Chillin Out in Switzerland During Europe’s Record Freeze

Last night as I walked down a boulevard in Geneva, a young man passing by nodded his head and wished me a « bon froid » instead of good evening. Can a « good cold  » exist ?

frozen lake front (lake Geneva 02.10.2012)

frozen lake front (lake Geneva 02.10.2012)

ready for a swim ??

ready for a swim ??

 

We are having a record breaking cold spell in Europe. Parts of the Danube, Europe’s busiest waterway flowing through ten countries, closed due to ice blockages.  Canals across Holland froze turning the entire city of Amsterdam into an open air skating ring. Strong winds whip across Switzerland,  reminding me of back home in the Windy City and open plains of the Midwest. Once a tough kid, I turned into a big sissy. I love winter, but hate cold. Even though I am part Norwegian, I lack the fortitude of my Viking cousins living up by the North Pole.

In Switzerland, a northeast wind, called the Bise, blows shutters off houses and branches from trees. Everyone knows I love to exaggerate, but no kidding, docks on Lake Geneva look like chiseled ice sculptures, cars turned to blocks of ice and steel train tracks froze halting traffic.

car or ice sculpture ?

car or ice sculpture ?

The cold even penetrates the walls of our concrete home and I am literally chilled to the bone. My lips turn blue, my fingertips grow white and my feet never thaw.

Snow and ice, crunch and crackle, underfoot, as I trudge to school reflecting on childhood when snow drifted as high as window ledges.  As it nips my face and stings my eyes, I lean into wind.  I feel rugged like Grandpa Mac who cleared a path through five-foot high snow banks to light a the fire in the pot belly stove of the one room school house where my grandma first taught.

The howling wind rattles the window frames of my school room under the tiled, mansard rooftop in the attic of the one hundred year old international school, where I teach without heat. Each room has a space heater, but if we plug in more than one appliance at a time, the lights go out and computers shut down. My colleagues and I toss coins to see who’s turn it is to freeze. On my Ice Day, I wear a hand-knit Norwegian sweater, three sweatshirts,long underwear, wool mittens and a scarf.

Brrrh. I don’t want to leave my house ; I don’t  even want to leave the bed. Like the ground hog who sees his shadow in stark sunlight in a cobalt sky, I  long to retreat to my burrow under a down comforter and hibernate for another six weeks.

My joints ache ; my fingers and toes go numb. I think I am suffering. Me, with a layers of clothes, heated lodgings and a hot meal every night. I wonder about the unemployed, poverty stricken street people without a roof over head or food to eat. How do they survive the night? Many don’t.  Already over 600 people have died in Europe from the extreme weather.

I stop grumbling about winter and feel grateful. I am gifted. I have a home.

more winter pictures of Lake Geneva, Switzerland: http://gallery.me.com/geraldlechault#100343&bgcolor=black&view=grid

Flying Up Front

For the past thirty-some years, I dreamed of being bumped to first class and riding in the front of plane instead of squeezing into the sardine section of economy at the back.

Twenty-four hours before take off, when we logged on to Delta/KLM/Air France website for our seat assignments, we found out our return flight to Switzerland was overbooked. We were offered the “unique opportunity” to upgrade our tickets to for a relatively “small fee.”

We bit the bullet and bought it and let me tell you, nothing beats flying biz on long haul flight.

Once you wave the Business Elite ticket, airline personnel roll out the red carpet. Talk about celebrity status. I felt like Lady Gaga, Princess Kate and First Lady Obama all rolled in one. Check in is a breeze. First class never waits in line- first on the plane, first off, first served and no queue at the lavatory.

We received perks a ga ga from the get go, from the 20 extra pounds luggage allowance to complimentary toiletry bag filled with contraband toothpaste and lotion, to fluffy down pillows and comforters. For the first time ever, instead of pacing up and down the plane to keep my legs from going numb, I flew in comfort.

Pampered from the moment we were welcomed aboard; champagne flowed before the plane even began to taxi to the runway. Just after take off, the stewardesses whip through the aisles with tablecloths and dishes of warm almonds and cashews and cocktails.

No picnic fare in front of the plane: real cutlery, linens, glassware and our own individual salt and pepper shakers. Five-course first class cuisine is so fine it makes economy class fare look like dog food. No waiting until the end of the flight for your tray table to be finally cleared, as soon as one course is finished, plates are whisked away. Service rated right up there with a four star restaurant. No wonder, according to my Frenchman, four flight attendants served the 36 people in business class and that included half dozen kids, whose feet still didn’t touch floor, which seemed like a waste of precious space.

The best part of flying at the front of the plane was the legroom and the remote control recliner seat, plusher than my favorite chair back home.  I kid you not; the seat had a dozen different buttons. The footrests raised, backrest reclined, lumbar roll relieved low back pressure and the headrest actually rests the head.  After a glass of Mercurey, one of Burgundies best, and death by chocolate cheesecake, I was out for the count.

I can get into this fine art of flying at the front of the plane. For anyone with a bad back or past the half a century mark, elite class takes the pain out of a nine-hour ride. The only drawback, jet lag still hits the next day.

Ellis Island’s 120th Anniversary Jan. 1, 1892-2012

On January 1, 1892, one hundred years ago today, a small island in New York Harbor called Ellis Island opened its portal as one of thirty US federal government immigration centers.  From that date until 1954, over twelve million immigrants, two thirds of all immigrants, primarily third class passengers, entered the United States through the “Island of Tears.” One of them was my maternal great grandmother.

In 1902 Christiana Norway, at age forty, Eugenie Rosholt, clasped her blond, blue-eyed, four-year-old daughter’s hand and boarded the Oscar II, a 140,000 pound ship with 898 passengers.  They were on route to New York to rejoin her husband, Johan Alfred Rosholt and young son, who unable to subsist in the far reaches of the northern hemisphere, had immigrated to Chicago for work.

My grandma - Martha Olson

My grandma - Martha Olson

Night and day, horizon and sea, merged during their stormy passage. Mother and daughter huddled together. The weight of Eugenie’s unborn child brought warmth, yet stole energy. On a clear, morning September 2, 1902, Eugenie carried Dagny on deck for fresh air. Etched against the shoreline, a giant, golden goddess glistened in sunlight.

They disembarked on a gangplank onto barges carrying them to the Immigration Center on Ellis Island, where the aliens waited in lines, inching forward in a shuffle-step. In the Great Hall (Registry Room), a doctor lifted Eugenie’s chin, poked a knife at her eye pulling down the lower lid and waved her past, nodding at the frail girl by her side. Had he looker closer, he would have noticed the shine of fever in the child’s eyes and turned them away. Mother and daughter, weary from the long voyage, were filled with hope, yet the great dream turned into a tragic nightmare. Dagny died a fortnight after arriving in America. Three and a half months later, Eugenie, pierced by labor pain, was admitted to the Cook County Hospital in Chicago. On January 25, 1903, minutes after Martha (my maternal grandmother) safely entered the new world, her mother left it.

Without a wet nurse for the baby, and unable to cope, a grief stricken Johan sank into depression and returned to Norway with Edward. He never recovered from the loss of Dagny and Eugenie. Martha, placed in the Chicago Children’s Home, became a ward of the state. Four years later, a Norwegian family, Anne and Alric Raymond, adopted my grandma. Martha never knew she had a brother until Edward appeared at her confirmation. She married Gustav Olson, also a Norwegian immigrant, on October 29th 1929, the day the stock market crashed during the Great Depression. Gustav died of cancer at the age of 47 leaving my grandmother alone to put her two older children through college and raise their seven-year-old brother.

My jovial grandmother never complained about her inauspicious debut or hard life, instead she spread good cheer with a welcoming smile and twinkle in her sea blue eyes.

The survival spirit of my ancestors flows through my veins. Like for so many Americans, Ellis Island remains etched in my family history, like a badge of courage.

http://www.ellisisland.org/genealogy/ellis_island_history.asp

A Free Christmas Gift – Hugs

I treated myself to a massage today as an early Christmas gift.  As the holidays approach our teeth clench, our shoulders tighten, and our low backs throb, as we attack our endless to-do list of holiday preparations.

Across Europe people share good cheer; but whereas the French blow air kisses to the cheek and the British shake hands, Americans hug, especially in the Midwest, especially in my family. Maybe it goes back to my Viking ancestry when close body contact meant survival. At any rate the Olson -McKinzie clan I grew up in were huggers, whether it was a big bear hug from mom or a special squeeze from Papa Mac.hugging siblings

Ironically during the Internet age in our fast paced, high tech society, we can access people across the globe instantly electronically, yet we have become more physically disconnected to others than ever.

People in the helping professions, like my nurse friends, have long understood the healing power of touch. Medical studies prove that touch decreases anxiety, increases the number of white blood cells, lowers blood pressure, increases endorphins, and helps you sleep better. The ancient ritual of hands on healing has been part of religious practices for centuries.

I love words, but words fall short.  No written expression can heal the mind, body, and spirit as greatly as the power of touch.

Though we associate this time of year with razzle-dazzle holiday glitz euphoria, for many people it is also a time of sorrow as they remember lost loved ones. Days are short and dreary; nights are long and lonely.  Everybody needs the touch of other human beings especially now. Even though economic times are tough, and we can’t all buy extravagant Christmas presents or afford a massage, hugs are free.

The greatest gift we can give is this season is ourselves.

Who have you hugged today?

Anniversary of Human Rights- 7 Billion People Share Our Birthday

Every December 10th, we mark the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted and proclaimed by the UN in Paris 1948. This defends individuals’ rights such as life, equality, and freedom of expression and includes economic, social and cultural privileges we cherish in western society, but often take for granted.

I live in Geneva, headquarters of the United Nations, World Health Organization,  International Labor Organization, Red Cross and  dozens of world-renowned humanitarian agencies that fight for equality in workplace and promote health and safety, so I never forget the date. The United Nations Human Rights- Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights works to protect rights through international laws.

Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

In her speech addressing the UN General Assembly in Geneva, Hillary Clinton challenged diplomats from around the world by saying “Gay rights are human rights, too” and called on world leaders to stop discrimination against gays. “It should never be a crime to be gay.”

Some of my senior students heard the American Secretary of State’s address at the UN, but not everyone could join in marches, attend celebrations, or hear speeches of global leaders. However, we can each steal a moment from our busy lives to reflect on the millions of people who are not allowed to enjoy their rights and to pay tribute to those who have lost their lives fighting for freedom for others.

The Universal Declarations of Rights, the most translated document in modern history, available in 382 languages, promotes and protects freedoms of individuals or groups across boundaries and civilizations.

Yet we fall short. Actions speak stronger than words. Genocide recurs, oppression continues, violence erupts, women are mistreated, and slavery exists. Human rights are violated. Everyday. Everywhere. We may be powerless as individuals to radically change laws governing countries, but what small step can we take in our own neighborhood to make a difference? Shake hands with someone of another race; stop to chat with an elderly neighbor, slow down to help a handicapped person. Go out of our way to acknowledge human dignity in others, regardless of their religious beliefs, sexual preference, position in society or color of skin.

“By promoting understanding, help us all to celebrate our human rights & in so doing reaffirm your own,” United Nations Human Rights – Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights.

This year, people around the world used social media to help, inform, inspire & mobilize, uniting others in celebration of our birthday. Pay it forward, pass it on.

A New Holiday Song to Lighten the Heart

As the holiday frenzy escalates, and we scurry around gift buying, package wrapping, card writing, and cookie baking, I harbor a secret vice to help keep my sanity.   I listen to Christmas music behind closed doors. Why on the sly? Because ironically my bah humbug French husband, a businessman, hates anything commercialized. Consequently I have to curtail my childlike enthusiasm for Christmas, to birthdays to Halloween to a minimum.

But you can bet your booty, as soon as my husband steps out the door, I let the sleigh bells ring, flutes trill, trumpets blare and drums pa rum pum pum pum. I never tire of the old favorites like Silent Night, my grandfather’s favorite, or Oh Tannenbaum and Il Est Né Le Divin Enfant, which remind me of Christmas pasts in Germany and France. The music evokes memories of childhood, family and friends, warm hearths and open hearts.

Though I love the classics, it is always inspiring to add new melodies to the season’s mix.  With the holiday magic of modern times, this Christmas gift arrived via Internet from my blogging buddy in Chicago aka The Self-Righteous Housewife http://theselfrighteoushousewife.blogspot.com/.  Thanks Judy for sharing your friend’s, Christmas Tide’s Coming Soon by Daniel Fergus and Andrew Lidgus with Kelly Longmire at vocal.

This piece, too beautiful to keep secret, was surely composed to go global.  Even the Frenchman gave it the thumbs up!

Enjoy!