Travel Flashback: six hours in Switzerland

Geneva main
Geneva main

This post was inspired by the NZBloggers #BlogGreatness challenge. Every week, bloggers are tasked with writing about a predetermined topic. This week’s prompt is ‘Neutral’. You can check out other blogs on the subject here.

In early 2011, when I was on exchange in Lyon, France, I was invited to spend the weekend at the family home of my then-flatmate, Nawel. She was from a beautiful town called Evian-les-Bains - famous for the bottled water - on the shores of Lac Leman.

What I didn’t immediately realise at the time is that Lac Leman is French for Lake Geneva. On Sunday morning Nawel casually suggested we take a drive to Switzerland, in the same way one would suggest going downtown for a cup of coffee or the like. To a young girl from borderless New Zealand, the idea of taking a day trip to a different country was mind-blowingly awesome.

I’ll never forget that Sunday drive. Nawel and her friend chitchatted in French while I stared in wonder out of the window as we drove through quaint little lakeside towns. We stopped at a few tourist spots along the way, wandering through cobblestoned streets, with me snapping photos every few seconds. The girls found it amusing - this was normal to them, their home, and here I was in utter awe every time the lake came into view.

The drive to Geneva from Evian-les-Bains takes about an hour if you travel non-stop. Many people on the French side of the border commute to Switzerland for work. Imagine that - sleeping in one country, working in another.

I don’t remember crossing the border - there were no signs that I could see. One minute we were in France, the next in Switzerland, as simple as that.

Once we arrived in Geneva the girls wanted to show me all of the expensive watchmaking shops and fashion houses, but all I wanted to do was be outside, near the beautiful lake. I am always drawn to water and Lac Leman was particularly calming, especially as the sun set on the beautiful Genevan buildings.

It was on the shores of Lake Geneva where I realised how beautiful and diverse the world really is. All my life I had been told how lucky I was to live in New Zealand, so much so that I naively thought nowhere else could quite measure up to our natural beauty. Yet there I was, almost moved to tears by the view of the French Alps in the distance. I thought, “I could live here”. My imagination was running wild thinking about all the people who were lucky enough to call this place home.

Now when I visit somewhere beautiful, I often think of Lake Geneva, and marvel at how many places are yet to take my breath away.

Words can't really do this place justice, so follow my journey via photos. A beautiful drive should you one day get the chance. Incredibly grateful I had the chance to experience it.

Evian
Evian
Lac Leman
Lac Leman
A view of the French Alps from Yvoire, one of the beautiful quaint towns en route from Evian to Geneva
A view of the French Alps from Yvoire, one of the beautiful quaint towns en route from Evian to Geneva
Beautiful old buildings in Yvoire
Beautiful old buildings in Yvoire
en route
en route
Geneva appears in the distance
Geneva appears in the distance
Tourist time! Happy memories
Tourist time! Happy memories
Geneva
Geneva
Geneva 2
Geneva 2
Sunset in Geneva
Sunset in Geneva

Passions vs pastimes: how to tell the difference

Passion is staying awake until the early hours of the morning because you absolutely must finish what you’re writing. Passion is being unable to concentrate at work/school/life because all you can think about is penning your next idea to paper. Passion is tiring and consuming and often confronting. 

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Note to self: sometimes it’s okay to be silent

Sometimes it's okay to be silent “In the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.” – Max Ehrmann

This post was inspired by the NZBloggers #BlogGreatness challenge, where every week bloggers are tasked with writing about a predetermined topic. This week’s subject is sage

I used to think the people who talked the loudest were the ones who knew the most. Now I realise the opposite may indeed be true. The wisest people I know never waste words.

The sagest of all, my gentle Grandad, says little yet manages to charm an entire room with just one sentence.

Perhaps paradoxically, this first #BlogGreatness challenge - the start of many words to come - has inspired me to create more space for quiet in my life.

Silence. It’s a rare and precious thing, in a world where we are constantly connected, where if no person is calling your name then a device is demanding your attention.

Sometimes I find myself talking for the sake of talking, almost as if I am in fear of silence, like I constantly need to fill a gap.

Could it be that we fear silence is unproductive, a waste of potential? That in that space there could be creation, contribution, something more?

But sometimes talk is just that: talk. All words, no action.

A sage woman once said:

“Others inspire us, information feeds us, practice improves our performance, but we need quiet time to figure things out, to emerge with new discoveries, to unearth original answers.” – Ester Buchholz.

I am prone to impassioned rants and I wear my heart on my sleeve, but sometimes this means I put words out to the universe that I can’t take back.

So in the spirit of the sage theme, from today I am going to actively try to be more careful with my words. Might have to go spend some more time with Grandad to learn from the best.

There’s a lot to be said for not saying much at all.

Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel-Bring up the Bodies “Where to begin with Cromwell? Some start with his sharp little eyes, some start with his hat. Some evade the issue and paint his seal and scissors, others pick out the turquoise ring given him by the cardinal. Wherever they begin, the final impact is the same: if he had a grievance against you, you wouldn’t like to meet him at the dark of the moon.” – Hilary Mantel, Bring Up The Bodies

It’s not often I enjoy the second book in a series better than the first. But Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel has left its predecessor Wolf Hall in the dust.

When I reviewed Wolf Hall in March, I confessed that it had “the tendency to put me to sleep” and that reading it “felt like running a marathon”. I encouraged people to read it if they were “up for a literary challenge” or had “an interest in Tudor history”. What a bland review!

Now I want to eat my words. Stop what you’re doing and read Wolf Hall. Persevere through the detailed descriptions and fight your way, one sleepy page at a time, to the end. Because Bring Up The Bodies is well worth the effort.

Synopsis

Picking up where Wolf Hall left off, Bring Up The Bodies starts in the depths of Thomas Cromwell’s mind. As readers, we are forever perched on the shoulder of this elusive Tudor lawyer, shown snippets of his brilliance and malice.

Setting the tone for the novel, the first chapter opens with ghosts and omens, as Cromwell rides through the English countryside, on yet another errand for King Henry VIII.

“His children are falling from the sky. He watches from horseback, acres of England stretching behind him; they drop, gilt-winged, each with a blood-filled gaze. Grace Cromwell hovers in thin air. She is silent when she takes her prey, silent as she glides to his fist. But the sounds she makes then, the rustle of feathers and the creak, the sigh and riffle of pinion, the small cluck-cluck from her throat, these are the sounds of recognition, intimate, daughterly, almost disapproving. Her breast is gore-streaked and flesh clings to her claws.”

Here is he, Cromwell, cantering forward, with England “behind him”, his own wretched past a constant companion, no matter how much ground he covers. Cromwell, the blacksmith’s son, the Putney-born, now Master Secretary to the King of England.

Anyone familiar with Tudor history knows Cromwell does not have a happy ending. It makes for interesting reading then, to follow his life knowing what fate lies ahead. Each page is marred by a sense of foreboding, each word uttered tinged with risk. The roll of a dice, a high-stakes game where the rewards are dazzling and there are no second chances. But Cromwell knows no way but forward.

“The things you think are the disasters in your life are not the disasters really. Almost anything can be turned around: out of every ditch, a path, if you can only see it.”

Bring Up The Bodies is set during the reign of Queen Anne Boleyn – or La Ana, the concubine, depending on which team you play for. Anne is one of history’s most famous figures. Like Cromwell, she is elusive, much of her character having evaded historians for centuries.

Historians have used much creative licence when depicting Anne. There has been much literature about her rise and fall. The majority of historical fiction from the Tudor period is filled with sex, romance and war – as if one has to ‘sex up’ history to make it interesting.

But Mantel chooses to portray Cromwell, the lawyer. It says a lot about Mantel’s commitment to character, that she manages to make Anne look dull and Cromwell dazzling. In her two books about the Tudors, there is barely any sex or battle, just words and whispers.

In doing this, I believe Mantel gets closer to the heart of Henry VIII’s reign. What happened during this period was not driven by romance or lust, but by law. Henry could not simply act as he pleased – all of his whims and desires had to be framed in legal terms. It was Cromwell’s task to legalise and justify his King’s demands.

“We are not priests. We don’t want their sort of confession. We are lawyers. We want the truth little by little and only those parts of it we can use.”

There is nothing simple about the way Henry dismissed his wives. Behind the scenes was Cromwell, pulling the puzzle apart and piecing it together again. Bring Up The Bodies is a masterpiece of political brilliance and calculation. It’s offers unique insight into one of the most turbulent times of British history; I won’t bore you with the plot, it is already well-known. Instead this book is worth reading for its fresh perspective.

My thoughts

I was completely blown away by Bring Up The Bodies. The time Mantel put into building Cromwell’s character in Wolf Hall shows, as in Bring Up The Bodies he is as familiar as an old friend. You know his character and his ambition. You might not know what he is going to do next, but you have a fair idea of how he is going to do it; with deliberate precision and care. You find yourself respecting him, even if the outcome is bloodshed.

“Look, he says: once you have exhausted the process of negotiation and compromise, once you have fixed on the destruction of an enemy, that destruction must be swift and it must be perfect. Before you even glance in his direction, you should have his name on a warrant, the ports blocked, his wife and friends bought, his heir under your protection, his money in your strong room and his dog running to your whistle. Before he wakes in the morning, you should have the axe in your hand.”

The book makes it feel as though you, the reader, are Cromwell’s shadow. You follow him from the warmth of his home to the coolness of the court, and everywhere in between. Cromwell sees and hears everything, and therefore so do you. Mantel has managed to find a way of condensing the complexity of Henry VIII’s court into one man’s mind, and then opened a window so the world can look in.

When I finished Bring Up The Bodies I had goosebumps, a huge smile on my face and I think I may even have whooped with satisfaction. Well played, Mantel, well played.

Bookmarked Quotes

“But chivalry’s day is over. One day soon moss will grow in the tilt yard. The days of the moneylender have arrived, and the days of the swaggering privateer; banker sits down with banker, and kings are their waiting boys.”

“Truth can break the gates down, truth can howl in the street; unless truth is pleasing, personable and easy to like, she is condemned to stay whimpering at the back door.”

“He needs guilty men. So he has found men who are guilty. Though perhaps not guilty as charged.”

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

The Rosie Project “But why, why, why can’t people just say what they mean?” – Graeme Simsion, The Rosie Project

One part romance, one part comedy, The Rosie Project will forever have a place in my heart as my first book club* read.

It was the perfect initial choice: light and funny, yet also deep enough to inspire a little discussion.

*I recently joined not just one, but TWO book clubs. My life feels complete. How many book clubs is too many? Wouldn’t say no to a third.

Synopsis

Meet Don Tillman, an eccentric genetics professor with undiagnosed (and unconfirmed) Asperger’s Syndrome. Intelligent and pragmatic, Don has the mind of a genius yet he struggles in social situations. He takes everything literally and therefore finds most people a source of mind-boggling confusion.

Don is the embodiment of the phrase ‘creature of habit’. He lives his life according to a very strict, self-devised schedule for success. Everything he does is carefully calculated to help him reach his full physical and mental potential, from the amount of sleep he gets every night to the type of food he eats. He’s incredibly fit, smart and healthy, but not that great at small talk or spontaneous fun.

Despite the odd pang of loneliness and the fear of social embarrassment, Don seems pretty happy with his life. He’s just missing one thing: romance. Never one to sit idly over a problem, Don devises a plan. Welcome to the Wife Project.

Armed with a sixteen-page questionnaire and some rather striking hypocritical tendencies, Don sets out on his search for the perfect woman. He hopes to use the questionnaire as a type of screening test, to eliminate any ‘unsuitable matches’ in the early stages, rather than get halfway down the road of love and find out Miss Perfect is actually a sports-watching, smoking disappointment.

“A questionnaire! Such an obvious solution. A purpose-built, scientifically valid instrument incorporating current best practice to filter out the time wasters, the disorganised, the ice-cream discriminators, the visual-harassment complainers, the crystal gazers, the horoscope readers, the fashion obsessives, the religious fanatics, the vegans, the sports watchers, the creationists, the smokers, the scientifically illiterate, the homeopaths, leaving ideally, the perfect partner, or, realistically, a management shortlist of candidates.”

This is where things start to get a little predictable. Who walks into his life but a beautiful, eccentric, chain-smoking vegetarian? Enter Rosie. As Don is about to find out, romance hardly ever goes to plan.

My thoughts

This book made me laugh, a lot. Mostly at Don, but also at the ridiculousness of some social norms that he highlights through his inability to read between the lines. And then there is the fact the author likes to squeeze as much laugh potential out of an awkward situation as possible. I think the below quote sums up what I mean pretty well:

Don: “But I’m not good at understanding what other people want.” Rosie: “Tell me something I don’t know,” said Rosie for no obvious reason. I quickly searched my mind for an interesting fact. “Ahhh… The testicles of drone bees and wasp spiders explode during sex.”

Sometimes this humour was eye-rolling ridiculous, sometimes it was very clever & understated. All of the time, it was highly enjoyable. Speaking of reading between the lines, sometimes it’s nice to read a book for pure entertainment, without getting too caught up in the myriad possible meanings of every sentence.

I think you will enjoy The Rosie Project if you take it for what it is – a light and entertaining read. Or as the queen of chicklit herself, Marian Keyes, said: “funny and heartwarming, a gem of a book”.

This is a romance novel for those who do not like romance novels (thereby proving that everyone likes a nice love story every once in a while).

Bookmarked quotes

“Professor Tillman. Most of us here are not scientists, so you may need to be a little less technical.’ This sort of thing is incredibly annoying. People can tell you the supposed characteristics of a Gemini or a Taurus and will spend five days watching a cricket match, but cannot find the interest or the time to learn the basics of what they, as humans, are made up of.”

“It would be unreasonable to give you credit for being incredibly beautiful.”

“It seems hardly possible to analyse such a complex situation involving deceit and supposition of another person’s emotional response, and then prepare your own plausible lie, all while someone is waiting for you to reply to a question. Yet that is exactly what people expect you to be able to do.

Connecting the dots backwards

Photo credit David DeHetre // Flickr Creative Commons “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” – Steve Jobs

Hindsight is a weird yet wonderful thing. Do you ever have moments when you feel an overwhelming gratitude towards your past hardships? When you’re actually thankful you went through a shitty situation because it’s added value to your life in some way?

I find these moments both infuriating and inspiring. Infuriating, because they challenge my perception of the past. Inspiring, because they offer an alternative story to the doom & gloom I’ve built up in my mind.

I had a moment like this recently. I realised one of my closest friends wouldn’t be in my life if we hadn’t both been in the same challenging job. I used to think of my time in this job with regret and frustration – it was a tough role – and see it in purely negative terms.

But this way of thinking gets you nowhere. Negativity wins. When you allow yourself to get bogged down in the negative details, you miss the silver lining.

There’s a difference between being aware that a situation is less-than-ideal and allowing it to consume you. I think I’m finally beginning to understand what it means to make the most of opportunities, no matter how far-from-perfect they may seem on the surface.

Most experiences will lead to greater self-knowledge and a better understanding of the world. You never know when you might need the knowledge you acquire today, but you can almost guarantee you’ll use it at some point in your life.

The trick is knowing when to accept a challenging situation, and when to make a change.

Trust in momentum

A mantra I often repeat to myself is “something is better than nothing”. I tell myself this when I only have a 20-minute window to exercise, or half an hour to catch up with a friend.

Small efforts can reap big rewards, if only you trust in momentum. In putting one foot in front of the other and moving forward, not backwards.

Like everyone, I often romanticise the past, especially times when life seemed simpler and easier. But when I ask myself, would you really like to rewind the clock? The answer is always no.

Look beyond the present moment

Sometimes I find myself looking at life through a black and white lens. Labelling situations as ‘wrong’ or ‘right’. Focusing on what I do or don’t like about something and failing to see the bigger picture.

But I am at my best when I live life in the grey areas. When I am able to take a step back and examine my present situation from all angles. This allows me to appreciate life for the complicated, layered, messy wonder that it is.

It also helps me to feel less tied to my choices. All you can do is make the best decision with the information you have available at the time. There is no right or wrong; only forward. It is better to take a step in any direction than let time stand still.

Celebrate at every chance you get

What does hindsight teach me, again and again? To celebrate the small wins. To pay attention to the silver linings. These are the moments you will remember later on.

There’s a part of me that craves perfection; the perfect job, the perfect home, the perfect relationship. But one thing I am realising is that I am always going to be exposed to less-than-ideal situations, no matter how hard I try to create harmony.

If we wait for everything to be perfect, we’ll be waiting a long time. So here’s to the present moment, and having faith that everything will turn out as it should.

We can always connect the dots backwards.

Finding faith in unexpected places

A sculpture made of silver ferns in Wellington, New Zealand // Flickr, Creative Commons “None of us knows what might happen even the next minute, yet still we go forward. Because we trust. Because we have Faith.” – Paulo Coelho

Earlier this week, I experienced something new for the first time. I watched more than five minutes of a game of cricket, and I enjoyed it.

Up until that moment, I had always thought of cricket as The Most Boring Sport In The World. I have memories of childhood Sundays spent with Dad while he cradled a portable radio to his ear and listened to cricket commentary with near religious fervour. My sister and I would be forced to play quietly in hushed tones as he engaged in a heated one-way conversation with the commentators.

I remember one afternoon when I must have been about ten, the cricket was on the telly and Dad taught me the difference between scoring a 4 and a 6. That remains the extent of my knowledge of the sport today.

On Tuesday 24 March 2015, something changed. New Zealand played South Africa in a Cricket World Cup Semi-Final. I sat down to watch ten minutes out of a vague sense of patriotic duty, only to find myself glued to the screen for the next three hours.

I was mesmerised. My heart was racing with anticipation. I desperately wanted the Black Caps to win. I spent the final few overs peeping at the screen behind my hands, scared to watch in case New Zealand committed a final, irreversible error.

What was happening to me?

We’re all in this together

Big sporting events bring people together in a way that is both beautiful and also slightly odd. In what other situation do people experience similar (positive) emotions on such a large scale? There’s something delightful about feeling as though the entire country has stopped to watch the same thing.

In the back of my mind, a small voice wonders why sport has the power to engage people in a way other big issues fail to do so? Why do I get so emotionally invested in a game of cricket when there are ‘more important’ things happening in the world?

But I push that thought to the back of my mind, because – for the most part – I can’t find fault in something that encourages people to come together for a common cause.

Gotta have faith

Watching Tuesday’s game of cricket provided me with another unexpected comfort. It reminded me that it feels good to believe in something, no matter how small or trivial.

I realised it is the act of placing your faith in something, not what you place your faith in, that is most important.

Faith is such a big word with so many underlying connotations. It sparks different feelings for different people.

But for me, faith is simply choosing to believe in something – be it of momentous proportions, like an afterlife, or of seemingly irrelevant insignificance, like believing your local sports team is the best.

Faith has no rules. It doesn’t have to be tangible, it doesn’t have to be justifiable, it doesn’t have to be approved by someone else. It is yours to place where you wish.

And when placing your faith in something, you are saying to yourself and the world: “I believe. I have hope.”

Go the Black Caps!

On that note, I’m looking forward to feeling the faith of New Zealand as the Black Caps go into the final against Australia this afternoon. Yes, I have well and truly jumped on that bandwagon!

Black Caps captain Brendon McCullum wrote an open letter to fans, published in the Sunday Herald this morning. I particularly liked this part:

“Make no mistake, we’ve felt your belief. We’ve heard the chants, the cheers and the roars. We’ve seen the emotion in the faces of the children, in the faces of the mums and dads, and the grandfathers and grandmothers. We’ve seen grown men in tears; we’ve seen strangers hugging and we’ve seen the elderly dancing. I’m not how to say this but we’ve never felt quite so ‘New Zealand’ in all our lives.”

It’s a weird and wonderful world we live in, don’t you think?