Rene turned to me and asked, "How high do you want to go? Are you in shape?"
In the Abode of Devils
"Emotions don't feel very important when you're struggling against an awesome wilderness. A mountaineer leaves his friend trapped at the bottom of a crevasse without tears, guilt, or regret. Out here the indifference of nature to the life of a man is palpable, understood, part of the bargain the mountaineer makes each time he sets off for the mountains."
I nervously glanced around for crevasses as I nodded consent to Rene's observation. On several occasions I too have been struck by a profound sense of insignificance while hiking in the Alps, no less so than today.
Rene is a poet, playwright, actor, and director. He's also an English professor and a vice dean at UNIL (University of Lausanne). After graduating from Hollywood High, he and his pal (also my pal,) Steve Miller, did the European road trip thing, the Grand Tour. Only Rene met a Swiss girl and never returned. Well, he returned long enough for me to meet him at a party at Steve's house last year, where I pressed for an invitation to visit him in his chalet perched high above the Rhone River Valley.
Although somewhat slowed by three
Among 20 snow capped mountains...
The only moving thing is the eye of a blackbird.
young daughters and a judo injury, Rene is an avid mountaineer and skier. I was thrilled when he offered to take me to Les Diablerets, Abode of the Devils. Legend has it that this inhospitable, craggy ice-scape was once a field of flowers before the arrival of devils. Local people have heard their moans and have seen their lantern lights as they wander in small bands through the snowy forest at night. The area is also plagued by demons, elves, goblins, imps, and other such vermin. Rene claims to be ignorant of all of these phenomena, but I think he's just keeping quiet to protect his family.
Hiking in the Alps is so civilized. One treks for hours, constantly upwards, passing through progressively sparser biomes, beyond the tree line, beyond the point where only tough grasses and marmots live, through snow fields, hopping from bolder to bolder, and then, around the next bend… a delightful café appears. "Yes, I'll have a beer. Make it two. And I'll also have the chef's salad. Could you refill our bread basket? Only 100 Francs? No problem!"
Our trek ends overlooking a vista packed with massive snowcapped peaks, the Matterhorn shrouded
Rene & Katherine
Standing above their vineyard, sun setting over Savoy Alps behind.
in the distance. We don't get back to Rene's place until after 9 PM, although it's still light out. We eat dinner at a picnic table on his patio, drinking wine made from his vineyard, which clings to the steep hillside below us.
French Survival School
This year my students were required to come a week early to attend French Survival School. I decided to join them, hoping to awaken my five years of high school French. The class is fun, and I'm getting to bond with my students in a way that I haven't in the past. The teachers (there are two) take us to bars, cafes, and grocery stores and make us interact with strangers in French. To learn the numbers we played bingo, or Kino as it is called here. With the help of Jesus I managed to win the grand prize: a
fist full of Swiss Chocolate! (Jesus is one of my students.)
During a class tour of Yverdon I noticed my nerdy male students panting after Melanie, an attractive business major from Humboldt State. I also noticed that she had a tattoo of some sort of atom on the inside of
Not sure of the atomic weight
her right arm. It looked like a logo for the Atomic Energy Commission. "Is that plutonium?" I asked as her Asperger entourage leaned in to listen.
"I don't know," she replied.
"So what is its significance?"
She then gave the greatest answer in the history of gorgeous business majors from Humboldt State: "Because I love music and music is made from atoms!"
"Couldn't you equally have said that you love cheese, and cheese is made from atoms?" I pressed.
"Yes, but I love music," she replied in a breathless voice that begged me to ask her for details about her love of music.
Had she been one tiny fraction less beautiful, I would have asked if music wasn't in fact one of the few things not made of atoms, being made of waves, instead. But I relented to her charms and asked for details about her love of music.
Yverdon, where I teach and take my French survival class, is on the western tip of Lake Neuchatel, while Lausanne, where I live, is on the north shore of Lake Geneva. In other words, I am a commuter here as I
The main square of lovely Yverdon les Baines, where I teach and have to speak French to strangers.
am at home. Each morning I catch the 7:45 train departing from Lausanne Gare and arriving in Yverdon Gare 30 minutes later.
I don't mind, because I always live in two worlds. There's the world of schlepping from one duty to the next, occasionally punctuated by moments of bliss, and the world of whatever book I happen to be reading. I think the last four have been recommended by Rudy Rucker. His last recommendation, Be Not Content
, the one I am reading now, was actually re-published by his fledgling publication company, Transreal Books
. (Rudy contends that I stole the $140 copy he bought from a rare book dealer some years ago, thus forcing him into the publishing business.)
Waiting for the bus to the train, on the bus, waiting for the train, and on the train I escape to San Jose in the 1960s, eaves dropping on a bunch of idealistic/naïve/stoned punks seeking enlightenment by eating daily waifers of LSD. It's a story of little interest save to those of us who came of age during those times. I find myself wishing I could interrupt their stoned ranting long enough to tell them to go back to school, get
Venus among Niedermyers
My students all wanted to sit at Melanie's table
more exercise, stop taking drugs, and buy tech stock.
Yesterday, on the train home, I pulled myself out of that long-ago world to acknowledge the old man who took the seat opposite mine. He was wearing a T-shirt that pictured him standing next to some important-looking politician, the president of Switzerland, I guessed. In the picture the old man held two signs. The first line of one was "Black is Beautiful" while the other said "White is beautiful". Both signs then lapsed into French small print that started with "mais blut …".
The old man caught me studying his shirt. "C'est vous?" I felt obligated to ask. In response he produced a thick stack of color photos showing him holding his signs while standing next to various important people with approving expressions on their faces: politicians, soccer stars, cardinals, even the pope. He spoke in rapid French with great excitement. I caught every 20th word. Every few minutes I interjected, "Incroyable, monsieur!"
A short history of Europe
Several readers have complained that my blogs don't contain as much historical background as they once did. It's true. It feels cruel to inflict history on friends
A mountain cafe
Mountaineering can get pretty cushy
whose only crime was expressing interest in my travels. So I'll keep it brief, the history of Europe in 226 words:
The Western Roman Empire fell in 476. Or maybe it didn't. Maybe it limped along with a pope instead of an emperor. Then, in 800, Pope Leo declared Charlemagne Roman Emperor. He reunited the old empire, but his three grandsons re-un-united it into Western, Middle, and Eastern empires. The middle empire turned out to be an indefensible hunk of baloney sandwiched between two hungry slices of Wonder Bread. It disintegrated into a socio-political fault zone, a shaky dividing line between French and German, Italian and German, Catholic and Protestant, Liberal and Monarchist, Fascist and anti-Fascist. My Podcast history professor says that while it's not necessarily true that all of modern European history was generated by this fault zone, it's also not necessarily untrue. He points to the fragmented BeNeLux countries, the oscillating nationalities of Alsace-Lorraine and Tyrol, the fragmentation of Yugoslavia, and, of course, multi-lingual Switzerland, the only one of these regions that managed to remain united, although not without some bloodshed. (Think of the poor apple on William Tell's son's head.) Even today the Swiss joke about
the "Rosti Barrier", the dividing line between French and German speaking Switzerland. Rosti is similar to hash browns, a dish enjoyed in the West but not so much in the East, or maybe vice versa. Anyway, they are served in the cafeteria and I like them. The End.
More photos below
Tot: 2.759s; Tpl: 0.064s; cc: 24; qc: 84; dbt: 0.0604s; 2; m:saturn w:www (126.96.36.199); sld: 2;
; mem: 1.5mb