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.

Geneva consistently rates as one of the best cities to live in the world, but it tends to fare a bit worse on travel destination lists.  After spending a few days here, I would have to agree with those who say it’s a great place to breeze through, but there is no need to stay very long.  Sure, it’s clean and has some natural beauty with its city centre lake and the mountains surrounding it.  But, on the whole, most of the places I’ve been– other than Calvin’s church– have been rather disappointing.

I took a tram over to the UN headquarters and waited for a tour after going through a rather rigorous security check.  The tour began, and a snooty English-speaking man led us from room to room, walking briskly and getting upset with people translating for the other persons in their group.  “You signed up for the English language tour,” he said, “so, you’ll just have to listen as best you can as translate after the tour.”  I couldn’t help but find the irony in being shown around this building by a man who seemingly had disdain for the sort of inter-cultural dialogue that the UN was designed to foster.

Ultimately, the visit amounted to little more than a stroll through a large office building, so I decided to skip the opportunity to visit other such offices.  Lord knows I’ve seen enough of them in the States.

Geneva is also very proud of its “fountain,” the Jet d’Eau, which is a large stream of water that shoots 140m into the air from the middle of the lake.  And, sure, it made for some interesting photos, but that’s about it– it’s just a large spout!

What I think will really remain in my mind as quality experiences in Geneva all have to do with food, and as I continue my mission of eating my way around the world, perhaps Geneva has been a worthwhile stop after all.  I’m sure it might be a different story had I been the one footing the bill for these meals, but dinners of fondue and raclette and crepes and dessert– not to mention the hilariously fun dinner at Hotel Edelweiss– have been experiences I will surely not forget any time soon…

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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I want to know the conversation the French have that prompts this kind of day.  And then, I want to have that conversation every day with the people I love.

“The weather is beautiful.  Let us forget anything we must do and go do the things we want.  Let us get food and wine and beer and sit together on the banks of the river.  And that is all.”

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Five beautiful French children are playing with sticks.  The people to my left are drinking Hoegaarden.  The people to my right are smoking weed.  Ah, the French.  There is not an overstressed person for miles.  Or kilometers.

But, then again, maybe I am projecting.  I need ice cream like an addict needs cocaine.  And I’m ok with that.

I arrived in Lyon with a flourish of activity.  The train station was buzzing.  It was Penn Station during rush hour, minus the English and the smell of hot dogs.  Chaos!  And I panicked.  I kept telling myself to wait and watch Lyon become my friend just as all the other cities had.  But we were not off to a good start.

I got on the subway, after an awkward encounter by the ticket machines with a woman begging for money.  She was smart, waiting for a tourist like me to come by and not know how to operate the machines.  Then, she stepped in and started pressing buttons.  I tried to decline her assistance politely, confident that I could figure this out, but she insisted, took the coins from my hand, and handed me a ticket.  Then, she asked for money.  The whole encounter was awkward and frustrating.

I exited the subway at the location I thought was correct and started to head up the hill toward my hostel.  Though I got lost for a while, I had the help of a few very kind French people who noticed that I was struggling, and I finally got checked in and claimed my bed.  The hostel is sketchy at best.  It has the delightful smell of a basement and feet, but it’s not nearly as lonely as a hotel room.  In fact, I almost immediately made friends and had a wonderful night yesterday, eating dinner with Jane, a traveling Australian grandmother, and Hannah, an American teenager of a “gap year.”  We chatted a bit and all decided to have dinner together at Les Lyonnaise, complete with a grumpy French waiter.  I so enjoyed the company of these women, and I was once again amazed at how easy it is to bond with fellow-travelers on the road.  We are strangers one day and soulmates the next.

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After dinner, we walked around the floodlit city at night.  It was so beautiful, and Rick Steves might be on to something when he says that Lyon is truly France’s City of Lights.  Utterly dazzling under a clear night sky, especially with a little French wine in the system.

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I had to catch a bus from Avignon to Orange and then from Orange to Vaison la Romaine.  The first bus ride was relatively uneventful.  I asked two ladies in front of me at the station which bus was the right one for me to board, and they took it upon themselves to make sure that I was safe and settled and knew where I was going.  Never underestimate the potential kindness in a stranger.

In Orange, the bus driver spoke no English, and so I stood at the front of the bus trying again and again to pronounce Vaison la Romaine correctly—or at least correctly enough so that he could understand me.  Instead, he kept giving me an irritated, “Eh?”

“Vi-zohn la Ro-mahn?”

“Eh?”

“Vi-zohn la Ro-main?

“Eh?”

“Vay-zohn la Ro-mahn?

“Eh?”

Vay-zahn la Ro-main?”

“Eh?”

Finally, I dug through my daypack until I found my guidebook pages with the name of the town printed on them.  “Ici,” I said.  “Here.”

I decided that I think the reason I find buses so intimidating is that you generally have to deal with a person up front, and, if you look foolish, you then have to ride in this small space with the witnesses to your humiliation for the duration of your journey.  It’s a little much, to be honest.  I sat on the second row, tried not to look behind me, and examined every road and stop to try to decode the schedule.  Fortunately, miraculously, I got off at the right stop, walked down the main road of the town, and found my hotel with no problem.

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The hotel was great—funky, urban-feeling, but small and intimate.  Hôtel Burrhus, it is called, and it seemed oddly out-of-place in this slow and ancient Provençal town.  After checking in, I asked the hotelier where I could get a good meal, and she recommended a restaurant two doors down from the hotel.  Though the service was great, the food was mediocre, a first for me in France.  But my waiter was extremely kind, and when he saw me wrapping my scarf around my neck, he said, “Oh, please, madam.  Come inside.  Warm up with your coffee.”  Then he brought me a small dessert—“from me to you, a gift”—and tried to impress me with his electronic waiter’s pad that allowed him to print my bill from a distance.  I played along.  Why not?  I love these people…

When I woke up this morning, I walked for about an hour trying to find the bus station and get information about my bus out of town.  I resorted to stopping people on the street and asking for directions, and, while everyone tried their best to tell me (complete with “et voila!” every time), I had a hard time finding it because it was in a strangely modern building.  Considering the surroundings—a gas station, a market, ancient Roman ruins—I just couldn’t recognize it for what it was.  When I finally got the information I needed, it turned out that I only had two hours to explore the town before my bus arrived.  I considered just sitting around and waiting, but I knew that this town had some incredible hikes surrounding it, so I set off—a coffee in one hand and a croissant in the other.

I crossed the ancient Roman bridge and set to walking toward the chateau at the top of the hill, where, I was told, I could see for kilometers and kilometers.

And indeed, this was my reward:
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