27 September 2015

Zoé Casts a Spell

Zoé Robert turned 89 the other day, still casting spells over all of us.

Zoé Madelyne Girardbille Robert has lived in Neuchâtel all her life. She grew up in an apartment just a block from where she has lived since she was married to Dr. Raoul Robert in 1949. 

Zoé has also seen the world. In 1946, when she was just 19, she was the first Swiss citizen to get a visa for England after the war. She attended a boarding school in Leicester, where she learned English.

She already spoke Italian from her childhood summers with her aunt and uncle in the southern Swiss town of Mendrisio. 

When Zoé was 85 she published her first book, a memoir, La Vie d'une Femme du XX Siècle. Here you read of her marriage to the hard-working family doctor, of raising three children (including my future wife), of travels far and wide, first with Raoul, then, after his death, 
in later years with her beloved companion, Jean-Pierre. Two more books have followed, one of historical sketches, and a novella of a young British nurse and her lover, a pilot, during WWII. 

It's no coincidence that there's a line of Swiss cosmetics called "Zoé." They're named after our Zoé. She entered a contest to name a new product line, recommending her own name, which means "Life" in Greek.

Life, our Zoé, absolutely.

12 September 2015

What Do You Call Someone from Edinburgh?

We want our money back. We spent three days in Edinburgh (Edinburra, say the Scots), the famously gray and gloomy capital of Scotland, and it was sunny days and starry nights the whole time. False advertising!

Any glimmer of gloom could only be found at the city's giant, sooty, spooky, gothic monument to one of its beloved writers, Sir Walter Scott.

A further disappointment: the unfailingly sunny disposition of the Edinburgers, as they are called, though Kathryn Campbell Erickson, purveyor of traditional Scottish knives, Celtic craft and single malt whiskies insisted "as a wee joke" upon Edinburra-o-nion, "because, love, I won't be called a burger!"

Kathryn's wit and deep raspy voice hinted at years of whisky and cigarettes. She warned me of "skullduggery" in the traditional Scottish knife trade.

In the city and on a foray into the Highlands, we found the Scots to be impishly friendly, always ready for a joke and candid conversation.

George, our bus tour guide to the lower Highlands, wasn't shy. He said that Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling's "name is mud in Scotland" after she donated £1 million to the "No" vote for Scottish independence. George also says the winning "No" vote was rigged by the English Secret Service.

On the highway to Stirling Castle, George drove us past the gargantuan Kelpies.
As we got close to the castle, George told us how the area's history was linked to Scottish independence hero William Wallace, better known today as Mel Gibson. On a hill not far from the castle stands the William Wallace monument. It was from this hill that on Sept. 12th 1297, at the Battle of Stirling Bridge, the "Braveheart" men swept down from the hill, forcing the English knights back into the river, where many drowned and were otherwise embarrassed. 
George also told us that a mysterious, Druidic-looking circle raised in the earth and covered by grass was where King Arthur's Round Table was. He said this with an entirely straight face, testing us tourists. Likewise, later, with great authority, he told us about the brave young lads of the area ascending to the Highland peaks in a rite of passage to hunt the wild haggis.  

But truly, the lands around Stirling Castle dominated the medieval history of the Scots. It is where, in 1314, the greatly outnumbered Robert the Bruce defeated the English at the Battle of Bannockburn, and where the infant who would become Mary Queen of Scotts was brought in 1542 and lived for six years. Today the castle is a museum of some of Scotland's most important history. 

From 1881 to 1964, Stirling Castle was a home to the famed Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Today a museum here tells their history, complete with beautiful regimental knives (and forks).

Strolling the castle's royal domestic rooms, you come upon living breathing castle workers from when Mary Queen of Scotts lived here again as an adult. One dear lady told us about her square collar and French headdress, and even shyly revealed her crown of braids beneath, explaining that this was not something a lady would normally do in public, but just this once ...

All this history makes a lad thirsty. So after a rushed lunch at a touristy pub restaurant along Loch Lomond, we headed for the Glengoyne Distillery. The tour began very well indeed with a dram of their 12-year-old single malt. 
After a quick tour tracing the milling and distilling processes to make malt barley whisky, clanging on metal catwalks between huge copper stills, we were brought to a room of maturing barrels.

Here too, a display of how time and different barrel aging affects the whisky. 

You can't throw a rock in Scotland without hitting some heritage, especially in Edinburgh. Yet, from its heavy gray stone blocks, history reaches its hand into the present. In 2004 the new Scottish Parliament Building opened at the opposite end of The Royal Mile from Edinburgh Castle. Scots are proud to have their own national parliament meeting in the country again after nearly 300 years, but they don't all love the aggressively modern building where their government sits. Even so, few would argue with these verses from a poem by beloved Scot poet Norman MacCaig. The words are engraved in a wall at the base of the Parliament Building. 
And a parting proclamation to Edinburgh if you please, with the help of the city's favorite twins, because we too would walk 500 miles to wake up next to Edinburgh again one day soon.

30 August 2015

Rega Comes to the Picnic

Switzerland's beautiful countryside seems like a serene dream of peace and quiet until you trip over a cow patty or glacier, then fall down and fracture your self-esteem or more important body parts. That's when the vaunted Rega Swiss national rescue chopper descends from the heavens and sweeps you to safety.

Or the morgue -- they're medics, not magicians.

On Saturday, picnicking above the cliffs of Creux du Van in Canton Neuchâtel, my beautiful hiking companion and I were lucky enough to witness these angels of mercy rescue a hapless young American woman. Rega plucked her from the woods with a medic dangling expertly at the end of a cable on a winch. He stabilized the woman's apparently broken arm, protecting her from a certain dearth of postable vacation experiences.

My beautiful hiking companion remarked that it seems a requirement to join Rega is that you be a really hot-looking guy. She said she was looking forward to the first annual Rega Rescue Calendar.

They've certainly got the gear.

26 August 2015

Swiss Trains Become a Creative Canvas, Like It or Not

I guess it’s the old argument between artistic license and conventional wisdom. 

A few days ago I saw a train pulling into the Neuchâtel station with two cars covered in graffiti. Highly unusual for Switzerland, where the whole cleanliness thing and respect for other people’s property is generally sacrosanct. 

The design and execution of the graffiti were sometimes exciting, sometimes annoying.

 The spray painters painted right over the windows with no regard for anyone inside who prefers to watch the passing Swiss countryside rather than the backside of the artists' aerosol expressions. Maybe that was the point. “WAKE UP!” they perhaps intended to urge us. “Unglue your eyes from the same old bucolic Swiss scenery!" they perhaps wished to shout in their fuck-you aesthetic manifesto. 

What do you think? Shall we applaud these renegade artists, or sentence them to Sysiphean scrubbing?

09 August 2015

The Greek Gods Reborn in Neuchâtel

Yes, the ancient Greek Gods are currently hanging out by the lake in Neuchâtel. Last night we saw the whole gang giving birth to themselves at a dazzling outdoor theatre performance under a suitably threatening sky.

Gusts of warm humid breeze wafted in from the lake, which seemed like an amniotic background for "Theogony, the Birth of the Ancient Gods," the comic story (in French) of how the Greek pantheon of deities came into being. And when bolts of lightning -- real lightning -- flashed across the heavens right on cue, it was easy to suspend our disbelief as five superb actors on a bare stage brought to life hundreds of gods.

For more about how a Neuchâtel actor and professor of ancient Greek language and literature created the play from an 8th-century BCE Greek text, there's my story for Newly Swissed, Birthing the Greek Gods in Neuchâtel.

15 July 2015

Smurf Enclave in Geneva

The weirdest apartment buildings in Geneva and beyond are called the “Schtroumpf,” buildings.

The word was made up in a moment of frustration by Peyo, the Belgian creator of those little blue beings whom English speakers know as the Smurfs. When he couldn’t think of the French word for “salt,” he uttered "schtroumpf," according to Wikipedia. (The spelling was probably figured out later.) The word “Smurfs” is the Dutch translation of “Schtroumpf” – so a faux trilingual made-up word from a made-up word. 

Can you believe the architects were Swiss? Le Corbusier is rolling in his grave. More info and photos about the Schtroumpf Buildings are here in my latest for Newly Swissed. 

And voilà, some additional photos. Imagine living in a place like this ...

02 July 2015

Stan is Most Definitely the Man

Stan the man is proving himself just that, whether wearing Wimbledon white questionable shorts or something less.