Two tips

Today, two very different artists  i’d like to bring to your attention.

Firstly, the very talented Harry Baker, slam poet and mathematician. Amusing but not a comedian, he is very clever indeed. See him at TED Exeter here, and sharpen your ears!

As it happens, there’s a poetry slam next door this evening, so looking forward to that!

Secondly, check out the amazingly beautiful and atmospheric photographs of Australian Murray Fredericks, really breathtaking sea and skyscapes, mostly from Greenland; he’s featured in this month’s National Geographic and you’ll be as spellbound as I was, I’m sure.


PS Update: what an entertaining evening! Four excellent teams and a funny little local chap provided us with plenty of laughs and got lots of hugely deserved applause. In the end, it was a tie (though all had been very good!). Turned out, one team won last year’s Swiss championship and the others are very professional German poets. If you’re interested, there are YouTube clips of a couple of the pieces…

Interrobang: on the subject of Fondue!

KuK: a little more philosophical


A new old world

Ella Maillart popped up here in Y for Yacht, included because I had read the Olivier Weber biography about her several years ago. After this, various aspects meant I wanted to investigate more, so I embarked on one of Ella’s own books (available on Kindle as well in hard copy!), The Cruel Way: Switzerland to Afghanistan by Ford. Ella’s personal history, being Swiss and from Geneva/Romandie, her early sporting achievements and unconventional international upbringing had interested me, the era of the 1930s has always had a lot of appeal and the troubles of the region throughout most of my lifetime (I vividly remember the influx of new students at our international school from 1979 onwards) meant I wanted to read more about what was surely a big adventure in those days.

Before I even got more than a couple of chapters in, I was glad of my know-it-all friend Ms. Google and realised how very ignorant I was about so many things – not least a very sketchy idea of the geography and politics of one of the oldest civilised regions of the world. It appears I did not pay as much attention in history class as I thought I had and just the introduction to the expedition Ella and her friend Annemarie Schwarzenbach undertook had me running for the atlas, historical maps and Wikipedia entries on history, ethnicities, languages, costumes – you name it. And there I was, thinking I had a decent grounding! What’s more, Ella wasn’t undertaking this trip as a naïve young thing – she had already travelled throughout Asia before this and so had a very good idea of what to expect – she just thought a Ford V8 (18 horsepower!) would be the perfect vehicle, far better than her previous travels…Ford-V8-1939

The story opens in the Graubünden mountains, very familiar to me, describes briefly how the women did a tour of cities (Paris, London…) to make preparations for their trip and then set off in June 1939 from Geneva and over the Simplon pass to Italy, another familiar route to me. On across northern Italy to Trieste, for centuries an important harbour and the gateway to eastern Europe. But I had to consult a map to follow where they went from there…Europe-1929Crossing into Yugaslavia, what is now Slovenia (followed by Croatia and Serbia) and on east, Ella describes the people and the costumes she sees, and sees the similarities to peoples and dress of other ethnic groups she’s familiar with from her earlier trips to countries and regions strange and exotic to me – Mongolian, Afghan, Turkestan and the never-heard-of Baluchistan Brahui…! Maybe those lines drawn on a map are a whole lot more permeable than we allow for – migration has been prominent for a couple of thousand years, so why should there not be similarities and relationships between cultures? How ignorant we are of anything that is not in our central and western European home! We consider the Mediterranean, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece – the holidaying paradises – to be exotic, are slowly looking into northern Africa, prefer to jet out to the Maldives or the Caribbean or southeast Asia, and yet what do we know of eastern Europe?! Croatian national costumeEmbroidered Croatian national dress… and Balochi dress…over 3000 miles apart…Balochi dressMy interest in textiles probably has something to do with the fact that I had a small collection of costume dolls as a child – but nothing quite as exotic as this! I’m sure colours have symbolism in these different cultures, but there is definitely a certainly similarity in cut and of style of embroidery from region to region, which I hadn’t even considered before. These examples are mainly geometric but I’m sure there are more naturalistic examples to be found and it makes me wonder who, if anyone, has ever made a real study of them? I know that there are textile historians, but also realise the limitations on travel and research into some of the more troubled areas so that increasingly, it is likely that traditional styles could be lost. Ella felt that much of these cultures was on the way out already in 1939.

But in 1939, our adventuresses still had a lot of freedoms. While this kind of trip was never going to be easy and Ella was concerned about her friend’s fragile health (and she herself had back trouble), they were not afraid to set up their tent along remote roadsides when they were tired; she recounts meeting Baroness Eva Blixen-Finecke* (yes, Blixen as in Klaus-Maria Brandauer in the 1985 film “Out of Africa” but of course really a Swedish Baron and this his third wife!) in Kabul, travelling alone from Sweden on her way to China through Soviet Turkestan with only a simple letter of introduction – and yet finds the Baroness not adventurous enough, as she only stays on the main roads… apparently, “even for unaccompanied women there is no danger nowadays in travelling through Afghanistan”!

The Ford, with all its supposed suitability for “Asiatic travels”, cracks with the weight of a second spare wheel, a luggage rack and a second tank as it bumps across poor Yugoslavian roads – the doors won’t close and the tanks leaked; Ella siphoned petrol by mouth (apparently a numbing sensation!). Everything was shoved into the extra “dicky” seat at the back of the car – equipment, suitcases, first aid kit, typewriters, spare springs… not your modern-day minimalist digital nomads by a long shot.

Ford V8 Black SeaBut now, if a little abruptly, I will leave you at this point, hopefully curious about how the trip went on, to let you discover for yourselves what curious restlessness could achieve (or not) all those years ago and to think about how it compares to expeditions in our modern world, 75 years on… remember my writing about the young Germans who undertook a rally to Mongolia in a Renault Twingo…?!




Edit: This book also appears to be available to read in a scanned version on Google Books, free of charge. (Add.: only partially available!) There are also other foreign language translations.


A treasure trove

I love history. I love colour. Textiles are the fabric of our lives. And I have always been fascinated by magazines. Although I’ve been interested in fashion in general, and fashion history in particular, I’ve never been into high end fashion magazines like Vogue, Marie-Claire, Elle or whatever all the big names are. Maybe because there has never been any question of me wearing those kinds of clothes, never having been in any way, shape or form “willowy”!

delphi-l-officiel-september-15-1921-reverie-d-opium-robe-jean-patoul'officielHowever, a typographer friend recently pointed out the original artwork of the new Swiss version of L’Officiel magazine. To be honest, I had never even heard of the original French magazine, certainly never noticed it lined up with any of the others. American Vogue had been started in 1892 and by 1920, Condé Nast were ready to issue a new, French Vogue mirroring the status of Paris in the fashion world. I gather this didn’t go down well in all quarters and something “genuinely” French was required – enter L’Officiel de la couture et de la mode de Paris, the first edition of which appeared in 1921. When I took a look at the L’Officiel website, I was overjoyed to find the entire archive available to look at – every back issue from mid-2013 all the way to 1921! Had my friend not mentioned the original competition between the magazines, I would never have looked for the history…1908-Les_Robes_de_Paul_Poiret-7Les robes de Paul Poiret

The first few issues were short and simple (26 pages v. 205 pages in 2013) and yet already published with both French and English text describing the wonderful gowns of the day. From the very start names pop up which are classics of fashion – Paul Poiret advertises, as does Jeanne Lanvin and as you move through the years of exotic and exquisite fashions, names like Elsa Schiaparelli or Christian Dior begin to appear. It’s an incredibly fascinating look in to several very different era. The early 1920s still feature many line drawings – though artist’s representations continue a long way, and the occasional photograph is there from the start, gradually gaining in importance and much later, in colour.

lanvinThe styling is amazing, the textiles originally described in detail but also featuring such things as monkey fur edgings! Furs feature quite a lot, as they were essential in high-end fashion and in those days, women had no qualms about wearing them, and it really is quite an insight into a rich lady’s wardrobe. For a while, there was a section in the back that had all the text in Spanish, too, but eventually the magazine became French only, possibly because there are around 20 foreign editions these days, catering for a global readership. Certainly, the more recent issues are yawn-inducing (to me, anyway!) but putting your history hats on, it becomes clearer all the time that there is nothing new on this planet in the way of fashion – it’s all been there and done at least once, if not multiple times, in the past; the same shapes and forms and colours return again and again. Early on, there seems to have been only one way of being fashionable, but at the latest post-war when Dior introduced the full-skirted “New Look” alongside the slim pencil-skirted look, it looks as if variation became more acceptable and of course, nowadays, almost anything goes. dior

As you can tell, I’ve been thrilled to discover this archive and can definitely recommend you go and have a browse:

But remember, it’s a rabbit hole and it could be some time before you re-emerge…!



Z for Zoological

I was recently quite chuffed to notice a bright little bird I hadn’t seen here before and which I identified as a European crested tit, a bird which isn’t seen in England, although we do have many other types of common tit -crestd titA more unusual wild animal to be found in Switzerland is the lynx, which was reintroduced from 1971, and we also have a few wolves and bears which come across the borders uninvited – all species which became extinct long ago here and elsewhere. Lynx We’re very lucky to have some excellent zoological gardens in Switzerland. The oldest is the  Basler “Zolli”, opened in 1874, and although it is a city zoo, it holds the most variety of animals and is an important one as zoos go. It remains very active and is even considering getting some pandas in, one of few European zoos to do so. It’s a very attractive zoo, a real “animal park” and a lovely place to go if you’re ever in in Basle, with a lot of mature trees and a nice relaxed atmosphere.Zoo Basel

Zoo Zürich is probably the biggest and most innovative of the zoos and has spent many years completely reconfiguring its enclosures and passing on any animals that it cannot sustainably look after – it is already 15 hectares and will grow to 20 in the next few years. This makes a visit very interesting, as it requires some patience to stand quietly and observe an enclosure until you spot an animal rather than having the animals presented in cages – a much more modern way to see animals we may never see in the wild and of course, nicer for the animals themselves to be able to retire if they want to! Zoo Zürich has achieved a lot in the scheme of zoos and has a lot to offer, not least its beautiful location high up above Zürich at 600 m above sea level – and you can admire a wide range of animals from elephants (which are successfully bred) to penguins, which are taken on walks through the zoo to give them plenty of exercise…PICT3770Great fun to take a walk with penguins in the snow!

A smaller zoo that has made concerted efforts to vastly improve the way they keep animals is the private Walter Zoo in Gossau, which we have often supported and visited with our children and dogs – yes, dogs are allowed here! Founded by Walter Pischl in 1961, “Tierli Walter” was quite a character; many a child had a school visit from him and his reptiles, always an exciting event and an unforgettable opportunity to get up close to a snake or lizard. The Walter Zoo has the largest monkey house in Switzerland, but is a real family day out with places to barbecue, a small circus each summer and great entertainment and facilities for children. walterzoo_gr2

Although there is always going to be argument as to the merits of zoos, so many children and adults will never have the opportunity to experience the variety of animals they can see in a zoo and some species would simply be extinct if it wasn’t for the breeding programmes in international zoos, so that personally, I am happy to see zoos continue to develop and improve as understanding of animals’ needs grows and I feel very fortunate to have been able to experience zoos all my life! PICT3491My youngest daughter’s favourites since she was very small, the flamingoes in Zurich

Y for Yacht

At first, it didn’t seem to me that “yacht” was a particularly Swiss thing to write about. Then I thought of Alinghi, twice winner of the America’s Cup, and the fact that Switzerland borders on two of the largest lakes in Europe, as well as having a big sailing scene on all the many lakes in this small country, and realised how wrong I was! Alinghi

Perhaps surprisingly for a land-locked country, the Swiss make excellent sailors. Their sense of order and precision, being methodical and sensible and unexcitable, are ideal traits for those who can think of nothing better than “simply messing about in boats”, as Ratty muses in The Wind in the Willows… To sail in Switzerland, you have to have a licence if you have more than 15m2 of sail area, and sailing has become even more popular as the years go by, with many going on to study for a coastal sailing licence. You might be surprised to hear how many have sailing experience, once you get chatting… ella maillart

You may never have heard of Ella Maillart from Lake Geneva (1903-1997), but she was an intelligent, fascinating and sporty young woman who sailed, climbed and skied in the days when it wasn’t entirely “proper” for females to do so, and she was only 20 when she sailed for Switzerland at the 1924 Olympics, the youngest sailor and the only woman! (She later skied for Switzerland internationally, too, in 1931-34, going on to become a travelling adventuress, writer and photographer, see Je suis de nulle part : Sur les traces d’Ella Maillart, a biography by Olivier Weber, her own The Cruel Way: Switzerland to Afghanistan by Ford, or, for more about this very interesting person.)LacustreThe very elegant lines of the Lacustre…

Still on Lake Geneva, at Corsier Port, a contemporary of Maillart was the legendary boat builder, Henri Copponex – naval architect, regatta competitor and Olympic bronze medallist (1960). Perhaps most famous for his Lacustre boat designs from the 1930s onwards, he also designed Swedish 30m2 and the racing class 5.5m IR, in which he did much of his yacht racing internationally, among others – he drew over 400 boat plans, meticulously engineered via mathematics. Our particular interest, though, is his design of the smaller 15 SNS (Swiss National Series), because our own little yacht is a 1965 15 SNS from Corsier – designed by Copponex and 50 years old this year!! IMG_0699IMG_3028


X for Xtra and Xcüsi

A well-known phenomenon among ex-pats in Switzerland is the fact that the Swiss, who really are often multi-lingual, so often get it wrong when they think they’re using English words. One of the best examples is that a mobile phone is called a “handy” here (and in Germany, for that matter), which makes little sense to us – though since we don’t know whether to say “mobile” or “cell phone”… or is that simply British vs. US?! This and other terms of “Swinglish” are perhaps better xplained here HandyHandy is also the cult retro washing up brand for sale at Migros!! Since over 50 years (as a Swiss might say ;o)…

In turn, this means that the Swiss will sometimes use words incorrectly when they speak English, not realising the difference, and one I’ve noticed is “extra”. If you do something “especially” for someone, or “on purpose”, you did it “extra” (I know extra isn’t really English, but you can see what I mean, right?!). Children annoy you – it’s “extra”! Direct translation from German. ???????????????????????????????A book that helps Germans to avoid misunderstanding the Swiss!

Another Swiss habit it took me a while to cotton on to and which I still don’t really understand (or ever remember to do) is the need to apologise before entering somebody’s home. Open the door, greet the visitor either with a handshake or three kisses on the cheeks (yep, three here!), depending on how well you know them, and then before they cross the threshold they will say, “Xgüsi…” (“excuse me” or “sorry” – a strange word anyway, neither French nor English – and certainly not German!) and sometimes again before entering your living room. I suppose Italians might say “permesso” or the French “permettez” for permission to enter, so perhaps it’s not all that different. It does still strike me as curious, though! A man come to fix something and wearing work boots will go through this ritual and then bend and take his boots off before coming to fix your electrics or your dishwasher, too :). Perhaps that’s the reason he needs to apologise…


W for Wil (or -wil…)

“Wil” is a common placename suffix in northeastern Switzerland, derived from “weiler”, which means “hamlet” or “village” (the dialect determines what the place name has crystallised into – in the German Palatinate you’ll find lots of place names ending in “-weiler”, while here, they are “-wil” or “-wilen”, as a rule). Next to the longest combination, “Niederhelfenschwil” there are shorter ones like “Ganterschwil” or “Uzwil” and then, quite simply, “Wil”.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI used to live opposite this church in Niederhelfenschwil, just to the left above the garden – in the attic of a half-timbered house dating from 1733 (with the church clock chiming every quarter hour 24/7 and a “concert” at 6 a.m.!)…

Wil itself sits on the border between cantons Thurgau and St. Gallen and is on the main A1 motorway route that crosses the country connecting Geneva on the French border to St. Margrethen on the Austrian border. Although it’s a small town, its position as a seat of the diocese (i.e. bishops) of St. Gallen has given it some importance through history, and it features a very picturesque old town perched on a small hill in the middle of the modern town. Wil HofWil_AltstadtWil Weiher

We first arrived in Wil in 1981 to find a lively little market town with a large variety of shops and businesses (and a high percentage of millionaires, apparently – they used to say there were 150 of them in Wil alone!) and even outside the old town there was some pretty art nouveau architecture in the shopping area – a beautiful old chemist (the Löwenapotheke, below, much longer ago!), a very attractive and famous café (Hirschy) with its own speciality (an almond-centred fish-shaped cake, the Mandelfischli) and still some sense of the surrounding country life and agriculture, with an annual cattle market.

In 1984, the town won the Wakker prize. This prize is awarded annually by the Swiss Heritage Society for exemplary protection of older parts of Swiss towns and there certainly is no lack of places to choose from in this country! Taking into consideration visible quality renovation and improvements and encouraging respect towards the older settlement structures, the committee rewards above-average architectural points as well as things like sustainability, traffic planning and the quality of life on offer. Wil certainly qualified and was proud of this achievement for many years. Löwenapotheke um 1900 wil-obere-bahnhofstrasse

I’m not sure what happened, really. Lovely old turn-of-the-century buildings were torn down and replaced by modern blocks, supercentres and endless fashion boutiques, the diversity of shops was reduced to yawning, cheaply-produced uniformity and the centre was made into a pedestrian zone, which only seemed to enourage the building of out-of-town shopping. Although the old town has of course remained standing (despite a couple of nasty fires that threatened more than just individual houses), by banning traffic the town lost its attraction to the passing shopper and gradually, the small hardware and homegoods stores closed, then the nicer cafés, the antique restorer retired, the flower shop moved, the fabric store couldn’t compete with the cut-price factory down the road and even the jeweller departed for better profits elsewhere… On the rare occasion I am in Wil these days, I find it very sad that millions have been spent on renovating the Hof (top picture) and making it into a posh restaurant, or building a mega-cinema/restaurant complex near the railway station, but the place is deathly quiet, the sub-post has reduced hours, as does the library, many shops are obviously empty or struggling to sell expensive art and the once traditional restaurant is vaguely Chinese or Thai. There is still a church and a primary school for the locals and just below the old town there’s St. Catherine’s convent which has run a girls’ school for over 200 years: they have recently expanded their intake and will soon be including boys, which is a great shame because the convent school had a very special and very musical programme which our youngest daughter appreciated, now swept away by becoming a “normal” secondary school. But there are barely a handful of elderly nuns left even for the religious side of the business… St. KathiSt. Katharinen, Wil and the last few town fields belonging to the convent

On the other hand, Wil has grown exponentially over the last 30 years, spreading out to include surrounding villages where more and more apartments and houses have been built to accomodate the many people who want to live in or near a place that is conveniently situated on rail and road to reach either Zurich or St. Gallen. I wonder if they are still so keen on sticking to local customs? At this time of year, it’s carneval (Fasnacht) and it has always been traditional for the local boys to beg pig’s bladders from the butchers, blow them up, fill them with water and run through the town dressed in black and red devil outfits, threatening to burst their bladders over you! And what about the regular Bärenfest? The town’s coat of arms features a bear and the Fest was always a source of pride. I suspect a drunken version of the Octoberfest has taken over, and in summer there is now a pop festival held below the old bishop’s seat… Tüüfeli

I may be a sentimental old thing but these days, I’m glad I don’t live in or near Wil any more and can just visit to enjoy the pretty bits, although it does feel like I abandoned a sinking ship in some ways! In 1990 I got married in the beautiful Baronenhaus in Wil, but would I choose to do so now? Maybe I just can’t take change?! 
Wil BaronenhausWil old town, with the Baronenhaus on the right…