Am Bratach No. 240
October 2011


Every town should have a Willie Bain
writes Willie D Mackay

I enjoyed our correspondent Graeme Mackay’s article about his recent visit to India and derived a degree of comfort in knowing that we are not the only ones experiencing a wet summer and envy him the luxury of a warm soaking as opposed to the ice-cold drenching on my recent holiday to the appropriately named Coldbackie on the Kyle of Tongue.

Although I have never been there, it was interesting to read about his trip to Dehli and its overwhelming chaos and then the complete contrast he experienced on his trip to the Taj Mahal, a memorial, he tells us, some Emperor took twenty-one years to build in memory of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Graeme was anxious to tell us about its magnificence and how its jewel-encrusted surfaces gleamed white in the warm rain, but somehow I felt unhappy. Somehow, something was amiss and when you have an enquiring mind like me, you wonder why you never heard mention of his first two wives. Did the Emperor, with his evident wealth, build them as much as a shed at the bottom of the garden or create anything in their memory? Most of us don’t get three bites at the cherry to find a lady so much worthier than her two predecessors, and if we did, it’s likely the first would get the temple and the other two would end up on the social. How times have changed.

As Graeme said, travelling really puts things in perspective. Only recently I ended up in Lucerne in Switzerland on a bus excursion and, as anyone who does a long bus journey knows, your first priority before you arrive at the appointed destination is to get to the nearest toilet and I am not ashamed to admit that on this occasion I fell into this category.

On the journey, the courier told us that the Swiss are reluctant to take euros and, if they did, they would only accept notes and give back any change in Swiss franc coins. Being on a short day trip to the country and not wanting to be left with a pocketful of brass I changed my large euro notes into five euro notes, the smallest paper notes available, to ensure I never ended up with more than the equivalent in Swiss coins. Proud of my financial management, and happy in the knowledge that the mercenary Swiss could not damage my wealth in excess of five euros, I made for the public conveniences in their magnificent railway station, a building so grand that it too could have been erected as a tribute to a special lady.

Wealth was all around me, but grandeur did little to alleviate my anxiety as I entered what could have been the foyer of a five star hotel and was greeted by a beautiful young lady in a neat white coat, blond hair and a Swiss milk chocolate complexion. She handed me a towel, a sachet of soap and fragrance, and perhaps by way of relief at being just a few feet away from my target, I quipped that I wasn’t staying the night and would my 5-euro note, in payment for the two-franc fee, at her outstretched manicured paw be acceptable, only to be told, “We don’t take euros in Switzerland”. Shock and rejection are of little consolation at a time like this and after securing her toiletries back behind her glass screen suggested I go to a bank, get change and then return. No amount of pleading, supported by a catalogue of fictional ailments, would make her change her mind and, to make her feel guilty, I said that if she came to Scotland we don’t even charge, and if we did, would certainly not insist on Scottish notes.

I set off in top gear to find a Swiss bank which are on every corner in this international finance centre and on approaching the foreign exchange counter in one of them was again greeted with the courtesy a foreign diplomat may expect in its embassies. I asked to exchange some euros and was assured that such a transaction be a privilege and pleasure but when I proffered my five euro note his demeanour instantly changed and he seemed to take delight in telling me that the minimum fee to change money would be four euros and fifty cents, leaving me with a fraction of what I needed for the toilet. He spoke perfect English and although I explained the basic arithmetic required to solve my problem he still refused. I said, in desperation, you keep the five euros and give me two francs, a deal you would expect any financial whizz-kid to accept, but oh no! Because there is a fee for everything in Switzerland. I apologised for the threat I may have been to his country’s economy and was out on the street again.

Further along the pavement I found a newsagent. This was the answer I was looking for because there, in the paper rack, was a copy of the Daily Express which I imagined would afford my two francs change. At the cash desk an equally crisp Swiss lady sliced it through the scanner and asked for four euros and eighty cents. The situation was now desperate and although deep in the heart of the country I wondered how far it was to the German border. By now I knew I would never be a success in the high financial money markets of Switzerland and hurried in every direction in despair. I soon rounded a corner and there in front of me was the big golden “M” of McDonalds. I rushed in past the queuing customers and up the stairs ready to stuff my 5-euro note down the throat of anyone who would dare halt my advance. With my five euro note still in my hand I entered for what for a few moments could have been Paradise and after I managed to compose myself I vowed never to visit this country again, a place that seemed more concerned about its currency than the wellbeing of its guests.

Now relieved and refreshed I strolled along the beautiful flower-bedecked bridges that diagonally cut across Lucerne’s beautiful waterways on the edge of Lake Constance and my earlier experiences brought back the memory of the day, many years ago, of a coach load of tourists, perhaps from Switzerland, on a Highland tour, arriving in Tongue in need of a “comfort stop”. The coach driver spotted old Willie Bain, a wonderful character, who liked to stand in the cart sheds, just down from Tongue Hotel. He pulled up and asked if there was a public toilet around to which Willie replied, “Yes”. And when asked its exact location was told, “Anywhere between here and the sea”.

There is a vacancy for anyone like that in many communities, but none more so than in Lucerne, Switzerland.

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