I fly from London to Zurich via Sleazy Jet, which just a couple of days ago removed a passenger from their excessively lengthy line because he had just tweeted that the line at Easy Jet was, well, excessively lengthy. The staff member and her manager had told him that he had another thing coming if he thought he could stand around putting out negative tweets and still get on their plane. The manager told him he had ordered the guy’s luggage to be removed from the plane. Do you know about freedom of speech? asked the man. What are you, answered the manager sarcastically, a lawyer? Well, said he, I’m a professor of law, handing the manager his card. The suitcases were returned to the hold and the man flew to his destination. (Note to self: put a rush job on those cards saying Sue Katz - Professor of Law.)
(Note to reader: check out my photos of the two sets of Alps further down.)
I tell this anecdote to others nearby in the line and the time passes a bit quicker. When it is my turn to pay $25 for my suitcase, I ask the woman at the counter how long her shift is and if the pressure is always so unrelenting. She says they work 12 hour shifts with a single 30 minute break. No, they do not have a union. Have to pee? Tough luck.
In Zurich I am picked up by my dear friends Madeleine and Jaya and taken to Madeleine’s amazing minimalist flat where I am wined and dined – well, tea’d and dined in my case. In the morning Jaya and I walk down to the supermarket for supplies to take with us. I buy Swiss chocolate for best friends back home. On the stroll back to Madeleine’s we pass the storefront of a guy who fixes various electronics. It is famous for being a hoarder’s hell and Swiss people actually come by to glance in and be horrified. I look in. There are some boxes and old computer monitors piled around and, really, it doesn’t look much worse than my living room. The Swiss do have their standards.
Jaya and I set out for the Swiss Alps. Along the way we pass handsome villages with color-coordinated houses and farms where all the buildings, including the out-buildings, are in perfect nick. The wealth of Switzerland, Jaya explains when I am astounded not to see any falling-down barns. It is an incredibly well-heeled country and hard to believe that women only got the vote in 1971/2 – although the last half canon was forced to accept women’s suffrage only in 1990!! However, by 2010, in the seven-member Swiss Federal Council women held the majority.
Tractors are spraying a liquefied heap of cow shit (called “gulle”) on the manicured fields in between 18th and 19th century textile towns that lost all their business to the faster pace of England’s industrialization. We drive along the deepest and fourth largest lake in Switzerland, Lake Viervaldastatter. William Tell, the legendary Swiss apple and tyrant killer, is from these parts.
We keep passing orange SOS pillars – emergency phones on the highway about five or six feet tall – but they are encased by a metal cage. This, Jaya says, is so that when they are entirely covered by the snow, plows will be stopped by the cages from plowing over the phones.
We leave the valleys very quickly and start to climb into the Alps, which are amazing and imposing and, oops, increasingly buried in fog. The higher we climb the foggier it gets. When the fog clears enough, we stop and look through the ranges of peaks, and then climb some more. We are headed for the famous St. Gotthard Pass, the pass in the Alps on the way to Italy that is the fastest route between the northern German-speaking part of Switzerland and the Italian-speaking part.
We are winding up this amazing road, sometimes seeing only shadows and sometimes seeing through the fog a glimpse of stunning Alps, until we get to the pass, at an elevation of 2,106 meters (6,910 feet). There has been a chapel and a hospice here since 1236 that was named St. Gotthard for a Bavarian saint. It has provided hospitality to travelers since the 11th century and we are headed for a night’s stay there. According to one account, we will not be alone: “Destitute travellers (sic) were given an accommodation, a chunk of bread, cheese and wine for refreshment; at lunchtime there was also soup. Sick people were cared for until they were ready to continue their travel. It is said that annually more than 4000 poor and destitute people have been looked after in the hospice.”
The refurbished hospice is actually gloriously luxurious, with a wonderful bathroom (including a white terrycloth robe), lovely light wood paneling, and the name of an interesting historical figure on each door. Jaya lucks out and sleeps in the room of Michail Bakunin (1814-1876, the Russian revolutionary anarchist). I’m next door to the Charles Dickens room. The complex, now managed by a foundation, sits at a mountain lake and sports a little museum, a fascinating cheese storage structure, an unused dormitory, and a restaurant about which the less said the better.
Actually, allow me one restaurant anecdote that could have happened to me anywhere in Switzerland or Germany. I asked the waitress for tea. She looked straight into my face and said, “Schvartz?” I had several sharp retorts lined up on my tongue when I remembered we were talking about tea and I said, Yes.
I took this photo the next morning of where we stayed and of the sun trying to break through. It's not in black&white.
The next morning is deeply foggy and rainy and we take a short hike around the grounds, which show signs of Autumn, before setting off for Italy. Here I get some of my best views of the Alps – just as majestic as they are usually described, as we descend to the flats. Jaya knows the route well and we stop several times during the day at establishments that combine superior coffee and fine views.
We pass from Switzerland to Italy, driving through our old haunts, like Querceta, where I spent so many visits with my painter-by-collage friend Sandy and marble sculptors Jaya and Neal and the other sculptors who belong to this international community of creatives, before climbing up the Italian Alps to Jaya’s renovated and exquisite home and gardens. Here I am staying for over 10 days and writing. I have written here a number of times before and find that I have to face my desk away from any window, because the incomparable views are a seductive distraction.
View to the left from Jaya's house on a sunny day.
Jaya is feeding me the healthiest food I have ever eaten; her cats are the best-behaved I’ve ever met (no offence to all my cat-owning friends); and I have to myself an enclosed ensuite verandah connecting to a deck that gives me a view down the Italian Alps to the Mediterranean Sea on the right, and up into the highest peaks on the left (see photo on L). Below me is the impressive terraced garden that Jaya has developed over the years, with numerous fruit trees and vines (we’re still getting figs off the tree), richly-colored flowers (the orange and yellow dahlias are amazing), and a grove of olive trees (“They’re all very bushy this year,” Jaya explains) from which I receive, every year, a bottle of the olive oil she and Madeleine make.
Last night we endured a monster thunderstorm – they are increasingly frequent in this area where people are seriously concerned about climate change. At one point in the middle of the night, I step out on the deck expecting to see the kind of jagged, streaky lightening show I’ve seen in Boston from my balcony. Instead I realize that the storm is sitting on the house and with each clap of thunder the floor shakes and with each lightening flash the whole space around the house is lit, as if a smoky globe lampshade sits on top of us. This morning fog lingers in the valley between Jaya’s mountain and the ones across the way, photos of which I offer you below. Fog, Jaya tells me, is just clouds that are sitting on the ground. I spent the morning watching the formation, movement, and evaporation of dozens of clouds below me as I sipped my tea. I wish every writer could have this opportunity.
Looking left over the solar panels to the Italian Alps with hanging clouds
Check out Jaya's work HERE.