Tag Archives: Holidays

Postcard from Lugano IV

Greetings from Lugano!  Between my last postcard to you and this one, we’ve managed to emerge from the Dark Ages here and get internet in the flat.  We’re here for another week, and are being spoilt with perfect skies, crystal blue waters on the lake, and sunshine.

Before I let photos speak for themselves, I’d like to share an interesting story that happened today: My husband and I took a ferry to a small town on the lake, called Morcote, and we happened to sit next to an older couple the same ages as my in-laws. I find people fascinating, and so we started talking; before long, I learned the origins of their family names, about accidents when the husband was a small boy, their children and grandchildren, their careers, and a lot more. When they told me their first names, I mentioned that my husband had an older cousin with the same name, whose father was killed in a train accident in 1948 in Einsiedeln. It turned out that the woman’s cousin and uncle were on that same train, one car back from my husband’s uncle; they were severely injured, but both survived.  What are the odds of someone else from Zurich being on the same boat on Lake Lugano today, sitting next to us, whose family had also been affected by the same accident 70 years ago? It just goes to prove how small the world is, and that we just might have something (or a lot) in common with the person sitting next to us on a ship, or in a train, or on a subway, or in a concert, or in a classroom – we just have to break out of our own little bubbles and reach out. And it also reminded me that sometimes the smallest actions can change lives forever: Joseph Hüsler had wanted to bring his children (2 and 4 at the time) candy after visiting his aunts in Einsiedeln; he forgot, got off the first train he’d been on, and spent more time with the aunts after he’d purchased the candy, until the next train departed. That was the train that crashed. Curious, I found a couple archive photos from the time of the accident; here they are (both images, credit – http://www.waedenswil.ch):

1948 Zugunglück Wädenswil-Einsiedeln - 22 Februar 1948, 22 Starb - waedenswil.ch1948 Zugunglück - Wädenswil-Einsiedeln - 22 Starb - waedenswil.ch

We had a wonderful visit with the couple, and then waved goodbye as we went our separate ways. So, as promised, here are a few images of Lugano, Morcote, and surrounding towns:

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Musings about Advent

For those of you in highly commercialized countries (I won’t name names, but the initials are USA, for one…), before Thanksgiving is past, Christmas decorations have hit the shop shelves.  Before Christmas is really digested, Valentine’s ads appear.  I hope that you’ll bear with me, as I contemplate a holiday between your Thanksgiving, and Christmas:  Advent.

In today’s global village, people around the world are aware of holidays such as Christmas and Easter, though it might not be a part of their indigenous culture or religion; they may even celebrate them, though that be more of a marketing incentive rather than a religious one.  I grew up in Kansas, and though we were aware of Advent as an event leading up to Christmas, we never celebrated it – we rarely, if ever, had an advent calendar, or advent wreath of candles.  Here in Switzerland, Advent is like an extended Christmas; our personal advent calendar contains small gifts, and of course chocolate; this year, with a teenager in the house, I also included gag gifts. Our particular form is the Tischibo bags, hung from a rustic red metal heart frame with hooks.

What is the history behind Advent?  What is its true meaning?  Advent, which comes from the Latin Adventus (which is actually a translation from the Greek word parousia), had two meanings:   In relation to Christmas, it is the inner preparation for remembering the first coming of Jesus as a babe into the world as a human, so that he could fulfil God’s plan for salvation for all.  For Christians, the second meaning is a time to reflect on, and prepare for, the Second Coming of Christ, which will be the end of time for Earth (no one knows the day or hour, and so the Bible tells us to be prepared – like someone on call needs to be ready to go when the call comes).  As an event, it begins on the fourth Sunday prior to Christmas; this year that would be the 27th of November, as Christmas itself falls on a Sunday.

There are several expressions of celebrating Advent:  The calendar, the wreath, and  devotions.

The calendar was first used by German Lutherans in the 19th century, and usually begins on the 1st of December.  They can take on any form imaginable, from a simple paper calendar, to gift boxes, or gift bags labelled 1 – 24.  Consecutive numbers are opened one per day from the 1st to Christmas Eve.  Sometimes the calendar includes a Bible verse and a prayer or Christian devotion for that day of the Advent.  There are even some towns that become living Advent calendars; this tradition began in Stockholm, Sweden.

The wreath, usually a horizontal decoration placed on a table, is made of evergreen boughs (real or synthetic) with four or five candles, representing the four Sundays prior, and Christmas day.  The four are usually red, with the white Christmas candle centred.  One candle is lit on the first Advent Sunday, with an additional candle lit each week.  The concept originated with German Lutherans in the 16th century, though the modern form didn’t catch on until the 19th century, likely in conjunction with the calendar.  For a detailed history of the wreath, click here.

The devotions are readings from the Bible accompanied by a prayer, to prepare the heart and mind for the Reason for the Season – the coming of Jesus as a man to Earth.

If you’ve never made an Advent calendar or wreath before (there is still time to prepare one!), or you want to try something new, below are a few examples I’ve collected from Pinterest.  Please share in the comments below what kind you use, or what your traditions around this time of the year are!

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I got Staffa’d

If you’ve wondered why my last post was over a month ago, it’s because when I go on holiday I do just that – I take leave of life, of schedules, of obligations and responsibilities.  Now that I’m back, I thought I’d share some of my experiences.

They say you should write what you know; after our recent holidays to Scotland, I can now add to my arsenal that of being badly injured on a remote, uninhabited island!

DSCN5357 - The Isle of Staffa, from Ship

The Isle of Staffa

If you’ve never heard of the small Isle of Staffa, you don’t know what you’ve been missing:  Made of basalt columns, the island and its outcrops rise out of the Atlantic in an otherworldly fashion.  For hundreds of years tourists have been going to see this phenomenon of nature, and in  1829 it even inspired Felix Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture (Fingal’s Cave).  Fingal is the figure in the legend connecting Staffa with the same geology in Ireland known as the Giant’s Causeway:  The legend is that Fingal was a Gaelic giant who had a feud with an Ulster giant; in order to fight Fingal, the Ulster giant built a causeway between Ireland and Scotland.  Irish tales differ to Scottish as to how the causeway was destroyed, but only the two ends remained – one at Staffa and the other in Antrim, Northern Ireland.  Other famous visitors to the island include Jules Verne, Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, Queen Victoria and Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

Now to my own experience:  My husband Stefan and I were on the Isle of Mull off of the west coast of Scotland; we left our motor home there for the day and took a small boat, along with about thirty other hearty souls, on a 50-minute ride across open ocean to Staffa.  It is never guaranteed that the boats can actually land on the island, but on the day we took the excursion the weather was perfect, and the sea was as calm as open sea can be without the doldrums.

A larger ship than ours, boarding passengers at Staffa Pier.

A larger ship than ours, boarding passengers at Staffa Pier.

To get to the stone pier on Staffa, here’s how it’s done:  The captain of the boat waits outside of the jagged basalt outcrops jutting out from the island until a wave swells large enough to heave the boat in; then he revs the engine and speeds up to the pier on the lift of the wave.  From there, passengers are gradually handed off one at a time whenever the boat and the pier are relatively even between the swell of waves.  This same process is repeated to reload passengers, and the same at the pier of Mull (without the jagged rocks).

We landed safely and were walking, carefully watching each step on the uneven hexagonal basalt columns, toward Fingal’s Cave; I was literally thirty steps from the cave when my left ankle turned on a column that was apparently split, though the two surfaces were not visible on the black stones due to the angle of the sun.  Turned, as in dislocated… as in the foot was completely sideways at an angle one should never have to see one’s own foot!  I grabbed for the railing to keep from falling and swung myself to sit on a taller column; Stefan was right there, and I told him to “grab my ankle and wrench it back into place!”  Fortunately he didn’t stop to think about it – he just did it!  I could feel that it wasn’t broken, but it wasn’t going to be happy with me either.

Just passing us on their way back from the cave were a Canadian fire fighter’s wife and her adult son; she knew first aid and went into immediate action, having us pour cold water on my sock to keep it soaked and cold since we had no ice pack; she also gave me strong Tylenol and some extra to keep the pain and swelling in check.  I think my husband was in a bit of shock at what had just happened; I asked him to go on to the cave and take photos since I wouldn’t make it… it was also a way of giving him time to adjust, and to let him know that I wasn’t seriously injured, though I only thought of those reasons later.  The woman and her son helped me back to the stone pier; what had taken me five minutes to walk took twenty minutes back.  Now, remember how they landed the boat and disembarked passengers?  Do that with one foot.  Twice.

DSCN5386 - The Isle of Staffa

A bit of surf

The boat crew called the doctor on Mull, and he met us at his practice (once we manoeuvred the motor home up the single-track roads there).  Without an x-ray machine he couldn’t tell if it was broken; perhaps hairline fractured.  If that were the case, either way I’d just need to keep my foot elevated; a compression tube sock was my only new wardrobe accessory.  When we got out to have lunch in a pub at Fionnphort (the port for excursions), the waitress asked what happened and then said, “Let me guess:  Staffa?”  Thus, apparently, I can be added to a long list of injured tourists who got Staffa’d.

The blessing in disguise of it happening only a few days into our holidays was that I had two weeks of forced inaction to elevate my foot; thanks to the “brilliant” NHS system of Britain, it was impossible to get a pair of crutches that might have enabled me to leave the motor home (in Switzerland, one stop at the pharmacy got me rented crutches), so I got to see Scotland from the inside of the ‘home!  It wasn’t our first trip there, and certainly won’t be our last, so I didn’t miss a once-in-a-lifetime trip; and my attitude is that complaining about lost opportunities is simply a waste of time and energy – the situation was what it was, and we made the best of it.  My husband became my eyes and ears outside of the ‘home, and when he was out on hikes and excursions I got a lot of reading and writing toward my next novel done!  I still have a month to go of behaving myself – no dancing, hiking, or even driving a car – so I guess I’ll have a lot more time to read and write! (PS – That month turned into four months… and then six months.)

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Back in the Land of the Living

Last week I took a much-needed break from the computer after launching my latest novel, The Cardinal (Parts One & Two)!  It is such a complex story with rich landscapes that it deserved the room to breathe and unfold, and so it became two novels, though that decision didn’t come until well into the second draft.  When it was all said and done, I had formatted two books, twice each (one format for Kindle, one for paperback), designed four covers, written countless versions of blurbs, etc., and gone through the publication process four times.  Trust me, I’d seen enough of my computer at that point to have a love-hate relationship with it for a while.  During that break I managed to read five books in a week, not a single one of them research-related for the next project!  I’ve since made peace with my computer, and I’m beginning work on the next novel – this time, back to the 18th century to complete the Northing Trilogy.  I’m looking forward to exploring this new aspect of characters I already know well from the previous two novels; it will take me through the grime of workhouse orphanages and the salty brine of the British navy in the mid-18th century, and already the research questions accumulating portend at least one trip to London, which is one of my favourite cities anyway, and I’m sure you’ll hear more about that in the months to come.

The Culprits

The Three Culprits: Gandria, Caprino and Allegra (top to bottom)

With all of the push and shove of getting the books ready to publish, Christmas has snuck up on me!  It hit home this weekend, literally, when we put up the Christmas decorations:  Here in Switzerland it’s usual to put the Christmas tree and decorations up on Christmas Eve, so we’ve struck a compromise between our varying cultures and aim for the first Advent; it’s also a pragmatic compromise as, if we’re going to go to all that effort, we might as well enjoy it a bit.  We went to the first Christmas market of the season, complete with hot wine punch, roasted chestnuts, and Christmas shopping.  If any of you have cats, you’ll empathize with me on one point:  As we walked through the market, again and again we saw things that we liked, “But…”  A nice wind chime made of drift wood, stones and feathers in perfect balance?  Cat toy.  Ditto for the man-sized candle holder made of stones & driftwood.  Scratching post.  Now mind you, our cats are well-behaved, and they only scratch on their scratching post; but there’s probably too little of a difference to their perspective between the allowed version and the decorative, expensive version…  Any cloth craft item is like catnip to our calico, Gandria – she carries off anything cloth she can get into her mouth (she’s even learned how to unzip my husband’s backpack; her favourite thing to steal is his tissue packs).

All of that just to say this:  I have now re-entered the land of the living after having been sequestered with my book manuscripts in the final polish and publish phases.  I’m more than ready for holidays, and blogging, writing, researching, plotting… in short, starting the next manuscript.

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A Postcard from Lugano II

Lago di Lugano, Switzerland, with San Salvtore beneath the moon.

Lago di Lugano, Switzerland, with San Salvtore beneath the moon.

I’ve been absent from posting for a few weeks now, as I was away on holiday and I left most of my writing at home.  Most.  Last summer I wrote you the first Postcard from Lugano; and I will say that not much has changed.  It’s still beautiful, with lazy hot days with a cool breeze coming off the lake, and warm evenings with glistening stars  overhead and a glittering city below.  This first photo was taken at about 4 in the morning (I have no sleeping rhythm, which is handy when such scenes present themselves).

 

Villa Helios:  The back of the mansion with the terraced walk leading toward the lake.  Under renovation.

Villa Helios: The back of the mansion with the terraced walk leading toward the lake. Under renovation.

But as I told you, I left most of my writing at home – not all.  When in Lugano, I’ve been working on a novel the past few years; it started out as a fun idea to explore, and gradually developed into a  more serious endeavor.  I thought I’d share it with you as it may inspire you to take on such a writing project of your own on holidays (it may not classify as travel writing per se, though in some ways [like my postcards] it may at times take on those characteristics):  Our family flat overlooks a sprawling mansion that we have watched decay from neglect for over 20 years; it was most likely trapped in an inheritance dispute.  It had been boarded up, its windows bricked in, its magnificent garden going wild until it was an impassable jumble of green.  About three or four years ago suddenly a crane was set up, and renovations began!  Of course it sparked my writer’s brain – who had inherited it, or purchased it?  What was its history?  From the looks of it I will have several more years to ponder its end as the renovations continue; but by now the gardens and the terraced walls have been brought to life, a new drive laid with mosaic stones, and the house itself has been set free of its bricked-over, blinded windows, the roof replaced, and the beautiful stones (I would venture to guess Bath Freestone) sand-blasted and cleaned to their pristine beauty.

Villa Helios, as seen from our balcony.

Villa Helios, as seen from our balcony.

Called Villa Helios, it was designed by architect Otto Maraini, who was born in Lugano on 8 November 1863 and died there 16 January 1944. Villa Helios in Castagnola was built in 1901-1902, including a series of walls and terraces that formed part of the lake shore.  I came across a few historical photos at arteeidee – thank you to them for sharing the old magazine photos (“The Modern Building” monthly magazine of architecture and construction practice, August 1904)!  Check out that blog post for the older photos (click on them to enlarge); The photos I’ve added here are current shots.  I’ll just say two things about the crane:  Note the box hanging from it, near the vertical shaft – that is the tool crate, hung up at the end of work days to deter construction site thieves.  Also, though the crane interrupts our view of Lugano at times (it shifts freely with the wind when not in use, so sometimes we barely see it), it gives us a brilliant view of birds that take over when the workers are gone – there’s a constant conversation between the seagulls and the Hooded crows.  I’d love to do more research on this building, but most of the information is in Italian, which I can fight my way through only passably, but as I said I still have plenty of time.  That’s the beauty of holidays.

To you writers out there:  Find an interesting old building in your own area, research into its history, and create a story with the building as one of the characters and not merely a location.

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A Postcard from Lugano

Gandria, Switzerland

Gandria, Switzerland

Just put your feet up on the edge of the glass balcony, lean back and enjoy the breathtaking view:  straight ahead is San Salvatore – the signature mountain of Lugano, Switzerland (also known as the Rio De Janeiro of Europe) – rising out of Lake Lugano.  A sunny day will see the vast body of water dotted and streaked with lazy boats, speed boats, water skiers, and the occasional swimmer who ventures far away from the shores to swim long distance.  A sunny, windy day will see the lake bloom like a field of wildflowers with sails unfurled.  If you look straight down from the balcony, you’ll see six stories of uninterrupted view and a private swimming pool shimmering Caribbean blue in the garden below – all yours whenever you feel the urge.  Sitting there gently beckons you to breathe deep, slow down, forget time, and be as lazy as you want.  Being is the thing here, not doing, unless that doing brings pleasure.

Overhead, hawks circle, coming so close to the balcony that you can watch them turn their heads to look you in the eye.  I’ve been fortunate enough to see them swoop at the lake and come up with fish, but more commonly you’ll simply see the results dangling from their talons as they fly nestward.  Birds of all shapes and sizes are there for the viewing:  Ducks that fly past squawking as they flap furiously determined to reach their destination, always in a hurry; swans that pass each morning toward the town, and each evening toward their roost; silver-backed crows that fight for the highest treetop, chasing each other from tree to fence to roof to tree to lamppost to tree; sparrows that have learned the advantages of sharing their domain with humans; seagulls that pester hawks for their fish, pester each other for their prizes, and pester simply because they enjoy pestering.

To the right in the distance is the eponymous town, the shoreline rimmed by a walkway, boating and ferry docks, a giant fountain spraying five stories straight up – when the wind doesn’t use it to spray onlookers – and swans, coots and ducks competing with sparrows, pigeons and silver-backed crows for the breadcrumbs of passersby.  Every little corner café and ristorante has a place in the sun, with tables and chairs moved out onto the sidewalk, the giant umbrellas providing welcomed shade.  Gelaterie dot the shoreline, offering relief from the summer heat with generous portions of creamy Italian ice cream.

Gandria, as seen from the lake

Gandria, as seen from the lake

This first evening, let’s head down to Gandria:  A small, steep town tucked around the lakeshore hidden from Lugano, it’s accessible only to those who can walk.  There is one parking lot high above the town, but I prefer the walk high above the lakeshore.  For the first few minutes, we walk past luxury mansions, usually veiled in the silence of loneliness as the occupants are rarely in residence.  We pass a parking area and enter a narrow stone pathway that takes us past the back door of a few stucco homes, eventually giving way to steep cliffs to our left and a steep drop to the lake below on our right.  The forest grows thick here despite the rocky cliff, but if we take this walk early enough in the evening, we’ll see countless lizards sunning themselves along the stone path or cliff face; we may even glimpse a sunning snake, though they are usually quick to disappear into the underbrush.  We come at last to the village of Gandria, a labyrinth of stone houses and arched passageways, where swallows can be found nesting, and a postcard in the making at every turn with a picture perfect atmosphere.  The restaurant we choose engulfs the stone path, with the building on one side and the covered terrace on the edge of the lake (or out over the lake) on the other.  We order our meal (Italian, of course), complete with a bottle of local wine, and watch the shadows of the mountain grow steeper, swallowing the glittering lake as it climbs the forested Italian mountains across the invisible, watery border between the two countries.

Happily satisfied with a good meal and a good year, we begin the walk home.  By now, the dense forest is darker still, and conceals a deep ravine in the rising cliffs; at dusk, out of that ravine dart tiny bats by the hundreds.  Contrasted against the sky, we watch them deftly echolocate their meal of insects that have thrived on the lakeshore all day and have risen to soak up the last rays of the setting sun.  If you hear well, you’ll be able to hear their small shrieks as they swoop past – unaware that humans are there except as obstacles to be avoided in their flight path.

At last, we return home.  The view from the glass balcony has now changed: The lake is a blanket of darkness surrounded by the glittering lights of the towns splashed along the winding coast.  Sometimes a bright light suddenly flashes across the lake, where a car has turned directly toward us briefly on the winding roads and streets, but it is only the size of a firefly at this distance.  The peace that settles over the lake calms any thoughts of home, responsibilities, appointments, work and schedule.  Sitting in the dark and watching the stars come out as dusk fades to a black curtain, we whisper as our tangled thoughts unravel, our minds drawn to the deeper things of life than mere living.

Another place I’d take you is to the top of our mountain, Monte Brè, to the village of Brè Paese.  It seems to be a magnet for artistic abdicators of the outside world, with every corner, door, window frame, stair, archway, path, woodpile and every other possible canvas artistically arranged, painted, sculptured, framed and ready to grace a postcard.  My favourite and eponymous restaurant has a garden that reflects the philosophy of the town, being a dessert for the eyes and soul.  There is a large chess board in the garden with potted plants as the pieces; a wooden bench made of barked branches winds its way around one of the large shade trees, and a swinging bench ready to receive visitors at a moment’s notice sways in the warm breeze beneath another tree.  Our table is shaded by a kiwi fruit vine laden with fruit, winding its way up the trellis and taking its sweet time to reach a nearby balcony.  Sparrows flit between the terrace tables in search of morsels and are friendly and bold enough to even land on our table occasionally.

As night falls in Lugano, the city sparkles to rival the stars.  On a clear moonless night, the mountains surrounding the lake are etched black against the sky, contrasted by the city lights reflecting along the shore.  Some of the brighter stars even cast their reflections onto the water below.  A swan drifts past, asleep with its beak nuzzled under a wing, not caring where the gentle currents carry it by morning.

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