Summer.

It’s the second last week of the summer holidays and yesterday we swam and swam, the water a pale green that deepened the further down we dived until it became the exact colour of grass. We went out again in the evening, just down from our house, slipping and sliding on steps slick with moss, and then diving straight in, the sun low in the sky and the colour of the water now a darkening blue.

Landeli

The day before we got the ferry across the lake and caught a bus up into the hills. We walked through a tiny little village full of houses covered in flowers and Swiss flags, before descending into the forest and then under the freeway to a park with views of both ends of the Zurich lake, one end the city and the other end the mountains, and we ate our lunch while we watched sailboats dodging the ferries and zigzagging on the water like dragonflies.

forest

And today? It’s raining, so there’s ping pong and piano and baking and reading and pizza for lunch, and my daughter licks the bowl from the chocolate cake while the cat demands dinner at least an hour before she usually gets it, and it still feels like the holidays because doing not much at all or a little bit of everything feels exactly right. (So take that, Phd…)

 

 

Independence Day.

My baby’s leaving me for another week. This time it’s a Ranger Tour, a week-long camp in the mountains for a bunch of ten to twelve-year olds from all over Switzerland. They’ll do overnight treks, cook all their own meals, sleep in tents and yurts and shelters they’ve made themselves, use their magnifying glasses to spy on ants and spiders, and generally have, I hope, an awful lot of fun. My brave daughter, still sometimes painfully shy at school, won’t know a soul but seems undeterred, unlike her mother who, at that age, would have flatly refused to go, scared witless at the thought of all those strangers.

(What does worry her is the thought of a whole week without reading, this girl who devours books, just like I used to. And look where it got me…)

I’m in the thick of researching and writing about colonial Australia, a vicious, dangerous and merciless place (particularly if you were being colonised instead of doing the colonising, and no matter how it has been – and continues to be – too often portrayed), and I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t think I would have coped very well, had I lived back then. I like to think that my daughter might have fared a little better, much like Nana, her great-great-grandmother, who lived for a while on a goldfield in Far North Queensland in the very, very late 1800s, a resourceful woman by all accounts, sifting through the tailings (the residue of the mining process, which, back then, was very rudimentary indeed) for anything left over, and working in a pub, as well as marrying at sixteen (not what I envisage for my daughter! ).

Still, I like to think that there’s a little bit of Nana running through her blood. It might have skipped over my generation but it’s heartening to think that there’s still someone in the family willing to put up with a little dirt and discomfort, someone who, when she was about five or six insisted that when she grew up she wanted to be an explorer. And now here’s her opportunity. And not a moment too soon for someone who’s on the cusp of teenager-hood, a whole new world in itself, the exploration of which will, I suspect, leave little time for anything else.

Meanwhile, back home I’ll revel in a whole week without parental responsibilities or teaching and just plenty of time to study and write. Which is also a little like exploring, just without the sleeping-in-a-tent bit, and with more gin-and-tonics.

 

A photo of the explorer in her formative years:

Young explorer

 

 

Dance Box

It’s Sunday afternoon, the sun is shining, and we need to get out of the house. There’s a dance festival in Zurich, spread across the city, with opportunities to learn to dance as well as watch the experts. What could be better?

‘I don’t want to dance!’ my daughter cries when we reach the city. It’s as if we’ve suggested jumping in a vat of boiling oil instead of learning how to salsa. Her shoulders slumped, she stumps along beside us with a frown on her face, and I can feel the day slipping away from us and we contemplate getting back on the train. But we compromise, agreeing to try just one event with the promise of ice cream at its completion.

And so it is that we find ourselves at the Dance Box, and it’s not what we expected. At all.

It’s a tiny, yellow caravan, with a sign on top. There’s a red lightbulb above the door that glows when the caravan is occupied, and two slots, one for payment of a franc and the other for you to insert the card upon which you’ve ticked the box of your preferred dance.

We wait in line, all of us giggling, laughter erupting when the caravan starts to rock from side to side or the sound of stomping is heard. Each time the red light goes off and the door opens people emerge with big grins on their faces and the rest of us crane our necks to see inside.

Finally, we’re next, and my daughter inserts the coin and the card in their respective slots. The door opens and my husband and daughter climb aboard, because there’s only room for two. But I’m happy just to be there, the whole experience so different to anything else I’ve experienced. The caravan rocks and sways and the whole line laughs and I wish I could hug the person who came up with this idea.

After a few minutes the door opens and they emerge, laughing, their faces lit up with what can only be described as joy. They can’t wait to tell me all about it, about the two tiny chairs for them to sit on, and the dancer who danced without music, who came right up to their faces and swayed and jumped and moved her arms and legs and seemed to take up all the space.

Our afternoon has been transformed and I can see it’s the same for everyone else, too. We lick ice creams as we wander along the river until we reach a playground and my almost-teenage daughter climbs and swings as if the grumpy girl from earlier never even existed.

That an idea so small and simple could be so powerful is a revelation. It’s also inspiring, because it strikes me that this is what the essence of the creative arts should be, something transformative, no matter the size or cost or seriousness or anything else, whether a novel, short story or blog, an orchestra or single voice, an oil painting or pencil sketch, or a whole ballet by a company of people or a single dance by one person.

Such is the power of one dancer, no music, and one very tiny, very yellow caravan.

dance box

 

 

lend me your horse!

In late nineteenth-century Far North Queensland, unless you had a horse you had to walk. Or run. Or skip or hop. Or swim, just as long as you weren’t worried about crocodiles or sharks or deadly jellyfish and the like.

I’ve had to imagine what this is like in order to write about it, trying to judge how long it might take someone to ride from here to there, and also trying to imagine what it might have been like to do so upon roads that weren’t really roads, or, at least, not how we know them to be.

I’m a long way from Far North Queensland and it’s been a long time since horses were the preferred (only?) method of transport. But, still, we don’t have a car. Call us crazy (and I’m sure there are those who do) but it’s a decision we made a while ago and we’ve managed to stick by it (sometimes with a little help from our friends).

But how do we usually get around, I hear you ask!

Well, apart from our own two feet, we use bikes, scooters (the kick kind), buses, trains, trams, a car share service, and ferries. And lately my daughter has been heading off to school every morning on her bright orange skateboard (the one with the purple wheels and the jagged multi-coloured geometric pattern on the underside….jealous?).

Of course, the fact that we live in Switzerland makes this an awful lot easier than it might otherwise be, because this is a country that is set up beautifully for people like us because the notion of not owning a car isn’t as ridiculous as it is elsewhere. That and the trains run on time.

But what also makes it easier is most ably demonstrated by the photo below. This, ladies and gentlemen, was my journey home last night. Yes, really.

ferry evening

 

 

Daisy chains

I’m sitting at my desk doing some study, but my eyes keep straying to the window. It’s a gorgeous spring day, the kind that makes you want to be out in the sun making daisy chains, or sitting with your bare feet resting on the back of a chair and your eyes shut, or sitting on the edge of a dock with your toes almost, but not quite, touching the water.

My lucky daughter is outside. She’s with a friend and so far they’ve hung out up high in one of the trees in front of our house, eaten a bowl of raspberries, played hide and seek, whizzed up and down the street on their skateboards, and walked on stilts, and now they’re going off to play table tennis.

They’re eleven, a funny age, both of them caught between being kids and teenagers, intimations of the women they’ll eventually become mixed in with those childlike traits that I hope never completely disappear, because I’ll miss them when they do.

I’m comforted by the fact that upstairs is a bed full of stuffed animals and a desk almost completely covered in tiny little plasticky things that drive me crazy on a regular basis. My daughter, for now, at least, eschews any kind of makeup or nail polish, and is content to wear the same pair of shoes day in and day out because they’re comfortable and what could be more important than that?

Now that they’ve disappeared around the corner I can get back to some work. Or maybe I’ll go outside, too…

 

Daisy

 

 

 

 

 

Need all the help I can get

I don’t have an office. I have a desk tucked in a corner, with a bookshelf on one side and a wide window sill on the other. This way I’m close to the kitchen, which is essential for making cups of tea, keeping track of what I’m cooking for everyone’s dinner, and also for keeping an eye on homework. It’s cosy, but it works.

Most of the time.

Until, that is, I get a bit carried away with the all the journal papers I’m reading (or not), the various bits of paper that seem to accumulate all by themselves, the sticky notes that mysteriously unstick themselves from wherever they were stuck and float to the nearest surface, and the stacks of books that seem to come from nowhere, piling up to form miniature towers that teeter precariously whenever someone walks past. When this happens, the floor starts to look like my desk and the desk like how I imagine the inside of my head must look.

Which is why I am eternally grateful to have my wonderful research assistant. She keeps me on track, stepping on the keyboard at inopportune times, clicking on the mouse and either deleting something or answering an email when I wasn’t quite finished with it. Or simply sitting right in front of me so I can’t see the screen and purring loudly enough to drown out whatever fledgling thoughts were on their way to becoming something worth writing down.

Whatever would I do without her.

research assistant

 

How does your language grow?

I have to laugh sometimes when, in one sentence, my daughter goes from English to German and back again, just like all her polyglot friends, lucky devils that they are.

In my novel there are two main characters who use the English language in completely different ways. It’s great fun (for me!) to switch from one to the other, and while it took time to develop their styles to my (their?) satisfaction, I can now slip easily from one to the other. It’s like dressing up when I was a child, that feeling of becoming someone else and understanding implicitly that how I spoke and the words I used were an important part of my costume.

Which has me thinking about how we use language and how much we rely on this ability to use it. If you’ve ever changed countries then you’ll be  familiar with that feeling of discomfit that comes from not understanding everything that is being said. Suddenly tiny children seem like geniuses because they can speak Spanish and you’re struggling to say hello.

Although it’s not just foreign languages. When we moved from Australia to the UK it was the tiny, subtle changes that were the most disconcerting, leaving us, at times, red-faced because we’d unknowingly use an entirely inappropriate word (thongs, anyone??), and other times wondering at how the same language could be used in such different ways.

And now we live in Switzerland, where the subtleties of the German language completely pass me by and I know I sound like an overly formal robot when I try to speak it. And because the English speakers here come from many different countries, I still find myself thinking about which words to use because my English might be different to that of the listener.

It’s complicated.

And my daughter? She’ll switches seamlessly from German to English but I struggle not to smile when I hear her use a word in English that, while correct, would not pass muster in an Australian school playground, the poor thing.

Our ability to communicate is easy to take for granted, until you realise that we’re not just products of our upbringing, but also of our language, whatever that might be.

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