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

 

 

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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

 

Starting a Phd is like going snorkelling for the first time

 When you go snorkelling for the first time you expect it to seem a little strange.

You know you will see lots of new things (some fish, perhaps?) and that at times you might get a little scared (all that blue water stretching on and on…). But then you jump in, adjust your snorkel, put your face in the water and have  your breath taken away by the sheer otherness of what you see and feel. There are the fish, of course, but there’s also the sun on your back, that feeling of total immersion, the breathing through a bit of plastic in your mouth.

Well, I’m here to tell you that starting a phd, especially one off-campus (try the other side of the world from your university; hello, Australia!) is not really all that dissimilar.

There’s nothing like a good analogy, is there.

You know you will be spending all your time researching, reading and writing. You splash out on some new pencils and pads of paper. Then it’s time to get started and…woah! There’s a whole world out there on the internet totally devoted to Phds. Who would have thunk? You had no idea there were so many other people doing Phds, some just started, like you, others nearly finished, and some who will probably never finish.

But wait, there’s more. Just like the little bit of plastic in your mouth, there’s the new technology (oh, Endnote, why won’t you be my friend?). You create so many passwords for all the different library databases that you need to start your own database just to keep track of them all. Your desk, which you pictured with neatly stacked piles of books and papers, within days looks like a wild animal has made a nest on it.

You start a list of big words you don’t understand and worry that other people seem able to drop them into online  ‘conversation’ as if they were born to it. You start reading and the more you read the more you realise there is to read (the big blue ocean has nothing on this).

And every time you leave your desk – just like lifting your face out of the water – you realise that not everyone else is doing this. There is your towel, draped on the sand, and there are your sunglasses balancing precariously on a rock, just where you left them. In fact, the real world is continuing merrily along, just like it used to before you started this whole thing. No matter that you’ve discovered this whole new world, because as far as everyone else is concerned it’s nice that you’re doing it but there’s a limit to how much they want to hear about it. Your family still needs to eat, the clothes still need to be cleaned and all those other responsibilities you’d temporarily forgotten are still there waiting (hello, music students! hi there, vacuuming!).

So now it’s your secret, albeit one you share with all the other snorkelers. It’s a secret world that’s not so secret, really. It’s just that you never knew it existed.

Here I sit at my desk in Switzerland with my view of the Alps (with their first hint of autumn snow), strains of German floating up through the window that, against the odds, I still have open. It’s just the cat and me until my daughter gets home from school and my first music student arrives.

But until then I’ll dip my toe in the water once again, thankful that I’m not the only one. Who, after all, wants to head out into that big blue ocean all by themselves?

snorkelling

  

Distance

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