Tales from the Frontier - No. 7
Switzerland is a curst, selfish, swinish country of brutes, placed in the most romantic region of the world - Lord Byron
I think his Lordship is being a trifle unkind to the inhabitants of the land of William Tell and the Geneva Convention. But only a trifle. Why did he come to this harsh judgement? Did a lady from Berne resist his charms or one of his Zurich-bought insurance policies refuse to pay out? What was the explanation for his anti-Helvetian ire? He liked the snow-capped mountains well enough, but must have been convinced the lush valleys were occupied by a very unprepossessing class of peasant.
Maybe he was a touch liverish because he had recently split up from his wife of barely a year. She was Baroness Wentworth and being named after a golf course is known to be off-putting for a sensitive young poet. She might have been named after an American course and be Baroness Whistling Straits or Baroness Brickyard Crossing so it could have been much worse. But the Swiss could hardly be held responsible for his wife’s moniker.
He left England under a bit of a cloud. He was apparently dallying with his half-sister (not illegal but frowned on by the sister-less majority and presumably by the lady Wentworth), only to encounter a bigger continental cloud.
In Switzerland in mid-June it was almost perpetual rain due to an ash-laden volcanic eruption in Indonesia the previous year resulting in 1816 being named, ‘the year without summer’. Switzerland in cold rain can be almost as depressing as the Ruhr valley in any weather. (Maybe the real reason the Dambusters had a go at drowning it).
‘Wandering lonely as a cloud’ or the Byronic equivalent is no joy with rain coming down like stair rods. Icy water tops up your wellies, and your Young Romantics hairdo gets flattened resulting in it resembling large road kill. As a dedicated philanderer our George knew that looking like a rioter strafed by water cannon wouldn’t elicit a welcoming response from the local people. Being a wordsmith, ‘curst’ is probably the politest word he used as upper lips began to curl when he squelched into view. I write ‘people’ rather than ‘ladies’ because George was known to swing both ways and contempt for his sodden appearance would have been bipartisan. If the people weren’t ‘brutes’ they would have given the poor man a rub down and a hot toddy.
He and his team, including Mary Shelley before she married Percy Bysshe, did do a lot of wandering and Byron admired the ‘romantic region’ after clambering up and down a few mountains despite the weather. Byron had a lifelong propensity to seek ideal perfection in all of life’s experiences. He would have found plenty of that in the glorious mountains of the Bernese Oberland and the Alps but the inhabitants themselves certainly fell well short of ‘perfect’. The fact that Mary Shelley’s idea for Frankenstein’s monster was engendered in Switzerland is possibly coincidental. I have noticed a few flat heads but no eight-footers with neck bolts.
The Swiss, where Byron was staying near Geneva, are rather different from the Swiss on the other side of the border from here. There they tend to be more French than German and as an English aristocrat, Byron knew it was his duty to feel superior to, and disapprove of, the French. Presumably Swiss-French would have merited twofold rejection. Being doubly foreign and half-French has absolutely nothing going for it.
Byron was only in Switzerland for about four months so his judgement as well as being harsh was speedily arrived at. The few locals he did meet were probably just as wet and grumpy as he was and were more interested in getting into something warm and dry rather than chatting to a man reported to be, ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’. They wouldn’t be too concerned as to what his Lordship thought of them since at this time he had no money to invest.
As his comment above shows, he was not in the airiest of moods or at his most charitable during his stay. It was about this time that he wrote Manfred and that is far from being a bubbly light-hearted piece – rather an accompaniment for a wrist slitting session. Not the kind of prose to appeal to the Swiss where the finest writing is reckoned to be that adorning high denomination banknotes.
This is the official site for Mike O'Donnell.
Ignore all others of a similar name, only this one is the real deal.
Tales from the Frontier - No. 4
Every day confirms my opinion on the superiority of a vicious life. – Lord Byron
If reports are to be believed, Mexican towns on the US border are packed with drug sellers, buyers, pushers and runners. As far as I know we have only one well-known pusher on our border. Let’s call him Wilhelm. We’ll call him that since it’s his real name. Why the heck should we protect the identity of a criminal?
I haven’t known many criminals in my life, or if I’ve met them I wasn’t aware of their occupation. The one I did know masqueraded as a builder. Let’s call him Bill. That isn’t his real name. I’m not mad. He’s a builder! Got muscles to match and fists the size of a Christmas turkey.
He and Wilhelm have a lot in common, they both like the trappings of a swell life. House, car, exotic holidays, tailored clothes, fine dining, pricey entertainment, the whole nine yards, or 8.23 metres as we say here in Euroland. And both love to flaunt it.
Wilhelm has a huge villa that overlooks the Rhine. It’s got its own dock and boathouse. In his powerboat he can be in France in two minutes and in Switzerland in four. I’m guessing that with some of his powdered products you can be in la-la-land in five minutes. Travel is a wonderful thing. On the other hand, if you lived in such a gorgeous house why would you want to take trips away? I inhabit an apartment the size of the toilet on an Airbus A300 and the airplane’s seats are more comfortable than mine.
Wilhelm owns several cars. He’s very patriotic. He has a classic Mercedes, a BMW Series 7, and a sporty Audi Quattro. I’m more socially responsible with regard to pollution so I use the tram. He’s also got a VW Golf cabriolet for sunny days. Most days for Wilhelm must be sunny because he’s got a permanent tan. I’m a little bit pale. My wife made me buy coloured bed sheets because with white ones she said she was never sure whether I’d come to bed yet. We generally have to take our own sheets when we go on holiday to our extra-economy no-star hotel.
Wilhelm holidays in hotels with more stars than the Milky Way. Black silk sheets to order are probably his choice. He picked up his wife on holiday. She was Miss Thailand or Miss India or maybe Miss Universe – he can afford to go anywhere. She’s certainly the most gorgeous looking lady on this planet. Not that my lady isn’t a looker. She came third in a contest at Butlins. Okay, it was a knobbly knees contest but they’re a smart pair of patellas. Although you don’t get to view them often because she wears a polyester leisure suit most of the time.
Wilhelm wears suits made for him in Rome by Caraceni. He gets them there because that’s where Humphrey Bogart sometimes got his. Wilhelm probably saw Casablanca once too often and models himself on Rick. I had a suit once. Okay, the trousers didn’t match the jacket and it was really two halves of two suits but it was pretty sharp if you ignored one or two ketchup stains down the front.
That’s one thing Wilhelm’s suits never had. He probably hasn’t been in the same room as a bottle of ketchup for years. He only eats things with French names that look like abstract paintings on a plate. Like most drug dealers he started life grabbing a burger on a windy corner while palming off the odd Eight Ball; it didn’t take him long to realise that Swiss users had more money than those in Berlin and Brandenburg. He came to the border and widened his horizons and expanded his product range. He made money faster than the Royal Mint and the quality of his victuals rose accordingly. Rumour has it he has his own herd of Charolais in Burgundy and a château and vineyard to go with it. I was twenty before I realised meat came in an unminced form and wine didn’t necessarily have to taste like brass polish or come in boxes.
People complain that drug pushers like Wilhelm spread misery, which may be true, but I don’t buy his wares and have quite enough misery of my own. It’s getting harder and harder to watch Wilhelm flash by in his open-top dream car, with his unmatchable wife both looking like models of perfection on their way to fly off in their Lear jet to Mustique while I finger the coin in my pocket hoping it’s a euro and not just fifty cents. Virtue is its own reward so I guess I’m pretty rich but I bet Wilhelm looks at me and firmly believes that Lord Byron got it right.
Tales from the Frontier - No. 6
Man, being reasonable, must get drunk; the best of life is but intoxication - Lord Byron
I hadn’t realised how few places there are in this town to get legless. During my youth in the UK there was almost literally a pub on every street corner. Royal Naval recruits were unlikely, on their initiation, to make it a hundred yards down the Strip (Commercial Rd., Portsmouth) because there were that many hostelries. Inns like the Mucky Duck saw more than their fair share of capsizing matelots. In all major cities in Britain only an experienced drunk could stagger to the end of the main drag without falling aft over fo’c’sle if he had half a pint in every pub.
The axe fell on English boozers after drink-driving laws came in but I guess here the local German, French or Swiss beer aficionados have never had the dubious joy of doing a pub crawl. Not much of a crawl if you have to jump in your BMW and motor a kilometre or two to get to the next village kneipe.
They have few establishments in this border town dedicated purely to drink. Most of the food places sell beer but a pub crawl where you’re expected to scoff a plate of chips with every pint is a different kind of challenge. An Irish pub used to stand on one corner but it had so few customers it was finally bought out and converted to an Argentinische Steak House. The Swiss cram in by the canton load for fresh meat because even a McD’s burger cost twice as much in Alpenland. They mostly sip couth wine and not yobbo beer whilst munching their rump or T-bone.
Not that there aren’t a few winos sleeping rough. You can tell them by their clothes. I’m not sure if they put on their shabby drinking clobber to go out tanking up, or they naturally take on the look of the undead clambering from a non-too-recently buried coffin. And they all look surprisingly similar, as if they all might be family members or come from the same graveyard. One thing is sure, but for a few exceptions, they do not demonstrate Byron’s words as to the ‘best of life’. Mind you, having to down glasses of Pils instead of pints of decent real ale would make any beer-lover look like they’d been left out for the bin men. Not that beer is the tipple of choice. From my observation the drink is usually the fiery colourless spirit often referred to as Korn, a kind of schnapps with bells on. Its price reflects how many minutes it was in the barrel before they tipped it in a bottle. The bottles containing this White Lightning are always glass because plastic containers would dissolve like a ginger snap dunked overlong in hot coffee.
Not that intoxication necessarily means over-imbibing in alcoholic beverages. The OED defines the state, besides that of inebriation, as, ‘the action or power of highly exciting the mind; elation beyond the bounds of sobriety.’
The English are familiar with the idea of the excitability of the French and emotional Johnny foreigner, but the Germans and Swiss are associated with a sense of order and dour nit-picking. It is common knowledge that the Germans have no sense of humour (although they did invent the cuckoo clock) and the Swiss idea of fun is creating a chocolate bar the shape of Toblerone. ‘Elation beyond the bounds of sobriety’ therefore would seem an unlikely state of mind for the majority of border dwellers in these parts. That is until the Winter Olympics take place.
You don’t have to trek far in the depths of winter to find a ski slope. I can see the snow-bedecked Alps from the twelfth tee of my local golf course. Elation for the Swiss consists of hearing the hiss of biting ski-edges, the click of knee hitting slalom pole, the blurring vision of descending snow flurries, and beating the bejabbers out of a huge cow bell. An added advantage is that sponsors can flog a lot of expensive precision timers to organisers. The idea of money always excites them.
Sport that requires an outrageous outlay of money for equipment, club membership, or participation, has always excited the Swiss – skiing, tennis, Formula One, roulette, but for the Germans it’s all about the result. What pushes German buttons is winning – what, how or who doesn’t really matter. Anyone who has stood on the jam-packed Berlin ‘fan mile’ knows the feeling, and few win more than the Germans at the Winter Olympics. So, if you want to see the OED’s definition of intoxication in action here, it’s not crawling through a row of back-street boozers, it’s on snow-covered slopes, frozen half-pipes, and makeshift ice-rinks as youngsters battle to emulate their cold weather medal winners.
On the other hand, the writer, being ‘reasonable’ prefers his intoxication in a warm, dry bar. After a few jars, it does seem to be the ‘best of life’ during a winter on the border.
Tales from the Frontier - No. 5
I only go out for getting me a fresh appetite for being alone. – Lord Byron
One thing may be said of a weekend on the border – it is bustling. Several outlet centres have their home here and the out-of-town hordes pour in to pick up cheap jeans, shoes, handbags and other vital necessities. Many shoppers must have families with more members than the Labour Party. They buy by the gross. (That’s 144 for our young readers who haven’t encountered a peck, pole or perch nor a rod, chain or acre).
Once or twice in life I have added a second pair of socks or underwear to my purchases. It saves having to go out shopping next year, but never have I cleared a complete shelf of 34 inch waist, 32 inch inside leg stonewashed jeans as I saw one family quartermaster doing. I was only in the shop because it is a short cut avoiding the crowds queuing out the door for a fatty, tatty, double shot, soya mix crappy latte. (I think that’s what I heard someone calling out). Not that anyone was paying attention since they were huddled over their phones comparing what their pal further up the queue was going to order.
Crowds here are always a pain to negotiate. When I was a kid in the UK there were occasional gatherings of half a dozen shoppers who had saved enough money to make it worth while going into C&A or Marks and Sparks. If there was the smallest possibility of pedestrian collision a long exchange of ‘sorry’, ‘pardon me’, ‘after you’ and so forth ensued. Here, you get a short sharp Swiss elbow, an ice hockey style body-check, or several bruises round the knee area as they swing their overloaded carrier bags to clear the way. Only the Austrians can compare with the Swiss for lack of manners. (What do you mean, I shouldn’t generalise? Whose blog is this anyway?)
Large crowds ensure excellent business for the retailers but wide benefits also extend to the local council in the form of parking fine receipts.
Most traffic signs nowadays, especially in the EU, can be understood by one and all. And of course they may be ignored with equal ease. A huge new multi-storey car park has been built recently but that is pricey and widely avoided. Visitors seem unaware that nearby roads lie in controlled (and patrolled) parking zones. Some Saturdays it feels like I’m back on a packed parade ground during my military service, although the uniforms are less smart and the phalanx of traffic wardens are a lot snappier with their machines than we were with our SLRs.
There was a time when no-parking areas were clearly designated by multiple yellow lines, large coloured signs, and threats of hanging, drawing and quartering for the motorist who dared violate the regulations. That is clearly counter-productive since the new intention is not to prevent illegal parking but collect massive contributions for local government coffers.
French visitors and particularly the Swiss find this annoying. Actually the Swiss have no legitimate complaints because for a parking fine of a few dozen euros they could leave their gigantic SUVs in a side-road and hire them out by the hour to the local hookers. The majority of the wagons are roomier than most hotel suites in the neighbourhood. French drivers are less fortunate. Chances are if you intend to dally romantically in a Citroën deux chevaux then at least one limb will be poking out a window flap. A rumour abounded that the amatory spirit of the French ran to including a 2CV position in their version of the Karma Sutra and also in the vehicle’s operating manual. I cannot confirm this since no one I know is daft enough to own a French car when they can get a BMW/Merc/VW with more leg room.
Crowds at the weekend are not helped by us having a local minor league football team. ‘Minor’ is probably flattering since they are currently in the fourteenth level of German football and are having trouble hanging on to that honour. Their attendances are in treble figures since there’s nothing else to do in Germany on winter Sundays. You can go to church or hang around the football ground drinking lager, singing and barracking the opposition supporters for having a Smurf as a team mascot. One team did have a goat mascot. Our lot celebrated an unexpected victory over them by having an impromptu barbecue. Whether the two facts are related is not known.
So, if you enjoy being bustled by aggressive shoppers, hustled by uniformed flunkies, accosted by young ladies trying to lure you into the back of a camper van, or appreciate being screamed at by banner and scarf carrying football hooligans then our border town is right up your double-parked street.
Personally I follow Lord Byron’s advice and only take a trip out on the weekends to remind me I shouldn’t.