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.

Il faut partir…

One of the maxims of French life is that, from time to time, one must get up and go. “Il faut partir,” near or far, but get away from the day-to-day grind and see other sights in order to return refreshed and reinvigorated.

Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of places to do this in France, or even within the bounds of our European borders. But this year we decided to go a bit further afield. Can you guess where?

Hints: It is in the Indian ocean yet part of the African continent. French is spoken but it is not part of France. We’ll be bringing plenty of mosquito repellent. The flight takes about 12 hours.

I’ll leave you to mull it over while I go offline. All shall be revealed in a couple of weeks.

In the meantime, wish me bon voyage!

Juste ce qu’il faut

How much is just enough? Not so long ago, it seemed I was always wanting more: friends, money, success, travel…a new this, an updated that. Now, suddenly, something is different. I still feel this way at times but lately I find myself thinking that happiness is having just what you need. Or needing what you have.

As the dark days before the winter solstice grow colder and ever shorter, it is important to think about the things have brightened our lives over the year. That’s one of the reasons I enjoy keeping an advent calendar. For each of its 24 days this month I have written down a word that sums up something – or someone – that has made my life happier.

I am lucky to have a great deal to be grateful for; it has been a full year, a good year. Not without moments of sadness and regret. Those bittersweet times are there to remind us just how lucky we are when all the rest is good.

Here are a few of the things that I am especially grateful for this Christmas:

This great big, wonderful world. We went to four islands this year, each of them special and unique in different ways. New Year’s was in Curaçao, a curious and beautiful place indeed. And it was amazing to be able to enjoy this exotic destination in the company of my Canadian family, including my Dad and brother, their better-halves and our kids. Our island adventures this year also included a writing retreat for me in Pantelleria, Italy; a first-ever trip out west to Vancouver and a romantic anniversary week on Madeira.

The people who got us there and back. Even in years when we don’t travel as much, there are still a lot of comings and goings with our jobs and family in different countries and continents. I never go anywhere without mentally preparing for disaster on some level (fingers permanently crossed). And yet, despite a tense couple of landings and a few delayed suitcases, we have all made it home in one piece. I am grateful to all of the hard-working pilots and drivers of planes, trains, buses and taxis who got us there and back. And all those who support them. They don’t hear it enough.

The memories we share. I am both old enough to have a lot of memories and young enough to look forward to making new ones. Also fortunate to have family and friends who remember too. This year, my husband unearthed a box of old cassette tapes from when our kids were small and sent them to be digitized; we are looking forward to watching this marathon memory movie over the holidays. To be in this position, to be able to share those memories, strikes me as very rich indeed. And I would like to share a thought for all those who suffer from dementia and other forms of brain disease.

My blogging buddies. This community we have here on WordPress is something I never imagined would bring so much joy to my life. I originally started this blog as a way to connect with people of similar interests with the idea of getting a book published. It hasn’t happened yet, but each week of writing, reading and commenting on my fellow bloggers’ posts brings me immense satisfaction and a sense of connection. It is a privilege to know you guys!

Family and friends. You know who you are. Thank you for putting up with me. I love you all.

And there are so many more. But how about I kick over to you: what are you grateful for?