whistlestop caboose

The view from the back.

My Photo

www.zidao.com Apprentice harmonizer, for sheer fun. Journeywoman writer, for work and pleasure. Starting point was Iowa, current stopping point on this journey is Switzerland, with frequent pauses around the world to watch and listen to the crowd, and occasionally make comments.

Tulips 2006 for Gran ellengwallace's Tulips 2006 for Gran photoset

Monday, February 27, 2006

Charming Swiss Ins (and Outs)

Swiss windows and doors: not always planned

I'm not good at staying home in bed when I'm unwell, so today Tara, who is on vacation, and I (unwell person) drifted around the Alps for a while, taking pictures of three villages and a small town. I have always loved windows and doors and the creativity people find to draw their own personal lines between the outside world and the inside one. When I was small I used to lie awake late at night designing houses with several stories and dozens of rooms, but most of my energy went into defining the doors and windows.

Architects have theories about why people do what they do with their houses - Swiss architect Mario Botta is one of my favorites - and they are undoubtedly right, having studied the subject. Psychologists and interior designers, and garden designers as well, have a lot to say about the way we use color and space and texture.

But I think sometimes it just comes down to the day: today I must do the shutters and today I happen to feel wildly independent and the shutters will therefore be blue. Or blue on one floor and red on another.

One hundred years later, if you live in an Alpine village, they could well still be blue.

Not peeping, I promise!

So Tara and I drifted and I snapped and I hope those who thought I was peeping will forgive me. I wanted merely to capture the charm and imagination and joy that are part of those ways in, ways out, that are part of my Swiss Alpine world.

The entire collection of 65 photos is now on Flickr, and it is easiest to flick through them by viewing it as a slideshow, one of the options Flickr offers (top right of your screen).

The golden touch of bread, honey and sun

Our daily bread: Swiss breads

Pain soleil, Swiss sunbread

Sunbread with French honey, made from lavendar
A lovely round loaf of bread caught my eye in the store today. The color was exactly right for February. gold edging towards toasty brown and back to gold. The name was sunbread (pain soleil), and I bought it for that reason. Anyone who has the marketing sense to know how much we need an extra dose of sun in our lives in February, any way we can get it, deserves my business.

I set it on the counter with quince and apple jelly, which I love for its color and tangy autumn fruit flavor - but I suddenly remembered the honey at the back of the shelf, and the goldenness of it, too. Everything seemed a little brighter after this pause in the day.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

snowboard backflips

To learn backflips sometimes you have to land on your back.
Some of us stayed in today to nurse a cold (me).

Some of us went out to improve our backflips (Liam).

Forget about learning curves:
snowboard backflipping involves just one great slope. Here is the painful part. Check out the really good part, at the Aminona snowpark near Crans-Montana, Switzerland.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Moonbeam drawer, inside the box

Cultural crossroads: Irish linen, Indian box, French elm table, in a Swiss room. The difficult art of co-existing, of listening.

Dear Tara, you will never have to hear this phrase, I think: "thinking outside the box". It's another way of saying be creative!

Bah, humbug. I cringe when I hear it because the only people I have ever heard using it spend their lives avoiding creativity.

Today I had a writing class at Webster University in Geneva. I gave my students four photographs. I asked them to write down three words for each photo: descriptive or evocative.

The top of a box, from India

I took in the papers and redistributed them, asking the students to select six words and write a story.

The rules were simple: select six words, write a story, make sure the sentences are short.

The result was panic, disguised as effervescence.

"Six sentences?"
"Should it be a list?"
"Can we put two words in one sentence?"
"What if we want to use more?"
"Is this word misspelled?"
"But I'm not creative . . ."

The last was the most honest reaction. Few people feel they are creative. But what is "creative"?

Outisde the box: a few distractions

I believe it is very simple, and that creativity is something we should all develop and maintain. It is the ability to see things in a new way. To take the already perceived and hold it up to the light and turn it this way and that and see if our perceptions shift. We should all do this in our daily lives, turning over in our minds our friendships and loves, to see if they are what we think they are. We should do it in business, to see if our accepted attitudes and notions hold true. We are all created equally creative. Some exercise the option, while others do not.

Back to boxes.

Here is a box, a gift from Indian friends. When we go outside the box we see bits and pieces of daily life. In other words, we are distracted. The view is pleasant. Now what?

Let's try stepping back inside the box for a minute. Oh, I like this place! It is warm and cozy and lush and my senses are set on fire!
I'm going to pull down the lid just a bit, snuggle into this delightful box, and peek out at the world.

They can't see me, but I can see them.

In this comfortable place, with no worries, I might just find a new idea or two. Looking at this red velvet lining I start to think about setting the world on fire.

Digital time capsules (8) The faceless lady of Croatia

The lady from Croatia, 1992

Boarding school follies

I can't say I gave birth to, but I was mother to, nearly 20 boys under the age of 18, for one year. They were part of a boarding school which was in its death throes, but I didn't know that when I agreed to mother the young lads. It was a hellish year. We had poor students, good students, rich boys and poor boys. Sons of Arab sheikhs uncomprehendingly rubbed shoulders with the offspring of a Danish diplomat and a mysterious late arrival from Croatia.

The boy from Croatia blew in from the East, buried himself in work, and turned into one of the most brilliant English literature students the well-known school had ever seen. English was not his first or even his second language. He was oblivious to politics, cultural issues and international tensions, although in the rare moments when he looked up from books he could tell us the tale of his country's recent declaration of independence from old Yugoslavia.

The maid complained about him: his room was three feet deep in - and here she used an Austrian term that we could only guess at.

The other boys complained about him: his room smelled and he would spend hours at a stretch in one of the two toilets. He said he was reading sonnets, and judging by his world-class examination results, he was.

He was an intellectual, but a puzzlingly distant individual.

The lady from Croatia

One day he returned from a brief vacation with his grandfather on the Adriatic Sea, singing its praises, a shade browner than his usual grayish white. With a broad smile he offered me a woman from his country.

"But she has no face!" I said, shocked.

"Yes! Yes!" he said enthusiastically. "That is something from my country!"

I stared at her.

"Why? Why no face?"

He beamed at me. This, he announced, was tradition.

He went back to his studies, I became preoccupied by problems such as a thieving assistant and an unhappy boy who jumped through a window. The faceless lady of Croatia stayed by my side, silent, a witness to much, but an emotionless witness. I've tried to ask her how you can be a genius of literature in another language and yet fail to explain why your own culture produces statues, statues of women, who have no face.

She is stoic in her silence. She is a good listener. She has yet to comment, and the only thing I can safely say I have learned from her is that we should not leap to conclusions or in any event to voicing them.

Meanwhile, the young man, never looking back at his room, perhaps wise, went off to one of those head in the clouds top British universities, there to become a star student.

She still says nothing.

Digital time capsules (7): the old Navy tennis racquet

The tennis racquet that was always too big

One year, shortly after I left home, my parents sorted out their possessions. We moved every 4-5 years when I was growing up, so this was nothing new, in principle. My mother enjoyed extolling the benefits of moving. High on the list was the opportunity it offered to throw away things we hadn't used since the last move.

This sorting day was nevertheless different. For one thing, I inherited a tennis racquet that both frightened and inspired me when I was little. It was heavy and old, a relic of my father's World War II experience, a Navy tennis racquet, he said. I think he said that.

I might in fact have confused this racquet and story with other racquets and stories. They were all part of the world of adults, where you were big and strong and could wallop a backhand on the tennis court. For my part, I was short and solid but useless on the court. I struggled to connect racquet and ball, using only forehands. I pleaded left-handedness, but I was worse with my left arm than my right, as my local park tennis teacher pointed out. I finally pleaded something called triplets confusion, at which point he gave me up for useless, and my parents agreed I should stop taking lessons.

The triplets were identical girls called Deanna, Diana and Dionne, with a Spanish last name, Diaz perhaps, but I might have mis-remembered all those "di" sounds.

They had long legs, masses of dark hair and to someone who didn't pay enough attention to what was happening on the court they were terribly confusing tennis partners. They did not play well, either, but they were shouted at in triplet, which meant each one of them had to absorb only one-third of the teacher's abuse. I thought this was unfair.

I am the youngest of four children. The day when my father said he thought maybe I could use a tennis racket, and he gave me the old Defender, was the day when my parents could finally declare many objects permanently useless, at least for them.

What Jeanne used, but Mary and Tara did not, might yet come in handy for me: there was always frugality in our house but also respect for the love that used family objects contained. Memories and experience and family wisdom of all sorts are rubbed into the wood or the fabric, in the way that seeds drop to the ground and are worn down into the earth, only to spring forth in a new form some time later.

But I hated hand-me-downs most of the time. I never did inherit my sisters' things that I longed for, like Mary's Cinderella transparent high heels with rhinestone trim (1957). Or Jeanne's mink pillbox hat (1965). Or Tara's trip to Chicago to see a major league baseball game, 1959 (I was promised the same and I NEVER GOT IT! but of course I'm mature enough to understand that now).

Now, adult in name if not practice, I lived in another city. Like my sisters, I had started to collect my own objects. A tennis racquet? I married a man who played the game, and played it well. He had his own collection, streamlined and light and not the same shape. I had declared myself a non-player, just as I am a non-player of chess, since there is no point in trying to accompany a master if you're a failed apprentice.

Oddly, though, I fell in love with the racquet, the solidity of the wood and the overall shape that brought to mind F. Scott Fitzgerald, even though the era was all wrong.

I hung it on the wall, and there it remains, a symbol of unattainable adulthood, effort, failure, and despite all that, slightly tarnished beauty. I wonder about the triplets. I try to overcome my fear of threes in relation to tennis, but I cannot get enthusiastic about the Grand Slam.

I do wonder what my sisters did with their shoes and hats and baseball tickets.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

More Swiss bread

Crust is the outside - is there a word for the inside of bread?

I've been adding photos, slowly but surely, to my collection of our daily Swiss breads, since I think this is one of the aspects of life in this country that makes it such a nice place. The link in the title here will take you to them.

Chocolate for Indians

A very long time ago I lived briefly in Cleveland, Ohio. One night I went to an art film called Bread and Chocolate. The message of the film, about an Italian immigrant, dark and unloved, in blond German-speaking Switzerland, was not lost on me, but what made the greatest impact was the subject of the title. Those Swiss ate bread and chocolate together, which astonished me! Since then, I have lived in many places, traveled widely, and settled in Switzerland. It is the only place I know of where parents routinely give their children slices of bread with chocolate in between. The bread is excellent and so is the chocolate, which explains much.

It's a cliche that Switzerland equals good chocolate, but people who live here vouch for the truth of it. I mention it to visiting MBA (IIPM) students from India, who come to Saint-Prex to hear about and experience firsthand the local economy of a fairly typical small Swiss town. One of the highlights of these visits is always the very unofficial trips to the supermarket and shops to stock up on chocolate to take home to India, as gifts. Or to eat here, of course.

It's true, we do eat bread and chocolate, and here is my very own variation - good cornflour bread, gently toasted, with three paperthin slices of Lindt Cuban 55% cocoa chocolate. The slivers are a new product from Lindt, and I love the illustion that I will eat less of it this way.

I wouldn't waste this snack on the children, I admit.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

:)* Kiss me

Originally uploaded by gracinha's flowers.

This is beauty. I have always thought flowers were lovely, but Flickr is showing me the world of flowers in a new light. Some of the photographers (Graca, in Portugal, here) simply take my breath away with their work. Click to visit the original, and click again to see it much larger.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Digital time capsules (6)

originally uploaded by
Writing about the color peach earlier today, and the paucity of it in winter, started me thinking about garden flowers. I miss them in winter, but happily I can find photos of them, and recall special ones. These were picked in a rush, on what I knew would probably be the last day of warm weather before winter frost killed the flowers. The wild mix of reds, greens and yellows cheered me for days indoors while the world outside hunkered down for winter. View the large size in Flickr for the full impact of the colors.

Colors: keen on peach

Saint-Prex, Switzerland, newly painted building

A lovely thing happened over the weekend: I was invited to join a Flickr group that posts photos featuring the color peach (check out link in title).

It has always been one of my favorite colors, but actively seeking it out in order to share photos has turned out to be a great exercise for training the eye to better "see" colors. I was astonished to realize how little peach there is in our (northern) lives in February, when fruit and vegetables and flowers offer us almost no glimpses of this color.

I turned to a new building in our village and played with light, shadow, form, contrast and texture to see which most enriches peach, the color.

I compared it to one of my favorite roses, a peach-to-orange one that blooms from July to October in the Swiss Alps. Nature's version of the color is still richer, and has a shade more pink, but next summer, if I compare the building to the apricots in the Valais, where they grow in abundance, I suspect the building will seem more pink. Color boundaries are as arbitrary and difficult to maintain as those of nations.

Monday, February 20, 2006


Mid-winter, time to pause for a moment of peacefulness

February is a month when people often feel"flat", as one colleague described it the other day. For those who are feeling flat, or tired out, or in need of a break, but don't see how to manage it, I offer a mid-winter moment of peace. Click on the photo to enlarge it, and follow the ripples.

Lake Geneva, Switzerland, near Montreux, February 20, late afternoon. French Alpine peaks reflected on lake.


Sunday was bleary and dreary and windy, so Tara and I went for a drive. We were among the very few tourists looking at sights like the wwwwwwiiiiiiiind blowing across the rain-sodden fields. I had only my cell phone, which takes small photos of mediocre quality, but it did capture the wind.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Moonbeam drawer: O! Eau!

Snow at melting point, darkening the honeyed stone underneath

The many faces of water

The most magical thing in the universe is one of the most universal, and I pity people in deserts their scarcity of it. Water is good for us, but its richness lies in its generosity: it is good to us. Water comes in one form and then another. Its constant transformations, especially in winter, are an inspiration. I am this but I could be that. And that, and that.

I have always loved the French word for water, eau, which can only be said correctly if you transform your mouth, normally roughly horizontal, into a suddenly rounded thing out of which springs an exclamation (technically, an ejaculation, but let's not snigger). O! is what the French really say, but compressed and pushed through the little tunnel their lips have formed.

When I moved to France in 1980 I stared at the mouths of older women. The undoubtedly thought it was their lipstick I was studying, if they noticed, but it was the lines around their mouths - so very different from lines on an older American woman. It was the O! eau! effect.


Early this morning it was relatively warm and I was trying to read Jamaica Kincaid's wonderful book about gathering seeds with nurserymen in Nepal. I was distracted by a steady plop, plop just outside the window. Snow was easing its way to the eaves. It dripped as it became water, a series of silver streaks I could almost, but not quite, see. It was too early to capture them with a camera, without flash.

Out in the garden water was rushing out of the earth into the small pond we built. The stones form a kind of French mouth out of which flies the O! eau! and the water shoots across the pond to the edge of the rock.

It grasps and clutches at air as it falls to the stream. Some of it has caught on older, colder drops that have paused here for the cold weather, in the form of small icicles.

The sky is cloudy, the peaks are snowy, the water races and freezes, and thaws.

The watershow is magnificent, and this is before we even make morning tea and coffee with it.


Saturday, February 18, 2006

Saturday and snow falls!

originally uploaded by ellengwallace.

This is what we like winter to look like. Outdoors, the flakes are big and soft and piling up.

Indoors, it is cozy.

Friday, February 17, 2006


We all have moments when we feel like this.
(Never let your mother play with your pictures. See other natural and unnatural sons, part of a Flick set called "Man learns to fly, no wings".)

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Blog advice and design thoughts from Japan

A corner from Garr Reynolds blog

I was online to track information on ads, Nike and its crisis with ads in China last year in particular. That led me down an alley with many turns that led to a wonderful discovery: Garr Reynolds, sitting in Japan and writing about beautiful design work. His blog is very attractive, for a start.

He mentions that he is giving a presentation on blogging next week and I would love to get on the next plane to Japan to hear him. He will be talking about just some of the issues I brought up in my last post. Surprise, surprise, he mentions Robert Scoble's new book, Naked Conversations, about blogs "changing the way businesses talk with customers. Scoble mentioned it at his Lift06 presentation in Geneva and I promised myself I would buy it, but it slipped down from the top of my "to do" list. Reynolds has just prompted me to head for Amazon to pick it up.

Better yet, as I prepare presentations for visiting MBA students from India, I can turn to Reynold's blog and beautiful web site for advice on good presentations. He is an ex-Apple employee and he teaches design and marketing at a university in Japan. He has a passion for improving presentation designs, a laudable goal.

I have not felt this excited about creating new PowerPoint slides for a long time.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Blog riders wannabes

Blog etiquette

Maki in Zurich, a longtime blogger, caught me red-handed the other day. I was changing a post for about the fifth time. Sixth? It was a bad day. I couldn't spell or get the grammar right. My ideas were too fuzzy, so I kept rearranging them. This is not good news for someone who teaches writing and is the author of a book on how to write well. I have a golden rule that you set editing limits and stop when you reach them. Not that day, though.

I had a niggling sense that maybe this could create problems for people who read blogs. I promptly forgave myself: I'm new to this.

But Maki pointed out, in a sensible post on etiquette in the blogosphere, that doing a few things the right way makes it easier, and nicer, for other people. She is very civilized and writes about (better yet, photographs) good meals when she is not writing about technology. I'm inclined to listen to her, after viewing the duck and potato meal she just put together.

Her comments remind me of conversations at the dinner table (mine, yours, our mothers'. anyone's) about why we chew with our mouths closed and why we don't spit out our food and so on. Nicer for the guy who is across from you, and not really more trouble for you.

The first bit of advice she offered is this: for corrections that go further than obvious spelling mistakes, note that you are making a change. Don't just change it. She does a good job of explaining why, which I won't repeat here. Her second bit of advice: don't just delete posts. They are still out there, if anyone has already accessed them.

They used to be called visiting cards

There lies the rub. I haven't quite worked out how I access yours, and you access mine, regularly.

She's really talking about people who have mastered the art of blog feeds. I'm discovering, painfully, that the Internet, like other economies, consists of the haves and the have-nots. The first have got the hang of the technology and the second have not.

I would label it an Internet gap but that phrase has already been coined, to describe the people who went online to participate in the last U.S. elections, versus the others.

Wheel, baby, wheel!

What I see is a gap akin to the one in the world of bicycles. You know how to ride a bike or you don't. In between there is nothing but bruised knees and skinned elbows, but no intermediate stage. (There is the painful option of running and holding the shoulders of someone learning. This is generally considered not fun.)

I've just remembered that Maki has a nice tricycle that comes up sometimes when you visit her site.

I tell people I have a blog. They are either able to ride blogs or they aren't. The first group can tell you all about RSS feeds, technorati, and a host of other useful parts of the blogging life, just like bike riders who quickly move from balancing the stupid piece of metal to knowing how brakes and gears work and where to put the oil. Even when they are nice, blog riders are a little bit intimidating.

I've read the FAQs, gone to help pages, asked a few questions, signed up to Bloglines and I'm still unclear about what is going on here. I think it is this: I am trying to sign up to know when people whose blogs interest me have posted something and I would like to tell family and friends and the World at Large how to keep up with my blog, if they want to.

The second group (and if you think you are alone here, let me say that from what I can see it is a HUGE group) says timidly, "Mmm, yes, I've heard of those blog things, but I don't really know anything about them. How do they work?" They try not to sound like this is worse than learning Chinese, which is probably also seen as a good idea in the 21st century, but equally low on their list of things to start in 2006.

I suddenly sound terribly knowledgeable, saying that blogs are different from web sites. I managed a large and complex web site with thousands of visitors a day, for five years, and I added several sophisticated features to it, coordinating it with four other sites. So people listen.

I say a blog is different in two ways. The most recently posted thing is what you see first, rather than a contrived home page. And posting is dead easy.


Forget the wheelies for just now

So we have a group of people who are kind to friends and family and try to visit their blogs. Moving around is tough, returning is even harder (blogs have weird names, not easy like www.nike.com) and the buttons do odd things. Some of us, maybe a little braver, maybe with a little more time for whatever reasons, brave the skinned knees and make it from this group to the other group, the blog riders. We wobble.

I have a sneaking sensation the wobblers are on the increase and the blog riders might soon turn into elite racers. Lots of fancy things are happening in the blog world, shiny new metal parts are appearing and some of us aren't really ready for them yet. Isn't that a business opportunity for someone (hint, hint)?

At the Lift06 conference in Geneva a couple weeks ago Robert Scoble from Microsoft asked how many people use RSS feeds. I raised my hand, because I do, or had done twice, I thought. The woman in front of me, from Migros (Switzerland's largest retailer), turned in surprise and said, "You do? But what on earth is it?" I was stumped. Don't ask me to explain - I just signed up for the things, read a bit of background, and promptly forgot most of what I had learned.

They ride!

Scoble then wondered aloud why more people don't use RSS feeds, and the blog riders, a majority at this conference, I think, were equally puzzled.

You sure can't ride a bike if you don't know what the wheels on that parked metal contraption can do. I've got the wheels figured out, but that's about all.

Staring into the distance

Balance, there is something about balance . . .

Happy Valentine's Day!!

Happy Valentine's Day!!
Happy Valentine's Day!!,
originally uploaded by Supriya O.

Supriya on Flickr does an amazing job with flower photos (as well as water, birds, food, and a lot of other beautiful things I like). I retract anything negative I might have said earlier about red roses. This one is very convincing. Thanks, Supriya, for a wonderful valentine.

look like the kiwi?

look like the kiwi?
look like the kiwi?,
originally uploaded by daita.

One of my favorite Flickr Valentine postings. Lovely little guy in a brown fur coat, from Japan. Thanks, Daita.

Indian visitors

IIPM students with Webster University professor (more photos: Flickr)

Lake Geneva beckons

Sometimes the smallest things are what make the most lasting impression when we visit another country. As I was photographing groups of visiting MBA students from IIPM in Delhi, India, a young woman asked me if the nearby lake had a barrier. I said no and she was pleasantly surprised that you could walk down to the edge of Lake Geneva and put your hand in the (icy) water.

London was the first place outside the U.S. that I visited, at the age of 28. I knew that they drove on the left, but it had never occurred to me that as a result pedestrians have different road-crossing habits from those of people in right-drive nations. Years later, I still have to read the instructions on the sidewalk before stepping into a British intersection.

Swiss American chocolate valentines

An American cupcake recipe, modified to add slivers of very dark Swiss chocolate, mmmm. Happy Valentine's Day!

Of valentines and roses

A rose in the Swiss Alps, October 2004

Candy hearts for all

Dubuque, Iowa in February was a bitterly cold place in the 1950s and 60s, and going to St. Columbkille school we wore wool hats pulled down as far as they would go, long scarves wrapped around and around our necks and over our mouths. They ended in great bunchy knots at the sides or back of our heads: a knot in front of you meant you couldn't keep your head down to fight the stinging cold. One layer of mittens went on, then a heavy coat, then a second layer of mittens pulled up over the sleeves and attached with metal clips. (Funkypancake, sitting in England 50 years later and taking pictures of lost gloves, would have found a dearth of them then.)

With luck - no slipping on the ice or snow, no snowballs aimed at you - you arrived at school relatively dry, only a little chilled and with a flat, squashed look about you. The school smelled permanently, from November to March, of damp wool over radiators. Children's hair, chopped by mothers, lay hopelessly flat but in some cases patches of it suddenly shot up in strange salutes, and it stayed that way all day.

None of us were beautiful, is what I am trying to say, but we all wanted to be exactly that on February 14, when valentines were passed around.

From a secret admirer - not telling you who!

They were bought in boxes of 5, 10 or 25, each one a little different, and we agonized over who deserved the nicest one, for this was the time to declare friendship, if not love, openly. Some years the teachers banned the practice as unkind and uncivilized, and brought in little hard heart candies with messages on them. Everyone received at least one, but under the desks and on the sly they were passed around, so that you might start out with "Some girl!" from the teacher, and end up with "Love forever!" from Lyle, when you wanted "Very best friend!" from Christine.

It was hard to know which we preferred, the cards or the candies, but rarely did we have both. Other years the teachers tried a communal approach and we all made valentines, in class, for everybody, and praised equal love for all. We didn't believe a word of it, and fretted over who among the equals was loved best. A soothing solution one year was cupcakes with red frosting, for everyone.

Yesterday I found myself in a new role as St. Valentine's day came up. I was asked by my 17 year old to stop off with him and buy roses on the way home. We also had to buy ingredients for chocolate cupcakes, since Celine loves chocolate. I wandered through the roses while he debated interesting-orange versus classic-red. I pondered the staying power of roses - longer than candy with messages, cards or all the other valentine fluff the gift industry offers us. I came home and discovered from the University of Illinois that roses have been with us for 35 million years, an extraordinary time for a plant to have thrived.

The first rose I grew, 2003

The Chinese have been cultivating them for 5,000 years, but cultivated roses arrived in Europe only in the 18th century. Before that they were such a precious commodity that they were used as payment, in barter. The rich and powerful used them and water scented with their perfume in ancient Rome. The French Empress Josephine had magnificent gardens laid out at Malmaison.

I wandered around rose sites on the Interet, vaguely wondering why red roses have withstood time so well as the rose of choice for declarations of love. I never found the answer. Personally, it took me years to like these flowers. I thought their perfume lacked subtlty, they have those unfortunate thorns, and they were linked in my mind to old lady's stuffy houses, for obscure reasons. I don't remember any old ladies with roses, but we had a neighbor named Mrs. Sharon, and some adult used to sing about the Rose of Sharon. Children's memories are skewered by such odd combinations.

Lately, I've grown to like roses, but in gardens, where their heady perfume can breath. I like their gloriously varied colors. For sheer variety, no other flower can compete.

I would rewrite the song: "My love is like a lasting rose that for centuries will bloom . . ."

Meanwhile, here is to cupcakes, too!

Monday, February 13, 2006

My town: St-Prex and the Indians

Saint-Prex, Lake Geneva, February evening, 2006

Swiss and more

St-Prex is a quiet Swiss town of about 5,000 souls, on Lake Geneva. It is also, like so many of the towns here, surprisingly international. A very slight majority of citizens are Swiss. Waves of immigrants over the years have created small pockets of Italians, who came to work in the glass and bottle factory, followed by Spanish and Portugese, who replaced the Italians. The grandchildren of the Italian factory workers are now becoming adults and holding jobs that make the older generation proud.

More recently, people from the countries that once formed Yugoslavia and a handful of Africans have moved here.

When my son went to his first day of primary school 13 years ago in the old town's (Vieux bourg) school, built in 1912, 65% of the children in the class of 19 had a nationality that was not Swiss, although some had two or even three nationalities. It was not uncommon to hear languages other than French. If French was not the language at home the children were required to stay after school to do their homework under the supervision of a French speaker.

Children are integrated into the community, but tolerance for and even interest in non-Swiss cultures and languages is high. At the supermarket I almost always hear at least two other languages spoken, often more. French, German, Italian, English, Dutch, Portugese and Spanish are common.

India arrives

An outsider, or foreigner, will therefore rarely raise eyebrows but for the next few weeks Saint-Prex residents (called Saint-Preyards) will be surprised to see waves of visiting Indians, nearly 1,000 in total during six weeks. Young Indians have not often lived or even visited here. I remember only one Indian boy from my son's early school days and no other Asians.

The rapid development of the Indian economy is creating a new class of business people with money and an interest in travel. These visitors - MBA students from IIPM, the Indian Institute of Planning and Management - will be tomorrow's tourists and business partners. They are in Switzerland for one to two weeks as part of their Global Outreach program. It introduces them to businesses, international organizations and the economic fabric of other societies, in this case Switzerland. They attend seminars in St-Prex, including one I offer on crises and corporate communications.

When in St-Prex . . .

This group will undoubtedly be like the first students who visited the village last year. Academic work finished, they walk around the old town and the lakefront, sample the local food, compare prices at the supermarkets, and the more adventuresome hike briefly up into the vineyards at the edge of town. They buy chocolate and wine and cigarettes and ask about presents to take back to their families. They are astonished at the beauty and neatness here and at the fact we call St-Prex a village or town. In India, a mere 5,000 people are a neighborhood or small hamlet, one group of students told me.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Shadow lessons

Long legs

From children's books I learned to think that shadows are part of a secret, other world. From photography I learned that shadows show us the possibility of the impossible. A chair can have four legs of different lengths and still be something you can sit on.

And from art lessons, in school, and from my painting parents, I learned the impossibility of the possible. With a camera I can capture these angles: they exist. I doubt that I could ever draw them and get them right.

Bottling blue

Olympic blue

It is hard to compete with the Olympics for attention, so here is the sky they are seeing in Turin/Torino, from the north side of the Alps, rather than the south.

Under this blue sky, and indoors with the sun streaming in, I tried to bottle blue, the one that matches this sky.

Here are the results: a perfume bottle, the blue box in which it came, the blue shadow of the bottle. Other blues on Flickr. Blue, especially deep blue, is such a rich color that I wanted to see if I could filter out the objects to find only the color and then compare them. The only one without surface or texture is the sky, which shouldn't really be a surprise.

blue bottle on step

Blue bottle's shadow on step

Blue box for a blue bottle, smooth to the eye, rough to the camera lens

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Digital time capsules (5)

The magnificent mirror, by Tara, circa December 2002
In 2002 my daughter's school surprised us with an astonishing Christmas present, this mirror. Astonishing because each child made one, and the children are all physically and mentally handicapped, most of them severely so. The teachers helped, of course, but we saw the collections of pieces of colored rock and how the girls and boys, aged 10-13, selected the ones they wanted. We saw how the adults helped them place glue on the pieces before setting them on the white surface.

Since then, I've seen similar projects from other schools where the children don't have health and skills problems, but I don't believe there is another mirror in the world as beautiful as this one, for it reflects not just images but the dedication and perseverance of very special adults who work with very special children. I never tire of looking at it, no matter what looks back at me.

Digital time capsules (4)

The China behind my china

tea basket, circa 1980, China

If there was one place that epitomized "exotic" when I was growing up, it was China. Huge, distant, untouchable, shrouded in centuries of mystery and obscurity, dressed in brocades and heavy silks in rich hues - this was a place of the imagination. I never expected to go there.

Even in 1983, when I lived in Paris and was discovering that once-exotic France had a normal-life side to it, China was still a land beyond the pale. My friends Tom and Maggie gave me a teapot and two small cups in a wicker basket, a present that I found so charming I promptly doubled my tea intake, just to use it. It was made in China, and it sat on my Paris balcony in the 6th arrondissement, on a marbletop bistro table. I sipped green tea and looked out over the Luxembourg Gardens at the belfry of St. Sulpice, occasionally wondering about the people who had made the little cups and padded the teapot, which seemed such an ingenious way of keeping tea hot.

In 1985 I spent three months crossing China on a bicycle, much of the time in areas closed to foreigners (but no one thought to stop a bicycle), and I saw simple teapots and magnificent ones. I drank tea off and on all day with Nick, who became my husband two years later - but I never saw a wicker tea holder like this one, and I often wondered who had made it, in what part of China? Had he, or she, known that it would live in Paris, on a balcony with old church bells chiming the hours? Was Paris a place people in the Chinese village had heard of?

The tea basket moved to Switzerland and lost its lid, I saw less of Tom and Maggie, I visited China again and wrote a book about it. I hope the Chinese people who made the basket had their one child (no more allowed during that era) and that the child grew up happily into the world of a newer, less exotic China. Perhaps this child is now an adult and will visit Paris this year - maybe even Switzerland. Exotic places, from a Chinese perspective.

I like to think this is possible, and that the cups of tea I drank so many years ago contributed in some small way to China's introductory bow to the rest of the world.