whistlestop caboose

The view from the back.

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www.zidao.com Apprentice harmonizer, for sheer fun. Journeywoman writer, for work and pleasure. Starting point was Iowa, current stopping point on this journey is Switzerland, with frequent pauses around the world to watch and listen to the crowd, and occasionally make comments.

Tulips 2006 for Gran ellengwallace's Tulips 2006 for Gran photoset

Sunday, July 30, 2006

The pie, part 2

For reasons that are unclear (hunger? jealousy?) Blogger is refusing to let me add the two final photos to the post that follows, on the life of a pie, peach. So here they are - I just wish you could have seen them after the pie is baked, not before.

Life of a pie (peach)

We are in the thick of pie season here. The gooseberry one disappeared rapidly and I suddenly found myself with a bag of peaches, with an expectant look on the part of the gift-giver.

Once and sometimes twice a summer we have peach pie. Some peaches are grown in this part of Switzerland (there is another story there, but I will photograph the ruins of an old house in order to tell you the tale), but not many. Mostly we wait for peaches from northern Italy to ripen and make the two-hour trip over the border.

Here is the life of a peach pie at our house, any July.

I like the peaches cut into about 8-10 slices, not too thick, not too thin. Ripe and juicy and sweet.

After I add the peaches I dot them with a bit of butter, so the cornstarch/brown sugar/cinnamon and nutmeg thickens as it mixes with the fruit's juice while cooking

My mother gave me this rolling pin, which her mother had, a lovely heavy wooden one. My mother never liked to bake pies from scratch - too much work - but her mother did and I can still smell the pies Grandma baked and that greeted us at her door.

I love to have pies look nice and one of my favorite parts of baking is adding the top crust. I sometimes trim the edge with a fork tong but I like to make finger indents for a ruffled edge when I bake peach pie. No reason why, just a small personal tradition!

And then the top is decorated, here with a fireworks design for the Swiss national holiday August 1 (the pie won't last that long, though). Technically, these are steam vents, but they are mainly for fun.

Into the oven and 35 minutes later out: golden and crisp. My Swiss neighbors are shocked at the American notion of a two-crust pie, and partly due to their sensible influence I have learned to make sure the dough is rolled very thin so the crusts are not heavy.

Cooling is the hardest part. I hope by giving the pie a nice view of the mountains and a little breeze from outdoors I can encourage it to cool faster. Everyone keeps asking how soon we can eat it.

Every good pie baker is kind to those waiting by letting a little extra crust sit on the edge, untidy. That obliges at least one person to come along and try to "just tidy up" the edge, thereby getting an advance nibble.

The coffee is made, the hot milk whipped up so it is lovely and foamy at the top of the mug.

The pie is cut, usually one slice at a time so there are no arguments over whether or not the person on slicing duty has made the pieces equal.

The art of getting the first slice out neatly is one I doubt we will ever master, but we keep trying. The alternative of no slices is worse than untidy ones.

This time we did pretty well.

[two more photos, the end result, will follow - Blogger seems to have problems and I can't upload them now :-( ]

Friday, July 28, 2006

Good gooseberry pie!

It started out like this, but didn't stay this way long.

Sometimes pie, especially gooseberry pie, is so good you just have to use a fork and a spoon to eat it as fast as you can.

The amazing Ricola man

I promised a link in my last post and here it is, to an interview with one of the herb farmers who supplies Ricola, the Swiss candy-maker. I used to buy this for my mother, to take back to the U.S., because she found that they helped her to swallow. I think Ricola cough drops and candies are one of Switzerland's best exports, right up there with chocolate and cheese! Now that I've seen the herbs growing and the man who manages those, I'm even more impressed.

Meanwhile, heat has finally given way, after six weeks, to a lovely bout of soft rain and cool air. Before that happened this afternoon we had more rainbows last night - the opposite valley clearly had rain - and a hot day sunrise before 6:00.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

ouf! as they say in French, a rough day

A short note to the many friends who visit here, new and old, some close and dear, others as yet unmet except online!

We have a very handicapped - mentally and physically - child, who is with us for two weeks non-stop, whereas she usually alternates for shorter periods between her boarding school and home. This is lovely for all of us, for the most part, the extra time, but today was one of those days when (with great cheerfulness on Tara's part) many small things fell apart and the mess they created became a much bigger thing. On the (fortunately) somewhat rare days like this we all just endure. Tara is hyperactive today to an extent most people would find daunting. So do we :-). Tara herself seems a little puzzled by it. She has had a fit of the giggles that has lasted about 10 hours, and it has involved eating books, unfolding all the folded laundry and slightly less lugubrious incidents.

Living with a child like our daughter is something that is not easily explained, except by recounting incidents once you can back off from them enough to have a sense of humor. Most of the time I don't think there is much point, for the family or the world at large, in trying to explain what daily life is like. Now and again, I have to mention it so people who would like (and deserve) my attention understand why I'm a little slow in giving it.

I am often asked how on earth we manage. Parents love their children, and do what they can: the answer is that simple. I am, frankly, far more impressed by people like the man I interviewed yesterday (I will provide the link tomorrrow) who, with his wife, has adopted two children with problems, eyes wide open. To know that you are taking home a four-year-old who has spent his entire life in a bed in Roumania, with his tongue burned by cigarettes and his ears broken - well, that is not parental love at first, that is humanity at its most generous.

In praise of mechanical types, and AC

In case you haven't looked at my short and somewhat muddled reflections on air conditioning, I recommend you go there and read the comments. Christen in Mass. mentions how wonderful it is to have a mechanic nearby and the eternal optimist provides an interesting trip into the past to look at the origins of AC. Must confess I hadn't wondered who invented it, which I can only blame on heat and lack of AC. Once again, I find myself admiring mechanical types, whose minds seem to work in ways that others (mine, at least) don't. Eternal optimist made a good point, that has me almost swayed to the AC side of the argument: you can tell, even talking on the phone, that a person is not in a cooled-down room. On further reflection, I was in a coffee shop yesterday that had AC and the waitress was as sour-faced as they come. Clearly, AC is not the answer to all our problems.

She probably had sore feet, and that is a whole different topic, but not one I'm too likely to write about. I used to accompany my poor mother to the podiatrist, which was enough to scare me off careers in such fields as fashion model or beauty queen (high heels - no!), hooker (same problem), waitress (sensible shoes but for too long), ballerina (ouch, the toes, the arches!). Fortunately, my natural calling didn't seem to lie in any of these directions.

One of the smartest things I did was to marry a man who grew up in Africa, who spent his childhood barefoot. Shoes are rarely worn in our house. My mother-in-law, age 81, visited a doctor last year who exclaimed that he rarely saw a woman her age with such great feet. She explained that she'd spent her adult life mostly barefoot in Africa and he nodded at the wisdom of that approach to life. She is still sailing along in pleasure at that compliment.

I got sidetracked and am trying to work out how to get back to praising mechanical people, for I have come across three this week and am reminded of how ingenious they can be, and how special that it - and how easily the rest of us overlook this.

How often have you seen a mechanical type who was NOT wearing sensible shoes?

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Where were you at 6am?

I was out in the raspberry patch. Here's the proof.

Friday, July 21, 2006

On air conditioning

I've been thinking a lot about air conditioning. The obvious reason is the heat: Europe is having a long, dry spell of heat. The death toll in France has just gone up to 20, the British claim tarmac roads are melting, although having grown up in Iowa where it was hotter and we called the stuff blacktop, I find this a little suspicious. In Switzerland some people go to the lakes, especially big ones like Lake Geneva, or up to the mountains. With every 100 meters of altitude the temperature drops.

We recently bought a new (used) car, a five-year-old red Volvo. We've never had an air-conditioned car and I always thought it was an environmentally unacceptable luxury, but this was the car that most suited us, and the AC came with it. After one month of driving it I think AC has some advantages and I fear I am getting used to it. My contact lenses don't dry out, my hair doesn't blow in my eyes, I can hear the music better and sometimes we manage to have conversations in the car now, instead of being blasted by hot wind. Still, I'm bothered that it's so easy to get used to it.

My son went to China and promptly came down with a cold or flu. There are new bugs, which is always a risk you take when traveling to distant new places but he insists that he fell sick because of the air conditioning. Too cold, with too many drafts, followed by hot, then cold and hot again. Bodies are not made to do this, he says. I think he's right.

Today I gave a lecture to a group of visiting business students from IIPM in India. We sat in a lecture hall in my village community center, a pleasant room with a view of Lake Geneva. It was warm, but not unnecessarily so. Everyone assumed that the Indians would be far more comfortable with our heat wave than your average Swiss person, but we were wrong. The students asked why we have no air conditioning. It's rarely this hot, I explained, and when it is, most people are on vacation. They were baffled. Heat = air conditioning.

I'm inclined to think AC has made life easier but that we haven't really got the balance right, but I'm not sure where I think we have it wrong. Meanwhile, up in the mountains after my day on the hot plain, I have the windows open and the breeze is blowing through. We've made so much progress on so many fronts, but we haven't worked out how to bottle that one.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Displaced means not having a home

I've been writing daily short reports for three weeks on the situation in Gaza and now Lebanon, for GenevaLunch. The human misery on both sides is hard to watch from what always feels like the helpless position, in times of conflict, of the distant citizen who can't vote right now on ending the fighting. I've picked up reports from other news services and done a small bit or my own reporting, since Geneva is home to many international aid organizations.

The people who stand out for me are the ones who focus on getting people home because one of the first things any conflict does is make people flee the area. They run out the door, usually taking very little with them and they are often not in a position to leave with other family members. Locating, counting, connecting and getting back home all these "displaced persons" is not glamorous work. The media doesn't pay much attention because these are ongoing stories, with few news pegs and the slow, hard work makes duller reading than the noisy big bangs of bombs and missiles.

I sit in a comfortable home in a beautiful country. I find it nearly impossible to imagine feeling so physically threatened here that I would rush out the door while my husband is at his job and my children at their schools - and it's 10 years before we find each other again. To imagine that 15 years later I might not have seen my home again. And yet it happens to many people.

In Lebanon, I wrote yesterday, half a million people are now displaced by the events of the past three weeks. What really struck me, though, when talking to a Norwegian group in Geneva that has a mandate from the United Nations to manage a databank of displaced persons, is that there are still more than 68,000 people displaced since the Lebanese civil war of 1975-90. Sixteen years later, these people have not been able to go home.

Of the many groups working to help refugees, inside their own countries (internally displaced persons) or elsewhere, I think three of the most active deserve much respect. The ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross), based in Geneva, is appealing for $8 million in emergency funds for Lebanon. They have an informative online page for individual donors. The Norwegian Refugee Council, based in Oslo, is very active around the world - it runs the largest database on internally displaced persons - and has an interesting approach of keeping "civilians" trained and ready for emergency service. The UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), in Geneva, suffers some of the same bureaucracy problems of other UN agencies, but most of its people work in the field, under difficult conditions, and the work they do is admirable.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Alpine ridge sieves a storm

Too hot to write much. Last night we sat outside and watched the sky do its hard work. Read about it, look at more photos. Back very soon, when the flies stop bugging me or I manage to get up before they do.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Comments suddenly arrived, just like the moon

Apologies to a few of you who sent comments and they were never published. I have no idea why, but they suddenly appeared in my mailbox, although some were more than a week old! I've now published them - please know I do appreciate hearing your views on things here.

And just like your comments, one night this week the full moon suddenly arrived, jumping up behind a mountain peak so abruptly that I didn't have time to change the camera settings.

Jamming around the lavendar

Lazy, hazy summer days are here. Farmer Bernard mowed and raked and baled the hay this week. His is a sweat-making labor that we watched from the cool safety of our veranda, on this side of the lavendar and daisies, where butterflies and bees were keeping busy.

We did, however, pick fruit and make jam. The currants are from the garden but the apricots from the valley floor, deservedly famous Valaisan "abricots."

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Apricots do not start out dried

Laugh if you're from California, but when I was growing up my mother regularly bought dried apricots, and it never occurred to me there was a fruit called apricot that wasn't dried from the start.

Imagine my astonishment on arriving the first time in July in the canton of Valais, Switzerland, famous for and proud of its apricots. Row upon row of trees, neatly pruned and sized, covered in deep orange-red fruit. I had no idea they could taste so good, free of the concentrated sugar you get in the dried version.

We now make annual pilgrimages to growers when the season kicks in. Here, this morning, is the place where we bought two kilos of seconds, now turned into jam, and one kilo of firsts, for eating. We were at a small family enterprise called "Les Vergers du Soleil" in Granges, near the town of Sierre. When we arrived they popped a couple into our hands, saying "Try this!" When we left, having bought fruit, they said, "Have another - they're so good!" I left feeling that this was a really good deal, which it may or may not have been. I couldn't even be bothered to think about sale psychology, which is probably a sign they have mastered it.

Thinking of Mumbai friends

I teach MBA students from India, often from Mumbai, on a regular basis when they come to Switzerland for week-long study trips. We talk about corporate management in times of crises. We look at companies hit by natural disasters and man-made ones. I tell them "No matter where you work, who you work for, at some point in your management career there will be a crisis and you will have to deal with it."

I'm very much hoping none of these students from IIPM have been directly touched by the bombs that exploded yesterday on several trains in Mumbai, the country's financial capital.

Watching the death toll count last night, I reflected on why journalists report, and why the public is drawn to, bad news. There is a bright side, if not to the events, to our ability to learn from them.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Alpine moonrise

Val d'Anniviers, Switzerland, July 8, 2006

A beautiful day that ends like this feels more like a new beginning.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Minding your Bs and Ps, not to mention your Mmmms

My pal Mary sometimes sends me Word for a Day words. I was going to give you the one from this morning but I already forgot it - I only remember the story that goes with it. I thought it would be easy to find online, but WOW, I came across a flurry (not a word for the day) of words for today. It seems everyone likes to share daily words. So far, for July 7, I've found razzmatazz, froufrou, fallacy, genuflect, foreclose. What would we get if we put them all together, I wonder? See my previous post about famous last words.

I gave up trying to find the one Mary sent when I got to this: Ala Wai. Oops, Hawaiian, meaning water way or canal.

I had to turn to the dictionary because although I remembered Mary's word, I wasn't sure I remembered how to spell it.

Here is her word from this morning, used in a wee tale, as the greatparents from Scotland might have said. See if you can pick it out.

When I was 13 I begged for a parakeet. My mother hated birds, but she agreed and I used my allowance to buy a yellow bird I promptly named Boops. The name was based on information I scrounged up (no Internet then) about parakeets and teaching them to talk. Bs and Ps, that was the trick. For hours I would sit in front of the cage repeating "Boops! Boops! Say hello to me, Boops!"

Perhaps it was the diet, maybe it was the cage, or it could have been boredom, but Boops never said a word. Not a word. One sunny day I cleaned the cage outside and in a moment of inattention, Boops flew away, high up into a treee, then another tree and another. I shouted and cried. My mother dropped what she was doing and ran down the street after him shouting "Boops! Boops - come back Boops!"

What I remember most cleraly what she was wearing: orange and pink plaid shorts, a loud pink and red flowered shirt, sensible shoes. I was embarrassed at my bird's name, but I was mortified by what she wore.

Today, as I write this, I am about the same age as my mother. I won't tell you what I'm wearing, but it's closer to what she wore then, than to what I thought she should have worn. I'm as happy in this gear as she probably was in hers.

I have never owned another parakeet. If I did, I might call it Bilabial. I would never chase it down the street calling its name, for fear of what the neighbors might think.

Most used last words

Could there be any competition for this as the most over-used famous last words:
I'll do it today.

There, I said it. In fact, I did it. So I can put the rest off until tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Sheeping their way up!

Some friends from Florida were visiting and they asked how the animals get up to the high alps, or pastures, where they live the good life for the summer. They run up the road, I explained. I was talking about cows. They leap and jump and run uphilll faster than you can imagine. The olders ones remember those magnificent pastures and the young ones pick up on the excitement and believe their elders. Seeing a herd of young happy cows racing up a steep road is a sight not soon forgotten.

Sheep are another matter. They would never make it to the top if they had to run up. The farmers herd them into a flatbed which is attached to a tractor. Yesterday one of them had to pause in front of the house to sort out some horns that were tangled in the mesh.Much baaing later, they carried on uphill.

Hail, said the chief

About the photos: we had a great hail storm Monday evening, one of a series of evening storms over Lake Geneva this summer. The air was filled with tension, the heat of the afternoon suddenly had a whiff of cool about it and then, abruptly, thick stripes of rain fell: hail or nearly-hail. Strangely, the whole time it fell we could see blue sky fighting with black clouds. Suddenly, it stopped and the dusk sky took on strange shades of pink then it began again, turning the 18th century artillery storage tower odd shade of greeny yellow.

"Hail," said the chief happily, "is a wonderful thing." The chief was my boss and the hail he referred to fell occasionally, mainly on the plain (prairie) in Iowa. I had a summer job working for National Farmer's Union (NFU) Insurance Company in Iowa. The hail crop division. I was 19 and my mind was on boys and parties and finding a way to leave home. I had come home from college for the summer.

To be honest, it was one of the two most boring jobs I have ever had, and I have dabbled at much in life. The other was for Touche-Ross Accounting in Milwaukee, proofreading tax insurance forms. Most people's taxes are boring but every now and again I got to see how much the rich earned and how little tax they paid, something everyone should see.

The job at NFU also had one redeeming feature, if you didn't count the excellent bakery doughnuts we had at 10:00 every morning. To keep myself awake while flies buzzed and the overhead fan whirled, I kept a running list of the unusual names in the files. Sometimes it was the way names came together. We had Folger Hogg and Holger Fogg as clients. We had Ima Hogg and Iva Hogg. We also had (forgive me, sir) I.P. Rainwater. These people kept me awake while I filed endless bits of information about fields across the American Midwest. They were typed, with carbon paper between the onion skin paper copies in pink, apple green, yellow and sky blue. The colors of the Midwest on a happy summer day when storms didn't threaten.

Our job was to rate crop hail insurance, take in claims and - I imagine, for this was something I never saw - do something about claims. The great thing about hail insurance, as the chief liked to point out, was that every farmer feared hail damage and needed the insurance while frankly, hail didn't fall that often. Personally, I found it easier to get excited about the doughnuts, which also came with pink, green, and blue frosting. I don't think they did yellow at that bakery.

We had an enormous map that covered one large wall, with three or four desks in front of it. I loved that map. It showed all the counties in Iowa, Illinois and Nebraska, the Dakotas and Minnesota, with all the county roads, which were laid out in a neat grid. Whenever hail struck someone put a thumbtack on the spot. The thumbtacks were color-coded depending on the size of the hail and I used to imagine the various members of the Hogg family and NFU agents running around as the hail fell, trying to measure the average ball.

Some corners of some counties got very crowded with thumbtacks. When I mentioned this to an old hand in the office she shook her head and grinned. "That's this year, honey. Next year, when they've all paid up and are running skeered, you won't see one itty bitty ball of hail! That's nature for you."

I might have found the job boring, but I did learn about the amount of damage hail can cause, and what it means in financial terms to a farming family, who sees weeks of work wiped out in minutes. Every time it hails, even in Switzerland, I think of those farmers and agents back there in Iowa, measuring hail balls. I think of the corn snuggling down in its ears, covered with corn silk, hoping for the best.

It hailed Monday around the edges of Lake Geneva, and I took a few pictures. The storm was wild but frankly, the hail was hardly up to a white pin on the wall map, never mind red or black for extreme hail. When it hails around Lake Geneva people worry about the dents in their cars, although grapegrowers worry about the wine for next season, with reason.

I thought about hail and realized I had forgotten whatever I once learned about it. Here is my refresher course.
History of crop insurance in the United States (did you know: started in 1880)
Biggest piece of hail recorded, from Kansas (.75kg/1.67 pounds) - check out the photo!
Duh, here is what it is.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Tara's birthday socks and pie

wild socks

Tara had a great birthday last week, with wild new socks and a pie instead of a cake. You can see all the photos (15) on flickr.
Here are some of the things that made it such a good day:
  • sleeping in and then having a long bath
  • having toast with warm jam just made by Dad
  • getting a new sundress and wearing it on a hike
  • getting some wild new socks that our new friends the Harpers brought from Florida
  • having a strawberry-rhubarb pie instead of a cake
  • eating raclette served over cornmeal, deeeeelicious! while adults sampled wine at Hugue Clavien's cave
  • having a barbecue where we made onions steamed with lots of garden herbs and a bit of butter
  • getting to eat as much meat as Tara wanted!

May you all have such nice birthdays when it is your turn.

Monday, July 03, 2006

News from the China martial artist vagabond

A short cell phone call from the middle of China:
"Hi. I just read the instructions on the malaria tablets and it says you can't tell the difference between the symptoms for malaria and a cold. So what do you do if you have a cold?"
"Go to a doctor if you have a fever."
"Okay. I'm standing next to a rice paddy. Oh hold on, that's a tractor going by."
[noise noise noise]
"Actually, this is more tea country. Someone saw me yesterday and asked me to go to his house, his grandparents' house, to practice English. They gave me a half kilo of tea when I left."

The line was clear, as if Liam were in the next room. Unfortunately, he can't post to his blog yet from China, since China bans many blogs. He left two friends to travel in a remote area by himself for a week, to see how people react to a lone foreigner. So far he's found friendliness, warm people and hard floors to sleep on. The economy is booming but not everywhere equally. It's hot and there are definitely mosquitos. And cell phones work, even if finding an Internet cafe is not easy.

Garden in the sky

After more than two weeks of too many tech hassles, I'm finally catching up. Several of you have blogs I like to visit and I've been delinquent: I will start to visit them again now.

I don't want to bore those of you who are not really interested in gardens with the details of my itching-to-be-green thumb life, and yet and I like writing about life in the dirt lane. I'm starting a weekly garden blog, called "Garden in the sky," at GenevaLunch. The first one goes up in about an hour so check it out and revisit, please, if you like looking at bugs and wilted and chomped-on leaves.

I'll continue to put pretty flowers here, such as this [Blogger is not accepting photos right now, so I will add it later] bourache from the mountain garden. They love the sun and do a good job of growing so thickly the weeds don't get past them, so I sow them around the edge of the vegetable garden. After two years they've starting resowing themselves, which is useful of them.
I might continue to post the occasional interesting creature, like this one:

The dreaded potato bug!

Which reminds me that Christopher in Hawaii wrote a comment about learning to resize photos, and how he doesn't have a camera with a lens that does close-ups like this. You can still do wonderful photos without this level of macro photography, and for training the eye to "see" photos a normal lens is still the best. I love being able to zoom in on nature like this (I once tried my own eye and wouldn't recommend that to anyone over about age 8). It's turned out to be a useful if expensive tool, rather than just a toy, because I have learned a lot about bugs this way. I missed most of biology class at age 15 due to distractions, and now I am astonished to see that there is a whole miniature universe buzzing away, with its own set of wars and bullies, beauty queens and so on. It's oddly comforting.

Christopher, your camera says it has a certain number of MP rather than MB because it is referring to megapixels rather than megabytes. I like about.com for all kinds of explanations, and I think this one is good if you are trying to understand what you have or are trying to decide on the number you need if you're buying a camera.

I've been busy developing GenevaLunch, the Lake Geneva region news and information site, and it's starting to take off. For the week that ended today we had nearly 500 new visitors and they visited nearly 1,600 pages, which is very exciting.

Today I also caught up on my posts for the Tribune de Geneve, Geneva's largest newspaper, where I write the only English-language blog. I posted something about chocolate because it's in the news here in Switzerland. I have something there tomorrow about the perfect (Iowa) burger, a tribute to American holiday food and growing up in Iowa. And that reminded me that it's been too long since I visited Don in Iowa, a gardener who lives in Iowa City, not far from the towns where I grew up. He has one of the most beautiful gardens I've seen, if his daily flower shots are anything to judge by. He also has extremely cute cats who make guest appearances now and again.

Don grows day lilies, or hemerocallis, which I'm just learning how to grow. I was excited to read that if he had a large sunny spot that's what he would plant. They are beautiful: I have a few but they won't bloom for another three weeks at my altitude in the Alps. And I do have a large sunny slope, where poppies and cornflower and daisies are starting to lose their color.