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Settling in to “the Swiss side” of our lives has its rituals.

  • There’s the house-maintenance part:  here, our community rules are that all “loud” maintenance has to be done before June or after August, so that everyone is able to enjoy themselves and entertain their friends in peace and quiet during the high summer season.
  • There’s the garden to get going:  again, timing matters. I’ll introduce you to the EisHeiligen in a moment.
  • And new this year – there’s dealing with the bureaucracy to make sure I’m not declared an undesirable alien!

Oh dear   – if that all sounds as if our time here so far has been hard work, let me reassure you not!  There’s been sitting in the sun, catching up with friends, reading in the deck-chairs  – and even a little promise-keeping about writing up another Review, on a Wellington lecture by Michelle Foss, to accompany the one I put up last week about Margaret Atwood’s Payback book.   They are a complementary pair of thinkers in many ways.   The third leg in that thinking-stool is Stephen Pinker’s  The Better Angels of our Nature” – a magnificent opus on the causes of the world-wide decline (yes decline) in violence … review to come next rainy day!

House maintenance has meant sanding, filling and painting. It’s only a tiny house, so that’s not as onerous as it sounds – and this year we invested in a small sanding machine that is a miracle of design, and has made that stage so much easier.  Don’t you love it when you find a tool that’s really “thoughtful”?   This Black and Decker “Mouse” is light, so your arm doesn’t fall off. It has a separate section of sandpaper at the “nose” – the bit that always wears first – so you replace that without wasting the whole sheet.  It has slot-on shapes to get into difficult corners and angles. And it sucks away its own dust.  Heavens, I think it was designed by someone who’s done a bit of sanding!    My job has been the painting – so I’ve been able to admire Mani’s filling and sanding up close… and it’s been reminding me about my earliest handy-person experience.   

One school holiday I was my grand-father’s “putty hand”.   It was a serious responsibility, keeping kneading the putty in my small hands to have it ready, at the right consistency, just when and as he wanted it.     I can still feel the texture and smell that warm linseed-y smell of hand-warm putty.     I remember his oft-repeated moral too:  “Each hour on the preparation adds a year to the life of the paint”.   Many times since as I’ve renovated the houses I’ve owned I’ve muttered that mantra to myself as I’ve groaned at the thought of yet another burst of stripping, filling and sanding.    We have great new fillers now – but am I alone in missing the sensual pleasure of putty?   And what will a new generation make of the phrase “he was putty in her hands”?

I am always impatient to get the garden going,  regardless of warnings that one should never plant out the tomatoes too early.   Of course, I did plant out the tomatoes, lulled by the warmth into thinking that the Eisheiligen (the Ice Saints) would not visit this year – and almost immediately we had to cover them for fear of the bite in the night!

We asked our local “folks-knowledge” friend about the Eisheiligen, and he didn’t know where the tradition came from.  But Wikipedia does, and so now do I. Depending on what part of Europe you’re in, there are between three and five saints whose feast-days fall between May 11th and May 14th.   Those dates often coincided with a late spell of  cold weather – hence the saints got their collective name – and farmers and gardeners take good note of their reputation.   It’s a little like Queen’s Birthday weekend being the “safe” time to plant tomatoes in New Zealand.

Well – the tomatoes have survived and are flowering already. The flower boxes are blooming, the cress and rocket have sprouted in their pots, the herbs are already in use in the kitchen – we’re away!

We’ve been harvesting and processing too.   I’ve had horse-radish in a big pot for a couple of years:  I’d planted the “bits” from roots we’d gathered on a bike-ride, and now there’s fresh home-made horse-radish sauce in the fridge.  

Some Comfrey had “arrived” in a pot in the same way.   It flourished over winter, so we’ve dug some up and Mani has tincture drawing nicely from the chopped up roots.  The tops are in the compost, and the remains of the roots are back in the pot to do it all again.   Comfrey (they call it “Wallwurze” here) is a wonder-herb for aches and sprains.  Mani makes the tincture then turns it into a cream for his back and knees  – and there’s always someone in “the gang” whose joints need attention – so he has his production line going!

Interestingly, just getting to Switzerland this year seemed harder – and genuinely so, not just a factor of passing years.  I decided to get legal.

Till now, I’ve been operating on an “in and out of the country” sort of observance of a 90-day visa limit – but last year I got a couple of warnings that with stricter application of shengen  agreements that wouldn’t wash, and I could cop a fine when I finally flew out. So, from New Zealand,  I got on with the process.   To get a short-term permit for the five months I’ll be here, I had to provide the same amount of information I would have for a five-year permit: 15 pages it came to.   I think it might have been easier to get married!

But I was glad I’d done it when the airline counter-staff at Wellington scrutinised the precious document carefully, and then declared that it would be up to Thai Airways whether they’d “agree to uplift me” from Auckland.  Love that piece of airways jargon – from now I’ll always feel as if I’m being uplifted instead of just boringly taking off!

But that wasn’t all.  I needed to report to the Einwohneramt once I’d got here.

We went to St Gallen, our Canton Centre. No – that needed to be done in Thal, our Gemeinder Centre.  Switzerland has many areas and levels of local government, each with their own bureaucracy.  We went to Thal.  The very nice woman there had been to NZ, and stayed with someone we knew in Taranaki. That made for instant rapport – but –  she needed to get answers for her form.  I was bemused that included mainly information I’d provided from NZ and I was sure she had on her file –  but maybe it’s like the call centre asking you your date of birth…    That done (and paid for) I thought I really was legal.  But no – now we have to go back to St Gallen for me to have my biometrics registered (fingerprints, eyes etc) and then I get a card that I have to hand back in to the nice lady in Thal before I leave.   And go through it all again next year.

It had been quite clear from Wellington onwards, and again since I’ve been here, that even since last year scrutiny is much stricter on who’s where, and why, and how long for.

I remind myself that it’s a privilege to have these problems, and a small price to pay for the pleasure of living in two worlds.   I also muse on how if might be for people who aren’t accustomed to dealing with administrative systems, who are frightened of officials, who don’t have options about how and where they choose to live.

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