Rest and relaxation

Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for.  Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us.

Maya Angelou, Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now

Japanese garden, Interlaken
Japanese garden, Interlaken

Shh! Don’t tell anyone but I’m taking a day off. A day off from hiking, a day off from taking pictures and a day off from my A to Z blogging theme. Ah, the self-indulgence is delicious!

The rain that greeted us when we opened the curtains this morning made the decision for us. We’ve been out there hiking and sightseeing for at least eight hours a day for the last four days and it’s been amazing. But what’s the point in heading up a mountain when all you’ll see is cloud? Today I’ve stayed in our hotel room with Easter eggs, The Guardian, books and cups of tea and I’ve loved every second of it. M’s gone out for two walks and I’ve declined both invitations to join him. I even turned away the lady who came to clean our room so that I could stay comfortably tucked up in bed. Ah, the bliss!

This is the second post that I’ve written today as I had to catch up from a period of lagging behind on the daily blogging challenge, but now I’m even cheating on this… I’m not going to write but am putting up some pretty pictures instead.

It’s radical, I know. I’m a reprobate. But don’t be reproachful. Tomorrow I shall be renewed. And I shall try to restore my reputation.

But for today, I’m remembering that a picture tells a thousand words. So let me regale you with this random selection of photos from our R&R…

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Confessions of an expat hostess

The ornament of a house is the friends who frequent it.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Bubble guy

I’ve always loved having people come to stay. Because I’ve spent my entire adult life living “away from home”, having visitors has always meant two things:

1)    A chance to spend some proper time with people that I love but get to see far too infrequently.

2)    An opportunity to show people around a place that they may not have visited before.

The older I get, the more I love playing hostess and tour guide. I decorate rooms. I draw up itineraries. I plan menus. I seem to have completely outgrown my old “let’s just book a flight and see what happens” holiday ways, as it seems to me now that if you just wait to see what happens, more often than not, nothing happens at all. I used to think that planning was the enemy of serendipity, but now I find that spontaneity arises more easily out of a loosely structured plan than out of a fog of optimistic indecision.

There are times when my planning works out well for me, and, I can only hope, for my guests. When M and I were living in Israel it was incredibly easy to show people a good time. After a trip to Masada, a dip in the Dead Sea, a day or two of discovering the historic sights and souks of the Old City of Jerusalem, and a walk along the sandy beaches of Tel Aviv, we’d suddenly find that a long weekend had passed with eventful (and sometimes even educational) ease.

There are other times when circumstances conspire to make me a less than relaxed hostess. Take the last year, for example. I would have thought, before moving into probably the biggest and most beautiful house that I’ll ever have the good fortune to inhabit, that welcoming guests into such an abode would be a doddle. And I’d have expected that living in the midst of the extraordinary beauty of Savoie would make it easy to decide where to take people. And that having easy access to some of the world’s finest food and wine would make catering for guests the biggest pleasure in the world.

Unfortunately it didn’t really work out that way and I can only apologise to the people who have come to stay with us in the Chateau de Collonges. Do you remember that scene in Groundhog Day where Phil and Rita built a snowman? In his frenzied desire to show what a fun-loving, likeable chap he is, Phil comes across as something of a weirdo. Let’s have some fun! he giggles. Come on! Ha, ha, ha, ha! Hey, here’s a humdinger over here! Hey! Wasn’t that great?!

I’ve been a bit like that.

Isn’t it beautiful?! Let’s go and see this amazing place! I know you’ve just flown from the other side of the world but forget about your jet lag! Stand right there to pose for a photo! No, not there! There! You love this fine French food I’ve found for you, don’t you? You don’t? But how could you not! It’s great! Yum! I love everything here! It’s beautiful, isn’t it? Ha, ha, ha! Aren’t we having fun?!

I blame the hormones. And the lack of alcohol. And I thank those of you who have visited from the bottom of my heart for saying that you’ve had a good time in spite of my frenzied regime of enforced fun.

Thankfully, there are also times when everything works like a charm in spite of my obsessive planning and feverish quest for amusement. Last weekend, when seven members of my family flew in from Inverness and Amsterdam to help M and I celebrate my birthday, was one of those times. Everything was so simple and so beautiful. My nephews, who are at ages where society might expect them to be sullen and withdrawn, were curious, interested, charming, intelligent and gracious. My niece, who at nearly-three could be forgiven the occasional temper tantrum, was cute beyond any reasonable expectations of cuteness. M and my brother-in-law coped valiantly with the inevitable emotional intensity of any gathering of my family that involves more than one person. And my siblings… Ah, they were my siblings. Having two of them around made me miss the other three even more intensely than I usually do, but apart from that, having them here, walking my Daily Walk and talking our incredible talks was the most fantastic of birthday gifts.

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There were many perfect moments over the three days that they were here but two, I think, will stay in my memory forever. The first was when we happened upon a guy on the shores of Lake Annecy who makes a living out of blowing giant bubbles. Using two sticks, a bit of old rope and his own secret-recipe solution, he creates what my sister Luli gorgeously described as magical trees in kaleidoscopic bubbles. He’s made sticks to suit people of all sizes so everyone got to have a go, as M and I stood back and watched the smiles of our family and of every single casual passer-by. I’ve had over a week to think about it now and still I can’t think of a better way to earn a living than by making big bubbles and beautiful smiles. Thank you, bubble guy.

The other moment was during our lunch in Annecy. I’d planned to make confit de canard for dinner that night, so rather than having anything heavy for lunch, we just bought sandwiches from one of Annecy’s fantastic sandwich stands. We had planned to eat and walk, but somehow, without discussing it, all nine of us ended up stopping at various points along a bridge across one of the canals that give Annecy the nickname of Venice of the Alps.

It was cold, and all of us, apart from my unbelievably hardy Scottish nephews, were wrapped in coats, scarves and gloves against the chilly wind. I looked across from my vantage point on the bridge and saw eight people that I love, quietly eating their sandwiches and taking in the gorgeous sights of this historic town. My twelve-year-old nephew was feeding crumbs to the seagulls, which swooped over our heads, their wings like sails taking them across the water and on towards tourists with tastier treats. Occasionally a couple of us spoke. My sister Luli, also recognising the gorgeousness of the moment, at one point took a little video of the scene. But mostly we all just stood there. Quietly. Just being in this beautiful place. Eating our simple delicious sandwiches and watching some of the people we love being together and apart and cold and warm and quiet and contented.

I was very spoilt for my birthday and was given many gorgeous gifts. And of all them, that moment was the one that I’ll keep inside and enjoy forever.

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My life is a film and I’m a bit-part player

Jardins 4

(Yes, yes, I know Shakespeare put it far more eloquently but I can’t help it that he got all the best lines.)

A long time ago in a relationship far, far away, an ex-boyfriend accused me of expecting my life to play out like a movie. He said (condemningly) that I require all the people that I meet to be in some way interesting, for my work to be fulfilling and afford me travel to fascinating places, and for every day to have some kind of poetry to it, even (or perhaps especially) in times of unavoidable suffering. Get real, he said. Life just isn’t like that. Well, if you’re reading this, ex-boyfriend (and you know who you are), it turns out that life kind of is.

Sometimes bits of my life end up in movies in a literal sense. After the Great Johnny Depp Experience of 2005 (is there an expiration date on stories about brief but exciting brushes against someone else’s fame?), I decided to retire from the movie extras game for good. I believe in going out with a bang, as it were, and I had to face the reality that it was all going to be downhill from there. (“A sex scene with Ryan Gosling? Pah! I wouldn’t get out of bed for that!”).

But you just never know where life is going to take you and last Sunday I found myself back in the role of an extra once again, this time at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, known as CERN, the home of the Large Hadron Collider.  It turned out that a guy who works for the CERN audio visual service is making a feature film and needed some people to dress as lab staff and sit in a boardroom looking fascinated while a glamorous French neurobiologist (a real one, incidentally, not just someone playing one) talked in depth about her field. It was revealed in conversations between shots and over coffee that my fellow lab staff hailed from Venezuela, Italy, Spain, Greece, Switzerland, Ireland, Latvia, the USA, India and Belgium, while I represented the UK and Australia. I don’t think my performance will be attracting the attention of the Academy (I was wearing makeup, after all, and no-one in my scene died), but it was a fun and unexpected way of spending a Sunday morning.

At other times, my life can feel like a movie just by the sheer good fortune of being in the right place at the right time. A few weeks ago, when one of my four gorgeous sisters was visiting from Australia, we decided to stop for coffee in the Haute-Savoie town of Annecy on the way back from a hair-raising morning on the Aguille du Midi. (The experience of the ascent to the highest restaurant in Europe, the imaginatively named “3842”, is one that my sister will not soon forget…).

As we walked through the streets, of the “Venice of the Alps”, it became apparent that this was no ordinary Saturday, but a carnival day. I was so mesmerised by the costumes, the music and the throngs of people on the cold and beautiful streets of the Old Town that it didn’t even occur to me to get my camera out. (Stupid, stupid girl!) As we roamed the streets in search of a favourite shoe shop where my sister was to purchase the perfect pair of European winter boots, we found ourselves marching to the beat of a different drum… Literally. Under a series of arches we finally found the drumming band, a group of about 20 enthusiastic amateurs beating their drums and stomping their feet until my sister and I felt it not just vibrating in our chests but also coursing in ridiculous rivulets down our cheeks. Easily moved to tears, my fellow Scorpio sister and me.

As I sit writing this, in the garden of the chateau my partner and I are renting in south-east France, the sun is making its slow descent behind Mount Grand Colombier, there are two birds sitting on the feeder about a metre from my seat, and the slight breeze carries both the smell of spring flowers and the sound of church bells from the nearby village. It may not be Quentin Tarantino but this is a scene from the kind of movie I’d pay to see.