Yuval Ben-Ami’s new project is an anti-travelogue: an exploration of places unvisited.
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I was in Paris and it was hell. A heatwave beat down on the gray town, chasing people out through windows of old maid chambers. They perched in the evenings on roofs, Gothic spires in view, to sip wine by the light of an exhausted moon. Indoors was too hot, but then, out on the roof was also too hot. My hosts lent me a “wife beater” tank top to let my armpits breath. It did little good.
During the day I went for lunch with my friend Theo. We sat at the bistro’s terrace, gasping for air, digging with little excitement at our tartars. A bulldozer arrived and began tearing up the street, ripping out car-sized shards of asphalt with a harrowing noise, dusting up our food and serviettes.
I decided to leave. Norway sounded appealing, but I had to remain in France. My girlfriend at that time was attending two academic conferences and I was to join her when they ended, down in Geneva. That sounded right. Geneva was naturally higher in elevation, but would be too expensive. I Googled an Alpine city in France, Grenoble. Its weather report predicted an entire week of 38 degrees Celsius.
“How is that possible?” I slapped my sweaty forehead, “Grenoble is in the mountains!”
“It’s relatively low,” Theo explained.
Everywhere was low. I soon learned that the cities of the Alpine region are all situated in deep valleys, only a few hundred meters above sea level. Continental Europe claims not a city lofty enough for a neat midsummer blizzard. Theo checked the weather on his own phone. “Their glaciers must be melting like crazy,” he lamented.
“I’ll have to reach actual peaks,” I calculated, “I’ll go to a village, a mountain village.” What would I do alone in a village for an entire week?
I knew what I would do. I would write a book about Lebanon.
I have never been to Lebanon. I can never go to Lebanon. I can get to Paris, 5,000 kilometers away from my home, and rant about it, I can climb up the Alps for air, and rent a room with a mountain view, but the roads that extend north from Tel Aviv all terminate at in impassible fence. The Lebanese can’t visit me either. The border is often invisible: simply a notion. Slopes graced with shrub oak and wild pistachio appear in the distance, we know they are across the fence. I have climbed to viewpoints that offer more of a view. In the distance were towns. I could see cars go on the roads.
Unable to visit Lebanon, I had always dreamed of at least writing about it. To do so I would have to situate myself somewhere peaceful, somewhere so quiet that it would allow me to dream up Lebanon. The heat was now chasing me to such a place.
France raced by at TGV speed, looking shockingly inhospitable. Vineyards offer little shade. Church steeples: only a slender bit. The compartment was too hot for me to focus on the opening lines of my chef d’oeuvre. I wrote some words about Lebanon, then rushed over to the restaurant car for a cold drink. My neighbor was a young man of mixed Swiss and Mexican heritage. He wanted nothing from the bar.
Outside the restaurant car’s windows, the land was turning hillier and prettier. Lakes reflected the stubborn blues skies and thick woods. Along their shores — thousands crowded, kids in arm floats, grownups with beers. Winter was hard and spring late in coming. For country folk with access to such beauty, the dramatic first week of July 2015 was bliss.
I went back and forth a few times, and finally I returned to a surprise. My computer had vanished from the tray table. I searched manically on other seats, in my bag, in the overhead shelf. Nothing, and no one had seen a thing. The Mexican-Swiss passenger was gone, too.
While I enjoyed the wine and more functional air conditioning, the train made its first major stop, calling at Geneva on the second hottest day in its recorded history. My neighbor disembarked there, yet somehow I did not suspect him. He was too nice, and I – too nice to him. Nor did he fit my idea of a petty thief’s profile. Where I come from, only a heroin addict would steal an old laptop without its charger. Why would anyone on a train that charged 100 euros per ticket nick my dusty Lenovo?
Someone, I deducted, must have come on board in Geneva, scavenged what he could and stepped off.
At Lausanne I reported the theft to the disinterested station policeman, then headed out to explore. My bag was somewhat lighter now, and still I could not find the strength to climb the steep, winding streets. The city was a kiln.
I grew up in a land too hot for my blood type. At least in my native Jerusalem the air tends to be dry. One day, when I was a child, we met up with my grandfather at the central bus station in Tel Aviv. I still recall the horror. I could not believe that people lived their lives in a sweat bath. Over the years, my family moved to the coast and that stained shirt became an unrelenting reality. Three years into that reality I graduated high school, then received a discharge from the army, then quickly sought an escape.
Europe had a role: It provided a respite from both complexities and climate. At 39 years old, I still need its support, and I felt betrayed by Laussane. I was exhausted from the theft and would have simply crashed there, but sunset was still too many hours away. The rails led further. I vowed not to halt until I saw snow.
By dusk, I saw it: a distant white crest glistened against rapidly darkening skies, perhaps the famous “Jungfrau.” I was in Interlaken, at the foot of the Bernese Alps. Evening in the valley was warm, but the promise of high altitudes calmed my spirit.
I have been here before, 20 years or so earlier, while vagabonding through sweet, chilly Europe. At the time, there was a hostel in town that mostly catered to American college kids. Walking up from the station, I found that house of many wooden balconies and checked in.
Crowding the bar in the yard were 20-year-younger versions of the guys and girls I had met here at the time. The varsity set of the 90s was cloned, and the clones returned to Interlaken. Perched on a vacant stool, I bought a bottle of shockingly priced Swiss beer and tried to mix into the conversation, but was not on the same wavelength. When the kids all went in for a game of beer pong, I folded to my attic dorm. All other beds there room were taken up by young Korean girls; they were all already asleep. I soon followed suit.
Soon a ray of sunlight woke me, pouring in unobstructed through the open window. I peered at my phone, 5 a.m., then bent my neck and gazed outside. Wooden-beamed gables sloped towards a quiet street. The street extended south, turning into a country lane, it wound among the hills and disappeared. Over those hills shone the Alps in all their splendid grandeur. I wasn’t going to write about them, I was here to write about Lebanon.
Oh, but I had nothing to write on. My Microsoft Word… gone.
On the upside. My bag was lighter now, and they days ahead entirely free. Those mountains. I should climb them. Not only climb – I should cross them. The Bernese Alps are a chain. A chain has a valley on the either side. How long would it take to reach the far valley?
There couldn’t be better use for my time. I rose carefully in my bunk, not to hit my head, then climbed down gingerly, not to wake a Korean, my gear was largely still packed. Should I dump my travel guitar to cut weight? It is cheap and easily replaceable. Nah, I should take it along. It is small and could be dumped at any time. I dropped my key at the vacant reception desk, and stepped into the hottest day in Switzerland’s history.
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