Ah, Christmas!

This year I’m forgoing the pleasures of a Swiss Christmas for the heat and humidity of Brisbane. For the first time in twelve years we’ll be in Australia and not in our several-hundreds-year old house by a lake in a small village near Zurich, wearing our winter woolies and drinking steaming mugs of Gluhwein. Instead it’s t-shirts and shorts all the way, sunscreen and sunglasses, something I just can’t get my head around after all this time. My daughter of course, is beyond excited. When you’re nine, Christmas is Christmas no matter where you are. A little hot sunshine isn’t going to put her off one bit.

And what does this mean for the Phd?

It means a couple of things. First of all, I’m away from all my usual distractions. There are the usual day-to-day responsibilities that come with running a household and being a parent to primary school-aged child in a local Swiss school (two hour lunch break at home? Check! Wednesday afternoons free from 11.45? Check! Stay at home if the teacher is sick? Check! Switzerland, I love you, but what’s the story with the school hours? You don’t make it easy for mothers, I can assure you). Other distractions include my music-teaching business. It takes up an awful lot of time in preparation, actual teaching and administration, but mostly it’s a deadline looming after lunch, one that’s particularly good at ruining the concentration required to write a novel. So even with the distractions of family and Christmas, I’m hoping for some good writing to come out of it all.

Secondly, I’ll be in the country about which I’m writing. While I like the fact that I’m writing about events that happened halfway around the world from where I currently live as I find the distance gives me a unique perspective, there’s also something to be said for being in the same place, even if those events took place more than a hundred years ago. I’m hoping to store up a bit of this magic to take back with me.

So while I’m there I’ll revel in the fake snow and songs about snowmen and periodically remind myself that soon enough I’ll be back at my desk and staring out my window at this…

Snowy swiss




I’m back. If visiting Australia wasn’t unsettling enough, being back in Switzerland matches it, point for point. Suddenly there are more leaves on the ground than on the trees, and those that do manage to cling on are shades of gold and red, a last burst of colour before winter. The mornings are dark, the nights cold and the shops full of puffy jackets and ski boots. It feels like one minute we were wearing sandals and floppy hats in sunny Brisbane and the next I’m going up to the attic to dig out our warmest clothes, trying vainly to find matching gloves and wondering just how an eight-year old girl can grow out of absolutely everything in the pitifully few months since I packed it all away.

But if there’s one thing designed to make you feel glad to be back it’s engine trouble. Engine number four on our overly large aircraft wasn’t working properly during takeoff, so we languished on the runway for an hour or so while those in charge decided what to do. In the end we took off, but I’m sure I’m not the only one who let out a big sigh of relief when we eventually landed once more on solid ground. Perhaps this is the whole purpose of air travel, to make the transition from one place to another just that bit easier; home, you realise, is anywhere but up in the air.

And my Phd?

My desk is covered with stacks of textbooks, novels, maps of Queensland, and photocopied chapters of books (I gave thanks to the Emirate gods for giving us such a generous luggage allowance).  I gloried in the abundance of new and second-hand bookshops (everything in English!), I spent days in the State Library of Queensland, poring over rare historical texts, vainly trying to turn pages while wearing ill-fitting white gloves that the librarian assured me fit absolutely no-one. I drank copious cups of tea with my mother while she talked about her childhood in Far North Queensland, and I marvelled at the lushness of the subtropical plants and birds in my parents’ garden, a sheer contrast with what I currently see out my window here in Switzerland.

I also met with my supervisor for the first time, which was an extremely gratifying experience because she let me ramble on excitedly about my plans while asking exactly the right questions. What a woman! She also didn’t seem fazed (at least on the outside) at the prospect of supervising someone living on the other side of the world. Perhaps I just caught her at a good moment.

The next step? To decide what to tackle first. Should I lose myself in my novel once more after a few weeks away or pick up the top book in the nearest pile on my desk.  Should I start investigating the intriguing leads I uncovered in my time in the library in Brisbane or…oh, to have more time!

Teaching, motherhood, writing and study, a potent mix.

(here’s the garden in which I sat drinking many a cup of tea while dreaming of novels)

garden big

Closer to home

Well, here I am. After twenty-four hours in a plane (and the whole of the third series of Downton Abbey), I’m in Brisbane, Australia with my family.

Four hours in Dubai airport starts to prepare us by way of lots of fellow tired Australians trailing around, their accents distinct and very hard to miss.

We’re here to spend time with our families and friends, but I’m also going to meet my supervisor for the first time after my first two weeks flying solo in Phd-land. It’s a bit like a blind date, or being set up by an acquaintance who thinks we’d be a good match.

I’m also going to trawl every library and bookshop I can find. I’ll be reading books and researching journals, newspapers, archives, etc, but I imagine I’ll also spend a considerable amount of time just revelling in the sight of so many books in English – what a luxury! If you see someone sniffing the stacks and stroking the spines it’s probably me.

It’s quite strange to be in the same country (same state, even) as the setting for my novel, and it’s making me realise that, living in Switzerland, I have a distance from everything that provides a very particular focus, a little bit like looking through the wrong end of a telescope; everything is small but concentrated.

This is, of course, in addition to the distance provided by time. Whether it be a mere thirty or so years (think flares, long hair and The Dark Side of the Moon), ninety years (my mind is still full of Downton Abbey; poor Mary!) or a hundred and thirty years, as in the case of my novel, there is something about the gap between then and now that allows for full immersion.

But now that I’m so close, geographically speaking, to my protagonists, things seem a little diffused. Throw in my own childhood memories that lie in wait at every corner, in every face that I search for familiar features and time, too, is not what it was. Past, present and future (in the form of my young daughter) start to loop and curl, in danger of becoming indistinct.

How must it be for my mother, seeing my features in those of my daughter, reliving her early years of motherhood with each laugh and twirl, perhaps also thinking back on her own childhood (in Far North Queensland, the setting for my novel) and also on what the future might hold.

Perhaps it’s just the jetlag talking, but it seems to me that writing historical fiction is never just writing about the past.