Friday, 26 December 2008

No Longer Alberta Bound

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings*

We departed Calgary Christmas Day afternoon and arrived into Victoria under bright sun - thanks to the weather gods since Vancouver is continuing to be pummelled by a 3rd winter storm.

We were welcomed by the loving embrace of our family. They were worth the wait!

Merry Christmas everyone.

*John Gillespie Magee, Jr

Monday, 22 December 2008

A Tale of Two (or three) Cities OR Snowmeggedon OR the Winter of my Discontent

After nearly a month of J being savagely ill with various childhood illnesses, he and I boarded a plane a few days ago to spend 3 days with family and friends in Calgary before rendez-vous'ing with C2 and the rest of the family in Victoria on December 21 in time for Christmas.

We didn't get off to a good start. The temperature when we landed in Calgary was -30 and the streets were icy and dangerous...not helpful that I have a phobia of Calgary's notorious black ice. The next day found me at a doctor being given antibiotics for a severe sinus infection and a lecture from the doctor about the evils of decongestants while flying. My mum and I stocked up on tourtières to tote to the coast for our ritual Quebecois réveillon on Christmas Eve and carefully stored them on the balcony to stay frozen until our departure.

The sun rose fridgidly on December 21. Yet another day of -30. The balcony door refused to release its frozen hold and we stared bleakly at our pile of tortieres. Our friend Vera came to the rescue and arrived with a second armful just as we were leaving for the airport. Phew, one catastrophe averted...things could only get better from here right?

Oh wrong, oh so frigging wrong! J, my mum and I arrived at Calgary airport early for our flight to Victoria, mindful of warnings of long lines and bad weather in all parts of the country on the busiest travel day of the year. First sign of pending trouble was an SMS I received from Air Canada indicating that C2's connecting flight from Vancouver to Victoria was cancelled due to bad weather in Vancouver, ugh. As it turned out, his flight from Frankfurt was the last plane permitted to land at the Vancouver airport before it was shut down due to a monster snow storm. Note: Monster Snowstorm and Vancouver are never mentioned in the same sentence.

Still things looked positive as we boarded our Air Canada regional jet bound for Victoria only a half-hour late. "Farewell -30" I crowed as we took to the sky. J sat with his Grandma and I dozed for the 75 minute flight. We began to descend into Victoria and I breathed a sigh of relief that we had beat snowmeggedon to the coast. Just as everyone was stowing their handbaggage and making sure that our tables were in the locked and upright position, our pilot came on the intercom to announce that the storm had hit Victoria, the airport was closed, plan B diversion Vancouver was closed and we had just enough fuel to hightail it back to Calgary - WHHHAAATT?

I am not kidding, for the next 45 minutes (thank you strong tail wind), I sat in my seat petrified that I would hear the sound of engines running out of fuel, making us fodder for the Rocky Mountains below us knowing full well there were no airfields capable of landing a jet closer than Calgary. I don’t think I took a real breath until we landed fast in what was clearly a direct approach to the airport on a runway I have never landed on before and in opposite direction to all the other airplanes. How much fuel was actually left, I’ll never know.

Most of a bottle of wine later back in my mum’s cozy apartment and sitting on hold with Air Canada for more than 2 hours, they kindly rebooked us on the next available flight. Christmas Day, 4 days later. Every available seat on all airlines to Vancouver or Victoria are booked solid. Merry Christmas and back to -30.

Still I am endeavouring to find the silver lining. We are holed up at my mother’s lovely home, we have good friends who have already scooped us up for dinner on Christmas Eve, my mum made a great stew for dinner this evening and someday we will all laugh about this, right, right?

Friday, 14 November 2008

Leaning Left in Switzerland

Um okay, moving to Switzerland required some shifting in grocery habits and I've been up to the challenge. I can walk by plucked chickens with their heads and feet still attached without making a face like a 6-year old. I have seen fois gras in every shape and size even if I can't eat it anymore out of personal oppositon to the method of gavage...but I digress.

Still, I think this find takes the cake. I found it in my local Migros grocery shop next to the apple juice. I've bought a couple as Christmas gifts for my teenage nephew and niece. Hope their parents and customs don't mind.

The details say "Iced Tea with Swiss Cannabis"..."Fantastic Natural Feeling". I'll bet!

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Lest We Forget

Today, November 11, 2008 recalls the 90th anniversary of the end of World War I. At Verdun in North-Eastern France, French and German troops fought for eight months in one of the bloodiest battles in history. An awful battle of attrition that cost eight hundred thousand casualties on both sides. There were almost nine million military casualties by the end of the war in 1918.

Today I honour my grandfather, Percival Kendall, whom I sadly never met, but have never forgotten. He was gassed at Ypres, emigrated to Canada after the war, had a family but died a young man.

There is only one surviving Canadian World War I veteran and 15 total worldwide on record. It is now our collective responsibilities to ensure that their history is passed to younger generations, and that in this world of relative peace, prosperity and entitlement, these selfless heroes' sacrifice is never forgotten.

Douaumont Ossuaire contains the remains of 130 000 unknown French and German soldiers who fell on the battlefields of Verdun

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

From Sea to Shining Sea

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears
America America
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea

Congratulations Obama, congratulations America, the world is a better place today.

*America the Beautiful
Words: Katharine Lee Bates

Monday, 3 November 2008

A Weekend in Champagne

Did you know that after aging (a minimum of 1.5 years for an average bottle to a maximum of 40 years in the case of Dom Pérignon), every bottle of champagne must be turned a quarter turn every single day in a process called remuage or riddling?

Mechanical turning does greatly facilitate this mundane chore but for all prestige cuvées, a human turner still does the job. The rate for an average turner you ask??? Would you believe 40,000 bottles a day. Mindboggling! This fact, many others, and much bubbly consumption occured this past weekend when Mighty Mom and I drove up to Champagne for a tour, an education and a rip-roaring good time.

We left early on Friday and after a journey of about 5 hours arrived in Reims, the capital of the Champagne region under a threatening sky. While definitely catering to the Champagne tourist, Reims is also home to the magnificent Notre-Dame de Reims Cathedral where the kings of France were crowned. The most famous of these coronations was that of Charles VII in the company of Joan of Arc.
Additionally, it was in Reims on May 7, 1945 that General Eisenhower and the Allies received Germany's unconditional surrender. A little history interwoven with a coupe or two while strolling through the many cafes and brasseries in the Place Drouet d'Erlon.

Early Saturday we joined our tour, and accompanied by several Brits and Scots set off into the Côte des Blancs, which together with the Montagne de Reims, and the Vallée de la Marne make up the 3 grape growing regions or terroirs within Champagne. Three types of grapes are grown in these regions, the Chardonney, the Pinot Noir and the Pinot Meunier; and it is the producers' proprietary blending of one or more of these grapes which produces the unique characteristics of a champagne.
The first house we visited was the medium-sized house Michel Gonet and after a rough beginning whereby the flumoxed owner raced out of his bath to greet us, we had a wonderful tour of his operation, a detailed lesson in champagne-making, and a charming tasting or degustation with never-ending refills.

The stands used by the remuers to turn the prestige cuvée bottles

We tipsily followed up our first visit with a 5-course lunch at a restaurant in a small village outside of Epernay, the unofficial capital of Champagne. Lunch was accompanied by more champagne, a Côte de Rhone Viognier, and an intense Bordeaux. We exchanged stories with our tour mates, had lots of laughs and found more than a little in common with each other.

In the caves at Moët et Chandon

Two and a half hours later, we reboarded our bus and headed to the caves of the grande marque Moët et Chandon. Needless to say, this experience was amazing. We roamed through a small part of the more than twenty kilometers of underground tunnels storing hundreds of thousands of bottles at various stages of aging and production. While informative, the tour was very corporate, and somewhat lacked the charm of our earlier visit. Still it was Moët et Chandon and an inspiring place to visit for any believer of the bubbly.

Our final tour of the day was to the small house Lanaudie-Hirault. After yet another generous degustation and resulting discussion, we all agreed that the qualities and flavours of the small producers, confined as they are to the production rules established by the Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) , were equally delicious as those of the grandes marques at considerably less cost. To be sure, in the future I will not hesitate to experiment with champagnes produced by these smaller houses.

We rolled back into Reims late into the evening and shared a meal with a small group of our co-conspirators that went on until yet much later into the evening. I wouldn't have missed a minute of it.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Ghosts of Halloween Past and Present

I wrote this essay last Fall after experiencing my first Halloween in Geneva. I thought it amusing to highlight the cultural differences between my Swiss and Canadian experiences.

Ghosts of Halloween Past and Present

The tradition of dressing in costume for Halloween has both European and Celtic roots. Hundreds of years ago, winter was an uncertain and frightening time. Food supplies often ran low and, for the many people afraid of the dark, the short days of winter were full of constant worry.

On Halloween, when it was believed that ghosts came back to the earthly world, people thought that they would encounter ghosts if they left their homes. To avoid being recognized by these ghosts, people would wear masks when they left their homes after dark so that the ghosts would mistake them for fellow spirits. On Halloween, to keep ghosts away from their houses, people would place bowls of food outside their homes to appease them and prevent them from attempting to enter.[1]

Growing up in Canada, we adhered to our common traditions of Halloween by donning heavy parkas over our costumes before merrily repeating the refrain of ‘trick-or-treat’ while politely collecting our candy and traipsing across suburban lawns to the next house. Houses were frequently decorated with great ingenuity. Plastic graveyards, billowing smoke, and spooky music were common in an unofficial competition to attract the most trick-or-treaters. The next day, parents would subtly compare their numbers. “We went through $300 of candy last night!” or “We ran out of candy by 6:30!” (the sun goes down early in Canada by October 31).

When I was a kid of trick-or-treating age, my parents didn’t buy me a costume at Walmart. We used our imaginations (and our mothers’ linens) to fashion ourselves as ghosts and black cats. For three years in a row, I dressed up as the washerwoman character from the Carol Burnett Show, complete with shower cap and apron. And, we always carried the requisite Unicef collection box. Halloween was, after all, not a time to forget the less fortunate.

After my son was born five years ago, not much had changed. When he was two, I bundled him up in his store-bought fuzzy dog costume (hey, I was a working mother), put his heavy winter jacket, hat, and mitts on top and off we went. He trundled up to each door, repeated ‘twick-oh-tweat’, as we parents chatted on the sidewalk and then collectively shuffled 20 feet to the left to the next house.

Then we moved to Geneva. Celebrating Halloween has not fully penetrated Swiss culture along with the rest of North American pop and entertainment culture. In fact, most Swiss parents decidedly resist supporting it, believing the Genevois holiday Escalade to be more culturally genuine. Expats, instead, host Halloween parties to ensure that their kids don’t miss out on the fun. Shops devote small sections of a single aisle to Halloween decorations. Houses are not aligned in easily accessed rows in this country. They are behind gates, around 6-foot high hedges, and down circuitous paths.

So, as October 31 drew nearer this year, I bought limited quantities of candy in anticipation of the few expat friends who would venture our way. We carved a pumpkin and set up a small but cheerful display of colourful squash. At 7:30 Halloween night, my son was dressed in costume in happy anticipation of a visit or two and we were still lazily finishing dinner. When the doorbell rang, I opened the door unprepared for the mob of pre-teens who, literally, without so much as a ‘trick-or-treat’ poured into my entry, spied the candy bowl, helped themselves liberally to it and poured out shouting enthusiastically to themselves.

I was still standing bemusedly in my entry way when a classmate of 4-year old J’s arrived with her father. I recovered quickly, wished her a “joyeux halloween’ and handed her the last of the candy (she had no bag with which to accept it so her father’s pockets had to make do). We all then found ourselves staring expectantly at one another. Me, expecting them to leave and move on to the next house, and them, apparently waiting to be invited in for coffee. Coffee lasted an hour and our not-quite-finished dinner was hurriedly shoved into the kitchen sink.

Later that evening, after spying a glowing pumpkin in my neighbour’s window, I decided to venture over with the two little ones hoping she could shed some light on my cultural faux-pas. We didn’t have to ring since her door was wide open revealing several children in her living room tussling over the candy bowl while their parents lolled on the sofa drinking espresso and wine.

So much for the original objective of Halloween - "On Halloween, to keep ghosts away from their houses, people would place bowls of food outside their homes to appease them and prevent them from attempting to enter"1 - in Geneva, they invite them in.

[1] ‘The History of Halloween’

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Only Those Who Risk Going Too Far Can Possibly Find Out How Far They Can Go - T.S. Eliot

I love to run. I never used to love to run, in fact I used to hate running. My throat burned, my knees ached, and my lungs squeezed by the time I got around the corner, but moving to Geneva and entering my 40s changed all that. Someone once told me that once you are 40, you have to exercise twice as hard for half the result. True enough.

I started running seriously shortly after moving here in 2005. People are very fit in Switzerland, you just don't see the obesity that is so ubitiquous in North America. Add to that the aforementioned 40-something and I decided that the odd visit to the gym and rambles with Murphy just weren't cutting it for me any longer.

Enter my friend and fellow Canadian Cindy...marathoner, triathlete, baseball coach, mother of three and general superwoman. She moved me off of the gym treadmill and out into the Geneva countryside that surrounds our village. She got me going and kept me moving those first few months. The endorphin highs, fast fitness results, the clearmindedness and pure physical joy that occurs while running, and the magnificence of my surroundings have kept me going ever since even through injuries.

I took these pictures during one of my regular runs through the villages and vineyards of Choulex, Carre d'Aval, and Puplinge.

Now it goes without saying that part of the reason running is so addictive in Geneva is that I don't have to step off of curbs, stop at intersections or wait for green lights. I run on trails, quiet roads and winding paths through vineyards.
I am not looking at suburban sprawl and stripmalls. I look at rolling hills, mountain peaks, and depending on the season, grapes, sunflower fields, apple and kiwi orchards, spectacular architecture and travel magazine-worthy Swiss villages. It is an all-you-can-eat buffet for the senses and must be one of the most visually splendid places in the world.

It's a long climb from the flat up and around the hills and terraced vineyards into Carre d'Aval. The rising strains of Coldplay's 'Viva la Vida' echoing through my Ipod always push me to the top and I try to resist the temptation to do a Rocky-like fist-punching-air dance when I finally get there.

The newly opened Café de la Poste in my village.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Canadian Thanksgiving in Geneva

We celebrated Canadian Thanksgiving this past weekend by surrounding ourselves with our usual contingent of fellow Canadian expats and a mighty feast. The weather was near-perfect and the 9 kids in attendance had a ball playing football, swinging from a rope, climbing trees, and jumping into leaf piles while us bigger kids indulged in local wines from the Château du Crest and pretended to help with dinner.

C2, and the Captain giving Cindy the benefit of their carving experience (or lack of)

Cindy, Mighty Mom and I

Mighty Mouse and J

The previous day, we took advantage of this lovely, warm Geneva Autumn to hike our favorite Les Voirons in nearby St. Cergues, France. Two hours up and 1.5 hours down through some muddy conditions. Where else but in Europe can you hike to a 500+ year old church or watch silent glide planes soar by at eye level on the summit - breathtaking!

On the summit of Les Voirons at 1,480 meters soaring over Geneva and neighbouring France.

Puppies get thirsty too!

The 500 year-old church on the flank of Les Voirons

Monday, 6 October 2008

The Pumpkins are Coming, the Pumpkins are Coming

It is now October in Geneva and it's harvest time. It started with the vendange when all the vineyards heavy with grapes were relieved of their juicy burden. It moved on to the orchards and all the pommiers were picked clean of their crunchy treats. For the next month or so, we can stop at the roadside farmstands and buy apples, freshly squeezed juice and cider.

J loved observing the aforementioned unquestionably, but he has been waiting impatiently for the big kahuna of harvests, the pumpkins and squash, or les courges as they are collectively termed in this part of the world.

We have dubbed these freshly picked piles of courges awaiting collection, 'Courge Inuksuks'

The farmers had to lovingly blanket these'Courge Inuksuks' with straw as a frost was anticipated during the night.

A delightful little marché des courges has opened in our village directly across from the 2 largest pumpkin fields to which we make daily pilgrimages. Yesterday, we attended the annual Fête de la courge in Corsier, a neighbouring village, with my friend Mighty Mom and her family.

Wandering row upon row of courges

These are called 'Jack-Be-Little's

J and I enjoying a saucisse lunch at the Fête de la courge in Corsier

The view from Mighty Mom's backyard in Corsier. Looking towards the French Alps and Mont Blanc.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Political Science

A couple of video clips that have greatly amused me of late. For those of us who are on the cusp between great hope and great dread in the lead-up to the U.S. election, the first clip will lighten the mood a little. Thanks Sher and her blog pal Nicole!

Secondly, Geneva and part of neighbouring France are home to the massive underground Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world's largest and highest-energy particle accelerator built by CERN - the European Organization for Nuclear Research. In its' most simple terms, the LHC is attempting to unravel the science behind the big bang theory by analyzing how elementary particles acquire mass.

The only minor side-effect of said experimentation is the negligible risk of creating black holes in the process and sucking ourselves into oblivion. Ya well, I'll still take science over Jerry Falwell any day of the week. Enjoy these scientists rappin...

Monday, 15 September 2008

The Pumpkin King

How better to spend a cool, windy Sunday afternoon than by carving pumpkins? Let me check the date, oh yes, it's the middle of September and only six weeks to go until Halloween. Let's see six weeks multiplied by 'how many days till Halloween" asked by my 5-year old an average of 30 times a day makes.... Seriously, J is nothing if not a passionate creature. It has always been a trait that I have admired in him as I believe in life one should find the things that one loves and pursue them with passion. Whether it is flying an airplane, rock climbing, playing ringuette or reading name a few.

It is our great fortune to live adjacent to 3 football field sized pumpkin patches and in the last 3 weeks or so since the little gourds have begun to grow, J lives and breathes their progress and the sweet anticipation of Halloween. At least twice a day, we have to go and check if any pumpkins have come 'unattached' from their roots. He then believes they are his property fair and square. At least twice a week we have to go and look for the Great Pumpkin...C2 made the mistake of telling him the Charlie Brown classic, in which J now fervently believes.

We have a Halloween countdown calendar in his room and everyday J contemplates, with the effort I wish he would apply to his early reading, his costume choices - will it be a ghost, Frankenstein, a chevalier, or a dog. J has merrily told me that Halloween is his favorite holiday, more than Christmas, Easter, and his birthday all together. Now that is passion!

Admiring parent though I am, Halloween will have to be a father-son experience this year as as I will be consuming effervescent glasses of bubbly with my pal Mighty Mom while touring the region of Champagne. Ya well remember that passion thing?

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Canada in Every Bite

Friends of ours just returned from spending the summer at their house in Vancouver. As a gift, they brought J a Inuksuk building kit. I have a handcrafted soapstone Inuksuk that my mum bought us last year in Victoria and I adore the compelling symbolism of this iconic Canadian symbol.

Inuksuk are stone landmarks used as signposts or directional markers by the Inuit of the Canadian Arctic. Dominated by permafrost, the Arctic Circle has few natural landmarks and inuksuk have been central to navigation across it. They vary in shape and size, and are an eternal symbol with deep roots in the Inuit culture serving as sentinels signifying safety, hope and friendship.

Inuksuk are increasingly serving as mainstream Canadian national symbols and it was lovely to explain their heritage and silent language to J. They are shown on the flag and coat of arms of the new Canadian territory of Nunavut, and are the logo of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games - an appropriate symbol of friendship and welcome.

My cherished soapstone Inuksuk should last longer than J's. His was made of maple shortbread and was dismantled as quickly as it was constructed.

Saturday, 30 August 2008

Heaven is a Perfect Late Summer Evening

Last night was one of those perfect late summer evenings. The air was warm and fragrant. We lingered at the table over a bottle of Burgundy until twilight. J was playing on his swing when he noticed some activity overhead.

We three plus Murphy and Angus spent the next hour prone on the grass watching a family of bats swoop and soar in hot pursuit of droning mosquitos. We also kept a running count of stars as they winked on one at a time in the darkening night sky.

Monday, 25 August 2008

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year...

Its' the first day of school in Geneva. I remember as a kid in Canada that Labour Day weekend, also known as the first weekend in September marked the official end of summer and school started right after it. I guess in Geneva, the powers that be try to make up for the lack of school on Wednesdays by having la rentrée scolaire in what still seems like the heart of summer.

J did have a fantastic summer, we travelled to Italy and France, visited with family and lots of friends. He and I spent plenty of one-on-one time doing a few of our favorite things like pilgramages to Starbucks, feeding the swans on Lake Geneva, touring the Natural History Museum, wandering the wonderful Franz Carl Weber toy shop on the rue de la Croix-d'Or, and stopping for ice cream in the Bourg-de-Four in the heart of the old town.

Still I can't say that I'm too disappointed to see school start up again. I think I was starting to get boring as a constant playmate. J's spirited antics were starting to wind up in a big way in the last week and his 10:00 pm+ bedtimes were beginning to fatigue me.

J is a big boy now, he is in school full time in deuxieme enfantine (Swiss equivalent of senior kindergarten). Full-time in Geneva, however, means 8:30-4:00 with a 2.5 hour lunch break at home and no school on Wednesdays. So here we go this space.

Monday, 11 August 2008

Fêtes de Genève

The two-week long Fêtes de Genève just finished. Our wallets are a lot emptier and I don't care if I ever see another rollercoaster or Haunted House. Still J's enthusiasm made our multiple trips worth every minute.

We bought seats in the Jardin d'anglais for the closing fireworks this year after braving the throngs of spectators in the streets last year. They were magnificent and J was utterly mesmerized.

Friday, 8 August 2008

Cat and Mouse

Angus and his mini-me friend Peanut the Hamster whom we are hamster-sitting for 3 weeks.

Where did he go? He was here a minute ago...

Saturday, 2 August 2008

La Vie est Belle

We're back home again after spending a few blissful days in the South of France with Sheila and her family. For several years now, they have owned a charming house in the Alps of Haute Provence. It's a picture perfect spot for skiing in the winter or swimming, sunning and hiking in the summer. It's a 14 hour drive from London for them but thankfully a little less than 4 for us.

It's one of those places where the living is easy. We sleep late, drink coffee and eat fresh pains aux chocolats while the kids play in the pool, do whatever the spirit moves us to do during the day, and never miss a happy hour on the patio. We spend our evenings eating locally-sourced freshly cooked meals washed down with local Provence wines while watching the sun set over the Alps. The skys are clear and the country air so clean that we were able to see the moons of Jupiter using Cas's telescope last year.

We did fit in zip-cording or Indian rope climbing this year. The kids excelled on the debutant course. Sheila and I mustered all our 40-something courage and did the mid-course - about 20 feet up in the air. Great fun, punctuated by lots of laughs and a few well-aimed curses.

The best part is, we get to spend Sheila's birthday with her as we have made an effort to do for the last 4 years. In short, Cherines is a little piece of heaven, and I am always loathe to leave.