Préparez-vous: j’ai beaucoup de nouvelles

10 septembre 2011

Language barriers couldn’t be more aptly named. I imagine a barrier as a double brick wall, reinforced by six feet of steel-meshed concrete in between the superficial levels of red, a color alone that screams stop. Stuck on one side of that wall, you can’t see what’s on the other side, you can’t hear the efforts of the other side, and you can’t even tell by scent that the other side is there. For all we know, it’s an endless black abyss. In the past three weeks, I have become progressively more confident with my French, and so thrilled by the fact that I can relatively-confidently carry on a conversation that would at least leave a third grader confused. However, there are some chasm-filling moments:

Getting a tour of a bio jardins, after reading about Les Jardins on its francophone website, I know at least that they have goals of environmentally friendly sustainability and increasing food sovereignty in Switzerland. I’m curious about the organization’s views on mass-produced annual monocrops versus the benefits of perennial crop rotation. I want to know about what makes les tomates taste so darn alive. Malheureusement, the woman giving us a tour is giving it in English, as a majority of the group of students I’m studying here with are American and not entirely comfortable with French. Off aside from the tour, I pose some questions to her using my slightly broken French, but I don’t get a better understanding of the topic from her response. I learn later that the well-intentioned guide comes from the Swiss German speaking region of the country. Alas, French is not her native language, and I can mumble only ten words of Germenglish.  Into the chasm our conversation, along with my curiosity, tumbles.

The United Nations is a safe haven for many things. Last Friday, my initial realization was that it was a safe haven in which I could escape from all the perils of the aforementioned confusion-creating language difficulty. Waiting in the security line for my 3 MONTH-LONG SECURITY PASS, I heard individual guards speaking three different languages – our estimates are that among the whole guard force, there could be as many as a dozen languages spoken. Of that dozen, the Nations Unies embodies six languages as those official within its organization, English, French, Spanish, Russian, Arabic and Chinese. While walking through the doors to the Geneva office for the United Nations assured me that I was physically safe (the security requirements are long-winded and complicated), once I had walked through the halls and seen the rooms where historical decisions have been made, I left feeling significantly less sheltered.

The Nations Unies Office à Genève stoically resides on a formidable footprint of land in Geneva, overlooking the effervescently twinkling lake and its sister mountains. From the public street outside the compound, behind the modernly patterned fountain system and all the flags of the world, the wall surrounding the UN buildings renders the group of buildings seemingly unimpressive, but beyond those walls Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the Director-General of the Geneva offices, maintains quite a contrasting story. Walking the halls of the Palais des Nations, surrounded by historical landmarks and gifts from the 193 independent countries of the world, I realized that my previous desires on this trip to never have to leave couldn’t hold a candle to my United Nations visit induced desire to be a part of the life within those walls, a participation that could inspire positive change in the lives of millions of the disadvantaged people outside those walls and away from that limegreenmanicured pelouse meandering through the gardens surrounding the aptly-named Palais.

En parlant of green lawns meandering through ruler-edge gardens, in sharp contrast I did some meandering of my own, through the much less ruler-edged mountains of francophone Switzerland. What was intended to be a leisurely climbing stroll through the mountains turned into an epic adventure that left me feeling like I’d run up and down Everest in half a day. Comrades in tow, started up the mountain walking among vineyards clinging to the cliff, looking down in awe at an anachronistic château. As we climbed, or as one local said monter monter MONTER, we came across old man numéro un. In my slightly less-broken French now (!!!), I asked if we were going in the right direction. In a combination of hand gestures and French words spoken through toothless gums, and nice man told us that yes, we were going in the right direction, and we’d soon meet a crazy old man (or maybe another crazy old man) with a big bushy beard, but that’s okay. Or at least, that’s what we thought he’d said. Due to the incline très ridicule of the path, we soon lost two of our comrades, to meet them “on the other side.” No one really understood the gravity of this statement until a while later.

Picture this: three 20-something American kids, armed only with weekend backpacks, empty water bottles, rudimentary French and about a quarter of a wit remaining among them, stand clinging to a crunchy leaf-covered hillside, staring at nonsensical spraypaint markings in very nonsensical places on what was, about 100 meters before, quite a ‘sensical’ path. Now, there is no path and there is certainly no stable ground, and the three have braced themselves against respective boulders, a fallen log and a thorny, angry plant. It was at this point that we decided the trail had ended, but we had continued, and therefore it was time to turn around and try a different route. And so the saga (as opposed to any clear understanding of a direction) continued.

After undoing our documentary-worthy beginning of the hike, we took another path, by way of Ponty. According to the woman at the Tourism office in the town we started in (Aigle, for those of you who are curious), we should have hiked up to Leysin by way of Drabel instead of by way of Ponty, because there was a mountain bike race happening on the road between Aigle and Ponty, and we didn’t look like the type of Americans that wanted to get crushed by speeding roadsters. But, close to exasperation, we chose the route via Ponty. After climbing hand-foot-foot-hand UP A MOUNTAIN TRAIL THAT WAS MARKED AS EASY-MODERATE for over an hour, we arrive at a pretty little shingled dwelling with red carnations in the window boxes. Vieux homme numéro deux is standing outside by his Subaru. *Don’t have any idea how he got that Subaru up this mountain, but power to him for succeeding.* I approach him politely in French, and ask how far we are from Ponty, because we are getting pretty tired and it looked like Ponty was only a third of the way to Leysin. He says, in French, “my dears, Ponty, c’est ici!” and points dramatically to a quaint little sign posted on the façade of his house, designating that his house is indeed the fabled Ponty. Mr. Ponty suddenly starts speaking German, and flustered, dehydrated, Anglophone/francophone Arianna becomes very confused. Poor Mr. Ponty is also confused by the fact that I don’t speak German. But, back in French, the kind man tells us that he’s in a huge rush to leave, otherwise he would give us some food and a seat for a while, but we are welcome to the water tap and hand-carved bench in his garden because we look un peu hagard. And we’re about ¾ of an hour from Leysin, provided that we walk quickly.

Reinvigorated, or as much as one can be at this stage of physical shock, we continued up the mountain. Past little brown goats with little gold bells cavorting down the grassy ‘hillside,’ up rocky trails alongside creeks and forests, winding through the mountains at what was at least a 30% incline the entire way: after another hour and a half of sweating like cochons, we arrived in Leysin. Leysin is a beautiful town in the high Swiss mountains, a town that greeted us with the most judgmental and grass-chewing cows I have ever seen. It was as if they were saying So what, you just climbed a mountain. I could do that if I wanted to. Instead I stand here all day and chew grass and make American hikers feel like insignificant pieces of cow pie. Regardless of the fact that they are the most savage American hikers ever to face the nonexistent trail between Aigle and Leysin. American hikers: take note. In Leysin, grâce à mes très bonnes amies, I ate the most satisfying peanut butter of my life. And some dinner, too. All in all, we didn’t spend the night on the side of a mountain, at least not literally, and the next morning we took the more sensible cable car down the mountain. Weekend: success in les montagnes.

Writing of those beautiful mountains, I want to make a minor segue for a minute. Nanda made the mistake of telling me what I think is a Swiss secret but that I feel compelled to share with my adoring readers. Apparently, the Swiss government has built nuclear bunkers all throughout the mountains of Switzerland, all stocked with food, water, and equipped with fully-functioning toilets and showers that are checked bi-monthly by the local fire departments. There is enough space in them for all of the Swiss population, Nanda says. (I feel like a large part of this blog has been a game of “Nanda says.”) Hey, if the world ever comes to a nuclear holocaust (knock on wood, everyone, please), I’m glad to know that at least the Swiss would survive to procreate. They seem to do a lot of things well so I wouldn’t have a whole bunch of grievances if they were the ones rebuilding. God willing that the creek don’t rise.

16 septembre 2011

Warm summer nights, even though it’s mid-September. I’ve spent half of them cozied up by the mountain breeze, sitting on the patio with my friend thepaperparrot and a whole bunch of public health readings. Or paired with this here lovelyblog post that has taken me weeks to get around to finishing and therefore posting. Sometimes I forget the point of these posts is to quite literally post them. Oops. Mi dispiace.

I’m in Italy now, if I hadn’t made it obvious with one of the few phrases I remember from my entire year of college-level Italian courses. The fact that Italian and French are such close languages was great when I was learning Italian, but now that I’ve had over a year and a half to forget all the Italiano I worked so hard on, the fact that French and Italian are so similar yet so different is coming around to kick me in the bottom. Faccio avare una prenotazione? I ask, hoping that remembering a couple Italian infinitives (fare and avare, I think) and sticking them into a French sentence structure will work out in my favor. It’s only been two hours and already people are looking at me like I’m folle. Oh, well. In my humble opinion, Italy smells a lot more like burning-down and burnt-out cigarettes than la Suisse would ever dare to.

On the train, it’s as the clear as the crystalline mountain lakes and their jeweler-cut mountains that you’ve changed nations, based on the green. It’s a tropical green here even in the north, as opposed to the mountain green that I’ve gotten so used to in Switzerland. I almost missed two trains, so each time I’ve landed in my seat (both windows) I’ve done so with a release of relief. It’s strange, but just riding this train from Milano to Firenze, I can feel in m’ bones that Italy is a bigger country. It might be due to the fact that currently there are no mountains for as far as my fellow passengers and I can see, or it might be a product of the factor that we’re just speeding south south south, but looking out the window at the green and the yellow illuminated by the setting sun that casts long shadows from the base of those infinitely skinny Tuscan trees, I am definitely reminded that I’ve left the high altitude bubble that constitutes my now-comfortable stomping grounds of Switzerland. Va bene, eh?!

Or at least I thought so. The train just stopped in the middle of the countryside. After a few minutes the conductor came online and explained what was going on, but en italiano. So all I got out of the announcement was “We’re stopped because of some estrané slash cibilare either on or around the train.” At first I thought they said stallone and I was like OO OO WILD HORSES! But no. Gosh I wish I had maintained my Italian. One of the Italians sitting in the row behind me has been practicing her French with some Francophones also sitting behind me, so she just explained to them that there is quelqu’un (someone) either on the tracks or on the train or whatnot. Strange country, Italy is. Between the crazy stares and the crazy track-dwelling people, who knows what will come next. Oui, qui sait. But I’m not complaining. This is the prettiest view from a traffic jam ever.

And I’m not referring to the Italian dude sitting across from me who is listening to mainstream American music through his ear-buds, dressed in an elegant suit and yet singing Poker Face just slightly under his breath to the rest of us.

**Apologies for the novella of a blog post. If you’re all lucky, I might work on updating more frequently. On verra. For now, VIVA ITALIA!


Découvrant le rythme, on court

02 Septembre 2011

Over a tasty dinner of tuna steak and rice tonight, I tested my language skills by attempting an enlightening conversation with Nanda about the Swiss education system. And was so proud of myself for carrying it all out, tout en français. Nanda’s son Mike returns to university again in a month or so, and Nanda mentioned she was happy that it sounds like he’s going to get federal aid for his tuition money because he’s supporting himself now. I asked if the interest is decently low, and how long he’ll have to pay the aid back after he graduates. Nanda looked at me with her adorably Portuguese confused expression, and said Mais non, he doesn’t have to pay back any of it. Apparently, in Switzerland if you want to study, but are not necessarily rolling in the cash green (it’s not actually green here), you still get to go to school and there are pas de soucis about owing the government anything. I shocked and appalled Nanda by revealing to her how much I’m going to owe the U.S. feds by the time I graduate from UW, let alone once I’ve gone on to grad school, or gasp, law school. Although she did stress that it’s not all just a walk in the park, the amount of care policy makers have put into making sure that kids who want an education get educated is really quite magnifique. Scenario after scenario, Mike gets his education, and comes out with a degree and without a single debt.

As Switzerland’s number one natural resource, education in this country takes a back seat to no one. Even for the under-the-radar and under-documented migrants that flock to tend to the wealth in Geneva, for example, education is a topic of conversation. Primary education through the age of fifteen, including the opportunity to attend école enfantine, is compulsory for all children living in la Suisse, which therefore includes migrant children. All children enrolled in school are also required to have comprehensive health insurance. If, however, an undocumented parent of a migrant child says they cannot afford the required (but still privately supplied) insurance plans, the school in which the kid is enrolled says encore, pas de soucis, and pays for it themselves. Therein, under-documented and vastly under-privileged children become documented, in a manner of speaking. Not only are these children given health insurance and a classroom, but they also get to see classes d’accueil where they have the opportunity to learn the cantonal language. Not only does Switzerland take care of its people, but it also takes care of the children who need care, in a manner of speaking. Zut, I wish Obamacare had another thunk a comin’.

03 septembre 2011

Imagine waking up in the morning wondering what you’re going to do today, and an hour later you’re on a boat to another country, skimming across clear clean water with sailboats and swans in the distance, mountains on either side, and half a dozen languages being spoken all around you. And twenty minutes later, you’re in France! That was my morning, aujourd’hui. Yvoire, France, is one of the most picturesque (and also possibly most touristy) towns I’ve seen in the longest time. It’s all red geraniums blooming in window boxes, outdoor-seating cafés, with views from every point on the hill of the surrounding villages and the lake, and the tastiest (and cheapest!) ice cream I’ve enjoyed all summer. And everyone there seems so happy, but je fais la connection that maybe it’s because they’re all tourists, and therefore on vacation. Anyway, that was cool. Oh, yeah, and there was a travelling band of yodelers. Check that one off the bucket list.






05 septembre 2011

Two weeks into my stay here, the rhythm of life in Switzerland finally starts to pick up. The first ten days was this soft-harsh, turquoise-ORANGE blur of jetlag and honeymoon-y feelings, pure elation at being in a new place surrounded by foreign people and flowered side streets and grassy pebbled footpaths just yearning for me to explore them.  Now, I’m starting to get it, and the jetlag and honeymoon happy is winding down. I wake up early these days, with the first round of morning commuter trains softly wooshing past this pretty little flat in the quiet countryside. The weather was super chaud for the first while, so hot during the day that it made it hard for me to sleep at night, and I guess there’s been a low pressure system winding its way through the mountains that’s left the air thick with moisture, and all of the Americans damp-skinned and dewy-eyed. On several occasions, the lake that first left me so speechless all I could do was write has lent me refreshing reprieve from the humid valleymountain air, but now that the weather seems to be becoming more autumnal, instead of diving into the cool lake, it’s toward those rolling hills my feet carry me.

I’m tired of writing in the first person. This whole journaling thing is kind of new for me.

So you leave the apartment and turn left at the end of the driveway, the train tracks are on the right. Across those tracks, fields, and beyond them lies a hint of lake. Some of the more superstitieux locals are convinced that lake is haunted, with demons floating beneath its crystalline surface. Apparently there have been scores of accidents on those waters, recorded since Julius Caesar’s time when people were living in some of the buildings you still see remnants of today. That’s one of the tragedies of beautiful bodies of h-two-oh: it seems to be a substance of mystery, so people are afraid of it, and they never learn how to handle it. If it were up to me, everybody would be taught to swim.

But back to where the run takes you. Fields, lake, then mountains, OH GLORIOUS MOUNTAINS, on your right. Those are the Alps, folks. And today, the ones we’re looking at are in France, and they stretch as far along your right side as you can see. Running quicker now, you’re passing manicured soccer fields and then brick-colored tennis courts, and a little restaurant, where men and women drink espresso out of impossibly tiny cups while they sit outside enjoying the air that’s been made fresh by a recent downpour, sits tucked between a patch of trees and a trickling stream. Even though we’re in the mountains so it’s a much higher altitude that sometimes makes it hardertobreath, you’re running faster now, because you can see a shining little metal gate egging you on: you’re about to get to the really pretty part. Through the metal gate and you’re set free onto a path that to the right has a field filled with consistently 8-foot-tall stalks of corn, and along your left is the remnants of sunflowers. As you turn right toward the slowly setting sun, what strikes you is not only are there church bells ringing in the distance, but everything is green. The green that Switzerland pulls off is a green that I’ve never seen before, and I’ve spent the majority of the past 2 years in the Pacific Northwest so I think I have the credentials to say that the rolling hills along your left, now, seemingly combed with those vignobles mentioned before and spotted with country houses and barns and what look like the little milk-producing vaches that make this country’s chocolate industry what it is…those hills are a green that leaves the Wizard of Oz’s stomping grounds a mere lackluster grey.

Alors, surrounded by color so alive and air so clean that it makes me want to tie myself to this earth and say I’M NEVER LEAVING AGAIN NOT EVEN IF YOU TRY TO MAKE ME, there’s an orchard filled with pommiers bearing bright crisp pink fruit on your right, and a young forest rising in front of you, and you jump right in. Small pebbles flecked with even smaller leaves make you forget that running in the States is thought of as a chore, and you feel like Dorothy wondering why there’s no Toto to keep you company. Or maybe Gretel running through the woods, minus the whole grumpy old wicked children-eating woman and the stepmom who forced your father to walk you and Hansel into the woods. So basically a happy Gretel minus those grim brothers. And for a while, at least for the duration of a run that turns into a literary exercise instead of a cardiovascular workout, Switzerland turns into all charm and fairytale-esque, pollution-free charisma.

But I have to remember I’m here studying, too. And as I’ve been studying and traveling and conversing and observing, I have come to a realization. Switzerland may be all “good social policy” and “neutrality” and “hey we make great chocolate and have good monetary safety to offer if you have enough money we can round to every six digits,” but no matter how pretty a picture is, every picture has an underbelly. And so, Arianna has found a goal, mes amis.

Underbelly of Switzerland, I hope you’re ready. I think I might have found you.

More to come on that soon. So confiance, mon public, and keep reading 🙂

Un mélange des cultures


And I thought Genève left me breathless. Nyon, built on a hill overlooking the aforementioned lake, across which one can see the shores of France (today represented by rolling green hillsides on the foot of the aforementioned mountains and dotted with small towns and their chapels’ steeples) KNOCKS THE WIND OUT OF ME. As you can see, I’ve been thinking in run-ons lately. That’s what happens when life plops me down in a place I’ve imagined a million times, and suddenly voilà, there I am, a part of the landscape of my imagination, incarnate. Today, I ate lunch on the steps of the seven hundred year-old Château de Nyon.


Whoever said the Swiss are straight-laced has another thought coming. Oui, une autre pensée viendra. This evening in the dappled shade of a grapevine-covered pergola, a beautiful group of people played their souls through the native music of their home, Capo Verde, a culturally rich but resource-desolate African island nation. While it is beautiful, Capo Verde is a home from which they left, years ago, looking for their opportunities that had fled long before they had the courage to do so. Because of their courage, the beautiful and culturally diverse inhabitants of Geneva – myself included – had the honor to hear them play this evening, amid children cavorting, some smiling women cooking, and many happy people dancing. Quel spectacle.

Thanks to my wonderful maman d’acceuil, Nanda, I am learning (and relearning) an abundance of new and old French words. Les orties, used in a soup with potatoes that I bravely took a bowl of this evening, are stinging nettles! Little did we know, not only are they edible but also very healthy…and they make a good soup! I learned from another American living in Switzerland (who saw me hesitantly eyeing la soupe aux pommes de terre et les orties) that Swiss food is never spicy, so no need to worry about unexpectedly taking a bite of something trop piquant. As Nanda and I drive along the French-Swiss border, I read the road signs to myself, and today I realized the word vignoble was on a number of the signs – it means vineyard, so I’m glad I can finally identify that which my eyes can see for miles. Finally, a word that I have always known but failed to remember this morning – la poubelle. Maybe it’s an effort to prevent disgracing the country’s beauty with something so awful, or perhaps it is because no Swiss person would ever dream of littering, but Switzerland seems to be very good at hiding its trash cans.

Et finalement, j’arrive


Lac Léman, peacefully laid between two majestic mountain ranges, rocks its city to sleep at night. The largest lake in Switzerland, and one of the deepest in the world, what Americans call Lake Geneva stretches for miles throughout one of the many fingers of Switzerland that extend themselves into southwest France. Having strung those beautifully simple patio lights that create a warm yellow glow along the length of its lakeshore, Geneva reveres the water in all of its turquoise blue glory. With the famous Jet d’Eau visible from most points in the city, the beautiful snow-water lake is omnipresent. This evening during a soft pink dusk, I swam in that lake’s grandeur.

Old churches. Heavy scents of centuries of believers and non-believers alike sitting on those creaky wooden pews, turning the pages of the same story over and over again, permeate even the echoes of feet on the cool stone floor. Upon walking into a sixteenth century cathedral, I feel as if for five hundred plus years it has been waiting to welcome me with open arms. And I’m hardly religious. While I have to believe that there’s a greater presence dictating some figment of fairness and justice throughout the universe, that we’re not all just pawns in a giant game of chess with no players, I know that religion can be a lifeboat, and lifeboats cause problems. But despite all that, I walk into a cathedral so old I can barely grasp the terms of its survival, and something makes me feel like I’ve come home again. John Calvin changed the course of history, and I sat in proof of it today, simultaneously praying to something for some sort of equity in the world, and hoping the cracked blisters on the backs of my heels will repair themselves before my next walking tour of magnificence.

Genève takes my breath away.