Phyllis 101


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!



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!


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: as well as to Norman’s own blog at

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




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.

In the golden olden days …


Dale Hall, Liverpool, December 1959


I was very sad to read in 2014 that Liverpool University’s Dale Hall of Residence was to be closed, and even sadder at the news that it had become derelict and succumbed to a fierce fire (believed to be arson) in December 2017. It has now been demolished and is being replaced by private homes, no doubt much needed, and probably very desirable residences. But there’s yet another milestone in my life that has disappeared.

Dale Hall fire damage

I was one of the very first to live there, and it was my home-from-home from October 1959 to July 1962, the place where I made some really important friendships. It holds many cherished memories for me.

I came up to Liverpool to read French as an immature eighteen-year-old in October 1959. University policy was,  as far as possible, to accommodate in Hall those female undergraduates unable to live at home. Few students had their own transport in those days and in general, buses were our only means of getting about. We would catch the number 80 bus at 8. 45 in order to get to lectures at 9.30, and then again around 5.30 in the evening to ensure we were back for dinner. Most of my lectures were in the Victoria Building, which was handy for the Students’ Union and the Cohen Library, so apart from the odd foray down Brownlow Hill and across Lime Street to Lewis’s and the City Library, I didn’t see much of Liverpool and led a very cloistered existence compared to today’s students.

Dale Hall was a brand new hall of residence generally known as the Virgins’ Retreat, stuck out in the rather posh suburbs of Mossley Hill, with very little in the way of temptation to lead a dissolute student life, or opportunity to indulge whatever temptation there was. My social life tended to be enacted in Hall, where it was easier to stay in our “prison” than to go out. There was a pub in Mossley Hill, where it might have been possible to meet people, especially male students, with the men’s hall only a mile or so away, but that cost money and we were very hard up.

I made friends in Hall in the first few weeks, as we ate our meals at tables of 9 that formed the nucleus of a number of cliques. Our group was quite lively, and although Hall regulations and lack of funds prevented us from going out often, we spent many hours in one another’s rooms putting the world to rights until the early hours of the morning.

We were the very first intake of students to inhabit Dale Hall, and we felt very privileged when we compared our living conditions to those of the other halls of residence, which were mostly converted Victorian villas where 2, 3 or even 4 girls had to share a room and there were battles for the bathroom.

Everything was brand new, clean, fresh, and contemporary in style. We had centrally-heated, brightly decorated individual study bedrooms, with a bathroom between 2, containing lavatory, hand basin and bath plus a tin of Gumption to clean it with (but no shower), and there was a shared kitchen with 2 gas rings and a grill at the end of each corridor. There was also a laundry room next to the kitchen, where you could wash out clothes by hand and spread them to dry on wooden racks, together with an iron and ironing board. In a room at the far end of a ground-floor corridor was a manual sewing machine that anyone could use. Electrical appliances had to be approved, so although there were a few hairdryers allowed, no radios, record players or tape recorders disturbed the hallowed silence.

Breakfast and evening meal were provided, and in addition we had weekly and monthly rations: ¼ lb of tea or instant coffee and ¼ lb of sugar per month plus 2 oz of butter per week, and we could help ourselves to 2 slices of bread daily from the couple of loaves provided in the kitchen – it was a matter of honour not to take more, as you would be depriving someone else if you did, but we would sneak down to the kitchen in the late evening and take any extra slices left over, for toast, which we made on the electric fires in our rooms, a practice forbidden and a bit risky.

Breakfast was served from a hatch in the dining room and was available from 7.30 to 9 am. There was always something hot, though it may have been simply one lone sausage, or a fried egg with one rasher of bacon, and as much cereal, tea, coffee, toast, butter and marmalade as we could stuff into ourselves. Dinner at 6.30 pm was formal except on Wednesday and Saturday evenings, as was Sunday lunch. This meant wearing our well-ironed undergraduate gowns over a respectable afternoon dress (definitely not trousers), and a prompt start all together as the Warden and her entourage swept in to take their places at High Table, with grace sung in Latin before and after the meal. There may have been wine at High Table, but we undergraduates had to be content with plain tap water.

Woe betide anyone who arrived late for formal dinner: you then stood just inside the door until you caught the Warden’s eye, whereupon she eventually nodded majestically as permission to enter and take your seat. If you needed to leave during dinner, there was a similar procedure: you stood and waited until she graciously nodded to you. During my second year, I was afflicted with frequent nosebleeds, which were triggered sometimes by the steam rising from the soup in my bowl. Clutching a blood-soaked hanky to my face, I would stand for several long seconds before she noticed me and allowed me to leave, and of course, as I wasn’t going to face the humiliating process of going back into the dining hall, I thus missed my dinner.

The Warden, Miss Leese, was an ex-WREN and a formidable character, trailed everywhere except to formal dinner by her pet pug dog Toby. We were in awe of her, but she really had a very kind heart and if a girl genuinely needed support, she could be relied on to give good sensible advice and make things happen. She and her staff were in loco parentis, since we didn’t come of age until we were 21, which accounts for the strictness of the system. A room at the end of each corridor was occupied by a spinster lecturer, who was our Hall Tutor. I’m not sure exactly what her brief was, but she would invite us for coffee now and then. She certainly didn’t interfere in our lives in any way. Perhaps some girls went to her for advice.

We were always addressed by the Warden and staff as “Miss + Surname”. If there were two or more girls with the same surname, the first name would be added, thus my two friends named Smith were Miss Elaine Smith and Miss Gwen Smith. I was Miss Catherine Williams to distinguish me from Miss Eirlys Williams.

Miss Leese’s aim was to make young ladies out of us, so she would invite 2 or 3 girls to High Table at each formal dinner, to act as hostess to visiting lecturers who, we thought, came under duress or just to get a free dinner. The invitation to High Table included mandatory attendance at a 15-minute sherry party beforehand, where we learnt to sip our sherry (it was considered rather sophisticated to ask for dry sherry, which nobody really liked) and balance canapés, peanuts and twiglets or a cigarette in the other hand while making small talk to people with strings of degrees who overawed us immensely. After dinner, each girl had to take her assigned guest back to her room for coffee (Nescafé), which meant assembling as many of your friends as possible for moral support during the ordeal of continuing the small talk.

My assigned guest was Dr Faithfull, head of the Italian department and father of Marianne, who was still a schoolgirl at that time. He looked like a tramp, had no small talk, and nobody I knew was reading Italian, so conversation was very hard and it was really quite a relief to all concerned when he drained his Nescafe and left. Maybe other girls were more adept at this game, or had more sympathetic and cooperative guests, but I think Dr Faithfull felt just as awkward as we did and was possibly a shy man.

At that time, mixed halls of residence were unheard of, and the draconian rules imposed on us were fiercely enforced as far as it was possible to do so. There was a very hypocritical attitude towards the sex life of female students at that time, at the dawn of the swinging sixties. The official word was “lock up your daughters” (and locked up we were from 10 pm to 7 am), and although in general we all acted as if butter wouldn’t melt in our mouths, blind eyes were turned so long as our behaviour wasn’t too openly provocative. But the sexual revolution had begun, and was quietly making inroads. Thus, one 18-year-old girl who arrived with us in October 1959 from a strict girls’ boarding school, wearing white ankle socks and accompanied by a bodyguard of beefy brothers, was boasting by the end of her first year that she had managed to sleep with over 30 different men. None of us were quite sure how she had managed this feat, but nobody doubted its veracity, and she reaped grudging respect for brazenly admitting it. She was studying Physics, which was unusual for a girl at that time, so had plenty of opportunity for meeting potential partners. But on the whole, we tended to keep quiet about what went on in our intimate relationships and few admitted openly to having lost their virginity.

We had to sign in every evening after dinner on a register at the Portress’s Lodge, and failure to do so by 10 pm would result in the night porter flinging open your door and switching on the light at around midnight (assuming you were in bed by then). I think he hoped to catch someone in a compromising situation or a state of undress, but doubt if he ever did, and we complained about this behaviour. He was subsequently removed from his post and we had quiet, undisturbed nights.

If you wanted to go out in the evening, you had to apply to the Warden in person for late leave before breakfast, giving your reasons and saying when you would be back. She was usually agreeable as long as you didn’t stay out too many evenings in the week, and it was OK to go to the University hops on a Saturday night, provided you were back by midnight. As Christmas approached, she also relaxed a little in giving permission to go to Christmas parties. Another queue in the morning outside the Warden’s office was to obtain permission for weekend home leave, and she insisted on our having a valid reason. The drawback to this system from our point of view was that the Warden only allocated about 15 minutes for this, so it was a matter of first come, first served. If you weren’t among the first dozen or so girls outside her door, there was no point in waiting. From the Warden’s point of view, of course, it meant she didn’t have to worry too much about us gadding off!

Men were not allowed beyond the Junior Common Room, just inside the main entrance, except on Wednesdays and Sundays from 2 to 4, and Saturdays from 2 to 6. These “men hours” were extended to 10 pm for senior students in their third year, who were usually 21 and thus no longer minors to be protected. In our first year we were issued with keys to our rooms, and on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons many rooms were seen to have their curtains drawn and the doors locked. In our second year, the keys were no longer issued to us, but it was just as easy to jam a magazine under the door if you really didn’t want to be disturbed.

The speciousness of this system was revealed by the case of a girl who smuggled her boyfriend in all night one Saturday. He would have gone unnoticed except that he left his motorbike parked outside. Only one girl in Hall had a car at this time, so the motorbike was highly conspicuous in the otherwise empty car park. The girl who had blatantly violated the rules was severely reprimanded and sent down for the remainder of the term. We all felt sorry for her – there but for the grace of God go I – but on the other hand we felt the boyfriend had been a bit stupid about the motorbike!

How times have changed! Dale Hall was extended to accommodate over 250 students, both male and female, and as they were all of age there was no need for a “dragon” to guard their moral welfare. Now it is no more, and probably many of its earliest inhabitants have gone the way of all flesh, but thankfully I can still treasure my memories. Gaudeamus, igniter, iuvenes dum sumus!

October Stroll Along The Alpine Rhine

The River Rhine is flowing at a record low level following this year’s hot dry summer and autumn. Here, where I live, it isn’t yet the mighty Father Rhine that flows through Germany and the Netherlands, but a feisty adolescent racing impatiently towards Lake Constance. Normally, that is.

This year, lack of rain has turned it into a weakling. I took myself for a walk yesterday afternoon to see with my own eyes how low the level is – I had the feeling I could have waded across, if I had wanted to.

However, I was struck yet again by the beauty of the area that I have made my home, and a stroll that should have taken me no more than thirty minutes at the most lasted more than an hour simply because I just had to keep stopping to admire things, and trying to capture them on my phone. Sorry, but the quality of my pictures is far inferior to reality,

We have two rivers in Bad Ragaz, not only the Rhine but also the Tamina that rises from hot springs and continues to bubble and babble, bouncing over rocks and through a narrow gorge before it gallops through the village and flings itself with wild abandon into the Rhine.

Usually it looks like this:IMG_0025.jpg
















But at the moment, it’s hardly more than a trickle, though still bubbling and babbling: IMG_2948



This house seems to be smiling and I was gratified to find that it is actually a holiday let. I hope the inside matches the outside and keeps its promises of comfort and cosiness.


I resisted the urge to take the path less travelled, and continued along the Tamina until I reached the confluence. A naked red woman standing there is part of the triennial Arts Festival, and probably has some symbolic significance for the sculptor.

IMG_2960   IMG_2967









I didn’t read up on her as I have my own fantasies, and I like to think of her as the spirit of Tamina, inspiring lovers at this romantic spot. In fact, the last little bridge spanning the Tamina is decorated with dozens of padlocks, mostly inscribed with the names of couples and their special dates, fastened there as love tokens.

There is definitely some sort of magic in the air just here, and the sun on the bark of the silver birches against the gold of the dying leaves and the deep blue sky is almost painfully beautiful.

I walked along the Rhine dyke for a while, then turned into the forest – no, not really a forest, it’s a park, but it has such a vast variety of magnificent trees and shrubs, and such a fairy tale atmosphere that Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf must be lurking here somewhere.

IMG_2995However, after only a few metres, the woodland opens onto a camping and caravan site with an impressive open-air swimming pool complex and children’s playground, plus a neat little restaurant and café. I couldn’t resist the attraction, and spent a pleasant quarter of an hour drinking hot chocolate and eating a slice of cappuccino cake as I watched the kids having fun.


Next to the playground and car park, some shaggy cattle were grazing, including a sweet little black bull calf and a flock of blue (fibreglass) sheep (more Art).

The sun was getting low in the sky by this time, so I turned towards home, passing the park pool with a few more sculptures and some artistically minded mandarin ducks which posed for me on a log. Sorry, my photo is a bit blurry. Art?


Someone in the neighbourhood whom I don’t know has an English telephone kiosk in their garden: why? Maybe one day I’ll find out. Perhaps an expat Brit, or simply an Anglophile?

Anyway, autumn is definitely here, mellow fruitfulness galore.

Not only are the geraniums still magnificent on this grandmother’s balcony, but it’s hard to believe that this cotoneaster is real.

And finally, as the sun sank behind the mountains, home.

More reflections on painting “The Sea” — Norman Perryman: A Life Painting Music


Once again, I’m pointing you in the direction of the one genius personally known to me, who is truly capable – in that hackneyed phrase – of affording us a glimpse of eternity. Timelessness, anyway. And from the height of his 85 years, a true inspiration for anyone worried that advancing age is an excuse for slowing down! I last wrote about Norman here, with links to two previous blog posts. I’m sorry I can’t get to this next concert but look forward to a youtube version.


I’m now hard at work choreographing a continuous painting, to be memorised and performed live in concert to the symphonic poem The Sea (1907) by the Lithuanian M.K. Čiurlionis. This masterpiece offers me perhaps the supreme opportunity to tap into the vast reservoir of Nature with my watercolour brushes, using my own…

via More reflections on painting “The Sea” — Norman Perryman: A Life Painting Music