The Natural Order 

(A version of this was first published in Le News 31 July 2014)

‘Nasty, brutish and short’, my husband observed the other day, as we sat on the patio in the rain, having sundowners.

‘That’s a bit harsh,’ I said, watching the children smear yoghurt all over the newly washed windows. ‘Brutish, yes, undeniably. And of course they’re short. They’re still young. But nasty? I don’t know … some days they can be quite sweet.’

He gave me a look. ‘I was quoting Thomas Hobbes. And he was describing the life of human beings in their natural state, outside of an organised society.’

My ears glazed over at that point, but it did get me thinking: about organised societies; about the natural state of things; and about who it was that threw down a poo gauntlet in the driveway.

But let me start at the beginning. When we first arrived here, we were immediately struck by the loveliness of the Swiss countryside, with its fields of buttercups, happy cows and complete absence of hand-sized spiders.

‘Isn’t Nature lovely here,’ we rhapsodised. And it was lovely for a while. But soon, things started to happen. Strange things. Things that suggested that perhaps Nature was not as enamoured of us as we were of it.

First, our neighbour’s car was sabotaged by a weasel, which chewed through her brake cable and caused her to almost drive into a fence post. Then – and I cannot help but feel these incidents are connected – some small, nocturnal animal … how shall I put it? … defecated on the head of a Playmobil ballerina that the children had left in the driveway. Right on its head. It’s hard not to read that as an insult of some sort: the culprit walked right past the toy elephant, right past the pile of dinosaurs that always litters our front step, and crapped on the head of the only human-looking toy out there.

And then I started noticing odd little things: the way birds stopped chattering as we passed under their trees in the forest; the filthy look a goat once gave me, when I walked through its field.

Call me paranoid but by the time a slug insinuated itself into my shoe, I’d come to see these things as acts of aggression.

‘Nature, red in tooth and claw*,’ I quoted, extremely grateful that slugs have neither. ‘I think it’s revolting.’

‘Yes,’ my children agreed. ‘Yuck.’

But I didn’t mean that kind of of revolting. I meant, Nature appears to be rising up in some sort of protest. Against us. And honestly, who can blame it?

Yesterday the children found me sitting slumped in front of the computer with a stupefied expression – not an unusual look, for me, I’m sorry to say, but I must have appeared particularly zoned because they remarked on it.

‘What are you doing?’ they asked.

‘Reading the news.’

‘Why is your face so sad?’

‘Because there are so many people in the world who are revolting.’

‘Like the slugs.’

But I didn’t mean that kind of revolting. Not like the slugs and weasels and whatever unburdened itself in the driveway. I meant ‘revolting’ in a uniquely human way: nasty, and brutish and very, very shortsighted.

*’Nature, red in tooth and claw …’ from ‘In Memoriam A.H.H.’, by Alfred Tennyson.

So … how about this weather? 

(First published in Le News 17 July 2014)

Funny you should ask. I’ve been thinking about winter a lot, lately. This may seem a strange time, what with all the blue skies and sunflowers, but it’s best to be prepared: what Switzerland lacks in poisonous spiders and man-eating potholes, it more than makes up for with deadly weather. I don’t want to sound paranoid, but I really believe the weather has been trying to kill us since we got here.

For example: we were newly arrived from Johannesburg (where winter requires nothing more than an extra coat), when the ice storms of 2012 hit. The temperature dropped to minus twelve, my eyeballs froze solid and someone – a European, obviously – invited me to go snowshoeing. At night! I tried to explain: a person from Africa does not leave the house in minus twelve. That is when a person from Africa climbs into bed, pours libations of vin chaud to Old Man Winter, and begs for mercy. (This of course was immediately disproved by my husband and the bigger child, who raced past me into the snow, joyfully chanting, ‘Ski, ski, ski,’ and making me feel like a wimp.)

Anyway, we survived that and by the time winter came around again, I was ready for it. I’d bought some serious cold-weather kit and was about to knit myself a full-body thermal balaclava … but … no ice storms. Just snow. And snow. And snow. None of my Arctic gear was actually necessary because I kept warm by shovelling the driveway four times a day. I would’ve done better to invest in a team of sled dogs.

With the help of more vin chaud and enormous amounts of Swiss chocolate, we survived that experience and when summer rolled around, I rolled into summer, a good deal more padded and a lot more weather-confident. Because summer I can handle. Come heatwaves, drought or summer floods, no problem. As long as you have sunscreen, a barbecue and a cold drink at hand, you’ll be fine. But then we were attacked from above by hailstones the size of Luxembourg, and my confidence plummeted again. It didn’t help that I had just, seconds before, remarked to my anxious children that Johannesburg had far worse storms, and would they please stop being silly and come out from underneath the couch. No sooner had they completely ignored me, than a bolt of lightning destroyed our electronics and left my credibility in tatters.

So, I give up. I obviously don’t understand Swiss weather at all, and I have absolutely no idea what the seasons will throw down next. My only comfort is that no one else seems to, either. So far, no matter what the Climatic Malfunction, someone in the know has assured me that it’s ‘very unusual’. A three-week summer downpour that stops the trains and washes away half of Switzerland? Very unusual. Snow in May? First snowfall of the year only in January? Last snowfall of the year in early December? All very unusual. No one has actually told me what is usual, so maybe it doesn’t exist. And that’s okay. As this little poem (found on the Internet, author unknown) says:

Whether the weather be fine,
Whether the weather be not,
Whether the weather be cold,
Whether the weather be hot,
We’ll weather the weather,
Whatever the weather,
Whether we like it or not.