Sometimes you can sit next to the lake and see the strangest things. Actually, it's what you can't see. Sometimes fog swallows the entire lake and the mountains on the far shore and all the sky. There's nothing beyond the shore but a swirling mass of etheral looking stuff where the world used to be. You can still hear the water lapping against the stone jetty. You can still hear the ducks swimming about, quacking as they bump into each other. The world's out there, you just can't see it.
I remember, once, I watched the fog from dawn till late afternoon. This was a couple years after I'd quit TV news and was suffering from PTSD in a bad way. Fog watching was all the excitement I could handle. Even so, I had to take a lunch break. I walked to the centre of Cully, where two doors from l'Auberge de Rasin there's a place called Café de la Poste.
One thing I discovered after coming to hide in Switzerland (after a year of hiding in the Cathar country of the south of France for a year) is that every village and town along the Lake Geneva has a Café de la Poste. I think it's the law in Switzerland. They have lots of laws in this country we don't have in the United States. My favorite is "No laundry on Sunday." If you think I'm kidding, move here and try it. A policeman will show up at your door and give you a ticket, payable at any post office. Which, by the way, is how you pay your bills in Switzerland. You add them up at the end of each month, draw the cash, go to the post office, say "Bon jour" to the nice lady in the yellow shirt and give her your bills (rent, insurance, car payments, fines for doing laundry on Sunday). She adds them up to make sure your math is right, then you give her the cash and she gives you a handful of receipts with official stamps certifying "Paid."
And the post office doesn't take credit cards or checks, cash only.
And if you don't pay your bills on time, that same lady in the yellow shirt drives a yellow truck to where you live. She knocks at your door and presents you with a commandement de payer. It happened to me once, but it was a mix-up. Really, it was. My health insurance had been shifted from one company to another, and my payment records were lost.
I showed the nice lady in the yellow shirt my receipts, certified as "Paid." I called my Swiss banker (everyone has one in Switzerland; they're like pets) and I put him on the phone with the nice lady in the yellow shirt, and he tried to explain it was a mistake. Didn't matter.I had to sign the official document informing me my bills were "PAST DUE." In Switzerland, that's right up there with "MURDER MOST FOUL." Luckily, my Swiss banker sorted it out (Good Swiss banker, good boy. Here's a treat), and a week later the same nice lady came round in her truck with another registered letter from the health insurance company. This time apologizing for the mistake and wishing me bonne sante!
Oh, here's an election year mind blower from Switzerland...
President Obama's mandated health insurance was fashioned after the Swiss system. Every Swiss resident is mandated by law to have health insurance through private insurance companies. There are a hundred companies competing with each other so the rates stay affordable. All I can tell you is Forbes (April, 2011) declared Switzerland had the best health care system in the world. No lifetime limit, worldwide coverage, no kicking me off or jacking up my rates if I get sick... So stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Republicans. And speaking of pipes and smoking (this time, Mister President, I'm talking to you), I can legally grow my own marijuana over here. Two plants per adult. Between me and the wife, that's four. Which makes paying all those bills OK.
What was I talking about? Café de la Poste, and how come every village along the lake has one. Got it.
These were the places horse-drawn carriages stopped to drop-off and pick-up passengers and stuff. Café de la Poste in Cully hasn't changed much from those days. It's run by a Swiss guy named Daniel who was born and raised in the village, like his parents and their parents; and so it goes, back to the time of the Neolithic tribes who settled here from somewhere else. There's a lot of that here. Not the Neolithic tribes, but families who've been here ever since. I live in a small village up the hill from Cully. It's called Grandvaux. The Watchers was to be published in the United States, he presented me with a case of his best Villette as congratulations.My next door neighbor, a winemaker named Bernard, lives in a house built by his ancestors 600 years ago. Same goes with his neighbor, and the next one... In fact, it's the same for the whole village. Me, my Jordanian-born wife and the two cats we found in an Amman road, stick out like sore thumbs. But one of the nice things about being an expat writer in Switzerland is, expat writers are welcome. When Bernard (my winemaker neighbor) heard
Anyway, Daniel (the guy with the café) is good to know for two reasons. One: his lunch special (and dinner special come to think of it) is fresh perch from the lake (caught by the fisherman with the shop around the corner) avec pommes frites. And Daniel always recommends a demi of the local white (made by my neighbor, Bernard) and you drink the wine from a shot glass. Two: Daniel loves American blues and has it playing most of the day in the café. Not terribly loud, as the locals like to talk about the vineyards and this year's vintage as compared to last year, and the strange way the fog rolls in sometimes and swallows the world, as it did that day.
I had my perch and drank my wine, listening to the conversation.
French Swiss speak much slower than Parisians, slow enough to pick up a phrase here and there. A few months of that, and you're ready to join in the conversation. Only problem is, you go to Pairs and the Parisians shrug and pretend they can't understand, telling you, "You speak French like a Swiss winemaker!" Which I always accept as high compliment.
Anyway, that day, the day of the fog, I finished my lunch and left my money on the table and said "Au revoir, bonne après midi!" on my way out the door, loud enough for Daniel and all the café patrons to hear. It's one of the first things I noticed about Switzerland when I came to stay. Everyone says "goodbye'"and "good day" or "good afternoon" or "good evening" upon leaving a café. It's their custom, and it's important to adhere to such things.
Back at the bench, the fog still had the world by the throat. So I watched for a couple more hours. Then...
The village bells rang for four o'clock and the ethereal looking fog, swirling all day over the lake, became still... Slowly, the fog began to lift. First came the vast expanse of water, then came the snow-capped mountains on the far shore, then came a blue, cloudless sky. It was like watching the Good Lord re-enact the third day of creation, right before my eyes.
"Wow," I mumbled to myself.
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Jon Steele worked as an award-winning cameraman for Independent Television News of London for 22 years. In 2002, he published the now cult classic of war reportage War Junkie. In 2003, he became disillusioned with television news, put his camera on the ground and quit. The Watchers is Steele's first novel.
Books mentioned in this post
Jon Steele is the author of The Watchers