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?

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?

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!