World’s Apart Posh Grande Dame Genevoise and Plain Ol’ Midwestern Pat

sitting in a café

sitting in a café

The woman at the table next to me is in that indiscriminate decade we call middle aged. She is immaculately dressed and as the French say, bien coiffée, which belies her age.  She wears a smart looking custom made tailored suit, an overcoat of cashmere, and suede boots, so pointed she could endorse checks with the tip of her toe. Her perfectly styled and meticulously, colored golden hair hides the grey. Her manicured nails, painted ruby, match her silk scarf, which draped around her neck artistically, covers any neck folds. On one arm, a solid gold watch shines from her wrist, and on her other hand a diamond the size of a sugar cube gleams.

Meanwhile, I cross my feet under the booth to hide my well-worn, scruffy Asiacs.  I am wearing a pair of Kohl’s black yoga pants, a Target Cuddle Duds T-shirt and a pink, zip up hoodie with Chicago inscribed in cursive white letters. My entire outfit including silver earring posts costs $39. 99. Clasped to my wrist is a twenty-buck, black Ironman Timex that I have worn for the past decade; I still need my students’ expertise to reset it after I change time zones.

walking in style

walking in style

Plagued with a bad back, I never carry a handbag, instead I slip loose change, my French passport, Swiss residency papers and a 10 franc note on the inside pocket of my purple UW-Steven’s Point basketball jacket. I don’t get it. I never abused my body, keep my health care team in business (doctors, chiropractors, podiatrists) and retain my gluten free, low fat, no sugar regime, yet my body is kaput. How did I get so wrecked? I wear tennis shoes out of necessity, as it is the only cut of shoe that allows me to insert my clunky orthotic soles. I marvel at women my age and older, who scurry down streets balancing on stilettos, carrying LouisVuitton handbags bigger than shopping carts and weighting more than an electric car.

I hide my-desperately-in-need-of-a-trim-hair under a color-coordinated baseball cap. I put off a trip to the beauticians because it is so outrageously expensive and to be honest, a bit of a lost cause.

I wear a thin gold wedding band and safire ring to match the Norwegian eyes my husband fell in love with, but can no longer see because half my face is underneath my humongous dark movie star glasses. It is the only fashionable accessory I own; however, I don’t wear them to hide my « celebrity » status, but to protect my eyes from the light due to a medical treatment.

Even though I have been to Geneva hundreds of times, I stand on every street corner looking lost, because I am unable to distinguish left from right. I looked as bewildered as a refugee just off the boat and marvel that I never get picked up for vagrancy. My husband will be relieved to know, I have yet to pass around my baseball hat on the commuter train home.

If you saw me on the street, you would never know that I have lived in Europe for thirty years. Always wearing my trademark tennies, I still look more touristy than the tourists.

Unforgettable School Trips Across Europe During Fieldweek

Every student longs to hang on to summer just a little longer. At my school, the start to the school is every student’s dream. The 2nd week of September we head off on field week known as semaine verte.

wandering in an Alsacian village

wandering in an Alsacian village

Oh no, this is not just any school trip to the local museum. With Europe at our doorstep, our back-to-school adventure includes corralling bulls in southern France, climbing mountains in the Swiss Alps, and riding gondolas down the canals of Venice.

Jewish district in Venice

Jewish district in Venice

Each grade took off for a different destination. The 8th grade headed to the mountains, 9th grade bused to Provence’s paradise, the10th grade to visit concentration camp and cathedrals in Alsace, and 11thgrade flew to Barcelona, Edinburgh and Berlin.

strolling the streets of Strasbourg

strolling the streets of Strasbourg

In the past I traveled with my daughter’s 11thgrade to Venice,

Nat & friends waiting for the vaporetto

Nat & friends waiting for the vaporetto

and my son’s class to Provence.

field week in Camargue

field week in Camargue

When graduates look back, the favorite memories of high school revolve around their week of bonding in places most kids only dream of visiting.

Join me on our back to school extravaganza – education at its best in a room without walls.

Camargue's cowboys

Camargue’s cowboys

Showtime at Summit Lake – Getting Back to Nature

Every summer I return to my roots and renew my soul at my little red family cabin rocking in the boughs of evergreen, deep in the woods on Summit Lake, Wisconsin.

his majesty the Loon swims by

his majesty the Loon swims by

At daybreak on the dock, I sipped coffee as the sun rose behind the tree line across the lake where loons danced in the morning mist. Six loons circled in a ballet of synchronized swimmers, one after another bobbing under, black hinds pointing skyward. One loon cried out, flapped his wings and scooted across the water 100 yards past the island toward the opposite point. Another loon followed. They swam one behind the other for 20 yards, then suddenly took flight soaring overhead looping around half of the lake then landing back where they started.

After breakfast, I biked the winding blacktops around the neighboring lakes, under the canopy of trees. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a deer standing so still by a sign post that I thought it was one of those Wisconsinite yard gnomes. I braked and turned to stare as the statue came to life. Timidly, with a flick of her white tail, the deer stepped onto the pavement. She stared at me and tilted her ears as if listening for predators.

Mama deer stares at me

Mama deer stares at me

After crossing to my side of the road, the doe posed, wide-eyed and hyper vigilant. I met her gaze equally alert, a prayer on my lips, hoping no car would rumble past breaking the spell. She nibbled on leaves, glancing back over her shoulder as if being tracked. Minutes later, she darted back across the road and a white-spotted baby deer bound out of the brush and to her side. The mother nuzzled Bambi forward onto the blacktop, turning to peer back over her shoulder. Suddenly a smaller newborn, leaped out of the woods. The babies, like frisky puppies, darted separate directions. Mama deer nervously corralled them  toward my side of the road, her eyes pleading, « Please don’t shoot. »

I appreciated her parental anxiety. I remember when my young brood wandered out of reach on busy Parisian boulevards. Finally safely across the street, a baby at each side, Mama deer locked her big brown eyes in mine, nodded her head, and then disappeared into the woods. I felt like the deer whisperer.

In the late afternoon as if on a private lake, I swam alone. No jet skis, no motorboats, no pontoons were out to break the silence. I heard ducks quacking and looked up to see Mama Mallard followed by five babies swimming single file in the reeds just in front of me.

swimming in the lake by the ol' log cabin

swimming in the lake by the ol’ log cabin

The show never ends in Northern Wisconsin. When the evening sun sets, mesmerized by the lake, a silver mirror of glass, I stare at my reflection. A family of lake otters startled me out of my reverie, breaking through the still water to dip and glide off shore.

I am living in a state of grace in perfect harmony with Mother Nature.

Only One Hotel Jungfrau (Mürren-Swiss Alps) Lives Up to Its Name

Switzerland is filled with countless lodgings bearing the name Hotel Jungfrau, but there is only one place in the world where that is it not a misnomer. The Hotel Jungfrau of Mürren, in the Lauterbrunnen Valley (Swiss Alps) can actually boast of offering the world’s best of the Jungfrau.

Built in 1894, as one of Mürren’s oldest hotels, it was renovated in the 1980s. Though completely modernized, it retains an old world feel in its wooden exterior and spacious lounge areas where comfy sofas line the windows and fire place.

happy flatlanders in front of the hotel

The construction of the Mürrenbahn in 1889 and the Allmendhubelbahn in 1912 brought tourists to the valley. British Sir Arnold Lunn (1888-1974) put Mürren on the global map when he organized the first slalom race, which was held next to the Hotel Jungfrau in 1922.

The hotel offers the ideal setting to fall in love or renew wedding vows. Owners of the family-run 3 star hotel share their own love story. Veronica Fluck, from the French speaking part of Switzerland, fell in love with Alan Ramsay from Scotland, and chose Mürren as the perfect place to raise two daughters. The couple and their staff are so warm and welcoming, you feel more like special house-guests than passing tourists.

Booking rooms, costing from 93 to 177CH per night, is always challenging as there is so much choice and you can never be sure what your are getting for your money. Accommodations are simple, but clean, and the rooms are fairly large by European standards. Rooms with views cost extra but hey, if you do ever make it up here what is a few extra bucks? For an extra $20 a night, you can admire the 3 kings right outside your window in 3 dimensions. In room 26, at the end of the floor, you feel like you can reach out and touch the mountains as you admire the sunset from your balcony overlooking the village.

a view from our room

Located next to the ski school, Hotel Jungfrau is ideal for winter sports. In the summer, meadow trails just outside your door are perfect for hiking, biking and adventure sports. However, Mürren is so small everything is centrally located with easy access to the great outdoors.

What sets Hotel Jungfrau apart is the hospitality of the owners. It also offers what Gerald and I agree was the best continental breakfast we ever had in Europe. A copious spread of cereal, fresh grapefruits, oranges, melons and pineapple, 5 different juices, 3

…and from down the hall

…and from down the hall

homemade jellies, dried apples, prunes, apricots, scrambled eggs, bacon, ham, beans (must be the Scottish influence), local cheeses and fresh bread, rolls, and pastries awaited guests. The morning chocolate, coffee, or tea is piping hot.

The mountaineers’ breakfast, included in the bill, was so delicious, we regretted not staying there for dinner to try the cuisine of Chef Hans-Peter Schaer. He combined innovative culinary ideas from his long stay in Australia and Asia with the traditional Swiss Cuisine in the Restaurant Gruebi.

The Hotel Jungfrau website boasts, “This is the only place where a genuine Scotsman serves a large selection of single malt whiskies in the Swiss Alps!”

cozy lobby

Recommended by travel guru, Rick Steves, I can also vouch that Hotel Jungfrau in Mürren truly lives up its name.

 

Open Market Exchange – A Sport Event in France

When tourists visit Europe, one of the favorite activities is going to the market filling the town squares with luscious fruit that looked as if they were plucked from Eve’s garden,  vegetables freshly dug from the earth , whole milk and cream squeezed from the dairy cow that morning.

Like everything in France, there is a savoir faire to open market shopping, an unspoken etiquette for waiting in haphazard lines that the locals would never breech for fear of a tongue lashing by their neighbors. As an American, I never understood the rules and was always overtaken by jumping little old ladies far more savvy. Forget the la crème fraiche; I’d be stuck waiting till the dairy cows came home!  Same with bargaining. Social interaction at the market is a delicate interchange. Nor was I clear on the amounts measured in metrics. I order fruit and vegetables by number rather than kilo. How many cherries make a half-kilo? Nor was I fast on my feet counting out change and hold up the line waiting while I fumbled counting coins.

a farmer's stand

a farmer's stand

French open markets are a must see; however, visitors beware, street markets are not for the faint hearted. Shopping at a French open market is like trying to play a sport without knowing the rules. Here are few tips.

1. Bartering – friendly bantering over quality, quantity and price. Must be a native speaker to understand the peasants accents and expressions. Also helps if you understand metric system.

2. Etiquette – who’s turn?  Lines as Americans know them, do not exist. Instead waiting in line the « queue », (also the French word for tail) has no end, or beginning. First come first serve rule does not apply- line cutting is also a fine art. Elderly French women, with years of practice, are very clever about this. Only a native speaker understands the innuendos to put someone in their place politely. Youth loses every time. Old ladies are best at this.

3. Choice – if indecisive like me, impossible to pick which item.  Only medical students could positively identify  animals body parts on display. We aren’t just talking liver, kidney, intestines.  Noooo,  French enjoy spinal column, pigs feet, tail, cows tongue, brain, etc.

Each part of France displays regional specialties. For example in Normandy, in addition to charcuterie, butcher, cheese stand, peasants sell  « bootleg » calvados and cider pressed from the orchard. I once counted over twenty varieties of olives. How can anybody survive working the open markets only selling olives ?

pouring fresh cream

pouring fresh cream

4. Pasteurized in France has different meaning. It does not mean sterilized, what it means is animal rights- freedom to grow up out in the pasture. Cow’s organic milk straight from the field to farmers bucket to market. Free range chicken. Wild hare, quail, and turkey.

5. Fish  should still be flapping. In seaports, boats dock at the quay and sell fish caught that night.

fishermen sell their fresh catch on the quays

fishermen sell their fresh catch on the quays

6. Don’t be discouraged if you find that the produce in your basket does not look quite as nice as that on the stand.

7. Best trick is to take a native along. If someone who regularly goes to market, the better.

In Normandy, the Parisian weekenders throng the marketplace elbow to elbow. My husband,  now a foreigner living in Switzerland, would never be served without his mom. A loyal client at the same stands for forty years, she knows generations of farmers who sell their wares locally. Since she is so loyal, they would never think of giving her soured creamed or bruised fruit meant only for tourists, for she would be the first to elicit shame with her sharp tongue.

Customer loyalty is at a premium in open market where regulars will always get the best cut of meat, ripest melons and freshest fish.  Just as referees always favor the home-team,  merchants favor the hometown loyalty.

Coffee on the Most Expensive Boulevard in Geneva

As usual I am definitely under dressed for the overpriced cafe/bar. It has been so long since I have ordered a drink alone that I am afraid I have forgotten how to speak French.  I duck in the doorway and like a regular customer, call « Café noir s’il vous plait » to the barmaid, who is polishing glassware from the night before while the espresso machine hisses with steam.

traditional Swiss café

traditional Swiss café

At 8 a.m., there are only a few other patrons, a woman in the booth reading the newspaper, and a sleek glamour girl, who carries her elegant 6-foot-5 inch frame, as if she is balancing a tray of champagne flutes on her head. Her glamorous smile under a long mane of dyed red hair illuminates sharp cheekbones on a sculpted ebony face. Her bejeweled hands, disproportionally large, look too big to belong to a woman; however, her high-pitched voice trills as she chatters with another customer at the bar. It is impossible to tell whether she is a model or a trans; either way, she adds to the decor.

I sink into the round booth in the corner and sit facing the interior, so I can eavesdrop, which makes my thimble-sized, $4 cup of coffee worth the price. I toss my jacket over the Victorian era velvet upholstered chair and absorb the atmosphere, imagining secrets from the previous evening, emitted from the dark corners. The locale is a mixture of black leather booths, dark wood tables and red chairs.

A steady stream of customers arrives. Businessmen clutching attaché cases in one hand and iPhones glued to the ear in the other. Wealthy women stir cream into coffee absentmindedly, whiling away the time until the chic boutiques on avenue du Rhone open.

Behind me, dozens of newspapers -Tribune de Genève, Le Temps, 20 Minutes – hot off the press from my husband’s printing company, line the wooden window ledges for the regulars. It is reassuring to see the clientele propped in front of open pages. It means patrons are welcome to linger indefinitely over coffee and more importantly, that some Swiss citizens continue to actually read hard-copy news, instead of online.

The barmaid sets a china cup of black coffee in front of me and I sip, savoring the flavor.  For another $2, I splurge on a croissant and break my gluten free diet to imbibe. As I skim the newspaper, I tear apart the flaky layers and pop fluffy bits into my mouth, which melts into buttery bliss.

Tables of entrepreneurs, wheeling and dealing, begin to fill. A couple holds hands and a loner downs a beer at the end of the bar. No European café is ever complete without it’s four legged friend; not just any old mutt, but a pedigree with papers, wearing a cone, like a halo over its head.

« Keeps Princess from scratching her face after surgery, » I hear the owner tell the server.

Oh pulleez! Face lifts for poochie!

Only in Geneva!

On the most expensive place on the planet, even dogs are divine, living like royalty.