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?

Positive!

It has taken awhile but it’s back: my long winter’s nap has given way to a rush of January positivity.

It was easy to feel sorry for myself as the year drew to a close and we found ourselves celebrating Christmas alone in our new home in a still-foreign place, and still feeling the lingering effects of the virus. Nothing tasted like much, the family Zooms were fun but pumped what little energy I had, our Christmas presents for family sat unwrapped under the tree like a reproach: Nope, this ain’t any kind of Noël like you know it. You are a stranger in a strange land who can’t understand a word of what people are saying behind their masks. Who knows how long it will be before people can enjoy getting together again?

I don’t do well with pity parties. After two weeks without leaving home, we decided it was time for a change of scene. So, cleared of our contagion, we packed the gifts into the car and headed to Geneva on Boxing Day. Booked a hotel that could provide a room but alas no breakfast (current lockdown rules) and visited our son and his girlfriend who, like us, had come through Covid and were out of the infectious period. The next day we went to Lyon and had a socially distanced visit with my father-in-law. Gifts were exchanged, champagne corks were popped. I began to feel a lot better.

And it got better. Returning home to Brunnen after being away for two days really felt like coming home. For the first time since we’d moved, with our house sale well and truly behind us, our new place feels like home. Another week went by and we cocooned a bit more, inviting friends for dinner just after new year’s. Gradually my energy — and sense of taste — has returned to almost normal. Getting back to work this week has felt good. And for the first time in months, I am motivated to move ahead on my personal writing projects. I even picked up my German books again.

That’s not to say I haven’t had some bumps. One day this week was one of those hugely frustrating days in which everything seemed to conspire against me. My technology didn’t work. I got lost while driving to the shopping centre, entered the store on the wrong side (Coronavirus-oblige, there are shopping traffic flows) and couldn’t find a darn thing I wanted. Tried to ask for help and got muddled between three languages, not able to utter any kind of clear request even in English, reverting to my automatic responses in French and then attempting to insert a German word here and there to help the poor person who had no clue what I was on about…Gah!

Another frustration has been that, as I was unable to get a positive PCR test, I’d been hoping for a positive SARS-CoV-2 antibody test to prove that I’d had the miserable virus. The first test, one week in, came back negative and the doctor was entirely dubious about the value of doing another: “You’ve certainly had a brush with the disease but probably not enough to generate a proper immune response. You can try again but I suspect it will come back negative, or not strong enough to justify immunity.” But I wasn’t going to give up without a fight, so we did another test anyway. And bingo! Yesterday I learned that it had come back positive. I cannot tell you how much of a relief it is to have proof that my immune system did its job. Which obviously will not spare me from masks, distancing and eventually, a vaccine shot or two. But in the meantime, having at least some immunity for now is another reason to be positive. Don’t we all need as much positivity as we can get these days?

Plus, it snowed this week. The white stuff always makes my heart sing.

Feel free to share at least one thing you feel good about going in to 2021.

Wishing you all a very happy — and above all, healthy — new year!

12 days of Covid-19

On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me…a case of Covid-19.

I suppose it was inevitable. Although he generally wears a mask, my husband is terrible about touching his face. And the rules about social distancing in Switzerland have been fairly relaxed throughout the pandemic. Masks in public places, yes. But restaurants have remained open along with gyms and all the shops. He would come in from shopping and when asked if he’d washed his hands would say, “No, but I’m going to.” Then proceed to touch everything in the apartment before eventually washing his hands, protesting against my ‘maniac’ tendencies. (‘Maniaque’ in French, meaning a clean freak or stickler…)

Suffice it to say that while I hadn’t exactly been expecting to get Covid, I sensed it was less a matter of if than of when. Sure enough, two weeks ago my husband announced he had a ‘slight’ sore throat. Then promptly decided it was nothing and he was fine. Then went to bed and woke up feeling not right. Still, it wasn’t Covid-19, he said. He was barely sick. Two days of feeling poorly later, he went for a test and — bingo! — coronavirus for Christmas.

I got it three days after him. No sore throat, barely a tickle at the back of my throat in fact. For me it started in the eyes, which suddenly felt sore and tired. Went to bed and had the first night of what would be the worst and most persistent symptom throughout my twelve-day ordeal: a sort of delirious anxiety, in which crazy half-thoughts chased each other through my dreams and, while I slept, I did not truly rest. I felt feverish although my temperature stayed normal. The next day I had a slight cough, nothing to speak of, a sense of tightness in my chest, a bit of a headache and crashing fatigue.

By the third day I realized that my sense of smell had nearly gone. I could still smell something really strong, like vinegar, but food had no taste other than salty or sweet. I also experienced a kind of brain fog, like I couldn’t quite think straight.

On day four the palpitations started. This symptom, which makes me feel like my heart is about to pound right out of my chest, was worrying enough to make me call the hotline for medical advice. The doctor advised me to go for a check-up as soon as possible but as I had no chest pain or shortness of breath, it wasn’t urgent. It seems that palpitations are common when the body is fighting an infection.

Days five and six saw some improvement to my overall state, although my stomach became upset and I lost my appetite. Still, the brain fog cleared and I began to feel less exhausted.

Day seven brought a fever, which made the heart palpitations worse. Basically my heart would start to race as the fever began, I would take paracetamol and it would drop; I’d feel better for a while then the whole cycle would start again. This went on for three days. I also had muscle aches and pains and persistent gastrointestinal distress.

Of course by then my husband was over it.

The Covid-tracking app did its job and I got a call from the people at Swiss Covid, informing me that I had been exposed to a certain Stefan who had tested positive. I assured them that I was familiar with the culprit — my husband. And that I also had symptoms.

You will need to isolate, the nice fellow on the phone advised. And get a test to be sure.

But why? I asked. It was entirely obvious I had it. Ah, but they needed proof in order to document me as Covid-positive on the app. And then I would be spared the need to self-isolate again for another three months if I were exposed to the virus again. So off we went to the test centre. Where I failed the Covid test. That is, I was unable to stand the 6-inch swab up my nose. The guy got it one-third the way in and I wimped out. It was excruciatingly uncomfortable Can’t you do it differently? I asked. I’d read that alternatives were available. Shorter nasal swabs that were just as effective. He shook his head sadly. It was all or nothing. Swiss rigour leaves no room for wusses.

I finally saw a doctor for a check-up a few days ago and they took blood for an antibody test instead. Hopefully that will be proof enough. And the meantime they did a bunch of tests and the good news is that my heart and other vital organs seem to be fine.

Twelve days in to my Covid-19 pre-Christmas challenge, my energy has been slow to come back but I’m starting to feel a bit more like myself. My morning clementine smells heavenly: taste and smell are joyfully returning. I’m out of quarantine but for now I’m limiting my excursions to short walks with the dogs.

I decided to share the details of what it felt like to have a ‘mild’ case with virtually no respiratory symptoms so that others might know what to expect. I am 63, in otherwise good health and with no comorbidities. I was less sick than I have been in the past with the flu but it took far longer to get over it. Each day I felt better, and worse. The virus was like a time-release; there can be no doubt that it packs quite a wham.

Ours will be a very simple Christmas indeed. I am simply grateful that we made it through Covid-19. And so very happy, as I’m sure many of you are, to bid ‘au revoir’ to 2020.

I wish you a merry Christmas and a happy, healthy end to this crazy old year. See you in 2021!

Three bags full

I never saw many farm animals up close when I was young. We lived in suburbia, where you got your milk in bladders (it’s a Canadian thing) and wool only ever came in sweaters. Living for years in France and now in Switzerland, some of our closest neighbours are furred or feathered.

Our French bulldog, Humphrey, the one with the wonky ticker, is mildly obsessed by sheep. All farm animals really, but especially the ones closer to his own size. Humphrey stares fixedly at the sheep and goats we pass on our walks. How ridiculous he looks; I feel rather embarrassed for him. Even the cows just look back at him placidly as they chew their cud. Electric fencing means that their relationship will never get beyond a curious stare. Although on one occasion he was surprised when the massive pink tongue of a curious cow came and licked him over the fence.

Now the farm animals have all gone inside for the winter but in most seasons they graze happily outdoors. I wonder if they have shorter legs on one side to keep their balance on the steep slopes?

We had a bit of snow this week which made the dog walks a little tough on the Frenchies’ tootsies. Our boys are getting older and are less excited about going out in the cold and wet. The upside is that when they do their business, which I always pick up faithfully here in the land of civic duty, it is easier to grab in the snow. And even warms my hands! Like most modern dog walkers, I have perfected my technique for picking up dog-do: slipping the bag over my hand like a glove then grabbing the item and turning the bag inside out. Before knotting it, that is; here in Switzerland there is a protocol for everything and one must knot the bag, n’est-ce pas?

Thankfully the bags are thoughtfully provided by the Gemeinde (town council) at poop bins strategically located where people walk their dogs. So I have no excuse, really, and can even be seen after dark with my walking light scrabbling around on the ground to pick up after my pets.

Garbage bags are another story. I’m not sure how it works elsewhere but here in German-speaking Switzerland, you have to buy special pre-taxed bags. Any other kind will simply not be picked up.

“Müllsacks, bitte,” I venture to the woman behind the counter where they sell pricey, taxed items like garbage bags and cigarettes. Thankfully she understands me, even though I think it’s not the correct word. That might in fact be ‘Gebührenkehrichtsack’ (charged garbage bag) but I am far from able as yet to spit that one out.

I am, however, proud to be able to specify the size of bag: “Fünf und dreissig.” The 35-litre bags are the most popular format so perhaps she saw it coming. I fork out 20 francs to pay for my roll of ten red bags. At 2 CHF a pop, it’s a good thing they’re sturdy because you need to amortize each one by filling it to the max. Most weeks we manage three bags full.

It seems the philosophy of making the polluter pay for the costs of waste disposal is deeply ingrained in the Swiss psyche. I suppose it’s an incentive to create less waste and recycle more. Which is all very well and good unless you have a sensitive nose. Those bags start to stink after a few days.

But who wants to be a black sheep?

Ba-a-a-h!

Feature photo by Jared van der Molen on Unsplash

Thank god it’s Freitag

It’s Friday, not my normal day for posting here but a good excuse for sharing a few things about my new life in German-speaking Switzerland.

There is something about being here that feels right. Not that I fit in exactly but somehow I feel at ease. I suppose because no one here seems to mind about me. And because I’ve gotten used to feeling foreign.

But that’s the thing: I don’t feel foreign. So what if I can’t speak German? Most people will adapt. English is spoken most everywhere, at least a little. A few words of French here and there. And I’m getting to the point where I can pop out the odd German word. A number or the name of something. Brot. Kaffee. Freitag.

I’ve now learned all the days of the week and can do numbers up to a hundred. My vocabulary is growing daily. It’s putting the words all together in sentences that’s the problem. Especially understanding others when they stream them into sentences, even snippets. I nod a lot, that time-worn strategy, and when the going gets tough, I say ‘Kein Deutsch’ and throw up my hands. If it’s a good day I’ll throw in ‘Entschuldigung‘.

Freitag is an easy one as it’s so close to the English. ‘Frei’ actually means free, which makes sense to me. Friday, with the weekend just ahead, feels free and sort of fun. It’s usually the day when I schedule appointments and errands other than work. Today I’m going to the dentist: der Zahnarzt. Not so fun but I’m happy to have found an English-speaking dentist.

I’m also learning a few social norms. There is a thing on Swiss trains where people don’t sit in an empty seat next to you without asking, “Frei?”  And people in shops will wait for you to be finished in a particular part of the aisle before moving in to make their selection. In parking lots they’ll wait for you to move out of your spot. Which is quite strange. I mean, quelle idée! This would never have happened in France.

Still, it makes me feel oddly pressured. In a good way, I suppose. I’d rather feel I have to hurry up to be thoughtful of my neighbours than pressured by people’s anger. But the thing is, you build up a persona for yourself in public places. And for years, I had the French ‘carapace’. A kind of tough shell that you build up in defense. It seems that here the approach is more subtle. It takes some getting used to.

The other news is that I’ve quit my German language course. For a bunch of reasons but mainly because of the teacher. He was a short, macho type with a big belly and little patience for those who didn’t understand immediately. At first I thought it was me. So I tried harder. But I felt discouraged and ultimately that I was wasting my time in class. That on top of the fact that we were stuck inside a small, poorly ventilated room for two hours amidst a spike in Covid cases. And although we were all wearing masks, it felt risky.

To be fair I’ve always had trouble with teachers. I’m just one of those difficult students who can only cooperate if I understand not just what but why we’re doing something. Well, let’s just say this teacher was not a very good communicator. In fact, he was a pretty poor teacher all round. I suspect he was disorganized and made up the plan as he went along. Whatever. It didn’t work for me. Of the six of us students, I was the second to drop out.

So now I’m pursuing German on my own. And I will get there, eventually, at least to some level of fluency.

In the meantime, it’s Freitag. And that brings me to the bags of the same name. I have always loved these Swiss German messenger bags made from recycled truck tarps. They’re sort of a cult thing around here.

Ridiculously expensive. But super practical and made to last, like forever. I got my first one this year.

The feature photo was taken just outside the Freitag shop in Interlaken where we were on holiday last summer. That’s another thing I like about Switzerland. I mean, an old-fashioned gumball machine? How Freitag!

What’s your favourite thing about Friday?