19th August, 2016
It was a swift trip by car, from Geneva to Yverdon, to the home of my husband’s twin brother, Jason and his German wife Marita and their two children, Lionel and Claire. It had rained on and off in London and Amsterdam where the temperatures hovered around the low twenties but emerging from the airport terminal today, we stepped into a wave of high heat and a bright blue, sun-soaked atmosphere. Summertime in Switzerland.
At first I couldn’t pin down my feelings about the landscape. It’s very different from England where you have the rolling topography and The Netherlands which is flat. Here there are mountains, long lines of them, floating on every point of the compass — north, south, east, west. The towns along the route, viewed from the motorway, seem self-contained, impenetrable, whereas in England and The Netherlands villages, houses, gardens, stonewalls appear suddenly in front of you and virtually wrap themselves around the car as you move through. The journey took us past vast fields of sunflowers, not quite blooming but getting ready for high summer. The car entered and exited from tunnels through mountains, from dark into light and more sunflowers, more fields, more mountain and lake.
The very first item on my sister-in-law’s agenda was a leisurely tour through her garden examining each flower and grass in the meadow, the gingko tree, the fir tree, the bamboo and willow hedges, and then the kitchen garden with its mix of flowers, the tall spires of bright pink hollyhocks and a newly planted ‘rosa mutabilis’ a link with the illustration on the cover of my pain journal. I admired the herbs that grow in bright purplish-pink containers on the outside sill of the kitchen window. I didn’t know the pretty pink spires and the soft grey serrated leaves of the common vervain. Apparently it is a relative of the verbena family but with a slightly bitter astringent taste not ideal for eating, although it makes a good poultice for headaches and the aches of rheumatism. I viewed the vegetables, the tomatoes on the vines not yet ripe, because, this has been a cooler summer than usual, but laden with green fruit. The kiwifruit vines have over two hundred furry brown fruit not quite mature but ripening rapidly in the summer heat. The vines coil on wires strung from a pergola that makes a shady arbour around the outside table where meals are consumed ‘al fresco’ in summer.
There was a sense of déjà vu as we made our round of the garden. This was my mother-in-law’s greeting ritual as well. Always when we arrived at her home in Christchurch, before we’d even unpacked our belongings into the little house, where we slept each summer, my mother-in-law would whisk me into the garden to see her ‘treasures.’ The routine had the feeling, for me, of sneaking into the nursery to view a sleeping baby, which is something I used to do when my brother and sister were born nearly a decade after me.
I still haven’t recovered from the sale of the family home, which was precipitated by the earthquakes. Over all the years of our marriage, my husband’s home had been a haven of security especially in the early days when our lives seemed to be forever about movement and living in unfamiliar rented accommodation in flats and apartments in New Zealand and overseas during the long years of training and studying. Viewing this Swiss garden brought the memories flooding back and made me realise that still I haven’t moved on. I continue to mourn the loss of that garden with its vigorous perennial borders, the purple clematis vine, in memory of our niece, that twirled up one cherry tree, and the falling white blossoms on the companion cherry under which we were photographed on the day after our wedding. What I especially miss is the way a Christchurch garden provides an acute representation of the passing of the seasons, unlike Auckland where the climate is subtropical and winters nowadays, with global warming in full meltdown mode, almost non-existent.
I know I should be mature about change because life transitions and losses are inevitable and unavoidable upon a life path. The wheel turns and turns again. The younger generation become the older generation and people pass on, new babies are born. But still I don’t like it and though I try to continue the traditions that provide links in the chain between the generations, I’m also aware of the impossibility of ever being able to replace the particular ambience and mood of an actual house its past dramas and secrets, its dark and dry and sweet scents of dust and musk, the smell of carpet and leather, the faint whiff of lavender when you open a drawer of clothes. Such essences of place can not be replicated.
Already I have a feeling for my themes for this section of the journal because I had received advance notice of our schedule, before the trip began and it included gallery visits, swims in le lac Léman, as Lake Geneva is known in this the French speaking part of Switzerland, and lac Neuchâtel, a walk through the historic cities of Bern and Lausanne and a visit, by boat, to a medieval castle on an island at the southern end of Lac Leman. So one theme will most likely be travel experiences and amusements, while the second motif threading through the writing will be food. My sister-in-law is a creative and accomplished provider of fine food so it’s likely I will be itemising a long list of mouth-watering food. I don’t drink alcohol so I won’t be able to elaborate on the beer and wine, but in Switzerland there are more non-alcoholic beverages — iced teas, syrups and mixes — than anywhere else in the world it seems to me, and the packaging on the bottles is so appealing, with botanical illustrations of herbs, coloured green, blue, red, yellow on a white label background, like a fresh Liberty print.
The welcome tea today and the series of tasty morsels and tempters that followed made me consider my own approach to food. I think I could be more creative and should have more of a plan as opposed to racing round the supermarket, grabbing thing, on the morning of the day that visitors are coming for afternoon tea. Obviously my sister-in-law had invested time in advance planning and food preparation for today and even tomorrow and probably for all of the week. Already a potato gratin with kohl rabi has been prepared for tomorrow evening's meal. The food began rolling with a minty herbal drink served in a large glass teapot, bigger than my own herbal teapot, and European in its styling and much more elegant. The table was set with candles, two smooth maroon-coloured balls of wax, and there were hollyhocks floating in a bowl. Eight table mats shaped like gingko leaves with matching drink coasters had been laid out around the table. The serviettes had all the colours of a peacock with its tail up, or a paua. On one white plate there was a careful arrangement of small, strongly flavoured marshmallow bullets; the pale orange was flavoured peach, the pale blue was blueberry, the pink tasted like raspberry. I watched fascinated as Marita, in her kitchen with all its clever European appliances and efficient food preparation and cooking systems, including a steam oven, spooned a swirl of thickened sour cream, like crème fraiche, onto little round cinnamon and apple biscuits. Next she dropped freshly picked redcurrants from the garden into the cream. And then daughter Claire, thirteen years old, long brown hair, a top of stripy French navy and white, skimpy white shorts, showing off long, brown legs, ducked through the hedge and went next door to collect blackberries from the neighbour, one for each biscuit.
Initially we were quiet. After a gap of time people need time to adjust to one another and become familiar again. There was a huge amount of catching up going on in my head, like a shifting of cogs round and round and fitting into place — this is where I think that sea and river travel, or riding on horseback must be so much easier on the mind. It would give you time to process the shifts in time and place. Only a few hours ago I’d been in another country, and then without looking, a one-hour plane flight and a one-hour car journey I’d fallen down the rabbit hole and come out in Switzerland.
I have never visited this family home — the others have — and so I was responding to the new environment, pinching myself, thinking, ‘ Finally I’m here. It has happened.’ I had reached the home I’ve viewed so many times through photos attached to an email, or on the Skype screen, in the gaps between and behind the faces. All this was going through my mind during the short pause, on the channel surfer, before the fast forward button was pressed and soon everyone was talking at once and the gentle teasing and ribbing, that goes on in families, had begun.
I absolutely adore the very first day of a holiday with loved ones. There is the bounteous bonhomie at being reunited mixed with the exquisite anticipation of further treats in store, endless days of fun and adventure stretching ahead. There is also the realisation that family and blood ties are incredibly strong and meaningful. But the best bit is the sense of starting with a clear slate and all the liminal possibility that such a situation provides.
There was a barbecue in progress, out on the terrace, for the main evening meal. Jason was cooking up an array of meats and sausages with tofu and eggplant for the vegetarians, but first we were served a thin pastry tart made of the biggest, ripest, sweetest tomatoes. The pastry was crisp and buttery, the tomato mixture a piquant taste sensation. And still the meal hadn’t ended. There was dessert to follow, around the dining room table, this time, gooseberries, from the garden that had been preserved in a light syrup with ginger and cinnamon. ‘Is that how Granny Nat used to preserve her gooseberries?’ Marita asked. I wasn’t sure about the ginger but I do know that she added bay leaves to the fruit. A scoop of Movenpick ice-cream with pieces of meringue swirled through completed the dessert. The ice-cream was made with a double cream sourced from the Swiss region known as Gruyere and was like clotted cream.