Swimming in Switzerland

One a hot day in France, Anna and I decided to head to Switzerland for a swim. Baguettes, cheese, fruit and beer, picnic rug, sunscreen, a book or two were tossed into day packs and we were off. The day before, we had walked along stony alpine tracks to Lac Blanc above the Chamonix valley. It was hot but the views were breathtaking. We stopped for lunch at a smaller lake just before the main lake where salamanders floated on the surface like tiny plastic bath toys. At the lakeside cafe we downed a coke then sauntered back to the carpark and drove home to Ségny, the small village beneath the Jura where Anna and Seb live.

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At Lac Léman we spread out on the grass under Tilia trees suspended between the end of flowering and fruit formation, too late to collect the mildly sweet blossoms for tea. Mid-week sunbathers, mostly middle aged couples, single men or women, mothers and children stood chatting on the shore or lay on the grass in that meditative, freshwater state. Yachts were anchored and stationary, in the distance the Jet d’Eau monotonously spurted an endless stream of water into the void, planes cruised noiselessly into Geneva airport. Time standing still.

The lake is aquamarine and beautifully translucent; the water cool but seductive. Inevitably, a pontoon was anchored about twenty metres off shore but getting into the water meant navigating the sharp stones which blanketed the shoreline and grew into even more painful larger pebbles, until the water was deep enough to start swimming. A slow breaststroke out then back to beer and baguettes on the rug.

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The next day it was time to head off for a while so I travelled down to Annecy, south of Geneva but still part of the Haute-Savoie, before catching the train back to Chamonix and ultimately, the Aguille du Midi by cable car and a telecabine ride over the alps for a brief but memorable visit to Italy. The trip was a few hours with a change of trains at St Gervais les Bains to a single track metre gauge line.

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Most passengers were tourists, slightly anxious that something might go wrong and they would end up in another part of France altogether. I chose a seat in an almost empty carriage and opened my book. A few minutes later a man in about his early forties sat in the seat beside me. His manner was cheerful and courteous but slightly assertive and it was clear that he intended to sit right next to me, in spite of there being another thirty or so unoccupied seats. I was taken aback and slightly annoyed, although not unpleased to have some company. He asked if I minded that he had occupied the seat. He realised immediately that I was not French so switched to English, in that self conscious way that the French have, always the perfectionists, when they converse with a native speaker.

He was an engineer working in Iceland, returning to his home town of Chamonix to visit family. After a while he explained why he had chosen this seat. I had only vaguely noticed that in addition to the large windows lining the sides of the carriage, glass panels connected the roof and the walls, to maximise the view of the surrounding mountains. The train climbed steadily upwards and the broadleaved forests and river valleys gave way to steeper slopes cloaked in conifer forest. Unwittingly, I had chosen the best seat in the carriage. This man had done the trip many times but his anticipation grew as the train climbed up the narrow gauge track. The late afternoon sun streamed into the carriage as we chatted. Blue blue sky and clear air; snowy mountain peaks appearing above deep green. A happiness settled over the man and I found myself going home as well, in a foreign country with a stranger, sharing his connection with place.

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