I thought it would happen at some point: an everything-is-going-wrong day. Perhaps I would miss my train, fall over in a puddle, lose my credit card. Maybe worse: I had imagined the possibility of having my passport stolen or my computer crash. But for seven months, things had gone pretty smoothly.
It truly wasn’t Russia’s fault, but as soon as I landed in Moscow things started to go wrong. I had carefully planned the bones of my trip, read extensively about what to expect, learned the Cyrillic alphabet and a few words, and triple-checked I had all my documents in order.
I made my way to my Airbnb apartment from the airport without drama. It had been a well-executed travel day, and I was greeted warmly by my host, Elina. Trim and tanned and energetic, she explained where everything was in heavily-accented English and offered me some meat patties and a pickle for dinner. My first taste of Russian hospitality.
I put my bags down and started to unpack but the lock on the main compartment of my backpack wouldn’t open. I tried again and again, variations on a theme, but it was jammed. Curse you! I thought, and wished I had splashed out on the £10 locks instead of the £5 ones. I unpacked through the small pocket at the base of the bag and went to bed.
Morning came and the lock was still jammed. I decided there was nothing I could do without a pair of bolt cutters. Step two: set up my phone. I’d purchased a global data SIM in the UK so that I wouldn’t need to buy separate SIMs in Russia, Korea and Japan, a simple solution to potential obstacles.
I put the SIM in, followed the instructions and waited. Nothing. Turned the phone off and on. Repeated the steps. Still nothing. I called the helpline, gratefully noting it was open 24/7. They got me to change a few settings, but still I came up empty-handed. After a couple of hours and three phone calls we were running out of options and I was working hard to be patient.
Meanwhile, Moscow was out there being great, so I slipped on my Birkenstocks and went out to see what was going on.
Gorky Park was just across the river from the apartment. It was unseasonably warm and sunny that weekend, and every man and his dog were out, soaking up the rays. Gorky Park is a beautiful part of Moscow. Huge stones gates engraved with ‘1955’ under a hammer and sickle loom above wide steps leading down to an enormous fountain. People were rollerblading and cycling and skateboarding. Families were picnicking. Couples were paddle-boating on the pond. A bride and groom emerged from a rose garden, her gown flouncy, her arms in fingerless lace gloves. Huge cushions and deckchairs were strewn on the grass as casually as their occupants. The volleyball courts were full of shirtless men, and the ice-cream stalls were doing a busy trade. I strolled and watched and came back around to the main fountain. Strains of symphonic music had been drifting towards me as I approached and as I rounded the bend I saw the fountain dancing in time with the music. We all crowded round the edge, enjoying the show.
I left Gorky Park through the underpass where people sold kitschy paintings of snowy landscapes and soft-focus celebrity portraits. The Culture Park on the other side was quiet and pretty and full of statues, most of them former leaders frozen in time. Busts of Mikhailovich and Stalin and Gorbachov and Lenin. So many sculptures of Lenin. At one point I counted six Lenins in my line of sight, his calm stare looking towards the future. I stood among these stone men and thought about how they have been consigned to history, removed from their proud positions in city squares and displayed like artefacts in a museum.
I set out again, walking along the Moscow River then looping back to the apartment. It was 5 o’clock and my phone still wasn’t working. I called the helpline and they suggest more drastic measures. A factory reset? No, I said, I don’t want to lose my apps and settings. OK, we could just erase the user data, they said, and I agreed.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing. I should have asked specifically what it would erase. I should have taken a moment to consider. They should have said, you’ve backed up your photos and messages right? But by this point I had spent half the day on this problem and was losing hope. And I was so focused on getting an internet connection that I heard “data” and thought of Google.
Two hours later, after exhausting every option, I was heading out to watch a light show on the river and casually opened my photo gallery.
Suddenly I remembered what “user data” actually means. It means stuff created by me. It means seven months of photos of the biggest trip of my life – gone.
Needless to say, I was distraught. I hadn’t cried since Ian left in June, but now I lost it. It felt almost like my memories were gone. Of course, I still had my actual memories, I comforted myself, but it didn’t help.
Right, I thought after a moment. If you stay in your room you’ll feel worse. So I put on my leather jacket, checked my eyeliner hadn’t smudged, and went outside.
On the street, Russians were pouring onto the bridge. I had never seen so many people on the streets of a city in my life. I walked, just for something to do, and it helped. The cool air, the relaxed mood of the crowds, they distracted me. As I was crossing the bridge fireworks shot into the air and as they sparked and spun, as people stopped to watch and cheer, even the policemen lining the road, I felt a moment of joy. I realised that I was in Russia – Russia! – and there were new memories to make, new photos to take, so much to look forward to.
But it hurt. The next morning I was still quite upset. I set up my computer to Skype with Ian and then my parents, and discovered that my camera wasn’t connecting. I gritted my teeth and tried to laugh. I wonder how many more things can go wrong before I become hysterical?
Face-to-face with Ian via my phone I had a moment of hindsight again: when your boyfriend is a software engineer it’s probably a good idea to keep him in the loop while doing software stuff to your phone. He spent parts of that day and the next looking for ways to recover the photos. It got pretty technical and I was quickly out of my depth. He supervised over Viber but eventually we hit a wall. I had to give up.
In the meantime, I had found a backup I had done four months earlier. It was the first three months, all my England photos, and it was a big gain. I started to gather from other places. The odd folder on my computer. Ian’s photos from Europe. The images I’d posted online. Some random pics sent over Viber. I managed to pull together maybe half of what I’d had, and it all helped.
But it surprised me how deeply upset I was. I could have happily lost some of the snappier stuff, but there were a couple of really good shots in there and many that just symbolised good memories. In an ironic twist, I had carefully backed up documents on my computer before departing for Moscow, and with further irony I had set up an automatic photo backup to Dropbox after rebooting my phone, before realising the damage. It was frustrating to think if only… so I kept remembering that I was in Russia (Russia!) and then I couldn’t be sad for long.
On Tuesday, after they’d been working on it for four days, I gave in and bought a local SIM card. Ten minutes later I was connected. Oh wonder of wonders! My bag lock was still jammed and my webcam still didn’t work and half my photos were still gone, but I had data of the internet kind and that was enough for now.
It’s raining like Noah’s ark and I’m trying to buy a ticket at the bus stop without getting the contents of my bag soaked. Suddenly a young guy appears at my shoulder and says something in Slovak, something I can’t understand because it’s probably along the lines of this, which I require the internet to provide:
“Nepotrebujem tento lístok, by sa vám to páči?”
By his expression and the fact that he is holding out a ticket, I quickly realise he is offering me his ticket as it has some time left and he doesn’t need it.
“Oh, dakujem!” I reply and take the ticket gratefully, as he nods and smiles.
A moment later, under shelter, I think to myself: He thought I could understand! He thought I could speak Slovak! If there’s one thing I do well it’s picking up the correct pronunciation of foreign words, and I’ve had plenty of practise with this word by now. It means “thank you” and honestly, when you’re a visitor, there is no single word you ever need more.
For a moment I bask in the feeling of passing as a local, shoulder to shoulder with my fellow Slovaks as we wait for the bus to the suburbs. Immediately I feel a bit shamefaced at my elation, knowing that it’s such a false pride, that the moment I open my mouth to utter more than three words everyone will know the ugly truth. Poser, I think ruefully.
So much of the appeal of travel is, for me, about languages. It’s part and parcel of the foreign experience, but it also taps into my long-held desire to be multilingual. Growing up in a completely monolingual environment made this seem impossible. People who were proficient in a second language drew my admiration, and those golden-tongued Fluent Speakers I held in awe. I happily learned Japanese at school, and continued with it, lackadaisically, at university, before dropping it because I wasn’t putting in the time. I loved the idea, but didn’t have the self-application. When did I ever need it outside of class?
But these months in Europe have shown me that learning new languages isn’t just for the special few. I arrived in Deutschland with next to no German and three weeks later was able to rattle off “Zwei schwarz tee mit milch und ein gross käsebrot bitte, ja, das links ein.”
Yes, it is German, along with Danish the easiest language for English-speakers to learn. And no, I didn’t learn anything grammatically complicated. But I still felt amazed because it kind of just happened. I was conscious, taking note of words on the street, asking questions of Ian (who knew a tiny bit) and Tessa (our Fluent Speaker host), but it turns out that simply being there makes a huge difference.
Once I left Germany I didn’t think I’d need it again. There I was in French-speaking Switzerland, then a few days in Italy, and in neither place did I have much opportunity or need to learn more than a handful of words.
But then I arrived in Bratislava and was met at the airport by some family members of my hosts. I had been warned that Mr Alex did not speak any English, but Petra spoke a little. She did. But her first question was, “Do you speak German? German is better for me.”
Being able to order a salad still doesn’t count as speaking German, so we conversed very haltingly in English. Mr Alex drove and occasionally spoke to Petra in Slovak. As we neared the apartment he seemed to feel some urgency to explain things properly, even though Petra was doing her best. Suddenly I realised I could understand him a little. My mind did a double-take before I realised it was because he was speaking to me in simple German. I mean, I really was just barely understanding, but for a moment I felt like I was in deep water and had felt a passing branch nudge my hand.
He pulled over beside the apartment block and pointed at a bus station. “Station für stadt,” he said.
“Stadt…” I repeated then it clicked. “Oh! For the city!”
We continued on in this manner as he pointed to bus number “sechs und sechzig”, departing every “zwei minuten”, then took the lift to “fiel stock” and inspected the “kleine küchen”. I was ecstatic at each tiny, childlike moment of comprehension. If nothing else, language learning teaches you humility.
I wasn’t able to pick up much Slovak in the two weeks I was there. It’s one step further away from English than German is, and I spent the first few days just learning how the alphabet is pronounced. That alone fascinated me. The soft ň of “dobrý deň”. The way an ordinary c is pronounced “ts”. The beautiful sound of “nech sa páči”. I finally realised why radio announcers always said Dvorak’s name as though it was spelt “D-vor-zhak” – because that’s actually how you say it. I was delighted by the fact (common to many European languages but an alien concept to the English language) that Slovak pronunciation is exactly how it looks. Two vowels next to each other don’t form a new sound, you just say each vowel in sequence. What a revolution! The name of one of the squares in the city centre seemed impenetrable but as I tried it out on my tongue I realised that if I simply said each letter one after the other it came out perfectly: “Hviezdoslavovo námestie”. Trust me, it’s not as hard as it looks. Words like “vlk” for “wolf” seemed less strange as I applied this rule.
Soon I’ll be landing in Moscow, where the language is even more foreign again. But my experience thus far tells me that I’ll probably be fine (after floundering for a few days) and with any luck, at the end of four weeks, the word for “thank you” will come to me as naturally as if I’m a local.
The first thing that tells me I’m not in Kansas anymore is the people with their faces painted black, bells around their knees and ribbons trailing from their hats.
I’m at Bromyard Folk Festival in Herefordshire. Roseanne and Shaun invited me along for a weekend of camping and music, since Shaun’s band is playing here this weekend. I love a good festival so of course I said yes. We packed our wellies and a camp stove and left at 6:30 am, the three of us perched in the front of the van with the drum kit in the back.
Roseanne manages my expectations: “Folk festivals aren’t like some of the general music festivals,” she says. “It might be a bit quieter than what you’re used to. But we like the folk scene because it’s just really pleasant.”
I momentarily doubt this when I come across a man in head to toe black, the whites of his eyes stark in a face the colour of pitch. But I quickly realise this is just one variation on a theme – and the theme is Morris dancers.
Morris dancing is a centuries-old English tradition that didn’t cross the oceans to Australia with some of the other Scottish, English and Irish customs like bagpipe playing, lyrical singing and binge drinking. And I’m kind of glad it didn’t because let’s be honest, it’s pretty weird. But here, in the English countryside, at a folk festival where clothes are bright and fiddles ubiquitous, it’s a quirky attraction.
Morris ‘sides’, as the individual dance groups are called, each have their own costumes and choreography. A small wooden stage has been set up near the beer tent (or should I say, ale tent) and across the course of each afternoon they take turns to perform. Some wear all white and dance with handkerchiefs. Others strike poles together as part of their routine. Most wear flowers on their hats and badges or ribbons across their chests. All of them have tinkly little bells tied to their legs that jingle as they step.
But back to the blackface, because we’re all wondering about that, aren’t we. A common hypothesis is that Morris dancing came from ‘Moorish’ dancing and this is why some strands adopted the black face paint – but on further reading this seems like a convenient theory based on the fact that “Morris” and “Moorish” sound a bit the same. In fact, the origins are lost in the mists of time, as this website here thoroughly explains (if like me you’re a bit of a nerd and want to know whether or not it’s linked to pagan festivals or why sometimes there’s a man dressed as an old woman in colourful rags).
Meanwhile, I am at a folk music festival, so it’s time to have a listen. There’s a range of musicians within the folk genre, from solo acts like Niamh Boadle and Flossie Malavialle, who get on stage with nothing but a guitar and a voice like a lark, through to Shaun’s band The Bounty Hounds, who sit at the other end of the spectrum with their folk-rock (or ‘frock’) sound. The headliners on Saturday night, The New Rope String Band, mix music with comedy, but shortly before them is a six-piece that plays beautiful Welsh songs. There are bands that have been playing at festivals like this for twenty years, and new young things like Granny’s Attic, who won the BBC’s Young Folk Award last year. There are guitars and fiddles, melodeons and accordians, bodhrans and double basses.
There’s also a big ceilidh tent, and I’m intrigued because I’ve read about these traditional Gaelic dances in novels. It’s an informal affair, with a caller in front of a band and people of all ages joining in, stamping and spinning. We shelter here in between shows because on Saturday night it is stupidly cold and this is one of the few warm places. It’d be even warmer if we danced but the temperature has done a rather dramatic skydive since the sun went down and it’s all I can do to hold a cup of tea without spilling it all over my pants. I’m not even exaggerating. That night I sleep in a little tent in flannel pyjamas, inside a sleeping bag, rolled in a feather-down doona and covered with a blanket, and only then do I sleep. The English are acting all surprised that it’s cold but I think they’re just saying that to make me feel better.
The next morning the place is quiet. That’s one thing this festival has in common with it’s bigger, poppier cousins – loud music until late at night and sleepy mornings at the toilet block. By midday things are picking up again. The food tents are cooking, the craft tent is open (of course there’s a craft tent) and the bar is open, where I see a custom unique to this scene: men with tin ale tankards clipped to their belts, ready to spring into action at the first sign of a brew.
And Roseanne was right – it is a pleasant scene. There’s no rubbish strewn over the ground, No drunken yobbos. Friendly strangers who’ll strike up a conversation with anyone, like a country farmer at a clearing sale. It’s not that my moshpit days are totally over, but Bromyard has shown me a lovely alternative.
I won’t be taking up Morris dancing any time soon though.
“After a swim like that, you don’t need to ask ‘what is the meaning of life’,” says Efi, a friend of my hosts who is visiting from Israel.
It’s yet another lovely summer day in Germany. The lake is wild around the bank and clear, cold, and fresh in the water. It’s quiet, just a couple of other people barely visible through the trees and long grass. The lack of people is explained by the fact that we are lying about underneath a sign that says, “Achtung! Privatgelände. Das Lagern, Grillen, Surfen und Baden ist verboten.”
The German word for ‘forbidden’ was one of the first I learned, and it’s a good thing I did otherwise I might have been walking on train tracks and mixing up my recycling all over Germany.
Admittedly, I’m not too surprised to find myself floating in a semi-secret lake. I’m visiting Klaus and Sabine, friends of my childhood neighbours Jeff and Kate, and during the days I’m with them I see the many small ways they choose to live alternatively.
Schloss Hamborn, where they live, is a pretty unique place.
In the 1930s the castle (the schloss) became a Steiner school. At first it stood alone in the forest and housed everything and everyone. Over the decades more buildings and many homes have sprung up around it so that it is now a village – but a village unlike any other.
At Schloss Hamborn, the school is the beating heart. It is specifically for kids who struggle at school, or have a learning disability, or come from a disadvantaged background. (In addition there are adults with disabilities who live and learn here.) Students live in groups, usually in a big family home, and their schooling is individual and holistic.
The day after I arrive, Klaus takes me on an informal walking tour. The castle itself is now used for meetings and private tutoring and day groups of young kids from other villages. Next to the castle is the woodwork shop. Down in the valley is a little publisher. On the other side, past the offices of the social workers, is the café. Across the street is the bio supermarket, the second-hand clothing store, the gift shop. Up the road is the bike and car mechanic. Nearby is the commercial-sized vegetable garden. All around us is a beautiful forest, managed by a forester.
A regular kind of village on the face of it. But the shops and workshops all have a dual purpose: they are legitimate businesses run by professionals – the woodworkers sell their furniture across the region, the books are sold in bookshops, the mechanic serves the transport needs of the whole community – but they also exist to teach the students, who can learn the skills of whatever they have an interest in and aptitude for.
Another day we take a longer walk and visit the farm. Dairy cows, pigs, sheep. A cheesery. Fresh hay bales cut from the fields. A butcher will soon set up shop. You can fill your glass bottles with raw milk from the automatic milk machine. This is also where Schloss Hamborn generates most of its own power using a combination of solar and some kind of ecological woodchip method.
We walk and walk, stopping at the village cemetery where the founder of this particular Steiner school is buried next to the guy who donated the castle. Just over the hedge two farm workers are trying, with many frustrated exclamations in German, to coax a very pregnant cow up to the barn.
On we go, past reclaimed forest on the left and a small band of milchkühe on the right. We leave the main track to climb a hill and here it feels like we’re in the middle of nowhere, paddocks to our back and forest to our front. As we’re walking we pull blackberries off a bush, small clusters of dark purple juice. Here is a pear tree, and here a plum. We pick up pears from the ground and take a few bites. I try a plum from the tree but it is definitely not ripe. Apple trees and more apple trees. Under an avenue of shady trees a mirabelle has dropped delicious little gems of fruit to the ground.
I’m not used to this kind of fertile, verdant land. Things just grow. Of course in Schloss Hamborn even the wilderness is put to work, so many of these trees will have been planted and monitored. But some of them will have just popped up on their own. Sometimes the simple fact of a tree growing with nothing but soil and water and producing a fruit that feeds me blows my mind.
I’m also delighted by the way Klaus and Sabine connect to their environment. They turn raspberries and blackberries into jam. They pick “middle Europe olives” (a tiny wild cherry) before they are ripe and pickle them. Under apple trees they collect any that have fallen before their time to feed the horses in the school stable. They avoid cling wrap and plastic packaging in the kitchen. They choose not to eat meat and to drive a cheap ordinary car as a “helpless protest” against a society that always wants more-bigger-better-faster-cheaper. In their life at Schloss Hamborn I see ways to live differently.
So when it is Sunday and sunny of course we are here, enjoying a glorious lake swim under a sign that says “forbidden”, leaving no trace except the slightly squashed grass. Swimming against the current.
I was climbing Death Hill because I had heard there was some exercise equipment at the top.
From that sentence alone you might think I’m a sucker for punishment, but that’s not it. Death Hill, while not entirely a misnomer, is a short-lived pain. And mostly I was curious about an forest-based exercise course made of logs.
I found a little sign that said “Zurich parcoursvita” and followed the arrow. Pretty soon there was a sign showing some mobilité exercises, which I dutifully did. Then I came to some logs with instructions on jumping over them, and further along the track some bars for pull-ups.
There were long stretches of path in between stops and after the fifth station I started to wonder how far this thing went. While I was standing there wondering, I heard a commotion of rustling leaves and a small red doe went tripping lightly down the hill (did I mention this was a very steep hill?). You don’t see that at Lake Monger, I thought.
I kept going, following the route further up the hill. Here were some gym rings and a bar exercise constructed of wood. Still on track then. The path zigzagged around and came out at a series of stumps for step-ups. Further along there were two wooden benches, the sign showing me how a man in bike shorts would execute a plank on, well, a plank.
The instructions on the signs were always in French but luckily the language of two-dimensional faceless figures is universal. Plus there was the fun of puzzling out some of the words. “Alternativement lever le pied”… “Pied” is leg, “lever” must be to do with lifting… Alternatively lift the legs!
Given that the path now faded into a meadow I figured I must be at the end. But no, the arrow pointed across the grass and voila! Another station in the middle of some trees. I jumped over some more logs and soon I found myself on a road, a school to the right and a farm shed to the left. But the arrow said onwards, so onwards I went. This was turning into quite a trek.
Fifty metres along the bitumen I spied a sign at the edge of the forest. The path picked up again and I found several more stations: bars low to the ground for balancing, poles for running figure-of-eights around. In the nearby shed a goose was honking, but here under the trees it was cool and quiet. The path came out on another road and began to descend.
Surely now, I thought, surely now I’m at the end. Oh look, another sign.
I took a left at the intersection and ahead I could see a few houses. A man was watering some impressively tall, pink hollyhocks. “Bonjour,” we greeted each other. Around here, you never walk past someone without saying hello (and this practice is so like the place where I grew up and many parts of Perth, that I can’t help smiling).
I found a sign with information about the parcoursvita, tried to read it for a few minutes, decided to look at the view instead. Grass dotted with wildflowers rolled down the ridge, and just across the valley was Villars, the ski resort town a little up the mountain from Huémoz. It was another one of those brilliant green afternoons, when the sun is warm, the flowers are swaying in the breeze and the birds are chirping in the trees. It’s hard to avoid clichés here.
But I’d lost the trail. I walked back the way I came, racking my brains for the way to say “hello again” since the man was still watering his hollyhocks out the front. But he spoke first.
“Bonjour encore, cherchez-vous pour le parcoursvita?”
Actually this is what Google Translate tells me he said. I only caught the beginning and the end, but context is great for filling in the gaps.
“I’m sorry, I don’t speak French,” I replied, with the apologetic grimace that goes along with that statement.
He thought for a moment, then pointed to the forest. “Down.” I nodded. “Huémoz.” I nodded again.
He indicated the space between a house and a shed I had assumed was private land. “Let’s go,” he said firmly, still holding the hose and making no moves to join me.
This was perhaps one of my favourite linguistic mishaps yet, and for once it wasn’t me uttering it.
But more importantly, I now knew where the path continued (nice work, Hollyhock Man!). “Ah yes,” I said. “Comprends. Merci!” And off I trotted.
I had, in fact, reached the end. The path trailed through the trees and eventually I was picking my way back down the treacherous Death Hill, having done an obstacle course in a forest and learned how to say “hello again” in French.
And that’s how you exercise in Switzerland.
(Actually, you also exercise in Switzerland by cycling up ridiculously steep mountain roads and making it look like a Sunday stroll. But I won’t be writing about that because I won’t be doing that. Ever.)
When I realised I would be on my own for my twenty-ninth birthday I decided to make the best of it. I’d never spent a birthday alone before – it would be a new experience, ripe for reflection.
A few years ago I began to suspect that at heart I’m an optimist. I used to say I was a ‘realist’ (a euphemism with a superiority complex if ever there was one). But it turns out that when I miss the bus and have to walk home I think, isn’t it great to get a good long walk in, and now I can listen to that podcast.
So I buckled down and searched for the sunny side.
It wasn’t hard to find. I’d spent weeks surrounded by friends, old and new; soon I’d be meeting up with some family; the magic of the internet keeps me in touch with home. There are isolated people in the world but I am not one of them, I thought. Some people have nobody to remember their birthday – I had people asking me weeks in advance where to post ‘a little something’ to.
Anyway I enjoy being alone, and as all you fellow introverts will attest, ‘alone time’ is just another way to say ‘super fun times’. I like to think this is partly borne from a childhood of bookshelves rather than TV channels, a big old farm to roam about on, and parents whose response to the complaint of boredom was the threat of “well, I can find something for you to do”.
Well, I said to myself as I mused on the prospect of an alone-time birthday, I can find something for you to do.
In fact, it dawned on me, I could do just as I pleased. Anything I wanted! It doesn’t get much better! I was getting a bit over-excited.
July 20th. I woke up in Bratislava as a newly minted twenty-nine-year-old and all of my bravado faded. I had flown in the previous evening, it was so hot that even I with my super-sleeping-powers hadn’t slept well, and I was feeling the strangeness of a new, foreign place. I felt really far from home.
Being lonely is different to being alone; I consider it a blessing that I’ve never experienced loneliness before. But I am getting a little taste of it just recently and something about having a birthday brought it to the fore. I happen to think this is a good thing though. I am not unbearably, unendingly lonely, not even close. I’m having a grand adventure and enjoying nearly every moment (the moments I don’t enjoy are the ones where I’m lugging my bags around a rail station trying to find platform 8 in the two minutes I have to make my connection). Feeling a bit lonely from time to time is a good thing because it helps me understand that life isn’t always comfortable, and because it might just make me a tiny bit stronger and a little more empathetic.
But that doesn’t mean I can’t miss people.
As for my birthday, it was a nice day in the end: I had some totally lovely chats via Skype, wandered the pretty streets of Bratislava and enjoyed a cocktail. But when my mood picked up two days later and I suddenly got excited about this new city I gave the solo celebration another crack. I had a pedicure for the first time ever, and took myself out for dinner. It was so hot I was practically dripping sweat onto the plate, and the beauty salon was between a Harley Davidson showroom and a cemetery, but these quirks actually made me enjoy myself more. I wouldn’t find this at home, I mused – and there was the silver lining.
I arrive at Swiss L’Abri two days after Ian has flown home to Australia, feeling bruised at the prospect of many months apart. It has been a rough few days. But I’m also excited. I’ve heard a lot about this place.
As the train from Zürich speeds south I realise that apart from punching my destination into the ticket machine I have given next to no thought as to where L’Abri is actually situated.
Well. It’s in the Swiss Alps.
I get off the train at Aigle and stare. These aren’t even the highest mountains in the Alps, but to me they are gigantic. Enormous. Mountainous. I grew up in remote, sandplain country and apart from a quick to trip to a snowfield on a high school camp, I’ve never been this close to real mountains before.
I buy a bus ticket – suddenly remembering “ein ticket für Huémoz bitte” won’t work here. French! Golly, I have even less grasp of French than German, and that’s not much. “Bonjour,” I say. “Huémoz?” He shows me the price on his screen: six euros for a short trip. This is Switzerland, baby.
When I lumber luggage-laden off the bus at the L’Abri stop a guy in a red shirt is standing there, smiling a welcome. “Were you waiting for me?” I ask in disbelief (I had no specific arrival time). “No no,” he grins. “We’re just moving furniture and I was waiting to cross the road.” All the same, he picks up one of my bags and walks with me up to the main chalet. A casually generous welcome that, it turns out, is typical at L’Abri.
Established sixty years ago by a Christian couple called Francis and Edith Schaeffer, L’Abri is a place where people go to ask questions, take time out to think, read, write, pray, or simply live in community for a while. Situated in a tiny Alpine village in French-speaking Switzerland, the name L’Abri translates to shelter. There are a number of these places around the world now, but the Swiss one is the original.
Over the next two weeks I feel how fitting this name is. I am enveloped into a warm and busy cocoon. The pace of life here is both busier and slower than normal. For half the day I am on a work crew cleaning the bathrooms or making pizza or weeding the gardens, and for the other half I am studying solo in the library. The meals are simple, delicious and wholesome; they run an incredibly frugal operation here, not wasting anything, using onions from the garden and wild strawberries. Internet usage is restricted to evenings and days off, forcing the habit of actually being with the people around you. The routine also forces a distinction between work and rest that I think is often lacking in modern society. Once your work is done and the meal is over, your time is your own. You can hang out in the lounge chatting to people, playing a little piano. If you need an introvert-recharge, there are mountain trails aplenty to seek solitude along.
Those mountains again.
On the first evening I stand out on the patio and just look. From my perch on the side of this mountain a forested valley dips down in front of me before soaring upwards into another gigantic mass of rock, ridges and peaks pushing into the never never. Grey stone turns to pink marble for a few moments as the sun sets. Through the valley, cloud swirls around a glacier. I can’t stop staring.
These jagged peaks are the backdrop for everything we do, literally – and, in a sense, metaphorically. In the face of sky-high rock you can’t help feeling small. And in the face of such beauty you can’t help feeling grateful. Each day I’m reading and thinking about what role art plays in Christian life, and right outside the window by my desk is a scene some might call God’s art: brilliant green trees shining in the hot sun; a distant mountain ridge filled with snow; weeds and grass and brambles as thick and deep as a river rolling down the slope; flying insects chirring and buzzing, zipping around like it’s festival time, sipping nectar, chatting to each other.
And it’s not just the insects chatting away in the summer grass. Conversation plays a huge role at L’Abri. It feels like a safe place to ask questions and make comments I wouldn’t feel able to in other Christian groups. Everything is on the table. My fellow students are here with questions varying from the practical to the existential, and I find amongst them people willing to think outside the box a little, respectful of difference but not afraid to offer opinions.
We have lectures twice a week from the workers (also our tutors) who live here permanently. On the philosophy of belief, on the joy of food, on the ethics of technology. They are richly referenced and thought provoking, and sometimes the discussions afterwards go on as long as the lecture itself.
It’s in discussions like these that I make new friends: sharing our life stories while pulling weeds, talking about relationships while watching people play ping-pong, conversing about travel while cooking a stirfry. There’s a lot of serious chat but there’s also a lot of fun. On our days off, we hike into the mountains, or go dancing at El Gringos until 3am, or hitch a ride in an effort to get to Montreux… in the back of a white transport van… something I wouldn’t do most places in the world, but in Switzerland it’s so safe even the locals hitch.
We’re all hitching in some way, all passing through this place, taking a little and giving a little. Some of us may see each other again, some may not. Some may come back one day, some may not. As for me, I’ll think fondly of my fellow travellers, people who left an impression, who pricked my mind with a new thought, who cared enough to ask real questions about me and my life.
And I’ll think about the mountains standing steady and unmoving, and how in some way we all took shelter in them.