The desolation of domestic life

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It’s ok, I’m not talking about my own domestic woes. I’ve just been reading The Springs of Affection by Maeve Brennan, a collection of short stories set in Dublin and written between the 1950s and 1970s when Brennan lived in New York.

In between stories I started the wonderful Academy Street by Mary Costello, in which the main character Tess lives in New York through that same period and beyond. I lived under the melancholy spell of that book for three days, snatching it greedily back up at every opportunity. Academy Street gives the illusion of moving slowly without much drama but before you know it you have been through Tess’s entire life, a patchwork of tragedy, transient love and inertia.

For more on Academy Street I would recommend this fabulous review by fellow blogger and author Anne Goodwin, whose first novel, Sugar and Snails, was published last July.

Tess, with her emotionally debilitating upbringing and tragic lack of self-belief, could be a character from one of Brennan’s stories. But while Brennan reproduced on paper the “petty social intricacies of the city she had left”, she was living the high life in New York, working as a columnist for The New Yorker and enjoying the kind of success and freedom most girls of those times only dreamed about.

After a disastrous marriage, Brennan had a breakdown and her illustrious career – and her life – fell apart. She spent the last fifteen years of her life plagued by alcoholism and mental illness, homeless at times, and died forgotten and penniless in 1993.

Some of Brennan’s characters appear in several of her stories and a lot of the action takes place in one particular house in a suburban street on the city’s south side, in Ranelagh to be exact. This is the house where Brennan grew up, where her family went through precarious times while her father was on the run during the Civil War. In the new Free State, he was on the winning side and the family moved to Washington when he was appointed Ireland’s envoy the United States. Maeve Brennan never moved back.

There is a play, Maeve’s House, based on Brennan’s life which I wish I had seen. It was commissioned by the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and was also staged in New York in 2013. The play owes its existence to an amazing coincidence: the actor performing the one-man show also lived in the house were Brennan grew up. Eamon Morrissey’s family bought the house in Ranelagh from Brennan’s parents when they moved to the US.

Morrissey was surprised to discover in one of her stories an exact description of his childhood home and he contacted her at the magazine; they arranged to meet in New York.
Here’s a review of the New York show.

To get back to the stories. Some are gently moving while others are steeped in despair, portraits of people trapped in prisons of their own making. The title story The Springs of Affection (1972) is the longest in the book and it features one of the most vividly drawn and unlikable characters I have ever come across.

Her name is Min and she is the last surviving member of her family. A seamstress by trade, Min has lived a life of unrealised dreams, defined by envy and spite, but she finds herself on top in the end, triumphant in her longevity.

“Min sat beside her own gas fire in her own flat in Wexford and considered life and crime and punishment according to the laws of arithmetic. She counted up and down the years, and added and subtracted the questions and answers, and found that she came out with a very tidy balance in her favour.”

Min’s brother Martin and his wife Delia are described with scathing disapproval by Min in her recollections. We meet the couple in several of the other stories, notably in The Twelfth Wedding Anniversary (first published in The New Yorker in 1966), where their domestic misery is writ large. When Martin returns home late after ignoring their anniversary, he finds refuge in his family’s slumber.

“… If this night could only last a week, or two weeks, I might have time to get everything straightened out in my head, and then I would know what to do … If they would only sleep happily like that for a long time, he might find himself able to think again. But the coming of day, a few hours off, rose up in his mind like a towering wave that was all the more awful because it would be succeeded after twenty-four hours by another wave, and then another. There was no end to the days ahead, and the ones furthest off, years from now, were gathering power while he stood waiting on the landing. It was a merciless prospect. There was no way out of this house, which now seemed to contain all of his future as well as a good part of his past.”

Oh the unhappiness!

Good things come in twos

My idea of heaven
My idea of heaven

I did say I wouldn’t post again until the novel was finished and I meant it. It’s been a long summer of some discontent, a lot of hard work, and a gradual brightening of the light at the end of the tunnel.

And now I’m here, out the other side. Still reluctant to use the word ‘finished’ in the same sentence as my novel, what I can say is that I have completed the most difficult draft so far. Thanks to wonderful challenging feedback from kind and generous readers, I hope I’ve managed to fix some of the weaknesses that were bogging down this manuscript.

The other good thing I discovered first thing this morning is that my blog has been shortlisted for the Irish Blog Awards, Diaspora category. I’m thrilled to be included in this list and look forward to reading through the other blogs as soon as I finish work today. Thanks again to fellow exile Niall McArdle for nominating me and to the judges for overlooking the fact that I was on a break.

Without the distraction of blogging for the past two months, I have been able to write every day and have harnessed the power of that rhythm.

A three-week holiday in Ireland also helped with the daily time-stealing challenge and the inspiration, as my book is set in Ireland. Anyone who was lucky enough to be in Ireland this summer will tell you that the weather was superb. I wanted the country to be at its best so that my Swiss family would experience the magic of an Irish summer. In fact I wanted them to be enchanted and to develop some of the feelings about the country that I have. For once the weather came up trumps.

The novel is back in the hands of two readers and I’m hoping that only small changes will be required from now on and that I will be able to declare September the month of submitting.

I’ll be posting soon again, about a fascinating meeting in Bern with award-winning Swiss-German writer Pedro Lenz and his Glaswegian translator Donal McLaughlin. Not only is McLaughlin from Glasgow (via Northern Ireland), he also writes in Glaswegian dialect. Can’t wait to review the result of this unique collaboration: Naw Much of a Talker.

Looking forward to connecting with everyone again and catching up with your summer stories.

It’s good to be back.

The importance of being Swiss

The boat is full
The boat is full

My husband picks his way through the crowded hall. It’s late and many people are sleeping but I am keeping watch over the children, waiting for his return. He kneels beside me and shows me a cereal bar in the inside pocket of his jacket. The little ones will have something to eat in the morning.

We huddle together, sharing the blanket. After a while I turn and search his face for information. His eyes do not meet mine. I wait for him to share his news. Here we have all time in the world.

“I heard something,” he finally whispers. “There’s going to be another resettlement contingent. Brazil has offered to take a small number of Swiss. There are 18 places on the boat tomorrow.”

I can hardly hear the last words he speaks but I know what this means. It is the news we have been waiting for, the news I have prayed for and dreaded every minute since we arrived in this godforsaken place.

“Did you put the names down?” He covers his face.

“Tell me you put your names down.” He nods.

He cannot speak so I say the lines for him. “You have to take this chance. There is no other way. As soon as I can I will follow you, find you. We have to think of the children.”

That night I dream of our old home in Switzerland, forever out of reach now in the contaminated zone. We are sitting around the table, talking and laughing. I can see the delicious fresh food and the happy healthy faces of my children and I feel blessed. I reach out to touch the cheek of my youngest but where there should be soft, warm skin there is nothing, only air. Trying to control my panic, I feel for the dishes and glasses, sweeping my hands up and down the table. Nothing. What terrifies me the most as I claw the air where my loved ones should be is that I cannot tell if I am the ghost at the table or if I am the only one left.

***

A piece of flash fiction there for the weekend, inspired by an important step I took today. After almost 11 years in Switzerland I have finally applied for citizenship. I could have done it any time since 2008 but I’ve waited until now. The question I’ve been asking myself is – why?

One thing is I’m not alone. Only a tiny percentage of the foreigners living in Switzerland (including second and third generation immigrants) who would be eligible to apply for naturalisation actually do so. The reasons for that reluctance are complex, like everything in this country, but to some extent it’s a standoff.

The non-Swiss are eyeing the Swiss as if to say: “I may be here but I’m not one of them.” Meanwhile the Swiss are holding up a sign in the four national languages: “You may be here but you are not one of us.”

There is some serious bridge-building needed in Switzerland right now and a terrible shortage of engineers. I would suggest bringing in some EU workers but I’m not sure that would go down well.

Yes Switzerland is multi-cultural, but it’s a place where identity matters. Identity matters to me too. Up to now I’ve always thought of myself more as an emigrant rather than an immigrant, as a way of holding on to the person who left Ireland in 2003.

I don’t mean I haven’t integrated; I’m as integrated as a piece of bread dropped in a fondue pot. What I mean is I was afraid I would lose something important by becoming Swiss. Now I feel differently. The long stay in Ireland last year helped. It reminded me that Ireland will always be there and I will always be Irish.

But my life is here now and I want to participate more in Swiss society and, most particularly, I want to vote. Don’t take the story too seriously, I am not applying for citizenship in case I become a refugee at a future date following a nuclear meltdown (there is a nuclear power plant nearby by the way, we get sent iodine tablets in the post every few years, just in case).

No, it’s just that after years of being a very welcome outsider, I am ready to take my place now among the Swiss on equal terms.

Act II, Scene 1: Return to Switzerland

Home away from home
Home away from home

When there is a scene change in a play, the lights go down, the stage hands scurry in and skilfully whisk away the furniture and props, replacing them with whatever is needed for the new scene. The backdrop changes. The audience waits expectantly. A moment before, the actors were in a sunny garden having a tea party; now we find them on a battlefield, in a kitchen, a schoolroom. And the action continues.

The scene has changed for me again and the action continues. Yesterday I drove to work in the pre-dawn light and returned home at dusk. It was all so familiar, driving along the Swiss motorway, the Alps, crowned with pink-tinged clouds, providing a beautiful, distracting backdrop, the news headlines in German and me concentrating on the words, the road, the scenery.

When you move countries there is no such thing as a gradual change. You emerge from the plane and that is it. The dreamlike state of travelling is over and you have left the other behind, utterly. I’m amazed at how quickly I have adjusted and fallen back into this new/old life. The big goodbyes of last week seem a million miles away, or 1,200 kilometres to be precise.

Having had the luxury of spending so much time with Irish friends and family, it is frustrating to have to revert to long-distance communication again and to think in terms of future visits. The main consolation is that I now have the luxury of spending time with Swiss friends and family and making the most of this wonderful place.

Belated season’s greetings to everyone who follows this blog, as well as to new visitors. You may be pleased to hear that I will have less to say from now on about me the emigrant (you’ve been very patient!) and more to say about me the writer. Assuming I can keep up the momentum, in 2014 I will be blogging more about my novel and other writing themes. Thank you all for your presence and positive comments throughout the year.

Athbhliain faoi mhaise daoibh go léir.

Ireland – far away, up close

Time to say goodbye
Time to say goodbye

Some things, like impressionist paintings, are only clear when you take a step back. Not having lived in Ireland for a decade there are certain things I am seeing with fresh eyes. As I near the end of a four-month sabbatical in Dublin and contemplate the return to my life in Switzerland, it’s a good moment to cast an objective eye on the homeland.

Cold comfort: I now understand why we like to live in terraced houes, in the city at least. Huddling together, as penguins know, is the best way to keep warm. I’m not entirely joking when I say that the only thing keeping me here right now is my electric blanket.

Irish houses have chronic insulation issues and heating – what time you turn it on, how big your bills are, how useless storage heaters are – is a big topic of conversation. This issue should be the central plank of any political party manifesto. I think the political leader who makes our homes affordably warm is destined to win the affection of the nation.

Gale force: A note from the second windiest country in Europe (after Scotland). The wind is wreaking untold devastation on the hairstyles of Ireland, a problem that does not get the recognition it deserves. You could have your hair set in iron cladding and it would still get blown to bits. If there was some way we could marry the wind resource with the home heating gap we would be set up for life. Anyone, anyone?

Comfort eating: You have to have something with those endless cups of tea. The Irish are the biggest chocolate, cake and biscuit munchers in Europe and the selection of crisps is second to none. Yes there may be public health implications but it is also worth celebrating the sheer wealth of delicious treats available.

Storytelling: I don’t think Irish people live more dramatic lives but they certainly have the ability to turn life experiences into good stories. This comes across a lot on radio – I’ve often been stopped in my tracks by the voices of people recounting something powerful. Amongst my own friends and family I’ve had evenings here where story after story is told which could provide the plots for several novels. Speaking of which, I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve met who are writing novels. The competition is going to be stiff!

Rule bending: Travelling with three children on the bus every day I have experienced plenty of instances of friendliness and kindness from bus drivers which never ceases to amaze me. There have been other situations where the ability to apply common sense or compassion over the rules has made life easier for me. It’s not something you come across as often in Switzerland.

The next twelve days will be all about letting go and saying goodbye again. But that’s OK. The trip has gone really well overall and I think I can say I found what I was looking for.

Getting away from it all

New horizon, old horizon
New horizon, old horizon

There are the restless years. The years of trying out jobs, hairstyles, places to live. That era of cycling home with your shopping bags swinging from the handlebars and spending everything you earn. You get caught in the rain, you never have a decent coat and you laugh a lot.

When you are living lightly, unencumbered by pots or pans, children or a hard-to-replace job, changing location is as simple as walking away. You don’t own anything you can’t carry, you don’t owe anyone anything. You book your flight and you go.

Then before you realise what has happened, the landscape of your life has changed. It takes a team of men a full day to move the furniture you have accumulated. You actually read through the quarterly statement from your pension plan. Gardening magazines find their way into your home and you become concerned about booking holidays early.

Middle age. There’s no getting away from it, that gradual drift towards Sofa, the god of comfort and inertia. Or is there?

One of the great things about my sabbatical visit to Ireland (now three-quarters over, tick tock!) is that feeling of having defied the pull of middle age just a little. Packing up and setting off for new horizons was a part of my life I thought I would never have back again, or at least not until my children were raised. But it has come to pass, and this time, after a decade abroad, I have returned to the original horizon of my youth, Dublin Bay – and it feels good.

Has anyone else found a way to feel free again? I’d love to hear about it.

The great sea escape

Ever-changing story
Ever-changing story

Since I arrived back to live temporarily in Dublin I can’t get enough of the sea and its show-stopping other half, the sky. We are all products of our environment no matter where we come from and that makes me a coastal person. There’s a feeling of being on the edge of something vast and mysterious. The sea is an ever-changing story – welcoming one day and threatening the next.

Gazing out over the sparkling waves again, I am struck by how inaccurate the term insular is. On an island you are always looking out, not in. You are confronted with the limits of your existence, exposed to the beauty and cruelty of nature. You cannot help but dream about the world beyond the horizon.

The sea is a powerful presence. It calls us back when we go away. One day maybe we’ll find out what it has to tell us.

You’re looking fierce well altogether

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This phrase, which I overheard on the street today in Dun Laoghaire, adds great flourish and emphasis to the standard ‘you’re looking very well’. You can also be fierce upset or fierce busy in Ireland. In my first week back I am feeling fierce well altogether myself.

Maybe it’s the street where we are staying, ten minutes’ walk from my childhood home and from the sea.

Or the morning we spent on the sea shore, climbing the rocks and looking for crabs.

Being there for my little nephew’s birthday.

My membership card for the Irish Writers’ Centre arriving in the post.

Bumping into old friends at the Sunday market in the park.

Sitting out in the back garden with my mother and knowing that for a change we have time on our side.

Green light for return to Ireland

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In the author description of Douglas Kennedy’s latest book Five Days, we are told that the writer divides his time between London, Paris, Berlin, Maine and Montreal. Is he serious? You have to wonder what kind of lifestyle that involves. A lot of fridges to clear and restock.

Most of us are confined to one geographical base at a time but that doesn’t mean we don’t dream of other possibilities. Last year I met an Eritrean refugee who risked his life crossing the Sahara and the Mediterranean, mournfully reconciled to living in Switzerland, while longing to go back home.

A lucky few have holiday homes and can shuttle between two different lifestyles and even climates. Wealthy Northern Europeans love to buy up properties in Spain, France and Italy. You can only admire their good sense.

This year I will be ‘dividing my time’ between Switzerland and Ireland, leaving Switzerland in August, ten years to the day since I arrived here to live, and staying on in Dublin until Christmas. The germ for this idea came around a year ago and the trip has come together thanks to a little serendipity and perseverance.

Last summer I had a conversation with my sister about my wish to live in Ireland again someday. Working out when my youngest child would be independent, I reckoned I could possibly arrange something around the age of sixty. This reflection shocked me to the core and started me thinking.

A short time before that on a flight from Dublin to Geneva I met an Irish woman who had lived in France for 20 years. She was married to a Frenchman and they had four daughters together. She told me she had twice moved with the children to Ireland for a school year, staying in her old family home. She was able to keep up her small travel business from Dublin and her husband, a teacher, used all his holiday time to visit them.

Moving forward to the end of last summer, one of my colleagues went to Florence for six weeks to do an Italian course, thanks to a creativity fund in work. I found out more about the fund that supports employees wishing to pursue various projects.

Now it just so happened that I had a very active creative project in progress – writing my first novel. I looked at courses in the Irish Writers’ Centre and found one that would be ideal for me. Everything was telling me to seize the moment.

My funding application was finally approved last week and I went ahead and booked the flights. What I have gained is the most precious thing of all – time. Time to write, time to spend with friends and family, time for my children to get to know their origins and time off from being a foreigner.

Wish me luck!

10 things to love about Switzerland

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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: http://bit.ly/ddypTP

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?