12 April 2012

Then I died and went to Switzerland

A 7:00 alarm on a spring break Monday morning is equally as pleasurable as awakening to a cat clawing the inside of your ears. I was still thinking about the awful number--7am--when my watch turned to 11 and we hadn't yet boarded our 9:40 flight.

In moments like these, the key is to casually glance around and make sure everyone else is as confused/frustrated as you are. The people directly in front of and behind me had tickets that said "Geneva," so it couldn't have been just me. I had already stuffed my book deep into my one piece of hand luggage, so there wasn't a lot to do other than sit on the floor, watching the other people in line get agitated. Then I reminded myself that this inconvenience was the result of having a long spring break and the money to travel--nothing like a good dose of self-degradation to put some perspective on first-world problems. Oh, and the guy in line behind me somehow lost his passport.

Once on the plane, the captain announced that there was a French transportation strike prohibiting us from flying over French airspace, meaning the plane was forbidden to leave until ten past noon. My thoughts as we taxied around: "Crap. I'm never getting to Switzerland."

Two hours later, I was in Switzerland.

You know how you can visit a place you've never been and feel like you've belonged there all your life? That was Switzerland. I grew up far away from mountains...and oceans...lakes, kinda...okay, most natural landforms...so I don't know what it is exactly that is so inviting, so home-like about a mountainscape. All I know is that when I think about mountains, I am all ready to part my hair into two braids and go frolicking about with some goats.

And the Alps (the pre-Alps, really) were more mountainy than any mountain I've seen before. The mountains I've known have only been foothills to mountains I could see from L'Abri. For five days, there was an Alp staring down through my bedroom window, I slept in a wooden-walled cabin room that reminded me of camp, and it felt like home.

The village bells ring every fifteen minutes.

L'Abri, founded by Francis Schaeffer in the 1950s, isn't really a retreat center. It's more like a mountainside study center where you live and participate in the community--with some who've stayed all term, some just for a week. The Schaeffers' intent was to create a place to discuss life and Christ and the world--without necessarily trying to fit ideas into the narrow confines of cultural Christianity. A place to ask questions without being made to feel that the questions are stupid. A place where everyone cooks and cleans and sells their twice-a-week showers for extra pocket change.

We sat in the living room at night, talking about heaven and hell and why they even matter right now. Some were so certain; others, so uncertain, yet no one was panicking over the questions, trying to smother them with the right answers. The planes of thought were cutting through one another at odd angles. No one's thoughts matched exactly, in background, in interpretation. Yet a thing I love about God and brains is that He'll use one person's thoughts to pry open the closed spaces in another's. Everyone is teacher and disciple, everyone is stepping forward together. It's nothing profound, really, but it was striking in its distinct visibility at L'Abri. At, I suppose, any place where people are willing to be real.

I was scraping crust off the lip of a bug-killer bottle during daily chores when another student said, "You have thirty minutes for tea break. We work hard here, but we also rest well." And that was L'Abri: work and rest, a beautiful blend. I attended two different lectures and two "formal" lunches (wherein someone poses a theological question and we spend the meal discussing it), read in the basement of the Farel House library, and watched fog swallow up the Alps. For as much as I enjoy walking my feet off in new places to get to all the "cultural attractions," my favorite sort of vacation is one where I can wander and taste the nature. To have time scheduled into the day specifically for reading and study--the life ideal. If I'd known it was going to be so wonderful, I'd have stayed a few extra days. "You'll just have to come back again," they kept telling me.

I hope so.

Thursday was our free day--no lectures, no chores, sack lunches in the fridge. Someone suggested I check out Montreux, just down the hill. ("Just" includes a bus ticket for the horrifying sum of 6.40, a train ticket, and multiple occasions requiring French. In which I know three phrases, and I'm not sure about the third.)

Montreux sits along Lac LĂ©man, seamed in by mountains. But the flowers! Oh, gosh, the flowers. They edged the lakeshore in precise color schemes and patterns, a gardener's love exploding in the hues. First-grade me erupted at the sight of all those flowers (by this, I'm referencing the six-year-old Shar who, after reading a story about Native American naming techniques, dubbed herself "Rainbow-in-the-Mist" and asked her parents about moving into an earthlodge). I might have gone a little overboard with the whole flower-love thing, but seriously: GIANT BRIGHT POPPIES. That is all it will take to convince me to miss a flight and conveniently stay in Switzerland forever.

I can't fail to mention my travel buddy here, but lest he ever develop an interest in libel cases, let's just call him "Bill." Bill left L'Abri a few days early because he hated the two-shower-a-week rule (hey, water's expensive in the mountains!), and also because he hated chores. To be fair, Bill paid 4 francs for a water bottle and 9 francs for a storage locker so he could wander Montreux with me, and he never said a word about the fact that I was photographing every single flower I passed. But poor Bill had two weeks left for sight-seeing in Switzerland, and with the way he spitefully clutched that 4-franc water, I sure hope his nerves lasted the rest of the journey.
We spent some time at the Chateau de Chillon, a fortress on the water which apparently inspired some of Lord Byron's tales. (His name is carved in the dungeon, though I forgot to look for it.) Most of the displays inside were about torture chambers and witchcraft--so, overall, an inspiring and uplifting tour. Especially when accompanied by Bill asking (twenty thousand times), "I don't know. Is this worth taking a picture of? It's picture-worthy, right? I mean, you'd take a picture of it, right?" Bill. You have a digital camera.

Also, I'm not sure if you noticed, but I'm kinda busy over here, taking ten thousand flower pictures.

By Friday, the temptation to skip my flight was peaking. The supervisor of Chalet Bellevue only furthered the desire when she mentioned, "We've got a place called the Eagle's Nest--it's as high as one and just as comfortable. I think the snow would probably come in, but we could get you a few extra blankets." I told her to look out for crusty hitchhikers breaking through the woods in the next month or two. I'd be the tall, shabby one.

I spent my last L'Abri day reading C.S. Lewis on a tree stump near a waterfall.

Switzerland is my new favorite place in Europe, perhaps in all of the world. So if I disappear mysteriously one of these days, you'll know where to find me. I'll be the tall, shabby one in the Eagle's Nest, repeating three French phrases over and over. Even if I'm not sure about the third one.


mom said...

You've got some of your mother's blood in you - loving the outdoors and the peacefulness of it all. Sounds like an absolutely wonderful place to visit.

Jamie said...

You've persuaded me - putting this on my list of hopeful vacations! So beautiful!

sharbear said...

Jamie, you would adore it! The happiest place on earth!

Mom, there's no ignoring it. I'm yours. :)