Academic Travel: Departure from Lugano & arrival in St. Luc

  October 12th, 2009


  The sky is still dark when we wake up and I am reminded of my childhood. Adrienne chatters away happily on the phone with her boyfriend (thousands of miles away in California) and I sit motionless on the couch, sipping yoghurt. Five hundred grams of yoghurt. I feel a bit queasy.


   Kyle gets up and we take care to throw everything away before strapping on our expedition backpacks and departing to the early morning sidewalks of Sorengo. The mountains, or hills as I call them in my mind, are silhouetted beautifully in the crisp blue dawn; the windows of hillside houses twinkle amongst the rising walls of black. We trudge slowly under the immense weight of our packs, which remain too full despite our efforts to pack light. The Swiss Italian suburb awakens as we pass. Brightly colored sportscars speed by, the drivers curiously eying the three students plodding clumsily down the sidewalk. Overhead, a sliver of the moon shines brilliant yellow, rich with texture. Stars twinkle above us, a subtle farewell.


  I awake with a jolt over two hours after taking a seat on the “Cosmos” tour bus with our group of 17 college students, Michele the Italian bus driver, and our professor, Sara Steinert Borella, referred to from now on as SSB. Kyle is dozing next to me; Adrienne is curled asleep in a seat across from us. We are freezing. The bus shudders and lurches along a narrow mountain road, massive walls of stone towering on both sides. Clouds of murky grey fog roll amidst the mountains, momentarily unveiling pristine alpine waterfalls and groves of evergreen trees. Every few minutes I catch a glimpse of a snow-capped peak secluded among the clouds. I rejoice inwardly at every sight of mountain life.

  I wake up later to an oblivion of snowflakes speeding by, a sheet over a barren landscape of desolate mountain tundra. Red and burnt orange, as it should be. We stare in awe, and when the bus stops for a coffee break, I explode into the alpine air with Adrienne and Kyle. We frolic into the nature, catching snowflakes on our tongues and in our hair, reveling in the miracle of a first snowfall.

   “It’s so quiet,” whispers Adrienne, who has not seen snow in four years. I smile and join her in admiring the silence, the peaceful stillness in which the falling snow is the only flicker of movement. I feel as though transported back to another time in life, and drop to my knees at the discovery of arctic blueberries growing in bunches on the frozen ground. The landscape, however desolate, is pure nostalgia.

   We drink cappuccinos in the snow and continue to a town splayed across a valley floor. Coop Restaurant seems to be the place for lunch and I doze off yet again on the bus. As I sleep, it maneuvers the winding road up into the mountains, to St. Luc and finally Chandolin, home to Ella Maillart, one of the writers we’re studying. We had planned a hike, but snow blows wildly through the air and most members of our group seem rather unenthusiastic. Instead, we walk to an Ella Maillart museum and study her life’s artifacts – ancient photographs, Swiss passports, books, typewriters, and treasures from Central Asia. Her chalet lies nearby, and I understand how the simplicity of this life could be enough for a person – yet for Ella, of course, it was not until the end of her life that she settled here. Still. Tiny mountain chalets, built of stone and dark wood, are stacked picturesquely upon the mountainside. The Matterhorn, we are told, is lurking behind the turbulent clouds. A frigid breeze sweeps the miniature streets, bringing with it an aura of quiet harmony. I feel very at peace.

   Later, the Cosmos bus pulls up to Gite du Prilett, our home for the next two nights. I am assigned to a cozy cabin-esque room with Adrienne and three other girls, and after a hot cup of coffee, set off into the forests of the Alps with Kyle and Adrienne. Snow is drifting down all around us, but it does not stick, and together we venture, in search of an elevation where snow covers the ground. Kyle takes off ahead, and Adrienne is enraptured by a stream unfolding in a series of bubbling waterfalls throughout the pristine forests. I wander in the space between them, slow and meandering; soaking in the beautify of the trees, the clear sky opening overhead, and most of all the sounds. The constant racket of aggressive drivers has been left behind in Lugano. I hear only the gentle gurgling of the stream and the individual snowflakes cascading amongst the greenery. Nothing else.

  Our walk, in the end, led us to a beautiful wooden bridge crossing over a waterfall. Its planks were draped in a thin blanket of crisp white snow. I stood on the bridge listening to the nature flowing through the forest as Adrienne and Kyle disappeared into the trees above. The tranquility of that moment ended up costing me dearly. Back at the chalet, I simply could not warm up. I changed my clothes, drank hot chocolate, and sat downstairs in the warmth radiating from the kitchen. Nothing helped. I took a hot shower, but shivered at my core even as scalding water poured over my skin. What happened? Had my Alaskan survival skills abandoned me in the Alps?

   Dinner was an absolute feast. Bread, wine, steaming bowls of pea soup, and chicken drizzled in mushroom sauce with vegetable rice. I was in heaven. Kyle ate at least two servings of everything topped with bits of chili that Michele, the bus driver, had taken from SSB’s garden. The two bonded over this, and continued to attempt conversations in Italian throughout both dinner and dessert (rhubarb-plum sauce with cream). Kyle and I played chess after diner, which was a major failure on my behalf. I got tired, lost motivation, and was checkmated alarmingly early. Went to sleep under two huge duvets, in a cozy log room with 4 other girls and a heater by my feet. Toasty.


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