69: Laundry list

My current laundry dryer.

Tatiana Warkentin, another home-bred Canadian prairie writer living in Switzerland, is pushing her way through a blog-challenge to post a blog every single day of this month. She’s doing it with the aid of the alphabet and she’s doing great, although, she appears to be sledding through a tough virus at the moment that threatens to knock off her resolve. You can check out her funny, wrenchingly honest blog at The Dubious Hausfrau. 

One of her recent posts sought to uncover the veil on this glamorous jet-setting lifestyle by admitting she watches a lot of television. I applaud this: Wasting time is how the most important creative work gets done.

Her idea seems like a good one, and so I’m copying it so that I don’t accidentally fool anyone into thinking our lives here are spent swimming in cheese fondues, conversing in foreign languages and dining on chocolate in many forms. Here are the highlights from my normal weekday. You can skip over what follows without fear. I call it “highlights,” but if you read it, you might call them lowlights.

  1. Check emails, Facebook, read news on the web.
  2. Write/edit for two or three hours.
  3. Exercise for 30 minutes. I can’t do this any longer without lapsing into a comatose state. I get through it by watching a television serial such as Downton Abbey or The Big Bang Theory. A friend can testify how bored I am because she happened on me during a circuit weight session at my cottage where she discovered I talk to myself, counting out repetitions and cheering myself to keep going.
  4. Hang out the morning laundry, sometimes go high-tech by pointing fans at it (see above).
  5. Breakfast.
  6. Clean up the hotel room.
  7. Check the mail, which happens to be where the hotel staff go for their cigarette breaks, so I spend some time chatting with them. They are dedicated to schooling me in the ways of the Swiss; a testament to the tenacity of these people, but then, they have rebuffed the French, Germans, Austrians, Hungarians and Italians from taking over their country, so what else could we expect from them?
  8. Head out for the midday shop which almost always entails some mortifying communication problem where someone tries to speak to me in German or French. This is a daily reminder to be nice to immigrants when I return to Canada. I have, by the way, always been nice to immigrants, but once you have been an immigrant you realize that what looked like nice to you was not as nice as you could have been. Immigrants need every bit of encouragement they can get.
  9. Engage in a choppy French conversation with an eccentric old woman who likes people to admire her rum-coloured poodle named Candy.
  10. Return to hotel room. Read blog draft, remember that it has a few pre-teens reading it, gasp in horror, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, then post it.
  11. Walk down to lake and stare at swans. Take note of daily routine of town drunks and drug addicts.
  12. Surf the local stores for sales: A necessary survival skill in Switzerland where most things are priced beyond the worst nightmares of most Canadians and Americans.
  13. Go on another walk along the canal where I stare at the ducks.
  14. Take down laundry.
  15. Phone home or online chat with friends in North America who are just waking up.
  16. Write some more.
  17. Greet Dave, realize I have not made dinner again, watch him cook a prepackaged meal (I will explain this another day).
  18. Go for another walk with Dave who is very good at steering me away from drunks and drug addicts, which makes me wonder whether I pay enough attention to my surroundings. Just yesterday he pulled me away from a trajectory that would have put me too close to a man who was attempting a personal relationship with a woman featured on an advertising poster in our town’s main square.
  19. Back to the hotel where we read emails, surf the web and sometimes sneak up to the hotel fitness room to scarf more towels. We are supposed to get by on only two bath towels a week, a starvation-level allotment if ever I saw one, so we bulk  up our supply. The hotel staff know we do this, take away our extra used towels without comment, and look the other way. Bless their hearts.
  20. If I am in an obsessive writing state, I will do some more of it.

And that is our exciting life in Switzerland.





88: Life, Literature & Laundry

Tiny bubbles.

You would think that living in a hotel is all luxury. After all, such luminaries as Mark Twain, Jack Kerouac, Ernest Hemingway and Simone de Beauvoir are among the dozens of writers who made hotels their homes at some point.

Famed authors whose writing dragged along often booked in, locked up and grinded out their manuscripts. Tennessee Williams finished A House Not Meant to Stand at the Hotel Elysee (unpublished until after his death, which appears to be the publication path for my latest book). William Faulkner scribbled out As I Lay Dying in only six weeks during a stay at Manhattan’s Algonquin. After six years of research and intense writerly angst, Truman Capote is said to have completed In Cold Blood at New York’s Plaza Hotel.

So, it is a life of glory, ink, typewriters and laptops, but it is not all keyboards and Jack Daniels. Dylan Thomas died of alcohol poisoning in 1953 at The Chelsea in New York, where it happens that Charles R. Jackson, author of The Lost Weekend, killed himself in 1968.

Our fancy dryer. Dave worries readers will think that is his underwear on the left side of the rack, but if you look closely you will see it is an upside-down blue t-shirt with white trim.

I would not be surprised one bit if these tragedies were connected to laundry.

Anyone who has had laundry done in a hotel knows that the prices are geared towards people who don’t really care what they’re paying, because they’re not paying at all. Their employer is. And so, some business travelers report a single laundry load can cost $68 US, or a week’s worth at $300. One month of this and it is a wonder travelers don’t just pack a washer and dryer around with them. It would cost about the same. There is no “per load” bargain to be had either. Every item of laundry is listed and tagged and laundered at a per-piece rate. It is cheaper to treat socks as disposable items and just keep chucking the old and buying new pairs rather than send them to the hotel laundry.

And so, we the ever-cheap, refuse to wash anything through the hotel laundry. We don’t have a sugar-daddy corporate boss to sign the check. Instead, we handwash our clothes in the sinks (our suite has four sinks – imagine that), and in the winter dry them over the heater and in the warmer months outside on a rack on our post-stamp-sized deck. It is a little like living as a young impoverished student, but with better wi-fi service. I did try to find a laundromat, but the town only has two full-service laundry shops that charge the same as the hotel, although a desperate mother of two recently was given a laundry pass at one of them after the most persistent of campaigns. I could go and try that shop, but I did once and the Germans laughed me right out of the establishment. I’m not going back.

Hand-laundering is not as hard as it seems. The hotel changes the bedding every week and provides towels. Without children, our laundry load is surprisingly light. This gentlest of washing methods means that our clothes hardly look worn out at all, except for our socks. I’ve learned a few tricks, such as that sports-clothing dries very quickly; heavy sweaters and jeans very slowly, so my wardrobe is dominated by sportswear. I can speed up drying by pointing fans set to maximum at the drying rack. I have yet to resort to Seinfeldish oven-drying, but given the right circumstances, I would give it a try, if only I could figure out the settings on our state-of-the-art wall oven.

102: The insanity of insomnia

Gargoyles seem entirely plausible in the world of Hans Christian Andersen.

Blame literature. I am a lifelong insomniac, an affliction that in its early stages had me sneaking my lamp into my bedroom closet where I soaked in the company of many a weird book, all so my parents wouldn’t notice the light under the door while I read late into the night. Technically, this makes me less of an insomniac and more of an obsessive-compulsive reader for whom every book is a “page-turner.”

By weird books, I don’t mean anything as terrifying as monster picture books, unless you want to include Wuthering Heights, and other Victorian-era missives, which when you think about it, are monster stories. This explains so much about my knee-jerk expectation that things will always go wrong.  A steady diet of Charles Dickens does terrible things to a pliable mind.

This unusual reading list through my elementary school years had everything to do with poverty – not that my family was down-in-the-dirt poor, but we were too poor for many children’s picture books, if any – I don’t actually remember anything but printed pages full of text until I hit school, but for my older brother’s school reader, Dick and Jane.  Then my younger brothers came along and entered the land of Dr. Seuss’s green eggs and ham, a line of fables that I rejected because none of the Bronte family mentioned green food or if they did it was in the context of having to consume mouldy spoiled fare. So the only books handy to me at home were those that came in my mother’s affordable subscription to a buck-a-month Book of the Month Club, the collection of which was entirely based in The Classics.

These chairs have nothing to do with this blog post. I've included them to offset the nightmarish gargoyle photo, although they do make a great place to read on a warm spring afternoon, and this post does talk about reading, so I take it back about the chairs being out-of-place.

My gloomy outlook did not improve much when the book club acquired a ‘children’s list,’ which included the unwashed version of Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales and the Brothers Grimm in a two-in-one book volume where you flipped the book over and upside down on the other side was another whole collection of horror stories crafted especially to keep children in line. My mother thought Black Beauty would be a good read, so she ordered it, ushering in my introduction to the world of animal abuse.

It was handy to get my Grades 11 and 12 reading list out of the way before puberty, but awkward to arrive in Grade One without a clue about even a single Mother Goose rhyme and to have only the most scant familiarity with Little Red Riding Hood. Worse yet, because I was an early reader, every teacher assumed I knew things I did not, such as the alphabet. It was a miserable day in Grade 4 when Miss McMurray laughingly said, “Let’s review the alphabet, although I’m sure you all know it.” The class laughed, because they knew that in fact, I had never been able to recite the alphabet, an educational oversight that branded me for way too many school years.

All of the above is a long way of explaining that I was up past 4 a.m. last night, which is not really that unusual, but it is not a good thing when living in a hotel bachelor suite where my beloved husband is trying to get some sleep because he has to go to work in the morning. I lay in bed and stared into the dark until after 2 a.m., but then had to get up because there is only so much blind-staring I can do at a stretch.

But in 102 days, we will have a bedroom with a door on it, and I will be able to tiptoe into the living room and read away without waking anyone. Bliss.

We are like the Bushes, but not

The Bush family might be Canadians - they are cottage-crazy like so many Canucks.

Former U.S. presidential couple George and Barbara Bush famously lived in a Texas hotel after leaving office. We, also, live in a hotel after leaving our “offices,” that is places of work*. I wonder if our experiences in hotel-living had any similarities.

If I recall President Bush 41’s televised interview on the topic of hotel-living, he liked it very much.

As an aside: He is called 41 by his family to distinguish him from his son, the 43rd U.S. President – a detail garnered from a friend who was invited to Walker’s Point – the Walker-Bush Kennebunkport** ancestral home, making this one fact I knew long before some of the news staff at NBC. I could not divulge it – I was sworn to secrecy about the visit, a promise I would never break because the owner of the secret is a neighbour who has a clear view of my favorite swimming route, and I don’t want to give him any reason to ignore me should I run into trouble on one of my swims. Also, his mother makes great cookies and my children would stop talking to me if I did anything to staunch that supply. It does not matter that my kids are adults. They still covet and fight over those cookies.

But I drift from my topic…

Aside from the fact that our hotel “suite” is 400-square feet and only one room, while the Bush suite was probably more spacious, we also enjoy some of the fun of hotel living.

One highlight of a protracted hotel stay is that the hotel staff discard some of their professional reserve, which adds a certain hilarity to the day. For example, not long ago the staff sweated out endless bugs and dead-ends during a computer “migration” to an ‘improved’ system. The transition was scheduled for what has historically been the hotel’s slowest season, but disaster-devils are always sniffing out opportunity and so the hotel was flooded with unexpected guests on the day of the system transfer.

When I strolled past the front desk and asked the staff how the transition was going, a hotel manager delivered a lively German-English outburst of exasperation that I regret not having video-taped, because it certainly would have made for highly entertaining reality television.

“Every room was filled,” said the manager.

I cannot provide a longer quote, because the rest of it was in German swear-words. At least they sounded like swear-words. It is hard to tell with German.

I wonder if George and Barb ever enjoyed such behind-the-scenes drama as they strolled past the front desk at their hotel. Maybe not. Maybe the Secret Service shielded them from the hotel staff. It would have been too bad for them.

* The Bush family are also crazed cottagers, like us and so many other Canadians, although their cottage is fancier. The drawback is that it has Secret Service staff around, and to a cottager, a Secret Service agent is just a guest who won’t leave. Poor Bushes. 

**Kennebunkport is not as easy to spell as it looks. Here are some other ways I spelled it before checking:

  • Kennethbunkport
  • Kennetbunkport
  • Kenebunnkport
  • Kenbunkport
  • Kenbunksport
You would think the Bushes would have done something about this while they were in office.


A local jazz band performs at our hotel's fundraiser for a horse camp for children with disabilities.

Our hotel threw a fundraiser to  send kids to camp this week. I am all in favor of sending kids away, but am fundraiser-event averse – that is to say, I would rather throw money at a cause than throw away a perfectly nice quiet evening at home in support of it.

It’s partly due to my feeling that the amount of money spent on throwing a party or auction is wasteful; that all that money should go directly to the needy organization.
But I am wrong about that, and I know it, because as a sometimes-reluctant fundraiser, I have seen the payback on gimmicky auctions, balloon-lotteries, bake-sales and so forth.
This does nothing to alter my affection for avoiding fundraisers so I can devote my evenings to other worthwhile endeavors, such as watching the entire 30Rock season on DVD without interruption. Is there something wrong with that?
Nevertheless, when the hotel staff invited us to their fundraiser, we had to go.  While our relationship is essentially a business one – they provide us with a hotel room and we provide them with money – these are still the people with whom we have the most contact. They are in the most practical sense, our neighbours.

I was going to order BBQ pork steak, but the staff talked me into a Swiss favorite - Tarte flambe', which is not a tart at all, but an oval tortllla-like shell topped with bacon, onions and sour cream. It was pretty good.

When I leave my room, Theresa and Isabelle, our floor’s cleaning staff, coach me in French, much to my agony and their despair.

When I hit the street I pass a favorite smoking-break alcove and the staff (who shall remain nameless on this point because what is spoken of in the alcove stays in the alcove) always invite me to stop for a chat, the latest topic of which was marriage: Whether one staffer should do it and why another’s failed.

The overall professional distance adopted between hotel staff and clients evaporates when you check in for over a year. It is still there, but when the manager is not around, the staff relax their language, displaying an impressive command of English expletives.
And so we gave up an evening for the fundraiser, which turned out to be more fun than expected, possibly because it was held in the hotel, and therefore, we did not really  have to leave home to go to it.