Moin

That’s how you say hello on Sylt, a holiday island that’s been compared to Martha’s Vineyard on the North Sea. In fact, ‘moin’ (pronounced mo-een) is a local way to say good morning, hello and goodbye all over northern Germany.

It’s a surprising place for many reasons. Why? Way up north near the border with Denmark, the island is a mix of Danish and German history, ferry boats, dunes and white sand beaches. It is almost entirely flat, making it a complete change from our usual mountains. It had been two years since I’d seen the sea and we wanted to stay within train’s reach of Switzerland before venturing further afield again. (The train was another story: dedicated post to come!)

We began with a few days in the port city of Hamburg. I’d certainly never spent much time in Germany, even less on holiday, so it was a bit of a discovery. But this city holds a special place in the history our relationship, as the Frenchman spent several months working there in between our initial romance in Canada and my decision to join him in France.

It’s a very green city with a lot of red brick, and interesting contrasts of old and new architecture. Overall, Hamburg reminded me of my hometown, Toronto (before it grew into a megalopolis).

A walking tour was a great way to get to know the city and its history. We lucked into one with an entertaining and informative guide who showed us around the key spots of the port city and brought its history to life for us. We are reluctant tourists who rarely take the time to learn any of this stuff on our own. Mostly we like to wander around and stumble upon stuff. We did that too when we checked out the ultramodern Elbphilharmonie in the Hafen (harbour) district. We booked dinner that night on the terrace of a restaurant just overlooking a live jazz concert in Hamburg’s Hope’n Air series. It was a chilly night but the concert was amazing.

(BTW, I’m adding the links for info rather than any promotional consideration. I find reading other people’s experiences is the best way to get travel tips. If you plan to visit, enjoy!)

We arrived on Sylt (pronounced: zœlt; it seems the ‘y’ in the middle of a word makes a sound like the French ‘œuf’) where the sun was playing hide and seek with a lot of cloud. Unfortunately it did that most of our week there. I’m not complaining: you don’t go to the North Sea for Mediterranean weather, and after the hot summer we had last year, we were ready for some fresh temperatures. However, we hadn’t quite bargained on how wet our own summer in Switzerland would be, so it was a little disappointing to see so much cloud.

Still, we got enough sun to catch the beach a couple of times. One day we rented bikes and went around the north end of the island where we were staying in List all the way through the dunes to Kampen. This is the ritziest part of the island and the cars on the road are proof of it: an uninterrupted stream of Porsche, Audi, Mercedes….and many classic cars. This is one of the humbler ones.

The Germans certainly love their cars. All those big engines with their clouds of exhaust are in stark contrast to the national mania for recycling and ecology. It was certainly odd to be on the island where all of the dunes are protected as nature reserves and can only be accessed via designated cycling and pedestrian paths, while the big cars filled all the parking lots. Even funnier is that cars can only get to the island by train. We saw one train stacked with cars, the drivers and their passengers inside, as they made their way from the mainland to the island.

Two outstanding features of Sylt were the thatched-roof houses and the strandkorb beach chairs. I can forget about owning a house like that; even if I could afford it, I’m not sure how well I’d sleep at night with the risk of the roof burning down. Many of these houses had a system of rods and wires around the roof to prevent fire from lighting. Still, there are some very nice rentals available and if we return, we would definitely go that route.

The beach chairs are another story. These ingenious ‘strandkorbe’ provide shelter from the elements and have little drawers that come out to put up your feet. Unfortunately none was available for rent when we were there. Many of the local restaurants even use this concept to provide patio seating for outdoor dining.

At the end of a week of wind, cloud and rain, we finally got one beautiful day to dip into the North Sea. I love the waves and the salt water. Feeling my toes in the powdery sand again was liberating.

I can understand why this wild and windswept place has attracted people despite the unstable weather. With just a little more sun, it’s the perfect spot to unwind.

The icing on the cake? Cake. We found a little restaurant in Kampen that had a steady stream of people coming in and disappearing into the back. A few minutes later they left with flat paper packages. I discovered the cake counter hidden near the kitchen with a myriad of treats from plum pie to apple strudel — even cheescake!

Moin moin.

How do you say hello?

Wetter

This is one German word I’m having no trouble translating. Because the weather is in fact wetter.

Don’t be fooled by all those stunning photos I’ve been posting. In between the odd gorgeous day with blue skies and sunshine have been a multitude of days with rain, cloud, storms and fog. Especially lately. It seems that every day brings constantly changing skies. Although we are somewhat protected by the mountains that surround us, we do get some nasty winds and violent thunder-bangers (there is one going on as I write this).

Still, we are far less exposed than our neighbours in Zurich, Zug or Lucerne where a hail storm recently ended in this scene:

We have had some lovely weather, just not when we expected it. I think it’s down to climate change in part but we haven’t been here long enough to say what is normal or not for this part of Switzerland.

On the whole I don’t mind the weather here, even if it is wetter. In this first year in our new place, we’ve had more snow than I’ve seen since leaving Canada, as late as April this year. Along with beautiful, sunny days and overall cooler temperatures than in France. Which suits me fine. Our southern exposure can get searingly hot on fine days but thanks to the mountains, the direct sun goes off our terrace by mid-afternoon, giving the apartment plenty of time to cool down before bed time.

Given the tropical storm that permanently rages in my hormone-challenged brain, I had thought living without A/C again would be impossible. But so far, a couple of fans are doing the trick on the hottest nights.

And the view around here is such that even waking up to rain isn’t too depressing. Just look what this morning brought!

How has the weather near you been lately? Wetter or not?

Bas les masques

The masks are starting to come off and guess what? It’s not pretty.

As confinement in the EU lifts despite ongoing concern about the Delta variant, restrictions are softening. It’s a tricky question as to whether this is too early or not. Vaccination is moving ahead but there are still many recalcitrants. I don’t have figures for Switzerland, although I know a couple of people in my own entourage who are very shy of the shot, but in general the numbers are not reassuring.

In France it seems fewer than half of those who work in care homes — yes, care homes, aka EPHADs, which house the elderly and vulnerable — have so far been vaccinated against Covid-19. Medical personnel appear to be among the greatest vaccine sceptics, especially the nursing staff.

Should vaccines be mandatory for all those who work in medical and care capacities? This is so basic that I just don’t get how it’s even a debate. Yet it’s far from the case and a subject of some controversy at least in France, land of libérté. But what about égalité and fraternité? I am a firm believer in the rule that individual freedom stops where it impinges on the right of others to live. So I vote yes for obligatory vaccination in the case of anyone whose job demands contact with the public. No one should have to get a vaccine if they choose not to, but in this case they should stay home to protect themselves as well as others.

I went to an indoor setting for the first time this week sans masque, and it felt strange indeed. Health clubs are now allowed to function without face coverings in Switzerland, and frankly after sweating my face off on the elliptical for the past few weeks, it was a relief to be able to breathe properly while exercising. But it still seemed a little risky entering a confined space with no protection, and I wonder if everybody else felt that way.

It seems the masks are off in more than one sense. People are once again revealing themselves and their beliefs. Rebels, anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists, those who don’t believe science or the media or anyone at all. People who think a Covid shot contains something that will make them magnetic.

Some people, I’m certain, have simply gotten quite comfortable hiding behind their masks. As odd as it felt to first wear a mask in public, I think a lot of people now feel a little naked without one. And some, according to my daughter, have become quite adept at making faces behind them.

How do you feel about wearing a mask?

Natürlich

Things have this way of working out. For better or for worse, when they’re good and ready. It does no good to fret and stamp your foot, although I still do this. There is a natural cycle to things and it is a lot easier if you just go with it.

It feels that things are finally coming together in this new life we chose a year ago. Nothing major. Just a general sense of freedom, of being able to get out and do things, plan things, live again. To breathe freely. Natürlich.

It helps that the summer season is finally here. Nature is in full swing, from the birds on our terrace to the sheep next door. When I go for walks or a bike ride around the village, I see more than the usual number of people with backpacks and walking sticks. The tourists have arrived and the cafés are busy, both indoors and out. The lake is dotted with sailboats and the sky offers up the spectacle of paragliders. I watch them land on the field below, some with such grace that they land in a single swoop, coming to ground with their sail erect above them before it gently crumples.

My husband went back to the office last week. For a whole day! From next week he will be going back again, at least from time to time. That will give me much needed head space. Don’t get me wrong: we have plenty of room. But we’re both used to doing our own thing, and I’m thrilled to see things returning to their natural order. Natürlich.

Our local swimming pool, indoors but on the waterfront with views over the lake, has opened with limited hours and numbers allowed, and I’ve gone and swum laps a few times. And after a hiatus of more years than I can remember, I’ve returned to the gym. Crazy, eh? Just as summer starts and still with masks required. But I’m determined to beat the creep of pudge that’s come on suddenly, surprisingly, after so many months when I thought I’d managed to keep things in balance. And I’ve rediscovered how much I love the way it makes me feel to move my body in a space dedicated for that purpose. Even without speaking (much) to anyone, being in a place with other like-minded people somehow feels inspiring.

It also helps that I know my way around the area now. Words of German are beginning to break through the static of my incomprehension. I know a few people well enough to say hello. We have a history here now, however short. This is where we sat last summer after seeing our new home for the first time. That’s our neighbour who runs the language school where I tried (and notoriously failed) to take a German A1 course last fall. And there’s the doctor I saw just before Christmas when we had our encounter with SARS-CoV-2.

I know we’re not there yet. Corona (as it’s often referred to around here) is still with us, and its nasty variants may yet sweep through on another wave. But we’ve armed ourselves with vaccines and masks and new ways of interacting. I think I’ve seen more of my Canadian family on Zoom in the last few months than we did before. And client calls are usually with video now, so I can put faces to names.

It’s the little things, I guess. Like this (not so small) apéro plate from a local restaurant we discovered in the nearby town of Morschach. A kitschy kind of place up the mountain where the charcuterie is home-cured and everything is local including the lingo. And you just go with it.

How are things in your world? Are you ready to get back to any kind of normal?

Vu

When my kids were young and went to school in France, they would regularly submit for inspection a little book called ‘cahier de correspondance’ or ‘carnet de liaison’.

This method is a pillar of the French educational system. From the time they learn to write, this ‘cahier’ or notebook is the official mode of communication between teacher and parents (although it may now be going digital).

The child is the official channel through which all communication passes. In the earliest years, the children might even be made to copy down the teacher’s instructions for the parents as part of their school work; later, the cahier becomes a record of assignments, grades and other, often important information, sometimes even disciplinary notes from teacher to parent, hand-written, glued in or free-floating paper. It is up to the student to show the book to their parents, or other responsible individual, and sometimes obtain a signature on either end to prove that the information has been seen or ‘vu’.

“Vu,” I would duly write on my children’s cahiers, to prove that I was aware that class would end early on such-and-such a date, or that an event would take place to which parents were invited (a rarity in French schools). Or that my son had been caught playing a video game in class (GTA, hardly an appropriate theme, noted the prof) and would I be so kind as to ensure the offending Gameboy was not brought to school in future?

Naughty Maxence stuck his tube of glue up his neighbour’s nose.

Oddly enough, our budding delinquent grew up to become a teacher himself. May he inflict similar irony on the parents of his own students.

One might think this mode of communication would be highly subject to error, accidental loss or pages mysteriously vanishing. Oddly, it’s not. French kids only have to suffer the wrath of teachers and parents who have not been shown vital information once or twice to learn the lesson. And parents are quickly trained to ask their children if there’s anything to be ‘seen’ in the cahier early on the weekend, rather than to discover only late on Sunday that a special assignment must be completed for Monday morning.

I ‘saw’ many funny things during those years. Somewhere in a memory box, I have kept these precious records of my children’s school careers. And one day, I promise myself, I will dig them out and have a laugh, and probably a cry, as I remember some of the ‘perles’ (pearls) from those days.

‘Vu’ is also the name of a popular brand of wipes for cleaning eyeglasses. This TV commercial and the oft-heard phrase, ‘Vu, ah, j’avais pas vu!” was part of our family lexicon for years.

I still keep some on hand. You never know when your glasses will fog up.

What have you ‘seen’ lately?