whistlestop caboose

The view from the back.

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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

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Too much pink

I cannot decide if girls really prefer pink or if they are told so often that pink is THE color that they embrace it.

For years, I detested pink.IT WAS EVERYWHERE.

I am beginning to accept it.

Swearing the Swiss way

I am going to cheat a bit and send you to my GenevaLunch blog, something I won't do often. There you can see what I plan to swear to tomorrow, and why.

Here are some images that go with the story.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Glacial afterthought

A few centuries after a snow crystal melted on a Swiss glacier and joined other drops of water to run down the mountainside, carrying slivers and chips of rocks with them, they tumbled into the Rhone River. From there they rushed along to Lake Geneva, with the idea of getting down to the south of France and the Mediterranean. Many of them made it. Other bits of water and glacial sediment were sidetracked by the beauty of the shores of Lake Geneva. There they sit today. Every now and again the spotlight in on them. This happens mainly on days when the sun shines then black clouds arrive and winds blow. The lake shifts from blue to black to a strange glacial green.

The bush that wept

When bushes cry, we get flower puddles (putals, if you like). This bush was surely crying for happiness - sun, then rain, more sun and photographers stopping to gape in wonder.

Too tired to write more tonight, but I have promised Christopher in Hawaii to come back with some pointers on posting different sizes of digital photos on the Internet, since my experience as a magazine editor showed me that everyone gets confused about this. That and more tomorrow. Today was supposed to be rainy and gloomy all day, but we had wild moments of darkness fighting the brightness, almost biblical, so who knows what tomorrow will bring.

Lake Geneva, looking from Saint-Prex to Lausanne

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

I am about to be a "bloggeuse"

I've seen prettier words, but it's the French for a female blogger.

Time to share a bit of good news on this end. I have been invited to write a blog for the Tribune de Genève, Geneva, Switzerland's main newspaper. They currently have 4 staff writers with blogs, but I am their first outsider, and the only one writing in English. The idea is for me to attract international readers. Geneva's population of 400,000 is 45% foreign, and English is the main language they share, thus the potential readership is very good. More than that, it is an exciting challenge! This group is also an important part of the audience for my new community service news site, www.genevalunch.com, so it's a good marketing platform for me.

After some reflection and discussion we agreed on two themes, which I can mix as I see fit. Here they are:

Too many hats

The confused life of a modern international adult. Take me, for example, I am a CEO, writer and editor, reporter, mother, wife, daughter, sister, gardener, imbiber, photographer, lawnkeeper, seamstress, baker, specialist in special education, mild techie, publisher, translator - am I a multilingual, multicultured renaissance person or someone who doesn't know how to fill in online forms, which don't allow this many labels?

An example of a post for this might be: Three small tasks this week provoked an identity crisis. I filled in a survey for the Financial Times, as a manager responsible for IT purchases, but I wanted to add (no space) that I've written travel articles for them because I think that's more interesting than being an IT buyer. I finally registered for the online version of the New York Times and repliedg based on what I think they'll do with the statistics. Then I tried to buy Hanes underwear online only to discover that they can't cope with people outside the U.S., which made me feel like a non-person. I was almost in tears at my inability to buy American-cut boxer shorts.

The devil is in the detail

We believe we focus on the big things in our lives, like work and family. In reality, it's all the little stuff that we spend much of our time grappling with and chatting about, and in general being tripped up by. Otherwise put: why the boss no longer buys shoes with laces.

An example of this might be: I bumped into a woman I hadn't seen in months and I asked her about the new American CEO in her company. What does the staff think about him, now that they have had a few months of him? Never mind the strategy, the vision, the changes in teams. "He doesn't say 'good morning' to anyone and he doesn't look up at you until you've stood in front of his desk for a minute. So nobody likes him and we're changing our view of Americans. We thought they were all friendly."

My face ached from smiling at her after that, trying to make up for one American's insensitivity to making quick eye contact.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Poupette the cow eyes my tulips

I had too little sleep last night or I would have remembered this before finding it in my camera this morning. I was pulling weeds yesterday afternoon when I realized there was a tremendous clanging of cowbells in the field above me. I looked up and the fighting cows were head-butting and pushing each other ferociously. First two, then another couple joined in and pretty soon the whole frisky herd was clanging and bellowing. Some chased others and clouds of dust rose, despite ground damp from rain. One suddenly leaped over the fence and hurried down the meadow towards me and my tulips. She was clearly more interested in eating than fighting.

Bernard the farmer was off making cheese and frankly, I'm not brave when it comes to chasing large cows back over a fence, especially up a steep hill.

She and I eyed each other, then she eyed my red tulips. There was some luscious green grass under her nose, so she started on that and slowly worked her way towards the tulips. I was so unnerved by her very large presence (I've seen her and her pals run and they can move) that I didn't notice I'd set the camera on black and white. The red tulip in front would have been nice.

Bernard arrived and eyed the herd. "They're in heat," he said, with satisfaction. And he went off to bellow and chase them; one day I will ask him if cows are hard of hearing. If anyone knows, please tell me, as I often wonder this, listening to him shouting at them to come in or settle down or stop being so stubborn.

He came back for Poupette, who by now had wandered just a few feet from my tulips. He gave her a little treat and rubbed her fondly on the snout, then tapped her shanks with a thin little stick and said "Allez, allez!", which is what men shout at soccer/football matches. The two trotted up the road together, man and happy beast, to the barn.

Lordi and the Hallelujah rockers

We have some pretty strange music around our house most evenings, which is probably the same thing most parents of teenagers would say. In our case, it's a very odd mix. Liam will soon leave home to spend the summer, his third, in China, and then go to Vancouver to study Chinese. Karaoke is very hot in China, so he is trying to learn Chinese songs by following karaoke in Chinese on the Internet. Add to that heavy metal bands that he and his friends listen to just because that's what they do, and lately, the Beatles, because he's been improving his juggling to their music.

Now we have Lordi, the wild death metal music group from Finland, singing "Hallelujah" in a way you've never heard before. It's been on several times today, loud, loud, loud. In fairness to my son, I don't think it's possible to play this stuff softly.

And, I have to admit it, I kind of like this band! The Eurovision music contest always seemed like the worst of a bland side to modern Europe. Finland has failed utterly and miserably to win anything there, has come in last 8 times and had a final, dismal score of 0 on 3 occasions. The nation hung its head in shame until this weekend when Lordi rocked the Finns to musical success and Eurovision to life. The crowd roared but they were drowned out by the band.

Read a little more here, and check out the links.

The Finns are celebrating tonight, so if you live near any, watch out. Some of them look like this. An interviewer asked the leader of the band yesterday if all Finns looked like this. His response: "Only the pretty ones."

Prepare to rock! And send your spare facial masks to Helsinki.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Rainy walk in the Swiss Valaisan Alps

What to do on a rainy day in the mountains: seek water

Saturday was cool and rainy. After a few hours of looking out the window people were a bit ragged around the edges, so we went out in the rain. Here are some of the things we observed, heading up the mountainside to Aminon, driving around the rocks and boulders that have tumbled down the slopes during spring rains.

Looking at water in the rain: the mountain waterfalls are swollen from peak melt-off, another 500 meters higher. This photo was taken at a high speed, but still couldn't stop the water's action. Staring at the falls for 2 minutes offers a great lesson in why we can harness power from them for electricity.

Larch trees add a lovely soft touch and light green note to the darker greens of an alpine forest. They are at their most beautiful now, with gently swaying branches that brighten even rainy days.

The cones on larches are particularly pretty. The number of bright red cones, tiny, on the pine trees surprises: they look like berries until you draw close.

The Aminona forest clearings always hold surprises. Here, a breakway cloud heading at mid-height up the Rhone valley, rather than creeping along over the town of Sierre on the valley floor, or draping itself over the peaks above St. Luc, in the distance.

The sun never quite came out but it brightened a little and here is what we saw when we came home.

The ragged edges had left us by then.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

They listen, they rock (flowers)

The civilized side of the fence.

Beethoven playing now, and some listen. Others rock.

of typos, rhubarb with ginger, and alpine meadows

Saturday morning

I read my posting from yesterday and am surprised at all the typos. I was tired last night, too tired to read before bed, which is a nearly sacred habit. My last memory is my daughter giggling happily as a I drifted off, because she'd decided to join me in bed and realized I wasn't going to insist she go to her own.

In true blogger style I won't patch up those typos, because to people who subscribe to this blog it will appear as an additional posting. Apologies.

Mozart is booming - my husband decided to get himself the entire Mozart collection for his birthday in April and we are working our way through it on Saturday mornings.

In just one week the alpine meadows that nearly surround us have shot up, so that our fence (a feeble gesture to keep unwanted seeds on the meadow side) has nearly disappeared. The rhubarb plant is not as scary as it was last weekend because Nick chopped much of it and made rhubarb ginger jam, with a lot of ginger. We sampled it this morning and it's now competing with his raspberry jam as my favorite.

Saturday, getting later

Time to go weed. Mozart will come at me from one side and Bernard's cows' bells from the other, for the girls, as I think of them, are starting to munch their way across the meadow above the house.

Friday, May 19, 2006

How Pia shook me

I started my day before 6am, a sure sign of old age. I turned on the computer, logged in and waited 10 minutes for everything to load because there is way too much stuff on my computer and I never get around to cleaning out e-mail. The number of messages in the inbox would frighten any sensible person.

I was sailing along, researching and writing for GenevaLunch and feeling pleased as punch about the steady stream of visitors - I've barely begun to let people know about it and we had about 50 new visitors today. I wouldn't say I was feeling smug, because I was grappling with how to best add 3 photos to a story about bio winemakers in Switzerland. But I was happy, work was going as it should, life was not bad.

And then Pia phoned, from her cell phone. She never uses the phone in her house because there is too much competition for it, from her 4 children, her husband, her Philippino helper who is a member of the family, her guests, her visiting inlaws and visiting family. In short, Pia, a Finnish woman from the Swedish-speaking part of Finland, who used to be an airline flight attendant and is now a mother and real estate agent and I don't know what else, lives life on the go. There is so much going on at her house that I'm breathless trying to catch up, just listening.

In fact, I had to lean out the window to listen, since my cell phone won't work through our 300-year-old walls, the downside of living in a charming lakeside Swiss village. They just weren't thinking ahead, those old urban planners. They were more concerned with wild Lake Geneva winds, so the design of the village is a little peculiar, with narrow streets that bend and twist to trick the wind.

Here is what Pia said: my 17-year-old son was at her house right then, early afternoon, for a barbecue to celebrate the end of exams. He had said, in answer to her question, that no, his parents were not going to the graduation ball. Why? Because he'd said no way, they shouldn't. He has a girlfriend, this is the end of school, a kind of graduating class thing where parents have no place.

Pia exploded, probably to his surprise, since there are few explosions in our house. We have a kind of getting-by mentality, largely because our 13-year-old mentally handicapped and autistic daughter saps our energy. We don't plan ahead; we live from minute to minute much of the tiem.

Pia's point was that this is a Big Deal. You graduate only once from high school, and if you go to a school, like this one, with kids from 110+ countries, when you leave there is a good chance you'll never see any of your buddies again. More than that, you're crossing a line to adulthood. Your parents need to celebrate this, and so do you.

In our house, celebrations are a hassle, so we downplay them. Christmas lights didn't go up last year, or the year before, because everyone was too tired to do it. The lovely holiday dinners, with my mother's precious Fosteria dinnerware that I've inherited: too much hassle and trouble. Tara, my daughter, eats wrapping paper and paper napkins. She can't sit still for a meal and tends to suddenly leap up from the table with a chunk of meat and a few leaves of dressing-covered lettuce in hand and run off to our bed. She likes that space, and since she also likes food, she carries favorite bits of meals up there. No one deserves a bed llike ours.

So special events get downplayed, and last Christmas I realized that our son was growing up with an attitude of "what's the big deal", to which I hadn't yet come up with an answer. except a vague "It's depressing."

Pia, bless her soul, had the energy to answer today, indignantly. "He'll only do this once in his life!" He's leaving home! He's saying goodbye to his friends! His parents deserve a night to celebrate this because it's a Big Deal for them, too.

And suddenly I saw this stream of Big Events in my son's life, too many of them ignored, and I thought, she's right. If we don't insist that this is one of those moments, one of those thresholds, he will not see it that way until it is too late and he will feel cheated, by us perhaps, or maybe just by life.

There is very little time left to share the wisdom of the older adult.

And that's what it all comes down to: we actually are wiser, and more experienced, to our astonishment, and we should be sharing that. We are marking his step across a magical threshold into adulthood, but at the same time, we are acknowledging that we, too, are crossing a threshold. Wisdom, we can finally embrace you!

Thanks, Pia, for making us step back to ssee our role. Kinda cool, really.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

A history of my life in dust buffaloes

Some people have dust bunnies, those little bits of fluff that bear witness to a moment of inattention in the great housekeeping sweepstakes.

Once in a while we have dust bunnies. Most of the time we have dust buffaloes. They bear witness to weeks of inattention, what some people here prefer to think of as focusing on other things. Well, yes.

The day arrived - it was yesterday - when in a panic I announced that the house really had to be cleaned. Now, immediately, all of it. Well, maybe just the most conspicuous parts of it. Even I could see that all of it was more than a day's work. I used to have a cleaning woman. At that point my business was slightly different and I had clients visiting and people to whom I outsourced work would come to the office. I simplified my work, downsized, and decided I could do without the cleaning woman, since I seemed to spend 1/2 day a week tiptoeing around her. The family assured me this was fine, that we would all chip in to clean regularly. If anyone had the option of sleeping in on the day the cleaning woman came, or if anyone was sick, this would no longer be a problem. We could probably go out to a nice restaurant sometimes on the money we saved.

Frankly, it didn't work. That was 7 months ago and the house has - well, you don't want to know when it was last cleaned, do you? As for the restaurant meals, they degenerated into hurried pizzas at home when we didn't have time for real meals.

Now here was my logic yesterday: the accountant was coming to close the 2005 books for my company and prepare the tax return with me. The office is part of our living space, much of which is an open area, so I would somehow have to get him in the door, past two bedrooms and several spaces that include corners for cooking, eating and all those other untidy things we do during a typical day. He, being a man of numbers, probably has a tidy mind and he would be shocked to see such unkempt quarters. I, being disturbed to see him shocked, would probably have trouble following his arguments about closing the accounts and making decisions about whether I am poor or rich this year, for these are not realities, they are accounting decisions, in my experience.

We chased buffalo most of the day. I coughed and had to scrub off the grime several times, but I convinced the cleaning gang (those who helped create the grime in the first place) that the time had come to throw out Old Stuff. My son is leaving home and we agreed that it makes no sense to keep books for 8 year-old boys or board games for rainy days with visiting grannies. Yes, they were called bored games, for days when he was really bored.

By the time the accountant came, early in the morning, I had seen much of my life from the past two decades gallop before me and away, on the backs of the dust buffaloes. Gone now are the bits of old jewelry saved for a short-lived post-summer camp beading frenzy. Gone are the mysterious medicines and heat rubs for injuries and ailments from the summer of '94, the Indian spices from a curry binge in 1996. Brochures about visiting penguins at the South Pole, and riding a motorcyle across Lapland in Finland to see the autumn colors: I remembered the year I fancied those trips but had to settle for staying at home when a magazine I worked for went broke and didn't pay me.

I can't say it was fun, but the air did seem a little better at the end of the day. I doubt the accountant noticed anything other than a strong blend of furniture polish and floor cleaner, still lingering in the air.

Buffalo-free, I was able to concentrate and follow him, more or less, when he said I would either pay taxes or get a reimbursement. That's what I love about accounting: it is such a black and white, tidy business.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Da Vinci Code world premier in Geneva: verdict is good but not brilliant

Shanghai, China, and Lasuanne and Geneva, Switzerland had the world premieres of the film Da Vinci Code, although you'll probably read elsewhere that the Cannes film festival in France had that privilege. It's just a louder, noisier place, and gets more attention.

So some of our crowd went to the movie's opening in Geneva at 5:30. Verdict from the amateurs, just regular movie-goers: "It was kind of good, in places. Not great. Not one of the all-time best movies. But not bad."

You heard it here first.

When was the last time you used the word "attack"?

I had an e-mail this afternoon from the company that hosts my web sites (I have two), replying to my urgent demand to know why the e-mail accounts linked to one site were suddenly not working. The hosting company (Hostway U.K.) is usually very reliable, so I was chagrined that something was amiss just as I sent out 50 announcements to journalists and other key people to say GenevaLunch was up and running. Hostway didn't reply quickly, which is also unusual - they pride themselves on getting back to customers within an hour or so. I phoned, found a pleasant young man who started checking for the message I'd sent - and he suddenly had a message on his screen explaining that they had a major problem on one server. My accounts were on that server, he said.

I waited, as we agreed I should, for two hours for things to get back to normal. Meanwhile, I received a friendly but business-like e-mail from customer service explaining that they had had a major attack on the account of one of their customers. The location of the attacker kept changing, which made it harder and slower to fight it off.

Attack! I know it's Internet jargon and used a lot, but I saw the word again a few minutes later while reading a BBC report on an Internet gaming convention in Los Angeles, that led me to a story about an Israeli firm that just folded after spammers went for it. And again while reading about a shootout in the State Council in Ankara, Turkey, where a judge was killed and others wounded. The word reappeared on the sports pages.

I reflected that it is not a word I use lightly or frequently, if ever. It's not that my life excludes attacks: it's a matter of perception. An attack demands reprisals. A problem, on the other hand, just demands action.

Right now, at this very moment, Guangdong's coast in southeast China is preparing to be battered by typhoon Chanchu, the worst May typhoon on record. China is getting ready for a summer of bad weather and Chanchu, which means "pearl" might kickstart the season.

Should we say the typhoon is attacking China? But what, then, is the response? Action or reprisals, and what would those be, where nature is concerned?

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Mexico or New Orleans?

I'm bothered by two news items that I've seen in the past two days, and more bothered when I put them together than when I think about them separately.

The first is a post on a blog that was picked up by Maki Itoh on her site. I'm working with Maki, who is a web developer and designer, on the GenevaLunch site. But this is about a different world, New Orleans several months after Katrina the storm hit, and the lack of patching up there. The place is still a mess, judging by the photos.

I ran a GenevaLunch short report today on President Bush's decision to ship 6,000 National Guard members to the Mexico border to tighten the net on illegal immigration. Sure, the situation is a bit of a mess, but slamming the door in someone's face doesn't usually make them stop wanting to enter, so I doubt this will be effective .

On the other hand, ship those National Guard people to New Orleans and I bet they could clean it up pretty fast, with a little help from more motivated locals, if they saw the troops walk in, mops and hammers in hand.

Just a thought. You might want to reconsider, George.

Monday, May 15, 2006

The government likes my car

A cheerful note: the government has said I may drive my car for another three years. I picked up my car from the garage this morning, where it sat safely over the weekend after the mechanics whipped it into shape for its government test. I took it to the car wash, the better for the government men to check under the chassis. I drove into my assigned lane 5 slightly ahead of schedule, as recommended.

And I watched for the next 15 minutes while the government man shook and shimmied and bounced my car around - testing the lights, brakes, suspension and many other parts and behaviors of which I am usually blissfully unaware.

It passed, with a couple small repairs still needed.

When I moved from the U.S. to Europe 25 years ago I was shocked that a car had to be approved in order to have the right to be on the road. I saw no reason why any old clunker should not be out there. Over the years, partly due to the speed at which Europeans drive, I have become more open to the idea that cars should be given roadworthy tests on a regular basis.

In fact, after he pointed out that a black sleeve near the front left wheel had a crack in it and needs to be replaced, something the good mechanic we use hadn't spotted, I think maybe this is one of the better uses of my tax money. The Swiss are trying to reduce road deaths to zero. I doubt we'll see that, but why not try?

Sunday, May 14, 2006

What I learned from my mother

Happy Mother's Day, Florence Wallace!

Orange tulips blooming in my Swiss garden today: for Florence Wallace

My mother, Florence Wallace, with her father, RA Lonergan, 1966, I think

My mother is 94 years old, living in a home in Kansas City. I can't get there to see her, but I know the staff in the home often find her witty and fun, even though her memory is weak and she has bad spells that cause difficult times for her and everyone around her.

I hope that one or two of the staff will find their way here and take a minute to read a little bit about Florence, the old lady in the chair. She spent so many years breathing life into her philosophy that one of the best things you can teach children is that life is always worth living. Teach them to believe in themselves, and respect and consideration for others will follow: these are the grains of hope and peace we are all born with but that need to be nourished.

When I was growing up I saw my mother as the guardian of the moral code. My father might have given us a strong example of morality that we could study, but my mother was the one who often chased us to observe the code. She was a great believer in modesty, for example, at a time when it was not exactly fashionable. My last week of high school I decided to shorten my school uniform skirt so that it ended just below the top of my legs. It was gray wool, pleated, and must have looked very peculiar that short, barely covering a short me, but I didn't care - Twiggy and mini-skirts, that was the look I was after. My mother, without a word, retrieved the wool strip and stayed up all night stitching the chopped skirt together again.

A year or two later I went to Chicago to see the musical Hair with my college boyfriend and we watched long-haired people without clothes leaping and dancing and singing for two hours. The concert hall had a distinct smell of marijuana. Not long afterwards I discovered that my mother, finding a swimming suit of mine that I certainly didn't consider risqué, decided to sew a bit of lace to the top, to my horror. Definitely not fashionable.

My father was an extraordinarily honest person, and from him I inherited a strong sense of indignation when others take the lazy path of dishonesty. But from my mother I learned not to let indignation tip over into righteousness and zealousness: she could be scathing if we forgot to look at things from the other person's point of view. Ambition, she believed, needed to be tempered or it would lead to self-centeredness. When I rushed around too much, trying to do to much, she would chide me to take time to smell the flowers.

In my late twenties I came across a photo of my mother, beautiful and coquettish, sporting a snappy cap at a sharp angle, with my father, dashing and handsome. I realized they must have been younger than I was, looking at that photo, and for the first time I really studied this woman in the picture, not as my mother but as a young woman filled with hopes and dreams.

Columbine, blooming in my Swiss garden today: for Florence

She has had a mostly good life, with a husband who was a good man, four daughters who all turned out well, grandchildren, financial and physical comfort for most of her life. She has also had hard times - she lost her first baby when he was three months old, her husband fought in the Pacific for two years during the second world war while she managed alone in a small town in Iowa with two very small children. Her two brothers died too young and her baby sister disappeared behind Alzheimers before she was 70, dying two years later. Bob Wallace, her husband, died 12 years ago, leaving her a widow to grow old alone.

Florence has always kept looking ahead, focusing on all the things she wanted to do. She took up painting when she was about 70 and pursued it with energy. She still enjoys the occasional art class at her home, and critiquing the paintings of others.

If I learned anything from her it is this: don't let your life be defined by loss, don't let it be determined by the past. It is what you make it. To hope is to embrace the possible.

What a wonderful thing, that she was able to teach children how to do this!

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Peace on Mother's Day

Peace on Mother's Day
Peace on Mother's Day,
originally uploaded by ellengwallace.

Flowers from the garden in a vase made by a good friend, a painting from Ghana, purchased when my 10 year old son visited there with us, and in the corner, a wonderful turtle-fish painting by my son at age 16, a relaxing glass of wine and - this you can't see - cherished fingerprints from my daughter on the window nearby. A basket of pleasure, plenitude, warmth and love. I am blessed and I hope that this message of good cheer goes some way towards sharing this bounty with you, no matter who you are (and not just mothers) for that is how we reproduce the best in our world.

(Flickr offers a larger view of this photo, if not the world.)

Swiss wild tulips

Wild tulips are not the same as naturalized ones, but both grow happily in mountain meadows, I believe, and divide and multiply over time. Tulips started in Asia, in the mountains, and they still grow wonderfully on well-drained slopes with cool nights and warm days.

Farmer Bernard next door has some red ones that reappear every year and no one seems to know anything about where they came from or how long they have been there - always, is the only answer my question draws. They are at the top of a virgin alpine meadow where wildflowers grow like mad from mid-April until early June, when the cows are given a week to nibble and mow the field. The tulips are never touched, since they are at the top of a slope on a very steep bit. Farmer Bernard's smart but not handsome dog sits next to the tulips and keeps an eye on the cows, barks when anyone walks up the lane to buy cheese or ask if they can take some of the manure ("Yes! Please do, as much as you like!" is always the answer.)

The French are trying to list and maintain their native wild tulips; I think these Swiss ones might be cousins.

Friday, May 12, 2006

National hymns lack grip

National hymns and anthems (I'm not sure what the difference is; are you?) lack grip: they don't grab you. The only one I've ever heard that came close is the French one, the "Marseillaise", to which you could box if you wanted to. Most of the others are insipid, although the better ones have soaring moments, reminiscent of church spires tacked onto cheap buildings the poor local parish hoped no one would notice.

I'm probably taking a firm stand on this to cover up a personal weakness. I can't remember these songs, despite years of hearing and singing them. Mary Tiegreen, creator of the series, 1001 Reasons to Love . . . kindly pointed out that I muddled my hymns and anthems in my Mother's Day post at GenevaLunch. She could have snapped at me right here, but she's too nice. (Mary, the Internet is a tough place, but hey! we can take it!)

Mary is right, so here then is the apology, the correction and a plea to future songwriters. I sincerely apologize, for I would hate to corrupt future generations of bored singers. Mary's correction: "Julia Ward Howe wrote the Battle Hymn of the Republic, and Francis Scott Key wrote our national anthem. Oh say, can you see? Mine eyes have seen the glory!"

Frankly, I can't imagine how I confused them. I spent much of my childhood singing variations on the battle hymn, those beloved lyrics such as "the coming of the lord, he is coming round the corner in a polka-dotted Ford..."

And now the plea. I have stood in Irish cinemas, filled with smoke since it was legal to puff during a movie at the time, and listened to a watery Gaelic song that inspired no one. I once listened to the Swiss national anthem in the four national languages just because I felt so sorry for the people who had posted this on the Internet - not the stuff for building web site traffic.

I think governments and songwriters have it wrong. Sign an agreement with the Beatles, which will help them get over the loss of their Apple to the other Apple, and write similar snappy lyrics to the tune of "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" or "She Loves You Yeah Yeah Yeah".

I'd probably learn to keep the national anthem and the national hymn straight.

Of course, the next generation might think a Metallica song catchier.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Mother calling! Mother calling just a little LOUDER!

It came as a surprise to me when I left the U.S. and moved to Europe that there were several Mother's Days, on different dates. I wasn't a mother and my own mother knew only about the American version, so I didn't give this too much thought for a few years.

And then I finally figured out why we celebrate Mother's Day in May. I wrote about it on my new journalism blog at GenevaLunch. If you love your mother, read this. If you are a mother, read this. If you don't fit into one of those categories, you could broaden your horizons by reading this.

(Only a mother would make that last remark.)

The nutritional approach to devouring cookies

My friend Mary, who posted a comment on my real cookie post, sent me this dauntingly informative link about the nutritional value of Burger King Nestle Toll House cookies (apologies to the merger people, but there are too many trademarks and copyrights to know where to put the symbols). They appear to have more value than the weight multiplied by the size of a cookie!

I'm considering a) taking up the suggestion to open an online shop, but I would have to register as a charity first because I think I would operate in the red if I paid myself a salary of about 10 cents and b) send in my cookies to Burger King, for a nutritional value test. Maybe they'll buy mine and we can call them Burger King Nestle Toll House Ellen Wallace chocolate chiplet cookies. They are made with tiny Swiss chocolate squares, smaller than the American ones. I'm trying to think what that shape is called. Not a cone, not a peak, a???

I sneaked an oatmeal raisin cookie into the photo the other day, since I was running short. I just thought I should confess before someone found me out. I realized, looking at web stats for this site, that someone from the FBI in Virginia has visited twice. I think it's because I mentioned the obituary of a retired FBI agent, or it might have been that he or she likes cookies. I mentioned Argentina and Chile once or twice, in connection with buying shoes. Could that be it?

You just never know where the Internet will take you, do you?

I don't usually ask this many questions in a blog, but it is a questioning sort of day, partly because my husband and I have both finished teaching university courses this week and the word "plagiarism" has been on our lips too often, talking to each other and to other professors. As a teacher, you're left mainly with no answers to your "why?" when you watch people cheat and plagiarize even after you have explained several times over a few weeks why this is such a bad idea. At the root of the problem seems to be a wonderful, undying human belief that others will be caught at something, but not me.

Google gives (stuff to students) and Google taketh away (teachers can use it, too).

Rowing past Evian

Rowing past Evian
Rowing past Evian,
originally uploaded by ellengwallace.
When the Morges, Switzerland rowing club puts its students out on Lake Geneva, you know winter is behind you. Here, Evian, France is behind the rowers.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

No point in flimsy cookies

I was probably 25 years old or more when I discovered that other people expect chocolate chip cookies to have smooth surfaces with occasional bumps of chocolate, and a golden tone to them. This is not my idea of a chocolate chip cookie, and I claim some expertise.

A quick calculation: over 48 or so years of baking them at least once a month I have probably produced at least 20,736 chocolate chip cookies, and they rarely lasted a day after leaving the hot oven.

My mother was firm about the basic rules of nutrition. One of them, never stated but implied, was that if you were going to eat cookies, you should be sure they had some nutritional value. Our version of chocolate chip cookies was essentially an oatmeal cookie made with dark brown sugar and walnuts.

I have never wavered in the belief that if you bake late at night and can't resist sneaking a cookie for breakfast, it should be a reasonable substitute for cereal. Five years ago I bought a new Joy of Cooking, since my old version was getting ragged around the edges and pages were falling out. I was shocked to discover that more sugar is used in most recipes than 35 years ago, and the sugar is white.

Here is what I think a real cookie should look like. I would have photographed more, but they've disappeared.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Poised at perfection

This tulip's moment of perfection

I hope and believe that tulips are not philosophical, that in their lives a moment arrives when they are perfect and they do not reflect on this. They have simply reached the point at which they will not continue to improve, for they are perfect in their appearance and their role in the life of those in the garden around them.

We human beings rarely bask in the glow of our moments of perfection. We look over our shoulders and see what it took to reach that point, and in that point we are already sensing decay, the downhill slide into a less perfect state.

That's the gloomy view and it's not particularly honest, for it gives in to the macabre side that we all have, and gives it the wrong weight. What we consider our own perfection might be a day when we think we look our best, and we spend years after that trying to achieve again a certain mix of skin and hair and weight and just-so demeanor. It might be the day when we were gloriously intelligent-sounding and everyone listened, rapt, and for years after we struggle to get the attention of the crowd again.

The human moment of perfection: we can have many

Mostly it's our perception of perfection that is out of kilter. We are perfect when we have a moment of balance, when we fit into our surroundings and those who surround us. We are probably more often perfect that we allow ourselves to believe.

One of the most beautiful women I have ever met was 81 years old and it is to her credit that when I told her this she brushed aside the compliment but without finding it false. She had thick short white hair and startling blue eyes and a fierceness that must come with surviving life in a small village on the edge of a cliff in Donegal, Ireland's wild northwest outpost. "I had beautiful long black hair when I was young," she said proudly. But that is for the young, she added with a smile, and she called over a granddaughter of 7 who had inherited her beauty.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Blue vase with Alpine tulips

My friend Evelyn makes lovely blue pottery. Her vase is just one more reason to grow tulips in my Alpine garden.

Swiss Alpine tulip drops

Swiss Alpine tulip drops
Swiss Alpine tulip drops,
originally uploaded by ellengwallace.
Another favorite from the garden. View both tulips larger on Flickr, http://www.flickr.com/photos/ellenwallace/

Swiss Alpine tulip, orange

Swiss Alpine tulip, orange
Swiss Alpine tulip, orange,
originally uploaded by ellengwallace.
A favorite from the garden.

The flower pie cow trio

Swiss Alpine tulips declare spring

[I posted this last night and it disappeared from the system just as it was being published. A new day, time to try again.]

A patch of my garden tulips in the Alps

Friday evening the weekend got off to a rough start. I was cleaning my contact lens when one of them was washed down the drain. My son volunteered to take apart the drain - the next morning.

I woke up yesterday feeling glum because the options were not good and replacing the kind of lens I have doesn't come cheaply. I could go without my contacts for the weekend, but I'm very near-sighted, so that means a headache and frustration. I could wear a pair of old glasses, all right for driving but too strong for cooking or even having a conversation with someone. I could wear one and go through the day one-eyed, more or less.

Liam took apart the drain, but no lens. The cleaning job was probably good for the drain but it's hard to get satisfaction from knowing your drains sparkle on the inside.

I went outside without glasses and admired my Alpine tulips, wonderful creatures. They are lovely flowers to look at but I am excited by them simply because they came up, rewarding me for hours spent in chilly weather last October and November, with dents in my knees from planting them. Spring comes so much later here in the mountains than in the valley below
that I wanted masses of tulips to keep my impatience in check while the rest of the garden struggles to warm up.

Swiss Alpine rhubarb-apple pie adds cheer

I put on my glasses, admired the tulips again and photographed them, noticed that the rhubarb plant had gonen in two weeks from "growing nicely" to being tall with flowers forming. The glasses gave me a headache when I wore them shopping so I took them off and baked a pie: rhubarb-apple. We had it with a pot of black tea.

A little later I heard cowbells clanging madly. Farmer Bernard, whose barn is just above the chalet, was taking his young girls, the three year old cows, outside for the first time. They loved it - they kicked up their heels, raced around a fenced-in area and stopped to nuzzle Farmer Bernard and his friends. I tried to photograph them but they were moving too much so I kept getting shots of back legs.

"If you insist." Jou-Jou, pausing to pose.

"Jou-Jou," called Bernard to the light brown one, and she came over to say hello. She is one of a couple brown cows who stay with the herd of black Val d'Herens fighting cows, to keep them a little more docile. The fighting cows have short legs, the better for climbing in the Alps. There are 27 in this herd, and on Tuesday they will all come outside for the summer. They first nibble the grass in the meadows around us and six weeks later they march up to the higher alps where they will stay until September. Next year Jou-Jou and the others her age will have their first calves.

Meanwhile, they frolic, the only word for it. Soon I will hear Farmer Bernard in the evenings, calling them back to the barn so he can milk them. I know I will hear him again shouting up the hillside, "Leila! Come in now! You can't stay out all night, you know." Leila will suddenly decide she's ready to call it a day. Clanging and running, into the barn she will rush. Later, the bells go silent (Bernard puts tennis balls in them to stop the noise) and the soft lowing begins.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Fly me anywhere

[May 6, annoying typos corrected!]

Weathery Swiss sky

I love the idea of flying and envy birds the freedom to just lift off at any moment and sail into the clouds, and over us, wherever they want to go. Airplanes are an excellent substitute, but the rigamarole of getting to the airport, fighting the crowds, lining up, sitting down, buckling up: it's not really the same as: Liftoff! Sky, here I come.

All this to say I love good sky photos. I took one early this morning and hadn't gotten around to posting it when I saw a wonderful one on Flickr, by Joe in New Mexico. I had to rush to post the one I caught this morning, leaning out my window, just as the weather began to change. It has rained most of the day since, but I'm pretty sure some birds headed for these clouds just for the fun of it.

(large size photo, with birds showing clearly, on Flickr)
Yesterday, while I was working, a helicopter circled, again and again. The birds were startled and flew off, returned and settled down, flew off again. Our village is very pretty and from time to time people take professional photos of it from the air. I wonder if they get the ruffled birds in their pictures. Just in case they don't, here are the birds, in a heli-frenzy.

Just fishing and thinking

First, the thinking part

This week has been so taken up with getting the new Lake Geneva news site up and running that I haven't been able to look at other people's blogs or write much here. GenevaLunch is now functioning more or less as it should and next week's focus is to start building the content - links to other sites, events, community reporting and so on. It's a great project to work on and I think the community will find the site very useful, once the basic material is in place. There are one million English speakers in the Lake Geneva region, most in Switzerland, some over the borders in France and Italy. The Internet houses a lot of useful information for them, but it's dispersed and the GL goal is to bring it together, point people in the right direction and generally make sure they have the information they need.

That gives me some reporting to do and reminds me that some of us become journalists because we are essentially curious about everything. It's great to have a good outlet for that. Yesterday I spent an hour interviewing the CEO of the region's only Swiss chocolate manufacturer and I learned several new things, even though I have researched and written about chocolate before. It didn't hurt any that I had to exit by way of their relatively new boutique, and sample some of the chocolate.

Now for the fishing

While the rest of us run around working or trying to find work or studying or just keeping our lives organized, the official professional village fishermen get up early and go out to the middle of the lake and just fish. I don't like to fish myself, but I love to watch these men, year in and year out, in the same green fishing boat they've used for the 20 years I have lived in this village. It looks peaceful, and if we all pause now and again to watch them I think some of that peace will rub off on us.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

rhubarb pie

rhubarb pie
rhubarb pie,
originally uploaded by ellengwallace.
I have been doing two things this week: one is building the base of news and comment to get [GenevaLunch](www.genevalunch.com) off the ground. It's now up and running - you read it here first!

The other is trying to make sure that the people in my family who are suffering their way through the IB examinations period have a few treats now and again. Hats off to rhubarb pie, solace to the overworked student soul!

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Beauty in the beast: poppies up

Hard to belief how magnificently red this will be in another day or two.

Alpine poppy, trying to raise its head to the sun.

Jean-Christophe Wuthrich friends, Glacier Patrol

originally uploaded by Jean-Christophe Wüthrich.

Celestial Pilgrim and friends, Glacier Patrol

originally uploaded by celestialpilgrim.

Glacier Patrol fights back (click, click)

I bow to the impressive feat of those who spent Saturday or Sunday doing the Glacier Patrol trek across the Alps that I watched, from a safe distance, while planting potatoes this weekend.

Two sets of photos snapped by participants are up on Flickr and they say it better than any words - although both Celestial Pilgrim (love that name) and Jean-Christophe Wuthrich have a few interesting words to go with their photos.

Worth a look! And as Celestial Pilgrim wrote to my on Flickr, commenting on my blog entry yesterday, "I for one have never been so happy when I'm sitting on top of a mountain!"


Monday, May 01, 2006

Spuds and under-goers

The potato patrol

Newly planted potatoes hide under their cozy mounds of earth

This weekend in the Swiss Alps was beautiful, if still tinged with cool verging on cold (temperature at freezing) if you happened to be out at 4am.

The Glacier Patrol, on the other side of the valley
While the sun beamed down on us some people walked across the tops, and I do mean the peaks, of the Alps. The Patrouille des glaciers is an annual event where serious mountain people walk from Zermatt, home to the Matterhorn, to Verbier, home to trendy English-speaking jet-setters and other skiers. This is a distance that a crow could fly in about an hour, if a crow were flying at the same rate of speed as a car on a Swiss autoroute. Mountain peaks have many more ups and downs, with a few slippery bits in between, so the winners this year did it in 6 hours 18.48 minutes, record time.

While they did this, I dug trenches, planted potatoes, 8 good rows of fine spuds, red and white varieties, on my side of the mountain. From my slope, where I was focusing on burrowing under the mountain, I could see over to the glaciers, which remained pristinely white from a distance. I half expected them to shimmer and even boogie a bit, given the 3,700 people who were marching across them. They remained aloof and even cool to the human touch of this mass of bodies.

I had time to reflect, as I scraped and hoed and chopped at my bit of earth, that the Alpine world is made up of toppers and downers, or walk-acrossers and dig-underers. I am one of the latter, and I'm not sure why. Maybe it is a safety thing: less risk digging a potato than hiking over peaks just as the snow is getting soft. Maybe it is a coziness thing, where I feel some kinship with potatoes lying snug under their earthen quilts, contemplating the intricacies of sending out runners, avoiding other roots, breaking up the soil.

People who do not garden ask me why I do it. I can give a lot of good reasons, such as reducing stress, growing chemical-free vegetables which are undoubtedly better for all of us but especially for my autistic child, exercise. I think in the end I just plain like to plan spuds. There is no real explanation for that.

There is an explanation for why I never join those very admirable people who enter the Glacier Patrol every year. The very thought terrifies me. Life on earth should be lived mainly on the plain, or not very high up, I believe. From here I can admire the mountains, and I do.

A few years ago I was sent on a reporting job to Chamonix, a fine resort in France, just over the border from Switzerland. It was for a beautiful travel magazine and my expenses were paid: I stayed in a wonderfully expensive hotel and interviewed the chef and ate his best meals. I was given a guide and told to march across the glacier. At that point my dream journalism job began to seem a little rough around the edges.

I somehow forgot to bring along a warm jacket - possibly a sign of impending panic - and I had to buy one in the resort, for a price that was about the same as my payment for the article. It had a fancy label and many colors.

The guide showed me how to wear crampons and promptly led me down an incredibly steep slope, which others did while chatting and checking their watches, without watching their feet. I was amazed at their bravado.

I then got into the spirit of the thing, for this was really just another walk, wasn't it? So what if under my feet was a glacier, rather than warm dirty earth.

Then we got to one of those snow bridges with crevasses underneath that you always read about in magazines like National Geographic. I decided that their photographers' lenses did not come close to showing the fearful depths of these icy gaping bits.

Somehow I got across, got down and lived to tell the tale. Fifteen years later I still wear the jacket, much to the embarrassment of my son, who says no one else on the mountain has a jacket like that. No kidding! Those faded colors bear witness to a whole patchwork of human emotions, lived through during a half day or so (maybe it was a bit less).

Give me spuds anyday, over a crevasse and a shimmering glacial route in front of me. And while the others march on, I stand across from them, cheering them on while admiring the glaciers' indifference.
One of the joys of being human is that we can mix our emotions so freely.