Votation populaire

Today, tobacco. Tomorrow, cervelat!

If there is one thing that is precious to the Swiss, it is their cervelat. It rivals the national dish of fondue in terms of popularity. But while this smokey version of the Frankfurter sausage is a cut above the good old American hot dog, I must confess it hardly sparks the same emotion in me.

Living in Switzerland we are inundated by ads for what is called the ‘votation populaire’. The Swiss love to go to the polls, and every few months or so, a popular initiative gains sufficient support for the council to organize a referendum. Usually there are several topics bundled together. At the moment, the one getting the most attention involves the legislation around tobacco advertising.

The above billboard suggesting that a ban on cigarette advertising could lead to one on cervelat is certainly attention-grabbing. I mean, who is not going to look twice at a crossed-out sausage?

Switzerland has got to be one of the few countries that still allows cigarette advertising. Not so surprising considering it is the headquarters of so many tobacco companies. The current initiative seeks to ban any form of tobacco advertising that could be seen by children. Which seems like a no-brainer. And yet, the Swiss Council is advising its citizens to vote against it. From what I understand, they want to pass their own draft legislation which provides a bit more wiggle room.

Freedom of speech is pretty important to me and I tend to side with the conservative Swiss on keeping things flexible. But I think it only makes sense to outlaw the promotion of carcinogenic recreational-use products to children. And to regulate access. When I first started smoking as a young teenager, an inciting factor was the sheer availability of cigarettes. Not just those I filched from my parents’ packs, but the ones I bought at cigarette machines.

Not long ago I saw one these dinosaurs at a local restaurant.

For us the whole debate is interesting to watch but we have no stake in the game. As mere residents here we are not allowed to vote.

However I have begun thinking about how I will vote in the upcoming French presidential election. Not only for which candidate but how to go about it. As a citizen of France, even one living abroad, I have the right (nay, duty) to vote, and I plan to exercise it in April. We have registered with the French embassy in Zurich and should receive details on how to vote soon.

When was the last time you voted?

L’indifférence

René Robert, the Swiss photographer who died of indifference on a Paris street

The other night a random ‘fait divers’ (news item) caught my eye. An 84-year-old man had collapsed on a busy street in Paris and died before anyone noticed. Of hypothermia. Nine hours later.

The fact that this man happened to be a well-known Swiss photographer doesn’t matter. He was Monsieur Tout-le-monde, Mr. Nobody, out for a walk on a winter’s evening. What matters is the fact that nobody stopped to help him, that for hours people walked by his body stretched out on the pavement. It’s an area with a lot of people, many of them homeless. The irony of the story is that it was one of these humble souls, a homeless man, who eventually called for help at 6:30 the following morning. But when the emergency vehicle came it was too late.

René Robert was born in Fribourg, one of the French-speaking cantons in Switzerland. He was a photographer known for his pictures of flamenco dancers, a passion that had come to him early in life. He lived in Paris and had long frequented its bars and venues where he could quietly capture the moments of raw emotion that define the art of flamenco.

René Robert achieved a certain celebrity for his work. He published several books and his photographs were shown in galleries around Europe. But he was said to have remained humble, quiet, someone who appreciated working in the shadows rather than being in the spotlight himself.

The reason Robert’s death made headlines was because of its reprehensible moral nature. The French are sensitive to ‘l’indifférence’; it is not a characteristic that defines us* as a people. Indifference is among the most-detested modern ‘maux’ (evils, wrongs) of society, that we can pass by human suffering on the street and look the other way.

It came to my attention because a journalist friend of the photographer, Michel Mompontet, talked about it. Did he trip? Was it a dizzy spell? he asked. And most importantly: Who among us would have stopped? Is it conceivable that I myself would have walked by?

The fact that this man was Swiss is also poignant to me. I have a soft spot for strangers in strange lands. And it seems the world we live in has become a strange place indeed.

RIP Monsieur Robert.

(*I have officially been away from my adopted country long enough now to identify as French.)

Je t’aime moi non plus

Jane and Serge, who loved to hate each other

I don’t often take an instant dislike to people. But I must say that Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin filled me with loathing when I first came to France and discovered the eponymous song of this post title. It made me cringe, not out of prudishness, but because it was embarrassing and tacky. I won’t share it here, merci, but if you don’t know the reference you can google it. The song is said to have inspired Donna Summer and a whole wave of steamy eighties pop.

I’ve posted before about how the French ‘sense’ each other often by le nez and will sometimes decide, even without speaking a word, that mutual mépris (indifference or disdain) is the only emotion possible. Then they will literally never speak or even look directly at one another.

I must say this makes me uncomfortable. Even people I feel little love for are deserving of at least superficial politesse, for their sake as well as mine. I try to put my best face forward and be kind, as long as I get similar in return. Not everyone has to be your best friend but with a bit of effort you can get along with most people. Besides, nobody wins in hate wars. All that negative energy flies back in your face.

Which is not to say there aren’t people I dislike. Whether by instinct or in reaction to their behaviour (often a combination of both). And sometimes in response to the sense that they simply don’t like me. Let’s face it – life is like that. There are people we just clash with.

Currently there are one or two clients I’m not fond of. Either because they treat me like the hired help (or at least a highly expendable resource to be called upon only when urgent need arises) or because I sense a certain entitlement in their behaviour. Those who think the world revolves around their problems get minimal support from me. Even when they are paying the bills.

Some years ago when I worked in the corporate world, I learned the hard way the truth in the saying, ‘Keep your friends close and your enemies closer’. A person on our team was proving not to be an ally and, frankly, I didn’t particularly like her. But when it came down to it, we had to work together and so I pushed up my positive energy in order to play nice. Wonder of wonders, we did become friends of sorts. Not in any permanent or deep way; we were too different for that. But I learned a lot about the value in making a connection with someone who is your poles-apart opposite. And having her onside made all the difference in the project we worked on. We still keep in touch.

As for ‘Je t’aime moi non plus’ the words of the song took on their own meaning for me. As I disliked Gainsbourg and the song, I took them to mean ‘I don’t like you either’. But what they actually mean is ‘I love you me neither’. Which makes little sense to poor literal old me but to the French is a subtle statement about the impossibility of love. All against a backdrop of erotic innuendo. Go figure.

How do you handle people you don’t like? Avoid, ignore, befriend?

Embracing imperfection

When I was a child, I was a creative spirit. I liked to draw and paint, and also enjoyed acting and singing. My artwork wasn’t bad and I had a pretty good voice but I had a fatal flaw: frustrated perfectionism. Every time I drew or painted something, I tore it up as soon as the flaws became apparent. Later it got to the point where I froze whenever I faced a blank canvas. It was the same with the performance arts: I couldn’t bear to watch or listen to myself without dissolving into a puddle of shame.

Thankfully I grew up and became a writer. It is far less degrading than other forms of prostitution. And while some client revisions make me want to tear my hair out, I’ve learned to take satisfaction in making the best of each writing assignment. There is always an opportunity to bring creative flair to copy, even if I sometimes think of myself as a ‘silk purse maker’ (transforming the proverbial sow’s ear). It’s easier to be a closet perfectionist as a writer than as an artist, even if death by editing is a thing. Word processing technology lets us draft and redraft in blink of an eye and ensures that the worst of our spelling and grammar mistakes are hidden from view. Beta readers and editors help us transform our shitty first drafts into stories that people actually want to read.

Each new year brings with it the chance to start again, whether in writing or in life, with a blank page. Like every year, I am setting myself, if not firm goals, a mantra or two. This year I’ve decided it is all about embracing imperfection. It may not be perfect, but it is my life and I love it. Each day, no matter the weather, the time available or whatever else is happening, I will do something that makes me truly happy. Just for me. Creatively speaking, I will not throw out the baby with the bathwater when my work falls short. I will believe in my star and, if something needs work, then I won’t back away from it. No shortcuts. The only failure is the failure to keep trying.

We live such curated lives. I post pictures of this beautiful place where I live and enjoy hearing from people who appreciate them. We are indeed blessed to live here. But sometimes it feels like those photos are completely unreal. Days with no shareable moments, when life’s problems and challenges feel overwhelming. When everything feels like a shitty first draft and you just want to crumple it up and start over.

But I’m learning that the imperfections are what make things interesting. I’ve always found beauty to be like that: flawed is better than perfect. I’d rather look at an interesting face than one which is boringly beautiful. I recently had a revelation about my work-in-progress novel: my main character needs more flaws in order to reveal his arc in the story.

On a side note, I made these vanilla ‘kipferl’ cookies, a local specialty, at Christmas. They were supposed to look like crescent moons but their appearance was far less than perfect. The bright side? They tasted absolutely delicious!

So I’ll be embracing imperfection this year. What about you?

Comfort and joy

Do you remember the television special, ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’? The Vince Guaraldi soundtrack made it into something truly special. And as I get ready to celebrate another holiday all these years later, listening to ‘Christmas Time is Here’, I feel nostalgic. Not sad but melancholy.

Christmas feels bittersweet to me now. The feeling grows with each year that passes. As if the weight of all those Yuletides past, the joys and the sorrows, good times and bad, cast a shadow on the present, no matter how happy.

Last year was a sad Christmas. Recovering from Covid, my husband and I spent it without any family other than each other. Food had lost its taste but the dog’s farts still made my eyes water (how is that?), I had no energy and little appetite for any of the usual things. But it was oddly relaxing. The pressure was off. Zero expectations meant that any joy that did come along was unexpected. Oddly, it was sort of fun, or at least memorable.

Two years ago, pre-pandemic, in another lifetime, we were all together for Christmas in Canada. Family, friends, childhood holiday traditions revisited. It was joyful but exhausting. Yet, especially in hindsight, I am so glad we went ‘home’ for Christmas in 2019 because life is short and who knows when we will do it again?

This year, if the French trains cooperate, we will celebrate Christmas together at home here in Switzerland with our children and their grandfather. No matter how bittersweet, I will raise a cup of cheer and savour every last drop.

Tidings to you, dear blog friends! May your fondest wishes come true as we ring out this crazy old year. Bring on 2022!