Book club questions for Voting Day

Do book clubs have a natural shelf life? I’ve been a member of the same book club for about ten years. We started out as work colleagues and now more than half the group work in different places so the club has become a way to keep in touch. The most far-flung member of the group lives in Joshua Tree.

But, I must admit, we are beginning to lose our book club mojo. The number of no-shows and did-not-finish-on-time readers is growing and the gaps between meetings are getting longer. During Covid we had a few video sessions and they went very well. Maybe that’s the way forward.

At the invitation of a friend, I visited a very lively book club last week, a group of mostly Americans living in and around Bern. What made the evening special – apart from the amazing snacks and hospitality – was that the book they were discussing was Voting Day.

I’ve done quite a few author talks recently but mostly to an audience of potential readers, such as the image above with the Zurich International Women’s Association. This was different. The book club members had read my book and seemingly enjoyed it very much. They were brimming with enthusiasm and questions and I was impressed to see how many aspects of the story resonated with different readers on an individual level. It sparked a discussion about Swiss life, women’s role in families and society today, what has and hasn’t changed.

I left the group with a promise that I would put together a list of questions for book clubs, something they said they always looked for online. So here it is, my list of book club questions for Voting Day. I hope you find them useful and if you have any more suggestions, let me know in the comments.

Book club questions

  1. In Voting Day, what is the most important difference between the characters – generation, class or personality?
  2. How well do you think Vreni knows Margrit and vice versa?
  3. Is Peter a good husband to Vreni?
  4. Who is the strongest character?
  5. We see different types of marriages and views of marriage in the story. To what extent do the four characters’ understanding of marriage overlap or differ?
  6. What are the blind spots of the four protagonists?
  7. Which character appealed to you the most?
  8. How does motherhood impact the lives of Vreni and Esther?
  9. How important is family to each of the main characters?
  10. What do we learn about the place of foreigners or minorities in Swiss society at the time?
  11. If there is a message to the book, what would you say it is?
  12.  Switzerland was an outlier with regard to women’s suffrage, with women remaining disenfranchised until 1971. Do you think the situation of the four main characters is therefore very different to the situation of women in your country in the 1950s?
  13. What is the most significant change in women’s lives between then and now, as depicted in the book? Is there anything that hasn’t changed?
  14. What does the boy Ruedi symbolise or represent in the novel?
  15. What scene in the story did you find the most moving?

Book news

The last month has been busy on the book front. I put in an application for a grant to support the writing of my next novel next year. Will keep you posted on that. Even if nothing comes of it, I was still motivated to start writing again and I welcome that very much!

At the end of August, I met the Swiss Ambassador to Ireland José-Louis Touron to plan an event in Dublin in November. Also part of the meeting was Abigail Seran, a Swiss writer whose latest book D’ici et d’ailleurs is partly set in Ireland.

In the first weekend of September, I had a wonderful opportunity to take part in Le livre sur les quais festival in Morges. I spent the whole of Sunday in the authors tent meeting readers and signing books. And I got to meet some amazing writers, including the Flemish author Stefan Hertmans who is a genius as far as I am concerned. Caroline Bishop (author of The Other Daughter) and I shared a stage for our event, Stories of Women’s Suffrage in Switzerland.  It was all over too soon!

Also this month, Fairlight Books revealed the cover of their edition of Voting Day, to be published next April. I think it’s beautiful (see below). There was even an article about Voting Day in The Bookseller. And finally, the Swiss book blog, Mint & Malve, ran a glowing review of the German translation of Voting Day, Der Tag an dem die Männer Nein sagten.  

A reminder that Voting Day (distributed by Zytglogge Verlag) and the three other language versions are available to buy or order in all Swiss book shops or here on my website (Switzerland only). Happy reading this autumn!

A fairy-tale ending for my first novel

Schloss Heidegg (image from heidegg.ch)

Actually, it’s more of a beginning than an ending – I hope! This Sunday I have my first in-person book event since Voting Day was published. The event is taking place in a fairy-tale setting, Schloss Heidegg in Canton Lucerne.

The castle, overlooking Lake Baldegg, dates back to the Middle Ages. It has a rose garden and a park and a museum. I would go there gladly anyway. But to be invited by the Seetaler Poesiesommer festival to talk about my book is amazing.

I’ll be there along with Barbara Traber, the German translator of Voting Day (Der Tag, an dem die Männer Nein sagten), who also wrote the foreword of the book. Barbara was a translating match made in heaven. Not only is she a Swiss-German author who has written and translated dozens of books, she also remembers the vote in 1959 when she was a teenager. She has given me wonderful encouragement and guidance since we met exactly a year ago.

The event in German begins at 11am and you can find more details on the castle website here. It’s organised by Ulrich Sutter and there is an Irish theme with music from Irish composers and readings from the poetry of Franz Felix Lehni who lived in Ireland.

UK publisher

Last month on social media I shared the news that I’ve signed a publishing deal for Voting Day in the UK. Fairlight Books came back to me with a yes at the beginning of this year and they will publish their own edition of the book in the UK and Ireland under their Fairlight Moderns novella series next April. If you like your literary fiction on the short side, check out their titles.

It just happens that next year is the centenary of Irish women gaining full and equal voting rights, and I think a book written about the Swiss experience should be of interest to everyone. Women have faced the same problems to a different degree in all patriarchal societies over time. A culture that gives men a disproportionate share of authority, ownership and power breaks the natural partnership between the sexes. We are stuck fighting the same fight over and over – for our safety and dignity, and against economic disadvantage. And I’m not sure we ever will find the lost Eden of true partnership and equality again. But I digress!

There is one more piece of book news relevant for Swiss readers. Up to the end of June, the distribution of Voting Day and the three other language versions was handled by Bergli Books in Basel. From now on, this role will pass to Zytglogge Verlag. Booksellers should still be able to find the book easily in their system and order it for you. Or, if you are a Swiss resident, you can order directly from this website anytime.

I wish all followers of this blog a great summer, hopefully without Covid clouds on the horizon. If, like me, you’re feeling guilty about being fully vaccinated while most of the world is still vulnerable, it might help to donate to this Unicef vaccination campaign.

Please feel free to contact me if you’d like to request a review copy of the book or to talk about possible book events or publicity. Email on contact page. 

Voting Day, ‘truly touching and enlightening’

Visiting the German edition of Voting Day in Kanisiusbuchhandlung Lüthy

This day last month, the Irish Embassy in Bern hosted the launch of my debut novel Voting Day, published in four languages. Set on the day of a failed vote on women’s suffrage in Switzerland in 1959, it tells the story of four women whose lives are connected by a foster child.

The launch evening was incredibly special, hosted by the Irish Ambassador Eamon Hickey and attended by the three translators of the book – Barbara Traber, Corinne Verdan-Moser and Anna Rusconi. You can still view the event at this link (passcode 70N?6Rq@).

I’d like to share some of the news and reviews of my novel from the past month. At the time of the launch, book shops were closed but I’m delighted to say that shops have opened in Switzerland today and I paid a visit to my local shop to see the book on the shelves – as you can see!

Voting Day is partly set in Fribourg, where I live, and on publication day, the local newspaper Freiburger Nachrichten ran a full-page interview about the book written by Nadja Sutter which you can read here (in German). Sie hat den Roman zum Jubiläum des Frauenstimmrechts geschrieben – Freiburger Nachrichten (freiburger-nachrichten.ch)

On the Saturday beforehand, the French-language newspapers 24 Heures and Tribune de Genève ran an interview by Caroline Rieder: Roman d’une expatriée – «Les Suissesses ont dû demander le droit de vote gentiment» | 24 heures

In English, there have been two videos I’d like to mention. This report by Julie Hunt on swissinfo.ch featured Voting Day along with another new novel set in Switzerland called The Other Daughter by Caroline Bishop. The report is full of wonderful archive footage.

The second video is a really enjoyable interview I did with Matthew Wake of Books Books Books in Lausanne.

When the 50th anniversary of the women’s vote came around on February 7th, I wrote this piece for Global Geneva Magazine explaining why it took so long for Swiss men to do the decent thing.

Reviews

As for reviews, they have been positive but small in number so far. The magazine for the Swiss abroad, Swiss Review, published a favourable review of the German edition of the book by Ruth von Gunten that was translated into French, English and Spanish. Another reviewer, Antonella Amodio, wrote a review of the Italian edition of the book for the Italian edition of the magazine.

It’s a wonderful review so I will quote, courtesy of online translation:

“A story that speaks of female solidarity, dignity, kindness, the search for independence and social redemption … I thank the author Clare O’Dea and the translator of the Italian version Anna Rusconi because it was a truly touching and enlightening read.”

A review of the French edition in the newspaper Journal du Pays d’Enhaut was also lovely. The reviewer, M.Z., describes some of the plot and then adds: “I won’t say any more because this novel is very moving and you have to appreciate its originality to the last page.”

If you enjoyed Voting Day and would like other people to discover it, I’d be very glad to increase the number of reader reviews on Goodreads (EN), Lesejury.de (DE) or Lovelybooks.de (DE, FR, EN, IT). Another way to help the book fly is to ask for it in your local Swiss bookshop.

Film festival

One last thing … here’s a date for the diary if you happen to have the evening free on International Women’s Day next Monday the 8th.

The Women in Film Festival, What If? will present four short films and a Q&A with the filmmakers. Voting Day will get a mention thanks to the swissinfo.ch video. The curators have chosen narratives of courage, determination and strength and I am delighted to be associated with the event. Sign up for the free 1.5-hour event here.

For Swiss readers of the blog, enjoy the freedom to browse for books again from today and stay safe out there! Congratulations to everyone who has received a vaccine. It makes me so happy to hear all the vaccination stories. We’re on the right path now.

Order online from Bergli Books: ​Voting Day, Der Tag, an dem die Männer Nein sagten, Le jour où les hommes on dit non, Il giorno in cui gli uomini dissero No 

A Swiss funeral, free of charge and modest

The freshly-dug grave in the communal plot lies ready. A tightly-packed flower arrangement in yellow, orange and red provides the only colour on this grey day on the outskirts of Zurich in Schwamendingen cemetery.

Though Zurich has historically been a stronghold of Protestantism in Switzerland, the proportion of Swiss residents who profess no religion is now greater than the share of Protestants (25 per cent to 24 per cent). Amid changing times, one tradition has endured in this city: plain is preferred over showy. 

The mourners, a group of about twenty, have gathered at the cemetery gate. They are waiting to be told what to do. The burial is scheduled for 11.15 a.m. First the gravedigger comes to the grave carrying the urn in a wicker basket. He lifts the lid, removes the simple wooden urn and leaves it standing beside the freshly-dug hole.

The urn is worth CHF 550.00 but it comes free of charge as part of the basic funeral package offered by the city of Zurich to all residents. There are no private undertakers in Zurich.  

No funeral service

Led by a pastor wearing a beret over her shoulder-length grey hair, the family approaches. The pastor is in conversation with an official from the municipal funeral service, Petra Paul, a kindly woman in her fifties. Her job today is to lower the urn into the grave.

The family have opted to say their farewells at the graveside. There will be no funeral service, religious or otherwise. This is not unusual any more, Petra explains later. In an increasingly secular society, there are no more certainties on how to mark the passing of a loved one.

Four generations are represented today, from the sister of the 92-year-old deceased to her great-grandchildren, two tiny tots who quickly become restless and have to be led away during the 15-minute gathering. 

There is a forest on the hill adjacent to the graveyard. The noticeboard at the entrance carries a warning that deer are eating the flower arrangements and asks for understanding. Foxes and badgers are regular nocturnal visitors to this quiet spot.

The minister talks about the deceased, a warm-hearted woman whose door was always open. She expands on the concept of the ‘life of life’, the divine life that binds us all. After Petra lowers the urn into the grave, some family members step forward to drop a single red rose in after it. Someone has pressed play on an unseen device, so that the instrumental of ‘Time to say goodbye’ plays softly at this moment.

The lowering of the urn is easy, it is encased in a length of netting. But family members are often too nervous or too upset to take on this task. What if they get it wrong? Petra feels it can be an important part of the grieving process. A symbolic separation.

As this is a communal grave for urns, the exact burial spot is not marked. By the following day, the bouquet will be moved to the metal platform nearby, available for the bereaved to leave their tributes. The name of the deceased will be engraved on a metal plaque with the others, along with her dates of birth and death.

As birds caw and whirl in the sky above, we withdraw, leaving the family alone. Schwamendingen is one of 19 graveyards in Zurich. Petra and I return by tram to the city centre. She tells me she likes her job because she can achieve a lot with very little. “People have the resources to deal with death. My job is to foster these resources.”

The right words

Back at the office Petra has some calls to make, searching for next-of-kin of deceased people who died without any known family. She must also be available to advise people who come to notify the authorities of a death in the family.

Her office is the Funeral and Cemetery Service of the City of Zurich, located inside the imposing neo-Gothic City Hall (Stadthaus) on the banks of the Limmat.

The office operates a walk-in service for the official registration of death announcements, an obligatory task. In a small waiting area, the bereaved may peruse the display of 12 different-coloured leaflets, with information on everything from fees for various grave planting arrangements to how to go about scattering ashes. There is also a catalogue of urns and coffins and a list of professionals who provide secular funeral services.

Without too long a wait, visitors will be ushered in to see one of three funeral advisors on duty, with urns on their bookshelves, who will help them make the necessary decisions.

For Petra, this is the most important part of her job. Formerly, she worked as a translator and, she observes, there is one point the two jobs have in common: the importance of the right word. “Finding the right words is so important. The right words mean so much to the bereaved but the wrong word stays wrong forever.”

I wrote this article earlier this year for a magazine but the story was dropped because it was felt that it might be depressing to read about death in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. My feeling is that death is never far away and we should know what to expect. Many thanks to the staff of the Funeral and Cemetery Office of the City of Zurich for making me welcome (especially Petra Paul) and allowing me to share the article here.

Introducing my first novel, Voting Day

© Staatsarchiv Basel

One day while walking my dog in the forest, I had an idea to tell the story of four women on a particular day in history. The date I had in mind was February 1st, 1959, and the setting was to be Switzerland. The result is my first novel, Voting Day, which will be published next February in the three official Swiss national languages (German, French and Italian) and English.

The vote in question was a referendum on female suffrage, rejected by male voters on that cold, foggy Sunday. Swiss women eventually gained voting rights 12 years later in 1971 so we’ll be celebrating the 50th anniversary next year.

From early morning until last thing at night, Voting Day tells the story of four very different women whose lives are connected by the fate of a foster child. While the men go out to vote, these women have other things on their minds, mostly.

Vreni is a farmer’s wife and foster mother in her late forties whose life has shrunk to the confines of the farm and village. Her daughter Margrit seems to have found success as an office girl in Bern but her boss has put her in an impossible position.

Esther is a Yenish woman, one of the native travelling people of Switzerland. Taken from her family as a child, she now works as a hospital cleaner. When her own son Ruedi is taken into care, the future looks bleak.

Beatrice has made a good career as the hospital administrator. She dreads the prospect of a no vote after putting her heart and soul into the yes campaign. But could she hold the key to reuniting Esther with Ruedi?

It was clear to me when I started writing Voting Day that it really should reach Swiss readers, but I didn’t know how I could achieve this. How could I find one Swiss publisher willing to arrange the translation of the book, let alone three? What to do with the English version?

Luckily a sponsor came on board who was willing to pay for the translations. That brought my dream much closer to reality. With the help of a local company in Fribourg, I began to put together an ambitious self-publishing project with a simultaneous launch in the four languages planned for next February.

Publishing has become more and more challenging and often loss-making for authors. I want to find a way around that. The German translation is complete and the French and Italian are under way. The publishing costs are adding up but everything is moving in the right direction.

In November I will launch a crowdfunding campaign and continue seeking other kinds of funding. I’ve already received a lot of moral and practical support. My characters – Vreni, Margrit, Esther and Beatrice – are my inspiration.

From now on, I’ll be writing regular updates on the progress of Voting Day, and I hope you’ll enjoy hearing about it. I can already share the first interview (in German) with skippr.ch about the German version, Der Tag, an dem die Männer Nein sagten.

Book bloggers and journalists, please get in touch through my contact page if you would like to receive a review copy in one of the languages.

Was writing The Naked Irish a way of letting go?

When I was researching and writing The Naked Irish in 2018 and 2019, I spent every spare minute feverishly gathering information, reading books and articles, listening to the radio, interviewing people, collecting notes and quotes left, right and centre.

This process came after 15 years of living outside the country. Nobody asked me to do it. Finding a publisher was a nail-biting challenge and I’ll always be grateful to Mentor Books (Red Stag) for saying yes.

Now that the book has been out for a year, I have enough distance to look back and wonder what the quest was all about. Why was it so important for me to write that particular book? It has a lot to do with being an emigrant.

When I left Ireland in 2003 to move to Switzerland, I stopped writing about Ireland but I never stopped caring. But if Ireland is a mother figure, she’s a mother who is indifferent to her absent children. She has enough mouths to feed at home!

And yet, I wanted to reclaim and rediscover Ireland, force her to take notice. I think I managed to do that through The Naked Irish, but in the process, I have become less sentimental about the people and the place. Close up, the hills are a bit muddy.

Before I wrote this book, I used to wonder how different my life might have been if I’d stayed in Ireland. At least The Naked Irish answered one aspect of that question. This is the work I would have covered as a journalist. I finally got my chance to write about the Irish economy, politics, social issues and literature.

I got to hold Ireland close and now I feel it drifting away again. The country is not really mine to keep any more. And that’s OK. It will be partly mine from now on, not fully mine, and that makes my life easier.

My next book is completely different. It’s a historical novel set in Switzerland and it could only be written by a Swiss person, the Swiss me. It has shown me how much this country means to me now. I’ll be sharing more news about this project with lots of razzmatazz very soon.

Before I sign off, I have to give the usual reminder that my non-fiction books The Naked Irish: Portrait of a Nation Beyond the Clichés and The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths are ideal gifts for anyone who wants to understand either of the countries better. You can order them directly from the publishers on those links or make a trip to your local bookshop because they badly need your custom.

Final note: I took the picture above during a visit to the laténium museum and park on Lake Neuchâtel in June (highly recommended!). These reconstructed lake dwellings are based on a 6,000-year-old village that was discovered on the site. Amazing to see.

Final final note: I might as well stick in a picture from the book launch in Dublin last year because it was such a happy day. Credit, Ger Holland (@GHollandPhoto on Twitter), who did a wonderful job.

A spoonful of duckweed helps Brexit go down

Duckweed

In a slight change of direction, I’ve been commissioned to write some science stories over the next few months and that means my inbox is now flooded with Swiss science newsletters. Actually, it’s a great way to start the day, finding out about scientists’ wild and wonderful ideas. The creativity is infectious!

Today brought a press release from Zurich’s Federal Institute of Technology about duckweed, aka Wolffia. Two researchers, Cyrill Hess and Melanie Bingelli, want to take this common water plant beloved of ducks, and make it widely available as a superfood for humans. Duckweed contains lots of high-​quality plant proteins and fibre, as well as valuable unsaturated fatty acids. They think it could become a staple for vegetarians, perfect in smoothies or salads, apparently.

Apart from the various challenges the scientists have to overcome in the production process, there is one important administrative hurdle to get over, and it involves the European Union. Hess and Binggeli have to apply for EU approval for Wolffia to be listed as a novel food before it can be sold as a foodstuff. This approval might eventually make the production and sale of the plant economically viable.

If you want to read more about their work, check out the press release here.

So what’s the Brexit connection? I’m getting there. Reading about this exciting research, it struck me, not for the first time, how central the EU is to everything that happens in the European region, scientific research and food production being just two of countless examples.

Switzerland had a free trade agreement with the EEC from 1972, but when the EU single market came along, new arrangements were needed. The plan was for Switzerland (along with fellow neutrals Sweden and Austria) to join the European Economic Area (EEA) in 1992, which would have offered the advantages of EU integration without compromising on sovereignty. But when voters rejected this option, the government had to go back to the drawing board, a bit like the position the British are in now. Membership of the EEA might have made sense for the UK which is obviously much more integrated in the EU economy than Switzerland ever was but, thanks to Teresa May’s red lines, this was ruled out at an early stage after the Brexit vote.

Since 1992, the Swiss have negotiated some 120 bilateral agreements with the EU, a slow and painstaking process. These agreements, along with membership of Schengen, have brought Switzerland very close to full integration. Thanks to the 1999 Agreement on Trade in Agricultural Products, for example, approximately 58% of Swiss agricultural exports went to EU member states in 2018, while about 75% of its agricultural imports came from the EU. Maybe one day duckweed will feature among those exports.

The UK officially leaves to the EU on January 31st and the (in)famous Withdrawal Agreement will be in place until the end of this year. The idea that Boris Johnson’s government wants to negotiate a raft of new agreements governing every aspect of the UK’s future relationship with the EU in 11 months is for the birds. Yet another unnecessary self-imposed deadline that could only be met at great cost to the smaller negotiating partner.

Seeing the distasteful triumphalism of the flag-waving Brexit Party MPs in the European parliament yesterday was yet more evidence of the national delusion at the heart of Brexit. I still can’t understand the appeal of this behaviour although it clearly pleases many British people. Which is why the Johnson regime is running video ads this week in the same style which would have been dismissed as a parody of patriotism just a few short years ago.

As I wrote in The Naked Irish, the long-term effects of Brexit are impossible to predict. Walking away from the world’s largest trading block and all the preferential trading deals it has in place with the rest of the world seems bonkers to any sane observer. I certainly don’t see the UK, one of Europe’s most unequal societies thanks to home-grown policies, becoming a better place for the majority to live in the wake of this decision. No-one wants the population of the UK to go through unnecessary suffering and instability. What’s bad for them is bad for the rest of Europe too, particularly Ireland. It’s a crying shame.

Look, it’s too late for the duckweed lesson. The UK isn’t listening anyway. As the country sails off into the sunset /over the cliff of Brexit, the people I feel sorry for are the other half of the population who have been press-ganged into a future they did not choose.

On a different note, you may be interested in two votes taking place in Switzerland next week. I wrote a piece for The Irish Times about the affordable housing initiative, which shows that housing is an issue everywhere. And fellow Bergli Books author Diccon Bewes wrote a great piece on his blog about the second vote on extending racism law to include homophobia.

Remember the song ‘Be Back Soon’ from the Oliver! musical? That’s stuck in my head now so I hope you don’t mind me passing it on to you 😊

(Photograph: ETH Foundation / Das Bild)

What’s another year? Shifting goalposts in 2019

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I didn’t write a round-up of 2018. Looking back, this was probably because not much went according to plan. It was a year of near misses professionally. The only big project I managed to salvage was the book that became The Naked Irish. I signed with Mentor Books / Red Stag in November 2018 and the book was published in September 2019.

Other plans that went by the wayside last year after a lot of work and anticipation included a book translation project, an application to do a Master’s, a possible job in Basel, submission of a middle grade novel and a memoir writing business. But just when I was beginning to think everything I touched turned to ashes, I got that much-needed yes from Mentor Books.

So there was a point in time when all I wanted was for a publisher to accept the book about Ireland and publish it. But as soon as that became a reality, the goalposts shifted. It wasn’t enough just for the book to be published any more, I wanted it to be a critical success. I wanted reviews to confirm that I had done a good job.

From my point of view, the book has been a critical success, with positive reviews appearing in the Irish Independent, the Business Post and The Irish Times. It is on sale all over Ireland and was hopefully under many Christmas trees this year.

Now, I notice that my greedy writer goalposts have shifted again. Suddenly, Ireland is not enough. I want the book to be a commercial success and that means looking beyond the small Irish market. After all, The Irish Times review said the book would appeal to readers outside Ireland who have reasons for peering in. People like Irish Americans. They should obviously read The Naked Irish too, ideally in great numbers. God, it’s exhausting.

No, instead of obsessing about US publishers, I would like to savour the moment. That’s what Christmas is all about, isn’t it? I want to be thankful for everything I’ve achieved so far and all the good things that have happened in 2019. I already have more than I could have hoped for a year ago. It is enough, as these photos remind me.

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In January, I went to Ireland on a short research trip for the book. I had so much work ahead of me but this was the best part, the last bit of real-life research. I had meetings set up in Belfast and Ballyjamesduff and I interviewed the veteran women’s rights campaigner, Ailbhe Smyth, in Dublin. I also recorded two radio essays for RTE’s Sunday Miscellany, and enjoyed time with family and friends.

This is a photo from the drive to Co. Cavan. I chose Ballyjamesduff as a case-study because it perfectly represents the two sides of the Irish emigration story. On the one hand, the town is associated with emigration thanks to Percy French’s 1912 song, Come Back Paddy Reilly to Ballyjamesduff. On the other hand, it has the fourth highest immigrant population of all Irish towns with 30 per cent non-national residents. I got a warm welcome at the local school, St Clare’s College. My mother came with me as co-driver and she visited the local emigration museum (coincidence!) while I was at the school. We had a lovely lunch on the way back in this village, Virginia, and plenty of time to chat on the journey.

In March, I finally got to visit James Joyce’s grave in Zurich at the instigation of my cousin Jennifer, who was visiting from Ireland. We spent a wonderful day together in the city with time to talk and had a memorable conversation about life and death at the graveyard. There were murmurings this year about moving Joyce’s body back to Dublin. Such nonsense, he’s fine where he is, really.

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Also in March, I had a writing weekend away in Wilderswil in the Berner Oberland. It’s the second time I’ve gone away with this small group of writers. The village is quiet off-season and we stay in a nice little hotel and meet for meals in between writing sessions. The perfect mix of solitude and good company. This was the view from my room.

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The big event in June was the Women’s Strike in Switzerland. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets all over Switzerland on the 14th. I went along to my local demonstration in Fribourg with two friends. We wanted to draw attention to all the unresolved equality issues in Switzerland and elsewhere. The energy and feeling of unity in the crowd was amazing. As the white sign here says: ‘If you’re here it means you get it’. I don’t always feel like I’m fully connected to Swiss society. This was one of the good days.

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In July, one day that stands out is when I took a hike with my daughter and the dog. She had a few days home alone while the other two were at camps. It was a very hot day and we took the train to the neighbouring town of Düdingen to walk back home. I know the area well but I’d never walked it so it was a journey of discovery and we had a lovely relaxing, fun time together.

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We had a family version of this adventure when we took the train to Grenchen with our bikes one day in the summer and cycled along the Aare river to Solothurn. A week spent in Portugal with the extended family was another delightful escape from normal life.

September brought the launch of The Naked Irish in Dublin, a very happy occasion. Both my godparents were there, three generations of my family, my husband, friends from school, college, writing and work. It was a reunion really, a great reason to get together and celebrate. I had the pleasure of seeing my book on Irish shelves at last (photo by Ger Holland).

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A Swiss launch of The Naked Irish followed in November in Book Books Books in Lausanne, and, in December, I was asked to moderate a panel discussion on Brexit in the University of St. Gallen, organised by swissinfo.ch. It was my third time moderating this year – the first two were literary events: the Bibliotopia festival in May and Le Livre sur les quais in September. This is something I definitely want to do more of.

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It seems like most of my highlights this year involved spending time connecting with people and doing interesting work. There were plenty of humdrum days too but the year was also made richer by the books I read. Thanks to Goodreads, I know I read 50 books this year. You can view the list on that link, including some reviews. My favourite novels were Olive Again by Elizabeth Strout, The Narrow Land by Christine Dwyer Hickey, The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman, and Hidden Latitudes by Alison Anderson.

I really enjoyed answering questions about my favourite non-fiction books for the website Smartthinkingbooks. You can read the interview here. Actually, I think a separate blog post is needed to talk about the books of 2019.

I hope you are fortunate enough, like me, to have a few more quiet days of freedom left before returning to the normal routine. If you scroll back through your photos of the year, may you find many good times to recall with a smile. Wishing everyone good health, harmony and goodwill in 2020.

Brexit: disarray and disappointment for Christmas

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Brexit has given us another Shakespearean year in British politics and, like many observers, I am simultaneously gripped and dismayed by the drama. I am fully expecting a once-in-a-lifetime thunder storm to accompany the final act, though it is anyone’s guess what that ending will look like.  

For the Irish, there is too much at stake for schadenfreude. The dominant feeling is disbelief that we are witnessing such an extreme public display of incompetence and bad judgment on the part of our former rulers. Whatever we thought of the English, we never considered them to be foolish.

The Brexit project was based on the premise that the EU was bad for the UK and that life outside the union would be much better. The UK’s real, home-grown problems, such as having the highest rate of income inequality in the EU, were ignored in the debate which concentrated on the woolly issue of sovereignty, fuelled by wild economic fantasies.

Leaving the EU is a new concept but it is imaginable, assuming you approach the task with good imagination, good planning and some respect for the rest of the union. That we are where we are today clearly shows the plan had no great minds or vision behind it. It is obvious that the Leave campaign never expected to win. The goal, or the game, was to stir up as much discontent as possible while using the debate as a vessel for grand-standing and disruption. At the end of it all, the Leave campaign has left us with a dated, mean-spirited brand of nationalism in lieu of a workable roadmap for Brexit.

The English and Welsh decision to leave the EU, dragging Scotland and Northern Ireland along, was based on negative, not to mention dishonest, campaigning. The narrative of the European Union as a tyrannous force from which the British have to be liberated is bizarre considering the UK’s influential place in the union and the special exceptions it successfully negotiated over the years.

The EU has many flaws but it is not the enemy. If the British public need an enemy so badly, why don’t they look slightly further afield to the country that revived the practice of annexation in the 21st century?

The vote result showed a profound lack of consideration for others – whether immigrants or the Irish or fellow EU countries – and a lack of understanding of the wider implications, such as who would really benefit from this course of action. Why did Putin, to name one Brexit fan, speak out against a second referendum? Because the first result, actively encouraged by his back office, fits perfectly into his agenda of weakening Europe.

Trade was a big argument in the referendum but the Leave campaign denied how complex and painful severing ties with the EU was bound to be. In the 25 years of the single market, entirely new ways of doing business have evolved based on 28 countries being a single trading space. The pain of undoing that mesh of interdependence will be felt for years.

When it came to the prospect of Northern Ireland being pulled from the EU, the Leavers did not bother with denial, just indifference. Thanks to the single market, a hard-won peace agreement and the (relatively new) good working relationship between the UK and the Republic of Ireland, the island of Ireland has, in many ways, been able to move beyond the border.

Joint membership of the EU goes way beyond trade for Ireland. As part of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, we in the Republic voted to remove the territorial claim to Northern Ireland from our constitution. This was conceivable not just because everyone wanted peace so badly but because we were all EU citizens. Being European is an additional, welcome identity that unites us and makes it easier to for the two Irelands to cooperate in healthy ways. The shared identity enhances the links between north and south which can only be a good thing. Taking it away is the most destabilising thing that could be done to Northern Ireland.  

The border is not just a line on a map. For many, north and south it is a scar that in recent years was finally allowed to heal in a context of forgiveness.  The fading of that scar allowed people who had been oppressed by it to feel free, and it took away the legitimacy of paramilitaries. We don’t know what life will look like – economically, emotionally and politically – with the scar cut open again. But we have got the message that the people who voted leave could not care less. 

Historically, the Swiss have also had an ambivalent attitude to the EU, and there is an influential segment of Swiss politics and public opinion that beats the same nativist drum as the Brexiteers. This was the constituency Steve Bannon was seeking out when he came to Zurich in March and praised the delighted audience for being the first to stand up to the EU.

Just like the British isolationists, these Swiss have a superiority complex when it comes to Europe. They believe they are better than other Europeans, sweating away stupidly under the yoke of the evil EU. They knock the EU as a rotten construct while benefitting from its strength and partnership in a myriad of tangible and intangible ways. It is a highly unattractive mix of snobbery combined with a sense of entitlement.

The Swiss are not EU members but their relationship with the EU is so close, complicated and crucial to the smooth functioning and well-being of the nation, that they might as well be.  

As well as intensive contact between people – 17.5 per cent of Swiss residents are EU citizens (not including dual nationals), and 430,000 Swiss live in the EU – Switzerland is hooked on the EU because the single market of 510 million people is its largest trading partner.

Switzerland is part of the Schengen area and ties are increasing rather than diminishing, for example in the area of food safety, public health, research, electricity and CO2 emissions. The raft of bilateral agreements that govern the relationship are in the process of being replaced by one over-arching agreement, though there is resistance from the usual suspects to this pragmatic solution.

And while we are all bitching at each other in Europe, things are evolving quickly on the global stage. Since the phenomenal rise of China, the world now has two great economic and military powers where before there was one. China has no allegiance to Europe or wishy-washy ideas like human rights, and Trump has proven that US sympathy for Europe is only skin deep.

Over the same time period, Russia has been trying to claw back to a strong position since the break-up of the Soviet Union, and while unable to score on economic progress, it has fallen back on dirty tricks and military posturing.

The EU has plenty of shortcomings and often does not live up to its own ideals but we don’t know what life in Europe would be like without it. When it comes to regional trade, the EU is the only game in town. When it comes to geopolitical influence, 28 countries may find it hard to reach consensus but as a group they still manage to play an important role as a global voice for democracy.

Whatever happens in the next three months and beyond, we have no choice as Europeans but to wish the British people well and to hope for a tolerable outcome to Brexit that does not cause undue suffering and instability. The British rejection of the EU, adopting the role of the thankless child, has brought the rest of the family closer together – for now. All is disarray and disappointment this Christmas. Let’s stock up on some good cheer and goodwill before the next instalment of drama in 2019. 

A wannabe vegetarian goes hunting

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My New Year’s resolution this year was to give up meat. With great effort and a handful of staple dishes, I managed to get through January meat-free. My quest has gone steadily downhill since then and I am now back where I started, eating meat roughly every second day and feeling uneasy about it. Part of the problem is that the rest of my family are not yet converted, so I still have to cook for four meat eaters. There’s only so many times I can reheat my lentil stew and watch them eat lasagne (I make a very good lasagne).

To be accurate, I never aimed to be a pure vegetarian. Ideally, I would like to eliminate meat from my own cooking while being relaxed about eating a meat dish as a guest at someone else’s table. But by not taking a hard line, I’ve been too open to making other exceptions. Classic slippery slope.

My motivation to stop eating meat mainly stems from conscientious objection to the meat industry. I just wish I was more conscientious about it. When I think about the cruel and unnatural conditions animals must endure in large-scale farming and the way they are slaughtered, I feel I cannot be complicit. I’m also swayed by the environmental arguments and, to a lesser extent, the health benefits.

But why is it proving so difficult to give up just one of many foodstuffs? Meat eating is just a habit, not an addiction, even if I did grow up in a strong meat-eating culture.

A lot of people grapple with this issue in young adulthood but my twenties came and went without me seriously considering vegetarianism. I was always too hungry and in too much of a hurry chasing other goals. But that’s a long time ago now. I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to face up to this basic moral choice. And I can’t believe what a lousy job I’m doing at sticking to that choice.

In my reasoning, and some vegetarians will disagree strongly, the problem is not the fact that an animal dies to feed me, the problem is how the animal lives and dies. The forced breeding of billions of animal lives in miserable warehouse conditions to produce meat is an ugly reality. The more traditional small-scale farming model is obviously more acceptable, and one thing you see in Switzerland is a lot of contented cows ambling about in beautiful, big fields. Pigs and chickens suffer behind closed doors, unfortunately. But no matter how pretty the farm, when the time comes, the animals still have to be transported to be slaughtered en masse. Back to my original sticking point of not wanting to be complicit in a horrible, distressing death.

But what if there was such a thing as a good life and a clean death for an animal? It turns out this ideal does exist and there is a group of people dedicated to making it possible, Swiss hunters. Though it’s a hugely popular pastime here, hunting has always been alien to me. Now, as part of this whole thinking process around the ethics of eating meat, I have become more curious about hunting. So much so, that I was inspired to go on a hunting expedition and write an article about it.

The autumn hunting season is currently in full swing and game features on the menu of Swiss restaurants everywhere, from the hushed dining rooms of Michelin Star restaurants to the loud and crowded supermarket canteens. The most popular meat is venison and it is served with an array of mouth-watering side dishes, including glazed chestnuts, Späzle dumplings, Brussels sprouts, red cabbage, poached pear and cranberry sauce. About a third of the game eaten in Switzerland comes from domestic hobby hunters but the demand is so high that most of the meat has to be imported.

Up until last month, you could fit everything I knew about hunting onto a beermat. I certainly didn’t see the attraction of stalking and shooting an animal. As an activity, it seemed a bit selfish and unnecessary. When I go walking near my home, I sometimes catch sight of chamois (a kind of goat antelope native to the Alps) and deer and it makes my day. Why would you want to hurt those lovely creatures?

This was more of a superficial, city girl reaction. Of course I have heard of culling and how it is necessary to keep wild populations at sustainable levels to protect biodiversity. And I know humans started out as hunter gatherers. Children don’t play chasing and hide-and-seek for no reason. Hunting is in the blood. I just didn’t think it was in my blood.

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Well, I was wrong. The day I spent hunting chamois was completely different and more exciting than most other days I’ve spent in the great outdoors. It beats skiing, paragliding (OK, I’ve only done a tandem jump once) and hiking.  And I didn’t even carry a gun! All I did was trek around the place, look through binoculars a lot, and watch animals. I was with a party of eight hunters who split up for the day and only one of the eight shot a chamois. Yet everyone had a great time because we were all there with a purpose. I discovered that you don’t need to shoot something yourself to feel the thrill of the chase.

It felt OK to me because the chamois that was shot was killed instantly and was sold to a restaurant. And then there’s the context in which the hunt was happening. Hunting is tightly regulated in Switzerland, and I think this is a good thing. They don’t just let any fool go out with a gun. You have to go through a two-year training programme to get your hunting licence, and then pass an annual shooting test. The cull numbers are carefully controlled (15 per cent of the herd) and hunters who apply are allocated a small number of animals to shoot, age and sex specified. They have to put a date tag on their kill and show it to a wildlife inspector the same day.

The hunters aim for the side of the chest, just under the leg, to kill with one shot. Some butcher the carcass themselves and keep the meat, the rest sell directly to butchers or restaurants but the money they make does not cover the licence costs. For these men – and some women, the proportion is growing – hunting is a way of life.

There are two hunting systems in Switzerland. In most cantons, the hunting period for the ‘better’ animals – red deer, roe deer and chamois – is limited to a few weeks in the autumn. Smaller animals, fowl and wild boar have a longer hunting season.

Swiss hunters tend to be members of clubs. In the non-hunting months, they spend a lot of time involved with the animals – saving fawns from combine harvesters during the mowing season (the little ones tend to hide in the long grass when they get scared), delivering hay to feeding points in the winter, doing forest maintenance and lots of observing to see the condition, whereabouts and numbers of the animals.

The hunters are a tightly-knit community from all walks of life, but the majority I met work in manual jobs. They spend a lot of time in nature and that, along with the camaraderie and the challenge, is the attraction. I wonder if I fell into the trap of the embedded journalist of liking the hunters too much and losing sight of the rights and wrongs of the venture. I hope not.

If you want to read more about it, the article I wrote for swissinfo.ch is here: The Swiss hunt: collecting the reward for a year’s work. You’ll find recipes and more information on what goes into the classic Swiss game dish at Helvetic Kitchen, the excellent Swiss cooking blog by author Andie Pilot.

Feel free to scroll down and comment. I’d love to hear your take on any of these subjects from vegetarianism to cooking for a family with different diets to humane farming to hunting. These are areas where personal decisions can have far-reaching consequences – at least that’s the hope.