Tales from the Frontier - No. 3
This is the age of oddities let loose. – Lord Byron
It seems that weird, eccentric, unwashed itinerants are particularly drawn to the border areas.
In old movies you sometimes see an Apache medicine man dancing around the corpses of a tribe massacred by the Seventh Cavalry. This bouncing traditional one-step is often accompanied by a rhythmic wailing. I’ve never been to the American plains but I’ve seen an identical performance here in front of the shopping centre. The dancer was no Indian brave in tasselled buckskin although his grubby jacket was leather as were his trousers and greasy shapeless cap. It must have been a regular performance; the Rottweiler lying beside the blanket and the bulging backpack barely flicked an eye in his master’s direction. The lean and hungry dog concentrated his wistful glances at passing toddlers which was disconcerting since he licked his chops at the same time and showed rows of glistening fangs.
The dancing, if the stomping circulation could be called dancing, was not for public consumption. I had believed otherwise because there was a brown cardboard mug sitting on the pavement in front of the gyrating dog-owner and I thought it was meant for the offerings of sympathetic passers-by. This was clearly not the case as a do-gooder tossed a twenty cent coin into the mug as they swept by and a column of coffee splashed upwards. Both the dog and man looked at the resulting puddle and the man gave a belated, “Oi,” at the retreating defiler of his refreshment.
A wide assortment of beggars do hope for the odd tossed contribution into their bowls, mugs, hats or instrument cases. I lived in Berlin shortly after the wall came down and there were dozens of wonderful former Soviet musicians busking in the U-bahn. Here the level of musical aptitude is more ex-kindergarten than ex-philharmonic. Not that there are many buskers. Most of the indigents are women colourlessly bundled like extras in a Mexican cowboy movie or as peasants from a Spanish civil war epic – metres of shapeless cloth: scarves, shawls, headdresses or ankle-length black skirts. These poor damsels at least look as if they need money which is more than can be said for the men who slouch on a precinct corner with a can of lager, a cigarette, and the obligatory mongrel, and hope for contributions to their off-licence, filter tip, and tin of Pedigree Chum funds.
There seems to be far fewer young females than young men. Maybe the qualifying conditions for the fairer sex are difficult to fulfil. From observation it seems that certain traits are vital for successful indigence; feminine allure is not one of them. You have heard the expression, ‘dragged through a hedge backwards’ concerning a rather wild hair arrangement but here this seems to be a literal description of the complete package. Add the facial ironware, piercings, colourful tattoos and Gothic application of eye made-up and you have a fair idea of the female denizens of our border street corners. I have seen primly-attired matrons cross over the road rather than pass within coin-tossing distance of these zombie film extras and their begging bowls.
Do not be fooled. In my limited experience these ‘ladies’ are by no means as ghastly as they look. I had a very pleasant conversation with one who sounded as if she had attended the Sorbonne or a Swiss finishing school by the scope of her knowledge and the cadences of her refined accent. She resembled the formerly mentioned Indian brave since she had a Mohican haircut but she was quite charming. I donated fifty cents towards her tonsorial and sartorial outgoings.
As with most western societies there is a lack of social funding here; more mentally-challenged folk are appearing on the streets. I have sat beside them on benches as they rip newspaper into squares before tucking them in a pocket and continuing with another sheet of Das Bild. (They might merely have read the paper – I’ve often felt the impulse). I’ve seen middle-aged men fill a carrier bag from a rubbish bin before hurrying on to the next one and emptying the bag again. I don’t know what to do to help them. I did try last week. I saw a long-haired girl in jeans and tee shirt. The jeans had rips, not only in the knees but in the thighs and rear. She was muttering to herself and walking round in tight circles occasionally waving her arms. I had to act when she headed towards the busy road still mumbling. I put out a saving arm. She pushed me away, flicked back her hair revealing her mobile phone earpiece, and jumped into her parked open-top Mercedes with the words, “Sorry, love, just been accosted by a tramp. This town is full of crazies.”
Tales from the Frontier - No. 2
The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold. – Lord Byron
You know who’ll rule the world if a dystopian nightmare ever becomes reality? The Swiss.
The Swiss? What have they got to offer besides numbered bank accounts, insurance and Roger Federer?
A multi-functional Army knife, comically dressed Papal guards and holey cheese.
True, but quality tools, primary-coloured stripey uniforms, and smelly Emmental aren’t the things that will count in a devastated world.
Right! Prompt, efficient snaffling up of available resources will be the prime directive.
So what can bankers, insurance-sellers, chocolate munchers and cuckoo clock makers bring to the survival table?
I’ll tell you. The majority of the Swiss population have border-town shopping experience in Germany.
And nipping into Merkel-land to fill a Lidl carrier bag with bratwurst, Black Forest gateau, Bitburger lager and pumpernickel helps in what way?
You obviously haven’t been on the frontier front line. The hordes of Genghis Khan galloping over the Steppes on hairy ponies have nothing on our neighbours when it comes to marauding. The Swiss pour over the mountains in SUVs the size of two garden sheds. The roads across the border are as clogged as the Honiton by-pass during bank holidays in the 1960s.
Picture the scene. From every canton come columns of mechanised soldier ants pillaging the frontier supermarkets. The Women’s Institute Special Shopping Forces could do no better job of clearing Marktkauf, Lidl and Aldi shelves. The tills hum to frantic beepings of barcode readers. High denomination sheaves of colourful Franken notes are thrust at sweating checkout personnel while till receipts the length of loo rolls are offered in return. Empty trolleys once filled beyond their acceptable weight limit, wheels akimbo, lie abandoned resembling a modern retreat from Moscow. Departing vehicles are packed like Japanese underground carriages at rush hour. Parking attendants shoulder doors closed compressing drivers and purchases into the bulging compartments. It’s not a pretty sight.
Not just the Swiss, surely? What about the French? They’re as close aren’t they?
True. A bridge not far enough. Two actually. A footbridge and road bridge across the Rhine. The French have more style but less money than the world’s bankers. Added to which an ageing 2CV or Peugot 306 can’t carry the provisions that a mobile Alpine chalet with a Zurich numberplate can. Anyway, the French think they have better wine, tastier cheese, and prefer vegetables that don’t look as if the trip from Spain was too much for them. The French come to fulfil their Manifest Destiny – to shrug, be a nuisance and get in the way. The really ancient ones’ memories are a bit dodgy so they aren’t sure whether Alsace is in Germany or France this year since they didn’t have to cross a border.
The Swiss do have border posts don’t they?
In name only. All the Customs boys do is stamp forms so that the neutrals can get the VAT back from their pillaging. Better than smuggling because it’s legal. The Swiss are only intent on ‘filling their boots’, or any other container for that matter. The Urban Dictionary defines the expression ‘fill your boots’ as: ‘an invitation to partake with gusto’ and you rarely see so much gusto in one place.
So if the North Koreans, Israelis, Iranians or Trump cause a holocaust, the Swiss will be okay?
Yup. they’ll have the experience to expertly hoover up all the remaining resources and head back to the mountains.
But only the ones who live on the frontier, surely?
Well, that’s the beauty of the country – nowhere is more than 45 miles from a frontier as the vulture flies, so all the Swiss should have some border shopping experience. On Doomsday they’ll be singing their national song stolen from the Bee Gees, ‘We win again’ as they unload their trucks.
Tales from the Frontier - No. 1
There was a sound of revelry by night. – Lord Byron
The advantage of living where three borders meet is the abundance of celebrations. To begin with there are three national days. Although to be honest the Germans don’t go overboard for their National Day.
Some countries celebrate with parades, fêtes, galas, concerts and fireworks, but since a couple of men in smart suits had merely signed a German reunification document, only muted jollifications were merited. A quarter of Germans take the chance of the public holiday to have a lie-in. The Germans are still a bit wary about holding national military parades.
On July 14 naturally the French want to let off fireworks, have a good old knees-up and run about and shout to mark the storming of an old prison (even if it was almost empty). French victories are few and far between so memories of successful belligerent acts are made much of.
The Swiss do have a different take on paperwork. They consider any signing, collecting, filing or movement of it to be sacred. Hardly surprising since it is the national occupation. Insurance, banking, and being neutral are hardly Action Man activities but do require a lot of bumf. Their national day honours the peaceful signing in 1291 of the Federal Charter beginning the Swiss confederation. Wikipedia suggests August 1 is celebrated with paper lantern parades, bonfires, hanging strings of Swiss flags, fireworks and competitive rifle shooting matches. Blanks are probably used for Health and Safety reasons.
The Swiss are fond of fireworks. Major displays burst over Basel both on National Day and on New Year’s Eve. I imagine there is much cowering under sofas in the houses lining the Rhine by domestic wildlife and the timorous while fireworks explode like the bombardment before a WW I assault. The Swiss have experienced very few ‘over-the-top’ flurries during the last few centuries so the booms and bangs are a bit of a novelty.
Shops usually shut on days of national festivities so being a short stroll from another country means you can still get your half-litre of milch/lait and baguette/brötchen most days of the year. You don’t even have to use Franken when you shop in Switzerland, they take anything that even vaguely resembles money, although their idea of exchange rate is on a par with the Great Train robbers – they end up with sacks of banknotes and you come away with a headache.
Shops usually close in all three countries for at least one day over Christmas but you do get the advantage of having a load of different Christmas markets to chose from. Not that that there is a great contrast in the separate markets. The quality of glühwein varies and local snacks differ somewhat although a bratwurst by any other name is still a fleshy vehicle for non-Coleman’s mustard. You can probably buy a Peruvian cap with ear-flaps knitted from llama’s wool in all three and a crib scene cut from plywood purporting to come from the Erzegebirge or one of the whittling Swiss cantons or French woodworking departements. One thing you should not expect when attending a Christmas market is late night revelry. Most close pretty promptly at ten o’clock or earlier which is just as well because glühwein seems to make most people sleepy rather than boisterous and eager for late-night action.
I always wonder what they do with the potting sheds they use as stalls for the other eleven months of the year. They do pop up occasionally when a town celebrates the day they received their charter or they hold a mediaeval style festival. Much the same fare is available although it has an event-fitting name. It is sold by someone wearing a tabard, tights and a cap with a feather in it or a shapeless floor-length skirt with an apron and bonnet. And as ever, everything stops when the sun goes down and the little huts go back to their long exile.
An added benefit of a border area is that you get more theatres, museums and art galleries, although of course presented in different languages. And language can be a bit of a problem. You thought you had a decent grasp of French or German until you hit a serious Schwartzwald or Vosges mountain dialect but even then you might muddle through. You can forget that when it comes to Schwyzer-Deutsch. Nine more words come along while you’re still struggling to decipher the first. Vowels are clipped variables and consonants are spat or hawked out and the whole lot is crammed into as short a sound-bite as possible. My theory is that it’s an attempt to save breath for clambering up alpine slopes. And that’s also a border plus – you get three different national sceneries, but that’s another story.