I came up with the idea for this conversation series almost exactly one month ago, as I sat in my Airbnb outside of Geneva putting the last touches on the arduous task that was my first copybatch. My first three weeks in Paris were incredible: my girlfriend visited twice for endless gallivanting, I spent every other day with some new friends I met at my hostel, and whenever I was alone I could blissfully wander from one eclectic neighborhood to another, totally content with the company of the indifferent city around me. All this time, I was thinking how absolutely preposterous it was that being a researcher-writer was a “job.”
It was only when I arrived in Geneva, with a day left before my first deadline, that I realized that research-writing is called “work” because there is an insane quantity of work required. Bummer. But I realized this slowly, typing away resolutely with confidence that I’d be finished in the next few hours, even as the hours ticked on, and the enormous stack of listings that I had left to craft seemed to grow no smaller. I was having so much fun crafting dumb little jokes and sharp cuts at my not-so-cynical RW predecessor on Paris that the sheer volume of content that I had left to write escaped me. One 16-hour day stretched into two, and then three, until I finally turned in a 70-page monstrosity and collapsed into the bed tucked behind a portable divider in my host’s house.
Yet on the second day of this writing odyssey, in yet another spurt of unwarranted optimism, I irrationally decided that I was on track to finish within a few hours and made a venture into Geneva. To avoid Switzerland’s insane housing costs, I had booked an Airbnb just over the border in France, so I had to take a quick shortcut through the woods to cross the frontier and reach the bus into the city. My host led me through the backyard of his house, showed me the locked gate I needed to jump and the handmade river-crossing he had built on the other side, and I was on my way to Switzerland.
Thanks to Europe’s sublime lack of suburbs, the path to the bus stop was framed by a few meandering cows on one side, a vineyard on the other, and the immense Salève mountain in the background. Halfway through my stroll a blue sign stood in the center of the trail. Moving closer, I read its lettering: contrôle des passeports. At the bottom of the sign was a trapezoidal stone. On my side, a large F was carved into the rock. On the other, a large S. No one seemed to be controlling passports, so, thoroughly confused, I walked on.
A few steps later, I spun around again to take a picture. A carved rock as a border guard was far too strange not to document, especially considering the battlefield situation on the U.S.-Mexico frontier. As I turned, I noticed a woman standing on the side of the stone, who I’d somehow entirely disregarded a moment before, taking notes in a journal. She said something along the line of “C’est belle, non,” and there, between the cows and the grapes, began a two-hour conversation that convinced me I needed to start documenting the innumerable unique interactions I was having through my travels. Somehow, perhaps magically fueled by the social isolation I’d been suffering through the previous two days of endless writing, I stumbled my way through the whole thing in broken French.
Much more so than how the stone stood out to me, the frontier marker held tremendous symbolic value for my new friend, whom we’ll call Jeanne. On a third side, besides the S and the F, was the number 88, representing the 88th crossing point along the Swiss-French frontier. And to the side of the stone, between two vineyards, was a tiny Jewish cemetery, almost obscured by some construction project threatening to engulf it. Jeanne was there standing to honor the spot, in memory of her father, whose life she saw encapsulated in this tiny island in the middle of the Swiss-French countryside.
I realize now that by saving this story for last in my series I’ve lost of few of the details in my mind (although no doubt many details were lost in translation at the time anyway). Here’s my best translation of her father’s story:
He grew up in Bulgaria, where Jews were a minority population, but he was free enough to be able to live in a tight-knit community that was relatively independent from the rest of society. After some rovings and ramblings in his youth, he found himself in Hungary when the war broke out, and, like millions around him, was captured and imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. While held in bondage, ideas of escape and salvation constantly circulated, with Switzerland being the mythical promised land. Sandwiched between the Axis powers of Germany and Italy, and bordered by German-controlled Vichy France, neutral Switzerland was an improbable isle of safety for the persecuted people of Europe during the War. Although Switzerland was not as magnanimous in their refugee programs as the circulating myths led imprisoned people to believe, it was held up high all the same as a heaven where persecuted Jews could survive.
Throughout his years of imprisonment, Jeanne’s father dreamed of escape, of some prescient Sound of Music plot that would take him from his prison cell over the Alps into Switzerland. Miraculously, he survived until the end of the war in the concentration camp. Upon release, however, Switzerland’s refugee policy hadn’t yet become generous enough, and he was forced to wait longer to arrive in the promised land. He spent a few years living in Israel, then in Hungary again, then years later, after the post-war flood of migrants had slowed down, he was finally able to buy his farmhouse on the outskirts of Geneva.
There’s much more to that story, much of which has certainly been lost in my shoddy understanding of French and a month of other events crammed into my memory. But what I found most beautiful about this story was just how perfectly it fit into Jeanne’s reverence of French-Swiss border crossing number 88.
Her father’s whole life had been about borders: borders he crossed to explore the world beyond his Bulgarian village, borders that had kept him in Hungary when the Nazis invaded, physical borders imprisoning him, and borders that kept him from realizing his dream of a house in Switzerland. This border just miles from the Swiss farmhouse he’d finally reached at the end of his life was the most important: it was the last he had crossed, and the place where he had wanted to rest.
But it wasn’t just any border crossing that mattered. This one was next to an ancient Jewish cemetery that was slowly being forgotten into nothingness, now being encroached upon by construction and used only as a meeting place for international drug deals (we saw some business during our conversation). Much like the world should not have forgotten him as he was locked away, Jeanne felt like this final resting place of so many of her father’s cultural cousins shouldn’t be forgotten either.
Border crossing number 88, when viewed while lying on the ground, becomes two infinity symbols stacked on top of each other, carrying Jeanne’s father’s legacy into eternity.
Jeanne had wanted to bury her father here—all the symbolism was perfect—but her siblings felt there wasn’t enough dignity in this forgotten cemetery, so they buried him in some stylish graveyard (if such a thing is possible) in Geneva. With this misrepresentation of his legacy, Jeanne felt like the place of her father’s body didn’t reflect the resting place of his soul, and instead came here, to border crossing number 88, to pay homage to his life.
After hours of conversation, Jeanne realized that it was getting dark, and I had been planning to go into Geneva. She apologized, embarrassed that she had kept me waiting to hear the life story of a man I had never met. She had gotten carried away in the poignancy of the setting.
But I was honored. The representation of a life that she had built around this single stone and a forgotten graveyard was perfect, to a point that I thought someone would have to imagine it up. I felt like I had shared a profoundly poetic moment with her, and I left feeling deeply connected to his person with whom I had spent two hours, conversing in a language I barely understood.
I have no prophetic takeaway from this story. I was taken by the poetry of life and representation melding so perfectly together, and someone else recognizing that coupling and sharing it with me. So like I may have said before, I was inspired to look more closely, more optimistically at the world around me. Gorgeous symbolism is lurking all around; the greatest beauty in life consists of throwing away cynicism and celebrating it.
Will often finds himself confused and disoriented in dangerous situations and usually, joyfully stumbles his way out. His one cool story describes the time his Subaru broke down in the Utah desert and he was forced to spend three days camping out in a junkyard until a distant friend gave him a free 1995 GMC Safari van. Nothing has gone wrong in Switzerland and Paris just yet, but he has all his muscles braced for an escape effort. Outside of frolicking around the merry world, Will likes skiing, mountain biking, and reading. He studies Social Studies and would like you to know that is a very important and meaningful subject.