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.  https://catterel.wordpress.com/2022/03/20/into-the-blue-yonder/

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 https://www.helimission.org/en/the-foundation/

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.

Bad Ragaz to Frauenfeld via Wil – A Glimpse of Eastern Switzerland

A number of people have asked me where I live in Switzerland, but are often none the wiser when I tell them. And yet my village has been world-famous for its high-class spa since the belle époque, when it welcomed many of the crowned heads of Europe and whoever was among the great and glorious of their time.  It’s also part of the location of the children’s story of Heidi, as this is where her friend Klara was staying in the grand hotel. 

Bad Ragaz sits on the bank of the river Rhine; not far from the border with Austria, just south of the Principality of Liechtenstein, and at the entrance to the canton of the Grey League (Graubünden / Grisons / Grischuna / Grigione in the national languages of Switzerland). In addition to its natural hot springs, it’s also a winter ski resort and a very pleasant place to spend a hiking holiday the rest of the year. 

Bridge over our other river, the Tamina

At the moment, spring is bursting out all over and the short walk from my home to the station on Wednesday took me an extra five minutes as I stopped to admire and photograph some of the beauty en route. 

The way to the railway station, Bad Ragaz
For passers-by to enjoy
A cherry tree with both pink and white blossoms
A former hotel now home to several businesses and a restaurant
Bad Ragaz railway station

I was on my way to visit my daughter and son-in-law who live two hours away in the picturesque little town of Frauenfeld, capital city of the canton of Thurgau. I took the train that runs alongside the Rhine and then veers off westwards to St Gallen, and disembarked in another small town that few foreigners have heard, of called Wil, where I was met by my daughter and my five-year-old great-granddaughter. 

Mini-garden in Wil’s pedestrianised High Street

Like many other obscure small Swiss towns, Wil has a gem of an old town and an attractive pedestrian shopping area leading up to it. This week, the pedestrian-only  high street is showcasing a garden competition – not quite Chelsea Flower Show, but some very pretty exhibits nonetheless that I couldn’t resist recording on my phone. 

Another mini-garden
and another
On the way to the restaurant

Since I arrived at precisely 12 noon, our first thought was to find a place to have lunch and as the sun was shining we decided to go to the Italian restaurant which has a terrace beside the little lake just below what used to be the city wall and is now a tight ring of mediaeval houses perched above a vertiginous bank of gardens. 

Wiler Weiher with mediaeval houses of the old town
Australian black swans – far from home

Our little girl was most appreciative of her pizza with pineapple (half of it went home with her), and eager to explore the surroundings of the lake which is home to many different kinds of water fowl. There is also an impressive fountain in the middle, a small sister to Geneva’s  famous jet d’eau

Wil’s “Jet d’eau”
Bridge decorated for Easter
Easter Bunnies on bridge
one girl and her dog …

We stopped briefly for an ice-cream on the way back to the car, and finally took our little one back home. There we received a warm welcome from my eldest granddaughter and her other children, and were fed tea and delicious home baked cake. Consequently, on arrival at my daughter’s home in Frauenfeld, we had to disappoint my son-in-law who was looking forward to eating dinner with us – we just had no room left!  

Home sweet home – the Little Washhouse where my daughter lives

Yesterday morning, my daughter and I took the dog for her usual run in the woodland on the edge of town that’s just down the road from my daughter’s house. This, for my great-grandchildren, is the “enchanted forest”, a wildlife preserve with a small river and canal running through it, where beavers are building dams under the watchful eyes of the herons, ducks and jays, and there is a neat little campfire site with a covered supply of firewood.

Beaver dam
Ready for the next barbecue

A quaint club nearby hut always has some kind of seasonal display outside for the children to admire, and at the moment it has the added attraction that some generous person has slipped a few chocolate Easter eggs into the arrangement. 

Club hut
3D Easter display
Along the canal
The Washhouse and the neighbouring Mill

Home again, and a quick look around the garden where tulips abound as well as other harbingers of spring, and inside the house there is also no lack of greenery – mostly orchids, one of my son-in-law’s passions. $

The bird bath that my grandfather carved used to be in my mother’s garden – now it has a new home here
Bathroom windowsill

Home sweet home!

Orchid bulbs
This reminds me of the Queen of the Night in th The Magic Flute!

Now getting ready for Easter and the arrival of the rest of the family. Oh yes, there’s another lovely gathering of the clan this weekend, and a chance to catch up with all my descendants. Well worth the journey from Bad Ragaz to Frauenfeld. 

For Ukraine

I have referred to my old friend Norman Perryman before on this blog. Today, he passed on this link to a video uploaded 6 years ago, but which is so utterly relevant to the present situation in Ukraine that it brought tears to my eyes as I watched and listened to it. I offer this as a prayer for all involved in this terrible conflict. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uZwSTBFHB0M

A Swiss African Story

This is a true story, about a young woman who came to our English-speaking church from a home for asylum-seekers in about 2005. One of the older women in our church who had formerly been a missionary nurse in Cameroon took her under her wing, and helped where she could. I have changed the names of those concerned but the events happened as I tell them.

Seraphina grew up in a Cameroonian village. She was the daughter of a single mother because the village chief refused to let her mother marry her father who came from a different tribe. This situation put them into the lowest social position in the village. Seraphina’s mother scraped a living by selling homegrown vegetables at the village market. When Seraphina turned 15, the chief wanted to marry her off to another old chief and told her mother to present her for female genital mutilation in preparation for the marriage. Neither Seraphina nor her mother were happy about this, and Seraphina ran away. Her mother was told that she must either bring Seraphina back, or be killed because she had dishonoured the village. Somehow, Seraphina was taken to Switzerland illegally by an African man who promised to save her. Her mother was killed.

In Switzerland, the man who “rescued” Seraphina exploited her by getting her addicted to drugs and prostituting her. He was a homosexual, so not interested in her himself except as a source of income. However, he was quite happy to allow her to keep the child, a little girl, that she had when she was about sixteen or seventeen, as it gave him a certain prestige among Africans to have a child. After a while he died, and Seraphina was able to escape from her captivity and claim asylum together with her daughter.  

Then, still addicted to drugs, she was caught dealing them and sent to prison where she underwent withdrawal treatment. Her daughter was taken from her during this time, and fostered by a Swiss family. Although Seraphina is completely drug free now, she contracted HIV during the time of her exploitation and remains HIV-positive.

She had a very hard battle to fight but eventually managed to find a job and her daughter was allowed to live with her again. However, being still on social benefits and having no passport she wasn’t yet eligible for a residence permit although she had been in Switzerland for 12 years.

A few years ago she met a man from Cameroon at a church service in Zurich. His name was Michael, and he had been in Switzerland for about 20 years. He had his own taxi service in Zurich and was well established there. They fell in love and decided to get married, but since Seraphina had no papers she couldn’t get married legally in Switzerland. That didn’t deter them. Michael was there legally and had a valid passport, so he was able to leave the country and visit Cameroon.

He comes from a different part of the country and belongs to a different tribe from Seraphina, so he had to find a way of contacting the right people in Seraphina’s village. She knew that a friend of her mother’s still lived there, but didn’t know the woman’s name. That is a community with no street addresses, but mobile phones were now coming in. Seraphina described the woman to Michael, and explained where she always had her stall in the market (it used to be next to Seraphina’s mother’s stall) so Michael travelled there and searched for the woman. 

The first week she wasn’t at her market stall, and he couldn’t stay until the next week, so he gave a note to a boy at the market and asked him to pass it on to the woman when she came to her stall the following week. The message gave Michael’s phone number and asked her to call him. The boy did as he was asked, and the woman phoned Michael, who explained who he was and why he was trying to contact her. She was happy to help, so Michael went back to the village to meet up with her. 

Since Michael didn’t speak the local language, the woman was willing to be the go-between for him and the village chief. In that society, Seraphina was still considered as a “subject” of the chief and only he could give permission for her to marry, even though she hadn’t been in the village for 12 years. The woman explained to Michael how to behave and what to say so that he would be accepted by the village.

They agreed on a bride price, which Michael then brought ceremoniously to the village chief: a pig, a goat, a certain amount of oil and rice. Then the village held a wedding celebration for the happy couple in the traditional style, with Michael present in person dressed in the wedding costume of his village and Seraphina on Skype from her home in Switzerland, where she and her daughter put on their traditional tribal robes and joined in the dancing with the villagers. Then Michael returned to Seraphina in Zurich, and they moved in together as a married couple. In December 2017 their baby daughter Michaela was born, by C-section because of Seraphina being HIV positive. 

This story has a happy ending. Michael was also able to use his time in Cameroon to apply for papers for Seraphina, and she got a passport at last. Then they could also get married in Switzerland, which allowed Seraphina to get a residence permit, and since Michael also has Swiss citizenship (as does baby Michaela) the whole family has eventually become Swiss. 

Love In Action At Christmas

Here’s a lovely idea from the small town of Buchs in the Rhine Valley, Switzerland.

On 1 December, a large Christmas tree was erected in a small passageway by the businesses operating there. A feature of this was a “wish box” placed under the tree, where people in need or residents of homes could place a “letter to Santa” with their particular wish for Christmas. These varied from such tiny items as a packet of paper handkerchiefs or a box of chocolates to more unusual services like someone to accompany a woman with low vision on a walk or someone to mow a lawn for an elderly person. Clothes and flowers also figured frequently on these notes.

Just one week later, 412 wishes had been expressed and all had been picked up by passers-by. The “wish box” was empty, and gifts were pouring in. The association organising this exchange has been overwhelmed by the generosity and interest of the local people, but enough volunteers have been recruited to deal with the complicated logistics, and all seems to be running smoothly – this is Switzerland, after all! 

In addition, many other would-be “secret Santas” were clamouring for the opportunity to do something to help people less fortunate than themselves, and so an appeal was made in a local newspaper for more institutions and organisations to send in their wishes. 

What a wonderful way to put brotherly love into practice at this time of the year, and what a heart-warming response! I hope that some of the people involved will have made new friends through this, and that the Spirit of Christmas will extend well beyond the 25 December. And perhaps this very simple idea will also spread to other places where affluence and poverty exist side by side.

Small World. — Cathy’s real country garden

Reblogging this because it speaks from my heart. Counting and recording every tree and hedge in our neighbourhood might be a drop in the ocean – but what, after all, is an ocean made up of? Thank you, Cathy, for these words.

There are so many environmental problems facing the world that I have to admit to feeling often overwhelmed . The news gives us the big picture and our own eyes and ears show us the reality in our own backyard. My safe place is the garden and so I nurture it and I celebrate it, […]

Small World. — Cathy’s real country garden

A Sweet Old Custom

Before I decided to apply for Swiss nationality, and even during the process, I was asked a few times what advantages it would bring – both for me and for the Swiss state. Quite honestly, I can’t really see that having me as a naturalised citizen brings many advantages for Switzerland (I’ve always paid my taxes, health insurance, etc. and contributed generally to the Swiss economy so no change there), but my answer usually included the fact that for me, it would be nice to have the right to vote and that they wouldn’t be able to deprive me of my right to residence in the country (i.e. they can no longer kick me out).

This would have been useful to me during the time I spent looking after my mother in England from December 2011 to March 2017, as I had to return to Switzerland after 4 years otherwise I would indeed have lost my Swiss residence permit. Had I had Swiss citizenship at the time, I’d have been allowed to stay permanently at my mother’s home until her death with no fear of the consequences in Switzerland, instead of having to keep careful count of the number of days I spent away in the year 2016 to ensure that my absence didn’t exceed 180, the maximum allowed. There’s little point now in dwelling on the possible benefits for my mother, but it could have made a huge difference to her final months.

Well, I have now been Swiss for four months and I have made good use of my voting rights and proudly flashed my ID card with its little white cross (so much easier to carry around than a passport) together with my QR code (my smart phone really is very smart!) in restaurants during the last week or so to prove that I have had my Covid jabs. 

However, a further advantage that I was totally unaware of came as a pleasant surprise last week: a letter in the post announcing that, as a citizen or bourgeoise (Ortsbürgerin*) of Bad Ragaz I am entitled to receive a portion of the village apple harvest, either 10 kg of apples or 10 litres of apple juice (though not half and half, which I’d have preferred). It’s up to me to go and collect it, and it appears that if I were a family and not just a single individual, each member of my family would also be allowed to claim their portion. 

What a delightful idea! We have two apple trees in our garden that looked amazing in springtime but spent the months of August and September littering the lawn with worm-infested fruit that gave our robot lawnmower indigestion, so it’s very encouraging to know that at least some of the local apple trees managed to keep their apples grub-free and that these were harvested. 

A little historical investigation into this custom revealed that in former times most villagers had fruit trees, some of them in communal orchards, and shared in the care of these. Similarly with the hayfields, since most people had a cow or goat or two that needed fodder when fresh grass wasn’t available. Consequently, everyone joined in the work at harvest, and all were rewarded with a share of cherries, apples, hay or whatever other produce was yielded. 

This explains the names of a couple of streets in the village that had intrigued me – Chriesilöserstrasse , Heulöserweg and Heulösergangstrasse. “Chriesi” is the Swiss word for cherry (Kirsche in High German), Heu is hay. “Löser”(cognate with English “lot”) was a portion of land allotted by drawing lots (i.e. an allotment) to those members of the community who possessed certain civil rights. Those areas which in the 18th century served as cherry orchards and hayfields are now completely built up, but the memory remains in the street names and the annual distribution of free apples among those who are legally citizens of Bad Ragaz. Saturday morning, between 8.30 and 11.30, we’ll all be queuing up at the organic fruit farm in the Heulöser – not for our portion of hay, but for apples.

*The idea of Ortsbürger is difficult to render in English. This article in Wikipedia which calls it a “Citizens’ Community” may help or may leave you even more confused.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bürgergemeinde  

Autumn in the Air

The Walensee must be one of Switzerland’s most picturesque lakes: not really very big or famous, but the rocky cliff face of the Churfirsten mountains plunges dramatically into its clear blue waters. At the eastern end, the shore has been beautifully landscaped into parkland and a playground for children. On the lower slopes of the mountains, before they rise in sheer granite cliffs, are vineyards, the vines currently beginning to change colour and laden with heavy clumps of dark purple grapes almost ready for harvesting. In a week or so, these trees will also be blazing red and gold.

The day after I took these photos, the weather had changed and so had the mood of the lake, reflecting a more ominous sky and throwing up plenty of driftwood, including some impressively sized tree trunks.

This little church perched atop a steep hill always makes me smile: and I admire the tenacity and endurance of those who presumably used to have to walk up to it. That would be beyond me nowadays!

It would seem I’m not the only one smiling. A felicitous moment when two paragliders aligned in just the right spot as I raised my iPhone!

Time of day also influences the atmosphere, and to my mind the few minutes of Alpenglüh when the granite face of the mountains to the north-east reflects back the glow of the setting sun rivals the glory of the rainbow.

Finally, today the first snow on these mountains …

Bad RagARTz 2021

One of the many beautifully succinct words in German that have no real equivalent in English is verarschen. The idea is universal: mischievously or maliciously ridiculing someone pretentious, by appearing to take their pretentions seriously. The root of the verb is “Arsch” (arse) so it isn’t a very polite word, but it is absolutely appropriate – at least in my humble opinion – for much of the art currently being exhibited here in my village of Bad Ragatz under the title of “Bad RagARTz”. I submit that it would be more appropriate to write that as “Bad Rag Arts”.

The exhibition is a triennial event, and the sculptures comprising this year’s offering have been on show since May.  It involves a lot of money so has to be taken seriously. There are 400 works on show this year, by a total of 83 artists, making it the biggest open-air sculpture exhibition in Europe, and it certainly has been attracting lots of interest judging by the large numbers of people wandering around singly or in groups. Hopefully, our local economy has been benefiting from these. It needs an uplift in these sad Covid times. You can see some of the exhibits if you google Bad Ragartz 2021 and click on images.

I have passed by a number of the sculptures on my regular visits ”downtown”, as they are scattered all around the village as well as throughout our lovely parks. In fact, I integrated myself into one of them, a group of three female figures sitting on a bench (benches are becoming a theme with me!) with just enough room for me to sit and eat my ice-cream cone. An amusing and instructive experience: some passers-by didn’t notice me at all, others did a double-take – some even came back to make sure I was real – whilst others grinned and even made comments (all positive, I’m glad to say).

A chainsaw well used by this artist

Yesterday morning I took advantage of a friend’s visit to spend an hour or so looking closely at the sculptures in the nearby Kurpark (spa gardens). We both share the simple opinion that a true work of art should speak for itself and not need a lengthy explanation, although you can sign up and pay for a guided tour if you feel that some of the exhibits are beyond your comprehension. Or if you want to appear intellectual rather than confessing that you are a philistine.

My friend summed up her impression in four words: “The Emperor’s new clothes!” Mine was expressed in one: “Verarschung!“   

Well, that was perhaps too harsh. We picked out two or three works that we admitted we would allow onto our own private properties if we had sufficient space to display them adequately, and a couple that we admired for the artistry involved, but the overwhelming majority of what we saw was disappointing. There’s always a certain amount of humour represented in the show, happily, and even if we are admittedly unable to appreciate so-called artworks inspired by the school of Josef Beuys and apparently aiming at the Turner Prize, this triennial event does provide food for thought and conversation and I’m sure the local dairy shop has made a killing on its artisanal ice-cream, produced in a wide range of delicious flavours and sold at 3.50 fr a scoop.