January 16th, 2007

San Marco Erik and I

Personal: Europe Trip 2006: Return to Geneva

Monday 24 July 2006.
On the night train from Florence, Italy to Geneva, Switzerland.
[5:01am – On Wednesday, January 3rd, 2007, after a few moments of confused listening, Mike discovers that at this point is a one hour and eight minute file of the sounds of the train, he apparently having shifted in his train bunk and turned on the recorder in his shorts pocket. Various rustlings are heard as Mike wakes up and watches the sun rise over the Alps, and studies the different views of wilderland, farmland and Alpine villages. He only films a few dim minutes of this as he enters the Alps and his last batteries die. Typical.]
Now a deep valley and a wide trainyard – a place with the charming name of “Brig.” But the sunlight on the peaks, clouds on some of them, and snow still up there…. Huge, wide, glorious valley. Ah, I’d love to know where I am and to have time here.

Now in the wide, sunny valley of “Sierre.” Kind of a more stereotypical Swiss architecture at the train station, huge bluff-sided mountains and a wide valley. Orchards outside of town. It’s full of light here, and surrounded by powerful, powerful stone. And, we’re moving on….

This great long pass through the Alps, and how it seems so unlikely that you’d have something so long and so clear. I wonder if this is the one that we read about in History: the Romans paying such attention to it. [Later: I believe I was thinking of the Brenner Pass. This was the Rhone River valley in Valais.] Terraces; long, steep sides of the valley; old churches and shrines. Lots of growth, though, in these terraces: incredibly rich land for something carved out of rock.

7: 24am
As we roll into Sion: an immense castle up on top of the rock overlooking the town. Or perhaps a monastery. Incredibly easy to defend, it looks. Holy cow: it really commands the whole area.


By the time we are traveling around the north end of Lake Geneva, Erik is up and we say some occasional words to one another as we eat our conductor-provided box breakfasts of croissants and juice. I have by now learned that the jelly-filled croissants are the better ones, the plain ones being just a touch too dry. Our windows are on the north side of the train and so I'm mostly looking at the various towns and cities we are passing through, including Montreux, home of the famed jazz festival, where Erik took in some good music a few weeks back, and Lausanne, home of the famed university which I've heard mentioned time and again in my historical studies. I tried to spy Roman ruins out the window in Nyon (which I had no time to visit), with predictably little luck. Occasionally, I would get up and move out of our compartment into the hallway so that I could enjoy the view of the Lake, until I could glimpse Geneva in the distance at its end.


Sleep Room culture is a strange culture.

So we got back into town today and, what? we arrived, I think, in Geneva around 9:30. Erik, of course, is usually at work at 8:00am, but we had to hustle and just get there as quick as we could. So Erik took a shower, but I forgo … uh … forewent? until later tonight. So I’m feeling a little gamey, but I was able to shave, which was good after Erik had fried my electric shaver before we left for Venice on Thursday. He didn’t bring his electric – or any kind of razor – along because his beard grows a lot slower than mine. So I got rid of that growth, and we must have gotten to the World Health Organization at about 10:30-11ish.

But by 11:30 I was really noddy, so I went to the Rest Room. … Which is a bad name… the Sleep Room, the Recovery Room, the Rest Center. On the eighth and top floor of the World Health Organization headquarters, there is a room full of … couches, I guess you’d call them, technically, or chaise lounges? That’s not quite right … like lawn chairs, but leather, stuffed, and they recline. ([after a loud engine passing] I’m walking down the road to the International Red Cross Museum right now.) So I went into the Rest Room, and there were two people asleep in there – a man and a woman – and I took a chair, sort of equidistant from the both of them, and – I would have loved to have seen the results of this on some kind of hidden camera or secret tape – ‘cause I leaned back in that thing and it just went back and back and back, until I was flat, and then I was leaning heels-over-head back, flatwards. So I’m waving my hands around, trying to regain some sense of balance or control, and sort of pushing off from the floor behind me, to try to get seated again, all the while desperately trying not to make a noise and wake up those already there.

That’s when I saw that there were some levers underneath the chair, and so I thought, “Well, these will control the thing.” Then the levers make these horrendous screeching noises and I’m mortified that I’m going to wake these people up, and they don’t do anything but loosen the chair up even more. Nothing will tighten it up. So I’m leaning back and flapping all over the place – total physical comedy – as this thing is opening and shutting on me and I’m swinging all around with it. So, I took a look around and found that I was seated out away from the wall more than any of the others, and that their lounge chairs were kept up at more comfortable angles simply because they went back into the wall, or into the glass window overlooking the terrace. (Now I’m going past the Soviet consultate or embassy or what-have-you here, the whole thing’s ringed with a wrought-iron fence with a thick hedge on the other side and the whole thing is topped with rings of razor wire. It’s really kind of overkill.)

So I flapped around in that before I finally gained some control, and the woman woke up, over next to me, and I was mortified that I had woken her up, and she strolled out, and I lay back, and the next thing I knew I was waking up two hours later and the room was filled with Africans sleeping all around me that I had not heard come in at all. One fellow was snoring away next to me, and I had lost two hours – or gained two hours, depending on your perspective – but felt much more restful after two nights where I just slept probably for three, four, five hours – that was needed.

So, I knew I would take it easy today, in the early afternoon and morning, so I did that, and now I’m finishing strolling down the hill to the Red Cross. It’s about three o’clock, and I’ll have a couple of hours here – they close at five – so I’ll do the Red Cross Museum, but I’m not really thinking I’m going to do the U.N. tour: Erik said it wasn’t terribly provocative. You see rooms where various agreements happen and so forth; so this should be the better choice. Erik might try to hold off ’til six, do a little extra work, so I’ll just troop back on up the hill and catch him then. The Red Cross entrance here, the building’s much nicer than the U.N., 1950s/60s, future, steel/concrete combination, so … looking promising here.

Well, I have to say that the Museum of the International Red Cross was really compelling. saralinda, you’re all over that. And Erik had been pretty insistent on his enthusiam on that, as well. From its opening display of foundational philosophical and religious texts from around the world that inspire or harmonize with its mission, the Museum did its best to draw you into that mission and vision as well. I was so lost in the details, though, I only made it about 2/3 of the way through, or halfway through, when they were calling for the Museum to close. I didn’t realize it was that late: time had gotten entirely away from me. The … I don’t know … the painstaking-ness that it takes to draw that level of international organization out – to be able to see the slow evolution of something like this – the Museum was very well organized to convey that plodding struggle, that long work. The display of the cases of all the cards – the index files for the prisoners of war of the First World War – were compelling by their massive volume. That was … hmm. There was a weight of humanity behind it that I think one doesn’t feel easily. We tune it out by statistics. We tune it out by a vision of so many people; that we sort of leave them behind as people and see them only as a crowd, if that makes sense. We detach ourselves for protection, I guess. [Another loud buzzing goes by] (It’s strange to see women in incredibly elegant European fashion drive by on mopeds or motorcycles with helmets on.)


On the way back up the hill to the World Health Organization headquarters I ran into Erik's English friend, a young woman in medical school who, like Erik and so many others at the WHO, are advanced students more-or-less volunteering their time at the WHO in order to get some international experience. I was amazed at the sheer volume of such young workers: without these people willing to trade the experience for a financial loss, I don't see how the headquarters could function. Senior, permanent staff seem to be ever managing such a stream of rotating help. We spoke for a few moments – she was one of several of Erik's acquaintances it would have been fun to have the chance to get to know better – and then I continued on up to the Headquarters.

Outside the building, whose look and architecture I commented upon in my first entry on the trip, I took a little time to pay some particular attention to it and to photograph it, finally. (I used this photograph in my first entry, too, even though I was only taking it now, thinking about the journal and wanting to be able to capture some bit of the look and feel of this place in which I've been spending time, sitting with Erik in his office and seeing something of his projects, negotiating with the security staff when I come in each time, until I can finally get my green "Visiteur" badge to hang around my neck while in the building.

The building did have the feel of a place where things got done, though, despite the silly reflexive UN- and NGO-bashing that you hear in American politics. Erik's outlining some of those achievements of the WHO when I arrived – memorialized in the art of various information-soaked public health campaign posters now decorating the halls – was a rather thrilling saga in its own way. No bureaucratic process can be perfect, of course – the structures will create their own problems – but they certainly get things done that no one else can do without similar large-scale bureaucracy, all our sophomoric sneering about bureaucracies aside.

Even the entry had caught my eye with its titles when I had first arrived. Washington, D.C., of course, has a similar feel of action and power to it, too, but despite being the capital of the world's only current superpower, it still lacked something of the immediate international feel that I felt here at the World Health Organization, or from the other buildings in the area, whether national embassies and consulates, the United Nations, or even the World Council of Churches. I think that that was simply because of the immediately obvious multiplicity of languages evident, which the United States famously lacks in its odd situation of being a country the size of a continent with one dominant language.

Outside the main entrance, I also took some time to go over and examine more closely a few pieces of art that I had noticed back on my arrival in Geneva on Thursday. There was a reproduction of a head of the goddess Hygeia by the sculptor Skopas from 350 BC. I don't know this particular goddess but the name and context lead me to believe that Hygeia was rather into hygeine, a goddess of cleanliness, I assume. Matched with this was a particularly compelling work unveiled in 1999 depicting a boy leading a man stricken by the disease called riverblindness, a disease that particularly ravaged large areas of Africa. It is a disease that the World Health Organization has managed to eliminate in the space of a few decades. How's that for some kind of effectiveness? It was a moving reminder of how the organized efforts of such world-wide unions of people can, day by plodding day, work wonders.

During the evening, Erik and I grabbed some food – I can't remember exactly what, something Middle-Eastern, I think, out of Erik's incredibly-diverse neighbourhood, the Paquis, where Erik lived in the somewhat seedy red light district. We decided to wander back down to the Lake and see what we could turn up for our amusement, even if just as seasoning for our conversation. The lakefront was alive with people, which was already obvious to me was the norm. It was a little more crowded than the Milwaukee lakefront normally is during the summer, but not nearly so busy as the lakefront is during Milwaukee's festivals, particularly the ever-rocking Summerfest. We worked our way down toward the end of the Lake, where it flows into the Rhone, the river which will find its way to the Mediterranean in time. Talking, we took a series of particularly bad portraits of one another, often with either the imaginatively-named Jet d'Eau or the Old Town of Geneva in the background. Crossing the bridge to the festival grounds on the other side of the lake, we hit paydirt.

Erik had known that there was something going on, with some live music that we could check out. After pausing at an utterly vast candy vendor, we merged into a crowd that was dancing to enthusiastic and – as far as I can tell such things – very good Latino music of some sort. I don't know how to describe the varieties of music in this direction, and I didn't think to try to get the band's name. I was just too amazed to find this kind of music being done well in Geneva, with a vast and enthusiastic crowd enjoying it. I filmed a tiny bit of it, but gave that up to just enjoy it and dance along with the rest of the crowd. I don't know that Erik was as impressed as I was. He seemed a bit restless and I followed him around as he kept shifting through the crowd. I was enjoying the music, but was just as interested to merely keep talking with Erik, although now in January I cannot recall our conversations of that night. Inevitably there would be talk of women, faith, politics, and probably food. The only thing that really stands out in memory is us watching soldiers watching us closely from the Noga-Hilton doorway where we later learned some high-level Israeli leader was lodged. We did speak quite a bit of Geneva itself, with Erik coaching me about what to take in the next day. I think we turned in comparatively early, though, wiped out from our long weekend of travels to Venice, Florence and back, and our relative lack of sleep on the trains. I think I'd only slept five hours at best each night, even in Florence, because of excitement. So after a fairly conventional museum day for me, we crashed, with one big day of adventure left ahead of me, which turned out to unexpectedly be one of the best.

Go to: Geneva to Milwaukee: Part One: Walking Geneva
Adventure Knows No Age

Personal: A Week of Conversation and Quiet

It has been good to get a week more-or-less to myself. It's important to me to write up my travels, and I've been doing a lot of writing this week, trying to finish – at long last – the travel journal from Europe this summer, which I failed to do in August between fatigue, surgery, and needing to plan for school. I've had a number of long phone conversations this week: Erik and I talked for a few hours Wednesday night after he got back to Boston from a 24-hour trip down to Pensacola to take his leave of Hugh as he continues to move toward death. In fact, I really thought he'd be dead by this weekend from what Erik said, but he is still apparently holding on. Mark Lang took three hours on Tuesday, with lots of catching up to do, and I think I similarly talked for a good hour-and-a-half each to Mike McGlinn and then the other night to J.P. Hurt. All of these were good catch-up sessions, without the kind of painful component that my current talk with Erik obviously has as we contemplate saying good-bye to a good friend, a particularly close one for Erik. I did go over to Dan and Amy's Thursday to replace our usual Battlestar night with a Grey's night, which Dan has yet to admit that he enjoys as much as Amy and I do. Other than that, I've also enjoyed sitting for long stretches of hours in a very lightly-attended Starbuck's around the corner, continuing to enjoy all the many pages of Kristin Lavransdatter, and having occasional conversations with fellow theologian Bogdan Bucur of Romania, and his wife Christina, a philosopher studying the ancient Greek philosophical heritage. Today I had to dive back into the work of the semester, typing up the new version of the syllabus, arranging some clerical tasks with the College of Arts and Sciences, but the week down was just the thing.