18: The Lists

Switzerland has reawakened my love of shutters. They are everywhere, they are beautiful. I want some.

I have a friend who loves lists. I find it freaky, because I thought I was the only list-amaniac on the planet. Now I know there are more listers out there, probably all walking at an awkward angle (listing to the right or left).

My listing-friend blogged her 2011 year-in-review lists, which made me laugh until my eyes watered. I won’t say that I laughed until I cried, because I have four brothers and if they sense weakness in me, they will go in for the kill.

I have so many lists, the favorite one being: What cottage projects should we do this summer? At this point, many men will recognize that last sentence was in code. It really means: What cottage projects should he do this summer?

Switzerland’s House of Parliament, centre of government in Bern.

He, being my hubby Dave, does not like this list.

I also have lists of things I want to do – he does not like this list either because it includes interior house-painting projects. I am only five-feet tall, so Dave knows this means he will come home one day to find that I have painted any number of rooms, but only up to my highest reaching point. He is on the hook for all painting projects above the 6.5-foot mark.

I’m thinking of this because today I announced that after eight years of owning our latest house, I just last week figured out what colour I want to paint the bathroom. Dave knows this means he is going to be painting the top 2-3 feet of  wall space. I don’ t know why this bothers him. After all, I do the larger part (if he got to write in this blog, this is where he would point out that I sometimes leave the trim and fiddly painting parts for him to do) (good thing he doesn’t have the password to this blog).

But enough about that.

In the spirit of listing, here’s a list of things I like best about Switzerland.

  1. Chocolate: Lots and lots of chocolate.
  2. Medieval towns: Somehow medieval towns do not seem to have been bombed out in either of the world wars. I could be wrong about this, but if I’m right, it shows that even in war, there is a civil regard for architectural beauty. On the other hand, there are many signs of re-construction, so I probably am wrong.
  3. Restaurants in parks: For some reason, Victoria, the city where we live most of the time, equates eateries in parks with fecal/nuclear/toxic environmental contamination. People who hold those views should visit Europe, which has perfected the eating-in-the-parking experience into the sublime. A dining establishment or ice cream stand does not represent the end of the world as we know it.
  4. Canals: Instead of stormwater drain systems, the Swiss have open canals, fenced in charming wrought-iron, filled with swans, ducks and other waterfowl and lined with trees. I cannot think of a single reason Canadian cities don’t follow suit (hello, Ottawa). Think of the fun ice-skating trails winding through the cities this would create (hello Winnipeg).
  5. The Swiss: Switzerland’s jerk-to-nice-person ratio is about one jerk for every 150 nice people. That is a stunningly good ratio.

Something else I don’t like about Switzerland/Europe:   A lax attitude toward refrigerated meats and eggs, not to mention warmer dairy cases than would ever pass muster in North America. I know the meats in this photo are cured, but that is not enough for me.

Here is a list of things I like least about Switzerland.

  1. Chocolate: There’s entirely too much of it, and it is everywhere. How am I supposed to get into a bathing suit this summer when chocolates can be found in the meat, produce, dairy, bakery, pharmacy, cookie  and beverage aisles, not to mention at aisle-ends and check-outs.  Even after I go past the check-out at our closest grocery store (which is in the basement of a downtown building), at the top of the escalator is – what else but another kiosk of Lindt chocolate.
  2. Medieval town maps: Medieval towns seem to predate the concept of grid-based urban planning, so the roadways go along in charming little forest-path patterns, which is absolutely wonderful for photography, but not so great when trying to find one’s way through what is effectively a cobblestone maze. I wish the maps were better, as well as the street signs.
  3. Restaurants: Restaurants here are pricey. How pricey? A colleague of Dave’s recently spent two weeks in London, returning to Switzerland to declare London restaurants very cheap. Seriously? Who else emerges from a London eatery calling it a bargain but someone acclimatized to the high cost of dining out in Switzerland? That’s how expensive Swiss restaurants are.
  4. Canal litter: As a former parks commissioner, I know there is no amount of structural design that will completely thwart ne’er-do-wells, but I think Switzerland could raise its canal fences from about 3.5 feet to a higher level to reduce stolen-bicycle-littering (yes, this is where missing bikes show up). It also would keep kids from leaping over the rail, although no Swiss child would do that. They are born sensible.
  5. The Swiss: I love the Swiss, I do, but I am suspicious that their tolerance for prostitution, narcotics and public drunkenness stretches a tad too far.
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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.

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. 


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

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

This post dating back to the Easter weekend 2011 repeatedly floats to the top of this blog’s hits (scroll down).

Staring at the text in the file listings, it made no sense to me, but now that I’ve opened the post and seen that it comes with a photo of a lovely pastry display case on top, the world has once again fallen into its correct order.

In the meantime, our little plateau in Switzerland is experiencing the spring-like joys of the Canadian prairies, that is to say the sidewalks are ankle-deep in grey ice and slush.

Yesterday, I met another writer for the literary version of a jam session, and uncharacteristically, the Swiss railway system failed, so she had to complete the last part of her journey by bus. That was okay, until she landed in our little slush-ville.

As it happens, both she and I are from Winnipeg, although we met here, not there.

This is another oddity of Winnipeggers – they/we are everywhere, and strangely, we all recognize one another. I think it’s because we smile so much.

Why do we smile? Because we’re not in Winnipeg, the hometown everyone loves to hate but will die defending.

And so, the two of us pretended the weather was just fine, even though we both had slipped into some decline by the time we connected at the train station with our moppy hair and weather-mashed countenances.

We entered into the Women of Winnipeg pact, which is that it was a ‘given’ that we both had started our day with fabulous hair and in the most beautiful of states, regardless of all the evidence to the contrary. She shared that while waiting for the bus she had met another Winnipegger. Neither of us is surprised by this.

Then we marched through the slushy streets, pushing against the wind and pelting snow, feeling the slush ride up our pant legs and ooze ice particles into our shoes. Actually, I’m speaking for myself here, but I have to assume she was experiencing similar discomfort, but, of course she did not complain because she is from … Winnipeg, and by all bio-bred Winnipeg-weather standards, this was still a fine day weather-wise, although a little too warm for cross-country skiing. Pity. If only the temperature had dropped another eight degrees, it would have been a perfect day.

By the time we arrived at Starbucks, my jeans were soaked up to my knees and I couldn’t feel my ankles.  We were both in high spirits, and not just because of our proximity to caffeinated products and cheesecake, but because there’s nothing like an ice-dousing to make a prairie gal feel alive, or at least so numb that the absence of pain makes us feel alive.

It took me about six  hours to bring my core body temperature back up to normal. I should point out that in Winnipeg, it would have taken me six days.

But enough of that. Here is one of Hobonotes’ top five postings – actually, it is usually in third spot, but I just can’t believe it.

Dining in Paris: Can you eat lamb’s kidney without having to sell your own?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Friday’s dining, part two.

Toni's Ristorante in Biel/Bienne - a winner!

THREE HOURS IN ONE RESTAURANT WAS NOT ENOUGH – FRIDAY IN BIEL/BIENNE CONTINUED …..But back to the restaurant stuff. Three hours inside a restaurant was not enough for one Friday so at about 7 p.m., Dave and I walked two blocks to Toni’s Restaurant, which sits in a white-washed ancient building on the border of Biel/Bienne’s cobblestone-laid medieval town.  We have not always had the best luck with restaurants lately, so my expectations were set to “gag.”

When we entered, we found a cocktail party on the main floor in full bore. The staff had to search for someone with some English who explained that yes, the restaurant was open (the wine-tasting event downstairs made us suspect it was booked up for a party). They led us upstairs to an empty, but utterly charming restaurant made up of a warren of small rooms (although there was one large room that could accommodate a party of 20 or more).

Empty dining rooms make us nervous that the locals know something we do not, but we pressed on. The waitress showed us into a room where she indicated we take the table of our choice, which, by the way, is what we saw her do later when other patrons arrived. Is this a Swiss custom? I do not know, but it is a nice one. We took the table overlooking the empty outdoor cafe (it was cold outside) and some nasty new construction that is sure to ruin the ambience of the old town’s borders.

But never mind about that. The menu only comes in Italian, German and French, and with the waitress’ limited command of English and our even more paltry assortment of French words, we managed to steer Dave away from ordering horse steak for dinner. When he exclaimed no to the horse, the waitress said, “It’s okay, we have bunnies to eat, too.”

I have no objection to others eating horse or bunnies (ugh), but as a childhood vegetarian, it took me something to just come around to eating beef (pork and chicken came later, fish even later in my 30s after moving to Canada’s west coast, the Mecca of seafood).

We safely ordered beef tenderloin at 43 Swiss Francs a plate. That’s about 50 bucks Canadian. Ouch. The meal came with a savoury carrot soup delivered in a tiny demi-tasse bowl and sumptuous olive bread. When the steak arrived, we were surprised to see it sitting solo on a large plate, surrounded by sautéed arugula and topped with paper-slices of parmesan, but we dug in and  my-o-my, it was the best beef we’ve had here yet.

It was a little odd that it came without the usual potato or vegetable accoutrements, however, it was a generous portion and in fact, it felt good to just enjoy the beef. It is pan-fried, not grilled or broiled, and the seasoning was subtle.

We later enjoyed a 12.75 Franc dessert of mango sorbet and hot chocolate cake with chocolate-cream filling. Words cannot do justice to the mango sorbet. It was richly laced with what must have been fresh mango, because the weight of the fruit chunks gave no indication they had ever seen the inside of a freezer. The chocolate cake was delicious, too.

We ordered just the one dessert for the two of us to share, but it turns out we could have ordered two. The portion was small, but just right for topping off a substantial steak. The restaurant gets a five-star rating in my books. Fabulous food, wonderful wait-staff, top-notch relaxed atmosphere, great layout for quiet dining, and yes, by the time we left the restaurant, it was packed. It seems the Swiss dine at a later hour that we North Americans.

If you want to read more about this restaurant, or find its locale so you can test my appraisal of its merits, click here. 

Eating like Europeans

A rarity in Europe: Water served automatically. Usually it must be ordered and it costs as much as any other beverage.

We stumbled into a delicious find while visiting Appenzell, a village in the Alpstein limestone range, near Mount Santis  in Switzerland’s Northeast corner.

We arrived off the tram from Kronberg hungry, as we always are after an invigorating ride over the rails, so finding a restaurant was foremost in our minds. There are different ways to find restaurants, and we have developed our own methodology. We check our favorite travel guide-book – Rick Steves’ Switzerland, then wander the cobblestone streets in a confused manner as though we don’t have a guidebook at all, all while staring at the guidebook’s map, then at the buildings.

Lokal takes its gelato seriously. Mmmmmm .... gelato.

As though foreordained, a shop catches my eye and Dave, trying to hold to our original gastronomic purposes, waits outside to study the map/guidebook while I peruse the store shelves where I always find everything is much too expensive. It is true, I am cheap, but when I find a pair of shoes that sell for $267 while I am wearing the same make for which I paid $110, I am none too impressed. Shopkeepers perceive this and pretend to speak no English. Either that or they are insulted by my harmless questions about their retail ethics.

By the time I exit the store (or stores), our hunger reaches the fussy level, our pace increases, my interest in shopping diminishes and our path takes on a pinball trajectory, that is to say, we hurry from one Rick Steves-recommended restaurant to another, finding some minor flaw with each one that sends us on our way again.

We go through about a half-dozen restaurants in this manner, judging them by the shallowest, yet truest of means: The customers at the outside cafe look sick of each other’s company and there is no food in front of them, suggesting a long wait and tardy service; a funny smell comes out of the kitchen; the posted menu is only in German, stoking our fear that we will accidentally dine on horse or rabbit meat; the place is empty; the low lighting through amber glass windows prohibits suitable scrutiny of the food and the list goes on.

We look for places populated by locals on the grounds that they are the best judges of a restaurant’s fare, so it may be that a bistro we came across named “Lokal” twigged a subliminal familiarity, predisposing us to looking favorably on it, and then we found a mention of it in our guidebook, where Rick Steves labels Lokal’s offerings as the opposite of Swiss fare. That seemed like an endorsement to us fearers of horse meat, so in we went.

At this point, we were starving and a little glassy eyed, which the server may have recognized because she spent a lot of time explaining the menu to us, which was very kind, however, it prolonged the ordering process and we weakened even further. Eventually, I ordered a crepe filled with banana gelato, which shows just how vulnerable we had become.

Dave using the classical pointing method to order his lunch. He has no idea what he is pointing at.

Dave pointed out sandwich fillers from the display case in such a random manner that by the time we sat down he could only identify his sandwich contents by their colours – “red things,” “green stringy things.” If there was horse meat in it, we would not have known because we are unfamiliar with the colour of cooked horse meat (when raw it has a burgundy tone not often seen in beef).

So we sat down and accepted our fate, only to find that it was all good. Lokal happens to specialize in its focaccia bread, and it was superlative, soft and not too chewy as is too often the case with North American focaccias. The preserved tomatoes and peppers were lightly seasoned and bit back just enough to tease the tongue.

The crepe was perfect, although I did feel weird having a frozen dessert wrapped inside a hot crepe. Maybe this exists elsewhere but I don’t think I’ve ever ordered it. This is the beauty of being a fussy eater – I’m easily impressed and look on old staples as crazy new concoctions.

We took on the attitude of Europeans who when they take a table are practically leasing it. We ate everything, then jumped up and ordered some more, lounged, ate more, enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere along with other loafing diners as though we were hanging around in our mothers’ kitchens. The two women servers – who may have been proprietors, they looked that engaged in their work – were pleasant and helpful, unobtrusive, but ready to deliver more goodies at the slightest sign of hunger pangs.

The gelato is made in-house of local dairy and “Alpstein” water, which pours down from the limestone Santi Mountain  – and is without any artificial dyes. I sampled the chocolate, walnut and banana. The chocolate was fabulous, but I am a chocolate addict so am rarely disappointed. The banana gelato was strikingly intense; the walnut gelato was unique, subtle, and very very good. In all, Lokal offered about 16-20 varieties and if I lived there, I would have tried them all.

Check out the restaurant’s (German only) website here or enter Lokal Appenzell into Google and click on “translate this page.” I give this understated eatery the thumbs up. Sandwich: 8 out of 10. Gelato: 10 out of 10 (yes, a 10!). Crepe – undecided. It wasn’t really filling as a lunch item, but it was delicious. Price: $37 for a continuous stream of food for two, very reasonable for Switzerland.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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