Wishes do come true

What to do? Shops exhausted. Christmas markets all ticked off. Singing Christmas tree marveled at. What I needed was a dose of mountain air and some snow. So we headed to the hills – the Alps – for lunch. As you do. When you’re in Switzerland.

My Swiss geography isn’t great so it wasn’t surprising that I’d never heard of Glarus. All I knew was that it was in the mountains and had some vague connection with the great Emperor Charles the Fat (what a fantastic name!). Apparently the town was practically wiped out in a fire in 1861 and few buildings remain that are older than that time.

IMG_9374 (600x800)IMG_9378 (600x800)

While the signature neo-Romanesque Church is something to behold, and the town itself pretty as a picture, one of the things that fascinated me most was a pair of cowhide boots I spotted for a mere 790 CHF. That’s a lot of money in any currency. And someone was trying them on. There’s no shortage of dosh in Switzerland but I suppose with a quasi minimum wage hovering around €20 per hour, depending on what you read, it’s only to be expected that prices will match accordingly. Switzerland doesn’t actually have a minimum wage written into law but enough signatures have been collected to vote on a proposed minimum wage of CHF 2500 per month next year (about $2800).  Interestingly the first ever labour law in Europe was introduced here in Glarus, back in 1864, forbidding people to work more than 12 hours a day. And last month, the general populace voted down the 1:12 proposal which would have ensured that the highest paid worker was paid no more than 12 times the lowest paid worker in a company…

IMG_9382 (800x600)IMG_9383 (800x600)

It was here in Glarus that I first tasted raclette. This cow’s cheese is perfect for melting and indeed has given its name to the dish that is primarily melted cheese. The term itself  term comes from the French word racler, meaning ‘to scrape’. It was so good that I went back for seconds and just last week, on my return to Budapest, actually invested in a raclette grill which is guaranteed to produce just the right degree of melting complete with room to grill the accompanying veg. A little fancier than the pickled gherkins on offer at the market but hopefully just as tasty. Watch this space.

IMG_9384 (800x600)IMG_9386 (800x600)

So there we were, wandering through the Christmas market in Glarus, sipping gluhwein and scoffing raclette. All we needed to complete this rather typical Swiss picture was a yodel or three. The words were literally just out of my mouth when my raclette guy abandoned his cheese and stepped outside to join a rather motley looking crew of carolers that turned out to be the local yodeling group. When they finally started to yodel, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I couldn’t have ordered a more picture-perfect afternoon. There’s a lot to be said for wishing out loud… you never know who might hear and oblige.

IMG_9380 (800x582)

 

 

 

2013 Grateful 2

I live a life without issue, that is I have no children. I can’t ever remember wanting to have children but that said, I wouldn’t have objected had the good Lord seen fit to bless me with an offspring or two. But it wasn’t to be. As a child, I used to dream of fostering, of adopting – ever since I saw the documentary narrated by Henry Winkler: Who are the DeBolts and where did they get 19 kids?

I love my nephews. I have two. They regularly remind me that I cannot include patience amongst my many virtues. They amaze me with their logic, untarnished as it is by the shoulds and should nots they will inevitably adopt as their own. I am fascinated with other people’s kids and occasionally irritated by their poor behaviour. I find myself increasingly wondering when children started parenting the adults and when adults lost control.

There’s a saying that just about the time you start realising your parents were right, your kids start telling you you’re wrong. My parents were strict and I promised myself that I’d be a lot more lenient with my kids, were I to have any. But I know now, with the benefit of hindsight, that I’d have been even stricter. Perhaps its just as well my maternal gene is in abeyance.

That said though, Christmas is a kid’s holiday. It saddens me that it’s become less and less about Christ’s birthday, and more and more about Santa Claus… and getting stuff. It upsets me that big ticket items like iPads and sound systems have replaced the dolls and teddy bears of old. I’m lucky. I have practically everything I need and get a far greater kick out of giving than receiving. It’s the opening of the present that I like – once it’s opened, I’m not beyond rewrapping it and giving it to someone else, thus multiplying the pleasure. Want vs need – that’s what it all boils down to. Give me the stuff memories are made of any day over something I have to find a home for.

IMG_9306 (800x600) (800x600)But I digress. Back to kids. My mates in Zurich sold me on the trip when they told me about the singing Christmas tree. I couldn’t quite imagine what they were talking about and just had to go see in person. I challenge the most hardened Bah! Humbug! to do the same and then tell me that they still don’t like Christmas.

Just a few steps from Bahnhofstrasse, tucked away in a little Christmas market, with plenty of glühwein choirs take to the tree at 17.30 and 18.30 every weekday evening from late November. Initially hidden from the crowds, they suddenly pop out and start singing. Gobsmackingly cute.

The concept came from Bellhaven University in the USA where, in 1933, the first living tree was conceived. Since then, it has spread across the world to Canada, the Philippines, Switzerland, South Korea, and Sri Lanka. Back in 2007, the one at Knoxville, Tennessee, attracted 60 000 people to one event. They range in size from 18 to 48 feet (5.5 to 15 m) and can hold anything from 30 to 450 singers. What a simple, yet spectacular idea.

Amidst the fuss and frolics this Christmas, I’m reminded to take the time to be grateful to children – for their insight, their incisive humour, and their uncensored views of the world.

As the late John F Kennedy was fond of saying: Children are the world’s most valuable resource and its best hope for the future.

My favourite piece of advice for kids comes from American poet Shel Silverstein:

Listen to the mustn’ts, child. Listen to the don’ts. Listen to the shouldn’ts, the impossibles, the won’ts. Listen to the never haves, then listen close to me… Anything can happen, child. Anything can be.

There’s a lesson there for all of us.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out the post Grateful 52

Biggest, brightest, best

I’m quite partial to  the concept of Christmas markets. I like wandering around, wrapped against the elements, clutching my steaming mug of hot wine and checking to see what the artisans have been up to. Visiting other cities in December, these markets are a must and are inevitably compared to what’s on offer in Budapest at the Basilica or Vörösmarty tér. Vienna was disappointing – oh, it looks fantastic, but take away the soap and the cheese and what you’re left with is  bunch of tat. Zurich was different.

IMG_9132 (800x600)IMG_9140 (800x600)The main train train houses Europe’s biggest indoor market. More than 160 wooden chalets offer everything from sweets to candles to sculptures to jewelry to carvings to hides. The emphasis is definitely on craftsmanship.  And what a novel location – perfect for those with an hour to spare between trains, consoling for those who have missed their train, and warm enough for those feeling the cold.

IMG_9131 (600x800)The centrepiece is the Swarovski Christmas Tree with its 7000 sparkling crystals. A magnificent piece of work that boggles the mind. There are 14 of them dotted around the world from Argentina to Venezuela (with two in China), each one brighter than the next.

I was given a piece of Swarovski for my birthday, and having gotten over the extravagance, have to admit to being rather attached to it. Years ago, in Hawaii, my mate Lori bought me a pair of crocs – sandals – and had them add some Swarovski crystals. That I thought a little ostentatious, but I got over that, too. It all makes me wonder at who I might have been in a past life.

IMG_9139 (800x600)And the markets don’t stop in the station. In side streets off the Banhoffstrasse, many more sit in wait for passersby. The food on offer isn’t the usual Hungarian meats swimming in vats of oil (which, by the way, I love); it’s a little more sophisticated. Smoked meats, cheeses, fondue, and raclette vie for attention. Loathe though I am to stereotype, the Swiss certainly love their cheese.

IMG_9114 (800x600)IMG_9160 (600x800)As you might expect, everything is neat and orderly. I was quite surprised at the carelessness with which smokers throw their butts on the street, but then I was reminded of the nation’s efficiency – it would all be clean again in a matter of hours.

If you’ve a mind to get away from it all before the holidays, you could do a lot worse than visiting Zurich. I have a sneaking suspicion that I might well be back again, next year. And this time, I might actually buy one of Bettina Eberle’s glass owls.

A change of heart

The last time I was in Zurich, some random individual (male) got on the tram and started whaling on me with a rolled-up magazine. It hurt. Okay, so I had been staring mindlessly out the window and he got caught in my crosshairs. I hadn’t actually been looking at him – it was more like he got in the way of my stare.

Anyway, he took offence, came aboard, and started on me. Rolled-up magazines are formidable weapons. They hurt. But what hurt most was that I was in law-abiding Switzerland and no one came to my aid. Whatever invectives he was shouting act me must have given our general audience cause to believe that we were embroiled in some sort of domestic dispute, so they kept their distance. In fact, they did more: they got up and moved away. He calmed down and sat down, and I stayed seated, rooted to the spot, hoping he’d get off at the next stop because I wasn’t capable of thinking enough to safely put one foot in front of the other. But he didn’t. When he stood, it was to turn on me … again.

Fast forward 20 years and I find myself with an invite from good friends to visit them in Zurich. Understandably, I have no great love for the city. What sights there were back then had been swallowed whole by the memory of Mr Magazine. But it wasn’t Zurich I was going to see.

My mother is fond of reminding me of the beatitude – blessed is she who expects nothing for she shall never be disappointed – and I can add to that now… expect nothing and you might even be pleasantly surprised.

IMG_9276 (800x600) (800x600)IMG_9333 (590x800)Zurich at Christmas is delightful. The Bahnhofstrasse is lit up by  lights they have named ‘Lucy’. Strings of lights are suspended across the street creating an illusions of falling stars. It’s amazing. So simple and yet the effect is one that makes you stop, repeatedly, and wonder. Shop windows epitomise a style that is uniquely Swiss: a little sharper than neighbouring France and a lot less harsh than bordering Germany. The sales boasted hefty discounts, but even with 70% off, the prices were still just that little bit out of reach. Zurich is many things – but it ain’t cheap.

Nicely mellowed by the gluwein and wrapped against the elements, I rediscovered the art of rediscovering. I had a change of heart. Yer man’s face, with the three vertical cuts on his forehead, is a vision that has been superimposed by one of magic and wonder.

 

Spread the (Balkan) love

To say Geneva is expensive is a little like saying that Sultan Kösen is tall. It’s just a hair’s breadth from being a massive understatement. Having paid 34 CHF (about €28) for four very ordinary sandwiches, I was still suffering from shock three hours later. To pay €200 per night for a very, very, very ordinary hotel room (ordinary to the point of being that same hair’s breadth from a hostel dorm room) didn’t hurt as much, as I wasn’t picking up the bill.

Reluctant to throw myself at the mercy of travel advisors, tourist advertisments or concierge recommendations when it came to have dinner last night, I was happy enough to be guided by some Serbian friends who like their food. When it comes to networking while living abroad, the Irish have nothing on those who hail from the Balkans – it seems as if everyone knows someone who knows someone and this particular someone owns/manages/runs La Sixieme Heure  at No. 6 Place des Philosophes close to the Plainpalais (Tram No. 15 from the station) in Geneva.

Once we’d made ourselves known (i.e. as having been sent by the boys), what was already promising to be a good experience took a turn for the sublime. The place itself is furnished with a random selection of mismatched chairs and tables and sofas that transport you to just about anywhere you’d like to be. There’s plenty of room between tables so no eavesdropping to distract from the food. The menus, printed on simple, white sheets of A4 were written in French (of which I have enough to spot an artichoke from 10 yards out). I opted for tagliatelle with artichokes, sunblushed tomatoes and mushrooms topped with oodles of freshly shaved parmesan while PC indulged his taste for truffles and chanced an interesting combination of feta cheese, truffle oil and ruccola with his tagliatelle. The ‘on-the-house’ New Year’s aperitifs of white wine with apricot kirsch led nicely into a Swiss Sauvingnon Blanc for me and a Rioja for himself.

Having already talked at length about replacing ‘want’ with ‘need’ in my life’s vocabulary, I couldn’t justify ordering the warm chocolate tarte so I declined… for both of us – a decision which was promptly ignored by our man from the Balkans. And was I glad. It was just about as ‘to-die-for’ as he is! Add a couple of digestifs and some coffee to the mix and there was little change from 100 CHF (€85 / $120).

It’s been a long time since I shelled out €50 for a main course and some wine and it’s been equally long since I’ve enjoyed a meal as much. I’ve had good food with good company in good settings before – and this was no exception. But what made it so different and so special was that Balkan hospitality. I know I’ve written about  the restaurants and the music in Belgrade and about Serbs and their passion for life and for living and yet I still can’t quite put my finger on where that passion comes from and why it’s so tangible. Just knowing someone who knows someone seems enough to unlock the door to a hospitable world where the Irish céad míle fáilte and the Latino mi casa, su casa combine to create an exquisite sense of welcome that makes you forget to go home.

If you find yourself at a loose end in Geneva and are in need of some soul-warming sustenance that will restore your faith in human nature, you could do a lot worse than drop by La Sixieme Heure. In fact, I’d recommend that you go out of your way to drop by…

Geneva conventions

I was proposed to in Geneva. Earlier this year, in January. As I stood outside these very gates. And I was flattered. He described himself as a political refugee from Zurich. An older man whose face had weathered many winters but whose eyes were still those of a very early spring. He was fun. He asked me if I was married. I said no. He asked me if I had any children. I said no. He asked me if I was in love. I said no. He asked me if I spoke French. I said no, but that I could read it and write it, I just couldn’t roll those r’s. Then he asked me if I believed in God. I said yes.  He paused. Smiled. And then asked me what I thought my mother would say if he called her and asked to marry me. I said she’d be delighted. That delighted him. He laughed. He said we could have a good future. I didn’t doubt him for a minute. This was Geneva, the city whose streets are literally paved with gold, where if you’re ‘in’ you’re in!

It had been twenty years or more since I’d last visited the city and I didn’t remember much about it other than the high prices and the pink bicycles that you could pick up and ride for free. I had vague memories of the lake but couldn’t for the life of me conjure up the feel of the place – how I’d felt when I’d been there. Now I was getting a second chance at a first impression. The city offers free travel in from the airport. Impressive. When you check into your hotel, you get a free travel pass for the duration of your stay. Very impressive. I met my host, the inimitable MM, the man from Belgrade. After a quick beer, he took me on a walking tour of his part of the city. It was late on a Thursday night but the place was quiet. Few people walked the streets and those who did spoke softly. The restaurants and cafés were almost empty; few, if any, showed signs of that bustling night life I had come to expect from a major European city. The liveliest place we came across was Serbian owned. No surprises there!

There was no litter. The streets were clean. Any that might be dropped overnight would be gone again by morning. What graffiti I could see was tasteful, almost arty, serving more to transform an existing monstrosity into something more appealing. We walked up through the cobblestone streets of the old quarter, passed the statues of the fathers of the Reformation. I had forgotten, if indeed I ever knew, that Geneva was the centre of the Calvinist Reformation in Europe. His church and the museum are well worth a visit. Hearing Calvin lecture on issues that are still so relevant today was slightly surreal. Religious freedom was limited here, as it was pretty much in all of Europe in the 1500s. The maxim of cuius regio, eius religio  (whose region, his religion) meant that you simply adopted the faith of  your ruler. Makes you wonder about the origins of the phrase ‘When in Rome…’ If you didn’t like it, you moved elsewhere. Switzerland, too, had its witch trials.  Between about 1530 and 1600, numerous witch trials were held in both Protestant and Catholic cantons, often ending in death sentences, the most common form of which was burning at the stake.

Geneva is in the southwestern corner of Switzerland. Most of it in fact, borders France. It was once an independent republic and, even today, still considers itself a republic in the Swiss confederacy. During Napoleon’s time, it was annexed and occupied by France. Liberated in 1813, it joined the Swiss Confederation in 1815 as the 22nd canton. There are 26 cantons in Switzerland, each a member state of the federal state of Switzerland. Perhaps America is a lot closer than we think!

The city itself is a veritable garden: there are 310 hectares of parks, 40,000 trees in public areas, 428,000 plants, including 40,000 rose bushes. The famous flower clock unfortunately, was out of order, because of vandalism. Is this a sign of the times, where lawlessness has breached the borders of a country that is known for its clock-work precision and almost puritanical ways? Down by the lake, the Jet d’eau is very much alive and spurting.  It really is something to behold. And again, my thoughts return to America and to Old Faithful, but without the steam!

The Plaine de Plainpalais didn’t look much that night. But the next day, when it hosted the local farmers market or the day after when it morphed into a flea market, it was truly spectacular.  A posher version of Esceri here in Budapest, more expensive and more upmarket. But then, that’s Geneva in a nutshell.

I’m very gullible, easily impressed. My life so far has been a series of one spontaneous move after the next. In the aftermath of visiting a new city, I can almost always imagine myself living there. Almost always. Geneva is a fine city. It has lots going on. It has more than 200 international governmental and nongovernmental organisations headquartered there. It is the home of the United Nations, windowless banks, designer watches and fancy hotels. It is clean, beautiful, and gentrified.  It offered me a glimpse perhaps of how life might have been, had I made different choices. I was there to work and I was lucky enough to have the time to see more than just the inside of an office. I had an excellent guide. I enjoyed my stay. But I doubt very much that I’d ever want to live there.