Friday, December 29, 2006

Leaving on a jet plane

With only two days before I go home, I said good bye to my adored cousins who drove down the state of Florida to see me. There were other cousins in the area but the distance was such that I felt it would take too much time from my mom, the reason I was here in the first place. I feel sad that I couldn’t get them all in. And my trips to the States will now most likely be limited to emergencies.

One of their gifts was a CD with movies from different events in the family, including all the aunts and uncles who are gone and cousins who look decades younger probably because they were decades younger when the videos were taken. Of course that was on an old fashioned camera and the films have been transferred from technology to technology.

I listened to one of my late aunts tell how her mother sent her off the Nova Scotian island where she was living on because she was a handful, how she moved to the States and had to learn English. She pushed her 70+ years into about three minutes not thinking her life was interesting. Now she is gone both family and social history are forever lost. Yet I suspect the few details she singled out were the markers of her life.

We talk about our childhoods and our parents, how they mellowed, the mistakes they made with us, the mistakes we made with our children, which were different but still mistakes. We speak with pride of our children as we were bragged about by our parents.

The bittersweet feeling of being with people I love, people who share DNA, people with whom time is much too rare is mixed with the feelings of not belonging to the culture surrounding them. There is also the feeling of the time lost, because I never knew my cousins as I was growing up so when they reminisce I can only picture myself popping in and out of Aunt Aggie’s house or playing in a barn or rushing around the streets of Weymouth.

Despite what I missed there is a past I can not recapture. And for two weeks I have lived in a present where I do not belong with people I belong with.

Thus, inshallah, on Sunday night I will get back onto a plane and back into the place that has become home. I won’t miss seeing medical or legal ads on TV, I won’t miss Miss USA hysteria I won’t miss miles of shopping centers and gated communities and land devastated by overbuilding, but I will miss the physical lifelines of being able to hug someone I love. A voice on the telephone, skype or voipcheap will have to suffice.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Shopping news

Not to be confused with the book Shipping News. Okay, I am a news junkie, admitted and unrepentant. And it has been two years since I’ve spent anytime in the States. And yes I have heard that the US doesn’t get real news, but I was hoping the reports were exaggerating.

They weren’t. Most of this morning’s and most of the past week’s newscasts have dominated by shopping news, how much we are buying, where we are buying, what we are buying. Gift cards, return policies, interviews with shoppers. I think one newscast covers more shopping news than all the European news stations put together.

This morning’s broadcast of Today covered people returning merchandising and after Christmas shopping although they delved into James Brown’s death, his widow being locked out, and the tornados in Florida.

What they didn’t cover is Iran’s internal meetings and their decisions on nuclear continuination, Somalia and Ethiopia’s battles, Nigeria’s pipeline blasts, the problems in Lebanon, the fact that Olmert is releasing some of Palestine’s money to Palestine and the opening of one gate between Palestine and Israel to ease the flow of traffic. Nothing about the power changes in Turkmenistan, which could lead to more upheavals in that part of the world. Nothing about the Taliban gains. Nothing about British troops storming an Iraqi jail and rescuing 127 prisoners. Nothing about the $2 billion in fraud estimates over Katrina. Nothing about the disappearance of Lohachara island under the rising seas.

Driving to the library where I have internet access to the outside world I passed shopping centre after shopping centre filled with shoppers. Years ago these were filled with palm trees and natural beauty. Sometimes I see American consumption as the old pac man game eating up the environment. But mostly I see that I am not visiting American citizens and the entire nation has been transformed from citizens to consumers and only that is newsworthy.

At least the shopping news is a break in the ever-ending cycle of medicine ads for illnesses that the rest of the world ignores.

Meanwhile people can listen to what really counts, the rules of their gift certificates.

Flight Patterns

My mom and I stood at her bathroom looking toward the lake and watching the hundreds of birds gathered at the waterline near where the dock used to be. I don’t know the name of the species but most were white with long graceful necks. The others were grey and duck-like, but they weren’t ducks.

In the middle of the lake is an island with brown bushes. In the spring they will be green.

“Have you seen the alligator lately?” I asked.

She shook her head.

Together we watched as one by one the birds floated across the water to find a night time perch reminding me of airplanes on a runway waiting for clearance to take off.

“In a half hour they will all be over there, there on the island.” my mom said, “one by one.”

Like so much in life that she has told me over the years, she was right.

In the country of my birth

For a long time I said my country wasn’t my home and my home wasn’t my country. Not that it was all that unusual for an ex-pat like myself. Now with my Swiss nationality sworn to and my passport and identity card safely in my pocketbook, my home and country are one in the same. I describe myself as a repat.

Still being back in the nation of my birth raises other issues of belonging. Florida was never where I lived, but where I visited my parents after they retired. My dad was in his own paradise living there years before he died. He brought his brothers and sisters with him until the area was more like a family compound. For him it was a life long dream.

My dreams do not include a retirement community. I want to be with people of different nationalities, different languages and different ages. Although I understand not wanting to have the noise of children playing, I love hearing them and in this over 55 only community, they are absent. Thus I have made other decisions of where and how I want to live. The people here that I meet are as happy with their living arrangements as I am with mine and this is good.

My mom’s home feels like my home when I walk through the door. I know there are brownies in the fridge for me. Hugs and warmth are two of the rules of being together.

Equally when we go out to do errands the people are friendly, but I feel a disconnect. We need to drive everywhere. I am drowning in a dearth of international news, which for a news junkie like myself is enough to send me into the DTs. Now that’s a mixed metaphor I know. I do get a fix when I go to the library to use the internet and can check out what is happening in Gaza and Lebanon by brining up papers from those countries and others.

There are ghosts here. I can’t pop into my Aunt Bert’s, and Uncle Pat still in his tennis shorts won’t pop in the door on his way home from a match. My Aunt Alma is no longer here baking apple pies and taking me to the Crow’s Nest. Aunt Evelyn and Aunt Bert won’t quarrel over a prom dress worn decades before. Other people live in their house because my aunts and uncles are all gone, which reminds me how very, very precious the time with my mom is and I want to wrap these moments in silk.

As I wait for my daughter’s arrival from DC, I am so grateful that it was her idea that we spend Christmas together down here.

I read the books I brought slowly rather than “eat” them as I usually do. I have yet to find a bookstore after frequent forays, and I have forgotten to ask at the library. My mom doesn’t have a library card, shutting off this source of reading material.

The Vision of Emma Blau by Ursula Hegi, a favourite writer, is the one I am rationing at the moment and it talks about a German who returns home for a visit after living in America. There are several quotes that resonate. One of the characters talks about going back to the place of their birth as well as living in a different country.

“For me feeling foreign goes deeper than language…into values…customs…Being an exile in the world…You come back and everything has changed. Even if it still looks the same.

“People, too, they’ve changed. Those who stayed. They don’t understand that when you come back, you’re not the same. And neither are they…you enter a foreign county and sometimes you don’t come back.”

So in many ways I know I can’t go back to the US, I can only go forward. And although I am happy with my choices, thrilled with the way I am living, as in everything there is a price and that is a sadness of what is no longer, but even had I not changed countries, the natural flow of life and death would mean the same loss, it is only heightened by the difference in cultures.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Deprived of tomato juice

On the flight to Detroit on Northwest from Paris I had tomato juice when they offered cocktails. I had water with my meal and then with the snack served before landing I asked for more tomato juice. I had one of those cravings so strong that it could be attributed to a pregnant women, except that I am far too old to be pregnant.

“I have orange,” the attendant said. He was polite.

Orange juice causes my skin to become teenaged bumpy, and I do succumb sometimes when it is fresh, but I am not going to risk acne for packaged juice.

“Apple?” I asked him.

“I can only serve orange,” he said.

“The others must be popular,” I said.

“Oh we have them, we are only allowed to serve them during the first service.”

I made a mental note to not fly Northwest again.

Multi-lingual for multi-lingual situations

At Charles de Gaulle as we waited in line for the buses to take us to the plane down the tarmac a woman complained loudly that she was so glad to be leaving. She came to Paris to see her grandkids, but with her long blond straight hair, white boots and sweater and beige corduroy slacks over hips that models would die for, she didn’t fit any stereotypical grandmother.

“Imagine,” she said, “When I came they promised me a bus driver that spoke English.” She didn’t say who “they” were or what bus but she talked about being left not knowing where she was. “No one speaks English here.”

I resisted telling her that when I start in French most Parisians come back in English to me. I have never decided that if people want to practice their English or they can’t stand my accent. Probably both along with the appreciation that a foreigner has made an attempt to speak their language. Long ago I learned that if you demand English you will guarantee that the person who is being spoken to will immediately forget every word of English they know. One friend, an American who lived in Paris, for years will even refuse to speak English when a rude Anglophone approaches her. She hides behind the language of her chosen city.

On the Northwest flight to the US there was only one of the attendants who spoke French and that wasn’t fluent. It has been a long time since I have flown an American airline, and on the others be it Lufthansa, Syrian, Air France or even BA the staff are multi-lingual moving back and forth between the linguistic needs of their passengers.

I was tempted to find the blond-haired grandmother and point out to her that the francophone passengers were in the same predicament she had been in. I didn’t. She might have said “good.”

Meeting place

The statue at St Michel hovers over the people mulling around. The dragons, one each side of him, spout water. The spot has become a meeting place for my girl friend and me because it is half way between her apartment where I stay with her whenever I am in Paris and the hospital where she works. Also it is only a block or so from the Latin Quarter where we stroll down ancient cobblestone streets with their restaurant windows filled with Gourmet-magazine photo quality windows filled with fish, meats and veggies on ice.

There the owners try and entice us in, promising the best meals ever.
But before we can decide on a restaurant we have to meet, and although the metro’s regularity in either of our directions is Swiss-clockmaker perfect (except in times of grève—strike) I usually arrive first and find myself waiting.
I like to wait, because I find myself surrounded by other waiters and half of me hopes that they find their friends before mine arrives because I like guess who it is that might be theirs.

Thus two Tuesdays before as I stood in the too-warm December air, I watched a businessman, his long black coat open, his hair more tailored than his suit pace back and forth between the dragons. Aha I thought, it must be her as a woman with ankle boots, a tweed skirt and black leather waist-length jacket strode towards him. They would be a perfect couple, but no, she walked past stopped and looked around. She was a waiter too.

Other people came and claimed those that were standing around, kissing on both cheeks and talking animatedly. They wandered off, some to the metro, some towards Notre Dame, one to the bookstore across the street.

Finally my friend appeared with apologies of being late. No matter. We crossed towards the Latin Quarter with a stop at the book store so she could check for a text she needs. When we emerged from the book store I looked over to St. Michel. The man and woman were still there, still waiting. Hunger is more important than discovering who they were waiting for, and I resisted the temptation to go back to them and encourage them to introduce themselves. However, if this were a French movie, it would be the start of a love affair.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Details are merely a detail

When I worked in Neuchâtel my control freak boss expected no detail to go unobserved. I was expected to know a potential contractor had a grandmother dying of leprosy in India. I learned to quadruple check details, although rather than list 3000 potential problems I used the question “If you are offered the contract is there anything that will stop you from taking it?”
Thus I now double check more things than others. Why I didn’t check that my train ticket ordered for the second Sunday in December was printed out for Monday I do not know; but I did check Saturday night. Too late to change the reservation on line and with proposed strikes on Monday and not wanting to tell my friend I would be delayed I got on the train Sunday morning taking seat 88 in car 5 (which the internet showed to be free).
Just as we were pulling into Paris the conducted bustled up and growled his way through the car.
“You have no ticket.”
“I know. I have an emergency and had to go a day early.”
More growls.
“I know you want to help me so please tell me how to regulate this.”
He charged me 20 euros for a new reservation just as we pulled to a stop.
“I do hope someone is helpful to you today,” I said smiling my sweetest smile, wishing him growls.
He even smiled back as I reached for my laptop.

Ho ho ho polar bears away

The theme for decorations in Puteaux this year (a town touching Paris) where I visit a good friend regularly is polar bears. Each year they go all out with special designs and this year it is as beautiful as the last three years. I wonder if Santa’s reindeer are French and went on strike and polar bears will pull the sleigh this year. If he needs them, all he has to do is come here.

Friday, December 08, 2006

A dancing cloud

The cloud was like a long and thin string of unrolled cotton batten skimming along the entire length of Lake Geneva. The cloud was almost transparent with peaks sticking up like the way you test to see if egg whites are whipped.

The water glistened, as if diamond dust had been sprinkled evenly across. The Saleve and mountains were clearly visible against the bright blue sky.

I was on my way home after dropping my housemate at the airport. By the time I was at the other end, the cloud instead of resting on the water was about ten feet above the lake, still shimmering.

Beauty is no stranger in Switzerland, but even after 16 years, there are new phenomena that startle the eyes.

Crying for his child

In talking of his son Jeb, Bush 41 cried.

Years ago when I worked at NFPA I found a former president of the group in the library. He was in his late 70s and he was crying. He said it was a terrible thing to be useless.

This is not about aged men being emotional. I wonder if Bush 41 was crying about his other son, Bush 43. What must it be like to be the father of a son who has single-handedly almost destroyed the United States financially, undermined The Constitution, and failed miserably in Iraq.

Although I was never a big Bush 41 fan, he did know when he had to go back on his no new tax pledge and when to stop the Gulf War. He is a man who as a part of the Carlyle Group as well as an ex-president, has close relations with the Arab movers and shakers who must have told him of the damage his son was doing.

I wonder if Bush 41 was crying, not because of Jeb, but because he has stood by, and watched Bush 43 do so much damage and could do nothing.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Christmas spirit Part II

She lives in an old grange that once was used for making wine. The house has been converted but in the center of the living room is the old wine press, a square stone that if you put a mattress on it would make a good double bed (you have to ignore the equipment suspended above).

She has used the stone for her Christmas decorations combining real holly, evergreens, giant pine cones with the figures of the traditional crèche. She told me that she had bought the figures from a convent where nuns used moulds that were at least 500 years old.

To one side she had a wicker basket filled with four dividers. Each was filled with a different type of seed, not tiny like apple, but some as bigger than 50 cent pieces. These were dark brown, often heart shaped. Their silkiness in my hand was sensual and I knew that inside they contained new life if I were to plant them, rebirth.

One corner of the stone had a brown pod, beautifully in its mixtures of browns and beiges with indentations.

I was struck by the textures, colours and the beauty of nature.

She hadn’t planned to have a tree, but there was no need. Having decorated with real greens she captured what I need for the sense of spirituality at the end of the year, a reminder of life continuing that has nothing to do with the hysteria of presents and my soul felt good.

I am sooooo rich

I have three friends found from the Geneva Writers Group. The friendships have gone beyond the common interest. I met all three within the last five days. One was by accident, at the tea of volunteers for the library. Despite frequent lunches, neither realised that the other was a volunteer.

The other two I met because we were working on their writing.

Regardless of the reasons for meeting I am always stunned by the richness of our conversations, be it writing, politics, sociology, creativity or anything else that crosses our minds.

As I was sitting in one of my friend’s living room today, the rain falling outside through the birch trees and drinking hot tea, and we were dissecting the motivations of one of her characters, I felt so incredibly lucky to be able to share time and ideas with these creative women, so lucky to be able to stretch my mind and my creativity with them, to explore thoughts and concepts.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

The longest bench in the world

Although there are other claims to the longest bench in the world, Geneva has claimed its since the 19th century.

See and take a minute to look at the other pictures of this beautiful city that I love so much.

Last night as part of the Trees and Lights festival each bench had four red jars with candles flickering inside. In front of it a series of large (Five feet across) white-lit circles were suspended from the trees. In other parts of the city artists had created different light displays. Over the next few days I hope to catch all of them.

I was sadden by this

A friend sent me a piece from the American Family Association Action Alert which says in part.

“Keith Ellison, D-Minn., the first Muslim elected to the United States Congress, has announced that he will not take his oath of office on the Bible, but on the bible of Islam, the Koran.
He should not be allowed to do so -- not because of any American hostility to the Koran, but because the act undermines American civilization.”

I question in a country where there is supposed to be a separation of church and state if any oath should be taken on a holy book of any religion.

My personal belief is the bible is a series of ancient tribal writings, codified by religious leaders and often modified (especially after the 1st century) by church leaders to meet their power and political needs. Although it contains some wisdom there are some horrible things like okaying slavery. I am willing to take oaths to things I hold sacred but for me swearing on a bible is no different than swearing on a Robert Parker mystery. At the same time I recognize that others consider these books the word of God (or Allah) and I respect their right to believe. I also wonder if those afraid of anyone taking an oath on the Koran realise that much of the two books are the same or similar based on the same religious heritage.

What frightens me is not an oath taken on the Koran, but people who see it as a threat and want to stop it. Give me a good Muslim any day over a bigoted Christian. However, it is not a choice I often get to make. I have friend who are good Christians and I have friends who are good Muslims. The operative word is good.