Monday, January 24, 2011
Friday, January 21, 2011
from an imaginary Lucerne diary.
But on that warm Sunday morning, instead of playing in the street with the other children, I was with my grandfather at the lake, helping him to shove the boat off the cart and into the water. The rods, lines and plastic buckets to hold the fish were already in it. When we climbed in, we had to sit almost with our knees touching in order to fit into the narrow space. My grandfather grasped the oars with his thick calloused hands and slowly rowed us out into the middle of the lake.
“Don’t fidget,” he said to me. “You don’t want to tip us over.”
From the other side of the lake, we heard an outboard motor starting up. Other people liked boating here, too, and nearly all of them had boats which, though small, had been purchased with engine attached from a boat shop in town. My grandfather was the only member of the community who sailed out over the lake in his tiny hand-built, hand-powered dinghy. I realized when I was older that the other boat owners thought my grandfather was a comical figure, huddled in his boat with his cloth cap stuck to his head in all weather, staring at the water and trying to ignore the other boat owners while they puttered past him their hands on their tillers and a patronizing smile on their faces.
With every upstroke of the oars, my grandfather’s hands reached forward until they were a few inches from my chest. I had to resist the urge to back away each time. I tried instead to concentrate on the blade of the oar as it cleaved the water, dragged a seal-like wave up, and rose again in a rain of droplets. We were in the middle of the lake in a few minutes. I watched the columns of white smoke billowing from the tall chimneys of the power station while my grandfather got the rods ready. He put one in my hands and said: “Swing it back like a bat, then flick it so the line travels out. And don’t hit me with it.”
He demonstrated by going first. The line went out about twenty-five feet and the hook dropped into the water with a faint ‘plosh.’ It took me a few goes until I got it right. I got the hook away from the boat on the ppposite side from his line. And then the waiting began.
I don’t know how long it was before the first fish bit. It seemed like a long time to me, unused as I was to prolonged periods of enforced inactivity. A man on the shorelines had shouted to us. My grandfather recognized him, and they exchanged a few sentences full of coarse language and laughter before the man on the shore disappeared into the trees. I didn’t even notice the movement in my line until my grandfather shouted: “You’ve got one!”
I started, and let go of the rod. It slipped from my hands, and my grandfather caught it just before it fell overboard.
“Careful. Here. Reel it in.”
I took hold of the rod again, clumsily, and began turning the lever on the reel. I turned it the wrong way at first, which caused my grandfather to shout impatiently at me. Finally the line started to spool backwards. The hook jerked in and out of the water as it returned to the boat. I knew that there were only minnows in the lake, not any big fish, but my heart still pounded as if I expected to see a pike or a perch loom out of the waves.
I hauled the rod up, and there was a skinny black fish, wriggling in the air. I felt a white hot thrill in my entire body, and the strange sensation of wanting to cry at the same time.
“Bring it over here,” said my grandfather. He grabbed the line, deftly took the fish from the hook, and threw it into the bucket. I watched, slightly sickened, as it flapped feebly against the plastic walls.
“Aren’t you going to kill it?” I asked.
“It’ll die soon enough,” he said.
I grasped the edges of the boat with my bony little hands, and then I looked away.
Suddenly the water started moving below the boat, lifting us, gently at first, rocking us from side to side. The little motor boat was cruising past us, not close, but close enough to send waves a few inches high pulsing towards us. My grandfather grabbed the oars to prevent them slipping into the water. He looked towards the other boat with a dark look in his face. The man in the other boat, who was wearing a white captain’s cap with a gold anchor insignia, raised a hand and waved at us. He was already turning his boat away from us, so he didn’t see one of the waves splash over the edge of our boat and knock over the bucket with the fish in it. Swearing loudly, my grandfather grabbed the bucket and tried to catch the fish in the other hand, but it easily evaded him and was back in the water within seconds.
He rowed us back without saying a word. The water felt cold and oily around my feet, but it didn’t seem to bother him. Something else was on his mind. I kept expecting him to say something, about the other boat, about me, about the fish. But he wasn’t a great talker at the best of times, and he remained silent as we got to the shore, tipped the water out of the boat, and dragged the boat onto its travelling cart.
I never went fishing again, not with my grandfather nor anyone else. The fish I caught and lost that day was the first and last that I ever caught anything.
For some reason, this all came back to me today on the quayside at Lucerne.
Wednesday, January 19, 2011
Monday, January 17, 2011
Friday, January 14, 2011
Thursday, January 13, 2011
from an imaginary Lucerne diary
Today was a bright sunny day. The mountains around Lucerne are so high that they seem to cover up most of the sky. But in the valleys between them you can see more clearly to the high horizon, and today there were only a few elongated clouds stretched low across a blue sky.
I left my hotel and walked down to have breakfast at a café on the quayside—the same café that I’ve eaten at every day that I’ve been here. I find that when I’m staying somewhere for more than a couple of days, and I find a place on the first day that I like, I will return to eat there for most meals. The same place for breakfast every day, the same place for lunch, usually the same place for dinner. As I was eating my pastry and bowl of strong coffee, I decided to count how many people would stop to have their photo taken leaning against the railing, framing themselves against the elegant backdrop of Renaissance and medieval buildings on the other side of the water. It turned out to be about thirty per cent of all the people who passed by.
The first two were Asian. My guess would be Japanese, judging by the sound of their language. They seemed typical of young female Japanese tourists, sort of excited and chattering, but slightly hesitant and shy at the same time. They smiled a lot and dropped their heads when they stopped someone and asked if he would take their photo.
The next ones were a group of German kids. I say kids just because they were much younger than me—early twenties, maybe. There were six of them, and they lined up girl-boy-girl-boy-girl-boy against the shiny black railing. Again, a passerby was stopped and asked to snap a photo. It was only when the camera was handed back to one of the young Germans and the shooter had moved on that I realized they were all wearing black t-shirts, each with a single word on the front that together spelled out, in English, the phrase: “I-SHIT-ON-YOUR-GRAVES-BITCHES.”
Pretty funny, I thought. And pretty strange.
There was a bit of a lull after that. As I was waiting for my bill to be brought to my table, an older couple dressed in Tour de France-style cycling clothes positioned themselves against the railing. The man held a camera at arm’s length, above their heads and pointing back towards the grinning faces of him and his wife. But before he could take the snap, a tourist boat shuddered by, raising a wave that crested the quayside and washed over their feet, causing them to jump and nearly drop their camera. The water scooted across the road towards where I was sitting, so that everyone who was having breakfast at the outside tables was forced to lift their feet.
It reminded me of the time that I was in a boat with my grandfather. He had taken me fishing on a small lake next to the local power station. No-body knew or cared about the fact that the lake acted as faucet and sewer for the power station. Most men in the area were like my grandfather, who was a miner living far from the sea, to whom the lake was the only place he could go to float around with a rod and a line, listening to the lap-lap of the water against the side of the boat and the forsaken cries of the curlews overhead. The boat was a primitive coracle, about six feet long, that he had made himself from bits and pieces of wood that he had found lying around at the mine. It took him six months to collect the wood, seal all the gaps, and sail in it for the first time. Now he took it every Sunday morning to the lake, hauling it along behind his bicycle on another wheeled contraption that he had also constructed. I had never gone with him before that day.
(to be continued)
Monday, January 10, 2011
Saturday, January 8, 2011
Friday, January 7, 2011
from an imaginary visit to Lucerne, 2010.
I don’t like boats. I don’t get seasick. It’s not that. It’s more the cramped spaces, the stench of the oil and fuel, the toilets which are always filthy, no matter how expensive the vessel. And the fact that ultimately it’s quite a boring thing to do.
Despite all that, today I finally went on one of the boats that plies Lake Lucerne. After some of the things that have happened since I got here, I decided that a boring day chugging along on the water would make a welcome change. So I went down to the port and bought a ticket for a five hour ride that promised to show me the highlights of Lake Lucerne. The boat didn’t leave for another half an hour, so I sat on a bench and watched the seagulls fighting over a half-eaten sandwich that someone had dropped on the quay. The fact that there was a piece of food littering the usually immaculate ground of this city was remarkable. Sure enough, within five minutes one of the employees of the boat tour company, who was dressed in a tight-fitting white sailor’s tunic, rolled over to the crowd of screaming birds, stooped down, and swept up the sandwich with a sheet from the local newspaper.
Soon they announced, in German and English, that we could board the boat. About fifty people formed a line in front of the wooden gate. One by one we handed over our tickes and made our way up the gangway onto a two-tier vessel with a single tall chimney stack. The boat was about sixty feet long, painted white and red like the Swiss flag, and it looked like it had seen better days. I hurried to the upper deck and took a seat closest to the outside of the boat. There was a lot of bustle, noise, and commotion, as families and couples from several European nations found a seat. Ear-splitting safety announcements came over the tannoy in different languages, the engines started up, bells clanged, ropes swished as the boat was unmoored, and we moved away from the quay with a roar from the motors and a churning swoosh of water.
The trip was pleasant and uneventful. At the beginning, there were lots of excited kids running around. One of them kept stepping across a line that one of the crew had informed us not to cross, and when he had done it for the fifth or sixth time, his father gave him a very un-European smack to the side of his face that made him yell like a puppy that had just been run over. Gradually, all activity on the boat grew slower, quieter, as people perhaps unconsciously acknowledged that there was nothing to do but sit and let your body rock gently from side to side in time to the boat’s rhythm, and to lean back on the hard slates of the wooden seats and admire the scenery.
The scenery is indeed spectacular around here. There are mountains all around the lake—very high mountains, greener than an emerald held up to the light. All kinds of events important in Swiss history happened on them, around them, below them, between them. Every few minutes the air would be torn in two once more by the voice from the tannoy, informing us in heavily-accented English about the age of this house, the significant moment that occurred in that town. This went on for five hours, as the boat made a stately tour around the shores of the lake. I slept for a little while, lulled by the movement of the boat. When I woke up, I decided to risk using the ‘head’, which for some reason is the name that they give the toilet on a ship. I didn’t perform the usual functions there, however: I’d brought a tab of Ecstasy with me, which I took with a little swig from the extremely expensive bottle of water that I’d bought from the on-board bar. By the time the boat had swung back in the direction of Lucerne, the drug had worked its magic, and I was lounging with my elbows on the back of my seat, turning my head with what felt like infinite slowness to look at my fellow passengers, loving each one of them from the bottom of my chemically-induced bliss-filled heart. The sun was going down as we got nearer the city, slanting across the spires and the slate rooftops and creating dramatic right-angled contrasts of deep brown shadows and brilliant buttery highlights. The air around the buildings seemed to my drugged-up eyes to be moving, as if the sunset were coming towards me like smoke, and I was breathing it in and allowing it to flow into my body.
By the time we had docked, and disembarked, I had decided that boat trips were not so bad after all.