2023 - Spring

One Star Reviews

Dear readers,

Have you ever read a book because it’s a classic or because everyone was telling you about it and you read it and…. you actually…. didn’t like it… at all?

That is exactly how these rather expressive Goodreads users felt after reading various well-known works of literature.

Well, dear readers, can you guess which piece of literature these users read that got them so riled up on the internet? Give it a try!

There are two difficulty levels to this game. You can either

1. read the reviews and guess based on your own knowledge of famous novels and plays
2. have a look at a list of titles below the reviews, that might help you narrow things down. But be careful: not every title has a corresponding review!

The reviews:

Work A:

User 1:

This is a disgrace to all pure bloods. My head looked quite dashing on that strange professor’s head.. If only I could have extended my stay. [Protagonist’s name].. This is not over yet.

User 2

So, this is the book everyone loves?

Work B:

User 1:

The most overrated book in the history of literature. The “plot” borders between meaningless and trivial.

I was forced to read the book in 9th grade English class. This was perhaps the most tedious school assignment I’ve received to date. For several pages a lady remarks to a man about what wonderful handwriting he has. Not exactly gripping material. The entire book seemed to be about hormone-driven marriageable-age creatures trying to outwit each other in word and on the dance floor.

The book itself is bad enough, but to complicate matters, women pledge allegiance not only to the book but also to the gazillion-hour movie.

User 2:

Jesus Christ, just have sex.

User 3:

Welcome to almost any 8th grade dance. You will find most of the boys playing basketball in the gym while the girls are waiting in the cafeteria for someone with whom to dance.  I was rooting for [male character] to get away. Maybe he just isn’t that into [female character]?   The scenes bounce from one scene to another so quickly that it makes my head spin, and I couldn’t connect with any of the characters. [A female character] spends most of the novel sitting around complaining about [a male character] and [another male character] while doing absolutely nothing to better her situation. At least Jay Gatsby did something about his love…..

Work C:

User 1:

countenance, endeavour, benevolent, wretch, ardour, anguish, countenance, endeavour, benevolent, countenance, ardour, endeavour, benevolent, wretch, countenance, endeavour, benevolent, countenance, ardour, endeavour, benevolent, wretch, anguish, countenance, endeavour, benevolent, countenance, ardour, endeavour, benevolent, anguish, wretch, countenance, ardour, endeavour, ardour, benevolent, countenance, endeavour, benevolent, wretch, anguish, countenance, ardour, endeavour, benevolent, countenance, ardour, endeavour, anguish, benevolent, wretch, countenance, ardour, endeavour, benevolent 

The End.

User 2:

If you open up any page in this horrendous book, you will have a 100% chance of [the protagonist] whining of what a miserable wretch he and/or the Daemon is, a 50% chance of [the protagonist] being in some kind of a nervous fever or fainting, and a 75% chance of an excessively detailed description of the trees, mountains, oceans, weather, and worst of all….. [the protagonist]’s thoughts. Ahem. By ‘thoughts’, I mean constant complaining and whining. He goes on and on and on about, “oh, what a miserable wretch I am. Death would be pity to me, blah blah, blah…never upon this earth had any suffered as much as I had.” His suffering literally made me laugh.

Work D:

User 1:

My theory as to this book’s unusually polarizing nature: either you identify with [the protagonist] or you don’t.

Those who see themselves (either as they were or, God help them, as they are) in [the protagonist] see a misunderstood warrior-poet, fighting the good fight against a hypocritical and unfeeling world; they see [the author] as a genius because he gets it, and he gets them.

Those of us who don’t relate to [the protagonist] see in him a self-absorbed whiner, and in [the author], a one-trick-pony who lucked into performing his trick at a time when some large fraction of America happened to be in the right collective frame of mind to perceive this boring twaddle as subversive and meaningful.

User 2:

I know there are people who thought this book changed their lives and helped them find their unique way in the world, but coming from a non-white, non-middle class background, as a kid, I really resented having to read about this spoiled, screwed up, white, rich kid who kept getting chance after chance and just kept blowing it because he was so self-absorbed and self-pitying. I felt at the time there was no redeeming value in it for me. I was born on the outside trying my best to get in. I felt no sympathy for him at all. I didn’t even find him funny. It just made me angry. I guess it still does.

Work E:

User 1:

[Title] is not a love story. [The author] was mocking those who think they can fight society and win, as well as the folly of youth. At the same time, he was mocking culture for being so backwards that these young people have to commit suicide just to be together.

[The female protagonist] is 13, [the male protagonist] is closing in on 20. At the beginning of the play, two men of [the male protagonist’s] house are talking about decapitating and raping women of [the female protagonist’s] house. And [the male protagonist] bails on some random girl he’s been having sex with, just to try and sleep with 13-year-old [female protagonist]. Still think it’s a love story?

It was [the author’s] worst play, as far as I am concerned, and the reputation it’s cultivated since its release is ridiculous.

User 2:

This is one of those classics that I do not understand why people like it. Don’t get me wrong – the language is beautiful. This is not a condemnation of [the author’s] writing ability, but rather his ability to plot out a story. The story is stupid. I don’t usually put such hurtful words into a review, but it is stupid! [The male protagonist] spends the first act mooning over another girl and then he sees [the female protagonist] and forgets all about what’s-her-face. They speak all of a handful of lines at each other (doesn’t count as speaking to each other as they spend the entire time talking about how hot the other one is), then get married and kill themselves in a period of a couple days. It is ridiculous and unromantic, yet people hold it up as a paragon of romantic love.

Work F:

User 1:

This book is pointless. Nothing happens in the entire book, the characters just talk, drink, and cheat on each other. I would rather have gotten a root canal than read this book. (It was for class.) Anyway I recommend this book to no one!!!

User 2:

He should have called it “Desperate House-Husbands.” What? This is a classic? Fuck [the author], fuck the roaring 20’s, and FUCK YOU.

User 3:

Halfway through and I don’t even care anymore. I’ll read the synopsis for the rest. If I want to read about shiftless rich people and their drunken machinations, I’ll read the Hollywood Reporter or TMZ.

Work G:

User 1:

Torturous. Just buy the fucking flowers, [protagonist]!

User 2:

This is not so much a review as a declaration of surrender. When I read in the intro that this book is comparable to James Joyce’s Ulysses I already started looking for my white flag. Really I cannot be doing with experimental stream of consciousness prose with no dialogue. I cannot even cope with the absence of quotation marks. I read [the novel] for almost an hour and could not discern any kind of plot. The lady is wandering around London observing “the excitement of elms” (wtf?), trees waving about, grazing cows etc. By the time she starts waxing lyrical about bloody sparrows chirping in Greek words I was ready to do a runner. I did find a bit of dialogue though, it goes:

“‘Oh look,’ she implored him. But what was there to look at? A few sheep. That was all.”

Oookay, I’m off!

Work H:

User 1:

[The sequel] by [the author], was continuing [the first book]. This book was truly confusing. It was just completely random, and I could barely follow along with any of the storyline. Just, I feel like [the author] was on some sort of hallucinogen and thought, “Wow! Those flowers are talking to me! I should write a book with all of the other weird things I’m seeing.” Nothing made sense, and it was just so incoherent, but it tried to be proper, but it wasn’t…. It was just a confusing book. I would recommend just watching the [film] version of [the first book], and sing along to the [redacted] song. That is all the [author] that anyone needs.

User 2:

[Book one]: I found this story completely bizarre. I didn’t really enjoy it and the repeating of words, sentences etc. was rather annoying. Everyone in the story is rude and nothing really makes any sense. Whether it was a dream, who knows?

[Sequel]: Again another bizarre story. This time it’s clear by the end of the story that it is just [the protagonist’s] dream.

I really didn’t enjoy either of these stories and has left me wondering why the stories are so popular? I think I’ll stick to the film version of these.

So, can you guess…?

Here’s a list of titles to help you narrow down the answers, if you want:

  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll (1865)
  • Clarissa by Samuel Richardson (1748)
  • David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (1850)
  • Emma by Jane Austen (1816)
  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)
  • Hamlet by William Shakespeare (1598)
  • Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by Joanne K. Rowling (1997)
  • His Dark Materials: Northern Lights by Philip Pullman (1995)
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847)
  • Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868-9)
  • Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955)
  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1954)
  • Love’s Cure by John Fletcher (1647)
  • Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs (2011)
  • Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925)
  • Nightmare Abbey by Thomas Love Peacock (1818)
  • On the Road by Jack Kerouac (1957)
  • Orlando by Virginia Woolf (1928)
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)
  • Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare (1597)
  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie (2007)
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884/5)
  • The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger (1951)
  • The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939)
  • The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
  • The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare (1623)
  • The Wizard of Oz by Lyman Frank Baum (1900)
  • Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett (1948)
  • West Side Story by Irving Shulman (1963)
  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (1847)


  • Work A: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
  • Work B: Pride and Prejudice
  • Work C: Frankenstein
  • Work D: The Catcher in the Rye
  • Work E: Romeo and Juliet
  • Work F: The Great Gatsby
  • Work G: Mrs Dalloway
  • Work H: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass

Reviews have been edited for clarity and length. For the original reviews, go on

2023 - Spring


Image: © Kathryn Coppola

Author: Furaha Mujynya

They pass you by in the streets, inhaling and exhaling the same air, for a few seconds… They are stuck in the warm moving car of a crowded subway, following an identical itinerary for a couple of minutes, until one of you steps out of the underground. They visit the same pubs, restaurants, and clubs, sometimes subtly brushing against your back, arm, or hand, as they make their way through the crowd. They shop in the same grocery store, bakery, and drug store, crossing your path as you fail to recognize them as the perpetual faces hovering around your daily life. More than strangers, they partake in the narratives of your unconscious, stealthily appearing in your dreams and quietly disappearing the moment you awake. They undertake minor roles, blending in with all the other nameless figures in the crowd. Sometimes, however, they possess a larger role in the meanderings of your brain – engendering even more frustration as you regain consciousness only to realize you are missing a key component of the story: the Face. Defeated, you start yearning for the revelation of this unknown identity. As if your dream was a vision of another reality or the key towards a magnificent future – rather than an entertaining illusion – you obsess over every little detail you can remember regarding this oddly familiar figure. Reminiscing over the startling affinity and comfort you felt with this stranger, you let your mind wander about the significance hiding behind this sentiment. As the morning gives way to the day, you slowly forget about this anonymous figure hiding in the depths of your subconscious. You go about your life, unaware that, with every step you take, you get closer to encountering the very person that has preoccupied your mind this entire morning. As the fateful meeting finally takes place, you remain unreactive, not even stopping for a second to look back at them. Unable to recognize this missed opportunity, you continue your day in ignorance. 

They walk past you on campus, in the city, breathing for a moment the same air as you. They sit across from you during a couple of minutes in the unheated roaming bus, until one of you gets up to leave. They visit the same cafés, festivals, and malls, sometimes slightly brushing against your back, shoulder, or hair, as they get across the crowd. They shop in the same supermarket, hardware store, and pharmacy, passing you by as you fail to recognize them as the recurring faces of your daily routine. Much more than familiar strangers, they are the ghosts hiding behind a fog of electronic screens and apps. Concealed by a sea of notifications and suggestions, these faces are nonetheless present on your every social platform – as your aunt’s Facebook friend, your colleague’s Instagram follower, your Snapchat friend recommendation, your mom’s LinkedIn connection and more. When you open your dating app, there appear the very faces you have spent all day ignoring. This face you choose to discard a second time around, swiping left on this fateful but anonymous figure you have tried so hard to remember. Not even feeling a sentiment of déjà vu, they remain nothing but a stranger. The protagonists of your subconscious’s fiction have managed to invade every aspect of your awoken life, whilst their identity still remains a mystery to you. Everybody in the streets becomes an unknown face with the potential of slowly creeping their way into the wandering thoughts of your subconscious – transforming into an actor in the intimate creations of your imagination.


2022 - Winter

Go to Hell

Author: Katharina Schwarck

It is a warm, sultry day. The type of day that makes your body feel heavy and your skull pressured. The type of day that makes your limbs and your soul yearn for an explosion of the skies to release the earthly tension. Though you are not sure it is only the elements that are making you implode. A cure has been found, you are told. A cure that could have saved them. A cure that came too late. You think of them, your person. You think of them in disbelief. You think of them in pain. The type of pain that makes you pinch your skin because your only desire is to be in a dream. The type of pain that makes your cheeks twinge and cramp. The type of pain that makes you want to pull out your heart. Maybe, now, you think, you can bring them back. So, you travel. You travel to the place of the stories. You travel to the place of evil. You travel to the place that, for you, is the last place of hope. You are told to enter near a lake. Near a lake, near the New City. So, you go. 

On the journey from the New City to the lake, walking, and walking, pain and exhaustion overcome you. You lie down. 

Later, unsure of how much time has passed, you are woken up by a man’s voice in a tongue you do not know. You sit up. In front of you, there is an entrance to what appears to be a cave. In the mouth of the cave, leaning against the wall stands a man. He says “veniam et te adiuvet sed non possum”, shrugging and pursing his voluptuous lips. You slowly sit up and look at him, void of understanding. “Hic est introitus inferni. Sed vide. Lupa ostium custoditur.”, he pursues. You shake your head in confusion. “I don’t understand”, you explain in your tongue. “Oh!” he exclaims. “My bad. This is the entrance you are looking for. But be careful, it is guarded by a Great and Dangerous She-Wolf. And I would help you up but I can’t.” You nod, stand up, and dust yourself off. The man smiles.  

Do you

A) thank him and go home? Open the PDF document and go to page 2

B) ask him if he knows a way past the animal?  Open the PDF document and go to page 4

2022 - Winter

Emails, General Assemblies and Unlimited Cappuccino – An Interview with the Department Secretary, Patricia Mascia

Image: © Patricia Mascia

Author: Katharina Schwarck

On a sunny Tuesday morning, I meet Patricia Mascia. You may not know who she is but she is one of the most important gears of the English department, without whom it certainly would not work as well as it does. 
Maybe you know her under a different name.
Ever gotten an email from “secrétariat-anglais”? Yupp, that’s her.

So, on that sunny Tuesday morning, she welcomes me in the English department’s common room and offers me something to drink. I am excited to have a chat, get to know her better and ask her all the questions that the MUSE team has prepared for this day.

We sit down.

“Hi! Are you ready?” I ask her. “Could you introduce yourself to our readers in a few words?” She gives me a warm smile. “My name is Patricia Mascia, I’m 36. I grew up near Morges. I did quite a lot of gymnastics until I was 20 and I like sports and reading.” We discover that we grew up in the same village and get excited about it for a few seconds. After I’ve told her very specifically in which house I grew up, I ask her to tell me about her work and responsibilities. She explains that her “tasks here are mostly helping with administrative matters, both in the English and the Italian section. The preparation of exam sessions is a big part of my job, too.”

“What would you say is the best part about your work?” I ask her in response. “I would say it’s the multilingual aspect of the job. I really like speaking English, Italian and French every day. It’s cool. Also because I think here people are just really kind and it’s a nice environment to work in.”

“So you speak English, Italian and French!” I get excited about her multilingualism. “Could you tell me a little more about your linguistic background?”

“My mother tongue is French, I learnt Italian and English at school. I wanted to become a translator so I’ve always liked foreign languages. It’s like a passion. After high school I entered the university of Geneva in Translation Studies. I finished my BA in 2010. After that I got married and had children so I had kind of a break there. I was my husband’s company’s secretary until last year but I missed speaking foreign languages so I began doing substitute teaching in schools in both English and Italian and I liked it! Because of that I tried to enroll in the HEP in Lausanne. As my background was mainly linguistics, I was asked to do literature classes here at UNIL. So I did crédits complémentaires in English and Italian, 40 ECTS credits. I finished in 2019. I thought it was so cool so I did one year of master’s classes in English until I saw the job advert for my current job last year. So my parcours isn’t very straight-forward!” She chuckles. We shake our heads at all the stories we’ve heard from people having to retake credits to enroll in certain schools. I realize that she knows the department both as a student and as a staff member! “Yeah!” she laughs. “I knew the teachers from a different point of view.” 

Not being able to let go of the topic of languages, I ask her a follow-up question: “If you could learn any language instantly without having to learn it, what language would that be?” “Chinese,” she tells me. “I’m not sure why. Maybe because I find the signs, the way it’s written, fascinating.” I nod with approval, but before I go even more astray asking her even more questions about languages that I was not sent here to ask, I ask her if her secretary job at her husband’s company was her first job. She tells me that was indeed her first full-time job but that she had had a few small jobs while studying. When I ask her what she did more specifically, she lists working at Coop and in a bakery on the weekends. A quite typical student experience.

For my last work-related question I ask how she prefers to work, independently? Or as a team? “Independently,” she tells me honestly. “I’m a very independent person. I think it’s partly because I’m not able to delegate and I like to organize my time.” I tell her how relatable she is and that it’s hard to delegate when asking someone else to do something takes as much time as doing it ourselves. She strongly agrees. She adds “it’s problematic though because sometimes you feel like you would need help but you’re not able to ask.” Very understandable. We conclude that we do our best to learn how to delegate and, who knows, maybe one day we’ll be able to do it!

“Let’s move onto my less work-related and weirder and funnier questions,” I suggest. “What’s your favorite thing about Lausanne?” “I think I like its dynamism,” she decides. “A lot of events take place here. I like the energy of the place.”

Picking up on the fact that she said she liked to read and, well, works for the faculty of Arts, I ask her what she likes to read more exactly. “Life stories and biographies,” she lists as her favorite genres. She elaborates “You can learn from someone’s experience, so I really like that.” “Do you read in several languages?” I ask her. “I would say English and French and a little less in Italian.” At this point I tell her how impressive I find it that she works in not one but two of her foreign languages. She modestly tells me that she finds English to be her weakest language and that she wants to improve. “You know,” she recounts. “In Translation Studies, it’s always written, you never have to speak. It’s quite different skills that are required and you always translate from the foreign language into your mother tongue.” “Did you translate into both English and Italian?” “Yes, and Spanish. I did Spanish as well.” One more language! I am impressed.

“Are you watching any TV shows at the moment?” She tells me that TV shows aren’t really her thing but movies are. Romantic movies, to be specific. As the holidays are approaching and many of my friends are already suffering from (or enjoying) Christmas-movie-fever, I ask her if she’s a fan of them too. And yes, she watches Christmas movies, indeed!

I warn her that I’m about to ask her a very, very specific question. “What is your favorite seasoning or spice? Fitting with the whole Christmas theme she tells me “I love cinnamon and cinnamon-scented candles!” That sounds lovely and I now crave cinnamon. “Are you a dog or a cat person? Or perhaps a bird person?” I continue with my rather specific questions. “I’m more of a dog person,” she first says. “Even though we have a rabbit at home! I could be a rabbit person?” We agree that we don’t really talk about “rabbit” people and that we love dogs but that they are a big commitment so we don’t have any at the moment. 

I ask her a question that I am very excited about: “If you could have an unlimited supply of one thing for the rest of your life, what would you choose?” I give her some time to think. “Maybe cappuccino!” she laughs. How very relatable. (Is anyone else craving cappuccino with cinnamon right now?) “I really like your answer!” I reply. “If you could have dinner with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be?” I enquire. “If you’re talking about a public figure, I would say Nelson Mandela. I admire him for his courage.” “And if you could teleport anywhere right now, where would you go?” Her eyes light up: “On a sunny island!” “You’re not a winter person?” I ask her. “No, not at all!” We laugh together about how nice it would be to be in a really sunny place right now and get our vitamin D. We complain about daylight savings: “It’s only one hour but it’s so difficult”, Patricia tells me. “It’s 6 pm and I want to sleep! It’s frustrating.”

For my last question in this interview, I ask her what’s an easy way to do something nice for someone. “I think the simplest things are sometimes the most appreciated: a kind word, a little attention. Sometimes I try to put myself in someone else’s shoes to try to think of something that could be helpful.” Following that sweet answer, I thank her a lot for the lovely chat and the laughs and I let her go back to her work.

2022 - Winter

Excuses, Excuses

Excuses, excuses…

Over one’s life as a student, it is clearly difficult to attend 100% of one’s classes. Yet, sometimes the reasons why we skip class or at least the reason that we give may be more or less justified…

This semester, MUSE asked UNIL’s students for their anecdotes and craziest excuses they or their friends have ever given to explain missing a class. Has something like this ever happened to you?


I once read that a student in the high school I went to didn’t come to class because their pet rat had passed away and they buried it in the yard and conducted a funeral and everything. I don’t think I ever laughed about a dead animal before this. It was so unexpected! May that cute rat rest in peace :)

I’m too good a student to miss class but once, my best friends only wrote “anthrax” on his excuse which kind of made his teacher panic for a moment (the real reason was a concert from the group Anthrax and not actually anthrax, the infectious disease…)

Having spent all night writing and not getting a single hour of sleep.

Me: So, how was your class this morning?
Them: I didn’t go. I had to cut my beard.

My friend forgot their book at their parents’ place in another canton. Instead of coming to class and following with us and sharing a book, they decided to take the train all the way back to their parents’ to retrieve the book, obviously missing the entire class they would have needed the book for…

My friend forgot their computer charging cable. Instead of coming to class and taking notes on paper, they decided to go back home to retrieve their charging cable, obviously missing the whole class they would have needed their computer for…

Me: Why didn’t you come to class?
Them: Well, I wanted to come but as I was leaving my apartment, I saw how dusty it was so I had to stay to “passer la panosse”.

One of my friends missed uni at least twice because their apartment was flooded.

In winter, I went skiing with my family and family friends. We were in a chalet for the weekend and it snowed quite a lot during that time. So we were trapped in there because the cars couldn’t move. At least it’s what we said because if we had really wanted to leave, it would have been possible but it was so great and cosy in the chalet that we decided to stay one more evening ? And so the excuse that I wrote for my chemistry teacher was that there was too much solid h2O on the road and that we were trapped.

Cut class in half because of a “work meeting” that was really a hangout between friends to a famous coffee shop brand…

It’s pretty depressing, but, I sometimes skip classes because I have too much work to do for other classes. So, I skip class in order to study for class. Sounds counter-productive, I know o_o

His grandma died over 6 times.

I had just had a baby (and it was true).

I had been run over by a bus.

When I was in gymnase, I skipped a maths class because, and I mean this literally, the dog ate my homework (and my textbook, and my pencil case).

When I was in gymnase, I once used an excuse that was actually the truth and I wrote on the note that I had gone out partying until 5am so I wanted to sleep in. The excuse was obviously rejected and I got detention :)

My sister’s friend is really scared of this cat in her neighborhood, so she once told my sister she’d arrive late in class because while leaving, she opened the door, saw the cat, closed it and went and sat on the couch anxiously waiting for the cat to leave so she could leave her house too.

*responses have been edited for clarity and length

2022 - Spring


Author: Katharina Schwarck


2. Last name of the author of “Bright Star”.
4. The Faculty of Arts’ favourite animal.
7. One of the three rivers on campus. It is the Western-most river of the three. It has its source near Cheseaux.
11. Last name of the author of “Recitatif” and “Beloved”.
12. Le Château de …….
13. UNIL’s shepherd, Bob ……
14. The linguist who theorised the cooperative principle and the eponymous maxims.


1. The English students’ association.
3. The number of printed MUSE editions there have been, including this one.*
5. One of the three rivers on campus. Etymologically, this river’s name means “crayfish river”.
6. Virginia Woolf’s androgynous character.
7. UNIL’s favourite animal.
8. William Warder’s last name. You know, the guy who created the publishing house that’s responsible for all the big books we have to buy in first year.
9. The Canadian city Cécile Heim went to on exchange during her MA.*
10. Harry Potter’s owl.
11. One of the three rivers on campus. This river is the only one that does not have a metro stop named after it.

Clues marked with a * correspond to answers that can be found in this edition of MUSE.


2. Keats
4. Fox
7. Sorge
11. Morrison
12. Dorigny
13. Martin
14. Grice

3. Sixteen*
5. Chamberonne
6. Orlando
7. Sheep
8. Norton
10. Hedwig
11. Mèbre

2021 - Winter

The Orchard

Image: © Laure Cepl

Author: Laure Cepl

A sudden shake woke me up from my light slumber. The train was arriving on the rail intersection. I gazed at the different approaching tracks crossing the wagon’s wheels then slowly moving away. During my travels, I usually meticulously observe and try to guess which path the train will take and still, even if I know the way like the back of my hand, somehow, I am always baffled by an unexpected junction that will take me to a different track. A screeching voice on the loudspeaker brought me back to reality, “Next stop M…” and reminds us of the procedure and which compartments are allowed to leave the train first. I put back the little casket that was on my lap during the whole trip in a special bag that I carefully closed. It was a precious parcel. I was the only suitable person who could accomplish this mission, since they had already done the trip. I had some doubts about whether I would remember where to go, since I hadn’t been there since we left. But they reassured me and affirmed that when the time would come, memories would also come back along the way. The loudspeaker shrilled a second time.  I took my hand sanitizer out and disinfected my hands before I put my gloves and my mask back on my face, as I waited for my number and the Plexiglas panes to open. It used to be way faster. I remember, my mother always used to book first class tickets for us, because it was cleaner and because smokers and non-smokers were separated, “more suitable for young children”, she said. Back then, she not only used hand sanitizer, but she also used to clean our seats, the small table, the edges of the windows. Everything had to be clean, so our little mittens would not carry any germs to our mouth as we ate some snacks. “Second class, number 33”, shrieked the voice again. As I stepped out of the train, a light chemical breeze refreshed my thoughts and I found myself on one of the numerous platforms of the Central Station. As I looked up, the sunlight passing through the coloured windows of the dome-shaped roof blinded me before kissing the sanitized white pavement. I had  never seen the station like this. In my oldest memories, M. Central had always been this dark, smelly station, swarming from dawn to dusk. As we walked to the announcement board, I remember slaloming between fresh and dried up chewing gum. They were part of the ground’s irregular mosaic while cigarette butts coated the rail tracks. It was a real ballerina’s work to tiptoe through that filth while holding firmly to my little luggage and to my mother’s hand as her pace accelerated to avoid people. She always told us to be very careful: gypsies and pick pockets were always lurking. While we were waiting for the information concerning our next train, my main entertainment was to watch the television spot. The Chordettes’ Lollipopwas resonating through the whole hall as I was salivating over the new Kinder Easter egg commercial. Observing this buzzing waltz of people going all over the place was also a great source of occupation. Elderly couples confused, struggling to find their platform, large families arguing over the forgotten bag, youth sport teams gathering beside the newsagent.

The walk to the announcement board was a solemn march that day. I started excelling in walking in a straight line the day my mother traded my red Lelli Kelly shoes for a pair of black polished derbies. It was for a “special occasion” that I was not familiar with yet. I felt so much pride when my mother took me to the shoe department for women for the first time. I trotted along the different aisles while she was choosing what would be the perfect pair for the occasion. The first floor had different sections. The west aisles were the most boring ones: men’s shoes. They were either brown or black. The south and east aisles were my favourites. Against the window were displayed the new models by Lelli Kelly, each more colourful than the last. Just beside the magazine area, house slippers were piled on a shelf. Trying to find the fluffiest ones was my favourite game. There was another floor downstairs. It was rather quite cold in the shop; however, the basement floor was the coldest, the most remote and mysterious to me. There they kept the teenager shoes. For some reason, I was never allowed to go there by myself, although I was curious to know what I would wear in the future. It took three tours around the shop and its thirty shelves until I heard my name. The turning point had finally arrived. I rushed swiftly to my seat and opened the box containing what would make me look like “a fine little lady” as my mother said. Opening shoe boxes was always exciting because with each new pair of Lelli Kellys were included some shiny stickers.  However, to my greatest disappointment there were no more stickers inside the box, instead I found some extra black laces. With a long face, I tried my new derbies on. “They look perfect on you, my dear!” declared my mother in a satisfied tone. “Take some steps and look at yourself in the mirror!”  I stood up and realised how uncomfortable growing up was. I stumbled upon my untied laces, and dragged myself to the mirror. Invisible to the eye, the back of the shoes would soon rub against my heel and my toes floated in these two invisible inches of space dedicated to the upcoming years.

A sudden horn blew away my thoughts; my train for the next destination was arriving. I went to the glass portal where they controlled our passports, tickets and checked our temperature. The waiting line was very silent. Once my details were validated, I hopped on the train, took out my sanitizing products and thoroughly cleaned my place. Back then we used to sit on the edge of the stained seats, afraid to touch anything. The train to B… had always been loud and smelly, and from spring to autumn the windows were open to give its passengers the false impression of some fresh air. We used to count the number of rainbow peace flags were hung on the windows of the buildings along the tracks. They have been replaced over the years with what now are nothing more but tagged rags on which one can difficultly read: “It’s going to be okay”. The truth is, it has not been “okay” for as long as I can recall. We used to hear bad things on the news, and my mother used to cover our eyes, so we would not see the violent images of what was happening in some far-off country. She said it came like a flood, it would wipe everything away. A kind of disease that was plaguing the roots of entire civilizations. “It is terrible”, she whispered. “And people would pray so that it would not come here too”. Now hush children, it is past your bedtime and there are things we adults have to discuss.” Reluctantly, we would walk to our bedroom followed by our grandmother, who made sure we washed our feet, brushed our teeth and prayed before going to bed. Once the lights were out, we used to leave our bedroom and glue our ears to the corridor wall, so that we could hear fragments of their conversations, if we were lucky. However, most of the time, they would speak very quietly, almost murmuring, as if they were afraid of their own conversations. We still could not understand much of the issue about this strange disease. Some rumours about it were that it had already spread to the continent, other said it was just a hoax. But now, when I see the written remnants, the peace flags were just a preamble of something “terrible” that would come here too. And nobody was ready for that, nor spared.

The journey to B… never lasted long, one hour approximatively, during which, after we passed the suburbs of the city of M…, we could admire the countryside. It was very flat, and back then we could get a glimpse of agricultural farms built out of stones which were covered with plaster. Sometimes there were houses around the farms, and all together they formed little hamlets. I couldn’t dwell on the details, for the train passed them quite fast. Over time, agricultural areas became an attractive location for factories of all kind. There was at least one element that seemed immanent: the sky. I have always remembered the sky of this country as having a tint of blue that would be found in no other place and whose shade was almost indescribable. Its colour has always been very intense, but you could see variations according to the seasons. During winter, it was quite intense whereas during summer the sun would make it brighter. The sun was also not the same. When it went down, sometimes it set the whole sky on fire, and at that moment I would always spend the last couple of minutes of its presence, watching this orange, red globe hiding behind the mountain, until my eyes hurt. But that day, the sky was dimmed by a light cloud, a sort of brown haze that almost cast a shadow over the land. As the train slowed down in approach to our next stop, its shakes remind me to check for the twentieth time today that my precious parcel is not damaged by the shocks. It is by far the most important task I have undertaken and on the day the decision was proclaimed, I solemnly promised not to disappoint them and make my mother proud.

Once again, the changes brought to the station of B. surprised me. First of all, there was an elevator on all the platforms, and even one linking the underground and the ground floor where the way out was. Before, we had to carry our luggage all the way up or even worse, take the stairs. Furthermore, our luggage was seldom light; on the contrary, it was packed with souvenirs, goodies or food we brought back from our vacations. But this time, my luggage was not that heavy. A nightgown, spare clothes, an extra pair of shoes and a light jacket if it was windy in the evening, my beauty case were my only belongings. I had nothing left anyway. My casket had its weight though. But we can’t compare two different unities of measurement. I quickened my pace to find and climb onto the right bus, that would take me to M. It was, to my greatest satisfaction, unexpectedly not crowded. Perhaps people avoided taking the bus because they were still scared. This emptiness gave me the freedom to choose the seat next to the window, allowing me to feel the city of B. once again.

The bus started and took one of the lanes of the main boulevard that faced the old ramparts of the town. The historic centre of B. distinguishes itself from the modern part of the city because it is higher in altitude. I always loved when we went there either by foot or in the car. When we arrived from the lowland I was always impressed by this wonderful city standing on the top of a hill, with fortified walls that have resisted time so far. If my memories are correct, there are two ways to reach it: either take the funicular cable, or climb the steep stairs and go through the main gate, take a walk along the walls and enjoy the breath-taking view. I have always enjoyed walking along the walls because the view is not limited to the buzzing modern town. It stretches past across the countryside and even gives a glimpse of the industrial towers of M. This view, displaying the flat lands in the middle and the hills and mountains on the left and right always conveyed a certain sense of infinity. I even had my favourite bench to watch the sunset. When we passed there by car, I would roll down the window and smell the air that was as unique as the sky. I remember the time when we found a store selling sweets in one of the many narrow paved streets. There were plenty of little shops and taverns, but once we took a different alley and found what became one of the many rituals we had when going to the old town. My sister, my two cousins and I decided to combine our pocket money and buy as many sweets as we could. We left the shop victorious, with a bag full of colourful candy, ready to stroll along the streets and discover the old town’s hidden gems before sitting in a square. I remember that when we came by foot, we would take the path along the hills on our way home. We would follow the ancient paved road, and after ten to fifteen minutes of walk, it was possible to see some beautiful coloured houses nested on the hills. Most of them of them had palm trees in their garden, adding a contrast to the northern landscape. There was also a fountain that was once the place where the white sheets we could see on the balconies were washed. As we pursued our journey we could hear the bells of a monastery in the lowland, between two hills. We asked our parents if monks still inhabited it, but apparently, they turned it into a hotel or something of that kind. After passing the monastery, I remember we had to cross a small woodland area before climbing down the last hill and arriving in the village.

I had to stop retracing my former pilgrimage and focus on the one I was making now, for I was not sure the stop I selected was the closest one to the house. Eventually I jumped off the bus and found myself at the entrance of the village. More than twenty years had passed since I last sojourned here. I recognized the general outline, despite the changes incurred by the flood. There was just one bar left, half empty. From outside, I could see two people sitting at the counter. It was the one in which I had the first popsicle I can recall. Back then, way before everything happened, there used to be village fairs over the course of the summer and we used to go out after nightfall to get a drink or an ice cream. They had these over-sweetened, strawberry, Tom and Jerry-shaped popsicles that, once they started to melt, dripped this bright pink syrup all over our new shirts and our white summer pants. But we did not mind. We did not care much about dirt anyway, back then. At weddings, we used to eat the rice that was on the ground and formed a heart in front of the church, and we also did not fear grabbing the tassel that was hanging down, and that everyone tried to catch, in the hope for an extra free tour on the merry-go-round. ‘Germs’ was a word not added to our vocabulary yet. However, we were too busy playing to notice the worried tone creeping into the adults’ voices. The absence of the smell coming from the bakery led me in front of an empty shop window. The shoe shop, the butcher’s had gone bankrupt too. Folks became more and more reluctant to buy what they needed in stores. Too much time wasted, not enough choice and there was the mistrust anyway. They started fearing each other since the deluge. Everyone looked suspicious: the risks and consequences of contamination were far too great. Elderly citizens’ lives were the ones the most at stake. They needed to be more cautious than any other generation due to their fragility and to the work some would accomplish in The Orchard.

If my memories are correct, The Orchard was guarded by a large brick wall, encircling the area. It was so high that we could not see what was on the other side. I remember, the first time I had been there I was wearing my new black polished derbies. There was a little crowd with us waiting in front of the entrance gate. It was an imposing, heavy portal made of iron. Its arrow shaped barriers were pointing towards the sky and the key hole was almost as large as my hand. Whatever was concealed behind it, must have been very valuable. There was a house too, made of bricks, standing solemnly, guarded by the gate. A stone-grey plate on which something was written hung beside the dark green wooden door. The architecture was quite outstanding when comparing it to the rest of the area. Two aged ladies opened the gate. They were wearing long, brown linen dresses, hiding most of their leather sandals. Despite the striking heat, they did not seem bothered at all, on the contrary, their expression seemed as neutral as ever. While I was observing them with the greatest care, the two ladies started giving us instructions concerning the procedure. My mother noticed my puzzled face and explained to me that, among many other people, they were the guardians of The Orchard. “Once you will be wise enough, you will be asked to join The Orchard as well, that is everyone’s duty. The work they achieve here is crucial for our kind. They take care of this place. They do general maintenance in the house, they mend the wall if a storm damages it, and keep a record of who comes to The Orchard. Concerning the gardening work, not only do they watch over trees, make sure they receive enough water, trim them when it is needed, but also, they are the ones securing that what has been dear to us does not fall into oblivion. As a matter of fact, some call them the memory gatherers. For you must understand, some trees have been planted centuries ago, and if they die or if damage is inflicted upon them, it would mean a great loss to all of us. It is crucial that you always, always remember where our tree is planted. It is the only way for us to be reunited again if we must part and go on separated paths. Trees are the cores of our memories. They remember everything: the weather, diseases, and the older they are, the deeper their roots go and the more valuable they become. Do not forget that.” I nodded, in silence, trying to grasp the information and the great task I have been given.

One by one, they went through that door, while we were waiting in line, me still holding my mother’s hand and working on remembering what she had just said to me. Once we entered, we found ourselves in a large hall made of old stones. Despite the heat outside, a cold airstream greeted us. I looked around me and I was surprised to find out that the place was quite bare. As a matter of fact, there was only little piece of furniture around. My mother told me that once you become part of The Orchard, you leave behind unnecessary things that would become a burden to the work you have to accomplish. The reception desk made of oak was as imposing as the rest of the place. A strange atmosphere filled the whole house, I could not understand the eerie feeling of experiencing both a supreme peacefulness and yet a lingering doubt concerning this place. We waited again a while until someone arrived. In the meantime, I was observing these elderly people, monk-like, evolving in this strange environment. An old man arrived carrying a casket on a cart. He was bald, but his beard was long, untrimmed. He too, was wearing the same kind of clothes as the two other ladies, however his robe outlined quite well his skinny, frail figure. I was getting quite impatient to finally discover what this garden looked like. We followed him, passed through a courtyard hall, and eventually we arrived in a very vast place outside, facing The Orchard. At first I could not see much: I was blinded by the sun and hit by the heat, due to spending what seemed hours in this peculiar, cold house. It was vast, so vast I could not see the walls meet at the end. An infinite neat lawn laid in front of us, little grey gravel paths divided the green area into nice and tidy squares. The trees were aligned, forming rows that followed the pattern set by the paths. They were different species of trees, and not a single one looked like its neighbour. There were birches, cedars, hawthorns, oaks, pines, sycamores, some were blooming, other bearing fruits already. Some looked quite young and others seemed to have been there for ages. Altogether, they formed the most peaceful unity.  This lovely garden was tended by the people from The Orchard. A couple of them were mowing and trimming the grass while three workers were digging the earth. A sudden movement in the group put an end to my contemplation and we followed the procession to a tree. A congregation formed a semi-circle around it, we were in the front row so that I could see and most importantly remember what “our tree” looked like. Then someone I had known since my youngest age stepped forward, took the casket and opened it. I could not see at first what was inside it. I leant forward on the tip of my toes to get a better glance  while the person put the box on the ground and revealed its content. Dark soil. It was a handful of some dark, damp soil that all the members of the group including me, one by one by one, took before spreading the earth around the trunk of the tree and on its roots. They started singing and after they shared an anecdote, they went back to the strange house, leaving my mother and I behind. “Now focus”, she said, “try to carve in your head its emerging roots, the shape of its trunk, feel the pattern of its bark on your hands, observe the direction that its winding branches take, learn to recognize the smell of its leaves and don’t forget the way its sings when the wind blows”. We stayed there until I felt I would remember everything. We joined the group again; it was already spreading out and heading towards the cars. Once seated and my belt fastened, I glanced at my black polished derbies that were tarnished by dust, while they were still outside, exchanging a goodbye and wishing each other a safe ride home. There were more and more gatherings like this one over the upcoming years, but they did not allow me to come all the time and we never really talked about it, or maybe the adults did, once they were in the parlour.

Eventually, after having lost my way a couple of times in the half-deserted streets of the village, I found my family’s former home. It was situated in a large street, five houses behind the church. The black ornamental fences were all rusted and the yellow facades were way darker than before, peeling off. Despite its advanced decay, our residence stood there, as imposing as I remember it. It took me a couple of minutes to get acquainted with the set of keys, each opened a different door, and it had always been so, no matter how stressful it was to lose one. At first, we did not use to keep our doors locked. Everyone trusted everyone, and we did not feel that we had to hide from the rest of the world. But winds of panic started blowing across the country, spreading out the rumour that dark skies were upon us. Folks and family slowly started questioning people’s whereabouts in case the disease would spread out. Insecurity invaded minds, forgetting slowly how it was before. Village fairs would be cancelled, and weddings postponed. Our raids to the sweet store became at some point erased off the list. Playing in the garden was still permitted, but we had to keep away from the fences and not touch them at all costs. That’s why they installed the bay hedges. They were tall, thick and shielding us from the view on the street. They are dried up now as well as everything that we used to grow there. Tall crops of tomatoes used to add colours to our dense vegetable garden. I think they started cultivating fruits and vegetables when the first flags ornamented the windows of the area, or maybe it was pure hazard. But I know that they planted carrots before the bay leaf hedges. Eventually, the day when playing outside became dangerous too arrived. Going back to the little alley leading to the porch, I realised this one too was now outgrown by weeds. The midday sun was striking the porch, underlining the scars of the aging walls that once protected us.

Entering inside for the first time in years opened the door to some forgotten events of the past. I felt a mixture between fear, a profound nostalgia and incomprehension. Why did what we considered once as our safe haven fail us eventually? We had everything we needed here. But decisions did not belong to us children. As a matter of fact, they were mostly made in the parlour, the only room that was off-limits within these walls. The parlour had always been this mysterious and forbidden territory since some minor incident occurred years ago. They told me when I was older the anecdote concerning the parlour. My sister and I were running around the table, chasing each other, until one of us, we have never known which one for it happened so fast, pulled the table cloth by mistake, letting a crystal plate that was on the edge drop and break into hundreds of fragments. We screamed in confusion and fright, furthermore we were barefoot. Our grandparents who lived with us were the first ones to rush up to the room. They were obviously very upset but not as much as our parents who were quite fond of the plate since it was a gift given to them for their wedding. From that moment on, no children would step foot in the parlour. Now I understand that this incident proved itself to be the perfect excuse for locking themselves up when conversations became serious in the later years of our life here. I was not able to make the link back then, so there was always a lingering feeling of injustice when guests and relatives closed the door behind them, telling us to stay in the kitchen and draw or read. The kitchen was the room we occupied the most. It was always warm, even during winter, because there was always a cake baking inside the oven or a hearty stew on the stove. We also used to listen a lot to the radio, it was a great source of distraction. The old television was also in the kitchen, but we were not allowed to watch it unattended, especially when the flood started.

As I entered the dusty kitchen, I started to remember what changed the course of our lives. My grandparents, my parents, my sister and I were having dinner while watching the news when the telephone rang. My mother stood up to answer, while we all stopped paying attention to the television to listen to whom she was talking. Her face went pale, and she stood there, speechless until she hung up. “Children, finish your plates and prepare yourselves to go to bed”, she said. We did not understand why so much haste, but we could discern that consternation would join the assembly tonight. They stood up hastily, my grandparents washed the dishes and cleared off the table, as my parents set up the parlour. From the moment we saw that they took out the brandy, crystal glasses and the dark chocolate, we knew something important was going to happen. My grandmother assured herself we would go to bed while my parents went downstairs to greet their guest. As we were curious, we waited until they were installed in the parlour, with the door semi-closed, because they did not suspect us to stay awake. After waiting half an hour, we crossed the hallway as quietly as shadows and stood near the door to hear what they were saying and who was their guest. We recognized the voice of our aunt, my mother’s sister who used to work as a nurse in a hospital. As they were whispering we could not hear everything that was said, but the topic was extremely serious. Then we heard some steps going towards our direction, so we ran back to our room as fast as we could, and decided it was better not to attempt a second time, for we would be grounded if they found us.

We were completely asleep when all of a sudden, my mother broke into the room, turning the lights on and telling us to wake up, get ready and pack our clothes and take only the essential things with us. She left the room in the same manner as she burst in: like a whirlwind. On the moment, the effect of surprise felt like an electric shock, knocking us out and leaving us extremely disoriented in our room, as if it was the first time we saw it. I must admit I also felt a feeling of strangeness when I looked at my belongings, and the choice I had to make concerning what would be packed, taken with us and what would be left behind, felt extremely trivial. It was about midnight when we were summoned in the kitchen, dressed and with our little luggage ready. My grandmother made us a hot tea while we all sat together. My aunt was still present as well. Nobody said a word for five minutes which seemed to last a lifetime. After a while, my mother sighed and my father cleared his throat before starting to talk. “Children”, he said, “as you may have noticed the past few months, terrible things are happening out there at the moment. We thought the situation would settle down, unfortunately, as we feared it has spread out and it’s getting closer. Your aunt came to warn us to leave the country as fast as we could, before it is too late. Although we do not want you to worry, for everyone’s safety, it is best if we leave the house tonight, before they start blocking the borders, because that is one of the risks we take if we wait for too long. We must act quickly. We have made the heart-breaking decision tonight that your Grandmother and your Grandfather will go to The Orchard tomorrow, because they are getting too old to travel that far and because they also have a duty to accomplish there. So, for now, you must say goodbye to them. We do not know when you will see them again, so you must be brave. We will come back home once it’s safe enough. We’re sorry. Be brave.” I can only hardly describe the way it felt to hear that. Our little world felt like it had been crushed down. As if a storm just blew away the pillars, the foundations of our existence. Again, a silence even heavier than before invaded the room and hung over our heads. I looked straight into the eyes of my grandmother. There was a deep sadness mingled with fear in her green eyes. Her light grey hair was attached in a bun, messier than usual and her rosy cheeks had faded. Her lips were shaking as she tried to appear as reassuring as possible. Neither of us were capable to let a sound escape from our mouths. Talking with our eyes was perhaps the most painful thing I had to do that night. After that, everything went so fast. My grandfather stood up, took our luggage and started packing our car while my parents were exchanging a last couple of words with our aunt. In the meantime, we stayed in the kitchen, my sister was crying, my grandmother was trying to comfort her while I was staring at the wooden pavement. My grandmother waited until my sister calmed down before taking a chair and placed it in front of the sofa on which I was sitting. “Listen, child, I know you are both upset, terrified and I cannot imagine how difficult it must be for you to understand a situation that is beyond anyone’s control. You must be courageous. But worry not, we will meet again at The Orchard, and do not forget at all costs where our tree is planted. It is where we will all reunited one day.” Before I even knew, my sister and I were sitting in the car, both crying while my father was driving the car in the night. I could hear my mother sobbing in silence. There have been no real goodbyes.

I had not experienced these memories for years, as if I had left them behind, with everything that was in the house. I guess they had been asleep somewhere in my mind. But when I entered through our former kitchen, where everything was shrouded in white sheets, I woke up ghosts of the past. I went to sit on the skeleton of the sofa, put the casket on my lap and I stayed there an hour, maybe less, trying to recollect my thoughts and think of what was coming next. I took an oath, and I still had a mission to accomplish by the end of the day. I searched for the address and the map leading to The Orchard. I went to the garage to put the casket in the car and find the map in the glove compartment. After making some adjustments to the car, checking it still had enough oil and gasoline, I took a deep breath before turning the motor on. Surprisingly, I realised that the car never lost its old smell. There had always been a cologne perfume that would impregnate the whole car. During summer, it used to make me car sick, plus everyone would eat some mint candy whose smell would make me feel even more nauseous than before. Because of this, I had the privilege to sit in the front, with the window wide open, and more importantly, the power to choose the music was all mine. We had a couple of mixtapes that we used to play all the time. I put one in the tape player and turned the motor on. The car started, so did the music.  It was about four in the afternoon. After a couple of miles, the song Slipping Away came on. The song was interpreted by two people. A French singer and an American one. It was my mother’s favourite song. I chased these thoughts away from my head as I was trying to find my way out of the village and not miss the pre-selection for the regional road. The landscape was almost unrecognizable. Before, there were vacant lots all along the sides of the road. It was like a kind of countryside filled with plastic bags, rubbish that people would throw out of the window. Plastic bags were still there, but the grass had been replaced by more buildings and shops, half of which were closed due to the economic collapse that followed the flood. These blocks of concrete were obstructing the view on the area that, once, was beautiful, despite the plastic bags and the gas fumes emanating from the old cars. The road led me through a remote valley, which at first sight seemed spared by the changes and kept its ancient atmosphere. There were small mountains, some small villages were half hidden by the trees, but you could see their steeples amidst this greenery. One of them was surely inhabited by some of my relatives. But I cannot be so sure of that, since many valleys surrounded the area. I do remember though the wonderful time we had spent exploring the woods and all the adventures we had by the river that crossed one of the valleys. We used to jump from a small cliff in the cold spring water, watch out for snakes, build bridges where the water was shallower, with pebbles we would collect on the shore, with the burning hope that it would last and still be there the next time we would come. Golden bygone days. The pebbles and the river waited for us, but alas, we never came back.

After driving through this vale of reminiscences for a couple of hours with breaks to admire the landscape and to catch a glimpse of our previous life, I finally arrived at what seemed to be The Orchard. However, the advanced decay in which the estate was left me quite dubious about my reading of the map. I went back on the main road, drove around in circles three or four times in the nearby area because the place did not match the picture I had of it in my memories. In fact, instead of an imposing gate was a gaping hole. No one was attending the entrance either. Doubt seized my thoughts, so I stayed in my car a few moments. The casket was sitting on the back seat, with the belt fastened. I looked at my black polished shoes. After all these years, they were fitting me perfectly. Not too large neither too tight. The two inches of space disappeared with my childhood. It was as if the whole time they were meant to fit this occasion. My mother would agree. She was always reluctant to throw things away, this is the reason why we hoarded a lot of things back then. Until we had to leave. We could not take everything with us. I took a deep breath and stepped out of the car, picked the casket with the deepest care and marched until the wooden door whose paint was half gone.

I knocked on the door and after a couple of seconds, someone came to open it. Suspicion stood between the old woman and me. “Who are you?”, she asked while examining me from toes to head. She was wearing the same kind of clothes as the people in my memories, so I reckoned I was in the right place. I introduced myself, said I came looking for my grandparents and for my tree. She shook her head, “Sorry, but I cannot help you, you should go away. You’re not the first one who came here. Many others like you passed first, without finding what they were looking for.” I insisted and begged her, told her my story, that it was important for us to be reunited. The woman lowered her head, sighed and let me in. “You do not know what happened here, don’t you? Well, let me tell you. When the flood came, we were not prepared for the wave to hit us so hard. Many people like your grandparents sought shelter here, because they knew their days were numbered, and The Orchard was the only place that would guarantee them to accomplish their purpose and be reunited with you one day. Unfortunately, the walls and the gate were not strong enough to shield us all. If I’m correct, they drowned a couple of months after their arrival. I am sorry to tell you that. I do remember your grandmother well though, she used to talk a lot about her two granddaughters. She said she was expecting you to come back, but they were not able to wait any longer. I am really sorry.” She paused a moment. “If you want I can lead you to the garden, but I cannot help you any more than that. You must remember. Come with me.” I followed her, carrying my casket in my arms and together we went through the hall or at least what remained of the place. She stopped in front of the garden. “There, take your time, come back once you’re finished. Good luck.” I looked at the wasteland that stood in front of me, motionless and speechless. Nothing resembled my memories. Vegetation had swallowed the garden. The patterns set by the little alleys were buried under weeds and twigs. It was not an orchard anymore but a dense jungle. There was hardly any space between the trees. I tried. I tried to feel, to remember. But the wind blew so strongly, that a dissonance of voices rang in my ears. Not a single melody distinguished itself. A strong smell of dust numbed my olfactory sense as a forest of oblivion was veiling my sight with its leaves. I started searching, making a way to our family tree, where my grandparents, my father and my sister were waiting, but the brambles kept hanging on my clothes, scratching my skin. I tried to dig to find the roots but the soil was too dry. I stopped to catch my breath. I was lost. I was still holding the casket tightly against my chest. Finally, I opened the dark oak lid. My heart pinched and bitter drops watered the earth as I held my mother one last time. Amidst the roaring wind, in the far off the purple evening skies, the lyrics of a song I knew in my heart echoed: Hold on to people, they’re slipping away, hold on to this while it’s slipping away.

2021 - Winter

Dear Felicity – a Literary Advice Column

 Image: “Hanas Helpline” by DrJohnBullas is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

These literary characters have reached out to MUSE’s agony aunt, Felicity, asking for her help. Can you guess who they are?

Dear Felicity,

I have been unsuccessfully looking for love. I want a girlfriend but I think there’s nobody like me in the world. I would love her for all her flaws and imperfections. My father left me after my birth. I have recently found him again but he finds me ugly and he says no one will ever love me the way I am. I even have asked him to help me get a girlfriend but it’s out of the question for him. I have so much love to give but I don’t know what to do anymore. What else can I do?      

Yearning for love

Dear Yearning,

Your father sounds like a very unhealthy person. He may be your father, but you are by no means obligated to stay in his life if he isn’t doing you any good. You are worth it and beautiful just the way you are, and somewhere out there, there is someone looking for you. Don’t give up!

Dear Felicity,

I just got married! I am really excited: he is loving, handsome, rich – a dream! My problem is, since the day we got married and I moved in with him, he seems cold and does not show any affection. I have been trying to distract myself but his housekeeper keeps reminding me of his late wife. I have started to think he is still in love with her! What should I do about it?

A discouraged bride

Dear Discouraged,

First of all, no one should compare you to another woman. If your husband’s housekeeper has a problem working for you, raise the problem to your husband – she should respect you. Second of all, from what you’re describing it seems like your husband loves you and really wanted to marry you. Maybe something else is on his mind and he is not ready to open up about it yet. Show him that you’re there for him and share your limits and boundaries. Good luck!

Dear Felicity,

I’ve just been expelled from school. I know I should care, but I feel like everybody is so fake, so I don’t. I’m struggling to make good decisions and I always seem to fail saying the right thing to people who do care about me. I don’t like many things. I make big decisions lightly, knowing I wouldn’t go through with them anyway. I’m scared my parents will never be proud of me. Can you help me?

        An overwhelmed boy

Dear Overwhelmed,

It isn’t easy growing up and knowing what you want. Remember that nobody has got it figured out. Do more of what makes you happy, keep exploring. Take your time to process information; nobody is rushing you. Your parents are there for you and I’m sure that if you share your worries with them, they will happily help you make sense of what you’re going through. Take your time to breathe!

Dear Felicity,

I have been spending a lot of time with a man recently. He is coaching me so I can get a better job. I’ve been making great efforts and helping him with so many things, but he has never even praised or thanked me! But I keep telling myself that somewhere between all his bitterness must lie kindness, and I keep pursuing recognition from him. Also, he tells me if I leave, I will go back to my old job and never succeed. I’m afraid I won’t make it on my own. What am I supposed to do?

                                                                                                                      A torn girl

Dear Torn,

I hear you: it is hard to let someone go if you believe there is good in everyone. But, someone who disrespects you is not worth your time: spend time with people who treat you right. If you are not ready to give up on his coaching just yet, try to set yourself a limit of how far you are willing to go, or how long you are willing to stay without recognition. Plus, from what I’m hearing, you have made a great deal of progress and I am sure you can make it without him. Take care of yourself, you’ve got this!

2021 - Spring

The Man Behind the Sheep: an Interview with UNIL’s Shepherd, Bob Martin

Image: © Bob Martin

Authors: Mégane Spicher, Katharina Schwarck


One fine day in April, the university’s shepherd, Bob Martin, generously agreed to meet us in front of his sheepfold to answer our questions and explain all about his sheep. [version française en-dessous]


Image: Deux Nez-Noirs au Géopolis © Katharina Schwarck


Could you say a few words about yourself, who you are, and why you are here?

My name is Bob Martin, I’m the university shepherd, and I’ve been looking after the sheep at the university since about 2013-2014. I’m in my forties, and then before this fabulous job I was a car mechanic. Yes, a radical change of profession, because I was a bit fed up with it, I felt that I had done all I could with that job, and then I wanted to work with animals, especially dogs. That’s where I found this job that does a bit of both.

How long have you been looking after sheep?

I’ve been looking after sheep since I started here. It was all new to me. So since 2011 I’ve been in the sheep business a bit, and then in 2014 I took over the university flock.

Is there a certain breed of sheep, a certain kind of sheep that you have?

Yes, I currently have two breeds of sheep: the Nez-Noirs du Valais and the Roux du Valais. The Roux du Valais were originally endangered and the Nez-Noirs I chose for aesthetics, because I love them and they’re a bit like plushies. I thought it would be nice to have a couple of plushies around the university. 

What do they look like? How do we recognize them?

Well, the Nez-Noirs are quite easy, hence their name: they are all white with black noses and then they have black spots on all their joints. And then the Roux du Valais are red. And the little bonus of these two breeds is that the females and the males have horns.

Oh yes! Because here I see some of them and they all have horns!

Yes, they (“elles”, French feminine form) all have horns.

Ah, they are all females! And I see that you also use dogs. How do you work with them?

I have three dogs at the moment. I have a little bitch who is 5 months old that I have to train to take over for my very old dog [a dog suddenly becomes concerned and barks] who is now 11 years old. And then there’s Will who’s in the middle, who is 7 years old, he turned 7 this weekend by the way. I always work with two dogs and then I always have a ‘spare’ one in case one gets hurt [it’s still barking] or for other situations.

Do the sheep have names? Or numbers? How are they recognised? What do you call them?

Officially they have a number, a BDTA number. They are registered in a Swiss database. And then all the sheep that have papers have a name and all my favourites have a name too. Let’s say that out of the 260 that I have, there are about a hundred that have names, but I don’t know them all by heart.

So are there some sheep that have a personality, that you can recognise, [the little dog barks] with whom you have a more special relationship?

Absolutely, yes! So I do have what we call my favourite. Punky, she’s called. And she’s also the one I take to classes, to schools, for example, because she’s quite calm [the little dog really wants attention and barks again], and that’s what’s so nice. 

Is she the little one? 

Yes, I haven’t taught her to stop barking yet. We’ll make do. He laughs.

Are there any misconceptions about sheep, or anything we don’t know at all? Something we think about sheep that is not true?

I would say the first misconception is that we always say that we are as stupid as a sheep or that we follow like a sheep. And it’s true that we follow like a sheep, because they are animals who live in a herd. But they are far from stupid, I noticed. When you live with them every day, you can see that they all have their own character, and sometimes their own strong ideas. So that’s what I also find nice about sheep.

Very interesting answer! And why are the sheep at UNIL specifically?

Well, there are sheep everywhere, but it’s also a bit of an emblematic model of the university. Back in the day, UNIL’s land was agricultural land and when they designed the first buildings, they decided to keep this system of sheep on the site. I think the sheep have been on the site since before we were born. I’m the third or fourth shepherd at the university. The sheepfold where the sheep are in winter – I bring them in between Christmas, New Year, until the first of April – this sheepfold that’s just behind us has always been there, so it’s really an iconic building of the university. It was built at the same time as the university buildings.

How do you decide where to put your sheep? Is there a schedule? Do you rotate them around the different parts of the campus?

Yes, we have a plot plan of about 45 plots for grazing on the university. Depending on the season, the growth of the grass, the work on the site, the events, and everything else around the university, we try to organise ourselves as best we can to graze these plots. We go on the plots between two and three times a year.

Are the sheep divided into small groups, or do they usually stay in groups of 260?

Now we have two flocks. There’s a small flock for the small plots of eight to ten sheep, and there’s a large flock that’s between thirty and forty sheep for the large plots.

How did your partnership with UNIL start?

I trained as a shepherd at Châteauneuf, and in this training there was the lady who looked after the sheep at the university. That’s how I got into the system and I had the opportunity to take over the flock.

Wonderful, so you are the successor! Do you use sheep as “natural mowers” elsewhere or only at UNIL?

Well, of my 260 sheep, between 30 and 50 graze at UNIL during the season. With the rest of the sheep, I use exactly the same system in Geneva’s communes, or for the army, for the road service, for civil protection, for many other institutions.

Thank you very much!

Image: © Bob Martin



Un beau jour d’avril, le berger de l’université, Bob Martin, a généreusement accepté de nous rencontrer devant sa bergerie pour répondre à nos questions et tout expliquer sur ses moutons.

Image: Un Roux du Valais à l’ombre © Katharina Schwarck


Est-ce que vous pourriez dire quelques mots sur vous, sur qui vous êtes, sur pourquoi vous êtes là ?

Je m’appelle Bob Martin, je suis le berger de l’université, et puis ça fait environ depuis 2013-2014 que je m’occupe des moutons à l’université. J’ai une quarantaine d’années, et puis avant ce fabuleux métier j’étais mécanicien automobile. Oui, changement radical de métier, parce que j’en avais un peu marre, je sentais que j’avais fait le tour de ce métier-là, et puis je voulais travailler à la base avec les animaux, et surtout les chiens. C’est là où j’ai trouvé ce métier qui fait un peu les deux.

Depuis quand vous occupez-vous de moutons ?

Alors j’ai commencé à m’occuper de moutons en même temps que j’ai commencé ici. C’était tout nouveau pour moi. Donc depuis 2011 je suis un peu dans le monde des moutons, et puis depuis 2014 j’ai repris le troupeau de l’université.

Est-ce qu’il y a une certaine race de moutons, une certaine espèce de moutons que vous avez ?

Alors oui, moi j’ai actuellement deux races de moutons: il y a les Nez-Noirs du Valais et les Roux du Valais. Les Roux du Valais étaient à la base en voie de disparition et puis les Nez Noirs, je les ai surtout pris pour l’esthétique, parce que je les adore et c’est un peu des peluches. Je me suis dit que ça ferait bien autour de l’université d’avoir deux trois peluches. 

A quoi est-ce qu’ils ressemblent ? Comment est-ce qu’on les reconnaît ?

Alors les Nez Noirs c’est assez facile, d’où leur nom: ils sont tout blancs avec le nez noir et puis ils ont les taches de toutes les articulations qui sont noires. Et puis les Roux du Valais sont roux. Et le petit plus de ces deux races là, c’est que les femelles et les mâles ont des cornes.

Ah oui ! Parce que là j’en vois quelques-uns qui ont tous des cornes !

Oui, elles ont toutes des cornes.

Ah ce sont toutes des femelles ! Et je vois que vous utilisez aussi des chiens. Comment travaillez-vous ?

Alors là j’ai actuellement trois chiens. J’ai une petite chienne qui a 5 mois que je dois éduquer pour la relève pour ma toute vieille chienne [un chien se sent tout d’un coup concerné et aboie] de maintenant 11 ans. Et puis il y a le juste milieu Will, qui a 7 ans, qui a eu 7 ans ce weekend d’ailleurs. Et puis je travaille toujours avec deux chiens et puis j’en ai toujours un « de réserve » au cas où il y en a un qui est blessé [et il aboie encore] ou pour d’autres situations.

Est-ce que les moutons ont des noms ? Ou des numéros ? Comment est-ce qu’on les reconnaît ? Comment on les appelle ?

Officiellement, ils ont un numéro, un numéro BDTA. Ils sont enregistrés dans une base de données suisse. Et puis après tous les moutons qui ont des papiers ont un nom et puis toutes mes préférées ont un nom aussi. On va dire que sur les 260 que j’ai, il y en a une centaine qui ont des noms, mais je ne le sais pas tous par cœur.

Donc il y a quand même certains moutons qui ont une personnalité, qu’on peut reconnaître, [la petite chienne aboie] avec qui vous avez une relation plus particulière ?

Tout à fait oui ! Alors j’ai toujours ce qu’on appelle ma préférée. Punky, elle s’appelle. Et puis c’est elle aussi que je prends par exemple dans les classes, dans les écoles parce qu’elle est assez calme [la petite chienne a vraiment envie d’attention et aboie encore], et puis c’est ça qui est chouette. 

C’est elle la toute petite ? 

Oui, je ne lui ai pas encore appris à arrêter d’aboyer. On fera avec. Il rit.

Est-ce qu’il y a des idées reçues sur les moutons, ou quelque chose qu’on ne sait pas du tout ? Quelque chose qu’on pense des moutons alors que c’est pas du tout vrai ?

Je dirais la première idée reçue, on dit toujours qu’on est bête comme un mouton ou qu’on suit comme un mouton. Alors qu’on suit comme un mouton, c’est vrai parce que c’est quand même des animaux qui vivent en troupeau. Mais ils sont quand même loin d’être bêtes, j’ai remarqué. Quand on vit tous les jours avec eux, on voit qu’ils ont tous leur caractère, et puis aussi des fois leurs idées bien tranchées. Donc c’est ça que je trouve aussi sympa dans les moutons.

Très intéressant comme réponse! Et pourquoi les moutons sont à l’UNIL spécifiquement?

Alors, il y a des moutons partout mais c’est aussi un peu le modèle emblématique de l’université. A l’époque, le terrain de l’UNIL était des terres agricoles et quand ils ont dessiné les premiers bâtiments, ils ont décidé de garder ce système de moutons sur le site. Je pense que les moutons sont sur le site depuis avant qu’on soit nés. Je suis le troisième ou le quatrième berger de l’université. La bergerie où les moutons sont en hiver – je les rentre entre Noël, nouvel an, jusqu’au premier avril – cette bergerie qui se trouve juste derrière nous a toujours été là, donc c’est vraiment un bâtiment emblématique de l’université. Elle a été construite en même temps que les bâtiments universitaires.

Comment décidez-vous d’où placer vos moutons? Est-ce qu’il y a un planning? On les fait tourner sur les différentes parties du campus?

Oui, on a un plan parcellaire d’environ 45 parcelles pour brouter sur l’université. En fonction de la saison, de la pousse de l’herbe, des travaux sur le site, des manifestations, de tout ce qu’il y a autour de l’université, on essaye de s’organiser au mieux pour pâturer ces parcelles. On passe entre deux à trois fois par année sur les parcelles.

Est-ce que les moutons sont divisés en petits groupes, ou ils restent généralement en groupe de 260?

Maintenant on fait deux troupeaux. Il y a un petit troupeau pour les petites parcelles entre huit et dix têtes, et il y a un grand troupeau qui est entre trente et quarante têtes pour les grandes parcelles.

Comment a commencé votre partenariat avec l’UNIL?

Alors, pour la petite histoire, j’ai fait la formation de berger à Châteauneuf, et dans cette formation il y avait la dame qui s’occupait des moutons à l’université. Par ce biais-là je suis rentré dans ce système et j’ai eu l’opportunité de reprendre le troupeau.

Magnifique, donc vous êtes le successeur! Est-ce que vous utilisez des moutons comme “tondeuses naturelles” autre part aussi ou qu’à l’UNIL?

Alors, de mes 260 moutons, il y en a entre 30 et 50 qui pâturent à l’UNIL à la saison. Avec le reste des moutons, je fais exactement le même système dans des communes genevoises, ou pour l’armée, pour le service des routes, pour la protection civile, pour plein d’autres institutions.

Merci beaucoup!

Image: Un agneau au Géopolis © Katharina Schwarck

2021 - Spring

Learning To Leave

Image: Lost © Claudia Cantoni

Author: FC

It was Christmas Eve – Mr. Doolan’s birthday. Outside, the roads were covered by a thin layer of wet snow and the city was shrouded in the thick familiar fog of the cold season.

Mrs. Doolan was busy preparing the next day’s festive meals, submerged by a sea of pots and pans. The open kitchen overlooked the living room, where Mr. Doolan sat, pretending to be absorbed by the articles in his hands, whilst the children were on the floor, drawing and writing the Christmas cards to give to the rest of the family the next day. In reality, Brigid was pretending, too: she was not interested in the cards, she just wished that someone would break that deafening silence. Her parents had fought again – heavily. The tension in the room was so thick, that it made it hard to breathe. Niall was signing the last card, writing his name with different sized letters: the n was in capital letters, but the wrong way round, the i was capitalised, the a was larger than the and the two ls were a bit too separated and straight.

“You wrote the n the other way round, again! I wrote your name properly right here, you just had to copy it.”

“Oh, come on Brigid. Give your brother a break, he’s only five years old. These mistakes are normal – you used to do them, too. Dinner will be ready soon. Come get your plates when I call you.” said Mrs. Doolan.

Mr. Doolan put his papers down. “Shall we play a game of backgammon? Or why don’t you two play and whoever wins plays against me.”

“But I’m not good at baggamom.” When Niall whined like that, Brigid just wanted to slap him across the face. Did he not understand how tense the situation was? Why couldn’t he just shut up and do as he was told?

“Fair enough, then. We’ll play together against your sister. How does that sound, Champ?”

Champ. He called him that way just because one of the meanings behind the name Niall is champion. But he was no champion – he was just a whiney baby. Brigid took the backgammon box off the shelf. She didn’t want to complain – she didn’t dare say that she knew she had no chance of winning against her father.

“Come on Brigid, it’s just a fun game! It doesn’t matter if you lose – as long as you’re not as awful as your mother.”

How dare he? How dare he insult her in front of her own children? Mrs. Doolan did not answer. She knew it wasn’t worth it, it would just lead them to another fight – another wave of insults and accusations. She had had enough. She could not bear another round, and the children did not deserve to witness another violent clash.

The pie was ready. Mrs. Doolan had prepared it deliberately for her husband’s birthday – it was his favourite. However, in that moment, she just wanted to throw it, ravish it, destroy it. She was about to implode and make everything around her explode with her. “No”, she whispered to herself, “you need to think about Brigid and Niall, Sive”. She turned around to look at them: Niall was on his father’s lap, Brigid sat on the floor, moving the backgammon pieces. Their children were perfect. Mrs. Doolan asked herself how could they have created such pure creatures: Brigid, tiny and gracious, and yet so strong and wise (“seeing her so grown melts my heart – too much for her age”), and Niall, who looked like a little angel, with his golden locks, blue eyes, as deep as the sea, and his head always in the clouds. “And what about you? Who will you become?”, wondered Mrs. Doolan, grazing her womb with her hand. She turned to the window: just fog. Everything was grey. As foggy as her mind, as grey as her future. She still hadn’t told a soul she was pregnant. Two months had already passed since that night – that last intimate night. They were in the bathroom, getting ready to go to bed, when she began to cry, sat on the edge of the bathtub. He knelt before her, took her hands, and kissed them. For the first time in a long while and for the last time, he was not annoyed by her tears, he had not retreated within himself, he had not repudiated her. That night of sad passion, she had seen in his eyes that wounded, tormented, and frightened boy. That boy she had fallen in love with and was unable to save.

She was afraid of telling her husband that she was pregnant. She feared it would become an inexorable reason to stay together. What kind of mother would leave her spouse with a child on the way? What mother would not give her child the opportunity of living within a united family? These questions plagued Mrs. Doolan – they made her hesitate. A few days before, she had told her parents she was considering divorcing her husband, as she could not bear it anymore. “But you have to stay with him – think about the kids! How do you think they’ll grow up with a broken family? Plus, Cillian isn’t all that bad. He provides for all your needs – he even spoils you! It can’t be that bad.” What did they know? How could they have known about the continuous abuses she had to bear every day? What did they know about what would be best for her children? Growing up in a house full of violence and resentment could not be better than a divided family, surely. Many couples divorce, and the children all seem to grow up perfectly fine – better than if their parents had stayed in their toxic relationship. So toxic it exterminated all the love. He provides. Sure, he provided all the material goods, but at what expense? At the expense of her happiness? Her sanity? No, she could not allow this. Women do not need to depend on their husbands: she would manage on her own, she was strong. One day she would make the right decision.

Brigid was losing. She knew it was going to end that way. At least dad seemed more serene – maybe he had forgotten about his fight with mum and would go say sorry to her. The little girl turned to observe her mother: she was looking outside the window. She wasn’t able to see her face, but she knew her expression was pensive, distant. She often had that air lately, as if she were lost somewhere and didn’t know how to come back – nor how to go forward. “If mum made dad’s favourite pie, maybe she’s not that upset anymore”, thought Brigid, seeing the cake next to Mrs. Doolan. It was a weird contrast: the sweet and warm smell of pastry and Nutella seemed to try to mask the cold and dense tension that still hovered in the air. Usually, in these situations, Brigid closed herself off completely, remaining, however, as alert as a prey – ready to react to any movement. She didn’t know what to do. How could she make things better? She was too anxious to think – she was afraid of making a mistake and causing it all start again. She feared that…

“Daddy”, interrupted Niall, pausing the game. “Why did you make mummy angry?”

“I didn’t make her angry, Niall. She’s the one who made me angry.”

Brigid did not even dare to look up from the gameboard.

“But will you say sorry?”, asked the child naively. He didn’t understand what had happened, but he knew he didn’t like what was going on. He didn’t like seeing his mummy crying and his father shouting at her.

“We’ll see about that.” answered Mr. Doolan harshly. Niall still didn’t understand: when Brigid and he would fight, his parents would force them to say sorry and shake hands. It was easy. Why wouldn’t they do the same?

“Listen, Niall, your mother is a difficult person,” began Mr. Doolan in a low voice. “I love her very much, just as much as I love you guys. Can’t you see? I go to work every day so that we can have everything our family needs, so that you two can have everything you want. This is why, when I’m home, I demand respect – some gratitude for all I do. That’s fair, isn’t it? With all the things I do for you guys… Who do you think pays for the food you eat every day? I mean, true, your mother cooks it, but I’m the one that gives her the money to buy it. Don’t forget about that. Or what about your new play car, who do you think paid for that? Do you know what I had at your age? I had nothing, Niall. No games or toys, no yummy sweets and biscuits – nothing. I have very few rules, but these rules are important – everyone must follow them. When your mother does not obey them, she disrespects me – actually, she disrespects the whole family! This is why I get angry.”

Brigid felt like she had to vomit – she could feel all the words she wanted to say were about to erupt from her stomach. “It’s not true – none of it is true!” Thought the child.

“So, if mummy says sorry first, will everything be good then?” asked Niall.

“Of course, little Champ!” replied his father, smiling. However, that wasn’t what Mr. Doolan really wanted. He was so afraid of losing everything that he was trying his best to keep his children on his side – he was deliberately making Mrs. Doolan appear as the family’s enemy. She was the enemy; she was the one that could take it all away from him. But she loved him – or she had loved him. She wouldn’t take everything away from him, right? Mr. Doolan knew he was the problem. He knew he was the difficult one, the one that was distancing his family from himself. He turned towards his wife and looked at her: she was so beautiful, so elegant in her movements, as if she were dancing. Why wasn’t he able to get close to her? The walls of his pride would not lower. They would not allow him to kneel before her, ask for her forgiveness, explain the truth to her – the terror he felt at the mere thought of losing her every day. He had a perfect life: a wife who loved him, kind and wise, two wonderful children and a job that allowed them all to live well and satisfy their every need. And yet, every time he expressed himself, violent nastiness was all that came out. His pride and his fears took control and he would start attacking her, before even realising it. Hurt the other, before they hurt you. He was completely unable to control himself when he was angry. He reflected all of his self-hatred on others, and then he would raise his insurmountable barricades, estranging all those around him. He feared he’d end up like his own father – he feared he’d go insane. He feared coming back home and discovering his wife had run away with the kids. He feared not ever being enough. He wanted to ask Sive for her forgiveness, but he knew he wouldn’t be able to do so. The more he thought about it, the more his anger and resentment grew. He felt he was about to explode. He had to distance himself – escape. Leave them before they left him.

Mr. Doolan got up.

“Okay guys, dinner is ready! Come get your plates, please.”

He turned around and walked down the stairs, without uttering a word.

“Cillian, where are you going? Dinner’s ready.”

He took his coat and he left.

2021 - Spring

Agnieszka Beyond the Screen

Image: © Agnieszka Soltysik Monnet


Authors: Timon Musy, Katharina Schwarck


Earlier this semester, Agnieszka kindly accepted to sit down with us over Zoom: the perfect occasion to get to know the person she is beyond the screen!


Hello, Agnieszka. Welcome. Thank you for sitting down with us!

You have been at UNIL for fifteen years, is that right?


I guess so! I hadn’t thought of that, but you’re right. This year it will be fifteen years.


So, who are you? Where are you from? Where have you worked? What are you currently working on?


I come from several different places, which currently makes me a person with three nationalities: I am Polish, American, and Swiss. I was born in Poland, I grew up in California and had most of my education there. Then I spent twelve years in Geneva before coming to Lausanne. I’ve been here for fifteen years now, that’s true! I sort of lost my sense of time, partly because I’ve just enjoyed being here, in Lausanne, so much. I think it’s a really great department and it’s allowed me to have a lot of freedom in terms of what I teach and what I research, and really to blossom in a lot of ways, intellectually. So, I have very much enjoyed being at Lausanne and I look forward to being here until I retire in about another thirteen years. 


Well, the other thing I am – I should mention this : I’m a really different person than when I first arrived. I had a huge thing happen to me three years ago: my son died. He was about to start the university. He was going to be at the faculty, like you guys, maybe even in the same year. So, that has completely changed me and remapped my world. It maybe doesn’t look like it so much from the outside because I’m still working and doing the same things, but I think that on the inside I’m very different and I’m doing those things differently and they mean different things to me. It’s certainly made me put a lot more of myself into my teaching. The fact that my son would have been at the faculty… It’s a huge sadness of mine, that he never actually made it to the university. But it makes me see the students that I’m teaching as reflections of what he could have been here, and what I would want to give them maybe flows a little bit from what I would have wanted him to find here.


In terms of my parcours and major research projects: I’ve always been interested in the relationship between society and literature and how social issues can be engaged with in literature, how they filter into literature and what literature can do to think about important political and social issues. My first book was about the nineteenth century gothic and how major writers like Melville, Hawthorne, Poe, and Henry James used the gothic in various rich and subtle ways to engage with the huge issues of their time like slavery, class, gender, and capitalism. The gothic is a strain of my research that is still there. I’m working on several essays even right now.


My second book was even closer to home, as an Americanist: it was about war and how we tell stories about war through popular culture. The United States is a very militaristic country, but it has not won a war since 1945, and even then, arguably, it won the war only because of the Soviet Army on the Eastern front. It may not have been able to win all by itself, and the fact that it dropped these two terrible bombs on civilians in Japan shows that it has not won a war because of great or effective fighting, – whatever that would even be – which I don’t believe in, in the last seventy years. It’s been engaged in one destructive war after another, killing people abroad, killing Americans, destroying economies. And yet, America continues to think of war as a worthwhile endeavour, as a glorious, important test of a people, and of individuals, and of a country. I think that a lot of that work of persuasion to see things in that way is being done through Hollywood, and through popular culture. That’s what my last book was about, about looking at how the formulas that are used for that come from literature more generally and have a long history, like melodrama, or adventure, that are used to make war seem exciting and meaningful. That book just came out a couple of months ago, I’m still in the process of promoting it and getting reviews and so on. It took me a long time to write it because I was interrupted by being Head of Department, and then I stopped working really effectively for a couple of years after my son passed away. So, it took me about six years to write that book. 


My next project is going to be about ecology, the environment and the planet, in some way or another. I’m not quite sure what the corpus is going to be, or what the research question is going to be, but that’s where I’m headed for the next book.


Congratulations on your book! And we are very excited about your new project.

We are currently going through hard times and we wanted to know how teaching online has been for you.


That’s a great question. I have to say, personally, I had to adapt and learn how to do it very quickly but I have not found it to be as disruptive as I think it probably is for students. I really feel for how lonely it is for students to be alone at home all the time. That’s really not what university is about. University is not just learning, it’s also the whole social environment, it’s making friends, it’s changing and becoming a different person in those three or five years. You can’t do that alone in your room. You really have to do that as a part of a class that you’re going through, with your volée, as part of an environment and all the different things that are impacting you. That’s been a tragedy for students. 

Now, as a teacher, I have found it to be not so bad! I actually enjoy being able to see people’s names and faces up close and I find that the break-out rooms work really well, I find that using the chat as a support while I’m talking to the class has been very helpful. I’ve found that I’ve had to prepare more and be more engaged in my classes, while the students seem to be as well, so it’s more intense and tiring, but sometimes I feel like it’s better teaching in terms of some of the discussions and interactions, especially since my classes in the last few years have gotten really big. There are sometimes forty or more students, and it’s very easy for forty people to just become really passive, whereas when you’re on a screen, you’re very visible with your face. I try to discourage having your video off, because then I don’t even know if somebody’s there or not! It’s sometimes easier to get shyer people to talk. The dynamic has been different. I find that it hasn’t been necessarily detrimental to teaching. I certainly enjoy being safe: I’ve appreciated the fact that I don’t have to worry about catching COVID in the classroom or wearing a mask while I speak and I can just focus on teaching. I also appreciate the extra time it’s given me, you know, the time I would spend showering, getting dressed, commuting. I have more time to read, to take walks, to be with my daughter or my partner. That’s been the good side of teaching online, but I do recognise that for students it’s been very difficult overall.


What is the favourite class you have ever given?


There’s different kinds of favourite classes. *She laughs* I love teaching the master’s class in “New American Studies” because I put a lot of my intellectual history and engagement into that class. I can see how, when students learn some of the things, and they get these tools, I see them going off and writing master’s papers or mémoires and it’s very exciting to see them taking things that I’ve brought to them but then running with it and doing things I hadn’t even thought of. So, I’d say that the recurrent annual master’s class I teach in “American Studies” is probably the most fun and exciting regular class that I teach. 


Then there are more occasional classes that I thought to have been very interesting. I taught a class on feminism once with Isis Giraldo, when she was still here. That was a class that felt really… dangerous to teach. I remember getting nervous, my heart beating, before going in. We were giving students texts to read from the 1960s and the 1970s that were extremely critical of male writers and patriarchal structures. I just never knew how students would react and I’d get scared, almost, before class, going “oh my god, what am I doing?”. And then a student told me once, when I said this, “you know, I do too! I get scared the night before class, I’m really nervous”. But it feels like there’s something really important going on, but something dangerous, that really affects people personally a lot and makes them question their entire way of being in the world. So, I don’t know if that is my favourite class but it is definitely one I will never forget and that was very important to teach.


Since you’ve been around Lausanne for quite a while, how have you been liking it? Is there a place in the region that you really like, and that you’d want us to go to and see?


Well, I do love being here, especially for the department, I have to say. It is really the most collegial, friendly,  open department I’ve ever been in, and I have been in various universities and various departments. I love the students, they’re curious and eager to learn. I have never had a discipline problem in all these years of teaching, I mean… maybe people whispering a little bit too much in the Anglo-American literary survey sometimes, but that’s the worst of it, and I know people who teach in high school who tell me horrible stories. So I feel very lucky in terms of students and how much extra work they do, all the extra-curricular activities they do, like MUSE! It’s just amazing how people get so involved or are so excited about language, and literature and the community that we have. I love the department for all those reasons, and the region is beautiful. 

But, I grew up in California right along the coast of the Pacific Ocean, and I have to say that I really miss the ocean, I miss the beach and I miss the horizon. I miss the fact that you could go to the beach when you’re sad or on a winter day and just look into infinity. When I first moved to Switzerland I felt very hemmed in  by the mountains. Now it has been twenty-five years since I live in Switzerland – I came in ninety-four – and I have learned to love the mountains and to love the lake. We’re really privileged in terms of the natural environment. I have a little forest right near my house, and I talked with a park ranger once who told me that eighty-five percent of the Swiss population has a forest within ten minutes walking distance from their home. That’s really nice.


One of my favorite places is a walk in Crissier called the “Sentier de la Cascade”. I go there several times a year and it’s always different because of all the different colours; in winter there is more light, in summer it is more green and cool, and it’s just a beautiful walk along a river that goes to a waterfall. That’s my favorite place within a ten-miles radius.

[Note from the interviewee: Since we had the interview I have discovered the Venoge and the walk alongside it between St. Sulpice and Bussigny and this has definitely become my other favorite place along with the Cascade walk!]


What is your favorite book of all time ?


That’s a tough question. That’s a cruel question. *She laughs and pauses* Well, a book that I come back to as a teacher, my favorite book that I teach over and over again is Beloved by Toni Morrison. But my favorite book of all time… I can’t give you a single book but there is an author that I love reading and re-reading, and that’s Louise Erdrich. She is a Native American writer and I never get tired of her books, and whether I read it for the first time or for the fifth time I always find so many new answers and richness. I also find her vision of the world so balanced between the gritty and difficult, the luminous and quirky, the sexual and witty, and it is just such an interesting mix of everything that I find inspiring. So I would say that any book by Louise Erdrich would be one of my favorite books.

[Note from the interviewee: In rereading this interview I thought of several more that have profoundly marked me and I’d like to mention them: Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, Nancy Huston’s Dolce Agonia, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Tim Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume.] 


Is there a piece of advice you were given that you think is very important and that you would like to share ?


I don’t remember getting a lot of advice when I was younger. Maybe I should have gotten more! The one thing that really stands out of my mind is something my mom told me. She was a dentist – my family comes from Poland – and under the communist regime women were encouraged to get higher education and a lot of women were able to get into good skilled professions. So my mom said to me – she said this when I was quite young – that the most important thing in life for a woman is to be financially independent, to never depend on a man for your livelihood, as it always makes the relationship totally skewed. So you have to be free and independent, to be able to enter any relationship with your full free-will and to stay independent within it so that you can leave if you have to. That was a piece of advice that I took to heart and I continue to find very relevant when I look around the world and I see the situation of women in general. Around the planet most women are in various degrees of servitude and a lot of it has to do with not being able to be financially independent and make their own choices. 


What do you think would be the most surprising scientific discovery imaginable ?


Parallel universes. I’m very interested in physics and all the wonky, weird stuff that goes on, contemporary physics looking at dark matter that makes up ninety-five percent of the universe, and the weird ways subatomic particles behave, the way they get paired and then they start to behave in a way that is talked about in Only Lovers Left Alive as “spooky action“, which is the way time and space get folded into one another… Just all the magical stuff that seems completely surreal, that physics is about. So if there was some kind of definitive proof of parallel universes or other dimensions or that time is just an illusion, that would be pretty surprising!


If you could add anyone on Mount Rushmore, who would it be and why ?


First of all, I think it needs a woman up there and I’d say it’s about time that people of color in the United States start to get some celebration and recognition. So, I guess I would put up Harriet Tubman. She was the runaway, the escaped slave who helped other slaves to escape along the “Underground Railroad”. She’s being put on the twenty dollars bill hopefully soon, but I could definitely see her mixing things up on Mount Rushmore.


Have you ever tasted the Migros Ice Tea and what do you think of it ?


 *She laughs* I don’t really drink ice tea anymore because it’s too sweet, but I have tasted Migros Ice Tea and I agree that it’s probably the best in the world (although I wish they would make an unsweetened version of it). 


2020 - Winter

Zoom Confessions

Image: “Writing Class 1” by kchichester is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

This semester, the MUSE team wanted to get an insight into the life of the students and instructors and find out a little more about the new habits that we have all acquired over the past few months. So, the MUSE team sent out a form to students and staff of the English Department and asked for their anonymously juiciest experiences on the platform Zoom, all of which are compiled here.

We warmly thank everyone for their amazing collaboration and are celebrating every single Zoom confession.

Enjoy ;)




I fell asleep during a lecture lol

Woke up, opened Zoom, put my recording phone next to it, went back to bed.

Fully blamed Zoom for being late to teaching my class.

All of last semester I taught in a spare room where only a third of the ceiling was painted (because I got lazy and stopped midway through painting the ceiling, 10 years ago). I had to adjust my camera so that only the painted part of the ceiling showed, but some days I forgot. On those days, I appeared to be speaking from the dug-out of a war zone (the unpainted part was in a bad state) – I don’t know if anyone else noticed and maybe I shouldn’t be confessing it now. My sister’s birthday present to me was to paint the ceiling while I was away so, no more Zooms from our war correspondent.

Is it rude to smoke a cigarette with your camera on during a lecture?

I was eating lunch during my class (grilled cheese and tomato soup) and didn’t realise that while my video was off… my microphone wasn’t, thereby exposing the whole class to my horrible chewing sounds!

Not my story but my sister told me that once in one of her master’s classes, the professor would keep on popping in and out of the meeting because of bad connection. The second time, she reappeared in her… car. She was parked and for some reason, the connection was better. Then she left. Minutes later she joined the Zoom meeting again, but this time that woman was DRIVING. So yeah, she might have created the very first carpool Zoom class. Take notes, James Corden.

I once reeaaally needed to go to the toilet but like… For number 2. I didn’t want to miss the class so I cut my camera and microphone, put a sticker over my camera just in case, took my laptop and brought it with me to the toilets. And did number 2 while following my Zoom class.

I’m pretty sure I followed several Zoom classes while naked in bed because I had just woken up. Of course my cam wasn’t on.

Not super fun (sorry) but I once had a violent panic attack at the start of a Zoom class (for no reason, it wasn’t the fault of the Zoom or the teacher’s or anything, just my brain gratuitously messing with me). I cut everything and called a friend.

I once slept through an entire Zoom class.

I play Among Us on my phone during class on a regular basis, oops.

I peed during Zoom classes at least 3 times if not more (brought my laptop with me and turned off mic and cam). Why miss the class if I can bring it with me to the bathroom?

This might not be very funny, but it is to me so I’ll share it anyways. Today I was supposed to be in this Zoom call at 10.15 but I had to go to the dentist to get my wisdom teeth out at 10.30. I knew it wouldn’t take long to do it, but I didn’t want to connect late and possibly not get access to the call. Therefore, I left my computer on, said hello; went to the dentist (scared to death because there was a storm); came back home 45 minutes later, with half swollen face, just in time to say “Merci, au revoir”. The saddest part of this ordeal is that the lecture was recorded…so it wasn’t worth it

So I sometimes do something else on my computer while I’m in a Zoom class, and one of the things I did today during class was to check my mails. Among them was a notification from a website I have an account on. It’s a website where I sell pictures of me. I checked on my account mechanically, and then it struck me that I was doing that during a Zoom class and it’s kind of weird hahaha

One of the most stressful moments of my week is trying to listen to the last 10 minutes of my AALS 1&2 class as I change into yoga clothes and race out the door to my weekly yoga class, desperately hoping that my camera doesn’t come on as I’m topless and balancing precariously with one leg in my pants and the other flailing in the air.

If Zoom means I get to see more cats on screen, hear cats playing with toys and cats purring into microphones, and watch my professor calmly pour his coffee before commencing lecture, I never want to return to in-person teaching.

I started the semester with such good intentions: I had a designated home office space, note books, note taking strategies, a clear timetable, I was going to always turn on my video… Yesterday I woke up at 12:15, just in time to roll over and fire up my Zoom class on my phone without leaving the comfort of my blankies. Oops.

I tended to switch off my camera and mic to play with my doggo while listening to the lectures on bad days, kept me calm and made the learning a lot fluffier ! Also, who didn’t switch on their camera because they were in a PJ-day mode, all wrapped up in a cuddly blanket? I guess I am not the only guilty PJ-sinner

I sorted, sized, folded and counted 70 items of tiny newborn clothes while streaming my Anthropology class yesterday. Studying from home has its benefits for some populations, it’s permitted me to go back to school while pregnant.

One Friday morning I had a dental surgery (a gum graft) and right after it I had a Linguistics class (taught by Jennifer). So I got home, ate some cold soup and attended the Zoom class with a huge icepack on my face (so I looked ridiculous haha) and talking only via the chat. I kept doing that for the following week, too (talking mainly via chat). I’m still recovering so idk when I’ll talk normally again lol

During the first week I attended a bunch of classes – that is Zoom classes, I mean yay – to finalize my schedule as we love to do in the Faculty of Arts. Anyway, I made the effort to put make up on this first week to have the impression to have somewhat of a routine. And I don’t know what happened, but I received emails from no less than three strangers; either commenting on my “perfect make-up” (I mean why a guy wouldn’t notice that on Zoom?) or finding my unil email (HOW?) to ask me random questions about certain classes. I don’t know if this is the new way of meeting people or sliding into someone’s DMs, or if this is creepy or cute or funny? Either way it made me laugh in this strange time ahahah

One day we were on Zoom in groups of two. I was with this guy and we did some exercise together. When we were coming to the end, I noticed some smoke close to him. I was afraid that his computer was burning, but it was a cigarette. The dude was smoking during the lecture!

*responses have been edited for clarity and length

2020 - Winter

Prose Pieces by Lara Lambelet

Image: © Lara Lambelet


Author: Lara Lambelet


Soul Letter


Dear Mary,

I received your letter and your delicious biscuits which made me very happy. And yes, I won’t forget to put the cat’s collar back on. What a scoundrel that one is! In your letter, you asked me how to live a joyful and serene relationship. Here is what I can answer you.

I remember one day, during the summer of 1950, when my dear and sweet James and I were walking along the bank of the Seine. I was so grateful to have him by my side. Our rocky beginnings were far from predicting the success of our union and yet we had now been married for three years. I remember the question he asked me that night: “What have you learned about love?”. I replied that the most important thing I had understood over time was that it is not possible to make the other person happy. When you try, you fool yourself and you are going in the wrong direction.

You know sweetie, I found myself in the same situations as you. In insecurity, expecting too much from the other person and being afraid of losing them. But it was when I understood that nothing can hold the other person back that I felt real freedom. Be yourself, radiate and don’t be afraid to displease.

I thought I was going to lose your grandfather. He was a player who was scared to love. But don’t make the same mistake as I did, my little one, don’t give him everything. It won’t work. Learn to love yourself and to prioritise yourself. If this man you’re talking about really loves you, he’ll come back. Love is scary when it is not lived. Love makes you stronger when it is welcomed and nourished with the right seeds, with a lot of patience and understanding.

There, little one, I hope my words will be of comfort to you. Don’t lose hope. Love will come, be it with this man or another.

Your grandmother



I observed her auburn hair, the lower part of her bare back and the arch of her hips, half hidden by the ivy surrounding the garden gate. It was quarter to six o’clock. A beautiful opening of a summer evening. She was gorgeous, seated and focused on her reading. Then my gaze was drawn to the gradation of reds and greens that adorned the gate next door. I approached and grabbed a burgundy leaf. “How can Mother Nature create such things? “I thought to myself. A ray of sunshine dazzled me, and my thought was lost. I wandered here and there, letting my senses guide me. A little further away from the house overlooking the lake, I leaned against a pillar of the canopy dominated by brown tones.

– Would you offer me a dance?

– Here, now?

– Yes

– But to what music?

– That of Nature. Can’t you hear it?

– No, I can’t hear it.

– Close your eyes.

Then she took me by the waist, slipped her hand into mine and swung us slowly from left to right. One step back, then one forward. The singing of the birds came to mingle with the stirring of the fine breeze. With my eyes still closed, I savoured the moment. The scent of the lily bed at the bottom of the garden reached my nostrils. We continued our slow waltz under the fragmented marquee. We must certainly have looked silly, but surprisingly, I felt good.

– Can you hear it now?

– Yes, it’s wonderful.

We were now at the bottom of the garden. The view of the lake was breath-taking. You could even see the reflection of the sun on the surface of the water. At the bottom of the garden was a huge fruit tree.

– Plums? prunes? I asked.

– I’m not sure. Hold on a moment.

On tiptoe, she picked the offspring of the age-old tree.

– I’ve always dreamed of having my own garden in which I could escape,” she continued.

My eyes lingered on the drop of juice from the fruit, which her teeth had just bitten into, running down her lip.

– A plum. Here, taste it.


*content warning: injury and death


Tetanized, he observed the blood effusion on the right leg, lacerated all along, of the dying fox. The restraint of his spirit on the scarlet river made him dizzy. His hands grabbed the leather steering wheel. The hammering of his heart in his rib cage contrasted with the increasingly muffled groans of the red-haired creature. As he approached the clearing, the sinuous road and the thick October fog had played a nasty trick on him. The cracked windshield and the blood that gushed from it were witnesses to this.

Every Thursday night, after a hard day at the office, Charles would meet up with friends for a drink at Please Don’t Tell, a trendy New York bar with an evocative name and vintage atmosphere. One beer had turned into two, then into four. One propensity hiding another: the visceral need to please others. Under the pompous influence of Tom, an old friend from his university years who was now his brother-in-law, Charles rarely managed to impose his true desires on others as well as on himself. His feet were numb, and he had stumbled to the vehicle. His eyes were blinded by the city’s lights, and he had fallen over a manhole. “Damn it,” he mumbled. The torn trousers were perfectly suited to his putrid breath. The key inserted, the engine humming and the smell of dried tobacco.

A crowd had gathered around the drained remains. “Somebody, call an ambulance! “pressed a young woman dressed in a yellow raincoat. He hadn’t moved; his body was stuck in the car seat. He embodied both a feeling of fear and euphoria. A nightmare? Dream? The sweetened reality emanated from a filter that presumably did not match that of the people present at the accident scene. Suddenly, someone knocked against the window. “Sir, are you alright? You need to get out of the vehicle. The police are on their way” said a nerd in his fifties. Charles was livid. No reaction. It’s a fox. It’s a fox. Words were jostling in his head. His hand trembling, he turned up the volume of the radio in the hope of silencing the hubbub of his mind. He hesitantly pressed the gas pedal. The red bush was lit by the headlights. He closed his eyes. When they opened, the illusion disappeared. He accelerated and fled pusillanimously under the screams of the sirens. Help had just arrived and was working on the inert body of a young man with red hair. Matt was twenty-two years old. Charles, haunted by the vision of his actions, lost control. His feet were saddled with the pedal. 100km/h. The speedometer went crazy. 120km/h. 150km/h and the car rushed at high speed against the front of a shop. Charles was forty-five years old.



– Chemin de Verdonnet number…, I start to answer.

The memory fades away. Unattainable. It floats in an ocean of tentacular thoughts. We all have had addresses. A farandole of places imbued with happiness, moments of complicity, melancholy, the screams of kids or even authoritarian “dinner is ready” echoing in the four corners of the house. Isolated in a remote part of my memory, this element, which I am struggling to extract from my past, rushes exponentially towards the void. Yet it seems easy for me to depict the environment in which the six-year-old me was parading on an imaginary red carpet in flashy outfits. Disparate. Coming from idolized characters, my looks transported me to the depths of my childhood dreams. When I closed my eyes, the light shades tending to creamy white on the walls of the living room appeared to me like a flash. I feel the softness of my mother’s smile and the reassuring warmth of the blanket resting on my shoulder on rainy evenings. With concentration, the vermilion couch, combined with a few cushions Native American patterns, takes shape like an unfinished sketch. Although this flat was the cradle of my early youth, its rooms alienated me. Expelled. Or was it the decision of my progenitors to expatriate me from my world? I no longer know who is at fault.

– You know, on second thought, this is not where I really felt at home,” I continue.

– It makes sense to me. The walls only knew you as a child. On the other hand, the house before you left is certainly connected to some deep anecdotes, isn’t it? Come on, I’m sure you’ve got some gossip to tell me,” James enthuses.

A home away from the crowds where silence prevails. When you open the front door, the vastness of the room is disturbing. My eyes wander along the imposing mahogany table and stop at the pile of neglected administrative files. A thin layer of dust covers it. The dust is nesting. It penetrates. It disturbs. It upsets. It irritates. Nevertheless, I observe it and cherish its presence. The area is surrounded by lush vegetation. My mother has always been fond of decoration, although it was always too cluttered for my taste. Cat figurines, paintings, candleholders and junk. Suddenly, a spicy smell, certainly that of my brother’s curry chicken simmering, takes me out of my daydream and I find myself in the centre of the kitchen. Its furniture and instruments are worn out by time and by its careless users. I can still see my father with a large butcher’s knife in his hand, my maternal grandfather’s knife, cutting a piece of meat on the marbled worktop. This culinary cocoon has stories to tell. Monotonous and solitary meals. A table filled with tightly arranged cutlery for frenetic celebrations.

The hustle and bustle pushes me upstairs and to its bevy of rooms. I choose to stop on the landing of my room. The scaly white door has been covered with photographs, remnants of my adolescence and its anamnesis, which disorderly surround the four calligraphic letters of my first name. Made from a jet-black felted cloth, my baptismal name is like an introduction to the treasures inside.

– Shall we go inside?

– OK, but I have to warn you. My parents haven’t been there since I left. So, expect a museum of Lara, including cobwebs and dust.

When you open the door, it squeaks as usual. When I first step on the floor, I remember that the parquet floor also has an annoying tendency to creak. I explore the space. Not the slightest change. Although I’ve been living in Edinburgh for some time now, the period I’ve been living at the address, Route de Salles 20 in Berlens, is pretty much my entire life. Coming back to this timeless and so familiar bubble gives me goosebumps. The pleasant atmosphere in the bedroom pretends to be a somewhat distinguished mix of genres. Against one of the walls, an orange-coloured wood panelling, in front of which the bed is placed, enhances the tone and gives the room its singular spirit. When André Prévot evoked the bed, he referred to it as a piece of furniture where one rests when alone but tires when in pair. My bed, measuring about one metre forty and especially cluttered with stuffed animals, acts like a sponge. It absorbs and stores. It is the graveyard of my emotions, dreams, one-night stands and everlasting passions. In a niche of the bedroom, the music scores and colourful vinyl still brighten up the old electric piano. A key, that of a D, no longer sounds. A tear runs down my cheek. I had missed this place. This cruise into my past is only imaginary, yet the sensations are so stirring that I have to sit down.

One morning, my father proudly bought me a garland of LEDs that he had installed vertically against the edge of the wall. I will always remember my enthusiasm and the famous photoshoot for which the red shades were a great inspiration. Then comes the centrepiece. The crucial piece of furniture in this intimate space: my desk. It was a gift from my best friend. Orderly and methodical at all times, it is the pillar of my determination, the symbol of my success. With my elbows resting on the varnished wood, there I wrote, for many hours, poems, novels, essays, lists, wishes and often love letters. I cried and laughed. I also remember leaving there the wooden dice he gave me. A symbol of a bygone love. A shattered love. It is disturbing how a simple object can have enormous power over us. It is stored in a box now; the kryptonite is under control. Among the objects that were dear to me, a large flowered cup, where various teas used to brew, also rests there. But this is all part of a past era. The memory evaporates. I open my eyes. Basically, an address is just an address; what fascinates is the vivid and chipped mosaic of stories that emerges from it.

2020 - Spring

Drops of Spinsterhood

Image: © CDL

Author: CDL


Drops of Spinsterhood



In our pond I float.

Sick of my condensed perfume,

time to leave this tepid room.


You boiled, remember,

dreamt about our infusion

until, encouraged

by my ‘whole leaf’ pretension,

I danced out of your pink water.


Again, why did I think

that the half-full cup you’d kept

was cold without tea?

I dived back in. While I slept,

you spat us into the sink.


On the table (cherry wood)

now crawl sodden leaves who would

rather dry than rot.





2020 - Spring

Zooming in on Rachel Falconer

Image: ‘6794393944_79354c3990_b.jpg’ © MarjorieBaillie. Source: CC by-nc-nd 2.0 

© Rachel Falconer


Author: Katharina Schwarck



As we all don’t really remember anything about our normal lives, let’s start talking a little about that: where are you isolating right now?


Okay, well, I’m mentally floating between Lausanne and where I am. I don’t know if you know the Narnian Chronicles? In the fifth book, there’s a place called the “wood between the worlds” where the children go and every pond they jump into is a different world but the wood between the worlds is a very sleepy in-between kind of place and they don’t quite know where they are. So that’s where I mentally am. But physically I’m in a small village outside of Oxford, with a big garden full of apple trees and wild animals, deer and foxes and badgers and my family, my English family. My dad is elderly so he is “shielding” and I do the shopping. She laughs. We manage it that way. In short, in a village outside Oxford beside a river and a garden full of wild animals is where I am.


In this virtual reality, what do you fill your days with?


Mostly preparing for classes. I don’t know how you find your zoom classes but I find them quite tiring to prepare for and tiring to be in. I mean, it’s lovely to see people, so there’s a kind of magic connection, especially with the geographic space as well, for me. So that’s wonderful. But at the same time it’s like all your energy is soaked up. So, I haven’t done any research since the lock-down. She chuckles. I’ve just been outside in the garden, reading my course books or inside, planning away, reading secondary criticism, things like that. Yeah, those are my days.


So, the typical question everybody seems to be asking these days: have you picked up any old or new hobby?


I’m playing my cello a lot more! I’m playing a piece by Bloch called “Prayer” which is very, very melancholic. I probably shouldn’t play it. It’s like the combined anguish from past centuries. She laughs. So, I’m playing that and a lovely light piece called “Sicilienne”. The cello is completely physical and it’s a completely different language. There’s a lot of background stress. I keep up with the news obsessively. So, in the middle of this beautiful May tranquillity you’re very aware of tragedy all around, and playing the cello helps get into a different space. It’s just a way to escape that world situation. So, I’m doing quite a bit of that. I’m also making friends with the animals in the garden and the people in the village, you know, across the walls. So, those are my hobbies.


Okay, let’s try and think back a little to how we used to be, in “the other times”. First of all, tell me a bit about your background. Where are you from? Where have you studied? Where have you worked?


Rachel laughs at the prospect of a long answer to my long question.


I think I have a lot of background but I don’t know where to start! I was born in Oxford, I went to nursery school in Glasgow and then moved to Toronto. I had my childhood in Toronto, in the city. My dad worked at the university of Toronto, in the French department. I remember days off from school when the streets were covered in snow and tobogganing down the streets. So, I think of Toronto as a time when you have days off in the winter. I went to a little French school, it was quite small but it meant that we were learning everything in two languages. The city streets that we lived in were extremely multicultural. So, I guess I got a taste for that already in Toronto.

My grandparents, even though they’re English, moved there in the 1920s when Canada was going through its modernism. They were very much involved with a group of Canadian painters who went up North, painting the Inuit cultures and the landscapes, and my grandmother went as their canoe-carrier. She was with these seven now quite famous male painters, and she was the one carrying their canoe and taking them around. And my grandfather was a professor in Toronto – this is on my mother’s side. My grandmother was the first woman to be hired by Toronto University in English. In fact, one of the first people that she lectured to was the famous Canadian critic Northrop Frye, and he just sat in the front row and opened a newspaper and read the whole time in protest at being lectured to by a woman. She was experiencing that kind of attitude in the 1930s and she was so nervous that she was sick before every lecture she gave. But she had a lot of courage, so she kept going.

I’ve been thinking about my grandparents a lot lately. They were part of a magazine called “The Canadian Forum” that was talking politically about opening up Canada to modernism and inventing a new language of painting and poetry. My grandmother went to Europe, toured around, met the Bauhaus, and motorcycled over to Russia to find out about theatre there, Chekhov and so on. It was quite exciting. They knew DH Lawrence and Frieda Lawrence, and went down to visit them in New Mexico. It was a big modernist moment, happening a bit later than in Europe. So, growing up in Toronto I felt kind of connected to this history of leaving behind a Victorian period and becoming modern, especially the women. It gives me a lot of strength to think about them. So that was my childhood.


She laughs.


Then we moved to Chappaqua, a little village outside of New York where my mother had had her childhood, or at least somewhere near there, in the northeast of the US. It was a very idyllic little town that my sister and I thought was too small for us. But there was a wonderful school where you were free to do art and music and theatre. Then I went to Yale University to study Classics. Basically, I chose that because the English department was totally riven between old-fashioned studies and deconstruction, post-structuralism, it was kind of the centre for deconstruction with Derrida and De Man and people like that. I was just a naïve 18-year-old and I didn’t like fights, so I did Classics to escape all of that. Yale was quite stressful, full of very brilliant, very neurotic, driven, ambitious people, even in the Classics department. So, I went to Rome for a year and had a nice relaxed time there. After that I came back to Oxford to take up English – and to take up rowing! I spent a lot of time on the river or reading. I stayed there to do an extra degree, a DPhil on Milton and Virgil. So that was the end of my schooling.


She laughs again, thinking about her very elaborate answer.


Where did I work? My first jobs were teaching posts at London and Oxford just to pay the bills. Then I went to Prague for two years to teach at the Charles University. Prague was very different just after the Velvet Revolution. It was like being thrown into the heart of a historical change, then moving from the Soviet Bloc to the West. My students were fantastically interesting to teach because they had not only undergone this revolution but orchestrated it, they were really the movement of change. It was the first time I saw an intellectual become president: a poet, a dramatist became president of the country. My students had been involved in the revolution and it had all been remarkably peaceful. So to see that kind of optimism and to see the arts suddenly revived and made free and at the head of cultural life… it’s really the only time in my life I’ve experienced that possibility. That was very exciting.

After that, I had to get a real job. I ended up in Sheffield in the North of England where I taught for the first half of my career, very happily. I love Sheffield. It’s hilly like Lausanne and surrounded by green and it’s a kind of funky and student-oriented city. My niece is there now and absolutely loves it. Yeah! I taught there for seventeen years. And then I moved here! In 2010. So that’s the circle.


That is beautiful! Before I pick up on those elements again, you’ve mentioned to me that you also used to be part of a student magazine?


I was actually in one at school! I was on the editorial team in my high school, so younger than you are now. It was fun. We got to write for it. That was great. I think that was my main publishing phase of my writing. It was called “Sartori”, I wrote poems about rabbits and elves and dream worlds. A bit embarrassing, really, to look back on. Oh, and I also wrote for the “Patent Trader”. It was a local newspaper, I did the human-interest stories for them. I got to interview people about their travels in India or cats stuck up trees, people with rare diseases.  And when I worked in Prague, I also wrote for the English language newspaper there. That was a bit like working for a magazine in that I got to review all of these plays by playwrights who had been shut out of intellectual life until that year; they were beginning to open up little theatres like Theatre on the Balustrade, putting on Beckett and Shakespeare in their own, sort of, Czech way. So, I got to review those. My Czech was just good enough at that point to write that. That was a bit like a student magazine. But not like MUSE. MUSE is great. It’s an institution all of its own. I really admire it. I think you should definitely keep going. Yeah, keep going and keep interviews like this from staff short!, she says jokingly.


And right now, at UNIL, what are you specialised in and what made you get interested in that?


Well, what I’m not doing but what I will do when I get back to it is a book on Seamus Heaney and Virgil. So, it’s two poets, a contemporary and an ancient one and I suppose that unites my interest in contemporary literature and ancient literature. It keeps coming back to this story of the descent into the underworld, which I guess has a been a specialism of mine for the past ten years. I’ve written about descents into hell, descents into modern forms of hell and all modern forms of dream worlds. I think it’s been a long interest because it’s in a way one of the first forms of epic narrative! And I really like long stories, partly because they sustain you through your life and they have that sense of a life within them. I think they are some of the most ancient stories around. They’ve been with human culture really from the beginning. I think they enter different forms now; in films, epics are still really with us, whether in poetry or prose. And the story about going into the underworld, I guess, interests me because it has that fantasy element to it. It’s also sort of where you work out your own underworld or your own inner spirit. You find out your own roots. So, even if it’s within a largely secular context, I think we still have a sense of an underworld being a real place. Different people think about this in different ways.

Seamus Heaney’s underworlds involve the Classics and they also involve his own history in Ireland, which involves a kind of unconscious of culture. He really has a sense of a literary tradition which he’s tapping into as well as into himself. So, this book is a way to think about, maybe, that kind of journey into the underworld that the individual artist makes, but also how it hooks them into a sustaining tradition, and how we kind of bring that memory forward with us. So yeah! That’s what I should be working on.

And then in the background I have another project that has been ongoing since I got to Lausanne about birdsong and music and contemporary poetry. But it’s very difficult and I’m not really that much of an expert on birds or biology. But I love the aerial quality of poetry and the way, as we’ve been talking about in the Jamie course [this semester’s BA seminar on Ecopoetics and Kathleen Jamie], the way that poetry extends into non-human languages and non-human ways of thinking. I suppose it’s an extension of thinking about the epic, which is all about migrating into different worlds. I’m really fascinated by the edges of the human and talking to other creatures or listening to what they have to say. But I don’t really know how to write about that. So, that’s a project I have in the background. I do strange little articles about it and hopefully that will come together into some kind of shape after this Heaney book.


I’ve also heard that this year is your first year teaching ILA, now virtually of course. How has that experience been for you?


It’s great. I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s a bit more raw because this is most students’ first experience of university. They haven’t got sophisticated and cynical about the whole thing yet. My impression is of meeting people who are still learning this approach and when you drop a piece of work, a poem or a play into that learning pool of energy, it quickly becomes some new amazing plant that just has these thoughts from nowhere. I find that very exciting and I really miss seeing them face to face because that kind of connection with a work takes a human presence rather than a computer screen, I think. So, as they’re finding their roots I think it must be quite destabilising in their first year of university to be suddenly shunted into a virtual environment. I think it’s probably hardest for the first years, this transition. And they’re very bravely doing their best. Up until the lock-down, yeah, I just found enormous potential. People were just developing very, very quickly and growing into a university life. That’s really great to see. Yes, it’s a challenge but I really enjoy it.

I also think the student-teacher relationship is really special, and students might like to be reminded that their current teachers have been students too, and are still, in a way. We never stop learning. I’ve had wonderful English teachers from an early age, but if I had to single out three teachers who have changed my life, I would say they were Stanley Tucci – the father of the currently famous actor – who was my art teacher at school and who really trained my eye visually – a great, gifted artist. Then Lucy Newlyn, who taught me Romantic poetry at Oxford, Coleridge, especially. She is a poet herself now, who taught me to look for the ragged edges and the moments of fracture and failure from which we often derive our strengths. And Johanna Messner, my cello teacher, who has a wonderful, complex, aural imagination. It’s a joy to learn from her.


How awesome! What a beautiful conclusion. So, you’ve been in Lausanne for ten years!


Nearly, yeah! In August, it will be ten years.


So even though I know you’re not there right now, how have you liked Lausanne as a city over the years?


Well, I love it geographically. I love, obviously, the mountains and the lake and the way the city is laid out. So, the light and the mountains and the lake have made a big impression on me, like it does on every visitor. And then it’s very steeped in English literature. TS Eliot’s The Waste Land was written in Lausanne, or partly written there. So, in a way it’s coming home, but coming home in a displaced way. I love the real multilingualism, even more than in Canada. It is a place where polylinguistic facility just goes on all the time. So those are the things I love most about it.


But now I live in a village outside of Morges where it’s completely quiet. It’s a big attic space, a great place to go and work. I bought it because I can play the cello there without bothering anybody. But, you know, if you find yourself a bunker to live in, it’s still a bunker! So, I miss living in the heart of Lausanne, but it’s very expensive. I think I need to discover the soul of its funkiness. That will be my aim in the next five years, to discover the funky soul of Lausanne, which so far has eluded me. But it’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever lived. When I was interviewed for coming here, I had a terrible interview, I had this horrifying sense of witnessing paradise and that I had just blown my chances! But I got lucky and I got to live in paradise. Yeah, I’m grateful, unbelievably grateful to be here.


That’s beautiful! I’m so glad you enjoy Lausanne. And so, you have been in the English department for ten years as well! How does the UNIL English department differ from other institutions you’ve been in before?


Well, I think that’s what I love even more than Lausanne itself. I think our English department is like a family, really. I’ve worked in two or three other institutions, and I’ve never really experienced this sense of attachment elsewhere. I mean, it has the ups and downs of a family life, but there’s a very, very strong feeling of connection to your students and to your other members of staff, and a sense of obligation, which kind of is a burden as well. It’s a life attachment and I think we all feel, as far as I know, completely committed to the place and the department, as well as to our individual careers. I think it’s much more normal in a research English department to be devoted to your field and the colleagues in your field and to have an attachment to your authors and your libraries. All of which is true for us too! But what’s unique, in my experience anyway, is this sense of attachment to the department and every single person in it and their lives and their students. So, that’s what makes Lausanne special for me.

And concerning the students… it’s amazing how creative people are. I find it kind of unique to students and I think particularly the students in our department that I’ve been privileged to work with. There’s no limit to what people are willing to explore, taking English into music or into their arts or into theatre. Yes, I just feel like there’s this whole imaginative country that is available here to explore for the students who want to do that – I was very surprised to find that here. It wasn’t something I was necessarily looking for..

I guess, some of the things that stand out, to put flesh and bones on that, is how in one of my first years here I went to a production directed by Roelof Overmeer. He retired quite recently but he put on theatre productions all the time and they either tended to be very intense, with one or two people exploring his soul or Shakespeare’s soul or something. And then there were the other kinds of production which involved fifty people and it was completely carnivalesque and improvised and I really loved those, actually. There was one of The Tempest, which seemed to have every other member of the student body in it, at least thirty people on the stage at once. And it was in this makeshift theatre on the campus, not the Grange, but somewhere outside. It was really carnivalesque and wild. You couldn’t anticipate what was going to happen next but there were all of these brilliant cameo performances and that sense of theatre being a complete community experience, and Shakespeare at the heart of it. That was a great moment.

And then we had Kathleen Jamie here one year, very recently, and she read in the foyer of the Grange which is this beautiful building with columns and wooden rafters, and so it’s right for poetry. She’s quite a reserved, prickly character but during a question and answer, the students who’d been studying her just kept asking questions and the room just kind of warmed up and she warmed up. It was partly the space and the interest generated by the students and her very strong poetic voice that filled it. So, that was something that I think could’ve only happened there, or here, on our campus.

And I guess, what I like best, and this happens all the time so it’s difficult to think about a particular episode, is when a student starts saying something about a work you think you know well and it’s totally fresh. The top of your head just feels like it’s coming off because it opens up worlds for you that you thought were limited. That happens all the time. It happened in my Heaney seminar last semester almost every week. I also think you get a lot out of the MA memoirs, supervising them, because you get to see a student at the end of their studies pulling things together but discovering their own voice, discovering confidently how to become expert in a subject. So, this semester I have been supervising Laura Vogel, an MA student who developed her thesis from a course that was called “Animal and Child” and we looked at children’s literature and the representation of animals in it. She decided to do her memoir on this in Harry Potter and she’s become an expert on animal studies and animals in our culture and has gone way beyond what I know. It’s just wonderful to see somebody go far in their field and you get to know them working week by week and seeing them develop a mode of thought and a style that suits them. So I like that about our department too, you get this chance, really, to zero in on a particular student and help them further themselves.


Cool, now that we’ve talked about university and work, say we’re allowed to go anywhere we want and you’re independently wealthy and do not have to work. What would we find you doing with this time?


Wow, anywhere in the world? Well, I think I would have to go to the Galapagos, not to live there but to visit. I think I would go with my nieces, both of them who want to go and study the animals there. And having done that, I think one part of me would like to have a sculpture studio on the seaside. So, if I’m independently wealthy, I’ll do that. I’ll buy a little shack by the sea. Maybe close to Brighton so I could visit the city but I could be in my shack with my rock, sculpting.

That doesn’t really take much money so I think I would like to buy an island to have a sanctuary for all species, all waifs and strays in the world could come and live there, particularly retired working animals – donkeys and bears and animals that have had to be performing or working and have nowhere to go. So, I’d have this big island. It’d be full of creatures. I think people would be allowed in measure on the island as long as they liked all the other persons who are living there as well. And I would have to think in larger terms what I can do to contribute to changing our culture to something environmentally sustainable. I think that’s the big work that needs to be done by the people in the humanities as well as scientists, and that does mean working together. So, wherever I was I would try working with that community to find a sustainable way of existing. That means sharing your vegetables, water each other’s plants. Just a day to day interactivity that feeds the green world instead of destroying it. And I think that would take a while, so I would be busy doing that.


So, you mentioned Narnia earlier: if you could, what fictional place would you like to go to or visit?


Okay, so, I’ve been trying to get into Narnia since I was eight. I opened all the closets, I tried to open the tops of stairs with screw drivers, thinking it was behind there and left gaping holes in all the furniture in the house. And I thought I got there. I was quite a good liar, so I would come home from walks in the woods and tell my friends and my family that I had been to Narnia. They believed it, and I more than half believed it. So, in some ways I have been there already. But I would like now to go to Narnia but my own version of it. I don’t like the version that CS Lewis created anymore. Oh, that sounds sacrilegious because he created it, it’s his country but I would want to go to my version where it was not quite so anthropocentric.

So, I’d go to Narnia for the animals. I would go to the House of Elrond for the stories, I think. I love the idea of everybody gathering by the fire and playing their stories to music so I would go to the house of Elrond. And Lothlórien for the trees, obviously. So, it would have to be a mixture of the House of Elrond and Lothlórien in the Lord of the Rings, and Narnia. That would do. All made modern and ecocentric as well.


How lovely! Last question. I thought it was too boring and mainstream to ask you if you were a cat or a dog person so: what is your favourite type of bird?


Oh wow, that is very difficult. I can answer about the dogs and cats more easily. I like our ordinary garden birds because they’re with me daily and it would have to be between blackbirds and robins because I love bird song and the blackbirds are obviously the ones who sing… but robins interact with you. If you go out in my garden, here in Oxford, there’s a robin, six feet away, talking to you and looking at you. I think I’m an animal person rather than dog, cat or bird-. But I have to say I do love all dogs, whereas cats, I take on their individual merits. If they don’t kill birds. There’s a Siamese I’ve befriended because she’s rather awkward. She comes to visit, she looks lost, she looks confused, she’s not interested in birds, so I’ve started to give her cheese, I suppose I shouldn’t. But anyway, she comes to visit, she follows me around the house.

But it’s very difficult to say because the whole thing fascinates me, like I said, this interface with another creature who’s willing to learn your language and who also forces you to step out of your humanness a bit and to learn theirs. I just love that interaction, the shift in yourself that goes on and the shift in the creature that you’re interacting with. So, I suppose for the bird it would have to be a robin because I do get that sense of interspecies communication from them. I think it’s astonishing that they’re not afraid. They watch you and they listen. I even take my cello out and play Bach and they say, you know, “Shut up! Shut up! Shut up! I’m singing right here!” They don’t like it at all actually, they get quite disturbed. But yeah, there’s a great interaction. Garden robin. I’ll go for that.


Okay! Thank you so much. This was really lovely, it was really nice to talk to you and to get such lovely answers to all of these questions.


Thank you very much, I feel very honoured. It’s a pleasure to be interviewed.