First of all, life updates!
I have not written since graduation, which bums me out. I’ve still been making photographs and thinking about them, but as recently it’s become harder and harder to commit things to writing I feel good about. Hopefully I can get things the words flowing again, but that requires a bit of trying to put things out there again.
Post grad life has been good. I’ve been working, trying to establish myself some semblance of a steady income between part time jobs, assisting other photographers, and trying to chase down my own freelance work and art opportunities. It is an exciting time to be working, with possibilities on the horizon and the feeling that I have the skills to work towards them. What’s more, my work has been clarified by some good news that came about a month after graduation- Rachel and I are engaged!
This gives some refreshing urgency to my work. It is no longer sufficient to noodle for the sole sake of my own ambition or cheap amusement. Working as an artist at this point does feel like work towards building something for the future, and not just for myself; this is nice. So to that, I will continue to write as I have always found it an aid to developing and clarifying my ideas, and it’s something I hope to improve at.
I am very grateful to have been invited to travel with my fiancée’s family for a week in Switzerland earlier this month. For one week, most of my movement was either by walking or by the absolutely amazing Swiss public transportation. What I want to focus on today is the moving around in a new space. The experience of taking in new things in, walking up and down, through, around, and all about a new country and among new forms.
Bed to Bed
When I travel, I love to think of waking up (coming out of an unconscious, place-less experience) in one bed (perhaps the most physically close experience of a place), then all the movement that occurs, all the space moved through, before letting yourself enter that placelessness in another part of the world entirely. According to Google Maps, there was 4204.54 miles between my two beds, one on the morning of September 1st and the second the evening of September 2nd. I will ignore the restless sleep experienced somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, because it doesn’t fit cleanly within this narrative. According to my notes: four automobiles (two personal, two vans), two planes, two busses, and four trains moved me from one bed to another, and two different bikes if we’re counting my courier job before leaving for the trip.
It took 12 vehicles to move me 4204.54 miles (as the international, trans-Atlantic crow flies) over a period of 37 hours by the clock and 43 hours counting with a stopwatch. I came to in Richmond, Virginia and fell asleep in Wengen, Switzerland.
I want to underscore the distance travelled because I think a pernicious side effect of an image saturated cultural experience is a flattening of space. Nearly instantaneous communication over vast distances may put our eyes and ears across the globe seemingly without effort, but even that communication is facilitated by satellites and wired infrastructure: the electric signals have to travel too. Actually being there in body, being able to see and feel and smell and walk around in a space? Well that is still quite the undertaking indeed, although we’ve gotten quite good at it. It’s amazing that a coordinated effort of 12 vehicles can move me 4200 miles within 43 hours, isn’t it?
So I may take for granted what being in a different environment means, after all, walking is still walking, trees are still trees, and so on. But I constantly have to remind myself the otherwise (I have to imagine this would so rarely happen even 60 years ago) alien experience of traveling halfway around the world for only a week. Because if I don’t, I forgot that while a building or a house is roughly the same idea, these are buildings and houses built under an entirely different cultural ethos, and to see that! It is amazing, to be able to take that in firsthand. It would be a disservice to not try to scrutinize each seemingly mundane thing for all that it’s worth, as well as trying to see “the sights”.
So what was there to see?
First of all, it was amazing the extent to which the villages are planned as much vertically as they are horizontally. While in many ways this is a product of being built on the side of a mountain, it was nonetheless exciting to be in a space that was designed considering how people move vertically as well as horizontally. A map of many cities in the US, especially in the midwest and in many rural areas elsewhere, looks basically like a grid with the occasional winding road following a river or natural feature. However, to look at a flat map of many of the Swiss towns would not even give you an adequate understanding of the space: laid out on two axis, you can see the web of roads and paths crossing back and forth, but you get no sense of how the buildings spring up, connected and woven together with countless grades of stairs, steps, and paths.
This design on the vertical plane was not only manifest in the urban planning, but in the transportation as well.
Gondolas carried passengers up and down mountainsides, which was both scenic and, depending on the grade, necessary to carry people from one place to another. While many of the mountain villages had some road access, others still were accessed by the majority of the population with a rack railway system, which is a third rail down the center of the rail line with geared teeth fitted into by the train. This allowed the trains to ascend and descend steep grades. Many villages were car free or had only limited road access for small service vehicles. All the villages were very accessible by foot. The roads were narrow and people moved freely about both sides of the streets. Not once on the trip did we see anything like Salt Lake City’s great gulfs of pedestrian activity and experience that are their massive roads.
Wengen, the first village we stayed in, was an utterly bucolic ski resort along the slopes of the Alps. Although the quintessentially Alpine mental image may be snowy in most minds, the village was not wanting for snow. Many of the ski resorts I’ve been to in the US feel sad and lacking without snow, as if the architecture is twiddling its thumbs waiting for what is was designed for. However, the small patches of grazing land for animals, farms in the valleys, and tourists all over every part of the village made it feel cozy and purposeful even in the middle of mild summer days.
In many ways, I got the impression that this village was one that had solved (or at least, it has been solving) many problems of living in an extreme landscape for hundreds and hundreds of years. It is hard to describe exactly what this felt like, but if you think of a city as a painting, the Swiss towns we travelled through felt as though they had been worked over already many times, whereas some cities in the US feel as though they have only been hastily hacked and sketched out, with many problems still to address. Wengen, Switzerland, felt as though it had shaken out all its cramps and difficulties and set itself gracefully and calmly on the landscape.
These approximations of sensation break down when considering that infrastructure has reinvented itself many times even over the last 100 years. So, a city like Lucerne, which has been around in some form for over 700 years, may have integrated itself into the landscape well over its first 500 years, but it changes drastically in those next 200 years when rough paving, rail lines, automobiles, and everything else interjects itself into the established order.
But even then, well, the Swiss are way better at roads and trains and everything else relating to transport. It seemed as though they had had a head start on the technology, and the U.S. is still trying to catch up with our abysmal passenger rail systems. (Though of course, we did at one point have pretty amazing passenger rail systems, but something happened to that).
By the time we had moved on to Lucerne, it was apparent to me what all the adulation over European public transport was about. It almost seems as if you had to try very hard to find a place that you could not get within a 15 minute walk of by some combination of busses, regional rail, and inter-city railways. The trains were on time. They were well maintained. Even if there wasn’t interspersed English announcements and signage, we could’ve easily been able to tell where we needed to go and what we had to do to get there. It was a sight to behold.
It was hard to enter into what felt like an “authentic experience” of each city, but it was nonetheless enjoyable. It seems silly thinking about it in those terms now; of course any experience is in one sense an “authentic” one, and in the space of one week you’re never going to get a full understanding of a place. It was a style of travel that was unfamiliar: the rapid overview of a place incredibly foreign to me. I am struggling to write down my impressions of the place, Switzerland, because in some ways it feels disingenuous to try to write something accurate about another country I had a one week interaction with.
Perhaps that is why I gravitate towards writing about the streets and trains and busses and all the people on bikes; it’s the closest thing that I can make discernible inroads into interpreting. When I was walking around, I had hopes and dreams of making an amazing travel blog post about the history of the architecture and the history of the towns I visited. First of all, I didn’t learn much to this effect. I did learn some, but to say that I took in all the history of any of the places would be overselling the amount of information I took in. Because frankly, at the pace we travelled, even the small amount of reading I did do at whatever informational outlets we approached was exhausting.
I don’t think negatively of all of this, by the way. It’s just a different kind of travel. I feel as though I had the same experience seeing the bikes and public transit that American painters had when they travelled to Europe throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Contact with another culture and experience has that strange effect of stretching your thinking and sparking new thoughts in unexpected ways. That’s certainly not an original sentiment, but original sentiments (like unique insights to new places) are a hard thing to come by. I suppose the two main takeaways from this trip is that it was a wonderful first dip into a new way of experiencing the world, and it was a lovely way to get to know my future wife’s family.