This is going to be fun. Fun not necessarily the adjective I would typically call a situation like this. I continued to stumble down the streets, running adjacent to where I believed the lake would be. As the street began to widen, I came across a small courtyard with rows of trees, benches, a water fountain, and lo and behold, a kebob shop. Like a desperate man not sure if the oasis was real or a mirage, I stumbled in and spent some time looking at the overhead menu – as if I was going to order anything but a kebob. When a staff member finally returned to the counter, I proceeded to ask them – with the slightest trace of desperation noticeably audible in my voice.
I held my breath as the last words passed my lips, and then it happened. A yes. A resounding and definite yes! Hunger pains and thirst aside I could have leapt into the air, but thankfully I managed to keep my feet on the ground. Keeping my cool, I ordered a large bottle of water and a kebob. The highly extorted price was noted but ignored. Trivial things like cost isn’t worth getting bent out of shape for when one is desperate. As I waited for my sandwich to be prepared my mind blanked. I want to say that it was around this time that I apparently agreed to let my sandwich be tainted with the hottest substance I have yet to encounter on my travels – but the joy of discovering that would come later.
My eyes were as large as my appetite as the sandwich and water was handed to me, I swiped my card without looking at the price; knowing full well that it was roughly three times the cost of a kebob back in Vienna. That sandwich didn’t make it over the threshold and back outside before I tore into it. Three bites in, the heat hit. My eyes lit up and tears began to stream down my face; the race to finish the sandwich had started. The event was nauseating both for the few locals walking in the park as well as myself, as every bite required effort to choke down and I had to do my best not to drink water until I had finished the sandwich. Less than two minutes after purchasing it the last bite cleared my lips and only the wrapper remained in my hands.
Chugging water, I disposed of my trash and walked towards the fountain – I would finish at least another bottle before I could breathe normally again. To the left of the fountain was a vacant bench, and I plopped my overheated, burning body down to rest. The urge to wipe my eyes were great but I didn’t want to risk any of what I just ate to go anywhere near my eyes. Blindness, no matter how temporary, was something I wanted to avoid for the remainder of the trip.
Strangely, Geneva felt like a ghost town. Sure there were a few cars here and there, but a noticeable lack of people was on the streets. Rightfully so, the only people who could acclimate to heat like this would be aborigines or pre-oil-discovery Saudis. Still I sat there, firmly planted on a park bench for the first time in recent memory and decided to watch people – regardless of however many I actually see.
And like before, a little of something magical happened; just like it has throughout this trip.
As I gazed to my my right, past the trees and down the street, something small trotted up from the left. Standing an impressive three feet small, in denim overalls and a white collar shirt, was Henry. A mess of curly blonde hair sat atop a round face that was half covered in melted chocolate ice cream, another quarter of it was slopped down his front. He teetered towards me in that way small children walk when they’re still mastering bipedal movement.
A little accented voice caught me by surprise, and had me whip my head around to catch where it originated from, “Hello!”
“Why hello there!” Henry’s eyes matched his denim, with a little button nose in the middle of his face. “Are you enjoying your ice cream?” A pudgy hand firmly held the cone. Rather than looking at me, Henry’s attention had focused to something past my right – probably the water fountain – while he continued to lick the rest of the ice cream that hadn’t yet made its way onto his face or clothes.
“Henry! There you are! Don’t go walking off like that.” Henry’s mother chided him as she approached. A man with Henry’s face, only with cheek bones that were more pronounced, and a light scruff around his face, walked into the scene slowly, and took a seat next to me as Henry’s mother pulled him towards the fountain; now attempting to salvage his outfit under douses of cold water.
“He’s quite the character.” I said to Henry’s father, as he looked on to his son and wife. His attention focused to me, and a wide smile appeared. “Well, he’s something. I think his mother would say he’s a handful, but maybe not with those exact words.” I could hear her, muttering about how Henry somehow managed to get some of it into his socks and shoes. “I love his outfit; he looks like a little banker -a little gentleman.”
“We’ve gotten really good at laundry this past year. Still, we end up having to buy a new outfit or two every few weeks.” There was a hint of laughter behind his words. “Are you here on holiday?” This expression, along with his accent, made me think he was British, or South African. “Not really,” I answered back; truthfully. “I guess I’m trying to find something.”
Henry reappeared, rushing his father’s legs, careful to wrap only the unoccupied arm around it – ice cream waving dangerously in his other hand. “You’re on a journey, aren’t you?” His mother said as she came back into view. I could feel the corner of my right cheek turn inwards as I pressed my lips; this is an expression that I’ve come to master over these few months. The look that, while innocuous in appearance to others, was filled with a million memories and a thousand emotions. “I suppose I am,” I answered without hesitation or thought.
“So,” said the mother, “where are you from?” Her hair was a light brown with traces of golden blonde in the under layers, reminding me strongly of pencil shavings. She was exactly the other half of Henry’s face; small nose and matching lips. Unknowingly, Henry began to explore again and she took off after him before I could answer.
“I’m from California,” I said out loud, not sure who I was directing it to now, but settling my eyes on Henry’s father. “I’m sorry -I’m Mehdi,” I reached out my left hand, the unusual gesture was noticed. Taking my outstretch hand and giving it a soft shake, John introduced himself to me, “the dictator over there is Martha, the rebel is Henry.” “So, California, I haven’t been to the States in a long time.” I felt it was safe to ask this, as I couldn’t associate the accent as one that a native of Geneva would have. “How long have you and your wife been living here?”
“Ah, we moved here from Melbourne about a decade ago. We both work with the banks, decided to stay. Then,” he gestured to Henry, “he decided to come along, and we figured we’re okay staying longer, for now at least.” The question came before I had given it any thought, “is there a lot of English speakers in Switzerland? I mean, British, South African, or Australian?”
John gave me a smile; a nonverbal acknowledgement of a good question. “So there really isn’t one official language in Switzerland. Mostly, there are three.” Leaning in on his knees, that were now angled closer to me, he stuck out his right-thumb while counting with his left, “a third speak French,” his index-finger came next, “another third speak German,” and his middle-finger, “the rest speak English, with a dash of Dutch in there.” Leaning back into the bench, “it kinda depends on where you go. Here you’ll find a lot of French and English, which is why we’ve stayed.” A streak of laughter swept by us in a blur, as Martha chased on, uttering to Henry for him to slow down.
“So how long are you here in Geneva?” I had lifted my bottle to my mouth to take a swig of water but paused to answer, “only the day, sadly.” Wiping the remainder of water off my lips with my fist, “I had spent some time in Paris and saw that I would really be saving no time going straight to Austria so I decided to stop here for a day on my way back to Vienna.”
“Ah, Paris is lovely this time of year.” I corrected him, “Paris is hot this time of year -though Geneva is somehow hotter.” John laughed, “you should head down to the lake for the rest of the afternoon. We’d head there if we could, but I think we should have Henry take a nap first. That sugar won’t keep him going for too much longer.” Henry came back, directly between the three of us; at the center of a triangle. “Can I have a taste?” John asked Henry as he leaned in for a lick of the, now almost completely melted, ice cream. Henry focused on his father, smiled, and lifted the cone to share. John took a small swipe of the ice cream with his tongue, “Mmmmmm. That’s good!” Henry smiled.
“Can I have some?” Martha bent down and rested her hands on her knees. Turning, Henry bumbled over and held out the cone for his mother. “Mmmmm!” Henry gave a little giggle, then turned and came towards me. “Want some ice cream?” Henry stretched out his arm towards me. “Oh, that is so nice of you, I just ate! No thank you.” There was a look of relief on his face, as if glad no one else was going to take any more of his precious treat, but there was also a look of great contentment. That joy that comes to the face of a child when he, or she, realizes they’ve made other people happy.
That is something, I think, we’ve forgotten to take notice of; the acknowledgement of joy. It comes so naturally to children, to smile when others are smiling, to laugh when others are laughing. Their little faces smile widely; they laugh deeply; completely. They celebrate the joy of every moment without a care in the world, or concern of judgment. To live is to laugh profoundly; especially at ourselves.
“You said you were on a journey? What kind of journey?” Martha came over and sat down next to her husband; one eye on Henry. Unconsciously I started to rub the top of my scar, the place where it still burns occasionally. I looked up, and my gaze went out past the trees and the park, past Geneva and past Switzerland. “I’m searching for something,” I answered; feeling something reverberate to these words from an unfathomable depth inside my chest. “Ah, a spirit journey?” A spirit journey, that’s one way to look at all of this. “I’m searching for God knows what.” My gaze went back to Martha and John, but I could feel the smallest bit of water form at the corner of my eyes; trying desperately to suck it back in. “I’m searching for perspective. Perspective and understanding.” Martha reached out and took John’s hand and gave it a squeeze. Her face softened into a consoling look; one not of sympathy, but empathy.
“You know, the greatest thing about our humanity is our ability to share our grief with one another, and to celebrate our joy. Look at Henry,” Martha pointed to her son who was now surrounded by a myriad of teenage girls who were admiring how cute he was as he laughed and smiled. “Look how much joy there is in the world, and in places we least expect to find it.” John spoke softly, “we never expected Henry. We had two miscarriages before, and we had stopped trying.” An endearing look passed between their shared gaze, “joy finds us when we let go of our expectations.”
I could feel it then. Like hands were grasping my heart and ringing it out like a wet sponge, and appropriately so, as these words were enough to cascade tears down my face. A burning sensation filled my nose; this is what cutting onions feels like. Such an appropriate, and simple, analogy.
She stood up and went after Henry, the last ruminants of his ice cream had made it out of his cone and onto his shoes. The dictator went to put an end to the cone, and dragged the little rebel to the water fountain where he was once again hosed. John pushed closer towards me, putting his hand on my shoulder. “Your journey is for a reason; you just don’t know it yet. There’s a purpose for the pain, but it’s up to you to discover it. If all else fails, you can always come back to Geneva and look after Henry. Seems we can’t keep enough eyes on him.” I could hear Henry starting to cry, tired of the game he was playing with his mother. The one where he loses an ice cream cone and instead is wiped head to toe with a wet rag.
“We need to get going, Henry’s done.” John stood up, put his hands on his waist to stretch his chest and back, and relaxed. Turning to me, he stuck his left hand out; remembering my odd gesture. “Mehdi, don’t give up.” Don’t give up. What does that even mean? In what context? What don’t I give up on? It frustrated me to hear those words because they can be interpreted many ways, and when you only know a sliver of a strand of all the majesty in the Universe, you could literally be talking about anything.
“He’s going to grow up to be quite the character, you know that right?” I gestured to Henry, who was now in Martha’s arms as he had decidedly given up walking. “Three years old and he already is, and so are you – don’t forget that.” With one last smile, John walked off towards Martha, who attempted a wave but settled with a smile as her arms were filled a, now tired, handful.
I watched them walk down the street, and back into the unknown that they came from. Once again filling the backdrop of the world, with all it’s secrets and wonder, and magic. The world never ceases to amaze me, and as frustrating as chance is, those few serendipitous moments are worth every banal, formulaic second of all the others.
The park had emptied once again, and I was left alone on my bench. Scooping up my camera and bottle, I turned to refill it at the water fountain one last time before walking in the general direction of the lake; hoping my feet will find the way.
It was only a matter of two or three blocks until I was out of the streets and facing the lake, but as the city was pretty flat, I couldn’t quite see it until I crossed the street. To my left the lake stretched as far as my eyes could see, out and into the mountains. Sailboats dotted the water like white caps in a turbulent sea, and while there was a nice breeze that finally brought some relief to the unrelenting heat, the water was very calm and welcoming. I looked to my right and could see a boardwalk that lead to a beach, where it was covered – literally covered – with people. I had half the mind to believe the entire city was occupying that beach, as I got closer I couldn’t actually see sand no matter where I looked. Person after person, beach towel after umbrella. In that moment I was no longer in Geneva, but in Lake Tahoe for the Fourth of July.
A mix of memories were flooding in, twisting in my mind around these new experiences and the moments I was trying to capture. “I am here to forget. I am here to forget.” I repeated to myself, but something in side me was saying something else. Something inside me was saying, “you are hearing to bear witness.” Not having a towel, I was on the ropes about what I was going to do next. My camera was most certainly not water proof, and I had a few things in my pocket that would do better with not getting submerged. I paid the toll and went in beach anyways, I could afford to live a little. Carefully, though.
It was as if I left a silent film and crossed into the set of Saving Private Ryan. An explosion of laughter hit my ears with tremendous volume, ten thousand conversations layered atop each other; all undisguisable from the other. There were moments of discord in this monumental calamity of sound; the exasperated screams of tired children, the occasional beratement from a stern disciplinarian, muffled songs blasted from portable speakers. “Now I know why the city was so barren,” I thought to myself. This is clearly the place to be on hot summer days in Geneva.
Making my way past the beach towels, and occasional landmines – sun tanners or small children – I headed towards the shore. Walking ankle deep, the crisp and cold water was the panacea to Europe’s heat pandemic. The sand twisted under my feet and I could feel my body wanting to buckle. Balancing carefully while holding a camera and a pair of shoes, I had to keep reminding myself that this wasn’t the place to collapse. Instead I set my sights past the shore and towards the vast lake in front of me. Sailboat after sailboat left the marina area and was in various states of sailing around the rest of the lake.
I’ve always loved sail boats, or the idea of sailing. To trust something made by man to stay intact while transporting you across something vast and unfathomly deep, and while seeing ships sail around the coast isn’t uncommon, I’ve never seen any kind of boat, other than a waterski boat, in a lake. So much of me wished to have more time here, to possibly have had the chance to take a boat out on the lake – seeing just how big it really was; or to see if AirBNB had anyone renting out a boat to stay in for a few nights.
Once refreshed I decided to move back up the shoreline and try my best to navigate around the masses so I could sit down on the walkway and get my feet cleaned off before attempting to get my shoes back on. To this day I am still finding bits of sand on my socks whenever I wear those shoes; it’s worse than glitter.
The afternoon was winding down, and though the sun would still be as high as ever thanks to those long European Summers, it was getting close to closing time for Geneva. My handy-dandy Uber app hailed down a car, and I was whisked back to the flat. Most of the backpack was packed and ready to go already, but I decided to take as cold, and as long, of a shower as I could bare. The heat wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and it would be nice to feel clean for a while before that feeling too is lost to the day. As I lost my breath to the chilling cold water, thoughts of Henry and his parents drifted into my memory. “Joy finds us when we let go of our expectations,” I uttered under the steady downpour. I could hear the laughter of the memories I shared in Munchen, sitting around a table with the most alcohol I’ve had in over a year. Laughing about food, thankful for friends in unlikely places.
The memories shifted, a little boy was down by the edge of a river; feeding a collection of pigeons that took a great interest in his bag of bread crumbs that he had started to disperse in handfuls. Three magnificent swans swam towards him and stayed an arm length away as he smiled and laughed, doing his best to throw them bread too. When he could no longer reach into the bag, he turned it upside down and shook it at the pidgins, and then returned to his mother. I was under Charles Bridge in Prague, I was sitting under a tree trying to escape the heat for a while; trying to take pictures to encapsulate these moments. Real life surrendered to the expression of a bunch of 1s and 0s, tucked onto a piece of metal and plastic that may be copied to a computer and shared with the world, or would forever live on a hard drive until it was lost in the obscurity of the future – and time.
One of the oldest songs I’ve ever loved had this as a lyric, “we capture just enough of life to catalog the things we’ve thrown away.” I’ve never understood this song, and of all the chances I’ve had with the person who wrote these words, I’ve never once asked what he meant by them. So if my interpretation will always be conjecture, then I guess there is no better moment to relate it to. An experience so profound and wonderful, that is entirely my own and yet experienced in many ways by so many others. And as if played in reverse, I walked backwards through Prague at high speeds, zooming past monuments and statues celebrating Franz Kafka, past lovers lying on a shady knoll with a bottle of wine, past a bridal shower in a park, back to a park bench – back to Jane.
I was in the shower, but I was also in that moment, that long second that stretched for eternity, where I knew I had a choice. I could feel myself pulling away from the moment, wanting to reach for my bag and move to another bench. Wanting to hide, hide my appearance, hide who I am. The fear was there, the fear of something new, something strange, and I remember how turning to her to speak up felt out of body and unnatural. “Promise me you’ll visit me in Dresden. Promise?”
I shut the shower off, and quickly moved to dry myself and change. I wasn’t fully dressed when I began to look for an Umber, the estimated time was 15 minutes, and the drive was about 10. Looking at my watch I found I had about 45 minutes before the train would depart; cutting it close but not to the skin of my teeth. It took only about 5 minutes to get my stuff together, scribble down a note for my host – thanking her and asking her to reach out to me, as I would love a penpal – and heading out to the curb.
I noticed my Uber app still showed the car in the same spot, at the same distance away as it was when I first called it. Panic set in. I decided to text the driver, “Are you coming or do I cancel you?” A mere moment after I sent it, the car started to move. That all-too-familiar pang of frustration hit me; this is going to be close. I was watching my watch like a pendulum; the second hand moving like the blade that swings closer, and closer.
I’ll save you the dramatics of what happened next. On second thought, maybe not. I could feel a scowling coming up from deep inside me as he pulled up and threw my bag in the trunk, I sat myself in the back seat and told him my train leaves in 20 minutes and he needs to hustle; leaving out the part where I wanted to tell him he should have been here fifteen minutes ago. The BMW zoomed off, zig zagging between cars, cutting in close through traffic lights. I stopped looking at the window and just kept my head down; I’m not afraid of dying when I’m in control of things, but when I’m not I think it would just be best for things to suddenly go lights out.
Exhaling as the train station came into view, the tension in my chest started to let go. Whether to mess with me further, or because there was no other way into the station, my driver decided to make an abrupt right turn at the exact moment I knew we should be turning left. Biting my lip to the point where it bled, the car took several additional minutes to make its way around to the train station from what appeared to me as a completely unnecessary route. I looked at my watch – five minutes to go.
Almost kicking open the door, and jumping out, the both of us ran to the back of the car where he quickly helped me get my bag on. Not sweating was no longer an option, goal, or priority. I made sure I had my camera around my neck and in hand, one last look behind to see if I left anything on the seat, and I was in a full out sprint – 60-pound bag and all. It was probably half a mile of distance, three sets of stairs, and a carefully calculated navigation around twenty or so people to get to my platform. Pulling myself up the last set of stairs, the platform came into view – and the lack of a train was distinctly noticeable.
In the exact moment I was set to scream, my mind alerted me to the fact that there were still people standing at the platform – with bags – waiting. I approached an elderly man, now soaking in sweat and noticeably out of breath, I asked him if the train to Zurich had passed through yet? Before I could get an answer, a noise caught both of our attentions. Following his gaze to my right, I looked over my shoulder and saw a train approach from the entrance of the station. A little more disheveled than I had hoped to be for a two-hour train ride to Zurich, I got on board and found a seat in an empty cabin – though one gentleman ended up joining me before our train finally departed.
The first hour of the train ride was harrowing. There is no way to describe it in any other light. The windows were sealed, and you can tell the sun had berated the train for several hours, as the cabins cooked its occupants. No matter how I looked at the cabin I saw no vents and no way to get air to come in and cool us off. I surrendered to the heat, sat, sulked, and sweated until the train started to climb through the mountains, but when we got to those mountains I became quickly distracted and could no longer read or write.
We climbed and cut our way around the edge of a mountain range – probably the alps – and were able to look down upon little villages with steeples and cottages all made of stone, still higher up over a great body of water. I later confirmed it was the same lake that carried dozens of little sailboats into a vast horizon of water. Fumbling to get my camera out, I managed to get it to record some of what I saw as the sun set over the water; in the direction of Geneva. Trying not to blink, my mind began to wander to thoughts of adventuring here in Switzerland. Maybe getting a sailboat and sailing to these little towns, meeting the locals, not having an agenda or a schedule.
Before the sun could fully set the train went into a tunnel, one we wouldn’t exit until long after the sun had finally set. It was a six hour and some change ride from Geneva to Zurich, and as the temperature of the cabin dropped to a more bearable range, I got lost in words I had started to scribble in my notebook. I didn’t realize I drifted off until the train jerked itself still into Zurich Central. Nearing midnight, I pulled my pack back on and headed out to find my next – and final – train. Not having to rush, I worked myself slowly through the filing mass that trying to board the train to Vienna.
The layout was different, while they didn’t have first class sleepers with dedicated showers, I descended a small set of stairs to my room. It was the size of a closet, but that wasn’t what I noticed as I opened the door. Cool, crisp, air conditioned aired hit me in the face as I walked into my cabin. An audible moan of pleasure and relief escaped my mouth before I could stop it. To my left was a sink with amenities, the bed was all ready to go, and a place for my stuff was just behind the door. This room actually had air conditioning controls, and they worked. They worked well, in fact. Beside a bottle of water were some snacks, soap, towels, and a breakfast card.
As the train pulled out of Zurich I got my paperwork out one last time. Once the train attendant came to collect my card and check my paperwork, I closed and locked the door. Pulling the blinds shut, I didn’t think twice about the sponge bath I was about to give myself. There was no way I was going to sleep in a bed dirty unless I was camping, or the world was ending. Neither of which were the case I supposed. Before crawling into bed I cracked the blinds so I could make sure the sun would wake me up as we approached Vienna. We had about 8 hours to go, so a full night’s sleep was guaranteed. Glancing out into the countryside, various sized dots of white and yellow light streaked on a midnight blue canvas. Rough gray clouds were eliminated by a crescent moon, and sleep took me slowly, and then all at once.
I woke only once, shivering in cold, to get myself better covered by the blankets. Imagine that, actually being too cold in an all too hot Europe, and only at the very end. The irony.
Beams of light crept through the cracks of the blinds as a gentle and tired voice woke up over the intercom – we were thirty minutes from Vienna. Breakfast came right as I managed to pull my last clean anything on. I glanced out the window, and watched familiar greys mesh with light blues. Vienna streaked by stirring quietly, on, well, whatever day of the week this was. Frankly, I could barely keep track of the days- let alone the date -and it took me more time than I would like to admit to realize it was now Monday. That realization only came as I remembered the UN was closed yesterday.
We were slowing down until finally the train came to a smooth stop. It was hard to leave the comfort of that room, especially after the long and hot days of my adventure, but as much as I longed to stay in that comfort and quiet, I also craved a shower and some tea. As I stepped off the train and into Vienna Central Station, I found my dad in the distance before he could see me. Maybe it was only days, but I knew I wasn’t the same person that he saw off. The truth is every day we wake up to something completely unknown, we leave a little bit of our old selves behind in order to experience the new moments that will soon be fleeing.
“I’ve been out here since five a.m., that stupid itinerary of yours said five.” Dad was smiling, but I could tell he was exhausted, and with no phones it was impossible for us to communicate this lapse in arrival times to each other so he could have gotten a little more sleep. I put my bag down for a minute, but before I could pick it up he had swung it onto his own back. In that moment I was so grateful. My body ached as if it stretched a marathon over several long, hot, days.
I was filled to the brim with thoughts and memories, overflowing with the emotions that had layered upon themselves inside me. When he asked about the trip, I had to be intentionally vague. How can I give someone a thousand moments of wonderment; several deep reflections filled with tears of joy and grief; and the communal laughter of strangers that rung out like harmonies in a symphony – when they realized they aren’t so strange after all – all through the poor medium that is my mouth. I couldn’t. I didn’t even try.
Our Straussenbahn (city train), took us down several streets and I looked on to watch Vienna wake to this still early Monday morning. Children waited in pairs for their own trains to take them to school, an elderly man sat outside a Turkish cafe with a coffee and newspaper. In all its greys and blues, there is still plenty of warmth felt every time I find myself in Vienna. It’s finding yourself home again after a long parting. Our small talk carried on until we were up the steps of our rented apartment, and finally home.
Diligent as ever, my mother was up cooking breakfast and preparing tea. It was then did I understand that her purpose was to love us, and to love us she tirelessly saw to always making sure we were fed and comfortable. As I leaned in to give her a hug, she dodged me, pointing out the fact I was dirty and smelly. Point taken I drank a cup of tea before I headed to shower and change. It’s always good to have a mother around, lest to keep you from thinking your ‘stuff’ doesn’t stink.
By the time I got back to the living room my dad had already went to lie down for a while, as did my mom, but a plate of food and a note had made their way to the coffee table – in front of my all too familiar couch. Not bothering to open my pack to start sorting out clothes to clean, I sat to eat breakfast before I too would take a morning siesta. I could feel my eyes droop while I shoveled food into my mouth in huge spoonfuls. As I finished, and turned to lay down, I remembered the note. Holding it in front of my face while I was on my back, I finally looked at it. It was my mother’s handwriting, and next to a drawing of a heart was a single line of text, “I’m glad you came back to us.”