Monday, August 27, 2012

Europe: Through the Alps, on to France

Ready for an adventure?

Saturday, 25 August, 2012

I said goodbye to Salzburg through the window of the classiest train I have ever ridden. Couched in an ergonomic seat with a friendly display screen showing the train’s location, speed, and expected arrival at each upcoming stop, I was ready to begin my 9-hour travel day from Austria to France. My route would lead me through the heart of the Alps, and, as you can imagine, I was pretty excited.

The Alps are something that most people look at and say, “They are indescribable.” Believe me, I’m tempted. Even now, sitting at my desk staring at the words I type, I try to remember what I saw, and try to scrape the words from my memory in a way that will even touch the glory of the landscape.

Many of the Alps look like “ordinary” mountains: massive hills of pasture and woodland reaching up to delicate points before sloping downward again. However, many of the Alps are impossibly vertical. They do not slope; they jut, thousands of meters up, divided peak from peak by jagged silver lines of rivers that score through the stone. They cut the clouds apart like butter with their tors, reaching out of the grasp of the trees that feed on their slopes. 

They are still, like a predator frozen just before it attacks. They are solemn and lonely in the rain, but glorious as a baby’s laughter when the sun washes them and lights up the houses spotted across their green sides. Fleecy mist floats among them. Waterfalls tumble off them. And I, sitting in my train car with a million distracting reflections to fight against, tried to photograph them. I mostly failed, but I’m happy with this shot:

The train also sailed me past a lake, of the purest turquoise I’ve ever seen, mirroring the roots of the Alps that bank right up to their shores. Clouds blanketed the tops of the mountains, reflected dimly in the water.

When I hopped off the train in Zürich, I had seven minutes to get from platform 7 to platform 15. Fortunately, it was a short walk, and I plopped down into the seat of a train with an alarmingly pinkish-purple color scheme. I was on my way to France.

It was only then that I realized how familiar the German language has become to me. Even though I still barely understand a word of it, it falls on my ears without offense and I have learned to get the gist of it. French, however, sounded completely foreign, even though I studied it in high school. It took my brain a while to adjust.

The landscape was unremarkable from Zürich onward, so I read a little of Perelandra by C.S. Lewis (put this on your “I must read” list if you haven’t already) and found that the muted gold sunset reflected the description in the story. Then I plugged in my earbuds and inhabited my own thoughts. Toward the end of the day, on a one-car local train, I listened to Duncan Sheik’s Phantom Moon CD, which is mellow and rather haunting. So it was that when I stepped off the train in the small station at Lure, France, I felt quiet and relaxed.

I stood by myself outside, glancing around at the streetlights, hoping that each car driving by was my ride. I thought over what I knew about Till, the owner of the goat farm: she seemed laid back, trilingual, and fairly traditional. She had gotten good reviews. All I had to do was wait, in the stillness of the night with the slashes of dark clouds silhouetted against the last bit of light on the horizon. 

That’s when I heard the squealing of tires. A rust-red car roared into the parking lot, turned sharply, and barreled straight toward my spot on the curb. My only thought was, “Okay, this must be Till…”

A tall man with a short mohawk and a ponytail of dreadlocks sprouting from the back of his shaved head leaped out of the driver’s seat and rushed toward me, calling, “Welcome to France!” I held out my hand and was about to say, “Hi, I’m Lisa,” but before I could, he grabbed my shoulders and kissed each of my cheeks. A girl had jumped out of the backseat and she squealed a welcome to France as well, accompanied by more kisses. A third girl said hello from the backseat as the guy threw my backpack into the trunk, and by that time, I was in shock.

Next thing I knew, we were screeching down deserted country roads, winding the rough asphalt at 100 km, and I was leaning back praying that we didn’t crash and wishing I had a working seatbelt. I had been snacking on candy all day, and so my adrenaline hit a massive high. I was glad it was dark so the others couldn’t see my crazed wide eyes and my hands gripping my knees. 

At last we wheeled into the tumble of buildings that is the farm. I caught glimpses of barns, random outbuildings, and a garden, but I was distracted by the string of Christmas lights spanning the driveway, with a sign beneath it saying, “Welcome Home Everybody.” 

The guy, as it turns out, was Till. My American prejudice had gotten in the way of me figuring this out, and it took me until the next morning to do so. Within minutes he showed me to my room: a spacious attic with a skylight above my bed that looks up to the stars. Then downstairs I trotted (the wood floor bowing dangerously under my steps) for dinner that one of the girls cooked. I learned everybody’s names. I learned there were six of us here. I ate the eggplant stir fry, and then, dizzy but relieved, I crashed on my mattress and didn’t stir the entire night. I was now in France.


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