La grande famille

There is something about family that brings out the best – and possibly the worst – in me. Rather like these oddly decorated post boxes recently spotted in Wales. We laugh at the same things, tease each other, argue and basically drive each other crazy after a few days. But I wouldn’t trade time with my family for the world.

After my Greek island adventures, travelling to the UK for Easter seemed pretty tame. We did have the joy of arriving at (and later, departing from) Manchester Airport at a time when the frequently changing rules around the pandemic were exacerbated by staff shortages. But as soon as I’d ditched the suffocating FFP2 mask, collected my bags and sailed through customs (there was no one checking anything), I was happy to find my daughter waiting. She had driven an hour-and-a-half from Ripley in Derbyshire to pick us up.

My husband’s flight from Basel, which was already scheduled to arrive a couple of hours after mine, was going to be an hour late, so Madeline and I went shopping for the groceries we would need at our Airbnb (her place is far too small for guests), and a quick bite. By the time we got back to the airport to pick up Stefan, all the airport shops were closing. We waited as groups of travelers, mostly Brits returning from holidays in sunnier climes, wafted through the gates. One guy, sunburnt and wearing flip flops, called out to a another in a shop with its shutters half way down.

“Can I get a sausage roll, mate?”

“No, sorry, we’re shut!”

This had Madeline in stitches. “They’re absolutely crazy about Gregg’s sausage rolls here,” she said. “I mean, it’s nine-thirty at night and he’s just off a flight. And the first thing he thinks about is a sausage roll?”

No sausage rolls here!

The two of us were still giggling together as my husband finally arrived, cursing as he does every time he flies with the low-cost airline. “I hate EasyJet! Always late, and why pay for Speedy Boarding and an extra cabin bag if there’s no room in the lockers near your seat and you have to wait until the whole plane has emptied out before you can get it?” For some reason his predictable rant made us laugh harder.

By the time we reached Belper, a pretty little town where we had rented an Airbnb for a few nights, the kindly fellow who waiting to give us the keys looked like it was way past his bedtime. He showed us around and explained the complicated ‘Nest’ system to regulate the heat in the flat via various radiators. In the end there was little point as no matter what we did it was always too cold. But the place was comfortably furnished, and we quickly made ourselves at home.

The next couple of days were spent exploring the area, visiting Nottingham and our daughter’s place. It’s a small terrace house, with the kitchen and living room on the main floor and a bathroom and bedroom upstairs. The living room has a couch, a TV and a large cage for her Degus. Even if we had been able to squeeze in a bed, the constant rattling of rodents running on the exercise wheel would have driven me nuts. But she’s a vet, so I suppose it goes with the territory.

The next phase of our trip was in North Wales. Madeline’s boyfriend Jack drove us all to Gwynedd, where we met our son, Elliott and his partner, Anne. They are expecting our first grandchild in mid-June, so this was their last chance to travel before the big event. We rented a lovely, restored cottage with plenty of room for all of us. Once again, heat and hot water were in short supply. You had to run the wood-burning stove in order to heat the water, although thankfully the shower was electric. The weather was too cool and damp to sit outside in the lovely garden but I imagine this is a big draw in summer.

We were in a fabulous location near southern Snowdonia Park, just a short walk from the beach. I had no idea the beaches in Wales were so spectacular. We all enjoyed walking by the water and soaking up the invigorating sea air.

Our three-day stay included a hike into a former mine, a visit to a castle and soaking up a lot of gorgeous views. Entirely restorative!

We did do a lot of driving over the week and what stands out in my memory is how funny it was to be passengers in the back seat with the children doing the driving. Neither my husband nor I was up to driving on the other side of the road (I’ve finally trained myself to stop saying the ‘wrong’ side) so we let ourselves be driven. At one point Stefan and I were bickering­­­ over something or other and it occurred to me that the tables had turned since the kids were young and we would have to tell them to stop squabbling in the back seat!

At the end of the week we bade farewell to the family and took the train to Liverpool. We only had one night there but I would have loved to spend more time in this city which had a very cool vibe. What’s not to love about a city that gave birth to the Beatles and my heart throb Tommy Shelby, not to mention Jody Comer, the actress who blew me away in Killing Eve? Unfortunately there was no time for the Peaky Blinders tour. But I would go back in a heartbeat.

Love Liverpool! And that accent…

Our return flight from Manchester to Basel, followed by a two-hour train ride home, was uneventful. Our other ‘kids’, the two Frenchies and our new-old cat, were happy to see us. And, as my late belle-mère used to say, there is nothing like going away – unless it is coming home again.

So that’s it for this trip. Thinking about a visit to Canada to see family in late summer (if they ever relax their masking rules), and later this year a longer trip during a planned one-month sabbatical. We are thinking of southeast Asia or Japan, although I would be happy not to go so far if we could find somewhere with nice weather.

If you could travel anywhere (or not) where would it be?

Travel and travails

Travel has never been my favourite thing. In fact, it is a lot of ‘travail’ (work, or laborious effort, in both French and English). Don’t get me wrong – I love finding myself in new places. It is the process of getting there that I’m not keen on, especially when airports are involved. Let’s face it, in these days of low-cost air travel, ongoing terror threats, and the evolving Covid rules, it’s a lot of work.

But when you are denied something, it takes on a particular allure. With husband up at least three ski vacations on me, during which time I had stayed home and looked after the ménagerie, I decided it was time to get my wings back.

The Greek islands have always been among my favourite places, and I happened to find a yoga retreat taking place on one of its more remote islands, Amorgos. It would be a ‘petit voyage, the kind I like best. A short flight followed by a ferry, with a stopover on another island. Easy peasy, right?

Travel is an acquired skill. And like any muscle, it needs work. Even organizing a weekend away becomes challenging if you haven’t done it in awhile. It was not my intention to bite off more than I could chew for my first solo trip in two years. But I suppose if I had thought too long about the complexity of traveling before the season began and while Covid rules were still in flux, I would have stayed home. Thankfully, I leaped before I looked.

First was the chicken-and-egg question of where to start. A quick google showed that connections were available, if not necessarily direct. The yoga retreat had a spot left, so I decided to start with that. Then I realized just how complex it would be to get to that island on that particular date, especially without going through Athens. I’ve been there before and wasn’t especially enamored of spending time in that huge city again, nor of taking a prop-engine plane to the islands. The 9-hour car ferry ride from Athens didn’t appeal either.

Our go-to airline for travel in the EU is easyJet. It’s a low-cost airline, with all the inconveniences of having to pay for everything à la carte, from bags to seat selection, but it does offer direct flights to secondary airports. So when I found a flight to Santorini, close by if not exactly at my destination, I grabbed it. Unfortunately it took off at an ungodly hour (another joy of EJ) and from Geneva, a 3 hour train journey from us, which meant I’d have to go the day before and book a hotel. No worries – I always love an excuse to go back to my former stomping ground and have dinner with a friend.  

Then began the problem-solving part. The regular ferry connections I’d counted on were only just starting up in April after being closed for the winter, and in the end it was impossible to get to Amorgos without going through Naxos, and on different days. So I booked a night in Naxos and the ferry the following day. Slow travel appeals to me, and I liked the idea of doing a bit of island hopping.

It all worked out in the end but there were a few bumps along the way. First, departure at 6:00 a.m. from Geneva. Who would have imagined this many people would be willing to get up this early? I got through the notoriously long easyJet bag-drop line after 45 minutes and was advised not to waste any time getting to my gate. I soon learned why: it was at the furthest end of the airport, a jog at the best of times, not to mention while lugging a computer bag and additional carry-on. (What, me travel light?). I reached the gate just as the plane was boarding, with no time to stop for the toilet never mind a coffee, and made it to my seat. By then all the overhead lockers near me were taken so I had to schlep my carry-on to one near the back of the plane. So much for paying for up-front seating!

We took off on time and the flight was fairly smooth for the first two hours – just as well as I’m a nervous Nelly and it had been two years since I’d last been up in the air. But as we got closer to our destination the turbulence began. The Greek islands are known for high winds in April, so it seemed sort of par for the course. We began our bumpy descent and I saw the reddish toned mountains of Santorini begin to rise by the windows. Then, without warning, the engines went into turbo, we changed direction and began sharply going up again. A few minutes later, the captain stated what was now obvious: he had decided to abort the landing due to wind shear. There was nothing to worry about, it was perfectly normal, they were just going to do a little spin around the island and try the approach with a head wind instead. Unfortunately it was too late to order a drink. But I lost no time on landing (which we managed on the second try) to order a prosecco and toast my arrival in Greece over a late breakfast.

I took a taxi to the port to await my ferry. The high winds were blowing a haze of dust from the Sahara over the island, which gave it a post-apocalyptic air, even though it was fairly sunny.

Greek ferries are not known for being the most organized mode of travel. Several private companies operate different lines and there is little communication between them. The biggest ones are from Athens; smaller lines operate between the islands. The port in Santorini is not a nice place to wait. A couple of sticky-tabled cafés were open and swamped with tourists. There were no signs indicating anything about departures or arrivals. I went to the nearest office of the ferry company I had booked – now dragging my suitcase along with my two smaller bags – and asked about the departure for Naxos. “You wait there,” said the woman, pointing to an open shelter where a few people were congregating. Off I went. There were no seats but it was only an hour until the scheduled departure.

Thus began a wait that stretched into 2 ½ hours. Europeans don’t tend to talk to each other, unless in an emergency, so I could only wait and watch the others for signs. The crowd grew. Cars began to queue up just in front of the passenger area, some with the courtesy of switching off their engines, others continuing to blast diesel exhaust. As our wait grew longer, I was thankful for a nearby group of American tourists, one of whom seemed to know what was going on. Information was loudly exchanged. The ferry to Naxos was late. In the meantime another one arrived, apparently going to Mykonos, and we stood watching as several enormous trucks were off-loaded. Then began the slow on-boarding of cars.

I felt oddly calm, without my usual impatience. As we settled in for the wait, I began speaking French with the people in front of me. Turned out they were from the Ottawa valley, in Canada. We watched as a short man, mid-twenties and dressed in the same kind of gear as everyone else, arrived and began shouting at people to have their tickets ready. When the ferry was finally in the port, I nearly dislocated my shoulder dragging my bags up the steep ramp. Thankfully there were plenty of seats, and working toilets. It was a large catamaran, and the ride was smooth despite the choppy sea. Two hours later we arrived in Naxos, the sun was beginning to set and a driver waiting to take me to my hotel outside the main town where I settled in and enjoyed an early dinner. There were only a few other guests as the place was only just opening for the season. The next morning I took a short walk down to the beach and felt the peace of my destination infuse me. It already began to feel like the journey was worth it.

Another ferry ride, this time on a pitchy boat that took four hours to cross the choppy Aegean, got me to Amorgos later that day. By the time I checked in with the other retreat members for our opening circle, the sun was setting and the candle-filled room overlooking an inspiring view of the sea and mountainous islands felt like a homecoming.

We enjoyed a week of yoga, walking, sunning (with one dip in the still-chilly pool), relaxing. With lots of good food and drink – it was not THAT much of a retreat! – before the next leg of my trip: back to Naxos for a day, where I discovered the beautiful old town with its Portara, temple or gate of Apollo, while dipping my toes in the beautiful white sand beaches. The next ferry was quick – just an hour to Mykonos, where I spent a final night before heading back to the airport.

But it wasn’t over yet! I had two more EJ flights to Milan and then Manchester, where I would meet with my family for a week in Derby and Wales (more to come in another post). That particular leg of travel through Italy brought new joys, one of which was filling out the EU passenger locator form. That oddly devious document, which may be a reflection of the European Union itself, was an exercise in the absurd. Meaning that it was not made for my reality: French national, living in Switzerland, transiting from one EU country to another to visit family in the UK. ‘Originating country’ was one thing but what did they mean by ‘final destination’? Aside from the philosophical aspects of the question, I literally did not know what to put. Manchester? My return flight to Basel? For some reason, possibly down to Brexit, the UK was not an option. So I put Switzerland, obviously not part of the EU but still within the realm of its imagination. Then, after spending considerable time and effort to fill in and download the bloody document, no one even asked for it when I went through customs. Nobody asked for my Covid certificate either.

However, for some reason it was a requirement that passengers on all flights to and from Italy wear an FFP2 or N-95 mask – a first (and hopefully last) for me as I found it hard to breathe. Arriving in the UK, no masks were required at all, so I binned it with joy.

Now I am home and recovering after so much moving about. But my travel muscles are back in shape and I’m already starting to think about our next trip.

How about you? Still hunkering down, already back in circulation or with travel on your horizon?

BTW, if you like the photos, I post a lot more on Instagram. Feel free to follow!

A few links (none sponsored) in case you are thinking of traveling to the Greek islands:

  • Ferryhopper, a service that lets you book any of the different companies, with relative ease.
  • Naxos, an island well worth a visit — amazing beaches
  • Amorgos, more wild and remote but perfectly doable, especially in season

Ziel

I am not goal-oriented. I don’t like to count steps, track progress or try to outdo yesterday’s performance. But I am a bit of a gym rat.

People often say things like:  You’re so good! Always going to the gym. You have the sports gene. I wish I had your self-discipline!

No, non, nein. I shake my head. Because it’s simply not true. I am not that person, the one with no bodyfat who runs marathons or even 10 k’s. I’m carrying at least 5 kg in excess weight and sometimes my creaky joints hurt and I struggle to get up from a deep knee bend.

But here’s the thing: I like to exercise. It feels so good to sweat, move my body, stay strong. And for some reason, I’ve always been able to do these things most efficiently, and with the greatest pleasure, indoors.

Don’t get me wrong: I love being outside. Especially at this time of year, when nature is thrumming at full speed. The birds are chirping a songfest and the sun is stretching out our days by the hour. But that’s the whole problem: there are too many distractions outside. I enjoy walking, sometimes even jogging a bit; most of all I like to stop and smell the roses as it were, not focus on how fast I’m going or for how long.

At the fitness centre I can plug in my airpods, pump up the volume on some upbeat sounds and lose myself. There is an anonymity to gyms that I like. It doesn’t matter that I don’t speak the language – hardly anyone talks to me unless I go to a class (rare). I’m very fussy about exercise classes. They have to have good music, easy-to-follow choreography and be just challenging enough to get into the zone. Too hard and I jump ship; too slow and I feel like I’m wasting my time.

Once upon a time I was a volunteer fitness instructor. Before we moved to France, I completed teacher training at the YMCA in Toronto and taught a class on the schedule for several months. I did the early slot: 7:00 or 8:00 am classes. Which I loved. Mornings are my moving time. Basically if I haven’t done by noon, it’s probably not going to happen.

I guess the gym is my happy place. It was where I met my husband in Toronto some three decades ago. Over the years we’ve both continued to enjoy working out at various fitness centres. And now that we are free to go back and sweat without masks again, it’s a welcome excuse to get out of the house. (Fully vaxxed, boosted and recovered from Covid).

So although I’m not big on ‘ziel’ (German for goals), I’ve found my zeal for the gym again.

By the way, this song had me bopping on the elliptical like a teenager yesterday.

Do you like to get moving? Are you an outdoor spirit or a gym rat or, like me, a bit of both?

Fasnacht

It started with a bang. Make that a boom. A very loud one, like cannon fire. At 5 o’clock in the morning yesterday. Immediately followed by the wild and crazy strains of marching band music echoing through the streets.

I buried my head in my pillow and wondered, what the what? But then I remembered: it was the official start of Fasnacht, the Swiss version of carnival.

It seems that the dates of Fasnacht vary widely and the biggest carnival, in Basel, actually starts much earlier in February. But here in Brunnen we follow similar traditions to nearby Lucerne, starting on Dirty Thursday and finishing on what I always called Pancake Tuesday:

So yesterday afternoon I went to investigate. It didn’t take long to figure out that this was a very big day around here. Many smaller shops were closed for the celebrations. All through the streets I saw parades of school children and people, young and old, in crazy get ups. Green hair, full face makeup, colourful costumes of all kinds. Walking down a quiet sidestreet, a small boy dressed in a miniature police uniform and carrying a bag of confetti politely said, “Gruëtzi!”

The main street was blocked off and filled with people dancing to band music. Stands were set up and tables laid out where people sat drinking beer and snacking. Oddly, donuts seemed to be a big thing. Although I think these were closer to the apple fritters or ‘beignets’ than the donuts I grew up with.

There was confetti everywhere on the street and clouds of smoke emanated from one float where I believe they were going to burn the traditional carnival ‘bonhomme’.

It’s funny to see the normally sedate Swiss cut loose. Not being able to communicate much in the local lingo I kept a low profile; frankly, not being dressed up at all made me feel like a party pooper. But I loved watching the joyful tomfoolery of it all. And I appreciate how deeply the local traditions are embedded in the culture here.

Some people were shocked when the Swiss council last week announced the official end to pandemic restrictions, with the exception of masks on public transport, in care homes and healthcare settings. But with the Omicron variant now waning and hospitals not especially overwhelmed, it was decided that now was the time to get back to some semblance of normal. Pretty sure somebody chose the date with carnival in mind.

I know it still tough for some, and I can only hope this is the beginning of the end of this miserable virus. But for all the crowds out enjoying Fasnacht yesterday after two years of restrictions, it felt like a party in more ways than one.

How about you? Ready to celebrate?

P.S. Shout out to WordPress for the quick support in posting the video. I have a plan that lets me share video content but needed help in understanding (or remembering?) how to do it!

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?