Copyright 2013 Carol Balawyder Unpublished All Rights Reserved
Have you ever stopped to consider what a soul is – not the concept but the very nature of soul itself? I have. In Switzerland. Brienz to be exact. In a country absent of advertisement along its roads and highways this billboard suddenly appears: Brienz the soul of Switzerland.
“I wonder what that means. Why Brienz holds the soul of Switzerland?” I ask.
I am the navigator in this car where I sit in the front seat with Jean-Louis, my brother-in-law while my sisters, Diana and Louisa are comfortable in back. It is Jean-Louis who answers my question. “Probably…,” he says contemplatively, “It has something to do with the identity of the country. All the houses here are alike. Typical Swiss chalets. Just like in tourist guides. The architecture here is so…well, so Swiss.”
I have always been interested in talk about the soul. If a country has a soul then what about a family? And so, my three week trip to Switzerland last July takes on this mission of trying to touch my family’s soul. Piece by piece the answer comes together as I visit the various towns and cities around the Vaud area.
Our base in Switzerland is in Ecubens. A small village which lies midway between Geneva on one end and Montreux on the other with the magnificent Lake Leman bordering it all. As days turn into weeks, my attachment for this lake deepens. Like strangers instantly drawn to each other, the lake seduces me. Some call this chemistry. I prefer the meeting of souls. Can a lake have a soul? As I walk down towards the lake I wonder, can a lake have a soul? Here are homes impeccably painted the color of fruit: lime, lemon, raspberry. Lush tropical forest-like vegetation of rubber plants, palm trees and bamboo shoots three stories high. And across lies – like a king – the snowy caped Mont Blanc in the horizon. That France is but a twenty-minute boat ride makes me fell lucky. I think it can have asoul.
So it is here in France, in Evian-de-Bains, on the other side of Lausanne where Jean-Louis mentions the death of his five year old daughter, Marie-Eve, from heart failure. We have just finished a wonderful lunch in a café and Jean-Louis, who has an insatiable sweet tooth, orders three scoops of ice cream for dessert. The waiter makes a mistake and brings him a double serving of various Swiss chocolate ice-cream. Instantly, my imagination stirs around this thought: what if it were Marie-Eve’s soul who whimsically orchestrated this delight for her father? Wouldn’t that be swell if that turned out to be so!
Lake Leman is also known as Lake Geneva but as Jean-Louis and I are soon to learn, no true Swiss would ever refer to it by that name. It is a couple in their eighties who inform us of this. We meet them on a platform in the Lausanne train station awaiting our train to take us to the Vaud vineyards for a day’s hike. Through them we learn that:
1) the train we intend to take has changed platforms (one should always check the entrance for departure changes);
2) It is best to take the express train for it will get us where we want to go in ten minutes as opposed to thirty;
3) At Vivey, we can hook up to another train which will take us high up in the vineyards where we can begin our hike – a hike considered as the 8thwonder of the world and
4) Everyone knows that the lake’s real name is Leman.
The vineyards are indeed masterpieces, right up there with the famous stained glass rosette in the Lausanne Cathedral and Van Gogh’s sunflowers. Miles and miles of unscrambled rows of vines, planted by monks eight hundred years ago. Along the slant of the mountains are well-trimmed trails offering generous views of Lake Leman and the majestic Alps. I stop in total mindfulness. This stillness connects me to some deeper inner calm, which I have long come to associate with a manifestation of soul.
In the charming village of Epesse we stop at a park to have lunch. The park is like a koan. Spare and without answers. Do mountains have a soul? We continue our descent, passing under a lovely rose arch and follow the soul-stirring hum of a waterfall that leads to the charming waterfront village of Cully – think Great Gadsby – with its chic Au Major Davel hotel where we stop our hike and decide to return home by boat.
But first we head for the Potterat winery, where we sample some excellent whites and have a pleasant discussion with the owner and his wife. Afterwards, we whorl through the winding streets that lead us back to the dock where we sit beneath an ancient tree. We stuff our faces with lemon tarts, chocolate cake and more wine as we wait for our boat.
On the boat ride back from Cully, I am mesmerized by the sailboats in the six o’clock sun. A spray of water lands on my hand and I watch the pearl droplets fade away. Are souls like droplets of water – individually they melt away but together they form large bodies of water? Back home we sit in the back yard terrace, where the sun will set around ten and with guidebooks and notes we plan our trip for the next day.
Of all Swiss cities, Bern, the nation’s capital, is perhaps the most authentic for in over five hundred years it has barely changed. It sits along the fast flowing River Aare and the constant view of mountains envelope you like a pair of safe arms. Dipping in and out of boutiques my sisters and I stroll beneath the covered arcades and cobbled lanes where traffic is kept out and the decorated facades of the old grey stoned buildings awaken us to the meticulousness of the past. It is on the second floor of Kramgass no. 49 that Albert Einstein developed his famous relativity theory and where he was the most happiest. Happiness is a moral responsibility claims Geri Larkin, founder of Still Point Zen Centre in Detroit. Did Einstein become happy because of his creativity or did his happiness provide the proper grounding for genius?
A few steps later we I am standing in front of a pastry shop, its window immaculately clean. Tempting miniature pastries are displayed as delicately as figurines in a glass menagerie. Thoughts of my father’s apple pie come to the surface of my mind and suddenly I am transported to memories of when he was alive. Another koan. If a memory lives forever where does it go when one dies?
My father has been dead now for five years. Since then my mother lives her life as she truly is and not how she allowed my father to define her. Now, she refuses to be folded into any authoritative cloth. How long does it take before one lives one’s life as one truly is and not how one thinks one should be? How long before one can accept life as it is, without wanting to change it? To trust in its natural flow rather than try to control it so that it curves left rather than right, so that the current goes backward rather than forward. So that it flows smoothly and yet powerfully like the emerald flavored Aara River from Bern to Interlaken to Jungfrau?
On our way back from Bern we stop in Broc where its main attraction is the Nestles factory. Their Callier line of chocolate is displayed on sparkling glass counters like jewels at Tiffany’s. As many as we wish.
Alas, it is also at the chocolate factory that Louisa gets her camera stolen. Thievery, we are informed by the staff, often happens here because of the crowds and darkness of the place. What will the thief make of the photos already taken? Here, the four of us on an outdoor terrace in Gruyere having the best cheese fondue ever. And here’s another, standing close to each other, the three sisters with the Alps as backdrop and the lapping fields reminiscent of the Heidi of my childhood books. Will the thief be able to absorb by some photo-osmosis the soulful serenity and naïve joy that accompanied these moments? Hear the symphony of the cow bells offered to us as meditative prayers that accompanied this photo? Will he or she having a sense of some deep inner knowing that when you take something that does not belong to you, you also remove something of yourself?
Paul Theroux said that all travel is a lesson in self-preservation. I love Geneva not for its parks, nor for its icon Jet d’Eau fountain that one sees emblazoned in every travel brochure. I love Geneva for its creamy, pastel buildings along the Rive Gauche. Elegant wrought-iron balconies parading like grand dames saluting the shoreline. A real dame boards a tourist bus. A woman in her early eighties (but who can tell these days?) dressed in black from head to foot except for a shocking pink shawl thrown around her shoulders. Her feet are in a pair of high-heeled ankle boots. Another koan. Can self-preservation be linked to the kind of shoes you journey in? My own tour bus takes off and I am led through Genevia’s tall, shuttered, grey-stone houses, over the Pont du Mont Blanc beneath the spectacular view of Europe’s highest mountain and later we stop at the United Nations. Our tour guide explains that no one wins in war for even those who wave the flag of victory have sons or daughters who have died for this victory. At that moment a bird flies through the open window and circles frantically around the ceiling.
At the opposite end of Genevia lies Montreux, the Swiss Riviera. A tip of land sticking out into the gorgeous Lake Leman. We arrive for an afternoon in the midst of the Montreux Jazz festival where we listen to The Sweethearts, a senior college band from Australia, performing, of all things, soul music. There are maybe 15-18 teenage girls on stage with their music teachers who believe that the best way to motivate students to play music is to give them high performance goals. Joni Mitchel wrote, “love is touching souls…” and watching those teenage girls realize one of their once-in-a lifetime dreams I think “..surely you touched mine.” I walk along the seafront of Montreux, the joy of the Sweethearts resonating inside of me. Somehow my heart, or is it my soul, is clearer as I notice, as we stroll back to the car, sailboats peacefully moored in the lake against the backdrop of the Alps, the boardwalk lined with palm trees and the stately bright yellow awnings of the impressive Grand Montreux Palace-Hotel. Everything is in such harmony.
And then there is Lausanne. My own Swiss Sweetheart. Incredible steep hills reminding me of the streets of San Francisco offering pretty views of the lake below and the Savoy Alps peeping through between gaps of buildings. Everything you read about Switzerland is contained in Lausanne: Discreteness. Pride in their country. Tidiness and helpfulness. I have just finished a hike through the forest which began at Lac de Sauvabelin at the top of Lausanne and I have barely opened up my map when a woman comes up to me and asks in French if she can help me. She is my age and in the square next to the Lausanne Cathedral we have a warm conversation, like we are old souls, where she tells me how, many years ago she left her native country of Chili and has made Lausanne her home. I could live in Lausanne, I think, as we part company, knowing that I might never see her again. Some people are in your life but for a brief moment… I take a moment to express gratitude, though I am not quite certain who I am expressing it to. My hike ends in the fashionable lakeside resort of Ouchy where in the hotel Angleterre, Lord Byron wrote The Prisoner of Chillon. Ouchy with its bustling lakefront promenade and the opulent Beau Rivage Palace, one of the top fifty hotels in the world. Ouchy with its flowered gardens and Olympic museum where inside I read, “(I)t is not self-confidence which makes a winner but the ability to make others believe that you have no doubts.”
I do not like this saying. It makes the athletes sound manipulative and in my search on this trip I am looking for authenticity. A soul cannot be otherwise, could it?
Our last destination is the Jungfrau – known as the top of Europe. On my lap rests a guide book claiming that the beauty of the Alps in this region is among the most spectacular mountain landscape in the world. I have always loved mountains. Love their stillness. Their power to stir me to awe. Their ability to bring me to humble meditation. France may well have its Louvre; England the Tate and Italy the Uffizo, but the landscape is Switzerland’s museum. It is a cloudy day and so the farthest we get on our journey to Junfrau is Grendelwald. We sit, the four of us in a terrace behind a hotel sipping beers and coffees at the foot of Mount Eiger. Of all the mountains in the world this one with its unique steep ledges is the ultimate test of vertigo for whoever cares for the challenge. Apparently, the way to go through this mountain is to look upward. As in life. I am seduced by mountains, I conclude, because they have the capacity to touch my soul. My sisters and I smile into the lens of Jean-Louis’ camera and I know that everything is fine just as it is. And maybe after all, the real purpose of traveling is to touch home again.