La Mer … Ar Mor

(Ar mor is Breton for the sea)

Maybe one day I’ll assemble all the photos I’ve taken of this outlook from my Breton cottage over the past 26 years and play a game of “Spot the Difference”. My feeling is that, apart from the height of the trees, very little has changed here.

In the first few years, there was a very round Thelwellian pony in the pasture behind our house, next to a field of cauliflowers, and the neighbouring house had a vegetable patch tended by two elderly sisters who wore the traditional deep-brimmed Breton sun bonnet, made of cotton with a small floral print.  All very traditionally pastoral.

But the view remains unchanged. Mostly, it’s the light that alters, varying with the weather, the season and the time of day. In that sense, it’s never the same. Every sky is different, every tide, and the sea reflects it all. I watch the sunset from the veranda most days, throughout the year.  The temptation to take a photograph is always there, and I can rarely resist. And so, over the years, I have acquired a panoply of Stimmungsbilder, photos taken from more or less the same spot (my kitchen window) but expressing such a variety of moods.

Two aspects today, at low and high tide:

Seaview 2

Seaview3

Summer serenity (July)

Sunset, photos taken only minutes apart:

Seaview 5

Seaview 4

and on a dull day, no less  beautiful:

SEaview 10

 

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Emotional Surfing

Time and inclination have been against me lately; a poor excuse I know for my failure to post anything new. This upsy-downy year continues to toss me to the crest of the wave then dash me deep into the trough, and September has been no exception. Just back in Switzerland again, after two short weeks in England, during which time a lot was accomplished and much was not.

Thinking the family home was sold, as I recounted recently, I landed in the UK with mixed feelings, but chiefly looking forward to closure.  That wasn’t to be. My buyer is having second thoughts, and although she hasn’t actually withdrawn her offer, I just have to wait till she makes up her mind. Knowing her situation, I’m not pushing; but it is frustrating nevertheless. “Sold subject to contract” means that we can’t yet put it back on the market. In the meantime, I have to continue paying taxes, insurance and utilities, whilst the garden deteriorates into a jungle – heavenly hunting grounds for the neighbours’ cats!

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As it looks now …

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As it was.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the plus side, our social life was extremely active and I indulged in some delicious food with far too many calories and carbs. Moreover, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed bonding with Darling Daughter and Dear Middle Granddaughter, both of whom have strong attachments to Great-Granny and her home.

They have been invaluable in the sorting-out process and very supportive in moments where I was frankly paralysed at the idea of throwing out this or that item loaded with treasured memories: worn, useless and outdated those things may be, but I feel unreasonably responsible for their future wellbeing and a few came back in our suitcases.

In America, we’d have held a yard sale, but that wasn’t an option here. The Internet was a boon. Some things found good homes, and a young woman came by to pick up eight boxes for her car boot sale; we called her to pick up another box, but she didn’t react, so presumably she wasn’t too impressed by our first lot of dilapidated treasures. Other bits and pieces placed strategically by the front gate disappeared overnight. Friends, family and neighbours pounced with delight on some things we feared would end up in the dump.

The house doesn’t look as bare and desolate as it might have done: carpets and curtains are still in place and the rooms do look bigger though not quite empty. As in the story of the Three Bears, there are still three beds, an ancient three-piece suite (no fireproof certificate, so can’t give it to charity) and four dining chairs (one for Goldilocks, perhaps) as well as an assortment of cutlery, mugs and dishes, a kettle and toaster, and even a French press to make coffee. A wardrobe, a 1960’s bookcase with matching sideboard and the unique multipurpose unit that my mother designed in the 1950’s are also still in place awaiting their fate. I imagine their new owner will dump them heartlessly, but that deed was beyond us. Too many associations.

What next? Furniture and objects that we can use in our holiday house in Brittany were packed up and despatched; taking delivery of them is the next stage for us. My DD has a clear vision of where they will go, and I need to be there to “supervise” so by the end of October, that job at least should have been ticked off the list. Some heirlooms will even travel on to Switzerland when we can find space for them.

We said very moving fond farewells to all our loved ones in England, promising to return “sometime”. With the house still unsold, I think that may be sooner rather than later. I have a sense of “final performance” followed by a comeback and then a series of “last final performance” with all the emotional upheaval that entails. In the end, our exasperated family, friends and neighbours may well breathe a sigh of relief and cry “Good riddance!”

My Career In PR

In November 1981 I took a job as PR Assistant with a well-known Swiss firm. This was an executive position, albeit on the lower rungs. The man I replaced left to go into journalism; he probably knew already what I was about to find out and got out while the going was good. They obviously thought that they could save money by employing a woman, presumably at a lower salary, and by not giving me my own secretary: I shared my boss’s PA. He was a highly intelligent man with a wry sense of humour, good at delegating, and the atmosphere in the department was very congenial.

It appeared to be a cushy number: although I had to be there early (by 8 am), I dozed on the hour-long journey into Zurich, and once in my very smart office (supplied with potted plants and artwork of my choice when I moved in) I sat at my desk with an invigorating cup of coffee and the quality newspapers of the day. A gentle awakening that suited my metabolism very well.

The point of the newspapers was to allow me to find any reference to the company, and to keep an eye on its public image, as well as following its performance on the stock exchange. This turned into a pleasant perusal of whatever items caught my attention when I realized after two days that somebody else was doing this arduous task a couple of hours prior to my arrival. Around 9 am I would take delivery from this anonymous angel of a packet full of cuttings which it was then my job to paste neatly onto sheets of A4 paper, photocopy several times, collate and distribute to the Big Bosses on the floor above my office. Privately, I thought of this as making scrapbooks, and marvelled at the salary I was being paid for such menial work. I’m sure the scrapbooks ended up in the bin by midday.

In spite of the unequal pay scales, the company was quite generous to me, and since computers were just beginning to replace typewriters at the time, I was sent off to do a course in word-processing at the end of my first week, with the promise of my own dedicated computer to follow as a replacement for my golf-ball typewriter. Never having been a good typist (pick-and-peck is still my style) I was overjoyed at this: goodbye Tippex!

The second week I was given a few documents to translate, and then sent off to do a tour of a recycling plant and to visit some of the actual manufacturing sites so that I could have an idea of what the company was all about. I was also allowed to write a short article and participate in leading a staff training exercise at a posh hotel just outside Zurich. Back in my office the third week, I was entrusted with organising a trilingual press conference. This was exactly my cup of tea, being familiar with this kind of thing from my previous job.

How lovely to have a word-processor to prepare the documentation, and be able to put into practice all the little tricks and gimmicks I had just learnt! The printer was a state-of-the-art monster, with a daisy-wheel (anyone remember those?) and encased in a thick felt cover to reduce the decibels when it was operating. I was also actively engaged in the conference itself, another enjoyable aspect of my job, as I liked meeting and interacting with people.

However, the main news item sprung on the journalists was that owing to a sudden slump, 400 jobs were going to be cut. I learnt the term “natural wastage” and felt sorry for the other employees who would be affected by redundancy. Following the two-day absence for the press conference in my fourth week, I returned to find the offices very tastefully adorned for Advent, with a huge decorated tree in the main foyer and Christmas music playing softly in the background. In contrast, the mood was not so bright. Each department had its “Gruppenstab” or staff group, and numbers were being reduced. Heads of department were told how many employees they were allowed to retain, and it was up to them to decide which jobs to cut. The PR staff was to be halved. My position vanished.

“We don’t want to lose you,” I was reassured. “We’ll find you another job at the same salary.” This was Switzerland, remember? And 1981. Swiss women had been granted the vote just ten years earlier, and it was to be another ten before the last canton accepted women’s suffrage. It transpired that in the whole of this vast company, I was the only woman on the executive scale! My salary at the bottom of that scale was equivalent to the top of the secretarial scale, covering all the other women employees, so I was offered the job of PA to the Vice-President of Technology with effect from January 1982.

What was I to do during December? Well, as one of the chosen few to have done a word-processing course, I was deemed to be an expert. Nobody called my bluff. The company was intending to provide all its secretaries with word-processors instead of typewriters, so I was made responsible for testing all the various brands and word-processing programs available at the time, and recommending whichever I thought best. I was removed to a new office, and supplied with various brands of computer and programs. They were actually all much of a muchness and still in the teething stage, but in the end I made my decision and recommended IBM.

I had a ten-day break over Christmas and New Year, and then returned in January to take up my post with the VP Techno. This was a self-important little man, who held a PhD and visited an obscure American university once a year to deliver an hour-long lecture. On this basis, he insisted on being addressed as “Herr Professor”. I discovered that in the previous twelve months, he had had six different PA’s. I disliked him on sight.

On my first day as his PA, he fussed about the number of sugars and quantity of milk I was to put in his coffee (he couldn’t do that himself, I even had to stir it for him). I then spent the rest of the day going through his Christmas cards and sending New Year greetings to anyone he had overlooked, as well as connecting him by phone to those he considered important anywhere in the world. This networking was all in anticipation of the World Economic Forum in Davos, which he was due to attend in February. The next week, in addition to his private correspondence, I was also tasked with writing letters of application in English and French for his recently-graduated daughter, and translating her CV. Nothing at all to do with company business. He also wore elevator shoes.

Truly the most difficult thing for me was getting into a secretarial mindset: it struck me forcibly that secretaries and PA’s who had been with the same boss for a long time had a relationship very much like a marriage. They were faithful, loyal, submissive and utterly devoted, prepared to wipe the man’s nose if necessary. My puffed-up superior’s feet of clay were all too obvious to me, and I had scant respect for him. Moreover, instead of a word-processor, I once again had a fancy typewriter that was giving me headaches. On the train going home in the evening, I could feel a hard ball of rage and frustration in my solar plexus. I was still in my three-month probationary period, so after two weeks I gave in my notice and looked for another job.

All the same, I am very grateful to that company for all the benefits accrued in those three short months: not only the very steep learning curve as I discovered my limitations, but also the computer skills I gained, and the enjoyment the PR job gave me. I think that could have been the ideal job for me if it had lasted. Best of all, I got ten days’ vacation in the middle of it and for some reason they doubled the amount of money in my works pension fund! An experience I would not have wanted to miss. I also learnt to understand Swiss German!

Praying For A MONSTROUS CROW

Tweedledum and Tweedledee
Agreed to have a battle
For Tweedledum said Tweedledee
Had spoilt his nice new rattle.

Just then flew down a monstrous crow
As black as a tar-barrel
That frightened both our heroes so
They quite forgot their quarrel.

Lewis Carroll

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Two ugly fat men, noted for their silly hairdos and megalomaniac personalities, revel in world attention as they compete in throwing their toys out of their prams.

Of course, once nuclear conflict actually starts, there won’t be any admiring audience left. But that doesn’t matter to a megalomaniac, who craves attention NOW and damn the consequences.

Where’s that tar-barrel-sized crow got to?

End Of An Era

This is a tough post for me to write but I need to do it.

I started this blog in September 2011, exactly six years ago, pushed by an indeterminate urge, a sense that I was at a sort of crossroads and it would be interesting if not useful to keep some kind of record. I never intended this to be a journal, just a place where I could muse and ramble and ruminate on all the things that catch my short span of attention without boring my interlocutor to tears. Readers can skip the boring bits, whereas listeners just doze off. So a blog serves a useful purpose.

In the event, it has been a lifeline during a period in my life that I could not have anticipated. And now, that period is drawing to its close and I am embarking on the final phase of my life. At least, that’s what it looks like from here: what Germans call “Lebensabend”. I hope that I am sailing into a beautiful sunset.

My parents’ house, which has been home to us all for the past eight decades, has been sold. I flew the nest in the early sixties, but then in December 2011 my mother needed my assistance and I returned – initially for three months, thinking I’d set up some kind of care system for her, and then, when I realised that wasn’t going to materialise, my three months turned into four and a half years. This blog fortuitously coincided with that time span so I don’t need to repeat here what I have already published.

This is the one place I have always returned to no matter where I was currently residing, the house my parents moved into, a young couple aged just 24 and almost 22, in April 1938 even before the plumbing had been connected, so that they had to use a tap in the garden for the first few weeks. They could have bought it for £200 but they rented first, unsure if they would stay. After the war, they bought it for about £700 as sitting tenants.

This little house has always drawn me as if I were attached by an elastic umbilical cord; it’s where I was born and grew up, where my parents lived – forever it seemed – and where they both wanted to die; where they left their mark as they painted, decorated and furnished it over the years; the home I left and returned to when my mother could no longer manage on her own; the ancestral home for my daughter, her children and their families. And now it’s going to be home to someone else.

This is a home that has always been full of love, a happy, hospitable home, with WELCOME! not only on the mat but pervading every room. “…in need of some improvements but holds much character…” says the estate agent’s blurb. I pray that the new owners will make the necessary improvements without losing the character, that they will feel and respect the spirit of this place, the gentle and generous genius loci, and I pray a blessing on them, that they may be as happy and contented as all those who ever lived here have been.

I am relieved that the new owners are people I have known for several years, good people, kind and caring. I feel I owe it to our long-suffering, big-hearted neighbours to ensure that someone decent comes to live next door. And even though this sale marks the end of my own official link with my childhood home, I look forward to returning some time to see how they are getting on.

The bond between this place and me will, I think, endure: after my birth the midwife gave my father my placenta to bury in the garden! No wonder I feel the pull of the umbilical cord!

 

And a ? in a Pear Tree

IMG_1391.JPGYou can tell, even after 44 years in God’s most beautiful country, that I’m still an ex-pat Brit by the fact that I sit outside with a cup of hot tea (with milk of course) at four o’clock on an afternoon when the thermometer has climbed to over 32°C. My American friends like glasses filled with ice cubes and a few dribbles of Coke or ice tea, the Swiss ones are enjoying a chilled beer or Most (cider or apple juice) but me, no – a cuppa cools me down just as well.

And so here I am on my little patio with the mountains watching over me, enjoying the sunshine, the peace and the quiet, drifting away on the stream of consciousness, as random thoughts and ideas come bobbing about like flotsam and jetsam.

Yes, it’s officially forty-four years since I came to live in the Confederatio Helvetica. And I am still not a Swiss citizen. That’s a long story, and I’ll leave it for another post when my brain isn’t melting like ice cream in a sauna. This is not a time for deep thoughts, though they occasionally try to intrude, nor for any Weltschmerz as I try to avoid reflecting on what’s happening outside my own little bubble.

No, today I’ll relax here and gaze at the old pear tree in the garden opposite, peaceful and proud. It’s probably as old as I am or more. It was here before the houses were built, when this little neighbourhood was still a field (or possibly an orchard) called “Sunnefeld” which is dialect for – oh, you guessed! – sunny field.

The owner of that tree has no idea what variety the pears are, but he does know they are good and, kind man that he is, he’s willing to share them with the neighbours. He handed me a good half dozen over the hedge one day last week. He was picking them off with a net on a long-handled pole, which enabled him to reach at least halfway up the tree, and also across the road and over my hedge to me. Very handy. At his age he probably wouldn’t get far if he tried to climb the tree.

This morning as I was sitting outside drinking my coffee I heard a sort of Morse code tapping and there was the woodpecker head-banging away on a high branch. How do woodpeckers escape brain-damage, when they hammer away so hard? Or do they eventually die of concussion? I googled this, and found an answer here.  Fascinating stuff.

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Woody was followed by some crows, parents with juveniles making a racket over their pear-eating lesson, which then made way for a raven, whose acrobatic attempts to cling to a thin twig while pecking at a ripe pear just above his head were worthy of the circus. A raven is a big bird and it was a very weak perch. Each thrust of the beak made him wobble on his twig, and I was sure he was going to have to let go and flap like a humming bird while attacking the fruit. But no, he kept his balance and finally dislodged the pear so he could finish his breakfast on the ground.

There was also a dainty little squirrel that scrambled lithely up and down the tree, though it showed no interest in the pears. Our squirrels are small, neither red nor grey as in the UK but a very dark brown, almost black, and sometimes stray into our gardens from the park nearby.

And silently observing all this along with me is the pear-tree owner’s incredibly handsome cat, who has more sense than to venture onto trees – she seems to know about the pitfalls of attempting the descent and would never expose herself to ridicule – but nevertheless keeps close watch on potential prey.

Aisha

With so much entertainment, I really don’t need to move from my patio, which suits me as long as the temperatures remain in the thirties. Maybe one day, I’ll actually see a partridge in that pear tree. Meanwhile, I’ll just sit here and enjoy my tea.

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