Up in the air

Disclaimer: Not me.

I have been horribly remiss in posting here. No real excuse, other than the fact that I’ve felt sort of…en suspens, hanging, or up in the air. I don’t know about you but I need to feel grounded, to know where I stand in my life, in order to get things done.

One of the reasons I’ve been feeling that way is our future home. It’s a new build, and we’ve been waiting for a confirmation on the delivery date. Initially it was supposed to be sometime this fall, end of the year at the latest. But that’s delayed now, unsurprisingly given everything that’s been going on. Supply shortages of building materials are one of the the consequences of the war in Ukraine (some of which were already happening with Covid, and the energy crisis hasn’t helped). But in addition to that, there have been difficulties with the project itself.

Last week we learned that one of our future neighbours had filed a complaint. I’m not sure why, as their view will not be at all impacted. But it seems this is a very Swiss thing to do and almost to be expected. It ended up costing a few weeks while work was halted to investigate. The building was found to be set 72 cm too high on the terrain compared to the initial building permit. Additionally, there have been complications due to fact that the site is built into a steep slope, with extra reinforcements needed on the retaining wall behind it.

Long story short: our move-in date is now not until the end of May 2023. Which sounds like a long time but at least we will be able to make plans. And I will be able to post about our new place now knowing that it’s really happening (because until now it felt like a dream).

Another reason I’ve been feeling up in the air is that we’ve been planning a big trip in November and haven’t known whether or where travel would be a possibility. But now that Biden has said the pandemic is over (I mean if a US president says something, it must be true, right? 😉) we’re making plans.

The timing has to do with my husband’s work as he is entitled to a sabbatical month but it has to be taken this year. He is a Japanophile (is that a word?), has been there twice, and is learning Japanese. So while we considered different destinations, I knew in my heart that if Japan ever opened its borders, that would be where we were going. Now it’s looking like that is likely, and we have taken the bold step of booking flights. We should find out this week if the rules will be loosened enough to create our own trip or have to use a tour company. I am not a huge fan of international travel but I’m starting to get excited. So far we’re planning on Tokyo, Kyoto, Okayama, Hiroshima and Okinawa. Fingers crossed!

I took the above photos on Sunday, a beautiful late-summer, early-fall day. My favourite kind. When the air, suddenly several degrees cooler, makes you want to wear a jacket but the sun is still warm enough to make you peel it off. It was a clear day and I watched the paragliders circle down from the mountain above. It is incredibly relaxing to watch them. Feeling perfectly grounded from the safety of terra firma.

What’s up with you? Am I the only one who’s not been good at blogging lately? News, please!

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

Dies und das

It’s been a weird few weeks, leading me to skip a post or two (I’ve been doing that a lot lately — corona fatigue anyone?). A series of public holidays in May plus some erratic weather has left me not sure if I’m coming or going. Hence a post on ‘this and that’ (dies und das) because I am still trying to get my head around German (or German into my head).

The crickets have been chirping away in the fields for a month now and yet the weather remains cool. Who knew that spring crickets were a thing? Yesterday the sun came out in all its glory and I went for my first bare-arm and bare-legged walk of the year, despite a chill wind from the north. I watched as the paragliders circled down from the mountain above, enjoying the vicarious thrill of flying.

My daughter’s birthday is on Sunday and I’m feeling sad that it will be the second one she celebrates without us. She’s across the Channel in the UK and had originally hoped to come to visit for a couple of weeks. Sadly, it’s not going to happen now and probably not until later this summer. And although Madeline is a front-line worker as a practicing veterinarian, she has not yet qualified for a Covid vaccine. Her age group is coming up soon in the UK where the NHS is taking a strict age-related approach to vaccination. But she would have needed multiple negative PCR tests to travel and to make matters worse this week France announced a 7-day quarantine for visitors from the UK due to the Indian variant.

In other news, it seems that Switzerland has pulled out of talks with the EU on various bilateral agreements. This article from the BBC (me loves the Beebs!) explains it better than I could. I have no doubt we will get there in the end but things take time in Switzerland and, like every other country in the world, there are politics. The Swiss value their independence and refuse to enter into any arrangement that compromises this, so they’re sticking to the existing if outdated agreements for now. Still, it felt like disturbing news for us as EU citizens living here.

We finally have our Covid shots scheduled for June 12 here in Schwyz, where it seems we’re not exactly ahead of the pack. Oddly, my husband and I have two separate appointments, at different times and locations, with mine an hour away in the furthest corner of the canton at 9 pm on a Saturday evening! No idea which vaccine we’ll get but probably either Pfizer or Moderna as Astra Zeneca is still not approved in Switzerland. My son, who lives in Geneva and is somewhat at risk due to a chronic illness, got his first shot of Moderna a week ago. He reported fairly strong side effects of fever, chills and headache for two days. You may recall that we all had Covid just before Christmas, so the first shot is the one with the greatest impact. Fingers crossed!

After that I think we’ll be ready to make travel plans. But where? All I know is that a beach will be involved, and preferably an ocean. I’m not keen on flying for now simply due to the shifting requirements for various tests and the additional delays that will inevitably entail. Besides, the news of the Ryanair plane being forced to land in Belarus this week only added to my reluctance. I can only imagine the panic on board that flight and in the hours that passengers were held in Minsk. Greece has called it a state-sponsored hijacking and there’s no doubt Lukashenko is one scary guy. Here’s hoping that dissident blogger Roman Protasevich survives his custody.

So maybe we’ll drive. Brittany is on my bucket-list and I’ve been away from France long enough now to start looking forward to a holiday on its coasts. There’s also the train that can get us to Italy. I have fond memories of a ferryboat we once took from Venice to Porec, Croatia.

It seems insane to be worrying about where to travel when you live in such a beautiful place. I’m looking forward to getting out for a paddle soon. Maybe we’ll just stay home for the summer after all.

What’s new with you?

Wie geht’s?

How are you?

How are you?

Comment ça va? I mean really, how are you doing?

Thinking about this most common form of German greeting makes me realize something. No one asks me that anymore. Or hardly anyone. It seems that between people staying home, working remotely and not seeing one another, and our move to a new place where we’ve hardly been able to meet people, there is little opportunity to ask each other how we are. That strikes me as sad.

That’s aside from every email that begins with a wish in which the sender hopes this message finds me well, in good health, etc. It seems now that we are either dying from coronavirus or we are all fine. But there are so many nuances of how we can be. Perhaps a little sad. Tired. All Netflixed out. Needing something to look forward to. Or alternatively: feeling like a happy dance. A tipple. Joyfully pursuing an activity that makes our hearts sing.

So how am I? Not too bad (a very Canadian response) all things considered. Healthy, gainfully occupied with my freelance life. Yet longing to get out, to go places, see people, connect. And this Covid-thing is starting to feel like living in a perpetual groundhog day alternate reality where you live the same day, every day. The future has officially been cancelled.

And yet. A few signs may indicate that a shift could be happening.

I saw a couple of reports on the news that were not pandemic-related. In France, they are beginning to talk about climate change again. I’d just been wondering, not so long ago: whatever happened to the planetary emergency? And voilà! Here it is again, back from beyond. Not to be glib, I do realize it’s important. Just not as important when everyone is worrying about imminent death from a mutating virus.

I’m also itching to plan a holiday. I’m talking about a real vacation where you go somewhere completely different, preferably involving nice weather and the sea. Where you kick back and think about all the things you’ve done to deserve it. And I’m not alone. This blogger perfectly sums up the dilemma for me. And I sense it will not be long before I bite the bullet and book something.

So that’s how I am. How are you? Really. Tell me.