Deutschland-ish Improvements

My wife and I are slowly remodeling our house, a room at a time. First, we took a big plunge and overhauled the kitchen. Then we gutted the master bath. Now we’re thinking about a large deck with indoor/outdoor spaces. But that was before a recent trip to Germany, where we cruised a good stretch of the Rhine. Suddenly “remodeling” takes on a whole new meaning.

Our cruise down the Rhine started in Amsterdam.  Bad idea.  Amsterdam is loaded with the prettiest little canals and bridges outside of Venice.  As we were floating up and down the “city streets” we thought, “let’s put a canal bridge on our property!”  But a canal bridge requires a canal, else you get London Bridge in the middle of the Arizona desert.  So first we’ll be building a canal.

Our next stop on the Rhine kept us in the Netherlands.  We landed briefly in Kinderdjjk, not even a map dot if it wasn’t for some of the most beautiful windmills in the world.  Kinderdijk’s windmills not only pump water; they’re houses.  We must add a windmill to our remodel list!  It would make a unique guest house, and instead of pumping water from our well we’ll just windmill it up to the house from the canal.  You know, the canal we just installed so we could put in a canal bridge.

Once our river boat hit Germany, I knew our remodel was entering uncharted territory.  In Cologne, we walked through one of the most spectacular cathedrals in the world (seven centuries to complete!)  In every Rhine river town we passed there was another cathedral (more likely a church, but over there they all look like cathedrals).  Am I saying I need a cathedral on my property?  Of course not; the neighbors would consider that a little pompous.  But a chapel would be nice.  Something to accommodate a steeple and bell tower as elegant as the ones you find in Germany.  Wouldn’t it be great – calling the family in at dinnertime?  BONG-BONG-BONG!!!

Here’s the other problem with Germany.  Castles.  Big ones.  Little ones.  Intact ones and crumbling ones.  Wherever you look in the Rhine region, you see postcard-perfect towns with castles at their highest points.  I mean, who wouldn’t want a castle on their property, right?  The problem is, here in the flatlands east of the Colorado Rockies, a castle would look, well, compromised.  You’ve got to have your castle sitting higher than everything else (otherwise, how would you lord over your domain?).  Not to mention, castles take centuries to build.  I’d like to be alive when my remodel list is finished.

(Side note: my wife showed a disturbing interest in the castle torture chambers and all their nasty devices.  Either this is lingering effects of watching “50 Shades of Grey” too many times, or I’m in deep trouble.  I’ll have to keep a closer eye on her).

Castles just reminded me about one more thing in Amsterdam.  They love their cobbled streets.  Sometimes they’re perfectly uniform and flat; other times they’re ankle-busters if you’re not careful.  Either way there’s no avoiding the cobbles.  So now my driveway needs a remodel too.  I watched an Amsterdam-ian working to replace the cobbles on one of the bridges (yes, they cobble those too).  It looked like backbreaking work, one heavy stone at a time.  But if I’m going to have all my other Rhine region elements, an asphalt driveway just won’t cut it.

In the southwest of Germany, just before the Rhine flows into Switzerland, you make a stop in Bavaria: land of dense fir trees, Black Forest cake, and cuckoo clocks.  You’d swear you walked into a fairy tale, with Snow White (or Hansel & Gretel, or a hobbit) emerging from the nearest Tudor-style cottage with a smile and some gingerbread.  Fortunately, nothing in Bavaria made it to the remodel list.  I suppose we could plant a forest of firs, but that’s just tempting a large-scale fire and we’ve already had enough of those in Colorado.

Also just before Switzerland, the Rhine passes through several locks; those mechanical wonders raising vessels from the lower river on one side to the higher river on the other.  There’s nothing like watching a lock do its thing while you’re in the lock.  Just when I thought I was done with my remodel list, here come the locks.  What a great way to secure my property!  Raise the driveway higher than the street; then force my visitors to enter through a lock!  On second thought, that’s too much work.  I’ll add another castle element instead – a drawbridge over the canal I installed way back in the second paragraph.

If you think my remodel is brazen (i.e. “Dave, do the deck and call it good”), just you wait.  My list is not quite complete.  Our cruise ended in Switzerland.  OMG.  I repeat, OMG.  How the heck am I going to remodel our property into Little Switzerland?  There’s nothing I wouldn’t tap from this Alpine dreamland: the dairy farms (which means a whole herd of dairy cows), the cheese and chocolate, and some of the prettiest, cleanest lakes in the world.  I’d even recruit a few of the Swiss themselves (as if they’d rather live in Colorado).  Of course, the real problem with recreating Switzerland is those dang gorgeous Alps – snowy caps, grassy meadows, cog railways and all.  Building Alps on my property would require ten billion delivery trucks of dirt and I just can’t afford that.  I’ll settle for gazing at the distant Colorado Rockies instead.

Come to think of it, gazing at the Colorado Rockies requires a deck.  That I can manage.  Let’s put my Deutschland delusion to the side and just start with a deck, shall we?

Precisely Enchanting

If you watched any of the Winter Olympics the past couple weeks, you witnessed dramatic moments only the Games can deliver.  Some literally took my breath away: the edge-of-your-seat overtime shootout in the women’s hockey final (a 3-2 win by the Americans); the exquisite battle for gold between the highly-touted Russians in women’s figure-skating; and the first-ever victory for the U.S. in the team sprint of women’s cross-country skiing, where Jessie Diggins’ come-from-behind lunge at the finish line took the gold by 0.18 of a second.

              

Consider “0.18 of a second” (for a second).  The blink of an eye takes twice as long.  Now consider measuring 0.18 of a second.  Remarkably, we’ve had the technology to do so since the 1950’s.  For the Olympics, that precision was provided by Omega, the watch manufacturer from Switzerland.  Of course the timekeepers were Swiss.  What other country is so renowned for the keeping of time?  What other country coordinates forty-six individual railway companies on a single network of tracks, bringing its trains into the stations on-time every time?  Where else in the world would you feel more confident banking your cash?  Six years ago, Omega developed technology capable of measuring one-millionth of a second.  At the Pyeongchang Olympics they used a photo-finish camera capable of ten thousand snaps per-second.  The Swiss redefine “attention to detail”.

I’ve had an affection for Switzerland from a very young age.  As a kid, my introduction took place in subtle ways.  Shirley Temple’s “Heidi” was based in Switzerland. The Switzer brand of red/black licorice (still available in “vintage” candy stores) was a frequent purchase.  The cute little Swiss Miss in our pantry beckoned me to hot chocolate.  As a Boy Scout, I always carried one of the Victornox Swiss army knives.  At Disneyland I roller-coasted through a scaled-down replica of the Matterhorn – one of the Alps.  I had my first taste of fondue.  And for a Suisse exclamation point, I consumed a ton of that “holiest” of cheeses.  My ancestry test should’ve produced a little Swiss DNA, don’t you think?

As an adult, Switzerland’s products are no less present in my life.  Lindt is my favorite chocolate (and I’ve tried my fair share of chocolate). A Rolex watch is still the material equivalent of corporate-America success (though my tastes are more modest – perhaps a Swatch [Swiss-watch]?)  Velcro can be found on several items in my wardrobe.  Haagen Daz is my favorite brand of ice cream (a product of the Swiss company Nestlé).  And a lengthy search for “adult” Swiss licorice led me to Chateau D’Lanz, a family-run business in Washington state producing some of the best.

Speaking of Nestlé, the Toll House chocolate-chip cookie recipe is also one of my favorites. Here’s a bit of trivia: Toll House was an inn in Whitman, Massachusetts.  Ruth Graves Wakefield is credited with inventing the chocolate chip cookie (by mistake) somewhere nearby the Toll House.  The price Nestlé paid for the right to Ruth’s recipe? A lifetime supply of Swiss chocolate.

Now speaking of Velcro, here’s another bit of trivia.  George de Mestral was a Swiss engineer and amateur mountaineer from the 1940’s. Hiking in the Alps one day, George noticed seeds kept sticking to his clothes and to his dog’s fur. When he returned home, George developed a synthetic “sticking” technology like what he’d found in nature; a hook-and-loop zipper alternative eventually patented as Velcro. The clever name is a child of the French parents velours (velvet) and crochet (hook).

Okay, we’ve covered Swiss precision and some world-class products, but I haven’t addressed what makes Switzerland so fetching.  How’s this for starters: the entire country can fit within the greater Dallas/Ft. Worth area.  Bordered by France, Italy, and Austria, the Swiss are typically fluent in French, Italian, and German; as well as their home-country language of Romansh.  Switzerland produces some of the best in skiing, snowboarding, and mountain-climbing (of course), but also tennis? (hello, Roger Federer).

     

Here’s some more Swiss charm.  The colorful Guards in the Vatican City are the only foreign military service permitted to its citizens.  Switzerland’s “non-interference policy” dictates its only participation in foreign wars is typically through the high-profile benevolence of its Red Cross organization.  And citizenship in this fair country?  You’d better hope you have blood ties through birth or marriage.  Otherwise it’ll take twelve years of a special-residency permit, combined with a long-term work visa.

Despite my obvious affection, I should probably stay away from precisely enchanting Switzerland.  It’s a real country like any other after all, which means not everything comes up roses.  Perhaps I’ll cling to my snow-globe impression of the Suiss Alpenland instead: a gentle people living high on the Happiness Scale; the cleanest and quaintest cities imaginable; cobble-stoned streets and chalet-like houses.  The magnificent Alps serve as the backdrop, their slopes ascended by rickety cog railways and descended by skillful skiers.  Listen for an accordion or a little yodeling.  Look carefully enough into my globe and you might even notice the von Trapp family, marching down the mountain trail from Austria, singing their do-re-mi song.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Happy Days Aren’t Here Again

Last week included a holiday and you probably didn’t know it. On March 20th the world celebrated “International Day of Happiness” for the fifth consecutive year. The United Nations adopted a resolution in 2012 to establish the holiday, seeking “a more holistic approach to development” and recognizing “the pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human goal”.  Ladies and gentlemen, the UN is trying to bring more joy to the world.

 

 

 

 

I’ll admit, the first time I read about a holiday for happy I had to wonder what really goes on behind closed doors.  Maybe the UN reps spend their days on Facebook liking/loving posts like the rest of us.  Maybe they’re happy and they know it and clapping their hands.  Maybe they ask each other “aren’t you glad you use Dial and don’t you wish everyone did?” Then 0ne day someone decided a celebration of all that happiness was in order.

On the other hand, maybe the UN’s daily agenda is so depressing someone insisted 1 out of every 365 days should be set aside just to feel better. A don’t-worry-be-happy moment.

 

 

 

To go together with March 20th, the UN also publishes the “World Happiness Report” (WHR), an annual measure of happy in each of 155 countries.  The recipe: the combined measures of income, healthy life expectancy, having someone to count on in times of trouble, generosity, freedom and trust (trust defined as absence of corruption in business and government).  The WHR then crunches the numbers and tells you how close you are to the happiest place on earth.

Again I had to ask myself – is the UN for real?  I mean, I’m usually as merry as the day is long, and I assumed the same was true of my fellow Americans.  “Not so fast”, says the WHR.

The 2017 top ten: 1) Norway, 2) Denmark, 3) Iceland, 4) Switzerland, 5) Finland, 6) Netherlands, 7) Canada, 8) New Zealand, 9) Australia, 10) Sweden.

Look at that list again.  See any patterns?  Five of the ten are the Nordic countries.  Another two are in close proximity.  Another two are side-by-side way down in the Southern Hemisphere.  And finally you have Canada (which feels like a party-crasher).  But the ingredients don’t lie – everything’s coming up roses in all ten.   The Nords, the Swiss, the Dutch, the Canucks, the Kiwis, and the Aussies are walking on sunshine.

If the happiness formula is to believed, Norway has it all figured out.  Consider the following excerpt from the WHR Executive Summary (p. 1): Norway moves to the top of the ranking despite weaker oil prices.  It is sometimes said that Norway achieves and maintains its high happiness not because of its oil wealth, but in spite of it.  By choosing to produce its oil slowly, and investing the proceeds for the future rather than spending them in the present, Norway has insulated itself from the boom and bust cycle of many other resource-rich economies.  To do this successfully requires high levels of mutual trust, shared purpose, generosity, and good governance, all factors that help to keep Norway and other top countries where they are in the happiness rankings.

And how about the Americans?  We come in at #14.  That’s happy-happy-joy-joy compared to most others, but consider this: we’ve never hit the top ten and we’ve been dropping since the first year the WHR was published.  The U.S. gets high marks for income and life expectancy but falls short in the other four categories.  To add an exclamation point: this year’s WHR includes a chapter by Jeffrey D. Sachs titled “Restoring American Happiness”.  As Sachs puts it:

The predominant political discourse in the United States is aimed at raising economic growth, with the goal of restoring the American Dream and the happiness that is supposed to accompany it. But the data show conclusively that this is the wrong approach. The United States can and should raise happiness by addressing America’s multi-faceted social crisis— rising inequality, corruption, isolation, and distrust—rather than focusing exclusively or even mainly on economic growth, especially since the concrete proposals along these lines would exacerbate rather than ameliorate the deepening social crisis. (WHR, p. 179)

Take note, Washington D.C.

The World Happiness Report is a 5MB, 188 pg. report available here, if you want all the details on where everything’s coming up roses (or not so much).  For me, the message was clear enough from the top ten.  If Americans want to live happily ever after, we need to study our neighbors to the north (as do our counterparts in Europe) or delve deeper into life “down under”.  Extreme temperatures be damned, all of these people are as happy as clams (at high water) and whistling while they work.

Cheer up, Yanks; it’s not the end of the world (as perhaps it is in #155 Central African Republic).  At least the U.S. claims a spot in the top ten percent of the WHR.  That’s happy landings on my runway.