Phyllis 101

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I had an e-mail this morning from Phyllis, a lovely lady I have met only a few times, the mother of an old friend in California, in reply to my birthday greetings. She has had a very active life as the wife of a sometime missionary to the Navajo, involving relocating many times and bringing up four children, although since her retirement to a quiet Californian suburb things have been less hectic. Her husband died just after their 70th wedding anniversary and she has now been a widow for several years. On 9 February, she celebrated her 101st birthday.

The fact that she is e-mailing at 101 is in itself quite a feat. She writes, among other things:

Yes, it was another milestone for me…. why the Lord keeps me going, only He knows. 

I do have lots of prayer requests asked of me, family and friends, so that keeps me out of mischief….”

I’m sure that this is one of the secrets of longevity, quite apart from genetic and environmental factors. My own mother died three months short of her 101st birthday, and I am convinced that had she been in her own home, where she had a sense of purpose and a raison d’être, she would have survived at least those three months, possibly more, in spite of her physical deterioration which I believe was hastened by being in a care home where she felt useless and isolated.

Phyllis, on the other hand, is still living with one of her sons in her little one-storey house with long-time neighbours and friends not far away. She has had mobility problems for a very long time, but her children and grandchildren visit regularly, take her out and keep her involved in family and Church life. However, the primary factor in her survival, I’m sure, is that her life has a purpose: as an intercessor, she focuses on others.

Unlike many old folk whose attention centres on all their own aches and pains and inability to do what they used to be able to, Phyllis concentrates on bringing others’ troubles before the Lord and handing everything over to Him. I’m sure she sees lots of her prayers answered, and that encourages her to continue in her task, which “keeps her out of mischief”.

I doubt whether Phyllis has read much about the scientific research that has gone into the subject, but she is living evidence for the power of altruism. Long may she continue, and God bless her abundantly!

Swissification

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Transplanted. Born British (English, actually) and naturalised German; although my German passport expired nearly ten years ago, I have never revoked that nationality. Domiciled and resident in Switzerland for more than half my lifetime. An alien in a foreign land.

Well, I finally took the decision: I don’t want to be an alien any more and shall apply for Swiss citizenship as soon as I have all the necessary pieces of paper together. High time, as I’ve been here since 1973 and all my immediate family is Swiss. It sounds simple enough, doesn’t it?

Ah, but Switzerland is different, and among its unique features is the bottom-up nature of its political structures. A pyramid fixed firmly on its feet is stable. Make that bottom layer weightier than the upper tiers and its stability is increased even more. The Swiss Confederation has very solid feet.

Oh yes, we have a Federal Council with a President of the Confederation at the top of the pyramid, but the president is not the head of state. He or she is simply “primus inter pares” or first among equals. The Canton is sovereign (subject only to the Constitution), and within it the Commune has a certain amount of autonomy. Consequently, those in charge are not faceless power-wielders but flesh-and-blood individuals, often known personally to the man in the street (or the farmer in his fields).

We pay the largest share of our taxes (on income and assets) to the commune and canton, and only a fraction of that amount to the Confederation. We have direct democracy. Responsible citizens are called regularly to vote on all kinds of matters in the commune and canton, not only in national referendums. I quote from a 2012 speech by the Federal Chancellor about what it means to be Swiss:

People are first and foremost citizens of a commune or canton and on that basis enjoy Swiss citizenship.”

In practical terms that means that a foreigner seeking a Swiss passport must initially apply to become a citizen of the commune or town where he or she is living. Not at national level or even at cantonal level: you first have to be found worthy by those you meet on a daily basis, your neighbours and local authority. Have you lived in the Canton the requisite number of years, and at least five of those in your commune? Are you familiar with Swiss customs and institutions? Are you an integrated, solid, respectable, law-abiding person who will be a credit to your community? Are you involved in local activities?

Until fairly recently, your fate was decided by popular vote. Your CV and qualifications with references were circulated, and the villagers or parishioners said yea or nay.  To me, this seemed akin to standing naked on the village green with your dirty linen exposed to the curiosity of all the neighbours. Yes, I fulfilled all the requirements but I wasn’t prepared to be humiliated in this way.

Then the system was revised and the decision is now taken by a specially appointed committee. You are still exposed to public view, but to a lesser extent. If you have been following this blog, you will know that I spent several years back in the UK looking after my mother, so my stay in Switzerland was interrupted. However, I am now assured that I do meet all the conditions and should hand in my application. It will cost about two and a half thousand francs. Complete all the formalities and attend an interview, then I’ll be granted citizenship of my Commune. That will entitle me to claim citizenship of the Canton, which in turn will qualify me for Swiss nationality and a bright red passport.

Great, I thought as I collected the application form from the town hall and started to complete it. As usual, there was only enough space on each line to write half of the information required, so I added a sheet with everything typed out neatly and a 2-page CV. Three referees – no problem! I was amazed to find people falling over themselves to give me a reference, including my bank manager, several friends and neighbours as well as the people I actually asked.

What documents are required?  Passport – yes (I have two, one of which has expired, but hopefully that won’t be a problem. I have documentary proof of my German citizenship in addition to the passport.) Residence permit – yes. Photocopies will do. Recent passport photo – yes.

Then a few things that I had to apply for and pay a fee for, starting with an official attestation of residence with dates from each of the places I have lived in since my arrival in Switzerland (the charge varies from commune to commune and I paid CHF 10.-, 21.- and 25.- respectively). Praise be for Swiss bureaucracy: these appeared by return of post, though the people in Geneva had to scrabble around a bit to find me in their 1970’s archives.

Off to the post office next, to pay CHF 20.- for an excerpt from the criminal register stating that I have no criminal record. That arrived – by post, naturally! – a couple of days later.

A handwritten application stating why I want to become Swiss. That took some thought, but I managed to produce a little essay that I hope isn’t too long and is legible. Illegible handwriting will be refused. Why handwritten, in this day and age? Do they want to be certain I’m literate, or is there also a graphology test? My handwriting isn’t always as neat as it once was so I also typed it into my laptop and printed it out, just to be sure.

The next one looked simple enough: an attestation of my registered personal status. I trotted off to the town hall again and was informed that they didn’t deal with that, it was issued by a central office in a nearby town. I e-mailed the office in question, and received a list of documents to produce. This time, they wanted originals. Passport, Residence Permit, Divorce Decree, and Birth Certificate. Yes, I have all these. I’ll come by tomorrow and bring them. Things are coming together nicely, and I’m smiling.

Ah, but look – here it says “Birth certificate (original) not older than 6 months”. I inquired. I have my original birth certificate, issued at my birth, handwritten, with a King George VI postage stamp affixed to prove its authenticity. No, that won’t do. I have to get a new certificate from HM records office in England, less than 6 months old. Why? Don’t ask. It costs me £14 to order and will be despatched in 3 weeks from receipt of request. So everything is put on hold for a while.

What else? Oh yes, I have to attend courses on Swiss institutions and customs, held on five consecutive Saturday mornings in a nearby town, and pass a test at the end as well as a test showing my proficiency in German. I send off the postcard to enrol for this, and receive a phone call a few days later. I explain the delay in obtaining my birth certificate (original copy) and the nice lady at the other end tells me that in that case, I’ll have to take the course sometime later this year, in summer or autumn. My friend who has been through the process advises me that the whole process took two years in her case. Don’t do the course on institutions until just before the interview or you’ll have forgotten everything! Especially Swiss politics!

4d397141-0172-4611-b8f3-3a422d30a543Why do I want to become Swiss? Well, after 46 years as an alien I think it’s high time I went native. I hope I live long enough!

 

Because You Are Different …

I grew up in a white working-class area of the English Midlands in the middle of the twentieth century, and didn’t meet anyone who wasn’t white till I went to university in Liverpool in 1959. In my hall of residence, among others, there was a jolly Jamaican making delicious dishes in our shared kitchen, a sweet Chinese girl who played the piano like a professional, and a beautiful Indian girl with long hair down to her ankles. We also had a black Jamaican President of the Students’ Union in the early sixties. So my primary reaction was Wow! Awe and admiration! These were amazing, talented and exotic people, interesting to talk to and be with.

My first personal encounter with racism came a couple of years later in France, where my landlady was most upset because her niece was set on marrying an Algerian. I was studying in an international environment that included people from all over the world, and I honestly couldn’t understand how my landlady could object to this polite, intelligent young man who was obviously very much in love with his fiancée, simply on the grounds of his being an Arab. Later on, I realised that of course culture and religion are significant factors in a relationship, but at that time I was perplexed that prejudice could arise solely on the basis of skin colour, ethnicity or religion. To me what mattered was whether the person was decent, fun and good company. The individual, not the group, attracted or repelled me. How can you reject an entire population group? You might as well start persecuting people because they are left-handed, wear glasses or have ginger hair.

A year later, I found myself in a rather hostile environment in Germany. A sympathetic work colleague told her mother about me and I was invited to a meal with them. They were Jewish. My colleague’s parents had fled Germany in the 1930’s for Algeria, and now as a result of the Franco-Algerian war had once again been forced to leave everything and return to Germany. They were a large, happy, intelligent, music-loving family, and their generosity and hospitality to me, a total stranger, was overwhelming.  Why would anyone want to harm them? Again, I was perplexed.

The town I lived in then had a garrison of US American soldiers, who livened up the place and contributed to the economy. Some were white, others black, and there were many shades of brown in between. Some of these young men fell in love with local girls, some married, some didn’t, but I began to realise that the mixed-race babies appearing as a result of these relationships were already facing hostility from various quarters. As for me, I was English. Less than twenty years previously, my father had dropped bombs on these people. That was a reason perhaps to reject me, and some of the older folk did receive me coldly, but it was nothing compared to the icy reaction they had towards Jews and dark-skinned people, who had done nothing to them at all. Back in England, as the sixties progressed, I heard of race riots and warnings of doom from such as Enoch Powell, a right-wing politician who famously prophesied rivers of blood flowing from the influx of Caribbean and Asian immigrants. I was very perplexed.

I am no longer so naïve, having experienced bigotry and hatred in many forms over time. Sometimes, discrimination is subtle and covert, other times blatant and horrifying. What atavistic instinct drives xenophobia and racial prejudice? It goes so much deeper than logical reasoning and I still don’t understand. Almost sixty years later I remain perplexed.

I have friends of every shade of skin under the sun. Also, my best friend, a strong Christian making a highly valuable contribution to society, is of Jewish descent. Her grandfather died en route to a concentration camp. Yet even here in Switzerland, a vituperative neighbour complained that “Hitler overlooked you when he was filling his gas ovens!” How can this happen? Where does such bitter, irrational, all-encompassing odium come from? Political correctness doesn’t seem to have solved the problem. It has, rather, exacerbated it: by trying to ban the language of racism, the thing itself has become more virulent. I am perplexed.

The Sea

I have mentioned my friend Norman Perryman before, here and here and here.

This week, he is performing at Birmingham Symphony Hall, and if you can possibly make it I would highly recommend that you book  your seat asap. You won’t regret it.

I wanted to reblog this post by Jessica Duchen — Jessica is a kindred spirit – but the system won’t let me, so I can only refer you to the URL: https://jessicamusic.blogspot.com/2019/02/seeing-is-believing-norman-perryman.html as well as to Norman’s own blog at https://normanperryman.blogspot.com/2019/02/genius.html?fbclid=IwAR0CGWxT-DCVvV3RXbJ1PUq0ANzZ3ouLM9JOTL8sRfDjG8DNraCZ8bUw4Ps

These describe the experience far better than I ever could, and contain video clips and stills from the performance.

 

 

 

Perspectives

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When I gaze into the sun
Half veiled by a cloud
Mayhap its full
Round shining spreads out into a coloured ring
Like the glory around the throne
Of the Christ figure in Mistra.

When I fly above the clouds
I can also see that glory.
Beneath me, opposite the sun,
The same ring lies in the clouds,
My shadow resting in its centre.

When I fly through rain
While the sun is breaking through the clouds
I see the great rainbow
That I know so well from the Earth,
But now I see it as a full circle.

I flew a lot in my youth
And this truth has stayed with me all my life:
The rainbow is a full circle
And we see only half of it
Because the Earth is too close.

This has stayed with me:
All clouds are brilliant white;
Dark clouds are only clouds in shadow
But above every dark cloud there is light.

Jörg Zink

I have mentioned Jörg Zink before, here and here . This is another of my translations of one of his poems. For more information on Mistra, click here.

We all know about the clouds’ silver linings, but did you know that the rainbow is really a circle and not just an arc? Too often, the things of earth just get in the way and prevent us from seeing so many lovely truths.

Curiosity killed the cat

No mortal danger for this Cat, though my ego took a blow, as I followed where my irresistible curiosity led me: to the doctor’s.

My GP, a kind, pleasant, white-haired man in joint practice with his equally pleasant, white-haired wife, retired early last year. Enjoying reasonably good health in the last couple of years, I’ve had no need to consult the doctor for some time, although I noticed that their house-cum-practice had been demolished and a low but extensive modern construction was gradually spreading in its place.

I knew that my GP’s daughter had taken over together with her husband and a colleague, that the new premises had been completed, and the rejuvenated practice was up and running. So seeking a valid reason to investigate the new practice and its denizens, I made an appointment for a general check-up. This was with the colleague, and my curiosity level was high.

I presented myself with an empty tummy at 8.30 yesterday morning for my physical and blood tests. I was impressed. The reborn long, low building feels very modern Scandinavian with big windows, and walls made from knotty pine planks (in German, Strickwand) still exuding the warm fragrance of their resin. I instinctively looked for the door marked “SAUNA” (which I didn’t find, but the toilet was state-of-the-art).

The ladies behind the reception desk were the same ones who have been checking me in, weighing me, measuring me and taking samples of my blood for the last decade or so, which I took as a reassuring sign of continuity. These preliminaries completed, I was left to wait for the Herr Doktor.

He swept in a few minutes later, tall, dark and handsome, white-coated as Swiss doctors usually are (unlike in the UK, where white coats are banned for NHS doctors), and with a fashionable 3-day beard that made him look about 17 rather than 15 years old. It isn’t just policemen who are getting ever younger. I tried to hide my double-take behind a smile, shook hands and explained my official reason for being there – of course I wasn’t going to tell him that I had come to inspect him and the new premises.

He seemed a bit perplexed that I had no health complaints for him to deal with, and then after checking my heart and lungs he commented that my blood pressure was maybe a tad higher than it should be, but “that’s OK for 80.” Before I could stop myself, I told him firmly that I’m not 80 yet. In fact, I feel a long way off 80, but of course, it was tit for tat: I had gauged him as a 17-year-old and he was, all unawares, avenging himself by pushing me to the opposite end of the age scale. He looked startled. I forgave him. Maybe when he’s a little older and has a mother-in-law of his own, he’ll understand the need to be tactful with grey-haired ladies.

Pink Midnight

The snow lies like a thick, smooth fleece over everything, bright and clear even in the darkest night. Yesterday it snowed on and off most of the day and last night there was heavy cloud blocking out all the mountains that stand guard around our little town. As usual, just before going to bed at midnight I glanced out of my window (what do I expect to see? Burglars? Wolves? Santa Claus running late?) and instantly did a double take. No, there was nobody there and all the windows of the neighbouring houses were dark and shuttered, but the woolly looking sky was glowing a deep dusky pink. I gazed at it awestruck, opened the French window and ventured out onto the little bit of my patio that was snow-free to get a better view.

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My first thought was that it could be full moon – but pink? And anyway, the snow cloud layer was so thick no light from moon or stars was getting through. It had to be a reflection, but from what? Red lights somewhere in the village? A few people still have Christmas lights up, but in this part of the world these tend to be white not coloured, certainly not enough to turn the entire welkin old rose. It wasn’t just in one direction, either, but an evenly spread wash of colour everywhere. There was no sound but the rushing of the water in the river and the breeze rustling the trees, no tail or brake lights from cars, no red traffic lights, no blazing fire: that would have caused some sort of flickering and this was a steady glow. I checked the air temperature (2°C) and took some photos on my iPhone. Disappointing. The colour wasn’t true. But there was no need for a flash – it was so bright that everything was clear as day.

Shivering in my nightie, I decided that however beautiful it was, it wasn’t worth catching pneumonia for, so I went to bed. At around 3.30 I sneaked out for another look. Yes, it was still just as pink as it had been at midnight so I took another couple of photos. Again, they don’t reproduce that lovely colour. A few hours later, I heard some birds greeting the dawn. In my bedroom, it was still dark and my bed was nice and warm so laziness won over curiosity and I didn’t get up to check out the colour of the sky but went back to sleep.

When I finally did leave my bed, I found the world outside had returned to grey and snow was falling again. Had I dreamed the pink sky?

No, the photos are on my phone.

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German fairy tales tell of Frau Holler, an old lady who shakes her feather beds out in the sky, and the down from these falls on us as snow. I fancy maybe last night she was busy changing her duvet covers, and we got a glimpse of her new ones.