What’s another year? Shifting goalposts in 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A tale of two authors from Ukraine and the UK

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The Jan Michalski Foundation in Montricher is like a cathedral of literature in the middle of the countryside

My reading list for the first half of the year was weighted in favour of two authors who came to Switzerland, Jonathan Coe from Britain and Andrey Kurkov from Ukraine. I was invited to moderate a discussion with the visiting authors at the Bibliotopia Festival in Montricher in May. Apart from being talented and prolific writers from newsworthy countries, Coe and Kurkov are kindred spirits.

Born in the same year, 1961, both Coe and Kurkov are keen musicians. They both use humour to lampoon the social and political woes of their respective countries. Their work is a pleasure to read, which is just as well because I had to read their books in bulk in a short space of time – The Rotters’ Club, Number 11 and Middle England by Coe, and Death and the Penguin, Ukraine Diaries and The President’s Last Love by Kurkov. I recommend all of the above and I look forward to reading more from these authors.

Hailed as a post-Soviet Kafka, Kurkov’s work is whimsical on the surface with a dark undercurrent. In Death and the Penguin, the eponymous penguin is called Misha and he lives with a lonely writer called Viktor. Misha exhibits human-like emotions, or at least Viktor interprets his behaviour that way. At one stage, Misha looks at his master and considers him ‘with the heartfelt sincerity of a worldly-wise party functionary’. Hungry for work, Viktor agrees to take on the task of writing advance obituaries of VIPs for a newspaper editor. All seems fine until his first subject meets an untimely end. Before long there is an epidemic of untimely ends in the bulging obituary file, as Viktor finds himself ensnared by powerful forces. Through Viktor’s circumstances, Kurkov is making a commentary on corruption and the cheapness of life in Ukraine.

“All was well, or appeared so. To every time, its own normality. The once terrible was now commonplace, meaning that people accepted it as the norm and went on living, instead of getting needlessly agitated. For them, as for Viktor, the main thing, after all, was still to live, come what may.”

In a similar vein, the satirical gem The President’s Last Love, gives us wickedly funny characters in outlandish situations. Following the life of the fictional serving president of Ukraine, Bunin, from his youth in the 1980s, we witness the combination of cluelessness and opportunism which helps him climb up the greasy pole of politics. Bunin goes from an amoral hand-to-mouth existence to an amoral gilded existence, always entangled in blighted love affairs and sustained by heavy drinking. Ironically, when he has the most power, he has the least freedom. Even the new heart he received in a transplant comes with strings attached. You will learn more about post-Soviet Ukraine in this highly-entertaining book than you would from reading a hundred articles, and the story will make you laugh and cry. I can’t wait to read Kurkov’s latest novel, Grey Bees set in the Donbass grey zone, which is about to be published in English.  

The third book of Kurkov’s I read was his Ukraine Diaries: Dispatches from Kiev which covers the time of the Maidan protests in 2013/2014. Kurkov lived a short distance away from the square where all the action happened and travelled extensively around the country during those months.

The juxtaposition of everday family life, planting vegetables at the dacha, attending literary events, throwing children’s birthday parties, with the danger, lies and absurdity of the political situation is a great way to capture recent history. It is fascinating to accompany Kurkov, an ethnic Russian, as he experiences the revolution first-hand and observes the crafty machinations of neighbouring Russia.

Incidentally, another speaker at the Bibliotopia festival, the literary activist Mikhail Shishkin, had some alarming things to say about Russia. The Swiss-based author explained that there is a civil war happening in Russia on the internet. “The frontlines are clear and everyone knows what side they are on,” he said. He warned that the war would inevitably go offline into the real world. The problem with Russia has always been the transition of power. “Russia now is pregnant with new states,” he said, predicting that the day Putin is gone, the whole system of Russia will fall apart.

Speaking of formerly powerful empires falling apart, Jonathan Coe does a wonderful job of excavating the cracks running through British society. His twelfth and most recent novel, Middle England, is being referred to as the great Brexit novel. Some of the main characters have appeared in two previous books, The Rotters’ Club and Closed Circle, but Middle England stands alone as a hugely satisfying read. Coe refers to these books as “panoramic serio-comic political novels”.

Middle England gives us the latest portrait of a nation, striking a pleasant harmony between light and dark notes. What shines through is how exceedingly clever and compassionate Coe is, another thing he has in common with Kurkov. Coe gently savages the dull and prosperous areas of “deep England”, graced with enormous garden centres, palaces of time-wasting for those with leisure and money. This is the heartland of Conservative voters who rely on the we-won-two-World-Wars argument no matter what the political question. The absolute rejection of the other side’s point of view, as seen in the divisions between the characters, is not a million miles away from the online civil war in Russia to which Shishkin referred.

Coe takes a broad canvas when he writes about British society, from the London Riots of 2011 to the Brexit campaign to the influence of trans rights activists in academia, all featured in Middle England. With more action and an even broader sweep, Number 11 is a fantastic read. Coe has packed a lot in, very successfully from the uber-rich of London to reality TV to food banks. A series of episodes with interconnected characters, the novel features a mini police drama and a delightful fable about the quest for the security and innocence of lost childhood. It even takes a horror-movie like turn at one point.

The black humour in The Rotters’ Club is even more pronounced. This time we are back in the 1970s, in the youth of Benjamin Trotter. Set in Birmingham where Coe is from, the novel features a big cast of characters. Like Kurkov in The President’s Last Love, this novel is closely aligned with the writer’s generation, time and place. There are stories within stories in The Rotters’ Club and plenty of characters with strongly-held opinions. An interesting way to explore the class system, labour relations, teenage angst and creativity, friendship, sexual discovery, police violence, music and more.  

And all along, there are real events which shape the characters’ lives, none more so than the scene (spoiler alert) where two characters are caught up in one of the 1974 Birmingham pub bombings. Coe builds up to the horrible climax so masterfully that its impact is devastating. You think you are in a sweet, love scene but you are actually in a vicious death scene. I hardly ever have the experience of being too shocked to continue reading but I had to put the book down for a while to recover after that scene. Not that there is any gore, just an awful realisation. 

I’m going to squeeze in just one more title on the subject of politics. Another writer at the festival (it really was a fantastic line-up) was Philippe Sands, the author of East West Street, published in 2016.

This non-fiction book is partly a memoir and has been hugely popular, even though it is a fairly dense read. The city of Lvov / Lviv / Lemberg is at the heart of the book, along with the Nuremberg trials. Sands traces the stories of three Jewish men and their families from Lviv (now in Ukraine), one of whom is his own grandfather. The other two were legal scholars who ended up connected to the post-war trial through their work on the definition of genocide and crimes against humanity.

East West Street is a powerful and important book. How the author managed to write about those terrible years in such a restrained way is admirable. I loved all the personal details in the background of the three men. Accompanying Sands on his research quest was a great way to tell the interlocking stories. My only complaint is that there was too much repetition of the genocide versus crimes against humanity argument. Sands himself is a human rights lawyer.

So many books, so little time. Thanks to Goodreads, I know that I have read 25 books in the first 25 weeks of this year. When I finish Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered it’ll be a neat one book per week for the first half of the year.

Finally, some snippets of news to do with my work in Switzerland. Back in April, I was invited to take part in the Sunday radio show Les Hautes Parleurs on RTS radio to talk about Brexit. The interview (in French) was filmed and you can view the recording here.

Shortly before that I was the Sonntagsgast (Sunday guest) on the Regionaljournal programme on German-language Swiss public radio, Radio SRF 1. That was a more wide-ranging discussion in German. Meanwhile I am putting the finishing touches to a new writing project, and I will have exciting news about that next month.

That’s all folks. Enjoy your summer reading and do let me know if you take the plunge with Kurkov and Coe!

A wannabe vegetarian goes hunting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All of life on a Swiss boulevard

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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.  

Home is where the sunrise is

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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.

As for my book related activities, I am doing my bit to promote the French and German editions of The Naked Swiss (La Suisse mise à nu and Die Wahre Schweiz), which has so far notably involved a live television interview in Payot bookshop in Geneva on July 5th.

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.

The Naked Swiss translations are here!

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Today I am celebrating the good news that the French and German translations of The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths are out in the world. My copies arrived this week and I am delighted with the look and feel of the new books.

The publication of the translations coincides with the publication of the second edition of the original version, which has an extra chapter on the Swiss relationship with the European Union. For more about the second edition, check out this interview. The books are available online from the publishers Bergli Books and Helvetiq (German, French), from the usual online booksellers and in all good book shops in Switzerland.

The German title is Die Wahre Schweiz, which means the true or the real Switzerland, and the French is La Suisse mise à nu, which means Switzerland laid bare. The subtitles of both are the same: ‘A people and their 10 myths’. It has been a fascinating process working the with the translators to produce a text that was faithful to the original, as well as being crystal clear to readers from other cultures.

Also today, Swiss author Hans Durrer published a glowing review of The Naked Swiss, in which he praised the book as “highly informative”, “profoundly balanced” and “good storytelling”.

And the final bit of good news is the launch of this book trailer, created by Bergli Books. Enjoy!

Second edition giveaway of The Naked Swiss

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When Bergli Books started the preparations for the second edition of The Naked Swiss last year, we had a chat about whether it would be a good idea to add something to the book. In the end I agreed to write a new chapter, one that had been on my original list but that I had run out of time to write.

I’m delighted to announce that the updated second edition is now available online and in shops all over Switzerland. The new chapter is about the Swiss relationship with the European Union. Switzerland is a lot more deeply entwined in the EU than many Swiss people realise.

In the Europe chapter, I explain how Switzerland got to where it is today regarding the EU and how the relationship works. Switzerland and the EU are like the long-term couple who are not married but have been to a lawyer to cobble together most of the equivalent rights and obligations. One of the parties (guess who?) is not happy and is pushing for more commitment. I also explain how the Swiss soon-to-be-defunct bilateral model is not a viable option for the United Kingdom to copy in the brave new post-Brexit world. All the same, you can be sure the British are watching the Swiss very closely to see what new deal they settle for.

As part of the research for the new chapter, I crossed Lake Geneva last summer to spend a night in Thonon-les-Bains on the French side. Early the next morning I set off towards Lausanne with the French cross-border commuters. More on that trip to Thonon-les-Bains in this blog post.

What else is new in the second edition? Well, I updated the statistics and some political developments. The book now has an index and a new author photo (thanks to Elaine Pringle Photography). If you want to be sure you’ve got the right one, it sports a little gold rosette on the cover that reads: NEW EDITION WITH AN 11TH MYTH: THE SWISS ARE EUROPEAN.

The launch of the second edition coincides with the launch of the French and German translations, which are due out on April 30th. I’ll write again when I have a copy of each in my hands. La Suisse mise à nu and Die Wahre Schweiz are available to pre-order this week from Helvetiq. The Swiss language editions have a different cover depicting the roof being lifted off a Swiss chalet. It’s fun and clever. Check it out!

I’m in Ireland at the moment so I haven’t seen the new The Naked Swiss on the shelves. I will send a free book to the first person to post a photo of the second edition in a Swiss bookshop, either to my Twitter account @clareodeaz or on my Facebook page. Happy hunting 😊

Feeling the cold and snow in literature

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The cold and the snow are on everybody’s mind and doorstep this week in Europe. In Switzerland we have had a week of extreme cold. Wednesday was the worst, minus fourteen in the morning. When I walked the dog at the edge of the Gottéron Valley I thought the cold wind racing down from the Alps would crack my cheekbones.

I just finished reading Helen Dunmore’s The Siege, set in Leningrad in the desperate years of 1941/2 where the cold plays a fateful part. My brush with wind chill inspired me to look for some great descriptions of cold and snow in literature, beginning with The Siege. In this scene, the main character is on her way to the bakery to queue for bread. She is suffering from malnutrition because of food shortages.

“It’s cold, so cold. Anna adjusts the scarf she has wound around her face. She’ll rest for a couple of minutes. No longer than that, because in her weakened state the cold could easily finish her off. The scorching frost goes down into her lungs like a knife. She coughs, gasps, shifts her weight from foot to foot, and bats her hands together. Her gloved hands make a muffled, ghostly sound. She thinks of the bulbs under their coverlets of snow, and shivers.”

This is such a beautiful novel, describing searing hardship in a wonderfully sympathetic way with characters who emerge as more important than the crushing heel of history.

The other examples I found happen to come from short stories. I love this scene from George Saunders’ Tenth of December featuring Don Eber, an old man on a suicide bid who has stripped off in a remote area in sub-zero temperature and is talking to himself.

Nausea had not been mentioned in The Humbling Steppe.

A blissful feeling overtook me as I drifted off to sleep at the base of the crevasse. No fear, no discomfort, only a vague sadness at the thought of all that remained undone. This is death? I thought. It is but nothing.

Author, whose name I cannot remember, I would like a word with you.

A-hole.

The shivering was insane. Like a tremor. His head was shaking on his neck. He paused to puke a bit in the snow, white-yellow against the white-blue.

This was scary. This was scary now.

Every step was a victory. He had to remember that. With every step he was fleeing father and father. Farther from father. Stepfarther. What a victory he was wresting. From the jaws of the feet.

He felt a need at the back of his throat to say it right.

From the jaws of defeat. From the jaws of defeat.”

There’s a very chilly and chilling scene in Them Old Cowboy Songs from Annie Proulx’s collection Fine Just the Way It Is. Archie is the unlucky young cowboy who has been sent out to round up stray cows in Wyoming in January.

“Back in the swamp it was just coming light, like grey polish on the cold world, the air so still Archie could see the tiny breath cloud of a finch on a willow twig. Beneath the hardened crust the snow was wallowy. His fresh horse was Poco, who did not know swamps. Poco blundered along, stumbled into an invisible sinkhole and took Archie deep with him. The snow shot down his neck, up his sleeves, into his boots, filled eyes, ears, nose, matted his hair. Poco, in getting up, rammed his hat deep into the bog. The snow in contact with his body heat melted, and as he climbed back into the saddle the wind that accompanied the pale sunlight froze his clothes. Somehow he managed to push eight Wing-Cross strays out of the swamp and back toward the high ground, but his matches would not light and while he struggled to make a fire the cows scattered. He could barely move and when he got back to the bunkhouse he was frozen into the saddle and had to be pried off the horse by two men. He heard cloth rip.”

And finally, the most well-known and the most exquisite, the ending of James Joyce’s The Dead, when Gabriel Conroy looks out the window at the snow after his wife has told him about a boy she loved who died many years before.

“A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

Stay warm, folks!

Ps. I’m attending the Geneva Writers Conference this weekend, weather permitting, and really looking forward to immersing myself in writing talk and ideas.

Pps. The photo is a view of Lake Brienz taken from Axalp in the Bernese Oberland.

A Swiss woman of fire and fury

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This time sixty years ago, Iris von Roten was putting the finishing touches to her life’s work, a 600-page cri de coeur on the woeful position of women in Swiss society. A journalist and lawyer, von Roten put years of research into her book, Frauen im Laufgitter: Offene Worte zur Stellung der Frau (Women in the Playpen: Plain Words About the Situation of Women). In ruthless and unsentimental terms, she examined subects like equality in the workplace (or lack thereof), civil rights, domestic drudgery, motherhood and sexuality. This is a work of fire and fury, the product of a free spirit who all around her saw women in chains.

To give you a taste of von Roten’s style and themes, here is a short passage I translated from the opening chapter, “Female professional activity in a man’s world”.

“Every era has its favourite illusions, and one of the most cherished of our century is that of “the modern woman”, the professionally equal, independent and successful woman.

The “woman of today” supposedly has extensive professional fields open to her; in contrast to her grandmother she is active in every job at every level. Even the most prestigious and highly-paid jobs are not out of reach of the capable woman. Where such positions are not yet occupied by women it is only because no woman has yet deigned to clamber up and take the place that the progressive man is hurrying to offer her. Just like a young man, the young woman can attain the job that corresponds to her talents, standing on her own two feet. To wait for a man, to marry so as to be provided for, this is unknown to today’s woman. She marries purely for love, when and whom she wishes, which allows her to complete the work of art – the combination of job, housework and motherhood – running the show and “mastering life with a laugh”. Beside the modern woman stands the progressive man, filled with admiring awe for the proud swan that the ugly duckling has become. He has long ago freed his mind of prejudices and slowly but surely clears the way for the equality of the sexes in the life of the family, the economy and the state.

The reality, however, looks different in some places, and especially in Switzerland.”

You’ve got to love that sarcasm. I would like to see von Roten’s work gain wider recognition in the English-speaking world. Her radical book/manifesto is one of the leading feminist texts of the twentieth century and there is still a lot to learn from it.

For a brief update on the position of women in Switzerland today, check out this article I wrote for the current edition of International School Parent Magazine: Working mothers in Switzerland – something has to give. I’ll start you off here with the opening two paragraphs.

“Switzerland manages to successfully project two flattering but contradictory images side-by-side. On the one hand, it is a rural mountain idyll populated by wholesome country folk, and dotted with chalets, ski resorts and pretty medieval towns. On the other hand, it is a sophisticated economic hub powered by a productive and innovative workforce.

It is nice balance if you can spend your working hours in business Switzerland and your free time in bucolic Switzerland. But for women, it is certainly not easy if you are expected to raise a family in the traditional model while facing all the challenges of the modern workplace. Something has to give.” (Read more)

Carnival season is kicking off in Switzerland. It’s hugely popular but I’ve never really enjoyed carnival much, if I may admit that. I like the effigy (Rababou) burning in Fribourg because, after the long speech, it’s the only part where I don’t feel bored and cold!

Von Roten’s book came out in the autumn of 1958, a few months before Swiss men voted by a two-thirds majority to deny women the right to vote. She had hoped that her carefully constructed arguments would win hearts and minds. But instead of seeing her ideas analysed and debated, von Roten was personally attacked and villified in the media. Some even blamed her for the negative outcome of the vote. Most painfully, she was ridiculed at the Basel carnival, her fellow townsfolk having spent the winter preparing elaborate costumes and floats on the theme of her book.

But don’t let me ruin carnival for anyone. Depending on where you go, it can be spectacular and wild. If you have any good carnival tips or experiences to share, let me know in the comments. I’d also be really interested to hear your thoughts on Iris von Roten’s work.

Another day, another commute from France to Switzerland

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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.

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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.