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!

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