Yarn, Yarn, Yawn …

I mentioned my crochet briefly in my last post, so it’s only fair to update the knitter-natterers among my readers. The rest of you can safely stop reading at this point. It’s fairly obvious that I’ll never achieve great renown in the world of needlecraft, but that by no means diminishes my pleasure in my work and I feel quite proud of my latest project in spite of its flaws.

Once again, I’m blaming my Darling Daughter for leading me astray, into Olivia’s Little Shop of Woolly Delights. This time I was unable to resist some yarn made of 100% linen in a sludgy mud colour, that Olivia and DD both declared matched my hair. I think that observation was intended as a compliment and I was intrigued by the idea of crocheting with linen so I blew a hundred-frank note on a bag of 10 skeins with no idea of what I would do with it.

While I cogitated on possible incarnations for the linen yarn, I made a cosy granny blanket in some bluish-grey wool that DD passed on, saying she hadn’t liked the colour for the garment she had started making with it. Or maybe she felt guilty for making me spend so much at Olivia’s?

The colour appealed to me, however, and I married it with some skeins of a deeper warm blue and creamy white merino, and several hours later had finished my traditional shell-pattern blanket. The colours remind me of the sea, and a second similar blanket is currently in progress; they may end up in our little house in Brittany if I ever manage to get there again.

IMG_1373I also teamed a skein of the grey-blue with some rusty red wool – this, too, inherited from DD (yes, she is extremely generous) – and made a granny shawl that developed into an interesting shape. Deliberate, of course. And though it resembles a ray it doesn’t have eyes on its underside.

That more or less exhausted my little stash apart from the linen yarn so I knew the moment of truth had come, and it was time to move onto something serious.

Browsing the Internet, I found a free pattern on Ravelry for a lacy chevron cardigan that looked suitable for my linen yarn. The jacket was all in one piece, crocheted from the neck down. Would I be able to follow the pattern? I was, and I did. Hurrah! (Thank you, Miloba.)

Instructions said to stop when the body and sleeves are the length you like, so I kept on with the body till it was just past my bottom and ended the sleeves just above the elbow. Then I blocked it, and it gained several inches so the sleeves are now just below the elbow and the jacket descends to my knees – but who’s to know that isn’t deliberate? It’s better than having it shrink. IMG_1379

On trying it on, I also realised that I had made several mistakes in the first few rows around the neck. How do you rectify that without unravelling the whole thing? Luckily, I still had two skeins left, so I made a new chain and followed the pattern absolutely precisely with no mistakes until I had several rows of chevron crochet that looked the way it was supposed to. Joined to the neckline of my jacket with a few rows of single and double crochet, it forms a frilly collar that covers the multitude of original sins. Well, I like it. IMG_0262

I had the foresight to make buttonholes down the right-hand front band of the cardigan just in case it needs buttons, which it probably doesn’t, but if I find some really attractive ones I may add them. Is this garment a success? I shall wear it anyway, since it cost me both time and money, and convince myself it doesn’t look too amateurish and typical granny handiwork. Please don’t dash my illusions: I’ve worked all the loose ends in so they are completely invisible, and I’ll never find them again. It would be very wearying to have to unravel it all.

The wool for the blankets is Drops Karisma, with Schachenmayr Merino Extrafine 120
The linen yarn is Lang Lino.
And the cardigan pattern is at https://milobo.files.wordpress.com/2009/12/chevron-lace-cardigan-v4.pdf

And In The Blue Corner …

Sunday morning, sunny and mild. I take my coffee and my crochet outside onto the patio, relishing the stillness, the scenery and the silence. Silence? No, listen! Birds – sparrows and crows, a woodpecker, bluetits and a blackbird – provide a backdrop of sound, insects buzz, and the Tamina river rushes with a constant swoosh like the wind in the trees as she gallops on millions of tiny feet down to her confluence with the Rhine.

The Tamina rises  from her hot springs in the mountains facing me, a warm, generously surging stream that brought fame and fortune to this village of Bad Ragaz. She still dashes exuberantly down through her gorge, and I hear her excitement as she runs to her rendez-vous – only one row of houses separates her from me.

Tamina

Tamina: echoes of The Magic Flute, with Tamino and Pamina. She must be one of the most beautifully named rivers in the world.  She throws herself, with all her warmth, into the cold arms of the Rhine, not yet the majestic Father Rhine of German legend, but a purposeful youngling still at this stage of his journey from his double source in Graubunden, rippling over a stony bed towards Lake Constance. He will be joined by many other tributaries along the way, but none can ever match the romance of his meeting with the Tamina.

I hear the chink-chink of little bells on the harness of the horses pulling a cartload of tourists around Heidiland, and then their big brothers, the church bells, begin their solemn ding-dong. My house lies between two churches, with Sunday services at different times. Is that the Protestant or the Catholic summons to worship? The sound of voices drifts over the hedge that obscures my view of my neighbours.

“Guten Morgen!”
“Schön guten Morgen!”
Then an apology: “Sorry, I can’t stop, I’m on my way to Mass.”

Aha, then it must be the catholic church bells I can hear.

The carillon continues for a few minutes, and I hope he gets there in time.

The stillness returns, and I realise that my fingers have already crocheted several rows of my granny blanket. The subcortex is a wonderful thing, I think – then wonder if it is really the subcortex that directs my fingers in their almost autonomous movements. Whatever it is, it’s wonderful. Body memory, independent of conscious thinking, reminds us what to do: even after years away from an activity, we still know how to ride a bike or swim, or in this case crochet. My left index finger adjusts the tension of the wool without me being at all aware of how I had automatically wound the wool around my hand.

The sound of a distant plane intrudes. Not a military plane, maybe an airliner on its way to or from Italy? A mountain rescue helicopter? No, though this is the kind of weather where hikers and climbers undertake dangerous adventures and the mountain rescue is often in demand. The sky is clear, so whoever is up there will have a fantastic view of the Alps below them.

As a little girl, I could distinguish some aeroplane engines: the Mosquito and the Spitfire had distinctive roars, and I was familiar with the heavy throb of German bombers. One German bomber came down about a mile from my childhood home. My mother was in the garden as it skimmed over the rooftops, and she swears she could see the pilot in the cockpit. She was about to wave to him, when she suddenly thought, “He’s a German!” and her hand stopped halfway into the wave. A few seconds later, he was dead in the wreckage of his plane. My mother always remembered that moment, and the awareness that he was someone’s son, maybe a husband, and that her own husband was off on bombing missions over Germany.

I finish my coffee, and think of the latte macchiato prepared lovingly for me by my best friend, where I stayed a few days last week. She succeeds where I fail in getting the milk thick and frothy, and it always tastes better than by any professional barista. I am blessed to have such a friend.

I am blessed to have several good friends, indeed, friendships that go back many decades. One, not seen for several years, called me yesterday and we can still chat, chuckle and exchange confidences just as we did when we were young women fifty years ago. Another whom I have known all my life is celebrating a round birthday in September, and a mutual friend who goes back almost as far has offered to take me to the party. A close friend who was originally a work colleague forty years ago still phones me regularly every week, and says I’m the only person she can really be herself with. Those are precious treasures accumulated in different countries over a lifetime, and I’m deeply grateful for them.

I am amazed at the circuitous path my life has taken, the places I’ve lived in, the people I have known, those who are still present in my life and those long vanished. I think of how events and relationships, even seemingly insignificant ones, can shape us. How on earth did I get here?

I remember once, at a job interview many years ago, being asked, “Where do you want to be in ten years’ time?” Obviously, the aim was to establish if I was goal-oriented and what my ambitions were. But I was incapable of envisaging myself ten years down the road: I live in the here and now, and I believe this has been my saving grace. At no point in my life was I ever capable of foreseeing where I would be ten years hence, not even five years. Like the Tamina, I rush headlong down my trajectory, with no thought of where a marriage with the Rhine will take me.

Perhaps we are like a block of granite or marble, sculpted by life – Fate, God, Providence, call it what you will – sometimes with chunks broken away with a heavy hammer, sometimes pieces removed with a careful chisel, sometimes just gently smoothed with a file. Certainly, the result is often very different from what the stone itself imagined it would become. I can only assume that the Sculptor knows what he’s doing, and be thankful for this beautiful Sunday morning, here and now.

Faded Photos, Moving Memories

I don’t want to look like you when I grow up,” I cruelly informed my mother when I was about 3 or 4. “I want to look like Lily.”

Lily was a friend of my mother’s who sometimes babysat me, a dazzling young woman with Hollywood film star looks. She left a trail of swooning swains in her wake, and probably broke dozens of hearts, but she was also a kind, caring and cheerful young woman. On one occasion I believe she saved my life, when I tried to walk on the velvety green carpet of duckweed that covered the canal where she took me for a walk. Luckily she was holding my hand very tight and was able to return me to my mother with just one soggy green left foot as a token of my foolhardiness. Sometimes she took me to visit her mother, whose garden backed onto the railway line, and I have vivd memories of being lifted up to watch the steam trains puffing by, shaking the house as they went.

At one point she fell out with her mother, and turned up at our house together with her bed: she occupied our front bedroom for a while, which gave me ample opportunity to study her beauty routine, especially the strange ritual of plucking her eyebrows. My mother didn’t have time for a beauty routine: moisturiser at night and a dab of powder on her nose when she was going out was enough. Lily must have made up her quarrel with her mother, though, because after a short while she went back to live at home  and certainly lived there at the time of her marriage.

Lily married a handsome young sailor called Les at the beginning of 1945, while he was still serving in the Royal Navy. Would he survive the War? He did, and their Christmas present was a beautiful baby girl, christened Hazel. Les was looking forward to being demobbed and returning to civilian life and his little family, finding a home of their own instead of having to live with his in-laws, and generally enjoying the post-war peace.  Lily was yearning to have her husband at her side and relieved that she would no longer have to fear the arrival of a telegram saying his ship had been torpedoed.

IMG_1361

IMG_1359

Early in 1946, Lily was suddenly taken ill and died. This was the first time anyone I knew had died, and I was puzzled. Old people die, not young ones. Lily was only twenty-two and blooming like a rose. How could she die? My mother explained that she had gone out in the cold, sat on a bench and caught a bad chill, but she had also had a “white leg” with a blood clot that had moved and stopped her heart. I was four and a half, too little to understand much about thrombosis or pneumonia or whatever combination of the two had proven fatal, but this explanation was enough for me. Lovely Lily had gone.

What about her baby? Les was still in the Navy, so unable to look after her, and Lily’s mother couldn’t cope. However, Les had an older married sister, coincidentally also called Lily, and she offered to adopt the little girl. This seemed like the best solution for everyone.

Then, a little pitcher with outsized ears, I overheard my mother telling our neighbour the next part of the story.

When Les was finally demobbed and came back from the sea, little Hazel was about a year old. She didn’t know him at all, of course, only her adopted parents, and they decided it was best for her to remain in ignorance. They refused to allow Les to see her or have any kind of access. Surely they had the child’s interest at heart, but it was a devastating blow to Les. He had tragically lost not only his beautiful young wife, but also now his only child.

In his depressed state, he was easily captured by another young woman in search of a husband, and early in 1947 he married again. By the end of 1948 they had a little daughter. His second wife felt that now was the time to reunite Hazel with her biological father and half-sister, so she confronted her sister-in-law with her demands. This didn’t go down well, and sparks flew. The relationship between Les and his sister hadn’t been good, but now it was disastrous. His younger daughter was brought up in the knowledge that she had an older sister, and his second wife made every possible effort to get the two girls acquainted, but Hazel’s adoptive mother was equally determined to block these efforts.

What happened next? Disappointingly, I have to admit that I don’t really know. I was a little girl at the time, and though I had been very fond of Lily, I wasn’t much interested in Les and his troubles. I knew his second wife, whom I instinctively disliked, but that is entirely subjective. I do know that the marriage ended in divorce.

Why do I tell this story? We have been sorting out old papers and photos that my mother has kept for many decades, and there were these pictures of Lily’s wedding and her little daughter Hazel, with a teddy bear that my mother had made for her. Of course, memories came back, not in a flood but in a steady flow.

I turned to Ancestry.com and FamilySearch for further information, which was scant, but confirmed a few dates and facts. As I said, Les’s second marriage ended in divorce but he remarried, was widowed, and married for a fourth time shortly before his death in his eighties. I hope he found happiness. His sister died in her seventies. What happened to his daughters? They must now be elderly ladies, and Ancestry.com indicates that they married and had children of their own. Did they ever meet as sisters? Again, I hope so, and that they were able to connect as such. If not, maybe this is a case for Long Lost Family.

Trittst im Morgenrot daher …

What a delight to be back in Switzerland for the First of August, celebrating the signing of the Federal Charter in 1291. I have missed this special National Day in the last five years, with its bonfires and fireworks and general good humour: peaceful patriotism makes a pleasant change.

It was comforting to spend the day with my daughter and son-in-law, doing nothing much except eat, drink and laze about. We drove to a favourite restaurant located on a hill just outside town, with a beautiful pastoral view of fields, woods, rolling hills and scattered farms and hamlets, that has probably looked much the same for the last hundred years at least, maybe more.

IMG_0227

What wouldn’t have been there is the enclosure for the resident reindeer, strange placid creatures whose flat wide hoofs click when they walk.

A doze in the sunny garden in the afternoon, and a barbecue in the evening, with appropriate decorations, accompanied by fireworks on all sides, rounded off this relaxing day.
IMG_1362

We didn’t go to any of the “official” festivities, with solemn speeches, bonfires, music and dancing, and didn’t even sing the national anthem, but deep down we thanked those founding fathers of this unique little country that has survived in peace for more than seven hundred years amid all the chaos surrounding it.

My very first experience of the Swiss National Day was exactly sixty years ago. I was part of a group from school who had the privilege of spending a fortnight far away from home. The journey by train and Channel ferry took us the best part of two days, a great adventure, and I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the Bernese Oberland.

Traditionally, it rains on the first of August – 2016 has been an exception! – and in 1956 it poured, but the people of Lauterbrunnen were undeterred and we enjoyed what was for us a spectacular fireworks display, followed by a dance with music played by a small local band.

It would never have occurred to me then that I would settle in this beautiful country, and live here for decades, nor that I would have Swiss children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. What a lot I have to be grateful for. God bless Switzerland and keep it sane, safe and sound!

Docendo Discimus

It’s a platitude: Anyone who has ever taught knows that you learn from your students and pupils.

Back in the nineteen-eighties I had a group of students who were preparing for the Cambridge First Certificate in English. That was a satisfying course to teach in many ways, and I had an interesting mixture of young people eager to learn. Besides the regular giggly seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds, there was a young thirty-something woman and two young men in their early twenties.

Initially Jenny, the young woman, clearly felt a little embarrassed about being a “mature” student but soon settled into a “big sister” role. The two young men were a different matter. Danny was a cool dude, moustachioed, very self-assured and ready to rule the world. Andreas was a tall, slim-built and rather pale young dandy, with a coquettish expression, and clearly influenced by the then-popular New Romantic look. Danny’s face revealed his distaste, and his homophobia.

My first task was to create harmony in this disparate group. During the third lesson, I noticed that Andreas was writing with his left hand, and I made a comment about the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Andreas smiled, and raised his right hand, which had been lying with the fingers slightly curled beside his book. “No, I‘m not really left-handed,” he said, and I realised that his right hand was a very realistic looking prosthetic. “I had cancer and they had to amputate this one.”

That was the moment the group gelled. Andreas talked openly about what had happened to him, occasionally searching for words, and the group learned some new vocabulary in the most natural way.

He had been a hairdresser with all his heart and soul, passionate about his calling, and had never wanted to do anything else. He had completed his apprenticeship with one of the best stylists in Switzerland, and was rapidly climbing the ladder to success when cancer intervened. With no right hand, his career was ended. Now he had to try to find something else that would satisfy his aspirations, and English seemed a useful skill to have in his pocket.

The effect on the class was like the sun shining on a flower garden: they all opened up, and began to blossom.

Over the next few months, I observed how much each member of the class gained from Andreas. He advised the girls on fashion and hairstyles, suggesting subtle improvements (“Ask them to use caramel as well as giving you highlights”), and he responded to Jenny’s maternal attitude, giving her greater self-confidence in the group. Danny became his friend and protector, perceptibly less judgemental and much more open to other people’s ideas. They all made excellent progress in their English, and I had great hopes for my high-flyers, especially Andreas.

Then, one morning, Andreas came to me after class and said he wouldn’t be sitting the exam. His cancer had returned, and his future was uncertain. I didn’t understand what he was telling me.

“Are you going to have chemo?” I asked.

“No,” he gave me his charming smile. “I don’t want to lose my hair. I want to be a well-coiffed corpse!”

Stupidly, I still didn’t understand. “You can take the exam next time around, in six months.”

“I won’t be here.”

That was the last time I saw him.

The others all passed the exam with flying colours, and of course were jubilant. They came to thank me for what they had achieved, but there was a tinge of sadness. Then Amanda, one of the youngest girls, told me that they had all been to see Andreas in the hospice. It was unthinkable that he should miss the class celebration, so they had taken along cakes and candies and had presented him with a special certificate – not just for his proficiency in English, but for his wonderful humanity and generosity of spirit, with personal messages of thanks signed by each of them. He had been very touched, and though he was very weak he had joined in the party. He died shortly afterwards. His classmates’ tribute was displayed prominently at his funeral.

Yes, sometimes our students teach us far more than we could ever learn from books.

One Man’s Junk Is Another Man’s Treasure …

I last downsized in 2005, so my accumulated hoard over the past decade isn’t really large. It is, however, a fact that stuff expands to fill the available space and equally true that when you return to a place after a lengthy absence you see it with new eyes.

Back here in my Swiss apartment my wardrobe has been revealing many outfits I had utterly forgotten I had, since it’s been nigh on five years since I last wore them. To my surprise, knowing that I have put on weight, I found that quite a lot of things still fit and are perfectly wearable. However, lurking at the back of the closet are not exactly skeletons, but garments several sizes smaller than I am at present.

If I lost weight, I might be able to squeeze into them, but these styles and colours reflect the person I was 15 or more years ago when I was at least 15 kilos lighter and my hair was not grey: lots of orange, green and mustard, shoes with high heels, silk nightwear, and some racy lacy undies bought in France. That person no longer exists, though I gaze fondly on these clothes, shoes and bags and remember how I enjoyed being the woman who wore them. Should I allow them to continue taking up room in my wardrobe?

My friend shares a similar dilemma. She hasn’t gained any weight, but nobody can halt the passage of time. We decided to hire a stand at the local flea market and see if anyone is interested in our vintage stuff. While there, each obliged to take two six-foot long tables to display our wares, we agreed we might as well also try to dispose of some of the other odds and ends cluttering up our abodes.

Oh, what a turning out of cupboards, drawers and shelves that has been! Why on earth did I ever keep this vase? Or these two kitsch cats, neither useful nor beautiful nor of any sentimental value – they must have been a present, but from whom? I could fill more than one table with books, especially old outdated technical dictionaries, but I doubt there would be any takers. Instead, let’s get rid of unwanted china including an old Japanese tea set my late mother-in-law gave me back in the sixties, and some cut-glass and lead crystal objects, truly white elephants. Surely someone will fall in love with them. I could find more, but space in my friend’s car is limited and we don’t want to have to make more than one journey.

Flea market.png

Would anyone want to pay real money for all this? Well, one man went away happy with my old Burberry umbrella with its duck-head handle, another with a leather Appenzeller belt, and a third with a miniature stereo unit. A lady bought a pretty handbag, and a little girl a high-visibility vest. By 8 pm on Saturday evening, we had managed to sell about 5 articles each, with a total profit of 67 Swiss francs, which alas didn’t cover the 80.- fee demanded for our four tables. Still, it was an experience. Not one we would necessarily want to repeat, but interesting and instructive.

Maybe we were unlucky that on Saturday afternoon, Switzerland’s football team was playing in Euro 2016, keeping many people stuck in front of their TV, and non-football fans preferred to enjoy the sunny weather by the lake rather than to come inside the flea market hall. But the sad truth is that no, we didn’t find buyers for most of our lovely old things and after their brief outing, they are all back where they were before. Perhaps I really should try to lose those 15 kilos?

Footnote: I received payment this morning from a friend for whom I did a small editing job. I hadn’t wanted to charge her, but she insisted on giving me 100 Sfrs. Now is that a sign I should stick to doing what I do best?