29th August, 2016
There is time for writing in the moment, on the pulse, at last. I’m aboard a boat that is ferrying me over le lac Léman from Cully to Chillon, to see a medieval castle perched on a rocky island. It was Marita’s idea to go here. The last time they visited the chateau their son Lionel, now almost sixteen, was a small boy wearing a Halloween suit. They remember him leaping through the dungeon in his ghost outfit, attracting smiles from the other visitors.
I’m feeling very excited about this outing. I don’t think I’ve ever been inside a medieval castle and fortress and this particular chateau is extra special. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage listed building that was constructed in three stages over 700 years. Sometimes on the Arts Channel back home I catch a clip about a UNESCO world heritage site, with aerial shots taken from a balloon and I look on in awe. Now I’m going to see one for myself, a treasured building that dates from 1150 and was the work of the French House of Savoy and also it has a link to the poet Lord Byron who wrote a famous poem ‘The Prisoner of Chillon’ about the prison that is situated in the dank, dark depths of the castle complex on the actual rock of the island.
This boat I am riding on today is a paddle steamer built in 1907 and named ‘Vevey’. It’s really an elegant relic from la belle époque — I glimpsed a sumptuous dining room with curtains and upholstery covered in terracotta and gold as I climbed the steps to the deck. The body of the boat glistens white in the sunlight. The funnel is deep blue and there is a French flag on a pole, coloured red, white and blue, that stirs in the slight breeze, a reference to the fact that the lake is bounded, on one side by France and the French Alps and by Switzerland on the other. Mont Blanc the highest point in the French Alps can be glimpsed from the lake at Geneva and Lausanne but not from this point at the eastern end of the crescent shaped lake. Nevertheless when I get back to the hotel I will select yesterday’s photo of the famous mountain, the tallest point in the clouds, for the start of this entry, not only to indicate its existence but also to share an image of a beautiful woman. She was named ‘Vierge du Lac’ or ‘Lady of the Lake’ (1987 – 1989) by the brilliant man who shaped her, the Swiss sculptor, Vincent Kesserling. When I came across the sculpture yesterday I was attracted to her exquisite, slender form emerging from the rough marble. It was to me a vision of female beauty aspiring, she reaches her arms skywards, and an example of the human heights that can be ascended by skilled and talented people who work in the domain of art. Sadly I don’t understand why these people aren’t validated more, in a world obsessed by sport and gladiator-like heroes. Apparently the sculptor ordered the block of marble to be deposited on the lakeshore and then he spent two years, to the delight of people passing by, working on his masterpiece.
The horn sounded just now, a deep piercing, mournful sound, from out of a Katherine Mansfield short story. Then two more horns they rang out like the call of a morepork and were followed by a toot in answer from another boat. Does it get any better than this? We are skimming over a glittering blue lake. There is no engine noise. It is like being in a silent film. Reclining on a blue canvas deck chair, on the upper deck I have my face upturned towards the sun, eyes closing to feel the warmth, eyes opening to look at the mountains on the French side of the lake, ethereal today, their pale translucent shapes like cut outs on blue glass. From here I can view the towns and landscapes that make up this part of the Swiss Riviera.
‘Deb-o-rah,’ says Marita, pronouncing my name in French, rising slightly on the last syllable. ‘You need to look at the famous vineyards of Lavaux.’ And there on my left is another UNESCO world heritage site, the grape vines of the largest contiguous vineyard in Switzerland. They run like green frills across the slopes, rows and rows of them intersected by tilting tracks and daringly constructed terraces and occasional rustic pink huts with pale brown wooden rooftops. These buildings are so small, only one room in all, or even less than that. I’m not sure of their purpose but they remind me of Heidi’s grandfather’s cottage, although he was situated, mythically, higher up in the Alps, closer to the clouds. How I loved that book. I identified with Heidi, the orphan child and her deep love of the outdoors. I was interested in her grandfather too who was a gruff character nursing some kind of hurt, living way up there on his own, but with Heidi in his life he became a different person, protective of her and nurturing. My one living grandfather was a remote figure, who whistled a funny three notes, through the side of his lips, when he walked up the garden path at the end of a working day. Once inside he’d bend down and extend his long chin so I could kiss his cheek, then he’d give a little laugh and disappear to the lounge, a room that had a shut up feeling, apart from my Pa sitting there with his magnifying glass poring over his stamp collection.
My first book of Heidi was a childhood picture book that had glorious illustrations. Even now the memory of those images send a shiver of pleasure right through me. I loved the pictures where she runs up the mountain meadow in Spring, through the gentian flowers, the golden rock roses, the mountain buttercups and primroses back into grandfather’s arms, after her long stay in Dorfli with the invalid child and the grouchy housekeeper.
Marita can see me bent over my journal and is worried, understandably, that I am missing the sights. I feel torn between recording my impressions, and the thoughts they trigger and following her extended arm as she points out the significant landmarks. Actually I would quite like to lean back again and close my eyes and engage in quiet reverie because this day is so marvellous I want and need to be right in the middle of it, breathing it in, slowly.
Marita has prepared a picnic. It’s all her work, apart from the brightly coloured macaroons, that Julian purchased in Yverdon this morning while I was finishing yesterday’s journal entry. It is another well-balanced and tasty meal; brown bread sandwiches spread with hummus and filled with roasted aubergine and grilled bacon and and three cherry tomatoes, one red, one orange and one yellow, plucked from the picnic bag and placed on top of the sandwich on the recycled paper plate. There’s a serviette patterned with yellow camomile flowers on a green check background tucked underneath. We are drinking Lionel’s favourite ice tea — it’s mine now too — which is minty and herby and not too sweet, out of small goblets. To follow there are the fine white shavings of the cheese tête de moine — they look like pale fungi — served with dark red cherries and to finish there is something labelled ‘Pommes seche bion,’ a perfect ring of shrivelled apple with the skin on. I’m aware of my utter indolence leaning back in my chair accepting and consuming the morsels, without doing any of the hard labour to produce it. This truly feels like a holiday.
‘Deb-o-rah, you need to look up at Montreux.’ Perhaps I will have more time to write on the return journey. The boat is pulling into the pier of the town made famous by the world-renowned jazz festival. An older woman with long ash coloured hair stands at the railing of the boat peering at a grand house and garden as the boat glides in so close you could reach out and touch the stone walls, the green hedges, the blue cypresses, the turrets, the window boxes of geraniums. Her dress is a double layer of red chiffon, with fine cap sleeves. The pattern on the fabric is like Monet’s painting of a field of poppies. She’s looking up now at the forested slopes above Montreux. They’re very steep. The town itself is mostly clustered towards the bottom and further up, there are castles on points in the air. Jason, in the course of his work for the firm Investec, had visited the home of the founder of the jazz festival, Claude Nobs. He gestures, now way up high and describes the views from the house, you could see in every direction down the mountain over the lake and into France.
Marita is telling me about a man who sat on a deckchair that was ‘not properly engaged and he fell on his head and died, so now,’ she says, ‘whenever I sit on a deckchair I think of him.’ When I comment that there seem to be a lot of grim deaths in Switzerland, she asks me what I mean. ‘Well Claude Nobs died in a cross-country skiing accident and you mentioned Jason’s work colleague who died while snow-shoeing a year ago.’ And there was another of Jason’s colleagues, who had an epileptic seizure in the street and hit his head on the curb on the way down, who died also. These are very sad stories. And there is Michael Schumacher who was left in a coma in 2013 following a skiing accident although that was in the nearby French Alps.
My niece Claire is leaning back on a white slatted bench seat with her eyes closed. Today she is wearing her stripy top again with skinny denims that hug her slender legs. Her walking shoes are made of a soft fabric that is patterned with purple dots. The laces are magenta and the soles of the shoes are pink and black. Only here in this part of the world could you find such delectable colour combinations on a walking shoe. Her hair is tied up high on her head with a bright pink ribbon. The entire effect is effortless and lovely.
In the meantime her brother Lionel is photographing everything — the lake, the boat, the flag, the funnel, the mountains, the deckchairs and the people on them, his parents, his sister, his uncle, my Cleo and her husband. He had saved all his money from a holiday job emptying rubbish bins and tidying up the foreshore of lac Neuchatel for the local town council and bought a Nikon camera with a big zoom lens. At the Paul Klee museum, the other day, he was very busy photographing the art, taking close-ups in the way I like to, and shots of people. In the evenings Lionel edits the hundreds of photos snapped during the day and then shows his selection to an appreciative audience in the cosy part of their living room. Nearly all eight of us can squeeze up together on a long L-shape maroon-coloured sofa. If I’m lucky I get to share a portion of the L section where I can stretch out my nagging limb.
I really, really hope there will be time for a swim in the lake. It is such a beautiful day, a gift from Nature. When, back home in Auckland, I studied Marita’s itinerary for this day I took special note of the swim in le lac Léman. But when we unpacked the car at Cully this morning I was told to leave my swimming costume behind. I was stowing it away in our bag, the one with the enlarged reproduction of a paradise duck that Julian had bought at the Great Dixter shop for me to vomit into — fortunately I used the disposable cup and saved the bag because it’s a sturdy bag and the duck is very appealing and I will enjoy using it back home, I can picture baguettes and market produce inside — when Marita, spied me. ‘No, Deborah, we’re not swimming at the castle, today.’ She has decided that the picnic basket and a chilly bin are quite enough baggage to lug around without the weight of additional towels. ‘There will be time for a swim on our return,’ she says but I’m not so sure. We’re dining out this evening to celebrate a cluster of birthdays and Marita wants us to gather beforehand at the house for aperitifs to exchange presents. Still my hand hovered over the bag, it’s such a warm day and we’ll dry off quickly. But ‘No Deb-o-rah,’ said Marita. ‘There is nowhere to swim at the chateau.’ She said this with such authority that I left them in the car.
But about this swim in the lake, that it seems will not now happen, I can’t quite let go of this. Before I left Auckland I bought a new German swimsuit especially for this day. The fabric is in the bright neon colours that I had thought were popular in Switzerland. Marita has blinds in the children’s bedrooms and shared study in the same orange, turquoise and pink as my suit however Marita isn’t so sure about that. Her bikini is a paisley pattern with dreamy soft swirls of mauve, blue and pink, very tasteful and lovely.
Normally I wouldn’t wear such loud colours. This costume is a swirl of variegated colour starting at the top with a pale, yellow-lime bodice ruched into a straight line of stitching that runs all the way down to my tummy. Through the colour changes a pattern of indistinct circles cluster like stars in a sky, the colours graduating through each change. The first circles are orange that then flush deeper orange with centres coloured green-blue. This is very hard to describe. The colour of the suit keeps on transforming, like a sunset, through lipstick orange-pink, the circles turning blue and mauve, to hot pink, followed by magenta with a pattern of purplish blue circles, around my bottom. The lining of the suit is aqua. It looked a bit wacky when I tried it on in the wintery cold, in the cubicle of the swimwear shop, Hot Body, in Auckland and so did the crinkled muslin bright fuschia wrap that I bought to wear with it. What was I thinking? My rationale went like this ‘it will be unremarkable in Europe where I will camouflage alongside the other swimmers and look less like a tourist.’ And then on an impulse I said to the woman in the shop, ‘oh what the heck, you only live once’.
At the chateau
Today I became aware of the strange snippets of information that tourists collect, details that swim into the brain and out again, whilst visiting a historic place. I learned from information panels in the castle that there were knives and spoons but not forks until the fifteenth century and that for a middle ages banquet at the Chateau de Chillon, the guests would be served the following meats; venison, hare, pheasant, partridge, crane and heron, and the following fish; dolphin, bream, bass, turbot, sturgeon, eel, carp, or trout. The food would be flavoured with spices; ginger, cinnamon, saffron, nutmeg, pepper, mace and cloves.
Another thing that can happen in the midst of viewing something extraordinary is that the experience can trigger unusual associations and personal connections. Perhaps this is because the brain is busily trying to find a way to attach meaning to the current phenomena. Today as Marita and I were dipping our hands into a stone pool of cold water that flowed from a tap set into the castle wall, she told me about the German, Dr Kneipp who came up with the idea of immersing hands and feet in rapid succession first in cold water and then hot because he believed it was good for the circulation and could cure a number of conditions. She said there is a verb for this named after him: ‘kneippen’. Marita is a multi-linguist and so are her children. She can speak fluently in her native language, which is German, and has a brilliant command of English and French, they live in the French speaking part of Switzerland, and she speaks Spanish and Portuguese too. There is nothing she will not tackle.
Listening to her explanation I remembered how that same method was used as a remedy for chilblains when I was a girl. Standing there in the hot sunlight, the warmth reverberating off the walls and cobblestones of the courtyard in a complex that is really like a small medieval village, and with my hands plunged deep in the cool water, an image floated into my mind of my mother and my nana in the kitchen of our wooden farmhouse on the Canterbury Plains. They are preparing two basins of water, pouring piping hot water from the kettle on the stove into one and running the cold tap into the other. Gently, carefully the basins are placed on a towel at my feet. I am nine years old and what I have to do is dip my swollen, throbbing feet first into the cold and then into the hot. When I begin the pain is agonising but slowly the intense itching eases. I don’t know whether this is due to the distraction of the two very shocking sensations on my feet or whether there really is a physical reaction, and the water does calm the inflammation. As a child, I walked on the outsides of my feet through the winter, because the balls of my feet were perennially swollen with frostbite. It was such a relief when my doctor gave me a prescription for Vitamin D pills and the symptoms lessened.
Rather a lot has been made of Byron and his connection to Chillon when a number of other writers and artists including French artist Eugène Delacroix and English artist Ford Madox Brown and the Swiss artists, Jean-Léonard Lugardon and Joseph Hornung, were also inspired by the picturesque Romantic castle on it’s island and by the true story of the prisoner of Chillon. There were several reproductions of these etchings, engravings and paintings on display in the castle but mostly it was Byron’s story that commanded most of the exhibition space. This is understandable. He led an unconventional life with all the peaks and troughs that museum curators know will interest a visitor. He had a wife, Annabella Milbanke. He had an affair with a married woman, Teresa Guiccioli but the woman he most loved was his half sister, Augusta. It was a short but immensely full life made richer by extensive travel and his writing practice. Byron died of malaria in Missolonghi, Greece on 19 April 1824, aged only 36.
In the main I appreciate the scholarship that goes into writing the information panels that accompany the exhibits in a museum, or art gallery because it deepens the experience but occasionally I get bored by them, and tired — is there anything more draining than working relentlessly through every exhibit and every written detail in a museum — but here the matching of Byron’s poem ‘The Prisoner of Chillon’ (1816) printed and reproduced on pillars within the actual prison vault was quite brilliant serving to feed the imagination and supply the necessary drama. Based on the true experience of Francois Bonivard who was thrown into the underground vault, that lay lower than sea level and where he languished for six years until 1536 when he was liberated by the Bernese, the poem recreates the state of wretchedness the prisoner experienced. I like this passage, from stanza VI.
A double dungeon wall and wave
Have made – and like a living grave.
Below the surface of the lake
The dark vault lies wherein we lay,
We heard it ripple night and day.
Byron liked to write at night, from midnight to dawn and could write in any circumstances, on the road, or at home. He found everything to be a source of inspiration, Nature, ideas, his lovers. I hadn’t realised that he had written daily in an Alpine Journal in 1816 recording his thoughts on the landscape, the weather, the quality of his mattress, meals, women, the sound of bells and cows, smells, the mountain heights and also his troubles, for his half-sister Augusta. Here is an entry taken from that journal, on 29 September, 1816:
I am a lover of Nature — and an Admirer of Beauty --
I can bear fatigue — & welcome privation — and have seen
some of the noblest views in the world. — But in all this --
the recollections of bitterness — & more especially of recent & more
home desolation — which must accompany me through life --
have preyed upon me here — and neither the music of
the Shepherd — the crashing of the Avalanche — nor the torrent --
the mountain — the Glacier — the Forest — nor the Cloud --
have for one moment — lightened the weight upon my heart --
nor enabled me to lose my own wretched identity in the majesty &
the power and the Glory — around — above — & beneath me.
The return trip
The return trip, retracing our morning route along the riviera through a feathery blue atmosphere, is again so smooth that the sea seems like a silky blue sheet being lightly pulled from beneath the boat. At five in the afternoon, we are, all eight of us, lulled by the warmth of the sun on our skin and by the soporific rhythm of the boat. I have a heightened sense of joie-de-vivre, a feeling so intense it feels almost like grief.
Oh, go on and on, day, please. And let me remember this. This afternoon has the quality of another blue-hot day spent, what seems an age ago, now because of the events that transpired, with my mother in the botanic gardens in Christchurch. It was 2012, two weeks before the day and hour of the deadly earthquake that struck on February 22nd. On that day we had lunch under the red awning at the curator’s house restaurant overlooking the brilliant lawns planted with giant copper beeches that shone black against the sky and the brightly coloured turquoise peacock fountain, that is a Victorian folly, splashing in the distance. I remember saying to my mother that I wanted to freeze-frame the feeling, and bottle the aromas. I had a feeling, a premonition, that it would not be that way again.
Today a similar feeling returns but there’s no dread this time. It’s more that I’m acutely aware of the fact that these experiences of perfection happen only rarely in a lifetime. And so I want to hold the day in my hand for as long as I can and cherish its beauty.
And on and on we do go, the boat sliding past the historic towns, and landscapes — cypresses now turning from blue to black, terracotta rooftop tiles fading to soft apricot, the stone walls changing from pale beige to grey, the watery blue-green shutters at the open windows bleaching out along with the red of the geraniums in the window boxes changing to paler orange. As the boat nudged into a pier just now I spied a double-tiered Victorian carousel that had white horses with gold manes, rocking up and down. They appeared to be leaving, as the great merry-go-round turned, while in the water down below I watched teenagers diving from the pier — flashes of darkened skin and the bright red and orange of their swimming trunks flipping into the aqua lake.
Coda to a very long journal entry
Today at the castle, looking through a slot in the castle wall, I noticed the moat dividing the chateau complex from the mainland. I was thinking how the seawater in this channel was coloured turquoise like the water in my pretend moat at home when Marita joined me and noticed, with a laugh, further along from the moat, the swimming beach. We had almost finished our navigation of the castle by then but still we had over an hour to fill before the boat returned. I felt mightily frustrated seeing this beach and said as much, ‘Marita, I am wild with you.’ She laughed again, because there wasn’t much heat in my voice, and replied flippantly, ‘Just swim in your underwear.’
At the beach I sat on the stones and stared moodily out to sea. Then I got up and waded into the water. I wanted so much to swim. Marita was still being insistent. ‘Here,’ she said waving a tea towel at me, ‘just go on in and you can dry yourself with this when you get out.’ It was then that I noticed my son-in-law looking at me. I could see he was thinking about something as I swished my feet. I love this young man very much. He is one of the kindest people I know. He doesn’t actually need to do anything more than be himself to make me feel very glad for my daughter that she found him. I hadn’t noticed that he was wearing a white singlet underneath his shirt until he asked me ‘Deborah, would you like my singlet?’ And that’s what he did. He took off his shirt and handed the vest to me to wear over my peacock blue knickers. It came right down to the top of my thighs.
Oh that water, it was warm and delicious. The others didn’t think so but because I have grown accustomed to freezing temperatures in the pool back home it felt practically tepid. The feeling, swimming toward the castle floating just above me there on its island, with its beige walls pierced with narrow apertures and its wooden shingle rooftops was one of sheer elation and disbelief. I had to keep checking that this French castle built in the middle ages really did exist. And were those the French Alps floating pale blue on the horizon? Soon Claire was swimming and somersaulting at my side. She was wearing her knickers too and had her mother’s delft patterned, blue and white scarf tied round her chest. When I told her she was like a porpoise she threw back her head and laughed, with all her lovely white teeth showing.
Marita was ready with her tea towel when I emerged from the water and some additional advice that I should shed my wet undies and return home knicker-less on the boat. ‘Going commando,’ said Julian with a grin. After awhile you cease to notice their absence, and instead there is a feeling of great ease and freedom. And anyway when I viewed the exhibition Undressed at the Victoria and Albert Museum I learned that women didn’t wear knickers, bloomers that is, until the nineteenth century and they absolutely couldn’t when they had to manage the great big contraption that was a crinoline.