As the days suddenly became shorter to help spin the year to its conclusion, Gwen distinguished herself for the second time by running the Basel Stadtlauf with many of her friends and hundreds of other Baselers at different levels, ages and distances, through the city one cold Saturday evening after dark. I was in charge of her that day and I lost her, having wrongly assumed that the race would end where it began. But the short delay before this realization took hold was enough to disable me from getting to the finishing post in time due to roiling crowds and zealous race planners. I looked for Gwen for an agonizing hour, hurrying between the Marktplatz and the Munsterplatz, getting more and more agitated by my incompetence as a responsible adult and by barely concealed rising worry for her health and welfare, given that she did not know her new telephone number or address and was dressed only in running gear and a number. Finally, after trying unsuccessfully to get her name called over the loudspeaker, I spotted her wandering around the Marktplatz looking relatively unconcerned. She took my joyous exclamations very coolly, all things considered. She had even prepared a Plan B, having met one of her teachers who had promised to take her home if she was still father-less after the teacher had finished her race later in the evening.
At the very beginning of the month it was safe to say that the fall and winter had been mild compared to previous years, but the scent and sight of snow in the mountains around was irresistibly perceptible from the second week. On the morning of Gwen’s 11th birthday, the 12th December, snow fell heavily in Basel. The temperature did not climb back above freezing point for twelve days, reducing to under minus 15 degrees on the night of the winter solstice a few days later. Gwen’s proper birthday party, to be shared with a school-friend by arrangement, will be in January. But she did have a few friends back for a sleepover in our new house while the snow continued to fall. The following day, Ella and I got up very early to meet the homecoming Jessie at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. It felt rather momentous and a little strange to be welcoming a prodigal daughter home from foreign parts for Christmas. I thought we would all have lunch on the way back in a pleasant old-fashioned French hostelry but was outvoted as we passed an Ikea store on the outskirts of Paris, so we had lunch there instead (they do very good food). Coming from over thirty degrees of heat in the West Indies, Jessie felt the Swiss sub-zero temperatures immediately and took to wearing several layers of clothes. It’s the first time we have experienced having a child “back for Christmas”, a further signal of our advancing years, if any were needed. But it’s all good – the years advance much to our pleasure and benefit.
Our move at the end of November to Leymen had been haphazard and tumultuous; the aftermath was no less so. It is not easy to start to reside in France, after becoming accustomed to Swiss competence, efficiency and logic. These elements disappeared overnight when we crossed the border. In limited space I cannot do full justice to the full litany of happenstances, many more redolent of Catch 22 than Clochemerle, but some events do stand out. We ran out of heating oil just before the temperature went arctic, and a frantic Alli had to do a distressed-female-with-sick-child routine to ensure that the oil tanker came to fill us up, they having struck us off their list because we had not paid a bill that had not been sent to us. France Telecom, that corporate byword for customer service, did not understand why I had not called their helpline to complain that I didn’t have a phone line yet. But, as I revealed to them, apparently exclusively, their helpline only takes calls from French numbers. The lack of a phone line proved too much for Amazon France who failed to deliver a crucial Christmas present for Gwen by her birthday and then by Christmas. Our water supply was summarily cut off but that, as a neighbor explained later, was completely normal. It happened often and on this occasion, as on many previous, the water authorities had just not bothered to warn anyone. A new hole went up in the road and again a circuitous and mud-rutted route had to be found across the fields just to get into the village.
Rather grandly, I was reported to the Central Bank of France for having chalked up a €120 overdraft on a moribund account that I use only for holidays. Being reported like this is akin to being denounced publicly as a usurer and sent to a virtual Bastille. Forthwith I found myself unable to effect any bank transactions in France at all, including buying property, which was what I thought I was on the point of doing. For a day I thought that the whole enterprise might completely founder. This would have been difficult to explain to a family that was already ensconced in the house, even though, to this day, we have not actually paid for it. Our mortgage has not yet started even though we have now celebrated a month in situ. Many of our friends are speechless with admiration. Credit Mutuel is curious.
The end of the year is proving to be a very happy and contented Christmas and New Year break, notwithstanding the strange manoeuvres going on all round us. This peace of mind amidst the wreckage of French and Swiss bureaucracy is very largely due to Alli’s parents, whose influence is instantly relieving. Grandpa was soon busy around the house, finding plenty to do that he thought correctly that I would do worse and too late. We had a memorable Christmas day, which involved a morning Anglican service, several hours of sustained present-opening, and a superb Christmas meal. The memorable present of the year was Jessie’s gift to Alli and me of a massive wooden chicken coop which she and a friend’s father had constructed in the short time since she arrived back, as well as information sufficient to build and maintain a chicken-run and to keep chickens in our new garden. I was momentarily struck dumb by the sheer ingenuity of the idea and its implementation. This does not prevent me from hoping that you all have a relaxing and happy time over this Christmas and New Year period.
I know that there were some who did not receive last month’s Ahem (Tatterdemalion Hooting Savanna). It is the only in the last few days that we have regained some kind of home access to the internet and so I am sending it again here as a complimentary attachment.
Yours in communicado
Stanbrook Family in Rue de la Scierie, Christmas 2009