I woke up this morning, and Rivaz still insists on sparkling under dark and foreboding clouds.  But nothing could keep us from our plans to visit Lausanne, one of the most famously beautiful cities in western Switzerland.  And sure, the beauty is important.  But what was our first stop in this Swiss city?  Why, a chocolate shop, of course!  Durig Chocolatier, to be precise.

My obsession with chocolate has known no limits, and this past November, I even paid the $50 admission charge to attend New York City’s Annual Chocolate Show in one of the enormous pavilions on the Hudson.  (Trembling from all the caffeinated truffle samples, I made the incalculable mistake of grabbing a sushi dinner with a stomach full of chocolate!)  But I had it on good authority that Durig was Switzerland’s most amazing chocolate shop, so I took hearty advantage of this opportunity to sample, savor, and devour.  The kind chocolatier, whom I affectionately called Willie Wonka, even allowed us to have a glimpse into the world of his chocolate-making factory, demonstrating how the truffles are made and packaged.  Had I not been married already, I might have proposed…

We walked through the wind and rain, hiking our way toward the stunning cathedral on the hill.  By now, I’ve seen so many cathedrals that it can be difficult to arouse much awe.  But what this particular church has going for it, in my opinion, is the incredible view that worshippers can enjoy on their way in and out of the church.  It is as though there is a continuation of the presence of holiness, from the internal space to the external creation.  It says a lot about a city when it can be perfectly cold and wet outside, and yet, the city still resonates with one’s idea of what constitutes beauty.  While I may not have seen the city sparkling under the sun, I certainly agree that Lausanne deserves its reputation.  It is one of those places that I’d be intrigued to visit again.  And again.

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Switzerland!  Whatta place!  I can feel the neutrality seeping into my bones, and the clock-shops and Swiss banks serve as an ever-present reminder that this is a place protective of its time and money.  No wonder they stay out of the warpath.

Rick Steves says that Geneva is worth skipping on a trip through Switzerland, and I’m trying to figure out why.  Rick probably doesn’t have the interest in Reformation history that a group like ours does, but he does tend to have his finger on the pulse of what makes a European excursion worthwhile.  Still, it’s 2009, and this year marks the 500th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin (Jean, as he would have preferred).  We celebrated with a trip to his church in the center of the old town.

It was eerie, walking around a place that was so central not only to history, but also to an entire way of thinking and of believing that has trickled down through the centuries and landed itself in my own mind and heart.  I’m no expert, but I would guess that Calvin is an incredibly misunderstood figure in history.  What passes for “Calvinism” might not actually be reflective of his own theology.  My favorite story we learned about him was that this very church used to have an exquisite pipe organ, but during Calvin’s time, as people were fleeing persecution because of the violence brought about by the Reformation and were flocking to Geneva, Pastor John Calvin made the decision to melt down the pipes of the organ in order to use the metal for bowls and utensils so that the people might be suitably fed.  This certainly presents a different picture of the man so often associated with systems of severe doctrines.

When I think of the connection that Switzerland has had with so many influential thinkers in the Christian tradition– Calvin, Brother Roger, Karl Barth– I can’t help but wonder if there is something in the alpine air here that inspires people to think beyond themselves.

Whatever it is, I hope I get a whiff of it…

Looney Cluny

02.05.09

So, I am no longer the solo traveler, and I feel pretty ambivalent about that.  On the one hand, it’s nice to be reunited with some friends from home.  On the other hand, I sure loved traveling alone.  I had no idea it would be such an invigorating experience, that I would learn so much, and that I would be able to keep myself company, all the while making friends along the way.  I am truly filled with gratitude for the journey so far.

But phase two of my trip is upon me: I have met up with a group from back home in order for us to travel together to Taizé, France.  And, in preparation for that experience, we have arrived in Cluny, a picturesque French town that is haunted with Christian history.  During the Middle Ages, it was the site of an enormous monastery, the largest Christian building in the world until St. Peter’s Basilica was built in Rome.  But during the French Revolution, the building was nearly entirely demolished, and visitors of the town can wander around the ruins and wonder at the enormity of the structure that used to exist.

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When I arrived yesterday after a harrowing train-bus-hike adventure, I checked into the beautiful hotel (thankfully, knowing I wasn’t footing the bill!) and took a luxurious shower in my hotel room, one of those showers that feels like a wall of water rushing over your body.  But of course, the SECOND I turned off the water, the phone rang.  My group was here to meet me.  I rushed to get ready (after figuring out how to turn off the automatic hair dryer!), and I went downstairs to greet everyone, happy to play the quasi-French hostess for the rest of the day.

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A few members of the group went to catch up on some jet-lag sleep, but the adventurous ones came along with me to explore the ruins and make the all-important patisserie run.  I don’t think I can ever look at food the same way after making this trip through France.  Patisserie, boulengerie, cafe, or restaurant– the French have a way of making even the simplest of fare into works of art!  A croissant?  Voilà, on a plate of fine china with a paper-lace doily beneath it.  A cup of coffee?  Voilà, in a fragile cup with a saucer, a cookie, a mini-pitcher for cream, and a delicate spoon for blending.  Even a simple breakfast is an indulgent experience: grapefruit, brie, ham, cheese, oranges, bread, jam, honey, croissants, coffee, tea, prunes, and elegance to boot!

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It really is the small stuff in life that matters, the details that make all the difference.  We kid ourselves thinking that we must have only that which is grandiose or large-scale.  We look to celebrity culture as something toward which to aspire.

If only we’d open our eyes to the beauty of simplicity…

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Carcassonne.

26.04.09

I was right to remember France so fondly.  The stereotypes of the snobbish French who refuse to help Americans are so ridiculous, and I imagine that, nine times out of ten, the American comes at the situation with that characteristic American assumption of entitlement.  I do think the French are right to be proud of their language.  It is so beautiful, melodic, and full of a kind of quiet passion.  I have to learn it.  Soon.

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Carcassonne is an astonishing place, amazing in its continued existence and regality.  It was even magical as I walked away from it this afternoon, over Pont Neuf being showered with more rain.  Yesterday, I decided to venture out into the cold and rainy town, first stopping at the Vinothéque across the street, Comptoir des Vins et Terroirs.  There, I had the best glass of wine I have ever tasted in all of my life and all of my travels—a strawberry-infused rosé native to the region.  The woman working there was very kind and patient with me, even when I broke the characteristic French solemnity that seems always to accompany food by ramming my daypack into a metal sign.

I watched the rain fall outside on the slick cobblestone streets, as I sipped my wine and ate two cheeses with a biscotti-shaped herb bread, an olive tapenade, and a jam.  It was so beautifully presented that my raging hunger was the only thing that kept me from just enjoying its presentation for long.  Still, this is something that I would probably not have thought to eat in the U.S.  There is something about traveling that brings out a kind of courage and adventure in me that I normally don’t feel.  Maybe it is necessary to survival or maybe it’s just a silly romantic wanderlust.  I tend to prefer to think of it as the former…

After a wonderful time at the Vinothéque, I decided that I just had to take a walk around this town, even if I ended up with pneumonia from the rain and cold.  The theme of my last trip to Europe seemed to be something along the lines of, “Eh, we’ll figure it out.”  So far, figuring things out doesn’t seem to be nearly as much a concern for me as does just living life to the full as opportunities present themselves.

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I walked and walked and even climbed the slippery wall a bit.  I took tons of pictures, tried to spot everything in my guidebook, took in the church and the posh hotel, and decided to head back to the hostel, soaked to the bone but feeling good all the same.  When I finished resting, I met another hosteller, Maartje, from Holland.  It’s always nice to make a friend in a rainstorm.  And she made me feel less insane by sharing that she had done basically the same thing I had in the horrendous weather, walking from the train station and meandering through the rain-soaked streets.

After our conversation, I decided to get some dinner at the Auberge des Lices down the street.  My dinner was incredible—a salad of romaine lettuce, slivers of meat and parmesan cheese, quartered tomatoes, and walnuts; Cassolet, the regional specialty stew with white beans, thick broth, and meat; and a “chocolate cappuccino,” which was utterly amazing and served with a perfectly round scoop of almond ice cream and a cinnamon-and-sugar stick of toast.  All of it was amazing, and the restaurant itself was beautiful and quiet.  So far, the best meal I’ve had in Europe.

Afterwards, I started wandering the spooky night-lit streets of Carcassonne, around 11:00 p.m.  Alone, I wasn’t brave enough to make the entire circuit around the town, but I got some wonderful photos nonetheless.  I was walking the first main road when I heard a clicking sound behind me.  But when I spun around, no one was there.  So I started to walk again.  Again, the sound: “click, click, click.”  I turned around again, sure that I was as pale as the lights that were shining in the town walls.  No one.  But then, a voice from far away on the wall.  “Bon-jour!” said a non-French speaker, snapping photos.  “Bon soir,” I replied.  It was clearly time for bed.

When I woke up and showered, Maartje and I decided to go to the Chateau Comtal together.  First, we wandered around town and found a place for a quick breakfast.  She told me that she was hoping to study to become a doctor and maybe work with Doctors Without Borders or some other non-profit agency.  Maybe it’s just our idealism, but I feel, when I meet someone like Maartje, that there is something special to our generation.  I hope we continue down this road, idealistic or not.  This world is in desperate need of some leaders with some actual ideals.

The Chateau offered some incredible and unique views of La Cité and the surrounding area.  It was nice to have someone to talk to after several days of solitude.  And it helped tremendously that she spoke some French.  While we were handing our tickets to the ticket-taker at the Chateau, he said something that made her laugh.  I just smiled and asked her later what he said.  “He told me to be careful with my head on the low ceilings.  But he said that you didn’t have anything to worry about.”  Nice.  Short jokes in French.

Sounds better than in English, at least.

Right now, I am sitting in a cafe across from the Opera House.  I was just going to get a piece of bread and some meat, but the voice that tells me to take advantage of all that Europe has to offer said, “Go! Eat! Drink! Be merry!”  So, I submitted to that voice, my little inner hedonist.  So far, I’m being treated to a sliding glass door with a motion sensor that opens every five seconds or so… just whenever anyone walks by.  On Las Ramblas.  The busiest thoroughway in Barcelona.  Fortunately, it’s still nice out, albeit a little chilly.  (Uh oh… I think I just inadvertently flirted with my waiter by smiling at the picture of Marilyn Monroe behind him…)

It is so funny how obvious tourists are– especially of the American variety.  We have a walk and a particular way of carrying ourselves that gives us away.  I was so disappointed today when I was ordering my (eh hem, second) gelato, and the server immediately started speaking English to me.  I mean, come on!  I have funky black Merrells and a Pashmina!  What more could you people want from me?!?!

I am sipping on the restaurant’s “recommended wine,” so I’m sure I’ll be out 20-euros or so.  I’m at prime take-advantage-of-the-tourist time.  I am tired, I am jetlagged, I am sore, and I am hungry.  Offer me a bottle of liquid diamonds, and I’ll drink ’em up.  Nevertheless, the wine is good– red, dry, and native to Catalunya.  I have ordered a steaming hot plate of paella de verduras, which is surprisingly delicious, given the fact that it is basically just yellow rice, sauce, and steamed vegetables.  It’s warmth is off-setting the increasingly chilly breeze from the crazy automatic door.  (Speaking of which, EW!  I just saw one guy drop a cigarette butt and another pick it up and smoke it).  Ah, Barcelona.

After my Picasso Museum experience (odd, overrun by Italian teenagers, and evidence that Picasso really was somewhat sane at some point in his artistic life), I decided it was time for me to meet this Gaudi fellow that I have heard all about.  So, I took the subway up to the Cathedral of the Sagrada Familia.  As I was emerging from the subway, I wondered if it would be like the first time I was in Rome and exited a subway, only to be smacked in the face by the Colosseum.  But, I walked up the stairs and… nothing.  But then, I turned around.

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There is nothing quite like finally seeing something in person that you have seen many times in print.  It feels almost like you are staring at a giant, life-size, three-dimensional print.  It almost doesn’t seem real.  But there it is: you can see it!  You can touch it!  And in this case, this church is like something out of a fairy-tale.  It manages to be whimsical and reverent in one fell swoop.  I think I’m in love with Gaudi.

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After having my appetite whetted for Gaudi’s work, I made my way to Park Guell and beheld what I soon knew would be my favorite spot in all of Barcelona.  The park itself seems magical– fanciful and beautiful, with stunning views of Barcelona.  I sat on one of the mosaic-tiled, curving benches and resolved that, should I ever find myself living in Barcelona, I shall spend my days painting this park, singing songs for tourists, and watching the glory unfold around me day after day.  My nights, on the other hand, would probably have to involve some sort of thievery… but that’s another story.  For another day.  For now, I have appropriately toasted Barcelona with my 18.75 mL of wine, and it is certainly time to bring an end to the surreality of this day.  Buenas noches.