Sailboats and Soliloquies

sailboats and soliloquies

I wish I could say leaving Gare du Nord was more memorable than it was. Like one of those black and white movies where two lovers were parting ways, one staying and one leaving. One boards a train, takes a window seat, and presses their hand against the glass while the other stands on the platform; both with tears streaming down their faces, maintaining eye contact until they are both out of sight of each other. On the other hand, I’m always wishing that I’m stepping off Platform 9 & 3/4s and onto the Hogwarts Express – and I have no shame in saying that. The truth is more comical, at least now it is.

 

I was about five minutes behind schedule when I left Jonny and Mike’s, and on Mehdi-time that means I’m officially going to be late as I always plan everything to the minute, and not any time before. Something I still need to overcome in my adulthood. Anyways. That walk down to the metro? More like a panicked sprint, something similar to the McCallisters from Home Alone. I got to the turnstile and dug around in my travelling wallet for the tiniest piece of paper, the metro card. Leave it to the French to design a metro pass 1 cm by 3 cm in length. I wonder if there is any data-sets out there that contains annual metro pass sales, total revenue, price, demand and then another data-set that polled for an estimated number of passes lost. Show how much the French government makes off all those extra passes people have to buy because the passes they distribute are smaller than a damn gum wrapper. I digress.

 

That 3 day, 4 zone pass of mine? Completely lost. So I moved out of line to the automated ticketing machine. The universe is never without it’s irony. When I am in a rush, only then do I find myself being held up by one thing or another. This time it was a tourist, like myself, who was completely oblivious of the world around her. Despite appearing my age, she navigated the menu prompts slower than most elderly people, she struggled to figure out what euros were what, and finally took her time to zip everything back up right in front of the machine before proceeding to move out of the way. I almost laughed. Almost.

 

Fumbling with my fat fingers as a combination of panic and anxiety flushed over me. I finally managed to pull out enough euro to get a single pass to get out of Paris. Sprinting down the halls through the station I finally made it to the platforms. The station resembled a giant airplane hanger, maybe 10 trains rails across. I ran as if nothing was on my back, navigating people, bags, and signs like a champ as I tried to find the right platform, but by the time I got to the other end of the station I felt dread like I haven’t felt in recent memory. Did I come to the wrong station? Let me back up.

 

Paris has four primary rail stations. North, East, South, and West, and depending on where you want to go you need to make sure you’re at the right station. Now this is on top of all the metro stops throughout Paris. There are several intersecting lines that take you from one station to the next. And in that moment, behind the blaring ambient noise and florescent white light, I stood frozen in terror. Where the hell is my train? I looked at my watch. The train should be departing literally any second – any second without me on it.

 

I spun on my heels to find the nearest information booth, and almost found myself down on the tracks due to the neglected weight on my back trying to stay in motion with the change in direction. Stumbling, almost dropping my camera, I pushed off and got back into a quick pace until I was breathless and face to face with a surly middle aged woman. I managed to exchange the usual pleasantries as I choked on air. I quickly showed her my ticket and asked her where the train was, I am here on time and I didn’t see it. Looking through her clipboard, and then to her monitor, I could see the answer in her eyes before her lips creased and parted. I. Missed. My. Train. And. Am. Stuck. In. Paris.

 

“Fantastic.” I sighed.

 

Acquiescing, I asked what my options were. I’m sure her answer was typical for most situations similar to this, but considering how absolutely tight my schedule was from train to train, location to location, I plum lucked out. Let this be a lesson; the universe isn’t without it’s irony -or it’s reasons. Glancing at her clipboard once more, her finger traced down a list on the paper, then to the display in front of her.

 

“There is one more train to Geneva, and it arrives in an hour.”

 

Hallelujah.

 

Then came the second shoe. I’d have to go to the main ticket counter and hope there is still room on the train. She stood up and indicated where I needed to go, and I made my way through the maze of people and doors until I was almost sure I had gone the wrong direction before finally coming up to the ticket counter. Behind a glass section were a row of ticket counters, a number dispenser, and a little more than a dozen other passengers waiting around. It wasn’t as packed as a D.M.V., but I had soon learned these people some how figured out how to match the pace of an American D.M.V.

 

One by one, five to ten minutes apart, each of the twelve, or so, passengers in front of me were helped. As the hour was approaching I was finally helped. A hefty travel change fee paid and a reprint of tickets and I was on my way. I knew I still had some time to go before I’d make it to my final destination for this leg of the trip, but I was pretty close to being ‘donzo’ as I call it. The point where exhaustion meets frustration. It’s not a pretty sight; people with very little children will know exactly what I’m talking about.

 

Though being indoors, the train station was no exception for the stagnant, hot air. There was no breeze, no air condition, not even the slightest trace of a familiar buzzing sound made by a room fan. Nothing. How anyone could stand it, let alone work in it, without it baring down on them was beyond me. I even had my pack off and was down to a runner’s sport-top; still did nothing to keep me from sweating like I had been running all afternoon (I mean I had been, but under normal circumstances this would be not so normal).

 

I kicked around the idea of getting a large bottle of water somewhere, but the clock-hands were getting perilously close to when the train should be arriving. Better to wait it out then have to sleep overnight in the terminal. Sure enough, Hogwarts Express Deux made its way down the tracks and rested at the station before opening its doors and unloading the latest group of passengers.

 

Not to long after I had found my seat in first class, stowed the pack next to me in a vacant seat (thank God). and pulled out a notebook to write in. Trains are the best place for naps, or to get some writing done. Especially the French trains. The food in first class was not unlike airplane food in it’s delivery, but was far and away better than anything economy meal I’d received in all my years of flying, and leave it to the French to compliment the meal with exceptional wine and hospitality. I rarely saw the bottom of the tea cup the entire train ride to Geneva; which was a curse as much as it was a blessing as I was forced to make several bathroom trips.

 

Whether it was the time of year or just this region of France, the countryside was fairly flat for a while as we passed countless miles of wheat fields, long and golden, with trees spread throughout the outline of the property and along the horizon. Little stone villages with colorful roof-tops split the countryside from time to time. As we went further east the train began to climb in elevation, but I could no longer see far out my windows as the sun finally drifted away from the day.

 

Before leaving Paris I managed to memorize the general direction of where I needed to walk upon arrival. My airBNB host was just under a mile away from Geneva’s train station, which usually isn’t a problem. However, as I departed the station and started on the long street that took me to the cross-street my destination was on, I noticed I was going to be walking upwards the entire time. Furthermore, the night was no relief for the day’s heat, as not so much as a hair was moved by any sign of a breeze. It a was dead still night; hot and disturbingly quiet.

 

My legs must have been in pretty good shape still as I made it to my final destination in a little over 15 minutes. I punched in the key-code to get past the door, and made my way as quietly as I could up the stairs to the apartment. Finding the key under the door mat as instructed, I then wrestled with the proper rotation of the top and bottom lock in order to get the door to swing open. Nervously I tried a combination of directions, fearing that a neighbor would be disturbed by the unfortunate loudness coming from the lock tumblers as I continually spun the key. After my fourth haphazard attempt the door finally clicked open.

 

Walking into complete darkness, my hands traced the right wall for a switch. When I finally got the lights on I was surprised to see I faced four closed doors. A showcase next to the walkway held a collection of heels and flats, photo and magazine clippings hung from a suspended string on the adjacent wall. When my bags were finally pulled inside and I figured out how to secure the door shut, I opened the first door slowly and found myself in the kitchen.

 

Family photos, pasta recipes, and little pieces of decorated paper with quotes written on them were pinned to a corkboard. “I love pasta.” was embroidered in large letters on the biggest piece of paper. Finding a glass, I checked the tap to see how cold the water was, and then how comparable the taste was to Austria’s. By the way, should you ever find yourself in Austria, don’t bother with buying bottled water. It’s the coldest, cleanest, and most thirst-quenching water I’ve ever had in my life. I was relieved to find Geneva’s water was acceptably similar.

 

With a tall glass in hand I moved throughout the other three doors, the bathroom with a massive tub, a separated toilet, and the bedroom. The rest of the apartment opened to the left of the bathroom. Couch, patio, television, and the kind of desk you’d want to sit at if you were working on a myriad of art projects or writing. Large, white, and with a comfortable chair, I knew I’d be getting some work done here. After admiring the different pens and pencils she kept in a cup at her desk, I finally noticed a note she had left for me.

 

It instructed me with the Wi-Fi password, how to lock up when I leave, and a cordial welcoming message to her home, and Geneva. She signed it -Eloise. Unfortunately, she didn’t indicate if I’d see her at all before I left. As someone who was writing about every detail, conversation, and experience of his trip, understanding a little more of her story was very much looked forward to. The unexpected absence would only leave me with conjecture. I sat down my glass and walked back to my bag, dragging it into the room. If it hadn’t occurred to you now, dear reader, Europe was apparently in a great heat wave. So much so that at this late hour the apartment was dreadfully diabolic. Windows open, no breeze, thankfully no humidity -but no relief.

 

So I took a long, cold shower; being grateful for at least that much. Though the exhaustion was creeping in, and so was the emotions. I was remembering Paris and was still feeling Amsterdam. Then there was the fact that I would soon be back in Vienna; a short lived stop before hopping back over the pond to California. And it occurred to me, what comes after that? What was I feeling with all of this? I’ve kept myself so busy on this marathon tour that I’ve rarely had time to even sit, pray, and have a conversation with God. Not that he has ever been one for small talk, but wasn’t that the whole point of this? To get myself to a state of mind where I could feel like I was truly alone with him, or better, that he could guide and counsel me? I hadn’t realized I was sitting in the tub with my head on my knees.

 

I could feel my heart beating in my chest and against my knees. Suddenly I remembered Plath and her obsession with bathtubs; always claiming there isn’t a thing a bath couldn’t fix. Then there was that other part of her story, the steady repetition of her heartbeat that constantly remaindered her own existence. I remember the first time I read The Bell Jar; on a whim because a girl’s dating profile said it was her favorite book. Yes, you read that correctly.

 

In years past I had an online dating profile, and there is good reason as to why. For one, I’m data driven and believed that the more data I had on people, and that I gave out, provided me a greater likelihood to meet someone with high compatibility. Second to that fact is also the exposure value; I would be able to ‘meet’ more women faster online than I would at any bar. Which brings me to the final point – I don’t dig the bar scene.

 

The only time I ever did got bars regularly was in college, and that was usually right after session on Thursdays with my professor and a few classmates. A few black and tans, some rounds of pool, casual economics banter. Then, of course, there were football Fridays. As the Economics department didn’t have session on Fridays, one of my professors made it his civic duty to host a flag football pickup game every Friday out in front of one of the dorm halls. Classmates in various states of being hung over would show up, and we would do our best to not get into an all out fracas – lest residential life staff in the dorms decides to call campus security. Afterwards it was always back to Friar Tucks, our communal watering hole, where we would have the best bloody mary’s and burgers in town. It was a good life; those were some of the best memories I have. I digress.

 

With every inspection of an online profile, I filter out the formulaic and trite descriptions and essays and get straight to what books people are reading. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen Harry Potter, books read in high school, or novels recently made into movies listed as the majority of most people’s favorite pieces of literature. I mean, good for them and all – who am I to judge – but there are a great many pieces of literature in existence. There should be at least the smallest chance that there are stories and memoirs, biographies and novels, proses and poems, that move our souls and inspire us, and I think it is left up to us to discover them. With that said, I found most people’s list of favorites a bit, well, banal.

 

Yet there were a few occasions where some girls would list books written by authors that I haven’t heard of, and seldom was the case that I hadn’t heard of an author or title. What caught my attention most of all, and made me quite interested, is whenever someone declares a book to be their ‘absolute favorite’. In a manner of speaking this indicated that no other book has had an effect anything at all like said mentioned book. That says a great deal to me; as I couldn’t possible declare one book my be-all book. A few come to mind: Calvin and Hobbes, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, The Alchemist, The Little Prince, The Fault in Our Stars, American Gods, etc. None of which I could affirm meant more to me than any other.

 

Be that as it may, as I came across such people and such declarations of absolution, I would almost always go straight to Amazon and overnight the aforementioned book; not looking at any reviews or descriptions as to let me experience the book completely and entirely on my own opinions. For me, The Bell Jar was one of the most indescribable literary experiences that was both deeply poignant and enticing. When it started I had almost wanted to believe it was leading into a story not unlike Pride and Prejudice or a number of other Jane Austen stories, but there was a passage that changed everything; almost as to allude or foreshadow what was to come – both of the story and the character’s fate.

 

I’ll spare the story and only reveal a detail that in which is important, and that is the main character struggles with the meaning and purpose of life. The great question all intellectuals ask; what is the purpose for the living? I, sadly, am not unlucky enough to not know that struggle. Much like Plath’s character (Plath herself in most ways), I too was reminded and haunted by the echo’s of my own heartbeat, drumming on in my chest like a gesture towards Descartes – “I am, I am, I am.”

 

I am here; I am in Geneva. I am aching; I am in a bathtub. I am alive; I am alone.

 

That last thought lingered like an echo into the void of a subterranean cavern, reverberating strong memories that aren’t too far past. I am alone in my experience of this trip, but also in this life. Sure, we are all living, but I alone am experiencing this life. My life. All these little idiosyncrasies of mine that derive from a point of time in my own stories, all these scars that are the results of weapons of words or emotions, all these adventures of time in the mountains or along rivers. Staying in my great uncle’s lake camp in upstate New York, alone with one of my best friends as we would end up almost blowing ourselves to kingdom come by trying to light wet wood with gasoline. The late night drives out to the abandoned slaughterhouse. Walking the streets of America’s last great suburbia late on the summer nights of childhood past; not a care in the world nor fear of danger in our little Pleasantville.

 

As I shut off the water in the tub and finally climbed out I caught a glance of myself in the mirror, and I looked not at myself but into myself. What good is all that we live to experience if there is no one to share our stories with? What good does it do to live a good story? I started reading Frankl before I left for this trip and it’s funny that I hadn’t finished it because the books I had been reading almost seem to quote him indirectly at some times. Men find happiness in life, according to Frankl, when they have someone to love, when they pursue worldly pleasures, or the most uncommon, when they find meaning in a purpose.

 

Walking towards the mirror there was a look, a glimmer, behind my eyes. Like my soul was reaching to the surface, reaching to be seen. “What is my purpose?” I asked myself. What good is this all for then, if I have no one to love, and the things of the world give me no lasting pleasure? Am I doomed to be like Plath? Do I succumb to the intellectual’s depression that the meaning of life is null and void? I could feel my God-shaped-hole throbbing and aching inside me.

 

I laid on the couch after getting ready for bed; it was far too hot for any room in this apartment, and there was no fan or breeze. I imagined the living room could be cooler, if for only a few degrees. My last few fleeting thoughts were as much of a prayer as they were a desperate request – for God to make himself known to me, so I could have at least the smallest rock to make my foundation on.

 

 

 

This must be hell, or at least a variation of it; Europe was Dante’s 10th circle, he just forgot to mention it to us. I don’t know when exhaustion finally took hold and brought nothingness over me, but the heat was there when I returned to consciousness some time later – maybe more so than the night past. Sitting up, sweating, I checked my watch to find it a little past nine in the morning. Reaching to the coffee table for one of the croissants I had smuggled out of France, I dug into it while fussing with the top of my water bottle. I was exhausted. I was exhausted from this trip, and this heat, and these emotions. Despite my backpack being off, the weight still pressed on my spirit.

 

I knew nothing exciting was going to happen today. I didn’t have the energy to explore too far on my own, and there was a tiny bit of me that just wanted to get on to Vienna in hopes that I would find some cool relief. This brought about a thought, however fleeting, that the cities America has throughout it’s desert regions – Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, are the most obvious testaments to our society’s arrogance. Climates that are truly uninhabitable only made reasonable, and adaptable, due in part to air conditioning. Without it no American, or reasonable person for that matter, would live in such a location.

 

I ended up rinsing my face off several times that morning in between packing, eating some more, and catching up on some writing from the past few days. I was trying to beat the heat as long as possible, but at some point I knew I had to venture outside at least to say I did see some of Geneva. And then it occurred to me that I had cell phone signal, and was in a country that didn’t have an unreasonable ban on innovation. Yes, I am talking about Uber.

 

Leaving a majority of my gear in the apartment, I took only the necessities with me into the hailed Uber that was awaiting me outside my apartment only ten minutes later. And for the first time, that felt like a life time, in days did icy cold air blow on me from the inside of the car. An audible moan escaped my mouth as I lied back into the oversized back seat of this extra long sedan. My driver was ethnic, but I couldn’t put his ethnicity down.

 

Turning around in his seat to face me, “Where to, my friend?”

 

I opened one eye, “Honestly? Anywhere.” Then both eyes opened, “Actually, can we go to CERN? It’s just too hot for me – I can normally take it but I’ve been moving so much in this heat these past few days I just don’t have the patience to endure walking there on my own.”

 

The driver laughed, “It would be a long walk anyways, it is all the way across Geneva.” That settled things for me; I was going to see Geneva in the comfort and care of Uber, and I would be sparing no expense to do so.

 

“So why are you here in Geneva, vacation?”

 

I was glancing out the window, Geneva felt so familiar, but so did most of Europe to me. “Vacation, I guess. More like self-discovery. I’ve been backpacking and hopping trains.” I knew this was going to go a direction I didn’t want to, so I steered it a different way. “So actually, this is my first uber. Have you been driving with Uber long? Do you like it?”

 

“Yes Uber is so much better than standard taxis. I’ve been doing this a few months now. I make my own hours; it is a better system.”

 

“Tell that to the French, apparently they were burning cars and shutting down Paris only a few days before I got there – the government held an emergency session and banned Uber countrywide after that. Funny, usually when children throw temper tantrums they are disciplined, instead capitalistic innovation is spurned.”

 

I could see my driver’s eyes focus on me from the rear mirror, “People are afraid of change. People are afraid of what they do not know. And when they cannot understand these things, this is what makes men angry. This is what makes men hate things, they hate what they cannot understand.”

 

I looked for the driver’s credentials on the center console, expecting fully that his first name was Yoda or his last name was Miyagi, or some combination of the two.

 

The drive was long, much longer than I anticipated, but I couldn’t have asked for better company. My driver could have easily been the Wikipedia page curator for Geneva. He gave me a brief history of the city, how it is full of delegates and foreigners, scientists, bankers. As we grew closer I could see the large sphere of CERN in the distance. Though as we approached I was surprised by how little traffic there was, and a lack of people in sight. He pulled up to the security area but the gate was shut; closed.

 

Then I remembered, I had completely forgotten track of time and what day of the week it was – and it so happened to be Sunday. Unlike America, no matter the denomination or religious affiliation, almost all businesses are closed on the Sabbath throughout Europe. Geneva was no exception to this rule, all government places of business were most definitely closed. CERN and all it’s scientific wonder, and the rest of Geneva as I would soon find out, would elude me this trip.

 

There was a mix of relief with disappointment in this realization. There was so much that I wanted to see here, that I would now only be doing from the refrigerated back seat of a luxury sedan. Not that I would complain but this was the longest I had gone without breaking a sweat since I left Vienna. Still, I sighed.

 

We zoomed in between streets, in front of one of Geneva’s many educational establishments. One such building was a private institution where the world’s most powerful often sent their children for an education. The yearly cost, as explained by my driver, was more than the sum total of most undergraduate programs in the UC system. We saw the World Health Organization, I even got to set foot on the premise of the United Nations. A literal foot, as guards approached and let us know there was no tours on Sunday’s. This was when we realized we wouldn’t be expecting to get in anywhere else.

 

One of the more interesting buildings was the International Organization of Migration, which apparently dealt a lot with the multitude of migrants and refugees across Europe. This of course isn’t that much of an issue in the United States as we seem to really not care too much about either Mexico or Canada, but I could see in Europe thing’s being a little difficult as people can easily pass from one country to the next by driving only a few hours in any direction.

 

After an hour or so of visiting destinations like the headquarters for the Red Cross, my driver asked if I wanted to get dropped off near the waterside. I always called the body of water in Geneva a fjord, but I guess I was misappropriating that term as you need a sea to be connected to that body of water for it to officially be a fjord. No, this was a lake, a great lake, and after having only a few pastries in my stomach finding some real food would be surely welcomed. Before I waved my driver off he let me know that I could page him for a ride back before my train left when I was ready, sadly this wouldn’t be the case because I goofed up my Uber app and ended up hailing a different driver, but that comes later. He also told me that I could go down and get in the water, and while I was underprepared to take a plunge in normal conditions, being back out in the heat made me consider it more seriously.

 

Navigating the streets, I did my best to stay on the shady side as I didn’t want to be exposed longer than necessary. I ducked into a convenience store as soon as I came across one; I needed water desperately as I left my bottle at home. A group of young people dressed in beach attire were buying several packs of beer. I scrounged around in my wallet and discovered I had finally run out of euros, though lucky enough I carried many forms of plastic with me so as long as I could find a place that would accept card I would be okay; though I would be paying a bit of a premium due to the currency change.

 

“Can I used card?” the teenager behind the counter gave me a quizzical look, and then said something in French. I had made a crude attempt at gesturing swiping a card in an imaginary card reader. “Card? Can I use card?” His eyes lit up, finally understanding me. “Yes, we take card. 50 euro minimum.”

 

“50 euro!” I exclaimed; appalled. Looking around and doing some quick math I realized I would have to be buying a lot of beer, though only a few bottles of wine, just to get my single bottle of water. I left empty-handed. Thankfully, not too far down the street was a gelato stand, though right as I was about to order I noticed there wasn’t a card reader around, so I didn’t stick around for a verbal confirmation. It became increasingly clear, I was going to die here in Geneva of hunger or dehydration, or a combination of both.

 

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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.”

 

 

 

Song On My Mind:

Little May – Dust

and on Spotify:

2018-06-24T18:21:10+00:00

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