Saturday, December 14, 2013

Cold snap

When I woke up this morning, it was -22C, -29C with the windchill.  

People think I'm nuts because I love this weather. I'm outside all the time in it. I walk to and from work in it. I walk the dog in it. I even run in it. 

"Why on earth would you want to go out in that cold?!?" they say.

This is my answer:



These photos were snapped this morning at sunrise, while Fergus and I were wandering around the Arboretum at 7:00 am. There was no one else around. We had the place entirely to ourselves. All we could hear was the hard snow crunching under our feet (well, my feet and his paws...). Neither of us were bothered by the cold. I was bundled up in layers of merino wool and my Canada Goose parka, and Fergus has puffed out nicely in his winter coat (which means less dog hair all over my floor!)

It was fantastic.

I wish every morning could be this spectacular. 

Get out there and enjoy winter, folks!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Mourning a hero

I once stood in the presence of Nelson Mandela.

It was 1998. Mr. Mandela was President of South Africa. He was on a state visit to Canada. He was invited to address the House of Commons. And I was a page in the Senate. 

There are few things glorious about fetching water and papers for members of the Senate. Save this one thing. Parliamentary pages are members of the honour guard of a visiting foreign dignitary.  

I will never forget that moment. Not for as long as I live. There we were. A group of 20 or so House of Commons and Senate pages, gathered in the basement of Centre Block. The Clerks of the respective Houses of Parliament were giving us our instructions. In a few minutes, we were to head upstairs to the foyer. We were to form two lines, through which then-Prime Minister, the Right Honourable Jean Chrétien, and his guest of honour were to walk on their way to the House of Commons. We were to make no noise. No applause, no talk. We were just to stand there like statues and respectfully watch as the greatest man of our time walked by. 

As we waited, we watched the news coverage of his visit. He had spent the morning meeting with Aboriginal leaders. Fitting given the parallels between Canada's reserve system and South Africa's apartheid regime. Cameras rolled as the Prime Minister's car pulled up to the front door of Centre block. We watched as Mandela emerged from the car. That image is forever etched into my mind. Mr. Mandela was wearing a Métis sash, given to him earlier that day by a Métis elder. I was so very struck by this, my own family history being intricately connected with the birth of the Métis Nation in Canada. Somehow, in that moment, I felt connected to this great man. 

On cue, this gaggle of pages of which I was a part made its way to the foyer to form Mandela's honour guard. As we stood there waiting, we were all so nervous. The solemnity and the importance of the occasion was not lost on any one of us. We had all been born into a world in the grip of apartheid. We had all grown up flipping through the pages of our parents' Time Magazine, which, during the late 80s, featured a story every few weeks about the tumultuous South Africa. We had all struggled to understand how it came to be that Nelson Mandela could be thrown in jail, simply because he believed that his people should be treated equally. We all understood the triumph that was finally his when apartheid died. 

And then, after standing around for what seemed like an eternity but what was probably really only five minutes, we heard footsteps coming down the hall. We heard voices murmuring in excitement. We saw the millions of flashes from the herd of reporters mulling about the foyer. 

And then we saw him. 

Nelson Mandela. 

The man who spent 27 years in prison for being black. 

The man who never stopped believing in his country's potential. 

The man who had an unending faith in humanity. 

The man with a heart so big and a spirit so indomitable that he forgave those who betrayed him, choosing instead to rebuild a nation rather than to let it be destroyed by hate. 

There, a mere few feet away, stood a hero. Still wearing a Métis sash. 

I am quite sure that I stopped breathing. Beyond all other sounds, I could hear my heart pounding violently. 

The Prime Minister, barely noticing that we were there, tried to lead his guest of honour quickly through the foyer. But Mr. Mandela paused. "Hello," he said, nodding in our direction. None of us said a word, having been warned that we were merely to melt into the background. "You are a quiet bunch," he said, his lips curling upward into a smile. 

And then, he stepped away from the Prime Minister and came towards his honour guard. His hands extended in friendship. "Thank you for your hospitality," he said, before turning back to his host. 

As the Prime Minister led him away, our eyes met. He had the warmest and wisest eyes that I had ever seen. He nodded at me. I fought an urge to reach out my hand to touch him. Instead, I mouthed "Thank you" as I shed a silent tear. 

And just like that, as suddenly as he came around one corner, he disappeared around another, whisked into the House of Commons to deliver what must have been an inspiring address. Although I can not say for sure. I honestly don't remember what he said. I only remember the overwhelming sense of awe that came from being only a few feet away from true - and humble - greatness.  

Today, the awe is replaced with an even more overwhelming sense of sadness that this bright light has been taken from the world. This world where there are so many trivialities. This world that, amidst stories about crack-smoking mayors and over-spending Senators, can seem utterly void of inspiration, direction, and hope. 

How will this world go on without him?

I do not know. 

But I do know this. Our lives - my life - is better because he walked this earth.

Rest in peace, Nelson Mandela. You have suffered long enough. It's our turn to demand change. 

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Quirky Canadiana at its finest - 101st Grey Cup in Regina

Last Friday, Hubby and I were relaxing at the Ottawa airport bar, having a beer and waiting for our flight to Regina, connecting through Toronto. Flying in winter can be dicey in Canada, but the weather looked good in all three cities, and I had checked the status of the flights before we got to the airport. No delays were reported, and all looked to be clear sailing.

And then, midway through my beer, I got an alert on my iPhone. AC465 to Pearson delayed. "Oh shit," I muttered. "What's wrong," said Hubby. "Our flight to Toronto is delayed, and we've got a really tight connection to make it to Regina." "Let's go see what this is all about," said Hubby.

And so off we went to the RapidAir desk. Where an Air Canada agent informed us that heavy winds in Toronto had closed down all but one runway - for inbound and outbound flights - at Pearson. "But don't worry," he said, "we still think you'll make the connection, and we're working on back-up plans just in case. We'll at least try to get you to Winnipeg tonight. And if you don't make it all the way through, we'll put you up in a hotel."

There was nothing to do but wait. So we waited. We waited while boarding was delayed by 30 minutes. We pulled away from the gate and then waited on the tarmac for another 30 minutes before leaving. We waited while we circled Pearson a few times because the one open runway wasn't ready for us to land yet. Finally, we landed. And it was 9:15 pm. One hour and twenty minutes later than intended. And five minutes after the flight to Regina was scheduled to depart.

As soon as we could turn on our cell phones, I checked to see if the flight to Regina was delayed. It was showing on time. "We missed it," I said. "Maybe they can get us to Winnipeg tonight and my sister can drive us to Regina tomorrow. It's only a 6 hour drive. I'm sure she won't mind."

Before Hubby could tell me what a stupid idea that was, one of the air flight attendants announced that the pilot of AC1119 to Regina was holding the plane. She kindly asked those not trying to make this connection to sit back and let those of us who were exit the plane first. This, of course, did not happen. But we made it off the plane quickly enough, and ran through the terminal to the right gate. There were about a dozen of us, all breathlessly handing our boarding passes and i.d. to the gate attendants.

We've all been on a plane stuck at the gate because it is waiting for the couple of stragglers. I admit it - I hate it when that happens. I usually mutter under my breath at the jerks responsible for making me sit in a plane a minute longer than I have to. So I was quite sure that we would face some fairly surly people when we boarded that plane. I put my head down - to avoid making eye contact - and shuffled onto the plane. But there was no grumbling. Only cheering. "Yay! You guys made it!" and "We were worried you wouldn't get to Regina in time!" and "Thank goodness the pilot held the plane for you!" Hubby and I got high-fives all the way down the row as we made our way to our seats at the back of the plane.

At any other time of the year, I would be willing to bet that the pilot would not have held the plane. That the passengers would not have so patiently and willingly waited for us, nor cheered us as we boarded. And that Air Canada would not have offered to put us up in a hotel were we not to make it to our destination. But at any other time of the year, the whole nation is not converging onto one city to celebrate that most Canadian and most quirky of events.

Yes, welcome to Canada in the days leading up to the Grey Cup.

Those of you with nothing better to do who follow this blog know that I am a regular Grey Cup pilgrim. Even when my team doesn't have a hope of making it there (it's okay, Winnipeg. I know we're rebuilding). And even when it takes me into the arctic chill of Regina in November. After all, that was my excuse for finally purchasing one of these bad boys:

I might have spent a small fortune on this Canada Goose parka...

The tight connection through Toronto was not my only challenge in getting to Grey Cup this year. First, there was booking a hotel. Hubby and I tried to book a hotel back in December of last year. But all these Grey Cup tour promoters bought up large blocks of rooms in advance so they could sell ridiculously overpriced ticket-and-room-packages. And with Regina being as small as it is, that meant buying up all the rooms in town. They even bought up all the rooms in hotels that were yet to be built! There was not a room to be had in all of Regina. Even neighbouring Moose Jaw, about 70k down the TransCanada highway, had no rooms available. For a while, it looked like Hubby and I were going to sleep in a snowbank outside of the stadium. Luckily, through a friend of a friend of a friend, we found the one Regina-ite who was leaving town for Grey Cup weekend, and we rented her townhouse. Which turned out to be much better than staying in a hotel anyway. Take that! - all you suckers who paid thousands of dollars to stay at the Super 8!

Then there was getting the tickets. Season ticket holders in the host city always get first dibs, followed by season ticket holders across the league, followed by the rest of the country. I hold season tickets with a good friend of mine in Montreal, and so I wasn't too worried about getting four tickets. But I didn't realize that we would be offered the worst seats in the whole place. I don't want to complain because at least we got tickets. But those who entered the lottery for the third wave of seats - you know, the guys who get to go after league season ticket holders and who weren't supposed to have any guarantees of even getting tickets - got great seats along the 40 yard-line. Ours, on the other hand, were in the corner of the end zone. In the temporary stands. Where there is absolutely no coverage from that cold, howling, prairie wind. Cra-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-p-py! Here's the view:

Hard to see from way back here... At least that sky is spectacular!

It gets cold in those stands! Bundle up!

Okay, so the game-day view kind of sucked. But Grey Cup - even for the most hardened fan of the game like me - is about so much more than these four quarters.

It's about two great teams who battled hard all year to play in the big game. This year, the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the West, and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the East.




VS.




It's about their fans who come from across the country to see them play. In this case, Saskatchewan ex-pats returned to their home province in droves. And the infamous "Box J Boys", who've held season tickets in Box J of Ivor Wynn stadium in Hamilton since its construction, donned their kilts and descended on the prairies.

Photo courtesy of the Hamilton Spectator

It's about all the other devoted (and crazy) CFL fans who don their team colours with pride. Even when their team isn't playing. Even though their team had a horrible re-building season. Even when their team doesn't even exist yet (Hubby represented you well, soon-to-be Ottawa RedBlacks).

Representing our teams!

It's about spending time with old friends, and making new ones along the way. Both of which always seem to involve beer...

Finally meeting my fellow Twitter trash-talker. Of course, he has to be a Rider fan.

Taking a break from the cold outside to come into the Underground Tent and enjoy some music - and beer - with friends.

It's about meeting some rather interesting characters... Like this guy:

Green Simmons. I can't make this up...

...or this guy, who must have frozen his arse off in those temporary stands:

Cowboy Saskatchewan?

It's about RiderNation, the members of which are the craziest of the crazy CFL fans (you saw the picture of "Green" Simmons above, right). Especially this year - when the game was on their turf and you could not turn around without running into a wall of green or stumbling over a watermelon. They even got their storybook ending. Hosting only their third Grey Cup, and winning only their fourth, their team - which they so passionately love and support - gave them an early Christmas gift. RiderNation, I'm sure, has never been so pumped. And while it pains this Bomber fan to say it, Congratulations, RiderNation. I really am happy for you (and my fingers aren't even crossed behind my back... mostly because I wouldn't be able to type if they were).

The Green Mile - RiderNation takes over the streets of Regina after the game
Photo courtesy of the Regina Leader Post

Dwight Anderson hoisting the Grey Cup during a victory parade at the Saskatchewan Legislature
Photo courtesy of the Regina Leader Post

Even Fergus, who faithfully watches every Bomber game with me, became an honorary member of RiderNation this year. Of course, that's because he was brainwashed by the people who care for him while I'm away... But if sharing this picture doesn't show you how happy I am for you, Rider fans, I don't know what will!

Photo courtesy of Dogs at Camp Ottawa

Grey Cup really is that one week of the year when we all put aside our team rivalries and support one another in our mutual love of Canadian football. We take a time out from our regular lives to embrace our quirkiness. We meet each other again, or we see each other for the first time. We share a few laughs together. We drink beer together. And we do it all in a parka and a pair of sorels.

Is there anything more Canadian than that?

Probably not.

See you next year in Vancouver.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Lest we forget

When I was in the first grade, I memorized the poem In Flanders Fields by Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae.

Courtesy of the Canadian War Museum

I don't specifically remember how I came to learn this poem by heart. I doubt that my teacher would assign a memorization assignment of this scale to a bunch of six year olds, although surely she read it to us. But I do remember the big blue book in which it was published, that I used to carry with me around the house. And day after day after day after day, I would read and re-read and re-read and re-read this one poem, until I knew it's every word without needing to glance at a page. And then I would recite it to my mother, to my father, to my sister, to my baby brother, and to anyone who would listen to me.

Where did this come from? I honestly don't know. There is no tradition of military service in my family. Grandpa was too young to have served in World War II, and Pepère was so arthritis-ridden that his service was refused. I have no siblings, no uncles, no aunts, no cousins who chose to join the forces. I myself never considered it. 

And yet, for whatever reason, this 15-line poem captured my young girl's imagination like nothing I had read before it. Perhaps it was because it left me with so many innocently child-like questions about why men and women kill each other. Whatever the reason, from the time that I was but a young girl, I have loved this poem. And Remembrance Day has long held a special place in my heart.

When I was 19 and attending university as a history student, I enrolled in a cooperative education program. My first placement was with the Canadian War Museum as an interpretive tour guide. My job was not only to give tours of the museum, but to do so in period garb to demonstrate the various wartime roles that Canadian women performed throughout our history. I was a colonial camp follower, a World War I nursing sister, a World War II Rosie-the-Riveter, and a member of the Canadian Women's Army Corps. And in these various states of dress, I would lead bus-loads of school-aged children and senior citizen tour groups through Canada's military history. It was a great way to spend my first summer away from home.

What made this job so special was not the fact that, for the first time in my life, my pay cheque was derived from something other than waiting tables for minimum wage. It was not that I was marrying my deep love of Canadian history with earning my keep. It was not even seeing the look of delight on children's faces when they turned the corner and saw the Spitfire. It was because of the many veterans who I had the honour to meet.

Like the Korean War veteran, who, in response to a young boy who asked him what all his medals were for, humbly replied, "Those, son, are for eating chocolate bars."

Like the best friends - both World War II veterans - who were at Dieppe together. One day, I caught them shedding silent tears as they followed me through the Dieppe memorial section of the museum while I gave a tour to a group of grade 7s. When they thanked me for my retelling of this tragic battle, I not-so-silently fought back tears of my own, overwhelmed with the ridiculousness of them thanking me.

Like the World War II veteran who, when he saw me dressed as a nursing sister, came in the following week with the veil that his wife, a real nursing sister, wore, asking me to wear it the next time I chose this particular costume.

Like the American naval veteran who, when he saw me dressed as a member of the Canadian Women's Army Corps, started singing to me "All nice girls love a sailor" and proceeded to regale me with stories about the pretty girls he dated when he was in the army.

Like the World War I veteran, one of only twenty-five remaining in Canada at the time, who told us stories of how, in the trenches of Vimy, he used to have to kill rats with his bayonet.

Like the former UN Peacekeeper, whose jeep had been overturned by a land mine in Bosnia, but who lived to see the unveiling of the new (at the time) Peacekeeper section of the museum.

Like the women who could not sign up for combat roles, but who joined the forces to help out in other ways because they wanted to support the Canadian troops.

It was these brave men and women who made this job the most rewarding that I have ever had. With their humility and with their quiet strength, they touched my heart, each and every one of them.

Fifteen years later, the make-up of Canada's veteran corps has changed dramatically. The last World War I veteran has passed away. There are fewer and fewer World War II veterans with each passing year, and at the national remembrance ceremony, their dwindling numbers can not but be noticed. There are more blue berets - from Korea and other peacekeeping missions - to be seen in the parade. And of course, there are the men and women who have served in more recent conflicts such as Afghanistan. These veterans are my age. They are younger than me. Some of them are friends of mine.

They are fewer and fewer in numbers.

The Veteran's parade

And so, like so many others, on November 11, I pause to remember. To remember my six-year-old's infatuation with a starkly beautiful poem. To remember Norm and Jerry and Nelson and all the other veterans I met during that long-ago summer. To remember the friends of mine who have, much more recently, done a tour of duty in Afghanistan. To remember the sons and daughters who gave their lives so that we could be free.

And to thank them.

Lest we forget.

The National Remembrance Day Ceremony

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Road trip!

This past Sunday, Hubby and I were driving through Upper State New York, down the I-85, on our way to Philadelphia to see Pearl Jam play back-to-back shows at the Wells-Fargo Centre.

I know that you are surprised that I travel to concerts that don't feature the E-Street band. But I do it for love. Hubby is a HUGE PJ fan. It is his all time favourite band. Which explains all those awful law school pictures of him with long, scraggly hair, Doc Martins, and plaid shirts... And since Hubby followed me all the way to Europe to see Bruce, I figured it was only fair that I tag along for this ride. Besides, Eddie Vedder's got some serious cred with me. He and the Boss are tight! He gave this moving tribute to Springsteen when the latter was inducted into the Kennedy Centre. Plus he performed a few songs with Bruce at the Wrigley show in 2012 (I was there - I saw it with my very own eyes!). If he is good enough for Bruce, he is good enough for me!

And he is good enough for Bruce, who left the swamps of Jersey to come to the concert. See:

Confirmed sighting of Springsteen at the Philly Pearl Jam concert on October 22, 2013
Photo credit: @PJ_Updates (Twitter)

(I went weak in the knees just knowing that the Boss and I were in the same building, watching the same concert.)

Anyway, I'd never been to Philly, so this road trip seemed like a doubly good idea. Make Hubby happy by seeing his beloved Pearl Jam (once from the Pit and once from the nose-bleed section), and add another push pin to my map of visited U.S. cities. Win-win!

Yes, we were that close - First night from the Pit,
second row behind the rail. Eddie still looks good.
A different view on the second night...

With two of our evenings eaten up by hanging out with 20,000-or-so plaid-clad grungers, there was not a lot of opportunity to explore the Philadelphia night life or food scene. But our days were free to wander around and add to our knowledge about this city.

Here's what I knew about Philly before this week:
  • there's a movie featuring a Bruce Springsteen song (you knew I was going to work that in somehow);
  • the Fresh Prince of Bel Air and Rocky are from Philly;
  • the Philly cheese steak is the city's most famous dish; 
  • there's a big ole bell.

Thanks to our trip, I now know a few more things. For instance:

Philadelphians love their Rocky: Or at least they love that tourists love their Rocky. From postcards to tee-shirts to desk-sized bronze statues to books about how the famous Rocky steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art have inspired millions to believe in their ability to do anything they put their minds to (including kitchily running the stairs), there is no shortage of Rocky in Philly.

And frankly, who am I to argue with a decades-old tradition of visiting the museum and running the stairs:



(There's a video of me doing it too, but Hubby wouldn't sing the theme song while I did it, so it's not as entertaining. He can be a jerk like that. At least he snapped some pictures of me jumping up and down victoriously after I smoked him all the way to the top.)

I still have no idea what a Philly cheese steak tastes like: I couldn't bring myself to eat one. Something about that gooey, processed cheese makes my stomach threaten outright rebellion. Instead, Hubby and I made our way to Reading Terminal Market, which we were told is the oldest covered farmer's market in the U.S., and got ourselves a roasted pork and provolone sandwich from DiNics. It was incredible. And the best part is that after running the Rocky steps, I had absolutely no guilt for having consumed all those delicious calories!

Love Park at JFK Plaza
Philadelphia literally means "brotherly love": I always knew that Philly was called the City of Brotherly Love, but I had no idea why. Are Philadelphians a particularly friendly lot? Is the city full of good Samaritans? It's true that I found everyone I met to be quite friendly and helpful. But it turns out that the word "Philadelphia" is derived from two Greek words - "philos" (love) and "adelphos" (brotherly). Thank you to the kind gentleman running around the Old City dressed like a colonial town crier for giving me the answer to this trivia question! And Sir, I hope you were an actual tour guide of some kind. Otherwise, you were just a touch creepy.

It is an incredibly charming city: Maybe it is because we stayed in the Old City, where narrow cobblestone streets are lined with beautiful old brown-stones. Maybe it's because of the history - Philly being the cradle of the American revolution - that seeps out of its every pore. Maybe it's because not one, but two rivers run through it. Maybe it's because of the multitude of universities. Or maybe it's because the city has taken great care to preserve its greatest relics and buildings. Whatever the reason, Philly stands out in my mind as the most charming American city I've been to thus far. (Sorry Boston. You had that title right up until this week. At least your baseball team is in the World Series.)

Nestled in among a block of skyscrapers

Residential street in the Old City

The tomb of many unknown soldiers - British and American - from the War of American Independence

The big 'ole bell has a big 'ole crack in it: Why? Apparently, because it was shoddily made. The crack rendered it unusable. Still, millions flock to stand before it and revel in its emanating aura of freedom. Having stood in front of the remnants of the Berlin Wall, Hubby wonders if perhaps the Liberty Bell's hype is exaggerated. Especially since, at the time that it rang through the streets of Philadelphia, the Founding Fathers all kept slaves. Nonetheless, the Liberty Bell - crack and all - remains an enduring symbol of independence and freedom, and an important part of the American psyche.

Like my Yuengling moustache?
Good American beer does exist: Canadians are known for being beer snobs. For good reason. We make good beer. While our American friends make that 4%-alcohol-crap that tastes vaguely like water. So yes, we enjoy haughtily making fun of Budweiser and Coors while we sip on our vast selection of microbrews and the like.

But it turns out that there is some pretty good beer local to Philadelphia. Like that from the hipster-iffic Nodding Head Brew House. Or Yuengling, from the oldest brewery in the United States. And unlike Budweiser, these beers are good. Like really good. I know because I had a few pints. A girl gets thirsty for a good lager when wandering the streets of Philadelphia.

I'm sure that I could have tried a few more local lagers at any number of breweries or Irish Pubs. And I would have liked to make it over to University City to explore the University of Pennsylvania campus (because I like to make myself feel old by hanging out with college kids). And there is a vibrant museum scene that would have been pretty cool to check out. And it would have been truly awesome to see a football game in Philly. But alas, Hubby and I only had a couple of days off before we had to make the 720km trek back to our everyday lives. And so it could be but a short road trip.

But we're already looking for our next concert destination. Any ideas?


Sunday, October 13, 2013

Singing autumnal praises

I love Thanksgiving. Mostly because I love turkey, that glorious and tasty fowl that takes centre stage during the harvest season. And pumpkin. I love pumpkin, probably because it gets made into things like pumpkin pie, and pumpkin cheese cake, and pumpkin loaf, and my absolute favourite, pumpkin ice cream.

Sneaking the last of the pumpkin ice cream at Thanksgiving dinner
But mostly, I love Thanksgiving because it falls right smack dab in the middle of my favourite time of year. Fall. 

Some people fear Fall as a sign of what is to come - a long, cold and harsh Canadian winter. But to me, the Fall is a time of beauty. Cool, crisp mornings followed by sunny, brilliant afternoons, wrapped up with evenings lit up with harvest moons. It is a stunning time of year.

But don't take my word for it. Feast your eyes instead on these beautiful photos of my favourite time of year - Fall.

Sunrise over Ottawa - early Fall

Parliament Hill shrouded in mist on an early morning run 

What is more autumnal than football?

It might be fall, but it's still warm enough for a swim in the New Edinburgh Pond

Running through the leaves at the Arboretum

Leaves, leaves, and more leaves

The turning of the leaves in the Arboretum

Taking a stroll down an autumn path

Fall at Dow's Lake

Happy Thanksgiving, all!

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Swiss wine does not suck... And other neat things about Geneva

When I say "old world wine", what comes to mind? France? Italy? Spain? Perhaps even Germany, if you're into Riesling?

I am most certain that Switzerland does not come to mind. I mean, have you ever seen a bottle of Swiss wine at the LCBO (or "dep", if you're on the Quebec side)? Certainly, I haven't. And I spend a LOT of time in the LCBO. Hiccup!

No, the Swiss are not known for their wine. Neutrality, yes. Watchmaking, certainly. International financing, absolutely. Chocolate, without a doubt. And of course, yodelling. 

So when I learned that I was being sent to Geneva for a business trip, my first wine-related thought was "Woohoo!! I will have access to French wine at reasonable prices!" 

But then, during the long plane ride over, seated next to a man who could not stop snoring and who could not stop creeping over into my seat space (eeewwwww), I could not sleep at all. To fill the time, I read up on Geneva. And I discovered that the city is surrounded by picturesque countryside, some of which is occupied by vineyards. 

Admittedly, I was skeptical. Because, as noted above, I have never in my whole life seen one bottle of Swiss wine. It can't be that good if they don't even bother exporting it, can it? But then one of my travel guides assured me that the reason you could not get Swiss wine outside of Swiss borders is because it is so good that the Swiss keep it for themselves. Sarcasm, I wondered? I guess I would just have to find out. 

And so, I found myself drinking a glass (or four - hiccup) of Swiss wine each night during my stay. And it was delicious!

A glass of Swiss wine in my hotel bar. This was taken at 6:30 pm. I guess the concept of the "5 à 7" has not caught on in Geneva...

One of the few bars open on a Sunday, near City Hall in Old Town, where I took a moment to study my map and plan my touristy activities.

Now I do not have my husband's sophisticated sommelier palette. But I found every glass that I had to be wonderfully balanced, with a lot of fruit. My kind of wine! I liked it so much that I searched high and low for a wine store so that I could bring back two fantastic bottles to Hubby. (All I could find in the grocery store was a Swiss Gamay, and wine-snobby Hubby is not fond of Gamay. I assure you, though, that the Gamay was perfectly lovely, and paired quite nicely with the Pringles I took from the mini-bar... hiccup...). So now, we have two bottles of Stéphane Dupraz, a Gamaret (red grape exclusive to Switzerland) and a Scheurebe (white grape found in parts of Germany but that I've never seen before), purchased from a lovely shop in downtown Geneva called le Boulevard du vin. Which also doubles as a wine bar. Where I sat down and had a glass of Swiss Sauvignon Blanc. Hiccup.

Some other interesting facts about Geneva for the non-winos among you:

- Geneva is French-speaking, probably because it is a stone's-throw away from France. Literally. Depending on which side of the Geneva airport your plane comes in on, you are either going through French customs or Swiss customs. The Swiss side of this border is called "la Suisse romande." I learned this from the bartender at the Boulevard du vin (hiccup). When I asked why this and not "la Suisse française," he didn't know. But he did tell me that the nicest people in Switzerland come from the French-speaking region. "Sans doute!" I answered! 

- Also taught to me by this kind bartender, there are four national languages in Switzerland: French, German, Italian and Romansh. Never heard of that last one? Neither had I. It appears to be an old language, dating back to Roman times. It is spoken by very few Swiss today (less than 1% according to Wikipedia), but still considered a national language.  

Courtesy of www.wikepedia.org

- Geneva is an expensive city. Outrageously expensive. Someone told me today that it is four times more expensive to shop here than in neighbouring France. I can only assume that it is because Geneva is an international hub of bureaucracy. Although United Nations headquarters are now in New York, most UN agencies have retained a large presence here: the International Labour Office, the High Commission on Human Rights, UNAIDS, the World Health Organization. Geneva is therefore seething with foreign dignitaries. Who bring with them foreign money. And they have to stay somewhere. And eat too. So why not jack up the prices for everything?

- Despite the relocation of UN headquarters to New York City, UN history is deeply entrenched in this city. The above-mentioned agencies remain in Geneva. There is a hotel on the lakefront named after President Wilson, the tireless post-WWI defender of the UN's forerunner, the League of Nations (and yes, I am showing off my history degree). He could not muster support for the league back home in the US, but its legacy is alive and well in Geneva. There are monuments to peace-keeping and other human atrocities, such as land mines, throughout the city. The United Nations inspires pride in this city, and its role is highlighted on every tour of the city. If you are not a believer in the validity of this international organization, do yourself a favour and stay away.

A UN building waving the UN flag

A monument to the Bosnian conflict, and to the massacre of more that 8,000 Bosnian Muslim boys and men at Srebrenica

The Broken Chair, a memorial to the victims of land mines. Note that the chair is missing a leg

The President Wilson Hotel, named after the architect of the United Nations

A view from the University of Geneva campus of three flags: Geneva on the left, Switzerland on the right, and the United Nations in the middle. Just because.

- Being infamous for their neutrality, I would not have considered any Swiss city a hotbed of political or social activism. Yet some of the most controversial (for their time) thinkers are from Geneva, or have spent a considerable amount of time in Geneva. John Calvin, key player in the Protestant Reformation and architect of predestination - the doctrine that all events have been willed by God (yes, I am showing off again) - is from here. The greatest Enlightenment thinkers - Rousseau and Voltaire - called Geneva home. Even the trouble-making wife of Napoleon Bonaparte himself, the one and only Josephine, lived in Geneva for a time. I had no idea. But for a history buff like me, and one who has long admired Rousseau's Social Contract, discovering the intellectual prowess of this city has been fascinating indeed.

Monsieur Rousseau - the most famous Genevan thinker

The International Monument to the Reformation, or Reformation Wall, featuring the leaders of the Protestant Reformation. Figures adorn the entire wall. These four are: Theodore Beza, John Calvin, William Farel, and John Knox

The University of Geneva, founded by John Calvin

- I arrived in Geneva on a Sunday, and although I had been warned, I was still struck by how few businesses were open. No grocery stores, no shopping, and very few restaurants. The concierge at the hotel told me that it is because the city is "très catholique". Which means, I suppose, that Mr. Calvin's reforms, while historical, were not as widespread throughout the city as he would have hoped. Nonetheless, he did succeed in converting Saint-Pierre Cathedral to the Protestant cause. I know this because a plaque says so.  But I also know this because the pews have no kneelers, and no Catholic church would be without kneelers. Saint-Pierre is no Saint Stephen's of Vienna, that is for sure. It is a rather unadorned cathedral, making it (and I apologize to Genevans and to all the Protestants I know, including my husband), my least favourite European cathedral thus far. What can I say. The Catholic in me cries out for some adornment. 

Saint-Pierre Cathedral

The plaque commemorating the adoption of the Reformist doctrine by the people of Geneva

The front of Saint-Pierre Cathedral

A sure sign of Protestantism - no kneelers!

The pulpit at Saint-Pierre

The altar at Saint-Pierre

The stunning pipe organ at Saint-Pierre

- If you are interested in the history of the Protestant Reformation, there is a rather interesting museum, the International Museum of the Reformation, that is well worth the visit. 

- All the above said about the lack of wow factor in Saint-Pierre cathedral, Notre Dame Basilica, the heart of Catholic Geneva, is not all that much more stunning either. Maybe the Swiss just don't like grandeur? Still, the presence of kneelers, holy water, and a crucifix above the altar did make me feel more at home inside this cathedral than inside of Saint-Pierre. 

Notre Dame Basilica, right next door to the central train station. Hence all the cables.

Inside Notre Dame, with the pulpit on the right

Stained glass inside of Notre Dame

Kneelers. Even more Catholic is the fact that they are very uncomfortable

A close up of the pulpit in Notre Dame

The altar at Notre Dame

The pipe organ at Notre Dame. Not as imposing as that at Saint Pierre.

- Being from Manitoba, a province known for its abundance of lakes, I have a soft spot for a large body of fresh water. And Geneva is built along the tip of a rather large lake, Lac Lėmac. I thoroughly enjoyed running along the boardwalk to start out my every day - despite the quantity of rain that fell on me during said runs. These runs also offered a perfect view of "la Rade," a 140 meter jet stream of water that has become the unofficial symbol of Geneva, and to which tourists flock. If you enjoyed running through the sprinkler when you were a kid, you may consider taking a boat cruise of the lake and sitting on the top deck, where you are sure to be sprayed. A little advance warning would have been nice, boat captain. I'm just sayin'...

La Rade - taken from the boardwalk, with Old Town in the background 

La Rade from the upper deck of the boat, right before I get sprayed

My chariot for a cruise around Lac Lémac

A view of the shore form the upper deck of the boat

Homes on the shore of Lac Lémac. Not a shabby view from the living room...

Lac Lémac at sunrise. Gorgeous. 

Just a couple of other fun facts, I promise.

- There are doggie-poop bag dispensers every 3rd block or so. Despite this, there is dog poop on every sidewalk.  It is disgusting. And it made my runs more obstacle-course-like...



- Switzerland may be in the very centre of Europe, but it is not a part of the European Union. Why does this matter, you ask? Because they have maintained their own currency. The Swiss franc. You will thank me for this piece of news. You will not find yourself in the embarrassing situation in which I found myself, trying to pay my cab driver in Euros. Luckily for me, this particular cab driver lived in France, where cost-of-living is much cheaper, and therefore was only too happy to accept Euros. I, nonetheless, felt like an ignorant North American...

- There is some pretty good local beer brewed in Geneva. I highly recommend the pub called "Les Brasseurs", down near the train station. The burgers aren't bad either. 

Nice patio to grab a burger...

...ainsi qu'une bière blonde

- There is such a thing as a cycling race called the Tour of Britain. This has nothing to do with Geneva, I know. But I now know that such a cycling race exists because it was playing on the television when I went to the best pizza place in Geneva, Club Espresso. Where I had a pizza. And more wine... (Hiccup).

Now I know what you are thinking. "Jay, weren't you in Geneva for work? Seems to us like you had an awful lot of fun for someone travelling on business..." And yes, I promise that I was there for work. I spent two and a half very. long. days. in this building:

The World Health Organization (WHO)

With jet lag. I know. I'm a martyr.

But the nice thing about Geneva is that it is small enough, that two afternoons and a couple of evenings was more than enough time to discover the treasures that the town has to offer. So my advice to worldwide travellers everywhere - Geneva is more of a bureaucrat town than a tourist destination, but it is still worth dropping in. Probably a good one-day-one-night kind of a stop. The lake is splendid, and whether one is Catholic or Protestant, the rich religious history of the city makes it worthy of a visit. 

And then, of course, there is the wine...

Santé! (hiccup)