Die Nachbarn

Our neighbours are back. Noisy, nosey and oh, how we missed them! Not sure where they disappeared to early last summer, or even whether the herd that have come back to graze on the grassy slope just beyond our apartment are the same. I do know that life with sheep as neighbours is never dull.

The cling of their bells, which worried me as a source of noise when we first moved here, is now a welcome sign of life. It’s never loud enough to wake us up, especially now that the days are colder and the windows mostly closed. Instead, the music of the sheep bells is a reassuring presence.

I noticed when I got up the other morning that their silhouettes were visible on the dark hill just outside the office window. In the early morning with the lights on in our apartment, I suppose we are sheep TV. I went to the window and saw them just a couple of metres above, looking down on us in curiosity as I fed the dogs. There is something comical about how they stare at me with interest while chewing their cud.

And drama! Who would have thought the lives of sheep were so filled with sensation? On a sunny afternoon while working studiously in the office, I had the window open, and suddenly there was a commotion of bells. I went outside to check and saw all 18 of the sheep huddled together in the middle of the hill. Their eyes were all fixed at the top of the hill, where I spied an unusual visitor. At first I thought it was a big dog, with pointy ears like a Doberman, but then I realized: it was a red doe. While it clearly posed no threat to the sheep, the poor thing had somehow found its way into the sheep’s electric fenced enclosure and was looking for a way out. Panicked, the deer jumped the fence too close and fell, its legs entangled in the mesh. Thankfully, after thrashing around for a few seconds, it freed itself and high-tailed it towards the woods. The sheep watched it run off and soon returned to chomping their grass. What a life.

But it made me realize why these animals are so curious. They are vulnerable to predators. The herd mentality that made them all stick together in the face of an intruder is the same one that makes them stare at any by passer to make sure they’re not in any danger.

The other night I could hear one of the sheep baying in the wee hours. It was unusual: they’re generally fairly quiet other than their constantly ringing bells. But it was cold out and they’d recently been shorn. My daughter the vet who knows how to do things like tip sheep explained that they need to graze a lot to get enough calories to sustain them. Maybe they’d worn the grass down?

The next day I heard the bells ringing like crazy again and went out to check what was going on. Sure enough, the farm woman who looks after them had come to move them from one field to another. I watched from afar as she rolled back the fence. The sheep knew the drill: they lined up right away and shuffled through the space to the higher slope. Except one was left behind.

It was too small to go up the hill on its own, so the woman reached down and lifted it up to the mother. That’s when I realized just how small it was — it looked like a baby. I’d never seen it before and, putting two and two together, it occurred to me that this was what all the baying had been about. One of the sheep had given birth, right there on the hill in the middle of the night. Already the little one was scampering to follow her and nurse.

Ain’t life grand?

Un franchouillard

He said it himself: Je suis un franchouillard. A derogatory term for an ‘average’ French person, that midde-class ‘Français moyen’ with all its preconceptions. Yet there was nothing average about Bernard Tapie. His death this week after a long battle with cancer was perhaps the only average thing he ever did.

Yet even that was exceptional. Tapie’s friends, from the world of entertainment and sport, politicians and media personalities, united in saying that he was a fighter, one who never gave up. Until the end he was climbing stairs to stay fit. Even when cancer turned his voice into a whisper, he was outspoken about his battle with the disease. And when he and his wife were victims of a brutal break-in to their Paris home earlier this year, he hid nothing of their shock and the injuries suffered in the attack.

It was shocking to see this once-powerful man reduced to an obviously feeble state. He showed humility but no shame, and I admired him for that.

The Paris-born Tapie was loved and hated by the French in equal measures. The son of a working-class family, in the 1980s he became the symbol of the successful businessman, le self-made man. He made his fortune buying up failing companies, the most famous of which was Adidas, and turning them around. He also owned sports teams like L’Olympique de Marseille (OM). (As an aside, I know nothing of football beyond how important it to those that follow it. Living in provincial France, you were either a fan of L’OM or L’OL, Lyon’s team.)

But Bernard Tapie was much more than a businessman. He was also a politician. Some have called him a French Trump, although I think he had more integrity. But here’s the twist: he ran as a socialist. Possibly nowhere but in France would a figurehead of the free market stand for a party on the left. Yet this is what happened when Tapie became a protegé of President François Mitterand and a deputy in the Bouches-du-Rhône department. A firm opponent of the far-right Front National, Tapie went head to head with party leader Jean Marie Le Pen on a televised debate over immigration.

This was in 1989, after we were married but still living in Canada, so I followed from afar. But I came to understand that it was groundbreaking. Why? At the time, the main political parties did not believe that the FN should be given a voice on national television. But Tapie argued that someone had to stand up to Le Pen and call him out on his lies publicly.

He later became a government minister but his political career ended early when his legal woes began, mostly over the fraud around the sale of Adidas by Credit Lyonnais. The complexities are beyond this post but the case dragged over for 26 years and court appeals were still ongoing at the time of his death.

What I find most intriguing about Tapie was his resilience. After going bankrupt, being ineligible for politics and banned from football, he returned to his first love: the arts.

Bernard Tapie began his career as a singer, but despite his obvious talent (and changing his name to ‘Tapy’) it was not to be. Yet he never gave up on his artistic ambitions completely. He continued to make singing and acting appearances throughout his career, also hosting TV programs. He later took to the stage, performing notably in the French version of the play, ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’.

The news of Bernard Tapie’s death this week at the age of 78 came as a shock. Somehow it seemed he would survive his battle against cancer, like so many others he had won. He was larger-than-life. An upstart, a renegade, one who reached great heights and lost it all. He was completely original; you couldn’t make him up. You could love him or hate him but you couldn’t be indifferent. And that, perhaps, is what made him quintessentially French.

Salut Bernard.

Eins, deux, tre…

Our recent holiday was a Swiss three-in-one special. We started out in our German-speaking Central Switzerland, moved on to French-speaking Vaud, then to the Canton of Valais where a mix of both French and German is spoken. Finally, we spent a few days in the Italian Canton of Ticino, wrapping up what felt like a whirlwind tour of Europe without crossing any borders.

I was hesitant when planning the trip. Our week in northern Germany earlier in the summer had reminded me how many things can go wrong when you travel. With our daughter’s trip from the UK having been cancelled twice already due to Covid, and our first time together in over a year, we didn’t want to take any chances. Thankfully, Switzerland offers a lot of different experiences in one tiny country.

Okay, they’re not THAT different. Lakes and mountains are usually involved. But within that mix, which I happen to love, there’s quite a lot of diversity.

Leukerbad Therme (Loèche-les-bains in French) is a mountain resort high in the Valais famous for the thermal baths. It offers some pretty spectacular scenery with a wall of cliffs surrounding the town. It also has some rather unusual history with the springs dating from Roman times and, more recently, a rather checkered past: in 1998, it became the first Swiss town to go bankrupt! (In a country not exactly known for fiscal mismanagement, somehow the president of the commune got sent to prison).

None of this had any impact on our holiday, although I must say that like many thermal towns, there is a confusing array of public and privately run establishments, with various hotels attached. The main one, Leukerbad Therme, is public and you can go and use the baths for a fee regardless of where you’re staying. It was a huge, maze-like place, with many different pools and areas and little indication in any language of how to access them. We still had a lot of fun exploring though. Everyone but me enjoyed the crazy water slides (I backed out when I found out they were closed tubes where you were in the dark). Madeline, our daughter, had a minor mishap inside one of the tunnels when she bumped her head and got a rather massive egg on her forehead.

It’s the only egg she’d have anything to do with being vegan. This made booking hotels and restaurant a little challenging, as the cuisine in the mountains is notoriously cheese-and-meat heavy. Thankfully I found a place that offered ‘vegan options’. It was a smaller hotel with a good kitchen and service with a personal touch. They laid on quite a good breakfast spread for her and had a few different non-animal choices each night at dinner too. Despite some confusion at check-in over their Covid status (she and her boyfriend were vaxxed in the UK and had not yet acquired the correct documents for Switzerland; a new law having just come into effect in the days before), we were given a warm welcome. The restaurant was rather good too, with an extensive wine list. No affiliate links on this blog but I can heartily recommend the Hotel Waldhaus.

Our next stop was Locarno, in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino (Teissin in French). It is on beautiful Lake Major, half of which is in Italy. We rented a place just outside the city, in Ronco Sopra Ascona, with fabulous views overlooking the lake. I had not been to Locarno before; it is less of a city than Lugano, with more of low-key vibe. Just across from our beautiful rental were a couple of tiny islands, one of which houses Ticino’s botanical gardens, called Isole di Brissago. We took the ferry across one day and spent a wonderful few hours wandering around the lush greenery, capping it off with lunch.

There is something sort of laid back and old-fashioned that I love about the Italian cantons in Switzerland. I guess the vibe is similar to northern Italy, which I also love. Our rental was in a residential area perched high up for the views. All of the houses here have names. There is statuary on the roofs.

The weather was only middling during our time there but our last day was magic. It was nice to end our vacation on a high note with a swim at the Lido. We kissed our daughter and her boyfriend goodbye the next morning and put them on the train back to Geneva.

Our last leg was the Simplon mountain pass. It seems I’d worried about the drive  over the mountains somewhat needlessly. Unlike the train, it was relaxing and scenic. It seems that the hairpin curves and twistier roads are actually lower on the mountain. Once you get to the top the views are rather open. We enjoyed a quick stop to admire the views before heading down the other side.

We returned to Aigle (Vaud) to celebrate our son’s birthday before heading home the next day.

By the time we got back home to our corner of Lake Lucerne, it felt like we’d been away for a very long time. Which is everything you want in a holiday, n’est-ce pas? Non è vero? Ist es nicht?

Gute fahrt!

It was a very good trip.

Our daughter’s long-awaited visit from the UK finally happened in early September. We spent two weeks together and it felt like the first true vacation since the pandemic began. It was also our first family holiday in Switzerland since moving here last year, which gave me plenty of material to observe from a new perspective.

During that time, we went from our German-speaking side of the country back to the French before moving on to the Italian part. Just as this old girl was getting her brain retrained NOT to speak French in every public situation, we were navigating between all three languages plus English for the British boyfriend. But that was only one of the (admittedly enjoyable) challenges.

The Simplon car shuttle was my first experience of travelling by car on a train. A bit scary for a claustrophobic who doesn’t trust technology but a good way to cut short the long, twisty drive from French-speaking Valais to Italian-speaking Ticino.

There are two ways to do it: either you drive over the high-mountain pass or you put your car on the train and cut through. After much discussion (read: lively debate, ahem, I mean argument; that’s how we do things in this family), we decided to take the train on the way there and drive on the way back. Husband, the designated driver, will always prefer a mountain-top view. Nervous Nelly here is afraid heights and gets car sick from too many turns. So why do you live in a mountainous country, you ask? Go figure.

On a side note, the experience reminded me of a story I used to read to my daughter when she was little: We’re going on a bear hunt. It’s a wonderful tale about a family that goes through a bunch of stuff on an imaginary bear hunt. Every time the family runs into an obstacle, there’s a recurring theme: We can’t go over it, we can’t go under it. Oh, no, we’ve got to go through it!

It is a perfect metaphor for so much of life, even the good bits.

So, we managed to agree and drive ourselves to the place where you load your car onto the train in Brig. We had calculated the timing fairly well so were first in line and able to grab a coffee and do a WC run while waiting for the train. Generally they leave every hour or two in the busy periods. When the whistle blew we followed the line of cars onto the train, positioned it just behind the car in front and cut the engine. Then the fun began.

I had somehow not realized we would be in the dark during the journey. Also, I read all the emergency instructions in the brochure and tried not to think of what would happen if we got stuck. And there was a fire. Or an earthquake. Truly, having an imagination is a curse.

To nobody’s surprise but my own, twenty minutes later we emerged safely on the other side of the mountain. Then began an hour-and-a-half drive down far more narrow and twisty roads from the Domodossola, in Italy, that would take us to our holiday rental in Locarno.

When I saw the receipt from the car shuttle train I smiled. I’ve posted before about the use of funny words in French.

But somehow I’d never realized how they say ‘good trip’ in German.

More about our holiday later. Until then, good farts to all!

Renaissance

It has been a long, wet, unseasonably cool summer. We had the odd nice day here and there but there’s no denying that this was the summer that wasn’t. Yet here we are at the end of it and it feels like a bit of a rebirth is going on.

The clouds have finally cleared and the wild weather that wreaked havoc around here this summer ‘seems’ (I’m couching that one in every disclaimer possible) to be settling into something more stable.

It has been exactly one year since we arrived here in Central Switzerland and finally, like the weather, I am feeling settled too.

On my terrace, the lavender is making a bit of a comeback, like many of the plants that were so battered by the summer storms. The fields are all around us are beautifully green and groomed. I can hear the tinkle of sheep bells just above us and am looking forward to seeing our nosy neighbours again soon.

The swallows have returned and provide endless entertainment as they swoop around.

Our family is enjoying a bit of a renaissance, too. Today, we will be reunited with our daughter for the first time in more than a year. The vegan vet is flying here from the UK where she has been hard at work over the past year since graduating. And in a week’s time we will all meet at my son’s place on the other side of the ‘Rostigraben’, the cultural divide between German- and French-speaking Switzerland, along with my French father-in-law.

How many missed occasions will we be celebrating? Various birthdays, Christmas and the new year, unnamed holidays cancelled as flights shut down between the UK and Europe over the past year. Finally, we are all double-jabbed and ready to roll! There will be bubbles and a very nice cake, then a bit of a holiday here in Switzerland.

For now, I will be kicking back and enjoying the remains of summer as we begin our second year here. Maybe even get my paddle board out again. Fingers crossed we will sail into a lovely Indian summer.

How are things with you?