Escalade Celebrating The Pot of Soup that Saved Geneva

Sounds crazy, but the Genevians go gaga over L’Escalade, a tradition commemorating Madame Royaume’s famous soup that saved the city from the Savoyard invasion in early hours on December 12, 1602.

copyright Wikimedia Commons

Genevians held off the Duke of Savoy’s invading forces with a little help from a housewife. According to legend the night guard, Isaac Mercier, rang the church bells alerting the local militia. But the real hero was Madame Royaume, mother of fourteen, living above the La Monnaie town gate. She poured a pot of scalding vegetable broth over the ramparts. The heavy cauldron hit a Savoyard’s head, killing him as he was scaling the wall. The commotion spurred the residents to action. Tables, chairs and other pieces of furniture flew over the wall that night as the Genevians fought to maintain their freedom from Savoyard rule.

Every mid December, the quiet Calvin city comes alive in a carnival atmosphere like a giant street party. The event entails various activities, street artists and vendors serving mulled wine and soup at outdoor stands. Shop windows, decorated in Geneva’s colors of red and gold, are filled with chocolate cauldrons, symbolizing Madame Royaume’s marmite, filled with candy vegetables made of marizipan.

On December 4, the festivities kicked off with the 33rd annual Escalade Race where over 22,000 participants ran or walked four miles up and down Geneva’s snow covered, cobblestone streets.

copyright Wikimedia Commons

During the weekend of Dec. 10-12, the prestigious Companie de 1602, the society founded in 1926, organizes one of the most beautiful historic events in Europe attended by 80,000 visitors. The highlight of the fight for independence over 400 years ago is three-hour torch lit parade led where 800 members in period costume re-inact the scene in Geneva’s Old Town. Musketeers, pipers, horsemen, drummers are accompanied by fire crackers and gun salutes.

Though I have smashed open a chocolate pot or two as tradition demands, we never fully joined the festivity of throngs of people crowding Geneva’s streets. Yet, I can’t help but savor the moral of that little Swiss story. Supermom, Mom saves the day again.

Sad Day For Switzerland When Foreigners Go Home

copyright SVP-UDC

Switzerland the neutral, landlocked country at the heart of Europe is associated with chocolate, cheese, and cozy chalets but underneath this image of paradise, lurks an evil, ugly undertone.

A year after voting to ban the minaret, the symbol of Muslim worship, Switzerland voted for automatic expulsion of foreign criminals. After spending millions on racist posters promoting fear, the right wing SVP party won the campaign. 52.9% of vote and 20 cantons endorsed the proposal. Only six cantons voted against it and they were the French speaking ones, which many Swiss consider a separate country. Instead of hope, foreigners live in fear. Ironically, about 20% of Switzerland is composed of foreigners making up a work force predominately fueled by immigrants.

With illegal alien status in the past, I remember living in fear in someone else’s country. I have always been a black sheep. Pioneers live on the fringes of society struggling for acceptance in new roles. In 1980, as a 23-year-old, I emigrated to Europe for an opportunity then denied in my homeland, to play professional basketball. Since then, I have been at the mercy of foreign – French, German, Swiss – governments as an auslander.

Before marrying a Frenchman, I waited in long lines at city hall to renew my residency permit. I spent sleepless night worrying about obtaining a work permit, and then anguished over renewing it every three, six, twelve months depending on the laws of the country. Not allowed to sit on the bench, I instructed my French team from the stands when denied a coaching permit before legal matrimony. For years without work papers, I was paid “au noir” under the table for odd jobs.

Even today working and living in an international environment, not a day goes by where I forget that I am a guest in someone else’s country. As a white skinned foreigner, I no longer worry about keeping a low profile, afraid of being apprehended in Paris without the proper paperwork proving my legitimacy. In airports and train stations, I still feel anxious that I may be stopped and detained for some infraction.

But my fear is far greater for my darker skinned brother whose differences are more visible. Without steady employment, without family network, and without a Francophone spouse who can interpret the legalities and help fight for one’s rights and dignity, assimilation as a foreigner is difficult even in the best of circumstances. I chose to leave my homeland during a time when a career as a profession female athlete seemed like a frivolous pursuit, but even then, I never doubted, should my venture fail, I would always be welcomed back home. What about those who flee to survive, like political refugees and asylum seekers escaping from totalitarian governments and war torn societies? Or others like my grandfather who came to America in pursuit of a better life?

copyright Gérald Lechault (non SVP-UDC)

In the picture-perfect, postcard image of Switzerland, cows graze in green valleys where tidy villages spill out of a backdrop of spectacular white-peaked mountains. But underneath this placid scene, a storm is brewing. Is Switzerland as tranquil and tolerant as it appears?

Beaujolais Nouveau – Wine, Music and Fireworks

According to my Frenchman, Beaujolais (BOE zioh lay) Nouveau is not a wine, it is an event. Any wine connaisseur will agree that when it comes to wine, older is better than new. The process used to harvest the Gamay grape, involving an expeditious harvest, a rapid fermentation, and a speedy bottling, may be likened to the « fast food »of French viticulture.

Beaujolais Nouveau, a young wine, only six weeks old, should be drunk before May unless it has been exceptional year like the harvest of 2000.

Beaujolais’ marketing success, is in part due to the government stipulation that the first bottle be uncorked on the 3rd Thurs of November. The race to be the first to serve the new wine begins as millions of cases are delivered to final destination by every means available, motorcycle, balloon, truck, helicopter, jet, elephant, runners and even rickshaws. The Japanese, traditionally not big wine drinkers, love this light, nectar. Beaujolais Nouvea is sold in 110 different countries with Japan being the biggest consumers, followed by the USA and Germany.

Wine shop downtown Beaune

Four thousand grape growers cultivate the region of Beaujolais, which is 34 miles long and about 8 miles wide, just outside of Lyon, France’s 3rd largest city. These are the only vineyards, other than the champagne region in central France, where it is in mandatory to harvest the grapes by hand. Sixty-five million bottles, half of the regions total annual production making up one third of the regions entire crop will be sold as Beaujolais Nouveau.

Throughout the world, traditions have developed to celebrate the release of the Beaujolais. The biggest is a three-day party called Sarmentelles, which takes place in Beaujeu, the capital of the Beaujolais region. The festival is named after the French word sarments, which are the cuttings from the canes of grapevine that are burned in town on the eve of the unveiling. Lyon hosts a Beaujolympiades with two days of wine, music and fireworks. Across France, local shops and grocery stores offer a sample sip in shot glasses. Even in the Windy City, chic restaurants celebrate the wine’s arrival in places such as the Chicago Sky Lounge, Bistro Zinc, and Bistro 110.

This light bodied, fruity wine appeals to many Americans’ palates. Since it arrives a week before Thanksgiving, expats abroad often serve it with holiday meal, but not in my house. My husband, appalled that the sacred turkey be accompanied by lackluster wine that is more about marketing than quality, insists on serving the T-bird with only the finest aged Bordeaux.

French law adds to the hype by mandating not one drop may be poured until a minute after midnight am on Nov. 18th. Banners in shops, restaurants, and pubs proclaim, “Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé!” (New Beaujolais has arrived)

Every November 18th, though my husband is not a Beaujolais Nouveau fan, we uncork a bottle to commemorate a momentous occasion in our family. Twenty years ago, we announced to the world, “le petit Nicolas est arrive!” So I raise my glass to our son, “Happy birthday, Nic, santé!”

Downsizing Hurts the Heart

When I look out in our carport I am still shocked….”Honey, who shrunk the car!” Our new vehicle looks a fourth of the size of our old van, as if somebody waved a magic wand and turned it into a shiny compact model. Now my ride is so sporty and spotless, I am afraid to even turning the key in the ignition.

As empty nesters in a first painful step toward downsizing, we bid a fond farewell the 7-seater packed with memories of mountain drives, trips across France and basketball tournaments throughout Switzerland. But better to shrink the car than the house.

Even though in the absence of children, our home, small by American standards is too big. Our four floors, stacked like building blocks, house only two inhabitants, yet every closet is crammed and every shelf overflowing. I need the space to store all the memories.

My house begs for a major make over, a purge, a clean sweep, but I remain immobilized, as if parting with anything is like pitching a priceless heirloom. Shelves overflow with books marking each stage of childhood from Goodnight Moon to Bernstein Bears to Harry Potter to Lord of the Rings. I find it no easier to toss old board games like Candy Land to Life to Scrabble. Old sweatshirts and t-shirts representing every team my son and daughter ever played for – or even supported – line closets. Random basketballs, footballs, and soccer balls still bounce off shelves.

And the toys! How can I part with Nic’s pirate ship and electric train set or Nathalie’s Little Ponies and Beanies Babies, all 300, that she once so lovingly recorded by name and birth date, replacing the pets we never owned.

Alas even harder to part with are the papers, like my own Taj Mahal of colored binders filled with decades of anecdotes, stories and journals capturing first smiles to first spills from first races to braces, first cars to colleges, stacked from the floor to the ceiling recounting each age, every stage of our lives.

Even though I understand intellectually that my daughter, soon a medial resident, anywhere USA and my son, filled with American college coursework and commitments, have embarked on their own career paths thousands miles away. In my mind, I know they return home as temporary guests before embarking on their next adventure, yet in my heart, I am unable to part with the past.

In every room of the house fleeting reminders of ball games, art projects, research papers, road trips, and special occasions bombard me. As if by discarding anything, I would shatter that perfect illusion in the collective kaleidoscope of memorabilia that made our family unique and beautiful.

Solidarity with a Smile for the Computer Illiterate

I am an electronically handicapped loser with a capital L. Seriously, I would flunk out of Plug-It-In 101. Just looking at computers makes me break into a sweat. My mind is like that little icon going in circles when the network is lost. Yup, completement plantee, that is my brain. I feel so overwhelmed, ideas start spinning. I can never keep up.

First of all, I never follow directions and secondly, I never read to the end of messages.I never learned computerspeak or if I did it is a mishmash of franglais. (French/English) As soon as a warning pops up on the screen, « Time machine could not back up files, » I panic and run for cover. When messages like this flash across the screen, it makes me feel as if I have been thrown into another dimension.

I blame my incompetence on my French husband. Gerald is a tech whiz. He thinks in gigabytes. If he can’t figure out the problem, he has I.T. gurus in his company to help. Me, I have only one recourse, « GGGGGGeeeerrrrrrrraallllldddd ! Hheellpp ! The computer ate my paper. Again !»

The techno-speak terminology baffles me. Maybe if they called the toolbox, the gym bag, I would understand better. Tool bars, navigation panels, HTLM, hyperlink, book mark…how can you have a book mark without a book? Even those little pictures confuse me : guitar, camera, time machine, Adobe reader, toaster (toast Titanium) for Gods sake. I cannot visualize any of them. Where are the photographs, musical notes, movies? And where is the blinking mailbox I know they are out there somewhere, just invisible. I can’t get my head around it.

Organization? Forget it. Documents, files, sub files – I can’t see any of them. Out of sight out of mind. The only thing I can find on a regular basis is the blank document. Then as soon as I fill up the page it disappears in cyberspace, but I know I saved it somewhere !

Gerald makes me jump, shouting over my shoulder, « Pot, it ees seemple logic. »

LO-GIC. L-O-G-I-C. Find a system. Label, categorize, file. Must be rigorous. Must have a logical way of thinking. I don’t have one iota of either.

« First tip of advice, » Gerald insists, « Keep your desktop clear ! »

In our house, we have five wooden and four electronic desks, but no desktops, at least none that I can see. I no sooner clean off one, than another one piles up. I hear Gerald’s voice and I cringe, « It is unsupportable, your maniere of disorder. »

I blame it on an ADHD body and a creative mind. My limbs cannot stay still and my brain never remains idle.

If anyone is aware of a self help group for the technologically impaired, let me know. I would be the first to sign up. « Hello, iPat and i need an upgrade. »

Celebrate Books – The Memory of Mankind

Celebrate Books The Memory of Mankind For the past 29 years during Banned Books Week, late September, librarians and educators unite to celebrate our freedom to read and heighten our awareness of the liberty to treasure the written word.

I fell in love with words in childhood, while raised in a teachers’ family I was exposed to the beauty of books at an early age. I devoured books voraciously until I reached adolescense when reading was decidedly uncool.

I renewed my passion once I moved abroad in my twenties. Words took on a new allure when the written word in English was not readily available while living in a francophone and germanic language country. Then books in my mother tongue were like gold.

For two years, after a severe whiplash accident, my eyes could not focus on words in any language. When I finally recovered and the letters on the page stopped wiggling, I developed an ever greater appreciation for books.

The intellectual freedom to access ideas, to express opinions and to read what I want is my birth right as an American citizen. Protected by the 1st Amendment in the U.S. Constitution, as part of the Bill of Rights, it is a privilege we often take for granted.

Today I spend a part of my day trying to convince teenagers to invest energy in discovering books. Maybe if students know the book I assign to read had once been banned, they will be lured into cracking open the cover.

It is amazing the number of books that have been on the hit list, including some of the greatest books ever written, Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, as well as, the Diary of Anne Frank, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, Beloved by Toni Morrison and Color Purple by Alice Walker, to mention a few.

During the Holocaust and other troubling times in history, books were burned, which reminds us of the danger when restraints impose limits on cultures, races and religions.

Though many books are challenged due to language or content, few remained banned, like Adolf Hitler ‘s Mein Kampf which publishers refuse to reprint to prevent inciting right wing extremist’s violence with Hitler’s destructive ideology.

Ironically often times the religious zealots are the first to challenge books in public education even though the freedom to establish and to exercise religion, was the basis of the Bill of Rights on which our nation was founded. Puritans, Quakers and others left Europe in pursuit of place where they would be free to practice the religion of their choice.

Words can never be underestimated. They make humans distinguishable from animals. By comprehending the hopes, conflicts, aspirations, successes and failures of people in time and space, we can better understand the self. Without literature, education would have no articulated spirit and our function would be survival rather than aspiration.

The only positive outcome of making books taboo that I can foresee is enticing rebellious adolescents to turn on to literature, one “bad” word at time.