blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Cherzli Nacht, Zofingen

On our final evening in Zofingen (this morning I bought our tickets for Vaduz, where we're going next) we were lucky enough to experience a local Advent tradition: the lighting of candles and Christmas trees on the cobbled streets of the old town.
Tausende Cherze Liechtli. Gedimmter Abendverkauf bis 22h. Überall gnueg z'Ässe und z'Trinke. Kerzenziehen in der Rathausgasse. Schulkinder musizieren und singen in den Gassen.
What a charming idea! It is simple, but something that young children are likely to remember all their lives. The Christmas tree at the entrance from the station to the old town, in the Market Square, is absolutely covered with lights. Round its base are small candles in glass jars, and these candles also line practically every street in town. The walls of the fountain basins (several of these) are also decorated with candles, as are doorsteps and some walls. One store, selling house decorations, had two star-shaped clusters of these little lights outside its premises, and other places had lit up their outdoor shelves or outdoor dining areas. An improvised sitting place had decorated benches and patio tables with lights, and some sheepskin rugs had been provided, but it was too wet to sit down there. A few market stalls were selling edible treats (hot dogs, etc.) or drinks.

Best of all, on the steps in the Market Square, a group of children were singing, their teachers accompanying them on guitars. One little chap was doing duty as a music stand. We also met two older girls politely asking for donations towards their school-trip next May, selling fancy buns. They gave us a long explanation in Swiss-German before we admitted that we couldn't follow a word, at which they immediately switched to English and told us they were going to travel to Scotland.

For our supper, Chris and I returned to the Thai restaurant we'd enjoyed on our first night here. They had candles on the tables there, too. Then we made two more laps of the old town, appreciating the happy atmosphere.


Thursday, November 29, 2018

Zofingen: old town, Heitereplatz and museum

On the morning of Wednesday December 28th, still sluggish from jet-lag during Chris' first day at work in Reiden (a short train ride away), I explored the walled town of Zofingen to get my blood circulating and some oxygen in my lungs. After my first lap of the walls, local children were starting to come home from school (the Gemeindeschulhaus) for their lunch, so I followed a few of them along a back lane and then struck off on a narrow lane up the hill, following one of Zofingen's Wanderweg signposts. This led me through sloping orchards and meadows to the so-called Heiternplatz, a flat, rectangular recreation field above the town, out in the countryside, with 60 linden trees planted on its perimeter. A nearby shooting range allowed the locals to practise their deer shooting skills. Not sure I approved of this, but the forested hills in the background, still tinged with autumn colours like a picture in pastel oils, looked romantically mysterious in the mist, and in the other direction I had panoramic views of the industrial valley with its railway line leading in the direction of Chris' workplace and thence to Luzern (or Olten, in the other direction). Had the sky cleared, I think I'd have caught sight of some distant Alpine peaks. Apart from a distant dog-walker, I had the immediate surroundings to myself. I learned, from a carved gothic script plaque screwed to one of the older and larger tree trunks, that it had been school children of my generation who had planted the linden tree saplings to replace the very old, original trees. 
Im Jahre 1955 hat die Ortsbürgergemeinde den Heiternplatz erweitert und am 14. Dez. wurde der äussere Ring von 60 Linden durch die Schuljugend gepflanzt. 

I also approved of a steel children's slide fixed on the steep slope up to the Heiternplatz, but I didn't fall to the eccentric temptation of using it at my age, even though no one was looking, because it was muddy at both ends and too narrow.

I walked downhill back to Zofingen for lunch at the crêperie. There's a scuplture park and other public green spaces outside the town walls, then the school, and next to that a museum with a nymph at the entrance who had sore feet, like me.

I spent a good while inside the museum which was full of interest. To judge from an old video recording and the pictures on the walls, Zofingen's centre hasn't changed much in the last few centuries. Only people's clothes and their means of transport have changed, although even then, there are very few motor vehicles on the streets of old Zofingen today, which are still mostly cobbled. Workmen were re-cobbling one street all the time we were there. 

It was one of those museums that have a bit of everything: stuffed animals, pinned butterflies, prehistoric pottery, oil paintings, historical agricultural implements, costumes. Alongside medieval suits of armour, they had the full costume of a Pontifical Swiss Guard from the Vatican. I particularly enjoyed looking at the early 20th century pictures of the traditional Vereine, groups of local men or women (rarely mixed) with an interest in common, be it music-making or sports or whatever, the photographer of the day using the same background for all. I snapped a copy of the Gymnastics Club photo, dated 1902.

Swiss Guard
Since the first half of the 19th century, Zofingen has been known for its printing works (printing the pages of the Schweizer Illustrierte magazinefor example, and one part of the museum was dedicated to the different equipment they had used over the ages:

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

To Luzern for lunch

Today, Chris had a "recovery day" from the long journey, and after a simple breakfast at an old-fashioned coffee shop at the end of our street (excellent, frothy coffee---"all our milk is lactose-free"---with a whole grain croissant), we decided to take a train, via Reiden, Sursee, and other stops, to Luzern. Chris wanted to find out how long his commute to work will take tomorrow and the answer is: less than four minutes. We had some difficulty buying tickets as our VISA cards once more failed to work in the SBB ticket machines. In the end, the information office sold me a couple of Tageskarten for the regional network costing 45 CHF each, more than I had anticipated. The ride was lovely though. Five minutes in, the countryside was already very pretty, with autumn colours still on the steep, wooded hillsides, and neat Swiss barns and farmhouses. We saw some industrial areas too, along the flat valley floor, but this country still seems more agricultural than industrial, the railway trucks loaded with turnips. We saw herds of cattle, well-established vineyards, and publicity signs in the fields such as "". We were sitting on the left hand side of the train so had a good view of the Sursee as we rode by it, a peaceful stretch of water with a bike track on the banks all the way along.

Unfortunately, no snowy mountains were to be seen, as there was thick grey cloud above us, and it was spitting with rain. We had our umbrellas with us, but didn't need to open them all day; sometimes the precipitation stopped or was no more than a fine drizzle, same as yesterday. Coming out of Luzern station the boat docks are straight ahead of you. It is hard to get lost in this town, the lake Vierwaldstättersee, grey and tranquil today, being the largest landmark. We could have taken a boat to various places on its banks, and later this week I might go back to do just that, especially if the mountains come out of hiding. The municipality is setting up a Weihnachtsmarkt with wooden stalls by the lakside, complete with a rather soggy skating rink, white drinking tents, and life-sized, white, model reindeer that nod their heads. Someone would be able to take a photo of you sitting in the romantic sleigh they pull.

What I remembered of Luzern from the time I last saw it, as an eleven-year-old on my first trip abroad, was the covered bridge with the skeletons (the Totentanz) painted between its roof-beams, conveying the message that Death is with us everywhere, and at every stage of life. The paintings are very old, 17th century, and the bridge itself even older, 13th century. What I hadn't realised or remembered was that there are actually two covered bridges, the aforementioned one, the Spreuerbrücke, and the Kapellbrücke closer to the lake, also adorned with historic paintings, although these are more documentary than allegorical. The Catholic faith seems prominent in Luzern; the Kapellbrücke had a shrine to the Virgin Mary at its mid-point, and the surrounding churches seem to be mostly catholic. Some of the larger buildings in the old town were originally convents or monasteries: Kloster (or Klosterli).

During our wanderings we discovered a large, good quality bookshop, such as there always seems to be in European towns, where we bought paperback books by the Swiss writers Max Frisch and Alex Capus. After a lot of hunting and enquiring we also bought ourselves an adapter plug for our Canadian devices which would fit into the deep, three-pin sockets they have here, like the German ones, but not exactly. The sooner there is an international standard for electric plugs and sockets, the better.

Near the river, market stall owners were selling sweetly smelling hot chestnuts, heissi marroni, in paper bags. For lunch we ate something far less Swiss, at a small Indian buffet restaurant, the Mirch Masala, serving very good food. The waiter brought us a basket of naan to go with everything else we chose. A party of Asian guests sat at another table, keeping their woolly hats on. Then we walked about the old town in random directions again, this being a way Chris likes to relax, till I needed another sit down, which brought us to a tea house on the upper level of the station concourse. At the lakeside, a high-spirited Swiss school party was posing for a photo, ordered to leap in the air as their teacher snapped them. The first attempt had them dangerously close to the water's edge, so she made them step forward for a repeat shot.

Our train back to Zofingen was an Intercity, bound for Basel.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Reaching Zofingen

As we sat on the train from Zurich to Olten, they announced our connecting train to Zofingen, and learned that it's pronounced more like Tsoh-fingen, than Tsoff-ingen. It's a peaceful little old place, the canton capital of Aarau --- we lived on the Aare, once, in Bern, and caught a glimpse of that river this morning. We're staying for the next five nights at the Hotel Engel, which has an eponymous (golden) angel hanging over the entrance so that you can spot it from the end of the cobbled street. Most of the buildings in the old town date back to the 16th century, and the old fountains still stand in the Plätzli, the cobbled squares. One fountain has the stone statue of a Habsburg soldier with striped socks standing over it: Niklaus Thut, who, during a battle against the Old Swiss Confederates in 1386, saved the city's banner by stuffing it in his mouth "shortly before his death", as it says in the English leaflet about the Old Town Sights. He is considered a hero. I'm afraid Chris and I saw the funny side of that story.

After a sleepless night over the Atlantic, we are easy to please. It was about 24 hours ago now that we left our slush-surrounded house in Ottawa by taxi, to catch the VIA-Rail train to Dorval, as we'd done in January. I relaxed thoroughly on this ride, finishing off some grapes I'd brought and sipping the very strong VIA-Rail coffee. Again, the fields were white, this time with thick fog above them. The shuttle bus gets one to CYUL airport in good time; it was too early to drop the bags, so we wandered around for a while, wheeling our luggage, before enduring a three hour wait in the departures hall. Our plane was packed, many orthodox Jewish people coming on board speaking a mixture of Hebrew, French and Yiddish, the men wearing their distinctive hats or caps, bound for Israel I guess, changing at Zürich. Another large contingent of travellers was from India. The airport TV screen in our waiting area was showing a woman with a gratingly condescending voice giving unnecessary advice, in awful, loud Quebec-French, to mums travelling with young children: "On va flyer!"

After extensive de-icing of our wings, on a flyé all night, across the Sea of Cork and the Channel Islands, to Zürich, on a Swiss plane. The seats were better padded than Air Canada's, but smaller. The food was definitely better, with croissants for breakfast. We had paid extra for exit row seats, but this meant that our carry-on luggage had to be kept in the overhead bins all the way, so all I had to rest my feet on was my boots, and the armrests covering our tray table hinges were immovable. Swiss Air's complimentary earphones didn't fit my ears, but I watched two in-flight movies even so: On Chesil Beach (I have read this novel about a frigid young 1950s Englishwoman and the pitiable young man in love with her, and thought the film a good interpretation) and then a Dany Boon comedy La Ch'tite Famille, to cheer me up again.

We landed in the dark, with fog at this end too and had an easy walk through customs and immigration, eventually buying single rail tickets to Zofingen from the airport SBB ticket office. The ticket machine didn't accept either of my foreign VISA cards.

The Swiss have just had a referendum not unlike the Brexit one, having to vote whether to maintain their deference to International Law or have their own, independent legal system. 66% have voted against independence, but posters are still up around town referring to the Kuhhorn clause about special rights for farmers who own horned animals, goats, cattle. Switzerland is a rural land. We have already spotted some elderly gentlemen with extraordinary long white beards. When we arrived in Zurich we had to board a little train zu den Gates und Baggage Claim (sic) in which a recording of cow-bells, birdsong, Alphorn music and yodelling was played to us during the very short ride, with a synchronised video screened on the walls of its tunnel. We sat in an airport café having a second breakfast, where the walls were papered with an enlarged map of the Graubünden area with the names of the mountains and other geographical features all in Romantsch, which is similar to Portuguese.

Because it was still terrible early in the day, hardly light yet, we decided to pause our onward journey at Zürich Hbf, so that we could stretch our legs in the fresh air for a while. I could remember the walk I did the last time I was here. We walked the length of the Bahnhofstrasse to the lake (Lake Zürich), saw the swans and some moored boats, then meandered back again through the old town, all very European-looking.

Friday, November 23, 2018

One more trip this year

On Sunday we depart for Switzerland, returning via Liechtenstein / Austria / Germany, England, and Wales, by various means of transport. I have worked out our itinerary which should remind us where we're going and when. It's been a hectic year.

This month our daughter went to Monte Carlo to make a bid, and won it. Nothing to do with gambling, really; she's not sure if she's pleased about winning or not, because it will mean a lot more work for her and her colleagues. Our son is doing something astronomical in a place called Nanchong, in Sichuan, China, a fairly small city by Chinese standards, with only 6 or 7 million inhabitants. It's a two or or three hours' drive from Chengdu. My 99-year old mother is in hospital in Cardiff, Wales, being revived by kind medical people from a battle against pneumonia. She is doing marginally better today, apparently, no longer in such pain when she tries to swallow or takes a breath, and being fed yoghurt and icecream to supplement her intravenous drip. My sister and brother-in-law keep sending us news of her; they're also expecting a new grandchild to arrive at any moment.

My thoughts are all over the place. I look forward to standing on the shore of some Swiss lake next week and letting my mind rest, shall try to do this somehow, whether the mountaintops be visible or not, I don't care.

Switzerland is an interesting country, where I have stayed from time to time, with 26 cantons, each of them different, with its own legislature. Yesterday I was with my German conversation group (one of whom, Ursula, is Swiss-born), reading and talking about the canton of Graubünden / Grissons / Grischun where Romansh (in German, Rätoromanisch) is spoken. We discussed that language and other dialects for a whole hour.

Earlier in the week I was at a meeting of a French conversation group watching a documentary film that our hostess had directed in 1989, about a family of stuntmen (cascadeurs, and stuntwomen, cascadeuses) from Montreal. Lois works for the National Film Board of Canada. She also has an interesting collection of puppets, which she showed us as well.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Embittered wives

While Chris was away in Stuttgart, in October, I kept myself entertained by going to the cinema and the theatre. Both shows were about what it's like to be someone's wife. The film, entitled The Wife, was the more gripping. The play (an English Theatre production at the NAC) should have worked, too, but somehow didn't. Perhaps the actors were having a bad night. This play, called Silence, was about Alexander Graham Bell's wife, Mabel, who was profoundly deaf. The story of their marriage was shown from her point of view, not only dwelling on her frustrations as a deaf person and the tragedy of her loss of a son at birth, but also on the way A.G. Bell's achievements depended on her often unappreciated help. To convey this, there were long silences within the dialogue on stage, which didn't help to hold the audience's attention.

The film, on the other hand, developed without a moment of boredom. This was fictional, imagining a man who won the Nobel Prize for Literature, whose wife had been his "muse", or so he condescendingly said in his acceptance speech. It turned out she had been the one who had written his novels for him, biting her tongue all the way through his successes and his repeated infidelities. She, in fact, was the one who had really won the prize. At the end of the story when she finally turns on her husband, her anger, combined with the home truths she confronts him with, do him in. I appreciated the moment when she flings his golden Nobel Prize medal out of their taxi window in a temper and their Swedish taxi driver hops out to retrieve it.

If you approve of this uncomfortable theme, look out for other recently made films along the same lines, Big Eyes (2014) and Colette (2018), for example; I also remember Ken Russell's take (1974) on the character of Alma Mahler, another frustrated spouse. One scene from that older film sticks in my mind: Mahler's wife burying her "stillborn child" in a grave in the woods --- her "child" being the piece of music she had composed herself, which he had dismissed as worthless.

Monday, November 5, 2018

What else?

This post is being written so that I can keep track of what I've been up to since our flying trip to the Gaspésie at the beginning of September.

Also in September, I went to the sad but inspiring funeral for Jean-Christophe Terrillon, a scientist-philosopher whose mother is a member of our German conversation group; she had asked some of us to be there. Her son had died of cancer in his 50s. During the service, Louise gave a moving and impressive eulogy for him quoting many of his own words.

On the weekend of the Ottawa tornado, feeling lucky to have escaped the devastation and the extensive power cuts, we had three unusual cultural experiences. Chris and I watched a series of experimental, short films at the Goethe Institut that night, which left us mostly baffled, I spent the following afternoon with Elva, touring local artists' studios, some of their work decidedly esoteric too, then after supper Chris and I attended an evening event where extracts from Banned Books were read aloud, entitled Persisting Beyond Margins, our author-friends Nicola Vulpe and Mark Frutkin being two of the readers. We won one of Nicola's books in the silent auction and the last of the readings (by Henry Beissel) led me to buy a copy of Margaret Laurence's The Diviners which I hadn't read before, a great discovery for me.

At the flying club on Sept. 29th, Chris participated in the precision landing / flour bombing runs again, taking his colleague Tina's teenage children along for the ride.

1st Oct. I went to a CFUW lecture to learn about fraudsters and computer or telephone scams, which came in useful when someone tried to phish from me very early in the morning, the other day, by means of a fraudulent phone call.

Then there were our routine visits to the doctor's, dentist's, optometrist's, to get blood tests and flu shots: none of the above anything to worry about, but they all take time. My swims at the Chateau keep me fit and Chris has managed a few personal bests for his runs on the treadmill at the gym. The car needed cleaning, maintenance checks and a tyre change, more time consumed. We do our best to keep going for walks or bike rides through the parks and woodland for sanity.

Then there's the journey planning. We're setting off on another business trip at the end of this month, first to Switzerland, then through southern Germany, before coming home to Canada via England and Wales: 20 nights away. Before booking the flights and necessary hotels (not quite done yet) I also helped Chris plan for an unexpected extra 3-day / 4-night visit to Germany last month. He was invited to give a guest lecture at the Kulturbetrieb Wagenhallen in Stuttgart for a conference on Challenges in the Development of Autonomous Driving Systems, on Oct 22nd and 23rd.

During Chris' absence I had a chatty lunch with my Scottish friend Liz, therapeutic for us both. I also spent an evening at the cinema watching a disturbingly well acted film about a fictional Nobel Prizewinner and his long-suffering, frustrated spouse ---The Wife---and another evening at the NAC theatre, watching a less successful show, Silence, a play about Alexander Graham Bell's wife. The latter was cleverly written, but fell flat, somehow; I'm not sure why. I wasn't alone in thinking so. The audience's applause at the end of the performance I saw was more dutiful than sympathetic, without the customary standing ovation.

I've been busy with voluntary work tidying up Chris' next conference paper in German, helping Emma with her bid for a major European metrology project *, advising George on how to improve his manual for post-grads on How To Write Papers, and correcting all the articles, notices and photo captions for this season's editions of CFUW-Ottawa's newsletter, the Capital Carillon, for which I'm now the official editor.

So far this season, the German conversation group, whose meetings I still organise too, has been reading about young children starting school in Germany (carrying their paper cones full of treats), about an Islander aircraft that lands regularly on the sand-dune island of Wangerooge, about the history of Meissener porcelain, about Goethe's colour theory, and about the use of blue light as a suicide preventative in Japan! Last week we discussed a German immigrant colony in Venezuela, the Colonia Tovar. The group rehearsed our favourite Oktoberfest songs again, performing them at a Diplomatic Hospitality lunch in town at the 3 Brewers pub, for which some of us dressed up in Dirndls or similar, with me at the microphone for a few minutes. Around 50 people were at this event. This week our conversation group is going to talk about community service by African students in Germany, an initiative of the DAAD. I love doing the research for all these different topics.

Last Friday we held another philosophy evening for seven people discussing what Truth might be. We got nowhere, really, but I'm now reading Bertrand Russell's book An Enquiry into Meaning and Truth, first published in 1940.

* Footnote, added a few weeks afterwards: Emma won the bid!

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Catching up?

It has been a while since I wrote a blogpost. For the next day or two I might have the chance to catch up a little; there are not so many distractions here. I have been too preoccupied with being a volunteer editor and travel agent recently. More on that later, perhaps.

We flew from Rockcliffe to Toronto this morning, or, more precisely, to Buttonville airport (CYKZ) in the north eastern part of the metropolis, in exactly 2.0 hours. Chris is assigned to give a three day training course on a nearby company's premises in this area and we're staying at the Sheraton Parkway Toronto North Hotel and Suites (sic) "on the 7" (one of the main roads) less than a kilometre's walk from his place of work. Not the most beautiful of locations, but still.

Conditions for the journey were excellent, a cold but not too cold November morning with clear air and no turbulence, until we suddenly hit what must have been wind-shear on our descent through 4000 ft ASL, close to the destination, bouncing us momentarily out of our seats. However, the first hour of the flight was slightly worrying, since Mode C of the transponder didn't seem to be working, ATC telling us we were at 16,000 ft up "and climbing" when we were nowhere near! PTN can't manage that altitude at the best of times. The problem probably had some connection with the soaking the interior of the plane has had, during recent heavy rain. She leaks! Water had dripped in around the windshield and had drenched all of the carpet on my side, and two of our three headphones. Fortunately Chris' headset was not affected and mine still worked. I imagined my seat cushion was damp too, which I didn't want on a two hour flight, so I took a plastic shopping bag to wrap the cushion in, and sat on that. The water had doubtless penetrated the wiring inside the box where the transponder goes, as well. Two of the indicators on the cockpit display were fogging up from within, to start with, so Chris gave us full cabin heat throughout the journey "to dry things up", and we sweltered. The fog on the inside of the glass gradually cleared and somewhere over the wilds near Peterborough, according to Toronto Centre our Mode C transponder setting suddenly began to give the correct readings. Phew. Without it, we probably would not have been allowed to penetrate Toronto airspace, and would have had to land at some en route airport and rent a car for the rest of the journey. Toronto Terminal finally handed us off to Buttonville Tower and we did a visual approach, joining the base leg for an approach to Runway 15, which had a road running along, full of traffic, just before the threshold.

Bon Echo cliffs
During that approach we (or I, because Chris never lets himself be distracted during landing sequences) had a dramatic view of the distant Toronto skyscrapers silhouetted against a bright sky on the horizon, and the views on the way had been spectacular too, especially near to and over the Bon Echo Provincial Park, with its blue lake and high, vertical cliffs. I was experimenting with the camera on my new smart phone, a Blackberry Key 2 LE. There's still some colour in the forest trees, not as much as there was last month. The cottage country around the Kawartha Lakes looked inviting too. We stayed at a cottage down there once, with Yiwen and Pete, eating lots of corn cobs and lying in their hammock.

On the ground at Buttonville we made for the Million-Air FBO that had been recommended to us, and which indeed gave us a good welcome, with a free ride to our nearby hotel in one of their posh, new crew cars. Arriving at the hotel in a Mercedes labelled Million-Air must ensure one of a good reception, Chris joked, and indeed we are in a Club Suite here, with a jacuzzi bath and numerous pillows. I reckon Chris is entitled to such luxuries. The other week he logged 55 hours' work-time, which averages 11 hours a day.

We spent the afternoon walking round the immediate area which is almost entirely Chinese, to judge by the Hanzi (Chinese characters) written on almost every building. There seems to be an unjustifiably large proportion of restaurants, the other commercial places being banks or beauty salons. Otherwise offices. We did walk along a residential street by a pond, the houses large and expensive looking. Hardly any pedestrians, perhaps because a bitter wind is blowing today, but probably because they all prefer to use their cars anyhow. The busses have a dedicated 2-lane, 2-directional road in the middle of the main road where the other traffic is. To reach a bus stop, it's essential to cross only at a pedestrian crossing. We had lunch at the Tim Horton's next to the hotel and supper at an elegant Indian restaurant, where the food was really tasty, called Adrak. They wouldn't allow us to leave a tip but asked that we recommend them online, so that's what I'm doing here. They gave us a magic hot towel at the end of the meal, that expanded when warm water was poured on it. I was just in time to stop Chris eating it; he thought it was a marshmallow.