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.)
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?
One of the things I love about living here in Central Switzerland is that we get a real winter. Something about the snow — der Schnee — always raises my Canadian spirits, especially in the run up to Christmas.
Even a sprinkling of the white stuff on the mountains casts everything in a new light. You see all kinds of details that you never noticed before.
There are twinkling lights on the balconies and across the valley, making it feel like a winter wonderland. Even the fog has it charms!
Part of the fun here is knowing that no matter how much snow falls, they are up to the job. Our town has a veritable army of snow removal trucks waiting in the wings with their engines revving. By November, they’ve installed bright orange poles all along the edges of the roads to clearly demarcate where the plows need to go. Even our small street is already plowed by the time I take the dogs out at first light.
Oh, the marvel of Swiss efficiency! (I do miss things about France, but snow removal is not one of them).
And when the sun comes out and bounces off the mountain tops it’s just, well…soul-satisfying.
At this time of year, as we head towards the winter solstice, you have to get out early in the afternoon to catch the sun’s last hurrah before it slips between the mountains. Then you get to huddle indoors as darkness creeps and even pour yourself a glass of something to enjoy from the warmth of cozy indoors.
If you are really blessed, you may even have a furry foot warmer or two.
I have posted before about my love of Swiss trains. They are efficient, clean, on time. You can go almost anywhere in Switzerland by train, from quick connections between major cities to airports and mountain resorts. You can bring your bike, your luggage or your dog (for a price). All pretty well hassle-free.
Best of all, trains cross borders. I used to travel regularly from France to Switzerland and once took the tilting train all the way to Venice. Surely it was not unreasonable to imagine we would have a similar experience in Germany?
Wrong. We took the train several times on our recent trip to Northern Germany, and every single time the train was late. Even when it was on time they managed to lose time along the way and arrive late. Plus, the experience of the German train system was confusing, uncomfortable and generally less than pleasant.
I’m not complaining. I mean, we are just coming out of a pandemic here in Europe. Being able to travel again, even while wearing masks, is a privilege. Besides, Germany had just experienced some terrible floods in the west and while this did not directly impact our journey, the whole Deutsche Bahn network was affected.
It started with our first connection from Basel to Hamburg. An earlier train had been cancelled and therefore ours was packed to the hilt. This is where I made my first mistake. Assuming that because no one books seats on Swiss trains that this would be the case on German ones. Wrong again. Virtually all of the seats had been prebooked for various legs of the journey so we found ourselves scrambling, laden with luggage, from one car to another looking for seats.
Basically, booking a ticket on a train does not reserve you a seat. That is a separate process, one that is rarely used in Switzerland except for large groups. So we bounced around for a couple of hours until the controller finally found us two seats that were still free (for which we had to pay for a reservation — go figure!). Except they were only free until the next stop, when new travellers boarded and claimed their seats. So we moved again. It seems that the German system is a little wonky also when it comes to the reservation system, so even the controllers don’t know if seats are free or not.
We had plenty of time to joke about it. ‘Do Better’ was my husband’s suggestion when I asked what DB stood for (Deutsche Bahn). And we amused ourselves with finding different names for the train we took, an ICE (Inter City Express). Hence the title of this post.
I vowed not to fall victim to the musical chairs game again. So for our trip to Sylt on the North Sea, we also reserved seats. In first class for good measure. All good, right? Wrong.
It started out fine. We got to the Dammtor station in Hamburg on time for our scheduled departure. As in Switzerland, there is an information panel on the platform showing the train configuration, and our wagon was supposed to be on the end of the platform where we were waiting. Except when the train arrived it was the opposite end. So we lugged our bags to other end of a very long train to discover….chaos. We boarded the train but couldn’t find our seats. People were standing in the aisles looking confused. A harried controller was running around trying to help people who did not look happy.
As everyone was speaking German, I was at sea. Husband, who speaks the language reasonably well, also seemed confused. So as soon as I got a chance, I asked the controller if he could help us, apologizing and asking if he spoke English. He did. In fact, I think he was happy to help some lost-looking English speakers as the disgruntled German passengers were getting nasty. It turned out that one wagon of the train (ours) had broken down, so all of the people booked into that car were without seats. Thankfully he found us a free compartment in second class which we gratefully accepted.
On the return from Sylt, the train was far less full so the seats we had booked were sort of unnecessary. But the train lost time between stops, waiting for unexplained amounts of time. At one point, an announcement was made in which I understood a few words: kinder (children), spiel (play) and polizei (police). It seemed that a group of children were playing football on the track and we had to wait for the police to come and remove them.
Train travel is slow travel. We weren’t on a tight schedule, and the whole beauty of the train is being able to read, watch the scenery and relax. But German trains are old, for one thing, and not comfortable for long trips. Infrastructure needs updating. Electrical systems are lacking. For example, there was nowhere to plug in and charge our phones.
Our last journey from Hamburg to Basel was another story. We had booked the Night Jet, a special train with sleeper cars that travels between European cities overnight. First class to boot! There was even a car and compartment number on our tickets, so I was fairly confident we wouldn’t have to scramble.
Arriving on board, the controller scrutinized our reservation with an expression that did not bode well. The compartment we had booked through the Swiss website simply didn’t exist!
As the train left the station, we stood waiting for what seemed like an eternity while they tried to figure out where to put us. Finally we were led to our sleeping compartment. It was on the upper level, with access via narrow stairs that were highly impractical for navigating suitcases, and inside were two bunk beds under a sloping ceiling. The space was so small we could not both be standing up at the same time, or at least not without being intimate. The beds were made with pillows in the far corner, so that we would be sleeping in a sort of tunnel, our feet towards the window. Being claustrophobic, I immediately switched this around so my head was near the exit. Even husband, not normally worried about such things, insisted we keep the blinds up so we wouldn’t feel quite so closed in.
There was a small sink where were able to perform ablutions before going to bed. Several bottles of water had been provided, along with glasses and some unchilled frizzante. But the toilet was down stairs and down the hall, so I kept my liquids to a minimum.
Not long after we turned out the lights, husband was asleep. One of his gifts, aside from his sense of humour, is the ability to sleep just about anywhere. However, although I was on the lower bunk and less exposed to the problem, I was unable to sleep with the lights from passing towns making a strobe effect. So I got up and closed the blinds.
Then, just as I was nodding off, the gentle movement of the train doing its thing to lull me to sleep, we hit a bunch of curves. The old train strained against the tracks, groaning and jerking as the contents of our compartment began to rattle. We hit a particularly tight curve and the cupboard doors in the compartment flew open, the bottles fell off the sink and the glasses came flying out. I got up and managed to stash everything so it wouldn’t move again.
Sometime later I was finally about to fall asleep again when the compartment door, despite being locked, flew open, filling it with light and exposing us to the (thankfully empty) corridor. I got up again and double-locked it. After that, it’s all a bit of a blur. At one point during the night, the train stopped somewhere for a quite some time and then performed some sort of manoeuvre. When it got going again, instead of being at the end, we were at the front. It was actually a bit better after that as it seemed we travelled more or less in a straight line.
Still, the Night Jet was bit of a nightmare. Only I didn’t get to sleep long enough during our 8-hour trip to actually have one.
When we arrived in Basel, I did a little namasté of gratitude.
However, the inexplicable chaos continued. When we got home, an ice (ICE?) storm with massive hail stones had just happened, wreaking havoc on our little town. Nothing too serious, thankfully, but here is what happened to the exterior blinds on one window in our apartment.
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.