There are certain animals that eat their own young, and I’m really quite surprised the rate of this isn’t higher among humans. Children are like war – every now and again, it’s good to have a small one, albeit only to remind you of why they’re not a good way to live. At the moment, we are doing pseudo-parental duty, in that we are taking care of two small proto-humans belonging to Chris’s step-daugher, who is off looking at houses.

This is, of course, the royal “we”. I did ask if there was anything I could do to help, but Chris, bless her heart, pretended not to hear me as she inserted the bottle, plugging a mewling infant. But if a wriggling package ever needs to be held at arm’s length, for perhaps as long as 30 seconds, I’m your man. Though do have to say, all is, for the moment, calm and quiet on the child front, and that’s without the need for the application of duct-tape.

It’s amazing the power that a Disney movie can exercise, and there is rapt attention in the room. I think they must insert subliminal messages on the tapes: “be calm…look at the cute animals…purchase the merchandise…” If only there were Matrix-like vats, in which babies could be inserted, with a continuous stream of animated features piped in until the subjects reached maturity, and could be popped out into the world as fully-functioning adults. Even I might be prepared to contemplate having kids then.

When I look at a baby, I can’t help wondering what it’s thinking about. There’s clearly nothing being wasted on survival work – finding stuff to eat, keeping warm, avoiding enemies – so I think there’s a great deal of unused brain capacity rattling around. Maybe we should wire a couple of hundred infants together in a neural network and see what comes out. Possibly nothing more than a gurgled musak version of Girl From Ipanema, the brain’s equivalent of being kept on hold for the first three years, but just possibly we might discover the source of that expression of absolute and beatific calm.

I think it’s the long-term responsibility that puts me off having kids. Gazelles have it right: twenty minutes after birth, you’re galloping across the prairie, and if you’re not, here come the vultures with their tickets to the all-you-can-gobble buffet. For the human race, it’s at least a dozen years before they can safely be left at home to their own devices, and until then it’s like having a ball and chain tied to your leg, that needs to be fed three times a day.

We were at the local wrestling federation last night, and a woman in the front row was carrying her new-born in her arms. To misquote Reese Witherspoon. “Look at you, you have a baby! In a brawl!” I was hoping that at some point, one of the participants would grab it and start hitting his opponent over the head with it. This probably explains why I have never been asked to run a wrestling promotion. Hey, I’m not cruel, I’d have used a stunt infant…

How I Spent My Vacation, Part 4: On a Swiss roll

Previously: The Hills are Alive…

The journey from Munich to Zurich was phenomenal. Never, in my wildest dreams, had I ever imagined a train with seat-back televisions showing “in-flight” movies. Der Deutsche Bundesbahn rules! I have, however, grown horribly used to this first-class travel thing, and am extremely glad I now longer have to deal with Thameslink on a daily basis. Or, indeed, any basis.

The train sneaks around the edge of a lake, and pops its head into Austria, meaning that a) we needn’t have bother going to Salzburg to tick that country off, and b) in the space of 30 minutes, we’ve been in Austria, Germany and Switzerland. Chris is impressed, coming from a land where you can drive for six hours and still be in the same state.

We arrive in Zurich and for the first time since leaving home, have to change money, since the gnomes aren’t part of economic union. Though Switzerland being Switzerland, they would probably accept any form of currency: diamonds, unwanted kidneys, gold teeth pried from the heads of Holocaust victims, etc. They have a refreshingly up-front approach to capitalism, and wandering down Bahnhofstrasse, the main street, we notice there are probably as many banks as department stores.

We also notice in the supermarket, that prices are significantly higher than the rest of Europe. I recall that in my backpacker days, I largely survived visiting Switzerland on a subsistence diet of bread and chocolate. Thankfully, the budget is not so restricted on this trip, but anyone planning to stay any length of time in the country should bring a big bank-roll.

There isn’t actually that much to do in Zurich, though we are impressed by the massive underground shopping complex by the train station. The only place we’ve seen anything similar is Montreal, presumably serving a similar purpose, saving consumers from having to brave the winter snows. We relax on a boat cruise round the lake, which is remarkably cheap and passes the time nicely. I have another flashback to backpacker days, having to consume rapidly a box of chocolate wafer things, in order to prevent serious meltage. All I needed to complete the picture was a bottle of Orangina and I’d have been right back there in 1986.

Our hotel is at one end of the Niederdorfstrasse which is, effectively, Zurich’s nightlife. Bars, restaurants, strip-clubs, cinemas, discos and venues of uncertain but likely highly-dubious purpose line the pedestrianised street for about half-a-mile on both sides. We settle on a Swiss restaurant, and discover the national cuisine doesn’t stop at fondue. There’s also raclette – though this also involves cheese and a similar do-it-yourself approach to cooking. You get a little grill on your table, for you to melt your own cheese, then chuck it on top of potatoes or other vegetables. With a diet apparently consisting of dairy products, quite how the Swiss have half the heart-disease rate the British do, escapes me. Must be all that yodelling.

Having more or less exhausted the entertainment potential of Zurich, we opt to spend the next day – the last “proper” one of the holiday – in Bern, capital of Switzerland, and home of the famous bear-pits. Readers of a certain age may, like me, fondly remember the Mary Plain books from their youth, about a bear who lived there. The reality is slightly different – they don’t talk, for starters – but they’re still undeniably cute, nonetheless.

You can buy bags of fruit to lob at them, and these large, slow-moving creatures are remarkably adept at plucking them out of the air, like furry goalkeepers. Beside the pits is a gift-shop selling plush versions in every conceivable size and pose. More interestingly to us, there is also a micro-brewery in an old tram garage. Despite what seems to me an obvious opportunity, it is not called the Beer Pit. 🙂

Swaying slightly, we make our way back through town. It is a very pretty place, with a lot of 16th century, etc. buildings and most of the pavements are covered galleries – presumably a medieval version of Zurich’s underground malls. We are particularly grateful for this, when it starts to chuck it down with the sort of intense work-ethic you only find in Swiss precipitation.

One lowlight is the clock near the town square, built up by the guidebooks as a major attraction and masterpiece of mechanised art. Come the hour, and the streets are thronged with tourists and you can hardly hear for the whirring of camcorders. A ring of small statues circles briefly, and a figure at the top rings a bell. The crowd wait excitedly for the main event. And wait. And wait. You can hear “Was that it?” in twelve different languages. Ten minutes later, the more optimistic tourists are still hanging round. It may have been cutting-edge stuff in the 16th century, but that was when stoning lepers was the main competition as far as entertainment goes.

On the up side, the city does have a fabulous range of statues dotted around, depicting various figures of myth, legend and history. Our favourite was the Kindlifresserbrunnen, an ogre shown stuffing a baby in its mouth as a light snack, with further courses dangling from its belt. Whatever the story is behind that one, it is unlikely to be turned into a Disney cartoon anytime soon.

We return to Zurich for a final meal, sitting outdoors at a quite superb Italian restaurant. It’s a somewhat nomadic existence, as we refuse to surrender to the pouring rain which begins almost immediately we sit down. It’s a constant battle involving umbrellas, canopies and our occupying four different tables over two courses, but nothing can spoil the mood. The waitress probably thought we were utterly mad, as we giggled hysterically and built dams of napkins to direct the water away from our plates.

But it’s time to go home. We take the night-train to Paris, and kill a few hours there – emphasis on “kill”, as that’s what the 384 steps at the Arc De Triomphe almost do to us. The views from the top are quite magnificent, however. Once the pink mist has cleared from our eyes, anyway. Then, it’s back to London and (after one last British curry!) a flight back to Phoenix. On the way across, we’d been upgraded to Club World after “subtly” mentioning we were getting married [I think wearing “Jim + Chris – The Wedding Tour” T-shirts may have helped here]. No such luck on the way back; crammed into “World Traveller” with the rest of the economy scum, really brought home that the holiday was over…

The honeymoon, on the other hand, is only just beginning…

Jim enters Boss Level

A significant step forward has been taken this week in the evolution of our business; we have become employers, rather than employees! Okay, admittedly we’re only talking our teenage daughter, Emily, and one of her friends, but it’s the first time I have ever been actively involved in paying someone to work for me. Even in the dark decade at HSBC, while there were occasional attempts to inflict responsibility on me, these were always resisted strenuously. My laissez-faire approach to such things (summarised as, “I won’t hassle you, you don’t hassle me”) meant I was never tagged for my leadership potential. Which is just the way I wanted it, given the sense of humour removal and frontal lobotomy which seemed to be required once you reached a certain level there.

However, I now find myself the co-employer of a workforce of two, albeit a workforce only there for two hours a day after school. Old habits die hard though, and I have largely avoided the lengthy, tedious and on-going training process, mainly consisting of teaching them the difference between poppy and picture jasper. This is likely because I’m not sure I know the difference, so such things are far better left to Chris, who could likely assemble a fetching necklace/bracelet set, in less than 60 seconds, under conditions of total darkness.

No, my role in this business deals more with paperwork than the gemstones, with the occasional assist in areas like sterling silver letter blocks, where all you need is a working knowledge of the alphabet. I can also cope if the item comes in a box with its name written in marker on the top. I know the limits of my competence, and am entirely content to work within them. It will not, therefore, be too long before my employees’ knowledge (let’s just say that again…”my employees”…cool!) will surpass mine in certain areas. It hasn’t quite happened yet, going by the comment overheard yesterday, specifically, “What colour is black onyx?”

I do like to think we are lenient bosses in most areas, though we did have to forbid the use of their mobile phones during “business hours”, or else we’d never get any work out of them! We also have supreme right of command and control over the CD player; if feeling particularly generous, we may allow them to slip one disc of their choice into the selection. There is, however, only so much Pink we can stand, especially as we struggle to reconcile it with Emily’s avowed (newly discovered, but quite welcome) hatred of pop music. There’s also her belief that punk started with Blink 182; our attempts to enlighten her as to the role of obscure bands like the Sex Pistols have met with little success, but much eye-rolling.

Still, we have been impressed by the genuine work they’ve put in – think it was a stroke of genius by Chris to employ two of them, as it makes it more of a social experience. Previous attempts to employ Emily have terminated after less than 30 minutes in a welter of whining, sighing and suddenly discovered homework, but this seems, so far, to be working. And so is Emily. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some supervisory and adminstrative tasks to perform. 🙂

How I Spent My Vacation, Part 3: The Hills Are Alive…

Previously: Drowning in Berlin

We may not appreciate the finer point of Munich at 7am on a Saturday morning, after about four hours of sleep – hey, they give us a sleeping car with all mod cons, we’re going to take the time to use them. This is way before our friendly tourist information hotel reservation office opens, but we find a hotel virtually across the street. We crash out there, catching up on what we missed on the train. The hotel seems to be full of Japanese tourists. Indeed, most of Europe seems to be this summer.

It is also next door to a Beate Uhse sex shop – one of three on the main street. Uhse herself, who flew the last plane out of Berlin in the final days of WW2, was something of a German institution until her death last year. Her name is still known to 98% of the population, and the company is in the top hundred public German companies, with a turnover 5 times that of Ann Summers (whose founder was inspired by Uhse). It’s listed on the Frankfurt stock exchange, and the initial offering was 63 times oversubscribed. Sex sells – even shares.

Unlike Berlin, Munich is compact enough that we don’t feel the need for a bus tour, and just saunter around town looking at stuff. We find another branch of World of Music. Our rucksacks become even heavier. The center, around Marienplatz, has a lot of old buildings, including some nice tall ones which provide decent viewing platforms – but there are equally many modern shops, which gives the place a sense of being a living town, rather than just a museum for tourists.

We find ourselves in the Englischer Garten, a beautifully-kept series of gardens, pathways and architecture – there’s apparently also nude sunbathing in some areas, but we don’t see anything untoward. By the duck-pond, I talk Chris into a photo opportunity with a swan – I snap the photo at left, and urge her to get closer. When she does, the swan is distinctly unimpressed, and emits a sound somewhere between an amphetamine-crazed kettle and a punctured balloon. I remember that, allegedly, swans can break your arm with their wing, but Chris is saved by the timely arrival of a small yappy dog which draws the swan’s ire. The insurance company would never have believed us.

When good swans…go bad

To recover, we head to the Hofbrauhaus, one of the most famous pubs in the world. Hard to see why; presumably because it caters to tourists and doesn’t need repeat business, the service sucks. Though we don’t discover till later, it was one of Hitler’s favourite hangouts, too. We were much more impressed by the Augustiner Grossgaststatten, which had great food, excellent waiters, and was so good we ate there two nights in a row. There’s definitely a knack to drinking out of those huge glasses though – I vow to practice more. My only regret is I don’t get to order any Black Forest Gateau here, simply because “Schwarzwalder Kirschtorte” is my all-time favourite German phrase.

We eventually roll back to our room, and watch Euro MTV for a a bit. There’s been a gradual decrease in the number of TV channels available to us on the trip; in Belgium, you could still watch the BBC, and in Amsterdam, there was an English-language Euronews channel, but now, it’s MTV or nothing. The most disturbing thing is the volume of techno cover versions; occasionally, the results aren’t bad, e.g. Mike Oldfield’s Moonlight Shadow, but they really should have left Patti Smith’s Because the Night alone. There are some things with which mankind was not meant to meddle.

The next day, we opt to hop across the border and do Salzburg, ticking Austria off the list. If Munich is a living city, Salzburg (or at least the center of it) is a tourist slut, peddling herself relentlessly and lacking in personality. Everything is packaged with either Mozart (born there) or The Sound of Music, which was filmed around the area. Chocolates, music-boxes, little plastic busts, you name it, you can get it with Wolfgang Amadeus on it.

Despite this, Salzburg is very beautiful, with fabulous gardens (the Do-Re-Mi sequence was shot in one), a broad river running through the centre of town, any number of statues and fountains, old buildings, narrow streets, busking string quartets (playing WAM, natch!) – you get the picture. Or rather, the set of picture postcards, with Mozart emblazoned on the corner of each one.

Chris is feeling horny

The Hohensalzburg Castle dominates the city from its rocky perch in the centre of town. There’s a meandering path up to the fortress, but being lazy tourists, we opt for the funicular: the views from the top are spectacular. Started by the local archbishops in 1077, it was never successfully stormed, and thus is largely in pristine condition – though one pillar, pointed out on the tour, has a nasty chunk taken out of it by a cannonball – an interesting experience for anyone in the room at the time.

In the castle, was a stall offering you three shots with a crossbow for 2 Euro; I nail the first one, briefly contemplate a career as a professional crossbower, then get steadily worse, despite humming the Buffy theme. Grrr. Aargh. It does drive the selections from Sound of Music out of my head, at least temporarily, before we head back across the border to Munich, where it is chucking it down. Can’t complain, however, this having been the first rain seen since the morning of the wedding, more than two weeks previously. We bid a fond farewell to Germany, even if it might be a while till we can face sausages again, and prepare to head into the land of banks, gnomes, cuckoo-clocks and chocolate…

Next: On a Swiss Roll