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?

Dies und das

It’s been a weird few weeks, leading me to skip a post or two (I’ve been doing that a lot lately — corona fatigue anyone?). A series of public holidays in May plus some erratic weather has left me not sure if I’m coming or going. Hence a post on ‘this and that’ (dies und das) because I am still trying to get my head around German (or German into my head).

The crickets have been chirping away in the fields for a month now and yet the weather remains cool. Who knew that spring crickets were a thing? Yesterday the sun came out in all its glory and I went for my first bare-arm and bare-legged walk of the year, despite a chill wind from the north. I watched as the paragliders circled down from the mountain above, enjoying the vicarious thrill of flying.

My daughter’s birthday is on Sunday and I’m feeling sad that it will be the second one she celebrates without us. She’s across the Channel in the UK and had originally hoped to come to visit for a couple of weeks. Sadly, it’s not going to happen now and probably not until later this summer. And although Madeline is a front-line worker as a practicing veterinarian, she has not yet qualified for a Covid vaccine. Her age group is coming up soon in the UK where the NHS is taking a strict age-related approach to vaccination. But she would have needed multiple negative PCR tests to travel and to make matters worse this week France announced a 7-day quarantine for visitors from the UK due to the Indian variant.

In other news, it seems that Switzerland has pulled out of talks with the EU on various bilateral agreements. This article from the BBC (me loves the Beebs!) explains it better than I could. I have no doubt we will get there in the end but things take time in Switzerland and, like every other country in the world, there are politics. The Swiss value their independence and refuse to enter into any arrangement that compromises this, so they’re sticking to the existing if outdated agreements for now. Still, it felt like disturbing news for us as EU citizens living here.

We finally have our Covid shots scheduled for June 12 here in Schwyz, where it seems we’re not exactly ahead of the pack. Oddly, my husband and I have two separate appointments, at different times and locations, with mine an hour away in the furthest corner of the canton at 9 pm on a Saturday evening! No idea which vaccine we’ll get but probably either Pfizer or Moderna as Astra Zeneca is still not approved in Switzerland. My son, who lives in Geneva and is somewhat at risk due to a chronic illness, got his first shot of Moderna a week ago. He reported fairly strong side effects of fever, chills and headache for two days. You may recall that we all had Covid just before Christmas, so the first shot is the one with the greatest impact. Fingers crossed!

After that I think we’ll be ready to make travel plans. But where? All I know is that a beach will be involved, and preferably an ocean. I’m not keen on flying for now simply due to the shifting requirements for various tests and the additional delays that will inevitably entail. Besides, the news of the Ryanair plane being forced to land in Belarus this week only added to my reluctance. I can only imagine the panic on board that flight and in the hours that passengers were held in Minsk. Greece has called it a state-sponsored hijacking and there’s no doubt Lukashenko is one scary guy. Here’s hoping that dissident blogger Roman Protasevich survives his custody.

So maybe we’ll drive. Brittany is on my bucket-list and I’ve been away from France long enough now to start looking forward to a holiday on its coasts. There’s also the train that can get us to Italy. I have fond memories of a ferryboat we once took from Venice to Porec, Croatia.

It seems insane to be worrying about where to travel when you live in such a beautiful place. I’m looking forward to getting out for a paddle soon. Maybe we’ll just stay home for the summer after all.

What’s new with you?

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?

La poisse

I’ve been having a run of bad luck lately. A series of unfortunate events. Nothing too serious or life-threatening (she says, knocking on noggin) yet oh-so frustrating. If it had only been one thing or another, I might have put it down to ‘shit happens’. But no, I fear that I may have la poisse.

Being of an inquiring mind, I had to first understand the origins of this French expression. It comes from the word ‘poix’, a type of glue made of pine resin back in the Middle Ages. From this came a derivative word, ‘poisse’, meaning something sticky that you can’t get rid of, which became a slang expression for misfortune.

I suppose it makes sense. Bad luck is sticky. Once you have it, it seems to attract more of the same.

Mine began a few days before Christmas when my daughter’s flight from the UK to Canada was cancelled at the last minute. There seems to be a run of such things just when people are rushing to get home for family celebrations. It was annoying but no biggie: they rescheduled her for the next day and put her up in a hotel. A few hours later, I was about to board my connecting flight for Toronto when my Canadian passport went missing. I mean it literally evaporated between the security check and the gate. These days you cannot get on a plane bound for Canada without either a Canadian passport or an electronic travel authorization. So I was stuck in Amsterdam, watching my family board without me.

By the time security found my passport (yes, they had it all the time), I was rebooking a flight for the next day. KLM waived most of the charges but it still cost me a couple hundred euros including a night in an airport hotel.

Arriving in Toronto, our vacation rental had no heat or hot water. Thus ensued two days of chasing the owner and the property manager before giving up and moving to a new place on Christmas Eve. In the meantime, my son’s girlfriend got the stomach flu and was out of commission for a day or two.

A week later, as we rang in the new year in Québec City, I got a sore throat that turned into a nagging cold. On our return flight, this led to a nasty case of airplane ear that hurt like hell and made me feel like I was in a decompression chamber for the whole next day.

Arriving home, we discovered that our senior house sitters (we use an association that sends retired people to care for your pets and house while you’re away — normally they do a great job) had been rather less than respectful with our house and pets. We’ll never know exactly what happened but I suspect they enjoyed the house while providing at best haphazard care for our dogs and cats.

The last straw came yesterday, when I dragged my sorry butt to the year’s first fitness class. This is a fabulous class at our local community centre that combines strength, balance and stretching. I didn’t feel 100% but I was pleased to get myself there. Just before it began, I turned to say hello to someone and felt something slip in my back. “No way,” I told myself. “You are doing this.” So I did. An hour and a half later, I realized my mistake. My back was well and truly out. I hobbled to the car and drove home. This morning I can still barely move.

I don’t usually believe in luck, at least not the kind where some benign or evil force controls your life. You make your own luck, that’s always been my philosophy. So I have to question why all this is happening and what I need to learn from it.

First of all, despite the ups and downs, I have been incredibly lucky. Getting on the next day’s flight at such a busy time of year, getting a refund on one rental and finding another, getting upgraded to business class on our return flight. Coming home to our pets in good health after all. So the glass is definitely more than half full. My cold is getting better and in a few days my back should be back to normal.

Secondly, I have learned a few things. One is that I’m too trustful: I trusted security with my documents, and strangers with my home and animals; I will not be so trusting in future. Another is that I can be own worst enemy: I should not have forced myself to exercise when my back was saying no, however inconvenient it might be. And finally, when shit happens, I need to roll with it better.

This year is shaping up to be one of big change for us. More on that later, but in the meantime, I will focus on my learnings from the past few weeks. I don’t really do resolutions, but I have set an intention for 2020: to be present. To me that means breathing into change, not to be distracted by too many demands on my attention, to focus on what matters, to get offline and enjoy one thing at a time.

Wishing you a wonderful new year filled with health and happiness: Bonne année et bonne santé!

What do you hope for in 2020?

Photo credit: Clément Falize on Unsplash

Ile Maurice

The sun was coming up as we touched down at Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam airport in Mahébourg, on the south side of Ile Maurice. After a twelve-hour flight from Zurich, I was happy to see that we were going to get what we came for.

It is winter in Mauritius, which means slightly cooler weather. We mostly had temps around 25 Celsius, a few clouds along with the odd raindrop. Perfect for me as while I love spending time on the beach I am not a huge fan of the heat.

Our destination was Trou aux Biches, a beautiful lagoon on the opposite end of the island. Our driver gave us a guided tour through the mountainous interior during the one-hour ride.

I was surprised to see that English rules of the road apply, with driving on the left side. All of the road signs are in English, but the place names are French. This is due to the island’s colonial past, which switched over several times from Dutch to French to British before becoming independent in 1968.

Most people speak French as well as English, along with Créole and Hindi. The island’s location in the Indian ocean, although it is considered part of the African continent, and its geographic proximity to Asia, make it a popular destination for international tourists.

Fields of ‘canne à sucre’ or sugar cane

‘Canne à sucre’ or sugar cane is traditionally the main industry on the island, and there are fields as far as the eye can see. It seems the crop has suffered of late from competition from the sugar beet, along with the world’s increasing aversion to sugar. Oddly, our driver told us there are also a great many call centers now in Mauritius, taking advantage of the multilingual workforce.

Our resort was a bit of a splurge, with infinity pools and waterfalls, gorgeous landscaping, a semi-private beach (there were still hawkers regularly flogging their wares) and as a bonus, bar service!

This was less of an adventure and more of a beach vacation. All I need is a shady lounger and a stack of books to be happy. It was heaven!

Ile Maurice is two hours ahead of France time-wise, so we woke a bit later than usual. Each day started with bright sunshine and the screeching of birds. Being in the southern hemisphere and the shortest days of the year also meant that the sun set rather early, around 5:30 pm. 

The only inconvenience was mosquitos, which came out in force after dark. We tried to cover up and use deet (yuck) as there have been warnings about the risk of dengue fever. But we sat outside — hey, tropical vacation — and naturally still got bitten. They are tiny little buggers and I neither saw nor felt the bites until they started to itch the next day.

One of the things we enjoyed most on Mauritius was the variety of food. The Indian influence means a lot of spicier options, curries and such, which we both love. Plus the classic French cuisine, along with Italian.

The hotel bar had some fabulous cocktails. My favourite had ginger, brandy and rum. Not too sweet but with a nice kick!

The local beer is also excellent. That’s a Phoenix for me, and Monsieur will have his usual non-alcoholic option.

We left the hotel compound for dinner several times. Aside from the breakfast buffet, which was utterly decadent, the hotel restaurants were overpriced and the food only passable. Also, given the British influence, there was dress code for dinner which meant husband had to wear long pants and shirt with collar – not a win for Monsieur! Fortunately the hotel staff were happy to accommodate by driving us across the resort by golf cart to walking distance from the nearby restaurants. It was a fun ride: those electric ‘voiturettes’ as they call them can really go!

We went back to one place, Le Pescatore, twice. This beet sorbet amuse-bouche was amazing.

The fish was in a light coconut curry sauce. The desserts were to die for!

We took a day trip to visit some sights in the north part of the island. Port Louis, the capital city, served up a mix of old and new.

There was a wonderful market hall with all kinds of fresh produce and goods. As everywhere, the signs are in English.

We are terrible at negotiating so ended up paying way too much for some spices. Ah well, it was fun and at least we supported the local economy!

The surrounding beaches in the north end from Mont Choisy to Grand Baie offered beautiful expanses of white sand flanked by pine forest.

We stopped to see a fishing village called Cap Malheureux (Cape Misfortune) with a history of ships foundering on the rocks and lovely views out to the nearby mountainous islands.

One place on our route was called ‘Balaclava’ and husband asked the driver why. The guide seemed baffled and had no idea what the word actually meant. Turns out that the French had renamed certain places that had been historically dubbed with English names. Thus ‘black lava’ became ‘balaclava’. Nothing to do with the head gear!

Other than that, we did very little. Was it because we had only a week with a long flight on either end? I’m not sure but for some reason, for once I was happy to just kick back and relax. The explorations of the mountains and remote islands will have to wait for a return visit.

On our flight out, despite the clouds playing peek-a-boo, you could see the coral reef that surrounds Mauritius, making it a safe haven for shark-free swimming and snorkeling.­­­­

Au revoir, Ile Maurice! Hope to visit your beautiful shores again one day.