Without a Clue
by Rob Swales
Last January the following text message was flagged on my mobile phone from an unknown ‘Private Number’.
‘Your assignment, if you choose to accept it, is to travel to Lausanne, Switzerland, and live as one of them for a period of one year. During this time you are to write an anonymous blog under the code name “dreamingfields”. You are to use this blog to disclose to me the secrets, successes and shortcomings (aka SSS) of the Swiss brand so that I may incorporate ideas you uncover into documents (under my name) that will fast track my career path. The blog you write is to present without a clue as to it’s source and intended recipient.
In return for this information, on the first of each month you will receive a cash payment of 8,000 chf in new bank notes in an unmarked brown paper bag delivered to your residential letterbox in Lausanne.
I have chosen you for this assignment because of your sometimes carefree and rebellious attitude, your ability to pretend to be something you are not and your need to write prose that someone other than your wife will want to read.
Having read this text, if we are still on the same page, please go to you letterbox and fly the small French flag (I couldn’t find a Swiss one anywhere on Ebay) you find in there from the nearest fence paling. I will take the flying of the flag as your acceptance of this assignment and during the night have your first cash-filled, brown paper bag placed in your letter box. This bag will contain sufficient funds to cover your airfares and re-location costs to Lausanne. Once you are established in Lausanne and your first blog is up-loaded onto the website that I will provide for this purpose, you will receive your first monthly payment. Do not worry about how I will find you in Switzerland. In my game we have our ways.
I look forward to doing business with you ‘dreamingfields’ and trust that this association will be mutually beneficial to both our careers. This email will self destruct the moment you log off Messagebank.
Without a Clue - Day 1 - The Lake Geneva Shoreline
Getting to Switzerland is not quite as simple as packing a bag and getting on a plane. For more than three months stay as a tourist I need to evidence that I can support myself for the duration of my visit. The Swiss authorities are not too excited about my writer status and as I am unable to provide paperwork from ‘AA’ concerning my monthly pay check while I am there the new job is almost finished before it starts. Thankfully I convince my very beautiful and highly educated and talented wife to apply for a teaching job in Lausanne, and equally as good she gets it. An amazing job teaching drama at an international school, with a work permit thrown in. As part of the package I am given a family member permit.
By late July we are on an Ethihad (the national airline of the United Arab Emirates) 737, bound for Lausanne via Abu Dhabi and Geneva. Now that Abu Dhabi is an interesting place. Kilometre after kilometre of desert and then this oil rich city and airport rises out of nowhere on the Gulf of Oman. It is forty degrees outside at six am, nothing to see but grey gloom with a silver fireball climbing it’s way up from the sand dunes. We hang out in the aircon airport for three hours waiting for our connecting flight to Geneva. There are some pretty interesting looking locals waiting to catch flights also but there is no way I will risk taking unsolicited photos. Looking around I can no way work out what all the fuss is about women wearing full burkhas. They look like quite normal dress in Abu Dahbi. The lady that is sitting beside us is wearing one. I know if I had a choice of sitting beside the lady in the bhurkha or Tony Abbott in his budgie smugglers I will take the lady every time. She has a mysterious, middle eastern air and grace about her. More than I could ever say about Abbott. My wife gives her two daughters a stuffed camel I had bought with my left over Abu Dhabhi currency. She smiles (yes smiles, her eyes have it) and thanks us. I think Jo’s gesture is a great exercise in human relations, an act of random kindness, one example that governments all around the world (are you listening Julia and Tony) could put into their international affairs policies.
I look down on the snow-peaked mountains of the Swiss Alps as we glide in towards Geneva from Balkans and eastern Europe. Miles and miles of awesome beauty. From where I sit in a state of awe and wonder, I suppose it is the Swiss equivalent of Australia’s east coast shoreline. A couple of times when the clouds obscure my view I’m overcome momentarily with the thought that the pilots may have been a bit too close to the peaks for my comfort. Anyway, they must know what they are doing. We eventually emerge from the clouds over Lake Geneva and do a pretty cool landing on the tarmac.
You never know what to expect in a new country. The hardest part about arriving in Geneva is the bloody, long walk from the plane to immigration and customs. It’s an especially long walk when you have about thirteen kilos more cabin luggage then the allowance, straining from your back and shoulders. The admission process is quick and efficient. Our passports have the visa stamped and we are in. We pick up our luggage and are soon standing in the summer sun of a country where we now have residential status. Two people from my wife’s new school are there to pick is up and within the hour we are sitting in our temporary accommodation in Lausanne, Rue le Borde 43.
All I’ll say about our furnished flat at Rue le Borde 43 is that it’s a classic. In movie terms I would make it a cross between ‘He died with his Felafel in His Hand’ and ‘Psycho’. Our landlady, Madame Monique, lives next door. She is very French and doesn’t speak a word of English. Thankfully her son Michel, who lives one floor up, has recently returned from twelve months living in Australia and he’s very helpful, although confused as to why we would want to leave Australia to come to Switzerland.
The really good thing about Rue le Borde 43, is that it is only a ten minute walk from Old Town Lausanne and in ten minutes we are down there following one cobblestone street after the other, hungry enough to eat a Saint Bernard half cooked. Our first meal in Switzerland? Yeh you guessed it...Mexican. And damn fine Mexican it is too. Manana Restaurant, Place Pepinet 1 Lausanne. I can recommend it. Ask for Demma and tell him I sent you. We start off the meal with corn chips and salsa (they are free) which are very authentic. For mains Jodie has the vegetarian enchiladas and I go for the meat burritos which we wash down with a very fine bottle of Coke with ice. After dinner we wander home, hopefully in the right direction, with the sound of mariachi and spanish guitar sweeping the street behind us. Sleep is kind on our first night in a new city in a new country and slips in very quickly.
A letter to a mate.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts, ideas and experiences Pete.
Today I swam in Lake Geneva for the the first time in my life and there was 'smoke on the water'. You know you can call me cliched because I so often am, as a result of my addiction to song lyrics and the feeling they gave me the first time I heard them. The smoke did truly lay on the water today and it was painted a lazy blue. The water appeared as blue/green depending on whether I was above it or in it (perspective?), the French Alps where they dipped their toes into the lake a darker shade of blue and the sky that filled in the eternity above, a pale azure, that is if azure can ever bring itself to be called pale.
Being in the water gave some sense of connection to this ancient country, that remains somehow safe, wrapped inside the jagged peaks that stamp their authority at every angle. The lake was clear, supportive and re-assuring, allaying any fears that distance from loved ones and scenes familiar can sometimes conjure. Jo and I lay on our backs on a pontoon some fifty metres from the shore, the sun warming forgotten dreams and prodding a sense of unreality that Poplars and spinach green grass on a pebbled shoreline can prompt.
And Jo and I talked about the newness of what is all around us and everyday lays before us. New scenery, new language, new people, new food and certainly new opportunities. We asked ourselves why it has taken us so long to take this giant step. Why is this moment so different to many other moments when we could have made the same move? Is this a pre-ordained point in time when we were meant to be expressing the qualities and gifts that we maintain so that we could be sustained in new and more interesting ways? Is there a higher purpose for our presence here, other than new and challenging employment and exposure to cultures unfamiliar? The definitive answer will unfold I am sure, as it always does.
I am certain of one thing, Pete. Having come to Lausanne, I will never be able to go back to who I was before. Nor would I want to. Living at Witta, I sometimes felt that my life was in some sort of holding pattern. Safe, predictable, repetitious, full of words and bright ideas but never as fearless as I would have liked to have been. From my early observations in this new home place, Swiss (and European) culture has different core values. People here sincerely value their own contribution and that of others. You are not measured by your realestate but by your realness, your trueness to yourself. People here do not have a body focus, they appear more as mind, or as an infinite form. Much like William Blake said in that poem that gave Jim Morrison the name for his band, The Doors.
A small example of this appeared before us today when we were at the lakeside at Lutry. Four grannies parked their mountain bikes, walked over to the grass beside where we were sitting, took off all their clothes and put their bikinis on before plunging into the lake. The world didn’t stop turning, they weren’t arrested. In my eyes they were fearless and I watched them have an awesome time expressing that fearlessness. They were still laughing and lounging in the sun when Jo and I left to look for pastries appropriate to the hour.
Having said whatever has gone before this line, I am suddenly of the opinion that nothing is new but how we do it. And every time we do ‘it’ (referring to the singular expressive or creative action), it is new and thus too are we.
Keep doing what you do Pete, it always brings a flame to new ideas for me and 'lights my fire!'
“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.” (William Blake - The Marriage of Heaven and Hell)
Living at Rue de la Borde 43
It’s not as bad as it looks on the outside, here at Rue de la Borde. Bus 22 and 60 take us out and re-deliver just as close to the front door. Old Town, new town, the metro and connecting buses 6,7 and 9 are all within ten minutes of catching a bus out front. In this way we can get our groceries at COOP or Manor, go down to the waterfront at Ouchy, coffee and pastries at Vincents in Lutry and also a plunge in the lake. The water at Lutry is not too cold to swim in but it has a tang that takes away any thought of tiredness. To swim and lie on the grass at Lutry is a timeless experience. It has a haziness about it. Kids playing on the floating pontoon and diving tower, sailing boats flicking through the background criss-crossed by water skiers and the intermittent boom of the Lausanne to Evian ferry.
Lausanne’s Public Transport System
After one day of using the Swiss bus and train system you expect them to be exactly on time. There is a computer monitor in every bus stop which tells you in minutes when each bus is due and where it is going to. You can buy a monthly mobilus card (with your photo on it of course) for sixty franks ($60) and top it up every month and catch as many local buses or trains as you want. Jo and I catch half a dozen buses and trains a day and at that rate this card would save us about $260 a month each. We have also bought a half price long distance train travel card ( $150 including photo) which will get us out around Switzerland, France, Germany, Italy and Austria by rail for half price. It is also cheaper to travel by train here if you go to and from in the same day.
We had our first out of town trip on a train to a little lakeside village called Rolle. It’s interesting to travel comfortably on trains at speeds of up to 150 k.p.h. And a totally different experience when you are waiting on a railway station when one of them goes by without touching a brake pad at the same speed.
Another neat thing about the metro is that it travels up and down the hillside of Lausanne underground. They do not have drivers and are controlled by computers. And late they never are. Locals would be furious. The metro trippers are kept safe behind doors at the underground stations. When the metro train pulls in, train doors always line up exactly with the station doors and they both open automatically. I found out the instant way that if you are not sitting down or holding onto a rail when the doors close you will be quickly flung through the air as trains take off like a turbo charged Saab. It might look funny to see someone flung through the air but it doesn’t feel funny when it happens to you.
An unspoken custom concerning trains and buses is that they are all run on honesty and trust. There are no ticket sellers or collectors to check you have paid your fare or that you have a monthly card. However there are random Police Assistant checks. Three dudes appear out of nowhere at a bus stop, jump on and scan your monthly plastic or ticket with their portable bar code machines. The fines are $60 on the spot or $80 with time to pay.
Things about Switzerland
that appeal to me.
What are the things about Switzerland that have appealed to me so far? The standout is the real sense of multiculturalism that is here. It is a very visible thing. And because of the variety of cultures and myriad of languages all co-existing in a very small space every individual has a responsibility to make it work. I know Australia has a multicultural policy but it is limited to major cities. I’m am not yet convinced we fully embrace multiculturalism as a whole nation inside Australia, outside of a minority who not only know that it is morally and politically correct but also essential for the survival of our nation as an outpost of the bigger, one world nation. Jo and I are made to feel so welcome wherever we go. The lunch and dinner offers all over the countryside haven’t stopped. I know we are new kids on the block but it seems to me like this is a practiced custom. Hospitality. Today I got a text from a guy I met last week asking me if I wanted to meet him and a couple of his mates for pizza and coffee in Geneva next week. The next three nights are all dinner at someone’s place. Thanks for the welcome Switzerland.
The next is the interesting lives people lead here in that the first twenty or so years of there adult work life can have them living in up to a dozen countries, linked between the continents of South and North America, Africa, Asia and Europe. They willingly go to work in these far flung locations, much like we might move from a rural location to a city in Australia. I have met up with a young English guy called Nick (he used to play grade cricket for Lancashire). He’s worked in Lausanne for four years as a marketing representative for a TV sports channel. In the next three weeks he and his wife will be working in Croatia, Miami, New York and California. Many of the world’s big name movers and shakers including Google and IBM have headquarters on Lake Geneva between Lausanne and Geneva. I have been introduced to a few different people who used to work in the New York Stock exchange and have taken jobs here with these big companies for the lifestyle it offers.
I also like the fact that the people here are all really active individuals, with the emphasis on individuality. There are as many hairstyles and different types of clothes worn as there are people. No one person looks like another. The cross culture mix that exists here already adds to that. And also the physical beauty of both Swiss men and women as a race. In any given day there are many standouts in both the physical beauty and fashion stakes arenas. Federer or Sharapova would hardly rate a second glance in Old Town Lausanne. Add to that the access to outdoor activity all year round and the high standard of service you receive at every turn. It appears from where I sit that most people enjoy the quality of life here. Age, nor body shape or size is not a barrier. There are some pretty groovy looking grannies and grandpas getting around the hills and shores of this fine city. If you are looking to get fit here just go for an hours walk. Any of the Rue’s will challenge a lazy calf or hamstring and get the heart rate up around the thrill count.
The produce is freshly grown on the hillsides surrounding Lausanne and Geneva. The countryside looks like a fresh canvas of Vincent on a really good day or a sonnet of Shakespeare’s finest work. This makes the weekly markets works of art in themselves, stimulating all the senses (and I do mean all six of them) and a ready source of a couple hours of quality visuals and gastronomic interaction. And the cheeses are so good you can smell them twenty metres before you see them. We have tried at least three or four new cheeses in our first week and they were yum.
Other things I love so far.
What else do I love so far. No border patrols and France is a twenty minute ferry or forty minute car ride away. And Annecy. More of Annecy later. It gets a whole chapter to itself. Day spas. Now, nestled in between the Swiss and French alps they are pretty special places. We have had a taste and I can honestly say I’ll be back. I’ve heard that in winter they are a real treat. The cleanliness of the place, an innate sense of safety and protection. Switzerland definitely has a history of these things and it is very real experience when you are here.
And finally I would have to say it is the old towns that exist side by side with the new towns and residential suburbs. To walk along streets and amongst buildings that date back to the thirteenth century is a totally new experience for this Australian and one I totally immerse myself in at every opportunity. One day I would like to thinks that Aussies could experience old buildings and iconic architecture in our own country. If only we could get over the need to pull our history down and replace them with characterless themes.
A P.S. to the things I love would have to be the pastries. All I can say is, that I find them and the shop windows in which they are temptingly housed, irresistible. And did I mention the fresh raspberries, chocolate and Rivella (the national drink made out of whey)?
I know a week does not a year make but hey it’s a great start. Newness is such a stimulant for me. This last week, every day has brought with it a new pair of glasses. Some moments are spent looking at the big picture, others the detail, still I treat each new experience with the same respect and gratitude.
Annecy France - 31 Julliet 2010
If I was ever lost in France, Annecy is the place I would like to be lost in.
Can you picture a milky-blue, central glacial lake, held in place by snow-ravaged peaks, surrounded by villages with streets the width of a large Alfa Romeo with scenery glances that seduce you at every opportunity? Our host driver will attest to this statement although she may deny the few close calls that occurred during the ooh-la-las and close proximity of other equally affected vehicles.
Anyway, I’m smitten, maybe a little too easily. I can blame it on a summer’’s day in this old village in the French Alps in the south-east of France. Think back to Tour de France a couple of weeks ago and you can see it clearly, sans the bikes. The morning shadows on the stream that flows beneath buildings and beside pathways in the old town spaces, guides the pleasure seekers, the artisans and general foot traffic between between patisserie and cafe. Buildings as old as William the Conqueror and St. Francis of Assissi lean over to shade the cobblestones (yes there are always cobblestones in every old village) , their seasonally coloured window shutters arranged in patterns that contrast against the earthy walls.
It’s monthly market day in Annecy and obviously we aren’t the only ones who know about it. I buy a bargain nib pen and ink set with spare nibs. It maybe from the sixties and I intend to write sixties style poetry with it to honor Jim Morrison’s contribution to popular culture. After recently seeing The Doors new doco ‘When you’re Strange’, I can see why he wrote the stuff he did. The planet was totally suicidal in many ways during the late sixties and early seventies and Jim’s life was a metaphor for some aspects of what was happening globally.
I sniff out a vinyl record vendor who has a vinyl copy of every album I have ever owned or wanted to own. There is even a never released on CD Tool album that I buy for my son Kris and hope to AC/DC he hasn’t already got it. The vinyl guy speaks English and I find out he spent some time in Australia in 1984. He tells me he loves old hippies because they cannot resist the smell, touch, taste and sound of vinyl. We talk music and bands and exchange anecdotes. I give him an update on Brian Ritchie from The Violent Femmes and his Australian connections.
There is a bakery in Annecy that people line up outside just to get to the inside to buy bread and pastries. It must be so good. It’s good enough for me to join the line and with the first bite the reason for the queue is confirmed.
So many streets here soaked and dried in centuries old, coloured wash that lifestyle travel shows could never do justice to because the would be too busy sticking one of the hosts pretty faces in front of the scene. These buildings highlight and celebrate occupation and with some confident form of blase make modern streets and towns look stale and bland.
Lunch is unorthodox but delicious. The waiter excels at silent service, none of the courses arrive to our table at the same time but the satisfaction is in the quality of the fare.
We transfer to our host’s Citroen and traverse the lake in a clockwise direction watching bodies play in the water, on bikes, under the trees and in the sun. They lie on towels on the ground beside the road’s edge, on small wooden jetties, acres of beautiful, brown, French flesh, reflecting the opportunity to be almost naked this close to heaven. Bodies beside bodies, on top of other bodies, blended, bonded, branded and mended, and not the least bit mindful that outside of Annecy there lies a world at all. A world aside that is filled with haste and hate, but here they remain, for this moment at least, untouched, unspoiled and oblivious that any life but the one they are having exists.
High above us men and women glide like eagles in the updraft from peaks that in only a short season will be soft and paper white. But today the mountain’s faces a rough and bare, a backdrop for human birds that trust the love of nature explicitly for the view it provides for them from almost the level of clouds. They soar with joy at the opportunity to fly forever and in awe of what we grounded mortals can only imagine is there for minds to treasure.
Hold onto to this snapshot Annecy, I will return soon with friends.
Cafe Retro - Avenue du Parc-de-la-Rouvrale (On a rainy day.)
Cafe Retro is the closest walking distance coffee to where we are staying in Rue de Borde. The only part that looks retro about the cafe is the name. It is a five minute walk up the hill and I have neglected to bring a coat or an umbrella and the weather decides to be cold and wet. Hopefully the coffee is good. In Lausanne I have been drinking an equivalent to my Australian flat white called a Renverse (ron-ver-say), with the emphasis on the second syllable. Strangely enough the syllable emphasis makes a big difference to the understanding of the person taking my order.
It’s a bit after noon when I take my coffee over to a seat in the window of the Retro. The decor is smart and comfortable with a mixture of tables and semi-circle booths. A moment of silence after I place my cup on the table is broken with conversations in strong French accents, some resonating soft and lilting and others a deep sound, like a course rasp on wood. There’s a mixture of patrons dotting the room like scattered cushions after a night watching dvds, some lunching, others sipping red wine and still others drinking coffee with what looks like port.
Outside the rain has set in. I look out over the car park where the drizzle is now showers and judge my chances of getting back home dry on the outside as very slim. I go to the counter and order another renverse and this time I don’t need the help of an interpreter. When I settle back into my window seat office I have a very clear realisation that i will never meet the locals if I can’t speak the language. Having made that very profound statement it does dawn on me that I have become very focused on the detail in my physical environment to compensate for the lack of audio understanding.
The rain has become heavier and it looks like I’ll be paying for my office space with coffee. I check my wallet and it is dry except for the myriad of coins that you collect in Laussane. I work out that if the rain doesn’t stop soon that I have enough for one more coffee and a croissant. The magazines and papers in the rack are all in French. I flip through these free newspapers and generally get the gist of the detail although the full story is never clear. I have hardly seen or read any English-speaking news since we arrived here two weeks ago. Strangely enough the world keeps turning regardless of what I am not aware of what is happening around me.
I do miss the ‘bon ami ‘coffee conversations from back home. This current cafe experience has made me more aware of who and what I am with no identity mantle (what I do/have done) to lean on. In the window glass I can see my reflection. I can either be a stranger in a strange land or another writer in a cafe. For a moment I think I look like a blind man shouting at the night. I notice that I am now the only man in the cafe with about a dozen women. If there was a piano player here it might look like a scene out of a Billy Joel song.
To preserve the coffee I flick through the French speaking pages of Le Matin. It’s dotted with the same old celebrity crap. Britney Spears, Amy Winehouse, George Clooney. Does anyone really care about these people? If I understand one article I think Martina Hingis is getting married soon. Either that or she is filing for divorce. But please don’t quote me either way.
It’ till raining and I don’t feel like another Renverse. I might need to phone Jo and get her to bring the umbrella. I’ve learnt one new word in French today. Pousser (poo-say). It means to ‘push’. It’s written on the outside of the door to the cafe. I am sure I could learn a lot more French if I put in the effort. How about I write a poem in French? Now that will fill in the time until the rain stops.
Cafe Retro allume a Pluvieux Jour
Une cafe lait please?
Le servante regarde chez admonestation
meprise, jusque approximativemet anerer
buvable vin rouge chez la
bar introduires la sylabe
peasanteur bien car elle.
C’est pleuvout dehors et
j’suis impression a petit perdirent
au dedourd, dissimuler de la
vit c’ es existaence
echangean atour admonestation.
Cependant j’ connais ainsi beacoup autor la pleuvent.
For those of you who haven’t got a French/English application on your Ipod Touch
it reads something like this:
Cafe Retro on a Rainy Day
One Renverse coffee please?
The waitress looks at me
confused, until some guy
sipping red wine at the
bar puts the syllable
weighting right for her.
It’s raining outside and
I’m feeling a little lost
inside, hidden from the
lives that are being
exchanged around me.
But I know so much about the rain.