~floating in a most pe-cu-li-ar way~

February 17th, 2008

Sometimes life gives you exactly what you ordered. This can be good or bad, but probably shouldn’t surprise if you’ve been taking notes or at least not reading Oblivion Enthusiast magazine in class.

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a map of our journey: A~Neuchatel, B~Annecy (by way of Geneva), C~Chamonix, D~Fribourg.

Our adventure started in Geneva, where we visited the largest natural history museum in Switzerland, whose vast collection dates back to the 1800s. Unfortunately they’ve attempted to make it “kid dazzling” and thus ruined the atmosphere with dayglo colors, terrible lighting, and plastic flies on the ‘freshly killed elk’ tableau.

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The collection itself is amazing, and is said to include bugman Louis Jurine’s piles of Hymenoptera, Coleoptera, Lepidoptera and Hemiptera. I found no evidence of this, nor the promised live two-headed Greek tortoise named Janus.

Particularly of fascination are the birds, such a vast array—some too heavy to fly, some without wings, or beaks, some with gorgeous plumage, some with insane twee feathers right out of Dr. Seuss. Who needs dayglo?

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We toured the town and lake, visited a flea marche in the Carouge area, and across the way found a lovely cafe for afternoon respite. We watched the vendors from the marche return trays with the remains of their morning coffee.

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Then it was on to Annecy, “The Venice of Switzerland,” which was recommended to us by a friend who no doubt had good intentions. Beware anything called “The Venice of…” is my recommendation. The city was exactly like Venice, the Disneyland aspects you are loath to witness.

My favorite part was indulging in three long, hot baths in our hotel. I miss my bathtub so very much!

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On Sunday there was a lovely farmer’s market and then a Real! Authentic! Venetian! Carnival!
As the silent, masked, over-costumed figures appeared and began milling around the one good view of the canal (for the tourist cameras, see above), we high-tailed it out of there and on to the Alps.

This is where the opportunity to challenge my fear of heights came in.

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Mont Blanc is Europe’s grandest mountain (west of Russia), perched over France, Switzerland, and Italy.
Chamonix is tucked just underneath it, on the French side, and is a spot for snowish thrill-seekers of all kinds: paragliders, people who climb frozen waterfalls (?!), and those who find a challenge in riding a tin can across an expanse 2300 meters above the ground. We did just that, to a spot known as Le Brévent.

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Mary Shelley–then Mary Wollstonecraft–began to write and set her fabulous Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus here, notably the showdown scene between monster and creator on the Mer de Glace (sea of ice). She was nineteen years old at the time, as she said, “death and grief were but words, which found no true echo in my heart.”

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She and her lover Percy were visiting that charming wastrel, Lord Byron, during “the year without a summer” (a year-long volcanic winter said to be caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815). They vacationed near Lake Geneva at the Villa Diodati, which Percy describes as “a menagerie, with eight enormous dogs, three monkeys, five cats, an eagle, a crow, and a falcon: and all these, except the horses, walk about the house, which every now and then resounds with their unarbitrated quarrels, as if they were masters of it.”

Quarreling monkeys and endless rain led naturally to long nights of ghost stories. Doesn’t it always? When they had worked their way through the German anthology Fantasmagoriana, Byron (whose ex-lover Lady Caroline Lamb described as “Mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” but left out his penchant for spooky party games) challenged them to a ghost story writing contest. The results included a prototype for the first Vampyre story, and Shelly’s Frankenstein.

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From Mary Shelley’s travel diary, July 1816:
Mont Blanc was before us, but it was covered with cloud; its base, furrowed with dreadful gaps, was seen above. Pinnacles of snow intolerably bright, part of the chain connected with Mont Blanc, shone through the clouds at intervals on high. I never knew — I never imagined what mountains were before. The immensity of these aeriel summits excited, when they suddenly burst upon the sight, a sentiment of extatic wonder, not unallied to madness.

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We wandered the peak and then shared a blueberry tart at a café that is one of the most gorgeously surreal places I have ever been. It felt like sitting on the top of the world, with a desert of snow-covered mountains unfurling in all directions as far as you can see. The birds swooped and cawed, the moon perched in a daytime sky that was scrawled with the menu du jour, the air was empty and still, like all of time was contained within a moment. Not unallied to madness, indeed.

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Nine timezones away, my grandma Edith was preparing to celebrate her birthday. When I called that night, I told her if there is a café in heaven, it is just like this. I also said I was glad she was born, and not just for selfish reasons.
On their other phone my grandpa said, you will remember that afternoon for all your life. Boone knows what he is talking about.

view of the Massif du Mont Blanc and the Chamonix valley, & Little Jimmy Scott

4 Responses to “~floating in a most pe-cu-li-ar way~”

  1. leslie says:

    kim!! so good to read this, see you, get a sense of where you’ve been. i have no doubt the pleasures of fondue have their limits. but leave it to you to make even the dullest experiences come alive. those blue eggs made me happy just now because i just woke up and there’s no heat in my apartment. it’s the time of year in ny when the weather starts getting really oppressive and dreaming of spring provides no relief. i’m still dreaming though. the caribbean would be good right about now. god such a baby, it’s only a new york winter.

    so who you two supporting? hillary or obama? we are all about obama although the race is splitting friend’s allegiences. (sp?) wonder what the swiss think?

    send love to ali and keep sending posts. we love it and miss you both…

    lesllie and lloyd

  2. michelle plochere says:

    Is there skiing in Chamonix? Why is it so deserted?

  3. karen says:

    Wow. And I thought Mont Blanc was only a fine pen.

  4. kim says:

    hey there everyone! so lovely to hear from you!

    leslie~yeah the NY winters are hard, here too and I haven’t even realized it until one day this week I was making a lentil soup and the sun came out, actual rays making shadows on my walls, and my mood was radically lifted–put a little pep in the leek chopping…

    michelle~i wondered that too. the skiers were around, but not in huge numbers. it was near the end of the day, perhaps that had something to do with it? there are a few lone skiers at the beginning of the video, and in the wide shot of the cafe…

    karen~me too! so much for american public school!

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