I’m going to see if I can write a blog post while I’m on hold to Swiss airlines. It’s been 53 minutes already and I can’t sit here any longer doing nothing.
This week hasn’t gone very smoothly. I mean I got all the presents wrapped and under the tree on time and I cooked a wonderful Christmas dinner, as stipulated in my mother contract, but an uninvited and most unwelcome guest is causing havoc at home. Guess who?
It all started with the crooked Christmas tree. A little bit of imperfection is fine, I thought. No need to fix it, everything else will be just right. Little did I know, I was opening to door to all sorts of calamity!
Monday was spent making trips to the local Covid testing centre. My youngest had said she was cold on Sunday afternoon and I told her to put on a cardigan. She put on her winter jacket. It was an everyone-do-their-own-thing sort of day (living with four people, I need and encourage days like these) so I didn’t pay too much attention until I saw her later, still wearing her jacket. Alarm bells rang and I checked her temperature. A fever. Her rapid antigen test was positive, confirmed by a PCR on Monday.
This development brought a surprising amount of admin. Calling, emailing, texting, filling in forms online, researching, cancelling things. The big disappointment was cancelling our post-Christmas visit to Ireland to see family. That’s why I’m on hold to Swiss now, into my second call, now at 15 minutes. I’ve chosen German this time, hoping it will be picked up faster.
Monday was also the day that my husband, after several days of bad back pain suddenly had an episode of such severe pain that meant he couldn’t move from the floor for 15 hours. It proved impossible to get a home visit from a doctor so he just had to ride it out. He’s gradually recovering since then.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been waiting to hear about a grant I applied for to support my next writing project. If I received the grant, I could take a break from freelance work and concentrate on writing for six months. It would have also meant recognition in the Swiss literary establishment. I got the news on Wednesday – no grant.
Christmas Eve is when the Swiss have their festive meal and exchange gifts. Despite everything we managed to go ahead with our family celebration in a safe way. It was different but still felt special. I think it will make us appreciate future Christmases all the more.
‘May all your troubles be little ones’ is what you can except to hear in Ireland when you complain about anything less than tragedy. With only two more days to go in this isolation regime at home, no sign that the rest of the family has caught Covid, and my husband well enough to take short walks, things are looking up.
My 11-year-old daughter has light symptoms and she’s been a trooper all week, staying mostly in her room and keeping herself occupied without complaint. She can expect a lot of hugs on Monday evening.
I am somewhat back to the drawing board for 2022, both professionally and creatively. But I’m not short of ideas. Since I went freelance almost seven years ago, I have based my career on the Mr Micawber principle that ‘something will turn up’ and, thankfully, it always does.
Miraculously, a human being just answered the phone and is sorting out the flight rebooking problem (child changing age category) while putting me on hold again. So I will very soon have one definite thing to look forward to next year – Easter in Ireland.
Things could be worse. I could be working in a call centre on Christmas Day! Thanks for listening and I wish you all a happy and healthy Christmas break. See you in the New Year full of new possibilities!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Every town is a collection of businesses at different stages of their life cycle – fledgling, midlife, waning, and shuttered for good.
The town I live in, Fribourg in Switzerland, was founded in 1157. Many generations have made their living here. It is built in and around a gorge, which also happens to be the geographical line separating the French-speaking Swiss from the German-speaking Swiss. It’s got history and medieval architecture in spades. For a guided walk around the most interesting parts of the town, see this blog post.
Fribourg was first settled around the river bank, growing upwards on steep slopes, century by century. When the Swiss constitution was created in 1848, the area of Pérolles was just fields. But when the trainline came to Fribourg, it brought new energy to the periphery, and by the turn of the century the new Boulevard de Pérolles, and its side streets, was the happening part of town.
The boulevard is about a kilometre long, starting at the train station and ending at a bunch of new university buildings. There’s a cinema on Pérolles, a church with a declining congregation, a newspaper with a declining circulation, a bank, a secondary school, various bars and restaurants, clothes shops, hairdressers, a small shopping centre and lots of apartments. The dentists and doctors of Fribourg have their surgeries on the upper floors of this street. The strangest business is a shop that offers ‘acqua-ness’, cycling in tank of water in your own private cabin.
But despite all this activity, Pérolles does not have the feel of a thriving street. Shops change hands too often and many businesses appear to be hanging on by a thread. The longest shopfront on the street is FriCash, a store that offers cash for jewellery and household goods. This lack of vitality is probably to do with the fact that the street is bordered by a gorge on one side and not leading anywhere in particular. The rest of the town, situated to the north and west of Pérolles forms a better-connected core.
Yet many things have happened on Pérolles in my 15 years in Fribourg. I had 30 anti-allergy injections on 30 separate visits (that didn’t work) on Pérolles. I had my Swiss citizenship interview in an office on Pérolles. I learned to speak German in the adult education centre off Pérolles. And I found out I was pregnant with twins at a gynaecologist on Pérolles. I’ve had fillings filled at the dentist on this street, I’ve had my hair cut here many times, I’ve celebrated birthdays and anniversaries on this street, and now I rent office space in an old chocolate factory just a few yards from the boulevard.
Two awful things have happened on Pérolles in my time living here. One day, a man stabbed his toddler in the toilets of the shopping centre. The mother ran with the injured child to a clinic just off the boulevard but they could not save him. Desperately sad.
A few years later, a tailor whose shop was next door to a café, flew into a murderous rage. He was having a long-running row with the café owner about the café’s street tables infringing on his shop front. One day, he grabbed a scissors, stormed into the café and stabbed his neighbour in the heart.
Miraculously, the injured man survived. I read a newspaper article about him some years later, written after the trial. Although he had recovered physically, he could not get over the crime because his attacker did not receive a custodial sentence – just a suspended sentence and a fine. The lack of punishment tormented the victim so much. But that is the Swiss justice system. You can deliberately stab someone in the heart in anger and not go to jail. Suspended sentences are the norm as jail is mainly reserved for those at risk of reoffending.
You can park on Pérolles, one franc per half hour. Two bus routes also carry people up and down the street and into the suburbs. And if you look closely, you will see that all of life is there.
I recently received an invitation to attend an event in Zurich to discuss the concept of Heimat, among other things. Heimat is a German word that doesn’t have a direct equivalent in English. It can mean home, homeland, native land and more.
When Swiss citizens fill in official forms, they are routinely asked to give their Heimatort (literally ‘native place’), the commune of origin of their family. This is passed down through the paternal line so that my husband’s Heimatort (and by extension mine) is the village where his grandfather was born, even though his grandfather left there as a small boy when he was sent to live with relatives after his mother’s death. This grandfather, who ended up working as a saddler in another village, never lived in his native village again and may not have felt any emotional attachment to the place but many Swiss are proud of their Heimatort.
The old function of Heimatort was that the commune (municipality) would provide for you in case of destitution. In the past, this was more about social control than charity. Somebody caught begging or drunk in public could be picked up and returned to his or her Heimat to be dealt with. Not a cheery prospect at a time when people who were classed as ‘work shy’ could be interned under the ‘administrative care’ legal provision (common up to the 1970s). Children who were taken into care were referred to their Heimat for a foster home placement – in practice to work as labourers or servants for farming families – which often meant a new life of drudgery miles away from where they grew up.
Now, thankfully, we have prosperity, social welfare payments and a professionalised child welfare system. The Heimatort is only relevant in a few minor, archaic ways, such as the right to graze animals on commonly held land. (Admittedly this is not minor if you can’t access the land your neighbours are using for free.) I don’t know of any other residual rights Heimatort grants but I’d be curious to know if anyone can enlighten me.
I have some Heimat issues myself in that I still feel the loss of my Irish homeland very keenly. Ideally, after fifteen years in a different country I should have transferred my allegiance and affections to my new location. But this has not happened, at least not to a convincing degree. Despite the fact that I have built a decent life for myself in Switzerland, a process that involved great effort, I still feel the inner tension of being pulled back to my place of origin. Meanwhile, my family is deeply rooted and happy here. It’s a conundrum.
A three-month stay in Ireland this year went some way to alleviating that tension. Apart from all the external trappings of life in Dublin that I enjoy (the sea, the sea!), there are two interlinked things the place offers me that I haven’t been able to replicate in Switzerland. One is a sense of community and the other is the ability to be myself. My German and French are good but I don’t feel truly myself when I speak those languages. I cannot be as genuine when I am working to communicate with a reduced vocabulary (and I seem to have hit a ceiling in both languages). But it’s not only about language; I have good relations with lots of people on an individual basis but it’s in a group that solidarity and shared experiences come into play. In this environment you can express a bigger range of your personality and find meaningful acceptance. I already have some ideas on how to respond to this problem and I’ll be giving it more thought over the coming months.
The interview was hosted by Patrick Vallélian of the in-depth Swiss news magazine Sept.Info, which is running an excerpt from La Suisse mise à nu in their latest edition and organising various joint events at bookshops in French-speaking Switzerland. More updates about these events on my Facebook page.
I was delighted to see the French translation reviewed in the Tribune de Genève newspaper and I’m looking forward to reading the write-up of the interview I gave 24 Heures newspaper later this month.
This time last year I was preparing for Le livre sur les quais festival in Morges at the beginning of September. This year the pressure is off as I will be attending as a visitor rather than a guest author. I have my ticket to see Maggie O’Farrell on September 2nd and will book more as soon as the full English programme is online. Especially looking forward to hearing Lisa McInerney speak. I loved her first book, The Glorious Heresies.
The photo above is the view from the top of the Kaiseregg mountain in Fribourg at sunrise a fortnight ago. The actual sunrise pics didn’t come out too well on my old phone but this one captures the dreamy beauty of the place. We had to get up at half past three in the morning to complete the climb in time before the sun came up. Tough going but well worth the effort, this was the best experience of my Swiss summer so far. I wish you all good times and safe travels this summer too.
Something vitally important to the lives and health of Irish women is happening this month in Ireland. On May 25th, voters will finally have the chance to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, the one that has allowed the country to deny essential healthcare to generations of women.
I will be in Ireland for the vote and I hope to witness the end of a deep-rooted tradition of silencing and shaming women. This tradition has always been dependent on indifference to female suffering.
Well it’s harder to be indifferent when people start speaking their truth openly. One of the positive outcomes of the referendum debate is that so many Irish women and couples are coming forward to speak out about how the amendment has affected them. The referendum has become an empathy test for the nation.
Just like women in every country in the world, Irish women need abortion, preferably provided with compassion as early as possible in the pregnancy. But unlike women in most Western countries, Irish women are criminalised if they seek abortion. The same applies to women in Northern Ireland. So they have to travel in secret to Britain, if they can afford it, or they buy pills online and go through the termination without medical supervision, afraid to seek help if anything goes wrong.
The Irish abortion ban means fear and danger for Irish women, it means additional stress, delay and expense at a time of crisis. This is nothing less than punishment and it has worked for this long because it fits neatly with the cultural legacy of strict social control of women’s fertility.
The Eighth Amendment of 1983 acknowledges the right to life of “the unborn” without any definition. It says that the state guarantees in its laws to respect, defend and vindicate that right, with “due regard to the equal right to life of the mother”.
This wording does not just mean that no regular abortion services can be made available in Ireland, it also enforces callous and dangerous restrictions in prenatal and maternity care when patients are at their most vulnerable.
Currently, a pregnant woman or child with a physical illness or experiencing a medical emergency may only have a termination in Ireland if there is a “real and substantial risk” to her life if she does not have a termination. The same applies to suicidal women and girls. This law dictates everything from the management of miscarrying patients and cases of fatal foetal abnormality to the management of labour in mothers about to deliver full term healthy babies.
In the case of a miscarriage that drags on for days, doctors do not intervene as long as there is a heartbeat, no matter how unwell the patient is. They can only perform a D&C if the woman reaches the point where her life is in danger. Unless, as in the tragic case of Savita Halappanavar in Galway in 2012, they miss that window between extreme suffering and impending death and the woman dies of sepsis.
Suffering is fine. The woman may suffer any degree of physical or mental anguish but as long as her life is not in imminent danger, it doesn’t count. The woman’s health or wellbeing during or after pregnancy does not count. The unborn’s right to life trumps her right to safety or peace of mind from day one.
The same rules apply to everyone, from a child of 12 in care to a 45-year-old mother of four, regardless of whether she is a rape victim, a cancer patient whose treatment must be suspended or someone with a serious illness made worse by pregnancy. Legally, nothing in the woman’s circumstances matters while she is pregnant. That this injustice has been tolerated for so long is simply staggering.
Switzerland, where I live, allows unrestricted access to abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and has one of the lowest rates of abortion in the world. The Irish abortion rate cannot even be accurately measured because it is shrouded in secrecy and illegality, even more so since abortion pills became available. You cannot help people if you criminalise them.
The Eighth Amendment was added to the Constitution in 1983 in a context where abortion was already illegal and there was no discernible movement to change that. At that time, up to 4,000 Irish women were travelling to England per year to avail of terminations. Those lonely journeys have continued and are still happening this month and every month.
The amendment was a pre-emptive strike and a highly effective one too. The complicated realities of unwanted pregnancy, pregnancy loss, fatal foetal abnormality, pregnancy by rape, pregnancy with serious illness, child pregnancy – all of it disregarded in one stroke.
I was 11 years old when this happened. My parents campaigned against the Eighth then and my mother and sister carry on the fight now in the Together4Yes campaign. As a non-resident I can no longer vote in Ireland. But I am counting on my fellow countrywomen and countrymen to show they care and strike back for all our women and girls.
Repeal the 8th!
Ps. I have disabled comments on this post to keep the scary element away. You can show your love by liking or sharing.
On the eve of Bastille Day last year, I joined several hundred French commuters returning from Lausanne to Thonon-les-Bains after their day’s work in Switzerland. The 50-minute ferry journey against the backdrop of Lake Geneva and the French Alps must be one of the most picturesque commutes in the world.
I made the trip as part of the research for a new chapter about Europe in the second edition of The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths, due out next month. The chapter examines Switzerland’s relationship with the European Union, and I wanted to see for myself the phenomenon of cross-border commuting in action.
Frontaliers,Grenzgänger or frontalieri make up six per cent of the Swiss workforce. The relationship between Switzerland and the EU is above all a human one, with millions of Swiss and EU citizens interacting with each other every day in workplaces, families and communities. Apart from the 318,500 cross border workers, some 1.4 million EU citizens currently live in Switzerland, while 430,000 Swiss citizens live in EU countries.
As the commuters streamed onto the Général Guisan ferry that summer’s evening, some carrying scooters and laptops, and many still wearing work badges, the atmosphere was jovial. The last woman to make it on board joined a table of friends indoors. “I left the clinic at 27 past,” she announced, before pulling up a chair. The table soon filled with bottles of beer and glasses of white wine, and the conversation turned to plans for the holiday.
The captain reversed the ship out and swung around to head southwest to the town of Thonon-les-Bains. The 5.30pm crossing in the Général Guisan is one of 28 daily crossings between the two ports each way run by CGN ferries. Some 600 people make this particular crossing every day.
I wandered around with my camera taking pictures, and struck up a conversation with a Swedish marketing director and an IT worker who were having a drink outside, sheltered from the strong breeze at the stern of the boat.
Both were returning to their homes in the Thonon area. We were out in the middle of the lake, where the border lies. “The border is not important,” the Swedish woman said. “We live and work in the same region.”
The journey is not always as pleasant as it was on that July day. “It can be magnificent, travelling when the sun is setting or rising,” the IT man said, “but in the winter, travelling both ways in the dark, we feel a bit like cattle.”
They both agreed that working in Switzerland is not complicated. It is not complicated because, after fifteen years of free movement of labour between Switzerland and the EU, Swiss employers are used to cross-border workers. All the necessary arrangements are in place, including the mutual recognition of professional qualifications, exemption from taxation at source, and coordination of social insurance systems. For more information on cross-border workers in Switzerland, see this summary.
The average age of the ferry passengers I travelled with was 30 to 50. The scooter riders queued at the door as the ferry docked, eager to get off first.
Thonon was lively the day before the French national holiday, with all generations out on the streets in a festive mood. The next morning I expected there to be much fewer people on the 6.30am ferry to Ouchy, Lausanne but it was still quite busy.
Understandably the atmosphere was more subdued, with some people already in work mode on their laptops, other sipping coffee and staring into space and a few tired souls with their heads down on their arms sleeping.
I chatted to some hospital staff from Lausanne’s university hospital CHUV. They were blasé about their special circumstances, as only French people can be blasé, but I left the ship impressed with the slice of life I had witnessed, and keen to understand more about the special relationship between Switzerland and the EU.
Do you have any experience of cross-border commuting in Switzerland or elsewhere? Have I painted too rosy a picture? I’d love to hear more first-hand perspectives on this.
Let’s get one thing straight. You cannot sexually harass or abuse a woman without realising you are doing it. This is active, deliberate, targeted behaviour that some men choose to engage in. That means they don’t do it to everyone. They do it when and where they can get away with it, and they want to do it.
Last night I watched a Swiss TV report in which about 20 men were interviewed about how difficult it is now interacting with women and how they don’t know if they can give a compliment anymore. This was the line of questioning from the woman journalist. As in, literally, “do you feel like you can’t give a compliment anymore?” The report was part of a longer item on the #metoo phenomenon, a wave of truth telling by victims which grew from the Harvey Weinstein revelations and the numerous allegations against powerful men that have followed.
What a perfect example of conflating two totally different problems, involving two totally different groups of people. On the one hand, men who find it hard to gauge their charm skills, and on the other hand, men who get sexual gratification from making women uncomfortable or afraid.
Bottom line, if you worry about women taking your comments or your birthday hug the wrong way, you are not a predator, you are socially inept. Predators don’t worry about these situations, and falsely presenting predator behaviour as social ineptness is the very definition of disingenuous.
If this is the message that reaches those hearing about #metoo from a distance, people who do not even bother to read the stories of horrible experiences or ask the women in their life what it means to them, it is a crying shame.
Here is what #metoo means: humiliation, fear, shame, flashbacks, and nasty memories that make you sick to the stomach.
Remember, these toxic men cross the line when and where they can get away with it. One of the perks of getting older is that you fall off the radar of creeps like this. They know who they can embarrass or intimidate into silence, most often girls and young women. So, apart from the risk of a very random event, I feel safe now in my daily life. I am now a person who will tell an aggressor to fuck off, I will report them and, most importantly, I have credibility. They know that and they act accordingly.
But I know that girls and young women are still in the firing line. My direct experience of male sexual violence and harassment was worst between 11 and 22, give or take. I can think of at least a dozen incidents when I felt frightened, in danger, and disgusted by the behaviour of predatory men. And I’m not talking about compliments.
For starters, I’m talking about exhibitionists, the dirty old men and young men that waited in the lanes and backstreets of my neighbourhood to expose themselves to schoolchildren. If you think flashers are harmless, please understand that the victim does not know it will end there. Every time it happens you dread that maybe this will be the one that grabs you, and does those acts you don’t understand but you fear so much.
I’m talking about inappropriate comments in the workplace. When I was 16 and working in my first proper job serving drinks in a bar, there was a barman who would tease me with questions about my non-existent sex life. He only did this in front of select others who would either laugh with him or blush with me. Did you have sex last night? How many times did you do it? And on and on. He knew what he was doing. I did not know how to handle it. He would not speak to me like that now.
I’m talking about being followed and pestered on public transport and in the street, telling a guy to leave me alone and not being left alone, being called ugly names instead. I’m talking about a boss more than twice my age and weight trying to get sexual with me. There is nothing subtle about this, these are not misread signals or clumsy compliments, this is groping and forced kissing and someone trying to physically overpower you.
You good guys, you know who you are. You are the majority and we love you. Partners, friends, workmates, neighbours, cousins, you make us comfortable, you make us laugh or smile, you want to treat us well and you do. It’s that simple. The others don’t want to treat us well and they don’t. No soul searching or faux confusion required.
Based on what the wonderful women in my life have told me, I know that my experiences of sexual harassment are on the minor end of the scale and that is a serious relief. I have heard tales of child rape and gang rape that chilled my soul. I know there’s a hope that teaching young men about consent will make potential aggressors think, oh now I get it, respect women. I’m not convinced. My feeling is, you are either a decent man who cares how you make women feel or you are not, and you know damn well which one you are.
(That painting is Concept of a Woman by Robert Motherwell, 1946, currently on display at the Paul Klee Museum in Bern.)
Switzerland has such an abundance of hiking trails that searching for a new route can send you down a rabbit hole of maps and websites. To make things easier, and more refreshing, hiking guide Monika Saxer has compiled a list of 59 hikes, each of which ends at a brewery or bar where you can quench your thirst with a local craft beer.
Beer Hiking Switzerland is published in English, German and French by Helvetiq, the same publisher that will publish the translations of The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths in the new year. As I am partial to hiking and beer, I didn’t need any persuading to try out one of Saxer’s trails. I once went too far for my own good when I walked my old work commute from Fribourg to Bern (an adventure you can read about here), therefore expert advice is gratefully received.
For this hike, I press-ganged my family to join in and we chose the 11-kilometre Gottéron route on page 94. It starts in the German-speaking village of St Antoni in canton Fribourg, passes by the edge of Tafers and ends up following the wooded Gottéron valley all the way to the Old Town of Fribourg.
I already knew the Gottéron part of the walk well, a narrow other-worldly trail that winds along by the Gottéron river through steep sandstone gorges and dense forest. As with any walk on Swiss hiking trails, there are places set up for grilling and picnicking, as well as signposts to reassure you that you’re on the right track.
From St Antoni, after a dip and a short climb, most of the route was gradually descending which is the kind of hike I like best. I also like quiet walks. We did not meet any other walkers on the St Antoni to Tafers part, although it was a Saturday afternoon. But we did spot some ostriches, llama and these unusual highland-type cattle.
The arrival into Fribourg is one of the most romantic approaches to the town, across the Pont de Berne and into Place Petit Saint Jean. Confession alert: we did the walk in two parts over two weekends. As recommended, we made our way to l’Auberge du Soleil Blanc to order a Fri-mousse beer which is brewed a few doors up on the rue de la Samaritaine. The perfect way to enjoy one of these Indian summer days.
I’m always interested to see what other ideas people come up with to write about Switzerland. The sky’s the limit. The important thing is to write about something you are passionate about. Monika explains in her book that this book grew from her interest in microbreweries. She starting selecting hikes that ended near breweries, and writing up those routes on the website of the Women’s Alpine Club of Zurich, now called CAS Section Baldern. After she was featured in a Migros Magazine article about women and beer, Monika was approached by Helvetiq to write this book.
If you were to write a book about the country you live in, what approach would you take? I’d love to hear (but not steal) your ideas.
I’m so impressed by the inspiring work of two Irish women in Bern that I want to share their achievement here. Clíodhna Ní Aodáin and Shirley Grimes, both professional musicians and long-term residents of the Swiss capital, conceived the idea of recording a song with an international choir to send a message of tolerance and love.
“In the face of a world building walls that create separation, fear and helplessness, we want to encourage connection through the joy of music,” they write on the project website – One River Voices.
After putting together a team of volunteers, including the talented music video director Roman Droux, Clíodhna and Shirley chose a date in May and started to spread the word.
They were hoping for 200 voices. More than 350 people from 40 different countries turned up at Köniz Castle in Bern to join the one-day choir. A group of strangers, they spent the day together, learning and rehearsing the song, and getting to know each other. Here is the result of their combined enthusiasm and commitment.
Clíodhna and Shirley would like to encourage others, anywhere and everywhere, to create similar multicultural choral projects. All the material is available for free on the One River Voices website – lyrics, sheet music, the full score, and playback tracks.
“Invite your friends. Invite your neighbours that you haven’t met properly. Invite people from a refugee community. Be brave! Whether it’s a small gathering around your kitchen table or even a big event at a local community centre, talk, eat, have fun together and learn the One River song.”
Just a note about the background of the two artists behind the project. Clíodhna, who arranged the music, is a cellist and conductor who teaches at the Bern Music Conservatory, and Shirley, who wrote the song, is a singer-songwriter with seven albums under her belt. Both perform regularly around Switzerland. You should be able to spot them in the photo above – Shirley with the guitar, and Clíodhna in a red cardigan.
If you know of anyone with the kind of experience and creative spirit needed to make an event like this happen, please let them know about One River Voices. It would be wonderful to hear more joyful voices carried far and wide.