Monday, February 28, 2005

When the bise blows, see your accountant

When the bise blows, something in the structure of the house I live in sounds like an air raid siren. Fortunately, I can sleep through almost anything. However, in the morning I had the choice of staying cosily inside or meeting the fiduciare to go over my Swiss taxes.

Bundling up, I took the bus downtown. The waves on the normal floor-flat lake, were almost high enough to surf. Ducks and swans took refuge in a small cove probably to prevent seasickness as they rode the waves. Flocons of snow, too small to accumulate, glistened in the air as did the new snow on the Saleve behind the lake.

Although store windows feature multi-colored spring clothes, pedestrians, male and female alike looked like Moslem women in Burkas with only their eyes visible.

“Votre cauchmar est ici,” I told my accountant. I was truly his nightmare and he mine. Although Italian, he looks like an American Army sergeant with his muscular body and crew cut.

During our first meeting, his first words were “Vous êtes americaine. M’explique, Bill Clinton et Monica.” Using what Christiane Amanpour had said on France2 the night before, I said that I considered it a coup d’êtat.

I always am missing some of the papers he wants. One year after three visits to UBS for a certain attestation and failing, he went with me to the bank. Standing in the lobby, he announced to everyone there and probably on the next two floors, “This poor woman is American. She can’t get the form she needs from you. Help her.” My usual salve when I am embarrassed is that I will never see the people again. This time two colleagues looked at me from where they waited in line to see a teller. One smirked, one showed sympathy.

This time, he was happy – until he saw the money I had transferred from the US immediately after Bush’s election. Although I believe that Bin Laden’s threat to bankrupt the US is not needed, because Bush will do it on his own, the falling dollar scared me. I explained.

“But the taxes?” he asked. He slapped his forehead with his left hand.

“Paid. The money was from my salary saved over years.”

“But the taxes?” (repeat the question and answer several times). Finally he accepted I could prove I transferred money for years then transferred it back. He wrote a note on my tax form.

There were two forms still missing. He offered to go with me to UBS, but I politely refused. The other I promised to get from the government office, which I knew so well from all the forms I needed for my Swiss nationality application that I could give a guided tour of restrooms on all the floors.

As I put on my coat he opened a box and pulled out a bottle of olive oil. “From my olive grove in Italy,” he said. "I pressed it myself." The then told me how to brush it on wood-oven baked baguettes with a little salt and grill. He suggested, I could also add tomatoes and goat’s cheese.

We shook hands, thenightmare over for another year, even though the bise was still howling.

Friday, February 25, 2005

The Reading Group.

Writing is like cooking a Thanksgiving dinner. The cook spends hours on what is demolished in minutes. Equally a novel can take months to years to write and a few hours or days to read. As a writer, unlike the person who cooked Thanksgiving dinner, I usually don’t see the response of my readers.

A reading group in Lausanne had selected my novel Chickpea Lover, Not a Cookbook, as their selection and invited me to discuss it. The day arrived and I woke with a bit of trepidation. At the train station I thought a special Swiss sweet roll and some fresh squeezed mango would be good for the ride to Lausanne. Because it was a grey day, the Alps were in hiding, but the snow covered fields of grass, fruit trees and wheat were beautiful. Three shaggy ponies raised their heads from munching their grassicles to watch the train pass.

The nine women in the reading group met in the barrel-shaped caveau of a restaurant. The rounded walls and ceiling were decorated with pre-historic type drawings of local activities, fishing, grape harvesting, etc..

The speciality of the restaurant was a fondue Bacchus, a wine-flavored bullion kept warm over a fire like the better known cheese fondue. The waiter brought a tray of dipping sauces with garlic, curry, and seasonings I couldn’t identify other than good. He also brought each of us sticks with small pieces of veal on the tip and a nutmeged mashed potato stuffed back into the skin. We dipped out meat in the broth, listening to the warning, not to let it overcook then covered it with the sauces. The sticks went into water glasses placed strategically on the table. As the number of sticks increased our appetites decreased.

Then came the discussion of the book. Was David believable? Was Peter believable or only a fantasy? (He has been my fantasy). What about the sexual harassment? Could describe his food stand in more detail? I answered questions on how I write, rewrite, get ideas etc.

What was a gift was listening to people who had read the words that I had typed into my computer years before. What was a gift was that people had read them and thought about them. I will continue writing and I might even make another Thanksgiving dinner someday.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Master Class

The main meeting room of the Geneva Press Club, which is located in an old mansion, has 18 foot ceilings. Every time I am there, for at least two minutes, I imagine myself living there wearing floor length dresses and serving tea from a silver pot into delicate china cups. This Saturday I was wearing an ordinary skirt and the tea was in plastic cups, but just as good as my imagination against the cold.

Three floor-to-ceiling windows looked out on flacons of neige, snowflakes covering the garden, but hiding the Alps.

The fifty-odd fairy lights in the chandelier burned even brighter as they were reflected through eternity in the two mirrors over the fireplaces, each mirror picking up the reflections of the other mirror and shooting them back, an analogy that matched the work going on in the room.

The members of the Geneva Writers Group were there on this cold Saturday for a master playwriting class given by Lee Blessing, author of many plays, but the most notable A Walk in the Woods. For several hours we shared techniques, ideas, words, concepts, politics.

An apero is usual for the group after a master class, but when we opened the door to the adjoining room, the table had been set with three two feet red candles surrounded by masks: masks from the Venetian Carnival, from Uruguay, from the former eastern block countries, decorative masks, colored masks, masks that invite rather than repel, masks that represent drama and imagination.

I credit this group for much of the progress I made in my own writing career. The support and encouragement is there, from the person who pokes his head in to see if maybe he could write to those of us who have published several pieces. We share markets, information, encouragement, as well as a master class on a cold, snow Geneva Day where masks are objects of beauty and not there to hide behind but to celebrate.

Happy Chinese New Year

Hal gave the stick to the small boy and told him to strike the gong three times. The little boy passed it to his younger brother. Slowly the gong made its way around the room until 108 bongs had been reached to welcome in the Chinese New Year, the year of the rooster. The group was made up of Americans, Chinese, French, Swiss and who knows what other nationalities. Many of the people didn’t know each other, but we all knew Karen, head of International Bridges for Justice and support her work in helping Asian countries develop their legal systems. One of the most wonderful things I find about Geneva besides the richness of mingling with many nationalities, is the number of people who really care about making the world better.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

The absurdity of fear over love

The American Center is in the middle of Geneva, a small office on the first floor (European, 2nd floor American) with lots of other small offices. I needed to get tax forms.

The building is totally open to whoever wants to come in. A suicide bomber could take out the building with no trouble whatsoever, but for the small US office why bother? One or two people are Americans the rest are Swiss or other nationalities.

When I stepped off the elevator, one security guard was seated. The second, a young man with drop dead beautiful brown eyes, came up to me. “You have to leave your bag here,” he said pointing to a table. He did not look inside so if I had had a bomb, it could have gone off.

“I need your passport.” He studied it comparing the photo to my face.

“Have you a cell phone or electrical appliances.” My bag would not hold a hair dryer and I had not carried any radios, TVs, washing machines, or electrical saws to the Center. I did mention the phone in the bag.


I pulled them from my pocket.

He brought out the wand. I held my pocket change as he ran up and down my body, certainly more respectively than the guard at Frankfurt Airport in November who touched my vagina and breasts. There were a couple of beeps, which he ignored. I know my boots have metal in them.

“Why are you going inside?”

“Tax forms,” I said.

“Welcome,” he said.

The welcome after the ridiculous security brought on one of those hysterical fits where you can’t stop laughing. I giggled all through my requests for tax forms, which they didn’t have but promised to mail. When I came out, still giggling, I asked, “Do you realise how absurd this is?”

His drop-dead beautiful eyes crinkled as he nodded.

“At least you try to bring some sanity, by saying welcome.”

He smiled.

I then went to lunch with a friend who said the opposite of love is not hate but fear. It is fear that creates the absurdity we are now being subjected to. Perhaps if we treated the causes of terrorism we wouldn’t have to deal with these absurdities. Since what we are doing isn’t working it, why not try a new path?

Monday, February 14, 2005

Fondue Is More Than Cheese

Olivier made my first Swiss fondue in the Val de Travers. My colleagues and I sat around the steaming pot dipping our bread and laughing. The cheese gave off a wonderful smell, the bread was crusty, but mostly there is a feeling of sharing from a single pot, a togetherness that is different when everyone is concentrating on their own plate.

I’ve probably eaten hundreds of fondues since then. Half way up the mountain Chapeau de Napoleon named for its resemblance to the famous hat, there was a chalet restaurant that overlooked the Val de Travers with its postcard perfect villages. Sunday nights in late fall (it closed during the winter because of snow-laden roads) when the air crackled with cold my buddy Robbert and I would often go there. The waitress always insisted we have white wine or tea with our fondue to help our digestion. She absolutely refused to let us have anything cold.

After moving to Geneva, I found the Café du Soleil. My daughter if she makes airline reservations to come at Christmas in March asks almost weekly if I’ve made reservations for the night of her arrival. Family tradition dictates her first evening meal in Switzerland is a fondue there with its mismatched chairs and warm greetings.

When my former colleague Dennis asked me to come and taste his wife’s fondue on a cold Sunday in February, I was on the train at the drop of a winter coat.

Although we had worked at the same company for years and were two of the only three Americans who worked there, we seldom met until 9/11 when I glanced at CNN minutes after the report of the first tower being hit was shown and ran to Dennis’ office. Getting back on CNN was impossible. Dennis brought up El Pais and we followed the news until I went home (a quick walk from the office) and telephoned back with events as they happened. In subsequent days we discovered our politics were almost identical and opposite what was happening in our country. Together we shared petitions, wrote and called Congress and newspapers, and shared books about the right, left and middle.

Dennis and Margarita have a large apartment with huge windows from which we could watch the alternate sun and snow showers. Cold days are fondue days. Amazingly her dishes were identical to the ones I had in Boston, her glasses were the ones I had in Geneva, and her cups’ pattern were the Villeroy and Boch where I stayed in Boston over Christmas. But even without the familiar tableware, I felt at home.

The fondue was hot and as tasty as it should be. The bread was perfect for dipping. The champagne was champagne adding to the ambience. Soft music played as we dipped and talked. Both Dennis and I feel great sadness for the loss of our country as we believe in it, having nothing to do with how long we have lived abroad. We discussed not just politics but the emotions behind the politics, not just the US’s, but the Swiss and also of Margarita’s Spain. We discussed our families, but with the understanding that comes with age. We discussed our usages of time, writing and other subjects.

With each dip of the long fork into the bubbling cheese a nugget of information floated to the surface.

I could just say I had a fondue at friends, but more accurately it would be the opening of spirits on a snowy Sunday afternoon in Nyon over a fondue. Perhaps melted cheese has a magic making fondue much more than just cheese.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Chocolate and Friends

“We’re visiting family in Geneva,” Robbert (Rb2) said. It was a code for his family’s visit to the patisserie that makes the best chocolate and hot chocolate in the world, although there is a place to the right of Notre Dame in Paris that comes close. The Geneva place has the same last name as Rb2 although he knows of no direct connection.

Rb2 has been my buddy and the kid brother I always wanted for 15 years since we shared a company apartment. The friendship has seen us through his marriage and the birth of his son, all kinds of adventures (“I wonder what would happen if we turn left”), discovering a hidden river, Barkley Harvest James concerts, and all kinds of memories that leave me saying “ahhh.”

Their trip to Geneva was for me. Having moved to a smaller space in Geneva, I had stuff left in storage that needed to be taken to Argelès. Like me Rb2&Co. has staked out territory in both countries. In fact, it was his coming home Friday nights around 23h in the early 90s and saying “Want to go to Argelès?” my staggering out of bed, getting the dogs and heading for the car while he drove eight hours through the night, that led him to meet his wife, Sylvie, an Argelèsian.

All around me was the paper work after being away for two months: taxes for both Switzerland and the US (Why is the US only one of two countries that tax their expats? Somalia is the other.). This was my catch up weekend. “Probably not,” I said.

This is silly, I thought after entering one more number of my spreadsheet. I grabbed my coat and caught the bus that arrived at the same second I did at the bus stop (I refuse to own a car-part of my COW plan. COW is for Cranky Old Woman).

The chocolate shop part of the patisserie smells of fantasy. Plastic-gloved women choose between small decorated chocolates, each different but all delicious. Rb2&Co weren’t there. I went next door to the café part, not much bigger than six closets with small white tables, red leather banked seating, and mirrors.

I ordered an Auer Chocolate. It came in a mug, milk whipped to a consistency that a knife could separate it. At the bottom was the chocolate syrup, rich, black, wonderful. The only place in the world it can be bought is there where it is made. I stirred it watching the froth marble into a constant dark brown. Even if Rb2&Co didn’t show, the trip would not be wasted.

However, a big and little smile appeared in the door. Rb2 and Tim were followed quickly by Sylvie. We drank our hot chocolate and exchanged news since our last contact. Sylvie wanted to run an errand. Rb2 and I took Tim to the toy store next door.

Tim showed us all the plastic snakes, fish and sea life. He asked to buy something. “You’ve many toys at home,” Rb2 said. Tim persisted. He threatened to be fachée, angry. Rb2 gave him permission to be fachée. Tim spent a few seconds with a fachée face, with his forehead furrowed and his blue eyes glaring, before deciding he wanted to investigate the rest of the store.

The visit was short, warm – just another in a long set of nice memories with loving people. Another reason that at night when I rethink my day, I wallow in smugness for the joys coloring my life.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

On Being an International

He said his name was Legal, but he wasn’t a lawyer. I replied that if names still reflected professions everyone named Childs would be a pediatrician.

Although he was French-born, his English accent was perfect. He accompanied me on the first leg of my train trip back to Geneva. We chatted easily, and I slipped into a question that I ask internationals, people who have lived in many places. “What do you consider yourself?” And like many internationals he gave his passport(s), but said he felt like a citizen of the world. I understood.

Although I didn’t think I had an ethnic identity until I left the US, I now know my roots are pure New England Yankee. My grandmother’s voice, even thirty-five years after her death, still acts as a moral guidepost. But I have lived in other countries, Germany, France and Switzerland for 30% of my life.

Hopefully this year, I will have my Swiss nationality, a process that has taken 15 years. As I said at the required interview, changing nationality is a bit like changing religion – it isn’t done easily. In my case it is adding a nationality, because I do not have to give up my American passport, although if it came to a choice, I would keep the Swiss.

This country has been good to me, giving me the best paying job I ever had, although not the most interesting. It gave me the highest quality of life materially and immaterially. After so many years, I want to be a full participant in the society and that includes voting rather than just saying “they should…” They is me.

Living in a country is nothing like just visiting. Instead of museums you visit utilities, deal with garbage, work through language problems that go beyond vocabulary.

Visitors change money. Internationals worry about personal banking. I thought writing checks was the thing to do, until I realised each Euro check was costing me about $6 at the 1990 exchange rate. In France payments are taken out of my bank account for all regular payments because I’ve given them an RIB(?) In Switzerland the United Bank of Switzerland has machines where I enter the nationally standard payslips and transfer the money to my creditors’ account. Or I will until I get my on-line banking set up.

I find many of my friends, including the Swiss and French, are also multi-lingual internationals. I am unaccomplished with my 1.75 languages (I still can’t write a decent French and my grammar at best is creative). They speak up to seven languages with three being normal.

As an international, we’ve discovered we are never 100% home anywhere but happy many places. Our native countries are not what they were when we left, nor are any countries where we lived for any amount of time then moved on. After a while we become accustomed to the differences we first noticed on moving. A joke passed among Geneva internationals: you know you’ve been in Switzerland too long when you think it is normal to have only one brand of an item in a grocery store.

I have discovered things I loved about everywhere I’ve lived. There are also things that drive me crazy. But as an international, I know the quality of my daily life is good where I am now. And hopefully by next year I will become a full citizen so I can pay back with participation beyond just paying taxes.

I imagine the shock on someone’s face who hearing my accent ask, “Are you American or English?” when I answer, “Swiss.” But in reality I am a bit of everything: New England Yankee, American, a bit French and a dite less German as well as being Swiss. Maybe I am that citizen of the world, much like Mr. Sr. Herr M Legal.