Der wind

It’s not often a new language throws a gift at you: wind is one of them. It’s the same word in German as in English, and one which is easily pronounced: vint.

I’ve been struggling with pronunciation in my on-again, off-again efforts to learn German. For some reason I assumed it would be fairly easy (famous last words, aka story of my life). Seriously, I never understood what people meant when they said German was ‘guttural’. I always found the language nice and easy on the ear. What I didn’t realize was just how hard it would be to get the ‘ch’ sounds out of the back of my throat. At least without sounding like I’m choking. Ich probiere (I’m trying) but it’s a work in progress.

So along comes ‘wind’. Which, like weather (‘wetter’) is easy enough for an English native. And how der wind does blow around here!

I’ve posted before about the winds when we lived on the French side of Lake Geneva. They can be nasty but also nice.

It seems we’ve done it again — moved to a place that’s just as windy. It’s complicated around here by the looming mountains, and the corridors of lakes in between, around and through which various winds whistle their merry way.

Last week we had a sudden rise in temperatures, from 12 to 25 Celsius in the space of the weekend. Unfortunately this came courtesy of the Foehn, which means ‘hairdryer’ in German. Now this wind is known all over the Alpine region as a hot blast of air that dries everything in its path. Do not be misled: there’s nothing ‘fun’ about it.

Except that around here the wind whips up the lake into such a frenzy that it is quite something to watch. From our apartment we could see the dramatic whitecaps and on Sunday afternoon I found myself going out for a walk to see it up close. And quite a spectacle it was.

There were crashing waves, screeching seabirds and a few brave souls looking ready for lift off. There were little clouds of mist blowing across the water that my phone camera couldn’t capture. The whole thing made me feel like a kid again, when I used to believe that if I ran and jumped high enough, I might just take off.

Sadly I remained grounded.

And the next day, as is its wont, the nasty Foehn brought clouds and rain that lasted all week. Now we need a good cold ‘bise’ to sweep them away.

I suppose I like the wind as it keeps things from getting too dull. Here in conflict-free Switzerland, the wind is refreshing as it stirs things up. In France, it always felt like yet another drama.

How about you: wind or calm?

Going for the gusto

I don’t know about you but I’ve been itching to get away. A change of scene, a bit of pampering. Living in Switzerland means there’s always something different around the corner. So off we went for a few day’s escape to Ticino.

I found a fabulous hotel by the lake in Lugano that offered a 2-night package and also accepted dogs — at a price, but what the hell: if you’re going to go for it, you might as well go for the gusto.

The amazing thing about living here is that two hours south almost feels like a different country. Italian is spoken and it really does feel a lot like being in Italy. At least a cleaner, more well-heeled version. (I suppose that’s also how Geneva feels for francophiles.)

First we drove south through the Gotthard tunnel. At 17 km long it is world’s longest road tunnel. It was also under construction on one side so there was 2-way traffic in the ‘tube’. I was thankful that husband was driving.

After that, we were in Ticino, Switzerland’s Italian-speaking canton. We stopped for a picnic in its capital, Bellinzona. Known for its three castles, it’s a pretty town with a medieval feel. The sun was shining and we were off to a good start.

Although I can see why this place was empty.

A short time later we arrived in Lugano. We had been here before but never to this grand old lady of a hotel. The boys were welcomed like royalty, with two plush dogs beds and bowls set up in our room.

The Covid-19 rules in Switzerland now are that outdoor service can be offered in bars and restaurants, as well as indoor service to hotel guests. We took advantage of both. A perk of booking our package was dinner in the hotel’s Michelin-star restaurant. Now, normally I am not that kind of foodie; I like real food in reasonable quantity, not multiple courses of molecular cuisine. But what a thrill to sit down and be served after endless meals chez nous!

I took the wine option with my menu which meant a different glass with each course. There was not enough food to soak up the sea of wine that just kept coming, but who’s complaining?

In addition, we had a floor show. Not really, but one of those real-life cliché moments when you want to pinch yourself and say ‘Is this for real?’.  As we sat in our well-distanced corner table in the elegant dining room, in walked a couple out of central casting. He: an older man, flush faced and silver haired. She: a young woman of certain timeless assets, decked out in a form-fitting dress and needle high heels with bejeweled anklets. A word floated into mind, one I hadn’t heard in years: ‘La bimbo‘.

I’d heard the expression used years ago in France on a television news report about someone whose name escapes me — Pamela Anderson perhaps, or Loana from French reality TV. Any one of a certain type of woman — blonde, buxom and playing arm candy to an older man with a healthy bank balance. It seems the meaning of bimbo has changed over time. It started out as Italian for a young boy, morphed into a derogatory term for a brute (male) before hopping the gender divide to be applied to a particular breed of female. Barbie is the term most commonly used in some countries to describe such women.

Anyway, here we were with food and (too much) wine, being entertained by life imitating life.

“Perhaps she’s his daughter,” my husband pointed out.

“They’re holding hands,” I replied. But he was right: I shouldn’t judge. Theirs could be the June-December romance of the century. Or at least the weekend.

I ended the meal with a row of half-finished glasses and no other excuse to feel unsteady as I tottered out of the restaurant on my flat heels back to our room.

The rest of the weekend was wonderful, though the weather clouded over. We took a funicular to the top of Monte San Salvatore for the view and did a lot of walking in Lugano. We discovered a fabulous shopping street with little cafés and amazing produce. I will never look at a salami again with the same innocence. Plus, an excellent shoe store to which I am already planning a return trip. (It only takes an hour and a half by train.)

P.S. We saw the couple again the following night at dinner and once again I scored a ringside seat. She was definitely in command. He sat there looking like a spoiled little boy who had been given a bigger birthday party than he was ready for while she (unfortunately out of earshot) held forth while eating and drinking with gusto.

Do you long to get away? Where to?

L’étranger

One of the things I love about where we live now is this: ‘La place des Suisses de l’étranger’.

Switzerland is a small country, yet one in ten Swiss people live abroad, making it the country with the highest population of citizens living beyond their borders, whether permanently or temporarily. The square dedicated to the Swiss diaspora just happens to be in Brunnen. You can read about it here (in several languages, bien sûr).

They call this group of citizens abroad, the ‘Fifth Switzerland’. The other four are those who speak the official languages: German, French, Italian and Romansch (although the latter is only spoken in the Grisons or Graubünden canton). Not to overlook all of the foreigners who live in this country, representing a quarter of the population, and whose default language is English. Making my native tongue a sort of unofficial official 5th language.

The square itself is a dramatic piece of land built up by a local landowner on recovered ground in an area known as the ‘Wehrihaggen’ from 1906. It was officially acquired by the Swiss foundation, Stiftung Auslandschweizerplatz, on the 700th anniversary of the Swiss Confederation in 1991.

It’s a windswept, open space surrounded by the panorama of lake and mountains. Somehow this geographic setting perfectly symbolizes the relationship with the Swiss and other lands. Open to the world, yet firmly anchored in their place.

Perhaps this is why I feel at home here. Despite the language barrier, the ongoing lack of social contacts due to coronavirus and a certain sense of detachment that comes from moving country. There is less a sense of being a ‘stranger in a strange land’ than I used to feel in France, even after so many years there.

Or it may be that I’ve just gotten used to feeling like a stranger. I’ve now been away from my home country almost as many years as I lived there. And, as I’ve posted before, it no longer feels quite as much home as it once did despite the people, family and friends, to whom I still feel so connected.

Et toi? Where do you feel most at home?

Noisy neighbours

Here in Brunnen, the hills are alive with the sound of sheep bells. The tinkle and cling of their bells is much prettier and more musical to my ears than the clang of cow bells. These freshly shorn sheep are our nearest neighbours right now to the west of our apartment building. They are a curious and sometimes noisy lot who seem to enjoy staring at me when I go by with the dogs.

We are gradually discovering the burgeoning spring season here in Central Switzerland. It’s a lovely time of year as the grasslands get greener each day while the mountains still have quite a lot of snow. The temperatures are up and down — hot in the sun while still near zero in the early mornings and evenings. Wild flowers are out in force yet snow is called for early next week.

On the downside, some of the more surprising and far less pleasant noises than these nosey neighbours include the constant roar of motorcycles going by on the road below. It seems that the Swiss are big bikers, and all it takes is a holiday and a bit of sun to bring them out in force around the lake.

There are also church bells — not too near, thankfully, but still within hearing range of us every hour and on 15-minute intervals, 24 hours a day. The jury is still out as to whether I will get used to them enough to be able to sleep with the windows open. Air conditioning may yet be my saviour.

And in the meantime, I decided if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Meet our newest resident, the Koo Koo clock. I’ve almost got used to his hourly chirping (a sensor ensures he is quiet when the lights go out).

The noisiest of all our neighbours are the helicopters that are often put to work clearing dead trees off the mountains above. They also serve to transport patients to hospital in case of medical emergencies. One happened just this week and I found myself glued to the balcony watching the mesmerizing spectacle of the chopper landing, waiting for the ambulance, loading the stretcher and flying off again. I don’t know what the unfortunate neighbour had, or why he couldn’t have gone to the local hospital in Schwyz. It may be that Covid cases were out of control or that a more complicated medical speciality was needed in Zurich, which is an hour away.

I hope I never need them, but I’m sure glad they’re around just in case! (Also glad I picked up the dog’s poop right there in that field an hour earlier!)

Easter seems to be a big thing where we live now. Much to my delight, the tradition here is the Easter bunny, not those silly ‘cloches’ they have in France. This post from the early days of my blog tells the story of the French Easter bells if you’re interested: https://francesays.com/2013/03/31/quelque-chose-qui-cloche/

Wherever you are, may the Easter bells ring for you in the kindest of ways. Here’s to rebirth, renewal and the joy of a new season!

La zone

There’s one in every town. A run-down area, poorly frequented, with graffiti on the walls.

In France, such areas are rampant in the periphery of most bigger cities — areas known as ‘les cités’ or ‘les banlieues’ or simply ‘la zone’.

Here in Central Switzerland, they are almost unheard of. Amidst the pastoral landscapes, the worst we get is the odd run-down farmhouse or a few less attractive apartment blocks. But we do have an industrial zone.

It seems the bountiful natural resources of water and rock from lake and mountains once made for quite a going concern in cement-making. But the massive complex to the east of town by the aptly named ‘Industriestrasse’ is no longer operational.

On a recent walk along the river, I spied the tell-tale spikes in the ground that indicate a new building will be going up. If you look closely at the above photo, you will see them on the right: tall, thin metal poles that are planted on a site to indicate the height and approximate spread of a new building application. From what I can gather, it will be a large mixed-use block of apartments and shops.

It’s not the only activity in our industrial zone. Ingenbohl has quite a few of what seem to be metal or tool-making shops and various other warehouses and industrial activities. All of which nestle happily together next to the fields where cows and sheep graze. There is a big milk processing plant called the Schwyzer Milchhuss. Just down the road is the Felchin chocolate factory.

It was one of things that attracted us to the area — among the more obvious things like the majestic views. You get a sense of living in a real working town, not just a fairy-tale postcard by the lake.

As much as I miss having a few English-speakers around, the density of expats in some of our neighbouring cities make them less than appealing. I can even understand how the locals might resent so many international types, who invade their schools, take their jobs and don’t bother learning the language. I’m certainly guilty of not managing more than a few words in German, but I am trying.

The tag in the above photo translates as, ‘The day has 24 hours and they go by like seconds.’

Truer words.

Do you have a ‘zone’ where you live?