~only a trace~

February 10th, 2008

“C’est une fraise qui skie!” (It’s a strawberry that skis!) is what the girl said about the prized figurine she pulled from her pocket, in the hopes that I would ask her about it, so I did. We were waiting for the funi to take us back down the mountain after an afternoons adventure, all of us now clustered at the front window to watch the landscape do the opposite of unfurl.


After breakfast on Sunday we walked about four kilometers east of Neuchâtel, following along the lake to the town of La Coudre. There a funiculaire that travels north through the forest to the village of Chaumont runs every hour. We arrived just in time, tho sadly the bakery with the terrifying bread was closed for dimanche.

The car was filled with a subtle excitement, all ages craning their necks and speaking in charged tones, all but the pack of teenage boys with bikes who were aiming for cool and sullen while wearing those helmets–the ones that make you look like trouthead–and traveling in a trolley up a mountainside at a 45 degree angle.


From this spot tucked in the first ridges of the Jura Mountains on a clear day you can see the three lakes–Neuchâtel, Murten and Biel/Bienne–and on a very clear day, Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn. We thought the haze would burn off and yet it did not, so we saw a sea of clouds.

click on image to expand

We paid to climb Le Signal lookout tower and we crossed the swaying bridge and then I simply couldn’t go further. It’s been about ten years I have had a sort of fear of heights, or more precisely falling I ‘spose. I don’t mind being high up, I just don’t want to see the ground far below as I climb there. (in my defense, this is 1171 meters above sea level, the Empire State building is a mere 14 meters above) I get a dizzy feeling, like I’m losing my center of gravity, followed by a feeling I recognized for the first time as panic.

I discovered this phobia–to add to my more pronounced claustrophbia–when seeing my cat Xie leap onto the balcony of one of my apartments in the Mission District of San Francisco. Despite being next door to the fire station it gave me pain to see her leap full-force onto the one-inch railing of the fire escape and then tip-toe around its perimeter. The pain it gave me was specifically in the arches of my feet, oddly. A sympathy phobia was born…


I was disappointed, but I decided to go with it. In many ways this week has deeply underlined the inner lesson of this adventure: just go with.

At an ancient haufbrau with a more ancient hostess who relished telling me no, over and over (clearly missing the “go with it” handout), we celebrated our tiny trophy beers (having earned them, thanks to said hostess, and they were delish) and dug the view. As usual here I wished for a panoramic lens; it is impossible to capture the vastness in plain ol’ pictures.

I was thinking about Vertigo, and the terrifying tower at Mission San Juan Bautista that we all know was collaged in later. I was thinking about that gorgeous drive in San Francisco along the Presidio, and of course of Kim Novak. (Me-ow!)


I was also thinking about what I call my “method writing” technique, wherein I inadvertently put myself though the precise hell of whatever character I am obsessing over, most often Lillian La France.

In this manifestation, my fear of the tower meets her sudden fear of the Wall of Death. In both cases the phobia springs seemingly out of nowhere, no primal scene at the root. Not quite as literal or dramatic as some we share (descending to newfound depths of despair in a foreign land, anyone?), and she always seems to trump me (instead of Le Signal they could call it the Tower of Doom?), and yet…

this is not Lilly, but dig that crazy antique wall of death!

I thought I’m going to go back across that wobbly bridge and climb up that spindly tower
and just get right at the heart of that irrational panic feeling!

Like all the other lamentable stuff that happens in life, call it research, material, “use it.”
Then the funi came. Saved by the trolley!

Below is a clip from the ride, accompanied by what Jim Lyons called “the song about everything.”
It’s been playing in my head all week, especially this line: “If her shadow don’t seem much company, well, who said it would be?” My best company (Ali aside) these days is indeed a shadow, a ghost of a woman I never met. It’s a solitary time, and I’m ensconcing myself in it.

(thanks to youtube limitations, the clip is so pixelated and washed out it’s hard to tell you are traveling a mile and a half down a mountainside with a rather steep grade and the whole “sky” beyond being our lake Neuchâtel…but I have great faith in your imagination!)

The song–High, Low and In Between–is by Townes Van Zandt, who said when asked why all his songs were sad, “Well, many of the songs, they aren’t sad, they’re hopeless.” Way to put a fine point on melancholy, Townes!

Neither sad or hopeless this week, just thoughtful at the beginning of this New Year.
Though longing for Chinatown and a certain dumpling house that calls to me in the land of fondue…

To your year of the rat!

3 Responses to “~only a trace~”

  1. Habib says:

    The funi ride reminds me of the first film ever made, I think it was the Lumiere bros. A train barrelling down the track but from the other perspective. It frightened Parisians so much they leapt out of their seats to avoid being run down.

  2. J says:

    And here I’ve been thinking that there’s nothing under the sun that can’t be purchased in New York. Um, excuse me? Does New York have bread in the shape of Donald Duck? ….Yeah, that’s what I thought.

  3. […] few weeks after we first moved to Switzerland we made a little sojourn to Chaumont, to ride the funiculaire and take in the view. Crossing the suspension bridge to the lookout tower […]

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