39: Saint-Ursanne: Founded by Rogueish Irish Monks

Saint Ursanne’s town core appears to have been a fortress that steps up into the Jura cliffs.

Saint-Ursanne is reportedly home to the sarcophagus of St. Ursicinus, a 7th-Century Irish monk exiled from France’s Burgundy region, although it is not clear if Ursicinus himself was exiled, or if he was merely following St. Columbanus who was most probably exiled, but may have just left the area due to continuing annoyances with the Frankish bishops.

Apparently, when the French called St. Columbanus to court to defend his observation of the Celtic dates for Easter, he simply failed to appear, but gave them the courtesy of a letter in which he reportedly said the bishops might include other important topics among their priorities besides the ancient Celtic religious calendar, all of which goes to show that Europeans have been rubbing each other the wrong way long before the Eurozone was introduced.

A replica of a statue of St John Nepomuk stands at the midway point of Saint-Ursanne’s Pont Saint-Jean Nepomucene. Built in 1973 by Laurent Boillat, it takes the weather-beatings, while the original statue carved from red sandstone hewn from Basel’s region is safe inside a nearby museum.

St. Columbanus is, by the way, the patron saint for motorcyclists, although how that happened I do not know because it would be 1,100 years after Columbanus’s death that motorcycles would be invented.

No matter. Intriguingly enough, Saint-Ursanne was packed with motorcycles the day we were there. I did not photograph any because motorcycles seem visually incongruous with 12th Century architecture. Not everyone will agree with me about this.

Despite this town’s close proximity to the French and German borders, there was no mention in  the brochure of how it weathered either World War, particularly WWII when the Swiss were readying to head for the hills in response to a threatened German invasion. There is an engraved marker in the cliff by the train station that lists WWI dates, so we might assume that Saint-Ursanne was among the Swiss observation points during that conflict.

Saint-Ursanne will be honoured this year (2012) by the Tour de France, which will pass through it around July 7th.

Tripadvisor only lists two inns in Saint-Ursanne. A Google search shows a little more than that. A nearby company rents kayaks and canoes for a paddle in the River Doubs.

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57: Stats-urday

Our Swiss town is in bloom from the ground all the way up to the treetops. The air is delicious.

Everyone complains about McDonalds food, but does anyone appreciate its value as an economic indicator?

Believe it or not, the price of a Big Mac tops the list of economic indicators at an international statistics website, which makes perfect sense to us because at some point, we all have to rely on a Big MacAttack to raise our blood sugar levels when overseas and surrounded by local cuisine aka unidentifiable food.

NationMaster.com reports that in Canada a Big Mac costs $3.01 while in Switzerland it costs $4.93. I don’t want to cast aspersions on NationMaster.com, but hamburgers here cost more than that. Dave estimates we pay $6 (Cdn) for a Big Mac, or $12.50 if we decide to live it up and order the Big Mac Meal. To be fair, NationMaster sources this particular piece of data back to 2006.

Nonetheless, Canadians will be thrilled to know that according to IMB International, while the Swiss are renowned for their fidelity to modelling to the world how to stay on-time and fiscally sound, Canada still ranks higher for business efficiency at 5th place. Switzerland was 8th. This data is seven years old, but it makes my homeland look good so I’m not going to search for more recent figures.

Our GDP per capita is six per cent higher, too. That’s another figure I’m not going to update.  And our gross national income is a whopping 146% higher – take that Switzerland! Canada rules.

On a more personal financial note: Dave’s Swiss salary is on par with his Canadian salary, but our cost-of-living is significantly higher here. I should emphasize significantly (the triple-threat of emphasis – bolded, italicized and underlined!), all the more so because we are living a very green, pared-back lifestyle here compared to our lives in Canada.

In Canada, we have a 2400-square-foot four-bedroom house; here we have a 400-square-foot single room bachelor suite. There, we have two cars in our garage. Here, we walk everywhere we go and rely on trains for out-of-town trips. There, we eat restaurant food probably once a week, more when we were both working. Here, we dine out about once every three months (this excludes sandwich and hamburger joints where we fill up while touring). By all counts, we should be spending less money here, but we actually spend more. A lot more.

And now for less painful statistics …

BlogBits

This week on Hobonotes stats page:

  • Top three countries: Canada, U.S. and Switzerland. Oddly for some reason, Canada pounds out everyone else with over 200 hits while the U.S. logged only 60. I know Americans will not take this sitting down.
  • Bottom three countries: Greece, Denmark and Austria
  • Readers from Japan: Two.
  • Oddest search term: “Loads of people riding elephants in India.” As this blog covers neither crowd issues, pachyderms or India, I am at a loss to explain how Google brought this reader to this site.
  • Blogoddity: This week is the first when the topic of Paris food did not make it to the top ten of most read posts. I know the French will not take this sitting down.

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?

Where to next?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

87: Dum dee dum dum dumb at the drugstore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blogbits

On Hobonotes’ most recent daily report:

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

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

90: Junking Geneva + Random Numbers

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


Junking Geneva

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cafe-Creperie Saint-Pierre, Geneva

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

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

Over the last week:

For the curious – blog stats report:

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


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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96: Mulling around in Mulhouse, France

He was a big Frenchman in a wrinkled militia-styled jacket, shaved head and stubble-shadowed jaw. As we threaded through the medieval square’s cafe’s tables, he blocked David’s way, smiled and said something in French.

Dave tried to turn the rugged and somewhat aggressive panhandler away, but before things could get worse, and by worse I mean us not getting a table, I jumped in and told the man we prefer to sit in the sun.

Our French maitre'd did not look so scary once he took off his scrappy jacket and shed the shades, but he still has a bar-bouncer physique. We dared not leave any food on our plate, lest we insult him or his establishment's chefs.

This is the problem with not speaking the local language – all a person has to draw on are appearances and my beloved thought the man was about to demand his wallet, although in a very engaging and musical way because after all, this was France, the land that we cannot stop loving no matter how many times it offends our sensibilities.

The rough-cut maitre’d somehow blended coquettish charm with a bullish demeanor. Don’t ask me how. It is a mystery. After delivering us to our table au soleil, we watched him marshall the area with a militaristic machismo. When a motorcyclist parked his bike in a spot deemed inappropriate, the maitre’d took on the appearance of a gendarme. It was impressive.

The funny thing in France is that they all seem to have a good understanding of English, but they refuse to speak it. And while they are famous for being snotty on this point, our experience is that they are quite gracious. In fact, the only place where the French have gotten uppity with me over language is in Canada, which is ironic given what an old-French pioneering family I come from.

But enough rambling. Our Swiss watchmaking town is only 100 km away from France, so given that by this time next year we will be 100 km away from Vancouver or Chemainus, we decided to take the opportunity to visit the French.

Mulhouse's Rothus Museum has some cool Neolithic skeletal stuff in it (some in orange ochre soil, excavated from local tombs). Small towns in France and Switzerland all seem to have their own tiny museums with really amazing collections, the likes of which would be unthinkable in comparably sized Canadian cities. How do the Europeans do it?

Mulhouse is famous for its many museums, some of which focus on specialties that would never occur to anyone else as collectible items of interest. There are museums for textiles, railroads, cars, electricity (yes, electricity), art, artifacts, history and that killer of all museums, a museum of wallpaper. It’s a pity that I loathe museums with such intensity that my entire objective in visiting Mulhouse was to avoid all of them.

It was not possible. We accidentally stumbled into one that appeared to be a tourist office-combination-hotel in Mulhouse’s central square. Once inside, the suave French smiled and charmed us into visiting their museum in the upper stories of the building, which happened to have the unbeatable attraction of free admission.

It turned out to be a lovely place to spend 30 minutes, which is the outside limit of my attention span. As we asked for directions out of the building, a burly French guide took us to another room where he opened the window and pointed the way to the Musee’ des Beaux Arts, extracting from us a promise to visit there next, but which we never did.

I feel bad about that, but if we did not make the promise, we ran the risk of insulting our French hosts, and yet, if we kept the promise, I might have dunked my head in a bucket of water just to avoid the prospect of more of my life lost to museum-trolling.

Tomorrow: More on Mulhouse and the wonders of France’s relationship with sugar, butter and chocolate

Dave reckons medieval key chains must have required a lot of muscle.

 

 

 

98: French fils et filles – c’est bon or non?

A French child playing quietly at an outdoor cafe' in France.

Yesterday’s one-day research project into the conduct of French children and the efficacy of French parenting was carried out over the cobblestoned medieval square at Mulhouse, a museum-laden town in France’s eastern Alsace region. Pity me, working so hard.

The task was triggered by American author Pamela Druckerman’s assertion in her hit book Bringing Up Bebe that the French know more about parenting than do Americans.

Joanna Goddard, Manhattan-based blogger at A Cup of Jo summarized Bringing Up Bebe in this way (this is a summary of her summary):

  1. You can have a grown-up life, even if you have kids.
  2. You can teach your child the act of learning to wait.
  3. Kids can spend time playing by themselves, and that’s a good thing.
  4. Believe it when you tell your child “No.”

This dog raised two boys, neither of whom turned to a life of crime.

It’s worth noting that these four tenets are nothing new. Focus on the Family founder Dr. James Dobson wrote the same stuff back in the 1970s. Before then, my mother took #3 to an extreme level by pushing us out the door immediately after breakfast and not letting us back inside until supper.

I took the practice even further with my own children who spent their summers outdoors under the supervision of a yellow labrador retriever that I trained to deliver notes to them that read “Dinnertime!” and “Don’t let your brother play near the shore.” Come to think of it, I should have penned a book “Retriever-Raising Your Rascals.”

Outdoor cafes in town squares are lovely car-free zones to teach children about restaurant manners. They can sit quietly with the adults, or safely blow off steam by running around the square.

In our afternoon of observing the French, we saw many children dining quietly at street cafes, trundling contentedly along the pedestrian malls and frolicking in the cobblestoned squares. Recalling the wailing kids we had seen in North American Wal-Mart stores, it seemed that Druckerman might have a point.

Then Dave saw a fussing four-year-old girl whose mother delivered to her a solid whack on the bottom and a stern reprimand.  A little later, another siren-whine of  some random child cut through the crowds. Two whiners in one afternoon seemed on-par with North American over-bored and stuck-in-stores-too-long child stats as reported by the unscientific commission of me and my friends.

Here in Switzerland, the scene is very much the same, although overall the Swiss are a more restrained people than North Americans and it shows in their youngsters.

There is another constant at work in this. The popularity of Bringing Up Bebe shows that not only the French are concerned about how to raise children, but that as a society, North Americans are, too. Otherwise, Druckerman’s book would never have made it to the New York Times bestseller list.


The perils of public transport

Train-traveler packs one, two, three bottles/cans in full view for the trip.

Drunks were everywhere this weekend.

At the Bern train station,  a dread-locked man bark loudly in the face of passengers stepping onto a train.

The passengers stoically looked the other way while he pressed in, determined to make his presence known, if not felt.

Drunks upset the delicate social balance where we all agree that when we venture out, we not bark at others, and if we cannot stop ourselves from barking, then at least we should stay far enough away so that our victims are not soaked in our saliva spray.

Is it too much to ask? Apparently so.

This guy must be going on an overnight trip.

Staggerers,  shouters, boorish keg-carriers –  I judge you all.

A red-faced young man carried on what could have been the longest yodel ever as he stood on the train platform. A few minutes later, he smacked himself down in the quadrant of seats behind ours on the train, still yelling. He could have been singing, or bragging, or screaming ‘Help me, I am about to fall into an alcohol-induced coma.’

Given the unpredictability of drunks, especially that their moods  switch swiftly from party to sour to let-me-punch-someone-in-the-face, we quietly moved to another car.

At Fribourg's covered bridge. Isn't it charming? We could barely notice it, thanks to booze-soaked wanderer.

Last week, on the train to France, a tattooed scramble-haired man in an agitated state sat across the aisle from us,  hissing into his cell phone. Was it a drug deal gone bad? Was he going to take it out on us?  It did focus our minds, but not on the French countryside.

This weekend, as we got off  the train at Fribourg, we were happy to leave the drunken yowler behind, but after we made the walk down Fribourg’s plunging cobblestone streets and through its rustic wood-beamed covered bridge, we heard a familiar sound.

The skinny yowler staggered into view. How was it that he was still standing?

Eroded limestone hangs over the river at Fribourg. See the fisherman in the lower right corner. He is having a good day, because he has not met our drunk.

We had just taken out our map to plot our course, but the yowler, not the map, was going to decide where we would go.

He turned away up a narrow side road, his arms flailing, his head cocked oddly, while he continued in that strange thin bellow.

We took the road that he did not, and it was an enchanting road, but it lost some of its allure as we kept an ear open for the yowler.

For the first time since arriving here, I missed my car.

Fribourg's 40-metre long covered bridge, called the "Bern Bridge," dates back to the 17th century and is made of stone, wood and dirt. Yes, dirt, which is also the reference that I make to drunks.

Besancon Bits

12th Century portion of Besançon's Cathedral Saint Jean. At least, that's what the guide inside the church said.

As is our custom on most of our travels, we made our first stop at Besançon’s tourist office so Dave could pose by it with a frustrated expression at finding yet another French tourist office closed on a weekend. They say retired couples should find a hobby they can do together and this is ours.

Dave expresses his opinion of France's tourism bureau, which laughingly seems to be closed just when visitors are most likely to show up. To be fair - this office was open the following day.

Then we made our way across the bridge to Besançon’s Ancienne Ville, an old-town that dates back to the 16th century, and even older is Besançon’s outstanding St. Jean Cathedral, parts of which herald from the 12th century.

Despite the fact that Besançon’s national identity eddied about in the streams of conquest (last post), it appears that its conquerors did more to build it up than to tear it down, and so for a small city, it has the pricy ambience of a large one. Some writers have described it as a miniature version of Paris, and rightly so.

Like Paris, it has broad pedestrian avenues flanked by stone buildings ornamented with elegant woven wrought iron balconies. Unlike Paris, its old town is impoverished when it comes to trees.

The stone streets are just that – horizontally laid stone blocks trimmed with the vertical stone of the buildings. On our first walkabout in the evening, it felt barren, but when we returned Saturday morning, the French compensated for the shortage of shrubs by filling the street with colourful bedecked citizens, caravans of cafe umbrellas and quirky street

Besançon's Revolutionary Square, which is a lot bigger than it looks in this photo.

vendors. This is not to say the city didn’t have greenery – it had plenty, just not in the old quarter.

Unlike Paris, Besançon does not strip visitors down to the last penny.  Visitors can sip on an espresso at a sidewalk cafe in the town’s broad Revolutionary Square for only 1.50 Euros. We almost fell off our chairs when we saw the bill.

And for those on a budget, a cheap lunch can be had at Besançon’s “Subway” sandwich restaurant – and before you turn up your  nose at eating at an international food chain, the French do things with bread even in a franchise operation  that seem impossible in North America. We handed over 12 Euros for a fresh lunch for two, thus allowing us to splurge on our supper bill.  Whether the supper was worth it, I will tell tomorrow.

A church in Besançon. Wouldn't it be nice if I knew its name?

Knocking on Victor Hugo's door - or at least, the door to the apartment building where he was born on February 6, 1802. See how I hang my head? It is from years of knocking on doors as a reporter, steeling myself for abuse. Let's face it, I deserved it.

Besancon: French, German, Austrian, Spanish, Roman, Hungarian, then French town.

You don't expect to see an elaborate Egyptian display at a small French city with a population of about 120,000, but the French are known for their elegance, so why not?

A four-day weekend, such as we have just had, is a great time to take off to places further afield, but we did not do that.  Not because we didn’t want to, but because we have not fully adjusted to the vigour that Europeans apply to their “mini-breaks.”

In other words, by the time we got down to booking train tickets and hotels, there was not a seat or a bed available. We could not have gotten onto a train to Vienna unless we were prepared to ride Tom-Cruise-style, that is, on the top, while engaged in hand-to-hand combat with a John Voight look-alike.

We should have remembered this from our time in Madrid, when we discovered that six-hour, two-hundred mile traffic jams on the highways leading out of the city over long weekends was a normal event.

And so we satisfied ourself with shorter jaunts – the earlier trip to Neuchatel being the first. That turned out exceedingly well, and so we braved the French border once again (you may remember our last venture into France started with getting electronically kicked out of three hotels, before landing in an expensive Waldorf).

We headed to Besançon, an ancient town settled by Gauls in the Bronze Age (1500 BC) in the oxbow of the river Doubs, and, because its location presents such a strong military advantage, Julius Caesar’s boys naturally showed up and said, “We’ll take that.” Which they did.

We think of modern Europe’s borders are being permanently marked with indelible ink, but the Europeans did not treat it that way.

Besançon was part of the Holy Roman Empire, then was accorded independence, which is a way of saying no military power would defend it, and so it subsequently came under the Habsburgs (through marriage, not war, although some would say the two are the same).

Museum of Fine Arts and Archeology with origins dating back to 1694, although this building, a former grain hall, only dates back to the 1800s. In the 1960s its interior was completely refurbished by Louis Miguel, a man who is forever doomed to only be addressed as "a student of Le Corbusier." He deserves better. The interior is spectacular. Did I mention this town has only 120,000 inhabitants? And yet they somehow pulled this off. We mock the French, but we have to hand it to them. They have culture.

That means the Austrians – or was it the Hungarians – were in charge, and then, in some kind of closet-cleaning decluttering exercise, they handed it over to Philip II, King of Spain.

Spain is nowhere near Besançon, and as soon as the Spanish realized the inconvenience of managing such a far-flung district, they tried to hand it back to the Austrians via marriage, but the Austrians were not to be fooled for long and less than a hundred years later, the Spanish discovered Besançon had somehow crawled its way back into their closets.

That was in 1667, but whether it was French, Spanish, German, Prussian, Hungarian, Austrian or just plain Catholic was not decided yet,  because French monarch Louis XIV fancied Besançon and claimed it, but then lost interest and within months ‘forgot’ it on Spain’s doorstep.

It boomeranged back to the French, then in 1814 the Austrians had a change of heart and bombarded the city. Finally, the Germans, probably sick of all the back-and-forth, grabbed it, but finally it ended up back in French hands after the Nazis were routed out, but not before executing 100 French resistance fighters there.

What all this leads to is that Besançon has a fascinating museum with great archaeological finds, including an intact Roman soldier’s helmet and a second-century BC Neptune mosaic. The museum is 100 years older than the Louvre, and is a good place to see the works of Matisse, Goya, Picasso, as well as an Egyptian mummy display.

Egyptian stone works are right out in the open, and I couldn’t resist drawing my hands along the pharaoh profiles, touching the same granite and sandstone as the long-ago artisans, which I really should not have done, at least that’s what the museum security detail told me, but the rebuke was brief, as though the French are resigned to their collection of sculptures and hieroglyphics getting pawed by Americans.

Which I am not. I am Canadian, but why tell the French that when they are so happy to think otherwise?

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.