Category Archives: Languages

The hottest defence

Yes, we did make it, to the year’s hottest defence. In the midst of a continental heatwave four of us from Scotland sweated our way through the kitchen duties and the astrophysical elements of Daughter’s PhD defence, in those woods on the outskirts of Geneva. Our two guests had not imagined anything like what they found…

Observatoire de Geneve

Dr Son was unable to make it, having some prior date with Daniel Hahn. Which is understandable. Dr Dodo was off to a dark corner of the US. We did, however, have the company of Cousin Riverside and Helen Grant, without whom we would most likely have ended up as two sad puddles on the Observatory floor. I don’t have words to describe how wonderful they were.

But I will obviously do so, anyway.

Serendipitously I had last year’s dress rehearsal to guide me, and as I cleverly managed to have knee issues on the day, I mostly directed the others from my spot in the kitchen, where our multitalented linguist Helen quickly grasped the finer details of the dishwasher instructions from the Observatory’s ‘dinner lady.’

Tables were shifted and food laid out. Riverside opened wine bottles, Helen threw streamers and I blew up the balloons. The Resident IT Consultant did much running and lifting. Daughter lined up her fan – the kind that blows cold air at you – plus her large bottle of Evian and her slides, and even remembered to change out of her ‘pyjamas’ before we trooped into the Aula to hear her talk on planets and stars.

Helen's PhD defence

45 minutes later, the 45 minutes for questions from the six-strong jury grew to over an hour, followed by a half hour of deliberation. We used the time for progressing the wine and nibbles, making sure nothing melted too much.

Helen's PhD defence

Helen's PhD defence

And then it was back to the Aula for the verdict, which was ‘très bien’ which is just as well, as there was no need for any rash action from me. Hands were shaken, the thank you speech was delivered, and so were countless – mostly Moomin – gifts. Unicorn slippers. (I waited until Dr Daughter came upstairs to hand over my flamingo…)

Helen's PhD defence

Helen's PhD defence

Wine was drunk, and much water, and the nibbles were nearly all eaten. There was even some haggis, which people enjoyed. (Presumably because they didn’t understand what it was.) There was chatting.

Eventually we – by which I mean the other three – cleared things away, and then we got into the car to go to Geneva for a post-doctoral dinner at Little India. Dr Daughter guided the Resident IT Consultant past all the roadworks, and then we hopped out, leaving Helen Grant to assist him with finding a parking space!

A very nice meal was had by all who came, including five sixths of the jury and those friends who had not decamped to see the solar eclipse in Chile.

Helen's PhD defence

After all this we were suitably tired. And, er, sweaty beyond belief.

Massive thanks to Helen Grant for doing photography duty as well. And to Riverside for being so calm and well organised.

Helen's PhD defence

(You have to admire their colour coordination!)


I can spell


Until embarrassingly recently I barely knew what the word meant. I obviously knew about such a thing, but not by as fancy a word as that.

And then I couldn’t spell it, but its regular recurrence in the press and elsewhere, because it’s a thing that gets mentioned more and more, means I can spell it too. It’s easy to get wrong, rather like minuscule.

I wish the misogyny was minuscule.

As I’ve mentioned before, I have a problem with the sentiment that women can’t. I was brought up by a woman and I had no idea that women were less able.

Then there is Switzerland, which my prejudiced mind had down as a bit conservative, perhaps, but still a relatively modern European country, forgetting that women didn’t get the vote there until I was in my mid-teens. I forget that men my age – women too, for that matter – grew up with mothers who were not allowed to vote. Or open bank accounts without the permission of a man.

Two weeks ago there was a countrywide Swiss strike for women’s rights and equality. I first learned this from Daughter when she said ‘I’m on strike on Friday.’ Seems the university was pro-strike and simply checked who was going to take part. No docking of pay or anything.

Not the same elsewhere, though. But I suppose if it had been, there’d be less reason to strike. Though from where I’m sitting, it feels as if we have precious few strikes, about anything, so this Swiss strike was quite, well, forward.

The Defence

This is one I wrote earlier. Fingers crossed I am doing what I am about to claim I am doing.

This is the day Daughter has her PhD defence, and I am in Switzerland for the express purpose of not understanding a thing she says, before serving the red wine.

It’s taken four years and several exoplanet discoveries. She has written lots of words about it, mostly in English, but as the university requires some kind of introduction in French – a language Daughter didn’t speak, at all – there is a bit of planetary stuff in French.

And in Swedish, proofread by me. It’s not easy editing words about that which you really know very little. It’s got pretty pictures, the colours of which I was allowed to have an opinion on. And I might get a mention in the acknowledgements, but you sort of expect that for having views on colours.

So, that’s me. Us, really. In the middle of the woods near the French border. I did a practice run last year.


And things keep a-changing

‘It was a bit chaotic,’ said the Resident IT Consultant when he returned with the milk and other early essentials. I heartlessly assumed he was just being useless at shopping, but it turned out the holiday ‘super’market was being rebuilt. Hence his difficulty in foraging for food, as well as finding the – temporary – way out again, once he’d paid.


So yes, change keeps a-coming at me. Some days later we popped over to the big opening of the shop, which was mostly finished, with only the one man still hammering away up on the roof. And there was cake after a long waffley speech by Master Koch, the owner, who – now that I think of it – is probably over fifty, but younger than his retired father.

Ankaret cake

It was the Resident IT Consultant’s birthday and Daughter decided to feed him salmon to celebrate, so off we went to Laxbutiken. Yes, yes, don’t worry. It, too, had changed. New furniture in the restaurant, and gorgeous new marble counters from which to choose your salmon.

Another thing that has changed is that Daughter can now drive her mother places. It’s really convenient. First we went to the optician’s. You’ll be pleased to hear he has not changed. Other than his computer system, which meant that he couldn’t take payment for Daughter’s new glasses, so she was able to walk out without paying. (I think on the hopeful understanding I’d be back with money some other day.)

From there we went to buy bread at the best baker’s in the world. When I showed them my membership card [ it’s a coop] they suddenly charged me less. Not being one to refuse such a thing, I said nothing. I suspect they have changed (yes, there is that word again) from annual dividend payments to an instant 10% off.

Walking through town we discovered the main square had been redesigned. And then came the sad sight of my old bookshop, which is no more.

We were invited to a friend’s house for tea and rhubarb pie. I was a bit surprised, as I didn’t remember her sea view. I mean, I knew she had one. Just not used to seeing it. This is what happens when hedges are trimmed.

Sea view

Money is forever a problem. The woman at the flea market looked at my offered two kronor coin and recoiled. Older than me, yes, but presumably a permanent resident, so should be used to the new coins by now. But I know what she was thinking; that I was handing over what looked like the 1 öre from our childhood. That’s how small small change has become.

You might recall I wondered how pay toilets would work after the big coin change. It’s now contactless. Very hygienic and all that. Except my only affordable – currency wise – credit card isn’t contactless. If your need is not too great, you read on and discover that chip and pin will also be tolerated, once the machine thing has had a little think. Some of them even still take coins…

But cash in general has become a problem. It’s not wanted. Many places are card only, or as with Riccardo’s Glass (that’s ice cream to you), you can swish. Except I can’t. I believe Son knows how to swish. I’ll have to investigate further. Anyway, Daughter paid for our ice cream and milk shake with, erm, cash. She said she had the correct change so just did. I suspect that maybe she simply dropped the money and exited, before they knew what had hit them. Or they are more versatile than they let on.

This time last year was hot. So hot we did nothing, and one day that was so hot I lost the will to live. This year I have to say that my padded jacket I wore all through winter has come in quite handy. It sort of averages out.

Holiday Bookwitch Towers has new neighbours. On two sides. I’m not quite sure how to deal with this, but the house opposite has gone from being the neighbourhood dump, to looking so great that it’s a pleasure to look out the window again, 35 years on. Not a moment too soon for this change.

The neighbour on the third side was given some coins, to pay for the life-saving midnight milk, and a bottle of whisky.

Luckily not all is change. Here is what we encountered in the ‘salmon car park.’ The only reason they almost fit is that the parking spaces are huge.

Dream cars

Lampie and the Children of the Sea

This is such a marvellous story! One of those far too rare, perfect children’s books. And as often is the case these days, it has come from abroad. I understand that Annet Schaap is a well known illustrator in the Netherlands, and Lampie and the Children of the Sea is her debut as a writer.

Lampie lives with her dad in the lighthouse where he is the keeper, and she increasingly has to do his work for him, until the night everything goes wrong. As punishment, Lampie is sent to work in the Admiral’s Black House, across the water from her lighthouse home, where rumour has it there is a monster.

When she gets there, she is not expected, nor wanted. It’s a bad time, apparently. And there does seem to be a monster.

Annet Schaap, Lampie and the Children of the Sea

It’s hard to describe what happens, without giving too much away. But there are huge dogs, a backward boy, a circus and lots of pirates. And the ending doesn’t go in the direction I thought it might, and is all the better for it.

Let me just say that I recommend you read this book, and that you give it to every child over the age of eight, or so.

(Beautifully translated by Laura Watkinson, and many thanks to Pushkin for finding and publishing books like this one.)

Judith Kerr

With the death of Judith Kerr on Wednesday, we have lost another star in the children’s books world. When the great ones like Judith reach such a high age, I always want to wrap them in cotton wool, to protect them and make them last longer, while being very grateful they have made it this far.

But by all accounts Judith didn’t need the cotton wool, continuing to live life as she always had, getting about on her own. I first saw her in Edinburgh ten years ago, and found her seemingly frail, but most entertaining. Then when I discovered I was sitting behind her in the audience at Waterstones Piccadilly five years ago, I was astounded to realise that she was just like anybody else, going to events she wanted to go to and mixing with people.

Judith was one of the ‘older greats’ that I would have loved to meet and maybe interview, but somehow I never felt quite grown-up enough.

I hoped she would go on for much longer, but 95 is a respectable age. Especially if you’re not ill or needing looking after.

I very much hope her end was like that of Mog, and that they are together in some magical place.

The Titanic Detective Agency

We should at least be safe from sequels. The fact that Lindsay Littleson’s crime novel is set on the Titanic sort of rules that out. The days are limited as it is, with three child passengers on this famous ship finding mysteries and setting out to solve them, unaware that time is even shorter than the official expected arrival in America.

Lindsay Littleson, The Titanic Detective Agency

As one of the few people on earth who have not seen the film, it was interesting to learn about travelling on the Titanic; the different passenger classes, for instance. And interestingly, Lindsay didn’t make up her characters. They are real passengers (and the fact that they were, does in no way guarantee that they survive), and this makes everything more realistic.

Like Johan from Knäred. I was gratified to find someone who could have been practically a neighbour, on the Titanic. Johan was poor, so travelled in third class, on his way to join his father and older sister, having left his mother and younger siblings behind in southern Sweden. He speaks no foreign languages, but still manages to befriend Bertha from Aberdeen and her young friend Madge.

It’s not the mysteries that matter; it’s the Titanic and the lives described. You meet people and even though you know what will happen, you have no way of knowing who will die and who survives, or what will become of the survivors, for that matter.

Learning about a catastrophe in this way brings home the awfulness of both the voyage, but also of how people lived and why they travelled and what they were hoping for, or fearing, in America.