The Saga of Starting Afresh in the Old Country

I’ve moaned about it whenever I had a fasciculi(?) of internet connection. I’ve gone all dark and dramatic, hinting at technological conspiracies and unfinished business involving trained assassins sent by the French tax authorities. I’ve suffered the slings and arrows of utility companies, local councils, applications for local schools and goods damaged in transit.

So yes, I think you might have gathered that I’ve moved between countries and that I’ve not gone quietly or elegantly.

The carnival of moving...
The carnival of moving…

After 12 international moves and having lived in 20-30 different houses or flats over the years (I’m not counting the places I have lived in for 2 months or less), I have the feeling I never want to move again. Nomadism is for young people, I tell myself. So much easier to do with a couple of suitcases (filled with books and shoes, naturally) than with children, furniture, kitchen ware and everything else.

I know other people’s house moves are deadly boring, but bear with me for one last whinge and I promise afterwards to turn forevermore to reading and other, more interesting and intellectual occupations.

Low points:

  • Leaving a very beautiful location before I was quite ready to let go
  • Moving to an older, more decrepit house which requires quite a bit of renovation (for which I don’t have the money). The first time I touched the kitchen drawer, the front came apart in my hands. Finding all sorts of little things wrong with the house after 3 sets of tenants in 5 years.
  • Not having phone or internet for 2 weeks or more – and realising that you can’t apply for or order things if you don’t have a phone number
  • Not being able to find the most important stuff, while finding pretty much all the useless stuff which you should have thrown out before moving
  • Not having enough UK plugs or adaptors. Remembering they are up in the loft somewhere but being unable to find them in the forest of boxes quietly crumbling away up there. Learning to live once more with unmixed taps.

unmixed

  • No storage space to unpack all the boxes and therefore no easy access to clothes and other items. (Those built-in wardrobes in France covered a multitude of sins).
  • The first time I plugged in my laptop in the UK, it died. Same thing with my tablet. I also had to get a new phone. So that meant no writing, reading, tweeting or administrating … because yes, I couldn’t remember my passwords and I had to log on from other people’s devices and I must have been driving everyone (including myself) crazy with finding quirky new ways to prove my identity.
  • Starting to look for permanent positions in my field and realising that I will be sacrificing either my time and soul or else money (and my children’s welfare) doing work I no longer quite believe in.
  • Being really tired all the time and anxious about losing track of something important

But it’s not all noir (despite my fondness for the dark side). There have been some highlights too:

  • Our friends in the local area are very excited to have us back and have made us feel very welcome. There are advantages to moving back to a familiar place rather than somewhere completely new.
  • We are close to London and I’ve already had a wonderful day there, watching ‘The Threepenny Opera’ at the National Theatre, and mooching around on the South Bank. After years of living in a rural backwater, you can’t help but be energised by London’s cultural life and metropolitan vibe (as long as you avoid rush hour, of course).

London

  • The countryside is close by if you do get tired of the city, and we are fortunate enough to live in quite a pretty area, reminiscent of The Wind in the Willows. Best of both worlds!
Finding Mr. Toad and his motor again at the River and Rowing Museum in Henley.
Finding Mr. Toad and his motor again at the River and Rowing Museum in Henley.
  • It’s so easy to set up services, complain about things and do all the administrative twaddle in English rather than French. I feel I actually know what I’m talking about!
  • Being reunited with old possessions (I am referring, of course, mainly to books, but also my elephant collection or my children’s early artworks and photographs).
  • Closer to publishers, literary events, English language bookshops and libraries. My children nearly fainted with excitement at seeing a whole library full of books in English, instead of just the 1-2 shelves they would see in the local libraries in France.

Still, for the time being, this is how I feel most evenings…

After her long road trip, our cat collapsed in her new home, in the conservatory.
After her long road trip, our cat collapsed in her new home, in the conservatory.

Getting Your Priorities Right: Moving a Library

The most important part of the moving process (other than the emotional impact on the children and the cat) was the library. How do you weed out the books you simply must take back to the UK? You may think it’s easy. After all, it’s a case of moving from less to more…

Shelves in France - just two.
Shelves in France – just two.
Shelves in England: three and a half. Still Billy, of course.
Shelves in England: three and a half. Still Billy, of course.

But that does not take into account the books I had double-shelved or set in careful piles on the floor and the filing cabinet. ‘You do have a lot of books…’ sighed the removal men (and I don’t think it was wistfulness I detected in their voices).

I did donate some to the local libraries in France, but I ended up with many more than I had originally come with to France. As any book loverwill understand. So somehow, all of the contents of these boxes…

Boxes1

…have to find a home in the new house. Yes, the study might be bigger here…

Boxes2

… but did I mention that I have twice as many books in the loft, waiting to be rehoused together with their more travelled cousins?

After a week or two of utter panic (not finding the legs for the desk, not opening the right boxes, laptop dying and then the e-reader/tablet dying, I finally managed to get things somewhat presentable (though not arranged yet according to subject, language and other esoteric criteria).

ArrangedShelves

Time to be reunited with some old friends from the loft.

REunited

Sadly, my copies of ‘Brideshead Revisited’ and ‘Vile Bodies’ seem to have suffered from some warping in their box in the loft. But I have Jean Rhys’ unfinished autobiography ‘Smile Please’ to read for Jean Rhys Reading Week and Barbara Pym’s diaries and letters, as well as Dostoyevsky and other Russians (short story writers) to keep me company. Plus a few of my favourite children’s books, which I brought back with me from Romania: Arthur Ransome, Paul Berna and Eleanor Farjeon’s collection of stories ‘The Little Bookroom’.

There is more digging to be done, as well as more writing and reading, but for now, this was just a post to let you know my books and I are alive and well.

 

 

Friday Fun: Farewell, Ferney and Voltaire!

We leave this weekend. Here’s a pictorial goodbye to Ferney, Voltaire and a few of my favourite local places. I will now be offline for several weeks.

The Rolex Learning Centre in Lausanne, from EPFL website.
The Rolex Learning Centre in Lausanne, from EPFL website.
On the banks of Lake Divonne in autumn.
On the banks of Lake Divonne in autumn.
The Secret Garden
The Secret Garden of Vaulx
Spring on the lake.
Spring on the lake.
Voltaire's shady path, lined with trees planted by himself.
Voltaire’s shady path, lined with trees planted by himself. Apparently, Gogol carved his initials on one of these trees.
The more formal chateau gardens.
The more formal chateau gardens.
The main street of Ferney. The house on the corner, currently a hotel/restaurant, was built by Voltaire for his personal secretary.
The main street of Ferney. The house on the corner, currently a hotel/restaurant, Hotel de France, was built by Voltaire for his personal secretary. My dream job…
Knitted decorations for the Fete de Voltaire.
Knitted decorations for the Fete de Voltaire.
Weather watching from the bedroom window.
Weather watching over the Jura from the bedroom window.
I'll most likely never have such a glorious view from my house again.
I’ll most likely never have such a glorious view from my house again.
At any time of day or night.
At any time of day or night.

Thank you, France, Rhone-Alpes and Lake Geneva!

P1040005

 

 

In Case of Emergency…

I doubt anyone will even notice I am gone during the next few weeks, but just in case you are not away on holiday or if you have a bit of time on your hands, break the safety glass and get your hands on some of my favourite older posts.

Hanging my (writing) clogs up for a few weeks... Wish me luck!
Hanging my (writing) clogs up for a few weeks… Wish me luck!

My first book review: The Expats by Chris Pavone

My first Japanese poetic love: Tawara Machi

Rereading one of my favourite books: The Great Gatsby 

The first time I finished writing (instead of reading) a novel: This Is the End

One of my snarkiest posts, about Overrated Books

Finally, an unforgettable walk on the Franco-Swiss border

Tomorrow’s post Friday Fun will be scheduled, as I’ll be busy wrangling with boxes, burly removal men and irate neighbours unable to get out of their driveway because of giant lorries.

So next time I post live, it will be from England.

 

July Reading: A Moveable Feast

Not my most productive reading month, tempting though it might have been to bury myself in a book instead of dealing with removal minutiae.

#20booksofsummer

Isabel Costello: Paris Mon Amour

Colin Niel: Ce qui reste en foret

GrażynaPlebanek: Illegal Liaisons (transl. by Danusia Stok) – also for WIT month, see below.

Valerie Gilliard: Le Canal – likewise, a candidate for WIT month

This is going more slowly than I expected, mostly because all sorts of other books get in the way.

Review copies:

Fred Vargas: A Climate of Fear

Ragnar Jonasson: Blackout

Anne Korkeakivi: Shining Sea

Michael Stanley: A Death in the Family

Crime fiction:

K.A. Richardson: I’ve Been Watching You – serial killer, tortured women, evil twins – not my cup of tea

Intruders:

Jaume Cabre: Confessions

Akira Mizubayashi: Une langue venue d’ailleurs

I have a feeling the August reading will be a bit of a mish-mash too, but I’ve deliberately set some books aside for reading during packing and before unpacking at the other end. Tony Malone also kindly reminded me that August is Women in Translation month, so here are some books I have planned for that, even at the risk of it interfering with my #20booksofsummer goals.

The one I look forward to most is the one I’ve been saving up for the summer:

  • Clarice Lispector: Near to the Wild Heart (her debut novel – a reread, but it’s been so long ago, that it will feel like a fresh read)

As always, I seem to have a sizeable chunk of French (or Swiss) books:

  • Valerie Gilliard: Le Canal
  • Madame du Chatelet: Discours sur le bonheur (How to Be Happy)
  • Muriel Barbery: The Life of Elves
  • Marie Darrieussecq: Men

Two tense, thriller-like books from Eastern Europe:

  • Rodica Ojog-Brasoveanu: Cutia cu nasturi (The Box with Buttons)
  • Grażyna Plebanek: Illegal Liaisons – no, it wasn’t a thriller, I was wrong about that

And that’s probably ambitious enough already! Once things calm down in September, and the children go to school, I am planning to contribute some articles for Crime Fiction Lover’s Classics in September feature. Early days yet, but I was thinking of something along the lines ‘Classic novels with more than a hint of crime’ and possibly also a re-read of The Moonstone (the novel which supposedly started all this crime fiction madness).

 

#20booksofsummer: Books 8 and 9 (Poland and Switzerland)

My timing is all messed up, but luckily I can kill two birds with one stone here. These two books within my #20booksofsummer also fit in with the Women in Translation Month. So, just imagine this is August already, as I will be out of action for most of that month.

illegalliaisonsGrażyna Plebanek: Illegal Liaisons (transl. Danusia Stok)

This is perfect grist to the mill of anti-EU sentiment: so this is what EU bureaucrats get up to with our money! Affairs, serial affairs and gossiping, jobs with meaningless titles where nobody knows what it is they do exactly… Add to that the fact that the main character is Polish (as his wife, while his mistress is Swedish of Czech origin), and you can add a ‘those darn corrupt foreigners’ to this impression.

Of course, that is not at all what the Polish author intended in this, her fourth novel (and her first to be translated into English). It was first published in 2010 and translated in 2012, but it appears to have caused very few ripples so far, despite its potentially explosive subject matter.

Jonathan decides to become a stay-at-home Dad and pursue his writing ambitions when his wife Megi gets a well-paid position as a lawyer at the European Commission. However, although he enjoys the advantages of expat life, he mocks the self-important and meaningless eurocrats. Bored and perhaps feeling slightly disenfranchised, he embarks upon a torrid affair with the voluptuous journalist Andrea, wife of his wife’s boss.

The sex scenes are frank, as is the description of a man’s growing obsession with the ‘wrong kind of woman’, and the author is frighteningly good at putting herself into a man’s shoes. Of course, the whole concept of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ kind of woman is debatable. Although his wife Megi seems to be exceedingly reasonable and charming, and although he is periodically wracked by guilt, Jonathan just cannot stay away from Andrea.

I enjoyed some of the cross-cultural observations, but overall the book seemed repetitive and confused to me. Perhaps that was the intention: giving us a bit of insight into the male psyche. Compared with the affair described in Isabel Costello’s book Paris Mon Amour (in many ways the mirror image of this, but described from a woman’s point of view), this felt much messier and pointless.

GILLIARD_1E_COUVValerie Gilliard: Le Canal (The Canal) – sadly, not yet translated

This slim volume proves the point that sometimes the simplest of stories can be extremely effective, if well told.

It’s a Friday in October in the small Swiss spa town of Yverdon. The weather is nice once more after a bout of rain, and people are out and about by the side of the canals which feed into the Lake of Neuchatel. An idyllic, peaceful moment, so easy to imagine. Then a little girl starts running after a dog by the side of the canal. Her mother is momentarily distracted by a phone call and the girl falls in. These facts are described quite dryly in the Prologue, and then we see the event (as well as what led up to it and what happened afterwards) from the point of view of several of the witnesses: the mother, Almina; the old fisherman who jumps in to rescue the girl; Steve, a young graduate with right-wing tendencies; Berivan, a Kurdish woman holding a baby; and an old lady who saw everything from her window and called the ambulance.

Yes, it has been done before, most famously in the ‘Rashomon’ film based on the Akutagawa story. But what I liked here is what the different points of view reveal about Swiss society today. Both Almina and Berivan are ‘foreigners’, refugees who fled to this country as children. Although they grew up in that very town, they are still regarded with suspicion. The press is quick to condemn the mother’s carelessness and doubts are soon cast upon her parenting abilities. In the end, it’s the older generation, the fisherman and the old woman with her own tragic past, who are able to reach out a helping hand. And the ending is just beautiful, without being cloyingly sentimental.

yverdon-jpg-crop_display
One of the canals in Yverdon, from mapio.net

 

Sneak Preview: The Illegalists

I found out about this project from the Crime Fiction Lover website. Writers Stefan Vogel and Laura Pierce teamed up with bestselling artist Attile Futaki to create a good-looking and fascinating graphic novel called The Illegalists. Set in 1910 Paris, it focuses on the true story of the anarchist group the Bonnot Gang, led by the poor mechanic turned revolutionary, Jules Bonnot.

I helped to fund the project via Kickstarter and received a copy of it just in time for me to admire it (before putting it away in a box). So let me share a little with you [apologies for the picture quality: I just snapped them quickly in the sunshine on my garden chair].

The front cover.
The front cover.
Frontispiece.
Frontispiece.
Sample page.
Sample page.
Information about the page process.
Information about the page process.