Did chateau Chillon receive extraterrestrial visitors in times past? Surely such a gorgeous spot overlooking the lake and the snow-capped Alps is worthy of a tourist visit from outer space?
(Chateau Chillon, Montreux, Switzerland; November 2014)
We reached the bottom of the staircase and stepped into a gloomy vault. Seven pillars held up the ceiling, barely lit by the lost rays of light that from time to time bounced into the dungeon. How dreadful it must have been for François Bonivard to sit here for six years, chained to one pillar. And how dreadful it is that once again the cause was that of faith; or supporting the Protestant reformation.
Lord Byron recognized the scent of drama, too, and it grew on him during the rainy, unforgettable “Year Without a Summer” of 1816. Oh, the most fantastic tales he, Polidori, and Mary and Percy Shelley conjured! Frankeinstein, Vampyre – and a curious, gloomy poem about a forgotten soul withering in the dungeon of chateau Chillon.
Perhaps Byron sat in the vault for hours. Perhaps he imagined what it must have been like to be chained to a pillar, believing oneself to be trapped below the water level. Perhaps he found nobility in that limbo between no-life and nothingness. As I thought of the selection of chilling stories chateau Chillon has collected during the centuries, I could not help but wonder why he chose to befriend the thoughts of a libertine prisoner who ended up free, instead of growing a liking to the sad fate of the many women tortured and then burned as witches in the courtyard?
A double dungeon wall and waveHave made—and like a living graveBelow the surface of the lakeThe dark vault lies wherein we lay:We heard it ripple night and day;Sounding o’er our heads it knock’d;And I have felt the winter’s sprayWash through the bars when winds were highAnd wanton in the happy sky;And then the very rock hath rock’d,And I have felt it shake, unshock’d,Because I could have smiled to seeThe death that would have set me free.(Lord Byron)
How lovely it was to stroll on a miles long lakeside boulevard in Montreux. Violets, asters, and even passion flowers did not give a flying fruit about the fact that it was mid-November. The palm trees proudly disregarded the snowy peaks across the lake. Seagulls feigned total ignorance over the fate of the scaffolded, moored boat they had chosen to favor this winter. And I feigned total ignorance of the fact that I was expected in the office back home the next day.
If flowers can face each day as a chance to bloom a little longer, so can we all. If palm trees are able to focus on the sunlight on this side of the lake and forget about the snow in sight, so can we. And if we can hold on for four more weeks we will have passed the darkest it ever will get on this Earth. So live today. Soon we will swing into the light.
Four rows of colorful flags wave in the wind as one world in motion. Yet there is a back entrance. And a security check. Passport control. A photo is taken. And no, we are not entering an airport or US soil but a place standing for peace and security in a world that is less peaceful and secure.
Once inside, one is welcome to be lost in the hallways and corridors of the huge building complex. While the United Nations is hallowed just as much as its Genevan office, many end up lost. While the world needs a grand building reflecting the grandeur of the ideology, some prefer to aim for a grand ego. And yet this troubled world desperately needs something called a “united nations”.
As I circled around the giant three-legged chair on the Palais Nations square, I thought of how everyone tires with age. Such fatigue may not be lack of energy, but it may be redirecting the energy from dynamic decisions and actions to analysis paralysis, while carefully working out ways not to step on anyone’s toes. Being connected to the What, or the Result, and how to avoid dissonance or disruption, replaces the aim of being connected to the Reason, or the Why. And we small simple people get caught in the How, or the Process, where a long-term view of the ultimate aim can be replaced by unfortunate quick fixes. We choose personal gains, and forget to be kind at heart. And so it is easy to be lost, even in the cradle of human hope and kindness and peace.
But fortunately the UN office is well sign-posted. It is almost impossible to not find one’s way to the General Assembly Hall, where each country has a seat, side by side – and a microphone, so each and every one’s voice is heard. Here’s hoping that also the entire United Nations finds a clear and sounding voice again.
And there it stood: the living fossil. A tree of a kind that is older than the dinosaurs, and the kind that even survived the Hiroshima atom bomb blast. A tree species does not live to become over 200 million years old without extraordinary resilience. Standing in the shower of golden fan-shaped leaves I marveled how age and survival does not mean one necessarily loses one’s beauty. The gingko tree is the poster queen of anti-aging. Many consider it to have medicinal qualities, but for me the marvel is in how the gingko has time-traveled and replaced grazing dinosaurs with a planet filled with humans – and without losing a single quality that makes it so extraordinarily beautiful.
Yet how sad it is to think that a tree does not live to become 200 million years old without losing all its relatives. There is no tree like the ginkgo in the world today. Survival and longevity ultimately also mean loneliness. What ever may happen to our world in the future, I do hope the ginkgo will not be the last tree standing.
(Montreux, Switzerland; November 2014)
What could be more mind-boggling than to think that everything we see, and everything we are, is mainly emptiness? The chair we sit on is space, even if we are told it consists of atoms. We ourselves are made of space. Apparently, if all space was removed from between the electrons, protons, and neutrons in the atoms, the consistence of the entire human race would fit into a sugarcube.
Oh yes, there is something just a little bit more mind-boggling: that the emptiness of space is not really empty at all but filled within something mysterious named “dark matter”. And that there may be as many as 11 dimensions – some of them curled (now please make an attempt at imagining how). And that gravity is not just a force but actually a particle too, just like light is, and there is no real difference between an energy wave and a particle. And the most mind-boggling thing of them all: scientists spent ten years building a huge machine to find out the “theory of everything”, spanning from the secrets of the universe at its birth to small subatomic particles that would explain dark matter, multidimensional universes, and gravity.
Deep down under Swiss and French territory, the secrets of the universe are revealed in a giant synchrothron that spins the tiniest little parts of atoms around a 27 kilometer circuit at blinding speed. For the smallest possible particles to show themselves, a massive detector 25 meters in diameter is needed to catch every signal. The difference in size between the construction and the particles it captures is probably similar to the distance between one human being and a distant galaxy. After just a few years of operation, a particle beginning to unravel the mystery of gravity and supersymmetry was found – and with a Nobel prize on the tail.
Some make pilgrimages to churches, others to battlefields. But I… oh, I was walking on holy ground as I toured CERN. Oh, today was a happy day for this science nerd. Wandering among other science nerds I pondered of how little we really do know of the basic building blocks that hold our up the scaffold we perceive as our world. Buddha was right: everything truly is an illusion.
For a few days, my full focus will be to breathe this pure Alpine air. And to watch the swans float about the Lake Geneva. And to share tea and gossip and frustration at the world with a dear friend. And to visit CERN and the UN and tell you all about it.
“and just like you, we breathe the same air of this orphan world”
(Pagliacci by Leoncavallo)
(Geneva, Switzerland; November 2014)
The leaves are falling, falling as if from far up,
as if orchards were dying high in space.
Each leaf falls as if it were motioning “no.”
And tonight the heavy earth is falling
away from all other stars in the loneliness.
We’re all falling. This hand here is falling.
And look at the other one. It’s in them all.
And yet there is Someone, whose hands
infinitely calm, holding up all this falling.
(Rainer Maria Rilke)
(Cambridge, UK; October 2014)
Each city resonates with us in different ways. We all feel at home in one place and like a foreigner in another. We develop relationships with each city: one is a friend to have coffee with but not more than once a year. Another is a long-lost friend who instantly embraces and the past ten out-of-touch years are wiped away. A third is a contact who supports our everyday lives ambivalently like a shop clerk or a distant colleague.
And then there are the great lovestories and the great complications. Cities that love us but struggle to let us leave, amidst a thunder storm and airport strike. Cities that charm us initially but then turn to annoy us by closing the post office when we need it and ensuring everybody elbows us when we are carrying groceries.
Cambridge is for me a place of crossroads. It is a charming English cobblestoned bubble I struggled to leave, but it is also a place where I felt distress, turbulence, and where my life took a totally different turn. My Cambridge has equal measures of sunlight and darkness.
And so, as I stood in the full moonlight waiting to be let in to the chapel at King’s for evensong, I thought of a Cantabrigian friend who once said that life is bittersweet and that it is okay as long as it is more sweet than it is bitter. Surrounded by the college walls, the night air filled with wisdom of ages past and to come, I decided Cambridge weighs heavier on the sweet. And I let myself be enveloped by the city and its air that carries inspiration and intellect and science and art and life – the kind of life that is geared towards a better future.
(Trinity College and King’s College chapel, Cambridge, UK; October 2014)
Back in darling Cambridge, where angels play with human skulls and doorbells look like toilet flushers. And where the best tea and scones is only accessible by wellie-clad foot over the meadows and cow turds along the river (at the Orchard, of course).
By the way, did you know one can fit two bottles of wine in each hanging, closed sleeve of the Master of Arts gown? A Newnham girl would know.