Saturday, July 28, 2012

Impossible dogs

In London last week we were honoured to stay with gorgeous G and her adorable chocolate labrador, Alfie, who has been immortalised on canvas.

Art can freeze and capture beauty, especially where animals are concerned.  Point-and-shoot cameras, on the other hand, are often found wanting.  Picasa needs to invent a 'blue eye' feature in their editing package to cover fido refraction.

Most mornings, I set the alarm to join G and Alfie on their walk alongside the Thames.  G is the sort of gregarious, go-getter gal who knows the entire suburb of Teddington* either through her dog, her work or social life, and within minutes we'd invariably meet up with several other people passionate for pooches and with a healthy penchant for puddles.

Yet again, the point-and-shoot camera's shortcomings were not heeded or appreciated by the furry friends I met.  "Turn around, Alfie, come on..."  "Smudge, you ugg boot lining with a tongue, what are you barking at?"

Baz the blood hound was a magnificent creature but more intent on plunging himself into the water than stopping to pose.

Colin the Schnauzer (yes, that's his real name) might be an easier portrait, I thought. Mistakenly. Instead he harrumphed at my efforts and scooted off the second he'd left - erm, a warm 'part of himself' - by the walking trail.

This little Jack Russell wasn't going anywhere near me - or any other dog owner for that matter.

We counted six dogs being walked by this woman.  The legal limit for professionals operating in the UK apparently.

Steelo sat down in front of me, smiling and panting after chasing Alfie and looking utterly beguiling. I surreptitiously opened my camera case, gingerly pressed the 'on' button and ------- "Dammit!"

The caretaker of Teddington Loch's dog was also taking the role quite seriously, keeping his eye on our ever-growing collection of canines.  Right after 'click' he gave his ears a thorough flapping, flinging the just visible dangle of drool onto my left arm. 

Bunty was beautiful but shy, never daring to meet my eye.

She endured a brief butt sniff from Bella but didn't return the greeting, preferring instead to join her elderly owner making her way through the cornflowers. 

Teddy was the best shot of the day, giving me a small grin before joining Baz for a splash in the river.

Snack time! 

Smudge again, seemingly missing his front right leg as he mistakenly assumed that I too had some crunchies in my pocket.  His need to investigate was keen.  I would have patted his head in consolation but he'd rolled in horse manure a few minutes earlier so a "Sorry old fella," and a hasty step backwards was all that was offered.

The perfect side eye.  "Look Kath, I'm abluting here. Isn't there something else you could focus your attention on?"

Alfie again, near the home stretch.  Tired, muddy and distinctly smelly. But smiling.

You can learn a lot from dogs, but not photography tips.

* Teddington.  Cutest suburb name ever.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012


Sapphire and I have just returned from a magnificent week in London which might explain my absence on this blog, as a reader/commenter on other sites as well as updates on Facebook.

Y'see I don't own an iPad, iPhone or any form of magically instant photograph-to-website device. Stubbornly and miserly old fashioned, I managed to get around the most exciting city in the world with my thirteen year old daughter using only a five year old mobile (still giving me Swiss phone messages in German) and a *gasp* separate camera. A cumbersome device that had to wait until we returned home before being able to download the photographs taken on holiday.

We 'did' Buckingham Palace, Victoria & Albert Museum, double decker bus tour, National Gallery, Trafalgar Square and Westminster last year, so this visit - tinged with a few dollops of guilt leaving Love Chunks hard at work back in Geneva - was about eating, shopping and different sights.

First meal? Sushi. Fresh and affordable.

Second meal? Indian, at our friend G's favourite restaurant. Spicy, authentic and gob smackingly cheap. Surely only a Swiss-dweller is thrilled by the size of the bill at London eating establishments.

Third meal? Porridge and fresh blueberries, before accompanying G and her dog Alfie for a walk along the Thames.

The place was understandably buzzing with pre-Olympic fever but it was rather noticeable that most tourists and locals were buying anything and everything with the Union Jack on it and not the puzzling pork-scratching 2012 logo or the stuffed (literally and figuratively) versions of the mangled one-eyed mutant mascots.

The Thames cruise from Big Ben to Greenwich was the best way to get a different view of the city but GMT itself was completely obscured by white catering tents and scaffolding ready for a music festival. That didn't stop us from eating our Marks and Sparks sangers in the drizzle by Cutty Sark and enduring Dad jokes from the coffee maker. "You want a flat white, luv? I'll give you a white coffee and squash it, how does that sound?"

We wondered what Nelson thought of his permanent view of the pin cushion Millennium dome, so Sapphire decided to take his mind off it for a while.

Shopping for clothes in Oxford Street and Notting Hill was eventually completed to Sapphire's satisfaction. It was then time for her old mother to force some 'must sees' on her.

I confess to getting tearful at St Paul's - a place that was regularly visited during my two year work visa residence during church services to hear the choir, feel the immense pipe organ so powerful that it rumbled in my chest and to gaze up at the dome in an acceptable imitation of spiritual enlightenment. This time around, we spent more time up on the top of the building taking photographs for other tourists. "Are you from London?" asked a young Italian bloke who'd left his elderly parents below. Clearly Sapphire's international school had softened her Aussie twang.

I confess also to getting tearful in the drizzle at Hampton Court Palace. "Do you see how wonderful this place is, Sapphire? Why I loved it so much and needed to take you here?"
"Yes Mum. Now shoosh."

There are many more confessions to make, including:

Being far too audible in my appreciation of bacon sandwiches;

Poking my nose in the 'Temporarily closed for new display' at Kensington Palace but then being invited in by the curator so that we could see Queen Victoria's Great Exhibition dress and Albert's toiletry box that included a tongue scraper. "We're thinking about having it tested for his DNA";

Chatting to many strangers on the tube: "Your tattoo of 'Carpe Diem' there on your chest, that's what we were talking about last night, weren't we Sapphire. .......Sapphire?"

Kissing G's dog too many times;

Causing more embarrassment by making my child pose in front of the Victoria Palace theatre after we'd seen and loved Billy Elliot;

Overhearing a job interview being conducted in a Teddington coffee shop and giving the candidate a hearty 'thumbs up' as we passed by;

Laughing inappropriately at this sign and puzzling the nearby drinkers at the King's Head:

.....and feeling mortified that I couldn't remember the actual street number of the building I lived in for nearly two years until I saw the boot scraper and the 'Diplomatic car parking only' sign for the posh place next door.  W1H 1FF - a helluva postcode; and if I had a spare 3.25 million pounds, a flat in the next street would be nice.

And tears again because I was privileged enough to be able to do it all with my beautiful, funny, insightful, clever and appreciative daughter.  A week sprinkled with laughter, hugs, witty insults (hers) requests to use the camera, wondering how our paper tickets survived the gates of multiple tube lines, becoming adoring fans of Alfie the dog and getting sore necks from constant head swiveling at the sights.  

Thank you, dear one.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Time for another Sunday Selections ala River again - these were taken yesterday on our day trip to Morges and Vallorbe.  A balmy 23C day meant that we were itching to get out and do something touristy. Vacuuming, grocery shopping and ironing could wait. Milly's ever-growing crop of dust bunnies that like to behind the doors weren't going anywhere either.

The main street of Morges becomes a small market on Saturday mornings.  We eyed off the fresh berries, figs and still-warm breads feeling faintly regretful that we'd all eaten a pretty hearty breakfast a short while earlier.

Sapphire wasn't impressed with the signage. "Why would anyone want to eat there," she wondered. "Aren't they being racist?"  Racist towards themselves, the locals who couldn't read English or Morges residents who only saw Asian-style lettering?  We weren't sure, but seeing as the front of shop was only selling Swiss-made Movenpick ice-creams until 5pm, we didn't inquire any further.  Nor could we afford said ice-cream. For a country that prides itself on its dairy products, ice-cream is on par with saffron for price.

The clanking, almost bell-like ringing of wires and ropes against the masts of many boats moored along Lac Leman lured us away from the stalls.  Breezy weather made it perfect for sailing, but apart from one wizened old guy scraping down his even-older boat, we didn't see anyone out on the water.

Perhaps they were all here, inside the Morges casino, or the larger one further along in Montreux?

A close up of the slightly sneering man atop of the Casino entrance.  He was wearing some subtlely-draped netting and head spikes to avoid any potential pigeon poop facials.

It wouldn't be Lac Leman without a nude or two.  

A small distance away in Vallorbe, a gorgeous drive through forests got us to Fort de Giraud; a farmhouse built by the Swiss army in 1936 to keep the pesky Germans from invading.

Photographs of the interior were strictly Interdit and Verboten, and we climbed many metres down into the hillside and rock through drilled tunnels and chambers, assailed by the musty damp odours.  A complex arrangement of underground tunnels and bunkers housed 130 soldiers, weapons and surveillance equipment with rather beautiful views over to France.  

The guide spoke French and German only, but we got the gist.  The Swiss weren't worried about the French; they just assumed that France would be invaded by Germany and that the Germans would soon be at their border.  They were, of course, utterly correct.  Still, the Swiss remain proudly Swiss as evidenced by the dozens of fondue saucepans stacked in the compact kitchen.

I wasn't quick enough to take a photo of the farmhouse from the freeway but it showed just how innocuous and authentic it would have appeared on top of the hill.  Obviously the enormous painted Swiss cross, outdoor picnic area and international flagpoles weren't in existence during WW2!

A late lunch was enjoyed in Vallorbe (Valley and River Orbe) where it seemed like everyone knew everyone else.  Our waiter, in particular, was very popular, greeting everyone who passed by name and stopped for a brief conversation.  Service was, therefore, slightly on the relaxed side.

Sapphire was intrigued by the young guy wearing a white leather jacket with 'Angel' in pink sequins on the back and 'sweet honey' embroidered along one arm.  With his slicked back pony tail and propensity to keep cycling past us several times on a fold up push bike, was he the only gay in the village?

We were never to find out as I wasn't brave enough to ask our waiter. He told us that he'd spent two decades in Noo Yawk and did a fairly decent impression of De Niro in Taxi Driver.  For all we knew, 'Angel' was his brother and their surname was 'Bickle.'

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Bear right

In Australia, we only ever owned second-hand cars.

In 1989, I had a 1971 model. Love Chunks had a 1976 model in 1985 until we sold it for a mere $50 in 1994.

We bypassed the 1980s models entirely and in 1999 bought a still sweet-smelling ex-government station wagon from 1996, loving it and driving it until handing it over to Sean for a mere six hundred bucks in May last year.

It was Switzerland that finally saw us in a new car in 2011. Power windows, blue tooth whatcha-ma-callit sockets and an electric sun roof. Two sets of tyres that require changing around for summer and winter and a free windscreen ice-scraper given to us by the bank who loaned us half the money.

Partnering this swanky purchase was a much cheaper one, but one that has proved its value a hundred-fold. Ken, our GPS.

He's called 'Ken' because the Australian male voice file available for free download was called Ken and this personification of the little black rectangle that fits snugly into my handbag has remained. "Where's Ken?" we'll all ask, before leaving the apartment. "Is Ken powered up?"

On the road, he takes a few minutes to clear his head as being turned on in an underground car park is akin to screaming in space. Nobody can see, hear or find him. Back on ground level and in the natural light, he regains his footing. Sometimes he scares me when he first starts talking and I fumble for the volume button. Maybe Ken Mark II could clear his throat or crack his knuckles before commencing?

"Bear right," he says calmly, giving me plenty of notice to:
a) look into the rear vision mirror;
b) remember to check my left hand side and not my right before changing lanes; and
c) not to panic about being unable to read the teeny weeny street signs that are never large or on poles but stuck, oh-so-discreetly, onto the corners of buildings themselves.

"In two hundred metres, take the third right at the roundabout," he advises, allowing me to take note of my pleasant surroundings - oh look, the cows are still wearing their bells and are munching away on wild flowers right next to the international airport runway - and grope around for the sun roof switch.

Love Chunks has long suffered from my lack of direction, inability to read maps and predictable failure to identify turn-offs in time. Despite these (very valid) concerns, he also worries that Ken now makes my life too easy; that I'll never learn how to read a map without turning it in the direction we're travelling or guesstimate my way home by looking at the Alps, the slope of the streets towards the water or where the sun sets.

He's correct, of course, but I've driven further and more frequently because of Ken's patient assistance. He speaks English and avoids Sapphire's ridicule by not ever bothering to pronounce the French names of towns, streets or suburbs. Why should he when a "You have reached your destination" does the job?

Ken doesn't sigh, panic or get angry if we're hooning down the motorway in the wrong lane and missed the lakeside exit. Instead he pauses for a moment to gather his thoughts (and new satellite bearings) before either suggesting that I "turn around where possible" or he thoughtfully creates another route entirely.

"Shoosh," I'll say over the conversation in the car. "Ken just gave a direction and I couldn't hear it." He takes precedence over everything else occurring inside the vehicle including fart jokes and gossip.

On longer journeys, if there are no roundabouts, corners or turns, he stays silent. This is when it can get unsettling. I'm hoping that Ken Mark II or III is also programmed to add some words of encouragement such as, "You're doing well, keep it up," or "This is the right way, don't fret, pet," which would go a long way to making the journey a pleasanter one.

Even a few "I like what you've done to your hair today," or "Have you lost weight?" type of endearments wouldn't go astray but for now, Ken dearest, I truly love your work.

Sunday, July 08, 2012


Milly and I were doing our usual morning walk in Parc de Trembley.

I nodded and said "Bonjour" to the old guy who is seemingly welded to a smokers' seat at Urban Sand, the tiny coffee shop next to our building that has recently revealed that it contains the city's best baked cheesecake.

We greeted our friends the two lovely gardeners, busy emptying the bins. Milly rushed over for a pat and they wanted to chat about the tennis. "Andy Murray he, er, yells at himself too much. Pfffth! Too much self love. One more for our Roger, eh."

We steered past the tiny 'Off lead' dog paddock so that Milly and her foe the Alsatian weren't close enough to act out their angry dance of snapping at each others' noses through the chicken wire and I idly wondered again just why the Swiss Crapaud Crew chose fireworks and iced tea as their night time activities.

But today, on top of the hill with the best view of the St Pierre cathedral, Mont Blanc and Jet D'Eau, was a man with his chin pointing to the sky. He was oblivious to the scenery spread out before him as he was busy shaving. 

Dry shaving. No water, no towel, no cream. I could hear the scritch-scritch-scritch of rasping skin and stiff bristles as we passed.

Not sure if he got lucky and was doing a few quick ablutions on the way home as he was too neatly dressed to be homeless. Then again, how many blokes would carry a disposable razor in their back pocket before hitting the dance floor....?

Further down the hill, next to the nude lady missing a hand as she busily fished in the primary school pond was a man lying next to her.

Nothing overtly untoward was happening. On his back, a sports bag was shoved under his head for a pillow and his eyes were closed in the morning sun that was already bright and warm. Like our brave shaver, he was also well clothed, but not in night time threads. Posh campers, neat chinos and checked shirt indicated that he was ready for a day of sightseeing, starting with getting on the Number Three bus whose stop was close by.

Milly didn't deem him worthy of a closer inspection; not when a Jack Russell was approaching from the opposite direction. She knew from past experience that I am a sucker for a cute dog and she therefore had to emit a few fierce growls to get the other dog's owner to pass by giving a wide berth and removing all opportunities for conversation or contact. On no account whatsoever am I to touch or utter any endearments to any other dog, especially if they're on a lead. To date, no explanation has been forthcoming as to why the lead is such a red rag to anger and jealousy.

Around the corner, Milly's fears immediately dissolved as she scampered over to investigate the swathe of soft green grass that was now weirdly pock-marked all over with perfect black squares.

On closer inspection, we saw that they had been caused by coals from portable grills.

My two gardening and tennis fan friends would not be pleased to see that the sunny weather meant that their gorgeously manicured lawns would now be impersonating a chess board, but Milly was thrilled. Discarded drum sticks and pork ribs were everywhere and she set to rolling in what appeared to be a puddle of BBQ sauce and olive oil. "NO!"

Luckily, whenever I make to move away, she immediately follows and we walked up the Petit Saconnex hill path towards home.

I didn't see her but Milly sure did.

An eager sun baker, already in her bikini was laid out on her towel was soaking up the rays, her gorgeously slender body coated in coconut oil that was a siren song to my dog's nose. And tongue.

Before I could comprehend what was happening, Milly had shot over like an orange flame, slurped the girl across her stomach and hooned back before I could scold her.

The girl sat up in shock but Milly was already by my side a hundred metres away, goofy grin on her face. I wheeled around 180 degrees so that we were too far and at the wrong angle to be given the blame.

"You funny little dog," I said, patting her before realising that my hand now touched yesterday's oily BBQ lunch leftovers rubbed deep into her coat. "Good thing she just got a lick and not a full back roll from you!" 

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Woss Siss?

I know better, now, with fifteen seconds of new-found experience, than to try and reach for her hand or to smile too widely as she has a tendency to scream and run away which causes all eyes to fall upon me and kill conversation. 

Leaving a one year old howling and hiding isn’t the best way to instil confidence in a group of newish mothers who are gathering shyly in the underground playroom of a 19th C Anglican church, so I leave Helena clinging to her nanna’s slacks and see what the other toddlers are up to. The room is still stuffy from the recent heat, with distant sounds of traffic from Geneva’s city centre and bus station joining the fresh air coming through the window that took me several heaves to force open.

Sapphire and I are here to help our friend KG, a maternity health expert, as she runs her parent group. We arrived early to drag some well-used toys out of the metal lock-up cupboard and pull down a tricycle, a plastic train, a toy car and a wooden rocking snail. Yes, snail, not horse.

The first official day of School Holidays has begun and I’m grateful that my child willingly got up at a teenager-unfriendly time to help and laugh as she manages to do a circuit around the adult meeting table on the tiny trike. At a mature thirteen, she’s as tall as KG and several of the mothers, but two toddlers somehow have instinctively divined that she’s still a Big Girl and Big Girls are much fun-ner than older ladies or Big Girls’ Mummies.

Indira ignores my offering of a bright bumble bee pulled along by string and makes her way over to where Sapphire is busy building a castle with the seriously focused Miranda. Feeling unreasonably hurt, my disappointment is erased by the sight of Spencer hoiking one chubby leg over the tricycle and then laughing uproariously at the ‘squeak’ sound of the seat.

He bounces up and down as he circles the room, bum a squeakin’ and him a cacklin’ like a mad-man all the way. KG is used to this kind of background noise, but the mothers aren’t so much. Perhaps my applause is only encouraging him to do it longer and louder? Spencer notes my appreciation and does an extra lap around me, clearly delighted in the abilities of his arse and the hilarity of the situation. I want to cuddle him up immediately but remember that there are seven other little folk in the room who need me to distract them long enough for their mothers to participate in at least thirty percent of the group discussion.

“What’s this? What’s this?” Indira has decided that I’m safe enough to explain that she’s in fact pushing a red plastic train with a spinning blue nose and squeaky yellow bumper pads on the front. Of course, her query actually sounds like “Woss Siss” but is still easily understandable. When the answer is delivered, she wipes her mouth with the back of her hand, says "Choo Choo" and continues towards the steps, eyeing Jeremy who is busy hiding underneath the hanging quilt that depicts the all-animals-aboard scene from Noah’s ark.

Rachel finds the only baby in the box otherwise filled with oversized lego, trucks and books and cuddles her gently. “Me mummy,” she says, before placing the doll into the seat of the rocking snail and pushing the back up and down so that the poor doll headbutts the wooden handle with a loud smack over and over again. Rachel's giggles are matched at the other end of the room by Spencer, who is now rolling matchbox cars under the stacked chairs and into the kitchenette, his squeals enticing Jeremy out from behind the quilt and over to try and ‘catch’ the car before it bumps against the piano leg.

Anna has yet to climb down from her mother’s lap but is keeping close watch on all the under-two action swirling around her. Sapphire is reading to Miranda, her voice also encouraging Indira and Jeremy to wander over. Each step they take reminds me of those attempted by drunks – one entire leg kicked to the forefront without bending the knee, tested for balance and then the same move done to the other limb. Provide a sloping ground to either group and they’d build up far too much momentum and go for a gargantuan gutzer.

Spencer’s not laughing anymore, having fallen forward on the toy car he was riding, leaving his pampers-padded arse in the air and head on the bonnet, scattering his handful of soggy popcorn across the floor. Anna is motivated to clamber out of her mother’s lap and pick up each kernel one by one, popping each into her mouth with increasing glee.

Now upright – with assistance from me – Spencer generously forgives the loss of his hand-held snacks and stands directly in front of Rachel who has thrown her baby out of the rocking snail and is in it herself, blonde hair swishing like a heavy metal headbanger. My hand is on the back rail to prevent her from being squished by the snail. A few minutes later she’s persuaded to climb off when she spies Anna picking up her baby, but is let down by the dizziness of her own body refusing to put her in a position for a dolly snatch. “How about a story?” She likes my suggestion, but wanders over to Sapphire with a Maisy book translated to French.

“Good morning, ladies! Excuse me please!”

Humans old and young fall silent when the door creaks open and a sixty something bloke with a murky Scottish accent claps his hands.

“Now don’t be alarmed, but there’s a man who is MENTALLY DISTURBED who is just out here---“ he gestured to the unisex toilet out in the hall “-----using the toilet, as it’s the only one we’ve got open today. He is DANGEROUS around women and children, so I’m accompanying him while he is, erm, urinating, and will take him back upstairs in a minute.”

He spotted me and crooked his finger to get me to come closer to him for further instructions. “I suggest you LOCK THIS DOOR RIGHT NOW so that he can’t come in,” he said, in what he imagined was a whisper but sounded more like an Orkney Island fog horn. “Last week he peed all over the floor and pushed a lady from our congregation into a pew.”

KG and I swapped a glance. There was nothing for it. “Who’s ready for some morning tea?”

The enticing whiff of plunger coffee soon brought my new-found foghorn friend back inside. “The man has gone now. Would you be a love and make me and the Minister a cup of tea – black and sugar for us both?”

The Minister was Jamaican and eyed the toddlers’ morning tea platter with envy. “We’ve got some lemon cake if you’d like a slice...?”

He smiled. “No thank you, miss, I’m from Jamaica and grew up growing bananas. May I....?

He left the cheese for the kids and swiped the bananas, swishing hot tea in his mouth with each bite. 

 “You have a rather strong English accent for a Jamaican.”

“Oh yes, we moved there when I was a child so I still hope that an Englishman wins Wimbledon, and right now I’m prepared to count Andy Murray as English.”

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Sapphire collecting empty cups and the mothers wiping dribbly hands and faces before plonking the owners of those faces back onto the floor. “I’d better get back to it,” I whispered, reaching for his cup.

Like the Scottish foghorn before him, he seemed oblivious to the users of the room and the volume he made. “But tell me – are the Williams’ sisters still in?”

I lowered my voice so that he was forced to read my lips.

"REALLY? Venus has been knocked out already!"  He doubled over laughing in shock. "Crazy!"


Something wet and sticky was pressed into the back of my knee. Luckily it wasn’t the floor peeing madman, but Indira, deciding that her banana wasn’t so appetising after all. The Minister saw that my attention was needed elsewhere and left, but not before dramatically announcing to all, "We are PRAYING FOR YOU. We pray for EVERYONE who uses our room!" 

Scottish fog horn stuffed his head around the door. "Don't forget to lock this as YOU NEVER KNOW WHERE THE MENTALLY DISTURBED MAN IS RIGHT NOW."

Er, thanks for that. Will do.

Sapphire sidled over.  “So this is the sort of stuff you get up to when I’m at school.”

Miranda taps her hand and points to the low table. "Book."  My daughter's nose crinkles up slightly and we share a look - that's not mashed banana we're smelling right now......