1: So Long

Packing is a science.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Somewhat Amusing Anecdotes You May Not Know

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

Yawn. Another mountain.

Swiss cheese, fondue, chocolate, watches: These are some of the things we expected of Switzerland. It turns out, there’s a bit more than that.

Start with the spring produce: Switzerland is perched just atop Italy and is only a few hours away by train to the Mediterranean, so that should have clued us into its fresh fruit and vegetable market. The produce here is crunchy and fresh.

We did not expect to see cyclists up on the  mountainside Kleine Scheidegg trail, but there they were, introducing us to another Swiss national oddity Рadventurousness bordering on recklessness. They brought the Red Cross to the world, making us think they are a cautious accident-adverse people. They are not. Their idea of safety does not follow a prevention-protocol, which makes sense Рit is how they got so good at responding to disasters. They make so many of their own to start with, offering them plenty of training opportunities.

I had no idea that Switzerland has a keen wine industry. South-facing sloped farmland ribbed in vineyards surrounds our town and with French vineyards a stone-throw over the border, it makes sense that the industrious Swiss would get in on the act. As to why it never occurred to us that Switzerland is a wine-producing country: Some joke that it is because the French export their wine, while the Swiss drink all theirs themselves.

There is skiing, of course, but the Swiss are also passionate mountain-climbers, hikers and bicyclists. They love sports. Confusing us even further, they are also proliferate smokers. We cannot understand this.

They are conservative in their conduct, yet they also voted to build a facility for prostitutes to operate their business in Z√ľrich.

There’s more. I knew chocolates heralded from this mountainous land, but so too does CaranDache watercolour pencils and crayons – the funky metal-tinned colours my sister-in-law used to paint clown faces on ours boys when they were young.

Racial and immigration issues headline frequently in Swiss news as the country, like the rest of Europe, copes with the flood of Albanian Muslims that pushed north in the wake of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, as well as Tamils and other far-flung political refugees who fled to Switzerland because of its liberal amnesty program. As Canadians, we are accustomed to hearing about immigration issues, but we had no idea that step-for-step, Switzerland has the same national debate going on that we do.

They love festivals, and they are crazy about music. It’s not just yodeling that tickles their ears: I have never seen such a large concentration of accordion players anywhere. They beat out the Americans when it comes to marching bands – they have them all over the place, some in costume and organized, while others who look like they decided to take their band practice out of the garage and on to the street, just for fun. The quality of music played by buskers here is outstanding. I am sorry to say it, but most of them would put Victoria buskers to shame.

What surprises us the most, however, is that such a geographically small place has such a globally large footprint Рfrom the Red Cross to the United Nations to its international market for banking, pharmaceuticals (Roche, Novartis), watches, Swiss Army knives and more. They are a stunningly successful people who from so little have made so much.

But back to chocolate, more chocolate businesses than Lindt call this place home. So, too, does Toblerone, Frey, Nestle, Cailler, Camille Bloch, Favarger and more – it explains why despite the occasional scandal, Switzerland’s brand continues untarnished. After all, who can stay mad with a place so packed with chocolate?

3: Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow or Tschues

Happy to be headed home, but a little sad to leave the land of castle ramparts and lovely, friendly people.

We are going through our social ‘exit process,’ which is much more pleasant than the bureaucratic one.

We said good-bye to our beloved Starbucks buddies who presented us with a Starbucks Switzerland mug.

Tomorrow we’ll say good-bye to the Lollipop girl who runs our favorite candy shop and who recently exposed her midriff to us to show a sweeping tattoo marking some Swiss legend that we could not understand. We also could not understand why a gal with such fabulous abs would want to colour over them, but that is the youth of today. Now if someone like me opted for a tattoo to visually sculpt my midriff into looking more concave and much less convex, that would make perfect sense. Calm down, Mom. I’m not going to do it.

Switzerland the lovable.

I said farewell to the most embittered glaring grocery store cashier who admitted I really wasn’t that much of a problem. I said so long over coffee and Swiss pastries to a Swiss/Afghani/Indian/American friend with communist sympathies and an adorable calico kitten, as well as her hockey-playing Swiss husband who mistakenly thinks the best team in the NHL is the Detroit Red Wings.

Venner Well: A Swiss warrior statue in Biel’s old town that embarrassed its makers by breaking off at both legs when being set up and then suffering follow-up breakages during stormy weather. The well dates back to the 1400s; the stone statue may date back to the mid-1500s, but the translated records were not clear on that point. It could be older.

Our hotel staff have been saying good-bye to us for weeks, but the intensity is now ratcheting up. They are threatening to lock the doors in a bid to thwart our ‘escape.’ They regularly offer a detailed comparative analysis on the merits of living in Switzerland versus Canada, always arriving at the same conclusion, which is that we will be back by autumn. We’ve been actively campaigning for the ones more familiar to us to come visit in Canada, with the caveat that room service at our house will not measure up to the hotel’s standards. *

Tomorrow we will meet with a young Indian couple and their two daughters who have become like our “Swiss grandchildren.” I preferred to think of them along the lines of nieces, but the parents keep referring to us in grandparent terms, forcing us to accept the fact that we are definitely well into our 50s. Yuk on that. We’re going to miss them, but again we hope they will stop in for a visit some time, although that is less likely as they appear Singapore-bound after their term here.

I have not said farewell to my Winnipeg friend and dame of roller derby fame named Jam Buster, because if our paths can cross at a random writers meeting at an all-by-chance Starbucks 7,000 km away from home, you gotta know no planning is required for us to run into each other again.

*There is no room service in our house. Never has been. Ask our kids. They may still be bitter about this. 

12: Swiss Parenting Style

The scene where moments earlier, we almost participated in a group heart attack.

I raised a boy who has dislocated two joints, did an axe-head split on his elbow joint, sheared bones straight across, used an incisor as a landing device when pitched from his skateboard, received his first set of stitches at around a year old and¬†enjoyed the experience and so kept getting more. If this isn’t a training program in how self-destructive kids can be, I don’t know what is.

Hence, my perpetual terror on the streets of Switzerland where Swiss children cavort inches from speeding traffic and blocks away from their parents. I exaggerate not a bit. We checked this out with our local Swiss friend who confirmed that the Swiss are accustomed to the notion that nothing really bad can happen here, and people are good everywhere, and so why not let a two-year-old wander a city street 40 metres from his parents?

My mother, the mother of all catastrophizers, taught me that a pre-schooler should always be within grabbing reach, because grabbing will be required. This is especially true for children who have not yet reached the age of understanding that they can die or be maimed beyond repair. In the case of my son described in the first paragraph, that age was somewhere around 28. I had no idea it was going to be such a long haul, otherwise, I would have paced myself with more care.

But I drift.

Even these swans know to keep their young within grabbing reach.

As Dave and I stood on a bridge admiring Switzerland’s swans and other waterfowl, we heard a woman shouting. To our left, a woman of about 55-65 years of age was racing toward the steep canal banks, hand stretched out to grab at something. No. Not something, but someone. As my mother would have noted immediately, she had fallen into the folly of letting a child escape the grab-zone. About 10 metres ahead of her was a boy of roughly two years of age. He was a picture of delight as he raced on chubby little legs straight for the canal edge where a direct drop into a concrete slope followed by a bounce into murky water waited for him.

The woman clearly was not going to close the gap. She was pushing an empty stroller as she ran, but as the boy neared the edge with no sign of braking, she abandoned the stroller and proceeded to run in that posture that suggests if she had wings, now is when she would spring into the air.

I was still doing the metrics on the likelihood anyone could intervene, but Dave, a man of action, was already running down the bridge and shouting. It was just enough to startle the boy into stopping, which is about what my  heart was doing at that moment. There was no question that had the boy taken a few more steps, not Dave or the grandmother would have been close enough to do anything about it.

The drop was not terribly deep, but one cranial bang on that concrete would be enough. Dave was prepared to go into the water after the boy, but having retrieved a sinking head-heavy toddler once myself, I know how quickly they plunge, and in fast-moving water that murky, it would be only a prayer that would ensure Dave would find the boy.

But that did not happen.

The grandmother scooped up the boy who was still very happy. It was all good for him, he had a good run and was the centre of attention. We hoped the grandmother, who looked otherwise like a very normal and intelligent woman, had absorbed the grab-zone rule of child-minding.

It brought to mind that old 1960s motto about never trusting someone over 30. Just drop the zero and that number would be just about right.

 

13: Winnipeg Wherever

Winnipeg at its finest. Photo Allan Lorde, from a defunct website.

Winnipeg. We hear its name many times on our travels, because wherever we go, Winnipeg will appear, in one form or another.  We cannot explain this.

Yesterday, on the ride up a small funicular rail car in our inconsequential Swiss town, a tall Dane seated next to me asked where we were from? Canada, we said. It’s the best answer. We’re both born and raised Winnipeggers, but we’ve moved around a bit and “home” for most of our married life has been on Vancouver Island off Canada’s rock-rimmed, rained-drenched West Coast.

“Have you been to Canada?” we asked him.

“I’ve been to Winnipeg,” he replied. We expected to hear Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, but we are starting to realize we should expect Winnipeg. The man talked about Winnipeg’s beautiful women who are fabulous cooks, while he looked down at me, a somewhat shopworn never-gorgeous woman with a questionable culinary record. I suppose he was doubting my origins.

As a reporter, I could practically peg a Winnipegger within seconds of meeting, no matter where we were or what the interview subject would be. They always said they could spot me, too.

When a young woman with a wide grin approached our writers table in a Bern Starbucks, I figured her for a Winnipegger by her fun eye-rolling ‘we’re all in this together,’ ‘hiyah ol’ buddy ol’ pal,’ demeanor. She also carried that forehead-wrung visage of someone who has navigated ‘crazy corner.’ If you know what this means, you just might be from Winnipeg.

Run into a Dane who enlisted with the German army and was stationed in Winnipeg, while we were riding with 20 people in a small rail car up the Jura Mountains in a tiny Swiss town of 70,000? Of course we would.

This is how Winnipeggers look at life – as a giant joke God is playing on them that is so rich even they laugh at it because after all, if anyone can write a good punchline, it has to be God. Winnipeggers want to let you in on the joke, too. They’ve made it through winters that make Siberia look like a beach resort. Their summers are spent dodging blood-sucking insects. Every spring, Fargo sends them a giant swell of floodwaters. Winnipeg’s city engineers love this and look on it as a grand-scale paintball game they play with the Americans.

What this adds up to is that any time Winnipeggers are away from Winnipeg, they bubble over with joy. ¬†That jubilance makes it easy to pick them out of a crowd. And yet ¬†when they are away from Winnipeg, they cannot wait to get back. It might have something to do with Stella’s Cafe and Baked Expectations.

Our hotel manager almost moved to Winnipeg; countless strangers we’ve met on rail platforms are from Winnipeg; Dave’s met two people at work who are from Winnipeg; in an Atlanta fitness centre a woman on the treadmill next to me was just back from a winter vacation in Winnipeg. She loved it. The list goes on and on.

Winnipeg. Wherever you go, it is right there with you.

14: Swiss Sunshine & A Hike Through the Jura Mountains

BIEL Alstadt: The sun is out in Switzerland again after a very cool and wet spring.

The sun is out in Switzerland again, so we rode the funicular up the Jura Mountain slopes and hiked down. The Juras are mere bumps in the landscape compared to the Alps, but it is still exciting to get lost in them, which we did a few times owing to the pecularities of Swiss signage. Apparently, all roads lead to Biel, but the question on our minds was: Which one will get us there sooner and with less chances of ankle-breaks?

If you go: The funicular (rail-car that rides up the slopes) runs every 20 minutes. It has two compartments for bikes (appears able to hoist about 10-15 per ride). Priced at 5.40 CHF (Swiss Francs) per person. Half-price SwissRail cards for residents apply (2.70). Go from Biel to Magglingen to access the mountain bike trails. For more info, click here. 

The trail  is very steep for the first 50 m, and has a few hairpin turns that create ideal blind spots for careening cyclists to flatten hikers. Fortunately, the trail levels and straightens a little after that, making it safe-sharing for hikers and bikers. It took us about 90 minutes to walk from Magglingen back down to Biel. Keep your ears open for cyclists, even on the scarier parts of the trail. We were heading down a narrow concrete stepped embankment when we heard the thwack sound of bike tires bumping down the pavement behind us  Рyes, a mountain biker in the most unlikely of places. How like the Swiss. They are a sturdy bunch.

Okay, most roads lead to Biel/Bienne.

For mountain biking types who want to know here the trail-head is: Exit the funicular and go  left. Adjacent to the funicular station (on your left again) is a driveway that drops down to a parking lot. Go down the driveway (about 15-20 metres, maybe less) and you will see yellow signs (again, on  your left) marking the trail before the parking lot.

If  you go past a gated road you have gone too far. Turn back to the funicular station.

Take extreme care. The first portion of the trail is very steep with a deep hairpin turn, although we did see a cyclist whip down it without injury, so maybe I overestimate the trail’s treachery. The rest of the trail does not look so frightening.

Statsurday

  • Most hits on HoboNotes from: Canada, U.S. and Switzerland.
  • Least hits: Spain, Costa Rica and Ireland
  • Readers from Japan: Three!
  • Top Post for the Last 30 Days:¬†Paris food ‚Äď can you eat lamb‚Äôs kidney without having to sell your¬†own?
  • Top Post for the Week:¬†Strolling with the Smokers
  • Fun search term that brought a reader to this site:¬†My tooth is breaking into pieces, which is exactly what happened the first week we arrived here in 2011.
  • Second most fun search term:¬†Loons that attack people¬†This suggests that I am not the only one to fall victim to this musical but menacing (on at least two occasions) carnivorous waterfowl.

This part of the trail was not so bad, but it is still steeper than it looks. We saw a salamander and a deer while on our walk. I went to whip out my camera to photo the deer, then remembered we see deer almost everyday back at home in Canada. Later, I had regrets. It was the first Swiss deer we’ve seen.

The view looking back from our table at a Joral’s waterfront restaurant. That white dot you see near the top of the mountain is the start-spot for our hike.

10: Our Last Double-Digit Day

You don’t expect Switzerland to have a summer-resort aspect to it, but it does. We could bring a box of sand back as a souvenir instead of skis, but then no one would really believe it was from Switzerland, the land of snowy alps.

After today, we fall into the single-digit portion of our Countdown to Canada, leading me to go into a little bit of a souvenir panic. Our conundrum is this: We want to bring something back that is distinctly Swiss, however, this desire competes with our goal to pack as lightly as possible. We have found a pair of old wooden cross-country skis at a nearby second-hand shop. They were made in Nidau – a town just beyond the train tracks. The skis have been a subject of discussion since we saw them (I’ve written about them already – click here to see it), and we visit them often. At one point, they disappeared from the shop and Dave breathed a sigh of relief that the question had been resolved for us, but then we found them stuffed away in a corner.

There are multiple problems with shipping the skis, beginning with the requirement that if they go on the flight with us, they must be packed in a molded-shell ski case. Of course, molded ski cases are modern devices made for modern skis. These skis are ancient and very long. They are also very heavy, so mailing them could cost upwards of 500 Swiss Francs (CHF)*. Our frugal natures flinch at such an extravagance. And this potential 500 CHF tab is before Switzerland’s export office opens the package and sees we are trying to make off with some of Switzerland’s precious lumber, albeit very old lumber.

So we seesaw endlessly over the question. In the meantime, I’m going to visit the skis again and see if the shopkeeper speaks enough English to field a question about overseas shipping.

Note: I know 500 CHF sounds like an over-estimate, but when I looked into shipping back a double-shoebox-sized package of books, the estimate came in around 450 CHF. I cannot even breathe when I contemplate the cost for a pair of skis. 

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.

19: Why Do We Care About Ducklings?

Why do we care about ducklings? There are so many of them. And yet, we still care.

“He is already dead,” the waiter said as I twisted my key in the mailbox. I had stepped out our hotel’s side door where the staff take their smoke breaks.

“Who?”

“Him.” The waiter pointed at a still mound of yellow and umber down. A duckling¬†lay on his back on the asphalt, his torso twisted, his head flung back so his thumbnail-sized bill pointed upwards, exposing a yellow plume at his throat. A handful of ducklings scattered over the walkway, their cheeps punctuating the street sounds. The waiter explained he heard a loud bang and then saw the dead duckling roll off a van parked by the hotel. We were on the Suze River canal walkway where service vehicles sometimes park. The canal had 15-foot deep walls. The ducklings could not have come from the Suze. With the recent rainstorms, the canal water rushed too fiercely for any duck to get lift from it, much less featherless ducklings.

The waiter reached a latex-gloved hand over the van and drew back with a live duckling. We looked up. Would a duck have nested at the top of a five-story building? It didn’t seem possible.

But then, why not? They have wings. About 20 feet away a stout woman pointed us toward the mother duck calling for her young.

Another waiter appeared, the father of a newborn boy. He looked down at the dead duckling and echoed the first waiter.

“He is already dead. It is nature,” he said with a shrug, but then he and the other waiter in their starched white and black uniforms circled the van to shepherd the ducklings toward their mother.

When all her babies were gathered around her, the mother duck stood quacking for a moment more, as though she knew one was still missing. Do mother ducks know how to count out their babies?

She turned and hopped the low stone pedestal that rims the canal; her babies clambered at the ledge to join her, but for them it was too great a height. She slipped through the wrought-iron railing and readied to leap the 15 feet down into the churning green water, but then realized her babies were not at her belly. She threaded back between the bars, but she did not come down from the ledge to join her young.

Instead, she waddled east toward the lake, while her babies followed, fretting against the stone, keening pitiably to join her. The lake was still a mile and many busy crossroads away. Her path would take her fledglings through the thick of the city.

A small audience formed in the apartment balconies above the canal.

Under their watch, I followed the family and I wondered, why do we care so much about ducklings? The restaurant where the waiters work serves duck.

The mother duck was nearing the street when she seemed to reach a point of decision. Here, the stone pedestal sloped downward, so a few of her ducklings were able to make the leap and cluster around her belly. She slipped under the fence onto the edge and dropped down into the hurrying water.

Some of her babies trusting their mother, tumbled over the wall with her.

The remaining ducklings threw themselves against the stone and quickened their cries. The current forced the mother duck and her babies downriver, but they fought their way back up to where the crying babies scrambled at the ledge.

The balcony audience shouted and made sweeping motions with their hands, indicating I should send the babies over the edge. As I bent down, one duckling cleared the stone and with little featherless wings outspread, fell down into the water.

I gently cupped the last duckling in my hands, lifted him onto the pedestal, but he would not jump. I nudged him closer to the edge, but he only bleated louder and struggled back into my hands. I pushed him over then, feeling sick as I did it. Below, the ducklings swirled around their mother. They were all together.

I turned around and said, “C’est bien, tout c’est bien.” Everyone raised their hands and shouted in joy. For them it was over, but when I turned back I saw one duckling carried away by the current, her mother hurrying to catch her, but forced to circle back to gather her brood who could not keep up. The separated one bleated,¬†her little dark wings outspread, facing her mother, as the water pulled her backwards tail-first and farther away.

It seemed for a moment as though the mother and her brood would close the gap, but then two merganzers appeared and pecked at her babies, teasing them away from her in the swirling water. She could by herself catch the duckling being carried away, but she would have to abandon the rest to the hungry merganzers. She gave up the one and circled back to fight the merganzers, with her babies frantically working against the current to stay inside her protective reach.

The merganzers gave up, the mother was too fierce, but by that time the little duckling had been carried out of sight, although we could still hear her bleating, but soon, even that was drowned out by the city noise.

 

24: Money, money, money.

Sure the Swiss annoy us with their endless palms-up-give-us-some-more-money approach to life, but no one can deny that they have cool urban spaces. This row in our town’s medieval district appears to house the drug-and-alcohol-addled, based on our observation while enjoying a coffee at a cafe across the street.

In the news that North America is still the best place to live, here’s a little tidbit: Dave’s boss incorporated his company and then leased a company car. In keeping with the Swiss dictum that all facets of life must be subject to a fee structure, Dave’s boss has to pay an annual $300 fee for the radio because his “employees” get to enjoy it, and by “employees,” Swiss bureaucrats mean the boss himself.

It just so happens that the team carpools together. It is not that much of a stretch to imagine that if this comes to the attention of the Swiss government, they could try to apply a $300 fee per person.

It may be that this money goes toward paying royalties, but it seems that radio stations already pay royalties for the music they play, so  probably this fee just goes to pay the salary of the fee-overseers.

Friends of ours renting an apartment are currently in a tangle with their landlord who is trying to charge them $600 for cleaning the lobby in their building. This is a big surprise to them. They thought they were a lawyer and accountant couple. Who knew they were also janitors?

In similar fee-nuisance news (or newsance): Buy a television set and pay $400 in ownership fees every year that you own the set. Someone is making money on this. I don’t think it’s the television manufacturers, vendors or buyers. It seems to be the government.

If you learn anything by living in different countries, it is that every place has its own way of organizing itself economically, and so perhaps this ladling-on  of fees makes sense in the broader picture, but it remains that every foreigner we know living and working here in Switzerland is here primarily for this reason: To see Europe. 

At the same time, every foreigner I’ve known in Canada gives me one reason for uprooting themselves from their homelands to move to a place where they have to learn a new language and often retread their academic credentials and endure some ethnic/cultural/racial discomfort. It is this: To make a better life for them and their family.

There is an air of fun to the first group, but an air of serious endeavor and earnestness in the second. No one in Europe yet has told me they are here for a better life, because the better life is across the Atlantic, and that is where we are headed in only 24 more days.

Note: Despite the possibly grouchy tone of this post, I still say the Swiss are sweethearts. If you get a chance to come here, take it.

30, 29, 28, 27, 26, 25: Some Shots From Switzerland

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Biel’s “beachtown” is up and open for visitors. Admission is free, and visitors can lounge all day if they like, but only vendor-served food and beverages are allowed inside. Not being able to read the German/French/Italian signage, I popped open a can of Coca Cola at last year’s beachtown and was quickly informed about the ‘no-outside food’ rule.

In classical Swiss fashion, however, the staff told me this discreetly, quietly, politely and said it was fine for me to finish my Coke, but please remember to buy from a vendor next time. I’m okay with this. After all, vendors’ fees contribute to the creation of this oasis.

Bouncers in black uniforms stand at the gates, possibly to keep out Biel’s increasingly cantankerous street crowd of alcoholics and druggies. ¬†Alcohol is served in Beachtown where we’ve never seen anyone misbehave, but then we’re usually back in our hotel room before ‘party hours’ really begin. Nonetheless, this is Switzerland, the land of good manners and we expect that for the most part, the Swiss keep it reined in.

There’s all kinds of food available inside, including some delicious smelling Thai fare that we plan to sample soon.

 

32: Switzerland’s Sweet Slide Into Summer

The Swiss have got some things figured out perfectly, like how to have fun with what they’ve got, as we were reminded on our weekend stroll. The photograph above is the beginning stages of Biel/Bienne’s summer tropical pavilion, brought to Switzerland courtesy of some backhoes, truckloads of white sand and potted palm trees, all kissing up to the shore of Lac Biel.

This happens every year here. It’s funded by the municipality, it is a wonderful slice of Caribbean-living, and why not? The summer season is starting to cook, the temperatures will ride up to the high 30s and the humidity brings into question whether Switzerland really is an alpine country.

I cannot imagine something similar going over back in our home of Victoria, British Columbia. There, such a drastic environmental alteration would produce a band of swooning protesters and broiler-hot five-hour town hall meetings, where apple pie and “I didn’t fight in the Second World War to see my country come to this” motherhood statements would be flung around the room. I shrug. It is Victoria and it is what it is, but I wish they could see how it is done here.

The Swiss muck around with their environment repeatedly, but as for degradation and damage, no worries. The same equipment that creates this tropicana will be back in the fall to sweep it all up, replant and renew the area. They hold massive festivals here in our little town, chucking things around that would bring Victoria bylaw officers to their knees in horror (imagine drifts of confetti over a foot deep on Douglas Street), but quick as flash as soon as the festival is over, in comes the Swiss backhoe brigade to set everything right again. The morning after every festival, there is not a clue it ever happened.

In the meantime, I’m looking forward to lazing on a cushioned wicker lounger, munching on hotdogs and sipping on iced tea under the shade of a palm tree on a white sand beach, all only a 15 minute walk from my hotel.

Dave wanders into the park and wonders, where the heck did all this sand come from? And the beach furniture? And the hot dog stand? From June 2011.

 

Before the beach, 2011: How the park usually looks – asphalt, lawn, shrubs, rock-line shore. Yes, I would like some palm trees, thank you.

45: Switzerland’s vacation vaccination

Yesterday, after elbowing my way through three grocery stores packed with shoppers on the verge of taking up sniper posts atop the shelves, it seemed a good idea to inquire what was going on, just in case the Swiss were stocking up in light of a pending nuclear meltdown.

The hotel staff informed me today is a holiday “bigger than Christmas.” They were uncertain whether this is the day of Ascension or Pentecost, but they were sure it was a day off. Nice to see the Swiss, a secular bunch, ¬†so scrupulously devoted to the religious calendar and any vacation days it might afford.

I worked in a newspaper. I’m pretty sure the protesters complained the media was deliberately casting them in a bad light when they ran this photo, but then, if the protesters didn’t want to look like Nazis, why did they engage in this salute? Of course, if they had actually been in class, they might have learned this was not a good idea, symbolism-wise. Source: Montreal Gazette

So we have been outside in the sun, strolling along the canals, not sure if we are marking the coming of Holy Spirit or the day Jesus hightailed it for heaven, but enjoying God’s goodness either way. The swans are nesting in giant wickerish mounds and the fishers are out with their extended poles, standing on metal platforms the size of diving boards. It’s lovely and yet the Swiss have said they have enough, no more vacation days for us, thanks.

In this season of mass protests against austerity measures, the Swiss voted down a proposal to expand their minimum annual paid vacation from four to six weeks. The Swiss can vote for crazy things like prostitute garages and keeping women from voting (until the 1980s), but sometimes their poll results reveal an intelligent electorate mature in its understanding of economics.

In the meantime, back home in Canada, Quebec’s premier Jean Charest cratered to protesters who stormed university classrooms this week and used belligerence to empty the rooms. Quebec is the only province where a masked man bursting into a room and shouting is usually the overture to gunfire, so it was an odd choice by the protesters, but then they have not been in school in weeks, so maybe they missed the history class covering the slayings at L’Ecole Polytechnique (1989), Concordia University (1992) and¬†Dawson College (2006).

The premier shut down the spring sessions. I don’t get it, although in his defense Quebec’s opposition party is gleefully taking advantage of the unrest and throwing more fuel on the fire.

None of that for Geneva where voters approved tougher penalties for pushy protesters. Quebeckers are fond of referendums. Maybe they’ll take a tip from the Swiss and use one to restore order to their streets and campuses. If they don’t do it, it doesn’t look like anyone will, least of all their leaders.

54: Just another beautiful spring day in Switzerland

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

 

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

A funky fence at an outdoor cafe in Biel/Bienne

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

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

55: The Importance of Being in a Crosswalk

Swiss woman makes power play over transit authority.

When a mother pushing a stroller challenges a bus on a Swiss street, you have to wonder if she’s hit the nadir of a post-partum-induced depression, because street-crossing in Switzerland has rigidly observed rules, one of which is, don’t mess with bus drivers. They see a pedestrian on the pavement as a challenge to their might and will push down on the pedal to make their point.

Nonetheless, the mother won, because just as rock crushes scissors, mother-and-baby beats buses. Street-crossing is, in my view, a sociological and psychological indicator of many things. Every time you cross the street, you are saying something about yourself, your culture and your country.

For example, a former work colleague hailing from Canada’s easterly region routinely plunged into downtown traffic as though she were made of impermeable titanium, not squishy skin-sheathed fluids. At first, I assumed this was part of her eastern provincial culture.

Then I observed she was very much the same off the road, plunging into rants that shredded her colleagues into confetti, not giving a thought for the reputations she raked over. Once, a colleague challenged her and she delivered a soliloquy so far removed from the truth that it can be said that she regarded people the same way she regarded cars Рmere objects that were destined to get out of her way.

This is not to say that street-crossing methodology is an indication of sociopathic tendencies, but maybe it is a warning sign.

We see many people with crutches, canes and casts on Swiss streets, including young adults with twisted limbs and hobbled gaits. Other foreigners have observed the same thing, yet when we ask the Swiss about the multitude of injured on the streets, they don’t see anything unusual. We don’t know whether these are the ski or street-crossing wounded, but we sure wonder.

In Canada, jaywalkers crossing the street at any point might peeve a few, but overall society takes a benign view of the practice and  drivers will veer away should a pedestrian stride inside their trajectory. Still, something seethes under the surface: When city police in Victoria, British Columbia hold a ticketing-binge on jaywalkers it attracts heated and furious debate in the local media. But a ticket and maybe a tongue-scalding is the worst a Canadian will get for taking a shortcut.

No such luck in Australia. There, street-crossing can be suicidal, because the streets belong to bus-drivers who slingshot their multi-tonne vehicles as though they are warheads. Death could very quickly follow every time one crosses the curb. This is why Aussies drink so much. They know every hour could be their last.

I cannot speak for the dangers of street-crossing the world over, but I know that Spanish crosswalks are not to be trusted. While the Swiss abide by the rules, Spanish drivers are a hurried and opportunistic bunch, possibly because they are probably on their way home for a siesta, which might explain their current economic woes. I wish I was joking about this. Many a time at a Madrid crosswalk, I’ve seen the first car stop only to see cars two, three and even four pull up behind the first car, then pop out into the opposing lane and speed through the crosswalk. The first time I saw this, I nearly got hit. Having seen an x-ray of some Spanish orthopedic bone-mending with what looked like twist-ties, I vowed to never trust the Spanish medical establishment with my life, so I learned to never cross a crosswalk until all cars had passed.

Here in Switzerland, street-crossing is a sign of social order. Crosswalks are everywhere, and even though Swiss drivers could likely outpace those Australian bus-drivers, they show a lot of respect for people inside the crosswalk, but not so much for jaywalkers who venture beyond the yellow-striped lines.

More than once, I’ve seen vehicles speed up at the sight of a pedestrian attempting to strike out against the state-sanctioned road-crossings. Last week, a very swank looking gentleman driving a very expensive vehicle almost tapped a young man who dared cross the street against the light, and the motorist did not look one bit worried about grinding the man under his treads. The Swiss are ardent capitalists when it comes to money, but where street-crossing is concerned, they will push individualistic expression under the water every time.

As is the case in almost all areas of life, the exception to all rules across the board belongs to females between the ages of 16 to 30. These  stiletto-heeled women in their tight jeans, leather jackets and flowing manes do not even look before crossing the street. They just go without a hiccup in their pace because they know the world will stop for them. It looks like a wonderful world to be in, except for the day of reckoning that will occur sometime after they turn 30 when their toe the curb, and a car whips past without a glance at the gal. Then she will know she has passed her apex and is staring down into the nadir of middle-age. True, that is still a long ways off, but having to look before crossing a street is a sign that it will come.

 

 

 

56: Midwifery, Sunglass Fashion Show, Car Sales and Tubas

When a festival runs low on ideas, bring in the car dealers!

It appears the Swiss festival planners’ gas tank of festival ideas ran low this week, judging by the curious menage of celebrations going on in our town square on Saturday. It appeared to be a combination midwife, car sale, marching band, sunglass fashion show complete with ear-blasting music, red carpet and velvet ropes, plus a picnic event, but hey, who am I to criticize?

The Swiss are as big on open-air events as the Spanish, which is to say: A lot. The tone is slightly different with the Spanish going for huge religious festivities that always involve marching through town carrying a massive float of a statue of a saint – often on the shoulders of men.

For the less Bible-literate, this harkens back to the Judaic Ark of the Covenant, a gold-plated acacia wood chest topped with angel figures said to contain the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, which had to always be carried by men, never pulled by a beast of burden or heaven forbid, put on a flatbed truck (no one knows where it is now, so it is safe from the flatbed truck indignity).  Not all Spanish parades are carried on the backs of men, of course, but enough are that it keeps the Moroccans from invading because who wants to go to battle against guys who carry half-tonne gold-plated saints on their backs as a leisure activity?

What is this man doing to that baby at that festival table?

If this isn’t an argument in favor of c-sections, I don’t know what is.

But I drift from my topic. As we passed through the square, we saw a woman giving a rather solemn presentation on how to assist in childbirth to a man who did not look like he was up to a career in medicine. We hoped going through this presentation did not certify the student for anything, but we can not be sure of this, because if the Swiss love anything, it is to make sure everyone is certified in any activity, however mundane it may be.

It turns out you can play tubas in the rain. Who knew?

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.

59: The Perils of Politeness or When a Walker Attracts a Stalker

Someone watching the woman closely could see that she favored her left leg as she sauntered along the canal and into the town square. She drew a plumb-line through the crush of office workers hurrying home, and as she passed the cafe at the far end, she lifted her head at the cigarette smoke drifting up from the tables.

The square fell away behind her so that she was alone again. To her left stood wrought-iron fences guarding deep canal walls that plunged down to rumbling waters. To her right were more cement walls, low and topped with ornate iron stakes that rose protectively around the small coiffed gardens of the town’s grand stone apartments. Heavy fists of lilac leaned over the garden walls and drenched the air in perfume, pushing back the tobacco odour.

Ahead, two men came into view, ambling in the same direction as her; their heads slightly turned in her direction. One man paused to examine a shoebox left by the curb. Almost imperceptibly, the woman hesitated, then stepped off the sidewalk and onto the street, picking up her pace as she drew a large crescent-shaped berth around the men. Her eyes followed the tall spiked gates of the small gardens and down the empty road ahead.

The shoebox man stayed on the sidewalk, but his companion, young and lean, skipped onto the road until he was beside the woman. He spoke a few words in German, and when she only glanced at him, he tested French, moving in closer all the while, right to the point where another inch in and she would have had to stop to keep from walking into him, but he held back just that one inch. Without altering her stride, the woman looked the man full in the face for the first time. She said something.

They reached a road crossing and she stopped. The man continued to prattle at her as she looked down the canal, then past the man where a block away people herded through a retail district. Where the man and woman stood, however, there was only the scent of the lilacs and the sound of the canal. The shoebox man could no longer be seen.

She turned left, almost bumping into the man who stepped back just in time to avoid her, but then he continued on at her side, his face rearranged to convey bewilderment. He hunched his shoulders forward and turned at the waist, forming an umbrella over her. He smiled as he talked, to reveal large white teeth against plum-coloured gums. She moved away from him, stepping off the curb and crossing the street without checking for cars. As though their ankles were cuffed, he held his position beside her. To an onlooker, they walked so close and he talked so intently, they looked like friends.

At the store doors, she turned as though to go in but paused as he begged intently for her phone number. When that did not succeed, he begged for her to take his number. She scraped a foot backward, the store door’s motion sensor blinked, the glass doors parted, and voices from inside wafted around her. She should go in inside. Why doesn’t she go inside, but the man has her fixed in his stare, his dark skin smooth and glinting in copper where it catches the late-afternoon light.

He reaches his hand out and for a moment his intention is unclear, but as if by reflex, she grabs his hand, shakes it and then disappears into the store.

61: Cantons and Canada

Switzerland, the land of many cobblestones and cantons.

Today is Labour Day, making it a public holiday in 10 of Switzerland’s 26 cantons. My husband’s work is in a canton that does not designate this a holiday, while some of his coworkers live in cantons that do, and so the question is: Do you take a holiday based on the address of your workplace or your home?

Even the Swiss seem uncertain.  When asked if staff should come in to work, a Swiss executive referred the question to the Human Resources Department, but based on past experience, my guess is that the head of HR is on holiday. One fellow lives and works in different cantons that both call today a regular work day, but he comes from a former communist-ruled country where Labour Day was practically a holy day so based on that criteria, he is staying home.  No one seems fussed about this.

If you live in the right canton, such as Z√ľrich, you will enjoy 15 paid public holidays. If you live in the wrong one, like Appenzell, you ¬†only get eight.

Coming from Canada, a land of 13 provinces and territories combined, we often see the nation is somewhat uneven in its application of rights, responsibilities and privileges. For example, in Ontario, medically necessary travel is funded through the government, while in British Columbia, residents have to go to a registered charity for help.

And while the federal government appears to be overseeing a  national health care system, the fact is that British Columbia demands monthly fees from its citizens (just like a private insurance company, gasp), while Manitoba only asks that you live inside its borders to qualify. How B.C. politicians get away with this and why voters put up with it is beyond me.

But to get back to public holidays, some Canadians get more, others not so much. Nationally, workers get nine paid days off; provinces add to that, but not at the same rate. British Columbians only get one extra day while at the other end of the country, Newfoundland/Labradorites enjoy as many as seven provincial holidays.

The rest of Canada says nothing about this because it seems reasonable compensation for having to live in Newfoundland/Labrador.

But to get back to the question about whether my hubby should go to work today, the answer is yes. He is contractor. He only gets paid if he shows up.

Public holidays in Switzerland

Public holidays in Canadian provinces by federal dates and provincial dates. 

65: Fabulous restaurant under our noses

BIEL/BIENNE, SWITZERLAND: Tour de Romandie travels with their own on-board laundry equipment plus two semi trucks full of bikes, staffed with bike mechanics, massage therapists, travel managers, the works. Had I known this is what it takes to get a washing machine in Switzerland, I would have paid more attention to my bike-riding skills. Photo: Joanne Hatherly

We discovered two things yesterday:

  1. The best steak in town has been under our noses all along. The hotel treated us to a free day of dining as a generous thank you for some help out of a little fix, hence we braved the priciest item on the menu. If you are travelling through Biel, and you have a passion for a truly great beef tenderloin, foie gras and sauce, stop at La Barrique in the Mercure Hotel.
  2. Tour de Romandie racers (including Lance Armstrong’s former team) travel with their own laundry equipment. Given my troubles locating laundry facilities, this does not surprise me a bit. How do I know this? The racers have taken over our hotel. They are a very quiet bunch – must be something to do with biking like mad over Switzerland’s terrain that knocks the stuffing out of them.

Our hotel staff treat us like royalty - first by puffing me up with delicious pastries, second by feeding us fabulous beef, and then letting us take over any part of the hotel we like. How could we not love it here?

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.

 

 

 

 

71: The Savagery of Swans + Statsurday

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

ABC News: Killer Swan Cited in Chicago Man’s Drowning Death

I’m not surprised a bit to learn a bird took an active part in a man’s death. In the late 1990s I spent some time in a cast, thanks to a ferocious rooster pursuit – the rooster was after me, not the other way around. I’ll say no more about this embarrassing episode except that he started it.*

Swans: Don't mess with them. Source: Wikipedia, Japan.

Friday was windy, sending Lac Biel swans up the town’s canals in search of calmer waters. They move almost in formation, pushing up against the current sometimes in a straight line, then ride the current back to the canal mouth into Lac Biel where they turn around and start the loop all over again.

In Canada, we read much about staying away from waterfowl lest we disturb them to the point where they fail to reproduce or thrive, but I’ve always suspected that loons, ducks, geese and all the like are more resilient than that. Switzerland’s swans bear out my hypothesis.

As I made my wind-whipped walk by the canal, the only pedestrian in sight, the swans took note of me walking high above on the canal’s banks, broke off their formation and proceeded to swim alongside me, poking their bills in my direction in the same manner my labrador retrievers used to nose my hand for treats.

Orderly Republican swans to the right, more Democrat "Frank Sinatra 'I Did It My Way" swans to the left.

Had I already learned of the U.S. man’s swan-induced drowning, the theme track to the movie “Jaws” would have run in my head, but I was blithely unaware of the dangerous flock that followed me. In that way, it as though I am living in a Hitchcock horror movie.

When I lingered over a canal bridge, they gathered round as though readying for choir. I had no food and while swan’s faces do not appear configured to convey disapproval, I couldn’t help but get the feeling that I had let them down.

I’ve never seen swans up close until we came here. I always thought they were graceful elegant creatures, but up-close they are a lot like people. There’s always one in a crowd who bullies his way about, stabbing and tearing at other swans to get to the front of the flock. ¬†Occasionally, we’ll spy one who for some reason the flock just do not like. That sad swan lingers at the fringes, pecked and pursued every time she tries to drift in to the heart of the flock. Others hang around in the thick, but they still guard their little circle of surf with an air of menace.

Nonetheless, they are lovely to look at, fun to watch as they try to take off in flight (it takes a long time, they are heavy birds) and despite the dreaded news of the man’s drowning, gather around people like puppies here in our little town.

* I was once sent flying out of my lounge chair when a loon spiked up out of the water right next to my head, triggering me to make noises that Dave said was what he imagined a person might make while being attacked by a bear.

BlogBits

Top country hits:  Canada, U.S., and Switzerland

Bottom country hits:  Qatar, Israel and Bulgaria

Readers from Japan:  Three

Weirdest search term: Nabadaba dingdong

Most read post: ¬†Paris Food – Can you eat lambs kidney without having to sell your own has once again climbed to the top after being briefly usurped by Luscious Lucerne,¬†which has dropped to third place, nudged out by Switzerland’s Toronto. I cannot explain any of this, except that perhaps I under-rated the world’s interest in Parisian food.

Most active time of day on this blog: 3 p.m.

Yes, he got close and his feathers were up. I have no idea what that means.

Swans are beautiful no matter how you look at them.

Fascinating only to me, possibly, but this is how much churn one swan kicked up on his start to avoid a bully-swan.


74: Living with language indignities plus can cold sores make you go blind?

The streets of Biel/Bienne, where I am working on a career as a social pariah.

There’s not much more refreshing than having ones personal medical information shouted from the pharmacy desk to the enjoyment of other shoppers.

First a little back-story: I have nearly all of my life carried the virus that produces cold sores – also known as Herpes Simplex Virus 1. This is not the more nasty Herpes Simplex 2 sexually transmitted disease. I emphasize: Not.

Rather, this is the one that produces the little fever blisters on the lip.

I got the virus the same way many did: By growing up poor. It is a true fact that more people in the lower classes have cold sores than in the more economically elite strata, even in supposedly egalitarian Canada. We the poor were more afflicted because we tended to share toothbrushes (yes, I shared a toothbrush with my four brothers – there is no amount of therapy that will reconcile me to this), our linens were laundered less often, and so forth, making the spread of contagion all the more swift.

This is, by the way, the same reason in past eras that poor people succumbed to deadly contagion long before the rich – the poor or orphaned often shared beds, hacking and wheezing on each other through the night. For those who protest, take it up with the lecturers of first-year Sociology and historians of epidemiology.*

But I drift from my topic.**

I went through life looking on the occasional cold-sore eruption as a minor inconvenience until 1985. That was the year that my friend’s son developed a cold sore lesion in his eye. Cue: Ewwwww and Gadzooks!

This is a rare affliction that usually clears up, however, it does put the cornea at risk of scarring, not to mention the conjunctiva and rarely and most dangerously the retina. This is, also, produced by Herpes Simplex Virus 1, which suddenly did not look so benign.

Thus was born The Great Contagion Containment Campaign that continues on even today. We do not pick off each others plates,*** share glasses, straws, forks, spoons, towels, and so forth in my household. I’ve disciplined myself to keep my fingers away from my mouth, especially when a cold sore has erupted. When I prepare food, my hands are washed repeatedly through the process and I only taste-test using a spoon that is then immediately thrown into the dishwasher. I even use surgical gloves when kneading or handling dough. I would no sooner double-dip on any food than I would slice off my baby finger. The prospect of licking batter off my fingers is as abhorrent as eating food off the floor.

I’ve occasionally been accused of taking this too far; that is until I point out that shutting down the disease-highway is a two-way street that benefits everyone, especially as I’m a carrier.

It is, of course, impossible to completely seal off contagion, but in 30 years of marriage, my husband remains in the clear and I’ve raised two boys to adulthood and neither of them has the virus. My doctor is in awe of my accomplishment.

Which brings us to the present: At the moment, I have a cold sore in the corner of my lip. Yesterday, I steeled my nerves and plunged into the pharmacy where by Swiss convention I must speak with a pharmacist before purchasing products that in North America are right out in the open on the shelves where we untrained laypersons just chuck them into our shopping carts with barely a thought. How I miss that shopping experience. But I drift again.

To ease my way into the conversation, I first asked the pharmacist for a cold cough syrup, sending her on the cold-virus track. After she had delivered it, I made a sad attempt to list the brand names of all the cold-sore cremes I know, none of which she recognized. The words cold and sore paired together mean nothing in German or French (or Italian, but I wasn’t going to try that language, I have enough trouble with the others).

I pointed to the cold sore on my lip and said it was a cold-virus-produced blister. A light of understanding crossed her face.

“You have herpes!” she announced.

“No, I do not have herpes. Not really. It’s just a cold sore,” I countered.

The word “no” threw her right off track, but I managed to steer her back in the right direction, at which point she announced even louder, “You have herpes! Herpes!”

And so she continued at increasing volume until I glumly agreed, “I have herpes. Yes. I do.” After all my denials, she gave me that look pharmacists reserve for clients suffering from mental conditions, a mix of pity, judgment and distrust.

She handed me a tube that cost roughly eight times what I would pay in Canada. I did not flinch. I paid, and then I crawled out of there as fast as I could.

Dave thinks this is not so bad. “You’ll never see those people again, and the odds are that no one else in the store understood English,” he said.

Easy for him to say. He works in an English environment all day long. Meanwhile, I’m busy in the community building my reputation as a social pariah.

* If you want to know more about cold sores from a reliable site, check it out at Web MD.

** I am always drifting from my topic. But on another note: You don’t have to be poor to get a cold sore. I wasn’t suggesting this at all. I was just recalling a lecture I heard at university. I do believe, however, that it was poverty that spread cold sores in my family. How else can one explain one toothbrush for five kids. Just typing this triggered my gag reflex. Excuse me.

*** That’s not entirely true. No one picks off my plate, because I am the disease vector. See, there is a positive side to having cold sores. I, however, have been known to pick off my husband’s or kids’ plates, but only with a clean fork.

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?

76: Made in (insert country name here)

Lambswool coats in Biel/Bienne's secondhand shop, made of lambs wool from Africa, but stitched together right here in our little town.

On the second floor of a nearby secondhand shop is a combination book and clothing section. It smells like all secondhand clothing shops do Рreeking of the musty battle between laundry soap and human perspiration.

The first time we visited this shop, a traditional Swiss woman’s costume hung against the wall. It is gone now. I halfway wish I had bought it, but what life would it have had? It would be boxed in Canada, taken out by my kids after my demise and sent to – where else, but another secondhand shop. I spared it that indignity.

This is the walk we take to the second-hand shop in our town's charming medieval quarter.

I still like to rummage through secondhand shops. They are pocket-museums of retail, showing the gradual shift of industry from one nation to another as evidenced by the “Made in Biel/Bienne” tags on a rack of ¬†heavy lambs-wool coats in this particular shop. Twenty years from now, the place might be filled with Made in China garments, but that is not as sure a thing as it seems in North America.

Switzerland has an industrious bent, and a more bred-in sense of loyalty to local producers. This mindset is on display in stores everywhere. If there are Spanish strawberries on the shelf, there are also Swiss. Chinese-feather-packed pillows lay next to Swiss-down pillows and you can count on the Swiss retail clerks to enthusiastically explain why only an idiot would buy Chinese when a superior Swiss brand is within reach.

Made right here in our town.

Granted that my cultural moorings are loosened so that my interpretations might be all off, but the Swiss don’t do this with the same politicized notes that one hears in North America. They buy Swiss because they genuinely believe no one can do or make anything better than the Swiss.

It may be hard to imagine, but there was a time that Made in Winnipeg tags were abundant. Winnipeg is the Canadian prairie town where we were born and raised, and it had a thriving industrial sector at one time. We find evidence of this occasionally. At our cottage, we decided to dispose of an old sand-filled sofa by cutting it to pieces and burning it. When we peeled back the upholstery and pried apart the frame, I was somewhat dismayed to see it had Winnipeg stamps on its solid wood boards. We were too committed to our decluttering craze to put the thing back together. I’m a little sorry about that.

 

78: Stats-urday or What the Heck does –¶—é—Ä–ł—Ö –į—Ä—Ö–ł—ā–Ķ–ļ—ā—É—Ä–į Mean?

This is why Dave is not allowed to shop alone.

It’s Saturday, or as I have decided to call it Staturday. In this week’s exciting world of blog stats:

  • Most page views came from Canada.
  • Least page views came from Sweden.
  • I have at least one faithful reader in Japan. Thank you, faithful reader.
  • The weirdest and fourth-highest search term that landed a reader at this site was¬†–¶—é—Ä–ł—Ö –į—Ä—Ö–ł—ā–Ķ–ļ—ā—É—Ä–į. I have no idea what that means.
  • At least two web searches were for Fuhlrich Restaurant in Vienna on which I wrote two reviews of two visits, one that was sublime, the other catastrophic. My reviews reflect both. I am nothing if not fair. If either of those two readers want to know whether to try out this restaurant, I say do. The food is always good, even if the service is somewhat uneven.
  • “What to say to hobo” was one search term that I can answer: Say hello, and keep walking. Hobos can be sketchy.
  • Second weird search term: Does Angelina Jolie have asthma?¬†This site will not definitively answer that question but I will hazard a guess that she does not.
  • Whereas Paris food is usually the most popular search term of the year, it has just this week been edged out by Lucerne.
  • Hobonotes.com has 12,358 hits.
  • I like to think that I just whip these posts out in a flash, but the truth is a I am a serial-self-editor. WordPress lets me see how many times I’ve tweaked a post, and those lists show some get tinkered with as many as 20 times before I hit the publish button.
  • Even with that, I often see a gaff after publication, so I end up republishing some after corrections one to three times.
  • No one is perfect.

79: Travel Turbulence for Tresses

This is how my hair looks immediately after styling. This look will last less than 10 minutes.

The life on the road looks so glamorous until you consider: How shall I pack my hairdresser.

You can’t pack your hairdresser, or her incredible wisdoms regarding your mane, so for the time that you are away from home, you are away from all that props up your personal appearance.

Before we left for Europe, my daughter-in-law, a fantastic professional make-up artist whose recent work appeared on Ryan Seacrest’s website, schooled me in the magic of make-up for the middle-aged. I swear, I did not force my son to marry her just for my benefit, but that would have been a smart move, had it been necessary. She is the reason I can walk the streets of Switzerland without terrifying the locals with my withering visage.

Sometimes a hat is the only answer to hairscare.

But I drift: I can be schooled in make-up, I can pack a box of MAC products that will see me through the year, but my hairdresser is not quite so portable. Last summer, all she could do as she gave my mop a last reshaping was advise pulling it back into a ponytail when it reached that inevitable point of unpresentable-in-public. I reached that point about six weeks after that. It’s been a serious year of ponytail-itis.

How bad can it get? When I showed up in a Sydney, Australia hair salon in 2000, the stylists were so horrified that they all stopped what they were doing to gather around. They quoted something like $400 to repair the damage, but I am morally opposed to spending that much money on my mane, so I passed, spending the rest of our time overseas in a state of shame.

This is how my hair normally looks 10 minutes after styling.

In Spain, I took a recommendation from a friend and had a hairstylist come to my home. The result was an orangey-Ringo-Starrish crown from which I am still in emotional recovery. I would post a photo, but mercifully there are none.

And so this time around, I swore off hairdressers until we get back to Canada. I’m getting by with microscopic self-trims plus Rusk haircare products recommended to me by a friend who is a theatre/film wardrobe pro (I only point this out to show that it takes more than the fashion-hobbyist to keep me presentable).

It seems extreme, but I am not alone. I know a Victoria-based editor who only gets her haircut when she’s visiting family in Italy, another woman in Victoria who only gets her hair trimmed in Vancouver and the list goes on. My own hairdresser says I am not her only overseas client who eschews salons until she hits Victoria.

A good hairdresser is hard to find, but a great hairdresser is worth the wait.

80: The De-Civilization Devolution

This is not Dave.

This is Dave.

Leaving home as a young adult leads to all kinds of daring adventures, such as drinking straight out of the milk carton.

By this measure, Dave is reliving his second early-adulthood. Yes, he is drinking from the milk carton. I am not. I have some standards.

This development would be disgusting, but we have not entertained a single guest during our 370-day occupation of this hotel suite and I don’t drink milk, so Dave is making a rational choice that also happens to reduce the pieces of dirtied dinnerware we produce. I have a hard time arguing with that, nonetheless, the minute we land on Canadian soil, I am going to keep a wood ruler in the kitchen. Dave makes a wrong move toward a milk carton and there will be consequences.

Youth-associated poverty also leads to certain economic measures, such as forgoing the traditional ironing board and using the mattress for pressing clothes. Our suite happens to have an ironing board, but somewhere along the way we started ironing clothes on our bed. I can’t remember exactly when or why this domestic devolution occurred, but it is actually a great thing. No more sliding clothes around on a too-narrow board. Just lay the whole thing out and ironing is suddenly easy. As if on cue, we’ve noticed Swiss shops are selling over-sized ironing boards – yes, ironing boards so wide you can lay your trousers out on them without having any portion lap over the edge. Sweet.

How could this not be a great idea?

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

82: Wrought iron and tulips

Switzerland is more a country of rugged mountains and unfurling bicycle paths along dreamy farm pastures and steep-set vineyards, but it is also a country of gardens. Albeit, so far we have not seen any as beautifully arranged as those found in England or Spain, but lovely all the same.

Here are a few examples of the springtime awakening of Biel/Bienne’s urban gardens. Mostly tiny little postage-stamp green spaces, some are all about function with pebble-bases and bicycle lock-ups, while others show a little more affection for the greener things in life.

If by chance you have landed on this site because you are a gardening fanatic, the best place we have seen for gardens is Victoria, British Columbia. I don’t just say that because it is my home, but because as a reporter I once covered a good part of the region testing out bicycle routes to the downtown core, during which I came upon unheralded residential streets of floral bounty – home-gardens that would never hit a magazine’s page or attract comment in the media, which is what makes their discovery all the more sweet.

Here are the ordinary and yet still adorable urban patches of Biel/Bienne as seen over the Easter weekend.

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83: Language lagunas – A topic about which we never tire

When we learned we would move to Switzerland, Dave and I approached the impending language lapses in different ways.

I bought a “French for Dummies” book, logged onto a fabulous Youtube French language tutorial, pasted post-it notes of useful French words and phrases all over the house (such as “Why are you being so mean to me?” and “Your country is not as great as my country.”) and spent hours everyday expanding my French vocabulary and working toward mastering at least a four-year-old’s level of grammatical expertise.*

Dave, in the meantime, went out and bought a pocket Franklin language gadget.

While my process seems more laborious, it turns out it is much better than the gadget. I cannot speak French well at all, but arguably, I don’t speak English well either – nevertheless, I have an instantaneous grasp of what the French-speaking Swiss are saying to me as long as they stick to a preschooler patois. It’s a helpful skill that enables me to discern whether to stand in place or run like heck. While I am absorbing the message, Dave has not even whipped the pocket translator out of his pocket.

All of which shows that even though my French pronunciation is an offense to French-speakers everywhere, the hours of studying were not wasted. I highly recommend it because a fractured understanding of a language is better than a big black hole of incomprehension.

But we have no linguistic illusions. We cannot speak the language and that confines our social world along very tight borders, not to mention that the Swiss are a pretty reserved lot.

And yet, yesterday we seem to have passed a threshold.

Our neighbourhood has a “dog lady;” you know the type: A slightly batty dishevelled older woman who talks loudly to her dog, and then about her dog to anyone who will stop long enough to listen. I see this woman numerous times everyday, but she never gives me the slightest acknowledgement. That is okay. I have enough batty people in my life already. I’m full up.

But yesterday, as Dave and I were about to pass her, I pointed out to Dave how I am non-persona to this woman, whereupon she turned on us and delivered a truckload of French liberally spiced with the word “chien.” One could suppose she had not made her canine-convo-quota and decided to try to top up with us, but more likely it was because her poodle leapt up at Dave and demanded an ear scratch.

Have passed muster with Fifi, the woman turned exceedingly friendly and gave us the lowdown on her seven-year-old dog who is mostly deaf and prefers men to women, although in this instance the dog did seem to like me, but her owner could not figure out why, all of this in French that to my ear sounded quite garbled, but I’m not one to stand in judgement on this point.

All I could do was tell her what a charming, lovely dog she has, but as it turned out that was enough to earn a pat on the arm and a warm farewell. Now I’m afraid of our next impromptu meeting, and what I will say to her to move the conversation along, but maybe I am lucky in that as long as her dog likes me, whatever I say will be just fine.

In the meantime, our hotel’s wonderful cleaning staff have completely given up on schooling me in French, something they’ve done whenever we’ve passed in the hallway over the past 12 months. This week, they’ve switched over to Portuguese/Spanish, but already I am failing them. At least they will only be disappointed for 83 more days.

* I failed. My Gaulish grammatical grasp is somewhere in the 12-to-20-month-old range.

Blog Bits

As of this moment: 

  1. Most visitors to this page come from India. 
  2. Least number of visitors come from Australia.
  3. Six people from Japan visited this site. 
  4. Weirdest search term that landed someone at this site was “modern antler decor.”
  5. As always, the blog post about see-through public washrooms and traveler toilet tips appears in the weekly top 10 of most-read blog posts. 

85: Swiss Saturday Shopping

Biel's thriving Saturday farmers market is a good place to shop.

It is Saturday on the Easter four-day weekend, which in Switzerland means it is time to jam the shops to load up on food.

Tulips on the steps of the Biel old-town Church (we think it is Catholic-turned-Dutch-Reformed). This congregation was listed in Lausanne's register in 1228. The current church building dates back to the late 1300s.

Not that we can load up on much, what with our miniscule camping-cooler-sized fridge, but we will do what we can, because the shops were all closed yesterday and will be closed for the next two days.  Today is the retail oasis in the sandy desert of commerce in our little town.

People also leave garbage on the church steps. It must be a pick-up zone.

It takes some effort to adapt to Switzerland’s restrictive shopping hours. Back home, the horror of two non-shopping days would be soothed by a full-freezer, amply stocked kitchen shelves and a refrigerator happily humming as it cools buckets of produce, deli meats and other foodstuffs.

There in North America, on any given day, 20 people could drop in unannounced and we would be ready to put on a spread that based on the usual contents of our larder could include: Barbecue meatballs, meatloaf, mesquite chicken, spaghetti, pizza, lasagna, quiche, chili dogs, Kraft Dinner, homemade soup, hot rolls, and ice cream.

The Swiss carry their flower bouquets upside down. Also, Swiss men carry pink plaid shopping bags and seem wholly unaware that in a North American school ground, this would get them beat up.

Here in Europe, they would get three Ritz crackers and a thin slice of Brie.

Once, when our Canadian mountainside home was cut off from civilization by a sudden and deep snowfall, locking us in with our adult son and his three friends Рyoung men with corresponding elephantine appetites, we were able to keep everyone fed for three days and still have slabs of frozen pizza in the freezer should the snowfall extend their stay even longer.

Were that to happen here with our tiny food stores, the result might a lesson in how swiftly companions can turn to cannibalism. The horror.

On one of Biel's main thoroughfares, edging onto the medieval town district.

Biel's medieval village is relatively small but we still got lost in it while trying to find a particular clothing/coffee shop. Getting lost is good: It brings us to charming little vignettes like this tumble-down hidden courtyard.

The Swiss love shutters.

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.

92: Geneva, Protestants + Catholics and Bookshops

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

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

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

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

Off the Shelf English Bookshop - Oh glory be!

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

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

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

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

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

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

93: Biel’s Alstadt – Worth Another Look

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Biel/Bienne, our small town in the heart of Switzerland’s watchmaking district, home to Rolex, Swatch, Swiss Timing and a bunch of other timepieces I can’t afford, has a lovely old-town, unique in Europe for this one fact: It has not succumbed to franchise retailers.

The street-level storefronts in many European medieval districts are jammed with H & M clothing, Bata shoes and Ochsner sporting  shops. It makes for a lively people-packed tourist quarter, but it does take something away. Biel has tiny little shops with not a single franchise name in sight, which I find more charming than I would have expected, being a such a devotee of the expected and ordinary as that I am.

The downside is that this part of town is really most vibrant on Saturdays when a huge farmers market takes up the main courtyard and the little chocolatiers, butchers and flea-market stores are open. The upside is it feels more real than the brand-name endowed and much-populated avenues of Lucerne and Z√ľrich – although both those cities are amazing and must-see stops here. I’m not trying to deride any urban council’s attempts at revitalization, just making an observation.

Take a look in the slideshow above. See if you can find a McDonalds.

 

 

94: Swelterland.

What you see below is a weather forecast for our little town of Biel from March 27 to 30.

Two days ago it was supposed to  be 13 C. It was 22 C.

Yesterday was supposed to be 15 C. I don’t know what the high was, but at around 2 p.m. it was already 20 C.

Last spring, the reported highs were hitting the high 20s, but our town’s temperature tower was showing 36 C and upward.

What does this tell us but that Biel does not have its own weather station and is drawing reports from somewhere else. I would like to know where that somewhere else is exactly, because I like the weather there better than here, wherever “there” is.

Sweltering swan. How do they always look so graceful? In unrelated news: Last night we watched some competitive kayakers race swans down our town's canal. It turns out swans are very swift. They're not above cheating, either. When they were about to be overtaken, they just flapped their wings and motored out of there.

This is not to complain, but only to say a little more accuracy in reporting would be nice. Last year, we landed here on April 1 to discover the locals were already swimming in Lac Biel. Lac Biel is a not a shallow swimming hole. It has a surface area of 39 square kilometres, and is the basin for the Jura Mountains to a range of 8,300 square kilometres. This is nowhere near as big as Lake Winnipeg (surface area 24,500 square kilometres and cachment area of almost one million square kilometres), but neither is it a pond. It is huge, and so for it to be warm enough for a dip suggests a sustained high temperature through March on par with Canada’s prairie summers, which is to say: Frying Pan Hot.

I was prepared for a cool Swiss spring, not a sizzling summer in April, so I had to ditch my clothes and buy a whole new wardrobe, which really wasn’t such a bad thing, although it did make Dave groan, a lot.

The variability in temperatures isn’t really that big a surprise in Switzerland’s varied topography. Similarly, Vancouver Island has so many ‘micro-climates’ that in some parts of Victoria, tropical gardens flourish while in other pockets, gardens grow at a glacial pace.

The oddity in this that the Swiss don’t seem to realize it is warm outside. While I attract stares when strolling around in a tank-top, capris and sandals, those around me are in leather jackets, their necks swathed in scarves and heads covered in hats. It is as though they believe the temperature forecast more than their own body’s internal temperature sensors.

Today’s forecast is for 14 C according to one weather website and 20 C on another. I’m dressing for 30 C.

 

Tue
27
after-
noon
Tue
27
night
Wed
28
morn-
ing
Wed
28
after-
noon
Wed
28
night
Thu
29
morn-
ing
Thu
29
after-
noon
Thu
29
night
Fri
30
morn-
ing
Metric
Imperial
Wind (km/h)
15
15
10
5
5
5
5
10
15
Summary
clear clear clear clear clear clear clear clear clear
Rain (mm)
Snow (cm)
Max. Temp
(C)
13 9 14 15 12 14 14 9 10
Min. Temp
(C)
11 7 11 13 11 12 12 5 8
Wind Chill
(C)
9 5 10 13 11 12 11 2 6
Freezing
Level (m)
2650 2850 2750 2750 2600 2400 2500 2050 1750
Sunrise
6:16 6:15 6:13
Sunset
18:52 18:54 18:55

97: A town with its own water cannon truck

Now that's a water cannon!

Our town may only house 60,000 souls or so, but that doesn’t mean its police force can’t have cool equipment, like armored water cannon trucks.

We were out for our Sunday stroll when we noticed all access points to our town square were covered by police vehicles and uniformed officers. Poised at the brink of the square was what looked like a Canada-style recycling truck. On closer inspection, we found the police logo on the door, which led to questions about whether police were branching out into the refuse and recycling collection biz.

Water cannons are abhorred in North America for their historical use in the race riots of the 1960s, but they are still made and sold in Europe (U.K.-manufactured), and come in handy to remind soccer rioters to keep their game-enthused vandalism confined to the arena.

Dave voted we just keep walking and not let our eyes meet any of the officers’ gazes, but my reporter sensibilities drove me on to the nearest armed police officers. Dave kept a distance so that after my arrest he would still be available to file a report to Amnesty International and call our U.N. -connected friends to see if they could shake me loose from the clutches of the Swiss authorities.

The officers were friendly and said that they were readying for a soccer riot, which is just about the best thing I’ve heard all year. European soccer riots are the stuff of legend and seeing one up close would be memorable. This view is why, by the way, Dave would like to put a leash and muzzle on me when we go out for a stroll.

“So, when should I stay clear of the square,” I asked the officer, but as any cop will tell you, when a reporter asks when to stay away, she is really saying, “When does the party start and what should I wear?”

Sadly, he said there was no need to stay clear. None of the officers wore that tense ‘don’t mess with me I have guns, billy clubs, a stun gun and I am ready to play Star Trek/Star Wars/Battlestar Galatica ¬†on your head’ expression. The armored water cannon vehicle, the haul-you-off-to-jail vans and police were all a show of hands and in our mostly unassuming quiet little watchmaking town, that is enough to keep the peace.

Tear gas used to protect pro-life protesters.

As a side note: Although the police told me there was water in the cannon truck, Swiss police do sometimes use the trucks to shoot tear gas into crowds. It is reported they did exactly that last year when a peaceful march of about 1,000 people favoring protection for unborn children was threatened by people favoring unrestricted abortion access.

101: How Liz Lemon Saved My Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you, Tina Fey.

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

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

The countdown continuation …

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

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

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

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

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

10,972 people have visited HoboNotes

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

10 Top Countries to visit are:

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

10 most infrequent country visitors are:

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

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

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

But I drift from my numbers game here.

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

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

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

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

Travels with kids

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good things come to an end, Part Two

We are about to give up the greatest ground-transport deal going in Europe: Our beloved SwissRail half-pass cards.

These blue translucent pieces of plastic have been with us on all our travels, halving our transportation costs, thereby giving us the endless impression of getting a great deal, and so travelling even more. And more.

In fact, we have been to so many places that my achilles are in a permanent state of near-rupture and my knees are filing complaints daily – because along with train-transport comes trekking a la foot once we arrive at our destination. We love walking, but in this case, the saying “love hurts” applies.

The half-pass, available to Swiss citizens and foreigners bearing a residency card, costs 165 CHF for one year. We handed our 330 Francs over (U.S. dollar equivalent $589,000)* for two cards on April 2nd last year, and through the magic of a rigorous touring schedule, quickly recouped the cards’ cost.

Those happy days are coming to a close as our cards expire in three weeks. To quote Prince Charles: Gloooooom.

As an example of how lovely this card is, our four-hour trip through France’s countryside to Paris cost about 600 Francs for two comfy first-class seats with an elegant supper service. Without our cards, the cost would have been 1,200 Francs. The card extends to bicycle rentals as well, so when we go out for a pedal, it costs us 25 CHF for the pleasure of a day on the bike trails instead of 50 CHF each. Not bad. A quick zip to Bern costs about 30 CHF return for the two of us, instead of 60 CHF. I have not tabulated how much we have saved over the past year, but it has been considerable.

The card can be renewed, but only in 12-month or greater increments, so it is a wash as to whether we will make up our costs by the time we depart this lovely continent in a few month’s time. But if the above math creates this air of sorrow, maybe some more math is the fix. **

Our little town is only 40 km from Bern, about the same distance as Sooke is to Victoria back in Canada, which we used to drive in about 40 minutes.

Biel to Bern via train:             $20 x 2 passengers = 1 return trip @ $30

Sooke to Victoria via bus:     $5  X 2 passengers  = 1 return trip @ $10

Sooke to Victoria via bike:   $0 x (infinite number of pedaling passengers) = $0 return trip ******

Sooke to Victoria via car:      $40 for a tank of gas x (1 to 5 passengers) x (8 to 10 return trips) = Feathers! The Swiss are ripping us off!

Now I feel better.

* $589,000 is a joke. All other figures in this post are real.

**All currency in Canadian dollars as it is near par with Swiss Francs at the moment.

*** CHF is Swiss Francs. How do you get a “CH” from Swiss? By calling Switzerland’s currency by one of the country’s many names, in this case, the Confederation of Helvetica. Yes, Swiss Cheese, Helvetican Cheese – go on, make your cheesy jokes.¬†

**** Switzerland РGerman: die Schweiz; French: Suisse;  Italian: Svizzera; Romansh: Svizra; in its full name the Swiss Confederation (Latin: Confoederatio Helvetica, hence its abbreviation CH). 

***** In high school history classes, our teachers often lauded Switzerland’s neutrality as though it were the only well-behaved child in a class of fractious European nations. As usual, it turns out closing the geographical gap between us and Switzerland reveals that maintaining neutrality was not a given, but a hard-earned negotiated position. Switzerland shot down both Allied and Axis fighter planes during WWII, and at one point were so sure the Germans were about to invade that they were preparing to literally head for the hills, that is, a portion of the Swiss Alps that they were more likely to be able to defend from attack. There are still people alive here who remember that.¬†

****** Bicycle travel¬†drawback: It takes five hours to cover the 100 km/h trip, which is a lengthier Sooke-to-Victoria trip through Vancouver Island’s Galloping Goose trail, a trip that is so enjoyable that it is one of the first things I plan to do when I get back to Victoria.

******* I just like asterisks. 

Loveless Lausanne

Sculpture on the waterfront at Lausanne's Olympic Museum.

By all counts, we should have fallen in love with Lausanne, but it did not happen.

Lausanne, parked on the north shore of Lake Geneva is part of Switzerland’s “Swiss Riviera.” ¬†What does it have?

Okay, Lausanne's waterfront is not without merit. It has many charming wharfs.

Old town? Check.

Castle? Check.

Thousand-year-old cathedral? Check.

Lakeshore walkway complete with bobbling marinas, beaches, views facing south to the French Alps?

Check. Check. Check. Check.

And yet, something was missing. We mused that we had reached that saturation point again where the sight of one more soaring buttress produces only a yawn and the notion of climbing castle steps makes us check our watches and review the outbound train schedule. It doesn’t seem possible but it happened even during our time in Spain, which possibly is home to the most amazing architecture and somewhat intact bi-millenial Roman structures on the continent. As Dave says, it’s a sign that it is time to go home. But we are still four months away from that.

And so, for those of you who have stumbled on this blog through a Google search on Lausanne, here is a word to the wise: Skip it.

This is the more walkable portion of the Lausanne lakefront promenade. It got narrower than this and was surfaced partially in uneven flagstones, making the 4-8-foot possible drop onto the rocks below all the more exciting.

The lake-shore walks along Montreux are wider and prettier. The medieval old-towns in Neuchatel, Bern and Z√ľrich are more intriguing. The castle Chillon, near Montreux is the one to see. For inspiring cathedrals and churches, head to Solothurn. For bridges, cafes and more entrancing waterfronts, see Lucerne and Thun.

If you cannot stop yourself from going, the waterfront settlement Ouchy, which is actually Lausanne’s original townsite that was moved uphill to a more defensible position, is okay, although be wary of your footwear. The concrete walkway is surprisingly narrow and lacking in guard rails.

Lausanne is also home to the Olympic Museum, which was closed for renovations when we were there. The gardens are still open, where visitors can check out outdoor statues that confirm that the quality of public art definitely took a dip in the 1970s and 1980s.

Switzerland is regarded as a relatively safe place to travel, but as always, the rule for tourists is do not hang around train stations and do not give money to ¬†panhandlers who may be part of a troop watching to see where you keep your wallet. Lausanne was one of the few places we’ve travelled in this lovely country where we had the sense we were being pegged by pickpockets. It has a more active street population than other towns, which takes away from some of its beauty.

Some loitering Lausannites gave us the creeps.

 

 

A Countdown Queen + Her Calendars

Blame Christmas. I am a Countdown Queen.

Growing up, we didn’t have much money, which meant we didn’t have many toys, at least not compared to the other kids on the street, but what my brothers and I lacked in material possessions, we made up for with a hyperactive state of anticipation ratcheted up by our countdown vigilance toward Christmas day – our once-a-year toy haul. This may have been responsible for my mother hanging the phone receiver upside down for months at a time. No one knows for sure why she did this, but I think she was experimenting with it before twisting it around our necks.

As soon as Christmas rolled over we sprinted the countdown to New Years dinner at Grandma’s house, an unembarrassed snatch for hot homemade apple pies and tourtieres.

Then the marathon countdown to Easter was on, when we counted 100 days and more to the morning we would each get one chocolate rabbit. One. That was okay, because as soon as Easter was finished, the count was on to summer holidays. Lent? We didn’t need Lent. Deprivation was our natural state.

I was a somewhat above-average distance runner in my youth and here too, counting was the thing. Bouncing on my toes at the start line, I counted the racers who historically had been faster than me, counted those slower, counted down to the starting gun shot, counted the number of runners ahead of me, the number I passed, the number who passed me, the number of meters/yards we had raced, the number yet to come, and the magical final 300 metres/yards, my favorite part of the race when I passed as many on the track as I could (I have no ‘sprint’ in me so I had to drive hard over a longer distance at the end to come in the top three). Naturally, I counted down as I went. Racing was simply a living mathematical equation. It was lovely.

Catch me at any moment and I am counting down to something. I counted down the days to get to Switzerland, and as soon as I arrived, I started counting down the days to my return to Canada. This is only a microcosm of an entire life dedicated to countdowns.

Oprah counselled people to “live in the moment,” but what is the point of that? It can only be lived in once, and then it is done, but the moments ahead that can be looked forward to for ages, those moments are the ones stretched out. Why deprive myself of this joy?

And now, I’m at it again, counting down the days to our return to Canada, the land that I love, where I have half a clue what is being said to me, where I can afford to buy whole straps of beef tenderloin, where there is the best ice cream on earth, endless prairies, boundless skies, unfettered rivers and creeks, untamed ocean shorelines, lakes barely touched, and people who say sorry when they accidentally bump into you. I might just count them all.

This is not to say there is anything wrong with Switzerland, despite the fact it is a tad overpriced. It is a lovely country with wonderful, kind people, eye-busting vistas, and possibly the most punctual train service in the world, best expressed by the horror the Swiss display when a train is two minutes late. Two minutes. Maybe that’s why I like these people so much. They like to count, too.

Culture Chasms in the Change Room

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bratislava bathroom: What the heck is that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maid in Switzerland, or Jennifer Lopez makes it look all sparkly, but really it is not. And, our weird worries about maid-theft.

I sit here wrapped in a silk leopard print wrap, a stained white tank top, over-sized fleece shorts, a black guard on my overworked right wrist, and floor debris on the bottoms of my bare feet. My hair, strapped into a ponytail last night, has evolved into a tropical island assemblage complete with the dreaded ‘palm tree’ up top.

This is normally a private moment in my day when I take in my required caffeine dose (a quart before 10 a.m.) and align my cranial¬†synapses, however, five minutes ago a woman tapped on my door. I am not normally in the habit of opening my door this early in the morning, but it is a hotel and I’ve heard the cleaning staff puttering down the hallway for the last 30 minutes. I was pretty sure if it was some freakoid, the maids would make short work of him.

It was not a freak at all, but a maid, speaking Spanish and French, which is a lot better than a maid speaking German and Italian. This way I have a 20 per cent chance of communicating, as opposed to the .03% chance with the latter. Armed with towels, she said something about the bathroom.

Housekeeping and maintenance is constant in the hotel – they change vent filters, tinker with the plumbing, install new smoke detectors, ¬†upgrade the phones, and so forth. They’re busy people, and so I loathe to send them away. I let the woman in thinking she was going to replace the towels in the bathroom.

I was wrong about that. As I sit here like the Queen of Sheba, she is engaged in all-out housecleaning, scouring the bathrooms, doing the floors, the sheets and so forth.

I don’t speak enough French/German/Spanish/Italian to tell her we get maid service once a week on Saturdays, not daily, and to send her away might distress her, so I tidied up the kitchen in an effort to stay out of her way while giving the appearance that I am a contributing member of society. Now I am out of things to do, so I just sit here and tap away on my keyboard.

I am always a little uncomfortable with maid service. It is because I expect them to be something like the first maid all of us know: Our mothers. Maybe I am waiting for the scolding about leaving the sink full of soapy water soaking socks or failing to pick up after myself.

We have employed maids twice in our lives. In Spain, we hired a Filipino maid who spoke not a word of English, except to state her hourly rate, which was quite steep. We had a yellow labrador at the time who shed buckets in the Madrid heat (no air conditioning) and I could not keep pace, so we tried out the hired help route. It turned out that maid was worth every penny. I have never seen, or even aspired to the standards that she set.

Google the word "maids" and up will come a lot of images of sexy short-skirted women, but the truth is most maids look like this. We have a friend who for a time worked full-time as a maid, and she had muscle definition that would make Jillian Michaels' jaw drop. It's physical work.

She also gave me the weirdest and most delightful moment I have ever had in my housekeeping career – when she came in the house, I only had to point at something and she would set on it like a doberman on a rabbit. I had spent more than 18 years trying to get my own children to do house chores on command, so it was a singular experience to assign a task without having to apply a tremendous amount of argumentation, pressure and browbeating. I don’t even remember that woman’s name, but I adored her and recommended her widely to all.

We hired our second maid in Victoria when the boys were in university and Dave and I  both worked full-time at demanding careers. She had a house key and came during the day when we were away. That felt odd to us, but it was that or perish in a bacterial stew of our own making.

Then one of our sons came home early to find the maid’s five-year-old daughter and teenaged son hanging around while she worked. That did not feel good to me, although I could certainly understand the pressures a working mother feels. I wished she had asked me first. The five-year-old made me nervous because I have never trusted a child to not swallow bleach, or pull things down from the counter onto their heads with dreaded effect. Having heard emergency doctors exclaim, “Hi Jo, what’s he done now?” more than once, my apprehensions are valid. My house at the time was not childproof.

Jennifer Lopez, all starched and pretty, but if she saw what our hotel maids saw this morning, namely me in my sleepwear, she would have looked for other work.

The teenager made me nervous because who isn’t nervous around teenagers? What is to say he wouldn’t scope out the place and then return some night with his friends and a pick-up truck. I’m not saying all teenagers would do this, but I would like to have eyeballed the kid first to make my own appraisal.

We tolerated this for a while, but then some DVDs went missing. Too mortified to make accusations, we discharged the maid on the grounds that we just felt weird having a maid. She was very gracious and went on her way. She was a fabulous maid. We had two labrador retrievers at the time, so our house’s shed-fur content had reached factory-rated levels.

We fumed about the suspected theft, until some weeks later we found all the missing DVDs in a laptop bag. Our guess is that the five-year-old fiddled about while her mother worked, and just put them there, probably to be helpful. We were very glad we had kept our suspicions to ourselves.

The hotel maid is now done. Someone will probably tell her she did the room for nothing. I haven’t seen her before, so she must be new. I know all the maids here – they school me in French and Italian every time they catch me in the hall. It is a lot like having a dozen mothers, waiting to correct me, improve me and appraise me every time I leave my room. They are adorable, and they work hard. We should respect them, just like we should respect our mothers.

Post-note: The Head Housekeeper is now in my room. She has discovered the new maid’s mistake and is rattling on in French that curiously I understand. My mother is French. I’ve heard this tone many times before. She is put out that the new maid goofed. The Head Housekeeper, Isabella, runs this hotel with an efficiency that NASA administrators could appreciate. ¬†Amid profuse apologies over the mistake, she has explained that the room will not be cleaned tomorrow. ¬†Just as when my brothers were in trouble with my Mom, I am glad that I am not the one under fire.

Can we get out of here?

Thank you Wikipedia for this photo. This is an F-15 Eagle. This is not the bird anyone wants to see soaring overhead.

Our trip to the “police’s stranger population” office as it is word-for-word translated, passed without incident, except for the part where they took our residency cards away.

I am not normally alarmed by this, except that¬†the last time I took a flight out of Switzerland, the border control officer scowled at me until I produced that same card. I understand Switzerland’s insistence on seeing my residency card on the way in, but why on the way out? Can I leave here without that cute little pink-and-powder-blue plastic-coated card?

I am genetically tuned to flight. While one side of my family engaged in a slow migration across Canada, taking over 400 years to get from the St. Lawrence Seaway to the prairies, the other side wears the motto, “Let’s get the heck out of here now!” or as my father once described it “Run!” He was a man of few words, but that was because he was saving his breath for the big sprint out of Eastern Europe.

But I digress a little. Exit visas are a little-known dirty secret of some countries. I do not believe this will really be a problem in Switzerland, although if it is I will happily skip across the border into France, even if I have to walk the Jura Mountains to do it.

We hope these guys aren't waiting for us.

A friend of ours discovered the importance of exit visas when he and his young family landed in one of those little-known Middle-Eastern nations that form a mere fingernail on the map. Unfortunately, in his wake came the U.S. Army and they were ticked.

Now that I think about it, I can’t remember if he and his wife had children yet. No matter.

So while Saddam was getting kicked around the block by his mom for inciting the infamous “mother of all battles,” (at least, I hope she was kicking him around), our friend, let’s call him Sam, decided there really was no place like home, especially as home did not have any ¬†Combat F-15 Eagles soaring overhead.

That’s when Sam found out he had an entry¬† visa, but not an exit¬† visa. Even though both begin with the letter “e,” they are very different, especially in the minds of border agents.

How long would it take to get an exit visa? Well, all the bureaucrats were busy hiding under desks, so visa processing was somewhat slowed down.

Sam, who happens to be a published author, does not realize this is his best story ever, mostly because he is emotionally incapacitated while retelling it. How he escaped remains sketchy, although he does recall an embassy official chiding him for not bringing two passports with him so that he could use the one without an entry visa stamp to flee the country.

We do not see much of Sam any more. Our lives have gently diverted away from each other, but I still count him among my friends, because it is very cool to know someone who has once sincerely uttered these words: “I want the next flight out of here. I don’t care where it’s going.” *

Which leads us to the important question: How do we get two Canadian passports, and is it too late to ask?

On the other hand, if we are stuck in Switzerland, which I’m sure we’re not, at least we will have plenty of chocolate to calm our nerves.

*He ended up in Greece, which at the time of the Kuwait invasion was okay, but today would not be so much fun, so I hope we don’t run into similar problems.

 

Eeny, meeny, miny moe

Mitt Romney, going for the gusto.

A special beauty is attached to living overseas, and that beauty is the avoidance of regularly repeating national outrages, namely elections and occasionally referendums.

We were happy to abscond to the Deep South during Quebec’s separation referendum from the mother ship Canada. It was a riveting time, covered in-depth in the Atlanta Journal Constitution in a three-line story buried deep in the world news section. That was exactly enough coverage to suit us.

Harper knocks the Liberals right off their high chair.

America was not fussed about any Canadian fissures, partly because they were obsessed with Cochrane, Kardashian and Simpson, and I don’t mean the musician, the gown-sheathed Kardashian descendants or the hapless but lovable cartoon Simpsons.

Romney likes to point.

Being down south, where there was some secessionist flavor in the earlier century, led our American friends to puzzle over our nation’s leaders’ lax attitude toward the separatists. Why does Canada put up with it? they wondered.

Here is why: It is endlessly amusing, especially when the northern natives volunteered to lop off the top two-thirds of Quebec in their own separating-from-the-separatists bid. Quebec roared, but the rest of Canada sat back smugly, trying not to say, “So, how do you like it?”

And now that the U.S. is deep in primary season, the usual grumblings are burbling about leaving the country should (insert political candidate name here) get (re)elected.  I can assure them that it is fun to leave the country in a snit, but the problem is who will take them.

I did not know my own country's official opposition leader until I looked it up just now. Ignorance is bliss. This is not to diss the NDP. This woman, whoever she is, looks like a very nice person.

This is why it is good to not be around during election/primary season. TMZ posted this 'topless' photo of Newt Gingrich asserting it was reason enough to not vote for him. It is reason enough to not pay attention to TMZ, and its adolescent (albeit lucrative) version of election coverage. It is not the politicians that annoy us. It is the media. Okay - some politicians do annoy us, but not as much as TMZ and Sean Penn.

It surprises some people to learn this, but showing up at another country with the intention to stay past their regular tourist-trap allowance can attract the attention of bureaucrats, the world’s version of bullies-with-briefcases.

This comes up now, because tomorrow Dave and I head down to renew our visas, and if there should be any hiccup, we could end up with an escort to the airport, which would be kind of nice as I’m sure the helpful Swiss officers would lend a hand with the luggage.

That is okay with us. We have already missed Canada’s federal election and as far as I can tell, there won’t be another for four years.

*Note: I do not own the rights on any of these photos. Relax vigilant editors, I am not making any money off of them.

Not THIS Kardashian.

THIS Kardashian.

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.


Change room etiquette

This Frenchman, coming to a fitting room near you.

I heard the low rumble of the Frenchman’s voice seconds after I peeled off my shirt.

What the heck? I was in a woman’s fitting room. What was a man doing on the other side of the curtain?

The change room was the same size as an airplane washroom, putting me in very close proximity to this stranger, while also reaffirming that males still dominate the world of retail architecture.

I snapped my shirt back on and left, getting a friendly smile from the Frenchman on my way out.

In North America, a few women drag their guys into fitting rooms. What is wrong with these women? Can they not make a simple clothing purchase without a man in tow?

Maybe their guys are accessories and the women want to see if they color-coordinate properly before making a commitment to either the outfit or the man? I don’t know, but I do know the practice is more popular here in Switzerland.

I’m still learning the local standards of fitting room etiquette, which so far has appeared in a sideshow-like manner, with the women being the show and the guys cheering from the side.

Yesterday, a 60-ish woman in her underwear flitted in and out of her fitting room into the adjacent hallway, chatting with her husband. She had not yet tried on any new clothes. Puzzling.

The hallway ended before her fitting room and angled onto a window over a street, giving everyone in the store and on the sidewalk a fine view, so to speak, but no crowds massed.  As I said, she was over 60.

Some extol the relaxed attitude other cultures have toward women in various stages of undress, as though this is evidence that these cultures do not over-sexualize the female form.

Those people should have been in a clothing store one block over two weeks ago when a new shipment of swimwear came in. Wide-eyed men with tongues hanging out exchanged approving glances as women trekked into the fitting rooms with bikinis tucked under their arms. These particular change rooms have doors, but the doors happen to have windows that are set at such an angle that presents a wealth of ogling opportunity for any guy standing over five-feet six-inches tall.

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

I settled in to watch the guys watching the girls. It was fascinating, like watching sharks circle. A few men were allowed into this inner sanctum with their girlfriends, grinning all the way.

Then, as another slender attractive young woman walked into the fitting room area with her man at heel, another man slipped into their jet-stream. Seconds later, there was a commotion and the second male scooted out of the area, red-faced, wide-eyed and very happy. The other oglers restrained themselves from high-fiving the offending interloper.

In other more innocent revelations in the next shop over, a four-year-old girl made her way down a bank of fitting rooms, ripping aside curtains as she went, announcing, “Hello, I’m Lily!” exposing a half-dozen clients, all while her mother cooed over her daughter’s adorability. ¬†No one seemed terribly upset.

I don’t get it.

Postscript: Since writing the above, I visited a few women’s clothing stores in France where I discovered the number of men in the fitting rooms was equal to the number of women. One young woman left the curtain pulled aside so her young man, seated across the hall, could offer his opinions and record her dressing and disrobing on his iPhone. Their matter-of-factness, along with the lack of attention this drew from the other shoppers and their male companions suggests this is business-as-usual.

Postscript the second: This post is being re-published. It is one of my most often-hit posts. I would like to think it is because my writing is clever, but more likely it is because it includes women in various stages of undress.