Thursday, December 29, 2005

Gift giving in 2006

I received wonderfully thoughtful Christmas presents this year including (but not all) a mouse pad with Japanese chins, a blank book for my haikus that is already a work of art, penguin pens and a handmade notepad with my daughter’s photo. I appreciate them all and the time and thought that went into them.

I have to admit when I get a package there is an oh-no moment that another thing will be added to my possessions. The sinking feeling at each gift usually goes away as I open the present to discover how well my friends know me and I know how hard they have worked to find it.

However, this year if anyone is thinking of giving me a gift I wish they would make a contribution to one of the following organizations (based within their own value systems of course). These organizations can use the help far more than I need another gift. This is an organization run by an incredible woman who is trying to bring a public defender system to China, Cambodia and Vietnam. She is doing the impossible in human rights work. or Both organizations are speaking truth to power in these dangerous times for our democracy. (if you click on the last site there is a way to help fund poor women’s mammograms and I hope you do that anyway) for their social work.

Of course there are others, Greenpeace, Amnesty International, Oxfam or any group that is working to improve the lives of the poor or the health of the planet.

The idea that we are all making the world a better place is a gift more precious to me than anything in a box.

Hopefully you will all understand.

Santas phone number

The four-year old’s 'brown eyes bewitch. Her smile is entrapping, but the enticement should not be mistaken for weakness. She knows what she wants and pushes to the ultimate. Glory, glory Christmas was a perfect time for her mother to threaten calls to Santa Claus to encourage obedience.

The little one was sitting on the toilet. “Mama, I want Santa Claus’s phone number.”

The mother was silent.

“I mean it. Every one has his number but me, and they’re telling him lies about my life.”

On exile

Christmas Eve Llara and I went to visit some friends of our hostess. The friends live in the shadow of Notre Dame and down the street a piece. The flat could have been used for any set for a French movie set in a Paris apartment. The table bore the results of a lavish meal, the marble fireplace was decorated with boughs and drapes were swagged in the floor-to-ceiling windows. Three generations mingled around.

The languages because of my daughter’s presence went from French to German and English, bouncing back and forth.

The hostess was an active participant in helping Indian girl orphans making sure that they have work opportunities, but even more interesting was the Tibetan woman, who only after I left did I discover she was the niece of the Dalai Lama. I thought she just had an interesting history of exile and could make a wonderful milky marsala tea.

I choose to live outside the country of my birth. With the exception of one week in September 2001 I know the only thing from keeping me hopping on a plane is my own desire. But not to be able to return to the US because of an occupying force is different. Living outside our birth cultures and returning became a major topic of conversation.

When the Tibetan woman was exiled, she was a child and she grew up in India. Children adapt, but as we settle into a new culture, we become half breeds with comfort zones in our new cultures that we miss when we return to the countries of our birth. That doesn’t even begin to cover change. As the saying goes we can’t step into the same river in the same place. However, choosing to leave the river and being thrown out are so different.

I used the analogy of buying a plant at a nursery. The original roots go into the soil, but then they extend going deeper into the new soil as the plant grows upward. If you dig out the plant and cut off the new roots the plant will die, but if you cut off the original roots, the plant will also die making the plant an accumulation of its new and old growth.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

The biggest advent calendar I have ever seen

I love where Marina lives. The Puteaux town hall is covered in white lights and a forest of white lit trees have been installed in front. It is magic.

Doing last minute shopping I rushed to Monoprix only to pass a Maison d’Advent. I’ve always loved advent calendars, but this was a little chalet with 25 windows. All but one was shuttered. The rest were opened to designs of candles, stockings, teddy bears, etc.

Interesting the little house which was bigger than most tool sheds by at least four was near the Mosque. This is a heavily integrated working class community. Arab women run around fully veiled and men wear long robes. There are blacks from misc. countries and white French.

During the riots Puteaux was spared, maybe because much is spent on beauty, people have work, and although they may not mix socially there is mixture in public of events important to all. It can be done.

Joyeux Noël

one in five

Usually when I arrive at the Gare du Lyon, I take the Metro to Marina’s, but with a suitcase full of heavy Christmas presents I splurged on a taxi. I have thought of doing a series of Taxi Driver stories starting from the driver in Berlin who sang Porgy and Bess songs to me, to my favorite Algerian driver in Puteaux who takes me to the airport from Marina’s place. He and I solve the problems brought on by the crazies from both our worlds in each trip.

This time the driver was a happy fellow who struggled under the weight of my suitcase. He had an accent I couldn’t identify in his French so I asked.

“I’m Greek,” he said and he turned out to be like the father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding telling me all that was wonderful about his country. However, he was equally in love with France and his French wife.

He confided to me with a great sense of pride that among the 15,000 taxi drivers in France there were only five Greeks. I was lucky to get one of them.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

About Christmas Trees

Last night I felt another reason to look forward to Christmas in Paris other than to be spending it with Marina and my daughter. I called to tell her the time to expect me, not that she has to be there since I have a key to her cozy apartment near La Defense.

“I’ve decorated the tree with pictures of people I love,” she told me. Her adored niece is on the top.

I melted at the thought. Christmas trees to me are more important than the presents and have been since I was a little girl when Dar (my grandmother), my brother and I would set up the tree and take out the ornaments one by one. Some were from Dar’s childhood. My favorite was a thin opaque pink nest in gold mesh with a small bird perched on the edge. When I was 14, we opened the box to find pink shards, but the memory of that ornament is on every tree I’ve had since.

Memory has a lot to do with trees. I went through a stage where decorator trees (including a rather ghastly aluminum tree with blue bulbs) to my twenty-year old taste were sophisticated. That stage passed. Part of the desire to have decorator trees may have been in response to my first married Christmas in Germany when there was no money for decorations and I used chains of safety pins and my red hair curlers for decoration.

No tree can be decorated without memories of trees set up at Sam and Eva’s the Sunday before Christmas followed by Chinese take away, a meal repeated Christmas Eve. They hung plastic icicles that glowed when the living room lights went out.

When Llara was three she and I painted wooden ornaments cut into sleighs, people skating, presents, Santa, etc. She once told me that she felt I did it so much better than she did, but I treasure the clock and mouse with the blue paint outside the lines because I cannot look at it without seeing her sitting at my mother’s table in her lavender jumper and white turtleneck shirt and tights dipping her brush into the blue pot.

A tree at Wigglesworth Street isn’t really a tree without Susan’s Sputnik that she made in third grade, a rather gangrenous green ball with toothpicks. It’s not the beauty but the continuity. She would have ditched it long ago, but no one else will let her. “Where’s the Sputnik?” someone who wasn’t there for the decorating will invariably ask.

When I am in my home for Christmas I bring in a real tree preferably on the longest night, a symbol of the dying year and the year to come. To me that moment when the real tree enters my home is Christmas much more than the presents and the rest of the hoopla. It connects me with nature and the cycle of life. Years I am not there, I still bring in a bough before I leave. And as wonderful as the smells of baking cookies and other Christmas culinary delights are, the smell of real evergreen in the home for a short period renews every ion of my being for the coming year.

Tonight I will sleep in a tiny Parisian apartment of a good, good friend with a real tree decorated with pictures of her loved ones while I wait for my daughter. My Christmas will be complete on the 22nd of December because of that tree and its loving decorations. The rest is extra.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Standing in the hall

Standing in the hall last night before we went to our separate bedrooms, J, S and I exchanged plans for the next, day, cracked a joke and wished the others pleasant dreams. Nothing special, just a warm ending to a nice day.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Montreux Christmas market

The Montreux Christmas market is 120 tiny chalets selling crafts, jewelry, antiques, decorations, candles, spices, wine, cheeses and whatever else you might imagine. The chalets are lined up along the lake. A split of sunshine glistened across the water to the snowy Alps that rose straight up into the heavens.

As I wondered up and down the pine chipped paths, I passed the sausage and cheese chalet three times the size of the others. I noted the wares laid out in Gourmet Magazine beauty. I wasn’t the only one who noticed. A dog that had to have had a passing St.Bernard in his DNA sat patiently in front of the stand.

The market went as far as the Freddie Mercury statue The rock stars flames for eternity his microphone held high over his head. In the background Bing Crosby crooned Christmas carols, although in my head Mercury’s voice singing “we will, we will rock you” almost drowned out Bing.

My first Christmas Market had been in Stuttgart as a bride and although I couldn’t afford to buy even a one mark ornament at the time, I loved the cold and the spirit and wandered through every day.

When I was first in Europe and Radio Free Europe was a client I managed to see them on Fridays in Munich before Christmas from 1990 to 1993. After the call I headed to nearby Garmish to visit my cousins and on Saturdays we visited the Munich market in the shadow of the Cathedral buying a mug to hold out glüh wine to warm us as we went from stand to stand. Würst and brotchen were usually added. Once my daughter came down from Männheim and we ate pastries and drank hot chocolate in the tea room that overlooked the market and we could watch the shoppers bustling between the stands as snow fell creating a living Christmas Card.

This year my Christmas shopping is just done. Usually it is done by late summer, but I wasn’t able to fall across things I wanted for people so during the last two weeks I’ve finished the bits and pieces. Thus I resisted the merchandise on sale in Montreux. However, I wasn’t about to resist lunch. A large chalet with wooden walls had been set up. The tables were long with benches. The table cloths and curtains were red checked and the waitresses all had the traditional red Swiss blouses. I ordered the macaroni de chalet, piping hot with cheese, cream, bacon and parsley. All my beloved Swiss desserts, meringues and double cream, berries and cream were also on the menu. I told the waitress as an adult I should be able to order dessert before the meal so I would have room for it. She laughed as she handed me the desertless check.

Outside the sun was still shining, the Alps were still snow covered. Dean Martin had taken over Christmas Carol duty. The dog was still sitting in front of the sausage stand. Christmas is a time of hope.


The train ride from Geneva to Montreux is beautiful with the lake and mountains on one side and vineyards on the other. The conductrice was young and pretty with her pixie cut frosted. On the way back she was on my second train of the day. “I’ve taken your ticket,” she said.

“On the way down.” I handed her the ticket to stamp again. “You’ve a good memory.”

“It’s the glasses.”

It’s true my glasses are huge. I don’t like being able to see the rimes. Almost everyone, except my hair dresser tells me they aren’t “in.” He says he loves my look, I am original.

“They aren’t in, but I like them,” I told her.

“I do, too,” she said and moved on to the next passenger.

Smoking is Banned on Swiss Trains

Smoking is now banned on all Swiss trains. They have advertised it with posters picturing a typical train station, a train in the station and a Marlboro cowboy smoking on his horse outside the train. Today I saw a new one. Everything was identical to the other except a camel was standing where the cowboy had been.


Monday, December 19, 2005

Back in Geneva

The life size cow statue outside the optician’s who normally wears a pair of glasses, now has a Santa hat as well as the glasses. A book has been published with all the cows that were on display this summer.
I so did NOT want to go to Payerne on Sunday. But Florian and I were celebrating an early Christmas. Julia was baking cookies and playing Christmas Carols. The Christmas tree was waiting for its final decorations and it would have been so cozy to stay at home. However, as soon as the E bus started down the hill, I was rewarded with the sun shining on the snow- covered Jura behind the lake. Even if breath-taking beauty is the norm, I never have taken it for granted.
The second reason for feeling guilty at not wanting to leave the house (or more accurately STAY IN the house) was my Christmas gift. Florian long ago learned just buying expensive jewelry wasn’t appreciated all that much. He learned that when Llara brought me a bag of American snacks for my birthday. He realized finally the thought far outdid the price. He had suggested we go shopping and pick out an outfit that he would like to offer me. He knows I prefer going to the dentist to shopping. I said, I would rather have something he chose for me. Well, he went to one of the Payerne shops and picked out four outfits and “borrowed” them so I could choose one without shopping. They were all beautiful. I selected a brown,gold, black gypsy skirt with a brown turtle neck top. He noticed the skirt I was wearing and suggested that I take the aqua top which would go well with that skirt.
In and out of old age. When I turned 63 last June my monthly bus pass was decreased to 45 CHF, a real buy when each daily ticket costs 6 CHF. However, Jan. 1 the retirement age for women will be raised to 64. I am only 63 so I am back to paying 70 CHF a month, still a good deal. In July after my birthday, I can once again go back to the old price. I joked with the man, it made me feel younger, but less rich.
The bus system has placed a large bus in the center of downtown. The bus had huge wooden cutouts of multi-colored bags decorating its roof. People can check their packages free of charge.
Depistage is French for mammogram. I had mine today, free to all women over a certain age in Canton Geneva. Many words make sense in translation. Depistage does not. Piste is the word for ski trail. I kept thinking of miniature skiers getting crushed in the machine that was imaging the inside they were being depisted.

When Americans say pissed they mean angry. A Brit means drunk. Neither were my breasts angry or drunk or eliminating bodily fluids.

The Argelès cowboy

He wore cowboy boots and a western shirt, but he was from Argelès. We were sharing a compartment on my way home to Geneva. He had helped me lift my gift-laden suitcase onto the train (when will I learn to buy LIGHT presents?).

“I love America,” he said as soon as he pegged my accent. He showed me two language dictionaries he had bought for his planned trip to the wild west in June. They weren't the traditional, “I would like to buy a pair of size 42 shoes” dictionaries but had phrases like “Up shit creek without a paddle.”

Even if I was from the east coast and only had seen a rodeo in Boston Garden, he still had to thank me for the intervention of American troops in WWI and WWII. I wondered if he were joking, but he told me how he had an American flag in his house, and posters of the films The Magnificent Seven and High Noon. He knew more about Hollywood westerns than I did, and quoted lines from them that I could only guess were right in translation.

His girlfriend telephoned while we were talking and he happily told her about his luck in sharing the ride with an American woman. She went into jealous mode, was I prettier then she was (she had a loud voice), was I younger, ending with a plea to be faithful. He reassured her, but part of me wonders if I had cowboy boots, a Stetson and lasso what might have happened.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Add on purchases

More and more products seem to be sold these days to be used with additional stuff to buy. I see an espresso machine that only works with coffee capsules purchased from the same company. Then of course there are mops that have to have a new paper cover added each time that allegedly work better than other mops. I still think my old string mop works better than anything I ever used. Mine is now 18 years old and still going strong and I found it. How is that for saving money and having a clean floor at the same time, although washing floors are not something to get thrilled about?

Polaroid made money on their film not on their cameras, but cameras (pre Digital days) needed film.

Clever marketing. Over the years I have been taken in by advert claims: e.g. that PH blanace made a difference in ny hair (it doesn’t), bacteria is waiting to kill me on my counter tops (the antibacterial soaps are proving to be more dangerous) and that showing a panty line under slacks wasn’t attractive (no one noticed before pantyhose companies made a thing of it). Thanks to a friend I wasn’t taken in by HRT claims of being necessary—lets face it menopausal women are a drug company’s cash cow.

One of the wonderful things about aging is now I realize when advertiseres are trying to make a fool of me. We are playing a new game some of my friends on how we can create add-on products so instead of a one-time purchase we can keep buying and buying. Here’s what we came up with at lunch.

Lipstick – Can only be put on with a one-time use brush. Women would need to buy at least two brushes a day rather than one lipstick every few months. It will be sold on the idea of hygiene and how much better the brush works to make your mouth beautiful.

Panty liners to match your panties. You always have to buy the same pattern to feel sexy. With my love of co-ordination in color, my friends decided I would probably buy them. I have to admit I would think about it IF I used panty liners which I see no need for until I have a bladder problem or won't get a chance to change my underware for several days, a rare occurence.

Clothes that disintegrate after you wear them. Gotta be careful they don't disintegrate as you wear them.

Vases that need “magic water” to keep your flowers longer. (The ceramic of the vase will have some chemical in them that if used with normal water causes your flowers to die).

Paper slip covers for furniture that look like cloth so you change your décor daily or weekly. To be advertised by showing a woman shamed that her furniture was the same color for two parties she gave.

Pan liners. Throw them away after cooking so you don’t have to wash pans. That one may have some merit.

Any other ideas on useles add ons out there?

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Santa Claus and Father Whip

Christmas decorations are up in Argelès. The yellow and red striped Catalan flags hanging from buildings on each side of the street have been replaced with Christmas wreaths and candles of plastic that light after dark. Stores have tinsel, snowflakes, and pine boughs. For the first time ever Jean-Pierre and Babette have decorated their green grocery.

La Noisette, Franck’s tea room, has a Père Noël in the corner, tinsel hung gaily and a Joyeuse Noël red carpet. Somehow hot chocolate tastes even better in the Christmas setting.

Saint Nicholas walked through the village with his friend Père Fouet (I am not sure of the spelling, but it translates as Father Whip). The later is dressed in black, and although he is supposed to whip bad children, he must have had a change of heart because he kept dipping into his wagon pulled by a sleepy donkey to throw candy to the watching crowd.

Most European Santas have these black-dressed friends. A couple of years ago on a train to Saint Gall, we looked out the window to see Saint Nicholas walking through a snow-covered field with his companion, Schmützig (dirty) also dressed in black and ready to strike terror into the hearts of bad children.

Although it doesn’t reflect the happy, must have good self-esteem concept, there may be some merit in the idea that bad actions bear consequences that in limited quantities could be a positive effect on today's children.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Bad and Good

It was a horrible a week. A long cherished dream died and followed quickly by a shock that touched every ethical eon in my being. The second reduced the importance of the first. Maybe I should say it was even a more horrible day because it happened almost at the same time. I would say it was the worse day I can think of in the past 23 years.

Then a phone call came from my agent saying that my German Publisher of Chickpea wants to publish The Card. The contrast was striking.

People talk about bouncing off walls. I live in a studio so bouncing space is limited, but I was bouncing big time. My friend Barbara hearing of the two events rushed over. She sat with a cup of coffee, knitting and listening as I paced. I didn’t cry. I vomited. My usual consolation to disappointments is that it will make great material for my writing. I just realized that I didn’t think of that until just now as I write this blog.

Barbara told me of a correlation study which talked about some chemical in women’s brains that in times of stress make them seek out other women for support. I didn’t need a study to know that I could not have recovered from any of the major problems in my life without the life and support of my women friends, Mardy, Susan, Pat, Marina, Barbara.

Mardy was there for my divorce often boosting me with humor and joking about my husband’s tiny feet when I found rubbers in his clothes going to the dry cleaners and I was on the pill. She changed my tears to giggles in the lady’s room of Middlesex Court they day of my divorce. No matter the time of day or night, she would take my calls, play a game of cards and listen, doing what I needed. She got me through.

Susan got me writing plus sharing thousands of daily problems and one major life-changing one. She got me through.

When my mother died and I was cleaning out her apartment there was a knock at the door. I opened it and Pat stood there, dressed in jeans. “No one should have to do this alone,” she said. When we stopped for lunch she cried for me, because I was still putting the last two decades of that nightmare relationship to rest. She got me through.

For five years Marina and I shared, although during that time there were no real negatives in my life, just annoyances. She got me through.

Barbara with her wisdom helped me cope with my mother’s dying by helping me put it into perspective. “She didn’t ruin your life,” she said to a sulky me, “You are stronger despite or because of her.” Shit. The woman made the point that forced an unwilling me to the next stage of something be it maturity, acceptance, responsibility for my part in my own life. She got me through.

Slowly life will be put back into perspective. I am not living in the cold in Pakistan. I am not being shot at in Iraq. I have my health. Nothing much will change in my daily life. I am not quite ready to count my blessings, but maybe peek at them. I can find new dreams. I can seek my own ethical levels and accept related failures as mine. Strangely in accepting that failure I am also living out my conviction of accepting the choices of those I love, but no one can make me like this dichotomy. (picture child kicking and screaming on the floor, yelling – you can’t make me)

No where is it written that a life as blessed as mine has been can’t have set backs. I’ll get through. And that is the good after the bad.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Olfactory Memories

Barbara is redoing her office/livingroom/kitchen. Gérard has already exposed the beams from several centuries ago and redone the ceiling. He added a fan with lights. However, he left the painting for her.

Yesterday I went to help her paint along with Valerie, a French woman who uses Barbara’s store to sell her T-shirts. There was one beam that was covered with paint and Valerie was applying her heat gun.

The second I walked in I was taken back to Wigglesworth Street when weekend after weekend after weekend after weekend after…I was with my heat gun removing layers and layers of paint. The smell brought it all back.

I think I prefer the memories of brownies baking (assuming Llara and I didn’t eat all the batter first), the cold snowy air, roasting chicken, the salty sea air and fill in whatever thirty blanks you want…

Talking with my "French Daughter"

When I first met my “French daughter” she was barely three and was scoffing down black olives at a Parisian restaurant. Over the years on frequent visits I watched her develop into a very determined, intelligent young woman. She always has resembled Jackie Kennedy, a quite beautiful person inside and out.

I lived with her father when she was in "college" French junior high. We first communicated in German as she poured out her heart on her parents’ divorce while we were camping, giving my faltering German a workout. Convinced that I wasn’t learning French fast enough she prepared lessons that not only helped me advance, they were fun. I suspect the lessons were prompted when I told her in French that I ate her cat instead of I fed her cat.

When I separated from her father and returned to the US to care for my dying mother, she visited. Within a couple of weeks we were holding in-depth conversations as the sun set on my deck. Her language skills now means she’s fluent in French, Dutch, German, English and has a good knowledge of Italian. I am jealous of her abilities, but I know it is part natural gift and part hard work.

She visited me wherever I was: spending a boring New Year’s Eve in Môtiers, Switzerland, studying for university entrance exams in Grand Saconnex, Switzerland and celebrating more than one Easter in Argelès. I visited her in Toulouse and Aix-en-Province.

We were sitting in an Argelès café after she graduated from university and was job hunting. RB2 was with us. “Why don’t you look outside France,” he said.

She ended up in Germany and then Holland and she has just gone to work for the UN in New York. “We have a white city,” she said to me from her Roosevelt Island flat last night when I talked to her on the telephone. Although I don’t take credit for her successes, I have a great deal of pride in her strength, her intelligence and her courage to forge her own way often in difficult circumstances. She is a good person, and although she will never be my real daughter, I think the world of her as I do my own child. My life has been enriched by having her in my life.

What struck me after I hung up was she is now close to the age I was when I first saw her scoffing down those olives.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Another marché

They were no bigger than chocolate-covered raisins and they were the color of dark and milk chocolate, except they were olives.

“Pourrais-je gouter?” I asked the olive dealer. She wore gloves with the tips of the fingers cut out and was stamping her feet to keep warm behind her table that was covered with the yellow and orange stripes of the Catalan flag.

“Bien sûre.” She had a filigreed metal scoop that she dipped into the large bowl identical to the other bowls that held different flavoured olives. All the others were normal size. She held it out for me to sample.

Usually I bought the basil or garlic-flavoured olives, but these had almost a cinnamon taste. I took a scoop and put them in my olive dish with the little indentations for the seeds.

There is something about an olive dealer that is so much more fun than buying a jar in a supermarket. The most fun is in the eating.

Under the duvet and other joys

One of the small joys in life on a cold Sunday morning before the heat is on is to get up for the morning toilet run and go back to bed and find the place left is still toasty warm making for a mega snuggle. Even more pleasurable is to pick up a book and read.

Although I am retired (Hah!), I do a great deal of writing and maintain a full work schedule. The difference is I write when I want, my commute is across the room and except for a few deadlines can arrange my time as I want. This means I can still read a bit in bed before I get up. So Sundays shouldn’t be special, right? Wrong!!!!

Part of the joy about arranging time to suit me, is to keep Sundays as a special time. In Geneva stores are closed and in Argelès food stores are only open until noon, which encourages the downtime mentality.

However, the cozy, get back in bed under a warmed duvet is good Monday-Sunday.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Single and happy

Marit, a Norwegian artist along with the Danish sculptor Nils, had a joint exhibition at Christine’s atelier. Marit ended up working it alone, because Nils had to go back to a hospital in Denmark.

Because it was cold, not many people came to the last day. Many of the works had been sold, but were still displayed.

Barbara and I ended up talking with her as the sun set. All three of us were saying how good our lives are now that we no longer are dealing as being part of a couple. We say we can do what we want, when we want, how we want, everything from reading in the middle of the night to doing our work without interruption.

None of us regretted our previous marriages and relationships, it was just a time in our lives for a different kind of life.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Thanksgiving encore

M, the woman who owns the goat farm was standing in Barbara’s store with our Thanksgiving Capon in her hand. The poor bird met his end on Sunday. Yes, I know it is past Thanksgiving, but it is the idea and Barbara waited until I got back to Argelès to do a meal for me and Rosalie, another American.

I offered to take it upstairs so I could say hello to Gérade who was doing major reconstruction work. He was the same man that perfected my nest.

The floor that holds Barbara’s frigo (fridge) is one large room half kitchen, half office. Gérade had all the furniture against the frigo.

We did the double-cheek kiss, and I didn’t go for the third that I usually do after coming from Switzerland. We caught up on news.

Rather than ask him to move everything, I asked him to put “Le Capon” on the ledge.

He pointed to the bag. “Tu as Al, dedans?” He pretended to shoot up the room with a machine gun.

“It isn’t capon?”

“Chapon,” he said stressing the ch sound.

Ah well, another word mispronounced.

One of my friends has suggested I shadow talk to the TV or radio, which means saying the words behind them. Maybe that will improve my accent so when I use my more than adequate vocabulary, the words are recognizable. Now that would be something to give thanks for.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The crazies are running the asylum

The crazies are in charge of the asylum. I watched Bush say how far the Iraqi army had progressed and we would stay until we win. Yet it was only weeks ago that an Army general told Congress only one battalion was trained. Yesterday I read an article that stated that news staff in Iraq stay in the hotels and report from there. How fast can you train 120 battalions. Then listening to people on BBC and CNN talk about the speech. Can’t anyone connect the dots? We will never win in Iraq nor should we. We are the bad guys. We attacked another sovereign nation for no reason. We torture. We kill. We lie. I want the country I believed in back. If this is a movie, would the director please say “Cut.”

Cake eating, an art form

Changing lives from Geneva to Argelès for two weeks is more than a train trip. Although somewhere around Lyon the snow disappeared.

There are similarities. Friends exist in both places, although there is more of a drop-in environment in Argelès. I bump into May in a store where I am picking up a present for Marina and invite May for a cup of tea Friday afternoon. I want to hear about her South African vacation. In Geneva events are more preplanned sometimes weeks in advance because of peoples’ schedules. Then it is something to look forward to.

I spend hours writing in both places, though I watch TV in Argelès where I also go to more movies because they’re cheaper.

It is more than going from a four-story five bedroom house to my studio on the fourth floor.

The ease in Argelès to walk down the street for all the choices of food to having to take a bus or buses is a major change. I can walk to Franck’s café for a hot chocolate. I have to take buses for the Café Auer, although the hot chocolate is better at Café Auer, but not a huge amount.

And when I go out in Geneva I dress up in at least a skirt in a sweater rather than run out in sweats. I like both styles.

I eat in more in Argelès but I scoff down sushi and Tex Mex, filet des perches in Geneva in restaurants.

I adjust my schedule to others more in Geneva and savour the company. I savour living alone in Argelès.

I smile in both places. I have two lives in one. A friend called me a cake eater. This is cake eating and licking the frosting too while two cakes stay on plates marked Geneva and Argelès.

John Kerry II

The conductor had to bend to not hit his head on the train doorways. I looked at him and asked in French “Do you know you look a lot like John Kerry?” He did, hair, cheek bones, even the jacket he was hanging up looked like the one Kerry wore in Ohio during the primaries.

“Ah bon?” He asked. Ah bon, is one of those all purpose phrases in French that can be thrown into all most any conversation along with ça va, et puis, alors and qua.

He moved on but a little later I heard him say to the other conductor that the red-headed woman said he looked a like John Kerry although he pronounced is Jeahn Kah ree.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Another Sunday another vote.

Another vote this weekend, which is reason I love Switzerland. We vote on so many issues rather than leave it to the politicians

Overwhelming they voted to continue the moratorium against genetic food and to keep shops closed on Sunday with the exception of airports and train stations. The idea of having a day NOT the like the other won out. I can buy safe food six days a week. I can live with that.

I am looking forward to the time I can vote here, although in this case the will of the electorate is what I would have done.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Late spring snow -- early fall snow

On Valentine’s Day in 1996 I was having dinner with a man who worked for the now defunct DEC. When we came out snow had accumulated on the ground for the first time in my three years living in the city. I was thrilled to see it.

When it snows at 500 meters or above, it usually rains in Geneva. The few times it does snow the city filled with drivers from warm countries becomes a massive parking lot as those unaccustomed to manoeuvring their cars slip and slide.

I do remember a few Sundays during an eleven year stay sitting at my kitchen table looking at the château across the street as snow coated the grass and trees: coated, nothing substantial. I could count the few on one hand and have fingers left over. Hot chocolate tastes better when it is snowing outside.

Last year there was snow a good part of the winter compounded by ice storms. The last storm happened April 17th, a time of year when flowers are in bloom.

This morning I woke to about five inches of snow. It stopped early, although I had lunch with a friend who is in the middle of a move from Gstaad. The moving men are taking double the time to get to her place because it is still snowing in that region. The news is reporting 250 accidents.

Lunch in an auberge in this little Swiss village overlooking fields and mountains was a little bit like those jigsaw puzzles I did as a kid. Outside workmen were putting up tents for the Christmas marché tomorrow. It was postcard perfect in the snow.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Dick Pound's book on the Olympics

I stopped watching the Olympics a few years ago after the judging scandals, but I found this book fascinating.

One of the things I never understood was the saying, "What a shame he only won the silver." Even being in the Olympics struck me as an incredible feat, and to take second place still a mark of success.

Pound talks about Nike who had a campaign "He didn't win the Silver, he lost the Gold." Pound said that so was against the spirit of the Olympics that when Nike, an Olympic sponsor, refused to pull the campaign, Pound threatened to call a press conference with all the silver medalists denouncing the campaign. Nike caved.

I knew there is a reason that no one will ever see me with the words Nike anywhere on my person but then everyone knows I don't wear clothes with brand names unless I am paid to do so.

An Okay Thanksgiving

If I couldn’t have a turkey dinner, I decided to go to the Café du Soleil for fondue. My gluttony would take a Swiss form. As usual I had my open arms welcome from Olivier, the manager. He seated me in the little room in the back, with its fieldstone walls and wooden and beamed ceilings. The restaurant building is close to 300 years old.

Eavesdropping – there were ten people at the table next to me, all speaking English. They were all IT workers from different organizations. One was a Swiss German who spoke American English – the give away was that he used the term “you guys”. I could tell they were from both non-governmental organizations and the private sector. Somehow they got onto the Americans, not the war, not Bush, but how all of them had problems with the American companies and the American NGOs that they worked with honouring their commitments. Some were owed money. Others were owed products. Some found promised services didn’t arrive. “You just can’t trust them,” they agreed. Scary.

A former French boyfriend who had negotiate with a lot of American companies had observed the same things. But in Switzerland your word is considered the same as signed contract. Anthropologists have a term for societies that rely on spoken vs. written agreements. It isn't a value judgement, but necessary to understand the differences.

Least you think it was only a dump-on-America, the Swiss German, when the conversation turned to casual Fridays commented how one of his clients was a bank with a strict dress code. There was flood in the IT room. The technician removed his tie, jacket, rolled up his sleeves and was kneeling in water trying to retrieve some cable. The CEO came down to determine why the system had been shut down. His first question wasn’t about the system. “Where is your tie?” he asked the man. The Swiss German didn’t say what the answer was and I thought it would look I was eavesdropping if I asked.

After my fondue I decided to have profiteroles. This is Thanksgiving right? It ain’t pumpkin pie, but they will do for a substitute.

As far as Thankgivings go, it wasn’t one of the best, but it certainly wasn’t one of the worst.

Honesty and Thanksgiving

It was mega stupid, I know. In a rush and seeing my bus through the bank window, instead of taking my newly withdrawn 100 CHF I grabbed my ATM card and ran leaving the money on the counter, not in the machine.

It’s only money, I consoled myself. I remember the time I found a 100 CHF note blowing on an empty street. It’s evened out. I even imagined the person finding my money going to a nice restaurant. No use crying over spilt money.

Today is Thanksgiving, one of the few times I am truly homesick. I’ve found no celebrations this year, not even ones costing the same as my first born child. I decided to console myself with a fondue at the Café du Soleil, but first I was going through all my Swiss paperwork before I go to Argelès for two weeks. I didn’t want to return so close to Christmas to have to deal with it.

I opened my bank statements (considering I have so many accounts I should be richer). There was a letter from UBS saying they had redeposited the 100 CHF I had left on the counter of the ATM machine.

Who ever found it could have as easily pocketed it. It could have been left by anyone. They didn’t. They went into the bank and explained how the previous customer had run out fast. It was easy to check the transaction.

If honesty of people isn’t a reason to give thanks in today’s cynical world, I don’t know what is. Okay maybe because the Bise has stopped blowing ...

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

The Bise Again

The Bise Again

I remember singing a song in our seventh grade music class where the entire grade was in the auditorium. The lyrics included the phrase “tender breezes blow”. There is nothing tender about The Bise that is roaring outside. Roaring to a point that I have raised the volume on the CD to drown it out. Isabelle Boulay is too gentle a singer. I need someone like Garou with his raspy voice or the entire Berlin Symphony. The house has a fault and when the Bise is at its worst it sounds as if a siren is going off over the toilet.

The sky is brilliant blue as the trees jump in the air.

The cat considers the only sensible place to be is on my bed, and if I want to share, she might, notice might, be willing to negotiate a small space for me.

I need to go out in this weather to get the mail. Although I usually walk, it strikes me as smarter to use the car, although I picture flapping my arms at the top of the hill and being lifted across the lake into France.

I do understand why people go mad in winds. The noise after a while STOPS being interesting and has moved into irritating.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The Swiss Working Poor

The figures are out. Of the 7,489,370 people living in Switzerland 211,000 are called working poor. The definition is those earning under 2490CHF or US$1889 per month as a single person or 4609CHF or US$3500 for a couple with two kids. It’s about 6.7% of the population according to the articles. Basically a family of four earning the equivalent of US$42000 is considered poor. Fortunately it is a small percentage.

A disadvantage is that technically people can not work two jobs in this country, although some employers have given consent. A forty-hour work week is considered enough here. However when I compare prices here to other places I find where once they were much higher they are now on a level for some things such as housing. Geneva housing, when you can find, it, seems lower than say Boston or New York.

The Coat Test

Anyone who knows me knows I don’t wear winter coats. I wear sleeping bags, feather-lined quilted garments that cover me from ankle to hair. This year,my sleeping bag was getting tacky after two years of loyal service. Sadly I couldn’t find a replacement long enough to cover some of my favourite skirts and dresses.

Then I saw it near the Noga Hilton, a full-length leather coat. On sale. I negotiated the price lower (I used the difference to buy hat, gloves and scarf since it didn’t have a hood).

The only question was – would it be warm enough?

Today was the test. The bise had been blowing all night, making the house creak. The temperature was at 3° centigrade, a little above freezing, BUT the wind chill factor put it into the I-don’t-want-to-know category.

Munchkin, the cat who has her out-routine asked five times at the door, but each time, when the bise blew leaves into the hall backed up. Each time I reminded her that the temperature had not improved in the last five minutes. She walked to her litter box, but then gave it one more try. This time she didn’t get a choice. I threw her out, but let her back in about 90% earlier than normal.

Now it was my time. I had several stops (three bus changes, a walk to my old office, across a street to eat with a friend, a walk to the supermarket, two more bus changes, a walk to the library and three bus changes home all with misc. waits.)

The verdict: ta ta, drum roll, a trumpet. The coat held its own.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Tea and the blues

Anil woke me with a cup of hot Darjeeling tea. The night before his wife and I along with him watched a movie where a train went through the tea crops. I was their weekend guest, although at this point after much too’ing and fro’ing for many years, it feels like a second home.

“Do you know Geechi Wiley?” and he asked me.

I didn’t. I am used to Anil telling me things about my own country be it history or music that go deeper than my knowledge. He brought up the song on his computer. Despite the scratchiness of the old recording, the voice was moving. The guest bed is in the computer room and I sipped the tea as we listened.

“There’s debate about the lyrics,” he said. The words bolted meal came up or so we thought.
We listened and re-listened. Neither us knew what bolted meal was. We looked that up too.

I wondered what the blues singer would have thought if she had only known that almost seventy years later another American and an Indian would be listening to her music in far away Europe.

All the _ollywoods

“Yes, Yes and Yes” I replied when Chitra emailed me if wanted to go an Indian film festival. Chitra and Anil had introduced me to Bollywood, Mollywood and Tollywood and I keep asking them how many other _ollywoods their country produces.

The festival was a tribute to the actress of Jaya Bachchan

Although I hadn’t heard of her, I quickly realised that she has status of a Meryl Steep or a Susan Sarandon by the way the audience held her in awe. She was there, gracious, elegant, giving. She answered questions from the audience between films and during the dinner break my hostess and daughter were able to eat with her, which left them both thrilled.

The first film was plotted similar to A Star is Born and made when she was young with her soon-to-be husband who came to be according to some surveys the best known actor in the world although I hadn’t heard of him. He was named Actor of the Millennium in a BBC News Poll ahead of such luminaries as Charlie Chaplin, Sir Lawrence Olivier, and Marlon Brando. He is currently hosting the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. (Learning about things I don’t know when I consider myself a well informed-international is good for keeping me humble.)

The second was done more recently, and called The Mother of 1084. An upper middle-class woman learns her son was killed a revolution. His toe tag is 1084. Painful to watch – a film that can be appreciated on levels from political to artistic.

I expected to enjoy the weekend. I expected to enjoy the festival. The only surprise was how much

Trees in trees

Swiss Romand and the French have a certain kind of tree with bark that looks like a paint-by-numbers product. The bark-marks are a light beige and a green-grey slate heavily lightened with white. Each year in the fall all the live branches are cut back leaving knobs at the top of the trees. In the spring new branches will sprout.

Along the lake there are many of these trees. Today as I was catching the bus home to Corsier, I saw that each tree had decorated small Christmas trees about the size of a table top tree suspended from the knobs some with as many as ten trees from a single tree.

It’s an interesting holiday decoration.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Robbert Race

I left my mobile on all day in case Rb2 called about out meet-up at the station before his train to Argelès. I also dialled his natel (cell phone) to no answer, but since he’s working in Lausanne, I supposed he turned it off.

When he did call, I was on another floor and galloped up the stairs too late. The call-back produced no answer.

Then I checked my email. Message: “I’m getting in at 18:39.”

It was 17:55, the bus leaves at 18:01 and it is a good five minutes up the hill. Whirlwind activity of coat, keys, bag, phone, etc. Race up the hill. Arrive as bus is closing doors pant pant pant pant pant pant...

Connect with number 6 bus at the lake. This is rush hour. In most areas the bus has its own lane but crossing the Mont Blanc Quai we were trapped in traffic. 18:29.

18:32 Inched ahead
18:34 Inched ahead
18:36 Inched ahead

The station was in sight. “I’m so late could you possibly let me out?” I asked the driver when I realised it would be at least eight more minutes before we came to the bus stop.

He said he couldn’t. I said I understood.

The light changed. A car pulled in front of the bus. We got to the next light and it turned red. We STOPPED.

“Merde,” I said under my breath.

The driver opened the door for me without me asking. There has to be a special place in heaven for those who bend the rules wisely. “Vous êtes formidable. Je vous aime,” I said over my shoulder as I dashed out and made the station at 18:40.

Rb2's train arrived at 18:36. It is not a big station but full of people and even if the Swiss aren’t as tall as some other nationalities, my head was below most of theirs. His head wasn’t visible and of course the rest of him being missing.

Plan B was to do a tour of the station if my phone didn’t ring.

Plan C was to do a tour of the restaurants I knew he might frequent.

Plan D was to bump into him almost literally.

Plan D worked.

I asked why his phone wasn't working. He is the lover of phones. I hate them. He said he'd forgotten it.

An attempt to get a reservation at the Café du Soleil produced only a time after his train left. Tex Mex it was. Although we had seen each other just last month and although we’ve been in email contact there was much news to get caught up about.

Heading back to the station, less hungry than a couple of hours before and at a pace that is normal, we spied a gadget shop. Rb2 should have a bumper sticker reading “I break for gadgets” We watched a cartoon with Scat trying to keep his acorns together, checked out the Chris Rea Farewell Concert dates, and said good bye.

I WALKED to my bus.

Friday, November 18, 2005

A little bit of everything

La Faim is a restaurant built on dreams and living on passion run by Danes. Sylvia and I ate their today and she introduced it to me. She knows the people who run it. The food is good, the bread homemade and they have Kahlua.

My writing mate is moving to Vienna. We ate together today, a kinda farewell, although I intend to visit her there. She will read over Triple Deckers when it is finished. Over the years we’ve developed the confidence to not need each other to check every word, but will still ask to check this or that as a final look-see. My writing progressed a lot faster because of her and my editing skills even faster. It has been a good relationship. And there’s the security she is only and email away.

Flash – I was waiting for the bus and a flash hit my eyes. I wondered if I were having a brain incidence except I didn’t feel dizzy. Then another flash. I looked across the intersection and realised the radar cameras were taking speeders. After that it was fun guessing which cars would be bagged: no, no, no, bagged, bagged, bagged, no, no, bagged. I was getting about an 80% score. Speeding tickets are expensive. However, it wasn’t so much fun that I let the next bus go by.

Christmas decorations are beginning to go up. It always amazes me that many decorations can be left outside without being stolen. Some are beautiful. One pine tree is covered with clear balls almost a foot in diameter. A leafless tree has streamers and toys. I don’t understand a cluster of leafless trees wrapped in blue plastic (like the garbage bags) with blue plastic streams entwining their branches.

Agenda – I never gave into a palm pilot for two reasons, I didn’t want to program it and I knew if I lost it I would be even more furious at the time spent programming it. This isn’t a technophobe thing because I’ve used a calendar on line but often I am someplace (it is harder to lose a complete computer) and unless there’s a computer handy I can’t check dates. Today I chose a mini agenda with a pretty blue cover that will easily slip into my bag. Like my journals it is important how it looks. I also am getting close to getting a new journal. I prefer the French notebooks with squares rather than lines. It makes my handwriting easier to keep neat.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Ex-expat becomes a repat

At lunch today in a good Greek restaurant over caviar de aubergine and toasted salted pita bread the conversation turned to national identity. Both of us, my writer friend and I, have lived in several countries although Switzerland has been our most recent and longest place. She has the Swiss nationality that I am waiting for.

She objected to the term expat. It was one of those “clicks” that Ms magazine used to talk about. Ex-pat, ex-wife, ex-husband, ex-employee. Pat for patriot. No longer a patriot. Negative feeling really.

Many in the expat community never integrate any more than some of the poor refuges, don’t learn the language and never associate with the locals. Others spend their time putting down their hosts. “You know you’ve been in Switzerland too long when you think it is normal to only have one brand in a supermarket of each type of product” remarks abound. If it is said with humour it is one thing. If it is a put down it is another.

As anyone who knows me, understands that I no longer feel at home in the country of my birth while wanting the country to be preserved. I despair for the current politics that is seeing us turn into an international bully, run up a deficit that could sink the world economy, cut what little social safety net the people have to smithereens and destroy the environment as we run around like little pac men eating up the planet. What we are doing has little to do with democracy and a lot of to do with out-of-control capitalism. This does not mean that I do not want America to survive and preferably with the values that it has claimed for years to avow. Because of an accident of the timing of my birth the country gave me a strong base and opportunities that aren't available today.

I do feel at home both in Switzerland and in France, neither place which is perfect. I prefer to think of myself as a repat. I have been repatriated into another culture and lifestyle. Naturally the Swiss and the French have their own national myths. Many of the French national myths at the moment are burning along with the cars.

National myths usually are a goal worth aiming for they talk about the better part of their societies.

Meanwhile I will rename myself as a repat, however, I won’t change the title of this blog.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Mini vacation

Although I can’t say why, I always know when I have passed from Swiss Romand to the German section. I don't need to see signs with different languages or ever the name of the towns. When I took the train from Geneva to Bern today, I realised that the break comes between Lausanne and Fribourg right after we look down on the lake over a patchwork quilt of vineyards with the Alps in the background. It is one of my favourite views.

The grass is the same color, the cows look the same, the houses don’t vary that much. Farm communities on both sides have beet-filled train cars waiting to be taken to market. The two areas just feel different even if it is the same country. No value judgement should be applied. The Swiss talk about the Roesti curtain, because the German and French often vote opposite on issues. Roesti is the German potato dish which in reality is eaten on both sides of the language frontier.

In Bern I met a former colleague and housemate. We both started at the same company in 1990 and shared the company flat although I was in my forties and she was just out of university. We don’t see each often, but it is pleasant when we do. In 15 years you can build up a lot of memories of trips to Ikea, buying McDonald’s, missed airplane flights, and more backgammon games than can be counted, etc.

She chose a restaurant that overlooked the city with the mountains behind. The service was good, the food even better.

My German at best is rusty. My Schwyzedeutsche is worse. As I said to CB, whenever I change languages I feel as if I am on a mini-holiday even if it is only an hour and a half away.

We’ve decided I’ll visit her for a longer time in Zurich where she lives in March, and I’ve talked about dog sitting for her in the future. She is doing well. She is happy. Seeing an old friend and a mini-vacation of three hours all in a day, is a good way to spend a Sunday.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Home Alone

It’s Saturday. My housemates are in the US and Germany. Yesterday I ran to the booksale and it was as good as I remembered. Last night I took sushi to my Indian friend’s.

Tomorrow I go to Bern to meet a former colleague and former apartment-mate. Next week I have three lunches, the Geneva Fair (to get ideas for the flat if it comes through) and see the flower show, and a Democratic potluck and strategy session.

None of the above is a complaint. It is why I continue in Geneva; friends, writers, activities and the beauty of the place.

But today, today folks, I do not intend to leave the house. I have poked my nose out the door only to let Munchkin go out. The day is grey. It is perfect to write, listen to music and savour being alone.

Alone is good to recharge. I am into mega recharging.

Guilt and good news

Last night when I took sushi over to the other side of the city, I drove at rush hour. The trip took one and a half hours. Geneva is a small city. All those cars sitting there spewing poison, mine included. I would have taken public transportation, but I didn’t want to miss getting back because of Munchkin duties and I wasn’t sure how late I would be. Every second my engine was on, I was aware I was indirectly killing the planet. And that was in a fuel-efficient car. I can’t imagine how I would have felt if the car I was using got under 20 mpg. This one gets over 30, but I still felt guilty. I didn’t have to drive. I had an alternative—leave earlier. Cars are necessary but as a species we have to find an alternative. The good news was this morning that NYC is beginning its conversion to hybrid taxis. It’s a start.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Library Book sale

The book sale at the American Library is a favorite event. Not only are there thousands of books at cheap prices, but it is held in the American church which brings up memories of the Christmas Fair at the Church of the Good Shepherd where I grew up in Reading.

There’s something about eating an egg salad sandwich in a roll, with a cup of tea under stained glassed windows as people around you browse for books that makes me feel warm and cosy, even if the wind is blowing off the lake outside. However, I won’t get to do that until Friday.

Today was a work day. This year for the first time I was able to volunteer to help set up. Two years ago my daughter did it. Boxes of books were under the tables in categories: history, self-help, cooking, novels, gardening and classics. I took the classics.

Some of the books were old leather-bound editions, the kind my grandfather treated reverently. Others were modern paperbacks. The hard part of putting them out is that I wanted to read so many of them. I did give in to thumbing for some of my favourite parts of East of Eden, glancing at a Roman myth or two, and reading three Emily Dickinson poems.

More and more people showed up to help. The sounds of “I’m history, I’ve got a novel,” and “Save the shallow boxes for the extras” mingled with the thumping of boxes and books onto the tables. At 10:30 we were given a tea and cake (marble) break and one of the teas was my much loved and sometimes hard to find Bengali Spice. That alone was worth the lifting and bending.

Sadly I will miss the thank-you tea party next month, but I won’t miss the egg salad sandwiches when I go to buy on Friday. Of course the books go back to the library for next year’s sale. They do more good that way, raising money to keep the library open and having people read them rather than having me have to dust them.

8:30 bus

I am usually NOT on the 8:30 bus into Geneva. This is the bus filled with college-bound teenies. College in Geneva is what the US calls Junior High. There was standing room only as jeaned-teenagers, rainbow scarves wrapped around their necks, ladened with bookbags and notebooks called to one another, giggled and laughed. Their faces were happy.

One girl studyied her histoire notes probably for an exam. Obviously neatness counts for every word was legible, the drawings and charts could have been plucked off a computer, but were drawn.

By contrast the adults wedged between the kids looked put upon. Nary a smile could be found. The kids got off. Quiet descended, but none of the adults seemed to relax. I wonder what and when these happy kids will be turned into sour-faced adults. I hope never.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Nothing till next year

Talked to the lawyer on the apartment. He says there will be nothing until next year.

Talked to the people at the naturalization department. The commune hasn’t reported back on my visit. She says there will be nothing till next year.

A Sunday walk

A few sunlight yellow grape leaves clung to the vines. Their fruit is aging in wooden barrels all over the Canton. The vineyards alternated with square fields of frothy lavender flowers. I have no idea what they are, but they must serve some use considering the evenness and volumes with which they were planted.

A few sail boats bobbed on the lake below the fields their white sales matching the ribbon of clouds resting on top of the Saleve and hiding the Alps. Above the sky was brilliant blue. Only a twinge of cold air touched my cheeks as I said bonjour to the people also out on walks. Their dogs, frisky and happy to be free, raced up and down the paths between the fields.

The walk was a writing break on a stay-at-home-and-write-and-catch-up-on-paperwork weekend and a reminder of why I love being in Switzerland.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Cravings and memories

The craving for a cheese Whopper was too strong. I ducked into the Burger King near the train station just a few minutes late to miss a solid drenching.

No matter that I eat 90% vegetarian being careful to make sure I have 5-10 servings of vegetables and fruit a day. Nor have I had a longing for Whooper this strong since I was a pregnant with Llara. Then Whoppers dominated my thoughts daily, but the doctor warned my weight was spiralling towards 100 pounds.

Whoppers bring up memories. Susie, Llara and I went to Burger King in Waltham the night I bought my cute maroon Spitfire. There was a shelf in the back just right of my two-year old daughter, in the non-car-seat-for-tots era. We seated ourselves. Money was tight even before the car purchase and I watched Susan open a sugar packet and sprinkle it all over the French fries.

Whoppers bring up memories of Paddington Station as I travelled to Glamorgan where I was studying for my creative writing degree. I had just enough time to grab one and get on the train. Likewise at Luton airport when I fly Easy Jet, the Burger King is outside the waiting area. Since easy Jet doesn’t process you through in advance, you can’t go in and use one of the restaurants there.

Leaving Burger King. I had another craving. Pop Tarts. I went to the American store and paid $9 for a box of chocolate Pop Tarts.

Tomorrow I will go back to healthy eating without a pang of regret for giving in to a craving. I will never be on my death bed wishing on a rainy November day I had a Whopper or a Pop Tart.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

A brief walk

She came up to my hip and since I am five one, that’s not very tall. Her blue dress matched the blue streak she talked, about important things like her new hat and mittens, although she shed both quickly in the warmth of the November sun.

Then there was the news that she now had a big bed much better then a baby crib although it wasn’t as big as mommy's and daddy’s and she wanted to know if I had a bed. I told her I did.

We were taking a walk through farm land. The fields have been turned over waiting for next year’s seeds. The flower fields have been stripped for the marches, The Jura were on one side of us, the Alps on the other. Although the sky was bright blue, Mt. Blanc was no where to be seen. I will never understand how a mountain that big can come and go.

Along the way there were rocks to pick up and wildflowers to pick.

The nearby school was using the paths between fields for a race and we clapped as young teens galloped and panted their way by. Two teen girls shouted encouragement. Stephan seemed to be a favourite.

It was short, it was simple, and it was it wonderful.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Déjà vu -- almost

Having spent the night with my friends in my old apartment complex I left the same time I would have had I been still working at my old job. I chatted with the concierge as before, admired the red bush over the big rock that I walked past for at least 2000 mornings.

The waiting area for the number 5 bus has been rebuilt and the bus now stops automatically, but other than that I saw the same people. There is a woman who I never saw smile in a decade. She works at the UN, is single and has a handicapped son. I would guess he is autistic, but it is only a guess. The woman who I used to meet when I walked my chins and she walked her chows as well on the bus was there. At the next stop, the older man with magazine-model perfect hair got on in his blue suit and with the black briefcase with the scratch.

The feeling of déjà view evaporated as we approached the UN. The three-legged chair symbolizing the damage of land mines that was supposed to stand until all nations signed the anti-mine treaty is gone. (Over 100 nations have signed but not the US). The area is being rebuilt. Some old houses have disappeared as a new WIPO building is being constructed. And the one remaining park in front of the ITU is being dug up for heaven knows what.

At the Varembé stop, my old stop I almost snuggled in my seat.

The Play

Parents must go to see their children’s theatrical events. Nandita is in a children’s theatre group where adults go even when their offsprings aren’t part of the performance. The troupe is put together by a man who works with the kids for a year. They write the play, contribute to ideas for set design and costumes, and select the music. They appear in a number of performances around the area. As a friend in Ste. Cergue says, she wouldn’t dream of missing it.

I’ve watched Nandita mature as a performer, but she always had great stage presence from the time she terrified an audience as a jaw-snapping crocodile although she was much smaller than any self-respecting frightening crocodile would be.

This is her last year with the group. As she goes into her teens her life is filling up with other things. I will probably go to next year’s play, but it won’t be quite the same without her.

Music and meal

“Falafel,” Chitra said her eyes alight as we walked into the Turkish restaurant. We chose one of the eight tables after ordering at the counter making sure we had all the traditional accompaniments. The owner flirted a bit with us.

A Turkish song played in the background. I mentioned it.

“It is that instrument.” He pointed to something that looked liked a cut off guitar with three strings. “Come, I’ll play for you.” I followed him where he accompanied the CD-ROM until it was over, a concert for one.

Back at the table he deposited a plate of grape leaves a gift.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Florent Pagny Concert

I fell in love with Florent Pagny’s and voice when I saw his video Savoir Aimer (to know to love). You can watch it as he signs the lyrics. Later when he sang Libertes des Penses (freedom of thoughts) and Happy Days I was equally entranced. His voice was better than most pop stars. Then on one of the many French variety shows he sang a duet with Pavarotti. Tiens tiens, as the French. He’s had some really good training.
Then on one of the pop stations I heard someone singing opera. I don’t think anything is strange these days including opera on a pop station. It was Pagny who risked by putting out an album of arias. It became a best seller. He took a show called Barrytone on the road. I missed it in Paris.

When I got back to Geneva in August I saw a poster for a Geneva Barrytone performance October 28th. I went directly from the train station to the ticket agency before going home.

I wasn’t disappointed. He was accompanied by the Prague Symphony orchestra. The opening was a giant sized screen where he said he was often asked if he ever got bored in Patagonia where he spends part of his time. ‘You can decide for yourself’ he said. The opening shot was of a log cabin where he wakes to his morning matei before he goes on a hike, canoe trip and horseback ride against scenery which makes Switzerland look ugly in comparison.

Pagny long ago gave up conventional dress for gaucho clothing. The concert was no different as he strode on the stage in clothes that looked as if his horse was waiting outside. The arias were beautiful. He brought on a Turkish contralto. When she finished the audience couldn’t react for a moment before they broke into a standing ovation.

Pagny took a break by walking through the audience and talking to people. Take pictures if you want he told the crowd and joked although he would like to kiss a pretty women except he had promised his wife not to.

‘I’ve a problem,’ he said later. ‘Usually the orchestra is in the pit. He pointed behind him where the orchestra was on the stage as if it were possible to miss a 70-piece orchestra. ‘The prompter just broke down.’ He repositioned himself where he could watch the conductor.

He and the contralto sang about making God cry in English. The backdrop was the planes going into the WTC, logging, kids with guns, and all the other horrors of the modern world. The next song was a contrast to West Side Story’s Maria. He then did a ‘triptych’ of his hits including Savoir Aimer.

Interesting Swiss audiences tend to be non reactive. This was no different. During the pre-program warm up, only a small part of the audience participated in the clapping. Likewise, Swiss audiences usually demand only one encore. I remember years ago when RB2 and I went to a Dixieland concert in Neuchâtel no one clapped or tapped their feet. The lead trumpet finally said unless they clapped they were going home. He gave clapping lessons. It was done with humor. I wonder if performing artists who play in this country know they’ll get out early without having to go through repeated encores. In this case I could have listened to hours of encores.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Halloween est devenue totalement has been

The Tribune de Genève says that Halloween is over.

During the first ten years I lived in Switzerland I celebrated Halloween once in 1993 and that was because an American couple threw a party. They had to explain what it was to their Swiss guests. A real culture difference was shown when the Americans turned up in home-made costumes and the Swiss in rented ones.

Then suddenly four years ago the stores were full of witch and skeleton costumes. Black and orange decorations were all over the place. Even the Geneva flower clock was a pumpkin and for the first time pumpkins were displayed in grocery stores.

As one of the three Americans in my workplace people came and said, ‘M’explique Halloween, s’il te plait,’ in almost as many numbers who asked me to explain the Clinton controversy. My accountant took 45 minutes of a 30-minute appointment (the numbers are right) to try and understand that one. I expliqued away telling of the Irish traditions with turnips, my brother and I going to farm stands to find just the right pumpkin for carving, bobbing for apples, preparing Halloween cookies (before the fear of poisoning) and wrapping them in orange napkins for trick or treaters.

However, this year there is barely a witch costume to be found. Stores are devoting very little space to it. It was mainly a merchandising ploy people felt and the celebration didn’t catch on. In Geneva especially it is too close to the Escalade, the celebration of Mere Royaume throwing her cauldron of hot soup off the walls scalding the French soldiers trying to attack and buying enough time for the local militia to repel the attack. For the Escalade, kids dress in costume and sing the Escalade song in exchange for coins, grown ups have their costumes from the era, soldiers in armour ride on horseback and cannons are shot off. Stands sell vegetable soup and hot spiced wine. Chocolate shops sell chocolate soup pots filled with marzipan vegetables. In households the youngest and the oldest smash the pot together and the contents are devoured. It is a treasured and uncommercial time.

Pumpkins are still for sale, however. Recipes for pumpkin soup are in the paper. I’m glad that part caught on whether or not I carve a jack o’lantern.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Julius Caesar and Lunch

Lunch with Catherine was a true pleasure. She led me through the streets of Nyon to the école Migros, the adult education center of Switzerland’s leading supermarket. The ground floor was called Tea Room Bibliothèque, but it was better than any tea room I’ve been in for a long time even my beloved La Noisette in Argelès. Two Dutch women run it. They have mismatched easy chairs placed around tables of different styles, woods and colors. The walls are covered with book-filled shelves. Patrons can borrow the books for nothing.

Our waitress/owner recommended the broccoli soup. She was right. With just a hint of curry it was great along with the fresh bread. The chocolate cake and good cup of tea after the meal was equally good.

The dishes were unusual. A water pitcher was a clear glass O, flattened on the bottom of course. The tea pot was better than some sculptures I’ve seen.

As we complimented the w/o on the tea room’s atmosphere she said some of her friends had suggested she open a Starbucks. She wanted something totally original. Then they suggested she franchise it and get great deals on mass produced furniture in Hong Kong. ‘And what would I be doing?’ she asked. She answered her own question by saying how she would be looking for financing and dealing with business instead of doing what she loved doing, being in the kitchen, talking to clients, enjoying herself.

Interesting that her idea of success is not how much you can grow but how creative you can be while creating a great product while making enough.

After lunch we strolled through the cobblestoned streets of Nyon. We passed moss-covered stone walls and when there was a break we could see the lake, the Alps. Mont Blanc so far was the only the mountain with snow on it. There were tree-lined paths. The trees were shedding their yellowed leaves some almost a foot across. Many flaked their way down. Catherine wanted me to see the statue of Julius Caesar, who was the founder of this town. Here and there a Roman ruin added to the ambience.

As we headed back to the train station, she pointed out to me the place where the marché is held each week. ‘Imagine,’ she said, ‘There’s been a marché here since the Roman times.’ Now that’s continuity.

Although Nyon is only 20 minutes outside of Geneva, I felt my lunch and visit with JC had been a vacation. Long ago one of my clients who lived in the beautiful city of Annecy told me he was spending his vacation at home. ‘I’m already here,’ he said referring to the mountains where he could ski and hike. I knew the feeling. I am already here and daily life holds the joys that some people need to travel hours instead of minutes to find.

Cell phones on the train

Had I not been joining a friend I would have stayed on the train to hear the end of the conversation on the cell phone two seats ahead of me.

A man with an American accent was saying things like, ‘Stop…I thought we agreed we’d decide in another two months…that isn’t fair…listen to what you are saying…we agreed we would decide together…can’t we have dinner and discuss it…I do appreciate your research…but that would cost double what we agreed…’ His tone was soft as if he were trying to be reasonable, but really wanted to yell. Sadly I couldn’t hear the other end of the conversation.

At the same time the man in the seat across the aisle was working on a spreadsheet on his laptop. He kept getting phone calls. He spoke American English and Vaudoise-accented French so his nationality was impossible to guess. He talked of les reunions et les contracts but it was okay to do it tomorrow, mais il a pensé ce n’est pas necessaire. Sadly his words sometimes drowned out the conversation of the distressed other man.

When I rested my head on the window I could see the hand of the man who was trying to convince the girl of something. He waved it back and forth to make his points as the train pulled into my stop. I did get off, but I’ll never know what happened. The problem with cell phones so much isn’t that the conversations are intrusive, but that you don’t get the end of a good story. It can be like leaving a good movie before the end.

The little girl on the bus

The little girl’s feet barely made the edge of the bus seat. Her ruffled socks peeked from her brown corduroy slacks. Dark circles lined her eyes, much like my daughter had when her allergies were the worst. However, the child’s face was radiant as she chatted with her mother. No emotion could be hidden. Sometimes she tilted her head, other times she grinned. Her mother asked her something and her face grew serious as she pondered the answer. Then it lit up as she shared the information. Her mother clapped in pleasure and the child mimicked her. Their complicity was a joy to watch.

As I got up to leave I asked the mother, ‘Quel age est votre fille?’ The woman asked the little girl. ‘Trois,’ she said but held up only two fingers. The mother held up three and the daughter copied her and let loose another one of her killer smiles. I couldn’t help but smile myself.

Sunrise gifts

‘You’ve got to go outside,’ Scott said. He is the son of the woman whose house I share and is battling his way into adulthood. I could put both my feet in one of his boots and still have room, although trying to move from point A to point B that way would result in a painful accident. He is an extremely handsome kid with blond wavy hair and a cherubic face.

I was in the basement office checking my email. When I began it was still dark, although next week after we change the clocks, it will be light at the same hour. I looked at him.

‘I mean it, you have to go outside.’ He picked up his mother’s camera. She was waiting for him the car.

I ran up the stairs not understanding. The sun was just rising. The sky exploded in pinks, roses and reds. I gaped at the beauty.

When I lived on the other side of the lake, I used to issue rainbow alerts to my neighbors. My view was the best to see the sometimes double and trouble rainbows and the neighbors would stand on my balcony oohing and ahhing. This celestial show was as good as any rainbow.

Scott was right. I did have to go outside. Making me was a gift.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

The Crones Birthday Party

Bring something to read and a positive symbol of aging, Karen told those were invited to her 41st birthday party, a celebration of crones. At 41 she’s a crone in training. Karen is one of those women who not only dreams the impossible they accomplish major parts of those dreams. If there were 1000 Karens in the world there would be justice and peace throughout the planet.

The party was supposed to be in her office where she runs a crusade to improve legal systems in the world. An employee met guests directing them to Karen’s home a few blocks away. She had started labor pains, six weeks too early and was confined to bed. (Confining her anywhere probably involves chains) Her naked three-year old welcomed us. He has grown since the last time I saw him and is much more vocal. Being early I helped him dress as Karen’s mother-in-law and husband tried to do things before she could. ‘Sit down, Karen,’ was heard more often than Happy Birthday. As typical in any Geneva gathering there was a mixture of nationalities (including one vicar’s wife).

The men and children were relegated to the park across the street. The women gathered in a circle. Crones were defined as women who know and appreciate what to do with their age, power and wisdom. The Queen Crone was 79, and I was the second oldest crone.

Each guest introduced their symbol and read. One woman brought a small statue of an elephant, not much bigger than her thumb. Elephants are her family’s lucky symbol and the gift was something she had kept with her for years. Another brought a branch with three white flowers symbolizing the love within her family. Another woman gave a candle from a place that had special meaning to Karen. The poem When I Am Old I Will Wear More Purple printed in purple ink was handed out to everyone. At the end of each presentation the person lit a candle until the table was a blaze of light, perhaps lighting each one of us on our individual paths to power, age and hopefully wisdom.

You're from where?

Place du Molard in the Geneva Shopping district has fountains and flowers. Saturday the beat of American Indian music echoed. Five men with long black hair and dark skins dressed in fringed buckskins, war bonnets and with painted faces danced traditional American Indian steps, maybe with a bit of disco thrown in.

I love American Indian (Also Indian-Indian) music. It bring back memories of a vacation in Colorado Springs when Llara was five and Bill and I took her to the Garden of the Gods. Among the huge red pillars Indians from many tribes met to dance and sing. I already have a CDROM of Sacred Spirit Indian music which is wonderful to write to. This was bought in Lake Placid when I was visiting my former boss in jail.

The backdrop behind the musicians was a tepee and a painting of a wolf. They had a CDROM for sale called Mohicans, a Northeastern American Indian tribe. As one of the musicians passed by to sell the CD, I asked in English where he was from. “Peru,” he said. The tribe migrated further than I thought.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Chestnut time

The first smell hitting me as I got off the train in Geneva was roasted chestnuts. The smell signifies falling leaves, nouveau Beaujolais and signs in restaurants telling that they serve dishes supplied by hunters.

Stands are dotted through out the city. Most are wooden chalets, although the one by Bellaire overlooking the river has murals of woodland scenes.

The chestnuts are roasted in big metal washtubs. Burlap bags full of unroasted chestnuts are stacked near or in the stands.

The men running the stands, usually wearing blue coats, scoop the hot chestnuts into a paper cone, serving a hand-warming as well as palate pleasing experience.

I did bypass the train station's vendor, but I will buy chestnuts regularly as the fall goes on.

At the Café du Soleil

The Café du Soleil has been painted, upstairs and down, but the same colour. The only difference is how bright it is. The cheeriness is at the same level. Olivier, the manager, greeted me literally with open arms and a three-cheek kiss.

I was there with a good friend and we were busy catching up on all our news. She is at a happy point in her life, which is wonderful to see. As we delved into our lives a voice behind me said, ‘You’ll never know who’ll you meet.’ It was a colleague back from my Neuchâtel working days. He claims I am responsible for his living here, which is based on some truth. He knocked at the office door and I did let him in and introduce him to the boss, who hired him. Now he is married with two kids, not the one he had when I went to his fortieth birthday which was a cruise in on a lake ship.

He told me he had seen our old boss the same day, one of the most compulsive people I have ever met. Working for him was a nightmare.

‘What’s he doing?’ I asked.

‘Executive coaching.’

I didn’t faint. That’s a little bit like having a person with no legs run a marathon. Granted the man was brilliant, but his nitpicking had totally demotivated a bright eager staff, although everyone who left admitted they learned a lot from him including never wanting to work for him again.

IHT vs. me

I’ve always liked the IHT. However, they have a limitation on articles that web readers have access too. You must be a subscriber. This would make sense except for one thing. Most of the articles they limit have already appeared on other web sites.

Each time one appears I email them article along with the note I don’t need their subscription I can get it elsewhere.

What strikes me is how stupid can they be? It’s a little bit like limiting air people breathe. It can’t be done in this connected world. If they limited exclusives that were only on their site it would work. Now if they are not bright enough to realise this, how good is their reporting? Hopefully the same dummies who made this totally unrealistic policy aren’t the same people putting the paper together.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Apartment update

I should be a detective. I traced down the attorney who is representing the inheritors’ interests. I was able to get his phone number from Franck, the man who owns the middle two flats in the building. This is not the Franck of the café. He had no idea where he was located. However, using the name and number I was able to get his address in Lyon and wrote telling him the problems I was having with the agency, that they had a firm offer even though they said they still didn’t have a firm contract and said I would be happy to buy it either through the agency or directly.

I will follow up after I get back to Geneva. I have the attitude that if it works, it works, but if it doesn’t it won’t be from my lack of effort.

Civil war and Cathars

I headed for Franck’s on Sunday to have a big English breakfast. I still miss those Bill Breakfast’s on Wigglesworth Street. Cooking one on my own isn’t just the same. At the next table a couple was wondering about the camps where the Spanish Civil War refugees had come over the border to stay in Argelès and I knew the answer.

One conversation led into another and they were researching the Cathars. I invited them to my place so I could print out a list of sources. He is a writer as well and they invited me to dinner Tuesday night, which is good, because I will be able to clean out my frigo in the afternoon and unplug it. Even better will be an evening of interesting conversation.

Apple Pie without country and motherhood

Crisco makes the best pie crust. Tarte des pommes may be wonderful but it isn’t a good New England apple pie. The other is true. When I was in Geneva two weeks ago I paid an exorbitant amount for a tiny can of Crisco (the price is only slightly less than that for my first and only born child) at the American Store. Today I made the pie and shared it with Barbara who gets apple pie cravings too and Marina the young Catalan woman who we are helping with English. Usually we meet at Franck’s but he closes on Monday. I made a pot of real tea, where you hot the pot, before putting the tea in.

Christina stopped by to have me look at some publicity material and resisted the pie until she sat next to it. Her conversation added another accent to help tune Marina’s ear.
Even now, close to bedtime, the smell of cinnamon lingers in the air

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Catch up

The outdoor metal heaters standing six feet high or more were probably always outside Paris cafés, except I never noticed them. This year I did when one allowed me to do the Paris thing of sitting and watching people outside the café. The high price of coffee is low if you consider one cup can rent you a heated space for a morning of observation or even writing. Franck has bought one for La Noisette, although the need is borderline.

After days of rain, the sun daned to make an appearance. Although the storm made writing time cozy and productive it was wonderful to take a walk along the river. River is a loose time. I had come here for over a decade before ever seeing water. Today the river was racing, bubbling and gurgling. Several entrances to the village were cut off by water flooding over the road.

SNAKE…As I walked along a river, a small brown viper no more than a foot long twisted leisurely across the path. I must have scared him? her? Although there was no way to tell, but it trebled its speed and disappeared. I hope it has nightmares of giant women tonight.

The olives trees in the groves are ladened with fruit. Some are the size of large green grapes, but on the same tree others are ripening into pretty shades of purple as well as dull black.

I am getting ready to go back to Geneva for the winter where I have much to look forward to. There’s friends to see and I feel I NEED a fondue at the Café du Soleil. Chitra has a dance recital and Nandita will appear in her play. This group is run by a man and each year he works with young kids who write, design and direct the production. For anyone who had sat through terrible Christmas pageants, forget any resemblance. Not only will I see one with the family, I told them I would drive Nandita to the one up in the Jura. The performance is over before there’s any desire to check a watch. And there is the rock star, who will do a concert of operatic songs. The Library will hold its book sale which reminds me so much of Reading’s Church of the Good Shepherd Christmas Fair with its sandwiches and desserts. I am to go to Bern or Zurich to line up with Christianne, a former coworker from the first few years in Switzerland. And in between I hope to get some writing done.

Two inheritors still need to sign off on the sale to my flat and I am trying to get to the notaire who is in charge. I don’t trust the real estate agent, but for the notaire dealing with all those people trying to get this place off his books must be a nightmare.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Life is good

This morning the drum beat of rain woke me before the alarm. My bed was toasty warm. I watched dawn spread its misty grey light over the red roof tops outside my window. Last night I hadn’t drawn the quilted drapes that keep the place cool in summer and warm in winter without using as much energy.

At the same time as I was snuggling for the last minutes before starting my writing day, I read about Margaret Mead in Written by Herself edited by Jill Ker Conway. One of the true luxuries about working full time as a writer from home is being able to read before getting up. The pressure to rush out to work is non-existent. That does not mean I am not busy. By seven I’d exercised, ironed my slacks (although I might not leave the flat today), taken my shower and had my breakfast cooking.

Now I as I sit at the computer I see how shiny the rain has made the tiles. The woman across the street has her window open, which makes me want to shiver. I still have not put on the heat because I am cozy in my heavy slacks, sweater and thick socks. Probably this year with rising heating prices others will be doing the same.

I am incredibly grateful that I can work as I am working. A cup of caramel tea is on the table next to my desk. The writing is going well. Life is beyond good.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

French Language Logic

Buying saucisse and saucisson at the marché this day, the vendor corrected the gender I was using. The saucisse are long and thin are feminine, he expained. The saucisson, short and squat and decidedly phallic looking are masculine. I chose UNE saucisse de canard, long, thing and good although the U saucisson de sanglier covered in herbs would have been good too. Using memory tricks certainly helps remember gender.

Monday, October 10, 2005

A usual and unusual train trip

The train ride started out almost ritually. M Karmel, the Algerian taxi driver who drove me to the Gare du Lyon greeted me warmly. As usual we discussed current events: the Parkistani earthquake, the civil war in Iraq, his children’s latest exploits. I took my usual petit déjeuner at Le bleu Express. French men were huddled over their espressos while reading Le Figero, L’Equipe and Le Monde. Tourists’ head swivelled as they soaked up the atmosphere. As usual the croissant was hot, the orange juice freshly squeezed and the hot chocolate really chocolately.

As usual the station looked like an impressionist painting but with the same difference. Instead of steam belching clunky engines, sleek-nosed TGVs waited for passengers to board. As usual the posting of the quai was late while riders waited in front of the departure announcement boards, although most guessed correctly it would be quai I.

My seat was in the middle of car 18, which meant two people faced me. They were a couple about my age both wearing beige sweaters and we nodded politely. Sometimes the train rides involve seat mates each locked in their own world. Sometimes it involves great conversations.

This time our conversations were anything but usual.

A blond woman, wrinkled but still beautiful came to take the fourth seat. She carried a sponge mop, but instead of a flat sponge it had a roller. This started a conversation on mops. The woman said it was gift for her sister who couldn’t find one like it in the south of France. The beige sweater woman said she had one. She said she had tried one where she constantly had to buy some kind of cover until she realised that it was just a connerie (something bad) on the part of the manufacturer. ‘Une betisse,’ (another word for something bad) she said. ‘One time you bought products that were useful but they were one time purchases. Now the companies trick you into thinking you constantly need replacements.’ She gave another example of anew coffee maker than only works with little canisters supplied by the manufacturer of the machine.

We went on to joke (faire à blague) that the woman with the mop could be a modern witch. She said she wanted a blue pointed hat to match the colour of the mop.

As we made our way through the foggy country side the mop woman told us she had been a trapeze artist with Ringling Brothers Circus for 15 years than worked in their production department. Finally she had returned to France. Her parents had been deported in WWII and killed at Auschwitz. She and one of her sisters had been hidden in the country side and although the woman there was mean, they survived.

She opened her pocketbook and pulled out a photo. In it, she was leaning out a window with two other women. ‘It was a miracle,’ she said. She pointed to the woman on the far right. ‘Last January we got a phone call. This woman turned out to be our missing baby sister. She didn’t know she was Jewish until a few years ago and then when trying to get a passport for the first time learned her true identity. She then went on a search to see if any of her family had survived. The picture was taken at their reunion.

Tired of talking, the trapeze artist pulled out several issues of France Dimanche and Paris Ici, weekly papers like The National Enquirer. The husband buried himself in his book, while the three women read about Johnny Halliday not attending his grandson’s baptism, Michel Sardou’s new hit CD and the chances of Brad getting married soon, the latest news from Star Academy.

The train pulled into Perpignan in what seemed like a half hour trip but in reality had taken almost five hours. I recently read a book describing a journey from Paris to Lyon, half the distance as taking three days during WWII, the time the trapeze artist was in hiding.

As we left the trapeze artist congratulated me on my wonderful French. I hope her stories of her life were truer than her compliments.