Secular Xmas

There now –

I’ve made the cake,

Mince pies and Xmas cookies done,

Ordered the turkey, trimmings, drinks

Are all in hand.

The tree with all its baubles, tinsel, star,

And flashing lights is up.

More lights around my house

Than all the neighbours’ – wow!

The cards all written, stamped and in the mail.

Carols and jingle bells,

White Christmas, and so on

Playing nonstop

In every place I go. 

Presents are bought and wrapped –

No stocking forgotten –

And I’m dead beat with all this stress and strain!

Who on earth, I ask,

Invented Christmas?

And why, for heaven’s sake?

Damned if I know.

Colourful Memories

Nostalgia, especially nostalgic reminiscing, is good for you – or so I hear. 

Children and grandchildren of elderly folk who tell the same old stories over and over again, often word for word, may disagree  – although much later, when the old folk are no longer there to ask for clarification, they may regret not having paid enough attention to grandma’s ramblings or grandpa’s recounted exploits. 

Notwithstanding, if you are lonely and/or depressed, it seems that indulging in little trips down Memory Lane can help to lift your spirits and make life a little more bearable for the Reminiscer, if not for the audience. And even better if you do have an attentive listener encouraging you.

Segue into my excursion into the past today, which was triggered when I got my paints out again. 

Friday afternoons at my Junior School (when I was aged 7 to 10) were the happiest of schooldays. With adult hindsight, I reckon our teachers were probably exhausted and at the end of their tether by Friday afternoon. My class had at least 40 lively children, and by the end of the week we had also had enough of sitting quietly at our desks absorbing the three R’s so we needed some R&R too. It’s a long time ago so my memory may be playing me tricks, but my recollection is that we painted, acted little plays and listened to a story read by the teacher (“Wind in the Willows” stands out for me when I was about 8 or 9). 

The school provided brushes and little paint boxes with squares of water colour in red, blue, yellow and green, which really is all you need, but we could also bring our own if we were fortunate enough to possess a paint box. Many kids in my class were very poor, so grateful for the school paints, but I remember taking mine and sharing them with the girl who sat next to me and I don’t think I was the only one to do that. Little Miss Show-off, of course, brought a large box that opened out into 3 sections and contained many more colours – in TUBES! – than the rest of us had. I wasn’t so envious when I realised that this meant she had so many ready-made shades that she didn’t need to mix her colours, and that she therefore missed half the fun of painting when you create a colour you didn’t know existed. 

I remember my first box of watercolours, probably a birthday or Christmas present, when I was about six and still learning to read big words. I was thrilled and mystified by the names of the different colours as I spelt them out: vermilion, crimson lake, cerulean blue, ultramarine blue, cadmium yellow, yellow ochre, raw umber and burnt umber, raw sienna and burnt sienna, viridian green – the unpronounceable phthalo green was luckily not yet available. Chinese white and ivory black – this puzzled me, as I knew ivory was the stuff on the white piano keys, so ivory black seemed like an oxymoron (not a word I knew at the age of six). And why was white Chinese?

These evocative names still make me tingle. My teacher explained some of them at some point, that cerulean meant “sky-like” and ultramarine was “beyond the sea”, that Siena and Umbria were places in Italy, and ochre was pronounced “ocker”. I found it hard to imagine that paint pigments could be made from earth, as the soil in my native English Midlands was black, full of coal dust. There was a place not very far away called Ocker Hill (Ocker Bonk in local parlance) – famous for its power station with three giant cooling towers – and I wondered if by some miracle there was ochre-coloured soil there. As for crimson lake, I imagined a beautiful rich red lake, somehow associated with Sir Lancelot du Lac wearing a velvet cloak of that hue. It was many years before I discovered that vermilion and crimson were actually animal products. 

Nobody here today for me to bore with all of this, so my painting was done in silence. But oh, so much trickling through my brain as I dip my brush and mix my colours!

Small World. — Cathy’s real country garden

Reblogging this because it speaks from my heart. Counting and recording every tree and hedge in our neighbourhood might be a drop in the ocean – but what, after all, is an ocean made up of? Thank you, Cathy, for these words.

There are so many environmental problems facing the world that I have to admit to feeling often overwhelmed . The news gives us the big picture and our own eyes and ears show us the reality in our own backyard. My safe place is the garden and so I nurture it and I celebrate it, […]

Small World. — Cathy’s real country garden

What’s for dinner, Mom?

What did you eat as a child that your grandchildren – or, in my case, great-grandchildren – have never experienced?

Well, that shouldn’t be too hard to answer: not only did I grow up in an entirely different age but also in a different country, so not only the historical circumstances but also the cultural context are very different. My eldest granddaughter’s kids are enjoying a healthy lifestyle in rural Switzerland – you can’t get much better foodwise than that! My youngest great-granddaughter is in suburban France but not yet properly weaned, so can’t really be included in this mini-survey. 

I, on the other hand, grew up in an English industrial town during WWII with rationing at its strictest during my earliest years because very little food could be imported and we had to rely on the limited amounts that could be produced domestically. Added to which, I was a fussy eater and didn’t like most of the few things that were to be had, especially meat. However, some of the things I did like would probably make my great-grandchildren shudder. Dried egg, for instance, which I would surreptitiously teaspoon out of its tin behind my mother’s back. My lasting memory isn’t of the taste but of the texture of this strange dry powder that clung to the roof of the mouth. And rationing continued long after WWII ended in 1945: sweets didn’t come “off ration” until 1953 and meat until mid 1954. 

To put you in the picture, this is a typical weekly food ration for an adult in the 1940’s:

  • Bacon & Ham              4 oz (120 g)
  • Other meat                  value of 1 shilling and 2 pence (equivalent to 2 chops)
  • Butter                            2 oz (60 g)
  • Cheese                          2 oz (60 g)
  • Margarine                    4 oz (120 g)
  • Cooking fat                  4 oz (120 g)
  • Milk                               3 pints (1.5 l)
  • Sugar                             8 oz (240 g)
  • Preserves                     1 lb every 2 months (480 g)
  • Tea (loose)                  2 oz (60 g)
  • Eggs                               1 fresh egg (plus 12 portions of dried egg every 2 months)
  • Sweets                          12 oz every 4 weeks (360 g)

Bread, fish and chips weren’t rationed, but of course fish and potatoes were available in limited quantities so portions were small. Fishermen definitely weren’t so keen to go out with German U-boats lurking in their fishing grounds. Bread was not what we think of as such nowadays. People supplemented their rations with what they could grow in their gardens and allotments, but even seeds were limited in variety as well as in availability. 

Children received a few little extras: 3 eggs a week, for example. We were supplied with medicine bottles of “Welfare” concentrated orange juice imported from the USA, and cod-liver oil. A spoonful of a brown sticky stuff called “Vimaltol” “Virol” or “Radio Malt” was also administered daily – this was a vitamin supplement made from malt extract to prevent us getting rickets. Would little kids nowadays enjoy this sickeningly sweet goo?

It all sounds pretty awful, but in fact rationing had a positive effect on both health and longevity among the British public, and obesity was definitely not a problem! 

So what other things did I eat that my great-grandchildren have never heard of?

They may have come across Spam in some form or other, but I doubt if they have tried whale meat, which also came in tins. Another tinned (or canned for my US readers) item was very overcooked spaghetti in tomato sauce, which we ate warmed up on toast. I think this was sometimes included in Sunday breakfast, along with sausages, bacon and egg as an alternative to baked beans. Or perhaps that was just me. The toast was made by holding a slice of bread on a toasting fork over the red-hot embers of a coal fire, which gave it a distinctive taste you just don’t get from an electric toaster. There was a knack in the way you put the bread onto the toasting fork, as if you did it wrong your toast would fall off into the fire. 

A big treat at birthday parties was jelly and blancmange. Although they may be familiar with jelly I don’t think my kids know what blancmange is, and the idea of eating tinned fruit (peaches or apricots in particular) using tinned evaporated milk as a substitute for cream with a slice of bread and butter on the side would seem very weird to them, but real cream was an unknown luxury. 

This has made me reflect deeply about the changes in  my diet over my lifetime: maybe I should go back to some of the principles on which the Ministry of Food based its decisions in that very difficult decade of the 1940’s. Most of all, portion size!

More on this here for those interested  
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rationing_in_the_United_Kingdom and https://www.cooksinfo.com/british-wartime-food/

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A Sweet Old Custom

Before I decided to apply for Swiss nationality, and even during the process, I was asked a few times what advantages it would bring – both for me and for the Swiss state. Quite honestly, I can’t really see that having me as a naturalised citizen brings many advantages for Switzerland (I’ve always paid my taxes, health insurance, etc. and contributed generally to the Swiss economy so no change there), but my answer usually included the fact that for me, it would be nice to have the right to vote and that they wouldn’t be able to deprive me of my right to residence in the country (i.e. they can no longer kick me out).

This would have been useful to me during the time I spent looking after my mother in England from December 2011 to March 2017, as I had to return to Switzerland after 4 years otherwise I would indeed have lost my Swiss residence permit. Had I had Swiss citizenship at the time, I’d have been allowed to stay permanently at my mother’s home until her death with no fear of the consequences in Switzerland, instead of having to keep careful count of the number of days I spent away in the year 2016 to ensure that my absence didn’t exceed 180, the maximum allowed. There’s little point now in dwelling on the possible benefits for my mother, but it could have made a huge difference to her final months.

Well, I have now been Swiss for four months and I have made good use of my voting rights and proudly flashed my ID card with its little white cross (so much easier to carry around than a passport) together with my QR code (my smart phone really is very smart!) in restaurants during the last week or so to prove that I have had my Covid jabs. 

However, a further advantage that I was totally unaware of came as a pleasant surprise last week: a letter in the post announcing that, as a citizen or bourgeoise (Ortsbürgerin*) of Bad Ragaz I am entitled to receive a portion of the village apple harvest, either 10 kg of apples or 10 litres of apple juice (though not half and half, which I’d have preferred). It’s up to me to go and collect it, and it appears that if I were a family and not just a single individual, each member of my family would also be allowed to claim their portion. 

What a delightful idea! We have two apple trees in our garden that looked amazing in springtime but spent the months of August and September littering the lawn with worm-infested fruit that gave our robot lawnmower indigestion, so it’s very encouraging to know that at least some of the local apple trees managed to keep their apples grub-free and that these were harvested. 

A little historical investigation into this custom revealed that in former times most villagers had fruit trees, some of them in communal orchards, and shared in the care of these. Similarly with the hayfields, since most people had a cow or goat or two that needed fodder when fresh grass wasn’t available. Consequently, everyone joined in the work at harvest, and all were rewarded with a share of cherries, apples, hay or whatever other produce was yielded. 

This explains the names of a couple of streets in the village that had intrigued me – Chriesilöserstrasse , Heulöserweg and Heulösergangstrasse. “Chriesi” is the Swiss word for cherry (Kirsche in High German), Heu is hay. “Löser”(cognate with English “lot”) was a portion of land allotted by drawing lots (i.e. an allotment) to those members of the community who possessed certain civil rights. Those areas which in the 18th century served as cherry orchards and hayfields are now completely built up, but the memory remains in the street names and the annual distribution of free apples among those who are legally citizens of Bad Ragaz. Saturday morning, between 8.30 and 11.30, we’ll all be queuing up at the organic fruit farm in the Heulöser – not for our portion of hay, but for apples.

*The idea of Ortsbürger is difficult to render in English. This article in Wikipedia which calls it a “Citizens’ Community” may help or may leave you even more confused.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bürgergemeinde  

Autumn in the Air

The Walensee must be one of Switzerland’s most picturesque lakes: not really very big or famous, but the rocky cliff face of the Churfirsten mountains plunges dramatically into its clear blue waters. At the eastern end, the shore has been beautifully landscaped into parkland and a playground for children. On the lower slopes of the mountains, before they rise in sheer granite cliffs, are vineyards, the vines currently beginning to change colour and laden with heavy clumps of dark purple grapes almost ready for harvesting. In a week or so, these trees will also be blazing red and gold.

The day after I took these photos, the weather had changed and so had the mood of the lake, reflecting a more ominous sky and throwing up plenty of driftwood, including some impressively sized tree trunks.

This little church perched atop a steep hill always makes me smile: and I admire the tenacity and endurance of those who presumably used to have to walk up to it. That would be beyond me nowadays!

It would seem I’m not the only one smiling. A felicitous moment when two paragliders aligned in just the right spot as I raised my iPhone!

Time of day also influences the atmosphere, and to my mind the few minutes of Alpenglüh when the granite face of the mountains to the north-east reflects back the glow of the setting sun rivals the glory of the rainbow.

Finally, today the first snow on these mountains …

Left-Brain Fairy Tale

“Let me tell you a story,” I said to my millennial grandson when he was about nine. 

He acquiesced, probably out of politeness to his aged grandmother.

“Once upon a time there was a beautiful princess who lived up on the top of that mountain,” I gestured towards the peak towering above our village.

“Was she a dwarf?” he asked.

“Er – I’m not sure,” I hadn’t developed my story quite to that point.

“She was the daughter of the King of the Mountain …”

“The King of the Mountain was a dwarf,” he stated in an irrefutable tone. 

I considered that irrelevant and continued:

“… and she spent most of her time wandering around exploring the …”

“Did she have a snowboard?”

“A snowboard?”

“There’s a lot of snow up there in winter.” He was, of course, right. “Or skis. She might have had a sledge.”

“Well, maybe she did, but she was a magical princess and she could fly …”

“Did she paraglide? Or did she sky-dive?”

“I think she sort of floated on the breeze …”

“In a wingsuit?”

My mental image of my fairy princess drifting like thistledown over the mountaintops began to waver.

“Sometimes she rode on the back of an eagle, and …”

“Oh, so she must have been a dwarf. Or a midget.”

I decided to ignore this and continued with my depiction of my beautiful magical princess.

“One time she flew into a rainbow, and took it for a cloak that she wrapped around her …”

“Did she get wet?”

“Wet?”

He rolled his eyes and patiently mansplained to me that a rainbow is the result of light being refracted through raindrops, so it would inevitably be wet. I valiantly returned to my story.

“She was very loving. She knew and took care of all the animals that lived on the mountain …”

“A lot of them have fleas. Was she a vet?”

At this point, I gave up.

“Would you like to tell me a story?” I asked.

“Not really, Granny. I’d rather play Minecraft.”

Bad RagARTz 2021

One of the many beautifully succinct words in German that have no real equivalent in English is verarschen. The idea is universal: mischievously or maliciously ridiculing someone pretentious, by appearing to take their pretentions seriously. The root of the verb is “Arsch” (arse) so it isn’t a very polite word, but it is absolutely appropriate – at least in my humble opinion – for much of the art currently being exhibited here in my village of Bad Ragatz under the title of “Bad RagARTz”. I submit that it would be more appropriate to write that as “Bad Rag Arts”.

The exhibition is a triennial event, and the sculptures comprising this year’s offering have been on show since May.  It involves a lot of money so has to be taken seriously. There are 400 works on show this year, by a total of 83 artists, making it the biggest open-air sculpture exhibition in Europe, and it certainly has been attracting lots of interest judging by the large numbers of people wandering around singly or in groups. Hopefully, our local economy has been benefiting from these. It needs an uplift in these sad Covid times. You can see some of the exhibits if you google Bad Ragartz 2021 and click on images.

I have passed by a number of the sculptures on my regular visits ”downtown”, as they are scattered all around the village as well as throughout our lovely parks. In fact, I integrated myself into one of them, a group of three female figures sitting on a bench (benches are becoming a theme with me!) with just enough room for me to sit and eat my ice-cream cone. An amusing and instructive experience: some passers-by didn’t notice me at all, others did a double-take – some even came back to make sure I was real – whilst others grinned and even made comments (all positive, I’m glad to say).

A chainsaw well used by this artist

Yesterday morning I took advantage of a friend’s visit to spend an hour or so looking closely at the sculptures in the nearby Kurpark (spa gardens). We both share the simple opinion that a true work of art should speak for itself and not need a lengthy explanation, although you can sign up and pay for a guided tour if you feel that some of the exhibits are beyond your comprehension. Or if you want to appear intellectual rather than confessing that you are a philistine.

My friend summed up her impression in four words: “The Emperor’s new clothes!” Mine was expressed in one: “Verarschung!“   

Well, that was perhaps too harsh. We picked out two or three works that we admitted we would allow onto our own private properties if we had sufficient space to display them adequately, and a couple that we admired for the artistry involved, but the overwhelming majority of what we saw was disappointing. There’s always a certain amount of humour represented in the show, happily, and even if we are admittedly unable to appreciate so-called artworks inspired by the school of Josef Beuys and apparently aiming at the Turner Prize, this triennial event does provide food for thought and conversation and I’m sure the local dairy shop has made a killing on its artisanal ice-cream, produced in a wide range of delicious flavours and sold at 3.50 fr a scoop.   

Anniversary

You knew, didn’t you, right after the birth of your second son. It was obvious.  You couldn’t go on like that. 

You never needed a magic mirror to tell you who was the fairest in the land. You only had to look at the young men around you, the ones who didn’t swoon at your feet, only the best looking guys who had the confidence to approach a beauty with the expectation of acceptance, no fear of rejection. Oh yes, you knew who was the prettiest girl and you knew who was the most handsome boy, and so did he. Like opposite poles of a magnet. And you looked like a couple of film stars on your wedding day, glowing and sparkling like diamonds. But good looks alone, as you soon found out, don’t guarantee the happy-ever-after marriage.   

You did your best, both of you. You really tried, and you had the second child in the hope that this baby would be the glue that stuck the shattered pieces back together. It wasn’t. Then one day he didn’t come home from work. Nor the next day. You waited, wondered, continued with your life because somebody had to cook and clean and look after the children, and you thought: Maybe he just needs a break, he’ll be back soon. 

A week later a postcard arrived from Marseilles: I have joined the Foreign Legion. 

You exploded in anger and frustration, screamed and wept, banged your fist and stamped your feet at such crass egotism and lack of consideration. Money arrived at irregular intervals and in varying amounts, so you had no alternative: you had to find a job and childcare. An attractive face and figure are always welcome at the reception desk of any company, so that wasn’t too difficult and you also had enough of a brain to pick up the fundamentals of accounting. In no time, you were a career woman. And you were lucky with the childcare, too.

Routine set in, and the boat of your life stopped rocking for a while as you seemed to be sailing smoothly downstream, steering your own course. Up in the morning, drop off the children, work till lunchtime, have lunch in the restaurant just down the road, work again in the afternoon, pick up the children and play your role of mother in the evenings and at weekends.

Of course there were men who’d flirt a little with you and occasionally try to arrange a date, but you were once bitten, twice shy, and in any case, even though he’d disappeared, you did have a husband. On paper, at least. Sometimes that was a handy excuse, and you continued wearing your wedding ring to deter unwanted attentions. No excitement, but you felt in a way you had had enough excitement. Now and then you wondered if you should sue for divorce, but then you’d think, why bother?

And so life drifted on until the telegram arrived. Out of the blue it came, with the news that your husband had been killed in action in a place you had never heard of. You hadn’t seen him for years, and you felt a tinge of guilt at your indifference. The children had completely forgotten him.  Later, a box arrived with his effects and quite a large sum of money was paid into your bank account.

Kids, we can have a holiday! 

There was enough for you all to go away for a month, a great holiday for the three of you with sun, sand and sea, plenty of fun things to do and no need to count the pennies. You came back feeling ten years younger and radiant.

On Monday morning, you slipped back into the old routine: school run, work, and at midday you headed off to the restaurant as usual. Oh, but your table was occupied. You looked around for a free seat, and met a pair of bright blue eyes in a face brimming over with joy.

Oh, great! You’re back! It’s so wonderful to see you again!

Who is this? Do I know this man?

I was so worried about you. I thought something awful must have happened. I’m so pleased to see you looking so well, and so glad you’re here again.

You looked at this happy face and remembered that this man was another regular at the restaurant, one of the people you nodded to when you came in but had never actually spoken to.

Somebody else has taken your table, but I’d be very honoured if you’d join me … if you don’t mind …

Why not? He seems pleasant enough, and after all you had been lunching in the same restaurant almost every day for the past few years. You smiled and sat down opposite him.

Your holiday mood hadn’t quite dissipated, and he sounded like good company even though, as you quickly realised, he was actually quite shy. Not a man to go rushing in where angels fear to tread. But he explained in the first few minutes that he had been trying to pluck up courage to speak to you for a very long time. Then, on the day he had finally decided on what he would say to you by way of introduction, you weren’t there. And you weren’t there all the rest of that week, nor the week after. He could have kicked himself for his lack of courage, for not having approached you before when he had the opportunity, and now he feared you had either left your job or something dreadful had happened to you. He was in despair, and full of self-reproach. Ah, but now you were here again, and this time he had seized his courage in both hands and dared to open his mouth. He explained all this and then, to your great amazement, blushed bright red to the roots of his hair.

You were very touched by his candour, and for the first time in many years you, the ice maiden, melted. Gently, warmly, you responded. Your conversation came from depths that you both normally never sounded, and your souls recognised their affinity. He was ten years older than you, had never been married, and had given up hope of ever finding the right person although, as he confessed, he had been admiring you from afar for a very long time but in the way one pays homage to the unattainable. Now, suddenly, you were within his sphere and he reached out, daring to connect. And connect you did, on every imaginable level. No time to lose. You were married six weeks later. 

Happy ruby wedding!