The Weeklies: November 4 - 10

On Monday, November 5, I stood shivering in the rain on the corner of 18th Street and Seventh Avenue. I'd had a hell of a time trying to get home. There was an issue at 34th Street, the one train service had stopped completely. I waited on a train platform for thirty minutes before calling it quits. The first Lyft I called drove off without me.

Finally a yellow cab picked me up. I told him where I was going, he turned on to the West Side Highway. 

"All the trains are so bad when the weather is like this," he laughed. I'd just come from my first dinner with my writing group. We've been meeting for months in a therapy office in Flatiron, and someone suggested instead of meeting that we just get together. I was with a writing group in 2013, we had such magical chemistry that every meeting stretched for hours. There were the critiques, sure, but then we'd go out to dinner and drinks and march around the East Village in a gigantic, drunken group. I'm still friends with almost everyone I met there, and two of my closest friends: Philippa and Suni, I met in the group. There wasn't that same instant chemistry with the new group. Over dinner we laughed a bit, but there were big swaths of quiet time, and eventually, after eating and drinking at record speed someone said, "Should we get the check?" 

After dinner I was ready to spend my ride home agonizing over every stupid thing I said. But my cab driver was a talker, somehow I get one of these twice a year. They always turn the meter off early since I was "such a good listener." 

My cabbie had white hair, slim build, deep set eyes, an accent I couldn't place. He started telling me about his life. He had two kids, a boy and a girl. He lived in Ridgewood, he was a former pro boxer. He was interested in health, fitness, etc. He had a friend recently die, "...he didn't take care of himself!" he exclaimed. He eschewed consumerism, a trait common among talkative cabbies. Sometimes it feels like they are all optimists wearing shields. If they had pain, they'd never feel it. They're always looking to the sky.

"I give my money to my family because you can't take it with you when you die. What are you going to do, hold on to your money with your teeth and drag it up to the heavens?" I was envious of this attitude. If I took a hard look at myself in the mirror: I want everything. I'm the adult version of Veruca Salt. Of course, I didn't tell him that. I just did my nod and occasional, "Yes, you're totally right." 

I asked him about his family. He lifted up his cell phone, his son was the photo on the lock screen: a seven-year-old boy, with a bowl-cut and a blue soccer jersey. He lit up talking about him. "All you need is family. All you need is kids to give love and receive love. The chain of love." 

We turned down St. Nicholas and just as I suspected, he cut off the meter 10 blocks from my home. 

"I don't need all this money," he said, "and you are so nice." We pulled up to my building and when I got out he turned round in his seat.

"Remember, Ariel, receive the chain of love." 

I got to my apartment, slipped on my night clothes and opened my computer. I started a new document with the quote from him at the top of the page.

I went to sleep shortly after, but I woke up every hour and worried about missing my chance to vote. When my alarm finally went off at 6:30 I jumped out of bed, had a quick breakfast, and speed walked two avenue blocks to my polling place. I voted without incident and without waiting, then I walked proudly to the subway with my "I Voted" sticker on my bright blue coat. When my train rolled into Wall Street station, there was a man in his 40s or 50s watching me and eyeing my sticker. When I got off to go to the office he smiled. "Have a blessed day," he said.

Friday night I met Alistair at his apartment with a bottle of our favorite whiskey, Suntory Toki, tucked under my arm. Our two year anniversary was on Saturday (today!) and we'd planned on a low-key evening at Bemelman's Bar. After lunch today, my stomach was upset (I was diagnosed with a hiatus herniawhen I was 23, so this is pretty common). I took some medicine and fell asleep around 6 pm. Bemelmans' would have to wait till Sunday.

The Weeklies: October 28 - November 3

I left work Wednesday evening when the sun was up, and after my hour-long commute home, I reached my neighborhood and night had fallen. Kids were everywhere. I saw a Superman, a lot of princesses, two boys wearing impressive blow-up dinosaur costumes. It was the warmest day of the week. I almost regretted not joining Alistair in his neighborhood for the annual Halloween street-party. 

It is common small talk to say, "I can't believe it's already [insert holiday here]" and I found myself saying that about Halloween. The idea that time is cyclical made me sad on my way home. The things that bother me year after year may continue to come back, to never end. I have lots of normal, productive days. I also have many days where the ritual makes me angry. 

Lately, I've indulged in a temporary cure. At my apartment I settled on the sofa, opened my computer and began my latest diversion: summer travel and event plans. Ever since I was a little girl there was one special event I've always wanted to attend. It isn't held in the US, which is half the reason I haven't gone already. That night I delved into the details and tried to make it a reality with handwritten lists and ideas. It was almost as nice as relaxing with a cocktail. Having something to day dream excitedly about keeps me happy enough. When things go wrong I imagine future me at future place during future time, and I forget everything. This was my work week in a nutshell: work, home, work, home -- but with excitement on the evenings. 

The weekend came faster than expected. Alistair and I decided to have Japanese breakfast at Okonomi in Williamsburg. The warm weather we had on Wednesday and Thursday dipped back down into the 50s; I grimaced as the wind whipped up around us on our walk to the restaurant. Okonomi is a quaint place, only enough tables for ten guests, and all of them were taken. The hostess told us about their new "policy" -- $20 upfront to hold a spot on the waitlist -- we forked over $20 and spent the next few hours grumbling. Alistair went and got a haircut, then we walked around the neighborhood waiting on our table to become available. In a hardware store we said hello to an African grey parrot and in the garden saw a pig sleeping in his pen. 

Unexpectedly, one of my old friends was in town for a wedding and asked if I could grab dinner. We met at 7 pm at Cafe Cluny, one of the many cute places in West Village. It was nice to catch up and feel like I was "out on the town" on a Saturday night. After dinner I waited on the platform for the C train to meet Alistair. There was the typical delay, so I watched the pairs of people passing by and I looked at myself and felt quite gross in comparison. Another week was coming up, and I worried that my evening diversions wouldn't stave off my usual apprehension or my insecurities. What's next? 

The Weeklies: October 21 - 27

Last Sunday, Alistair and I put on our coats and scarves and took the G train to Gownus. His cousin was participating in an open studio event. 

"This neighborhood goes all out for Halloween," Alistair said. Most of the stoops were decorated with pumpkins. It was nice to cap the weekend in this way: sipping hot apple cider and looking at art.  

Monday was Suni's last day in the city before she returned to the west coast. (If you remember from last week, she joined Alistair and I at the opera.) She planned for us to have lunch near my office. It was a quick, 45-minute meal, but it was so good to talk, again. Its never enough time. I realized that since my two best friends in the city have moved away, I'm a bottle about to burst. There are many ideas and stories and thoughts I want to share with them, but I forget them after awhile. 

The rest of the week in one word: painful. I was anxious, tearful, tired. A storm hit the city on Saturday. Alistair and I stayed in binge watching the most recent season of "Love Island." (Don’t ask.)

My few moments outdoors were in the cold and wind. Fall is a primer for winter, I don't much get the appeal. 

The Weeklies: October 13 - 20

I woke up Tuesday morning and imagined myself wearing a suit of armor. Whatever was to come: snide remarks from commuters, fall wind -- I'd be immune to it. I'd push it aside. I'd be protected. For some reason, this worked. I was able to carry myself through the week deflecting. In this way, I was free.

This did not, however, prevent the usual ailments: feeling like my self-esteem was low, for example. On Tuesday afternoon I realized a suit of armor couldn't protect me from the harmful feelings I have about myself. The normal, you're too dumb and stupid and ugly. 

Wednesday after work I slipped into Goods for the Study, a McNally Jackson owned stationary store and pen shop. I picked up two cartridges for my fountain pen and went to the register. 

"Did you need anything else?" the shopkeeper asked. 

"I want something new," I said. I was kind of pleading. She walked me to the shelf and picked up a ball point.

"Have you tried the Monami?" she asked, and handed me a Monami 153 ID in midnight blue. I loved the way it felt in my hand, the weight of it. I tested it on a piece of paper and realized the ink flowed out like butter. 

"Nah," I said. Then I shook my head. "I'll take it." 

I'm a sucker for fancy pens.

I walked a block down to the McNally Jackson bookstore for a reading. Alistair and I's friend had written his fourth novel so we attended the reading and Q&A and lined up to get our book signed. We had dinner at The Dutch, curled up together at the bar.

Thursday night I met with Alistair again for after-work drinks. I couldn't stop talking about Friday night. One of my closest friends, Suni, was in New York for the week and would be accompany us to the US Premiere of Nico Muhly's opera "Marnie" at the Met. In keeping with my tradition, I try to see as many premieres at the Met as possible. It would be Suni's first time at the opera ever. I kept telling Alistair, "I wish I would have known! I should have taken her to a standard first, like Don Giovannior Carmen." 

I could barely contain myself by the time Friday arrived. I met Suni for dinner at a Mediterranean restaurant and walked to the Lincoln Center afterwards. There is nothing like the plaza before a show! Everyone taking selfies, being giddy. Alistair met us and we had champagne before curtain. I'd splurged and got us three seats on the orchestra level.

I told them about the first time I came to the Met for a premiere when I was 23. I thought it was so magical, even if I was all alone and a little nervous about the New York protocol. We laughed when I told them about attending the premiere of Nico Muhly's opera "Two Boys" and how my friend met me during intermission with blood-shot eyes. As the story goes, I asked him:  "What's wrong with you?" And he laughed and bobbled his head around and said: "Someone gave me ecstasy."

Believe me, It gets really rowdy sometimes in the Family Circle during Met premieres.

I took everyone to PJ Clarke's after the show, to indulge in another tradition of mine. I ordered a half-dozen oysters, Alistair had salmon and we all drank smoky Negroni's. I was beaming. I was happy. I knew I might wake up with a hangover.

The waiter brought the table next to us a cake with a candle. Everyone assumed it was a birthday but then the waiter announced, "This girl beat cancer!" and everyone applauded. I don't think a moment can be more celebratory than that.

The Weeklies: October 6 - 13

TW: groping; sexual assault

After Switzerland, life became very busy. I attended office goodbye parties, book launch readings in Brooklyn, a very quiet birthday dinner at Entrecôte. Everything felt... bad. I worked overtime, I made mistakes at the office that left me sleepless and angry at myself. I kept the news on 24/7 and at my desk, cried listening to Christine Blasey Ford. I thought, "Surely, this must be the end of this sadness..." but then last week was the worst week I'd had in awhile. By Tuesday I was FaceTiming with Alistair in tears. Even as I prepared myself to write this Weekly, I was scared.  

Last weekend was quite slow. On Saturday, October 6, Alistair and I had brunch at Lowerline in Brooklyn, a New Orleans style restaurant that served all my favorite foods. It rained a little on the way back. That night we had a drink near his apartment and dinner in Manhattan at Red Farm. I slept all day on Sunday. 

I was off on Monday for Indigenous People's Day (formerly known as Columbus Day), so I scheduled a hair appointment and strolled around Harlem. It's a shame I can't afford living there now that it has gentrified itself beyond recognition. I feel more welcome in Harlem than I do in any neighborhood. When I walk down the street and pass another black person we give each other a "good afternoon" and a reverent nod. That doesn't happen anywhere else.

I had time to kill, so I went to a coffee shop and sat outside eating a peanut butter cookie. I stopped at the Astor Row Houses and marveled. After my trim I shopped on 34th Street before my 7:30 writing group meeting.

On Tuesday the weather in New York was at it's most beautiful. I decided that I would cheer myself up and go for a walk in midtown. I hopped on a train feeling the happiest I had been in weeks. I got off at Grand Central and waited on the platform to transfer. Some people find the rush hour to be maddening, but I think it's thrilling. 

A 6 train arrived and everyone pushed on, but I hung back for a second before I decided to board. Within the first few months of moving to New York, I was the victim of a groping incident. The police were involved, it was horrible. I know most people thing groping is a quick thing -- like a butt grab or slap -- and it can be that. But on the spectrum of things there are minor offenses, and then much bigger, more awful things. Mine was on the more awful side, I actually had to fight the person off, and still grieve the incident today. 

Because of this, I'm always keeping my eye out on really crowded trains. I usually take off my headphones and avoid looking at my phone. On my ride that evening, I noticed a man being very aware of who was watching him, and even looking down a few times at the girl standing next to him. Then I saw his hand on her butt and crotch. She was texting furiously and didn't even see, or notice. Everyone just assumes it's someones bag. Sometimes it's not. 

I didn't know what to do. I gave the man a furious look and he just kept looking away, he stopped but he seemed to be pretending that nothing was wrong. We were inches from each other. Could I tap her on the shoulder and ask her to move somewhere else? How does one, while being descreet, say what they need to say? Would "Hey lady, you're being groped?" sound crazy? And if I decided to say something to him, what do I say? He was a normal looking dude in a business suit, taller than me, stronger. I had been challenging him with glares but what if he retaliated? Would he follow me off the train and harm me? What do you do? What the hell do you do?

I got off the train at my stop and essentially, did nothing. I stood on the platform for awhile and he and I exchanged a glance. He stayed on the train. 

I followed a crowd to the station exit, tears were running down my cheeks. I pushed across Lexington Avenue. I stopped at the light on Madison and I wanted to scream. I managed to keep walking west to Fifth Avenue. If you just keep going, maybe you won't feel anything at all.

It was nearly-fall weather in the city that day. Not too hot, not too cold. Tourists covered the sidewalks, I sped walked around them so fast I went into a clothing store and was already sweating.

I kept shopping, kept seeking something to distract me from crying. I walked north and crossed Central Park South to Columbus Circle. I went to Bouchon Bakery, my go-to place. I bought two cookies and waited at the register. There was a woman in her 60s in front of me. The man at the register said to her, "Hi, Ariel, just two cookies today?" and the woman laughed. 

"That's me," I said, waving behind her. The cashier apologized, rung up the woman and before she left she turned to me and laughed. 

"Have a good night, Ariel!" she said. 

Have you ever experienced something so horrible that after everything sounds sinister and mocking? Do you ever feel like you're losing your mind? 

I called Alistair and cried. He was away on business. The rest of the week remained slow, relaxing, even. I'm slowly starting to feel better, and looking forward to next week when my calendar crowds again. Maybe things will feel normal again.

The Switzerland Diaries: The Last Few Days

After we left Chillon we drove back to Coppet and arrived at Alistair’s sister’s house in the early evening.

Two chefs were in her kitchen preparing us dinner and greeted us. Alistair went for a swim with his nephew and I had a glass of rosé. The table was set outside and we all had cheese soufflé, grilled fish with lentils and spicy sauce, and a cheese plate, salad and chocolate pudding dessert. Alistair’s sister’s puggle ran from person to person at the table, pleading for scraps. We told everyone about our trip. Then the sun set on the lake. A team of rowers were practicing, and whenever they passed, we heard a coxswain yelling in French.

The Jeep that we squeezed down narrow Italian streets was still in our possession. We'd have to return it to the airport in the morning, and the plan was: Alistair would drive his brothers car and I would follow in the rental. I was nervous the next day as I turned through Geneva’s roundabouts, SUV's don't suit me. But I laughed a little--what the hell was I doing driving in Switzerland. 

After dropping off the car Alistair and I headed to Carouse (Geneva's "little Italy") so he could attend a business meeting. I would have an hour or two to walk around the neighborhood by myself. When I waved goodbye to Alistair and set off through a small park, I felt like I did many years ago in Paris. Most of the shops in Carouge were not yet open. I just turned down whatever street looked friendly, then the next one, after that. When I got to a dead end I would turn around and go back. A bakery or cafe was my first inclination, though we would be having lunch soon. 

I saw art galleries, salons, architecture firms. I was feeling a little unconfident in all the doorways I peeked in so eventually I arrived back at the park. I sat in the sun and waited. 

After Alistair's meeting we went to see his childhood home. Graffiti he’d drawn in a light pole box when was in his teens was still there, undisturbed.  We visited his international high school and walked the quiet campus.

He and his classmates used to have lunch at Roadrunner, a burger joint a cross the street, so we got burgers and fries and then went back to Old Town. We had time to waste before our next event, so we went to the Art and History Museum. It's a very beautiful stone building, with grand staircases and windows. The two things I noticed immediately: it was nearly empty and there was no A/C, just a single fan per room. There many security guards sweating in their suits.

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One of Alistair's oldest friends invited us by. He lived in a high rise building not far from the museum. He bought us an apple galette that we ate on the balcony while his three-year-old watched Peppa Pig. Two of his other friends joined later on, and went to the back garden of the building. His son rode his bike in circles around a shallow fountain. 

We had dinner reservations with Alistair’s friend about ten minutes north of Coppet, at a place called Le Buffet de la Gare Celigny. Once we drove past the city center we entered vast farmland. We took a left into what looked like cornfields or wheat and another turn, and we arrived at the restaurant in the middle of nowhere. 

There were string lights, and a little outdoor garden. We sat ornate dining room decorated with vintage posters, oak walls, and captain hats hanging from a coat tree. We had a glass of wine, a rich amuse-bouche of espresso and melted cheese and cream with chives. I ordered duck roasted with vegetables. Dinner conversation was a mixture of toilet humor (our favorite type), and a rehash of our journey.

Alistair's friend asked me what I thought of Switzerland.

"It is so beautiful," I said. "my goal to get more people to know about how beautiful it is and put it on their list of places to see.”

“You were in what we call ‘Postcard Switerzland,’” he said. He told me of his work travels to northern Switzerland, an area I researched before.

“Is that near Maienfeld?” I asked. “Where Heidi is from?” He said that it was. I sighed happily. “I've always loved 'Heidi.' I've always wanted to be 'Heidi' when I was a kid."

We then ordered profiteroles and I ordered an espresso in French, and Alistair's friend rose his eyebrows. 

"You speak French!" he said.

"No," I laughed. I was only comfortable enough ordering coffee, nothing else. I've written it a thousand times but if I ever had a lifelong rival, the French language would be it. Alistair's friends were so nice to oblige and speak English, but it makes me so privately mournful that after two years of one-on-one lessons and two years of French in college, I was still not past learning passé composé, and my accent was awful. 

The boys had whiskey, so I drove Alistair home. I needed the bright lights on to see through the darkness; we were the only car the whole ride home.

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The next morning it started to rain in Geneva. It was the last full day of our vacation and we'd only planned lunch with Alistair's friends downtown. We met them at a little cafe that Alistair's late father loved. Afterwards, we went to the Natural History Museum. In silence we walked past stuffed birds, sea animals, a whole pride of lions. Monday loomed over us. Pretty soon we'd be in New York again. Alistair sighed heavily: “The vacation is almost over.”

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We decided we'd cook dinner instead of going out. We bought a melon from Migros and ingredients for fresh pesto. Back at Alistair's sister's house, a double rainbow had formed over Lake Geneva. We opened the two pre-made bottles of Aperol Spritz from Italy and had them over ice. 

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The next morning we dressed and met Alistair's mother so she could drive us to the airport. We found a little seat in the busy terminal, and his mother gave me a gift, a frame from Globus and a Native American charm. 

"I hope it will bring you luck," she said. A gesture so sweet I thought I could cry. We hugged her goodbye and joined a long security line that folded itself around the room. Eventually we couldn’t see her among the crowd. When our plane ascended into clouds and Geneva, too, disappeared from sight. We arrived in New York many hours later.

Day Six: Lake Como (continued), Zermatt, and Chillon

The next morning I woke up to the sound of birds on our balcony. I opened the door to look at Lake Como. It was quiet on the lake, no speedboats. I couldn’t spot the ferry. The sun was hiding behind the clouds.

A floor below, hotel guests were served breakfast on a patio. Alistair and I dressed to join them. When we finished--full, caffeinated, and eager to walk through Bellagio--we passed the American couple from the night before on the stairs. We didn't even have to say hello, we all just smirked, laughed, and kept going.

We started by seeing the town church, then did a little shopping. Functional blue and red bags hung from the homemade leather shops, wooden trinkets in another --cutting boards, ornaments, chess sets. We stepped into a candy store still dressed as it was in the 1950s. In a grocery we decided we'd have a picnic in Zermatt so we bought two bottles of pre-mixed Aperol spritz, a loaf of bread, pecorino cheese with a ribbon of truffle in the middle, and a pound of prosciutto de parma. I peered over a glass case into a vats of gelato. A shopkeeper spun them ‘round on a lazy-susan to give me two scoops of my flavor. 

At the bottom of one of the hilly streets, I ate my gelato and watched the sun come out, and wished we could stay a little longer, maybe even swim, but we were expected in Zermatt.  We got the car and waited in line for the ferry. A guard came and told us to turn off the engine so we rolled down the windows. Everyone passing us was on their way to a very beautiful, flower-lined avenue and could hear us speaking in English. At least four or five American people stopped by the car to ask for directions, or when the Ferry left. A very amicable man, tall, tan, in his late 60s, in a polo shirt and a baseball cap stopped by the car for directions. We told him, and then later on the ferry to Menaggio, he introduced himself as Jim. 

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"I'm traveling alone, and it's been a long time since I've gotten to talk to anyone nice," he said. We learned he was from San Diego, a professor on summer vacation. He goes everywhere, a month in Spain, a month in France.

"Well, there's only one thing to do..." he said after we exchanged pleasantries. "I have to get a photo of the nice couple I met." He took our photo and laughed. 

"A tip..." he said. "I've had my phone stolen three times in Europe, once a bunch of guys approached me as if they were going to ask a question. Now I just tell everyone, 'Stay back, I have a cold.' It's a good trick," he said. 

We said goodbye and the ferry arrived at the port of Menaggio. We went south. Alistair wanted to take a very specific road to Zermatt, not the highways and certainly not the death-trap Italian roads, but the Nufenen Pass.  We climbed The Alps by way of the small towns dotted with chalet-style homes. You could hear the cowbells from the cows eating grass among the trees. It was such a pleasant sound.

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The higher we got the mountain peaks were more abundant. So many that their tops looked like the crests of gray waves. Once we even passed an ice-blue glacier. There was a restaurant at the highest point of the pass, and three flags marked the spot. We got out and stretched in the cold. 

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After an hour or so of driving, we arrived in Zermatt, but one doesn’t simply drive into Zermatt. Only a few vehicles are allowed near the city and almost all transportation is through tiny three wheel electric cars. Alistair has been a few times so he knew this, but there was just the matter of parking. We decided to call our hotel and a concierge said very sternly, “Do NOT drive to Zermatt!” He suggested a parking lot with a taxi service so we went back, parked, and greeted a woman at the front desk. 

She got our information, then put two shot glasses on the table. 

“Now would you both be interested in a Swiss treat?” She asked.

"I know Alistair would," I laughed. I'm always projecting my need for a drink onto Alistair by asking him if he wants a drink when I really want one. 

She poured us both a shot of Kirsch, a special Swiss liquor. We toasted, turned up our glasses and laughed. It was warm and strong, like all drinks made by people in cold temperatures. It could have knocked me off my feet. The woman smiled back at us. "You don't get one on the way back, only on the way there." 

We boarded a bus to the city and then another small electric car to the hotel. The back seats were covered in fur. 

Zermatt is a collection of luxury stores, restaurants, and Chalet-style hotels and apartments. An river runs through it. It's extremely quaint, the absence of cars makes it even more attractive. I kept sneaking glances at the Matterhorn. 

"Planes, trains, automobiles," sighed Alistair. We'd travelled a lot for one day. 

We arrived at the Hotel Matthiol, which was beautifully appointed with modern furniture but wooden walls, like being in a cabin. The concierge told us we could have a complimentary welcome drink. Again, Alistair and I gave each other a look as if to say, "Oh really!?" and eased into two seats at the bar. The sit-back, do-nothing part of our vacation had arrived. 

When we finished our drinks the concierge walked us to the sauna and then up to our room. It was especially luxurious. Out the window I could see the mountains and a tiny gondola ascending. We had our cheese and meats from Italy and put on bathing suits and robes for the sauna's and hot tubs.

We made a late dinner reservation at the hotel restaurant and after dinner fell into bed early. 

The next day we had breakfast at the hotel, then walked to the train that would take us to Gornergrat, one of the many peaks surrounding the Matterhorn. We got to walk through the town which required passing the famous graveyard, with tombstones for every climber who has died attempting to climb the Matterhorn. To date it is estimated that 500 people have died attempting to climb it.  

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We were late for the train, very late. We bought a ticket and and got on as the doors were closing. The train was $117 Swiss Francs for me, a non-citizen. We couldn't believe it. 

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The train would make several stops along the way, and allow for many views of the Matterhorn. I had read online the night before about how many groups of people attempted to conquer the Matterhorn, mostly resulting in deaths. Just seeing it covered in snow, so angular, so majestic, made me want to attempt it. The more I looked at it, the more it seemed like it looked back at me. Not necessarily a face, but a feeling. I wanted to personify it in every way I could.

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At Gornergrat there was a visitors center, viewing point and a little lodge where you could eat fondue and listen to yodeling. it was freezing up there, and the mountains were covered in snow. It was spectacular to see the snow, the ranges, a little pond in the middle with blue water, and beyond all of that the big watchman, the Matterhorn, in the distance. 

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We took the train back down, met our luggage at the station, then took another train back to the outskirts of Zermatt to retrieve the car. 

We had a three hour drive ahead of us through the highways of Valais. Bad drivers—too fast, switching lanes without looking—sped around us. I let off a string of terrible expletives. 

We arrived back on the other side of Lake Geneva, and finally, Montreaux. Alistair wanted the last and final stop on the trip to be Chillon Castle. As the story goes, he once went to Chillon as a small child, and seeing that the top of the castle hadn’t been maintained in its true form (a roof had been added) he threw a tantrum. We climbed all the way to the top of the castle (there were many narrow staircases). We saw the dungeon referenced in Byron's "The Prisoner of Chillon." 

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Before sunset we hit the road again, due back to Geneva. There were only a few more days left in our trip. 

The Switzerland Diaries: Day Five (Lucerne, Lugano, Lake Como)

The Lion of Lucerne would be impressive anywhere, but nowhere so impressive as where he is.”

— Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad, 1880

The next day, after breakfast at the hotel, we walked up a hill where there was a pool shaded by trees, the surface completely still.  A few feet above the water, in the natural rock face, was the Lion Monument, depicted by a wounded lion, resting on his front paws, a thorn in his back. It was built in dedication to the Swiss soldiers who fought to protect the French during the revolution.

Mark Twain, by some weird coincidence, did the same tour as Alistair and I, and made most of the same stops. Twain's quote about the monument is completely true. Even without the statue it'd be a pretty romantic spot, and in the morning the light falls upon it peacefully.

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 Just up the hill is the Glacier Garden (another stop Twain took, and also wrote about in a much better fashion). As Alistair explained, Lucerne was one covered with ice and glaciers, and the deep caves in the Glacier Garden were the holes those glaciers left behind. The whole thing is viewed from up above. By following a path you can stop along and look down into the dark holes. As part of the exhibit, after seeing the Glacier's we were led to a Alhambra House-of-Mirrors, a maze.

"We shouldn't do this," Alistair said, minding the time that we had left to go to the Transport Museum and catch a boat. We could be lost for hours, I kept bumping into the glass thinking it was a way out.

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"My mother would kill me if she knew I was in a mirror maze!" I shouted to him from afar. 

Eventually we resurfaced in another garden, with a lookout point over Lucerne.

Of all the attractions on our trip, Alistair talked about the Transit Museum the most. He went once on a school trip and was eager to return as an adult. We kept meeting Swiss people who raved about it. 

The Swiss take pride in their very punctual, very well-made boats, trains and airplanes. The museum was divided up into three buildings, one for each mode of transportation. We visited the trains first, they had a car from every time period and even a track that ran through the building. In the airplane exhibit we toured a 1970s Swiss Air plane (back when there was a smoking section!) and did a helicopter simulation. We used wind to direct real live sails in the boat exhibit. I saw my first real satellite.  

There was so much to do but, we had a 1 pm boat to catch for a ride through Lake Lucerne. We gathered our luggage and rolled through a waterside park. People were having picnics and sunbathing. We stood on a pier and watched our massive white steamboat approach. 

Alistair bought us First Class tickets and reserved us a table at the restaurant on the upper deck. They gave us one with the best view: mountains on one side, Lucerne on the other. The weather was perfect. I ordered a Swiss soda and a sausage made of pork and beef and served with potatoes and gravy. Alistair had salmon. For desert: pear and chocolate mousse. 

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With a boat so big the ride was steady and peaceful. The little towns outside of Lucerne became more spread out and rural the further we rode. There were houses high in the mountains on very steep hills; I marveled to Alistair "how can anyone live there without falling down the hill everyday?" I was happy to read that when Twain did this exact same boat ride, he wondered the same thing. After lunch we moved to the benches on the deck, the sun bore down on us, but the wind off the water kept us cool. The boat turned and we arrived at the very location where Switzerland was founded, the Rütli, marked by a very old and beautiful Swiss crest.

At our stop we arrived in a tiny town and climbed a hill to the train station. We had one more transfer before arriving in Lugano. There was a man on our train who kept loudly making comments every time Alistair spoke in English. He got off at the same stop as us during a transfer, and said something cutting in Swiss-German to Alistair while he was talking on the phone. He was dressed very normally but seemed a bit...off. Being that I know no Swiss German I worried about having an altercation with him. We went to another platform and waited for him to leave. Then we got our last train to Lugano. We specifically picked a regional train, not the express, so we could see the Alps up close. We were the only people in the first class car the entire ride so we snuggled up close and kept our eyes to the mountaintops. The Alps were impressive. At one point the train horn went off and we could hear it echoing back at us. 

Slowly we noticed the buildings lose their Swiss efficiency and become more colorful, Italian-like, with yellow and pink paint. We were inching towards Italian-speaking Switzerland. We arrived in Lugano around 6 pm, and Alistair's friend met us at the train station. 

Lugano, as everyone kept telling me, is a little like Rio, a big city with palm trees around a big lake. Architecturally it was a little like Italy in the 80s, but in a cool, retro way. Alistair's friend drove us to his place where he promised us a big dinner. He liked cooking for guests. 

On his patio we had a bottle of champagne and snacks and for dinner he made for us a pesto pasta and branzino, calamari, and shrimp from Lake Lugano that he roasted in the oven with tomatoes and onions. Despite being in Switzerland it felt like we were in L.A. Palm trees hung over the table. It wasn't incredibly hot but slightly humid. A storm rolled through, but as Alistair's friend explained, his home sat in a microclimate around Lake Lugano, the rain would never fall there. A few drops hit us, and he was right. The storm swept past, up the mountains. 

Alistair's friend moved to Lugano from Geneva and told us the local gossip -- my favorite thing to learn when I travel. The juiciest: Most people in Lugano hate people from the Swiss-German speaking part of Switzerland -- "They come here on the weekends like it is Miami then they go home during the week, they clog up the roads," they say. According to local gossip, everyone from Valais is a bad driver. 

Around midnight we shared ice cream from a local shop, and were in bed by 1 am. 

The next morning we said goodbye to our host took a cab to the airport in Lugano to pick up our rental car. The cab dropped us off in a tiny parking lot and pointed to a building that looked like a beach club. 

"This is the airport?" I asked when we walked past an outdoor bar covered in a canopy. It was a small terminal, only two flights leave a day, and a collection of rental car buildings, coffee shops and outdoor restaurants. It was almost like we were the only people there. 

There was a rental car desk there was a telephone and instructions. Alistair lifted up the phone and told them that we were there to pick up a car. 

"You were late, so the guy...he left," said the woman on the line with an Italian accent. "I will tell him to come back." 

Ten minutes later he returned.

Parla inglese” Alistair asked him.

“No,” the man said. “Italiano?”

“No, Francais?” Alistair asked back. The man shrugged. They had to speak in a mishmash of both. Alistair asked him, “So the car is a Polo, right?” we wanted the tiniest car available for the Italian roads to Lake Como.

Si, a Polo,” he said and walked us to the lot. He pointed at a gray Jeep. “Here it is.”

A massive SUV was the only thing left. I could feel it in my stomach already, I was nervous. 

"I don't want it to be like that episode of 'Master of None!'" I said to Alistair, in reference to the  episode where the main character's car gets stuck on a narrow road in Tuscany. 

To get to Bellagio we had to drive around Lake Como and back up to the center of the lake. What started out as a highway suddenly changed to a two-laned road, and eventually we were driving parallel to Lake Como on a two-way road only fit for one tiny car, hitting curves blindly and almost crashing into cars on the other side. A few times we had to squeeze by cars on the opposite side, which required pulling in the side-view mirrors, craning our necks out of the window, "Do I have room?" working with the other drivers, usually Italian, usually annoyed at the Americans in their big cars taking up all the room. I had my hand gripping the door, my knuckles turning white. We stopped at a viewing point and took photos.

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Google Maps led us to Bellagio, and then instructed us to drive down the narrow, cobblestone streets filled with tourists just to get to a parking lot.

“I don’t think we’re meant to be driving through the center of town like this!” Alistair said.

We parked right near the water and took a deep breath.

"I need a drink." 

"Me too."

It was my first time in Italy. Bellagio exceeded our expectations. We checked into our hotel room (we had a view of the lake) then went downstairs to one of the outdoor restaurants for lunch. We went for a walk through the town, which required climbing up the stairs of small stone streets lined with shops and buildings in pink, blue and yellow. Bellagio is the main tourist hub of Lake Como, the streets were crowded but small enough that you kept seeing the same people twice over.

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Back at the room we dressed for dinner and planned to take the ferry to Varenna. I'll never forget the voice on the loudspeaker announcing the destination in Italian, the walk on the boat and up to our seats, the feeling of being somewhere that I have only dreamed about.

 Varenna

Varenna


Varenna was far more beautiful than Bellagio because it's streets were empty and quiet. It felt more authentic in that way. I told Alistair I wanted to see the Villa Monastero gardens, so we walked in that direction. 

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Our mouths hung open, there was so much to see. A path along the water led us past a beach, and through the quiet city streets. Varenna was extremely beautiful. I struggle, even now, to convey it properly. 

Villa Monastero is a house and garden on the water built in the 12th Century. We walked the gardens stopping to read about the a variety of trees and flowers all marked with their names on little plaques. It offered a view of the lake and of Varenna, there were several spots with little balconies where one could feel like they stepped out of life into a paradise. 

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We wanted to have dinner but the restaurant rated number one in Varenna, Il Cavatappi, but it was packed. The host, a soft spoken Italian man in his 60s told us we could hang around, so we went to the next door bar for an Aperol Spritz and cheese. About forty minutes later, the man waved to us from the restaurant and we sat down at a table on the street. The food was delicious.

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When I think about Italy, I think about very relaxed meals, wine, and all-around sense of leisure. Alistair and I held hands on our walk back to the ferry. Fireworks were blowing over Bellagio and everyone had their cameras up. When we reached our port we saw the city still vibrant even as it was growing late. At the waterside restaurants bands played, people danced, everyone strolled with gelato. We got on the elevator at the hotel with another American couple we saw at drinks and dinner. 

"Did you enjoy Varenna?" I asked. They smiled and said that they did. 

We went to bed late. The next morning we would drive back to Switzerland to Zermatt.