Further From The Border, Closer To Home
"Think of the long trip home.
Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?
Where should we be today?"
-- Elizabeth Bishop
Imagine sitting on the "slowest express train in the world" with huge windows to maximize views, no one could escape from the breathtaking waves of the sky-high Alps covered in snow. I was no exception, except I was sobbing, more like crying, while everyone else was hooked by the beauty. I wonder if it was the sense of the sublime that brought me to tears or the thought of "homesickness" during this overwhelming pandemic. Maybe it was both, but the mountains were surely the catalyst.
"Where are you guys going for the spring break?", asked by my German professor. To fill the silence in the classroom, she answered her own question with another question: "Everyone is staying at home?". I guess no one knew how the outbreak of the virus would change our lives so they chose to maintain the status quo. "I'm going to Switzerland for the second time" I answered with hesitation. "Schweiz! (Switzerland!)", the professor reacted with over-excited expressions, "that's awesome, you could practice your German then! Well, their German is more like Swiss-German which I personally, as a German native speaker, don't even understand. But I'm sure you still can pick up a few words on the menu." Without waiting for my response, she asked the question I was thinking: "Would you be able to come back by the end of spring break? I mean the virus... and they might close the border by then." I refused to think about the possible scenario where I would be living in the airport for months like Tom Hank in his movie Terminals, "Hoffentlich (hopefully), I can make it back before they close the border."
I've always liked the poem "Question of Travel" by Elizabeth Bishop, where she asks "Think of the long trip home. Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?" (qtd. in Cole). I was questioning myself in that German class: why would I continue my trip if I knew the risk of being exposed to the virus on the 11 hours flight, the chance of being stuck in Switzerland, and the frustration of being homeless? I think that's the dilemma all the travelers face.
Switzerland: a place that you would see on a scenic calendar page, a country that is in the middle of the world but also outside of everything. It has its own theory about neutrality and its own standard of luxury, but for me, there is something beyond that attracted me to visit again after almost ten years, to taste the same chocolate from the store by the Lake Zurich, to hop on a cable car, to touch the snow on the peak, and to sled down the slopes. Even though I should've stayed at home, I decided to be on the road and find quietness in this chaos.
I. Continuous Cities
March 6th, 2020, a week before the US closes its border to non-citizen visitors.
Being at the airport might be one of the most exciting feelings for travelers. It's the gateway to all the adventures ahead. An Italian writer Italo Calvino said in his novel "Invisible Cities" that our world is a huge, continuous city that does not begin or end: "Only the name of the airport changes." (qtd. in Cole). This idea of "continuous cities" is probably the reason why travelers feel so much at home when they are at different airports, but it felt different for me this time.
I arrived at the airport a little bit before they closed the check-in, as I always do. I thought things would be the same - weigh the luggage, print the boarding pass and I would be all set to go - but the staff took my passport and went into a room. She asked me to wait. I sort of guessed it was my Chinese citizen passport that caught their attention. "Where have you been in the past 14 days?", a senior manager asked me. "I go to school in Boston so I stayed at school the whole time." I answered, but he continued, "When was your last time entering the US?" "I came back in early January", and I added: "before the spread of the virus in China." He looked at me up and down, still on alert as if I sneaked back to China during a weekend just for a bowl of homemade noodles. After a 15-minutes background check, I was allowed to proceed to the gate while half of the people had already boarded the plane. I couldn't help to think about the question: where should I go if the US closes its border to non-citizen residents and China canceled its flights from and to the US? With my visa restrictions, the world is no longer "continuous cities" for me. My passport decides where I am allowed to be. I disinfect my seat and tray table, fall asleep shortly to ignore the stress.
II. The Chocolate Factory
March 8th, 2020, 5 days before the US closes its border to non-citizen visitors.
After endless concerns about the virus, I finally step on this very land again. I set off from my hotel to go on a quest for the chocolate store that stays deep down in my memory after I first visited Switzerland. The last time I was here was in 2011 for a summer camp. I was never a fan of chocolate, but Switzerland, a chocolate factory, had captured my 11 years-old heart. During my first visit to Switzerland, all I remembered was the delicious chocolate from the chocolate store by a crystal clear lake that was full of swans and tourists on a street of luxury watch brands. In the heart of the 11-year-old, I tried my best to choose six pieces of delicious chocolate and put them in a cute box. I managed to carefully bring it back to China for my parents. Although the chocolate was crushed into pieces in my luggage, seeing my parents' smile was rewarding for my chivalrous act. This time I come back to Zurich to retrieve that sweetness in my memories. The pieces of memories are like a photo essay in my mind showing me the way to the chocolate store.
I follow the clue of this memory to the crystal clear lake: Lake Zurich. I don't know why I remember this lake so clearly. Maybe it was because of the beautiful swans bathing in the sparkling water, or maybe it was because of the view of overcrowded tourist groups feeding the swans. A famous travel guide book writer Karl Baedeker describes Lake Zurich in his book of Switzerland like this:" Its scenery, though with slight pretensions to grandeur, is scarcely equaled in beauty by any other lake." (qtd. in Cole). Yes, in my heart, there is no other lake that could bear the weight of this level of beauty. It's not only a lake that guides me to the chocolate store. It's a lake that brings me back to that summer of 2011, an 11-year-old girl set her foot on another land for the first time without her family but a group of kids older than her. The seed of desire to explore the otherland was sown in that summer. I'm now on the journey to reap the fruits on different adventures crossing many borders.
I walk to the chocolate store next to Lake Zurich. I look into the display glass. All I see are childhood memories. Even though it might not be the same kind of chocolate, it carries the same meanings. I choose six pieces of chocolate and put them in a box again. I sit by the bank of Lake Zurich and appreciate the wholesomeness at that moment. As I'm thinking about what the world will be like in the next few months, I see an old man wearing a Roger Federer's hat - one of the things Swiss are proud of - and a little girl playing the bubbles with a "peace" flag in the background. I wish this view could last forever, but I know it won't be the same after a few weeks when the virus hits the city. Maybe only the feeling of tasting this chocolate by Lake Zurich will stay the same no matter where I am in the world.
III. The Alps
March 11th, 2020, 3 days before the US closes its border to non-citizen visitors.
After my two days in Zurich, I took a three-hour train ride to the ski paradise: Zermatt. This is a place where everyone dreams to be in, a have-to-visit Alp region for all the skiers. I love snowboarding so Zermatt has always been on my list. It's my first day on the slope and it's also the first day I feel completely separated from the whole virus situation. When I am on the top of the mountain I feel I am submerged by the mountains. As I ride down the mountains, I am diving deeper into the secret of happiness and the essence of feeling at home.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, a great landscape artist and painter, was largely influenced by the Alps. His biographer, Karel Van Mander, wrote: " When Bruegel was in the Alps, he swallowed all the mountains and rocks and spat them out again, after his return, onto his canvases and panels." (qtd. in Cole). Instead of swallowing the mountains, I was swallowed by them. The calm and quiet I felt among these mountains was overwhelming. The world stopped spinning.
Before I left the hostel and headed towards the slopes, an Australian solo traveler asked me if I wanted to explore the mountains together. I quickly responded: yes! He said his name was Bao. On the mountain, I was obsessed with the view and would stop multiple times on the slope just to take a quick picture. I felt bad that Bao needed to constantly wait for me so I told him he could maybe keep riding down, no need to wait. He said: "I have a big belly and I get tired really easily. More stops on the way mean more time for me to rest, so please take as many photos as you can! " I wonder if he really needed the rest or he actually understood my thirst for capturing this view. As we were sitting at an outdoor lounge in the middle of the mountains, I learned that he was from Australia and he quitted his almost 10-years job before he set off across the world. I couldn't help but think about my own reality and where I would be after I graduate from college. Will I have the courage to set aside what I have and go on a long journey?
March 12th, 2020, 2 days before the US closes its border to non-citizen visitors.
With the company of Bao, I had another day of Alps hunting. The famous artist and critic John Ruskin was fascinated by what Matterhorn could affect on perspective, saying " No mountain in the Alps produces a more vigorous impression of peakedness than the Matterhorn"
(Ruskin). If you stare at Matterhorn's peak for too long, it has the power to swallow your soul. When I was shredding down the slope, I saw two skiers sitting on the beach chair, drinking some beers, and chatting. While everyone else was sitting on the ground level, they were sitting on the top of a platform that was almost the same height as me in Iglu-Dorf. That's not a spot normal tourists would dare to take. I was drawn by these two skiers and decided to approach them and take a picture. After I asked for their permission, I took some pictures of them and asked if I could have their contact info so I could send them the photos. One of them gave me a business card that says "Fat Bike Zermatt". I was confused and asked if they rode a bike here. They said, "No, we are instructors living in Zermatt and we come up the mountains every single day." I was born in the "extreme of city life", and I am used to the chaos, the traffic, the city sounds. But when I think about living in this little town among the Alps, I feel so unfamiliar to the extreme of nature, the overwhelming powers of the mountains (Cole). "Think of the long trip home. Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?" (qtd. in Cole). However, if a place like this is my home, I would choose to stay at home.
IV. Glacier Express
March 13th, 2020, 1 day before the US closes its border to non-citizen visitors.
I woke up at 6 am to catch the first ride of the day. I wanted to shred down the freshly groomed slope. I even charged my camera and drone, ready to capture the special descent. But the moment I woke was the moment I needed to wrap up my trip. My phone was filled with messages from family and friends telling me that the US is closing their border tonight and I should fly back as soon as possible. My original return date was still three days away. I sat on the bed not knowing what to do. My mom called me and told me to make a decision on what's next: going back to China, staying in Europe, or going back to Boston. So many thoughts piled in my mind, but I couldn't waste more time. I was feeling at home when I was on the slope. I would love to stay here for another day or two, but I had to leave before the virus hit harder and I couldn't take flights again. Thinking about the possibilities of going back to China but won't be able to get back to the US to continue my education scared me. I felt lost and homeless. In less than 10 minutes, I made the best decision I could and bought a ticket back to Boston. Without wasting more time worrying, I packed and hopped on the Glacier Express in less than 30 minutes.
Sitting on the "slowest express train in the world" with huge windows to maximize views, no one could escape from the breathtaking waves of the sky-high Alps covered in snow. I stare at the mountains passing by. They are like white water splashing onto the windows. John Ruskin said, "
"There is indeed an appearance of action and united movement in these crested masses, nearly resembling that of sea waves; ... they seem not to be heaped up, but to leap or toss themselves up; and in doing so, to wreathe and twist their summits into the most fantastic, yet harmonious, curves, governed by some grand under-sweep like that of a tide running through the whole body of the mountain chain." (qtd. in Cole)
I am crying as I watch these mountain waves up and down. This train is sending me closer to the border but I feel further from home. I've seen many beautiful places, and there is part of me inside always feeling homeless. I asked myself, "What childishness is it that while there’s a breath of life/in our bodies, we are determined to rush/to see the sun the other way around?" (qtd. in Cole). Why would I "rush to see the sun the other way around"? Why would I come all the way to Switzerland even though I knew things like this might happen? Why would I choose here not there? I do not regret my decision to travel at this very chaotic time. I found peace as I sat by Lake Zurich enjoying my chocolate. I found my peace as I sled down the slope with a new friend of mine. I find my peace as I sit here on the world-famous Glacier Express being swallowed by the mountains.