Il y a un an

Many years ago when I worked freelance for Euronews, I used to love translating and voicing the pieces called ‘Il y a un an’. ‘One year ago today’ offered a brief look back at the news from the same day the year before. I’m not sure why I liked them so much. Perhaps because it was the recent past and I remembered living those moments when the events in the news had happened. Somehow this made it easier to translate. Perspective is everything.

And as I’ve posted in the past, I like to look back.

This time last year we were about to put our house up for sale. The task before us felt daunting. To sell a house in a market that was uncertain due to a breaking news story about what was still being called the ‘Chinese virus’. To find a new place to live, in a different country, then arrange the international move of our household. We were already working in Switzerland, but still, our home was in France. Switzerland is not part of the EU and there is a border with formalities on customs and taxes, healthcare and licence plates.

If hindsight is 20/20, then in retrospect I am grateful that we could not see what lay ahead. That the year ahead would be one of fear and lockdowns, social distance and isolation. That a vaccine would be found but in the meantime, lives and livelihoods would be lost. That we would personally get COVID-19 and be fine (thankfully) but that a year on as a society we would still be struggling to deal with the virus.

A year ago today, there were no masks. I remember being an early adopter of the idea, cutting up an old t-shirt and wearing my make-shift mask to go shopping. The French were suspicious, and resistant. There were rumours of government conspiracies. I felt like a pariah. But it didn’t matter as a few months later, PPE became de rigueur. We were stuck indoors except for essential shopping and a 1-km radius for exercise, one hour a day. If we left the house we had to carry a signed and dated piece of paper with us.

Yet somehow we stuck to the plan. Sold our house, arranged our move. Found a place to live across the border, a little outside of where we’d initially looked but way beyond our expectations in many ways. We made our move, got through all the administrative formalities. Took care of a million other details. And here we are.

Looking back, I’m amazed by what we accomplished. I’m also pretty sure that if we’d decided to wait for greater certainty, we would not have made the move at all. And while I feel some nostalgia for where we were last year at this time, I am glad we did not wait. For us, it was the right move at the right time.

I guess sometimes it’s better not to look too much before you leap.

Where were you a year ago?

Hope springs

A ray of hope is springing in my heart today. Not only has the Swiss council announced its decision to gradually lift confinement measures — shops will reopen from March 1st and outdoor activities will begin to get back to normal — but the weather has gotten decidedly spring-like.

I went for a walk as the sun began to set, going uphill for once rather than down to the lake. I wanted to see as much of the sky as possible. It paid off, as the little road that goes up the mountain from behind our apartment led to a path through the woods back down to town. So not only did I get this view, I discovered a new route for short hikes.

Most of the snow has melted, seemingly overnight. The birds were busy and I even saw a bee and clouds of gnats. This is quite the contrast to the -12 C temps we had on Sunday. And even though I’m not fooled into thinking that this is indeed the start of ‘Frühling’ (Spring) a month ahead of schedule, nor the end of the pandemic, it feels like a much-needed sign.

It’s not unusual to find rushing streams and babbling brooks around here. In fact, in my on-again off-again efforts in German, I have learned that Brunnen, the name of the town where we live, actually means spring or fountain.

It does a body good to get out, breathe the air and be reminded that all of our human problems are nothing to this world we live in. The seasons change to their own rhythm. Nature does its thing. All our cares will soon be washed away in the rains, or lifted in the clouds that float across the sky.

Hope springs.

At least until the sun sets.

How about you? Do you feel hopeful?

Wie geht’s?

How are you?

How are you?

Comment ça va? I mean really, how are you doing?

Thinking about this most common form of German greeting makes me realize something. No one asks me that anymore. Or hardly anyone. It seems that between people staying home, working remotely and not seeing one another, and our move to a new place where we’ve hardly been able to meet people, there is little opportunity to ask each other how we are. That strikes me as sad.

That’s aside from every email that begins with a wish in which the sender hopes this message finds me well, in good health, etc. It seems now that we are either dying from coronavirus or we are all fine. But there are so many nuances of how we can be. Perhaps a little sad. Tired. All Netflixed out. Needing something to look forward to. Or alternatively: feeling like a happy dance. A tipple. Joyfully pursuing an activity that makes our hearts sing.

So how am I? Not too bad (a very Canadian response) all things considered. Healthy, gainfully occupied with my freelance life. Yet longing to get out, to go places, see people, connect. And this Covid-thing is starting to feel like living in a perpetual groundhog day alternate reality where you live the same day, every day. The future has officially been cancelled.

And yet. A few signs may indicate that a shift could be happening.

I saw a couple of reports on the news that were not pandemic-related. In France, they are beginning to talk about climate change again. I’d just been wondering, not so long ago: whatever happened to the planetary emergency? And voilà! Here it is again, back from beyond. Not to be glib, I do realize it’s important. Just not as important when everyone is worrying about imminent death from a mutating virus.

I’m also itching to plan a holiday. I’m talking about a real vacation where you go somewhere completely different, preferably involving nice weather and the sea. Where you kick back and think about all the things you’ve done to deserve it. And I’m not alone. This blogger perfectly sums up the dilemma for me. And I sense it will not be long before I bite the bullet and book something.

So that’s how I am. How are you? Really. Tell me.

Avoir du pif

Alas, I do not have a French nose. More Churchill than De Gaulle, it remains too round and stubby to be considered at all Gallic. Yet over the years I have acquired a little bit of a French nose in the sixth-sense department.

‘Avoir du nez’ or ‘avoir le nez fin’ describes the ability to suss something out intuitively, to feel it in the air. Other variations include ‘avoir du flair’, referencing the hunting dog’s ability to pick up on a scent. And my favourite, ‘avoir du pif’ — ‘pif’ being colloquial French for the sniffer.

Gégé – Gérard Depardieu

The nose is everything that defines the French: fine wine, perfume, flavour and taste. And yet, le nez is not, in my view, the most attractive part of the French anatomy. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, somewhat overdeveloped.

I’m going to go out on a limb (if not a long nose) here and say it: the French, as classically beautiful as so many are, do not have discreet noses. Could this be that the appendage has grown in size along with its importance in French life?

Serge Gainsbourg

This instinct of ‘smelling’ someone also seems to explain the curious way that French people have of sometimes taking an instant dislike to each other. There is even an expression to describe this: Je ne peux pas le sentir. Literally, I can’t ‘smell’ him, used to describe someone you can’t stand. Another variant is: Je ne peux pas le voir. So when you can’t smell someone, it becomes an affair for all the senses, meaning you can’t see them either. When this is the case, the individuals in question (experience shows that this feeling is always mutual), are able to circulate within the same space as if literally blind to one another.

Pierre Niney

I’ve been rewatching Season 4 of the cult series Call My Agent (‘Dix pour cent’ or 10% en francais) since it reappeared on Netflix. The show is a study in interpersonal relationships in French life, with all the star cameos as a bonus. The relationships between the characters in the show are bang on — so true to the way I’ve observed French people behave throughout my years in the country. Toute l’amérique has recently woke to brilliance of this series, as detailed in this article in Vanity Fair. Not coincidentally, a few of the actors are blessed with excellent examples of le French nez (in every sense of the word).

Laure Calamy

On the other hand, I have become entirely allergic to nose jobs. Just as there is nothing more beautiful than a face that entirely assumes the magnificence of its pif, there is little sadder than she who has felt the need to doctor it. You can always tell: the mouth is too wide, the eyes too far apart for the tiny perfect nose sculpted by the surgeon’s knife. I see them everywhere on American screens, and British ones too. In France this is, happily, less prevalent.

Camille Cottin

Among all these famous French noses…whose do you prefer? Or is there anybody (and their nose) that you absolutely can’t ‘smell’?

O say can you see?

With all eyes on the US this week, I’m inspired to begin with the opening line from the American national anthem.

I never learned the words to the ‘Star Spangled Banner’. When I went to junior high school south of the border, we most often sang ‘America the Beautiful’. It is a softer song, more musical and less military, much closer to my heart. Way beyond either of those anthems in beauty was yesterday’s performance of ‘Amazing Grace.’ That hymn stirred my soul and brought back memories.

My family moved from Toronto to Minneapolis in 1969, the summer I turned twelve. We lived there for four-and-a-half years before returning to Canada. I was a sophomore in high school at the time. And if moving from Ontario to Minnesota had been traumatic for an innocent Canadian girl on the cusp of adolescence, leaving it was worse.

I didn’t feel American but I was no longer quite Canadian either. I’d left Toronto a child and returned a teenager — many coming-of-age moments behind me, and with all the fear of missing out of one who is dragged away, kicking and screaming, from the party.

It’s been a very long time since I returned to the States, even longer since I’ve seen some of my old friends. But the country and its people still hold a special place in my heart.

What do I see when I look at this great country now? Joy. Hope. Rebirth. Renewed faith in democracy, however fragile it still seems. As we watched yesterday’s ceremony from afar, the rest of the world breathed a huge sigh of relief. A French commentator spoke of awaking from a nightmare. That about sums it up. It’s been a long four years.

Change of scene to the photo above and my current reality. Around here, all eyes are on the mountains that surround us. And the landmark where we live now in Central Switzerland is this distinctive pair of peaks: der Grosse Mythen und der Kleine Mythen (the big and the small Mythens). The Mythen mountains, pronounced ‘mitten’ in German, bear a certain resemblance to a fine pair of…what, hmm? When I look at them I see not cleavage, but mittens. A pair of hands, held up in triumph, warmly enclosed in wool. They guide me home, geographically and spatially challenged as I am. More on the Mythen region of Switzerland later. For now, let’s celebrate the beauty of turning a page, of both looking back and looking forward.

What do you see that makes you smile?