Monday, 18 July 2011

Live - Laugh - Love (11) Do the Funky Chicken!


Swiss chicken sounds like a cross between a pizza topping, a casserole my mum might have made in the 1970’s and a character from The Muppets. But the ‘chick’ in  this tale is anything but a Muppet and certainly wasn’t chicken when she turned her life upside down to move lock, stock and barrel with her man Tim, and two small children from Sheffield to the banks of Lake Geneva in 2003.

Tim had been craving a better life for some time, full of fresh air, mountain walks, skiing, goats and cheese, and they both wanted their children to grow up in an amazing and safe environment. Sadly Sheffield couldn’t deliver all of the above, so when a job at an international primary school near Lausanne came up he was onto it faster than Federer onto a sponsorship deal.

I first met Reb in Sheffield in 1992 when I started my PhD. While I was spending my days looking down a microscope at bird sperm, she was skipping around in a wood shaking her lettuce. I think it was something to do with chlorophyll.

She met her other half Tim whilst temporarily interested in climbing. It didn’t take her long to perfect her bouldering! I held her daughter Evie a week after she was born, she was beautiful then and 11 years later she was even more beautiful as one of my bridesmaids.

I went to visit Reb about six months after they moved out to Switzerland. They had chosen to live in a remote village in a cabin with a log burner in the middle of the room. Evie was three years old and Leo barely a year. It was clear to see that the idea of moving to Heidi country was at that point better than the reality. While Tim had settled into his adopted new country with an enviable fluency, for Reb the hills weren’t alive with the sound of music. It was more like the sound of howling – primarily the children, but I’m sure she had her moments. Although there were elements of baking cakes and picking flowers, moving to a small Swiss village which didn’t accept strangers readily meant that every day she had a new mountain to climb.

She did try really hard to integrate. She took French lessons, tried to make friends with the locals and even took Evie to a local nursery, but Evie struggled too and would sit in the corner, upset by all the strangeness. When I went out to visit that first time in February 2003, armed (as requested) with English magazines and the video box set of Cold Feet, if you were to ask me whether they would stay there, I would have said that it could go either way.

But over the years they’ve stuck it out, I’ve been back out to stay with them many times and have lots of happy memories. These are a few of my favourite things - birthday parties on the banks of Lake Geneva, jumping spontaneously onto a train to Milan, riding the Mont Blanc Express and cooling off in the lake on a hot summers day - we’ve had a lot of fun. A particular favourite was being taught to ski in a car park one winter in borrowed ski boots. They were the wrong size and they crippled me. Four months later my big toe nail fell off!

To say that I was taught to ski might actually be stretching the truth. I remember getting to the top of a hill which ordinarily wouldn’t even look like a hill, but covered in snow, strapped to ski’s and viewed from the summit, looked terrifying. Reb’s ski tuition consisted of depositing me at the top of the hill and shouting ‘Off you go’, followed by something to do with pizza and chips? Apparently it’s how you teach children the different skiing positions. I was more interested in being taught how to stop. There’s no way of dressing it up – I had a tantrum. One thing I did learn however is that my freakishly bendy knees do lend themselves  well to doing the snow plough and that cheese fondue, hot chocolate and anything else that’s 95% cream does make you feel a lot better about things.

Switzerland was also the first place I took Tris just after we started ‘courting’. He got very excited when he realised that you could hire pedalo’s on the lake and promptly tried to pedal us over to France and back in an hour. It was a bit ambitious, but you’ve got to admire his spirit.

I never tire of the train journey from Geneva airport along the great lake, the view across to France, the town of Evian dwarfed by the magnificent French Alps, the ancient terraced vineyards built in the 12th Century by monks and the town of ‘Gland’ which you travel through just before you get to Lausanne, always make me smile.

I am incredibly proud of Rebecca and how they’ve built their new life, she’s been very strong and Evie and Leo have grown up to be a real credit to them. A critical turning point however, was making the decision to leave Yodel-ville behind and head to the bright lights of Montreux, where coffee and cakes require a small loan, but you can have an international circle of friends (the Nestle wives).

There’s a life sized bronze statue of Freddy Mercury that looks out over the lake in Montreux. That oh so iconic pose, wide stance and fist thrusting up into the sky. It acts as a memorial to his adopted home where he came to both record and finally die. It’s a shrine now for Freddy followers and is always covered in flowers. I always like to go and give Freddy a little rub whenever I’m in the area.

Rebecca has always been a frighteningly bright spark, and mixed with the confidence of ‘how hard can it be?’ when it comes to attempting new things, it’s an impressive combination. So it came as no surprise to hear that she had blagged herself a fabulous new job teaching statistics to the offspring of rich Russian oligarch’s on a Leisure Management course at a nearby Swiss institution. Unlike the rest of us, who would have run for the hills (a particularly easy option considering the location), Reb dazzled them with jargon remembered from university days a lifetime ago, accepted the job and then calmly e-mailed our friend Nick (statistical genius) and asked him for his lecture notes. I think he might have sent her back his latest book. ‘How hard can it be’ she said ‘I’ll just tell them to read newspapers and then get them to discuss’. And it worked, she stayed one step ahead of them that year and has been doing it ever since.

The final piece in the jigsaw was when they finally sold their house in Sheffield, moved out of rented accommodation and bought a home in Switzerland. They now own a massive house which nestles into the side of the hill, in the mountains overlooking Montreux and Lake Geneva. Their glass fronted balcony boasts one of the finest views in the world. To travel to work, Reb sometimes commutes on The Golden Pass train which snakes its way dramatically from Montreux up into the mountains. It’s widely known as one of the most scenic train journeys in the world, but for them leaping on and off at their local station in Sonzier , is no different than riding the metro in Manchester is for me.

And so finally we come to my hen weekend gift, the small toy chicken.

In 2007 Sonzier was the perfect place for me to undertake my altitude training before heading out on my round the world trip. I stayed with Reb and Tim for nearly a month.

Since my last visit, Reb had decided to add three chickens and a cockerel to her family. While she liked the thought of living the good life, unfortunately so did the chickens who kept escaping and eating next doors vegetables. In a country where rules ....... rule, where you get written warnings from the authorities if you don’t cut your hedge or use your washing machine at night, causing friction with your neighbours isn’t advisable. Rebecca has always been very good at talking me into things against my better judgement and it wasn’t long before she had convinced me to clip the chicken’s wings. ‘How hard can it be’, she trilled. ‘Snip, snip, off you go, you’ll be fine’. I didn’t see her rushing to help and it seemed like an odd thing to ask of a guest. Her reasoning was that I’d handled birds when I was doing my PhD. If we are going down that road, I’d just like it noted that handling a huge angry cock is a notch above her equivalent of tossing a salad!

Still, I did it. Amongst much squawking and chasing, I wrestled the chickens to the ground, avoided being pecked and in the midst of feathers flying everywhere, clipped off their primary flight feathers. Once the din had died down I went inside, announced that the job was done and had a brandy.

For a vegetarian, Rebecca has got through a lot of chickens over the intervening years. It turns out that I did the wing clipping thing wrong, so the birds still escaped and were eaten by a fox. Said fox then duly took up residence in the wood nearby and promptly ate any further chickens. It’s a shame that that part of the dream didn’t quite work, but for the rest of it I think she’s done pretty well.

To conclude, I’m so glad Rebecca and I have stayed friends – she is one of those rare people who when she talks, paints with words. Where the rest of us get lazy, she uses language that the rest of have forgotten. It’s very unusual, very refreshing, frequently very funny and I love, love, love  listening to her.


The next tale is the penultimate in this series – the gift this time is a BOOK OF BEEF CAKE! What the .......???

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