December 17, 2018

Les Avants: after Hemingway

“Switzerland is a small steep country, much more up and down than sideways, and is all stuck over with large brown hotels built on the cuckoo clock style of architecture,” wrote Ernest Hemingway.

If this is not an accurate description of the country, it is a chiseled portrait of the alpine villages perched above Montreux, in the canton of Vaud, especially the once-famous holiday place, Les Avants, near which the young Hemingways stayed for a couple of winter holidays.

Les Avants, one of the first ski resorts in Switzerland and home to the first Ice Hockey European Championship in 1910, still evokes the fragile magic of a special time and place. Situated at around 1000 meters, vertically 3.5 kilometers above the town of Montreux, the village is the gateway to the Pays d’Enhaut, the High Country, which joins up with the Oberland Bernois. It may be reached in twenty minutes by car from the centre of Montreux, but the easiest way to arrive there is with the MOB, the mountain railway company that links the many facets of the region with its Golden Pass Line.

With a population of only 380 inhabitants, Les Avants has gone from being one of the most famous Swiss resorts of the first half of the 20th century to a tranquil haven for those who have retreated from the busy towns along the edges of Lake Geneva. The skating rink is only a memory, and the Grand Hotel is now a finishing school, Le Châtelard, where South American girls are educated.

In the centre of the village, the oldest European flower clock continues to tell the time even if the famous and fashionable have abandoned the village. Nature’s beauty remains. Many hiking trails exist, the most popular being La Tour du Cubly, where generations, during the month of May, continue to walk through fields of narcissus, with alternating views of the towering alps and the wide horizon of Lake Geneva.  Les Avants is also a stop on the cultural hiking track, indicated with yellow signposts, that crosses Switzerland.

In winter, sledding takes over from hiking. In 1910, a funicular opened from Les Avants MOB train station to Sonloup, a pass above the village. The nature of the landscape demanded the audacious creation of a viaduct with eleven arches and two bridges. With the advent of the funicular, bobsleigh races were invented. When young Hemingway stayed in the region with his first wife Hadley in 1921/22, he wrote to his father; “The bob is only big enough for two … and goes all the way down the mountain through the wildest country you ever saw. Black forests of pine trees and gorges and the big mountain La Dent de Jaman….You ought to see us come down with Hash steering. She thinks it is a sign of cowardice to ever put on the brake. I use it every once in a while on account of the fine way it makes the slivers of ice fly up… It is the healthiest and nicest place you ever clapped a dead light on.”

Sledding remains Les Avants’ winter pastime. Every day, from 9am to 8pm, the funicular takes people up to the beginning of the run where they then slide down 2,100 meters, to the centre of the village. Three evenings a week, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, the funicular stays open until 10pm. for night runs.

Les Avants has only one hotel, and it is difficult to rent holiday apartments, but the village is a great place for a day excursion. While visitors sip hot chocolate on a café terrace, they may feel a spirit that is easily disregarded in today’s world. In Les Avants, the young Hemingways’ enthusiasm for simple fun and joy has never really gone away.

For more information and schedules go to: www.lesavants.ch, www.goldenpass.ch, and www.montreux.ch.

 

Julian of Norwich

Julian of Norwich

I was seeking Julian, the first woman to write a book in English. She had lived in Norwich, England, seven hundred years ago. She is known as Julian of Norwich, her first name taken from the local church Saint Julian’s where she lived, as an anchoress, in a small room adjoining the church. One shuttered window in the common wall facing the sanctuary allowed her to participate in the mass and another window opened up to the outside world. There is no mention of her in any religious order.

An anchoress or anchorite was one of the earliest forms of Christian monastic living, quite widespread during the Middle Ages.  Withdrawing from secular society the person led a prayer-orientated ascetic life. Julian was reputed to be wise and she often gave spiritual advice and counsel to her visitors through the outside window.

Norwich is situated in an interesting area for bird photography and my husband, when he heard my plans, decided to accompany me. We divided up the week so we were bird watching on the Norfolk Broads one day and then on the other I followed my quest.

I was seeking a spiritual space of my own, not one imposed on me by generations of men, and I felt Julian could help me. Over my lifetime, as a woman, I had gained much in the legal, social and economic areas, but what I felt about the soul had little connection to what I encountered. What my body knew was not connected to any religious dogma, nor my intuition and consciousness to objective reasoning. My wisdom, gained from a lifetime of seeking, seemed to have little reality in the outside world. Julian offered me a powerful feminine image from her book The Revelations of Divine Love. “God all wisdom is our loving Mother.” The Church could easily have condemned this as blasphemy, but her book is considered a spiritual classic, unparalleled in English religious literature.

After Markus and I arrived in Norwich I set off for a short walk around our hotel. The district was called Tombland because hundreds of plague victims were buried there. I wondered if Julian, before she entered her retreat, could have lost children in the plague? Julian’s long life spanned parts of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. At that time the Black Death struck rich and poor alike. In Norwich, bad harvests followed quickly one upon another, and hunger and desperation invaded the town and surrounding countryside.

Those centuries saw England in the age of chivalry. Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales and the Hundred Years War dragged on against France. A husband was easily lost in such long term fighting.  Norwich, a walled city of consequences, was then famous for its wool and weaving. While visiting the open market, I stopped at a stall where a woman was selling hand-knitted articles.

“What a beautiful jacket,” I said. “You’re an artist.”

The woman smiled. “My family’s been in this business for centuries, right here in this market.”

“Would you know anything about Julian of Norwich then? She lived in a cell next to Saint Julian’s Church in medieval times. I’m trying to find out about her.”

“You know, we’ve been connected to this area for as long as my family remembers and the Middle Ages was tough for everyone. In Northern Europe many women developed passionate individual forms of religion at that time.”

“But she wrote a book, in fact she was the first woman to write one in English.”

“Maybe…but I don’t have time for that stuff. Look at the competition I’ve got.” She pointed in the direction of a couple of stands where brilliant silks and cottons, surveyed by their Indian or Pakistani owners, were laid out in rainbow order to attract buyers.

I left her stall, jostled by the crowds. Why, for the first time in English history, had a woman of no special importance or education written a book in Norwich? Shouldn’t she have been running a market stall or her husband’s house? Twenty or thirty years after finishing her manuscript, Julian composed a longer version of the same book. She had probably learnt to read and write to accomplish these tasks because most women were illiterate then.

Early the next morning, the enchantment of spotting a barn owl undulating across a freshly ploughed field dispelled my peevishness. On the Norfolk marshes searching for waders, I watched a purple sandpiper dance about on a rock, pecking at mossy seaweed, while the bitter North Sea waves splashed the rock’s surface. I knew the bird made a scrap of a nest on bare ground. Its alarm call was loud rapid laughing, “pehehehehehe…” This dumpy creature seemed to defy reason, but it lived fully as nature ordained.

On Sunday, while listening to the cathedral choir’s hymn singing during a traditional Palm Sunday service, I realized I wanted Norwich to be as noble and pure as the voices that lifted me up into spiritual bliss or as nature blossomed in the spring sunshine. If Julian had had such an extraordinary drive to write, then I had hoped to find a place of inspiration; not this town that had the dubious record of being the first European town where a case of blood accusation resulted in a massacre of Jews. While Julian lived the town’s council also condemned people to be burnt at the stake because they questioned the Catholic Church. The smell of their burning flesh and their cries of fear and agony probably drifted into Julian’s cell.

I sat in the cathedral pew, but my mind wandered. I left the horrors of history and thought about the fenlands, flattened below a vast expanse of sky. I daydreamed about the daffodils swaying, inaudible in movement, along the winding riversides, and visited the hedgerows aglow with hawthorn flowers.  High up on the cathedral steeple a pair of peregrine falcons were nesting. I had seen one, with closed wings, make a spectacular swoop on a hapless sparrow. For all its violent selection of life and death, nature restored me whenever I got too close to human cruelty.

When the Dean stood up to deliver his sermon my attention returned to the solemn cathedral service. The Dean spoke of our habit to exclude the narrative of the other, even to cultivate conflicting narratives. It was the week of sudden uprisings against tyrants throughout the Arab world and the devastating earthquake, tsunami and atomic alert in Japan. “We still think we can run the world better than God,” the Dean said.

A vision of the barn owl appeared, flying ghost-like towards me, and then I remembered the ancient misogynous fable that women had no souls. I thought many women believed they could run the world better than men. I’m not sure they put God in the equation.

I left the cathedral and wandered over to the newly reconstructed St. Julian’s Church, only a few blocks away. During the Reformation the outside cell had been demolished. During W.W. II the church received a direct hit and was badly damaged. Nothing physical, except for a couple of manuscript copies of her book, was left of Julian’s life.

I sat alone in the rebuilt cell with my feet up on a bench and recalled the stories, both about Julian’s time and mine. They were similar in many ways. I thought about the terrifying dysfunctional force out there in the world seeking to ensnare and entangle. Julian had written, “and all shall be well,” a strange remark considering her knowledge of human beings, but indicative of her obsessive faith. As a woman who had spent most of her life living as a foreigner, I knew there were always several points of view. Rejection was as familiar as misunderstanding.

My body felt soft and fragile against the wooden bench. My mind continued to twist and turn. I did not possess Julian’s visions but I had a mysterious need to write which was part of my spirituality. Creativity was essential to my life. Julian, who understood the purpose of her life, wrote, “God is love.” Julian found her truth in that mystical being called God. She needed to share their relationship to the point that all the rest seemed unimportant. Writing was essential to Julian too and maybe our reasons were not so different. But if Julian meditated, prayed and wrote, she also knew how to listen, not only to God but also to her neighbors. I would remember that about her.

For those interested in bird watching in Norfolk I recommend Stuart White, head of The Bird ID Company and a man with a profound love of his countryside and a great understanding not only of birds but of human beings. www.birdtour.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

Remembering my Senses

water by M. Rasch

As a child I was not really aware of my five senses; I functioned more by instinct and growing intellect. As time went by, I realized how closely the reactions of my body led me to the very essence of life. The senses are nature’s road to explore the world; sometimes in horrific or painful ways, but most remarkably, to give and receive pleasure. In fact, the bliss of the sensuous lead me to a spiritual realm closely connected to such moments. Gradually, I began to understand that it was through the senses that my memories were created.

As a writer, my five major senses, smell, touch, hearing, sight, and taste, guide me to more poetic language.

 

Smell:

When I smell a lily, I am immediately taken back to my early childhood. One hot Christmas Day, at my grandmother’s home in New Zealand, I was drawn towards the perfume of a large vase of white lilies, picked from her garden that morning. As I smelt them, an unknown but delicious sensation quivered all through my body. It was only when I was older that I realized the perfume from the lilies’ overblown corollas had stirred my sexuality, storing in my memory a personal symbol of fertility.

Smell is the most precise sense. It is directly connected to breathing. I would die if I tried to stop smelling. Yet it is the mute sense. I am often tongue-tied when I try to describe a smell. Maybe the emotion a smell creates is just too profound for my language centers.

 

Touch:

After my first baby was born I always gave her a massage after her bath. My daughter lay naked with her legs up in the air and gurgled. A broad, bubbling smile flashed on and off when I rubbed the soles of her feet and caressed her body. I had read that babies could not survive without being touched, but there was so much more. As a mother, I was discovering the emotions of maternity. Touch taught me that life has depth and contour.

 

Hearing:

Hearing is the writer’s sense, just as much as the musician’s. The word poet comes from an Aramaic word that denotes the sound of water flowing over pebbles. I have a major stumbling block in writing a description about the sound made by water. There is a wooden bridge that spans the Sarine, a mountain stream in the Oberland Bernois, which is a special spot for me. I like to meditate there. I concentrate on the dancing water’s voice and search for words to describe the melody. I shut my eyes because the flashing sunlight playing upon the stream’s translucent depths distracts me. I still have not found the right description for that water song.

Hearing is my most delicate sense; for example, the unusual sounds made by a music therapist stir my soul and allow me to vagabond in peace and plenitude without moving from my relaxed position on the floor. But I react in a strong negative way to noise and love the “sound of silence”. The world is full of sounds beyond those made by human beings and I am awed and sometimes frightened when I listen to the mighty language of the earth and its creatures.

 

Sight:

The eye loves novelty and can adapt to almost any scene, even one of horror. Unlike smell, which has weak physiological links with the language centers of our brain, language is steeped in visual imagery.  Every now and then I give myself a test. What was that person wearing? What was the color of his eyes, hair, skin?

I am usually very attentive to what goes on around me, including the news seen on TV. When I take my glasses off, the rest of the world disappears into a hazy background. This is my way of symbolically escaping the world’s traumas. Sometimes there are just too many terrible visions to absorb.

Light and color are part of sight, however color occurs in the mind and not in the world. Color-blind people are born without the necessary eye equipment to convey color sensation. They will never see a rainbow in all its glory. But my son who is color-blind takes vivid black and white photos, lingering lovingly on detailed form. He sees differently. This is the common miracle of the human body. To some extent we all make compensations for what is weak or missing in our senses.

 

Taste:

I adore the taste of good chocolate. The creamy caramel flavor, which oozes around my lips, then inside my mouth, and slowly down my throat, is a culinary delight. My taste buds inform me if my food is eatable or poisonous. They tell me if it is sweet, sour, salty or bitter.  Taste is what stimulates me to prepare meals and carries me beyond the paradox of life killing life in order to survive. Human beings “sanctify” events with food. Yet the body’s quest is not for truth but for survival. It takes mechanical energy, like the taste of chocolate, and converts it into electrical energy so that the brain, which is blind, deaf, dumb, and unfeeling, can analyze the object.

 

Using My Senses in Writing:

I try to keep my senses clear of weeds. Imagination helps. When daydreaming, I linger with one or the other of my senses. That way the unconscious spills over into the conscious. It is easy to write: “When I was a little girl I was entranced with my mother.” But if I float a little longer with memories of my mother, I see, smell, hear, feel and even taste her intimately. She had thousands of freckles all over her arms and legs where she had been exposed to the tropical sun.  After using all my senses to bring my mother back to life, a memory returns that allows my writing to become unique.

One day my homework consisted of learning to count up to one hundred. I could not get the abstract sense of so many numbers.

“May I count your freckles?” I asked my mother. She held out an arm smelling of verbena and lavender.

“Go on darling, count them. But they’re not freckles. They’re sun kisses,” she said laughing and I really believed she was beloved of the gods.

Geneva Writers Group

Susan Tiberghien (far left) with GWG members at the Press Club

On January 23, 1993, a group of seventeen English-language writers gathered for a workshop on the first floor of the long-established Café du Soleil in Petit-Saconnex. Some of these writers had been with Susan Tiberghien in a writing workshop at the American Women’s Club; others had met with her in an evening workshop open to men and women. Geneva is a city of transitions and traditions, a lonely place for writers who have been up-rooted, and Susan, a born leader, wanted to share her passion for writing.

For the next three years she taught workshops on different aspects of creative writing to this small group of writers who named themselves the Geneva Writers’ Group. In September 1996, a more formal structure was established. By then, Susan, already a mother of six and a grandmother, had become an inspiring writing instructor as well as a published author. She gave a morning workshop, with handouts and writing exercises, and led a critiquing session in the afternoon. Thirty members now belonged to the GWG with seven of them forming a steering committee. Workshops took place once a month, from September to June, and were open to all who wished to develop their writing skills in English. Both beginning and published writers were welcome. Membership was eligible to those who attended three workshops a year.

In 1997 the anthology Offshoots Vol. IV was published, a joint venture by the American Women’s Club and the GWG. The authors, writing in Geneva, were from fifteen different countries. The anthology, a biennial collection of prose and poetry, had originated at the American Women’s Club. In 1999, the GWG published Offshoots V alone. This was the beginning of bookstore readings, radio competitions and reading invitations from different associations including the US Embassy. Master classes, the first on poetry given by Wallis Wilde Menozzi, were also initiated.

Communication was going electronic and by 1998, when the group held its first international writing conference at Webster University, professionals on the business of writing were already offering panels on new and different aspects of editing, publishing, promotion and production. The weekend conference also gave high-level instruction in fiction, play writing, creative non-fiction and poetry.

In September of that same year, in need of bigger premises, the GWG moved to the Geneva Press Club. The elegant old building, La Villa Pastorale, which housed the Press Club, was not far from the Café du Soleil so writers could still return there for lunch.

A new millennium offered an affirmation of life and the GWG seized this moment to consolidate its core goal of sharing a love of writing. On May 15, 2004, by-laws were written and approved by members and the Geneva Writers’ Group was registered as a non-profit association. Other amenities followed: a service that co-ordinated small independent groups, a mentoring service, literary salons, play production, and a biennial Meet the Agents weekend. As of today there are 170 members from 30 countries. There have been seven international writing conferences and in 2009 the twentieth anniversary of Offshoots was celebrated. Published novels, memoirs, poetry collections, non-fiction books, articles, short stories and blogs are tangible results of the group’s success.

Throughout the GWG’s development Susan Tiberghien has remained firmly at the helm. Thanks to her remarkable capacity to network she has brought fine instructors to Geneva. She has generously and intelligently encouraged countless writers to get their words out, to believe in their potential. I have been a member of the GWG since its embryonic gestation and I have seen how Susan’s love of the beautiful art of writing helps diminish that which is ugly, shabby, or vulgar. Though writers should not be guardians of morality, nevertheless they search for their truth in full-blown solitude. The Geneva Writers’ Group not only offers them professional instruction and assistance but it also offers them a home to befriend others who share their passion for words. As Susan says, “the continuing expansion and creative spirit of the GWG is due to its family of members, the old-timers who welcome the new ones, and to its steering committee that expands to twelve every other year for the Conference.”

GWG website: www.genevawritersgroup.org

Part of the steering committee hard at work.

 

GWG members enjoying lunch on the Press Club steps