The last chapter in Yuval Ben-Ami’s anti-travelogue: an exploration of places unvisited. (Click here for the rest.)
They say that in the Swiss countryside, one need not wear a watch or carry a cellphone to know the time. Towns are abundant, and each country church sports a functioning clock. Just look over to the next village, and you shall arrive punctually to your next Swiss engagement.
This is accurate only at certain latitudes. There may have been a church in the valley below me, but I was too high up to tell it apart from other houses. The familiar land of rusti and Sprungli, which was still a ways away.
I was headed for green Switzerland, descending there from Switzerland’s own white peaks. I could not go to Lebanon, but I could come here, and was that not an okay deal? Would I have rather had it the other way around?
The Swiss may go where they please on this Earth. Such is the fruit of stubborn neutrality, but so much of humanity is restricted in travel, if only for economic reasons. I was experiencing the human condition. I should learn to love it. There was no greater liberty, I told myself, than the liberty to be in the present moment.
The present moment was extremely lovable. At first the snowy slopes were challenging, but the stick kept me well and the snow soon gave way to rubble, then to gorgeous fresh meadows crisscrossed by streams, where mountain sheep grazed. An entire herd of them mistook me for a shepherd and followed me down a stretch of trail. I took a hilarious selfie.
Bereft of a foreign passport, I could not go to Lebanon, the next door country, nor to Syria, Iraq, Iran (which was particularly high on my sealed-bucket list), any land on the Arabian Peninsula and many in Africa. I would not get to know my own neighborhood well enough to ever truly be part of it. It was tragic, but look at the compensation!
I could be in Switzerland, the world’s least Middle Eastern land. Was it somehow also mine? We make places our own by traveling them, and I have done some traveling here.
In June of 1995, one month after first escaping my land for comforting Europe, I played a song for a baguette at a country bakery in the South of France. I took the bread out to the side of the road and bit off its tip while trying to hitchhike to the nearest town. The car that stopped for me was headed all the way to Cologne, 800 kilometers away. I decided to answer destiny’s call and travel there.
It was in the car that I first entered the bounds of the Helvetian confederation, then zoomed straight out into Germany. I remember a snowy crest and the sun glistening on Lake Geneva, also the amusement the German driver and his wife experienced with the accents of Swiss radio announcers.
The following summer I met a girl on Montmartre. She was Swiss, and pretty enough that I would lie and say I am heading for her land and was to be there within a week. Hitchhiking from Paris took exactly a day, I was dropped off at Lucerne, the sweetest city my eyes have even chanced to gaze upon. I met the girl twice in Zurich. We walked the riverfront and enjoyed the swans, but this was going nowhere, so I took the train to St. Galen.
At St. Galen I met two young Bosnian refugees who were headed for a bar in the lake town of Rorschach. I tagged along. At the bar, a man sang in Serbo-Croat to a synthesizer and Rakija was served. Eventually the place closed. No cars traveled back to St. Gallen, so we built a fire by the lakefront. I tried to get the one girl who spoke English to tell me what she saw back home. She would not.
Eventually we ran out of wood and the girls called a local friend who took them in. It was freezing and I pulled at the doors of small apartment buildings until one opened, then fell asleep in the hallway. I was found in the morning by a young man out to fetch the paper. He invited me in and served me hot chocolate, told me he is a member of a rock group name Pyroman and that they all shared the flat.
Little by little the other band members woke. This being the weekend, they took the stowaway for a spin in the mountains. Later that day I opened for them at a Rorschach club.
I checked out Interlaken and rode a strange tandem bike with the vendor of an ice cream shop. A hotel owner picked me while I strummed on the street and hired me to play at a conference. A farmer invited me to taste Raclette. How did Switzerland win its bad rep as an impersonal freezer? This land was better than friendly: it was confident. People trusted each other and acted with openness and generosity.
I went to visit Bern. At the park behind the parliament building I saw a woman injecting herself with heroin. In the city’s youth hostel stayed a 25 year old Australian Jane Murphy. She could play three songs on the guitar: one by Lenny Kravitz, one by Sinead O’Connor, and another I don’t recall. I remember calling to wish her happy birthday later that summer from a red imperial phone box in a Welsh village. I later lost her number on the way back to Israel and regretted it, and went to the Australian embassy to try and find it in the Melbourne phone book. They had the phone book at the embassy, but not a single Jane Murphy was listed, only J. Murpheys, hundreds of them.
Four years down the road, I had met the woman I would marry and with whom I would spend the latter half of my twenties. Before our wedding, I asked her for permission to take one last European journey, to bid the roads farewell. She agreed. The cheapest flight I could find landed in Zurich.
I hitchhiked out of town toward the highlands. A truck stopped. The truck driver who picked me up was the manager and future heir of a large funeral parlor. I helped him deliver empty coffins to three or four hospitals. We parted at Lucerne. From there I went on to Bern, where I met a film student who studied at a converted Toblerone factory and owned Michael Ende’s entire bibliography. I composed music for her documentary about an elderly couple that lived in Vienna.
I traveled to the Lake of Four Cantons and wrote an article about Wilhelm Tell, then flew to The States, married, and lived there for three years, returned to Israel, divorced, stayed up long nights in Tel Aviv bars while working for a dubious daily newspaper. One day the dubious paper sent me to Zurich for 24 hours, to interview Rod Stewart. I went and met Stewart, then ended up in the city’s red light district and hipster playground, drinking with two tattoo artists. I flew home hung over and only returned four years later because Paris was so hot I had to escape it. My computer was stolen on the train. I decided to walk over a mountain range, and did.
The valley was growing nearer and nearer, trees appeared. I took my shoes off to cross a gushing stream, and stretched my bare feet to dry and rest them. Above me I could see the hut, so incredibly tiny in the heights, before me I could see only where I was going, behind me was only where I had been, and for the time being, it was plenty.