hiding in the alps

October 26th, 2016

This week has flown by, much like all the others, but also, a completely and utterly different way of time spent.

I arrived last Tuesday night, Christiane and her daughter, Aileen, waiting for me at the airport in Geneva. They had a sign with my name on it, but I knew it was them that were waiting for me without reading the sign, and I think they recognized me, too. We had been corresponding, Christiane and I, through my aunt Tory, and although I had seen Christiane`s husband, Gaby, in New York, that was only for dinner one night. Here I was to stay with Christiane for an undetermined amount of time at her house in the countryside, not far from the French- Swiss border, and as I soon found out, amidst the Alps, not far from the highest point thereof, Mont Blanc. We drove around the airport more than necessary and I could quickly see the mother-daughter relationship at work as they bickered slightly, and it was adorable. It did not take us long to get back to the house, though, and Christiane showed me around her little home, up to the mezzanine on the third floor where they had a bed for me, and around the house and how to use the light switches and lock doors and things, so that I can know how to navigate when she was not around. Partly because she is really busy, and partly because the invitation for me to stay really was open ended, and I could stay even after she left for Ghana. It was really remarkable entering the house and immediately seeing my uncle Paul`s paintings and sketches all over the walls. It was like oh, right, this is why I am here, basically, and confirmed that the connection I had with Christiane and her family was a solid one.

The next day, we woke up slowly, she showed me how to use the coffee machine, of course a little espresso machine, as the French do, and I think I shocked her with my desire to add water and make it weaker, but, I’m sorry, I’m an American that loves a big cup of coffee that I can slowly drink and that can slowly wake me up. It was nice to have an area to spread out all my stuff, and I would do laundry that night, and that was fantastic because all my clothes were basically dirty and I only had like pair of clean underwear left. Still, incredibly fortunate that I have not needed to go to a laundry mat or pay through laundry through a hostel or anything. She said we could go to some villages that day, and we hung a bit around the house and ended up leaving late that afternoon. She had asked what I wanted to do while I was there, and I really did not have anything in mind, so for her to make a few plans for me was really nice.

We wandered around Yvoire medieval villages and chatted about this and that, and she seemed to be happy to be there, too, mentioning that she used to take her father there when he was still more able, but she didn`t get a chance to much anymore. The villages were right on the lake, so we wandered through the little shopping areas and down by the dock. Most things were closed because tourist season was over, and I can imagine it would be crazy busy in the summer because it was really cute. It took us a while to find a cafe that was open so that we could have a coffee, and we had some ice cream too. We started talking about the last time we had met, right before Paul died, my uncle, what he was like, and suddenly I was a little emotional about it. I remember my uncle but I never got to know him as well as I would have liked. He only visited us once or twice a year, he was practically like a celebrity in our little family, and quite a big personality. Everything she said coincided with what I knew about him, the spirit of joy he had, how intelligent and caring he was, and she said it was quite rude of him to die on her like that. But she said it with a smile, as she seems to remember him fondly, despite the difficulties of the last years of his life. We talked a little about the other women in his life, how I had met Kim in Edinburgh, and how he had married Cornelia, a Swiss, and that they had tried to get married in Switzerland but the Swiss would not let them because they were not okay with her marrying an American. Christiane said they basically just got married so that she could have her green card. It was really interesting to hear about Paul from someone who had known him so well.

Driving back to the house, she saw a food truck and got really excited because her cousin has a crush on the guy that runs it, and was super keen to stop and get some Indian food and chat with the gentleman. He was really nice, and we ordered some food, and perused the collection of Belgian beers he had. The food was good and we all shared all the beers and it was a nice little evening. Christiane and Aileen talked a lot of Michelle, their cousin who recently moved close by and had inserted herself into their lives. I heard a lot about her before I actually met her, and she was lovely, but I could see what they were saying, and sometimes you just gotta put up with family members.

Unfortunately, they had to go to a funeral the next day, but since it was in Geneva, they could drop me off in the city and I could tour around and meet up with them later. It was a really nice day, so it was nice to just walk around, and Christiane gave me some good tips. I literally walked around for like 4 or 5 hours I think. It was nice to get some exercise and Geneva has a nice lake, of course, and some canals to wander along. I walked through some cute neighborhoods and around the university and the chapel, and found where the cool kids were hanging out, overlooking the park and the mountain and the city. And in the park I found huge sets of chess and checkers, which was really fun. I had Aileen’s phone in case they needed to call, but I was getting tired and a bit cold so I jumped on the tram to go back to our meeting point at the border in case the phone did not work. Thankfully we had planned that, because after I got a beer at the agreed pizza place, they walked in and said they had tried to call, but it had not worked, so our meeting place was a good idea. We had a beer and actually started chatting about politics because the owner of the pizza place had started talking to me about Trump, and it was interesting to hear what they thought about things, both being so involved with development and foreign policy, but I’m not one to talk about politics, so I won’t get into that here. Besides saying that I’m pretty embarrassed to be American right now.

We had pizza that night, not at the place on the border, but a place in the closest town to their village, owned by a little African woman who is so impressed and in love with Christiane, its adorable. The pizza was good, and after I had mentioned that my host in Germany had made us a French style pizza, they both said that it definitely was not southern French style pizza if it did not have a red tomato sauce.

Friday, Christiane took Aileen to her driving school, because she’s finally learning this skill, just late in life, after being raised in New York City and living in London for many years, and then Cambodia for several, she has not really needed to learn, but figured she should now while she’s home and trying to figure out what she wants to do next. Her and I had a really nice walk through the village and had good conversation about traveling and things. Christiane has been working on her house for a long time I guess, and is finally getting her kitchen completely installed, not that she doesn’t have everything she needs, but that she doesn’t have it all attached to the wall and such. She has been having trouble getting it delivered, but it finally came that afternoon, and her old friend Jacque came by to help, a lovely man (who I heard from Aileen used to have a yard full of weed), with a long gray braid, and friend of Christiane’s for at least the past 40 years. We then went grocery shopping and to collect Christiane’s father to bring him over for dinner. He is an adorable 96 year old man, and when Christiane bought him some of his favorite chocolates at the mall, she had also bought me a packet, (just to show you a little bit how lovely she is).  And after thanking the cashier for the chocolates, Aileen told me my French was cute, which I had heard before, from Catherine in Montreal, and I said because its naive, right? Which made me think of the Germans and Hungarians I’be been teaching and how their English is cute, because its naive and innocent, also. New to a language, sometimes you sound like a child, its natural.

We got back to Catherine’s house and their cousin Michelle came over for dinner, too, and I sat with Charles, Christiane’s father while they prepared the meal. I can definitely converse in French, and I understand it pretty well, but I’m way out of practice, so I have to concentrate pretty intensely. I was able to carry a conversation with Charles, for the most part, and felt good and bad about my French after that, but Christiane was proud of me and they all appreciated that I entertained grandpa, because that meant he wasn’t bored and didn`t have a terrible time. We had Cerdon, champagne from that area of France, and it was so good. We had salmon appetizers and olives, and then went and sat down for dinner and had some delicious red wine with our meal of steak and potatoes, and it was amazing. Then we had salad, and then we had cheese. I love how the French eat. Charles chided Christiane for asking if anyone wanted cheese rather than just bringing it out. So funny. They were also all speaking French throughout the meal and I was really surprised at how much I did understand, but I was not so inclined to participate because it takes me so long to formulate what I want to say, and then by the time I’m ready, the topic has changed. But it was really fun for me anyway, and it was good for me to be the student, and get a feeling for what my Europeans have been dealing with during these English programs I’be been doing. We had a delicious apple pie, gateau, si tu veux, and everyone insisted I have the last piece. Pourquoi pas has become my catchphrase, as it was even before I came to France, but Aileen noticed it, too, so that was funny. I had some more beer and chatted with Michelle, understanding her mostly, and enjoying her say how lovely Paul was the few times that she met him.

Christiane proposed that I go to Annecy the next day, and I had a little anxiety about this because I thought about going to a tattoo convention in Evian that weekend, but felt that I should go with Christiane’s suggestion instead, and not spend the money on a tattoo right now, and I wasn’t even really sure what I wanted, despite loving the artist’s work, I knew I could get something done later on, when I have more money, and more confidence about what I want. Aaaaaaand I`m so glad that I went to Annecy because it was such a lovely town! right on the lake, next to the mountains, beautiful old village, and it was great weather. I got there really early and it was nice to wander around without the huge crowd of tourists, because as the day went on, it got packed. I did a lot of reading, and writing, and meandering through the canals, as it is called the Venice of the Alps, and it really is almost as cute as Venice, just less canals and more mountains. I had a great sandwich and some hot wine and it was a really good day. And the train ride there and back was so beautiful with all the mountains around.

Christiane picked me up from the station with her dad in tow, and we went back to the house to have dinner, and more conversation in French. She had been driving all day, taking me the station early, running errands with Aileen, taking her friend Jacque to the airport, getting her hair done, and then picking me up again. Aileen said she can never say no to anybody`s request, and I felt a kindred spirit in her, as that is hard for me to do as well, but more importantly appreciated her hospitality all the more, given she has so many things going on all the time.

We had chicken for dinner that night, more delicious red wine, and Aileen had made some banana bread. Some younger French friends came over, Constance and her boyfriend, who were lovely, but spoke more quickly, and I had more trouble understanding them, but it was okay, and it was a lovely meal. Unfortunately, Charles was not feeling well, having just had his flu shot, so he slept most of dinner, and Christiane was really worried about him, so there was a little drama about that, that night. He was okay the next day though, and Christiane felt okay about going to Ghana still. Her mother had died years ago right after she left for Ghana, and she had to turn around and come right back, so I know it was on her mind that maybe she shouldn’t leave, but after visiting him the next afternoon, she felt okay about it.

We had a lot of visitors that Sunday afternoon, and as Aileen said, that happens all the time, people just showing up to say hello to Christiane. She’a a mother figure to many, and a friend to even more, and the little village here has strong connections. Constance’s sister, Elise, and her boyfriend came by with his little dog, pooch, so cute, and their friend Philippe, who was so sweet, and Christiane`s good friend Kathleen, also of like 40 years. I really enjoyed Kathleen, and she spoke highly of Paul and a camping trip they went on in New York, and how lovely he was. Also, that she used to have nightmares of being in the streets with only a t-shirt on, and Christiane mentioned that Paul has a painting like that, of being naked in school, and ever since Kathleen printed that painting out, and hung it on her room, she’s never had the nightmare again. She was the one that said that Paul really opened Christiane up to a different world, of art and and music and beauty, rather than the political sphere that she was ensconced in with her and her husband’s UN careers and such. We started pealing apples from Christiane’s trees, for a crumble and for applesauce, and we had a nice dinner with just us ladies, Christiane, Aileen, Kathleen, and Michelle, and it was fun to see Christiane have such fun with Kathleen, and just to have a good night before she had to leave the next day. We had some delicious pesto salmon and potatoes and then enjoyed the crumble, so good.

Christiane finished packing up her stuff and was getting ready to leave really early the next day, so we said goodbye that night and we agreed we were both really glad that it worked out that I could come and visit with her, and she encouraged me to come back whenever I liked. I was really sad to see her go, and just felt so blessed and happy that it had all really worked out so well.

It was weird to be here without Christiane, but Aileen would still be around, so this week I’be been reading and writing and just relaxing before I have the remainder of my trip in Spain, Portugal, and Denmark. And I’ve taken some walks with Aileen, and just had a good time being around her, and Aileen mentioned that it was nice to have me around for both of them, because they really don’t get much of a chance to talk about Paul, and there are few people left who they really can talk to about Paul. Paul was an important part of Aileen’s life, too, coming around when she was only 9 and being like a father figure through her adolescence.

We had dinner last night at Charle’s flat, and at first I was nervous about going because I did not want to stress him out, and I’d had a break from concentrating on the French so much and was hesitant to get back into it, but Aileen encouraged me that he did find me lovely, as he had a good time with me the other night, and thought I was a good person. He of course knew of Paul, but in his old age, probably has a harder time connecting the dots. Michelle picked us up and we went over there, and he was in such a good mood, really, it was so cute. Aileen made gnocci for all of us, and we had delicious wines and cheeses, and I understood a lot of what was said, partly because Charles speaks pretty slowly, which I appreciate. He was hilariously asking me what I thought of the food, after a long conversation of them speaking about how the pesto sauce could be more saucy, and my response to him, to Aileen’s delight, was that I thought that he was right, an easy French sentence. (Je pense que vous avez raison). He also asked me which wine I preferred, and that was fun trying to talk about, and I felt better about my French that night, and Aileen said she thought I had a pretty good handle on it, really, and just needed to get back into it and would feel better about participating more fully in conversations.

Aileen and I shared a bottle of wine when we got back to the house, and we had a really good and kind of intense conversation about Paul, and her mom, and her parents, and even though I could tell it was a little hard for her to talk about Paul, she said it was good, because she doesn’t get to a lot. And we were able to speak more openly about it, after having gotten to know each other over the past week and feel comfortable with each other. She reaffirmed how welcome I was, and her reaction to when Christiane said I was coming was more like wait what how do you know Paul’s niece, and the fact that our family had kept in touch with Christiane meant a lot to her. But similar to Christiane, my aunt Tory, once people are in her life and she understands their worth, she doesn’t let them go easily. But the fact that my family didn’t think little of Christiane, but appreciated how important she was to Paul,and that she was a really good person, Aileen said meant a lot. I never got the feeling from my family of any negativity surrounding Christiane, only positive things, and as I may have mentioned, Paul was a little bit of a celebrity in our family, living this fabulous artist life in New York City and coming to grandma’s every once in a while. Aileen showed me the painting that Paul had made for her 18th birthday, and some mementos of Coocoohandler, the band my uncle was in, and a picture of how she was even in one of his shows once. Speaking with Aileen confirmed the feelings I had about them being a kind of family that Paul may have wanted for his own. My mom said he was really crazy about Christiane. And Aileen thinks he really was the love of Christiane`s life, in a completely different way than her father. And although she was upset with her mom at first, about Paul, she’s realized since what she learned about love and relationships, and that everything isn’t always black and white.

I didn’t know what to expect from my time here in France, but I’m so happy that I went with it, and that it was the experience it was. I wish I could have known my uncle better, but finding out more about him and being able to spend time with people that he loved, means a lot to me, and to my family at home, too, and has made this trip so much more than I thought it would be. My mom has always been proud of her eldest brother, and it was so hard for my whole family to lose him. I know that I felt and still feel our family as so much smaller without him. He was an amazingly talented person, and I hope he is happy that I’m traveling like I am, and I truly feel like we are kindred spirits in our artistic and hippy ways. Also, I love France. and Europe. and I know he did too.