During the pre-Christmas season in 2001, my good friends David, Pedro and I started to notice a number of crèche appearing locally. Crèche, in French, is the nativity scene, the one with the donkeys, cows, Magi, and BVMs (Blessed Virgin Mary), mangers, etc.
We thought it would be nice to create our own new style crèche and through the pre-Christmas season we debated alternatives hotly.
1 - Nouveau crèche (modern)
2 - Pantheon crèche (all the gods)
3 - Bizarre crèche (various)
About Christmas time, we figured we should settle on an idea and execute it. However, the days flew by and soon the holiday was on us, yet we were unprepared and unable to generate the creations we'd talked about.
David had the idea that we needed a vitrine. In French, vitrine is the word for window, and here, in this part of Switzerland, merchants buy and decorate vitrines with commercial scenes. As people walk by on the street, they look at these displays. They run the gamut from elaborate to very simple.
David began a search for a vitrine to rent. He is dogged when an idea appeals to him. He finally found a vitrine that was vacant in the main post office in Neuchatel starting in FEB-2002.
The Neuchatel post office is an edifice, begun in 1898 as homage to the World Postal Convention of that year. It is a major axis in the life of many of the Neuchâtelois (locals) because it is located on a main street and the role La Poste plays in Swiss life.
(That's David under the geraniums working on the vitrine - 27-JUL-2002)
This was extraordinary news. I honestly thought that all the vitrines were leased by the local merchants in perpetuity, and upstarts like ourselves would stand no chance of finding one without an 80-year lease on a prime commercial property.
David negotiated the lease with an office of La Poste in Lausanne. He did it all in his name, brave man that he is.
OK, well now what? We have the vitrine, what are we going to do?
The lease was explicit about a few things, we couldn't offend the public, there were clauses like "(you) can't detract from the standing of the public building", a wonderfully ambiguous Swiss stipulation.
So, what to do?
Valentines day started our creative juices flowing.
We talked through various other options and came up with nothing. These were difficult times for us personally, there were complications which caused us to lose time and focus. When we finally got the key to the vitrine, we opted for a simple display.
I "donated" some of my collection of absinthe paraphernalia and an old table cloth which we setup to form our initial display. The sign you see on the left side in the frame is a calling card, circa 1900 from a absinthe merchant named Auguste Fivaz.
While the initial display was nondescript, it gave us an idea of the possibilities we had with the dimensions at hand.
My darling wife, Athena, had given me a token 18 year-old girlfriend for my 50th birthday. Betty is a Barbie knock off from one of the local department stores. She was intended to go with the 1/16th scale model 1953 Porsche Athena also gave me for this watershed anniversary.
Betty was soon co-opted for other things. She began to dominate our thoughts, some much too lewd for La Poste. I came up with "Betty on the Beach", where we would place her in a simple vacation context, albeit not too simple ...
Betty didn't happen over night. David locked onto the idea and contributed the Mount Fuji jpg files and the palm floatation device for Betty. I too was consumed and bought the gold lame and printed the pictures. We went to Kichener's in Bern and bought the various plastic crustaceans and fish. David bought the sand and we went to work doing a mockup in David's spare room. He then created the sea as seen in the front of the above picture and we melded it all together in a frantic two hours.
Overall , we spent about four weeks playing around, searching and buying the components and refining ideas. Total outlay when we finished Betty on the Beach was around 500 CHF including vitrine rental. We set up an email account, email@example.com but never got a single email.
The sand, it turned out, was still wet even after a period drying out in David's apartment. The window on the vitrine fogged, the mountains sagged, the ink ran. We opened the window every day to let the condensation escape. The lame held up well as did all the other plastic fixtures.
We put a sign announcing the Société August Fivaz. We'd decided to form this earlier in the year and, while not a legal organization, it gave us a front for our activities.
It took a week or two for the sand to dry out. During and after that, we'd hang around down town watching for the reactions from the people walking by. The encouragement from our friends was good, but we weren't getting the strong reaction we anticipated.
During a Saturday afternoon visit to our "stake out" across the street from La Poste, we ran into our friend Fred who suggested we put price tags on everything. I bought some and David and I spent an hour or two putting fantastically high prices on most of the objects.
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