Normandy Today

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the beach in winter.
Photo credit Gérald Lechault

I have seen Normandy at it’s best and worst. I married a Norman. On stormy days, like June 6, 1944, waves crash the shoreline, icy winds whip off a black sea, rain falls in sheets and every joint aches with the cold. But in a ray of sunshine, Normandy is as beautiful as an Impressionist’s painting.

Orange cliffs along the coast drop off into purple waters. Inland, reddish brown Norman cows and pink apple blossoms dot a velvet green hillsides under powder blue skies. Soft light whitewashes the gabled, half-timbered houses and solid stone farms that remain as they were centuries ago. It was on one of those perfect days, over three decades ago that I pedaled a bicycle through red poppy fields behind my new beau. Later a table with authentic Normans in a Trouvillais fisherman’s flat, somewhere between courses of scallops and roast, cheese and salad, strawberries in cream, I fell in love with a Frenchman.

Millions debark on the beaches to commemorate the 70th anniversary of D-Day following the circuit du débarquement and traipsing through the museums. But in my opinion the countryside, itself, is even more inspiring than any landmark.

The narrow, winding back roads, shaded by a canopy of trees, run into the “route du cidre” which intersects the Calvados region, my favorite part of Normandy. It is famous for history, art, architecture, seafood, smelly old cheeses, (Pont l’Eveque dates from the 13th century and Camembert from the 19th), and Calvados, a strong apple brandy. I love the area not so much for its regional specialties, but for the special family that lives in the region. They embraced me like lineage, when I, the foreigner with the funny accent, married their very French son.

Normandy, a feast for senses, is best appreciated at mealtime when land and sea are perfectly marinated. After a platter of seafood served so fresh it look like the crabs could crawl off the plate, Mamie presents la pièce de résistance, leg of lamb. Papie carves the tender meat of a newborn that was romping on the rolling green hillside only days before. A garden of vegetables -beans, broccoli, potatoes, spinach, tomatoes – sprout out of the linen tablecloth.

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Trouville’s fishmarket
Photo credit Gérald Lechault

Trouville, the seaside resort of my in-laws, retains a sense of timelessness. Sea gulls swoop and dive above the fishing boats bobbing in the waves under azure skies. Daffodils dance on iron wrought balconies in the briny, spring breeze. As I walk on the beach, lined by 17thcentury mansions, I am overwhelmed with nostalgia. Young couples stroll the boardwalk with their arms intertwined. Parents with toddlers in tow pick up seashells; small children dig castles in the fine, white sand, school age kids race the waves as they crash the shoreline.

Thanks to yesterdays’ heroes, throughout time’s passage, nothing changes. Normandy, like memories it holds, just grows older and more beautiful. And I thank my lucky, fate-filled stars that crossed paths with my Norman.

fishermen's wharf

fishermen’s wharf
Photo credit Gérald Lechault

 

 

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A Weekend Getaway to Valais Switzerland

One of the perks of living in Switzerland, a small country with such contrasting landscapes, is that within a few hours drive, you can enter what feels like another universe.

Over the long Easter weekend, we drove along the Gold Coast of Lake Geneva, around Montreux, the Swiss Riviera, through the Glion Tunnel into the Rhone Valley and onto the famous wine region of Leytron. Half way up the Alps, we reached our destination, Ovronnaz, an alpine village in the Valais region, perched on a plateau at 1350 meters, known for its thermal spa and ski ranges at 2500 meters. Ovronnaz’s proximity to the plains makes it easily accessible for short getaway trips from Geneva.

Our hotel, located just outside of the village in the Muverans mountain range, offers stunning views of the valley of the Rhone on a clear day, but from our balcony we could barely distinguish the mountains in the mist.

The all-purpose Nordic center offers a winter wonderland of cross-country, snowshoe, downhill and telemark skiing trails. Summer activities are equally enticing for outdoor adventurers and include 90 miles worth of trails for hiking, via ferrata, paragliding, skydiving and mountain biking. We were caught between seasons; no snow remained in the village for cross-country skiing and the downhill ski trails were closing.

To understand why the Valaisan are such hardy folks one must explore the area on foot; it is impossible to walk anywhere without going up. The treacherously steep trails are imposing to a flatlander with bad knees. Invariably, ze Frenchman would bound off ahead on a trail that he was sure looped back down to the village, but at every turn in the trail led upward. Whining about my aching knees, I begged him to turn back. Though the trails are marked, so many overlap, it was easy to get lost.

Yet by venturing off on the beaten path we saw wildlife. We marveled at the mama deer and her doe bounding through the pines. Under a gentle snowfall, we hiked on trails of soft pine needle and through occasional patches of snow. Birds chirped, wild flowers peeked out and trees budded gave hints of the glorious spring soon to arrive.

After a long hike, nothing is more revitalizing than a long soak in the mineral rich baths in one of the three pools with water at various temperature levels. Naturally, I like it hot, so I spent my time in the outdoor pool at 85°. While snowflakes tickled my cheeks, the steaming waters soothed my aching joints. The contrast between the hot water and cold air was invigorating as we floated in a mini paradise surrounded by snow clad mountain peeks.

Forty-eight hours later, we threw open our shutters of our balcony for one last look at the Valais at it’s best. A ray of sunshine illuminates the valley and brings the jagged edges of the surrounding mountains into focus. We wind back down the mountainside toward Lausanne. “Et hop” its back to work in the lowlands.

And if you like wandering around instead of choosing one location, why wouldn’t you take your RV or rent one ?

 

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Happy Easter, Happy Spring

In the so-tired-of-winter Midwest, spring is taking its own sweet time arriving, but over here Europe, we are ahead of the season. My family and friends in Illinois, Iowa, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Minnesota are sick of seeing snow, so throw open those shutters, let the sunshine, enjoy a sneak peak of my neck of the woods, back home in Switzerland.

Out my back door, through the fields, step into that breathtaking view of the AlpsIMG_4382_copy

Traditional mountain chalet with geraniums on the balconyIMG_0012_copy 

Dandelions & primroses dance along mountain trails await for the hardy hikersIMG_3660_copy

A piece of paradise halfway to heavenIMG_3637 - Version 2_copy

Stop in at the local Auberge for the meal of the dayIMG_4399_copy

Even the cows are looking good, donning their Easter bonnets IMG_0035_copy

Hang in there. Spring will be tap dancing at your doorstep soon. Flowers will burst into a riot of color like fireworks reminding you to celebrate the survival of a rough winter. Sending love and laughter, chocolate and chutzpa, sweet vibes and sunshine from Switzerland. Happy Easter.

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Warmhearted Minnesotans Take the Chill Out of Wintery New Year

My New Year’s resolution: never let the weather get me down. Celebrate each season. Even winter. That said, I struggled to step out the door when staying at the Carlson’s in Golden Valley, Minnesota in early January. My first achievement in 2014, surviving the Deep Freeze.

While visiting my Big Kids, nieces, sister and brother-in-law in the Twin Cities, I experienced those record breaking frigid temperatures that made even European news channel headlines.IMG_4236_copy

My niece, Hannah, told me that it was so cold that if I threw a glass of water outside, it would turn to ice before it hit the ground. Exposed skin would be frost bitten within 5 minutes. Sure enough, when I walked out the door, the cold felt like dry ice peeling the skin off my cheeks. Yet, Karen and I made it around the block on foot during the coldest day of the last decades.

Weather advisory – stay indoors. Even residents accustomed to long, harsh winters headed to the grocery to stock up on staples, just in case. Shops closed early. Sporting events were postponed. My folks in Illinois said even church was cancelled.

Due to extreme cold, the Minnesota governor mandated statewide school closing prolonging the holiday. Karen, a teacher, screamed with joy, « youpie another pajama day. »

We made the most of our moments together. We spent a super special Sunday afternoon at Lambeau Field via satellite, enjoying spicy chili, nachos and cheese from the comforts of the Carlson’s living room. My first time tailgating indoors in Siberia!IMG_4342_copy

Like I reminded my sister, who begrudges the long winters, « it’s a healthy cold. » Unlike Switzerland where the mountains lock us in a fog trap of pollution, when I stepped outside the door in Minneapolis-St. Paul, my lungs felt invigorated from the pure air. The dazzling sun, reflecting off snow under cobalt skies, created an extraordinary light.

IMG_4340_copyIt is no surprise that so many Scandinavians settled in Minnesota. Folks up North come from a hardy stock used to harsh elements. Youngsters sledded, teens played ice hockey, couples skated, and « cheerful » ol’ men ice fished. Dick took us for a spin in his jeep on frozen Medicine Lake where we admired elaborate ice shanties and peeked through the lit up windows of the lake front mansions.

While the atmospheric pressures created record-breaking cold temperatures in North America, warm currents blew across Europe. Back home people were out and about in shorts and shirtsleeves enjoying a balmy 50F. Arriving in Geneva airport, felt like landing in Florida.

We never begrudged a minute of our holiday on ice because warmhearted northlanders magically thaw winter souls by welcoming travelers into their homes and hearth with open arms and a joie de vivre. Gotta love Minn-A-so-Ta. You betcha.

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Best Gift Ever– A Flight Home for the Holidays With My Baby

baby NatHome for the holidays takes on new meaning, when you live 4,000 miles away. Never has my longing for America been greater than after the birth of my daughter in Paris. The expatriate craves the loving cradle of family most during moments of great joy or sadness. Within the span of that year I had endured my fair share of despair. I struggled to recover from an accident that ended my athletic career, and a miscarriage that broke my spirit.

That winter of ‘84, I courageously tucked my 10-day-old daughter into a kangaroo pouch, navigated through the crowded Metro station and waited at the American Embassy for my baby to be issued her first U.S. passport. Just a short time later, with even greater trepidation, I swaddled my seven-week-old in a hand-woven blanket and carried her solo across the Atlantic aboard a 747.

At O’Hare airport, my sister’s and parents’ smiles lit up the universe as they welcomed the newest member to the family with tears of joy.

Outside the family homestead, light snow dusted the open fields and colored lights glittered, while inside, an aroma of gingerbread wafted through the air, a newborn’s cry rose above my brother’s piano rendition of Silent Night and my mom hung her handmade first grandchild ornament on the Christmas tree.

From Cleveland, to Omaha, to Chicago, to Eureka, to Sterling my siblings and grandparents coordinated the time and distance between a dozen careers, three states and two countries to be home for the holidays. That Christmas, I dressed as a svelte French Papa Noel to pass out presents.

But the greatest gift was not under the tree.

In the early years of marriage, we could not afford a cross-Atlantic flight, so in a gesture that showed incredible generosity and profound compassion, my Frenchman along with family contributions, gave me a round trip Air France ticket Paris-Chicago, so that the McKinzies could meet baby Nathalie.

This Christmas gift symbolized my husband’s love for his firstborn, his foreign wife and his American in-laws. By sacrificing his own holiday time, he acknowledged the importance of fostering family ties and respecting one’s cultural heritage in a mixed marriage.

The magic of those shared moments is engrained in my heart forever.

This December, that precious baby, now a dedicated doctor, offers another selfless gift. She sacrifices her family time to spend Christmas Day in the Children’s Hospital, taking care of kids too sick to go home for the holidays.Nat & dad

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Volunteer Nurse’s Mission Trip to the Dominican Republic

Image 2_copyMy niece, Hannah, a nurse in training at Creighton University, joined a medical service project in Dominican Republic where she dedicated 5 weeks to helping treat impoverished Dominicans as part of Institute for Latin American Concern Program (ILAC). During the week volunteers from the center in Santiago went to work in campos where they were housed by locals and treated like royalty. Host families insisted on providing the best they could offer and showed their gratitude in countless ways by making special treats and cleaning their guests’ clothes.

My niece’s host family, Madeline, and her husband, Chico, niece Saira 9, and daughters Maireli 4 and Mailesi 3 months lived in a tiny house smaller than Hannah’s two car garage back home in Golden Valley, Minnesota.

“The living room was tiny with a small TV. Curtains separated three small bedrooms. The bathroom, connected to the house, had a toilet that didn’t flush, and the shower was a bucket of water with a drain,” Hannah explained, “The kitchen has a mini fridge, counter and stove. The dining room had a table, chairs and a china cabinet, but no china.”

Hannah, who studied at a Spanish Immersion School in the Minneapolis area until high school, found that her background in Spanish was invaluable. She interacted with the locals and took medical histories, urinary samples and treated minor illnesses with minimum equipment in rudimentary facilities.

“While another nursing student took vitals, I did the intake form, figured out the chief complaint and symptoms and did any other translating. We saw lots of skin rashes, kidney infections, colds and body aches from all the work the Dominicans do.”Image 5_copy

The most striking difference was the extent of poverty and lack of modern health care and medicine.

“Even in the best hospital in the country, everything is open – doors, windows (without screens,) and the units in ER (diabetes, labor, trauma.) There are no monitors except for ICU/NICU. Restraints are by rope and heavy weights.” Hannah wrote in her journal. “Patients were pushed around ER with entire families following and holding medical supplies. (If a patient needs medicine, a family member must purchase it outside the hospital.) Floors were torn up, paint chipped off and I never saw a nurse in a patients room.”

There were many cultural differences from diet to lifestyle. The volunteers joked about the leisurely pace of Dominican time – which meant a few hours late.

“Beautiful girls with model figures came into the clinic asking for ways to gain weight,” Hannah said. “In their culture being overweight is a sign of wealth, but we tried to tell them they were perfect as they were.”

Biggest challenges that volunteers faced included communicating with the language barrier, feeling comfortable in a different culture, and adjusting to living with lower standard of hygiene.

“Even though I never felt clean,” Hannah said, “I learned how to co-exist with spiders the size of my hands and lizards in my bed, how to throw rocks at trees to get mangoes down and how to take a bucket shower with 3 small scoops of water.”

I felt privileged that Hannah shared her journal of events with me. Even reading it made me feel ashamed. I was spoiled with riches that I no longer noticed or appreciated like indoor plumbing, running water and electricity.

Life, when stripped to bare necessities, seemed purer. Good health, family, and community matters more than material goods.Image_copy

After meeting a prosperous land owner and visiting his rice plantation, Hannah, unimpressed, wrote in her journal, “I hope that as times change and technology advances in the DR that the people will stay the same: doors are always open, people are always outside talking with neighbors, the community is your family and sometimes you sleep at your neighbors because it is just like sleeping at your grandmas.”

“All the Dominicans were so hospitable, they would do absolutely anything to make us feel comfortable and happy,” Hannah said. “They showed me how to appreciate time with people rather than things, how to slow down and how to make the most of each day.”

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