This morning I took the number 9 tram from our apartment and over the city bridge to find a nursery where I could buy a few herbs or some plants to put in our window box.
The store was small and was a hybrid florist/garden supply/home decor place. Outside on the street there were lovely autumn arrangements in fall colors, some perennials I recognized, others that were completely foreign.
I browsed, poking my hand underneath larger plants to locate the scrawny herbs that were hiding there as if they were unsure of their status. Most looked homely and bedraggled after their tiring tenure in the summer sun.
The chives were mostly brown stalks and the mint was woody-looking with its crispy blossoms stubbornly clinging on. The lavender was hunching down self-protectively and offering up no purple blossoms at all.
But when I think herbs I think strong, resilient, hardy. Well maybe not Swiss winter hardy. The only reason I thought plants might survive on our porch was because I had spied my neighbor right below us with an herb garden.
At the cash register the owner spoke in Swiss German with a few English words thrown in, but it didn’t matter – I got the meaning loud and clear – she was shaking her head with a dour expression (one I see here frequently). She was skeptical that I should purchase what I had chosen.
She questioned me: Where do you live? (did she mean do I have a greenhouse?) I fumbled around with the word apartment and porch which led to North Carolina which got me to living in Bern 2 years, on and on, on and on, oh brother.
I felt myself wilting under her strong gaze. I considered silently dragging my little shopping cart out of there and forgetting the whole deal.
But I finally stopped talking and just used my universal puppy look – a direct gaze that says don’t hit me I’m really easy to like. And I just listened. And it was then I realized that she didn’t want to tell me how to keep my plants alive at all, she wanted to talk politics, of all things.
With a rueful smile she went on to say how horrible things were in my country. How crazy that man is, she said. She shook her head and for the first time our eyes actually met. I felt her genuine sadness and pity towards me. She ended up only charging me full price on one of my 5 plants.
But her final solemn comment to me was that the situation in the U.S. was scary to her and not just for herself as a Swiss person, she said, but to everyone. To the entire world.
As I left the store and headed back to the tram stop I was teary with a strange sense of release. Maybe it was because in that small interaction I felt fully known – not just as an ugly American – but as a citizen of the world. I was two things.
Me with my little handcart and strange coins in my pocket wandering around the city – I would never be able to hide my huge, threatening citizenship as an American.
I hated that feeling.
And I thought about how after the garden shop lady lectured me about my government, she gently wrapped each of the clay pots in layers of newspaper and taped them carefully so I wouldn’t crush them in my little cart.
It was a small act but it made everything better.
The guttural words, the gruff talk, the guarded looks, all of that felt softened, easier. I felt pillowed in goodwill as she and her employee sincerely encouraged me to have a good day, using that essential American phrase you never hear in Switzerland.
Back at home I gently extracted the herbs from their protected nests and propped them against the window in the sunshine. I could almost feel them trembling in the paper with dread or just anticipation of the next thing to come.
The election in America is everywhere in the international news, it is huge. And for me, I sit and wait over here for the drama to abate. Encased in a self-protective bubble away from the major tremors of an earthquake about to happen, I imagine myself free of responsibility, even free of my own identity.
But I can never be.
I am tender, exposed nearly to the root. I simply want to find a warm spot that will allow me enough sun to get me through the Swiss winter ahead.
5 thoughts on “Perennial”
Your writing, this piece, so beautifully done, combines the warmth and the chill that marks this season between seasons.
It is truly amazing, in a miraculously mundane way, how a warm gesture, a smile, can melt a wall of ice, this woman’s facade. Beneath it all is the humanity that pleads for contact, so often not in an obvious way. It can be found, as you well know, in people all over the world, and even close at home among people who challenge us over our differences. Here at home, this election seems to have made it even harder for people to meet over their differences. I am pleased that you, so far from home, are making these connections. Love ya!
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Thank you for all of that Dad – it means a lot to me. I feel your love and support for me and my writing across the ocean! You were the one who taught me to observe careful the tiny things around me and for that I thank you.
Thank you for taking me to the place that is familiar, yet one I am unable to picture create. You have the gift and I am grateful for that, and for you. Love.
First – thank you for the lovely description of the herbs and I must say, actually, the picture shows healthy and robust herbs that I believe will do very nicely! Do send a picture or two when they are planted! The apartment building looks tidy, nice and inviting. We must email and chat as we never got to “chat” when you were back in all of the rushes and even more changes for me….
On the other matter – heartbreak on many levels…. it is hard to describe yesterday with my class – one child was sobbing as he came to school, others cried off and on throughout the day – my little girls SO hoping and expecting to have our first woman president with shattered hopes trying to cope…. I gently reminder our 1 Trump fan to be kind and not gloat which I am proud to say that he did not do either –
I was interviewed by a Washington Post reporter about how I was helping students yesterday and I shared my best hope and dreams were set into a challenge to the children to find things they are passionate about – then we will start writing letters…. lots of letters to help support causes, give information or advice, and ask for (suggest, demand?) change…. it was the best I could do – and since teachers don’t cry at school, I waited until I got home to let my “passion” and disappointment and fears out – that’s just what we do we women…
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I really liked this one. Jenny and I had a similar conversation with a store keeper in Ecuador this summer.