Snub or Snob?

Recently, I was at a friend’s house when another old friend, David*, arrived with his partner Margaret.* I had already met David a couple of times, but I wasn’t acquainted with his lady. The four of us  enjoyed an animated conversation over dinner, ranging over a number of different topics. Alone with Margaret – who I knew had taught at a university and therefore had publications to her name – I innocently inquired what her field was, and what her speciality. She informed me very briefly, then continued telling me about her grandchild and the time they had just spent together.

A little later, however, David turned to our hostess and asked in a most accusatory tone, “How come you didn’t tell Cat about Margaret?” Nonplussed, my friend said that she had told me about her. “No, you didn’t,” he replied, ”she didn’t know that Margaret is a highly distinguished scholar and a world authority on her speciality.” 

Margaret nodded “Yes,” she said sourly, “I wonder what exactly you did tell her about me, since you didn’t mention the most important thing!”

My friend explained that as I didn’t yet know Margaret she had simply told me that she was David’s partner, and a university professor. She may indeed have mentioned Margaret’s field of study but I hadn’t registered that fact. This explanation only added fuel to the fire: Margaret felt that her status had been greatly reduced, if all I had been told about her was that she was an appendage to David. Alas, she most definitely felt snubbed. Feathers were very ruffled. I also tried to defuse the atmosphere by saying that in my opinion, what matters is not so much what a person does but rather who the person is. In addition, we are all well past retiring age so you can’t really assume that we are all still working– although  as it turned out, we are.

No, no, no! David and Margaret were both very adamant that what you do professionally defines who you are: your achievements and social standing are primordial, your identity is shaped by your work. There was no budging them on that, and Margaret’s wounded pride may sadly mark the end of a very long friendship between my friend and David, although I fervently hope not

However, the question raised has occupied my thoughts since this event. 

I agree that we probably choose our career path as a function of our tastes and talents as well as whatever opportunities come our way. Personally, I could never have had a career in medicine or engineering, for instance. But over the years, I’ve filled a multitude of roles both personally and professionally, and not all in the same field, interacting with people at many different levels of the social and academic scale, and making friends with people from all walks of life. It seems snobbish to me to put a higher value on a person because he or she has a title – be it academic or noble – than one who is equally faithful, fun and sincere but at the bottom of the class system. Prince or pauper, for me it’s character that counts. 

I put this same question to my readers, and would really be very interested to know where you stand on this issue.

Are our accomplishments more important than our character? 

Am I the person I am because of my professional success or failure? 

And does that set the criteria for my personal worth?

Do you value yourself for what you do or for what you are? 

And do you value your friends for what they do or for what they are? 

*Names changed to protect the innocent!

My YouTube Debut

Back in April, I took part in a virtual conference and wrote about it here. This made an interesting change to my normal routine, and I have been looking forward to sharing the video of the presentation / interview with all of you. Now at last Montgomery College, who hosted the Confluence Translation Conference in Maryland, have uploaded all the video-recordings from the conference onto their website at

If this also piques your interest, and you want to see me discussing my translations of Nelly Sachs’ poems, scroll down to Videos and click on Session 1 (where you can see an image of my Nelly Sachs blog). It’s quite a long session, so feel free to fast forward if you find it boring. Anyway, I just thought that after reading my waffling here in print and seeing my uploaded photos, it might make a change to actually see and hear me “live” too. You might also find some fascinating insights and information in the other videos.

My thanks are due to my interviewer, dear Elly Sullivan, and Montgomery College Confluence organisers – or should I spell that organizers – for this opportunity to share with a lot more people than I would otherwise have reached. This seems to be bearing fruit: since the conference, my site has received over 3,000 hits so somebody must have been motivated! I’d love to know who – not a single one of those visitors has left a comment. I really do appreciate feedback and can take constructive criticism (I ignore any other kind).

So follow the link above, and let me know what you think – at least I might get some comments on this site!

Queen Ayesha

I suppose this ought to be on my “Cats & Catterel” page, since it’s pure catterel (i.e. not doggerel) but that has become long and rather unwieldy although I have just added two contributions to it from comments by freefall852. Anyway, I find it easier to add this “pome” here instead.

Just a little background: Ayesha belongs to my neighbour and is indisputably Queen around here. If she’s relaxing in the middle of the road outside her house, she will not deign to move for any vehicle and you just have to stop and park where you are.

I was taken aback the other day when I saw her lurking on her doorstep in a most un-majestic attitude, and on closer inspection discovered that someone had shaved her body, leaving mane, tail and legs still bushy. However, poor Ayesha most definitely did not appreciate this new look – if a cat could blush, she was blushing, Whether it was done because her gorgeous fur was matted or as a gesture towards helping her combat the present heatwave, I don’t know. But the sight inspired this:


We live in a cul-de-sac
Where Queen Ayesha reigns supreme
Over any other cat
Or human who may dare to dream
Of trespassing where she reposes
Amid the sweetly-scented roses
Or in the middle of the road –
All traffic stops at her abode.

White and black
Fur, long and glossy,
Stately gait
Majestic pussy.

But what is this? Alas, alack,
Big bushy tail and legs and mane
But body shaved – a buzz-cut cat!
No signs of majesty remain
She sits head bowed
As if she’s cowed
By all her loss of body fur
And brings forth not a single purr.

Still, when temp-er-a-tures soar
To 35 degrees or more
What seems most sensible to you?
To suffer from the heat? or do
The same as humans – doff your coat
And hide yourself somewhere remote
From prying eyes and ridicule?

You may look funny – but you’re cool!

Going down!

Thanks to my readers for their comments to my post about losing weight (I won’t say “slimming”, that’s too ambitious!). In response, I should point out that I am my own worst enemy owing to my double deadly sins of greed and sloth (laziness). All I really need is self-discipline and a kick in the butt. Hopefully, Noom will provide the latter. Yes, I know that what I lose in pounds I will inevitably gain in wrinkles, but I’m putting health before beauty. Here’s my starting point (I have shrunk in height by 3 cm since I was 40)

Here I am at eighty,
Shorter, but no less weighty
When my horizontal matches my vertical
Soon I shall be spherical.

I come from a long line of hardworking peasants, domestics, labourers and miners whose bodies learnt to make good use of every calorie they could get, so my inherited metabolism tends to be slow. Moreover, I also have an under-active thyroid which probably also affects my tendency to hold onto fat. Excuses, excuses! 

I’m combining Noom with intermittent fasting, that is, I’m only eating between the hours of 10 am and 6 pm, with nothing but water in the “fasting” hours. My guru Andrew Huberman has a good podcast explanation of the value of this at, in case you need evidence. 

I am also really grateful to Aunty Uta, who posted a delightful YouTube video of Les Plus Belles Chansons Françaises at   This transported me back to a happy-go-lucky time of my youth, so I hopped, wiggled and danced around to these nostalgic melodies for a good half hour, and as I collapsed at the end I discovered I had completed over one thousand steps already and it was only half-past nine! No need to drag myself out for a trot around the block in the blazing heat: this is a much more pleasurable way of getting my steps in! In the privacy of my own home, nobody is going to grin at my clumsy attempts to repeat the moves I used to perform so gracefully!

One of my difficulties with this American program was gauging food quantities in terms of cups rather than grams and litres. Happily, I have found a set of US measuring cups and spoons lurking at the back of my saucepan drawer, brought back goodness knows when, never used but now coming in useful. I’m pleasantly surprised to find that a cup is actually quite a lot more than I thought, so my portions can be a bit larger. I was also delighted to find that, as individuals can add food items and there are obviously other Swiss people following this program, some of our brands and typical foodstuffs are already in the food list. 

And if you are waiting for a progress report, I’m happy to say that in the past week I have lost just over a kilo. Not much, but better than nothing, and motivating. Why couldn’t I do it by myself, you ask? I can only say that Noom provides me with 3 incentives I didn’t have before, in spite of my best friend’s encouragement: constant nagging, food and step tracking, and calorie control. I think twice before I reach for the cheese – yes, it’s allowed, but only a quarter of what I was permitting myself up to now: and how much more I appreciate that creamy, stinky, mature Epoisses when it’s rationed!

(And by the way, my fingernails are looking decent again – no coloured polish this time! – and I’m going to tackle my feet today. )

I need a manicure …

As I was eating my breakfast, I noticed that my nailpolish was chipped so I decided that I’d remove it immediately after I’d washed up the dishes. My manicure stuff is in my bathroom cabinet but I can’t enter the bathroom without my bladder clamouring for attention. Sitting on the loo, I noticed that my bathroom floor wasn’t as clean as it should be, so I got out my Swiffer mop and other relevant cleaning materials  and gave the bathroom a thorough clean. 

Mop in hand, I moved to the only other room with a tiled floor, the kitchen, and there also left every surface sparkling – at least, as far as I could reach up on the cabinet doors. Tall people might notice a tide mark at the 6 ft level. Cleaning the kitchen, I noticed that behind the door there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in Horatio’s philosophy – but Horatio was a man, so he wouldn’t have needed to dream of ironing boards, aprons and recycling. There was also a fair amount of sorting out needed among my cleaning products and utensils, but now that job is done too.

As I bent down, the waist button popped off my shorts (yes, this is a sweaty job, shorts and a suntop are my indoors Mrs Mop gear) and without it, the zip kept coming undone so that button had to be sewn back on and my sewing things reorganised. 

With bathroom and kitchen gleaming, the carpet in the other rooms looked in need of attention so out came the vacuum cleaner. I love my vacuum cleaner. It’s small and easy to use and takes up very little room, unlike those I have had before with long hoses that refuse to wrap into a neat little parcel and hide behind doors or curtains (my apartment is small and short on storage). I had covered about two square metres when the battery died. 

Oh well, it’s actually recommended that you should dust before you hoover, so while the battery on my vacuum cleaner was recharging I dusted all the surfaces in my living room, including all the picture frames and little knick-knacks (yes, I did pick each item up and dusted under it, unlike the last cleaning lady I had, even though she was Swiss!), polished the mirrors (I have several, not because I like looking at myself but to reflect the light and make the room look bigger) and other glass surfaces – but resisted the windows this time.

After this some  pictures were hanging crooked, so I tried to straighten them but the nails holding two of them fell out; my walls are concrete, and it’s a devil of a job to get a nail to hold without drilling but if the picture isn’t heavy and nobody breathes within a metre of it, the nail will usually hold. When the nail falls out, though, it tends to leave quite a large hole. Out came the mastic and as I was smoothing it into the holes with my finger, I noticed that my nail polish looked really bad …

Well, the vacuum cleaner battery is fully charged now, so I’ll just finish off the living room and start on the bedroom before I do my nails, otherwise the polish will get chipped again before it’s dry … And anyway, it’s almost lunchtime, so I’ll just remove the polish and come back to the rest later … I think …

Thirty grams down, 15 kg to go …

On taking stock of what two years of Covid restrictions have done in my life, I conclude that I’m one of the lucky ones. Firstly, I haven’t yet had Covid-19 (though I shouldn’t say that too loudly, I don’t want to tempt fate) and secondly I didn’t have to miss going out to work as I’m retired and what work I do, I do from home anyway. On the other hand, there are two consequences that I’m not so happy about: the first is that I’ve become a social recluse, almost a hermit, and the second that I have gained at least 10 kilos. 

I’ve been muttering about my weight for a while, but my attempts to lose any were pretty half-hearted and my addiction to cheese triumphed over my willpower. A week or so ago, I responded to an ad that popped up on Facebook for Noom. Have any of you tried this? 

They have some pretty aggressive marketing which I tried to ignore, but finally I gave in when they offered me six months free on an annual subscription that – they say – can be cancelled any time. Immediately I was inundated with encouraging messages and e-mails, and an app that allows me to log almost every minute of my day one way or another. If Big Brother is interested in my antics, he will have no trouble whatsoever in tracking me down.

I haven’t actually learned anything I didn’t already know about nutrition and exercise, but I must say there’s no lack of positive feedback and encouragement from the second I wake up until the moment I tap “Finish the day”. And some tempting recipes – even though, as they are American, I’m not always sure what this or that ingredient is or how many grams of a certain item make up a cup. For instance, how many cups are two sticks of celery or five leaves of an iceberg lettuce? How heavy is an American slice of bacon? (Ours is cut very thin, 8 slices weigh 100g)

One of the things I signed up for was a “customized workout program” downloaded onto my computer. When I saw the photos, I laughed out loud. I can do all these things in my head, and certainly was physically capable of them 30 or 40 years ago, but can I do a plank, crunch or push-ups now? No way! I can’t jump or jog, let alone do power-walking or running, and as for some of the bending and stretching – let’s just say, my elastic has perished! No use saying “Just try, it will come with practice” – it won’t. If I sit or lie down on the floor, it’s a cardio session just getting up again. I can walk at a leisurely pace and I can swim, and that’s about it. 

However, what did impress me was that as soon as I informed Noom of my incapacity – I am, after all, now 81 years old and pretty well spherical – they instantly refunded the cost of that workout sheet. Somewhere on the Internet I saw some exercises you can do on or with a chair so maybe I’ll give those a try. 

“Stand on one leg while you’re cleaning your teeth,” I’ve been told. 

OK, as long as I can hold onto the washbasin with the other hand, but I’m wobbly even then. 

“Walk up and down stairs without using the handrail,” is another one that isn’t as easy as it sounds. I’ve tripped UP the stairs in my house a couple of times, and am not eager to fall DOWN them, seeing as they are stone.

Well, I can still do most of my housework unaided, including cleaning the windows, emptying the dishwasher and hanging up my washing, so I reckon that will have to count as a workout for me. And walking to the shops with my little trolley gives me a couple of thousand steps, as does going to my local park to watch the squirrels and ducks. I just need to get over that Covid-induced reluctance to step over the threshold into public space … 

Follow that name …

As I crawl out of my latest rabbit hole, I wonder if my discoveries down there are of any interest at all to anyone outside of my immediate family. Yes, this particular rabbit hole weaves in and out around the roots of the German side of the family tree, and although I have now added a dozen or so new names I know very little about the individuals. 

Records for “ordinary” people are scant in fourteenth and fifteenth century German provinces so we can’t be absolutely sure whether the person we have tracked down really is our  15th great-grandfather, but sometimes the line does seem to hold up. At any rate, some of these people have very evocative names that roll around on the tongue, so we’d really like them to be our ancestors simply for that reason. Who wouldn’t want to claim Anna Magdalena Ham Charau or Vuarin Marin Augustin as great-grandparents? Or Königunda Zollmann-Zinck?

I have now come across forefathers who lived in the beautiful alliterative village of Traben-Trarbach at the end of the fourteenth century. The earliest identified, born about 1385, are Peter Holderbaum von Corvey and his wife Anna Glessgin. These are the eighteenth great-grandparents of my daughter. Corvey was a Benedictine abbey in North-Rhine Westphalia so this “von” is not an indication of nobility but simply an indication of where Peter Holderbaum had come from. See

Peter’s son Michael Holderbaum von Corvey married the delightful sounding Elssgin von Leurtzbeuren (my daughter’s seventeenth great-grandmother) about 1440. I haven’t identified Leurtzbeuren, but Elssgin is a diminutive form of Elsa. 

I know absolutely nothing about this family, apart from their names and a few key dates. Sometimes, frustratingly, will provide me with lots of information for instance about the father-in-law of a seventh grand-aunt, but nothing whatsoever about the person I am actually researching. Still, eventually we all get back to Charlemagne!

This particular line records the antecedents of my daughter’s fourth great-grandmother, Maria Katharina or Catherine Buchheit, who became Catherine Sommer – my namesake – on her marriage to Johann Georg Sommer in 1801. The Buchheits were very prolific over the centuries, so if you find one or more in your tree, it may well be a shared ancestor with us. Many of them emigrated to the United States. I’m also intrigued by the variations in spelling, reflecting different pronunciations of this name, and am wondering if that dear fictitious lady Hyacinth Bucket may also have sprung from this root?

Incidentally, I found four consecutive generations of my daughter’s direct ancestors bearing my name! Catherine Buchheit-Sommer’s mother-in-law was Catherine Hafner, born in 1754 in Alsace, and married Joseph Sommer in 1774 (fifth great-grandparents). Her son Georg Michael Sommer married Katharina Regina Becker (third great-grandparents). By that time, the fashion for Frenchifying names was over, so this third namesake retained her German spelling, and passed it on to her daughter Anna Maria Katharina. 

These are, of course, not my ancestors but my in-laws – however, I can’t help wondering what these women were like, and if we have any traits in common apart from our name.

Post Script: Where Angels Fear To Fly

At the moment, Helimission is revising the website and the book order feature isn’t working. However, I am reliably informed that you can order any of the books by sending an e-mail to it will be dealt with. Helimission apologise for this inconvenience, due to circumstances beyond their control, and hope that it won’t deter you from ordering books by Ernie and Hedi Tanner.

Where Angels Fear To Fly

A couple of months ago, I was privileged to enjoy a ride among the snowy Alps in one of Helimission’s helicopters – I wrote about it here.

Helimission is a remarkable, probably unique, charitable foundation based here in Eastern Switzerland that, for over 50 years, has been using helicopters to transport humanitarian aid, medical staff and missionaries across terrain that would otherwise be inaccessible. Mostly jungle. I have been translating for them for a number of years as my contribution to their admirable work. Here’s a link to their web page

Yesterday in my letterbox I found a book by the founder of Helimission, the irrepressible nonagenarian Ernie Tanner, entitled “Where Angels fear to fly”. On opening it, I realised to my delight that this was my translation – under a new title – of “Dem Tod entronnen – immer wieder”, the English version in print at last. (ISBN 978-3-9525111-4-5)

This is an unputdownable account of some of Ernie’s many brushes with death, told in his inimitable style, and I had a great deal of enjoyment translating it. In fact, translating books like this doesn’t actually feel like work: the stories flow from one death-defying event to the next like a raging torrent, interspersed with moments of humour and sometimes sadness. 

Throughout Ernie’s narration is the awareness of just how hard his guardian angels must have been working to meet the challenges he constantly confronted them with, and his inextinguishable faith in the grace and protection of God. 

From the minute he set off on his very first flight, with the minimum of required flying hours, very basic instruction and less experience, Ernie humbly admits that he was flying on a wing and a prayer. This first flight took him from his village in eastern Switzerland over mountains, sea, jungle and desert, all the way across France and Spain, over the Strait of Gibraltar and down through Africa to Yaoundé in Cameroon.  

Chapter after chapter, like a cat with nine lives, Ernie recounts his hazardous adventures: emergency landings in fog, in the desert, in sandstorms, at gunpoint, on the edge of a precipice, and on the terrace of a hotel. And all without accident! Ernie was no daredevil: he lost good pilots and friends in helicopter crashes and he knew that Death was always beside him when he was flying. But his mission and his trust in God gave him the courage and wisdom he needed to bring physical and spiritual help to the poorest, most desperate people of Africa. 

“Where Angels fear to fly”  is the follow-up to a book written by Ernie’s wife, Hedi Tanner, entitled “More than an Adventure” (“Mehr als ein Abenteuer”) and will be followed by autobiographies of both Ernie and Hedi, which are in the process of preparation for printing. 

It’s a page-turner, easy to read, and well worth your time. I highly recommend reading this in conjunction with “More than an Adventure” (ISBN 978-1599190075) and – when they finally come out – the absorbing autobiographies of Ernie and Hedi Tanner. 

In the meantime, I hope you’ll enjoy this two-part interview from 2009.

Moon in a Summer Dawn

My translation of a poem by Philippe Jaccottet that perfectly describes a sight I am blessed to be able to enjoy here in the Swiss Alps on a regular basis at this time of year:

In the slowly brightening air
Lingers this gleaming tear
Or flickering lanterned flame 
While from the mountains’ sleep
Arises a golden haze

Hanging yet
In the balance of the dawn
Between the promised blaze
And this lost pearl

Original French:

Lune à l’aube d’été  

Dans l’air de plus en plus clair 
scintille encore cette larme
ou faible flamme dans du verre 
quand du sommeil des montagnes 
monte une vapeur dorée 

Demeure ainsi suspendue 
sur la balance de l’aube 
entre la braise promise
et cette perle perdue