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

Sunday, December 31, 2006

Clementine is not an old song

Oh Clemen- hand over the mouth, please, I sang that song WAY too many times when I was about 10 years old, probably off key and definitely very loudly.

I always thought Clementine was a common girl's name in Kentucky and I was grateful not to have been born there, a place where girls' feet apparently grew very large (if you don't know the song, try this).

And then I moved to Paris, the one in France, and discovered that clementine is the name of a wonderful sweet little fruit that everyone eats from November to February, with the early ones on the market coming from Spain. The French claim that a Father Clément created the fruit in Algeria at the start of the 20th century, but rumblings from China hint it had its start there, much earlier.

It garnishes every Christmas shop and New Year's tabletop in France and Switzerland. Clementine is now for me a harbinger of cold weather and good cheer. In France it has virtually replaced the once-popular mandarins.

In Switzerland we buy dozens and dozens and eat them as fast and furiously as we can. Some family members stuff ski jacket pockets with them, others nibble and dribble them (aaaaaaaagh) in the car.

Even the sun sleeps in late these days and when it finally wakes up and stretches lazily but brightly into our kitchen, we all ooh and aah as it reaches out for the wooden tray holding the clementines. And then we eat a few more of them.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Candle House in Old Town with luminarias

This is the Old Town in Albuquerque, New Mexico, one of a series by Joel on Flickr, which show a magical town at Christmas! I suggest you visit the collection.

I lingered over these because they reminded me of two bits of family Christmas history. When my oldest son was 12 I thought the time had come to import to Switzerland a tradition from Dubuque, Iowa, where I grew up. I hunted everywhere for brown paper bags, not a household item in Switzerland, I found small votive candles easily, but they were smaller than what I had in mind - never mind, I thought, they'll work. I found sand for sandboxes, not particularly cheap because it has to be clean enough for children to accidentally eat, but the only other sand is the kind we put on roads, and it comes in extremely large bags.

On a wild, blustery, snowy December evening my son and I trudged out to the front of the house, a relatively steep slope in the middle of the Swiss Alps, and we tried to plant brown bags with sand and candles. They threatened to blow away - some did - so we dug holes for them. By the time we lit one or two, previously lit ones had gone out. One bag caught fire and another melted the snow around it, immediately creating an icy waxy mess on the slope which was still there in April. My son, who was too old to wear gloves, he said, began to complain bitterly of the storm.

That was the end of our alpine luminus. But I still remember the beautiful old street we lived on in Dubuque, down a hill, with a turnaround area at the end, Plymouth Court. All the neighbors would get together and fill hundreds of bags with sand and candles, then light the candles and party.

Pure magic.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Time immemorial

Sierre, Valais, Switzerland

The Romans had a temple where there is now a little chapel, among the vineyards. The temple was here 2300 years ago.

Granges, Valais, Switzerland

Across the Rhone, in the little town of Granges, sits a hill, older than the Roman temple or the vines that produce beautiful wine. The cross is relatively recent, probably only a few centuries old.

Lives come and go, people fight and make peace, each small life is filled with dramas that often seem all-important. The land bears witness to it all, and is, in the end, the repository of human sorrows, but also joys and loves that settle down and grow into something solid and firm and rich. If we are very quiet, and listen carefully, we can learn from it.

Merry Christmas to all!

A lonely soul tonight

For weeks this soul in Geneva has had a steady stream of company, but on Christmas Eve, as people head indoors to more convivial corners, this is likely to be one lonely creature, so let's all say hello and Merry Christmas!

We three king pines of Orient are

Field and fountain, moor and mountain, travelling ...

May your spirits soar during these holidays!

Thursday, December 21, 2006

thin-skinned thinker

I walked across the bridge in Geneva, Switzerland tonight, with bustling crowds and lights twinkling on the waterfront. The quietest soul around was this thinker by the water's edge, a man of deep sensitivity, clearly very thin-skinned. We passers-by were all gentle with him.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006


It's cold outside and warm inside, so beetles, including our fair ladybugs, find happy nooks. This one spent a morning inching her way down the thread of the shades. Outside: blue sky, white clouds and the mountain view she knows well from her perches on trees and bushes and roses.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Winter wonders

Leaning over next to a window, watering houseplants this afternoon, I suddenly realized that my neighbor has geraniums blooming in a flowerbox in front of her window. If you live in a warm climate this might sound normal, but this is Switzerland and it's December!

It's been unseasonably warm lately but we've had an icy blast called the bise wind blowing all day. It is one of the few things I don't like about this part of the world because when it blows it cuts into your every personal nook and cranny no matter how warmly you dress.

The people who built this village about 700 years ago were extremely smart. We live on a little point of land that sticks out into Lake Geneva and all of the streets bend slightly. It confuses visitors to the town unless they walk along the 10 or so streets with a map.

The reason for the not-quite-straight streets is that the layout keeps the wind out. I went out for a walk this evening and was nearly blown away by the lake, so I sensibly headed for the little streets on the inside of the old part of the village, walking along the Grande rue and staying cozy and nearly warm as I walked along the street whose name means Lost Time.

Brrrrrr, Polar bear dipping

The news in from Vancouver is that this is the season for Polar bear dipping, taking a run into the Pacific and staying there for four seconds of icy swimming. If they can grow fur, I think these bears will be happier next time around.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

This is Lilac, daughter of Lily, daughter of Lea

We were invited up to farmer Bernard's barn today for an Advent aperitif (more on that tomorrow) . We trudged through the snow, up the narrow farm path where Bernard's tractor or jeep had already packed down the snow, wet and muddy. We stood with the neighbors outside in the snow at noon, sharing wine that Jean-Pierre had made, a rosé, and the dried meat that several of the men had made together. We stomped and rubbed hands and shared the good cheer of the first snowfall, then we went inside to visit the cows.

They were wonderfully quiet, just a lowing sound now and again, with all the cows sitting down and contented in their sweet-smelling hay-filled barn. The calves were the great attraction, a group of nine of them that are a month old. These are Val d'Herens fighting cows, wonderful creatures, very intelligent, who live in the barn in winter and climb high in the alps in the summer.

My favorite was Lilac, who hasn't yet worked out that even with constant pushing, her head will not fit through two bars. Her mother, Lily, was a few feet away. And Grandma Lea, at the end of the barn and now nine years old, is the queen cow, the one that leads them all up to the good pastures.

Red swing with snow

The snow drifted down and down and down over the Swiss Alps. It covered bushes and trees and driveways and most of Tara's red swing, hanging from the 75-year-old apple tree. The apple tree at the front is a century old and has seen many snowstorms, and winters soft as well as wild.

A Swiss winter breakfast

Most of the time we have a very sensible Swiss breakfast of orange juice, strong tea and muesli. On weekends we tend to replace the muesli with toast and jam, since the cellar holds so many jars of jam from our garden fruit.

But we are now in panatone season, and for 3-4 weeks we gorge ourselves with the treat from over the Alps in Italy. A friend who is married to an Italian shakes her head at our happiness with the supermarket variety, inexpensive and a household favorite. True, just once we ate some of the upper class panatone at her house and agreed that it was 1,000 times better. But the price was triple our supermarket staple one, and in this quality versus quantity debate, quantity has won out, in my home.

We are not alone: the supermarkets in Vaud and Valais have to move several shelves to make room for their popular panatone mountains.

Swiss Alpine start to winter

Winter arrived last night. It started as heavy rain on the plains, around the edges of Lake Geneva and the low, flat length of the Rhone River. The autoroute was crowded with drivers anxious to believe weather forecasts that the rain would turn to snow. Streams of headlights and taillights colored the lowlands, blurred by the heavy rainfall.

Eventually, almost everyone driving along the valley floor climbs the zigzagging roads that weave their way up the alps. At 1,000 meters the rain thickened into snow. I put on the kettle for tea in the chalet and pulled out my camera. The first snowfall had begun. I photographed the snow falling in front of me and the red lights on my neighbor's bush across the road. If you look carefully you'll see another neighbor's amber, cozy kitchen light on the left.

It has been so warm that the grass is green, as are many plants. The snow looked like a sprinkling of powdered sugar.

The snow carried on until morning in that eery calm that soft wet snows bring with it.

Here is what I saw when I opened the wooden shutters this morning:

We have had snow off and an all day. This evening I drove up to Montana, the resort town near us, and Belgian and French cars without snow tires were fishtailing up the streets, struggling to reach the shops.

Winter has arrived.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Rainbow or snowbow

On the lower end it's a rainbow but on the upper end it's a snowbow, just barely. This is for Jul, who wrote a comment on the walnut post saying she wants snow. Today it snowed, at about 2,000 meters. The sun came out, briefly, so we had a bow of whatever. For once I wanted the sun to disappear quickly so the too-thin and fragile layer of snow up there would stay.

Fresh snow above the towers of Aminona, near Crans-Montana,

From Miege, Valais, up and nearly over the peaks that lie wild and open, between Crans-Montana and Loeche-les-bains, in Switzerland.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Drying the walnuts

No snow, days continue unseasonably warm, and we are drying out the walnuts in the sun on the veranda. Everyone complains about the lack of snow, but there is a bright side to the situation. The nuts come from a neighbor's tree, down the road. We gathered them off the ground, buried in their black outer skins, hiding under fallen leaves that no one rakes. The skins fall off and we dry them on these racks, from France and used to dry plums for prunes for packaging and taking to market. The racks let the air get underneath, to avoid mold developing.

I simply like sitting and admiring the wood and shell and sky and peak: the textures and tones of the world. The walnuts are lovely to eat, all winter long.