There's a bench in Cully, Switzerland. It's in a little park tucked up against the shore of Lake Geneva. I go there a lot to just sit and think, or not think. I've been doing it for 13 years. I'm sitting on that bench now, writing these words.
First time I came here... Christ, it was a long time ago... spring 2001. I was still a news cameraman for ITN (the Brit independent TV network) and had been working the Intifada for eight months straight. I'd already seen hundreds of people shot dead or blown apart.
I'd already been hit once and nearly killed twice. I'd been targeted by both Israeli and Palestinian snipers. One shot nearly tore off my leg; another shot almost took off my head. A centimeter either way, I'd be dead.
Then there was the night I was having dinner in Jerusalem and the street blew up (Palestinian suicide bomber). Then there was the night in Bethlehem when another street blew up (Israeli missile strike).
Then there was the night a suicide bomber walked into a bar. He had a bomb strapped to his chest, under his coat. I was at the bar drinking a beer. He looked around, saw there weren't enough people to kill (there was me and six Japanese businessmen) and he left. I know he was a bomber because two days later, I saw his head in the aftermath of a bomb blast in downtown Jerusalem. It was sitting in the middle of the road. The rest of him was somewhere else.
What was I talking about?
Right, a bench in Cully, nowtimes.
See, after eight straight months of war in the Holy Land, my foreign desk in London ordered me to take a break. By then my nerves were somewhat rattled, and I had no idea where to go. A friend hooked me up with a guy named J. J. Gauer. He ran a few hotels in Switzerland. Good places, quiet places. So I went. J. J. was great. He first gave me a room in the Lausanne Palace. It had a balcony overlooking Lake Geneva. Évian was parked on the far shore, and snowcapped Alps rose above the town. There was a blue sky and lazy clouds drifted by in all kinds of weird shapes. It didn't feel right. There were no guns popping off and nothing went boom. J. J. took me to dinner that night. At the chef's table in the kitchen of a one star Michelin Guide joint in his hotel. The food was good. I got very drunk.
Next afternoon, J. J. had a limo take me to Cully.
Cully's a village. It's tucked up against the lake (I know, I said that once, but, hey, it's a blig. I mean a blog). The village is surrounded by steep hills. The hills were sculpted into stone terraces to plant vineyards in the Middle Ages. It's been a wine-making region ever since. J. J. has an inn in Cully. It's called Auberge de Raisin. I checked in, dropped my bag, and went for a walk in the village. I went straight to see the lake. I walked down a narrow village street. Along the way I passed a guy pushing a cart. The cart was full of fresh-caught perch from the lake. He had a small shop in Cully. I didn't speak French, then, but I told him his fish looked good. He offered me a glass of the local white wine in his shop. It's called Villette. (Charlotte Brontë wrote a book with the same word as a title. But the book isn't about Swiss wine; it's about a mad nun in an attic.)
"Sure," I said to the guy with the fish.
A spent the afternoon in the shop listening to the guy talk about catching perch in the lake. He showed me how to clean them, how they should be cooked. I didn't understand a word of it, but the guy kept pouring glasses, so I kept listening. Come six, it was time to close the shop and I said goodbye and continued my walk to the lake. Didn't take long. You can do the length and breadth of Cully in three minutes. But I wasn't in a hurry. The buildings are five and six hundred years old, and they're fun to look at. The street soon ended and there was this park. I told you about it before, it's where the bench is. The one I'm sitting on now, writing these words.
Point is, that day, 13 years ago, I sat on this bench. And the sun was sinking over the lake to the west and it set afire the ice peaks of the Alps and a gentle breeze rolled over the lake and there were ripples and streaks on the water and it was... so quiet... I was afraid to breathe.
After eight months of watching people kill and be killed in the name of God (in a place they called the Holy Land), and then finding myself sitting on a bench in Cully, Switzerland, I was very sure I'd discovered all that was left of paradise.
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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