It is… some time in the morning. Afternoon? Is it noon yet? I had a fever of 102.4 when I got to the Northeast Medical Center in Fayetteville. That is before noon, right? Noon is 12 and 102.4 is… after 12? So it must be, no, that doesn’t make sense. Nothing makes sense. A physician’s assistant comes in with an IV. She tells me all of the things she is going to put in my body. Saline. This is because I am dangerously dehydrated.
I have been able, but not very able, to swallow water for about forty-eight hours. After The People left — I ran a sort of commune at my house this New Year’s, with people crowded in so tight the wood floor was a necessary sleeping space, which I would have written about had I had even twenty minutes of free time, which I did not — after The People left, what I thought was an extended hangover turned into Something Else. My fever from before their arrival, which I had been told by the NYU Health Center was a UVI (Unidentified Viral Infection), which had receded, came back in full force. The night sweats returned and I had to wash my sheets. Have you ever had a night sweat? It is exactly what it sounds like. It is not warm in your room — it may even, like my room, be a little cooler than you’d like — but you wake up wetter than after a 40-mile bike ride in summer. I had to wash my sheets along with everyone else’s though I’d washed them not a week prior. But along with it this time came a sore throat, barely noticeable except when I swallowed, when the pain level shot up to maybe a 7 out of 10, prompting an involuntary “urrrrrgh” I knew I would have to restrain on the Greyhound to avoid sounding like a pervert. Instead I drank limited water. And woke up with a mouthful of sand.
Back to the bed at Northeast Medical. There is the big bag of saline, maybe a liter of it to replenish my fluids. There is also a smaller bag of saline, this one, she tells me, containing an antibiotic called Rocephin, which I hear but do not register. I found the name just now by going to Wikipedia’s “List of antibiotics” and looking for one that started with “R.” There is also a steroid that comes in a plunger-vial; this is for the inflammation in my throat so, I assume, it does not close up, causing, I assume, death.
A side note: According to Grammarist, I have mistakenly switched the usage of “assume” and “presume” for much of my life. “Presume” connotes a little more usage of evidence and therefore a higher degree of certainty than “assume.” I always assumed, I guess, that it was the other way around, based on the highly unscientific and unreasonable evidence that “pre” meant “before looking at the evidence,” which in this context it does not. The usage above is correct, because as I mentioned before, I am in no state to consider evidence. I have a fever of 102.4. For all I know the steroid is to make me better at baseball.
I watch the IV line going in and become nauseous. “You don’t have to look,” my mom assures me, “you can close your eyes. “Take this Tylenol,” the physician’s assistant says, “for your fever.” I take the two Tylenol and vomit within seconds. She goes to get me a liquid version. I close my eyes and cry silently, involuntarily. How did I get here?
As the fluids drip into my arm I turn to my mom. “Mom,” I raspily say. “Mom.”
“It feels like I’m in the desert and I’m drinking from an oasis but not through my mouth.”
“I know, honey. You can nap.”
I do. The PA comes back. I am brought out for a chest X-ray and then back. I nap some more and then stare at the posters in the room. One is red. It says in white: “TELL us. It’s the LAW.” Below, in smaller letters: “If you’re taking a controlled substance prescribed by a doctor, you must tell every other doctor you see. It’s the law.” I read this sign approximately seventy-five times. It becomes more boring for the first fifteen or so readings, then there is a spike in my interest. Why only if it’s prescribed by a doctor? It comes down, I realize after a few more readings, to the Constitution: I have a Fifth Amendment right not to be forced to tell anyone I’m using heroin. Satisfied with this conclusion, I continue reading, and it becomes boring again. I consider asking my mom to pass me the book I brought (Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey), or maybe my journal, but the prospect of writing tires me out so much I don’t even ask for the book and just read the sign another fifty times.
The PA returns. “Mono,” she announces unceremoniously.
“Blood work says mono.”
“God-fucking-damn it,” I say, maybe louder than I intended.
“That’s most people’s reaction.”
I am told to rest, to drink water until I turn into a fish, and to rest more. I am prescribed cephalexin and prednisone, more antibiotics and steroids, as well as told to take Tylenol. The cephalexin, I am told, will not kill the mono, but I might have strep, and the prednisone will lower my immune response so best to kick it into high gear.
“I have travel plans for Thursday,” I croak out, already knowing the answer to my unasked question. She looks at me sympathetically but sternly. She shakes her head almost imperceptibly. She talks to my mom for a bit but I don’t say anything else until she leaves. When she does I start to cry.
“I’m sorry, Ben,” Mom says.
“Why is this happening to me?”
“I’m sorry.” She drives me home. I watch two hours of West Wing. I eat dinner. I don’t remember what it was. I watch Brazil with Mom and Dad. I sleep. I wake up at 2 am and my sheets are again soaked as if it has rained indoors. I feel like a 12-year-old discovering wet dreams except there is nothing fun preceding the awful discovery that you have to do laundry. Nothing fun at all.
It is Tuesday morning. My alarm is going off. It is the now-famous iPhone marimba tune, the one that almost caused a murder at the New York Philharmonic when somebody’s went off during the best part of the symphony, the Default. I do not want to get out of bed. I have hit snooze twice. It is now 9:15 and I have class in an hour and forty-five minutes and it is too nice out to justify not biking and we have nothing for breakfast. We have nothing for breakfast except bagels. We are out of cream cheese, we are out of jam. We are not out of butter, but what kind of a breakfast is that?
Neither breakfast nor the lack thereof is the reason I do not want to get out of bed. Yesterday I interviewed for Teach For America. It went well. It went quite well, I think. I was nervous for my five-minute lesson and stumbled a bit; I was nervous for my personal interview, and stumbled a bit. But that is normal. I made a good impression, I think. I do not now, Tuesday morning, know if I will get in; but I think I might.
And that scares me.
It is all, for a not-so-brief moment, too real. It is all too soon. It was only yesterday, it was only this morning, it was only five minutes ago, it is only now a fresh-out-of-college, fresh-faced, optimistic teacher might be teaching me seventh-grade algebra. Where has it all gone? Where has Nepal (or New Jersey) gone?
“They are the best years of your life,” Andrew tells me today at Dojo.
I do not write all this to bore you, or to drop my existential crises on you, or even because the purpose of this blog post is to record the thoughts involuntarily racing through my head when I went to bed Monday and awoke on Tuesday; I wrote long ago that the purpose of this blog is for me, and for me alone, and I write this only because if I ever look back and try to figure out why it was I went to Harriman, that is why. You do not really need to know about this; you need to know about Harriman.
I call Brandon and ask if I could borrow his car. I need to get out of the city, I say; I need a personal day, a day to think. Where will you go, he asks. I don’t know, I say, maybe Long Island. Okay. I am at the car when he calls me back. I fear he has reconsidered. You need to relax, I think he will say, you need not to be behind the wheel, you need to calm down. Can you pick me up? he asks.
It takes almost forty minutes in traffic to get to the West Side, where Brandon is, and I listen to a whole Streetlight album, something that I only do now in the car. For some reason it goes well with the movement of the wheel, even when the wheel is not moving, as it is not on the bridge where I sit, moving a few feet every so often, for the bulk of the time. Another twenty minutes to get to 57th Street, where the Henry Hudson Parkway whisks us the next hundred and thirty blocks in a blink to the GWB. Through Jersey, past Brandon’s house, to the park, where rocks come from nowhere and no one is around.
There is something about leaving New York that isn’t like anything else. We discuss this in the car ride. Translation is impossible. A transcendent experience is something that is of necessity indescribable: you can talk about it only really to say that you can’t talk about it. “Watching my grandmother die was like that,” I say to Brandon: “it’s not like anything else.”
“Can you describe it at all?”
I hesitate. Of course, I can say things about it: it was cold in the room, and not; it took about five hours, I think, or maybe five minutes, or maybe five years. “No,” I say, “no.” I know that in fact I was in the room about five hours. What does that mean? The physicists will tell you there is nothing but clock time, that subjective time is an illusion, that while clocks may differ and while time may be relative from place to place it is a perfectly measurable and exact thing as long as the motions of your measuring device are taken into account. There was no clock in that room and it may well have taken fifty years.
We arrive at the park and walk into the woods. Within a minute I have to stop. “The water,” I say. “I have only been walking in here a minute and already I notice: I can hear the water.” A creek flows down the side of the hill (mountain?), bubbling and murmuring and sliding over the rocks in its way. It seems bright, somehow, surreal.
We walk off trail, up a hill, and sit on a log. We survey our climb: it has been several hundred feet already. The rocks were deposited here so long ago no one knows. The geologists will tell you the Catskills are young, only a few million years or so: that does not change the fact that they have been here forever. This is what I think about: that the Catskills have been here since the last Ice Age deposited them here, and also that they have been here forever, and that there is no contradiction.
The hill culminates in a flat plateau maybe an acre in area, with a few large boulders here and there that looked like God’s chess pieces. We explore them, and we wonder about them. There is a hole that looks as if it might have once been the seat of a boulder about ten feet away. The boulder must weigh fifty tons. We wonder how it got there. I realize that no one in the world knows the answer to this simple question: where did that boulder come from? Someone might be able to tell you: that boulder is part of a glacial deposit, and it came from the north. But where was it before? The North is not enough: that boulder is a fifty-ton piece of Earth and it must have come from somewhere specific. And no one knows where. It is not just that I do not know: no one else knows either, and no one ever will.
Somehow this is enough for me.
We walk back to the car and spend the night at Brandon’s mom’s house in Jersey. The dog, Champ, welcomes us. Sheila (his mom) cooks us dinner. We build a fire in the fireplace. I feel less tense. Even when I am in the city I will always know that boulder is there, that moss is there, that stream is there.
I am sitting on the bus flying through the Delaware Water Gap, a mountain pass carved out by Washington’s river in its urge to get to the lowest ground possible across the ridge. The rain is coming down hard. I hear it on the roof of the bus like a shower. When I wake up in the mornings, I take a shower, even if I took one the night before; if I am in a rush I might just rinse off without soap, but unless I am in a real hurry I need that shower to open my eyes and wash the crust of sleep away. And now too the rain has awakened me from a nap. It is refreshing, even though it is gray. It is cold and wet and real.
The driver is not slowing down despite the rain and I remember that hailstorm in Interlaken. This rain is nothing special; it is the same shower I take every day, the same earthly water that is in the New York Bay or Onondaga Lake. It is slowing down now; it has served its purpose, alerted me we are in New Jersey, told me not to have a fire tonight.
A couple of weeks into my freshman year, I got a phone call while walking home. “Come to Waverly and Mercer,” Brandon told me. “I found us a rug.” “What store is there?” I asked. He laughed. Clearly I was green to the delicacies of life in New York.
I was taking a class then, mandatory for all freshmen, called Writing The Essay. Our trash-carpet was perfect fodder for a piece in response to Richard Rodriguez’ “Late Victorians,” about the appropriation of things, the collecting and repackaging and remembering that turned old San Francisco houses into homes for thousands of gentrifying gay men. My rug is not my rug, I wrote: it is only my rug for now. But it is a part of my home. My home.
Sometimes I resisted using the word to talk about the dorm on Third Ave and 11th Street; other times I reveled in it. “I don’t live in Syracuse any more,” I thought to myself, I told people: “this is where I live now.” A man without a history, that was me. But then I went back: first Parisa’s funeral, which I wasn’t going to go to, told Ray on the phone I couldn’t go to, lived too far for, couldn’t miss my first Halloween in New York for, didn’t want to go to, but of course went because in the end I still had the concepts of duty and right and also because in the end I was scared to spend a whole semester without seeing Allen Street.
I went back a lot that first year, every six weeks or so, I seem to remember. The primary reason was that Claire was in Syracuse. I know this because sophomore year, when she moved to Poughkeepsie just a Metro North ride “up the river,” I stopped going to Syracuse as much. I still said I was going home for the weekend, though. I called the dorm on 23rd “home,” and I called the house on Allen “home,” and I didn’t see much of a contradiction.
But things were fading. I knew it. I broke up with Claire in February of sophomore year and it suddenly became brutally apparent that there was not much else left for me in Syracuse. I had lost touch entirely with friends that were once closer than close. Most of who remained were great friends, worth the world to me, but were nonetheless mutually satisfied with a phone call every couple of months or coffee on the rare occasions I did happen to be wandering Westcott. And there was my family. But how long is your parents’ home your home?
Answering this question prematurely with a “no longer” became my hobby. Every time I came home it was a little shorter. I justified it to myself because I didn’t live there any more: but I did, didn’t I? I still had clothes there, books there. I still had the car keys on my chain, not just the house keys, my mom had the house keys to Valley Stream when we moved Zayda out, maybe she still has them even now that the locks have surely been changed, but the car keys? Who was I fooling?
There was, probably, some level of pretense, some level of hoping that by renouncing my past I could make a fresh start where no one would judge me on my middle school insecurities, of hoping I might be seen as an adult instead of a kid, far from home and without much of a clue.
I don’t know if I’ve got a clue now, but something has changed, which is that I have an apartment the walls of which I can mount a TV to with an electric drill. “Home:” home means one place now. It is where my bed is. It is where my fridge is, it is where my roommates are. I am on a bus now, going home not north but south.
What has really changed, I think, is three years’ remove from permanence. Rodriguez’ Victorians were older than he, but changed owners, changed meanings, changed lives: and my rug, too, was a temporary installment, faithfully serving us until the infamous pool party. The aftermath of that party: bringing the rug to a dumpster on 12th Street that said “NO UNAUTHORIZED DUMPING” at one a.m. That couldn’t be my home: a home is supposed to be there forever, a place that you can go back to no matter what intervenes. You do not throw out a rug after one year. Maybe after a hundred.
What has changed is that Zayda sold the house in Valley Stream, and then he died; what has changed is that the permanence has shown its face as an illusion. I am on my way home, not because I will be there forever, but because I will be there tonight, and tomorrow night.
A post scriptum: yesterday I went over to Patrick’s place, an old house on Seeley that he grew up in until he was maybe ten, when his parents bought a bigger place on Concord and rented the old one out. Now, in college, they rent it to him. “You have a reasonable shot at inheriting this place eventually,” I said to him; “this could be your nest.” I wasn’t encouraging him that he should do that; I was spellbound that he could. “I could have kids here,” he said, shocked at the words coming from his own mouth. How crazy is that?
I love my apartment. I might be in love with my apartment. People’s first reaction upon entry is usually to remark on how big it is, and I unabashedly revel in the attention. We have a living room. We also have a dining room, that is the same size as the living room. We have three bedrooms, two quite large, one moderately sized. We have a goddamn spare room. This is unusual for New York. A spare room is generally converted as quickly as possible into some kind of money-making scheme, either by adding a fourth roommate, or a grow operation, or some such thing. But it is too small for a fourth roommate, really, and none of us wants to go to jail, so we have been using it to store recycling. We have a backyard, as you know: I’ve written about it a lot, and I continue to enjoy sitting and reading in it as much as I did the first day. More, even, now the mosquitoes have stopped blotting out the sun. We have a roof, too, which I have only been on once. There is no door, only a trapdoor, and it is kind of a pain to get onto. Everyone in Brooklyn has a roof, but not everyone has a yard.
We have, slowly but surely, been adding items to make the apartment ours. The whole first week we had no seating and everything was bare. But now we have two wonderful couches (one of which is a pullout sofa), a coffee table, a TV mounted on the wall, mantlepieces full of tchotchkes; a sound system, posters, pashminas and wine.
But there has been something missing. The dining room, as I pointed out, is a large room, but we have been using the floor primarily for bike storage. I have been taking my meals on the floor, cross-legged, not even Japanese-style but school-lunch-style. Remember when we used to eat lunch in the hallway in front of the band room, where we could have a little peace and quiet and joke with the band teacher and not care about the lunchroom rules? Well, I have no lunchroom rules in my house; nor did I have a table.
So I found myself driving Brandon’s car up the FDR at 9:15 in the morning this Saturday, Nate fiddling with the iPod, driving for only the second time in Manhattan, on my way to Easton, Massachusetts to pick up a dining room table that had been collecting dust in my aunt and uncle’s basement for some years. I was originally going to take my grandparents’ table, but my cousin in Colorado claimed it before me, and besides, she has a house that belongs to her and her husband, and she is pregnant, and she can keep the set of six chairs together, and so she is taking that table. She is taking it because it is too soon to split up the set of six chairs, and I cannot take six chairs, because I have only an apartment and because I am not married and because I don’t know where I will be next year.
But despite my transience, I need a table for this year: and so I found myself driving Brandon’s car, now on the Triboro, the Major Deegan, to 95, which Nate the Californian calls the 95, the 95 that we would be on for so long that day that it became a part of my body, an extension of the car which was an extension of my feet which are after all only an extension of my hands. I say “I found myself” because, like so many other things I have done this fall, it did not really feel like I decided to go to Easton, any more than I decided to go to Providence that time: it was just something I had to do. I needed a table: that was why I went– right?
Driving on the highway after you have been in the city for a while is disorienting. You drive fifteen minutes and you are in the Bronx; fifteen more and you are in New Rochelle; fifteen more and all of a sudden there is land between the cities and towns. And the world, as far away from Midtown as you are, for some reason does not stop coming. There is Stamford and Greenwich and New Haven; there is New London. When you get to New London you are sure you have fallen off the edge of the world. Gas is cheaper and there are hills and trees and the highway feels wider than the East River when you cross over the sub base. It has always struck me as odd that the town where my mother went to college, a little town that has a college and an arboretum and a “grinder” store and a “package” store is also the capital of the world for nuclear submarine warfare. Maybe that is why they call them grinders instead.
And then we were there, and we played with the dogs. Snoopy is twelve and Piper is ten, but Piper still looks like a puppy. How can Piper be ten? Piper can’t be ten. But then, I can’t have just driven here. It has been five hours since I got on the road in Williamsburg. My uncle gives me a chess set. The board is granite and the pieces are quartz and it looks expensive. “If you take it on Antique Roadshow and it’s worth a bundle,” my aunt says, “you have to let us know.” “I’ll give you a thousand,” I joke. It is not an antique, I don’t think; it might have been a hundred and fifty dollars new. It is a nicer chess set than bartering tool.
And I throw the table and chairs in the car and turn around and come back. I try to explain perturbation theory to Nate without a whiteboard and think I succeed fairly well. We blast Streetlight. We blast Bruce. We blast all of the music that you are supposed to blast on 95.
And then somehow we are back, sitting in stopped traffic where the LIE meets the BQE as a CAB tries to CUT ME OFF. Where did the afternoon go? Did I have my epiphany? No, but I got my table, that is why I was going, right? We finally arrive back at 281 Devoe and I get out. It feels like putting on shoes after skiing all day. The Mazda has fused with my soul. Maybe that is overly dramatic. It was only 450 miles in a day; people have done more without fusing their soul with any machine.
The table is there, now, in the dining room. “It looks good,” Brandon says. “I’ve been waiting for this,” I tell him, “I’ve been waiting for it to feel complete: and now it does.” I ate breakfast on it today. It is like I am becoming a real person, or something.
I am in New Jersey now. I have been relaxing poolside at Brandon’s house with beer and pizza all afternoon; we are about to grill portobello mushrooms. I wrote the following this morning, in another time zone, in another state of sanity, in another world. I am not rereading or editing it before I copy and paste it. There are probably things in it I would change if I were writing it now. In retrospect, it probably is melodramatic after all to say that Lenke saved my life. But isn’t it better to know what I was thinking? Remember the diary, remember the wrapper, remember what it was like to be me: that is the point.
As I start writing this, I am sitting on the floor of Gate C14. I am writing in Microsoft Word, not because there is no Internet, but because I cannot access the Internet. You see, there is free Internet, which you can log into by entering an access code that they will text to your cell phone upon request. I had a prepaid Swiss phone, but as it will not work in the US I sold it last night to Nori for five francs. It had originally cost me only ten. Now I am without communication. It is all very discriminatory. Of course, it will be foreigners who do not have Swiss phones and cannot access the free public Internet. The Swiss welcome tourists, but somewhat grudgingly.
I have had, to put it lightly, a morning. It is currently, as I type this, 9:27 am Swiss time. I set an alarm last night for 5 o’clock, to giveme time to shower, finish packing my last few items, get to the airport and not worry. I awoke this morning and looked at the clock. Seven. I stared blankly at it for a few moments then jumped out of bed, frantically stuffed my toothbrush into a suitcase (not stopping to use it), grabbed my laptop and ran. I dropped my keys in the box and began to drag my luggage to the exit of CERN. I headed towards the reception. My luggage was uncomfortable to roll so I hoisted it up and carried it like a box. I was breathing heavily and was dehydrated; I had neither eaten nor drank. As I neared reception in Building 33, I suddenly realized that my ID might no longer work to open the door. The only other entrance was Entrance B, which I could not get to without going all the way back around the hostel. It was 7:20. I decided to risk it and soldiered on the last thirty meters.
I reached the exit. I had been told that if I tried to use my ID it might set off an alarm. I didn’t care. I put it against the card reader. Nothing. No beep. No recognition. I tried again. Nothing. I stared at the door.
I stared at the door for about ten seconds. Every second was lost time.
I screamed. “NO!” I screamed. “IS ANYBODY HERE?” No answer. It was 7:21 am, on a Saturday, at CERN. Nobody was there. I started to cry. I was thirsty. There was nothing for it but to run, 20 kilos of luggage in hand, to Entrance B. I jumped down the stairs, bag bouncing behind me. I was still crying.
To give some perspective: My flight was scheduled to depart at 9:10 am, that is, in 109 minutes. It was scheduled to board at 8:30, that is, in 69 minutes. (Maybe you can already see where I am going with this.) It takes at least ten minutes to get to Entrance B, even without luggage. Then it takes approximately 20 minutes to get to the airport– that is, once the tram leaves, and trams are 14 minutes apart weekend mornings. So I could conceivably get to the airport with 25 minutes to check in and clear security.
Less than fifty meters from the exit, I almost literally ran into another summer student. It is inexcusable, after this long, that I do not know his name. But it is no use denying either. “Do you have a working ID?” I asked, breathlessly. He did. I hugged him. Tears are coming to my eyes as I write this. I hate airports with a personal passion normally reserved for– perhaps it is only a temporary thing. I will not expound on it. My savior let me out of the door. I ran to the tram.
I found Lenke there. She was going on a hike on the other side of the lake. She saw I was distressed. She gave me a bottle of water. I am actually crying now. It is embarrassing, that I am crying in the Geneva airport, sitting on the floor next to C14, but I do not care. It is small acts of kindness like this that keep people alive. I do not think I would have died without that water, it is unlikely I would have died without that water, but to be perfectly honest and without any melodrama, I don’t know. “Are you sure?” I asked. I know what it is like to be hiking and to have insufficient water. “Take it,” she said, “I will buy another.” I drank the water.
I arrived at the airport and looked for my flight on the big board. It was delayed one hour. I checked that I was looking at the right flight. I was. I exhaled and couldn’t remember the last time I had done so. I thought I might collapse.
Waiting in line, I saw Tina, Brad, Victoria and Jenny. “Didn’t you guys leave yesterday?” “Apparently not,” Brad replied. Their flight had been canceled. I had no time to chat. I was pulled out of line so as to make it to the gate on time. I am not sure why, since it was delayed. I did not ask questions.
I have now been at the gate approximately 50 minutes and we are about to board. It is 9:45. I have not contacted Brandon. I hope he will find out the flight is delayed on his own so he doesn’t sit in Newark for an hour, but there is nothing I can do, since the Swiss won’t give me Internet. When I get on the plane I will go to sleep. When I awake, I think, a significant segment of my life will have ended and another will have begun. It is fitting that I should be crying on the floor of gate C14. Isn’t that how life changes always go?
I woke up late following last night’s debauchery and then spent the afternoon working on my final presentation. I took a break to read David Bohm’s “The Undivided Universe,” which I have let fall by the wayside. This passage caught my attention:
“Whenever one stands in a room, the order of the whole room is enfolded into each small region of space, and this includes the pupil of an eye which may happen to be there. This latter order is unfolded onto the retina and into the brain and nervous system, so as to give rise somehow to a conscious awareness of the order of the whole room. Similarly the order of the whole universe is enfolded into each region and may be picked up in various instruments, such as telescopes, from which they are ultimately unfolded to a conscious awareness of this order […] What is significant for the laws of physics is considered to be the order of separate points. What we are proposing here is to turn this order upside down and say that the implicate order will have the kind of general necessity that is suitable for expressing the basic laws of physics, while the explicate order will be important within this approach only as a particular case of the general order.” (Bohm and Hiley, “The Undivided Universe,” 1993, p. 354.)
Of course, I couldn’t focus after that, so I decided to go for a ride. The sky looked ominous, but I checked the weather and it was not supposed to start raining until 10, so I went. Gex is a historic town “touristique et accueilante” about 15 km from CERN. It is apparently pretty important, because the hiking map I have of the Jura calls the whole region the “Pays de Gex,” but up till now I have not been there. I passed St. Genis, past the center of town into the Pouilly cuts (as it were) where there is an Intermarché, a garden store, flat suburban strip mall sprawl on a grand scale for France, which is to say not very much. Then to Chevry, and then I began to climb noticeably. Gex is not in the mountains, but it is in the foothills, and the going was slow. 5 kilometers… 4… eventually I reached the Mairie. The town is quite beautiful, but everything was closed on the weekend. I wandered its bare streets for fifteen minutes or so. I stopped at a well, Eau Non Potable of course. These are in the town centers of every minor French and Swiss village. I believe they were used for watering horses. The clouds were becoming more ominous, so I left.
The way from Gex down to Segny is exactly the perfect grade. You can get up to speed and not quite coast, but pedal in eighth gear as if it is second and leisurely speed your way down. There are electric signs, “Vous Roulez À,” dotting this road every few kilometers; when it read 36 for me, I instinctively said out loud, “Aww right.” These signs are wonderful, in particular, because if you are speeding they follow your number with a frowning face; a smiley if you are law-abiding. I was the only one smiled at.
The sky was growing darker, and I had to decide a route home. I could travel through Ferney-Voltaire, named for its most famous resident, or take a shortcut through Prévessin, which would only shave off a kilometer or two. I went for the slightly longer route. I stood in front of the Grand Homme’s château and looked at it for a few minutes. I could not go inside. I thought to myself about all the places I passed through so quickly, pausing only to take in a scene, not to reflect and not to marvel, not to think and appreciate but to see and observe and bear witness. Yes, I went there, I will be able to say. Is it enough? I thought about this for a few more seconds and then left to try to beat the rain.
A few drops fell on my hands as I reached Meyrin, but the downpour held off. As I reached my room on the fourth floor, I heard sharp thunder. It is raining now, though still not so heavily. God can’t seem to make up his mind: the clouds are in place, the lightning has struck, but the water abides.
I arrived in Bern from Interlaken still a little shaken by the hail. I got on a train to Zurich, hoping it might be the same one my friends Brandyn, Lydia, Olli and Heberto were on. They were coming from Geneva to Zurich as well, but couldn’t hike. No luck. There is a train between Bern and Zurich every four or five minutes at rush hour, really, and finding theirs would be impossible. It isn’t a long ride so I prepared myself for sleep. The sun was in my eyes, though, and the train kept going through tunnels and the pressure changes, it seemed, repeatedly brought my ears in and out of existence. So it was a pleasant surprise when Cameron called. “What car are you in?” he asked. “Um,” I answered. “I think I’m on your train,” he said. As we pulled into the station I saw him on the platform and I waved to him.
One time in New York, I was at Penn Station, dropping off my girlfriend at the time, before heading out to Brooklyn for a party. I was meeting a largeish group from the dorm and expected I would just call from the stop out there. I took the 2/3 to 14th Street and transferred to the L. Pulling into Union, I saw my friends on the platform, near the back of the train. I walked in between cars to find them. It took a few minutes and we were under the river when I finally reached their car. They looked at me like I was a subway monster, then we all laughed about how good the timing was. The party ended up being an absolutely fantastic time; we didn’t know anyone, but they had good liquor and music and I met a guy named Lex who was into physics and socialism and gave me a Noam Chomsky book I read and never returned. Clearly, meeting people in the middle of train rides is a good omen.
On the train, Brandon called me; the apartment was really shaping up, and he needed some information from me to secure the application. I stood between cars on the phone for most of the ride. (Note: Brandyn is from CERN, Brandon is from NYU.) When I was done we were almost in Zurich. When we debarked, Cameron and I found the rest of the crew– they arrived seconds after us on a parallel train, fancy that– and we immediately headed to a roof party Raphi had invited us to. It was fun, and beautiful. Roofs in Zurich are small, not like Brooklyn. There was a table with a spread on it, and a canopy over the table to block the rain, and an old elementary-school-style transparency projector shining a picture of sausage on the canopy’s underside.
We stayed there and drank and met people for a while, though it was a little hard because everyone was speaking Swiss German. Not that it mattered that it was Swiss German, or German German, or any other language– it just wasn’t one I knew. Of course, everyone spoke English, and I could introduce myself. But the prime way to meet people at parties, usually, is to walk up to people having a conversation and see if it’s interesting, or if you have anything to add, and that avenue was shut off. I ended up going to Raphi’s early, dead from lack of sleep and a full day walking.
The next morning everyone arose synchronously, unplanned, around ten o’clock and we went to go buy groceries for breakfast. We made a ten egg frittata with potatoes and tomatoes, and bought bread and cheese and orange juice and coffee. It made me miss cooking breakfast, Sunday mornings in Crown Heights, coffee flowing like tap water. I thought of my new kitchen in Williamsburg, of my own fridge, and felt a little better. Eventually we left for a walk around the city. It was raining sporadically, but not hard, and we muscled it out.
We climbed a ridiculous number of stairs. The very first thing we went to was a bag store in which none of the bags were actually on display, but were in pull-out drawers with a code and picture on them, like nails in a hardware store. The store was made of standard containers and had an observation deck on the 9th floor. It was surreal. I still do not understand how it exists. Then we went to an old viaduct that had been renovated with stores in between the arches. Each one had identically designed marquee at the top with the number larger than the name. Above, trains still ran, one every couple of minutes. I thought about the identical lettering; I realized that all the stores probably paid rent to one and the same entity owning the entire viaduct. I wondered if it was SBB or a real estate developer. I decided it wasn’t the time to think about capitalism.
The rest of Zurich was great: cathedrals, walking, currywurst, walking, beer, walking, walking. At night everyone got rather drunk and it was impossible to get anyone to move from place to place since everyone wanted to see what the rest of the group was doing; never drink in a group of more than four, I tell you, if you want to get up from your seat. I could go through a list of things we did, but it would be only mildly more interesting than what I’ve said, and I’d like to go to dinner. Let me say this one bit: at the train station yesterday, getting on board, I shook Cameron’s hand. “Come to the city sometime,” I said. “I’ll try,” he said.
“In case, by some twist of fate, I never see you again… I don’t know, man. Have a good life.” What are you supposed to say? It is of course possible that I’ll never see Cameron again, though I hope I do: he’s one of the better friends I’ve made this summer. But he lives in Lincoln, Nebraska, far from New York or Colorado or anywhere else I will probably spend significant time. Are travel friends destined to end up like this? Are all the people I meet on this trip eventually going to be distant memories? I hope not. History is the best teacher, but also the most easily shown wrong.
Thursday night was almost sleepless. In the late afternoon stretching into evening, I learned that my roommates in New York had secured an apartment- secured, that is, as soon as I signed and faxed an application. I was hoping this would happen, yet found myself feeling totally unprepared and out of the loop– I had known they were looking at places but just didn’t expect it to happen so soon. The place has a backyard and that is pretty much all you need to know about it. That is pretty much all I know about it, but I trust Brandon and Gabe to find a good place.
I lay myself down at 11; my alarm was set for 5:15 am, to catch a 6 o’clock tram to Cornavin for the train trek to Grindelwald. Heberto had backed out of the hike last minute: I would be alone. I was only slightly disappointed; I was looking forward to a day where I could reflect and be alone for a while, and also to be able to set my own pace. I had decided on hiking the Faulhorn, a 2650-meter peak just north of Grindelwald with supposedly excellent views.
An hour passed; I couldn’t find the sweet spot. Thoughts rushed through my head; visions of the apartment, nightmares of the lease, anticipation of the hike. I got up and checked my email again. Apparently the application needed to be faxed more urgently than I had realized; I felt like the distant third roommate, unable to help, screwing everything up. I stared at the ceiling for another hour, trying to get the music out of my head. Further email checking at 12:30 and 1 did little to calm me. I tried relaxing my toes, my calves, thighs; when you get to your head you are supposed to be out already, but I didn’t have the patience, my brain was too active, in hyperspeed. I took a shower at 1:30. I thought of getting up and going to Building 40 to print the application, but decided it wasn’t worth it since I didn’t know where the scanner was.
Eventually I must have nodded out, but my sleep was unusually dreamless; I awoke at 5:15 tired but unwilling to cancel the hike solely because I had slept two and a half hours. I did go to Building 40 to print, and headed to the train station. CERN was silent as the colors seeped out from the Alps across the lake; not even the birds were awake.
My first leg of the journey was uneventful; I read 20 Minutes, a Genevois daily with reporting style similar to Metro NY or similar tabloid-format, and observed the woman sitting across from me was reading the same article, about a skate park with a planned graffiti section. At Lausanne a group of Americans got on; it was 7:40 am and I had been awake two and a half hours, and their volume was grating. A guy about my age and his girlfriend sat directly across from me. “Let’s sit next to this dude,” he said, not looking at me. “Bonjour,” he said to me, with a hard j, “bon-dzhour.” I remembered a story my grandmother told me once, about a similar situation on the Paris metro, but decided to just nod and say “morning.” He was excited to hear English; I learned he was in Lausanne all summer but spoke not a word of French beyond “bonjour” and “merci,” which he pronounced “mercy.” He was from Oakland, California and was quite your stereotypical frat boy. He did not know anything about Bern; clearly his girlfriend was dragging him along on a day trip he was uninterested in. Before getting off there, we traded names. They were the same: Ben and Ben.
The next leg, from Bern to Interlaken, was also uneventful. The last 20 minutes from Interlaken to Grindelwald was on a rack railway full to the brim with middle-aged Chinese women, all of whom seemed to be wearing the same black-and-white polka-dotted shirt and all of whom sitting next to me wore unbearably strong perfume. I felt like I had submerged my head in ambergris. Every day, I thought, 864,000 hoursa of video are uploaded to Youtube; I am sure half of one of them will be by this woman, who turned on her camera when we left Interlaken, stuck it out the window, hit “Record” and left it there until we stopped in Grindelwald.
When I arrived in the town, I noted its superficial similarity to tourist-trap, Japanese-subtitled Zermatt, ate a granola bar, and immediately headed up. I took long, fast strides, a pace I knew I could not maintain, but I had to get away from the pack that had descended from the train at the same time as me. I passed a yellow sign (more on these yellow signs in another post, I think) saying Faulhorn was 5 hours 15 minutes away. I decided I could do it in three and a half. After an hour I was soaked with sweat as if I had gone swimming in it. No matter; I continued to drink from my Camelbak. A hiker, I thought, is a machine for converting grain and water into altitude.
The view was unbelievable. You do not get as distant from civilization. As I have remarked before, the Swiss live high up on these mountains, you are not in backcountry as long as you are not actively worried about death by avalanche; there are buses high up, there is a restaurant at the summit. But turn around, and there is the Trinity of the Eiger, the Mönch and the Jungfrau, rising above you like Olympus. Off in the distance, more than fifteen kilometers away, is the Finsteraarhorn, a mountain I did not know the name of (thank you, Google Earth) but knew from its immense knifelike point: that, if anywhere, is where God lives, how could it be anywhere else?
As I walked my feet beat out a rhythm and songs rushed through my head; I could not get my meditation flowing. “Last summer I went swimming…” I wondered if Vetiver’s lyrics had any significance. I reached the summit and sat for a while; looking out over Interlaken, I wanted to sit forever, but it was too crowded, and clouds in the distance seemed ominous. After the summit, on the descent, I tried to focus on the feeling in my feet, hitting rock after rock, some dirt and more rocks, and finally asphalt as I got below Bussalp, at 1800 meters. I tried to become my feet. I paused here and there to snap a picture, but the clouds were getting more ominous and I felt a drop or two of rain. I hightailed it down; storms at altitude are no fun. I reached Grindelwald again a little disappointed at not having a miraculous epiphany on a mountaintop but glad to have beat the water.
I slept all the way down to Interlaken. I stopped there for dinner; granola had been insufficient. I got a pizza and a beer at a place near the train station, where the owner was sitting outside smoking hookah. After stuffing my face I went for a walk by the river joining the two lakes; I had a little time to kill, since I had finished my hike earlier than I thought, and I couldn’t meet Cameron in Zurich before 9. After only a few minutes by the river the rain started again and I headed to the train station. As I got inside, it began to fall quite hard. I got into the train and onto the second deck. The pitpat on the roof became louder and louder and suddenly it wasn’t a low finger-drum roll but a sharp, reverberating snare on the roof. I looked outside. It was surreal. Golf-ball-sized hail was covering the streets. You could see it impacting on the concrete and fragments bouncing two meters back up. I have seen hail, but not like this. I was, briefly, scared. If one of those fell on your head, it could kill you, I was sure of it. This was not a normal occurrence.
I looked and thought. It was a sign; I do not believe in coincidences. I thought for a moment it was a sign that I had cheated death. I had been in the mountains alone and narrowly avoided a thunderstorm; this was Nature’s last grab at me, at least for today, and it was only a happy accident that she had missed. But no, I realized, that is arrogant, that is foolhardy, because if the mountains had wanted me, Nature would have taken me: there are no coincidences, and Nature does not miss. I listened to the hail come harder, and louder, and I almost started to cry. The train was for 5:30; the time came and went; 5:31, 5:32. The Swiss are punctual in a way that makes New York look like Rio; when we left at 5:34, I realized that the hail was truly an exceptional event. I looked at the ground that now resembled a buffet’s ice table. As we accelerated out of town it grew thinner and thinner until only a couple of kilometers away it was gone. The sun was shining over the lake. I looked for a rainbow, but there wasn’t one. It may have been behind the mountains.
Here are a bunch of pictures. Enjoy.
A small digression: Babel: language barriers. Vendor on the Leidsestraat. Small fries. I tried to read the Dutch off the placard and failed; when I switched to English I did not say “please,” I did not say “ik spreek geen nederlands.” I was mortified but I did it anyway out of reflex. Small fries. I am a tourist, I am an American. I tried, but languages are not like traffic laws, you cannot absorb them through your skin, you cannot absorb them through your ears and eyes. When I returned to Geneva I said “Good morning” to the cashier in R1 and clapped my hand over my mouth. It is a silly thing, language.