Archive for November, 2010

If you don’t, then I will …

November 30, 2010

The plate glass window gave no privacy. It was at ground level, looking out to the courtyard. Kay pulled the thick red drape across. She didn’t like the room and this made it worse. She would be a self-made prisoner of her hotel room. But it didn’t matter. It was only for two nights.

She selected a water bottle, some whole grain bars, a pen and note book, her map of Zurich and her camera and stuffed them into her black carry all, slung it over her shoulder and locked the door behind her. As she unlocked the tubular steel gate, she noticed a commotion on the road. Just in front of the cafe doors, a paddy wagon was loading a street person.

At least the police frequent the area,” Kay said wryly to herself, repeating “it’s only for two days” as a mantra. It was a small measure of comfort. She checked to her left and right. There was no reason why she shouldn’t cross, and she stepped out smartly towards the corner to head back to the station and then into town.

When she went past the circus area, she crossed the street to the other side to avoid a small knot of people. A drug deal was in progress. She hastened her step, consciously not looking, keeping to herself, passing between a police woman with arms crossed, waiting, and the midnight blue van with the circulating blue light. It wasn’t her business.

Soon she arrived at the canal and instead of heading to the station she followed the canal  into the old city where she sought a cafe. A hot steamy cup of European coffee would do much to restore her spirits.

The center of the city was filled with holiday-goers and upscale shoppers. There were quality stores for clothing and watches, for footwear and for financial dealings. There was little in sight for dining or cafe-people-watching. She walked along, alert to her surroundings, knowing she would have to find her way back to the hotel without the aid of Gretel’s white stones.

It was getting on in the afternoon, but the September sun wouldn’t set until after seven. She walked up to St. Peter’s church and was shooed out of it. It was too late.  She wandered down an adjoining street and found a place  filled with smartly dressed people where she found a small empty table and ordered coffee. At ground level, the store fronts were modernized and elegant. One story up, the stone carved window frames spoke of centuries gone by, with shutters wide open to let the least breeze in against the unseasonal heat.

It was, she decided, not really a pretty city. There was a greyness to it.  What was she doing here, she asked herself, wandering alone through less than exciting streets while her green luscious garden was growing back home? She didn’t like shopping at home and she didn’t like it when she was away. It was ridiculous to be window shopping day after day for something to do.

She had been traveling too long. She had no one to share her table; no one to share her meanderings through the street. Traveling with someone was much better, she concluded. But she would not waste the day, and she rose to tackle a few more streets in search of something interesting.

At six, she began to find her way home through streets that were ill marked. Finally she saw the station and knew she could orient herself from there.  By now, she was tired and putting one foot in front of the other with stubborn perseverance. It was time to find some dinner.
I’ll eat near the hotel.  I won’t be trying to  finding my way in a rough part of town in the dark.” She was determined to be home early, though in her effort to travel light she had brought very little to amuse herself for a whole evening in her miniscule hotel room.

When she came up Militarstrasse, she passed by the pizza place making a mental note that the men outside were swarthy and mafia-like. It would be a last choice, she thought.  At the corner, she poked her nose in the cafe, but it was dirty and the customers looked none too clean either. Outside the cafe, only men sat at the side walk cafe, but inside there were a few women. The proportion was about ten to one.  She would not eat here.

She passed by this establishment a few steps forward to the Irish Pub, but it had no windows to be able to see what it might offer.  As she came alongside it, she stopped to see the notice board. Strip dancing shows were continuous, a poster stated. The lovely ladies were displayed in black and white photos behind the glass encased notices. That was definitely not a place for dinner.

Across the street, another cafe offered it’s wares. The tables were rickety, covered with plastic tablecloths and the chairs were old and worn. It was six o’clock but there were only four men in it, drinking. A large television had a sports program running. The walls and the decor was all a muddied buttercup yellow making it look lurid. There was no evidence of food except for a soiled menu posted on the door.  Kay was uncomfortable about it and didn’t even come close to read it.  She continued on.

Beside the yellow cafe was a lingerie shop. Red lace garters and black brassieres  were lustily filled with dark skinned mannequins. Next to it was an African  jewelry store displaying the wares in a wholesale style, crowded together. There were mannequin heads with wigs in a rainbow of colors – cotton candy pinks, greens and blues; an electric blue, a lemon yellow, an orange and a purple – that sat on a shelf just above the necklaces and bracelets. Who would wear these?

It was evident. There was no decent place to eat up this street. So Kay turned back to explore the lateral streets, with no better success. She sighed and returned to the pizza place.

At Milano Pizzeria, the men at the outdoor tables eyed her, mentally calculating her interest to them. She went swiftly by them into the cafe and found herself in a dining room with thirty tables, each dressed in a linen cloth with folded napkin, silverware and a wine  and water glasses.

A tall, thin waiter who had been lounging outside the door turned back into the cafe.

“Can I eat inside?” Kay asked, warily in French.

“Of course!” he answered in French without an accent. “Where would you like to sit?”

The place was empty. She chose one with her back to the door, close to the door where people walking by outside could not see her easily. He handed her a menu and left her to make her selection.  Across two tables, there was a bar where a young man was rolling pizza dough in the air. The waiter returned, spoke to him briefly in Italian. The man at the bar brought out some glasses and filled them with red wine and the waiter whisked them away to his sidewalk patrons.

He returned to Kay in five minutes.

“Have you chosen?” he solicitously.

“No,” she said, forlornly. “I can’t read a word of what is written here. It’s all in German. The only thing I can guess at is Schwein.  That’s pork, isn’t it?”

“Yes.” His  mouth registered a trace of a smile. Diplomacy was good business if a tip were to be earned.

“Well, please would you chose something for me? Not too expensive. I just want a light dinner. And not spicy.”

“Cotelets?” he asked. “Everything is very good. I think you will like this.”

It was schwein with tagliatelle for twenty two Swiss francs. Expensive, she thought, but what was she to do? Whatever tagliatelle was, she would eat it. She had never heard of it before but she didn’t want to expose her ignorance. She nodded her agreement.

“And an entrée?”
She declined, shaking her head, “No.” He looked askance as if she had offended the propriety of eating out. An entrée was de rigeur!

“But a glass of house wine. Red. Please?”

“Of course.” And he went to place the order.

Kay sat, her head spinning, wary like a fox of her surroundings, railing against the expense of eating out day by day and not even getting what she wanted for dinner. There seemed no middle ground for nourishment for a tourist much less any low cost options.

Two men came in from the sidewalk tables. They sat four tables away from Kay and she watched out of boredom. They did not seem interesting. Then the waiter came to their table and sat with them. The lad from the bar brought them each a drink.

They were not noticing her, so she brought out her sketch book and drew them, noting the particularity of their shapes, the dark of their business jackets, the  light of their faces, in comparison, and the dark of their hair.  She drew them rapidly, hoping they would not see her doing so and perhaps object.  What if they did not want to be seen here. Her sketching of them might be interpreted as an invasion. A danger.

She flipped the page and began a drawing of the tables with the repetition of cutlery and glassware, serviettes, tables and chair backs. The waiter came carrying a pizza. She closed her sketchbook.

“Would you like a piece?” he asked.

“Oh, no thanks,” Kay replied.

“Go ahead. It’s mine. Really, have a piece.”

She felt as if she might insult him if she did not accept, so she smiled and allowed him to give her a slice on a small bread plate.

It was delicious. She had not expected her hunger was so strong; it was due to all the walking; but she was thankful that she had not ordered the pizza for dinner. It was thin crusted and there was very little on it.

Soon her dinner arrived. It was indeed a pork chop, a thin one, covered in an excellent creamy pepper sauce and it came with a small portion of pasta.

“Did you like it?” he asked when he picked up her plate.

“Oh yes! Your sauce master is an excellent cook! May I have a coffee? ”

” No dessert?” He seemed offended.

“No dessert.”

He brought the coffee and the bill.

When he left, she examined the bill. The main dish. Twenty two francs. Wine. Six francs. Tagliatelle five francs. Coffee, four francs. Total thirty seven. The Swiss franc was even with the Canadian dollar. Thirty seven dollars for a thin pork chop and hardly anything n the plate. That was outrageous.

So he had charged her for the pizza after all, she thought bitterly. They can see a tourist coming a mile away. But she was determined not to  complain. She felt too vulnerable, all round, to have to challenge the bill and she wanted desperately to have a pleasant part to her day.  Especially in this place, she would not complain; but she vowed she would not eat in this district the next day. But really! Five francs for a slice of pizza!

She brought out her money and placed exactly thirty seven francs on the table. At this price, with so little dinner, I’m not giving a tip besides, she thought.

He came and lingered at the table.

“Alors! A budding Picasso!”

“Picassa, I think. Do you want to see?”

“Fantastico!”

“Here. It’s yours.” Kay tore the page from her sketchbook and gave it to him.

His smile stretched wide and he took it.

She packed her things and left.  At the corner, she stopped at the grocery store, a grim little place with ready-made snacks. She took an apple, yogurt, a bottle of spring water and a cereal bar. That would give her breakfast. Thirteen francs for a Rothaus hotel breakfast was just too much!

In her room, there was a book, her journal and the television for the remainder of the evening.  From her bed, the only place to relax, she watched Pretty Woman with Richard Gere in dubbed Italian.  Kay didn’t understand a word, but she had seen it twice before, long ago,  and knew the story.

The next day she toured the city for galleries and points of interest. She ate her meal late in the afternoon and was back early at the Rothaus. Just as she approached, she once again saw the paddy wagon, blue light flashing, doors open just at the entrance of the hotel.

A man was being loaded into it. On the ground, a woman sat, dazed, the entire contents of her purse spread around her – condoms, syringes, pills, lipstick, personal effects. The police woman was urging her to gather her belongings and come with her, I suppose, the second customer for the wagon in blue.

Kay caught the police woman’s eye, pointed her finger towards the Rothaus gate and received a nod. Yes, she could pass by with impunity. She could get into her hotel.

At least the police frequent the area. It’s just one more night. I can leave early in the morning,” she calmed herself. “It’s just one more night.

Kay was telling her experience to an Italian friend when she got back home.

“Anyway,” she said, “what is tagliatelle?”

“It’s pasta.”

“Pasta? They charged me five francs for pasta? That’s outrageous!”

“But he didn’t charge me for the pizza. It really was a gift!”

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If you don’t…

November 28, 2010

“I’m going to put my laundry in. If you don’t find a hotel by the time I get back, I’ll find you one and at any price. You can afford it. It’s about time you started staying in better hotels.”

It was Hugh, frustrated with Kay’s seeming inability to book a hotel through Expedia or Hotels.ca. If Hugh was frustrated with Kay’s lack of computer brilliance, Kay was more so with the computer.

First, she wasn’t used to the laptop cursor control and the little arrow was flying over the page sometimes and then refusing to move at other times. Then, she became boggled down trying to compare prices and places. There were so many hotels and she knew so little about where they were, in a city she knew nothing about.  She could end up in some obscure location and spend half her time traveling back and forth to the hotel, when there were other hotels that were perfect for her meandering through the old parts of the city. But how was she to know when she had never been there. She’d chosen a hotel in New York that way.

It was three hundred dollars a night that she shared with her friend Kathy on a long-weekend side trip they had done from Toronto to New York, tagged on to a work-related convention. The hotel had been central alright. But the promised two beds was a trundle bed that pulled out from underneath a cot-like contraption. The second mattress lay on the floor which looked none too clean. The blankets were surplus from the First World War – gray, heavy woolen ones with dark blue stripes at the top – and there was hardly any room to move or to put luggage.  The towels were thin raggedy looking ones. Pictures  of hotels, Kay knew, were deceptive on the Internet.

Kay went back and forth between this hotel and that but they all seemed far to expensive for just sleep and nothing else. Finally she found one at one hundred Swiss francs and that seemed fine to her. The blurb stated that it was close to the city centre and the train station. There was a pub-restaurant with live music on weekends. That was a dicey thing. Perhaps with loud music, she wouldn’t be able to sleep. On the other hand, maybe it would be interesting music and it would give her something to do, close to her hotel, in the evenings.

She proceed through the steps of booking on-line, but every time she did so, the system informed her that she was missing information and booted her out. It was on the fifth try that Hugh came back from the basement with his knapsack full of clean laundry.

“Well, have you got it yet?”

“No”, she replied defensively, “but it’s not for want of trying”. She explained her trials with the computer and the booking system and how she kept getting error messages when nothing seemed missing. She showed him her selection and he took back his computer and started to key into the site where she had been looking.

Kay lamented not being able to compare the hotels.

“It’s so easy,” he replied. “Look! Here are references from other travellers. “Near the heart of town. Close to the train station. Staff is very friendly. Rating 5 out of 6. Cleanliness 5 out of 6. Sounds good. Entertainment in the surrounding district. 5 out of 6.”

“See these ratings? ” he continued. “Travelers leave there impressions and you can do the same when you have finished your trip. The other one you’ve chosen has no ratings at all.  You can’t tell. So take this one with the decent reviews. ”

After a few minutes, Hugh, too, was being booted out of the reservation system. He looked at Kay with a baffled expression.

“Well, there’s a telephone number here. We could telephone, but you’ll have to give me your credit card number so I can book for you. Only don’t stay on the phone long. I pay for my minutes if I stay on too long.”

Kay said nothing and watched Hugh thumb the telephone number into his cellular phone. It rang on the other end. Kay could hear the unfamiliar European ring repeating itself.  Hugh asked if they spoke English and then turned to Kay.

“You are sure you want to stay two nights? It’s going on your credit card. You won’t pay anything when you get there. They’ll give the special price you would have had if you had booked through Hotels.ca.  Shall I go ahead? Are you sure it’s the fifth and the sixth?”

Kay nodded mutely as  he proceeded to provide her card number. When he was finished, he turned to her and said, “See. It’s not so difficult. The only thing is, you can’t do it on line less than 24 hours before you are going to be there. ” He printed her a Google map and with a highlighter, traced her path from the station to the hotel. “Here. Take this with you. You can’t get lost.”

Kay nodded again, then, thinking the process had gone miraculously more smoothly than she could have mustered, she said, “Let’s do the one for Paris for when I return home; and let’s get one for Strasbourg for the sixth.”

“Look,” he said with a chastising tone, “You have to stop choosing the least expensive hotels. You can afford better. Suck it up. I’m going to get you a good hotel and  I get to choose.”

They argued a bit, but in the end Kay was defeated when Hugh announced, “If you want a cheaper hotel, you can do it.” Kay, feeling rather beaten, nodded her head, still wordless, with a grim feeling of panic.

The next day she left early with Hugh, down the hill to the bus stop, then down to the train station where she was on her own now, fending for herself with a continuing feeling of vulnerability. I’m getting on, she thought to herself. Now I need a magnifying glass to read a map and everyone will know I am a tourist. Now I need help to get my luggage up into a train. I no longer have the stamina to walk miles, and I’m about to go to a city where I don’t know sixteen words of the language. I’ll have to find a different way to travel.

The train ride was a long, with one transfer to Bern, then another to Zurich.

Industrial sprawl petered out around Lausanne. The steep hills above Lac Leman were green and corduroyed with ownerships of vines,  and accented with red-tiled roofs of the farm houses. Small cities were linked together by the railway, Nyon, Lausanne,  Vevey, Montreux, and then the train began to climb away from the lake towards Bern.

In the mountains, bright green pastures climbed high onto the slopes that were covered with deep green stands of pine and fir. The farm-style houses of the lower levels gave way to small chalets of the traditional sort – dark -wooded, two storied, steep-roofed to let the snow slide away.

At Bern, she had to ask a fellow voyager if it were the right place to get off the train. The signs were now all in German. With only six minutes to get her corresponding train, she followed the stream of other travelers. Then when they dispersed, she found herself in a long hall with no clear indication of which of many stairwells she must take to get there.

People streamed by in hasty determination to catch their trains, while disembarking passengers wove by in the opposite  direction – a dance that never ended in collision.

“Zurich, please!” she cried out in mounting panic. “Where’s the track for Zurich?”  and an adolescent in school uniform plucked her sleeve. “Follow me, ” she said, pulling Kay in the right direction. “It’s the train after mine. Watch there,” she directed, pointing to a automated board that clicked over numbers as the trains came and went away again.

“Next one!” the girl waved as she  and her classmates disappeared into a train.

And so Kay got on the next train and sure enough, it deposited her in Zurich.

Once again there was a baffling configuration of halls giving on to train tracks. It was the main hall that she wanted, and an exit to the city. When she looked out she hoped was  the front of the station, there was construction going on. She couldn’t tell because everything was shrouded in scaffolding and swaths of plastic. No street names were in view. When she looked back into the station, there were three other exit possibilities. What to do?

She walked down the long hall with shops on either side looking for the Tourist Information Center.  It was not obvious despite the large sign that hung up  above along with a huge surreal sculpture of a woman floating just below the rafters.  She returned back to the central point, close to the wall, passing a florist, a bakery, coffee shop, the ticket counters and other businesses. She returned to the ticket counter, stood in line and waited five minutes.

“It’s not here,” replied the bored clerk in a dull, flat voice. He pointed to the opposite side of the hall at the far end.  Back she went, now annoyed.

“Please, do you speak English,” she asked, and the Tourist Information clerk nodded.

“How can I help you?”

“I already have a hotel. I reserved it on the Internet.I just don’t know where I am on this map, which exit to take, which direction to go.”

He pulled out a city map in an automatic gesture from under the counter, without swerving his  kind eyes from Kay.  “And your hotel?”

“The Rothaus.”

His expression did not change, nor did he say a thing, but there was a slight movement backwards of his whole upper body. It was the first indication that something might be wrong.

Smoothly, he continued on, “The Rothaus.There is a bus at the end of this street. Just turn right out this door, he pointed,  and walk down to the street at the end. There’s a bus stop. Take the number 3.”

“Bus?” replied Kay. She had no change and felt more vulnerable on the bus. What if she went far past her stop and got lost. It was different if one was traveling with a friend. They could sort things out and there was company if things didn’t work out. But now it was  all up to her. “Couldn’t I walk?”

“You could but it’s better to take the bus. You go out this door, turn right, walk the full length of the station, There’s a bus stop just right there. But if you really want to walk, cross the street, again to the right until you come to the corner, then walk two blocks to the river, cross over the bridge,  one block left, then about five blocks down Militarstrasse.”

It was too much to remember, but it was now highlighted on the new map and she thanked him and headed out the door.

The front of the station was shrouded, Christo-like, in scaffolding and plastic wrap. There were detours around construction hoarding covered with graffiti and posters apologizing for the inconvenience. At the end of the station street, there was one block of uninviting shops and then the commercial aspect of the streets petered out.

Kay crossed the canal by bridge, turned left a block and found her street.

There was nothing of note for a block, then a huge open space fenced by a stone wall with forged iron fencing ran for about three blocks. Three large, striped tents were situated about a block away in the center of it and there were circus animals in pens outside.

As Kay was taking in the details of the circus, two swarthy men passed her clicking their tongues as they brushed passed her in, raising their brows and leering.

“Oh Lord, ” thought Kay. ”  All this long trip, she had not been pestered by the migrant North Africans as she had been thirty some years before. Was she just entering a poorer district? Was she marked as a tourist and therefore was prey? She tightened her hold on her black carry-all and took mental note. She would not bring her camera out in this district. It was dicey.

In the next block, there were young people, about fifty, she guessed,  waiting for the bus. It appeared to be beside the entrance to a technical school. They payed her no attention, forcing Kay out into the street to pass them. She sped her steps, leery of European drivers who stopped for no one.

Once she was beyond them she once again took stock of her surroundings. Across the street was Milano Pizzeria. At worst, I could eat a pizza tonight, she thought. There was a grimy-looking corner store, but possibly there was an inexpensive dinner in there as well – maybe yogurt, cheese, some bread, a banana or an apple. Kitty-corner there was a cafe which she was fast approaching, and on fourth corner, a clothing shop with racks and racks of cheap, gaudy merchandise.

Kay noted that there were only men sitting outside the sidewalk cafes, and that there were a few women hanging around aimlessly, drably dressed, not going anywhere.  With relief, she saw her hotel, a red brick structure on the corner of a side street less than twenty meters ahead.

“Rothaus. Red House. Of course!” thought Kay, translating from the Swiss German to English with an educated guess. Here it was!

The main door led to an empty cafe where she supposed the music was in the evening.  To left and right, she could not see a hotel entrance, but saw an arrow pointing to one side. There was a locked gate made of unpainted tubular steel and a buzzer with a sign which she hoped was for the hotel, and an intercom.  Just past the gate was another buzzer which, she supposed, was to let oneself out.  The intercom answered, “Rothaus!” ,  a female voice.

“Rothaus Hotel?” asked Kay.  The buzzer sounded and Kay pushed the gate. It opened and she entered. A narrow grey door in an unfinished concrete stucco wall was marked Hotel in white paste on letters. It didn’t look promising.

Inside, a young woman at the desk asked Kay’s business.

“I reserved over the phone last night. Kerrer is the last name, ” Kay said. “Do you speak English? It’s already paid for,” she added, making sure she would not be asked for more money.

“Oh yes.  Your room is number 64. I’ll show you.” She handed Kay the key and preceded her back to the courtyard. At the door, she pointed to a small new building within the compound, built like a blockhouse, square, three storied, uninteresting.

“There’s a door just under the stairwell. Your room is at the end of the hall.” she said and ushered Kay out past her.

The corridor inside the blockhouse was narrow, plain and dark. At the end she found three doors. It didn’t compute. The building was so small. Was there room for three hotel rooms in here?

Inside the room, it became evident. There was a double bed with crisp white linens and a bright red bed cover. At the end of the bed, there was no room at all. A twelve inch shelf ran from one side of the room to the other. An modern style stool fit underneath it, the only other piece of furniture.  A guest was not expected to sit here in the evening, nor write, nor relax in a chair.

Along the bedside, was a narrow space from the door to the shelf, not thirty inches wide. Four colourful plastic hangers swung from a bracket, above, in this space. It was the nearest thing to a closet that there was.
In the bathroom, the toilet was so close to the wall that the paper fixture stuck out into the room making it necessary to sit sideways first before settling in.  A concrete lip on the floor provided the base for the shower in one corner and the curtain, gathered close to the wall, provided the two other sides for it.  The pedestal wash stand was cracked.

“It’s only for two nights” thought Kay. She couldn’t bear the thought of returning to the station to find a different hotel. She couldn’t imagine trying to get her money back from this one. “At least it’s clean, ” she added, talking out her concerns to herself.

Time was wasting. She only had two days, so she sorted out what she would need for a walk and then, leaving the remainder in the room, she consulted her map, then went out to explore the city.

To be continued.

Hi again!

November 16, 2010

Nephew Hugh is in Geneva, I may have said, doing a six-month internship which has just ended, but they’ve hired him on contract, so he’s there for another five months for sure and maybe one more. Hooray! He’s getting a salary commensurate with his qualifications – his new Master’s degree.

With my principal aim to go see him, I flew to Paris and then took the high speed train down Geneva.  Now, I couldn’t land in Paris without going to see some exhibitions, so I arranged with my cousin Claire from Montreal to meet me there and spend a week. Fabulous! It’s been twenty years since last I was there.

We walked a lot seeing sights, got our exercise climbing stairs in and out of the Metro. No wonder the perky girls of Paris are so pert and slender. They get their exercise going places. So much walking, so many stairs!

I saw a Permanent collection exhibition at the Petit Palais; Monet and the Abstractionist that were influenced by him at the Marmottan;  spent three hours seeing William Kentridge at the Jeu de Paume; an hour’s look at end of day at the Louvre; a retrospective of Modern art in the Centre Beaubourg plus a contemporary exhibit of women’s art was there too.

It was late August. All the commercial galleries were closed for summer holidays. Tourists, it seems, do not buy art.

We ate meals of wine, cheese, dairy products, crunchy crusted baguettes, and fresh fruit and vegetables in our room, with products from Monoprix, a department store with a large grocery department. With a good steak knife I bought from a flea market and our saved plastic cutlery from the plane, we had all the utensils we needed.  We ate lunches at “selfs” which are self-serve canteens for inexpensive eating-out and we ate lunches sitting on city benches with pre-cooked finger food from bakeries and corner groceries; and a had few dinners at restaurants packed with Parisiens and tourists, the kind Paris is famous for. We drank tiny cups of delicious French coffee thereby renting the right to sit and watch the world go by.

We took a day to go to Auvers sur Oise where van Gogh spent his last days and wandered through the small town, up to the church, over to the cemetery, through the fields and back via the Chateau d’Auvers where there was a good but small exhibition of theatre deisgn drawings.

After six full days of a mad tourist schedule, Claire returned home and I continued on.

She left Friday morning and by noon, I had traveled by train to see my art professor from thirty-five years back. He and his wife live in a lovely small town in the Marne Valley in a starkly modern but nonetheless warm home they designed themselves. They, being part of a Champagne families,  toasted my arrival with a bottle of the best and we had a whole afternoon of catch-up and then wonderful French home-cooked dinner. I took the train back to Paris and arrived near midnight.

Next day I visited one of my classmates, Veronique, now a retired fabric designer, still teaching art through art centres. She lives in the outskirts of Paris. She took me to a lovely park that the community is allowing to go back to wilderness so that the birds and wildlife will come back into the city area. Late day, I headed back to my hotel to pack up for my trip to Geneva next morning.

The train goes 300 kph. It’s almost impossible to take photos from the moving train now, but I got a few. What North Americans don’t realize, often, is that there are vast tracts of farm lands in Europe, and of forests. We tend to think of Europe as being swallowed up by urban sprawl.

Not so! The urban landscape has gone vertical. Yes, there is sprawl, but the French know how precious their green spaces are and they are carefully managed, retained.So it was a pleasure to fill my eyes with views of acres and acres of farmed lands, of deciduous forests, of vineyards populated by small towns with clusters of red-tiled roofs.

Approaching Geneva in less than three hours from Paris, the landscape climbed into the mountains, the train passed by rocky escarpments and hilly farms with terraced agriculture. Much of it looked like green corduroy where vineyard grew.

Nephew Hugh met me in Geneva at the train station. We arranged a cell phone for me for the duration of my stay – two weeks – and then found a bus to take us up to his residence where he had been able to find accommodation for me. There was still a kilometer to walk from the last stop near the World Health Organization building. I was glad of his muscle and youthful energy, for I had brought far more luggage than I could manage by myself and now he was carrying most of it.

We went immediately to dinner at the least expensive restaurant he had found in the six-month duration of his stay. It was horrendously expensive in comparison to  Canadian similar restaurants, and for the remainder of the stay, the cost of living was a hot topic of discussion.

As Hugh was working during the day, I saw museums of which Geneva has lots, and walked, exploring districts surrounding the places I chose to go. Their Museum of Modern Art is wonderful.

I also went to see the Baur Collection of porcelain which I found interesting but not more than that and for the price was given a free ticket of entry to the Patek Phillipe museum.

I tried to give the ticket away to Hugh’s friends a couple of times without success. What did I want to see a museum of watches for, I asked myself.  I ended up going to it just because I found myself outside the door of it on one of my exploratory walks and I am still raving about it being one of the very best museums I have ever been to. I was astounded at the workmanship that had been produced  in the 17th century and thereafter in the domain of horology. The miniatures painted on porcelain, the miniature sculptures into which time pieces were set, the work in gold, silver and enamel, the detail, the precision, the imagination, the humor were all there. Though we have precision in the computer and industrial world, we have lost so much manual skill and art in modern times. I would go back to that museum many times, given the opportunity. It was one of the highlights of my trip.

There was a long weekend for Hugh while I was there. We met Cousin Barbara at the Geneva airport and took an Alpy Bus to Chamonix in France for the duration of his days off. It was a lovely four days of eating, drinking sleeping and long walks. Barbara was off on a walking tour around Mont Blanc on Sunday. We all had our own agendas – Hugh, to catch up on his sleep after a grueling three weeks of preparation for a conference, Barbara to get over jet-lag before her walking tour began, and I, to get some time to paint.

We met for breakfast, lunch and dinner and there was no question of finding groceries and making makeshift meals in our rooms! We wandered the charming streets before and after, me taking photos, they, peering into store fronts, examining hiking gear and sports stuff. The highlight for me and Hugh was a trip up the Aiguille du Midi by gondola. Bon Dieu! C’est magnifique! We were on the dizzying top of Europe looking down. That was a trip to remember!

Back in Geneva, Hugh was back to work. I still had a week to spend before going up to Strasbourg to meet more friends – and Barbara who, by that time,  would be finished her walking tour and in Strasbourg to see a university friend.

So I had time on my hands which I used with day trips and one-overnighters. I went to Annecy in France by bus and stayed overnight. I went to Berne and Zurich. I saw the Paul Klee Zentrum with a fantastic exhibition comparing quiet Paul Klee’s work with bombastic Picasso’s art. Picasso is a legend, Paul Klee much less so but their work parallels step for step and many times it was Paul Klee the innovator, not Picasso. Picasso became rich in his lifetime, but not so, Paul Klee.

I had never seen so many Paul Klee paintings together at once; ditto for Picasso. I stayed as long as I could and then had to head back to Geneva to meet Hugh.

I went to a small town called Chateau d’Oex (pronounced Chateau Day) in the mountains east of Lac Leman. It is the legendary Switzerland – a chalet town set in a bowl valley surrounded by high peaks, grassy slopes for summer grazing and coniferous forest reaching to the top. It’s Heidi’s world, linked only by a train and torturous roads. It’s beautiful in summer with high stone slopes clothed in bright grass green and the dark forest green of European firs, cedar and pine.

On one of the weekends, Hugh and I went to Yvoire, a medieval town on the French side of Lac Leman. I was happy to see it but it had been made into a saccharine tourist trap, overloaded with flower-baskets on steroids and commercial spaces divided about equally with restaurants and tourist trinket shops. It was a bright sunny day and we appreciated the train ride and the boat trip across the lake. The mid-day meal was restorative and good French cuisine. But we were happy to be back on the train from Nyon to Geneva and  to our temporary home.

Strasbourg was, for me, a jumping off point. I was headed for Gengenbach, a small town in the Black Forest area of Germany, just east of Strasbourg by 30 kilometers. Now, you would think there would be some decent and quick transportation from Strasbourg to there, but it wasn’t to be.
The train bridge at Kehl had been demolished and new bridge was being put in place. The SNCF and the German equivalent had, in their wisdom, provided a bus to Kehl. At Kehl, I had to change to a train to Offenburg and then wait for a train to Gengenback. The thirty kilometer trip by car became a two hour one. Me! With all my luggage – more than I could manage! Three changes of transportation, each time lifting my heavy two suitcases onto train or bus and going up and down stairs and elevators in the train stations . I was very happy to arrive all in one piece.

I stayed in a hotel close by my friends, she in her late eighties and he in his nighties, so it was out of the question to stay at their place. Their son, Stefan, came to drive us around for those three days; and their daughter Ulla, came to help with lunches and dinners.  Despite their age, they were eager to get out and see things with me. We went to two great exhibitions, the first, one day,  in a Villa redone into a contemporary art gallery – a private collection; and the second day, to Baden Baden to see a retrospective of Joan Miro. I had no idea when I started out that I would see such excellent art exhibitions.

They also took me up to a ruin of a Gothic 12th century church in the Black forest. All of us were photo-hounds so we spent two hours anyway clicking away while Herr Bidinger sat in a folding chair we had brought, watching us and soaking in the fresh air and ancient stone views.

On return to  Strasbourg, Barbara and her university friend and I explored the centre city and the Cathedral on the first evening and then went out to dinner. Next day Barbara who had damaged her knee and heel in the last 15 minutes of her walking tour, agreed to take a tourist boat tour with me as a means of keeping herself off the foot and still seeing something. We had been avoiding touristy things. Despite the mass-tourist fever on the boat, we thoroughly enjoyed the day – sunny and warm, a mild breeze from the river, the sights that we saw that we otherwise could not have had access to. I must confess that I was worse than the others, in exhibiting the tourist-Kodak syndrome. Click, click, click.

Afterward, we were right by the Maison de l’Oeuvre, the location just beside the cathedral where, during the building of the cathedral, the architect and the masons would have met to communicate the work for the day and where building supplies would have kept.  It’s like a guild hall, I think. It’s a fantastic museum worthy of a long visit. The masonry is astounding. The whole underside of the staircase is sculpted into swirling columns. It’s sheer genius.

In the afternoon, I had another high dose of Contemporary Art and came “home” to the hotel worn out with walking, walking, walking.

Luckily I travelled on the 22nd to Paris and found my hotel at Roissy because there was the general strike the next day. I stayed in Roissy rather than fight my way in and out of Paris on a train service that was offering only one train in five because of the labor disruption. I missed the big Monet exhibition in Paris because of it, but I spent a pleasant day in Roissy wandering the streets of the old quarter and finding a place in the little square to do a watercolour or two.

When I got back to the hotel room, I could see a giant construction site across the road from the hotel and I took lots of photos from my hotel window for some future paintings, so the day was not lost.

I’ve been home longer than the 5 weeks I was away, but my screen saver keeps offering me up random photos of the trip and I feel disconnectedly that my spirit is more there than here.