Saturday, January 23, 2016

Hindsight







I've been everywhere, twice, but I am so done with Europe.  I've been over there eight or nine times, so often that I've lost track, and it doesn't seem very different anymore, or that exotic.  I’ve had unusual trips to Turkey, Russia, exploratory trips to Croatia, Hungary and Poland, sophisticated trips to Norway and Sweden, adventure trips sailing the Greek Mediterranean and biking the British Isles, museum trips to Paris and Rome and relaxing trips to the beaches of Menorca and Portugal.  I even spent a winter skiing and falling in love in Switzerland, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

Now it just seems expensive and inconvenient with all those different languages and lexicons in countries smaller than most states. There are also cultural and credit and currency problems. Everything you do, from driving to eating to sleeping to just getting around, requires extra effort that can wear you down after days, weeks or months.   Let's face it, I'm pooped.

Not to mention the endless airplane flights with three separate meals and four different movies, the fake sleeping and the space capsule seating accommodations.  And think of the carbon footprint of all that travel. The last time we were coming home from Istanbul, we were delayed for three days, luckily in Paris, because New York was submerged under three feet of water from Hurricane Sandy. Oh the irony.

I used to go overseas with friends and partners or sometimes alone, when no one else had the time or the money, to gain perspective, shake up my paradigm, face my fears or find myself, but I've gotten over all that. I know who I am and how the world works. Now I go there to escape; escape the entitled sprawling commercial consumerism that is America, escape the middle age moderation and mediocrity that is me, escape my ticking biological clock that I know will stop someday, but I just don't know when.

My wife and I went to Europe this year to revisit some of the icons. We swam in the sea at Cote D'Azure with topless grandmothers and buff out metro-French boys in their grape-smuggling bikini briefs.  We hiked the hills and plied the Museums of the south coast of France.  We rode though the lavender fields of Provence and climbed the hills to the fortress towns that overlook and protected the beautiful feudal agricultural valleys.  We rendezvoused with fourteen friends from back home to circumambulate Mt Blanc for a week, sleeping together in cramped hostels out on the mountains flanks or in quaint hotels in charming mountain towns. 

We hiked the Eiger and the Matterhorn, surrounded by shrinking glaciers, posh ski resorts and the omnipresent sounds of oversized cowbells. We hung in chic mountain towns filled with climbers and hangers-on, with endless coffee bars and restaurants next to urbanized glacial streams with their bounding boulders and milky runoff.   We were looking for some new places, some old places and some surprises in between.   

Nonetheless we were discontented.  There were the typical travel fights over traffic and directions, driving and navigation, planning and accommodations and of course money and spending. Travel is microcosm of life with all the decisions and stresses compressed in time and space between two people living outside their comfort zone.  We were a good couple of experienced travelers but sometimes we spared. 

At times we hung nostalgically to our old frugal travel habits and sometimes we splurged like the economically comfortable adults we really were.  We debated the choices between; pizza with salad or chateaubriand, hostiles or four star hotels, rental cars or trains and busses.  What can we afford?   What should we afford?  How should we live?  Who are we, really? 

This time we were not slumming it like twenty something back packers, sleeping in hostiles and hopping trains.  We were driving in sporty German sedans with computer navigation, Blaupunk acoustics and air conditioned climate control. We were staying in nice places, 3-5 star hotels, sleeping in till 8 with a small continental breakfast without having to stealing enough for lunch. 

We had casual days hiking and biking or driving, followed by fine dining at night with wine and even desert, without two-for-one coupons.  We had a great time traveling effortlessly, solving international challenges with experienced aplomb.  Everything lived up to our most ambitious imaginations and fulfilled our wildest dreams, but we were still done.

We used to write enthusiastically exaggerated post cards home and scrounge for old newspapers or splurge for the International Herald Tribune once per week, for news from home or the World Series scores from last month.  Now we have instant information, texts and e-mails from home, like it is just around the corner and not across the ocean.  We now are always in touch, up close and personal with the life we left behind.

We rested one day in a Cafe in Laterbrunan Switzerland below the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrow Mountains, in a beautiful valley that rivals Yosemite in scope and splendor. The place was packed with young men and women travelers from all over the world, all staring at their phones or laptops. No one spoke to each other, no one reached out, no one looked up. What a European experience. It was sad.

I used to write endless travel journals, recording my every startling impression and new thought in cramped hostels, crowded bars or cheap hotel rooms, train stations, mountainside perches or city benches. Now I get up early in expansive hotel suites, with bathrooms and balconies, to type on glowing electronic Ipads with nothing new to say or different to write. I’ve become a jaded observer and a lazy writer.

Now I just remember and note the rough impressions of the time and place we are at and not the fascinating minutia or detail of the trip.  I will remember the great hike around the base of the Matterhorn and not the exorbitant cost of the free parking. I will cherish the view of the Eiger from across the canyon and not the three hours spent unsuccessfully renting a car in Chamonix.  I will not soon forget  the Cheeseburger in Grindewald with Raclette on a poppy seed German bun but not the hot and noisy airport hotel that was impossible to find and even harder to actually sleep in.  

When did we get so lazy, tired, impatient, doubting and fearful?  When did exciting Europe on twenty dollars a day turn into the mundane motherland at two hundred dollars a day. When did I turn into the man I am today?

The difference struck me one day as we made our way back to Verbier Switzerland for a blast from the past. I had spent the winter skiing there in 88 and wanted to see how it had changed. We lost our rental car abilities in France and were resigned to trains and busses until our credit cards recovered. We knew the drill from when we used to have a monthly EuRail pass to ride every, and any, train in Europe.  Now trains are more expensive than cars and even airplanes and I can't imagine what a EuRail pass costs. Gas is expensive but all cars are cheap and get great mileage. So we persevered our dabbling with mass transit, impatiently knowing how and what to do, the old fashion way, but not loving it.

Our first bus was stopped at the French border by the cops to weed out the sad looking illegal immigrants in the back of the bus and cart them to jail, wearing only their Dallas Cowboy windbreakers. This is the common state of the world now but it made my wife cry and it made me mad.  Our first train was old and slow and late and our last train was replaced with a bus standing room only and full of typically obnoxious, high school kids, loudly showing off to each other. Finally, beaten and battered, we made our way thru the dingy working class valley towns in the fading, late summer light, up the countless, impossibly thin switchbacks before reaching the town center. 

We spotted our hotel in the old historical Verbier village and we signaled the bus to stop.  Surrounded by century old wood houses, rock churches and dilapidated hay barns, I located our unassuming hotel looking out over the valley and the mountains across the way. Charming but abandoned with no concierge in sight, we let ourselves in and found our room.  It was a nice, clean, well-lighted place and we settled down, after an exhausting day, for a short afternoon nap before dinner.

I flashed back 28 years ago, taking the same bus ride up that hill to Verbier, a different man, traveling in different style, for a different reason. Now I am older, wiser, worldly and somewhat jaded but much less confident and cocky.  When I look back and read the old journals I find that they are filled with some of the same worldly and personal concerns and observations, regrets and ambitions.  The times have changed and I have grown but I was still intrinsically the same me.  Who else could I be.

It was very cold in that ancient winter alpenglow in western Switzerland, where they speak certain sweet and casual French with a delectable ‘Joi de vivre’ but maintain a German discipline and precision.   We chugged up the hill in a dark, empty old school buss, just the driver and me, and we chatted about my lodging potential in Verbier for the winter. He was very helpful in his broken English with pursed lips and a detectable ‘J’n sais croix’ attitude.  ‘Don’t shoot me I’m only the bus driver’, his eyes seemed to say but as we pulled up to a nice place in the town square he pointed to the hotel Hermitage and said 'Try dat one'.  

I clambered out, hauling two sets of skis, too sets of boots and a back pack the size of Montana.  I muscled inside and began to banter and barter with the concierge.  ‘I need a place for four to six weeks’, I told him, depending how long my money lasts.  Since it was his winter low season, he was prepared to deal and said ‘fifteen dollars a day’.  ‘With breakfast’, I countered and we shook on it. He showed me to a small clean room with a shared bath, a writing table and a balcony overlooking the town.  I was home free.

After an obligatory nap and some introspective time at my writing table, I went up the snowy street for some recon. There were shops and restaurants, nothing to fancy or obsessive but most of it spendy.  ‘How am I going to eat in this town’, I thought.  Luckily skiing looked affordable with monthly and weekly passes cheaper than in the states. Eventually I found a pizza bar and ordered a vegie-pie and a beer while surreptitiously looking around.

I read and wrote in my journal while I waited, obligatory behavior when dining alone, trying not to look like a lonesome looser. Happy, loving couples filled the corners of the bar and a group of boisterous Brits dominated the place.  My pizza came decorated, surprisingly, with a poached egg in the middle and I pondered how to eat the thing. Sure enough the leading Brit, came over and asked 'what’s up with the bloody egg on the pizza'. 



Graham was his name, social animal was his game. He had me at ‘egg’. An engineer for Shell oil in Rotterdam, Graham had spent a gap decade hitching around the world, playing the bagpipes for spare change. He was in Verbier on and off all winter, with his mates from home, staying at a British Chalet. The Chalet concept is where a bunch of Brits rent a large condo that comes with a Chalet Girl who cooks and cleans and gets the tea and cakes at the proper British time.

This ‘Bastard Ski Tour’ Chalet crew was out on the town for the night, comprised mostly of single guys and girls who smoked and drank in excess, got pissed, got loud, fell down and had sloppy, squeaky, silent Chalet sex when they went home.  I was all for this kind of action and told them so.  It's good to have instant friends.

One beer led to five and a quiet dinner turned into frat type party; yelling and singing patriotic shit about the UK, USA, love, and war and peace. ‘Buds for life’ we promised as Graham and I assured each other we could keep up and made a plan to ski the next morning at nine o'clock sharp. 

True to form he was there at nine with only one other Brit named Big Dave.  Dave was a tall, thick redhead with a pair of 215, K2s and a wild gleam in his eye.  We took a gondola up and then another one and then a tram to the top of the mountain, Mont Fort. The resort was huge, Snowbird on top of Alta, and this was just one of the four valleys  We hiked up a boot pack called the ‘Stairway to Heaven’ to the top of the resort and from the peak the resort splayed out below us like a model mountain town.  The place was enormous and you could ski anywhere and everywhere. There was no such thing as ‘out of bounds’ and when I asked the ski patrol if I could ski a certain aspect he looked at me quizzically and said he didn’t know what I was capable of skiing but nothing was closed.

Graham knew the mountain and took off down the smooth and steep, skiing fast but in control. I followed fearlessly, feeling my first euro turns and loving it while watching the scenery roll by as we descended towards the valley. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Dave shooting by us both in a gorilla style fury that predictably resulted in a high speed explosion near the bottom. Dave got up, shook it off and said, ' Fuckin A'. He said that a lot. Graham laughed and shook his head knowingly. We had seen this before, the illusion of indestructability. It's good to be young.  

We skied and we snacked and skied some more.  We all had delicious Croute egg pies, at a sit down lunch where you take your boots off and put on slippers and relax with table clothes and napkins, waitresses and wine.  At midafternoon we met some friends when we stopped again for a beer or wine, whiskey or water.  It was very civilized and we celebrated the apres-ski, at the famous Club Mt Fort, and all night, out on the town. 

The next day I chanced upon the lead gondola with a single woman sitting inside, preferring any company to riding alone, and the doors closed behind me.  She was young and cute, probably ten years younger than me but she said ‘bon jour’ politely and did smiled when I replied.  After a minute of awkward silence I could not help but chat her up since that was what I usually did with anyone I rode the lifts with.  It is the beauty of skiing that after an exhilarating downhill run there is an opportunity to call out ‘single’ in the line and ride up with someone new, chatting uninhibited for 10-20 minutes, like a speed date.

Her name was Dianne and she was a Swiss graduate student studying for the dental boards at her family’s chalet and skiing in the afternoons.  With wild curly brown hair and a smallish face, she was petit but solid.  She was quick to laugh and we soon had fun comparing French and English words, phrases and slang.  She asked me what the word was for skied out powder and I replied, ‘Crud’.  She looked at me quizzically and when I asked for the French translation she thought for a minute and said whimsically ‘Cruudee’, I was smitten.

I initially assumed an avuncular attitude of mentor and brother since she was so young and she agreed unabashedly to show me around the mountain.  We skied off quickly as I followed her graceful turns down the piste, to the off-piste, to steep and deep and into the irregular ‘cruudee’.  She didn’t miss a beat of the flow of the mountain and on the transitions and I followed obediently, keeping up well, for an old man of 30.  We skied all day, stopping only for snacks and lunch and beers and wine, and we were disappointed when they closed the mountain down.  She went back home to study and sleep while I went back to my room to write and dream.

We agreed to meet the next day at noon, after her studies, and I stood just inside the upper terminal door waiting for her for 45 minutes, since it was very cold and blustery outside.  Disappointed that she was a no-show I dejectedly dragged my skies outside to descend alone and found her standing in the wind, waiting teary eyed, patiently frozen.  We immediately went back inside to warm up and I bought her a cup of hot chocolate and she became my Swiss Miss. 

We spent the next weeks skiing together almost every day and then going out for dinner and movies and drinking in the local ski bum bars.  I introduced her to Graham and his band of merry Brits and we formed a small group of dedicated shredders, crisscrossing the valleys of the western Alps in search of the deepest powder, fastest lines and the perfect turn.  We became close and comfortable with each other as friends, family, and confidantes.

My days in Verbier became complete and busy very quickly with places to go and people to see and my writing once again took a back seat to living.  I found the Natatorium and went swimming a few times a week and joined a hockey team at the ice rink and skated now and then.  I worked for a spell with an American ski guide, running sweep and cleaning up the mess when his clients exploded physically or imploded emotionally in the vast mountains.  That ended quickly when one of the older guests suffered a heart attack on a long gondola ride and we could not resuscitate him.  We asked some EMT clients from New York to help at the top but they declared that ‘They don’t touch nothing without gloves and a bag,’ and besides, they were on vacation.  I was too and life is too short for bad jobs so I rededicated myself to full time ski bum and enjoyed the rhythm and tempo of my singular, self-indulgent focus. 

I went backcountry skiing with a Chalet Girl named Fiona and we got caught in a white out above tree line, but I eventually found our way home, way after dark.  She sobbed with relief when we got to her Chalet but all the guests had to say was that she was late in preparing tea and cakes, not to mention dinner, drinks and desert.  She poured me a drink and a bath and made me dinner, for saving her life, before she would face her clients and their petty critique.

I befriended a very attractive woman from Australia named Felecia in a pub who was surrounded by ski bum suiters but chose me to walk her home at the end of the night.  ‘Wankers’ she called them all as we left the bar but we quickly learned that we had no idea where she was staying.  We talked and walked for hours around town until we magically found ourselves standing in her driveway where she gave me a sweet kiss and told me that I was kind.  Not all those who wander are lost.  Not all those sitting home comfortably by the hearth are found.

As the days turned into weeks and the weeks into months my resources began to dwindle and it was time to head back home to the relationship I had decided to salvage.  I went over to Dianne’s for Fondue on my last night and to watch the Olympic Downhill race on TV.  The race was televised on local TV and the Swiss were favored to win.  The broadcast was sparse and simple with only the live coverage of every racer with minimal commentary, no up-close-and-personal moments and no commercials.  Dianne was thrilled when the Swiss actually won the gold but I was intrigued by the later racers from Jamaica and South Africa who were actually doing turns between the gates and slowing themselves down out of fear and common sense.  You don’t see that with Jim McKay.

We watched all of the racers ski and then had a great feast of cheese and bread with miniature pickles, potatoes and onions while we drank a bottle of the best wine we could scavenge from her father’s wine cellar.  When it came time to leave I braced myself for the long cold walk back home and gave Dianne the traditional three cheeks kisses of the Swiss.  She finished with a deep long kiss that took me by surprise and as she looked up at me with her huge moist, ebony eyes, she asked me to stay.

I realized I was at the crossroads of my life.  I could stay with vivacious, young Dianne, learn French and raise little Swiss ski racers in an exciting yet uncomplicated life filled with sunshine and skiing, as the concubine of a successful Swiss dentist.  Or I could go back to my life in the states, repair a broken relationship and raise the step children we had while working at my sleepy State job and living in a cramped condo complete with bunny’s and ballet bars, debts and obligations, trials and tribulations.  I chose the later.

I delicately, but respectfully demurred, said goodbye to Dianne and headed home.  It was a four or five mile walk and it was way below zero but I debated with myself as I walked and turned back to her place when I was halfway home.  Then, after a while I turned back and headed for home again.  I repeated this dance for hours but at the end of the night I found myself in my own bed and on the bus the next morning, with a heavy heart, headed down the hill towards home.

Now thirty years later I awoke from my nap in this same small Swiss town, wrote in my journal for a while and headed downtown with my wife.  The relationship I had gone home to save, years ago, had run its course and faded away amicably.  My wife and I found each other 20 years ago, after crossing paths in Park City, the desert south west  and Europe, to settle down in compatible and mature, marital bliss.  She was humoring my return to my youthful haunts without being patronizing or condescending.  She was going with it.

The town had not changed much over the years and since it was early autumn, it was quiet and subdued.  We found my old Hotel Hermitage and the Club Mt Fort.  The pizza place was gone, replaced by a fur shop, but the pool and skating rink was still there, as was the supermarket, the ski shop and the gondola.  It was an amazingly low key and cool town as compared to Grindelwald, Zermatt, Courmayeur or Chamonix and I counted myself lucky that this was the place I chose to spend the winter so many years ago.

As we walked up the street, I saw a large sign on a commercial building that said ‘Dentist’.  ‘What are the chances I thought’ as I walked by but as my wife stopped to shop in a little boutique, I told her that I had to go back to check.  She smiled knowingly and told me to ‘go ahead’.  I climbed the stairs to the office and knocked on the door.  It was locked, since it was after hours, but after a short while someone came to unlock it and open it.  A young woman with long blonde hair, in a white dentist smock, greeted me with a German accent and told me she was the only dentist in town and knew nothing of a woman named Dianne.  Largely disappointed and a little relieved, I thanked her and went back to find my wife.  Life is a funny thing.

My wife and I spent several languid days there, hiking and biking the mountains and exploring the town again.   I showed her my old stomping grounds and told her all of the same old stories again and she persevered patiently and perceptively.  We ate Fondue and Raclette, Croutes and Croissants and napped on high peaks in the warm autumn sun.  We rode scooters around the town and resort and explored the valley once again, stopen-schnacken occasionally for beers and baguettes. 

We noted the inevitable sprawl of the town and ski resort and the recent recession of the glaciers that hung over the valleys.  Things had changed appreciably in a fraction of my lifetime and of geologic time but they had remained intrinsically the same.  There was still the cool Verbier vibe with the gentle, sweet and soft French nature of the language and the inhabitants and we felt strangely welcomed and at home.

The stress of the trials and tribulations of travel had melted away and we enjoyed being together again, being where we were in the world and where we were with ourselves and our relationship.  We took each day as it came and reveled in the challenges and the differences of foreign places, the funny money, the awkward languages, the strange food and the wonderfully different adventurist people we met along the way.  By escaping our comfort zone, we found a brand new comfort zone with a different perspective and appreciation of the life we had worked so hard to develop and live.

As we loaded the last bus to take us down valley and eventually home, we revived our discussion on mini camping vans and our desire to stay home and explore North America, camping on our own terms and time table.  The discussion inexplicably turned to Spain and Slovenia, Cyprus and Crete, Latvia and Luxembourg.  There was so much still to explore and experience and we had really only scratched the surface.  Perhaps we would come back someday, someday soon.  Sometimes you have to look back to see what’s ahead. 



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