Confinement

As a little pitcher with big ears eavesdropping on adult conversations, I would occasionally catch the word “confinement” in hushed tones from my mother and her friends as they discussed Mrs So-and-So’s “interesting condition”. Sooner or later, Mrs So-and-So would emerge from her confinement with a new-born baby.

Now, since Tuesday of last week, M. Macron has put everyone in France into “confinement” of a different kind and it will be interesting to see what kind of new-born society emerges from it. Everyone is now confined to home and only allowed out armed with a permit form that can be downloaded from the government website, explaining who we are and what is the purpose of our excursion; a new attestation is needed for each outing, and failure to show it results in a hefty fine of 375 euros. Apparently that isn’t enough to deter some people, but the fines being collected may to some extent go towards funding the compensations the State has promised to fork out for those unable to earn their living as usual. The economic repercussions of this confinement will be revealed in time: in spite of the great downturn, some branches must be making quite a large profit from the situation.

Of course, France isn’t the only country imposing a lockdown, though it is rather more drastic here. My daughter and I are prepared to stay here for several weeks at least. I’m not complaining: we are quite content to be in our second home in a very beautiful, quiet and relatively remote part of the world. Returning to Switzerland is out of the question anyway, as travel is banned throughout France.

Luckily, we have a garden here so we can at least go outside, sit in the sun while we read, chat, knit and crochet or eat our meals, and walk around for exercise. That also suits the dog. Maybe we’ll even be able to go down to the beach, which appears to be deserted.

In several ways, I’m impressed by the many positive side-effects of this self-isolation. We hear of blue skies where there was smog, clean water where there was pollution, and magnificent balcony performances from musicians in Italy to cheer low spirits.

Appeals to everyone’s better nature from the heads of state in Europe – Macron, Merkel, the Swiss Federal Council, even BoJo – will hopefully trigger a sense of responsibility and a more altruistic attitude in some who tend to be lacking in that area. Perhaps, along with an economic crash, we’ll have a less selfish, kinder and more considerate society when this is over.

On Wednesday evening a pleasant, friendly man came with a letter from the mairie (village council) informing us of which shops and businesses are still open and offering help from volunteers to vulnerable people who need someone to do their shopping or take them to appointments etc. It also contained a copy of the permit mentioned above, in case we had no way of downloading it ourselves. The mairie is coordinating this service. Our visitor was very concerned that no “fragile” person should be neglected. We were pleased that he didn’t tell us to go home instead of being a burden on France’s limited resources!

We are very grateful for the opportunities afforded by the Internet – e-mail, social media, FaceTime, Skype, YouTube etc. – that break through our solitary confinement and keep us in touch with distant friends and family members. Our phone and wifi signal now seem stronger, so thank you to those in charge of that. The post is still being delivered, so we can also order things online (books, clothes, dog food for instance) and I am relieved to find that our village pharmacy accepts the prescription e-mailed to me by my doctor in Switzerland. I had the foresight to bring a month’s supply of medication with me, but who knows how long we’ll be here?

The tide ebbs and flows as it always has done. Keeping calm, carrying on. We will survive!

Tuesday 17th March — Sundry Times Too

“Isn’t it wonderful when brothers and sisters get along together in harmony. It’s like a great big chocolate fountain or a party with champagne for everyone!” Psalm 133. OK so that’s a paraphrase and I dare say that there are better ones out there. Yet listening to this Psalm this morning got me wondering. How […]

Tuesday 17th March — Sundry Times Too

I’m reblogging this from Kangerew2, whose insightful reflections have given me much comfort and inspiration over the last few months since I discovered his page.

In Quarantine

German has a delightful word for hoarding: Hamstern. Think of those little golden rodents with their faces stuffed full of food – what could be more apt?

So – is your annual supply of toilet rolls neatly stashed away? Good. Now what else – apart from staple foodstuffs – can be considered essential items for hamstering during a pandemic?

In our case, it seems to be yarn, tea and books as we self-isolate in Brittany.

View from our house

What are we doing here, you ask? The original plan was for my daughter, my middle granddaughter and me to spend ten days together in our family holiday home on the northwest Breton coast, an opportunity for three-generational bonding and to deal with several practical matters in need of attention. Dear Middle Granddaughter wasn’t well, so it’s just Dear Darling Daughter and me. And dog. Bonding.

The practical matters concerned the bank, the roof – which has needed repairs, and in France it’s advisable to be physically present at such times – and bringing back a couple of large, heavy items that don’t fit into a normal sized family car. Consequently, we borrowed Dear Eldest Granddaughter’s seven-seater VW in exchange for DDD’s Twingo – not really ideal for her with four children, but it was only supposed to be for a very limited time. Now this swap isn’t so convenient for her, as the schools are closing and she‘s supposed to be working from home … well, DEG is very resourceful and I have no doubt she’ll cope.

The Swiss Federal Council (government) has advised against grandparents taking care of children, as these are both vulnerable groups, so I was heartened to see an announcement on Facebook by some senior high school students offering their babysitting services to working parents. That could be a solution for DEG.

Meanwhile, we have been informed that it may be advisable for us to prolong our stay here – especially if it comes to a lockdown. Who wants to drive for ten hours and then be told at the border that you can’t re-enter your homeland? In the worst case, we could probably descend on DMG who lives just inside France near Geneva – that could be her punishment reward for not coming with us in the first place!

It’s certainly easier to quarantine ourselves here than it would have been in Switzerland, where we would inevitably have had a lot more social contact meaning greater risk of infection. Out of the thirteen houses in this little cul-de-sac, most are holiday homes. At the moment, only three are inhabited and the other two contain new neighbours whom we don’t know well enough to say more than “Bonjour, Madame!” when we see them. Just as well, perhaps.

It’s very difficult to overcome the habits of a lifetime and not offer a hand to shake or a cheek to kiss (two or three kisses in Switzerland, four here in Brittany). Elbow bumps and, among some of the youngsters, complicated foot tapping rituals, are proof that it feels wrong not to have some kind of physical contact on greeting friends and family. Does this augur the end of handshakes and bises in continental Europe? Another symbol of courtesy and civilisation disappearing? I hope not.

Our phone line isn’t the most reliable so our wifi also comes and goes. The cables aren’t buried underground here but strung in the air from posts, which makes them susceptible to stormy winds and salt corrosion – or so we are informed by the technician. At present, there’s also a broadband overload, especially as so many people must be working from home. All the same, we have succeeded in remaining in touch with folks back home, following the news and listening to podcasts as knitting needles and crochet hooks click to and fro. We get along well. There’s no lack of topics of conversation and we have hundreds of books at hand. And plenty of tea.

On the whole, we are much safer here in this tiny place, where all we hear when we open the windows is the roar of the sea down below and the song of thrush, blackbird and robin – oh, there are others that I can’t identify, as well as the ever-present seagulls but their screaming and raucous laughter is very secondary to the tweeting and trilling of the songbirds. We have pleasant (empty) beaches to stroll along and beautiful scenery to enjoy. The hedge is rosy with camellias, spring flowers are blooming and the sun is shining.

There could be much worse places in the world to be stuck: in my opinion, serendipity strikes again!

A Night That Began 700 Years Ago

In the last couple of weeks, while recovering from an unpleasant cough and cold (no, not the Coronavirus) that kept me isolated at home and at something of a loose end, I have been involved in some digital detective work involving an unsuspected treasure that has been lying hidden for almost 70 years.

The father of my dear friend Kathie was an extraordinary man of high principles and vivid imagination, with a great gift of expression: a Jewish Hungarian poet, novelist and above all screenwriter, he began with screenplays for silent films in 1920’s Berlin, starring famous names such as Willy Fritsch and Marlene Dietrich, then moved to Hollywood in the 1930’s and 40’s, culminating in an Oscar for Best Original Story for the anti-Nazi film Arise, My Love (1940). He also published a couple of novels that were very well received.

The only Oscar with red pants – due to over polishing!

Then he fell foul of Senator McCarthy.

Having experienced first-hand the regimes of Horthy and Hitler, Janos Szekely’s sympathies understandably lay more to the left than the right. Along with many other successful and talented people in Tinseltown, he was blacklisted and forced into exile. He continued to write nevertheless, but what? Who knows? Not allowed to publish anything under his own name, he used pseudonyms and today there’s no way of knowing what they all were. His daughter is aware that during their time in Mexico, her father was constantly writing and assumes that somehow he managed to earn enough money to support his family. But she was a little girl, and those were Adult Topics that were kept from her. There are consequently many questions in her mind about this period of her life that will probably never be answered properly.

Eventually, they were allowed to return to the USA but only for a limited time. In 1956 Janos Szekely was offered a contract by DEFA, the state-owned film studio in East Berlin, and the little family moved there. Unaware that he was terminally ill, he was able to adapt the stage-play Geschwader Fledermaus into a highly regarded film, but sadly died just days before it was premiered.

His work has been rediscovered in the 21st century.

His best-known novel Kisértés (Temptation, 1947) written originally in Hungarian, has been re-published in new translations (French, German, Spanish and English). The newest English version is already available in the UK and due for release in the USA in April . It’s a remarkable book, very readable in spite of its bulk – almost 700 pages – and very hard to put down. I certainly recommend it. It deserves to be a best-seller.

Right at this moment, however, comes a discovery that is so timely, you really have to wonder whether you believe in coincidences – or is it Providence?

At the beginning of this year, an old family friend in the USA contacted Kathie to say that while he was decluttering his attic he had come across an ancient cardboard box containing a carbon copy of a typed manuscript that Kathie’s mother had given him many years ago. This is a translation into English of another 700-page novel by Janos Szekely, and probably all that remains of that work. Is this what he was writing during those years of exile in the early 1950’s in Mexico?

The friend sent Kathie the manuscript, and she was so excited, she asked me to read it too. I couldn’t put it down – it’s a real page-turner in spite of the somewhat dated English.  

“Where’s the original Hungarian version?” I asked.

Kathie shrugged. “My mother probably burnt it,” she replied. “There’s certainly no trace of it in the archives in Budapest.”

What a loss! But what a miracle that this translated version has survived!

Under the intriguing title A Night That began 700 Years Ago it tells the gripping story of a number of gypsies, peasants and Jews whose paths cross and whose lives intertwine in 1944 in rural Hungary during the German occupation of WWII, when arbitrary harsh decisions made in high places affect personal destinies at every level of society. As in Temptation, these are fully fleshed out characters, with faults and foibles as well as strengths, who draw the reader in as their fates unfold. But there is also humour as well as profound thought and insights. Suspense is maintained right to the last page. I could imagine this as a multi-part TV dramatization that would have people rushing home to watch in eager anticipation.

Will it go into print? The time seems ripe. It’s an ideal follow-up to the new edition of Temptation and  tentative discussions are about to start with the publishers of the German version of that book (Verlockung, Diogenes, 2016)

Where does the detective work come in? Well, first there’s the question of exactly when this novel was written. Kathie is pretty sure that this must have been what her father was working on between 1950 and 1955 – perhaps not the entire 5 years, but certainly part of that time, and he would have written it in Hungarian. When was it completed and in which country – Mexico, USA or Germany?

Secondly, who was the translator, when was it translated, and what happened to the original English manuscript, since what she has now is only a carbon copy? It says on the title page “Translated by Frank Gaynor”.  The New York Times published an obituary for a well-known editor, author and translator of that name who died aged 49 in February 1961 in New York, so that is probably our man, but we have been able to find out very little about him. He appears to have translated mainly from German, though there’s also a novel translated by him from Spanish, and most of his work was on scientific and esoteric subjects. So did he also translate from Hungarian? Or was there an intermediate German version that he translated? Or was there more than one translator called Frank Gaynor?

Thirdly, there are two notes enclosed with the manuscript saying that it should be returned to Paul Jarrico at a London, England, address. Why? Who was he? Again, thanks to Google, we found that he was another well-known Hollywood screenwriter blacklisted by McCarthy, who moved to Europe in 1958 and may have been a friend of Janos Szekely. Was Jarrico supposed to get it published, or adapt it into a film? Presumably, this instruction to return the manuscript to Jarrico was ignored – or did Paul Jarrico give it back to Mrs Szekely after her husband’s death in December 1958? Why and when did she give it to Kathie’s friend in the USA (the writer son of another McCarthy victim)?

Was it ever offered to a publisher? If so, was it rejected? Is that why his widow destroyed the Hungarian original, thinking it wasn’t worthy of publication? Or – exciting possibility – does the Hungarian original still exist somewhere, gathering dust? Kathie’s mother died ten years ago in her nineties, so she can no longer give any information, but some of her father’s papers were archived in a Budapest museum. Could there be more clues there?

The final question is, where did all of this come from? What experiences – if any – did Janos Szekely have with gypsies and peasants and all the other strata of Hungarian society that live and breathe in both this and Temptation? How much is from his own life and how much is based on research, and if research, what were his sources? Again, there is no one left alive to answer this.

A Night That Began 700 Years Ago is a mystery that began 70 years ago: will it ever be solved?

P.S.      You Can’t Do That To Svoboda, 1943, under pseudonym John Pen, is another very readable (and short!) novel by Janos Szekely.

Scrambled Eggs

What wonderful places are digital genealogical sites! You meet all kinds of interesting people and dig up some fascinating facts and stories you would like to think are true, but often turn out to be family legends. That doesn’t make them any less interesting, though. Sometimes there’s a grain of truth there. I’m still hot on the trail of my Dear Son-in-Law’s Egg ancestors.

As I reported here on 4 December 2019, our earliest known Humpty-Dumpty was a certain Rudolf Egg who purchased the mill in Ellikon around 1630. From my online research, I had discovered that this Rudolf was a scion of the miller family in Heitertal, Schlatt, a tiny village not so very far away from where my DD and DSIL live, so at the end of December 2019, we visited the water-mill there, first documented in 1361, that has been grinding away nonstop for at least 650 years.

We were informed that several years previously, a local historian had written a monograph on the history of this mill and the families associated with it. That was exciting news, but we were then very disappointed to hear that the owner of the mill had lent this little book to someone – and as so happens with borrowed books, it never came back. And that was the only copy in existence! So we had no further information on Rudolf’s background.

However, someone up there apparently likes us: a little more online research brought me to a family tree that included some of these jolly millers. I contacted the owner of the tree – who lives in California – and struck gold: she had also visited the mill in 2014, and actually had photographed every page in the lost book! Hallelujah! And she was willing to share her treasure with me. It’s all in German, so in return I have promised to send her a translation that will hopefully be superior to her mangled Google-translate version. The author celebrated his 94th birthday in December 2018. I’m hoping he is still alive and that we can make contact with him.

This very carefully researched and annotated account not only gives the genealogy of the Eggs, but also includes some fascinating factual information about many of the individuals. Thus we now know from the State Archives that

“Rudolf Egg, the miller at Heitertal, bought the lower or “front” mill in the village of Ellikon on 20 October 1628 from Ulrich Singer for 7,100 guilders which he paid off in instalments. Even the wealthy miller didn’t have that much cash in his safe, so he took out a bridging loan of 1,000 guilders from the architect/builder Andreas Künzli of Winterthur in May 1629. The purchase of the mill in Ellikon included wagons, a carriage, all the old mill documents, the associated water rights, and a right of first refusal on the upper or “back” mill. In 1630 Rudolf Egg, Molitor (= miller), also bought this mill from the miller Isaac Fischer. Certainly by 1644 both mills were in the hands of Rudolf Egg.”  

Milling was a very lucrative occupation, and soon the Ellikon millers, Rudolf’s sons and grandsons, were doing very nicely thank you.

What is of particular interest to us, however, is that this little history book traces the family back to Ulrich Egg who bought the mill at Heitertal in 1536 and died in 1550, so we have been able to go back another century. Records prior to that time are scant, so we may have to accept that we’re unlikely to find out much more about his origins.

The book gives a colourful picture of life as a miller in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Yes, millers often became rich and held high office, but there was also the threat of disease, especially plague, brought in by rats infesting the corn and flour sacks. This was rife in the early years of the seventeenth century: on 28 April 1611, the Heitertal miller’s wife and son both died of the plague and his father followed in the autumn. Then a few months later another son and daughter-in-law died in rapid succession leaving their two babies orphans.

Nevertheless, the Eggs were very prolific, and in the heyday of milling they seemed to occupy most of the mills in the region, marrying and intermarrying with other miller families, some of whom were actually named Müller (= miller). Unscrambling “our” Eggs from their siblings and cousins promises to be fun! And I still haven’t found a link to the gunsmith Eggs or the Goshenhoppen Eggs, although I’m sure there must be one somewhere.

Repair Your Inner Rainbow

My dreams are sometimes strange, often funny – I woke up roaring with laughter one morning after I had dreamed that Noddy Holder had been elected President of Venezuela. In my dream, I had inquired whether the Venezuelans understood his English (a justifiable question, since Noddy has a broad Black Country accent, not always comprehensible even to other British people) and was told that it didn’t matter, as he spoke fluent Spanish. Where did that come from?? Maybe it’s prophetic – Noddy, as we say in the Black Country, is a bostin bloke and could probably do as good a job as anyone else.

The night before last I dreamed that my Dear Daughter and Son-in-Law came to see me, and I wanted to give them something to take away (possibly my bag of stuff to be recycled – they have obliged me with that before now) but they weren’t able to take it because their car was full, with two very large boxes on the back seat. On reflection, I think these boxes were amplifiers. Anyway, my DD informed me in the dream that they needed these boxes because they were on their way “to repair their inner rainbows”.

The phrase was ringing in my head when I woke up. How do you repair your inner rainbow? Whatever, it sounds very beautiful and inspiring!

A few hours later, I had forgotten my dream. DD and SIL arrived as arranged to go for lunch, but before we left DD produced a large box and a couple of plastic bags.

“Ooh, what’s that?”

“A rainbow for you!”

She was referring to a post I wrote a few years ago, when my granddaughter sent me a box full of wool and yarn to help me with my crochet.

And here was another rainbow in a box – enough to keep me occupied for a few weeks, I imagine! Thank you, this should keep me out of mischief.

It was only after they had continued on their way that I remembered the phrase in my dream. I hope they are having a tranquil weekend, and are able to repair their inner rainbows.

P.S. For anyone who doesn’t know Noddy Holder, he’s the singer of the glam pop group Slade – and if you don’t know Slade, look them up!

Oh – and here’s a recent interview with Noddy. If you really want to know what the poems on my Black Country page should sound like, imagine Noddy reciting them! That’s the accent!

Trumpery

WEF is over, Davos and the surrounding villages can go back to “normal”. Tonnes of hot air spouted, millions of dollars spent – much of it on security and “necessary luxuries”. Climate change was a major topic and the invited speakers’ actions spoke much louder than their words. Especially in their choice of transport.

Greta Thunberg wanted to hike there, but was obliged to take the bus. Donald Trump flew to Zurich in Airforce One, then took a helicopter. His wider entourage presumably travelled by road, and as they were too numerous to fit into the accommodation available in Davos, stayed in various luxury hotels within a 50-km radius. This included our own Grand Resort of Bad Ragaz, where their stay was invoiced at just short of half a million US dollars. Who picks up these bills?

How Greta went home, I don’t know. Probably by public transport again. POTUS, however – or POTENTATE? – went back to Zurich airport by road, accompanied by around 50 vehicles including ambulances, police escorts from several Swiss cantons, anti-terror units, defences against nuclear, biological and chemical attacks, and, of course, the press. Naturally, the Autobahn in the direction of Zurich had to be closed for the duration of the convoy’s passage, and who cares what inconvenience that caused. All bridges had to be manned by armed police. Again, who picks up these bills?

Watch this video, and remember that Switzerland is the seventh safest country in the whole world.  

What justification is there for this massive demonstration of this man’s megalomaniac display and utter disregard for his carbon footprint? The epithet that comes to my mind is obscene.