04.09.2009 - 09.09.2009
Set up a ride (through the carpooling website) with a guy going to Annecy, just short of Geneva before crossing into Switzerland. Too bad I didn’t make arrangements to see the beautiful town, but the timing was off. It was already evening when I got off the bus going from Annecy to Geneva. The car ride was fine, with the exception of vaguely irritating body odor emanating from the semi-hippy chick next to me. How you live your life is your business, until it starts affecting other people. I’m all for conserving natural resources, but please, people. Unless we are intimate, I really don’t care to experience the full spectrum of your personal scent.
Other than that, the occasional conversation was friendly enough. After the other two were dropped off, I was left with the driver. Really nice guy who made the trip regularly from work to the wife and kids, and back. As usual, I marveled at his commitment to his family. It always reduces my cynicism to a slightly healthier level whenever I see such manifestations of loyalty. Since we had the time, and he asked, I gave him a synopsis of my own experiences leading to the current level of cynicism. He reminded me that he was older, didn’t marry until later, etc. Also it helped to have had an accident and close encounter with death. I think we could all use an experience like that to put things in perspective. Not that I would wish that upon some men from my past. No, I think for them, their encounters should go all way. Haha, just kidding.
The landscape on the way to Geneva was gorgeous—I took several photos just on the bus alone. The mountains, the villages (so bucolic, as “Felix” would say)…just another reminder of how aesthetically pleasing other landscapes can be.
It’s amazing how people can take for granted the beauty around them. We Americans love going to places like Europe because we find them so “charming”. Well, gee…maybe if we hadn’t destroyed so many of our own older buildings every 20 years throughout our history, had thought twice about urban sprawl, built up instead of out, made things to last, planned more carefully, etc., we could have kept our own charming landscapes instead of ruining them. (Clearly, I’m excluding our protected lands like national parks. Three and a half cheers for Mackinac Island!) I always wonder what in the hell urban planners and landscape architects have been learning in class. Seriously. And what gives fast food chains and gas stations and strip malls the right to be so goddamn ugly? Just scars on our landscape—like the ones on my legs—that will take decades to go away. (There are disadvantages to melanin, after all.) That is, assuming that human life on this planet will continue for decades. We sure are trying our damndest not to, it seems.
Even as a child, riding around with my parents in the Detroit suburbs, I remember how the landscape rubbed me the wrong way. Not enough green spaces. Too many strip malls. It was intrinsically aggravating. We call ourselves an advanced country and yet we are so painfully slow to recognize the most essential things. It is finally beginning to be commonly accepted that our resources are running out and perhaps we shouldn’t live as if they weren’t. Perhaps…but let’s just keep going anyway and let others live with the consequences…and finally, ourselves…
Back to Geneva: my friend, for his sake let’s just call him “Felix”, met me at the station right on time. This was Switzerland, after all. Small, efficient, and with so many quality watches available, there are no excuses to be late. Clearly, a country in which I have no place, and yet all those years ago at age 19, I felt more accepted in some ways than I ever did in my native suburbia. Ah, Geneva! Just thinking of that summer makes me smile. It was the height of my francophilia, and for good reason. The men were like ripe fruit dropping from branches right and left, before I could even see where they had come from. Naïve as I was, I barely knew what to do with them; but the attention was pretty damn nice. So many firsts (no, not that one!): first time overseas alone, first time working overseas, first time immersed in a francophone region…every day was an adventure. I was in an “exchange program” which really meant that I had to write a short research paper on Switzerland before working in a supermarket for the summer. It was all just an excuse to be there.
(Standing in front of where the store used to be.)
I shared an apartment with a few other American girls in a ritzy part of town (strangely enough). The supermarket company (Migros) owned the apartment and took the modest rent out of our paychecks. Every day, I took the tram to work. I think it was the only time in my life I was never late to work, thanks to the store manager, Monsieur Python. And yes, he absolutely lived up to his name. Besides that minor negative presence, it was all great fun. I was the outside fruit and vegetable lady, wondering whether it would ever actually get hot enough to feel like summer. My little notebook was always by the register, for vocabulary and colloquialisms that I jotted down in between (or with) customers. On the weekends, I took advantage of the cheap youth train pass to visit other parts of the country (never too far away). There are several stories I love to tell from that summer, but for now I’ll stick to how I met Felix.
He was a customer who would cheerfully breeze through on his way home from work, always in his perfectly cut suits. Too tall, too successful, too knowledgeable—I assumed he had a family of his own. (Not to mention our age difference, though I added a few years to mine when he asked. I told him my real age after I left—“ahh! You’re a child!”) When he finally got up the nerve to ask me out towards the end of the summer, I decided to go along with the improvisational spirit of my stay. At the end of the first date, I remember we split a crème brulée—my first. It went so fast that we ordered another one. It turned into two weeks of indulgence, mostly gastronomic, as I was so in awe of him (and still rather inexperienced), and he was too much of a gentleman to be pushy. (Ah, that felt so good to write! I wonder if I’ll be able to write it again??)
After the tearless goodbye in the airport, I didn’t really expect to hear from him again. On the contrary, he called every month for two years or so…often on his lunch breaks: “Salut!” he would sing out, knowing full well it was 6:00 a.m. my time, “I was just telling a client today about my little American friend. We had a good laugh. How is our little student? I had lots of chocolate and wine last night and thought of you. Tcheus!”
I put up with the patronizing tone because he pulled it off so well, and was like nobody else I had known. I saw him twice more after that. Once, when he invited me to Paris for a weekend. Just to make sure there were no strings attached, this stubborn student and feminist insisted on paying for part of the flight. He probably thought it was cute, albeit ridiculous, broke as I was (hmm, things have a way of coming full circle, don't they?!). It was a beautiful, platonic weekend of parks, museums, and brasseries. The second time, a few years later during my time teaching English in Toulon. I took the train to see him and we had a pleasant lunch together, catching up on each other's lives. He apologized that I had to stay in a youth hostel that night, for his then-girlfriend probably wouldn't have been thrilled to have me stay with them. Really, a gentleman through and through. Over the years, the calls and emails dwindled, as they tend to do when great distances are involved.
Such were some of the thoughts swimming around in my head before I saw him again. We walked back to his apartment and I studied him, comparing him to the 8-year-old image in my memory. A bit more weary, a bit grey, but still handsome and with that unparalleled sense of off-beat humor. A slipped disk has been preventing my poor friend from walking much until his surgery—so the energy he normally would've expended physically is instead coming out more verbally. At first, it was a relief to not have to do the talking—and, in any case, it had been such a long time since I'd heard his monologues, alternating between charmingly stimulating and irritatingly didactic. But that first evening, it was all charming to my ears and we delighted in each other's long-lost company. How often am I greeted with a homemade chocolate cake complete with my name powdered sugared on? (Pretty much...never.) Or my first initial spelled out in Swiss marzipan on my dinner plate...which I couldn't, unfortunately, appreciate due to my teenage marzipan overdose incident. (That's about as rebellious as it got.) Ah well, less sugar.
I didn't quite know how to act; I'd forgotten to bring my Book of Life for Women Still Trying to Figure Themselves Out, namely the chapter entitled: “How to carry yourself in a manner demonstrating that you've done some growing up since the last time your friend saw you”. Too bad, I really could've used the advice. If nothing else, I wanted him to see that I'm no longer the adoringly clueless 19-year-old he came to know that summer, a dozen years ago. And he was at the top of his game—about my age now, and, I admit, much more knowledgeable and financially successful than I am, to make the understatement of the year. I have the impression that I had no opinions of my own. I guess I did, but had less basis on which to express them. And that summer, in my own wide-eyed, personal paradise, I had no desire to do much more than bask in the flattery and generosity of the kind of man who—I was convinced—would never look at me twice back in the States. One more point for the foreigner...
[Again, I was at the peak of my francophilia, gently drifting from that height for the next several years, despite my experiences of jolting reality, racism, etc., later on in Toulon and, later still, from the man who would be the last to have my full trust and betray it. At that point—in 2003—I had consumed most of my europhilia...except for the less potent dregs, some later reserved for Eastern Europeans/Russians of male persuasion, whom I managed to keep emotionally at arm's length.]
Back in the tidy kitchen of his spacious, tastefully decorated downtown apartment, Felix began to create the first of many divine meals for us. (How I wish he hadn't, with more than a little paranoia, forbidden me from posting any photos of his food, his apartment, or himself. It's not as if anyone is going to read this or, much less, leak any rumors about his involvement in top-secret espionage!!) Well, he'd had me at the chocolate cake. But we behaved and saved it for last. (Saved what? The cake? Actually, yes!)
The next couple of days, we walked around Geneva...it struck me as grandiose and spacious after coming from a French city.
We also walked to a lovely nearby town, Carouge.
My dear friend injected humor into the situation, despite his pain. Sometimes, bending over to relieve the pressure on his spine, he (a non-Muslim) would say, “Which way is Mecca? As long as I'm down here...Allah-o Akbar!” I had to laugh, but not without guilt. It takes a very strong character to find humor in pain. My grandmother is another such character. “This house is as old as I am,” she'll say, “and we're both falling apart. Just when one part gets fixed, something else breaks.” (Well, it's funny the way she says it.)
By the second full day, any ideas either of us might have entertained about being in any way compatible outside of friendship had become as stale as last week's baguette. We were getting on each other's nerves as if we'd been seeing each other regularly the last eight years, instead of not at all. At least it settled my “what if” questions. And, after we calmed down, the rest of my visit went much more smoothly. The last two full days, we biked for hours through Geneva and its outskirts. The weather was ridiculously warm and sunny day after day, the sun showing off whether glimmering on Lake Geneva, lighting up a vineyard, or warming a pastoral landscape.
Felix was impressed whenever I had the energy to keep going—nevermind that I was always lagging behind him and his long legs. But the fresh air and blood flow was invigorating, and compensated the robust meals that Felix thought out and executed each day. He led me through the variety of traffic, where—against my better judgment—I took photos while riding. For the first time, I saw a traffic light especially for bikes! Now that's taking bike lanes seriously.
We meandered through so many well-kept parks of such tranquility. We passed through rose gardens, vineyards, and a field of sunflowers. (I picked one for my friend—remembering how much he loved them that first summer—but by the time we made it back to the apartment, it had completely wilted.)
We glimpsed wealthy villas, charmingly complementing their surroundings, and their neighborhood shops and restaurants.
At the end of the first afternoon of bike riding, he rode back to his place to start dinner and I walked back after having returned my rental. There were so many luxury hotels along the lake, it was too tempting not to peek inside a couple of them. It felt scandalous just finding a pretext to go inside after having perspired all afternoon. One of the 5-star hotels is Hôtel de la Paix, literally, “Peace Hotel”. Hmm, I thought.
I had just seen the United Nations building earlier that day and felt like messing with the attentive concierge standing at the doorway. Besides, he was gorgeous. And I was on vacation. Our conversation (translated) went something like this:
Concierge: Hello, madam.
Me: Hello. Ah, Peace Hotel. Does that mean that the hotel donates a portion of its profits to peace-related NGO's represented at the local United Nations?
Concierge: [Well-trained, polite, not missing a beat] No, madam, this is a for-profit company that does not participate in that kind of program because...the way we operate is... [I didn't pay attention to the rest, shocked that he took my question seriously (or at least pretended to), and tried to think of what to make up next.]
Me: I'm just visiting and know nothing about what there is to see in Geneva. Do you think you could give me a few pointers?
Concierge: Absolutely, not a problem. Please come in and sit in our lobby while I attend to something else for a minute, and get back to you.
Well, it was more than a minute, but it was worth it. I took it all in, and tried to act as if I belonged there. Why not? Rich people don't wear designer clothes all the time...do they? Well, whatever. Most of it is still made in China, anyway. Better to get around the system with second-hand clothes or fair-trade, when it's affordable. Not that that solves the outsourcing issue, or unemployment issue, or sweatshop issue...but at least it doesn't add to the problems.
Anyway, after waiting for the concierge to handle inquiries from a couple of actual hotel guests (not poseurs, such as myself), he was able to fulfill my request. I managed to get him to agree to being filmed, for personal reasons, I assured him. I played the part of clueless tourist, throwing in a flirtatious remark whenever possible. He took it all in stride. At one point, I asked him where young folks go to have a drink. “Because I still look young, right??” “Yes, of course!” he replied, not looking at me, but the map.
I wish I could emulate his manner of being at once perfectly friendly and yet completely detached. Unfortunately, I accidentally cut off the video before the end of his spiel. So I didn't get to film myself asking him facetiously, “Is it true your hotel only hires attractive employees?” The poor thing was fishing for an appropriate response, but then I spared him, wished him a good evening, and saw myself out, chuckling.
Back to the bike rides. Felix pointed out a work of art that really proves how reality can be perceived in many different ways. Depending on where you are standing, the sculpture can spell "yes", "no", or something in between...
Felix, always full of humor, would mockingly throw up an arm from time to time whenever he got too far ahead, tour guide fashion. If nothing else, I'd provided the motivation to get him out and about, appreciating the beauty of his region. Granted, his love for his country was only reinforced. It's understandable—the history of independence, freedom, chocolate, good and free education, beautiful landscapes, great food. Chocolate.
And, let's not forget, chocolate. (Did I mention chocolate?) Also understandable is why others would want to immigrate to Switzerland. (Would it be the chocolate?) But then, fleeing one's country both avoids solving its problems and tends to add to another's.
Yours truly (self-proclaimed xenophile) had nothing to say in response to Felix's xenophobic rants. He was right: unlike France, Switzerland was free of colonial guilt. It had always set itself apart from its neighbor. As he said, the country owed nothing to outsiders. Neither its free education, nor its social services. Political correctness aside, I could not disagree. Moreover, the litter and increased crime that he pointed out fueled his antipathy to immigrant populations. Whatever is being done to ease the tensions and integration, it's not enough. I'd be curious to hear an immigrant's perspective on things.
Other heated subjects were global financial markets and aspects of US culture and politics. As I am not a stockbroker by trade, the former went over, around, and past my head. In general, I could support whatever accusations he made against MNC's and their unsustainable practices. That's easy enough. As for his judgments against my own country: national pride that usually lies dormant in the dustiest corners of my being revived from its hibernation, as it tends to do when I travel overseas. As they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder. Or, in my case, absence helped my ex-lovers forget about me completely and hook up with their future wives! But for this I am thankful. Clearly, none of it was meant to be. I've butchered Nat King Cole's lovely tune, “Unforgettable”, for personal use. Voilà, the version they must have been singing:
FORgettable, that's what you are...
FORgettable, not near—but far!
That's why, dupe-ling, it's incredible
How someone so damn forgettable
Thinks that I am...gee, I never stopped to think what...too.
Poor little xenophile! Of course there are no greater tragedies in the world than your tiny, tender heartaches! At least you did finally learn your lesson, didn't you? By the third time or so?! But seriously. You (the “forgettables” of my past) go ahead and settle down. Produce offspring. Contribute to overpopulation without regard to diminishing world resources. Spend all of your time and money on the little ones. Maybe it won't matter—our asinine nuclear weapons arsenals will probably blow the world to bits before they are even fully grown.
But here I was just about to come to my country's defense—not the contrary! Felix had put on his international boxing gloves and was bashing it right and left—I couldn't get a single sentence in. Politically, he was preaching to the choir. Hello! I was an activist for years. It's safe to assume I've realized that the US has a lot of room for improvement. But culturally—please. I don't care how much you read. If you haven't even visited my country in 20 years, the least you can do is pretend to care about my perspective on your impressions and judgments. But, who knows. It's possible there were other factors involved that got him bent out of shape. Or just the fact of having a visitor to whom to express his opinions. He was my generous host; fair enough. I suppose I could have been more tolerant of his emphatic pronouncements.