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.

17: Pick a Language, Any Language.

BERN   This rooftop garden in Bern is a good representation of my linguistic life РI can see the German/French/Italian-speakers and they can see me. We can even reach between the bars a little bit, but we cannot cross over completely. There is, however, a passageway, but that would be the language lessons I did not take. My bad.

Yesterday, I asked our Italian maid in Spanish how to say “towels” in French. She didn’t even blink at my Spanish. This makes perfect sense.

In other language news, I am reminded of the fact that we all have our own accents. Mine wanders from French-Canadian, Prairie-Canadian, Slavic and American Deep South (Virginian to one of the Carolinas, I’ve been told, although we lived in Georgia). ¬†It is possible there is a touch of a Spanish accent in there, but more likely that only shows up when I am rolling my ‘r’s.

MURTEN¬† ¬†I can’t speak with the locals much, but I can still enjoy the view. This is overlooking Lake Murten from the village of Murten/Morat.

The reminder of dialects and accents came when I visited at a park with an Indian friend of mine. She has an Indian accent, but now I realize that to her ears, I have a pretty thick accent, too. With us was her sister-in-law visiting from India. She speaks perfect English, but she needed my friend (her sister-in-law) to translate half of what I was saying. I don’t only live in a proverbial tower of Babel; I am a tower of Babel.

Despite this, I am only fluent in one language. I have the curse of multilingualism without any of the benefits.

BIEL ¬† ¬†It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, harbors full of sailboats are always pretty.

47: Pared Packing or The Gauntlet Has Been Thrown

Why I carry a lime-green suitcase - here is the last place we saw it at Victoria Airport. Poor little suitcase. Will we ever see it again?

Our lime-green suitcase before it got lost, then beaten badly, en route from Canada to Switzerland. Traumatized, it refused to return to Europe and is hiding under the bed at our cabin in Ontario.

The house slippers went out yesterday: Rubbery black crocs with crushed faux-lamb lining discarded in my campaign to lighten my luggage. I almost felt sorry for them, little Euro-crocs whose hopes for a better life in America were dashed on the empty egg cartons in our kitchen trash.

Skinnying down my suitcase is not in my nature, however, it is a happier prospect than wrenching a shoulder dragging luggage from the hotel to the train station, up the train steps, off again through another station, into the yaw of Z√ľrich’s Airport where I will be pressed upon to walk for 85 minutes with the thing. This is Switzerland’s mandatory travellers’ fitness test. If you can do the forced march through their airport security maze, they will let you in the country, and later they may even let you out.

And so everyday I stare at my dwindling possessions to figure out what else I can live without. Considering that I travelled with four full hockey bags, two large suitcases plus carry-on luggage on a round-the-world ticket over a 5 month period, what is happening now is on par with the miraculous. I expect a letter from Vatican  investigators to arrive any day.

This is the grandiose manner in which I look at this project, but on hearing of the ughy-crocs’ demise, Dave asserted he could get all of his goods in one carry-on suitcase. In a recent practice pack, his goods took up a full suitcase and a carry-on. He’d have to shave off two-thirds of his possessions to make good on his boast.

Conveniently, this Thursday is a holiday, so instead of visiting Lucerne, Bern or some other delightful Swiss city, we are going to be holed up in our hotel room, trying to best one another at lightening our luggage.

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.

60: Shoe Shucking

Farewell dear friends.

 

Yesterday was the dreaded shoe-shucking day when I bagged my little collection of footwear for a new life at the local Salvation Army bins. It pains me to dispose of shoes that I still love, but the consolation is that soon I will be back in Canada, the country of affordable Clarks.

All this decluttering raises the question of how much stuff do we need to get through the day. Here, my clothes fit into one suitcase (I said clothes, not shoes). Back home, my walk-in closet was jammed tight.

I blame my Canadian-ness for this. Canadians live in the land of severe storms or as my Wisconsin friends calls it “big weather,” and so one of our defining traits is that we tend to be siege-shoppers. While homestyle mavens urge us to declutter, our government’s Emergency Services tack in the opposite direction, issuing lists of all the goods we’ll need on hand should a tornado/snowstorm/blizzard/flash-flood/earthquake/tsunami/power-outage/infrastructure-collapse occur. Not only do they make it sound like these events are imminent, they repeatedly warn us that in the event of a disaster, it could take five days for any aid to appear.

A river runs through it, but you can only tell by the trees. Manitoba flood: Courtesy Winnipeg Free Press

In other words, when things are at their worst, you are on your own. Maybe this is why Canadians tend to be a cooperative bunch. We know that we have to count on each other because it is not a sure bet anyone else is going to help. I don’t want to be smarmy about this, but there is an efficiency in the population that is impressive. When our prairie city was ringed with floodwaters, long before the army showed up, high school students were allowed to skip classes to help sandbag. The sheer muscle power and impromptu organization that mustered every morning at the dykes was fast, furious and made homeowners cry with joy at the sight. There was no centralized authority, we just showed up, climbed into boats or the buckets of heavy machinery to get through the floodwaters and jumped off wherever we saw a pile of sandbags at the ready.

The army appeared¬†later in the week. I don’t want to cast aspersions on the good soldiers, because they operated under a different paradigm than did we scalawag crews, but their first order of business was to sit down and wait for orders. It seemed to us the orders were obvious: Form a line, pass sandbags, build a wall against the water. To their credit, the soldiers seemed as frustrated as us at having to wait.

Is it any wonder our shopping carts are vast, our freezers are rectangular mammoths, and our need for storage space is without end?

Nevertheless, this probably is still not a good excuse for the amount of stuff I keep.

73: Pack-Attack plus Can Luggage Get You Arrested?

Pack-attack: A subset of a traveller’s obsessive-compulsive disorder that leads to repetitive packing-planning sessions.

The second pack-attack of the season struck this week, 73 days out from our trip, which means I got to this task just in the nick of time.

I don’t want to say that I am a packing expert, although I ¬†moved through two hemispheres, five countries, three continents and three provinces. I lose count after that. I’ve packed with an 80-lb. dog in tow, assorted numbers of offspring, and in the range from transporting full households including the kitchen garbage (packed by the moving company without my noticing – they were paid by the pound), to all the way down to what Dave and I could drag while running to catch a train (two suitcases and two carry-ons).

A fraction of our collected goods.

After excavating all our Swiss-worldly goods from our closet, I discovered our possessions have multiplied, possibly while we slept, more likely while I shopped. ¬†I have also made the miserable discovery that our 33 books weighing 15.2 pounds will cost $500 to ship back to Canada, so there will be some serious editing going on over the coming weeks that will enrich our hotel’s library, but cause us some mourning. We love our books, but when it is cheaper to replace them than to post them, well, the typeset is on the wall.

When all was accounted for, it was decided that we need to purchase another suitcase. As if on cue, during Dave’s daily lunch walk, he happened upon a posh black suitcase among a pile of items left at the curb for pick-up. He assures me he did not dumpster-dive. And so he picked it up. It was in fairly good condition and would definitely have weathered one more oceanic crossing, however, this morning it is back at the curb.

Luggage of undetermined origins carries unlimited hazards. My first fear was lice, fleas or other minor lifeforms, but then the larger problem presented itself: What if the thing had ever been used to transport any type of narcotic? A drug dog could easily pick up trace amounts and then where would we be, but in some jail, paying a German-speaking lawyer a huge bulk of money, and all of this through the summer, which, frankly, is the worst time to be incarcerated. Not that I know anything personally about this, but why take the chance?

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.

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.

 

 

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.


Teddy Bears: The Swiss’s Secret Weapon in the Event of a Nuclear Disaster

That teddy bear will teach that nuclear monster a thing or two.

A somewhat shaky grasp on the management of natural gas leaks isn’t all that excites us about Switzerland. There’s also the threat of a nuclear disaster.

We get a good view of a nuclear silo on the train ride between Z√ľrich and Biel, but I talked myself into believing it’s just a grain silo, a very wide and somewhat oddly shaped one, but still one that would be good place to store wheat, or perhaps, nuclear stuff.

That little personal myth melted away this week. In the mail, among all the usual sales brochures was a German, French and Italian  square blue and white packet from our Canton police, military, population protection and sports Рyes sports Рbranches.

This Czech Republic nuclear plant is ready for disaster - see, it's next to a chapel, cause if it blows, there will be a prayer meeting like the Czechs have never seen before.

It was the sports part that got me nervous – were they suggesting only the athletic would survive whatever warnings were coming from the police, military and sports divisions?

A quick run through Google Translate revealed that we are within 20 km of a nuclear power plant. The opening line, intended to have a calming effect, declares that nuclear technology is very safe, but the authorities want to minimize any “risk of prejudice in an accident.” What does that mean? In the event of a nuclear meltdown, a little bit of prejudice might be a good thing, seeing as prejudice means to “pre-judge,” and if pre-judgment means I’ll be stocked up on food, water and iodine pills, well, I’m all for that.

The brochure details the rules of behavior in “an increase of radioactivity.” I don’t need the Swiss to tell me that. My rule of behavior will be to run madly in circles, screaming “Oh no, oh no oh no!!!” It may be ineffective, but it’s straightforward and simple to follow.

Swiss authorities to nuclear-fall-out residents: Grab your teddy bears. This is going to get a lot worse before it gets better!

According to the pamphlet, the first thing to do is to listen to the radio and follow the authority’s instructions. The second thing to do is – and I’m not kidding about this, it is in the brochure – is to continue to listen to the radio and continue to follow the authority’s instructions.¬†

This suggests that the authorities don’t really have any other bright ideas to follow up their first recommendation.

There’s also advice to not let pets outside and to head for your cave or abri. I’m not sure what an abri is, but the accompanying illustration suggests it is a reinforced subterranean bunker, as depicted by a very thick black line that is about 6 times the width of the black lines depicting the house or regular basement. Obviously, it should have no ventilation, but heck, who wants to breathe when the air is full of isotopes or other deadly nano-particles.

But it will be a fun time down in the bunker as the Swiss authorities mandate that we should all bring toys for children. It’s going to be a regular play-date. Yes, a teddy bear will get us through a nuclear meltdown.

Now we are in Switzerland, not Russia, so I don’t really worry about a nuclear disaster, but if I had been in Japan, I would have said exactly the same thing, and I would have been wrong. Cue nervous jitters.

Bratislava the Beautiful

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

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The things you bring back home

This is not the prettiest photo. It was taken on the sly in the grocery store where I have been scolded for photographing the goods before. This tiny container that fits in my hand cost 4.10 francs, which is way to much to pay for anything that has margarine in it.

In every international move, we have packed along some of the comforts of home, and in every move back home, we pack along some of the discovered comforts of life abroad.

In this instance, I’m bringing back a spice called Cafe de Paris, which I’m hoping is the genuine spice and herb mixture for Cafe de Paris sauce.

You might think that this is French, not Swiss, but you would be wrong about that. The Swiss, like Canadians and Americans, pride themselves on adopting the best from other countries, and that extends to names, even if the sauce was first concocted and served in Geneva. The Swiss have a knack for marketing, and they correctly detected  Cafe de Geneva would fail to rise to the elevated notes of this delicious sauce.

It is incomprehensible that France lets Switzerland get away this, especially as that while the Swiss take the French name, they give nothing back, keeping the ingredients a trade secret. This explains all those French invasions on Swiss villages back in the 1400-1600’s.

We first learned of Cafe’ de Paris sauce at a restaurant in Montreux. Recommended by the waiter, it came in a scoop nestled in a small gravy boat with my steak dinner.

Is this the transportable good stuff? My summer cottage guests will test it.

It was a pale green, not a very inspiring colour  and despite being listed on the menu as a sauce, it came in solid form.  It had the consistency of  a heavy mousse.

One nibble and I, too, believed sauce could be a solid, powder or vapour. It didn’t matter. Cafe de Paris was beyond delicious.

When I thanked the waiter and asked him what heavenly plateau of cuisine I had just ascended, he waved it away as a mash of minced parsley, butter and a little garlic. Clever waiter. He’s in on the secret, too, and was not about to share.

Several publications have claimed to unlock the secret to this sauce, but the Swiss just shake their heads and say, “Nope, not it.”

Since then, I have been in pursuit of Cafe de Paris. I have discovered a spice of that name listing 15 ingredients, some of which look like something the Swiss would make up.*

Dollops of Cafe de Paris are sold in stores in tiny egg-carton-like form, but one of their ingredients is margarine, proving that the Swiss are still being secretive. Margarine as a base is an abomination, every good cook knows this and even us poor ones are well-aware of it.

*Here are the spice ingredients. Some are easy to figure out Рbasil, tarragon, pepper, but a few are beyond my resources.  Help me if you can:

German: salz, paprika (ungarn), knoblauch (agypten), petersilie, basilikum, schnittlauch, estragon, zwiebein, pfeffer, liebstockel, majoran, andere krauter und gewurze, pflanzl, fett (gedampft), lauch, karotten.

French: sel, paprica (Hongrie), ail (Egypte), persil, basilic, ciboulette, estragon, oignon, poivre, liveche, marjolaine, autres herbes et epices (curse the Swiss for using this catch-all phrase), graisse veg (vaporissee), poireau, carottes.

Warning: Cafe de Paris sauce is loaded with almost 600 calories in a single serving size, which is about the size of half-an-egg. This, too, is a miracle – to pack so many calories into a dollop that can be taken in one swallow.

Does Dave work?

Today’s topic: Does Dave work?

For decades, I have asked him the same question every weekday: “What did you do today, Honey?”

Undone again by the Swiss rail system.

The answer always sounded something like, “We couldn’t get 1100 01010011 111011010000 to 0001 01011 and 000111 was really nasty 000011 010101.”

Dang it. He was speaking in binary. Things didn’t get better as new computer languages evolved: Cobol, SQL, CSP, DRDA – they were all French to me.

The truth is, I have never fully understood Dave’s work. ¬†He traveled a lot, dressed in dark ¬†three-piece suits and carried a black leather briefcase. He could have been a hit man for all anyone knew.

Fearful, I sent one of our boys off to university, ostensibly to study computer science, but really, he was there to acquire enough knowledge to investigate his father’s occupation.

Then he graduated. He started wearing designer jeans, taupe popped-collar jerseys, and carrying an expensive backpack – the latest uniform of computer tekkies.

“What did you do today at work, Mark?”

“%:¬†post.php?post=1543&action=edit&message=10,” he replied. “Boy, I am tired! I’m going to unwind with some rlz=1C1SKPL_enCA410CA410&aq=f&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8&q=nintendo.”

Dang. They got to him.

Turning aside from the huge investment of time (raising child) and money (partial payment of university tuition, room and board) I had invested in my now-double-crossing spy, I recognized I would have to investigate Dave’s work myself.

Dave “workplace” is a 25-minute train-ride away, so after obtaining detailed directions from Dave (my first mistake), ¬†I set out determined to uncover the truth. I arrived at the station just as a sleek train pulled in. It was on the first platform, as per Dave’s instructions, and it was marked for Chaud de Fond, just as Dave said it would be, although that is not the name of the town where he “works.”

I was suspicious, but he assured me the town is too small to merit a sign on the train, but it is on the same route as the Chaud de Fondue train.

I had nestled in for a pleasant ride when a young man took the seat across from me. ¬†I asked him if this train stopped in Corgemont. It turned out he is one of the few under-25-year-old Swiss who cannot speak English, either that, or he is a Frenchman. His response did not include the words ¬†“c’est bien,” ¬†“oui” or “d’accor.”

After getting lost on the train to Murten/Morat (click here for a refresher), I promised myself I would never again leap up from my seat to race up and down a train frantically pushing random buttons in an attempt to stop the train. It turns out I was wrong about that.

What a cute train station. What a pity it's not the one I wanted.

A young man of Arabic descent pursued me … this is the great thing about Arab boys, they really do love their mothers and by extension are disposed to helping hysterical women in the over-40-years-old age group, which would be me. ¬†As I clawed at the auto-locked door, he assured me that the train would stop in the town before my destination, where I could get off and wait for the next train.

It’s hard to regain one’s composure after such a public display. The rest of the passengers gave me sympathetic smiles as I returned to my seat where my not-so-helpful French companion eyed me warily, weighing the odds that I might burst into another psychotic episode.

The Arab boy helped me off the train at Sonceboz-Sombeval and explained the next train would arrive in 40 minutes.

“Just stay right here, here on this platform and it will come. Do not go to any other platform or get on any train other than the one arriving here at 4:10 p.m. ,” he said, looking at me with the earnest anxiety of a man about to leave his grandmother to fend for herself at a giant international airport and not in a three-track Swiss village train station. “Remember, the train will be going that way,” he added, pointing in the direction of the train we had just left, as if I did not already know that.

Lost among livestock in a Swiss village.

He left, looking behind him several times as though I were a dog that did not often obey the command “stay.”

Which I didn’t. I popped out the cell phone and called Dave (the rogue) and informed him of my misadventure.

“It’s only a 30-minute walk away. Take the road that runs along the train track,” Dave said. Forgetting his track record – no pun intended – I decided to walk. ¬†I meandered past a cowyard, some horses and goats and found a pothole-pocked yellow gravel road next to the tracks.

Funny thing is, Swiss roads don’t have potholes. The Swiss are picky about these things.

The road is long, with no real winding turns, but it turned out not to be a road at all. Dang.

I went along, hoping to not run into any territorial farm dogs, until I saw a large barn-like building in the distance. Weird that a barn would look as though it is at the end of a road, but the Swiss like to arrange things compactly, so maybe it was just right next to the road.

As I drew near, I saw that I was wrong about that. I was not on a road at all, but a long driveway. There was no road beyond it. There was no road on the other side of the tracks either.

I checked my watch. The next train was due in about 13 minutes and I had been sauntering for about 25 (including the time I stood on the train platform debating whether to walk).

I booked it, making it on to the next train just as I had got off the last one, hair frizzed, sweat pouring down my face, laboured breathing, leading my new fellow passengers to give me a wide berth.

I arrived in Corgemont to see snug barnyards, dairy cows, chickens and geese – hardly the setting for the international giant firm that allegedly employed Dave.

Dave appeared on the platform, apologetic for the train mix-up, and admitted he had left out some information from his directions on the grounds that it might confuse me. I will get him for that, but first, I wanted to see his place-of-work.

Dave and his boss model what an ordinary work day looks like for Dave, but let me point out - they are posing, raising the question: Does he really work? Or are the people I met all hired actors? A hit man could afford that.

Dave led me past more livestock and gently aged Swiss village buildings ¬†to a modern facility where he introduced me to people who looked like they knew him, and then to a friendly Swiss-German who claimed to be Dave’s boss, along with a Croatian coworker. There were computers, timing devices, a massive shipping department. It seemed Dave’s story checked out.

“You really do work,” I said.

“Does he?” muttered the Croatian. “Have you seen him actually do anything since you got here?”

It’s a good question, but I am not chancing another solo train ride to find out.

Say Cheese

How do the Swiss get those holes in their cheese?

Woke up to a smelly apartment this morning. Cheese must have snuck out of the fridge while we were asleep.

Swiss cheese here is not very much like Swiss cheese anywhere outside of Switzerland. In North America, it has a polite nip in its flavour. Over here, it stinks so bad that we are forced to limit the number of times we open the fridge door, just to preserve the air quality in our place. This is a true fact.

It seems heretical to say, but I am having trouble believing in Swiss cheese per se, just as I am deeply suspicious of my mother’s pre-1961 claims about Santa Claus.

For one thing, I have yet to locate a single block of cheese in any of the local stores with the name ‚ÄúSwiss‚ÄĚ on it. The only names I recognize are Brie, Camembert, Feta and Emmental.

Note to editors: Yes, I capitalize all cheese names out of respect for any food made up of 70 per cent or more fat. Canadian Press Style Guide be darned.

Instead, the labels on cheeses here change every three days and read in long Franco-Germanic hieroglyphics like Kaltbach Holengereift  affine en grotte Kraftig-Wurzig intensement corse, which I believe translates into:  Right off the Cow’s Back while it hollered and it’s a fine although gross cheese nothing like Kraft, with an intense coarseness.

I’m suspicious of any grocer who claims to carry 983 varieties of cheese, as Swiss grocers make it appear with their vast dairy aisles. Now, having sampled their wares for over a month, I am ready to make the expert assertion that they only have one cheese, but sell it in various states of decay, and what appear to be name brands are actually warning stickers reading: Essenauf Eigene Gefahr and Acht Monate Vorbei Sein Verfallsdatum. *

This is the wonderful thing about the German language: It makes even the simplest things sound complex. It is how they came to master engineering and technology the world over.

In the meantime, I staggered toward the fridge this morning, facecloth pressed firmly over my nose and mouth to prevent inhaling more deadly cheese spores, declaring my intent to save us by disposing of the cheese.

Dave, Scottish by blood, would not hear of throwing out something we paid an exorbitant amount of money for, and declared he would eat the remainder – a sizeable pie-sized piece. Good man. Fell on his sword. **

*Translation: ‚ÄúEat at your own risk,‚ÄĚ and ‚ÄúEight months past expiry.‚ÄĚ

** I meant to write about the absence of Cheddar from Swiss shops, but got side-tracked. This is what cheese-spore-laden air will do to a person.

When things go right

Solothurn's St. Ur's cathedral roofline. We climbed up 250 poorly lit, uneven wood and stone steps to the top (see people there on the right tower - they look like ants. 15 minutes later, that's where we were). Because this was the trip where nothing went wrong, we did not plunge to our deaths. Nice.

My albatrossness began in early childhood, when my Uncle Guy gave me my first lesson in the fine art of fishing.

At 4 a.m. we hiked out to a sparkling clean river with rock waterfalls. At 5 a.m. we returned to the camper. Uncle Guy sported a hole in his ear lobe … this in the day before men got their ears pierced except in fishing accidents … his favorite childhood lucky fishhook was somewhere at the bottom of the river and my right leg was scraped up and down from plunging into a hidden rock crevice as we crossed the waterfalls, bringing the water right up to my chin.

Uncle Guy fished me out – the only catch of the day and one he restrained himself from saying he’d like to throw back.

A year or two later, my Aunt Rosie listened to Uncle Guy’s account and determined that the flaw was in the teacher, not the student. She took me fishing at Rainbow Falls in the Whiteshell. It was the first time she had ever seen anyone hook a seagull.

Fast-forward a few decades and my older brother brought his boat out to our cottage for a fishing excursion. It was the first time he had seen someone hook a loon.

The common thread in these accounts is not fishing, although that might seem reasonable. It is travel. In every instance, bags were packed, gas tanks filled and coolers jammed with sandwiches. It makes my one-city-four-hotels story of Paris appear in a new light.

Solothurn's main promenade.

It’s also why I’m a nervous traveler. I don’t think things are going to go wrong. I know they will.

This is what makes the last weekend so amazing. We hopped the train for a short 15-minute ride to Solothurn, a village so un-noteworthy that even Rick Steeves (our travel guru) gives it no mention in his guidebooks.

It turned out to be the best day-trip yet. And nothing went wrong, ergo I have nothing to write about it except to say that Solothurn, despite it’s somewhat weird name, is outstanding for its baroque architecture, narrow cobblestone streets, Italianesque styling and museums where entrance is by donation (we figure $10 is about right).

Click here to see a 54-second video of Solothurn’s marching band – sorry that my videography skills are substandard. I’m working on it. As Dave says, much would improve if I would just stand up while videotaping. I was standing up.

Solothurn's clock tower.

Dave's ancestor? We don't know. Solothurn art museum held an original Van Gogh, Cezanne and Picasso - not bad for a village of 15,000 and canton (state) of about 245,000..

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The poor you will always have with you

Jesus’s words about the ever-present poor hover about wherever we go, although each country seems to have its own particular type of impoverished.

This panhandler near the Georges V hotel in Paris remained motionless with her hand and cup outstretched. Completely cloaked, we couldn't be certain of her age, if she was conscious, or even a she. The still prostrate posture was common among Parisian beggars.

In Madrid, we saw them lean, their ragged clothes drifting over their hollow rib-cages, camped in low-lying creek valleys and ditches, living in makeshift box and sheet-metal ghettos invisible to the eye until the passerby almost stumbles in to them.

In Atlanta, a woman and her eight-year old son lingered at a downtown parkade’s exit, looking for some change. Dave drove them to a Burger King. On the way, he offered the child a piece of gum. Instead of chewing it, the boy gobbled it down – a sobering vision of hunger in America.

In Victoria, B.C., the poor lack the hollowed-out visage common to the poor of other countries. On Douglas Street at a poverty protest, a group of “homeless” panhandlers assured me that they had food aplenty. What they really wanted were cigarettes.

And in Paris the poor sometimes lay prostrate on the pavement only a few feet from where people lined up outside designer stores where women’s summer pumps sell for $1,500.

The most well-fed beggar we saw had a corner on the Royal Pereire Cafe near the metro entrance. You can even catch a glimpse of him on Google Maps here.¬†¬†(the link will not take you directly to him, but if you check the pavement in front of the cafe, you can see him – he’s obviously a fixture). ¬†Locals stopped to chat with him, and except for the upturned cap on the pavement, his calm demeanor would have been just about right had he been seated a few feet away at a cafe table.

Security manages the line at the Louis Vuitton store on Paris's Champs Elysees - the couple at the front stood patiently, their faces befuddled and frustrated while he let other customers walk right in ahead of them. Nevertheless, when he waved them in they were all smiles. I think they're called "marks."

Many beggars in Paris were women dressed in burqas. We don’t know what to make of that. We didn’t see any of the drug-induced lurching and mentally ill erratic manifestations of Victoria’s street population.

Nevertheless, in Paris’s underground, there were signs of possibly drug-related poverty: On the metro, a man appeared in one of the cars, mumbling, his head swaying rhythmically while passengers studiously looked the other way. When he turned to leave, his shoulder blades jutted in sharp profile against his beige sweater that was tucked into loose slacks, revealing his skeletal form.

Out on the broad promenade at the Champs Elysees, people were practically begging to get into the exclusive designer house stores. At Louis Vuitton, two security guards kept the line-up roped in a New York club-style. The line inched slowly along while the occasional “well-heeled” customer walked right up to the security guard and was let in without even so much as a glance at the waiting masses, much to the disgruntled expressions of those ¬†in the queue. It was a statement of class, money and power.

I made my own statement by not trying to get into the store, although I doubt that Louis and his cohorts missed me much.

Those familiar with the title of this post as coming from the New Testament, the seventh verse of the 14th chapter of the Book of Mark might know what comes after – that Jesus goes on to say we ¬†“can help them (the poor) anytime you like.” We can. We’re just not sure how.

Here are more images of Paris’s down-and-out population – and for something a little more upbeat – here’s my not-very-good vid of a Paris busker who was fabulous. His singing starts at the 39-second mark.

A man sleeping the doorway of a commerce building facing the Seine River.

A panhandling woman looks around, seemingly bored with her line of work.

Not technically a beggar, but a street-performer. It was the worst show on earth - for a coin or two, she would nod, then go back to this position. Nevertheless, as a hot-flash-enduring middle-aged woman who cannot keep make-up on my face, I want to know her secret. It was scorching outside, yet her gold patina was flawless.

Another beggar, keeping her face down, kneeling motionless and silent on the Champs Elysees.

One panhandler was nowhere to be seen - must have run off for a cafe' au lait, although he still left his post open for donations.

Amazing that he was comfortable leaving his stuff unattended on Paris streets while nervous tourists clutch onto their bags in fear of robbery (quite rightly).

Sleeping on the job., but with the cup still in full view.

Paris thieves – prettier than you would expect

Gare de Lyon Paris train station on a slow day.

The girl was wide-eyed, frantic. About 20 years old, fresh complexion, dressed in clean, crisp spring colours, with her hair pulled back into a girlish pony tail; her words spilled over themselves as she rolled a smart-looking suitcase up to the cafe table just behind us.

We were at Paris’s Gare de Lyon train station, which sees something like a 10 million passengers a year. I could have made that figure up, but actually, I read it somewhere, but cannot remember where at the moment, so cannot vouch for its accuracy.

She hoisted an expensive-looking camel-and-turquoise-beaded leather handbag over to the man seated at the table behind us. She spoke French but it was clear she was asking him to watch her baggage, while she accomplished some errand. At that moment, it did not occur to us the errand was to escape capture.

Gare de Lyon train station, Paris. The launch site of many exciting travels as well as thefts.

He said no as he passed¬†the handbag back at her. It was then that her purpose became clear. She punted the suitcase to the next table, but instead of beseeching anyone else’s help, she took flight, the handbag under her arm, and the suitcase abandoned.

Even then, we were too baffled to shout “Stop thief,” although I’ve wanted to do that all my life. The man she had approached got up and rolled the suitcase away, presumably to security. Later, we realized how dangerous this situation could have been – a girl fleeing luggage – the case could have held a bomb.

As it was, we lamented some poor woman who would likely get her suitcase back, but not her purse and whatever possessions or passport were inside it.

European thieves – who knew that in addition to being conniving and criminal, they’d also be cute.

And now for a few well-worn travel tips:

  1. The money belt is your friend, even if it makes you look like you’ve put on a pound or two:¬†Could a pickpocket worm his/her way through your shirt, belt, pant-waistband to get at your money belt (which is where you should keep your passport)? I don’t know, but it would be interesting to see them try.
  2. Spread the cards around: Carry credit/identity cards in different spots, so that if you do get robbed, you will still have some resources.
  3. Do not carry valuables in a knapsack on your back. Those are just open store shelves to thieves.
  4. For those who are live in a world dominated by Murphy’s Law: If you’re travelling as a couple/group, both/all should wear money belts (there’s no reason why only one person should look plump). While one of us carries the passports, the other carries photocopies of the passports, just to make life easier when we show up at the embassy, in the event we do get robbed.
  5. Be cautious of any attention-grabbing event, however innocuous it may seem. Dave’s work-colleagues put their luggage up on an overhead compartment on a Swiss train from Geneva. A person came down the aisle and “accidentally” sprayed coins all over the floor. Dave’s colleagues, nice guys both of them, obligingly helped the person retrieve the coins. Later they discovered their baggage had been pilfered. In another more gripping incident, a woman faked throwing a baby off a bridge, after which she disappeared and so did the wallets and valuables of the onlookers/rescuers. The “baby” was a bundle of rags.
  6. Don’t stand on the street when opening a map: Find a seat in a cafe or a bench.
  7. This is not the time to exhibit your hugginess. Anyone coming close to you is suspect, but it is almost impossible to avoid physical contact while getting on or off a train/subway, which is why those are prime pick-pocketing times, so the best you can do then is be aware of your surroundings and make sure your valuables are not in easy-to-access spots.

A French garden and an Italian squabble

A giant circular pond of green brackish water in Tuileries Garden attracts sunbathers.

As I sit here in our Swiss flat with the patio door open, an Italian domestic spat is going on downstairs. ¬†It’s what we call a “breaking story,” so I’ll report on it in italics (how suitable) as I enter today’s scribblings on our trip to Paris.

It is a testament to spin doctors of all generations that the word “garden” is imbedded in the name Tuileries Garden, which are the grounds outside the Louvre.

I use the word “grounds” deliberately, because it suggests a flat, uninterrupted horizontal space, which is what we found, instead of the expected cultured urban forest.

The woman’s voice climbs upward into an elegant aria, accented by a few words here and there from the man. I have no idea what they’re saying, but it sounds like an argument over him spending too much time on the phone with his mother.¬†

A 19th-century sculpture, or a modern-day visitor in Paris's midday sun?

Who would have thought the French would lay a belly of gravel as a garden centerpiece?

The garden (term loosely applied) is almost 500 years old, so we looked forward to strolling beneath broad sweeps of mature shade trees. It was not to be.

Paris must have a very hostile climate, because in its few scattered groves, the trees that it did have were about the size of the cherry trees we planted in our backyard in 2004.

The woman lectures at machine-gun speed, the man responds in short resigned sentences.

A later generation of Tuileries’ garden planners circa 19th-century, probably seeing the trees were not doing so well, ¬†trimmed the gravel flats with stone sculptures of human figures in various stages of angst, foreshadowing the postures of modern-day visitors withering under the sun.

The Louvre, the mobs and some guy on a horse trying to get through it all.

A door slams! The woman has left! 

How did the sculptors know? We were fascinated by their foresight. Either that, or the heat stroke brought on by standing in the furnace of a stone-and-gravel chamber has rattled our senses.

We now understand the French Revolution in a new light, which had some of its most poignant events occur in the summer heat. Of course the French were cranky. What else could they be?

As for the Italian revolution downstairs, the woman is back. I knew she would be. She tells the man she loves him. He tells her the same. She says something else. He grunts. Her voice goes up – yes, they’re back at it again.¬†

The "garden" outside the Louvre.

Someone comes into the room – the mother-in-law perhaps? She has a more mature voice. The couple’s tone softens. The woman takes a few cloaked stabs at the man, then, the sound of cutlery, and the older woman’s voice.

Ah, she is solving their argument with food, the force that has sustained Italian culture over the centuries. 


 

Tomorrow: More Paris Рthe homeless, the fake riot and train-station thievery. 

And now, ¬†in the spirit of fairness, despite my whining over their parks-board decisions, Paris is beautiful. Here’s the proof:

Charming little cafe near the Notre Dame Cathedrale. According to its signage, the cafe has been in operation since 1594, ie. shortly before my ancestors decided they had enough of this place and bolted for Canada. This in no way should be taken to reflect my family's opinions on French food.

Pont Alexandre III: Beautifully embellished bridge, and like so many Paris sites, built for the 1900 World Fair. Cannot imagine what a dull place Paris was, architecturally speaking, before the World Fair.

Grand Palais des Beaux Arts: Art nouveau iron and glass structure erected for the 1900 World Fair.

A rental bike post outside of our hotel (Waldorf Arc d'Triomphe on rue Pierre Demours). These stands were all over Paris. We didn't rent any bikes, owing to our terror of French roadways and the drivers that populate them, but saw quite a few being ridden by tourist-types.

I have no idea what this is.

Cathedrale Notre Dame de Paris: Christian site since 250 AD, church building started of one sort or another existed on or near here since the 4th century. This building's construction began in 1163.

The cemetery at Montparnasse, burial-place of many notables including Emile Durkheim (pioneering sociologist), Simone de Beauvoir (French philosopher, author), and the Roy family, of which we may or may not be related through my maternal great-grandmother.

Two weeks, more or less

Two weeks in Switzerland: Two weeks of discovering new cheese, new chocolates, new shoe stores (and shoe prices!). Here’s what we’ve learned so far:

They have homeless people, but not in near as many numbers as North American cities. As in all things to do with homeless populations, numbers are extremely difficult to count. One 1980 U.N. survey put the number of Swiss homeless at 2,400, but that figure is 30 years old. Switzerland’s overall population in 2009 was ¬†7.7 million:¬†

Biel homeless man has worn garbage-bag shoes for the past two weeks, even in the blistering heat.

They love Justin Bieber (who, by the way, has a strong Winnipeg connection): 

Justin Bieber images are everywhere, such as on this junior sheet set at a local department store. His visage outnumbers that of Obama, Clinton (either one), Michael Jackson, the Beatles and anyone running in Canadas current federal election.

They are cane-enabled (get it: Cain’n Abel ¬†– sorry, couldn’t stop myself). :¬†

Elders favour canes over walkers. Even young people sport these arm-brace-style canes, making us wonder if polio races through the Swiss.

They view sidewalks and roadways as near-equals: 

They park, and occasionally drive, on sidewalks.... not as often as the Spanish, but a lot more than North Americans.

They smoke, a lot:

One in four smoke, according to Switzerlands Federal Health Office. In both Canada and the U.S., one in five smoke. Despite the 25 per cent rate given by the Swiss government, the number of smokers looks higher on the street where the Swiss smoke as they walk, juggle babies, lounge in street cafes. Smoke is blowing into our suite as I write this as my Italian neighbour takes to the balcony for her morning fix.


Their public art holds some surprises: 

Despite their reputation for attention to detail, their take on public art would make North American insurers and art/park commission managers gasp. These wrought-iron statues could inflict fatal wounds if someone tripped into one. Note: Dave does not let me twirl anywhere near these.

Just in case you dont quite see it: The arms on this prone statue are about two inches thick and maybe two feet long - would plunge through a chest wall or eye socket quite easily. Eeeew.


Luscious Lucerne

Saturday we took the 90-minute train ride east to Lucerne, past lush, meticulously kept pastures, rolling hills, quaint farms with cows lolling about, a trip made sweeter because we now have our Swiss Rail resident half-price cards.

It looks like a great deal, bringing the price for ¬†two return tickets down to $78. We were pretty pleased with that until we realized that we were travelling only 48 miles – what the heck? That’s like a $1.50 a mile.

Swiss comedians? Or the Swiss version of a chain gang (ie. not breaking rocks, just colouring on them).

We arrived in Lucerne to discover the city in the throes of an international comedy festival called “Fumetto”¬†– at least, that was the explanation we got for the men in orange suits studiously scratching a chalk path into one of the cobblestone squares, which didn’t look funny at all, but I’m sure something hilarious was about to happen. We had our doubts, because orange suits are prison gear back in the U.S., so we were suspicious this was the Swiss version of a prison-work program.

We checked out a kitchen store where laundry bags sold for $99 and shoe stores, at one of which I found a pair of ¬†loafers priced at $269… others were priced higher, but my brain could not compute such numbers well enough to recall them now.

Lucerne is, after all, Switzerland’s Monaco, and the well-heeled were in ostentatious abundance from stylish couples strolling the lakeside promenade to high-end sports cars inching through narrow cobblestone streets that until their arrival, we thought were pedestrian-only. Maybe the rules are different for those driving Bugattis and Lamborghinis.

Even the McDonalds restaurant was high-end with vintage ceiling tiles, orange cube leather seating and a McCafe pastry bar. Ooo la la! It was a beautiful city. I’ll let the photos speak for it. Click on photos to get a larger version.

At a swank chocolate shop called Merkor - I think it translates into "No chocolate under $40"

About half of the chocolate in Merkor's main showcase, and I do mean "showcase." The word "display" just doesn't quite make it.

Lucerne's waterfront. Not so bad.

The inside of Lucerne's Jesuit Church. Very white. Very bright.

Lucerne. Very pretty.

Lunch for the uber-rich - also, where they are on display for gawkers like us.

 

Many of Lucerne's Old Town buildings sport frescos (murals) - this one depicts the city's Mardi Gras celebrations.

A wall mural depicting the building's former street level cafe-owners in Mardi Gras celebrations.

Lucerne has two homeless men. We found them both. It's noteworthy that this man's wardrobe included a colour (red/orange pepper) that matched many park benches, and that is also favored among the rich (see other photos). Even Lucerne's homeless fall under the dictates of fashion.

The photo quality is not very good, but this stylish 8-10-year-old girl's pic is worth posting - we saw fashion-conscious kiddies everywhere. What is this? France?

A woman parading her control over her husband on Lucerne's Promenade - his attire matches hers right down to his shoes. Somebody help this guy.

View over Lucerne Lake with the Alps in the background. This body of water is also called Vierwaldstattersee. Yes, it is.

How friendly are the Swiss?

When the woman took a seat across from us on the train ride back from Murten, she looked normal.

She had come on with a pack of senior citizens, all rattling in lively conversation. She hovered over some people who we thought must be old friends, clutching about half-dozen twigs in her hand. They were only about two feet long – too short for basket-weaving.

Snug alleyway in Murten.

She then eyed our cluster of seats, flopped down with an exaggerated gasp of exhaustion, and appraised us silently with her enormous brown eyes. Her chin-length hair was auburn brown and her posture suggested she was fit, but she had bags under her eyes and what looked like a patch of skin cancer on her cheek – she could have been 55 or 80.

She addressed us in German, then raised her eyebrows at our fumbling response: “No German,” not meaning that there are no Germans, or that we refuse to associate with Germans, much less attempt the language. ¬†She leaned closer, waved at the bundle of twigs and said in English, ¬†“I put sticks ¬†in and get wine. You know, sticks, water.”

No, we didn’t know, but we were sitting knee-to-knee within grabbing distance so we nodded politely and mentally calculated how long to the next train stop.

Was she insane? Would she pinch one of us by the arm and force more alcohol-related recipes on us?

As she pressed us into conversation with her not-totally-broken, but not quite all-there-English, we tried to not look like we were thinking about the distance to the next train station, but it didn’t work. She somehow deduced that our estimation of her mental faculties was not as it should be, even though neither of us gave into the rising urge to claw madly at the stop-buttons and demand the train doors open (we had already done that earlier on the ride into Murten).

She returned to the wine-twig topic and elaborated until her meaning became clear: That she would stick the twigs (dried vines) in the ground, water them, and eventually they would take root, produce grapes and then wine. She was not expecting to get wine from them that evening.

Swiss trains are spotless, their schedules and routes relatively easy to understand, but be ready for a sociable time as the Swiss love to chat.

Her mental stability established, we relaxed.

We have seen signs of such friendliness before. The day earlier, ¬†in a grocery store line-up ¬†a woman discerned our foreign-ness and invited us on a boat trip over Lake Biel. Suspicious North Americans that we are, we politely evaded the question, but we can’t help noticing that overall the Swiss are extraordinarily friendly.

Either that, or they are all stalkers-in-waiting. We shall see.

Suitcase Security

In my previous life as a staff reporter at a serious daily newspaper, ¬†my editors would sometimes obliquely mock our readers by forcing reporters, myself included, to write stories that revealed the editorial staff’s estimation of the readers’ intelligence.

The story would expound the gritty minutae of a task so universally understood that the reporter would know instantly that its publication would tar him/her forever as the designated village-idiot. There is nothing the reporter could do about this.

What follows is what one such story might look like, a story about how to fit a strap around your suitcase.

You may have seen similar stories in fine publications like The Globe and Mail and The National Post, one of which actually published a Page A3 story on how to hold a kitchen knife. Page A3 is usually reserved for top local news, crime, politics or events/people of note.

No doubt, the reporter had her own unwritten thoughts on uses for knives.

Packing day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

____________

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

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

Face-to-face with a government bureaucrat

Have just finished reading up on friends’ travels through places tropic populated with elephants and water buffaloes and have to say: Glad I’m not there.

Her hubby had to run back to Canada to deal with errant tenants, leaving the wife in a village hut with a sheet for a door. She was recovering from Dengue fever, which made her feel as though her bones were broken.

I suppose it’s part of the adventure, but if Dave left me in a remote village with cantankerous ungulates and a fabric lock-less door, heck would follow.

But she is having fun, if catching tropical diseases can be called that, and good for her.

Me, I’m still comfy in my home with plenty of solid doors, but not for long.

The trip to the Swiss Consulate was a disappointment.

The traffic into Vancouver was non-existent and we virtually whisked our way down to Canada Place on the shores of the Burrard Inlet. We found the Consulate with only a little fuss, were admitted immediately and met with a polite and exceedingly helpful bureaucrat who in under 15 minutes gave Dave his visa and said I could get through the border without trouble and finish up my visa application while in Switzerland.

“It will take about a week,” she said.

This ruins everything.

I’ve set my expectation-o-meter to “appalled” and having reality smack my worldview around requires that I get a new attitude. Matters worsened on the ferry ride home when we ran into friends returning from holiday and passed the 90-minute journey over coffee discussing how their car got broken into while on their week away. I loved this story. It was proof that travel is annoying.

The car-break-in, however, was interrupted by security and so the car was undamaged and nothing was stolen. More proof that I am wrong that travel is just asking for trouble.

This has put me in a dour mood, but things are looking up: It appears that the amount of stuff I need to pack will exceed the space available in our suitcases, thanks to the airline’s recent baggage allowance changes.

Ah, something to be miserable about … that’s the stuff.

How I got this way

“You’re living the dream,” is what people say when they learn we’re heading to Europe for an extended stay, but I don’t always feel that way. ¬†Hotel-living, travel, sight-seeing, modest cardiac-safe levels of adventure – what’s not to like?

Bureaucrats, that’s what’s not to like.

Yesterday’s discovery that our designated bureaucrat forgot to process my visa application ¬†is a classic twist in the overseas-working-holiday picture. ¬†In short, whatever you expect the bureaucrat to do, whatever he/she says they’re doing – it is not so.

And the fact that they hold your passport and identity information, plus wield the awesome powers of “the state,” forces you to be your better self when dealing with them, when really you want to be your five-year-old, tantrum-throwing self.

Our friends Al & Nina (not their real names – must shield their identities from foreign bureaucrats who might wreak horrible vengeance on them for sharing this story) danced this dark waltz with Spanish visa authorities who insisted she stay in Canada during her application while sending him willy nilly around the globe fetching documents to feed into their paper shredders (I’m sure this is true).

After sending Al to Japan on a boomerang mission to fetch security clearance from a northern district’s police department, because they had lived there once, and then return immediately to British Columbia, and then back to Toronto to pick up their visas, a Spanish official handed Al his visa, with a dark comment about Al stealing jobs from decent, hard-working Spaniards (Al’s company was creating 400 jobs for those Spaniards, but visa bureaucrats are weak on math).

And then, the official turned to Nina and informed her that her visa had been denied.  Nina Рwho had endured a forced year-long  separation from her beloved because of this bureaucrat Рis ordinarily a suave, well-dressed, dignified, intelligent and articulate woman.

As she threw herself against the embassy’s safety glass, she reminded the official that while inside the embassy she “may technically be on Spanish territory, but you have to come out sometime, and when you do, you’ll be in MY country and I”LL be WAITING.” Nina ¬†managed to say a few more things as her husband physically dragged her out of the building, but I don’t want this blog to get blocked for inappropriate content, so you will have to imagine the rest.

We are waiting for the day that embassy’s security tapes get hacked and put up on Youtube. It’s going to be a doozy of a show.

In the meantime, I’m coping with my own visa-stress by applying generous dollops of Breyers Black Forest ice cream to my thighs,via my digestive system, of course.

Just about the right amount of ice cream required to soothe bureaucrat-burn.