveller than me. Everyone. I like seeing new places, but I hate what it takes to get there.

This open-air cable car just opened in Lucerne. What a pity we don’t have time to ride it. ūüėČ

With the endless stream of travel books and websites available now, I have no illusions of making this into anything other than a semi-personal journal of life as a corporate spouse tagging along after my hubby, which many see as glamorous, but only because they do not know the personal hell corporate couples endure at the hands of foreign bureaucracies.*

Maybe in short and infrequent bursts, corporate travel is a happy novelty, but our experience over 30 years is that it quickly acquires the enchantment of a long-haul bus tour, which is to say, the bathrooms and sleeping arrangements are never as good as those at home.

Still, it is an economical way to see the world, and we’ve done it repeatedly, so the good does outweigh the bad. If the beds, bathrooms and bureaucracies are the minuses on this crazy life; a front-row seat watching how foreign people live and how their countries work are the pluses.

This is the last Hobonotes post, unless something faintly amusing occurs on our trip home tomorrow. For our friends and family reading this, see you soon. For strangers we picked up along the way, thank you for joining us and for your engaging feedback.

* Also, I will not do truly adventurous things, like fling myself off a cliff, trusting my life to a thin sheet of fabric (parachuting, paragliding, parasailing, ¬†you name it, I won’t do it). This is a travel blog for the timid.

Somewhat Amusing Anecdotes You May Not Know

  1. Soon after starting this blog, a former colleague demanded via email that I delete a humorous excerpt from an email he/she sent to me some years ago.  I thought about replacing the excerpt with another email he/she wrote wherein he/she used some hostile terms that if reported to our Human Resources Department, would have obliged them to pull him/her through a meat grinder. I never ratted out my former colleague, and he/she is doing well professionally now. I like to think I had a hand in that.
  2. The humorous excerpt is still somewhere on this blog.
  3. The most hits this blog got in a single day was 885. It surprised me, too. It must have streamed into a commercial travel website somewhere in the U.S. (the source of about 845 of those hits).
  4. The all-time top post was the innocuous Luscious Lucerne.  It surpassed the previous top post on Paris and kidneys, which led the pack until this month.
  5. Most hits came from the U.S., Canada and Switzerland. I had readers from every continent and almost every country, but not one hit came from Greenland. Don’t they ever travel? I didn’t do well with African readers either, although I did score a fringe of readers there.

33: What I Will Miss, Item Two

St. Stephen’s Church, Vienna

I will miss the grandeur of old stone churches both stark unadorned Protestant and elaborate ornate Catholic ones. I will also miss how the Europeans re-imagine old architecture in new ways, such as the light show they throw on Vienna’s massive St. Stephen’s Cathedral at night. Unforgettable, too, are the rivers of tourists clicking digital cameras at the sculptures of saints inside while milling around people at prayer. There is something time-warpish about seeing stone figures of long-ago Christians juxtaposed with today’s Christians in the pews surrounding them.

Tourists and congregants mix it up inside St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna.

 

54: Just another beautiful spring day in Switzerland

Our little town’s Lac Biel. Yes, it is this beautiful.

 

There are so many oddities in the world and without question one of them is what defines the desirability of a location. Take our little town, for example. Mention Biel/Bienne to a Swiss national and they curl up their noses as though even the name creates a stench. And yet, it has sweeping pristinely maintained parklands, a large lake, open canals, boat rentals, ¬†theatre, galleries, opera, swans, canyon trails and forested walks through the Jura Mountains that fence our town’s northern edge. It has a medieval quarter,

A funky fence at an outdoor cafe in Biel/Bienne

ample outdoor pedestrian malls, festivals without end, a large recreation facility, ribbons of bike trails, wonderful weather, fabulous restaurants – the list goes on and on.

And yet, when a Swiss person admits they were born and raised in Biel, the admission always comes with the comment, “It’s not so bad.” Dave reckons this is just because the rest of Switzerland is so outstanding that even a beautiful place like Biel cannot compete. Nonetheless, if this town were located anywhere in North America, tourists would flock to it and it would routinely be named in the Top 10 places to visit.

75: Urban Innerscapes or a Tale of Two Continents

Little lanes web through Swiss town's downtown.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pedestrian-only lanes are lovely.

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

Courtyards are common in our Swiss town.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

92: Geneva, Protestants + Catholics and Bookshops

Geneva is garbage, so people say, but we’re not taking anyone’s word for it. We’re going to check it out ourselves today.

We heard the same thing about Z√ľrich and that turned out to be a lovely city with just about everything an urban sightseer could want – including some place with James Joyce’s name inscribed on the wall, but with Germanesque – or was it French? – hieroglyphics so we’re not sure what that was about.

Geneva is home to the CERN collider, some giant underground tunnel where scientists say they are trying to do something with particulate matter, but we suspect it is just a massive public-funded man cave.

It’s also the home of the Red Cross, the U.N., and the location where in 52 B.C. Julius Caesar blew up a bridge. Some say it is also the home of the Reformation, but I thought that was in Germany, but then perhaps it really was all over Europe. Surprisingly, the Reformation was actually intended to reform the Catholic church itself as opposed to dividing it into two Christian entities.

Off the Shelf English Bookshop - Oh glory be!

In what may have been the genesis of Swissness, in 1533 A.D. some Catholic priests tried to incite the citizens to massacre the Protestants, but this being Switzerland (well, not in 1533, but sometime later it would become Switzerland), the Catholics shrugged and said whatever.

That wasn’t the end of it – there was back and forth, a few street riots and so forth ¬†until a treaty was signed that agreed Genevans could choose their own religion, which certainly is in line with what Jesus seemed to teach when he told people to investigate for themselves the claims about him. Seems fair enough. Otherwise this country would have turned out to resemble Iran, religion-optional-wise.

But we are not the type of tourists to troll museums and investigate such lofty things: Dave has discovered Geneva has a bookstore with an English section. It might even be an entire store of English books, which will be something like uncovering the Holy Grail in this land of Languages-Other-Than-English. That will be Stop One of today’s trip.

English bookstores are to be prized. In our time in Spain in the days before Amazon.com and The Book Depository (the real name of a European online book supplier, that seems completely unaware of the American cultural significance of the words “the book depository”) we fed off a tiny airport-store-like bookstore that had one little rotating tower of English books, forcing us to become fans of Maeve Binchy romance books. For some reason Irish authors are popular in Spain. Maybe they do it to poke at the British.

FASCINATING SIDE NOTE: Rick Steves, American travel guru par excellence is well-hated in Switzerland for this fact: Geneva does not even figure into his guidebooks. In fact, Geneva does not appear even in his index, although Lake Geneva does. How’s that for a slap in the face? Yet, Geneva’s tourism office, in very offended tones, says most of their tourists come from America, so even U.S. citizens know to ignore Steves. Sniff. How about that for ¬†travelogue tiff? I will put on my impartial journalism cap and let you know whether to skip this city or not).

SECOND FASCINATING SIDE NOTE: One year ago today we left our Victoria, B.C. home to come here.

95: More on Mulhouse

Hundreds of diners in Mulhouse's street cafes and not a single laptop in sight.

We had to leave Switzerland to get to Mulhouse, France, but this was not always a necessity. From 1515 to 1648, Mulhouse, then a free republic, was “an associate” of Switzerland, and did not formally join France until it went through some alterations by over-riding treaties with pretty names (Westphalia) and in 1798 voted itself into France during the early stages of the French Revolution. Basically, the residents said if there’s going to be guillotining, we want to be sure to be on the right side of the blade.

This kind of history always fascinates me, because it is a reminder that Europe is as tribal as Afghanistan, Africa and the scarier parts of Asia, not to mention the American aboriginal population. Yet somehow, France, Germany, Switzerland and the rest all managed to cobble themselves into nations and organize themselves to a degree where they were able to overwhelm other ‘nations’ that had less control over their tribalistic qualities.

We thought the Swiss and the Germans were serious about chocolate, but Mulhouse's chocolatiers take it to a new level. Do not miss the opportunity to try the local creme-filled chocolates. Ooo la la!

But back to Mulhouse: Is it worth the visit? Yes, it is, especially if you love museums, most of which I avoided due to my aforementioned intense allergy to boredom. This is the fault of my early education which was packed with field trips to museums where we mostly stood around in large packs waiting for a guide to finish explaining to us the importance of weaving in ancient populations. It was fine for a person so inclined toward textile history, but that is not for everyone, especially not for a bunch of eight-year-olds.

And while you are there be sure to taste the goodies from its numerous chocolate and pastry shops. They might be more responsible for the existence of the French national character than any past armed conflicts. The ice cream is not as good as Italy’s, but it is still delicious and proof that if the French understand anything, it is how to treat cream, sugar and all the good that flows from these ingredients.

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101: How Liz Lemon Saved My Life

The media used to say that Oprah Winfrey was America’s favorite girlfriend, overlooking the fact that no one is a better friend than a galpal whose life is constantly careening out of control, someone like Liz Lemon, who I will allow is not a real person.

A recent 30 Rock episode had Tina Fey’s alter ego Liz Lemon feigning personal filth, homelessness and plague-carrying contagion in a bid for more personal space on New York’s crowded subways and streets. Check it out here.¬†

It turns out that Tina Fey knew what she was talking about. Like Liz Lemon, I am a closet Emily-Post-aholic. I like good manners. I don’t always have good manners, but I really like it when others do. The problem is that societal compliance on this point is not as broadly practised as it should be.

Case in point: People who do not bathe seem to have no problems cozying up to those of us who do, usually in places from which we cannot escape, such as the grocery store line-up. They snuggle in, exuding the aroma of week-old nicotine, alcohol fermenting through their pores, and a body odor that I will not name (good manners prohibits it).

Oprah, loved by millions, has not helped me at all with my crazies-crowding-at-cash-out problem.

Ten minutes ago, this was exactly my personal experience at a nearby grocery store. A man dressed in clothes that could rightly be called a compost heap got in line next to me at the cash-out. I say “next” to me as opposed to “behind” me because he stood beside me, facing me, breathing down on me as though he were a personal delivery system for stale used oxygen loaded with carcinogenic molecules. My gag reflex was set to “vomit,” but there was nothing I could do but endure. It was that or abandon the line and as a serial shopper, I have never left my cash-out post. Ever.

In the past, my normal methodology to regain my personal space and some breathable air would be taken from my high school basketball days, which is that I would pivot in place, thus smacking said offender with my packsack or perhaps a random elbow, but no one can prove the latter. If that did not do the trick, I would step back into the too-close-non-companion, sometimes even stepping on toes.

This could be a form of assault, but who would convict me?

The problem with today’s freakoid was that he was so repugnant on every level of sensibility that I could not risk grazing the guy – the disease-and-pestilence factor was too high to chance. Enter Liz Lemon.

Desperate, gagging, I pulled a tissue out of my pocket and proceeded to empty my nasal passages into it. The problem is that I am not congested, so I really had to work at it to produce the correct repulsive qualities. From my peripheral vision, I spied the stinker take a step back. I laid my goods out on the grocery belt and then engaged in a coughing fit in his general direction. My performance drove the entire line-up back into the aisle,* even though I covered my mouth while coughing (some good manners are reflexive, I cannot cough without covering up or my mother might appear and smack me on the back of my head).

This is Europe, the land where lining up at a cash till is a contact sport, and yet, as my coughing continued and my groceries moved down the conveyor belt, the stinker was so aghast that he did not place any of his groceries in behind mine. No one did. I had not only a berth of about four feet to myself, but so did my food.

The cashier, instead of handing the receipt to me, tossed it in my direction, eying me for signs of smallpox. I felt like I had just won an Oscar for my performance.

Thank you, Tina Fey.

*This is true, except for a boy who looked to be about 7 years old, who began coughing with me. Visions of the plague revisited must have danced in the other shoppers’ heads.

** The stands-too-close stinker also wore dark aviator sunglasses inside the store. Does anyone else find that creepy?

The countdown continuation …

On March 23, this blog celebrates its first birthday. Since then:

250 posts have been tapped out, of which 221 made it to publication.

350 comments were submitted of which 345 were approved. That puzzles me – what were the five unapproved comments that I deigned not fit for readers’ eyes? I will do a search on those later.

1,203 spam comments were filtered out, thank you to WordPress’s gatekeepers

815 tags were attached to the posts, proving that I am a lazy blog-tagger.

10,972 people have visited HoboNotes

67 nations visited (it’s getting crowded in here)

10 Top Countries to visit are:

  1. United States
  2. Canada
  3. Switzerland
  4. Mexico
  5. United Kingdom
  6. Australia
  7. Indonesia
  8. Morocco
  9. Italy
  10. Slovakia

10 most infrequent country visitors are:

  1. Ireland
  2. Hong Kong
  3. Moldova
  4. Sri Lanka
  5. Syrian Arab Republic
  6. Viet Nam
  7. Libyan Arab Jamahiriya
  8. United Arab Emirates
  9. Lithuania
  10. Georgia

The most popular post of all time is (drum roll please)(click on titles to read): Paris food – Can you eat lamb’s kidney without having to sell one of your own?¬†At 405 hits, it outpaces the second most popular post by a whopping¬†145 hits. The second was Switzerland’s “Toronto” (260 hits).

This surprises me, but if I learned anything in my tenure as a reporter, it is that boredom has no correlative factors between the writer and the reader. I once wrote a story on the social ramifications of high winds sweeping through our neighborhood on the day we put out our recycling bins. I didn’t think anyone would read it, but it turns out that having one’s neighbor’s personal mail getting snagged in the shrubs is a topic of endless fascination to Canadians.

But I drift from my numbers game here.

The least read post was Swiss air quality not as pure as the government says, which garnered only two hits. I guess only two other people are as repulsed by the copious cloud cover of cigarette smoke on Switzerland’s streets as I am.

104 is the number that most fascinates me today. It is the number of days we have left here in Switzerland, and in the spirit of writing anything that comes my way, no matter how boring, I am going to post something every one of those 104 days, even if it is just a photograph. It is not that great an accomplishment – I wrote almost daily for most of our time here up to January 2012 even while writing a novel.

This will be of interest only to writers, but whipping out pages of fiction did nothing to slow down my blog-posting, however, the minute I turned to editing and then agent-searching, finding something to blog about became more challenging, likely because those are very inward mental tasks focused entirely on the novel and how to present it, whereas fiction-writing is at once all about memory, interpretation and observation – very outward-looking brain functions.

And so 104 days, here we come. Or as they say in Japan where my readership numbers are weak: ¬†104śó•„ĀĮ„ÄĀ„Āď„Āď„Āß„ĀĮśĚ•„āč

Travels with kids

Many years ago I was at a journalism conference where a much-decorated former staff reporter at a large Canadian newspaper, I think her name was Anne Mullens, said that she had quit the high-pressure newsroom life for one as a freelancer, whereupon she discovered a  thriving market existed for travel-with-children articles.

I am not surprised. Traveling with kids is not for the weak-of-heart or head, takes planning, patience and more pounds of luggage than a childless person could ever imagine.

Mullens came to mind yesterday as we took a relatively easy train-touring day with our friends and their two daughters, the elder an alert four-year-old, and the younger a seven-month-old stroller-bound darling. It was a reawakening to the all-consuming life we once led as parents where the search for washrooms, decent diaper-changing locales and a ready supply of snack foods and entertainment were essential components to the travel plan.

Compared to every other trip we’ve taken this past year, yesterday’s day-trip through Switzerland’s Golden Pass was a tour-de-force. I grew up the older child in a large family and a larger extended family of cousins, spent countless hours volunteering at schools, plus raised two boys who both survived past the statistically dangerous age bracket 17-25, and so while I am not a childcare expert by any stretch of the imagination, I know a thing or two about children, namely: Thing One: They cannot be trusted to behave in a manner consistent with self-preservation. Thing Two: Thing One to the power of ten.

Gstaad, the uber-rich Swiss ski town of $80 Kleenex box cloth covers, $115 coat hangers and $192 polyester scarves where confessed pedophile Roman Polanski was finally arrested in 2009, much to the disappointment of everyone who forgets exactly what he did.

And so I spent most of my day tethered to the four-year-old because if a child wandering away is a nightmare, ¬†even worse is a scenario where a child wanders away in a foreign country where 911 is not keyed into the nation’s telecommunications infrastructure (every zone and emergency service has a different phone code here), and where we do not know how to say in German, French or Italian “Aiiiiiiiiieeeeeeeeeee, help us find a little girl with black hair, brown eyes dressed in a pink plaid kilt and rose-coloured turtle-neck sweater!!!!”

Okay, we know how to say “aiiiiiieeeeeee,” in any language, but the rest would be very challenging to translate.

The four-year-old, understood well the importance of hanging on to her adults – if she had a blog she would probably be writing about how absent-minded old people are and need to be clutched constantly lest they drift off into a souvenir shop, but she understood more than that. In Gstaad, she spied another little girl threading solo through the crowd.

“Where are her parents!” the sage four-year-old declared, more than inquired, as she spun her head around looking for the loose child’s corresponding adults. She spied a likely couple and made a derogatory remark about their lax supervisory skills.

She’s four, but she’s already showing signs of genius.

Culture Chasms in the Change Room

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bratislava bathroom: What the heck is that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bratislava the Beautiful

Despite rampant graffiti, vacant streets and widespread signs of urban rot, Bratislava is a European city and therefore, still rich in magnificent architecture. What makes it outstanding in some measure is that it is a living urban museum of its past. Like all European cities, attempts are ongoing to wash out signs of WWII and the economic trashing it produced, so if you want to see something before municipal planners hit the “delete” button, go to Bratislava. Slovakia may be in the economic basement, but there are signs of an upward swing. And if the money should present itself, it might start facelifting-away those markers of its sad history. Why not? The Berliners did it, eradicating all but a small strip of the Berlin Wall? Still, as an anti-revisionist, I hope they leave some scruffy bits.

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How to get more blog hits and a little on locked churches.

I have learned something about blogs and how to get more hits. Just in case you’ve ever researched this topic before, there are plenty of sites that give you tips on this, but none of them work. Just saying.

What does work, however, is posting a picture of an attractive young couple, as I did earlier this week. I had no idea it would have the impact that it did. My web-hits zooooomed upwards. But that is a cheap and tawdry trick, although many successes are built on such (People Magazine, ET Online to name a few).

So, today, we are back to our regular programming, which is photos of old buildings. Some of them aren’t even pretty. Here’s a start with a photo of a Catholic church in Bratislava, Slovakia. You may notice a glass sheen in front of it. That is because the church was locked. In fact, Bratislava is the first European city we have visited to have locked churches. A look at the streets told us why: The place looks impoverished, and so it’s ¬†fair guess that vandalism might be an issue. We did sneak into a church, however, immediately after a small group celebrating an infant baptism was let out. Dave was a little antsy about doing that in a country where the last time they saw someone in my bloodline, they shot at him, but I say, what the heck. Just go for it. And no one shot at us.

This is what is outside.

This is what is inside.

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.

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.

Packing day

It takes me two hours to ¬†leave the house, ergo with a little application of mathematical principles (multiplication, the most complex math I know), it would appear it will take me three weeks to leave the country. We fly on Tuesday, so I’m already behind schedule.

Quasi-moving packing is not the same as three-week excursion packing, but with nowhere else to go, I turned to Rick Steves, American travel guru to Europe http://www.ricksteves.com/plan/tips/packlight.htm. Steves recommends packing no more than 20 lbs. in a carry-on bag and to prove it can be done, his website has a video tape of him unpacking his stuff.

It looks like a bit of a magic trick Рhe puts the suitcase on the bed, opens up the top and like a magician pulling rabbits out of hats, pulls out a stream of clothes and travel gear. I suspect there was a hole in the bottom of the suitcase  and all that stuff really had been hidden in the mattress below.

When we moved to Spain in 1999, we were each allowed two pieces of luggage weighing in at 75 lbs. each, if my memory is correct. We packed to maximum capacity, dragging our aggregate body weight overseas. Occasionally, we were upgraded to executive class, allowing us to pack three bags – or was it four?

Our luggage-weight ballooned to the point that when our younger son and I landed in Chicago we had to hire a porter. I felt like Elizabeth Taylor, minus the striking beauty and wealth. ¬†Nevertheless, the porters’ expressions when they saw us coming down the ramp at O’Hare was a sight to behold. We may have had to hire two, but I can’t remember for sure, mostly because I couldn’t see above the luggage, which included a large crate with an 80 lb. dog.

On that round-the-world excursion, we landed in Australia with a baggage-load ¬†so extreme, we had to mail several hockey-bags worth of stuff back to Canada at a cost exceeding $400 (in 2000 dollars – which would probably be about $408 now). That’s a lot of postage stamps.

I’m trying to avoid all that by sticking to the strict dietary-packing guidelines Air Canada is forcing on me now, but packing for four seasons and more than a year overseas is tricky business. I managed to get everything into one suitcase, except for my winter gear. I’ll still be able to do it, but it will take two trips (one suitcase apiece) instead of one.

____________

And now for the serious middle-age traveler who is mildly curious about real luggage advice:

  1. Expensive versus cheap luggage: Go with cheap. We’ve hauled Wal-Mart-issue suitcases around the globe without any seam-ripping, zipper-splitting, contents-bursting effects.
  2. But what if the cheap stuff breaks anyway: It is more fun replacing a $40 suitcase than a $697 suitcase.
  3. What if I’m still nervous about my luggage’s durability? Luggage shops sell luggage straps for about $4 that you can secure around your bag just in case the zipper does give way. Airlines usually provide giant heavy-duty plastic bags with postage-standard tape at no cost so at check-in you can bag and seal your goods.
  4. Hard-case or softshell luggage: Go with soft-shell. In a non-scientific survey of two (my cheap luggage versus my friends’ high-end/status luggage, my soft (hockey bag or fabric suitcase with frame) luggage was able to take the squeeze of the luggage compartment. ¬†Hers cracked, spraying blueberry jam over all their clothes.
  5. Who carries blueberry jam on a trip to the tropics? Despite what North America’s eastern Maple Syrup lobby tells you, it is blueberry jam, not maple syrup, that sets us apart from other countries, therefore, all North American cottagers carry wild blueberry jam on out-of-country trips. It is currency in foreign lands.
  6. Carry-on luggage: Wheeled suitcase or backpack: If possible, take a hybrid that does both. Touring calls for stair-climbing (think of all those beautiful hilltop villages in Spain) and pulling a wheeled case is like sightseeing with a stroller, ie. it’s work.
  7. What to pack: As little as possible. It’s better to pack light and buy whatever else you need at your destination, even if you have to discard it or give it away to strangers before boarding the flight home, or do what I do, which is
  8. Pack heavy: But engage in a year-long weight-training program to bulk up so you can sling 50 lb. suitcases with ease.

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 Рwho had endured a forced year-long  separation from her beloved because of this bureaucrat Рis 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.

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.