Open-ended stories

portug10

The flag of Lusitania

Portuguese football fans at the Xamax Stadium in Neuchâtel

Xamax Stadium, Neuchâtel

immigrant |noun| a person who comes to a country to take up permanent residence

Ms. Merriam-Webster looks like a hastily rolled sleeping bag – in paisley print. I suspect her dress may actually be made from a recycled sleeping bag on account of the crisp whooshing sounds it makes as it crosses the meeting room. Her tiny feet scuttling beneath it. As my trusty online dictionary (www.merriam-webster.com), Ms. Merriam-Webster has been the unofficial patron of this blog with all of its rediscovered definitions. Enormous round eye-glasses keep sliding down her nose as if ski season it were. An attached gold chain stands guard for their final plummet, which never quite happens. A stodgy finger pushes them back up their slope where they hover over her single-stitch eyes – too tiny to hold any palpable expression, although I’m fairly certain the wrinkles around them show the intent of a smile. The hyphenated name may have been the result of circumstance, but the yellowed ivory pipe (chipped though it is on the rim) is all pomp. It protrudes from her pursed lips like a fountain spout – lifting smoke instead of dropping water. The turning of a collapsible silver ashtray in her hands tells me the ritual is about to begin.

Who knew websites could pour themselves into bodies at whim like that? They need only be sick of their 2-dimensional existence. (Perhaps it’s the reverse process shown here: when I pour my 3-dimensional existence into the flat expanding blogosphere.) Some websites translate beautifully into a carnal form. (I hope this very blog will be one of them should it be bestowed the good fortune of publication.) For Ms. Merriam-Webster, the result is distractingly quirky. But should I proceed with caution? Perhaps this is a carefully tailored strategy to lure me from the seriousness of my pursuit. Abroad I have been many things: a diplomat’s daughter, a radio intern, a volunteer with an African-based project, an Erasmus student, an employee on a one-year stint, but now I am looking for a status beyond all that.

“You are looking for a word, are you?”
“Yes, Ms. Webster. I was thinking of the word ‘immigrant’.”
“Very well. That is a very important word. State your case.” Puff, puff, puff.
“As you know, I’m Portuguese.”
“A native or inhabitant of the Republic of Portugal.”
I wonder if she’s going to keep doing that: defining everything as I go.
“Yes. The country. It’s going through a period of economic turmoil just now. Bailout targets and what not. And I’m at a bit of a crossroads in my career.”
“Now, do you mean the place of intersection of two or more roads or a crucial point especially where a decision must be made?”
“The figurative sense.”
“I see – proceed.”
“Like my forefathers before me, I could do with more opportunity and immigration is on my mind.”
She lets out a chuckle and a cloud of smoke. “‘Forefathers’ – such a splendid word! Expressive and a delight to enunciate. Like a feather across the lips.”
I’m silent just long enough to wonder if she is listening to anything I say.
“As you know, the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s saw a wave of so-called less skilled immigration from the interior of Portugal to countries like France, the U.S., Canada and then Germany and Switzerland. Now, there’s a growing wave of qualified young urbanites to places like Brazil, Angola, Mozambique. I’ve been away from the motherland for 2 years already and I’d like official recognition, if that’s all right.” I very cautiously spell out, “But I need you to say the word.”
“The word?”
“Immigrant.”
“Not so fast. ” She taps the contents of the spent pipe into the ashtray and begins re-stuffing it. “An immigrant is one who comes to a country to take-up permanent residence. It seems to me your previous two years lack the essential quality of permanence.”
Now I am the one puff, puff, puffing.
“London,” she says, “always had a finish line, as did Leicester, Milan and Neuchâtel. You were in fact not an immigrant in any of these places.”
“Than what have I been for the last two years? What am I now?”
Puff. “In limbo.” Puff, puff.

Historical portrait of immigration

A historical portrait of immigration

The modern face of Portuguese immigration - a protest in Lisbon.

The modern face of Portuguese immigration.

Roughly 3% of the general population and 12% of the foreign population in Switzerland is Portuguese, making it the third largest immigrant community in the country. But I don’t need the Swiss Federal Statistical Office to tell me that. A stroll around Neuchâtel suffices. My mother tongue, peppered with heavy regional accents, can be heard all over town. Actually, this blissful sound has met my ears on most of the Swiss excursions I’ve shared on this blog – from Geneva to Interlaken to Gruyères.

But being a Portuguese immigrant in this country is not a one-size-fits-all affair. Yes, supermarkets, cleaning companies and repair shops are full of my countrymen. But so are more qualified positions. My brother, for instance, is Portuguese by birth, Swiss banker by trade. The local coordinator of Luis’ FIFA Master is a smart dynamic young compatriot who has lived in Switzerland all his life. And Luis has not had much trouble meeting Portuguese immigrants behind desks at sports federations like FIFA, UEFA and the IOC.

My forays into Swissdom have been interspersed with all manner of Lusitanian symbols: a Sagres beer Mini Cooper on the highway, stacks of Sumol soda at the Coop supermarket, Portuguese flags paired with Benfica symbols like salt and pepper. Unfortunately, I was well aware even before arriving here that the local f-word tended to be ‘foreigner’, rather than the usual ‘forced unlawful carnal knowledge’. The latter expletive, however, would have been an uncouth but forgivable reaction to a 2012 interview with the coordinator of the Swiss Forum for the Study of Migration at Neuchâtel University (an Italian immigrant herself) when she said of the Portuguese community that “they are people who generally do not make many demands and who know their place.”(1). And what place is that, might I ask?

Thankfully and so far, my personal experience with the Swiss regarding my nationality has been far more pleasant. It’s online that I’ve found the doozies at the root of the country’s bad reputation (Helvetia Out of Order). So although it is obvious to most of us, the Swiss apparently need to be reminded that ‘immigrant’ is not a four-letter word.

The FIFA Masterees followed in the footsteps of previous editions by making the sports pub Café du Cerf their local watering hole (even though only a minority of the class ever learned to pronounce the name correctly). On a particularly busy night, there was a bit of tension with a neighboring table of university guys over an issue as trivial as chairs. One of them heard Luis’ holler to me in Portuguese from across the bar and said to his friend in very audible French “Did you hear? She’s Portuguese.” Had this guy seriously just slung a pejorative gibe at me? Despite my irritation, I just wanted to let it go. But days later the incident was still re-playing itself in my mind. Weeks later, Luis and I were back at Café du Cerf watching Benfica play Fenerbahçe in the Europa League semi-final. With Luis’ bright red Benfica jersey, there was no doubt who we were rooting for. And then the two boys from the chair incident came in. They eyed us and sat down at another table watching the game. Given the match and our geographic location, certain letters began to line-up in my head: m-e-a-c-u-l-p-a. These guys hadn’t been discriminating against the Portuguese. They were Portuguese. I’d inadvertently proven the maxim that prejudices are rarely one-sided. Although utterly useless in my hands, I’ve seen Benfica used umpty times as a conversation starter to great effect. Soon enough, there we were: the four of us around a table talking about how these guys had been born in Switzerland, had always lived here, but did not have citizenship. And yet how they felt out of place in Portugal where their thickly accented but grammatically correct Portuguese marked them instantly as immigrants. Ironically, they were in limbo – just like me.

Benfica 2013 pre-season. Friendly in Lausanne, Switzerland. (Love the walk-like-an-Egyptian style.)

Benfica 2013 pre-season: friendly in Lausanne, Switzerland. Walk-like-an-Egyptian style.

Benfica ended-up being the gateway to many of our interactions with the local Portuguese community. Ah, sport and its unifying abilities! It was because of the last match of the national championship (in which Benfica was a contender for the title) that we ended up having dinner at a Portuguese restaurant in Interlaken, during the hiking trip I wrote about a few months back (The Air Up There). It was definitely rowdier than I’m used to, but welcoming and heart-filling. During these last days in Neuchâtel, a Spanish FIFA Master alumni remembered Luis was a diehard fan and invited us to the Benfica-Bordeaux friendly in Nyon. My football attention span has always been short, but I was utterly hopeless that day. And who could blame me. The people-watching was prime: Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author meets the grassroots of football. The beer-bellied, raucous, occasionally toothless caricatures, decked from head to toe in Benfica paraphernalia, were just begging to be given a character to pour themselves into. Perhaps they’ll end-up peaking through the lines of a future story like a nosy neighbor peering from behind the blinds.

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Luis receiving his diploma from Denis Oswald, Chairman of the FIFA Master

The graduating class of the 13th Edition of the FIFA Master at the Château of Neuchâtel

The graduating class of the 13th Edition of the FIFA Master at the Château of Neuchâtel

And then faster than anyone could have imagined, the FIFA Master graduation came round. And with it, the end of this year’s adventure. If for Luis it has been about the first steps in a new career, for me it has been about stories: writing them, reading them and listening to them. When you spend a large hunk of time with the same group of people, you sometimes get the privilege of hearing their stories. Nothing more personal can be given. And if you’re lucky, as time goes by, the stories are pulled out from deeper within their life. When an exchange like that takes place, a bridge is built that is not easily burned. It can be re-visited even further on and I hope to find these people there someday. As for me, some of my own stories have been shared here in this blog. If you have taken them in, we too have built a bridge that I hope you will revisit.

As for graduation celebrations, we ended-up by the lake watching the night fade into a new day. The last revelers said their goodbyes and were off for a few hours of sleep before catching planes, trains and automobiles. Alone with Luis (and Botox), we looked up to find an enormous red disc making its way up into the sky. I’d never seen a sunrise quite like it and felt comforted by the beauty of the world. It felt like a gift.

For a few days, we’ll road trip across Europe again. It’ll give us time to make the interior transition that comes with the physical one. As readers, we’ve all experienced the irritation of an open-ended story. Some consider it poor writing, but I hope I’ll be forgiven for it. Luis’ and my next port of call is still coming into focus, which means I cannot give you a clear ending to the story that began last September (My personal lexicon). We must be patient. It is an ending that will also be a birth of something new and the time for that birth has not come yet. It’s ironic that I basically have the same questions now as when I began this blog (is writing my vocation? where will this take me? can this be a passion and a career?). But there is no failure or frustration in that. The difference from the beginning to the end is the stories throughout. And, going back to Robert Frost from my first post back in September, that has made all the difference.

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(1) http://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/swiss_news/Why_Portuguese_seek_work_in_Switzerland.html?cid=34262848

Time is of the essence

Given that I’m working on my first book, I went to La-Chaux-de-Fonds to visit Le Corbusier’s first commissioned project: La Maison Blanche. This small town lost in the Jura mountains is a Unesco World Heritage site and the belly button of the haute watchmaking industry. But don’t be deceived – it is one warty witch. As I tried to make sense of its grey monotonous streets, I happened to stumble upon the watch lover’s equivalent of Hansel and Gretel’s gingerbread house. The fact it is called the “International Clock-making Museum” was merely the witch’s ploy to lure me inside, as if a gumdrop it were. And like so many fairy tales, this blog post is going to get much worse, before it gets any better. (But don’t worry, there’s a prince and a steed – well, a dog – and all ends well.)

Entrance to the International Watchmaking Museum

Entrance to the International Watchmaking Museum

Inside the museum - tick, tick, tick

Inside the museum – tick, tick, tick

Ducking under the museum’s macabre concrete threshold (whose ominous feeling was only reinforced by the epithet “Man and Time” scrawled overhead), I came into a foreseeably uneventful space with row upon row of sleek spot lit display cases. But as I made my way deeper inside, my gut began to register the irregularity of hundreds – no, thousands – of measured beats hopelessly out of sync with each other. Jeweled clocks, mantel clocks, cuckoo clocks. Wrist watches, ring watches, pocket watches. Gold, wood, diamonds. Antique, vintage, technological advancements. Pendulums, batteries, celestial forces. The swelling cacophony became an army of Time’s mercenaries marching in my solitary, mortal direction. The witch cackled and only Edgar Allen Poe came to my aid – raving uselessly, as he tends to do, at the raven:

“There came to my ears a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I knew that sound well, too. It was the beating of the old man’s heart. It increased my fury, as the beating of a drum stimulates the soldier into courage.” (The Tell-Tale Heart)

Edgar Allen Poe in a chipper mood.

Edgar Allen Poe in a chipper mood.

Thankfully, to our ears, people’s hearts still tick in the relative silence of their caged chests. If we heard their hearts beating as if hung around their necks, we might gain a nervous twitch or two ourselves. Our thoughts might more easily slip into disconcerting fears of the silence that would inevitably follow that tick, tick, ticking. Unfortunately for me, such thoughts were already upon me – gripping like altitude sickness. Here I was knee deep in unwelcome reflections about time’s unrelenting sweep over the days we call our lives, when C.S. Lewis popped out of a grandfather clock to say “the future is something which everyone reaches at the rate of 60 minutes an hour, whatever he does, whomever he is.” So, really, this museum showcased nothing more than memento mori – reminders that, no matter how rich, how elaborate, how ingenious the tools of measurement, time expires for us all. Measurement controls nothing. And ironically enough, hadn’t most of these timepieces outlived their makers? Merry thoughts, indeed! At least Dr. Seuss was a little more playful about it: “How did it get so late so soon? It’s night before it’s afternoon.”

Pink Tufted Creature by Dr. Seuss

Pink Tufted Creature by Dr. Seuss

Back in pretty Neuchâtel, I began to make my way back up this spiral of God-less thinking, when my wedding anniversary came round. Isn’t an anniversary of any kind just another way of keeping time? And yet it filled me with happiness, not angst. The fundamental difference was that in this particular instrument of measurement I found a perhaps more obvious opportunity to reflect on what has been given and that, I’m glad to say, has been quite a lot.

Me and Luis on one of our many hikes.

Me and Luis on one of our many hikes.

 

I’ve gushed about Luis unabashedly throughout this blog. He’s a wonderful man and we’ve been married for 7 years. If there was a script to married life, we lost it early on and have been improvising ever since. But this has its advantages – nothing is done automatically and you’re more open to unexpected detours, that turn into new paths, that turn into new destinations. Our 7 year marriage certainly doesn’t look like most people’s 7 year marriage: we’ve moved house far too often, we both leapt away from promising careers to do something that felt truer to heart and our family is a strong but small number of two. (There is also, of course, our unwieldy pooch, cranky perhaps at having covered so many miles this year.)

We’ve had our fair share of hardships, let there be no doubt. But I thank God for those too. They’ve only served to make us go deeper into the reasons why we do things, the reasons we’re better together. That’s made our bond stronger. And – crazy or not – I can’t shake the feeling these trials are all just a reminder that we’re special. God for us did not want an ordinary life and adversity grows in the same soil as uniqueness. To that, Time is but a witness. There are things even it can’t dent.

Architecture Heals

heal |verb| become sound or healthy again

 If God made Eve from the rib of Adam, He made the Portuguese from the rib of the Atlantic. Our roaring ocean gives the coastline a dramatic beauty that has made us a country of adventurers, poets and Biblical fishers. But you must constantly reign in your love for all that aquatic splendor. As our poet Sophia de Mello Breyner once wrote “as beautiful as each thing is / it holds within a suspended monster” (“Ocean Floor”).

Guincho Beach near Lisbon, Portugal. (Guincho in Portuguese actually means screech.)

Guincho Beach near Lisbon, Portugal. (Guincho in Portuguese actually means screech.)

Through osmosis, we quickly learn the key to survival in agitated waters: deep fight. When a wave comes and is too much, resist the urge of flight. This will only result in the tough tumble of a wave breaking heavily on your back. You’ve got to face it. Go deep. Dive as low into it as you can. Stretched underwater, you’ll feel its shape roll over your body like a triangular wheel as it curls into itself. When you come up, it’ll be behind you. If another wave comes on its tail, dive again. A set of big waves is always followed by a set of small ones. When the small ones come, you can leave. Until then, dive, dive deep.

During my years of law school, there was a constant trickle of Italians coming to Lisbon for a year of architectural studies, something our country is renowned for. We may not have an economy able to buoy lots of major architectural projects (like Switzerland does), but out of the 36 Pritzker Prize winners (the Oscars of architecture), 2 are Portuguese: Alvaro Siza in 1992 and Eduardo Souto de Moura in 2011. On their tails is a whole generation of high-quality contemporary architects. Not bad for a tiny county of 10 million. Back in college, while I’d drag around my massive compendiums of laws, the Italians would slave over their glycerin soap maquettes. They were used to a tamer beast than the Atlantic, so we would teach them about waves. And with them, I learned to look at architecture for the first time. To look with eyes that see.

In 2003, I did my own year abroad in Milan. My father had just passed away and it felt like an unending sequence of massive waves – too close and too many. In the fight or flight dichotomy, diving deep was clearly the task at hand, but I needed a minute to catch my breath and no one seemed to know where the pause button was. Then some friends invited me on a road trip to the Beyeler Foundation in Basel, Switzerland. I discovered there that architecture can heal.

Renzo Piano's Beyeler Foundation near Basel.

Renzo Piano’s Beyeler Foundation near Basel.

The Beyeler Foundation is an art gallery designed by the blue-eyed Renzo Piano. A decade down the road, I have a mental snapshot of the red stone facade baking in the expanding light. A whimsical lime green basin at its feet, tapping on the window just beyond which hung Monet’s enormous Water-lily Pond. It was all so serene. My lungs were filled with air at last – the relief I had so desperately sought. I was back there recently, amidst this very happy phase in my life, and yet the effect was the same. The Beyeler’s beauty was not a fluke – it was objective.

Architecture is not just a backdrop to our buzzing bustle. It has the power to uplift or oppress the human heart fueling all that activity. Most of the time it falls somewhere in the middle in the large neutral demilitarized zone of routine. But occasionally it succeeds at addressing us at the level of our deepest desires – our thirst for beauty, love, belonging, justice. At those moments, that immovable building can move us, an amazing thing indeed.

Zentrum Paul Klee (Renzo Piano) on the outskirts of Bern.

Zentrum Paul Klee (Renzo Piano) on the outskirts of Bern.

A few weeks ago, I visited a very different Renzo Piano museum on the outskirts of Bern: the Zentrum Paul Klee, dedicated to the namesake Swiss artist. Fit into a curvy landscape is a playful squiggly iron facade. You can Google it all you want, but actually experiencing it will awaken even the most dormant of us. I’m no technical expert in architecture – just a sensitive inhabitant – and am always uncertain about a building until I’ve been inside. Under the curves of the ZPK, I felt just disoriented enough to go through the gallery spaces in subtle tension: uncertain of how the space was going to satisfy my needs as a museum-goer, but trusting it would. A sense of direction begins to form only when you let go of pre-conceived notions of how such a space should behave and let it speak to you in its own language. As you become open to its innovative dynamic, you slip into a fresh state of mind. Automatic reactions abandoned. What better state of mind to engage with Paul Klee’s artwork, no?

If – like the ZPK – some buildings are designed to place the inhabitant in a positive state for the activity to be undertaken there, others have the opposite effect. Some are so self-absorbed that anything else taking place in their vicinity feels like an afterthought. I call these diva building. Although I recognize their often innovative value, they wear me out if I have to deal with them for too long. I much prefer a more discreet approach. Luckily, the Vitra Campus provides a little of both and they compliment each other like salt and pepper.

Vitra is a Swiss design powerhouse owned by the Fehlbaum family. Known as the Vitra Campus, it’s factory/ warehouse/ design museum/ showroom in Weil am Rhein, Germany is an excellent example of how the Swiss not only have stellar architects, they also commission stellar architecture. This architectural fairground was born out of an unpredictable combination of circumstances: a fire, a visionary new Chairman and lots of financial clout. The original factory was razed by a fire in the early 80’s, with insurance coverage for halted production of only 6 months. Instead of a bland re-construction, Vitra’s Chairman Rolf Fehlbaum commissioned the well-known British architect Nicholas Grimshaw to build 2 new innovative factory buildings. The only hitch was that the factories had to be up and running when the coverage expired. Despite the impossible deadline, they pulled it off and, with it, the first starchitect buildings were in place at the Vitra Campus.

Frank Gehry's Vitra Design Museum on the left with his factory building on the right.

Frank Gehry’s Vitra Design Museum on the left with his factory building on the right.

For someone who is presently trying her hand at a new career, Fehlbaum’s story is pretty inspiring. He toyed with other professional paths and only really committed to the family company when he was 36. But his vision made up for lost time. Having built-up one of the most complete chair collections in the world (“had me at hello” anyone?), Fehlbaum wanted Frank Gehry to build him a new gallery for it. Since this was to be Gehry’s first European commission, he needed a bigger carrot, so Fehlbaum upped the ante with a new factory and entrance building to seal the deal. Fehlbaum has an eye for talent. It’s no coincidence he was a member of the Pritzker jury for 6 years and that 6 out of the 7 burgeoning architects he commissioned to build on the Vitra site later became award winners in their own right. Gehry’s Vitra Design Museum, as it is now called, is all white rowdy volumes – way too distracting for a museum, in my opinion. It juxtaposes quite sharply (pun intended) with its neighboring buildings, but that’s surely not a coincidence. Although each building on the campus is it’s own, it’s also inevitably a reaction to those that surrond it.

Tadao Ando's Conference Pavillion

Tadao Ando’s Conference Pavillion

SANAA's playful factory facade.

SANAA’s playful factory facade.

One such construction is the Japanese Tadao Ando’s concrete conference pavilion – also his first European commission. Fehlbaum had the initially reticent Ando flown in when the cherry blossoms existent on the site were in full bloom, knowing that these trees have a magnetic appeal in Japanese culture. Ando not only agreed to the project, he built a powerfully discreet conference center positioned so that no trees had to be cut down to accommodate it. Gehry, on the other hand, had all of the cherry trees in the vicinity of his museum cut down so they wouldn’t clutter its facade. He was also none too happy when Ando designed a long narrow pathway leading up to the conference center that ran across the length of Gehry’s building.  This pathway is narrow and oblique with a purpose – it is intended to prepare those heading to meetings by inviting reflection. I watched a passing group as they walked its length and, in effect, their conversations were broken-up. Of course, most of the people walking through here are probably German or Swiss. Us Southern Europeans would probably just walk all over the grass.  As for the other building of Japanese design, the newly opened SANAA factory is sleek and playful with its shiny white curtain-mimicking façade and oval shape. A pleasure to walk by.

The inside of Zaha Hadid's Fire Station (top floor).

The inside of Zaha Hadid’s Fire Station (top floor).

For all its shortcomings, Gehry’s gallery is certainly not more of a diva building than Zaha Hadid’s infamous fire station. I’d heard the stories of the firemen protesting about the open plan bathrooms and impossibly slanted walls, but only when I tried it out for size myself did I give them the credit they were due. I felt lastingly dizzy. Every wall is tilted in some odd direction. I wondered why the bathroom’s paper dispenser had caught my eye so. Then I realized that it was the only thing with right angles in the entire construction. Hadid deserves all of the recognition she has received. She is an incredible innovator and her designs are beautiful, but the Vitra Fire Station – her first commissioned work (despite all the recognition given to her designs) – is totally unfit for purpose. How can you fight fires when you feel sea-sick? Thank God it is no longer a functioning station. My guide at the campus confessed she’d once run into Zaha Hadid at an ArtBasel conference and asked her if she knew people got dizzy inside the building. Apparently, her response was a terse “they’ll get used to it”.

Alvaro Siza's red brick factory building to the right, with its white walkway revealing Hadid's fire station at the end of the road.

Alvaro Siza’s red brick factory building to the right, with its white walkway revealing Hadid’s fire station at the end of the road.

Before you get to Hadid’s building, you have to walk past my compatriot’s warehouse. Alvaro Siza’s construction with its red brick façade is incredibly understated. So much so that Siza has been accused by some of missing an opportunity to shine. Instead, the architect wanted to mark a discreet presence in an already visually noisy campus. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to go inside, but you can see it’s very sophisticated in the details. It requires, however, an unrushed engagement to be fully appreciated – something like getting a conversation started with a wise, but grumpy old man. The only attention-calling element in Siza’s design is the white iron walkway that connects his building to Grimshaw’s aross the road. It’s oddly elevated and has a complex mechanism to bring it down on days of rain when it is actually needed. The reason for this becomes apparent only upon close inspection – if the Portuguese architect had put this walkway cover at a normal height, he would have totally blocked the view to Hadid’s Fire Station. A telling detail of an inconspicuous design.

Herzog & de Meuron's VitraHaus

Herzog & de Meuron’s VitraHaus

In between these larger constructions, you’ll also find tiny design delights such a Jean Prouvé’s gas station, Buckminster Fuller’s dome and Renzo Piano’s one man hut called Diogene. But the building that most takes my fancy is Herzog & de Meuron’s VitraHaus. It looks like an utterly confusing mound of sliced black houses and is thankfully set a bit further apart from the remaining buildings just so you can take it in. This showroom for Vitra’s products is clearly anything but quite, but unlike Gehry’s and Hadid’s constructions, its agitated playfulness is completely fitting to its purpose. The shapes and light frames found within set-off Vitra’s products in an intimate yet fanciful way. The slightly odd workings of the building within make you feel like you’re inside a treasure trove. Sounds good for business if you ask me.

But for all my architectural ranting and raving, nothing can substitute your own experience of walking in, over and around these buildings. And thank God for that. I wouldn’t want to detract from anyone else’s exchange with them. Perhaps one day you’ll need some uplifting and, if nothing else, I’ve given you somewhere to go in this corner of Switzerland. Looking up and around you can fill your lungs with air. And that can be life saving.

The Things I Carried… Up the M’Goun

burden |noun| something that is carried, a load, a duty, something worrisome

Objects conspire to tell our story. Just ask the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda or American author Tim O’Brien. In The Things They Carried, O’Brien gives us a window into the hearts of the men in a U.S. platoon during the Vietnam War through the things they carried with them into combat, while Neruda, in his delightful “Ode to Common Things”, says about things that:

My hiking boots – can’t part with even the retired ones.

 

“they were so close

that they were a part

of my being,

they were so alive with me

that they lived half my life

and will die half my death.”

 

 

How, then, can we deny that the things on our shelves, in our bags, in our pockets take our temperature, document our life like a fingerprint? It’s a basic principle of archaeology, crime scene forensics, the painful task of sifting through a deceased loved one’s belongings. So the pressing question for me, an unlikely backpacker bound for Marrakech, was this: if by mishap, my backpack were found by another trekker on a lonely mountain trail, what stories would its contents reveal?

The richly colored Atlas mountains

The richly colored Atlas mountains…

...reminiscent of the spice cones in the Marrakech souk.

…reminiscent of the spice cones in the Marrakech souk.

Through an elaborate web of straps and clasps, the backpack was firmly fastened around my rather delicate frame: turtle-like. And, at about that speed, I began my way on foot up the M’Goun Mountain in Morocco’s Atlas Range. These glorious mountains lie deep in Berber country and are named after the famous Titan condemned by Zeus to eternally shoulder the celestial sphere. In compensation, the naughty deity got to oversee astronomy and navigation, which is why a bound collection of maps – a relic of the pre-GPS era – is known as an atlas. Let’s not forget, of course, the bonus of messing with hikers as they trudge their way across the spice-colored mountain range, its fragrant powders spilled and spiralled by rushed breezes bound from valley to mountaintop. Atlas may carry the heavens on his shoulders, but these poor souls are saddled with burdens of their own, their sense of balance slightly askew under the weight of insulation layers, first aid kits, emergency blankets, energy snacks, sun screen, Goretex shells, cameras, sun glasses, smooshed rolls of toilet paper, matches, photographs of loved ones (whether in pixels or ink). But oddly enough, bearing the brunt of our weightless burdens is often the greater challenge. These are the jagged concerns whose sharp corners rhythmically poke at our unprotected flank as we ascend.

Only the fear of celestial revenge kept Atlas from blowing my little group of brave hikers clear off the mountain ridge as we painstakingly made our way around its rim to the M’Goun’s barren peak at 4068m above sea level. The violent gusts repeatedly broke my stride, making me walk curved in a right-handed parenthesis. To add insult to injury, the cocktail of gales and strained, open-mouthed breathing gave me a stubborn case of the hiccups, which didn’t make keeping my heart rate down any easier. But in the end, the wind was little more than an overplayed joke and, when I finally reached the top after a 6 hour ascent, my heels tingled with the tears gurgling deep within the earth, as they searched for a vessel to spring.

Braving it in 42º Moroccan weather - backpack at my feet.

Braving it in 42º Moroccan weather – backpack at my feet.

By far the heaviest physical thing I carried with me was the most basic: water. The Earth’s very lifeblood, coursing through its cavernous veins. The water pouch in my pack pressed up firmly against my kidneys. I wanted to reach the top of the M’Goun, avoiding as many symptoms of altitude sickness as possible. This unforgiving disease can cripple even the stoutest of athletes and I am but a wisp of a hiker. Soon enough, my most common symptom was upon me: shortness of breath. It felt as if Atlas himself were sitting on my rib cage, laughing as I struggled to suck enough oxygen out of the thinned air. To keep the other symptoms at bay, I continually drank water in small sacrificial gulps. Taking-in the elements. Whatever glories our vain souls thirst for, they too must allow themselves to be immersed in the earth’s elements, if they are to thrive. The only necessary bravery is for our desires to permeate the compounds through which their fruition can take shape. For a longing to come out into the Atlas’s ochre dust and there suffocate is a better fate than to live unbirthed in our thoughts. Locked in the mind like a tumor.

Cooling off after a long day's work. Check out my red nails.

This was my natural hammam after a long day’s work. Check out my red nails.

One of the more random items I had on me was nail polish remover. The day before my trip, I caught my first bastard of a grey hair in flagrante delicto – the new grey half merrily funnelling into the brown section of yore. My urge to run to the hairdresser was tempered only by the concession that this had been a long time coming – I am 33, after all. So I compromised: instead of coloring my hair, I colored my nails fire-engine red. This is an admittedly unusual pre-trek ritual, but I wanted to look down at my nails after a 5 day, no-shower hike and gloat over the polish chipped and cracked, like a retired library book. At my fingertips, I’d have created a monument to an experience fully embraced and would merely be admiring the evidence thereof. So this was an existential manicure – one to remind me that it is ok for time to show its markings on my body, as long as my life has been fully embraced.

In a side pouch of my bag, I had a smartphone. Every gram of weight sweetly humming at the outset of a trek will end it screaming, so you quickly learn to pack light. I’d been told by our guide, Hamed, that Mr. Atlas had cut-off cellphone reception, so the extra weight was, objectively, poor strategy. But I didn’t care. I wanted it with me just in case the deity was distracted long enough for me to sneak a call to Luís, with whom I hadn’t spoken since I’d landed in Marrakech 3 days before. For a generation nursed on unlimited instantaneous communication, being cut-off like this can be profoundly disorienting. A bad thing on a mountain. What to do with the finger twitching to What’sApp a photo of the landscape? To text a quick “thinking of you – <3″? I ended up channelling this energy into something very healthy indeed – simply missing him. Which turned into being thankful for him, worried for him, praying for him and scribbling a tent-side letter to him. My ability to communicate may have been cut-off, but it was also suddenly deeper.

Repetition is the fabric of long treks. Extended repetition of the same physical gesture – the step – tip top, all the way up the mountain. The effect is of a regular beat lulling you into a state of quite reflection, like a baby soothed by a car’s humming engine. Add to this the fact that I am incapable of uphill banter above a certain altitude or temperature (I need all my strength to keep my breathing regular) and you get long stretches of fruitful silence with a built-in rosary at your fingertips. When I really need to whine at God, the rosary is my go-to. It’s repetitious, high-pitched pleading – just like a kid begging his parents for a candy bar. So I tugged at God’s sleeve about Luís’ career, about my career, about where we are going to live, about personal dreams that have been reluctantly delayed. With each step and each repetitive Hail Mary, my walk was reconnected with the author of these mountains. I was roped-in, like my shoelaces to my boots. And I know from experience that just as loose laces are dangerous on unstable ground, so is a life disconnected from its ultimate meaning.

Tent-side peace the day before the ascent to the M'Goun.

Some tent-side artwork at the M’Goun base camp. The wind was soon to come and shake our tent into a symphony all night long. Not a peaceful sleep.

Nestled in between my anxiety and my hopefulness was my Black Marble Mead Composition Notebook. It’s my writing quirk and I’m lucky enough to have a friend who sends me batches of them from the U.S. Despite the predictable lack of opportunity to jot down inspired tid-bits, my notebook earned a spot in my backpack anyway. One reason for that was the blank pages that followed some very scarred, crossed-out, blotched and botched pages. A bloody battle involving a leaky ballpoint pen had clearly taken place there. Lately, whenever I attempt to tie any words down to the page, they keep getting tangled up in existential questions like “am I any good at this?”, “will I get recognition?”, “do I have the stamina to stick this out?” Before I know it, I’ve left my letters gasping for air as if they were the ones at high altitude. I kept feeding myself all sorts of high-caloric mantras. Look at the blank page the same way you’d deal with a mid-mountain blister: stick a Compeed bandade on it and keep going. A bruise is not a good enough reason to back down mid-trek. Have a snack, take a breather, pick a mark on the mountain and walk to it. I can talk the talk, of course, but it remains to be seen if I can walk the walk. Here’s hoping I’m not just another fluffster. But there was another reason for that notebook’s extra weight in my bag. The day before we summited the M’Goun, I’d sat at the entrance of my tent at base camp, facing the next day’s peak and colouring-in the fat letters of an inscription spread across two pages (with markers that incidentally ended up in the pockets of some cute little Berber boys). Professional climbers are often paid by sponsors to snap photos with the sponsor logo when they reach the summit. But me, I planned to dedicate my summit to someone who is very dear to me and who is sick and far away. She’s been braving a storm that many people in my family have faced before her and she has unsurprisingly showed her true colors – brighter and bolder than even the Atlas’s astounding array. I wanted to send her all of my love and strength. It’s a conundrum, but when you yourself need strength, to give it away is often the best way to gain it back. So as far as I was concerned, the M’Goun was all for my sister Filipa. When I finally rounded the top, a bit worse for wear, I pulled my notebook from my backpack carefully maneuvering myself so that neither backpack, nor notebook were blown away by the unrelenting wind. Although burned out, I was so proud to hold up that sign and send my sister all my love. Of all the stories my backpack could have told that day, the one I was holding up was my favorite one. Such are the ingredients that make up our lives.

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To my sister from way up top the M’Goun at 4068 m – with all my love!

Helvetia Out of Order

Helvetia - the mythical symbol of Switzerland - as portrayed in the documentary "Image Problem".

Helvetia – the mythical symbol of Switzerland – as portrayed in the documentary “Image Problem”. 

deviation |noun| the action of departing from an established course or accepted standard

A little graffiti is good for the soul. Not because it’s pretty, not because it’s orderly – but because every balanced society needs a healthy dose of deviance. Like cod liver oil. A little something to remind us we’re not automatons and that free will – something not even God is willing to bend – is still romping merrily among us. But the Swiss don’t like deviation. They deviate only for the mountains (and even then, only when yet another tunnel would be overkill). So in the dainty Confoederatio Helvetica, if anything is out of order for too long, be suspicious.

Arguably, two of the Swiss People's Party most controversial campaigns, as shown in the Neuchâtel exhibit. Due to additional vandalism, in a few days nothing would be left of the canvases seen here with only a few slashes.

Arguably, two of the Swiss People’s Party most controversial campaigns, as shown in the Neuchâtel exhibit. Due to additional vandalism, in a few days nothing would be left of the canvases seen here with only a few slashes.

I knew something was up when, weeks later, the slashed canvases were still flapping about in the lakeside wind, like tattered curtains of an abandoned motel. The canvases had made up an exhibit on Swiss political posters dealing with the issue of foreigners – from Communists to Jews, Southern Europeans to Muslims. The continuous vandalism inflicted upon the posters was a poignant indicator of a deep divide that the exhibit’s curators weren’t about to quickly sweep under the rug. Especially not with elections coming up. That’s my guess anyway. Voting requires an examination of conscience and asylum laws are on the table… again.

Some of the more open-minded campaigns shown in the exhibit.

Some of the more open-minded campaigns shown in the exhibit.

Posters have always been a popular form of political campaigning in this country and immigration has been a fraught topic apparently ever since 1918 – the date of the first campaign in the exhibit. Among the sample of posters are two famous ones created by the Swiss People’s Party: one shows a bunch of white sheep kicking a black sheep off the Swiss flag with the slogan “To Create Security”; the other shows a woman in a burka standing in front of a Swiss flag covered in missile-like minarets (this one used in a 2009 referendum to ban the construction of additional minarets). The supporters of this extreme right-wing party seem to think that Heidi is a bona fide historical figure and all foreigners are starved pedophiles. You’d rightfully dismiss them as a bunch of goons if it weren’t for the disconcerting detail that they garnered over a ¼ of the popular vote for the Swiss Federal Assembly in 2011. Yet the exhibit curators wanted to present an unbiased historical account and so alongside posters such as these, was one asking “How do Jews make their money? By working, like everybody else.” And another showing a spectrum of babies from black to white, with the catch phrase “Made in Switzerland”.

Fruit of folklore: Heidi and her friend Peter.

Fruit of folklore: Heidi and her friend Peter.

So how do you intelligently combat ideological idiots? This is the secret recipe: deep in the night, you sneak into their headquarters and steal their treasured symbol: Heidi. You turn her into an Oscar-look-alike statuette for the first ever… drum roll, please… Heidi Awards: an accolade that celebrates a more open, tolerant Switzerland. But ingenuity is not enough to take home a Heidi – you gotta have pizzazz. And just to annoy the old farts, we’ll have the awards presented by distinguished foreigners that immigrated to Switzerland like Albert Einstein, Martina Hingis and Henri Nestlé. Clap, clap, clap!

The designers at BaseGVA are a shoe in for a Heidi in the “Fight Fire with Fire” category. Their Open Switzerland project (www.openswitzerland.org) gives anyone sick of being preached to by anachronistic zealots with a color printer a chance to give it a go themselves. On this website, people make their own posters reflecting how they see Switzerland – and some of them are pretty funny. Here’s mine. I went for a celebration of the Swiss fashion sense (marked by a sharp penchant for red shoes) with an undertone of psychoanalytical patriotism – what do you think?

My contribution to Base BVA's Open Switzerland campaign.

My contribution to Base BVA’s Open Switzerland campaign.

But the guys at BaseGVA didn’t stop there. Remember the font Helvetica, whose very name abounds with Swissness? It was created by two Swiss guys, Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffmann, in 1957 as a more neutral typeface. Neutral – how very Swiss. Well the Swiss designers at BaseGVA decided to create a new font, Basetica, that reflects what they would like their country to be: “open minded, neat and modern. Sometimes a bit raw, but always clean and discrete.” I had no clue graphic design could be so political. Lesson learned: thou shall not choose thy font light-heartedly.

The poster for Simon Baumann and Andreas Pfiffner's documentary "Image Problem".

The poster for Simon Baumann and Andreas Pfiffner’s documentary “Image Problem”.

Another Heidi would definitely go to Simon Baumann and Andreas Pfiffner for their mockumentary Image Problem: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ge2g0SeqrBI. These 88 minutes of satirical documentary attempt to unmask “the lack of solidarity and increasing xenophobia in the small state of Switzerland”. Their words, not mine. I’m not sure if I’m allowed to nominate this film for a Heidi solely based on the trailer, but – you know what? – I will. Because it’s hilarious. Plus, my innumerous attempts to get my hands on an English subtitled version of the movie have proven fruitless. But, then again, that is in of itself indicative, isn’t it? I guess this movie is meant for the Swiss – an invitation to that fractious quarter to mellow down and an opportunity for the rest of Switzerland to give Helvetia something of a makeover.

 

The Air Up There

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Kodachrome spring flowers near Lauterbrunnen

walk |verb| to move along on foot; to advance by steps

A year into our marriage, my husband and I decided to revive our pre-martial dream of going to Patagonia. There was however one tiny glitch: our state of newly-wed, newly-housed bliss had left us in a relative state of financial depletion. Not a problem. As young lawyers, we were spry, resourceful and excellent negotiators. All we needed was a window of opportunity. At about the same time, I got a call from the police. Apparently, someone had broken into my VW Lupo – a tiny blueberry of a car that was too cool to be in production for more than a couple of years. (It touched – not literally, thankfully! – an entire generation of law students at my university.) The police was wondering if I knew about it… given that a week had passed and there were no signs of anyone having touched the smashed glass. The Lupo’s guardian, a stuffed frog named Principe, was clearly growing weary of the task. As I mulled over the situation, I realized that not only did I have the real prince now, but my window of opportunity was right before me, shattered and strewn all over the front seat. We sold the car and in a few weeks were on a plane to Ushuaia. One of the most memorable encounters in my hiking history happened out there in a tiny hiker’s paradise called El Chalten. Luís and I had taken an 8-hour hike to a turquoise glacier lake (Laguna de los Tres) that was breath-taking in both beauty and physical endurance. About halfway through the hike, an odd looking pair appeared on the horizon of our trail, coming in the opposite direction. The trail was narrow and one walked in front of the other. But something was slightly off in their dynamic. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. As the gap between us closed, I noticed a pair of ski poles connected them – each man holding an extremity. That’s when I realized the second hiker was blind.

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Laguna de los Tres – El Chalten, Patagonia (Argentina)

Hiking is walking with a capital W. It is to me what a car ride is to a cranky baby resisting sleep – a place to disconnect from the static and reconnect with myself. It’s a carved-out space where thoughts can begin to settle and pick the words they want to inhabit, instead of lingering somewhere in the soul as a vague gas-like feeling. Feelings in this undefined state cannot be addressed head on and are basically given free-license to haunt us. It’s a bad strategy. It’s certainly no coincidence that a great many writers incorporate walks into their creative routine and that many people advocate walking to untangle knotty problems, to digest life along with dinner and to solidify bonds – my father among them. He was walking alone in the mountains of Sintra when he decided to marry my mother. The chapel he stumbled upon mid-walk was where they tied the knot – or so goes our family folklore. (Incidentally, Luís and I were both baptized in that church and were married there in 2006.) Walking is also a perfect analogy for life where the best things require a little bit of effort on our part. Earn that view. Let your steps turn into a trail and a trail a destination.

Spring in Switzerland has been tight-fisted, so we took advantage of a brief respite and made our way over to Interlaken this past weekend with some friends. Our first walk took us through a picture-perfect valley lined with thin waterfalls crashing down from cliffs the height of skyscrapers. I snapped away at my camera even though I knew it was a hopeless cause. Technology cannot bring you the taste of the faint mist emanating from the falls, the explosive coolness of the Alpine water in your throat, the existential space hung between snow-capped mountain peaks. The air pressing up against your epidermis like a palm of a hand. You feel a little kitsch repeating how beautiful all those Kodachrome flowers are scattered across the fields like that – as if Someone has planted them one by one, which of course they did. Then there is the luxury of the time to be able to walk through it all, to breath it all in, to let it pump through your bloodstream like caffeine. Facebook, Instagram and Google Glass are no substitute for the authentic experience. They can hint at an existence beyond their pixel walls, but they won’t walk the walk for you.

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The valley of Lauterbrunnen – notice the Staubbach Falls in the back.

The next day’s walk ended up turning into an Aesop’s Fable, complete with a moral and an animal embodying a vice/virtue. For an animal, we had Botox – our pampered princess of a dog. For a vice, we had his cowardice – he’s scared of everything from wheels on suitcases to plastic bags. Now, we can add things that fall out of the sky thanks to a group of landing paragliders, that made the little guy projectile-poop and break into a sprint such was his canine terror. No amount of words or lint rollers can describe the 30-minute gondola ride up the Schwarzhorn in the aftermath of this traumatic event. The plan had been to hike up to the idyllic Lake Bachalpsee – a pristine lake perfectly reflecting the mountain summits around it while embraced by lush green meadows. And the weather report seemed to confirm that that was what we were in for. Totally naïve. A meter of snow, a frozen (unreflecting) lake and an overcast sky (despite the weather report) was our prize. Moral of the story: check the webcam as well as the weather report, dummy – don’t you know global warming is making the weather go all musical chairs on us? The Spring respite was clearly over and I felt cheated by the view Google had promised me (not to mention the 114 CHF gondola ticket). But then I remembered the blind hiker. There are four other senses to go on. How would he experience sitting where I was just then? I guess that was moral no. 2: when life’s circumstances suddenly change on us, we can either stick with the now ill-suited initial plan or adapt our dynamic. Perhaps you’ll find a new way to experience things you loved – like the blind guy – pulling that verb tense into the present tense: love. On the way down from Schwarzhorn, I realized I’ve actually written about this blind hiker in one of my stories. He was so deep down in my psyche that I hadn’t realized my character was him, but there he was.

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Luís, Botox and I in front of Lake Bachalpsee – yep, the frozen white thing in the back.

Somewhere in my in-laws attic in Portugal, I still have my first pair of hiking boots – long since retired. I bought them with my dad and they remind me that I’ve walked a long way since then. And I’ll walk a long way still, even though – just now – the weather is a little foggy. But fog is curious thing – even if you can’t see the final destination, you can always see the next step.

Broken Homes

home |noun| where one lives permanently

They say the most basic terms are the hardest to define. Words like love and belonging and home. No matter that they are the silent pillars of our lives, we more often than not walk by them without acknowledgement. But my recent trip “HOME” to Lisbon, got me thinking about this particular four-letter word and how – just like four walls – it is supposed to hold a roof over our heads and keep the storms away.

I’ve always liked conjugating the verb “to go”. My list isn’t as big as some, but without premeditation, I’ve lived in Portugal, the U.S., Italy, the UK and now Switzerland, having tapped all of these destinations (except the latter) multiple times. (Since I’ve been married alone, it’s been no less than 10 flats in a little under 7 years.) You can’t help but wonder: in the midst of all this globetrotting, have I misplaced home?

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Where is home anyway? Is it where I was born? Where my parents were born? Where family lives? Where I grew up? Where I own a house and keep my stuff? Where I spend Christmas? Where I work? Where I pay the greatest amount of taxes? Where my husband lives? And what if these places don’t coincide? If home is a little of all of these things, I guess I – and a great many of the people in my international orbit – are from broken homes.

I was born in Lisbon and have lived here on and off over the years (more off than on). This time round, I’ve been away for almost 2 years with slim prospects of an early return. During this time, old friends’ lives have moved on. Some have added or subtracted people to their clans in the form of births, deaths and divorces. Some have re-coupled, while others changed or lost jobs. Some have moved to far-off lands and some may as well have. The resulting concoction has a distinct aftertaste of newborn outdatedness. How oxymoronic to feel like a foreigner in your hometown – I’m actually not sure if it’s aloud. The day’s task has become clear. I am going to hold steadfast to my seat at the Mirador São Pedro de Alcântara (a complicated name for a wonderful place) and won’t budge until I figure this one out. In the meantime, my legs bake in the sun and the guy singing for the tourists loops round his frightfully small repertoire. As violent thoughts make their way into my skull (along with a heavily accented “My Way”), I begin to wonder if home is where you spend jail time?

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The Mirador São Pedro de Alcântara, Lisbon, Portugal

If I’m not careful, our flat in Lisbon will soon slide off the hilltop where it’s perched. It’s smack at the top of Bairro Alto, a traditional neighborhood whose inhabitants are convinced they’re the crows flown off the city seal. Why else would they choose to live atop such teetering ground singing away their days in throaty voices? In my mind, when the whole lot finally slips off the hill into the Tagus River below, it will be like rain diluting watercolor – just streaks of color and then nothing. Then fog. A horizon that is itself erased so that river and sky are a single nameless mass. But for now, we are still on the hilltop and I’m glad for it. The view from everywhere up here is so incredible it’s like living in a screensaver. Miradors face each other from opposite hills. Monuments sit side by side like old ladies on a bench, trees in between them like handbags. Down at the end, the old Cathedral points to the river like Michelangelo’s God points to man in the Sistine Chapel. Paris, Jerusalem and Mykonos are all grey and cream shades of white. But Lisbon could not pick just one. Its palette is endless with a penchant for pink and yellow – like lemonade. It’s too beautiful to ever get used to, to ever stop looking in awe. On the day that happens, I’ll worry about my marriage. The day you cease to be in awe with the daily beauty of your life is the day the slipping will begin. I will keep Bairro Alto on top of that hill with the strength of my love for it.

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The future – wherever that may be.

Being from a broken home is a tricky business. Wherever you are, a piece of home is always missing. But that also means that whenever you leave, you are going home just as much as you are leaving it. This lifestyle has become second nature to me and I’m sure of it, even when it hurts. It is merely the result of living your life on a bigger stage. A wind picks up at the Mirador and I head home (to the part of home that is our Lisbon flat). My feet tapping away at the cobblestones, I wonder where home will be once the FIFA-Master is done. It’s like standing before one of those signposts indicating the distance to various cities around the globe. I guess we’re waiting for the wind to blow off all of the destinations but one. 

Elevators to success are out of order

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Let’s pretend this is my elusive creative genie and I in a moment of respite.

order |noun| the arrangement or disposition of people or things in relation to each other according to a particular sequence, pattern, or method

This weekend, at a creative writing workshop, I found myself having lunch with a stranger by a very windy version of Lake Geneva. We started by ordering coffee and, when we found our conversation to be a comfortable fit, added two bowls of soup to our bill. “Great,” I told her. “I always wanted to have a backwards lunch!” To which she smiled and responded that maybe we should ask each other’s names first. Just like our lunch, our conversation was made-up of the right steps in the wrong order. As we teetered around different topics, a lowered soup spoon revealed an unexpectedly knowing smile. “What?”, I asked. Turns out, we were both lawyers in differing verb tenses – hers present, mine past tense.

This has become such a familiar tune – frustrated lawyers drawing their pens for a more soulful use of words. They seem to flock to every literary island where I’ve perched in my year of “island hopping”. My Leicester writing class had an ex-Magic Circle solicitor. (If you don’t know what that is, don’t worry. It’s not as cool as it sounds. No capes, no wands and certainly no magic). My Milanese online course was rife with would-be authors inhabiting the fringes of the law. And now in Geneva, there sat before me this lovely Belgian lawyer with lots of smart things to say about writing.

My path from law to letters, from lex to lexicon has been a long and winding one. Where some people may see mistakes, I see the right steps in the right order. True, I’m still looking for ways to avoid telling people my literary career began in Leicester. But I’m more than fine with facing up to the one year of literature at university that turned into a law degree that turned into a decade of armor-clad lawyering that swerved back into literature. I still trust those decisions and stand behind each and every one.

I don’t know much, but I know enough to recognize that although failure in this task (and the task is to be a good writer) is highly likely, the alternative of not heeding this call is much worse. Although convoluted, this path gave me things essential to my life today – my husband included. It also gave me some pretty damn useful street smarts – like how to smell an ulterior motive when it’s drenched in perfume. Case in point, if I performed all of the vital tasks spun by the Social Media Merlins, I’d have no time left over to write. I’d be like that popular blogger-guy blogging about writing his first novel… instead of writing his first novel! And here silly me thought writing was the whole point of being a writer. But, as I keep saying, what the hell do I know!? In any case, I’m not buying into that bogus magic either. As the bumper sticker says, there is no elevator to success; you have to take the stairs – you have to write a good book.

So until proof to the contrary, I’m going to stick to my guns and say that what makes a writer a writer is that she writes. Publishing seems to be highly advisable as well. (Go figure!) As does making a best-seller list, snagging some awards and a film option. Being nominated by Oprah for her Book of the Month Club is a financial jackpot – but none of these things are what makes you a writer. None of these things will save you from lit-oblit (literary obliteration) if you haven’t written a kick-ass good book. And for that, you must write, write, write and rub a “hole into your head in the process”. That was the sage advice I got from seasoned author Bret Lott in my writing workshop (http://www.oprah.com/oprahsbookclub/Jewel-by-Bret-Lott. I’d link to his author website… but he doesn’t have one! The social media strategy box is the only of the above boxes he doesn’t tick and for that he is my hero.) Many other writers would say the same. One of my favorites, Flannery O’Connor, said “writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay.” So I better have a damn good reason to want to do this, because odds are it will wreak havoc on my looks. Plus – me being me – I don’t want to just do it à la Nike, I want to be good… drive is a remnant of my law laps, I guess. But you won’t see me pushing it out the door any time soon.

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Some naughty little boys need to be convinced they will be good.

When it comes to art, there are no prizes for trying. You are judged on what you produce. To add insult to injury, no one knows exactly how this mysterious thing of writing is done. There are no magic recipes. So it looks like we are just as badly off as the Magic Circle and Social Media Merlins. We do have something close to magic though: the “elusive creative genie” Elizabeth Gilbert insightfully reminded us of in her fabulous Ted Talk that I will not shut-up about (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=86x-u-tz0MA).

The great books will be the ones that indelibly describe something about our human existence – now isn’t that concrete and helpful? But that is the task, I think: to master the ability to combine those arbitrary little graphic designs called letters in such a way that their reach is wider than the ink and pixels that embody them. After that, we – as readers and writers – have to keep our fingers crossed that the good books will be the ones to get published and celebrated. But as Flannery also said, “there’s many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.”

In any case, no masterpiece is slipping out of my fingers any time soon. I’m still quite clumsily stringing words together and wrestling with my genie. I am well aware I will most likely fail in my endeavors (“no one gets published, female writers even less so, and even if you get published, no one will read it, and if they do, they’ll hate it”… yeah, yeah, I know). But everyday, I pry open my MacBook and pound away with an idiosyncratic mixture of method and madness, joy and desperation, tea and gin. People are the only creatures on the earth that desire things larger than themselves. That is what art is about and why it is a necessity. To dedicate my time and energy to this seems like a pretty good use of a life to me. Flannery O’Connor put it this way, “people without hope not only don’t write novels, but what is more to the point, they don’t read them.”

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Book art for the hopeful – by Veronica & Isaac Salazar

A Neuchâtelean Archi-tour – now doesn’t that sound fancy?

creation |noun| the action or process of bringing something into existence

Writers shouldn’t paint, at least that’s the moral I took away from the Centre Dürrenmatt in Neuchâtel. But if they can’t be stopped and you feel exceedingly pressured to showcase their artwork, at least do us the favor of getting a world-class architect on board. You owe it to us to give us something aesthetically pleasing to look at! So my sincere appreciation to the folks that snagged Mario Botta for the gallery where the Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s artwork is permanently on display.

I had already gathered from my investigations that this fellow wouldn’t have been the liveliest of dinner guests. Not only were his literary works mostly philosophical crime stories and macabre satire plays, but he also considered a story finished only “when it took a turn for the worst”. And not in a witty Oscar Wilde kind of way. As for the sole difference between humans and wild animals, humans – he said – pray before they commit murder. Perhaps these statements can be better understood if we recall that the author was 18 when the Second World War broke out – although Switzerland was, as always, neutral and therefore not directly involved.

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David Bowie in front of some unfortunate Bowieart.

The inclination of certain celebrities to self-express through painting is a wonderful thing. Truly. All my support goes out to Jennifer Aniston, Beyoncé, Steve Tyler, Michelle Pfeiffer, Slash and Josh Hartnett who all claim to paint. If, however, samples of your tinkering happen to slip into the public arena, please don’t expect us to like it just because you clobbered the Nazi’s in World War II… or you were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and have the highest number of covered songs in the world… or you are the very embodiment of glam rock and London’s V&A Museum has recently inaugurated a box-office-record-breaking retrospective of your career. (To be fair, Winston Churchill’s work is discreetly displayed at his Chartwell studio and is not too bad, but Dylan’s horrendous tempera tantrums were recently exhibited at none other than the Palazzo Reale in Milan (http://www.halcyongallery.com/news/bob-dylan-at-the-palazzo-reale-milan) – explain that! Bowie’s unfortunate pieces have their own website and brand (Bowieart: http://www.bowieart.com/default.asp), where it is abundantly clear he takes his art a lot more seriously than I do.)

As for the artwork of the decidedly less famous Dürrenmatt, Francis Bacon was dark, as was Edvard Munch, Egon Schiele and Hieronymus Bosch. And I love them. But their work is to Dürrenmatt’s, like truffles to turds. I can’t shake the feeling that Botta may not have been an admirer of Dürrenmatt’s paintings either. After all, for a space meant to showcase the man’s artwork, all of the tributes in the design are to elements of his literary output.

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The cave-like gallery of the Centre Durrenmatt, complete with skylights and door to the exterior.

With such harsh views, you may be inclined to avoid that stark climb up the Neuchâtelean hills to where the Centre Dürrenmatt is perched. But please don’t. Thanks to Mario Botta, it is a beautiful space with incredible views that are decidedly less harsh than my own about the elaborate wall stains within. Dürrenmatt’s work may be hard to swallow, but at least it has given occasion to some truly remarkable architecture. Beautiful things can spring from bad beginnings.

I am a sucker for good contemporary architecture and the Swiss are surprisingly skilled at it. (I say surprisingly, because industrial ingenuity seems more in Swiss character than aesthetic genius.) Le Corbusier may have preceded the coining of the phrase “starchitect”, but Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron (think Tate Modern, the Beijing Olympic Stadium), Peter Zumthor (think Therme Vals, the Brother Klaus Field Chapel) and Mario Botta (Saint John the Baptist Chapel, Spa Tschuggen) certainly came just in time for it. Being fans of architecture and spas, the Swiss have even given rise to a new niche – spachitecture!

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The theatrical balcony suspended over the valley and Lake Neuchâtel.

My first impression of Neuchâtel was marked by the rich yellow hue of the Jura stones found everywhere in the historical center. It’s as if the sun’s dying light perennially lingers on their façades. Back in the 19th century, a visiting Alexandre Dumas said the town looked like a toy sculpted out of butter. In contrast, Botta’s design for the Centre Dürrenmatt is in black slate, a tribute to the author’s dark outlook on life. And just as his literary work digs into the depths of the human soul, so does the space created by Botta resemble an unexpected cave carved into the heart of the mountain. The visitor feels protected and yet illuminated by the light that mercifully pours in from above. The crown jewel, however, is undoubtedly the balcony suspended high over Lake Neuchâtel. Botta called it a stage, the visitor the protagonist.

As I stand out on that balcony gazing down at the vast lake, I feel certain you cannot look at something that breath-taking day after day and not be profoundly affected by it. And yet this beauty failed to permeate the exhibited artwork. Surely, Dürrenmatt must have loved that lake, the Jura mountains beyond it, the green pastures that frame it. Otherwise, he would not have chosen this spot to live. Yet such was the strength of his angst that he chose to dam himself up in it.

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The dam-like wall that delineates the gallery space and supports the balcony above it.

Botta’s design seems to reflect this same perception, with the massive valley-facing wall that both delineates the exposition space and buttresses the balcony. “When I am inside the space,” he said “I also feel the emptiness of the valley, I feel the lake, the city. The wall is like a dam: it holds back an internal energy against the outside world.” Curiously, Botta cut out a door smack in the middle of this dam, as well as vast skylights. This leaves the visitor standing in an exhibition space that is far from the dark empty pit felt in the artworks. The combination of these elements (light, lake and door) make Botta’s building a space of hopefulness – despite the sharp torment of Dürrenmatt’s oeuvre. This is fitting. It gives us a more complete picture. Man cannot live without hope – and that is what, I believe, distinguishes humans from wild animals.

Chewing the Swiss fat

Go Base GVA for this fabulous Open Switzerland  project: http://www.openswitzerland.org/index.php

Go Base GVA for this fabulous Open Switzerland project:
http://www.openswitzerland.org/index.php

conformity |noun| compliance with standards, rules, or laws

Only tourists have fondue when it’s hot and our Swiss permits clearly state we are not tourists. We are temporary residents. With this status comes great responsibility. Not only are all sorts of insurance and registrations required of us, but we are also expected to play the part. My investigations tell me conformity is very popular in Switzerland.

We knew we were cutting it close with our little Gruyères expedition, so we convened to discuss. The weather predictions for Sunday were a big yellow smiley-faced sun, but Saturday the sky was slightly overcast and a light jacket was warranted. Deliberation: we could still go and save face.

Thank God, because fondue is heaven. It is not to be missed – it’s oozy, it’s creamy, it’s a delight. We looked like a mini representation of the UN as we huddled around our Bunsen burner – an American, an Emirati, a South African and 2 Portuguese. (Two? But, of course! This is Switzerland where 12,32% of the foreign population is made up of Portuguese immigrants.) Losing your chunk of bread in the pot is tantamount to national disgrace. Unfortunately, I failed miserably, but Luís did pretty well, so the end balance was neutral – another thing the Swiss hold dear to their precise little tickers.

For dessert, the waitress brought round little wooden tubs of truly decadent Gruyères cream. Those strawberries were a mere afterthought and fooled no one. This last morsel was perhaps overkill. So we resolutely set to work recovering from our traumatic lunch with a stroll around the hilltop. With its one street (complete with cobble stones, fountain, castle and a not at all random Alien movie museum), this little hilltop town is the perfect setting for a modern day Brothers Grimm reunion – come Cindy, come (Rap)Zella, come Comatose Beauty, come Girl from the Hood. Some may call it too touristy. I find it whimsical.

Gruyères - you haven't had Gruyère until you've had Gruyère in Gruyères.

Gruyères – you haven’t had Gruyère until you’ve had Gruyère in Gruyères. (See Gruyères up on the hilltop? See the overcast ski? See the snow in the background? We were totally still in season.

To add insult to injury, we ended the day with a visit to the nearby Cailler chocolate factory in Broc – the oldest brand of Swiss chocolate still in production. The lack of oompa-loompas did not go unnoticed, but we were determined not to let that dampen our enjoyment of the voyage through the sexual undertones of chocolate assimilation in Europe back in the day. Apparently, people couldn’t make up their minds about it. At one point, it was considered such a powerful aphrodisiac that monks and nuns of the 1600’s were forbidden to touch the stuff; while later on, its medicinal powers were thought so effective that noble ladies drank it in church to avoid fainting spells. Thankfully, today the world has converted to chocolate liberalism en masse and we are less depressed, more energetic and have better cardiovascular health for it.

Although the Swiss did not discover the stuff or even bring it to Europe (those pesky foreigners with their colonies did that), they did make a pivotal contribution to the sweet ingestible thing we so adore today: they added milk – an ingredient the Swiss have in abundance. In short, the world will never be the same. So the next time you dig into a Swiss chocolate bar, pause for a moment and thank Mr. Daniel Peter (the first one to mix this concoction), Mr. François-Louis Cailler (whose chocolate has oddly inappropriate pharmaceutical sounding names, such as Femina and Frigor), Mr. Philippe Suchard (whose original shop still sells the goods in Neuchâtel’s Rue Seyon), Mr. Rodolphe Lindt (thank you, thank you for your new line of Lindt Excellence bars), Mr. Theodor Toblr (the pop of the duty free shop). We showed our appreciation to these industrious men through the stamina with which we embraced the chocolate tasting that wrapped up our tour. At this point, I had begrudgingly come to terms with the fact that Willy Wonka (more Johnny Depp, less Gene Wilder) would not be making an appearance, but that didn’t stop me from feeling disconcertingly like Violet Beauregarde as I rolled towards the exit – the part about her being round as a ball, that is, not the blue part.

Coo coo - Moo moo -and cocoa. Nice combo.

Coo coo, moo moo and cocoa. Nice combo.

It was a good thing that sunshine the next day. A 30km bike ride near Neuchâtel was most certainly in order.

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