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Errantry: Novak's Journal
...Words to cast/My feelings into sculpted thoughts/To make some wisdom last
Personal: Europe Trip 2006: Geneva to Milwaukee: Part Two: The Nicod Sisters 
22nd-Jan-2007 05:49 pm
Brown Jacket/Bookcase
The end of the recorded journal from the Europe Trip 2006 through Geneva, Venice and Florence.

Tuesday 25 July 2006
3:42pm
Sitting at the gate in Newark right now, waiting for the flight to Milwaukee to start boarding shortly. The last day closed fabulously. What is it today? Today’s the 26th, so yesterday was the 25th. So I think the last entry I made was over at Saint Pierre. I walked back over to meet Erik over at his bus stop at around 5:15, 5:30, after he got done at the WHO. I just took my time wandering the streets in a casual, meandering way after having walked through the Birds and Cats display at the Barbier Mueller Museum. In particular, I walked down the streets with my mind focused on 6th-7th century Geneva as I'd seen it in the excavations at Saint-Pierre, and made a point to try to walk through what the layout of the city then had been like, working my way down to the Church of the Madeleine, where the ancient necropolis had given way to the Christian memorials to the dead and the proclamation of the Resurrection.

We went back to his apartment because I hadn’t had any time to clean; I had been out there all day. Sweaty. Just felt nasty, and my feet were aching by that point, kind of like we had been in Florence after a long day of walking. So I showered and so forth, but we had this dinner date set up for us by a friend of a friend of Erik’s sister, who knew these girls that we should hang out with. So I’m asking Erik who these girls are, he says he doesn’t know. I’m like,
“Are they our age? Are they in their fifties? Are we entertaining some older matrons or somebody’s kids?”
He says he doesn’t know.
“What’s this place we’re meeting them at?”
He says he doesn’t know.
What time?
Doesn’t know.
I said, “But what –?”
Shutthefuckup!
He had some information via email so we took off that day to meet that day to meet Crisi, short for Cristina, and Isi, short for … Isabo? Isabel? I should check on that. We had to switch buses: they were way over on the left back – on the other side of Lake Geneva/Lac Léman – up Quai de Cologny toward the French border, well a ways up there, longer even than Erik had guessed by the stops. So we get off on the road, looking around, and there’s a girl walking toward us, putting on a motorcycle helmet and walking toward some bikes, and so now I’m thinking, “Ahhh… well, now we’ll have to know if they biked it!” They had picked this place to meet us that was just right on the beach: a veranda, a couple of seasonal tent/light wood, beach house kinds of bars. Almost the type of thing you would see on a Florida beach, except that there was just a low wall and people were jumping into the lake from there, but there was no sand beach or anything. So we walked out onto the veranda and just started looking around. Finally Erik noticed people who seemed to be looking around at newcomers, and did the whole smile, hand wave, “Are-you-the-right-person?” thing. And so we met Isi and Crisi, and just sat down and started talking, and had an absolute blast with these two.

They were around our age, which I privately felt was a lucky break on our part, and were both comfortably and casually hip: they were about a year apart in age, and clearly very different people, not even looking too much alike to me, although I think that they shared the same light green or ivy-coloured eyes. But they also evidenced a connection that went beyond just being sisters, and seemed to have a friendship that made an interesting parallel to that of mine and Erik’s. Their English – also luckily for us – was fabulous. They had both lived in the States for about ten years, back in their grade school years. Their father is a professor of Cardiology at Lausanne. Crisi definitely had a French accent to her English, but Isi’s American accent was almost dead on, so it was hysterical to all of a sudden shift from speaking French to her American English because it was like downshifting from fifth to third gear, with a little bit of the sudden jarringness of the shift. The conversation was just regular, get-to-know-one-another type stuff, “Who are you? What do you do?”-type things. Isi has at this point been working in real estate, but she has just about had it with that, back in Lausanne. Crisi is working for a lawyer in Geneva right now, and getting ready for her own bar exam, but is also perhaps the most wanderlust-possessed person I’ve ever met: living in the Far East, living in the States, living throughout Europe, so I don’t expect that she’s sticking around in Geneva for very much longer. So the two of them are looking at big change pretty shortly. They were interested in us: our travels, our degree programs, what we were doing, and so it was just a hit right off the bat, because they are intelligent, educated, cosmopolitan, and just great fun in all ways.

So we probably sat there by the lake for an hour, drinking sodas or beers, and starting to figure one another out a little bit. Lots of laughing. Reaching into her bag, Crisi asked if we were those kinds of Americans that were fanatical about people not smoking, and Erik took great glee in informing on me that I was exactly such a person. I quickly interjected that I was much more interested here in being polite, though, and that she should feel free: I hardly wanted to kick off the evening by offending our companions. In passing, she then asked me why I had strong feelings on the matter, whether it was a health thing or what, and I acknowledged both that and that I just can't stand the smell of tobacco. But we moved quickly on to more entertaining talk: telling some of our stories, particularly Erik and I traveling together, how we knew one another from the University of Notre Dame and a bit about the school, stuff about the Freeks and the Folk Choir, our degree programs, how his work in Psychology had brought him to the World Health Organization and the outlandish fact of me being a theologian, family details (naturally I showed über-cute pictures of Grace and Haley to great success) and things like that. We got there late, I think it had to be a little after six-thirty; there was a storm over on the other side of Lake Geneva, maybe out toward Nyon, and so we were watching that creep down the shore a ways, but not quite toward us. Seeing some lightning strikes from such a distance was still startling somehow. Of course, it was all very pretty: the sunset more over Geneva and then the storm farther off to the north.

Finally, Erik proposed grabbing some dinner and we went looking for Isi’s car. I don’t quite know the story about the car: I guess it’s Isi’s car and I guess it was Isi’s dog that made Isi’s car something that she was apologizing for so much. She has a golden retriever, upon which she dotes, and there was about another golden retriever’s worth of hair in the back seat. So she was all appalled by that, but they had brought swimming gear and towels, in case we had wanted to take a dip, but that ended up not happening, so we threw a towel across the hairy seat, and I jumped into the front while Erik and Crisi jumped in the back, and off we went. Of course, we had no plan at this point. I was all for going somewhere – anywhere – in France, just so that I could get over the border and say that I had been in France: to add it to my list of countries in the most pathetically-possible way. But we turned around and headed back toward Geneva and that got to be absolutely hysterical, listening to the two of them start to squabble with one another. As soon as any stress entered into the conversation between the two of them, whether it was “Look out! You’re going to crash!” driving-type stress, or if it was just “Where should we go for dinner? I like this place. I don’t like this place. You like this place. I don’t like this place.” then they would immediately fall into their French by default and would then swing back out and make a report to me and Erik about the momentary consensus or results of the French argument or interjection.

This went on for a little while, and in fact I started filming it because they were so funny fighting with one another.

Then they called another one of their sisters (the two of them being the two eldest of six children in a Catholic family in a Protestant canton in Switzerland there; five daughters, I believe, and maybe the fourth child is the son, and the last two are twin girls, sixteen, who are currently in the States with their parents for the year and are giving them all sorts of grief about being so old) and soon we had the third sister and her boyfriend also suggesting things over the cell phone, while the girls continued to squawk at one another and so forth. This couple was thinking of joining us, but there was some debate going on about whether or not to go over and eat at some place in the Paquis, Erik's neighbourhood, which I've mentioned was full of all sorts of places featuring food from around the world. The sister, Elena, and her boyfriend Patrick, apparently decided to pass on the possibility of joining us, leaving us to continue talking about what kind of food to grab as we kept on driving. At one point, I came to understand that the place currently under debate between the girls was an illegal Indian restaurant run out of some immigrant's apartment. Because of questions of health code – I had visions of Upton Sinclair and The Jungle dancing in my head – I raised some half-serious hue and cry about how this might be the last desperate act of people who couldn't get jobs elsewhere. The ladies agreed with me earnestly, taking my words to be a socially-sensitive statement of sympathy about the plight of immigrants, and enthused in support of the restauranteurs, while Erik laughed away in realizing that I was in fact speaking from tongue-in-cheek horror at the thought of eating there. Erik also jumped into the fray by pointing out that I wouldn't mind eating something of distinctly Swiss cuisine, although I had no idea that that might be. Crisi said it was heavy on cheeses, which was a surprise to me as I'd imagined something more along the lines of German food, and I worried that a cheese-heavy meal might set off my odd digestive system, and I had no desire whatsoever to miss out on the girls' company by having to occupy the restroom all evening. Isi interjected, though, that Swiss food was a rather dismal thing in general and not worth our time that evening. We were getting to the point where we were locked in a pattern of politely deferring to one another and thus making no decision, and the laughable silliness of it all was threatening to run out of steam.

So all through this we had made a pretty significant loop down into Geneva and around to the University, down where I had been earlier that morning. Finally we pulled over right there and went walking across the green, past the Wall – the Reformation Memorial – which Erik hadn’t seen yet, and on up into the old quarter for dinner, which was a great, great, great choice. So they picked some place where you got half a poulet – half a chicken: I think I said that correctly – and frites, salad, and all for something like eight or nine francs. The place is called Chez ma Cousine, and I believe that Isi said that it was a popular spot during student days at the University of Geneva, from which we had had an easy walk. It was an inspired choice. They serve half a roasted chicken, potato wedges and a salad. Period. I think there are three options on the menu for season, but essentially they do the one thing and they do it well, and it was just the kind of easy solid food without fuss that was perfect for the night, as it allowed us to not take it too seriously and to stay focused on one another. It was just off the top of the hill somewhere there, a little bit below Saint Pierre. So we got a table there, although the girls went around the corner to check on another place they liked, just in case, but that was closed. It didn’t take us long to get a table – inside rather than outside, unfortunately, so it was a little bit hotter.

Dinner continued with great conversation. We had no lack of ease in being able to get along with these girls: they were just two great people. So … I don’t know … what did we talk about at dinner? I can remember at one point discussing our personal phobias, arguing whether certain things were too cliché to be phobias. I can remember lots of little bits: even just the fact that I was keeping a journal in this fashion, recording things along the way because they would take too long to write, they said that this was so American, that Americans are always doing something, and filling their time up with these things, and so forth. That was entertaining: I don’t hear the American stereotypes or impressions like that ever, so that was illuminating, I suppose, in some minor way. I think it was Isi who marveled at the journal and “Americans are always doing something like that! You know, so creative, so go-get-’em; filling their time.” It was such a … I’d never been seen as unusual or admirable for something like that. It was strange – but just the kind of thing I love – to suddenly get a cross-cultural vision of something I do, and to thus see it – and Americans – through other eyes. We talked about siblings, and I of course had a chance to wax eloquent about Grace and Haley. We spoke of travel, places we’ve been and wanted to be. Erik and I talking about our adventures in Venice and Florence over the weekend, and also earlier in Tunisia and Rome, telling them about traveling with Hugh. I can’t seem to come up with a whole else. I remember learning a Swiss phrase: our chicken was very well salted, more salted than perhaps any dish I’ve ever received. Crisi was sitting next to me and simply said, “He’s in love.” And I didn’t quite know what this meant, but apparently it’s a Swiss saying that, should you ever receive a meal that’s been too well salted, you say that the chef is in love. I guess that it’s the idea that they’re so distracted by being in love that they get careless with their salting or seasoning. So that was new. I didn’t know what that meant at first, and we kind of came back to it later on because she had just kind of said it offhand, and I wasn’t sure how to respond to that or what was actually being said. So it was funny, then, when she finally explained it.

Inevitably love and romance wove it's way into the conversation, all very comfortably. Because it was one of those situations where we had all more-or-less decided to start at the level of being good friends, especially since we might never see one another again, there was no point in holding back. That was the chief wonder and delight of this night: four people truly letting themselves meet and be met, without much reserve. It's a risk we might not have taken if we had met in a more normal way, with greater potential to encounter one another again. (How backwards of humanity is that?!) Crisi teased that Isi was collecting diamonds from the fellow she was seeing, and that she very well might be considered to have received a proposal or two at this point. Isi rolled with that and explained to us that she might have two diamonds, but she had ten fingers, and so there was plenty of room for more. Crisi sounded much less easy to pin down, given her own penchant for living abroad, and that she would likely be doing so again after she had completed her training in the law. Erik and I told something of our own stories, and I was struck by Crisi’s challenging me about the idea of not being open to someone who might be open to following where I’m wandering. I had talked about not having dated anyone seriously for some time – partially because of dealing with the health issues and surgeries I'd had the last few years, but also just the knowledge that I was just passing through Milwaukee and would leave within a year or so – but she was adamant that that wasn't really something I had the right to use as an excuse not to date: that the point was to find someone willing to be uprooted. I conceded that she probably was right on that point, but more I was just honoured by her willingness to challenge me on the point: it was the kind of thing that emphasized to me how "real" we were willing to be with each other this night, and nothing delights me more than enjoying such honesty and openness in people – to really dare to know and be known. It's what I've always enjoyed about my friends, and it just pleased me in letting me see the sisters as "our kind of people."

We wandered out, and we decided then that it was time for after-dinner drinks, even though it was already after ten o’clock on a work night and Isi still had to drive forty minutes or an hour to get back to Lausanne. But we wandered up the street a little bit to where a couple of huge bars or cafés spilled out all over the square, La Place du Bourg-de-Four. The girls had walked a bit ahead and Erik was orienting me, drawing my attention to where the tower at the Cathedral was rising above the rooftops around the square, and where the Jet d'Eau could also be glimpsed at its height. But we settled at a table in one of the cafés that had spread into the flagstoned square and placed our drink orders with a waiter, as the lively crowd and sounds of music from one of the other clubs all blended together to just give me an impression of life being lived well on this warm summer night.


3: 59pm
So last-minute drinks and more talking: where people were going, and me having to go back the next morning to the United States. Despite the alcohol, this was a bit more sober discussion: what did the future hold for each of us? Having met and enjoyed one another's company in passing, where was life taking us? I asked Isi in a more serious way about this guy she was seeing, and Crisi about specific countries she might be entertaining a move to, and what she might do with her law degree abroad. More significant and quiet questions of that sort were now traded. Now, as the conversation washed over me, I began to regret that I was leaving in a big way. We all hit it off really well, and I can totally see Erik hanging out with them again. So I'll envy him that opportunity. When we did push away from the table, though, and time seemed to speed up to its normal pace, it was with some renewed (or enhanced!) laughter and light-heartedness. Experimental photography was conducted, with Crisi protesting at what she thought the least-flattering of the group poses. (She was right, and that photo has been edited out for everyone's sake.) Seeing a store sign that proclaimed Presence, I insisted that the girls pose under it because I melodramatically told them with that it was their sheer presence that I wanted to capture on film. Naturally, they rejected that overwrought idea and proceeded to make horrible faces, not unlike their sixteen year-old twin sisters, in photographs that were later forwarded to me, which indicated to me that Isi and Crisi weren't nearly so advanced in maturity as the twins accused them of being. So the walk back to the car and the end of the night was funny, satisfying, and all too soon over.

It was one of those things where you really seem to develop a friendship very quickly. They expected to be in contact with me over the internet, and whether or not this happens, I don’t know, but I would certainly not mind in the least, and I would totally expect to see them – they were in the States just last month – I would totally expect to run into them at some point in the future, or host them. So hopefully I’ll be a professor in a few years here, and have a little more space to host than in a grad student’s apartment. But I might also never hear from them again after a few exchanges, and that, too, would be perfectly natural, if a great loss. It's hard to be friends long-distance, of course, with so little shared time, or without the oddity of being online journalers.

But we finally called it a night, and took Crisi home, dropping her off at her scandalous two-bedroom apartment, which I learned is scandalous because Geneva has a real space or housing crunch, they told us; she said there would be something of a riot if it was found out that she had a two-bedroom apartment to herself. Then Isi dropped us off, after a final lesson in French culture and manners. (After saying good-night to Crisi, I had laughed about the polite kiss-on-either-cheek custom, which was not something my family had done when I was growing up, and which had me confused or inexperienced when I had arrived in Tunisia. I had originally done more of an actual kiss on the cheek rather than the sort of mock-kiss that is the greeting and farewell in Arab and European cultures, and thus found myself the subject of a suddenly very appraising and sly look from one of Mohamed’s teenage nieces. Isi laughed and proceeded to give us a very precise lecture on the subject.) And that brought the night to a close. So the conversation and opportunity to get to know these two gems was so much fun: the best sort of capstone to the entire experience.

Erik and I went straight back to his room in the Paquis: I had to do my packing still, and Erik was dropping off pretty quickly. We made a few plans for the next day and how we were going to pull that off. I woke up about a half-hour before the alarm went off. I probably didn’t get to bed until a little after 1:00am and woke up at 6:30am. I’m amazed at how little sleep I’ve gotten on this trip and how well I’ve functioned in spite of that fact. So I woke up before Erik did, and just stuck my head out of the open window and looked at the cool dawn light in this fairly ugly nook of Geneva there, and just took in the feel of the city a little bit, since this was it. Even just the fact that they don’t have screens on the windows – you just stick your head out a window – is one of those tiny differences from the States. So I got ready, and we had some trouble finding the bus stop. The location for it had changed for the bus to the airport: it was all the way over on the other side of Notre Dame – the nearby Catholic church which, to my regret, I had no opportunity to explore, given that is was an important namesake for our history – from the train station. Erik walked me over and we said our good-byes there. I had to thank him for an incredible week, where in traveling to the places we had, he had opened up such beauty to me. He paused outside the bus, clearly waiting to wave me off as I pulled away. But before that happened, I was distracted by two very attractive young women who I started to chat with, a brunnette and a blonde who were both from Brazil, and had that look of young people who had been backpacking across Europe. Before I knew it, we were well away from the bus stop and I could just imagine how irritated Erik must be with me for blowing off his efforts at a final good-bye by immediately dropping him for the closest girls I could find. Sorry, Erik! (And, uh … I gotta go! Though I’m in row 7 with a window seat: I could have killed for a window seat on the flight back transcontinentally, and wasn’t even seated next to a person with a window seat, and we went close to Greenland, we went over England, Ireland, and there were all these people who just shut their visors and don’t use the view, and I thought it was absolutely criminal. So, 7-A here: I hope I get a good view of New York City here, at least, as we take off. [I didn’t.])


5:23pm
Well, we’re in the air, probably over Pennsylvania now and I haven’t totally been able to follow my own advice: I’ve been nodding since I was on the runway. But I did catch a little bit of a view as we took off. We went south, so not much of a view of the city, but there were amazing, amazing shipyards lining the coast here in New Jersey/Newark. So I’m on page 40 of this equally-amazing little book I bought yesterday, Geneva in Early Christian Times, detailing the excavations around Saint Pierre. It’s probably a little bit out-of-date – it’s copyright 1986, after all – but it looks like they had done quite a bit of the work that I saw yesterday by that point. But I will keep my eye open for a second edition. Amazing work here. I’m so glad that I got this, because it gives such a lie to the term “Dark Ages.” All of this work – these layers of civilization that we see here through Geneva’s episcopal center through the early Middle Ages – it’s all so sophisticated and involved. So, what? it’s got to be around 5:00pm local time, East Coast Time, so 11:00pm Geneva Time, so I am really starting to drag at this point. I’ll try to take a hit of caffeine here to keep me going, because it’s only 4:00pm Central Time. I’ve got a ways to go on this day yet.


And before too much more time had passed, I was back in the City of Festivals. I had to laugh the other day as I was tramping through the snow, in thinking over how long it's taken me to transcribe this journal from my digital recorder's files to the LiveJournal. I found myself hoping that the me 30 years from now is appreciative of all the efforts I've taken on his behalf, because this was a lot of work just to make sure that he still has a reasonable access to all these memories of mine. Obviously, I was laughing because the current me being slightly annoyed at a future me was borderline lunacy, although it made a kind of loopy and amusing sense. And it's true: those years and events I don't write down, I lose all too easily. All of these days were too fabulous to risk that way. Travels, new foods, new sights, old and new friends: it's the stuff of which lives are made.


Go to: The Final Note of the Trip
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