I write this on the TGV—le train à grande vitesse, literally “the train of great speed”—from Paris to Geneva, losing myself in the melancholy ballads of Petra Marklund and wondering exactly what it is that I am struggling so desperately to escape. American idiocy, as Billie Joe Armstrong said. Provincialism. My own imagined brand of mediocrity.
After three and a half hours of intermittent napping through the farm-carved French countryside, I finally “alighted,” in the British parlance favored by English translations of transportation announcements in western Europe, and swept right through Swiss immigration at the Gare de Genève-Cornavin. “Have your passport ready,” a litany of signs warned. Ready for nothing. I gripped the pocket that nobody bothered to check for the navy folio stamped with a carefully hidden gold eagle. I knew what not to expect. Even on my train from Copenhagen to Malmö during the Syrian refugee crisis in winter 2014-5 nobody had deigned to grace my ID with more than a two-second glance. Thanks, Schengen.
Finally exiting the empty tiled corridor, I saw among a crowd of tall, mustached gentlemen one slightly taller, equally mustached gentleman who looked vaguely like my cousin Marc’s Gmail avatar. I smoked him out by striking an expression of maximal confusion. “Kelley?” he asked.
His eyes were very blue. We shook hands and I babbled something about how great it was that I had not not had to show my passport to anybody. He replied that this was to be expected thanks to the E.U.’s open-border policy. I noted his perfect American English and wondered whether my family had gotten the story of my native Swiss German- and French-speaking cousin—the husband of my mother’s blood relative—all wrong. He could have been my great-uncle from Peoria.
We started walking, and Marc asked whether I wanted a coffee. Thinking of the powdered machine espresso I had hurriedly downed in my budget Paris hotel at 4:30 that morning, I thought of how much better even a train-station latte would be. But I did not want to risk that he would play the good host and try to buy us coffee, and I did not want our first five minutes of interaction to be poisoned by a struggle over the bill that I, playing the good guest, would have likewise insisted to cover.
We emerged from the train station into the sunny blue sky. “Have you ever ridden a Smart Car?” he asked.
I wracked my brain. Just a Toyota Prius. Not the same. “No, I haven’t,” I replied with some regret. I put my luggage into the unexpectedly commodious trunk, and we proceeded to achieve whatever the opposite of alighting was.
“Smart Cars are an interesting breed,” Marc started. “Thought up by a Swiss guy, engine designed by the Japanese, sold by Volkswagen. Everyone thinks that the Smart Car is German. But they’re really not.”
I decided that this was going to be a very good weekend.
Marc began to talk about Swiss history. Unbeknownst to an ignorant brain steeped in images of a historically isolationist country ringed by mountain fortifications, he explained that anyone who wished to enter had a pretty clear shot through Switzerland from France to Austria. At one point the French had used this to the advantage of their imperial designs by invading the then-Old Swiss Republic Eidgenossenschaft and declaring their own République helvétique. Though the Swiss had been defeated militarily, the ensuing political arrangement lasted only five years before Napoleon restored the confederation in 1803.
“Want to go to Chamonix?” he asked suddenly. I vaguely remembered having to memorize the name at some point for a junior high French class. Snow-capped mountains and cups of macchiato at alpine ski resorts came to mind, and I nodded vigorously.
Marc turned his Swiss-designed, Japanese-equipped, German-made Smart Car onto the freeway, and I caught my first glimpse of the countryside undulating in every direction around us. The green fields were so bright, verdant technicolor painted through every layer of rolling hill stretching into snowcapped cliffs dozens of kilometers away. Just as the watery hues of Chinese ink paintings had started to make sense only once I had climbed a few foggy mountains in northern China, I suddenly understood why the Alps were so frequently depicted in bright oils or acrylic.
We crept into the mountains. After traversing a spaghetti bowl of winding cliffside paths and a labyrinth of clean and spacious tunnels, we stopped in a dirt parking lot next to a peak split nearly in half by a black, ice-covered slope cut through with ski trails. A two-story log cabin stood nearby, stained wood balconies staring down the mountain.
“Ski resort,” Marc said. It sure looked like one. “People do jumps down that rock.” Shielding my eyes from the rays of sunlight searing my brow, I peered into the dark face of ice raising its petulant chin hundreds of meters above me and shuddered.
We returned to the car and drove through the rest of Chamonix. Its cafes, restaurants, and lodges clustered against forbidding mountainsides struck a match to long-calcified memories of the ethnic Tibetan villages dotting the foothills of Jiu Zhai Gou, minus the prayer flags and roadside vendors of fresh purple figs, giant pink apples, and green melon slices on sticks.
Instead of a cable car, we rode a cheery red train up to the top. “My grandfather Emil Christeler may have been one of the first passengers from Geneva on this train, over a hundred years ago,” Marc said, pulling out his phone to show me some greyscale photos of a group of solemn-faced workers in three-piece suits, leaning on shovels or crouched on the ground. “I haven’t been back here for 50 years. How far does it go up? 1950 m now?” Marc generously purchased our tickets, and we boarded the train.
In the back of the train, we met a kind British couple with a kind-eyed Weimaraner sighing at their feet. “’Braque de Weimer’ en français,” the husband explained. Marc complimented the man on his French, and he laughed. “I’ve been living here for twenty-five years,” he said. “It’s definitely not typical for British people to speak French; I’ll tell you that. I say three words of French with my British accent, and people have to ask me to repeat myself. They’re just not used to it.” I gave a knowing laugh.
Our train reached the peak after a steady fifteen-minute journey at a noticeable incline. After a quick lunch of baguette sandwiches—I insisted on ordering a “bretzel,” which I presume was shorthand for baguette pretzel, stuffed with sundried tomatoes, mozzarella, and a tangy olive oil dressing—we walked down into the glacier. We passed tourists from France, the U.S., China, London, Manchester, Ireland. Marc was in disbelief that the glacier had dropped almost 200m vertical since 1960, an observation corroborated by a geologue from the Université de Genève with whom we stopped to converse. “English only!” a bench of American tourists clamored from behind us when he switched his talk about the impact of climate change on the height of the ice to French for us. The provincialism that I had crossed an ocean, traversed a countryside, and scaled a glacier to escape had followed me anyway, it seemed.
We moved on to observe the mountaineers taking a somewhat less leisurely afternoon stroll on the glacier before us. Marc handed me a pair of binoculars. Evidently having forgotten everything I had learned in childhood from birdwatching around the lakes of Michigan with my grandfather, I peered through them and saw a blur. “One eye at a time,” Marc advised. “Close your right eye—no, your other right—and then adjust the central focus. Open the other eye and adjust each lens separately, since your eyes are different.” I followed his advice and saw rocks, snow, and a few slow-moving hikers on the craggy glacier hundreds of meters below. We moved our sights from the glacier to the peak of the formidable Mont Blanc and saw a few people climbing up the slope, presumably readying to scale the cliff.
We then walked a ways up our own peak to the “Temple de la Nature” and saw rhododendrons, green lawns, sprays of colorful blue, purple, yellow, and pink flowers against the endless marine sky. I half-expected Julie Andrews to pop out from a bush and begin spinning her long skirts through the technicolor surroundings.
Instead of Julie Andrews, however, we passed a number of hikers—families, couples, women and men in pairs and solo. “You should learn that we always say ‘Bonjour’ on the trail,” Marc instructed. “Doesn’t matter who; everybody does it. I’ve gotten into a number of interesting conversations that way.”
It wasn’t long before we found ourselves in one such conversation, with a middle-aged French man who looked panicked when we told him we were planning to continue hiking the ridge.« Il y a deux heures jusqu’à le bout, et le dernier train départera a 5h. » He looked at me. « Quelle heure est-il? » I smiled inwardly at the fortuitously textbook nature of the interaction. « Trois heures et demie—non, pardonnez-moi—quatre heures et demie. » We decided to take his advice and turn back.
On the way home, we stopped by my cousin’s other house—la Capite, it was called. Outside, he had a small garden with cherry trees, blueberries, raspberries, redcurrants, blackcurrants, pinkcurrants, and whitecurrants; apple trees, peach trees, even an apricot tree. The cherries were all ripened to rot, so Marc gave me the two remaining raspberries from the otherwise stripped bush. Delicious.
“We have so much trouble growing apricots here,” my cousin admitted. “They grow and flower, but then it always freezes too early and everything falls off. But they have great apricots down in le canton du Valais.”
Inside the house was a maze of rooms—fewer than the labyrinth of tiny cubby-holes they had had before, my cousin said. A small entry with a powder room, kitchen, dining room with a formidable-looking dining table and carved wooden chairs like one might find in a Loire Valley museum—“my parents were really into Louis XIV,” Marc declared, stating his intent to either sell or burn the remaining pieces—an equally dusty and ostentatious parlor sporting velvet-cushioned sofas with clawed feet.
We exited the first floor through a side door back into the garden. “There’s another floor as well,” Marc explained. “Hei salut!” he suddenly yelled.
A dust-covered, round-faced man with a cigarette dangling from his mouth popped his head out a second-floor window. « Bonjour; bonjour. »
« T’as fini? »
« Ouais, ouais. J’ai commence le troisieme étage. »
« Tu peux venir demain pour finir? »
« Non non; demain je suis en bateau ! Lundi prochain ? »
« Tu ne peux pas le faire demain ? »
« Non; non. Pas demain. »
« D’accord, d’accord. Tu finiras lundi prochaine; sinon je te donne un coup de main. » They both laughed, and the worker finished his cigarette and went home. We climbed up a deck on the side of the house, and Marc showed me around the detached second floor with another bathroom, hallway, two bedrooms, balcony, and smaller room with a spiral staircase under construction leading to the attic
That night we had dinner on the coast of Lake Geneva: filet de perche, delicately fried with a light butter sauce. I drank l’eau plat and ate a whole basket of frites that were, to my naive taste, indistiguishable from the fries I might find at any higher-end restaurant in Manhattan. As we ate, the sun set over the lake while Marc told me stories of sailing across the Atlantic. “It’s not as hard or uncommon as you think. You’ll find port cities on either side full of people looking to do it,” he said. “They contract willing accomplices—always a risk because you can never perfectly predict how knowledgable they are, sometimes until it’s too late—and wait for the right winds to set sail. But I’ve done it once and almost died in a storm. That’s enough for me.”
After dinner, we went into downtown Geneva to meet Marc’s son Nic. As we were crawling through the streets toward the city center, everybody around us suddenly started honking, and small groups of police began to materialize from seemingly nowhere.
“Is that a Swiss flag hanging out that car window?” Marc asked. Indeed it was. “I bet they just won their World Cup match.” He laughed. “This is an experience had only once or twice in a lifetime. The Swiss don’t win their football matches too often.”
As we learned the next day, it turns out they had, 2-1 against Serbia. Two Swiss players from Kosovo had flashed the Bosnia eagle upon winning, and according to the BBC broadcast piping through the car radio, Switzerland had been “utterly humiliated” by the act. I thought that this was quite strong language to use. Who is “Switzerland,” anyway? I had a difficult time understanding how a collective legal entity could be “humiliated.”
From somewhere within the chaos, Nic called and followed up with a text. Marc handed the phone to me. “Where does he say he is?”
I looked into the screen. « L’éléphante de l’araïbe, » I said. Some bar downtown.
Mucho chaos, Marc instructed me to write, referring to the pandemonium outside.
« C’est le bordel ouais »
« A bientot demain soir » I typed. And so it was settled.
We inched past a music festival was raging in the central city park. I looked at my watch. 23:30. Marc decided to stop. “Let’s just check it out,” he said. We walked into a packed night market of beer on tap; Megadeth tee-shirts; posters for metal bands from Germany, France, and Scandinavia; and young, mostly attractive pierced, tatted, and dreadlocked people in their early twenties dressed in skinny jeans, short skirts, flannels, makeup that ranged from minimalist classy to full-on goth. Marc pointed out a woman swallowing an espresso-sized plastic cup of pink pills. “What do you suppose that is?”
Vitamins, I considered replying. “Five years ago I would have said that was E. But now it’s probably molly,” I said.
“Some stimulant. If it’s anything like Ecstasy it supposedly makes you feel good and love people. I don’t know much more about it. Some of my friends have tried it, but I’m not into drugs myself.”
We neared the music. The band sounded like an odd cross between Dream Theater and the Foo Fighters, except in German. Cool.
We stood and soaked in the scene for a bit. I enjoyed the feeling of sharp music invigorating my midnight sensibilities through the fog of travel fatigue and lingering jet lag and was sorry to leave. We decided to continue our walk from the park through a loud groups of young American tourists toward the old city center. The labyrinth of walled-in cobblestone streets and relative absence of glowing storefronts brought back imagery of St. Malo in Normandy, minus the seagulls and smell of ocean fish.
We followed the crowd, surprisingly dense for midnight, and suddenly found ourselves in an old courtyard packed with rows of folding chairs facing an impromptu performance stage occupied by a pianist, a violinist, accordionist, bass clarinet, and vocalist. Stone buildings with a maze of archways, balconies, and elaborate masonry rose from all four sides.
The vocalist, tall and lithe with shining waves of long mahoghany hair tumbling over slender shoulders, breathed a slow stream of Argentinian-accented French into the microphone. She was backed by the Cuarteto Tango Indigo, and they were all about to perform a few pieces, but they needed some audio support first. She reached around her denim bolero to adjust a colorful scarf about her graceful neck and waited patiently as the sound engineer reconfigured a few amps and added another microphone.
The band started to play. The violinist cut the silence with a few woodsy chords, and the pianist sprayed arpeggios of crystal notes against the stone walls around us while the accordion and bass clarinet kept the pace. The vocalist began to sing, her voice a deep espresso over the painted red and blue waves of sound behind—but wait! The violinist’s microphone wasn’t amped enough. They stopped, and out came the sound engineer, face stiffly plastered with a smile as he readjusted some equipment and added yet another microphone.
The band started again, this time with a different piece that tumbled over the eager audience like a hutch of rabbits frenetically scattering into an open grassland, and I felt them carrying me right along with them. But before the vocalist had opened her mouth—arrête; arrêtez! This time it was the pianist who was dissatisfied. The audio engineer emerged once more from the shadows to partake in his own one-man theater of wire-connecting and knob-turning, and I marveled at how well the audience was taking the delay, considering that it was already midnight and we had been sitting there for at least fifteen minutes with no real music to that point.
The sound engineer finally left the band to their own devices, and they began again. To my disbelief, not five seconds into the piece the violinist again decided that things weren’t working for her, and everyone stopped. At this point, the vocalist threw her hands up in mock frustration—her actual feelings belied by a huge plastic smile—and huffed offstage. The four remaining performers exchanged glances, shrugged, and dove right into a perfectly orchestrated piece of lively instrumental tango while the vocalist sat offstage, shaking her head and still wearing a Cheshire grin.
I decided that next to an impromptu midnight foray on the previous Saturday to a Parisian rooftop bar that had featured a single-stalled bathroom sporting two toilets facing each other, the musical anarchy unfolding before us topped the chart as the mildly surrealist fiasco of the week. Marc and I stayed for one more piece and then nonverbally agreed to leave. I later discovered that the vocalist had been a temporarily contractor for that performance in Geneva only—not a permanent member of Cuarteto Tango Indigo at all, which, after all, was called a quartet for a reason—and wondered whether the whole sound quality business had been a petty ruse designed to force her offstage.
The next day, after a quick breakfast of flaky croissants with butter and jam followed by an espresso each, we drove out to the foothills of le Moléson to brunch on Gruyère and other fromage de raclette in the form of a croûte au fromage with ham, bread soaked in beer, and an egg. I commented on the floret of thinly sliced sweet pickles laid on top. They tasted just like the gherkins that one might put on a sausage back home, and I always judged as deeply fascinating such pockets of cultural familiarity in otherwise starkly foreign settings. We finished off our platters with another pair of tiny and rich café crème. I managed to slip away early to “use the restroom” in order to pay for the two of us, a maneuver I had often been forced to use when out with friends in Beijing and Seoul. Phew. Marc was being so generous, and I was starting to feel guilty.
This morning the topic of conversation was social and technological advancement in China. “I have never visited myself,” Marc carefully qualified, “But the few friends who have continually comment on how quickly everything seems to be growing.” I agreed. The subway system was brand-new, and the high-speed train technology, enabling in five hours a trip from Beijing to Shanghai that used to take thirteen, was identical to that used in Japan. But long-term, I argued, China simply didn’t possess the accountability and de facto rule of law needed to foster a business environment built for innovation and long-term growth. Without the social safety net and interpersonal trust enabled by a fair and functional legal system, only a select few with the right connections could justify taking any high-cost high-benefit risks. As I spoke, however, I wondered just how different the U.S. was from the P.R.C. on that spectrum. Marc elaborated on the point with an interesting personal example of a former client who had inspired great success in his own company by humbly admitting to his own failure and trusting that people would understand.
“You see those cows on the mountainside?” Marc asked, testing what should have been my newfound ability to spot tiny living things moving up the inclined faces of faraway peaks, this time without binoculars. I did not pass the test. “In any case, those cows are brought up the mountain every summer to feast on the alpine grass and make milk. At the end of the summer, they are all given hats made by the local villagers and paraded back down in a grand festival to be milked.” I imagined a long line of lazy-eyed brown cows in colorful wizard hats led by Julie Andrews dancing in from Austria down the technicolor slopes before me and decided that this was one of the most beautiful sights I had ever not seen. I looked around one more time at the impossibly green mountain ridges stretching into countless miles of equally unbelievable blue skies and felt a deep gratitude at how fortunate I was to enjoy such a delicious brunch with fascinating, well-read and -traveled company in such a stunningly beautiful place.
After brunch, we rode a spacious cable car up from an oddly Nordic-style station constructed from neatly arrayed pine-colored wooden slats rising over floor-to-ceiling windows held up by a clean steel frame. “On doit souffrir l’Asiatique,” a tall, tanned, sinewy man joked with a smile as he and his significantly smaller and whiter Asian friend boarded the train behind us. I hoped that they were old buddies accustomed to brutally ribbing each other, or at least that his companion didn’t speak French well enough to understand the condescension.
It turned out that both were likely the case. “你好,” the Chinese friend said with an ironic smile, introducing himself as Chris.
“你好!” I replied.
“You know, Kelley speaks Mandarin,” Marc grinned, gesturing to me. Oh, dear; here we go with the oral examination, I thought.
Chris was surprisingly chill about this revelation, switching easily from fluent British English to equally fluent Mandarin with no patronizing meta-commentary on either side. He worked for an international firm in HK, and the guy he was with was a former coworker whom he had visited three or four times already. I mentioned that I would be going to Hong Kong for business sometime this year, and he invited me to contact him when I arrived. I promised to email him. We chatted for a while longer about the relative merits of Beijing- and Chengdu-style hot pot, as well as the undisputed superiority of southern Chinese egg tarts over both. Food was always a safe and effective topic for connecting with strangers.
So was, it turned out, magnetic resonance. Chris’ Swiss companion asked me what my job was, and when I told them I worked in research MR, they laughingly told me that both Siemens and Varian, two manufacturers of the equipment that we use, were both the customers of their firm. “Oh, Varian; Varian,” the Swiss guy complained. He had spent quite some time preparing a dossier for the client but had ultimately lost the deal. I laughed and told him I had spent quite some time learning to operate a Varian MR scanner only to have it decommissioned on me and replaced by a Siemens machine.
We finally reached the first cable car stop, to the delightful sound of clanging bells and lowing cows, of which I exited the car to see dozens: brown and black spackled cows with very large bells—large, throaty iron bells and smaller, brighter copper ones that my cousin told me were more expensive—strapped around the cows’ necks with leather and metal buckles. “An American tourist once came to Switzerland and noted, just like you, that the cows must be extremely distressed by the loud bells. Someone did a study and fueled a small movement to free the cows and outlaw the bells. But then it died out, and nothing happened. Et voilà, here we are.”
After another brief cable car ride, we reached the summit, where we could view the pristine hills and patchwork fields of the countryside stretching on for miles under a nearly cloudless blue sky. We met and talked with two mountaineers who had skipped out on the cable car and joined a few dozen other climbers, outfitted with ropes and pulleys, to scale the cliff face toward the same summit. Compared with Mont Blanc and La Mer de Glace of the previous day, the hundreds of meters of rock appeared soft and inviting, and compared with the six-foot-something muscled giants with buzzed heads and mirrored athletic shades, the slender couple standing in front of us looked—well, healthy but not Olympian. I began to reconsider my fears and sketched in a tentative item on my bucket list.
My curiosity thus piqued, I began to pick my way through a narrow ridge toward the cliff that our new friends had just scaled. “You’re fearless,” Marc laughed, but his voice was fraught with a note of anxiety. Perhaps just then was not the time to be fearless. I would have a hard time explaining the situation to my parents when I was dead at the foot of the Alps. “You’ve been bitten by the climbing bug,” Marc observed. I did not allow myself to fully agree, being loath to formulate a goal that I would later decide I could not carry out. The most thoroughly mediocre of our human sins, I mused.
We rode the cable car back down the mountain and stopped on the way home in Gruyères to get real Swiss cheese—oddly enough, what Americans typically call “Swiss cheese” is actually Emmentaler from Emmental, not Gruyère from Gruyères. We would use it for raclette that evening. I acquired some water for Marc and myself as well as a bottle of carbonated apple juice with a deliciously German label. I tried some the next morning to find that it tasted like carbonated apple juice. After merely thirty years of life and only ten countries visited, I hoped that I was not already becoming jaded.
We took a brief detour through a medieval reenactment of Midsummer Festival at the château de Gruyères. The castle was crowded with students wandering the grounds in colorful floor-length gowns and leather armor with longswords and shoulder pelts, middle-aged and older women slicing apples and greens for an evening banquet, pairs of stone-faced boys in their twenties trying to look imposing with their chain mail and body-length halberds (and looking slightly less so on our way out, when we spotted them taking selfies with an enthusiastic group of female students in from Germany). We toured the grounds, took some photos of the courtyards and surrounding mountains, marveled at an oddly placed gallery of modern fantasy art on display inside the castle, watched the historical reenactors—stiff-armed palace guard and apple-peeling crone alike—convene for a stylized group dance, and hit the road again.
On the drive home, I noted, not for the first time, that my cousin was exacting about certain numbers—altitudes in meters, speeds in knots, velocities in kilometers per hour in a specified direction. At one point we estimated the volume of water in Lake Geneva (At 20 km by 60 km with an average depth of 100 m, we decided it was about 1014 L, which, I later discovered, managed to be impressively close to the 89 trillion L cited by Google). The bastards at Évian, whose sprawling but largely unmarked factory we passed on our way back to Geneva on Sunday night, were making bank.
We were almost home, and I found myself becoming apprehensive. Tonight was the evening we were to meet my other cousin Nic, about whom I knew very little other than that he was Marc’s son, slightly younger than me, spoke at least French and English, worked as a banker, and played American football for the city team. I tried to remind myself that while this constellation of traits was highly correlated with a certain personality type whom I did not always find to be the most scintillating company in the United States, I was not currently in the United States and the probability of this man being a Trump voter was exactly zero. But after nearly two days, I had grown accustomed to the calm, in-depth discussions that Marc and I enjoyed. What if Nic and I locked antlers in some way? What if he contradicted every other thing I said or otherwise steamrollered the conversation? I still did not know how to react to such roles without either playing one myself or meeting hot air with judgmental silence, and either option was almost always exhausting.
It so transpired, however, that my fears were entirely unfounded, and I enjoyed talking with Nic just as thoroughly as I had enjoyed the last two days with Marc. He was gregarious without being overbearing, pulling my hand in for a firm greeting and welcoming me with a big smile from the start. We shared interesting conversation and a lot of laughs that night over a dinner of salad and grilled chicken cooked predominantly by Nic, with raclette and fondu carefully prepared by Marc, followed by dessert with a rich fruit tart and the same neatly wrapped squares of Swiss dark chocolate that, I found to my surprised delight, had been offered to passers-by of the NYU Langone School of Medicine expo table at the conference I had attended in Paris that week.
During dinner I let it drop that I was actively on the hunt for a place to build my life and career in Europe post-Ph.D., and the conversation turned to the United States’ decaying infrastructure and provincialism. A few of the players on Nic’s football team were American, and at least one of them had been a Trump voter. “During a conversation the other day, the guy just yells ‘GO TRUMP!’” out of nowhere. It was completely weird.” Many more where that came from, I thought.
After dinner, Nic left to sleep early for a football game the next morning, and Marc and I moved indoors to sit awhile longer around his dining room table, trading evening thoughts over sorbet, the cookies I had brought in from Paris, and some residual dark chocolate squares. The trajectory of life was short but could be so rich and beautiful, we concluded. We always had new avenues for change and opportunities to evolve. Marc’s living-room aquarium of colorful fish darted among aquascaped forests as green as the countryside around us as we floated just as easily through conversational eddies mingled with spoonfuls of sweet sorbet and bitter chocolate, and I again felt myself awash with disbelieving gratitude that my own life trajectory had swept me into that moment. One might argue, however, that operating on a prior of gratitude was precisely the factor that had turned cookies and conversation into a moment to begin with.
The next morning, we lingered over croissants and espresso in the garden. Marc told me about a catamaran competition between two millionaire sailing enthusiasts whose sailing contest had devolved into an arms race to hire the best design team money could buy. Not surprisingly, the one whose more generous expenditures had bought just a little bit more design ended up winning. I wondered how much of a metaphor this story was for societal achievement at large.
Our conversation moved inside, where Marc regaled me with tales of travels to multiple countries in southern Africa, recommending the works of historical fiction author Wilbur Smith, the novel Assegai in particular, should I wish to whet my appetite a bit more deeply.
When I was a child, I had an electronic globe with tiny backlit slides associated with various locales that one could observe through an attached Viewmaster scope. One of my fondest memories was sitting at my desk in a dark room at night, traveling the world as I turned the dimly lit globe slowly beneath my six-year-old hands: the Great Wall of China, the crowds of downtown Tokyo, the wet markets of Pakistan, lines of sherpas in the Andes, the Statue of Liberty against the New York skyline. Like Halloween, or Christmas, or trips to my grandparents’ lake house in Michigan, these places and situations shattered the cookie cutter surrounding our cornfield-and-Kentucky-bluegrass suburban life, instead serving up an ambrosia of what I didn’t know I didn’t know. My favorite destinations on those evenings were the three white dots over western, central, and southern Africa, between Nigeria and Cameroon, what was Zaire and Zambia, and Zimbabwe. The slides there were especially stunning—Mount Kilmanjaro in Tanzania, beaded and painted Kikuyu dancers in Kenya, savannahs of giraffes and elephants.
But then years of exposure to a patchwork of stereotyped messages about AIDS, ethnic cleansing, apartheid, famine, dust-covered locals walking shoeless to makeshift UNESCO tents, and the like converged to a single story of poverty, war, and disease that slowly eroded any romantic halo surrounding my concept of travel to the African continent. Hearing Marc’s descriptions of Victoria falls in Botswana and Zambia, the colorful birds and big game of the grasslands, and the odd cobblestone village with the German pastry shops amid the sand dunes of Namibia, however, planted a seed that, I hoped, would someday tower over the unquestioned hedges that had evidently hemmed me into a small corner of my own mind. I looked forward to the day that I might scale the tree to peer out into the rest of it.
The magic of Marc’s stories about the countries in south-central Africa were the perfect accompaniment to the moments we had spent feeding the birds earlier that morning. Typically when one uses the phrase “feed the birds,” s/he is evoking images of taking a quiet cup of tea in front of the nectar-filled hummingbird feeders in one’s flower garden, or scattering seed over a flock of purple and steel pigeons on a fire escape or in a city park, or perhaps of throwing bits of stale bread to friendly ducks in a community pond. These images might obtain when the birds in question are lazy robins or fat mallards—but not so when they are instead black kites on their annual summer vacation to Geneva from the savannahs much further south.
In this case, “feeding the birds” entailed throwing bits of leftover chicken out into the garden and waiting for a formidable display of power and greed by hooked and clawed carnivorous predators as large as eagles. Some time after we set the bait, a number of black shadows that had been circling overhead all morning began to grow in number and in size, emitting ominous shrieks of warning that sounded increasingly close, until a whirlwind of talons and wing exploded into view, seized a piece of flesh, and swooped away—followed by another, and another!—until the chicken, bones and all, was no more.
Too soon, it was time to leave. Marc kindly drove me to the train station, where I boarded the TGV for one more night in Paris before returning home, where the task would be, I knew, not to shelve the adventure book as a dusty souvenir but continue to find magic in quotidian existence, to keep its clean white pages open and exposed to the stories that stand ahead.
You can find Marc’s contextually rich travelogue of the trip here.