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Switzerland & France

Updated: Nov 23, 2023

THE HIKES


Gantrisch Nature Park, Nunenenberg Leiterepass Schwalmere: The hike started out in cold fog that shrouded two mountain peaks; at the beginning there was a little restaurant hut and a couple of parked cars and a fire that burned smoke into the sky, and I realized that's what I'd been missing from living in so many cities: watching the way things can just float on and disappear into unquantifiable spaces, uninterrupted by power lines or lantern posts or humans or cars. In the city everything sticks and stains, but when you're hiking it's like even the mud feels clean. We walked for a long while on a gravel path that snaked into the horizon, a slow and steady up, as a noon raven cawed and the wind rang collared bells. Against the mountainface, fog rolled and tumbled. In the distance, a field of brown and white cows grazed on a diet of Swiss greens. We hiked for several hours and went farther than originally planned, but after two weeks in the city I could have kept walking on and on.



Oeschinensee: We paid to ride up the quietest and largest gondola I've ever been on, and when we got to the top we stared at a big map of all the trails. We were in a place called Kanderstag, a high-altitude "resort village" in Switzerland, as Google calls it. When we walked down to the edge of Oeschinensee, the water was clear and warm enough for some people to swim. As we ascended the rocky paths, we watched the lake turn into a spectacular turquoise that all the tourists come to see, the kind of blue that you tell others about throughout the rest of your life. We hiked for about 45 min until it was lunch time and then we sat on a generous, gentle slope and ate our PB & honeys & chips and nuts. Sara scribbled in her journal and Paul meditated and I stripped off layers and put them back on and stared at the water and thought about how Sara said the water looked like kool-aid. We learned the water looks the way it does because of a thing called "glacial flour", which is finer than sand and scatters sunlight in such a way that all our eyes see is blue-green.


I tried to think of haikus to meet Sara's quota of one a day, and when you're looking for rhythm you find it everywhere, in the stunning blue and the things Sara says: consequence of gravity, jocularity.



Bisse du Torrent Neuf, in the Valais region: We had the hike to ourselves, the twisted roots and muddy-path that led us along a mountainside channel, where settlers used to transport mountain water down to fields and vineyards. Today there are suspension bridges that carry you across the valleys, and to the right of one of them we saw a whole family of mountain goats scaling the cliffs. Sara said she wouldn't know how to react if she witnessed a baby goat fall to its death, and it is truly insane that most never do, especially when you hear rocks cascading down from under their hoofs.



FOOD & FRIENDS


On Friday, we met up with Eva, my French language partner when I studied in Chambery more than ten years ago. For a while after study abroad, we sent videos back and forth. I remember those days of language learning, when I'd listen to the French bits and transcribe, rewind, play again, transcribe again, translate, and finally understand almost everything. Before we met up in Lyon, where she lives now, I warned her that those days were long gone--I haven't spoken any inkling of "good" French since 2012 when I was there, and hardly any bad French either--at least not until I went to Spain, and found myself saying "oui" instead of "si". So whenever Eva messaged back, "Don't worry, I'm sure it's totally fine", I told this to Sara who scoff-laughed at all the times in both French- and German-speaking Switzerland I'd already said gracias.


As we waited for Eva on the street, I wondered if I'd still recognize her, but of course I knew when I saw her: shorter than me, stylish, high cheekbones. It's so weird how you can spend an entire decade of your life without seeing someone, but then there they are and of course it's them. It reminds me of how Mark once talked to me about form, and the essence of a doodle, and ice cream cones, and how a thing can be drawn a million ways but what is it that makes it it? Aside from the physical attributes and geometries, the actual technicalities of what makes one human different from the next, what is the core of anyone's body--the way they move inside it, how they move with it? The brightness of their eyes when they say hello?



We hugged and went inside the bouchon (Bouchon Tupin), a type of famous Lyonnaise restaurant that, historically, was meant as an affordable eatery for silk workers to get homemade dishes of regional specialties and carafes of local wine. They're intimate, decorated spaces full of tripe and andouille. During the three-course meal we talked about what we've been up to the past ten years (a lot of traveling, moving, job transitions (now she's doing acting)) and then Eva was sweet enough to show us around the city. We walked and walked and saw so many things: the Place des Terreaux, a city square with the gorgeous Renaissance-style town hall, the Hotel de Ville; the Saint-Jean Baptiste Cathedral; the Fresque des Lyonnais, a massive mural painting of windows and door frames featuring 30 Lyonnais historical figures (from political leaders to artists) that covers an entire building.



She led us uphill to an overview of the city and then back down, where it started to rain and we gathered on the south side of a bar for hot tea. A giant group of teenagers with backpacks came into the bar after us to vape and make noise, and none of them looked 18 (the legal drinking age in France). Germany's like that, too, a whole country of kids with beer. At the bus stations at night you see them the most, the girls with long fingernails and oversized sweaters trading bottles with a group of gangly guys, and all of them cackling and calling each other Digga, a slang (from the word "dicker" which means fatter) we learned from Leonie.

 

The next morning we visited Nathanael, one of the two guys we'd met in New Orleans the spring of 2011, when Sara and I stayed in a hostel that had rats. The details are fuzzy, but my journal says this: "Red wine, white wine, pastis, aged gouda, leg-crosses, miscommunicated verbs, dry sausage, of course, welcome anytime". The details are fuzzy, but I remember this: drinking on the hostel's balcony with him and Lucas, sitting on the carpeted floor; walking down Bourbon street; the boys cooking us breakfast; drinking wine; writing our names in sand. They'd left us a note at the hostel after we thought we may not see them again; they invited us to the house they were staying at where we slept over on the couch and floor. Honestly, I don't remember how we met (who said "hi" first?), just that I thought of them the next spring when I was in Chambery--I thought about how strangers sway our paths.



It's strange when you don't know a single thing that transpired in someone's life from the time you last saw them to when you meet them again, but at least Sara kept in touch. When she told him we'd be in Lyon, he told us to come by his bakery Saturday morning. We stood in the big bakery line and took forever to decide what we wanted, and suddenly he appeared, flour-dusted and curly-haired and smiling so big. He asked in way better English than I remember him speaking how we were as he slid a whole tray of pastries behind the glass. We said a few things about Lyon and then sat down outside in the shade and poked at our pastry buffet, slicing things and tearing hot dough; oh god everything was so good, but the apple turnover came from a place where baby goats go when they die. Warm apple filling, consistency like fresh-stewed apple sauce, between butter-basted crust and pillows of silk dough.


As we sat there, customer after customer left the bakery with loaves of bread, but some drank cappuccinos and decided to sit outside. I was wearing an ultralight down coat and wishing for a slant of sun, but everyone else seemed unaffected--joyous, even, to be outside in the brisk morning air (what Brenna might have called "the Icelandic summer"). Austin and I talked a lot about this in Spain, but it really is crazy how eating outside is such an essential part of European culture (did this start because all the restaurants are so small and there's not enough space for patrons?), as is taking time to eat. In America we drink and eat, but in Europe they sip and savor.

 

Before we left, Nat offered to show us the back--so we scooted ourselves past some suspicious-seeming coworkers and up some narrow stairs into the kitchen. It was so cool to see the behind the scenes (the giant freezers and bags of flour and round chocolate wafers and metal tables and open windows) and to think that this is what he does, that this is what so many people do in France: roll dough, bake bread, nourish souls. But he told us he's getting too old for getting up at 3 am, that it was fun when he was young to be the first to see the city. It was strange hearing him talk about being too old, knowing the last time I saw him Sara wasn't even 21. It is strange knowing we meet people when we're young and only ever again when we're older, and even stranger that we meet so many people when we're young and never see them again, ever.

 

In France, I ate the best ice cream I've ever had--Biscoff, cold and creamy and crumby and spectacularly "fresh"--and the best potatoes, which is saying something. I'd been missing patatas bravas from Spain and craving some scrumptious stems, so when my pike quenelle at a Michelin five-star came with shared platters of taters and mac'n'cheese, I -- well, whatever I did for Sara to comment on the face I made. The quenelle (French for "dumpling") at Daniel et Denise came in a bath of incredibly rich sauce and was so filling that I could only eat a couple helpings of the potatoes, which were butter-crisped on their thin edges but fluffy inside. When the waiter considered us and then the potatoes and shook his head, we figured he'd be back with a to-go bag, but he took our leftovers and never brought them back. I woke up the next morning salivating for their skins.




CLUBBING, CASTLES & BATHS


We almost didn't go into the Chateau de Chillon; it was raining and we were on our way from Neuvecelle (where we stayed our first night) to Ruschegg (south of Bern, and close to Interlaken, my mini solo trip during study abroad). Paul asked if we wanted to go to the castle, and I was comfy in the front seat and dreading tourists, so I made some comment about how we could, but it wasn't necessary, but it could be cool.


It was literally the coolest castle I've ever been in, or, since I haven't been in that many castles, could ever be in. (For in-depth history, read this, but for brief history, it was built in the 11th/12th century and was occupied first by the House of Savoy, a royal dynasty). There were very few tourists, so we had gigantic rooms to ourselves to explore the nooks and stone floors that literally sloped from the walls. Everything had a smooth natural grace: the curves of the structure and the centuries-worn stone. There were pockets of lights and shadows, warm-yellow bulbs and open-air windows that led out to Lac Leman (French for Lake Geneva). In the Gothic prison dungeon you could see the waters lapping up to the edge. There were numerous courtyards and dozens of rooms: bedroom chambers and banquet halls with carved columns and wooden beams. Even the roof was beautiful; on the rainy Monday, the reddish orange and pale yellow shingles looked like a wet forest floor, covered in autumn leaves.



I took more than 75 pictures (though none of the latrines, which were totally intriguing since I always wonder how people go to the bathroom in places where it seems impossible to go to the bathroom), which is probably more than I've taken of anything anywhere else. For reference, I told myself, for Austin (to paint) and me (to doodle). For me to remember all the different kinds of textures and how interior space can feel so rich. I've always loved exposed stone and brick walls in homes, and even more now after Spain and Switzerland and France. I love when spaces can captivate you like that, like they have something to say, or keep.

 

Friday night after seeing Eva, we went back to our AirBnB and then got ready to go clubbing at Le Sucre, a riverside sugar warehouse-turned-club. We didn't drink, just grooved to techno and French rap. I loved looking around at all the people, all the tall men in white sneakers and the women, too. I didn't see any high heels. The place smelled like vape and tequila and someone spilled a drink on my leg. Everyone was younger-- they gathered in groups and bobbed their heads. By 1 am I was ready to go. I think we stayed until 2. When we walked back to our car, a man was pissing against a building--something I saw more times in Europe than I've ever seen back home. But maybe that's just living in a city. Maybe that's being pedestrian, and not a Cheateau de Chillon king.

 

On Wednesday we went to Leukerbad, a public swimming pool area in Switzerland that reminded me very much of Iceland, without the slides. There were many manmade pools with different heat levels, and then a sauna that we only ever saw people coming out of. We managed to be the only ones in there for a good five minutes, when I dipped myself into the hottest water I've ever been in and breathed in the super hot steam until I became so suddenly lightheaded I clung weakly to the walls.


The End


After our three days in Lyon, I flew back to Berlin on a Sunday morning and spent two final days with Oma, who met me at the bus station way later than I had planned. I couldn't remember the last time a family member waited on me like that, and the moment felt special, watching the way Oma smiled when she greeted me and helped me carry my things. The next day we talked a lot about what's next, and how she feels, and it felt in a way like it was the first real conversation we'd had in so long. She seemed calmer-- not as frantic. She repeated herself less. A part of me wondered if that was the last time I'd be sitting in the Kinderzimmer with her, drinking tea. A part of me wondered how soon she'd become as much a ghost as Opa and mom, kept alive by memories and the presence of their physical things.


I spent the whole day chatting and re-packing and stretching for a long time in the gym, feeling a little weak. Sara texted saying Paul came down with a cold, and I was wondering if I'd caught the same. By the time I was riding on the train from DC to Lynchburg, Virginia on Tuesday, I'd come down with just as bad of a cold as I had on the way to Germany. I worked on Illustrator the whole time as I tried to distract myself from wondering if I had a fever.


The closer we got to Lynchburg, the more nervous I got: I'd stuffed my gigantic suitcase in some sort of mini janitor closet and knew there was no way I could take it down the narrow train stairs alone -- it had literally barely made it up in the first place, and the bag was against the train's rules anyway, so the whole time I was waiting to be fined. But I managed to pull it out, and a man behind me laughed and said the suitcase was bigger than me and asked if I wanted help, and I said yes please, and when the train stopped I went down first with my smaller suitcase and then was handed the big one, and the whole incident caused a train lady to stand behind me because she didn't want me to fall, and anyway, I was too weak to yell to Austin, who literally started walking in the opposite direction from where I was. But we reunited and I put on a mask, and when we got to his house his mom and his brother and his brother's girlfriend were all waiting to say hello, and I was feeling so exhausted and sickly that I barely said hi and then disappeared into the guest room for a long hot shower.


I won't go into detail about every day, but I'll say that my time in Virginia with Austin was some of the most relaxed I'd felt since Spain, and the huge green backyard (that backs up to a nature preserve) and welcoming, lived-in home was incredibly healing after all the hustle-bustle of Berlin and the months of nonstop travel in corporate or literally cold AirBnBs. It felt like the perfect "welcome back to America": we ate Oscar Meyer lunchmeat and cheese sandwiches, went to church on Sunday, visited a thrift shop in the cute little town, ate dinner on TV trays, escaped to the sun when the A/C was too cold, and took scorching hot showers. I was just reading about "contrast showers" (alternating between hot and cold water) and how good they are for your body, and I think traveling is like this, becuase it jolts you from your comfortable statis (this is not to say that traveling is inherently uncomfortable but or "cold" but rather novel, just as being home isn't necessarily always "warm and indulgent" but rather just routine). It makes sense that infusing your life with all kinds of these contrasts (travel/home; sleep/awake; staying home/going out; being busy/relaxed, etc.) essentially suspends you in a state of equilibrium. We need the contrasts, because that's where we find balance. And so when people ask me right now if I miss Europe, my answer is an honest no, just as it was when I was in Europe and they asked if I missed home. I'm good where I am right now--I'm still leaning in. Ask me again in a couple of months.

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