Posts Tagged ‘Strangers

04
Nov
08

Better Listen to Alice

Lake Geneva

I floated through 3 days in Switzerland feeling both a warm, pure contentment and a kind of tired, blurry sadness. I arrived at the Geneva airport with the boys and their mother, Marijke, on Friday morning – taking a deep breath after my first experience flying with small children. We got on a train headed towards her sister’s home in Lausanne and I got off in the Geneva center where I did some exploring on my own before continuing on to meet the family in Lausanne later that afternoon.

I had no idea what there was to see in Geneva or how to get to it, so I got a map at the train station and found my way to the center where I just wandered around for several hours, stopping for chocolate more than once to refuel myself. It had been a late night socializing yet again with strangers and an early morning to catch the plane, so I was having trouble motivating myself to keep moving. Luckily, the beautiful lake was stirring inspiration to continue seeking out the loveliness of this famous Swiss city.

I spent some time with the dozens of swans and stared up at the huge jet of water that soars into the air in the center of the lake. The sun broke through the clouds and reflected stripes of color on the high mist of the fountain, glinting in the light against the green and yellow mountains behind it. Color like this, any and all color, always reminds me why it is I travel. Why I sit on planes and trains for hours and walk my tired feet over hard stones all day, often cold and often alone.

With this reminder, I kept walking, walking, walking and enjoying the French architecture and distinctly European feel of the streets. I came across the very center where the the streets become narrow alleys and the buildings become quaint and unique. Here I found St-Pierre Cathedral and climbed its tower for a panoramic view of the city under a jewel blue sky laced with flowery clouds. The patchy reds, browns and whites of the roof tiles looked like the rooftops of candy houses.

I then got myself some candy – tiny perfect chocolates – in a busy cafe on a main shopping street before catching the train to get to Lausanne. It was huge and full of people. I found a spot in the corner and sat there sipping my coffee and observing everyone around me, and I was the only person there alone. Not bothered by this, I sat back and let my feet rest and my hands warm up. Soon the people next to me left, and an older woman – round, red-faced and wearing all purple – sat down with several heavy bags and said something to me in French. “Je ne comprends pas,” I told her. “Ah, you speak English?” she said, “I was saying why do we women always carry so much?” Why, indeed. Her name was Alice.

She ordered a Coca Cola in a glass bottle and we chatted. She has two daughters who live in the States, and she said that when she walked in and saw me sitting there alone in the corner, she’d wished I was one of them. I thought, but did not tell her, that I wished she were my mother sitting there. “Are you homesick?” she asked. Yes, I am. “Soon you will feel that way for Holland.” That’s what everyone keeps telling me, I thought.

She’d lived in California for 30 years, but returned to Switzerland because of the strong emotional connection she felt to it. “What do you think of Europe? The people? The feeling?” I told her I like it here. “It’s a different life,” she said, nodding. And at that moment I wondered if truer words had ever been spoken to me by a stranger.

I sat there with her for so long that I missed my train. I finally asked her if I could take her photograph and told her I’d very much enjoyed talking with her. She said she felt the same. I had to leave her, so I held her hand for a moment, then stood up and blew her a kiss. The lines in her old face were curved and turned toward her smiling eyes. They were bloodshot and tired, but they were smiling. “Be happy,” she said to me as I walked off.

Moving through the door from the loud talk and clatter of the cafe and into the engine rumble and cold of the street outside, I realized I must have looked unhappy. And I thought I’d better listen to Alice as I wiped a tear from my cheek and waited on the curb for the next tram.

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"Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!" -Henry James, The Art of Fiction
November 2017
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