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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.