As day breaks this morning, I’m tempted to build a fire. Overall, it’s been a cool, wet summer. I’ve been into the Rhine only once for a swim, and if the weather improves this month, I won’t benefit; I’ll be away.
The last cold, wet summer we experienced was in 2000, the year we were returning to Switzerland from living in France. The kids were little. We planned on seeing some sights on our drive back, camping along the way. We delayed our departure repeatedly, hoping for a break in the weather. The break never came, so we made the 6.5–hour shot straight, from Limay to Kaiserstuhl. Markus would return solo to oversee the packing up of our goods.
We were to move into an old, rambling farmhouse up the street from my in-laws. It was supposed to be a temporary base—until we found a place of our own to buy. We stayed for eight years. The plastic veneer on the kitchen cabinets was brittle and breaking off. The oven didn’t work. The basement flooded regularly; we insisted on the installation of a pump. And the walls and ceilings were nicotine-stained; I suspected the paint to be lead-based. At least my brother-in-law (mayor at the time) had insisted on the installation of a new bathroom suite before our arrival. The house had been left recently to the City of Kaiserstuhl, and we were their first tenants. The city’s forestry crew occupied the attached barns and old milk parlor. They were good but sometimes noisy neighbors.
I insisted on a working oven. When the city director, who’d occupied the house before us, approved my request, I baked him a cake, using my mother-in-law’s oven and enjoying a morning visit with her. I presented the cake to the director, and he said, “Oh, so the old oven does work!” He’s a bit of a twitch, that man.
When I insisted the stained walls be painted, the councilwoman in charge of the property told me I should give them a proper scrub.
On a pre-move visit to Kaiserstuhl from France, I engaged my father-in-law to help me establish a kitchen garden. He tilled the soil, and we planted Swiss chard, potatoes, snow peas, runner beans, carrots, zucchini, sweet corn, pattypan, acorn squash, pumpkins, and crookneck squash. He tended everything until the day we moved in. In the cool, wet weather, and under his mastery, a vigorous garden awaited our arrival.
When I first moved to Switzerland, I adored how the grocery stores stocked little more than local and seasonal fruits and vegetables. Many vegetables were unfamiliar to me, and I couldn’t find one of my favorites, astonishingly: Swiss chard! There wasn’t any kale around, either, which I did not miss—having already OD’d on kale (I’ve never recovered). I discovered fennel, which I adore roasted.
Many vegetables familiar to me weren’t available: sweet corn and my favorite summer and winter squashes. My mom sent me packets of seeds. One day, my grocery store had pattypan and acorn squash for sale as “decorative gourds.” I bought and ate them all. Nowadays, sweet corn, pumpkins, and Swiss chard are readily available. Kale, too. Helena and Celeste love it! And nowadays, as in the States, many fruits and vegetables are available year-round. They’re flown in from ports all over the globe. I’m not suggesting this is a good thing.
In the first five years of marriage and living in Kaiserstuhl—before our five-year stint in France—Markus and I rented a garden plot from a retired carpenter, Herr Winzenger. Two fingers on his right hand were missing two digits; as a young man, he’d sawed them off. “Threw them to the dogs,” he said, “who snapped them from the air.” He got himself down to the doctor, a five-minute walk into town. “Doc asked for my fingers, to sew ’em back on. ‘Too late,’ I told ’im, ‘the dogs got ’em.’” Herr Winzenger would watch us tending our patch of vegetables and chuckle. “You never stop learning,” he’d say, shaking his head. I adored the man.
Recently, we attended the funeral of a longtime Kaiserstuhl resident and the mother of my brother-in-law’s wife. She’d also been our first landlady. A kind and generous woman, she’d helped me feel welcome—less of an outsider. In contrast, our neighbors across the street would greet me only when Markus was present. When he wasn’t around, they ghosted me. Toddler Helena would stand on our balcony, wave at them, and call, “Hoi, Zämme! Hoi, Zämme! Hoi, Zämme!” The pair always ignored her spry greeting. They never waved back.
At our former landlady’s funeral, Markus pointed out a white-haired and stooped man. “That’s Herr Winzenger’s son.”
I was astonished. Having moved around so much as a child, I’m still easily flabbergasted by the evidence of time’s passage. Before arriving in Switzerland, I’d never witness neighborhood children growing up or adults aging (to me, only siblings and cousins grew up; only grandparents and aunts and uncles aged). The only funerals I’d been vaguely aware of had been for men who’d returned from Vietnam in body bags or who’d gone down in planes—and one neighborhood drunk who’d accidentally smashed through his sliding-glass door, fallen into his backyard pool, and bled to death. At the age of fourteen, I attended my first funeral, my nana’s.
To sit here this morning, watching a summer unfold as wet and cold as one twenty years prior—in the same setting—is a privilege and a gift. For this gracious and kind family I’ve married into and this life I’ve lucked into, I am daily thankful. They give me the strength I need to get through serious trials. My life is not absent pain.
On the day of my former landlady’s interment in Kaiserstuhl, the sun shined, and the cemetery grounds were carpeted in purple herbal flowers. Her party of mourners crossed the soft, giving carpet to where the priest awaited, the air abundantly perfumed by thyme.