Swiss poet treads the line between love and loss

If you’ve ever had your heart broken, felt crushed, used and discarded, Swiss poet Angelia Maria Schwaller has something to say to you. I recently interviewed the award-winning poet for – my first introduction to Swiss-German poetry.

Angelia writes in her unusual Freiburg dialect, which is not taught as a written language in Switzerland. Her first collection of poetry dachbettzyt was published last year. If you’ve never heard the Swiss German language, it’s worth listening to the clip of Angelia reading her poem crumbs (‘verbroosme’ in Swiss German) below. The desolation in the sparse lines written by this 25 year old reminds us that everybody hurts sometimes.

crumbs (unofficial translation) by Angelia Maria Schwaller

I am dry and old bread
lie enclosed in your hand
being crushed by you

when it’s all over
you throw me
in crumbs
on the stone floor
as fodder

scattered, I fall down
the cracks
and get lost

© dachbettzyt, Knapp Verlag 2012

Listen to Angelia read crumbs here. She has a lovely voice:

Like to know more ? Read the full interview with Angelia published last week. It’s interesting that Angelia is a self-taught poet who picked up most of what she knows online, starting at the age of 12! Shows what a great resource the internet is for writers.

And one more translated poem:

drops (unofficial translation)

drop after
is lost

at the low point
a puddle
is collected

I flow
into it through
my racing heart

© dachbettzyt, Knapp Verlag 2012

Angelia’s homepage (only in German):

The advantage of owning a language

As an Irish person, I sometimes find myself in awe of how articulate the English are. I’m talking about the really clever ones, usually with cut-glass accents, deftly crafting arguments in flawless phrasing on television – my main point of contact with the English. It’s not only the ideas they are expressing, it’s their absolute mastery of the language. Well it’s almost as if they owned it.

You do hear affectionate remarks about the original use of English by the Irish, shaped as it is by the ghost of the old language underneath, but people in a position of security can afford to give generous praise. Part of me suspects most of this positive spin comes from Irish writers who have taken the compliment and run with it.

Now there could be a post-colonial, 800-years-of-oppression explanation for this respect, after all generations of my ancestors variously feared, loathed, mimicked and looked up to the English – but how would that explain the very similar reaction I observe with some Swiss Germans towards “real” Germans.

When it comes to live debate, Germans, with their natural command of the language, outshine their Swiss-German counterparts. Pit the Swiss finance minister against the German one and it’s like watching the receptionist take on the CEO. Swiss Germans only speak German when they have to, the rest of the time the cling to the comfort of their dialect.

Or maybe this is nothing to do with linguistic superiority and everything to do with superiority of numbers. Yes the Swiss can beat the Germans at football in theory, just as the Irish can beat the English but it takes a very lucky day. In the same way, the teams of leaders and thinkers from more populous countries have the advantage of being drawn from a much bigger pool.

Do the French-speaking Belgians feel the same about their big showy neighbour? Do they look at the French and sigh, giving up all hope of ever competing with their confidence and academies, their glorious language?

My best guess is that small neighbour complex is one phenomenon found all over the world, borrowed language syndrome is another and one should do everything possible to avoid having both together.

Cats and kings on Twitter

I’m not just a late adopter, I’m a reluctant one. If I’d been around in the 1920s, I probably would only have only learned the steps for the Charleston in 1931. It took a social media course at work for me to finally ‘join the conversation’ through gritted teeth last May. Turns out, like many arranged marriages, it was a good match after all.

Some see the service only as a glorified link-sharing platform or a place to let off steam, but it is much more than that. Twitter is a fantastic shortcut to good quality information. Through Twitter you borrow the eyes and ears of the people you find most interesting, important or fun. I think of it as a never-ending group discussion, like sitting around with a bunch of people making scrapbooks from a pile of global content. They’re pasting news reports, research findings, events, reviews, blog posts, videos, photos, personal observations and witty one-liners into their scrapbooks, pointing out each item to you as they go along. It’s a way of sharing passions and you can join or leave the feast at any time. For me that’s been invigorating, it has fed into my work on the journalism side as well as my creative writing.

Without Twitter I would not have:
1. Entered a flash fiction story for the National Flash Fiction Day Anthology yesterday because I wouldn’t have heard of it without following Irish writer @NualaNiC (Nuala Ní Chonchúir)
2. Interviewed @AlaindeBotton in Basel on Wednesday (all arranged last minute on Twitter, more about that next week)
3. Written articles about women’s issues in Switzerland in response to Anne Marie Slaughter’s @SlaughterAM having-it-all essay.

Twitter is all things to all (wo)men. The Twitterati I follow fall into three broad categories – news, countries and writing.

Twitter is a fabulous resource for people interested in a particular region or country. It has helped me feel much more present in Ireland. From small things, like hearing a pub I used to work in burned down, to big things like the current abortion debate, I get a sense of being around again. Don’t worry there’s lots of good stuff too, like the pictures of sunrises in Sandycove posted by @blathnaidhealy.

On the ground
There’s a thrill to be had following a dynamic developing story on Twitter. You don’t have to wait for the reporter to come out of the court for his or her piece to camera. Follow the right person (like BBC Africa Correspondent Andrew Harding @BBCAndrewH at the Pistorius trial) and you can get the action line by line as it happens.

Of course with an unfolding story, information has to be handled with care. One tweet during the Boston manhunt said it all (I’m paraphrasing here): “Faced with this barrage of confusing and conflicting information, I just wish there was a printed summary of all the verified facts available the next day.”

There’s so much to say about the writing community on Twitter that I’ll have to put it in another post. For emerging writers Twitter is Open University meets support group. Check it out for yourself!

10 things to love about Switzerland


I’ve been dwelling a lot lately on what I’m missing out on by not living in Ireland anymore so in the interests of positive energy I’ve put together a list of 10 wonderful things Switzerland has to offer.

1. The Alps: They take up almost two-thirds of the country’s landmass and play a big part in national consciousness and history. Whether you are sailing up in a chairlift over green meadows in a warm summer’s breeze, hiking over a glacier or swooping through a pine forest on skis, any visit to the Alps brings breath-taking moments where you just can’t get over the sheer beauty of it all.

2. Languages: For a language nut like myself, Switzerland is a fascinating mini Tower of Babel. I’ve enjoyed the challenge of cracking Swiss German, completely impenetrable the first time you hear it, even to Germans. Living in a town on the French-German language divide, there’s a lively mix of both cultures; people in my neighbourhood switch between the two languages effortlessly. How do you say hello in Switzerland’s fourth language, Romansh? Allegra!

3. Public Transport: Switzerland demonstrates what public transport should be. The service is frequent, reliable and synchronised, and can take you anywhere. Amazing that the Swiss still feel the need to have five million cars for eight million inhabitants.

4. Location, location, location: Imagine living in a place where in a couple of hours you could visit Germany, France, Italy or Austria. That place is Switzerland. Coming from an island on the edge of Europe, I still get a thrill when I stand in Zurich station and see destinations like Milan, Vienna, Warsaw and Prague on the timetable display.

5. Egalité: Go to an ice hockey match and you’ll see how strongly the Swiss feel about their local identity. People are very attached to their canton and recognise each other’s regional accents straight away. On the other hand there is no such thing as class-related accent and children of all backgrounds are educated side by side in state schools.

6. Built to last: Here’s something that amazes me. There are farmhouses in Switzerland still standing that were built in the 13th century. Not forts or castles but simple farmhouses. This surely is a sign of a great country. For more on that subject here’s a story I did about Switzerland’s oldest house in canton Schwyz:

7. Traditions: With a huge variety of traditional celebrations and rituals still thriving, Switzerland is all about continuity. Carnival is massive, people spend half the year preparing their costumes and rehearsing with bands. The things people celebrate here feel authentic. Instead of Santa Claus, children wait excitedly for a visit from St Nicholas in early December, a man dressed as a bishop who goes from house to house giving out nuts and chocolate.

8. Waterways: For many people water is about boating and fishing – for me it’s swimming. Switzerland has a wealth of beautiful clean, accessible lakes and rivers. The water warms up by mid-summer and you can walk in without getting a heart attack. The beaches are well kept and there are numerous public pools built on the lake and river shores. So far I’ve swum in a dozen different Swiss lakes, each experience unforgettable – dozens more to go!

9. Cheese: I’m completely hooked on the national cheese dishes raclette and fondue. These melted cheese meals are an institution here, part of the weekly menu all through the winter. I can’t decide which one I like the most so I just have to keep eating them both until I make up my mind.

10. People: One in five Swiss marries someone from outside the country. Like many foreigners in Switzerland, you may start off loving one Swiss person but for those of us who stay and make the effort, the rewards are great. The Swiss I now count as friends are fun-loving, kind and generous. They make me feel at home.

It’s been a good exercise for me to count my Swiss blessings. Have you ever done the same for your adopted home?

The fear of dying badly

Most journalists covering Swiss news will eventually be confronted with the issue of assisted suicide, legal in this country as long as the person helping does not benefit from the other’s death. This week assisted suicide organisations claimed that a state-funded research programme exploring the theme of death and dying was biased against their activities (a claim swiftly denied). I’ve written about this controversial subject before and it always makes me think, and wonder. Will this ever come close to home?

Last year I attended the World Right-to-Die conference in Zurich – as well as popping in to the protest counter-conference across the street, convened by a Canada-based pro-life & anti-euthanasia group. It was a long day. Around that time I also interviewed a woman who had helped her elderly mother pursue her wish to die.
You can read about that case here .

One speaker at the right-to-die conference made a strong impression on me and I grabbed a few minutes with him later in the hotel lobby. A palliative care doctor who looks after 300 terminally ill patients a year, he has more experience than most of the wishes of the dying. Up to 20 of his patients per year express the wish to avail of assisted suicide but only one or two of them actually see it through.

What makes a person who knows they will die soon want to intervene and end their own life? According to the doctor, there are two types of terminally ill people seeking assisted suicide. The first type is a strong willed, usually successful person who is used to controlling their own destiny. They reject the decline and suffering facing them and decide to end things on their own terms.

But for most people this doctor deals with, the main motivating factor is fear – fear of suffering and fear of being a burden to others. Terminally ill patients are not afraid of death, but of dying badly. They are terrified of dying in awful pain, gasping for breath – a fate that modern medicine can spare us. When this fear is taken away, by informing the patient about pain management and sedation on the one hand and reassuring them that professionals will be in place to care for them when the time comes, the suicide wish usually goes away too.

Assisted suicide now accounts for one in four Swiss suicides. Most of the people who go down this road are suffering from long-term rather than terminal illnesses. Suicide is usually carried out by taking a lethal dose of barbiturates procured with the help of an assisted suicide organisation.

As our population ages and excellent health care means people can live for much longer (but not necessarily well) with multiple illnesses, investing in the provision of good palliative care is one way to make sure assisted suicide remains a minority choice. But for those who decide they can’t take any more, there is comfort in knowing that there is a safe, humane and legal way out.

A new start in life, aged five

Do you know any five year olds? Imagine a little boy whose daily struggle to survive was so hard, he agreed to go away with a passing stranger for a chance at a new life. His name is Kam Moung and he comes from Myanmar (formerly Burma) in Southeast Asia.

Despite the heart-breaking choice made by this child, his story is a happy one. He has found security and acceptance in neighbouring Thailand in a school and orphanage set up specially for ethnic Shan refugees. His dream is to go back some day to his mother and his village and to travel around his homeland as a big music star.


In the meantime, Kam Moung is thriving in his new home. He is an excellent student and has won everyone over with his generous and bubbly personality.

A colleague of mine from, Luigi Jorio, introduced me to Kam Moung in the form of a book he had written with Mathias Froidevaux about the child and the plight of Shan refugees. Luigi discovered the school in 2010 and by chance arrived on the same day as Kam Moung, the perfect starting point for a story. I was only too happy to help out with the English translation.

The school and orphanage were set up by the young monk Noom Hkurh who himself fled Myanmar as a child after his village was burned to the ground. After getting an education in Thailand, he wanted to provide a caring home and safe place to study for orphans and other poor children to avoid the possibility of them being exploited or abused.

Last month, Luigi was able to return to Kam Moung’s school with copies of his book. Packed with photos and illustrations, the book will serve as a unique teaching tool. These stateless children will start English lessons with material written about their own lives.

More about the project here:

Spare the rod?

I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine about disciplining children. I was telling her what a troublesome weekend we had with bad behaviour and imposing punishments and she informed me that she and her husband didn’t punish their children. Well I nearly fell off my chair.

My friend is a psychologist who works with children and I have to admit her kids seem less rowdy than mine. Have I been going wrong all this time?

Obviously the norms of childrearing change over time and one thing I am sure about is that I don’t want to have to use force to get through to my children. So what weapons are at our disposal today? The most common one for small children is probably time out. Will future child development experts say this was a horrible form of child cruelty? I hope not. If so the producers of the Supernanny programmes will have to stand trial first.

The whole issue brings to mind a recent article I wrote about the relatively soft sentencing practices in Switzerland.

One criminology professor I spoke to pointed out that harsher sentences did not reduce crime rate – on the contrary. In other words there is no deterrent effect. During my research I also came across the work of the Australian criminologist John Braithwaite and his method of restorative justice. He believes that shaming is part of administering justice but that there is good shaming and bad shaming. According to Braithwaite shaming which stigmatises and alienates the person, like prison (or time out?), is much less effective than shaming which involves recognising what you did wrong and trying to atone for it. Here’s the link.

Suffering in Swiss children’s homes

This is an article I wrote published on last week. It was a very sad story to cover as it tells of the ill-treatment of vulnerable children. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, there was a lot more money in Switzerland and the whole approach to childcare and education began to change dramatically. In children’s homes, the pavillion system was introduced where small groups of up to 15 children would live in a family-type setting with the same carers. A far cry from the scores of children who were under the care of poorly-trained and overworked nuns in previous decades.

But unmarried mothers and their children as well as poor families and Swiss gypsies continued to suffer at the hands of the authorities well into the 1970s and even 1980s. The prevailing policy was to split families up rather than support them. I can post more about that later but for now, here is the story of the Ingenbohl sisters, the thankless unpaid job they did and the joint blame they, the authorities and society share for the damage done to children in their care.

Nuns admit to past mistakes in children’s homes

by Clare O’Dea in Brunnen,
Jan 23, 2013

An independent investigation into allegations of abuse at children’s homes run by the Swiss Ingenbohl Sisters of Mercy has found serious failings by the Roman Catholic nuns but has discounted the worst allegations involving deaths in care.

The excessive punishment doled out by some sisters was mainly due to the “systemic misery” of the homes, where both children and carers experienced hardship, the commission of experts found in its review of the decades from 1928 to the 1970s.

The commission, mandated by the Ingenbohl Sisters of Mercy of the Holy Cross two years ago, presented a 220-page report of its findings at the mother house of the order in Brunnen in canton Schwyz on Wednesday.

Under the chairmanship of lawyer Magnus Küng, the commission set itself the task of finding answers as to why a significant number of children were “so defencelessly abandoned to their tormentors”.

“Not only the authorities, the bodies who carried out inspections, and the management of the homes clearly bear their share of the institutional blame but also the leadership of the [religious] community. Many questions still remain about the guilt of individuals,” Küng said.


Of the 55 former residents of 16 different children’s homes who came forward with their testimonies, more than a quarter had predominantly negative memories, 13 mixed and 60 per cent positive.

The punishments the former residents recall include beatings, being held underwater, being forced to eat up vomited food, being denied food and being locked up in the dark.

A former resident of a children’s home in canton Fribourg, staffed by Ingenbohl sisters told that the seven years she spent in their care were “dreadful”.

“Once a nun pulled me to the ground by my hair and a clump of my hair stayed in her hand. They held my head under water. They treated all the children in the same way. We were traumatised,” said Michèle Gillard-Loubhane.

The commission also interviewed 23 nuns born between 1917 and 1943 who worked in a total of 22 different homes countrywide. None of them recalled carrying out or witnessing excessive punishment.

Hard times

The experts, who include a former judge, an education expert, a historian and a psychologist, accept that “in different homes there were those who systematically visited abhorrent suffering on the children”. But they also point out that that there were nuns who did their best for the children under the most difficult circumstances.

Society also turned its back on these children, for the most part from broken homes. “They went in stigmatised and they came out stigmatised,” historian Carlo Moos told

Psychologist and commission member Beatrix Staub-Verhees described the working conditions of the nuns she interviewed, some of whom worked for more than 30 or 40 years in numerous homes.

“The further back you go the more difficult the working conditions were: long working hours without free time or holidays, large groups of children to look after with insufficient financial means in crowded living conditions and with insufficient infrastructure.”

The mother superior of the Ingenbohl sisters Marie-Marthe Schönenberger has issued a blanket apology to those badly treated in the care of her order.

“With sadness and great regret we confirm that in individual cases our fellow sisters acted inappropriately in the work of looking after the children,” Schönenberger said.

“We are sorry for the suffering caused by our behaviour as individual sisters, as the leadership of the order and as a community,” she added.


Accepting that sexual abuse was a reality in children’s homes to some extent, the commission could not shed any light on the role of the nuns in any confirmed cases of sexual abuse. It found no “robust proof either for or against the assumption that nuns also [sexually] attacked children.”

Accusations against sisters in different homes at different times do exist but could not be adequately verified so long afterwards, partly because of the “unmentionable” nature of such offences at the time and the lack of any contemporary documentation.

The issue of ill-treatment of children at Ingenbohl-staffed homes first hit the headlines in 2009 when excerpts from the memoirs of a former girl resident of the Rathausen home in canton Lucerne were published in which the woman blamed the death of her sister and that of another child on the violent actions of a named nun.

The diaries, found in the woman’s attic after her death claimed that her sister Bertha Bucher, aged 13, died in 1928 from a head injury two weeks after a beating by Sister Ursula and that the cause of death given was a fall from a swing.

The commission found that there was insufficient evidence to connect the alleged beating to the girl’s death but said the home had acted negligently in not seeking medical care for the seriously ill child in the days leading up to her death from meningitis.

The same woman also recorded the case of a boy called Paul Wildi who, she wrote, died after being thrown down the stairs by the same nun. Investigators found that this information was incorrect. Paul Wildi died in hospital of meningitis.

Allegations of three cases of children who committed suicide in the 1940s, as described by a former home resident in Rathausen were found to be groundless. The man claimed in 2011 that the three had killed themselves as a consequence of abuse in the home.

Switzerland has changed beyond recognition since the peak era of the Ingenbohl sisters around 1940 when they had 2,461 sisters living and working in 300 locations of different kinds in Switzerland.

“The absolute truth can never be established, but with this report we have come a significant step closer to the truth,” Küng said.