Thursday, 30 October 2008

Ghosts of Halloween Past and Present

I wrote this essay last Fall after experiencing my first Halloween in Geneva. I thought it amusing to highlight the cultural differences between my Swiss and Canadian experiences.

Ghosts of Halloween Past and Present

The tradition of dressing in costume for Halloween has both European and Celtic roots. Hundreds of years ago, winter was an uncertain and frightening time. Food supplies often ran low and, for the many people afraid of the dark, the short days of winter were full of constant worry.

On Halloween, when it was believed that ghosts came back to the earthly world, people thought that they would encounter ghosts if they left their homes. To avoid being recognized by these ghosts, people would wear masks when they left their homes after dark so that the ghosts would mistake them for fellow spirits. On Halloween, to keep ghosts away from their houses, people would place bowls of food outside their homes to appease them and prevent them from attempting to enter.[1]

Growing up in Canada, we adhered to our common traditions of Halloween by donning heavy parkas over our costumes before merrily repeating the refrain of ‘trick-or-treat’ while politely collecting our candy and traipsing across suburban lawns to the next house. Houses were frequently decorated with great ingenuity. Plastic graveyards, billowing smoke, and spooky music were common in an unofficial competition to attract the most trick-or-treaters. The next day, parents would subtly compare their numbers. “We went through $300 of candy last night!” or “We ran out of candy by 6:30!” (the sun goes down early in Canada by October 31).

When I was a kid of trick-or-treating age, my parents didn’t buy me a costume at Walmart. We used our imaginations (and our mothers’ linens) to fashion ourselves as ghosts and black cats. For three years in a row, I dressed up as the washerwoman character from the Carol Burnett Show, complete with shower cap and apron. And, we always carried the requisite Unicef collection box. Halloween was, after all, not a time to forget the less fortunate.

After my son was born five years ago, not much had changed. When he was two, I bundled him up in his store-bought fuzzy dog costume (hey, I was a working mother), put his heavy winter jacket, hat, and mitts on top and off we went. He trundled up to each door, repeated ‘twick-oh-tweat’, as we parents chatted on the sidewalk and then collectively shuffled 20 feet to the left to the next house.

Then we moved to Geneva. Celebrating Halloween has not fully penetrated Swiss culture along with the rest of North American pop and entertainment culture. In fact, most Swiss parents decidedly resist supporting it, believing the Genevois holiday Escalade to be more culturally genuine. Expats, instead, host Halloween parties to ensure that their kids don’t miss out on the fun. Shops devote small sections of a single aisle to Halloween decorations. Houses are not aligned in easily accessed rows in this country. They are behind gates, around 6-foot high hedges, and down circuitous paths.

So, as October 31 drew nearer this year, I bought limited quantities of candy in anticipation of the few expat friends who would venture our way. We carved a pumpkin and set up a small but cheerful display of colourful squash. At 7:30 Halloween night, my son was dressed in costume in happy anticipation of a visit or two and we were still lazily finishing dinner. When the doorbell rang, I opened the door unprepared for the mob of pre-teens who, literally, without so much as a ‘trick-or-treat’ poured into my entry, spied the candy bowl, helped themselves liberally to it and poured out shouting enthusiastically to themselves.

I was still standing bemusedly in my entry way when a classmate of 4-year old J’s arrived with her father. I recovered quickly, wished her a “joyeux halloween’ and handed her the last of the candy (she had no bag with which to accept it so her father’s pockets had to make do). We all then found ourselves staring expectantly at one another. Me, expecting them to leave and move on to the next house, and them, apparently waiting to be invited in for coffee. Coffee lasted an hour and our not-quite-finished dinner was hurriedly shoved into the kitchen sink.

Later that evening, after spying a glowing pumpkin in my neighbour’s window, I decided to venture over with the two little ones hoping she could shed some light on my cultural faux-pas. We didn’t have to ring since her door was wide open revealing several children in her living room tussling over the candy bowl while their parents lolled on the sofa drinking espresso and wine.

So much for the original objective of Halloween - "On Halloween, to keep ghosts away from their houses, people would place bowls of food outside their homes to appease them and prevent them from attempting to enter"1 - in Geneva, they invite them in.

[1] ‘The History of Halloween’

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Only Those Who Risk Going Too Far Can Possibly Find Out How Far They Can Go - T.S. Eliot

I love to run. I never used to love to run, in fact I used to hate running. My throat burned, my knees ached, and my lungs squeezed by the time I got around the corner, but moving to Geneva and entering my 40s changed all that. Someone once told me that once you are 40, you have to exercise twice as hard for half the result. True enough.

I started running seriously shortly after moving here in 2005. People are very fit in Switzerland, you just don't see the obesity that is so ubitiquous in North America. Add to that the aforementioned 40-something and I decided that the odd visit to the gym and rambles with Murphy just weren't cutting it for me any longer.

Enter my friend and fellow Canadian Cindy...marathoner, triathlete, baseball coach, mother of three and general superwoman. She moved me off of the gym treadmill and out into the Geneva countryside that surrounds our village. She got me going and kept me moving those first few months. The endorphin highs, fast fitness results, the clearmindedness and pure physical joy that occurs while running, and the magnificence of my surroundings have kept me going ever since even through injuries.

I took these pictures during one of my regular runs through the villages and vineyards of Choulex, Carre d'Aval, and Puplinge.

Now it goes without saying that part of the reason running is so addictive in Geneva is that I don't have to step off of curbs, stop at intersections or wait for green lights. I run on trails, quiet roads and winding paths through vineyards.
I am not looking at suburban sprawl and stripmalls. I look at rolling hills, mountain peaks, and depending on the season, grapes, sunflower fields, apple and kiwi orchards, spectacular architecture and travel magazine-worthy Swiss villages. It is an all-you-can-eat buffet for the senses and must be one of the most visually splendid places in the world.

It's a long climb from the flat up and around the hills and terraced vineyards into Carre d'Aval. The rising strains of Coldplay's 'Viva la Vida' echoing through my Ipod always push me to the top and I try to resist the temptation to do a Rocky-like fist-punching-air dance when I finally get there.

The newly opened Café de la Poste in my village.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Canadian Thanksgiving in Geneva

We celebrated Canadian Thanksgiving this past weekend by surrounding ourselves with our usual contingent of fellow Canadian expats and a mighty feast. The weather was near-perfect and the 9 kids in attendance had a ball playing football, swinging from a rope, climbing trees, and jumping into leaf piles while us bigger kids indulged in local wines from the Château du Crest and pretended to help with dinner.

C2, and the Captain giving Cindy the benefit of their carving experience (or lack of)

Cindy, Mighty Mom and I

Mighty Mouse and J

The previous day, we took advantage of this lovely, warm Geneva Autumn to hike our favorite Les Voirons in nearby St. Cergues, France. Two hours up and 1.5 hours down through some muddy conditions. Where else but in Europe can you hike to a 500+ year old church or watch silent glide planes soar by at eye level on the summit - breathtaking!

On the summit of Les Voirons at 1,480 meters soaring over Geneva and neighbouring France.

Puppies get thirsty too!

The 500 year-old church on the flank of Les Voirons

Monday, 6 October 2008

The Pumpkins are Coming, the Pumpkins are Coming

It is now October in Geneva and it's harvest time. It started with the vendange when all the vineyards heavy with grapes were relieved of their juicy burden. It moved on to the orchards and all the pommiers were picked clean of their crunchy treats. For the next month or so, we can stop at the roadside farmstands and buy apples, freshly squeezed juice and cider.

J loved observing the aforementioned unquestionably, but he has been waiting impatiently for the big kahuna of harvests, the pumpkins and squash, or les courges as they are collectively termed in this part of the world.

We have dubbed these freshly picked piles of courges awaiting collection, 'Courge Inuksuks'

The farmers had to lovingly blanket these'Courge Inuksuks' with straw as a frost was anticipated during the night.

A delightful little marché des courges has opened in our village directly across from the 2 largest pumpkin fields to which we make daily pilgrimages. Yesterday, we attended the annual Fête de la courge in Corsier, a neighbouring village, with my friend Mighty Mom and her family.

Wandering row upon row of courges

These are called 'Jack-Be-Little's

J and I enjoying a saucisse lunch at the Fête de la courge in Corsier

The view from Mighty Mom's backyard in Corsier. Looking towards the French Alps and Mont Blanc.