Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Extreme Rule-Following

Before I get back to telling you more about my flea market hunting, I have to tell you what happened last night.  It is a perfect example of Extreme Swiss Rule Adherence.

Everybody has nightmare travel stories and I am not going to bore you with the gory details of ours.  However, the tail-end of the evening was just so Swiss, I must pass it along so you can cluck your tongues against the roofs of your mouths.

Our EasyJet flight from Gatwick (London) to Geneva was seriously delayed.  This will surprise no one who has flown EasyJet which is the Euro-equivalent of Southwest Air in the US.   Mostly, anyone with a sense of self-preservation avoids EasyJet but British Airways is on strike right now so we were forced to join the herd and queue up for the cattle car.

Halfway through our flight, I guess it finally occurred to someone in the cockpit that they might want to let Geneva know that we were arriving.  Midflight, somewhere in the skies between Paris and Dijon, the pilot comes on the intercom with this incredulous tone in his voice that we are being diverted to Lyon, France because our ETA is SIX MINUTES past Geneva’s strict 12:30 a.m. curfew.  The airport has a no-fly rule past 12:30 so that the Swiss who live near the airport do not have to be awakened by the sound of nasty ol’ jets coming and going at all hours of the night.

Well, the pilot relays to us that he is in “negotiations” with Geneva and surely they are not going to divert us for a silly 6 minutes.  Yes, he said “silly”.

Mr. Big and I looked at each other and said, “Dude, is this your first day on the job?  You do not “negotiate” with Switzerland.  The Rules are The Rules.  You might as well just go ahead and change your heading now, buddy.”

Of course, we landed in Lyon.

Follow the rules, EasyJet.  You might want to call ahead of time if you are going to arrive late in Switzerland.  Just a hint for the future.

Anyway, the airline then had to charter buses to schlep 150 passengers, well, 148 because Mr. Big and I immediately skedaddled to the nearest hotel, for the two and a half hour drive to Geneva.  Seriously, I don’t know what they did with those people at 4 a.m. when they finally got to Geneva because the airport would have been locked up tight as a drum and the Swiss train system doesn’t get out of bed until 5:30.  But, that was not my problem!  I was enjoying a minibar Merlot and a small chocolate pillow mint!

Friday, March 19, 2010

My name is Trailing Spouse and I am a Design Addict . . .

Very few people outside of friends and family know this, but I am addicted to buying and selling Mid-Century Modern furniture, houses, art and home d├ęcor.  I feel I must disclose this because I have been meeting random people who have been reading this blog here in Europe.  They are under the impression that the reason I agreed to move from America, LEAVE MY CHILDREN, sell my business and basically, give up my life, was my undying devotion to Mr. Big.  Ha!  No.

The reason I jumped all over this opportunity was because I would be that much closer to Denmark and, possibly, Sweden.  Seriously.  Let me explain.

You know all of that crazy, retro furniture that your parents eventually consigned to the basement made out of plywood and plastic that you wound up selling at garage sales in the 1990’s?  Sometimes people call it Brady Bunch furniture?  I covet that stuff.   Remember Mom and Dad’s “Danish Modern” hutch full of turquoise and orange pottery with mod squiggles on it?  Love, love, love!

My homepage on my computer is  I own a 1957 midcentury modern home in South Carolina that I bought just because I was mesmerized by the architecture and wanted to furnish it to the period.  My entire apartment in Switzerland, (circa 1910), is furnished a la 1950’s.  So, what could be better, after raping the American South of most of their midcentury treasures for the past three years, than now setting my sights on Europe?

Granted, I have been a “traditional” antiques dealer for nigh on two decades.  I have been to Europe many times, sending home containers of fine English and Continental antiques to sell to the ever-hungry Housewives of Charleston and environs.  But, how many bowfront Mahogany chests can one sell before it starts to make one’s hair hurt?  If I never see another Welsh cabinet stuffed with pewter chargers or another Victorian rosewood settee ever again as long as I draw breath, I can die a complete and satiated woman.

However, just the glimpse of a Fifties’ West German pottery vase, laying quietly tucked in a cardboard box in the middle of a scruffy blanket at a “Brocante Faire”, which is a glorified flea market, causes my blood pressure to rise, my eyes to start darting back and forth in order to check out potential competitors who may be honing in, (RIGHT NOW, HERE THEY COME!) on my find even while my face begins to assume a casual blankness known only to habitual Botox users.

“Excuse moi, Madame?”, I ask, oh-so-casually.    “Combien pour cette vase?”  (How much for this vase?)

“La bas?”  (She points to my vase, asking me if I am indeed inquiring about the butt-ugly lime green and turquoise vase “over there”).

“Oui, Madame.”  She shrugs and says “Cinq franc”.  Which is five franc or around 4.60 US dollars.  I quickly run her answer through my head two, three or four times to ensure myself that she has said 5 franc and not 15 or 50 or, God forbid, five hundred, which all kind of sound the same when your French sucks like mine.  No, it was definitely 5.  Inside my head, angels are singing, bugles are blaring and all is good and right with the world.  5 bucks!  It might as well be free!  Bless her heart, to her it was just an ugly ass vase and she is glad to unload it and not try to have to recycle it here in the land of Rigid Recycling Rules.

But to me, to me, it is a little piece of fabulousness.  Swedish glass, West German pottery, Danish teak bowls, Marimekko fabrics from Finland.  Lawd Amighty, I have to fan myself just writing about them.  I am attaching some pix of the finds that I have made here in the last year that have me out every weekend trolling the flea markets of France, Switzerland, Belgium and occasionally, while slumming, Deutschland.

Next time I’ll tell you what I found at the Geneva flea market two weeks ago and give a list of some of the best markets around.  Ciao, ciao, and happy hunting.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Fondue Recipe

Before I forget, I know I promised to give y’all my fondue recipe.  Every canton in Switzerland uses a different combination of cheeses but this is the pairing that I think most Americans will be able to find the ingredients for most readily:

Cheese Fondue:  (Warning, this has alcohol in it.  Non-alcoholic options are included.)

Rub the inside of your fondue pot with a peeled clove of garlic.  If you like garlic, just leave the whole thing in the pot.  If you don’t like a lot of garlic, chunk it.

Turn your burner (hob, for the Brits) onto medium low.  Put 2 cups of grated Gruyere cheese and 2 cups of grated Emmentaler  in the fondue pot (which is really called a “caquelon” pronounced kah-kuh-lah).  Add white wine (just omit wine if you are skipping the alcohol and add the juice of one lemon instead), sea salt and white pepper while melting and stirring.  When it is all melted, remove from heat.

Here is the only hard part:  testing the consistency.  Take a chunk of crusty bread and stab it onto a fondue fork.  Swirl it around in the fondue.  If it drips when you lift it up, it is too runny.  If it is the consistency of wallpaper paste or joint compound, it is too thick.  It is supposed to coat the bread with a thin coat while you are swirling but without dripping when you lift it out of the pot and over to your plate.

If it is too thick, add Kirsch (or half-and-half if you are preparing without alcohol).  If it is too runny, (most of the time), mix a slurry in a little bowl of Kirsch and corn starch (water and corn starch if no alcohol), put the caquelon back on the stove over low heat and add the slurry, mixing all the while, teaspoon by teaspoon until it is the right consistency.

Seasonings and Additions:  I like a pinch of nutmeg in ours.  Others put smoked paprika in it.  You can add sliced mushrooms to it or sliced hot peppers, like jalapenos.   If you see it on a menu at a restaurant “avec tomate”, that doesn’t mean with diced tomatoes, it means with tomato paste!

Put the caquelon on the fondue stand over the Sterno and bring it to the table.  Give everyone their own individual plate.  Pass the bread basket which has been filled with chunks of crusty bread.

Typical Sides:  Boiled fingerling potatoes are passed separately.  Take a few and mush them with the tines of your fork onto your plate and spoon a big glop of the fondue sauce over the top.  It’s delish, I promise!  Always pass a small bowl of pearl onions and a bowl of cornichons, (these come right out of a jar), as condiments.  They really cut the “assiness” of the cheese.  Also, pass a plate of sliced, dried meats from a deli, like prosciutto and salami, which mimic the “viandee seche” (dried meat) assortment available here.

Wine:  We would serve a Swiss white or dry rose with this dinner.  But since Switzerland doesn’t export their wine, I would go with a Pinot Noir or Pinot Grigio.

Important!  Fondue Etiquette:  It is customary that everyone swirl their bread cubes all around the BOTTOM of the caquelon which keeps the fondue stirred during the meal.  Sometimes this results in the diner’s bread falling off their fondue fork.  If someone drops their bread into the pot and has to go fish it out, they must KISS THE PERSON ON THEIR RIGHT.  No exceptions.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Annual Review

My Yearly Review                          

It’s time for my annual review as Trailing Spouse Extraordinaire.  Let’s see how I’m doing, shall we?

Subject:  Practical Skillset, Acquirement Thereof

Grade:  B+

Successes:  Since this is the one area where I am doing well, we will talk about this topic first.  Not only am I able to get around town without a car, I get around an entire country without one.  People, I even go to other countries without a car.  For an American, that is like hacking open a fresh coconut to make shredded coconut.  Yes, it is possible but why would anyone want to?  Oh, wait, I’ve done that, too.  Maybe I should change that grade above to an A- because I forgot about the coconut.  Learning the recycle schedule and actually doing it, check.  Buying only one’s days’ worth of groceries at a time, check.  Wearing bowling shoes instead of sneakers, check.     Learning the proper knottage of scarves, check.  Growing tomatillos from seed, check.  Learn to make a kick-ass fondue, check.  I am on a roll, sistuh.

Failures:  Wearing workout clothes to go grocery shopping.  One time, Jeez!  Also, once, when I first got here, I did something so heinous this little old Swiss lady berated me out loud outside the Geneva train station.  I mean she went on and on really loudly, especially for a Swiss person.  Unfortunately for Grannie, I was fresh off the boat and I did not understand one word she was saying and I just raised one eyebrow at her and then ignored her.  So, that counts as a bad thing even though to this day I don’t know what I did.

I also get some points deducted because Mr. Big and I parked in the wrong place one time, but since I was not driving, I really don’t consider this my bad, I think it is like 90% Mr. Big’s bad.  We blocked a bike trail with our car and made some woman crash.  We didn’t know it was a bike trail.  We thought we just got lucky with rockstar parking!  It was pretty ugly.  She was pissed, but, again, the tirade was all in French so it kind of makes it funny, you know?  I mean, these people are literally screaming their heads off and we’re just without one clue what they are nattering on about.  Which, of course, pisses them off even more because we look back at them like Dumb and Dumber and then just ignore them.

One more skillset that I’m still not very good at is converting at the market to grams and kilos for fresh proteins.  Butchers and fishmongers are still terrifying to me.  I’m always afraid I’m going to order enough to feed Guam and look like an idiot.  Luckily, some of the meats/poultry/fish in the grocery stores are prepackaged (this is probably where they store the INFERIOR Non-Swiss stuff) so you can eyeball the products and don’t have to deal with a real live person.  If it were not for these prepackaged products, Mr. Big and I would be vegetarians by now.

Subject:  Social Skillset, Acclimation to Swiss Culture

Grade:  C+

Successes:  Losing weight to blend in with the Swiss, check, although not enough yet to really carry it off, check minus.  I mean, these people are toothpicks.  I’m still like a bamboo skewer, if you get my drift.  Learning to kiss three times, upon both arrival and departure, starting with the left cheek, AND not feeling utterly foolish the entire time, check.  Learning to not smile so much, check.  Learning how to properly toast to one’s health in the appropriate language, check.  Hint, eye contact, eye contact!  Going against all convention and keeping both hands ON the table and not on one’s lap during meals, check.  For that matter, getting the cadence of the two-hour meal down pat and not rushing or going out of order or taking too much cheese or violating any other of the myriad unwritten rules of dining in Europe, check.  Stopped stressing about Euro/Swiss prices and just enjoyed myself shopping?  Check.

Failures:  Eeuuww.  There are a lot.   Just the other night at book club, I was apparently so loud and so dominating that a little pipsqueak of a twentysomething-year-old kid made a snide remark.  To me!  I could be her mother!  I just got carried away and was being my PREVIOUS loud, obnoxious, know-it-all American self and some eyebrows were raised around that table, let me tell you what.  Gotta hand it to her though, it shut me right up!   So, now I’m scared of book club.  (Well, I’m really not, but I’m just practicing being humble and unassuming.)

Another big fail—(this is like the tell-all blog, I feel like I’m in therapy)—I completely dissed a woman who was, apparently, only asking for directions.  See, in Europe, near the train stations, we have a lot of professional beggars.  Not kidding.  This is big business.  A begging “syndicate” buses them in (usually from Eastern Europe) and sets the beggars up at strategic locations (read places where tourists go) and employs runners who run around and collect the money from the beggars and bring it to the bosses.  Professional begging is like a job here.  Now, usually these beggars are pathetic.  I mean, they find no-legged people and lepers and disfigured babies, you name it.  So, we “locals” just learn to disregard them and say non, non, non.  Anyway, some poor woman who was only asking for directions approached me near the Lausanne train station and I automatically gave her my Mean American Face and put forth a forceful “Non”.  It was only after I was about 50 meters beyond her that I translated in my head what she was saying and she was just a normal personal asking for directions.  I still feel really bad about that.

And the number one reason I am only giving myself a C+ for culture acclimation?  I still feel like a tourist, not a local.  Deep down, I know I am just a poseur.  I don’t really belong here, yet.  So, C+.  Ah, me.

Subject:  Language Skills

Grade:  D-

This is like my number one job and I am not doing very well.  I’m getting better, but my verbs suck.  Really, if I’m being honest, learning French might be the hardest thing I’ve ever done.  This subject is so painful, I can barely talk about it.  Truthfully, I can read French now.  I can even, pretty much, understand what people are saying to me.  But SPEAKING?  Terrifying.  I do it.  But I am pathetic.  PATHETIC.  Note to all of you American parents out there with teeny children.  Put them in a language class or hire a nanny who speaks another language.  AND THEN.  Eavesdrop on them so you can learn it, too, starting from scratch babytalk.  Oh, how I wish, wish, wish I had learned another language as a baby when I was young, dumb, and didn’t realize that I was learning a valuable commodity.


Well, obviously, no raise for me this year.  No stock options.  No golden parachute.  I’m average.  Next year, watch out, buddy.  I’m gonna be parlez-vooying Francee like a friggin’ native to get my grade up.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Becoming Swiss?

It’s happening.  The creeping tentacles of Swissiness are invading silently, yet surely.  I am unaware of their presence and the depth to which they’ve burrowed until I catch myself doing something Swissish.  For example, I just changed my cell phone to military time.
Now, my children are going to find that statement hilarious, not because of the military thing, but because of the fact that I even figured out how to change the time format.

Well, I had to do it because it is just too confusing to have all of the shop signs, the advertisements, the notices of opening hours, the arrangements you are making to meet for coffee, etc. all in military time and your brain and cell phone on 12-hour time.  The first time you hear yourself say “thirteen o’clock” out loud, you know it is time to fix your cell phone.

The other day I was walking in the morning with my girlfriends and Intrepid Girlfriend shows up in “street clothes”, not exercise clothes, cute little pocketbook and scarf included.  To go walking with possible sweat involved.
She apologized but explained that at the end of our walk along the lake she was going directly up into town to track down some grape leaves to make a new recipe.  I said that I would go with her because I had to go to the grocery store, as well.

OK, she looked at me strangely and I realized what I had done wrong.  While it is a little weird to go walking in street clothes, it is much, much, much worse to go shopping in exercise clothes.  Now, ten months ago, I would have been like, oh, get over it, Swiss people.  So I’m buying a loaf of bread and wearing warm-ups, so what?  In America, people go shopping in their pajamas!

Needless to say, I did go to the grocery in my tacky attire, but I was uncomfortable doing it.  And then I was uncomfortable that I was uncomfortable.  Was I losing my American-ness?  Was I doomed to never be spontaneous or fun again?  Let’s just say that I was soooo uncomfortable that it made me sit down and really contemplate what was happening here.  I had an epiphany.

The Swiss are not being unfriendly, rigid, humorless, etc. when they make and keep to all of these rules.  They are just being civilized.  For over a thousand years, they have all been playing by the same rules because they are all of one culture.  When you do something for 1,000 years, and everyone else is also doing it, it tends to become a habit.  So, my friends, when I get back to America for good in a few years’ time, please do not think that I have become terribly snobby.  I am just civilized.  I prefer the trains to run on time and I prefer yogurt and granola for breakfast.  I carry my own shopping  bags and say things like, “I’ll meet you at fourteen hours for coffee”.

It’s not just me that this happens to.  I have another girlfriend back in the States who married a Brit 10 years ago.  Well, the longer she is with him and the more time that they spend in the UK, the more civilized she is becoming.  We will call her The Queen because that is whom she is resembling more and more.  The Queen pronounces “been” as “beeeeeen” instead of “bin”.  As in “I’ve beeeeeen thinking. . . “  OK, Queenie, you are from South Carolina.  Where are you getting this beeeeeen from?  The Queen is rockin’ her Chanel suits, her triple-strand pearls and her vintage Louis bags on her evenings out now and looking regal.  If she and I get any more civilized, I think our other friends are going to be forced to do an intervention.

They will drop us off at the nearest WalMart in our pajamas and force us to fondle clothing constructed of man-made fibers.  Afterward, they will drive us in the back of a pickup truck to the nearest fast food restaurant and require us to order something Super-Sized from a drive-thru window.

They will make us skip our afternoon coffee/tea and have a martini.  They will make us eat vegetables out of season whilst wearing a fanny pack.  It will not be pretty but I’m sure in no time I’ll be back to swearing in public and wearing non-black clothing.

The Swiss part of me just shivered and had to go for a bit of a lie down.