Saturday, 31 August 2013

/34/ The Book Palace

The second I saw a photo of the St Gallen library online, I knew I had to go there. A relatively small room, it is nevertheless a feast for the eyes: exquisitely crafted out of organic curves of polished wood, and stamped with the UNESCO seal of approval, this baroque library is really more of a palace for books. It is a place where the learned could  study their craft in the presence of true craftsmanship, where physical beauty embraces metaphysics, it is a shrine to knowledge. Also, it’s really pretty. You’re not allowed to take photos, so I bought postcards and took photos of those instead.
When I stepped inside, it felt unreal. Like meeting a celebrity who you admire, or seeing a band live whose album you have listened to on endless repeat. I wasn’t in there long enough to take it all in, and when I was there it was filled with tourists (I guess I was one, but I’m not sure we were all there for the same reason). IMG_0156
My basking was rushed and instead of listening to the tour guide, I gaped at the ceiling and the woodwork.  It was absolutely worth the nine-hour (oh yes) return train journey. Baroque isn’t really my style, but there’s something magical about this library and I’m so happy I went.
It actually happens quite often that I’ll become fixated on something when I’m travelling – I used to think that this was just another negative symptom of my obsessive nature, but a stranger taught me something today (don’t they always?) when he told me that it’s actually a great way to travel. You have a goal, and with that purpose in mind, your travelling becomes more focussed and thereby everything you see becomes more vibrant – you’re on your way to somewhere, full of anticipation, and that’s far more exciting than going on a ticking-off-the-tourist-sites round trip.

Other places like that for me are a lighthouse in Nina in Estonia (aesthetically fascinating in a very different way); Lake Inari in Finland; Svaneti in Georgia; the lavender fields of Hokkaido, Japan; the Serra da Leba Pass in Angola; the Amazonian Manaus; and Socotra/سقطرى‎. Take five minutes and get googling.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

/33/ Lac Léman

The water of Lake Geneva (pardon me, Lac Léman) is clear, calm and cool – and dipping your feet in is exactly the right thing to wrap up a week of early mornings, long office days, and sweaty uphill struggles. That actually makes it sound a lot worse than it is – in fact, my first week in Switzerland actually ran like clockwork (pun intended). The early mornings aren't actually that early, unless you (like me) consider 7.30 AM to be an ungodly hour. It would be fine if I could just get to bed before midnight, but I don’t think Being Erica (whose trailer doesn't do it justice at all) or The Newsroom (two words: Aaron Sorkin) plan on letting me do that any time soon.IMG_0032

At my internship, the work itself is exactly my kind of thing (editing articles and designing a layout on InDesign) but there’s not enough of it to fill the day, so for the last hour or so, I find myself browsing through the news, budgeting my weekly spending, catching up on Linguistics reading I should have done a year ago, and researching Masters degrees – all while intermittently checking Outlook in the vain hope that someone has replied to my e-mails. After work I cycle home 10.5 km to the tune of a 170m increase in altitude. My borrowed bike is electric, which is a godsend on the days that I just don’t wanna, but on the days where I want to push myself and do it sans battery, I become very quickly aware of how heavy electric bikes are.


So when, on Sunday morning, my hosts, V (who is back from holiday, and with whom I get on with very well) and the aforementioned W, suggested a trip to the beach, I was in the car faster than you can say “relax”. I decided not to wear my swimsuit, mainly because I knew we weren’t going for very long, but also so I knew I wouldn’t be tempted to hop in the water and abandon my book. I’m currently reading Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. I have been “currently reading” it for four months. I love what Mark Twain has to say about German and someone told me this was the "ultimate" American novel... but it’s not as good as I’d anticipated. Yet. I hold out hope.

I lay in the Sun with my Kindle and contemplated Switzerland. [A/N: I felt this a little more strongly when I wrote it than I do now, a week and a half later, but in essence it is the same.]


This is an odd place. It’s pristine and affluent, but has a seriously poor reputation regarding immigrants. I feel a little uncomfortable here, like everything imperfect is to be scoured off the surface. Then, it’s multilingual and multicultural, yes, but oddly so: the German, French and Italian regions are divided not only geographically, but also culturally, linguistically and – what seems most interesting of all to me – intentionally. None of the French-Swiss people I have met have any interest in learning German, never mind learning about the German-Swiss people, region or culture. As for Italian, the only indication that this is a quatro-lingual country is to be found the backs of cereal boxes and shampoo bottles. You can forget Romansh.IMG_0030IMG_0044IMG_0042

Finally, I became quickly aware of the fact that despite being surrounded by Europe, European politics and current affairs are hardly discussed - not surprisingly, really, considering Switzerland is known for neutrality - and when they are it is with the tone of a father tutting about his children playing. The country and its inhabitants feel very remote somehow, despite being renowned for hosting dozens of international organizations. The IUCN is just the start, with WWF literally just down the street, and the UN, the WHO, the WTO, the Red Cross and CERN headquartered not much further away. Acronyms abound, as do good intentions and undoubtedly good actions too, but it really feels like a nation playing God to the rest of the world – or rather, playing Matron.IMG_0018

Of course, I’ve only been here a week, and I’m sure any Swiss person will valiantly refute my observations, but I can’t help but feel that there is nothing but trees and dirt in the forest, nothing but blood and bone in the people, and nothing but clear, cool water in the lake. It's not unpleasant at all (quite the opposite in fact), but as Gertrude Stein once said so eloquently, “There is no there there” - or if there is, I fail to see it.IMG_9998 IMG_0006IMG_0039  


Sunday, 11 August 2013

/32/ Letter from Switzerland

A few days ago I wrote this letter to a friend of mine, and it seemed to me like a great thing to post on the blog.
I arrived yesterday in Switzerland after a relatively short, sleepless night and a long day of travelling. The people I’m staying with are a couple in their late thirties, and the boyfriend (W) met me at the airport. The girlfriend (V) is away until Tuesday but W’s brother is visiting with his family. We came home to their charming little chalet, and after a short stroll around the countryside (rolling hills, red-roofed cottages, a stream running through the woods, a glimpse of Lake Geneva in the distance, and a bit further, the peak of the tallest mountain in Europe poking through the clouds) I met the family. W’s nieces are ten and five, and they’re really sweet. Within ten minutes of meeting them, the younger of the two had drawn me a picture of mountains with multi-coloured snow and a massive Sun. I sat down with the girls and we spent the next half hour or so drawing. I felt in my element – I’m far more comfortable around children than adults!
Le jardin – The Garden
W doesn’t speak much English and, apart from his sister-in-law, everyone pretty much only speaks French so I’ve had the chance to practice, practice, practice which I love. (I think his English is actually very good, but I’m not going to complain about free French lessons!) I can’t always follow what’s going on, though usually I know the topic of conversation. When I join in, everyone listens and tries hard to understand me, and equally when someone speaks to me they speak clearly but not patronisingly, which is perfect. The girls just babble away but I’m cool with that. After dinner we played Monopoly. By that time I was so tired I was just about ready to fall off my chair, so I lost happily and went to bed.
Ce que j’ai lu / What I read (Maurice by E. M. Forster, I give it 3/5 for quality, 4/5 for enjoyment)
On Monday, I start my internship at the IUCN. V works there, but as I said, she’s not there for a few days so I had to make my own arrangements for getting to work on Monday. Making a phone call to a colleague who’d told V she could give me a lift was pretty daunting. Speaking one-on-one, in person to someone in French is hard enough but phone calls are much harder. Nevertheless I got it sorted and have a lift! Yay! My work, as far as I understand, will consist of chasing up scientists around the world to send us articles about what they’ve been up to the last year. I’m working in the Marine and Polar Programme and will be producing a glossy newsletter/magazine showcasing the work of the Programme, picking up from where a previous intern left off. In addition to chasing up the articles, I have to edit them to make sure they are readable, and find and organise the photo library of the department. I hope for cute baby seals and impressive icebergs, but it’ll probably be pictures of various types of seaweed and some minnows.
IMG_9983 La cuisine / The kitchen
During the weekends I’ll take little trips around Switzerland. I really want to see the astounding baroque library at St Gallen, as well as Lausanne and Geneva which are nearby. After the internship is over, Shawnee and I are inter-railing around Switzerland for a week. I think I’m most excited about the UNESCO World Heritage railway between Chur and St Moritz (if you think I’m a railway geek, look at this and try to tell me you don’t want to go), but also I’m pretty psyched about visiting Grindelwald, mainly because of the Harry Potter connotations but also because that area is supposed to be stunning. The one thing which I really want to do but probably won’t be able to do is see the Aletsch glacier. It’s very difficult to get to and I have limited resources and time, but I guess I can just do that the next time I come! Other things on the “next-time” list include seeing the Reichenbach falls where Sherlock fell to his [temporary] doom, crossing the Swiss-German border on Lake Constance, and visiting my Grandma’s favourite lake on the border to Italy, the Lago Maggiore.

Ma vue / My view (check out my instagram for more)
On return from Switzerland I have five or six hectic days to sort my whole life out, get back my deposit for my house, finish my student finance application (I’ve not got it yet because my mother can’t be registered as my mother – because she’s down as being male WHAT THE HELL), sort out what the hell I’m doing in Berlin (it’s still not settled because German's aren't as organised as everyone says they are), pack for the crazy year abroad, and hopefully squeeze in some quality family time.
In planning this year, I seem to have forgotten factoring in a break. I’ve had literally two weeks off this year, and it’s halfway through August. And by “off” I mean not working either at Uni, a job, or an internship. I shouldn’t complain, and I’m not really, but it is tiring and I know when I get to Berlin I’m going to try to slow down a little.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

/31/ Basildon Park

Today, I came back from Oxford by train and my Mum met me at Pangbourne train station. On the way home, we stopped by Basildon Park, which is a gorgeous country house near Reading. We had a tasty meal at the cafe, and then strolled to the gift shop to pick up some souvenirs for my hosts in Switzerland.
I dragged these pictures from the internet to show what it was like back in the day and what it is like now. It’s places like this that I will miss when I leave England one day:
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I love that we live so close to places like this: Highclere Castle (a la Downton Abbey) and Englefield House (a la Pride & Prejudice) are also relatively nearby, and we’ve already talked about Grey’s Court. These places are beautiful, cheap or even free to visit (I expect they recoup those costs by charging extortionate amounts for tea & cake), and usually not very pretentious. Obviously these houses are grand and bombastic, but the way they are run is very simple – there’s no gilding the lily, and you can enjoy the beautiful house and gardens without being made to feel like a tourist.
Highclere Castle and Englefield House