Name This Child

“Hallo,” came a voice over the fence as I was hanging out my washing (oh, the delight of clothes that have dried in the sunshine, absorbing the scents of freshly mown grass, thyme and roses). “Haven’t seen you for a long time,” she added.

I was surprised, actually, that my neighbour still recognised me after almost six years. It always unnerves me slightly when this happens: what is so peculiar about me that I should make such a lasting impression? Our contact had been slight, though it was usually when I was hanging up my washing so perhaps I was simply a bit of déjà vu for her. Anyway, she remembered my name.

I put down my pegs and walked over to her, making a fuss of the little black Labrador that suddenly appeared at her side shoving his nose through the palings. I explained why I had been away for so long, and then, rather embarrassed, confessed that I had forgotten her name. I expected her to tell me her family name. This is Switzerland, we have only exchanged small talk over the fence, and know nothing about one another really, so this seemed to me a classic case for the formal “Sie”. However, she smiled and said: “Hortensia.”

Telling a person to call you by your first name in Swiss German is an invitation to use the informal form of address, “du”, and although it’s common enough among young folk, it is not so usual among those of a certain age and older, as we are. So I feel quite flattered in a way, in spite of our having lived next door to one another for twelve years. That’s nothing in a Swiss village: you can be here fifty years, and still be strangers.

I responded with my Christian name, sealing the fact that we are now “duzis”. I have never met anyone called Hortensia before, and I was secretly wondering if she liked her name when she informed me that her daughter was also Hortensia. So presumably she does. You wouldn’t saddle your baby with a name you disliked, would you?

We chatted for a while as I finished pegging out my clothes, and she updated me on the latest garden news: she no longer has any hens, they all died of old age, as did the Labrador she used to have (I had noticed that this one seemed not only smaller but also quieter than its predecessor) and that the hedgehogs still frequent the gardens at night, probably nesting and hibernating under her shed. I was pleased to hear this, as hedgehogs seem to be dying out. And the crows have a nest in our other neighbours’ fir tree, which is why our dawn chorus is less enchanting than it was when the blackbirds inhabited it. I presume that the name Hortensia is somehow connected with the Latin ‘hortus’ meaning garden, so I was mildly pleased by the context of our conversation.

As I returned to my other chores, I ruminated on her name. Hortensia, I vaguely recalled, was an ancient Roman matron famous for giving a speech in front of the Senate, as well as another name for the hydrangea plant. Interesting: you wouldn’t name your daughter Hydrangea, would you? Oh, well, maybe nowadays you would. Nobody would blink any more.


I went back to my laptop and the family tree I’ve been working on. Aptly enough, it’s one of the German lines, featuring ancestors with evocative names we rarely hear nowadays like Apollonia, and the Three Wise Men: Melchior, Balthasar and Caspar.  I say apt, because there before my eyes was grandfather Ernst Friedrich Adolf Richard Traut. No, I can’t see any of my granddaughters wanting to name their babies after him.

And as I began browsing through a new family tree, compiled by a distant relative, I saw that Ernst FAR Traut (no, definitely; nobody would give their child those initials nowadays, I hope) apparently had had an older brother, Martin Traut.  No middle name, I noticed. Had he been jealous of his younger brother, blessed with not one but three middle names?

Click, and there’s Martin’s son: Moses Hugo Karl Adolf Bertold Otto Traut. Surely that can’t be just one person? Oh yes, it is, and there’s even a photo of him. He looks normal enough, thank goodness. But I can’t help wondering whether his father had indeed felt short-changed, and given his son a different name for every day of the week to compensate for his own meagre moniker. Or did he have a number of rich uncles he was trying to flatter? I don’t know if this side of the family had Jewish connections, but if not, Moses was not a fortunate name to bear in the Third Reich. Maybe he dropped it and used one of his alternatives?

I’ve been reviewing the Trauts. They seem to have a penchant for resounding names: Emilie Ernestine Friederike, Karl Friedrich Wilhelm, Maria Elisabetha Thekla, Anna Ida Lina, Karl August Ludwig Martin, Ernst Gottfried Bernhard and Ida Dorothee Augusta. But none of them can match Moses.

Incidentally, Moses Hugo Karl Adolf Bertold Otto Traut married Lina Ella Olga Leipold. Their children all had short names.


Floating Fairy Flies Again!

Twenty kilometres as the crow flies in just over one hour, and maximum altitude 1300 m above sea level. Air temperature around 25°C. That’s for those who need figures first.

No statistics can convey the deep peace and joy that comes with a ride in a hot-air balloon. Yes, there are those loud roaring bursts of flame now and then, but tranquillity is the watchword, as you dreamily drift over the landscape in your own little bubble.

IMG_1381This was among my birthday presents last year, as my family decided I may not be capable of struggling into the basket when I get to 80, so my round birthday gift came (symbolically) 5 years early. There was too much toing and froing last year for me to be able to arrange my trip, which has to be at pretty short notice since it all depends on weather conditions being as close as possible to ideal.

The call came last Tuesday: “Can you be at Lommis airfield for 5 am on Saturday?” Of course I can. Then, after I put the phone down, common sense kicked in. Lommis is about 120 km from where I live. I no longer have a car, and trains don’t run at that time of day. Darling Daughter and Son-in-Law live close enough to Lommis, but … they were in Lucerne.

Number One Granddaughter flew to the rescue: “You can stay overnight with us.” The Balloon Pilot offered to pick me up from Granddaughter’s home, but the great-grandchildren decided they would like to come and see Granny float off into the blue so Granddaughter kindly offered to drive me the ten-minute distance to the airfield. In the event, the great-grandkids were securely in the Land of Nod at 4.30 am on Saturday, so it was only my Granddaughter and I who left just before sunrise.

19748410_10154581431286811_6821676555048024159_nHow quickly and efficiently the set-up and take-off all went. Excellent teamwork by the pilot and her assistant, aided by four passengers: 3 senior citizens and a delightful young man who must have wondered if he’d accidentally strayed into a Pensioners’ Outing. It turned out he was indispensable, being tall, able-bodied and strong enough when physical strength was required. He also took some great photos, being armed with a professional camera and the eye to go with it. Thank you, Andreas, for sharing so many of your shots with the rest of us.

And so, as the sun rose above the horizon, so did we.



Photos by Granddaughter No 1


Copyright Thank you, Andreas, for this lovely photo.

Thurgau is a relatively unknown but nevertheless very attractive canton; arable farming country with colourful rolling fields, orchards, vineyards, woodlands, smooth-flowing rivers winding through rich pastures, and traditional half-timbered houses and barns dotted here and there among the boring quadrangular modern builds. Tourists in search of spectacular scenery don’t come here: no raging waterfalls or towering cliffs, just gentle rises and falls. From a bird’s eye perspective, it almost looks flat.


Typical Thurgau scenery somewhere near Weinfelden

My last balloon trip, six years ago, took us from Kriessern across the Rhine and the southern end of Lake Constance into Austrian airspace, then over Lindau in Germany, to a remote field outside a Bavarian hamlet.


View towards the Alpstein on the horizon. The heart.shaped pool is the Märwiler Weiher.


This was now quite different scenery. In the distance, we could see the sun gleaming on the surface of Lake Constance, and gilding the river Thur below us. Cattle, sheep and goats grazed. Deer ran through the woods and across fields, kite and buzzard swooped beneath us. Perfect ballooning conditions.

After almost an hour we began our descent, alarmingly close (I thought) to the treetops and wheat fields, and scaring a company of horses peacefully grazing in their paddocks as we came roaring over their heads.

A field of sunflowers craning their necks to the east like soldiers on parade appeared to be where our pilot was aiming for, but no, we sailed over them and side-stepped an apple tree that loomed in our path.


Copyright Thanks again to Andreas.

We touched down, bounced slightly once, then rested on what seemed to be a specially constructed landing strip next to the road. Long grass on either side of us in this pasture, but a lengthy stretch several metres wide had been mown just where we landed, to the exact dimensions needed when our balloon sank gracefully to the ground. A man using a scythe under the apple trees on the opposite side of the road continued his work, as though balloons landing in front of him was an everyday occurrence. Perhaps it is, and that really is a landing strip. Our pilot’s assistant was waiting for us with her car and balloon trailer, having tracked our journey from take-off.


Teamwork again, as we squashed out the air and folded the balloon, rolled it up, packed it into its bag and dragged it to the trailer. Thank goodness for Andreas’ youthful strength! The burner and its mount were quickly dismantled, packed neatly into the basket and all stowed away very quickly.

Then came the solemn ceremony of the baptism of balloon passengers. This involves reciting the balloonist’s prayer, receiving a special nobility title plus certificate, and having a lock of hair singed as a token of the adventure. I had already been through this procedure twice, so was exempt this time. (I am Duchess Catherine Above the Clouds, and Gräfin Catherine Schwebefee über Fussach, which means approximately Countess Catherine, Floating Fairy over Fussach. Some fairy!)

The other elderly lady was wearing hairspray, so singeing her hair might have been dangerous, and the elderly gentleman had a large bald patch, so nothing to singe. These two were just doused with mineral water. Only Andreas had a suitably full head of hair so he alone underwent the singeing ceremony, and then we shared a bottle of champagne and munched on croissants. It was, after all, only just after 7 am so definitely breakfast time!

Then back to our starting point, where Granddaughter and three great-grandchildren were patiently waiting. (No, they hadn’t been there all the time. Mobile phones are a useful invention!) And home again, for my third breakfast of the day, this time at a more conventional hour.


Getting good at squeezing into confined spaces!

Thank you so much, to everybody who made this possible, not least those who paid for it! It was a wonderful belated birthday present, and the opportunity to spend a little time with my younger generations was a great bonus. These are memories I shall treasure.


Beano and Circuses

“Have you heard of the Beano system?” asked my friend K.
“No, what is it?”
“Some sort of fancy system for playing music … The G’s told me their TV was a Beano, too,“ she began, and the penny dropped.
“You mean B&O? Bang & Olufsen?”
“Oh, is that what it is? Well, I guessed it must be something exclusive because the G’s have it installed in their new house.”

This sums up my friend’s awareness of famous brands. She chooses the things she buys on the basis of whether she likes them, and whether the price is within her budget. She doesn’t notice prestigious names. That doesn’t mean that she doesn’t sometimes flaunt a Hermès scarf or Coco Chanel sunglasses, but when she does it’s because she found them in a second-hand store and thought they were pretty. Frequently, she has never even heard of the particular label.

Yesterday she was setting out for a trip to Paris, wearing a very attractive colourful dress with silver splodges across the front and this time she did know the brand: Desigual. She knows that name, because she likes their quirky flamboyant designs, and has several (pre-loved) Desigual items.

I asked if it washed well, or would the silver dissolve in the washing machine. She didn’t know, she hadn’t yet washed it, but there was a strange sort of plastic disc attached to it that she had been unable to remove. I looked at this plastic disc embedded in the hem of the dress, and read that the garment had been made from fabric used for a costume in the Cirque du Soleil.

“Wow, that’s amazing!” I cried, impressed. “How lovely! You got a real bargain there.”
She looked uncomfortable.
“You mean it’s made out of rags from some old circus performer’s outfit?”
She doesn’t like circuses.
“Not any old circus. The Cirque du Soleil,” I repeated.


Never heard of the Cirque du Soleil??

I tried to explain, and Google brought up the information that her dress was the result of a 2011 partnership between Desigual and Cirque du Soleil. No, not so exclusive after all, but it had certainly sold originally for more than 15 franks on the flea market.

I’m sure it impressed her Parisian daughter-in-law, who works in L’Oréal’s marketing department.

It’s Never Too Late …

Back in April, during my recuperative break in Brittany, I spent quite a lot of time crocheting. I find it’s a good Zen way of relaxing, and my energy levels were so depleted that it was about the only form of exercise I took in that fortnight, apart from shifting my bottom from the armchair to a dining chair and back.

I was fortunate to have been given several large skeins of lovely yarn by a dear friend at Yarnsmithery and some more by my eldest granddaughter, so I had quite a stash to play with. The colours very much reflected the hues of the pink granite coast, different shades of blue for the sea and sky, yellow for the sun etc. My five-year-old great-granddaughter, M, clearly blessed with a poetic soul, was very taken by the idea and immediately started associating each coloured stripe with something she could see around her: the greens of the grass and hedge, the ochre of the sand, the red of the camellias and so on.


We noticed that we had virtually all the colours of the rainbow, so when my blanket was finished I made a cushion cover in rainbow stripes. IMG_0927

M also pointed out that the brown pattern against the blue in my granny square looked like the fence at the beach with the sky and sea.

Later, I found this photograph (below) and realised exactly what she meant, especially as from her perspective the sky and sea are directly behind the palings.


All the women in my family have traditionally been good needlewomen, and my daughter and granddaughters are no exception. Hopefully, M will follow in their footsteps, and become as adept as her grandmother, mother and aunts.

Watching M reminded me of myself at that age, or maybe I was six. All the girls in my class at school were issued with small brightly-coloured knitting needles and a ball of yarn. The basics of knit and purl were explained to us, and we all eagerly set to work. One girl in particular, called Maureen, was amazingly good, but it turned out she was the middle child of a large family, with older sisters who had already taught her to knit, and she had baby siblings who needed all the knitted garments the girls could produce. Where we were struggling to make squares in garter stitch, stocking stitch, moss stitch and rib, Maureen was given 4 needles and shown how to knit socks. Wow! I was very impressed.

To my dismay I found knitting extremely difficult. I have always been somewhat dyspractic – in my youth it was just called clumsy – and my motor coordination has never been good. In fact, in later life it took me nearly 3 years to learn to drive and 2 years to learn to swim, simply because of my inability to coordinate the various parts of my body. I tried very hard to knit, helped at home by my mother and her friends, who were perplexed and frustrated by my failures. In the end, the needlework teacher excused me from knitting altogether and I concentrated on sewing and embroidery, which I managed quite well.

Now back to the present. It may be due to my recent birthday that I am currently very sensitive to the passing of time, and aware that I need to learn new things if I want to stay reasonably alert and not sink too rapidly into senility. Last week I recalled my laborious efforts as my daughter and granddaughter were discussing their various knitting projects, and commented that they appeared to use a different technique to the way I had been shown. Since Swiss boys also learn to knit in school, my grandson-in-law joined in the conversation at this point, wondering how I could have found it so hard.

Yes, said my daughter. The continental method is simpler than the English method. And she demonstrated. It does indeed look much easier. Could I really learn to knit, at this advanced age and after so many years of accepting that there are certain things (like paragliding) that I will never get to do? Why not? My daughter patiently showed me, guiding my clumsy attempts, so when I left I had two brightly coloured knitting needles and a ball of raspberry-coloured yarn in my bag, and instructions in my head.

I haven’t counted the hours I have struggled this week, nor the number of times I have undone my work and started again (oh yes, I did remember how to cast on!). I started with 20 stitches and after several rows, I had 29 on my needle and something lacy and lumpy that looked exactly like the “squares” I had produced when I was six. I tried to unravel it, but it turned out to be more knotting than knitting so I left it.


Today I cast on 20 stitches and tried again. In the back of my head I could hear the voices of my teacher and my mother reciting “in, over, under, out” but that was unhelpful. In continental knitting, where according to my daughter you “pick” the yarn instead of “throwing” it, the yarn doesn’t go over and it’s just “in, under, out”.

At least this time I had the yarn properly wrapped around my index finger, under control, and the tension was steady. Suddenly, at about the sixth row, I realised that it was working. I was knitting slowly but smoothly, and it was coming out in regular rows! Okay, so by the ninth row I again had 30 stitches on my needle instead of 20, but I’ll surely figure that out and – watch this space! My square will actually be a square!

Next time: I’ll be learning to purl! Seems you can teach old dogs new tricks after all!


Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

My attention has been drawn to the need to update my profile picture. Hair today, gone tomorrow – or rather, yesterday’s hair has gone today. In fact, it’s been gone a few months now.

No, it wasn’t a symbolic or meaningful gesture, and I wasn’t emotionally affected by the loss of my locks.  It was a purely practical measure. When I first began caring for my mother in 2011, I was very reluctant to leave her alone for the couple of hours it would have taken me to visit a hairdresser regularly, fearing that she might hurt herself somehow, maybe by falling as actually did happen once while I was out briefly. After a couple of months when my hair reached shoulder length there was no need to go to a hairdresser, as I could put it up, plait it or tie it in a ponytail with no fuss and it looked neat and tidy.


However, last February I was thinking about my upcoming holiday in Florida in April and May and it struck me that I would be going swimming every day, whether in a pool or in the sea, where waist-long hair would be a darn nuisance. So as I was in England I called Kelly, who used to come to the house and do my mother’s hair, and asked her to chop it off for me.

She gave me a nice simple bob that needed no styling or fuss, and I sent my plait off to become part of someone’s new wig – preferably an alopecia sufferer.



This new hairdo was unaffected by my daily sojourns in the sea and pool during my vacation and elicited many compliments. The downside is that I now have to fit in regular trips to the hairdresser to keep myself from looking like a Yorkshire terrier, as my hair does grow very fast.

Back in Switzerland again I needed new pass photos, so here’s my new look and my profile is now conveniently updated.


English As She Should Be Spoke

Over the course of a lifetime, I’ve seen many strange messages written on the back of lavatory doors, and as a translator and former language teacher, I’m super sensitive to quirky formulations in any of the languages in which I’m proficient, so when I saw this in a public toilet I just had to snap it for posterity.


Rhyming couplets are a popular form of humorous doggerel in German, but sadly, a literal translation into the other languages with no rhyme or rhythm just results in puzzlement. The humour is also lost. Are you supposed to sweep the place? Not deface the walls with graffiti?  No, just look back at the lavatory bowl and if necessary, use the brush to wipe it clean in consideration of the person who will be following you here. A request to leave the place as you would wish to find it. But I wonder how many English, Italian or French speakers actually understood this, if they didn’t speak German? Did anyone attempt to clean the toilet with a broom (scopa, balai)?

Through the years, I have acquired a small collection of these awkward translations. One that made me giggle was on a menu in Brittany, where croque-monsieur was translated fairly adequately into English as “ham and cheese on toast” and then into German as “Schinken und Käse am Trinkspruch”. For non-German-speakers, the word “Trinkspruch” is indeed toast,  but refers to raising your glass to drink to a person’s health – “toast” in the non-bread sense.

Another one from Brittany:


Here the sense is clear enough, and I trust that any English speakers on “earing the audio signal” were not drowned. Someone must have commented on this sign, as it was later removed and replaced by a version in perfectly correct English.

The following label adorned a pair of jeans I once bought:


I was never able to confirm whether the expert ‘s tasting was accurate, as I don’t ride, but I don’t recall deriving any particular pleasure in the street from wearing this garment!

Finally, a notice enclosed with a packet of tea, beautifully calligraphed in Chinese on the reverse, that did indeed afford my mother “exceedingly noble enjoyment”. She wasn’t so impressed by the tea, but did like the idea of “merrily drinking” it. We never discovered if it really did enlighten drunkenness and cure sunstroke.


Move Over, R2-D2!

“Aha,” I thought, as I turned the corner of the house and spotted a dark grey entity lurking in the corner of the lawn. “The robot lawnmower has arrived.” But why wasn’t it moving? My neighbour informed me that it had run up against the wall and exhausted all its energy in trying to escape, so now its battery was flat. We pay a man to do our garden, so like my neighbours, I waited for him to come by and pop the little mower into its docking station.

Two days later, it was still stuck in the same place and in the meantime I had read through all my post and discovered that my neighbours and I had forked out four thousand Swiss franks for the thing, described as an “Auto Mover” on the receipt (obviously not written by an English speaker – it certainly didn’t appear to be a mover, though maybe it would turn out to be a mower eventually). At that price, it ought to work – not only cutting the grass but bringing me a cup of tea and some biscuits when I sit outside, or even a G&T at Happy Hour.

I picked it up and carried it to its kennel, shoved its nose in as far as it would go, and left it. According to my friend who also has one of these little helpers, it should take about 45 minutes to charge its battery. That was on Friday evening.

On Saturday, there was no sign of life from it. It remained dormant throughout the entire day and night, and comatose on Sunday. I decided to wait and phone the gardener on Monday morning, and worried that maybe I had docked it incorrectly. My neighbours, its co-owners, would not be happy if I had done something that invalidated the guarantee right at the start of its career with us.

Come Monday, I decided to have my breakfast first, before doing anything requiring any effort. As I sat outside sipping my coffee, I suddenly heard an unfamiliar but not unpleasant buzzing and rumbling: and there was the Auto Mover steadily approaching, munching at the grass as it came.  It paused next to my table.IMG_1135.JPG“Hello! “ I exclaimed with a smile, “So you are working after all!” and then I realised that if anyone was within earshot, they would be wondering why I was addressing this inanimate object in such a friendly manner. Did I say inanimate object? No, that’s really not true. There is something about robots that is very lifelike, and this one certainly seemed on a par with a little dog, or at the very least a Henry vacuum cleaner. I had a wild desire to paint a little face onto it. It really does need some eyes to see its way around.

I must have sat watching it for a good ten minutes, fascinated, trying to figure out how it knows where to go. A straight line, then a sudden turn to the right, straight ahead again, then a diagonal that brings it up against the hedge where it turns on its heel and runs along parallel to the hedge for a while, then an about-turn and back in a different diagonal … It appeared to do a little dance at one point, pirouetting on the path before taking off onto the grass border on the opposite side of the paving.

But why had it taken so long to charge its battery? Then it dawned on me. Today was Monday. I had docked it on Friday. This is Switzerland, where weekends and especially Sundays are sacrosanct: unlike in uncivilised Anglo-Saxon countries, you do NOT wash your car or work in your garden at the weekend. So our little mower, in good law-abiding Swiss fashion, has been programmed to observe both the Jewish and the Christian Sabbath!

Inanimate object? No way! It runs around indefatigably even in the rain, a busy little herbivore, and every time it passes my French window I greet it warmly. And if it gets stuck again, I shall rescue it and speak words of comfort into its little plastic ears.